Backpackers guide to Port Blair – India
When people think of Indian beaches, most peoples minds will probably wander to the golden sands of Goa or perhaps Kerala. Sure they are nice, but the shores of the Andaman Islands are truly spectacular and might just be paradise on earth.
They are remote and until recently very hard to access. Today Its a flight away from Kolcutta or Chennai and all flights are heading for this town. So I feel it is obvious I have to write my in-depth post I am calling a Backpackers guide to Port Blair.
The small capital of the Andaman Islands for most travellers is just a transit point, and that is a shame because the city has plenty of charm of its own.
It is well worth a day or two here to get a feel for what life is like for the people of this beautiful archipelago. This town also provides the best insight into the Andamans chequered history. It may be a tropical paradise, but it has been a new kind of hell for its inhabitants. For a very long time before tourism took off in these parts, people feared ever being sent here.
Port Blair the heartbeat of the Andamans
Despite its size, Port Blair has a few attractions that warrant your attention. For history buffs, this place is an absolute must. Plus it is the gateway to several beaches that almost no tourist visits. It is easy to overlook the “big” city and head to the picture-perfect islands that we all came to see. But I think it would be wrong to rush off and ignore the hidden gems that this town harbours.
You will probably have to spend a day or two here between boats or waiting for a plane since all journeys start and finish here. Of all the 572 Islands, this is the one we will all be visiting so let us see what this town has to offer the intrepid traveller.
The cellular Jail
The most important thing to see here is the Cellular Jail by far. It is sure to be an experience you will never forget. This hellish place was built by the British Raj in 1896 to contain the imprisoned freedom fighters or anyone who opposed the British rule. They were subjected to mindless torture and kept in appalling conditions. The Andaman Islands might be all sun and sea to us today, but for the Indian nationals who were imprisoned here, this was hell.
The 698 tiny cells fan out from a central tower and walk around here and discover the terrible things that happened is sobering. As a British man myself, it was a profoundly humbling experience, especially when so many smiling Indian families wanted to have a picture with me. The exhibitions are very well thought out and it takes a good couple of hours to get around.
It is only 3- rupees to get in and 200 rupees for the camera. It is eye-opening, to say the least, and to stand in the tiny room adjacent to the main block where these poor souls were executed after years of torture is both harrowing and eerie at the same time. For an in-depth feel of the history of this place, check out this article as I found it very moving.
Another excellent place to visit is the Anthropological museum for a little history of the original inhabitants of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Its a real old fashioned museum and very basic, but will give you a good insight into these vanishing cultures and its only 20 rupees to get in.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are remote but have been home to six tribes a very long time before the inhabitants today. Anthrapoloicaly very important they are now protected by law, and that is Fortunate, Contact with the outside world has proved to be far from productive for these fragile cultures. Those tribes who have been welcoming to outsiders have found themselves exploited in the past. Today many of of the tribes are in severe decline, so the government’s protection is imperative.
The Andamans have four Negrito tribal communities habiting this island chain, the Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese. The Sentinelese have yet to be successfully contacted and live on a very remote island named somewhat unimaginably Sentinal island. They are incredibly unreceptive to outsiders, and in my humble opinion, it is their saving grace. For more information on the tribes that call this place home check this out.
Boats leave from The Aberdeen jetty near the sports complex to Ross island. After a short fifteen-minute boat ride, the sight that greets you when you first get off the tiny boat is incredible. The remains of a once-bustling victorian town cover the island. Now completely abandoned the jungle has returned and reclaimed this place. The roots of huge trees almost drip from the doorways and creepers wrap their roots around its walls. Its is like some abstract piece of art that would do well on the set of the next tomb raider movie. Herds of deer graze in the forests and peacocks scurry noisily through the undergrowth.
It is not hard to use your imagination and picture what it was like walking through its markets or attending church on a Sunday. On face value, this place seems almost enchanted, but it holds a disturbing past. This island was where the British colonists lived out their lavish lifestyles while overseeing the functioning of the prison just offshore. I can’t imagine what it was like enjoying your life when you knew there was such pain and suffering happening just a short way away, let alone it being at your behest.
That Era of history came to an abrupt end when in 1941, a massive earthquake bought the town to its knees. Shortly after that, the Japanese invaded, and that ended the rule of the British Raj on Ross Island. Despite the islands horrific past, it is a delight to walk around today. There is no need for a guide as the buildings all have placards outside that give detailed descriptions. Aside from that, it is nice to explore it in your own time and find somewhere quiet to ponder what it is you are looking at.
Boats leave between 8,30 to 2 pm every day, and it can take a while to queue. This is one of the few areas of India where the safety equipment is outstanding. A few years ago one of the tiny boats sank, and many tourists on board died. It made international news, and since then it is now compulsory to wear a life jacket. You will only get a few hours to see everything as the boat dictates what time you will return on your ticket. There are no hotels on the island, so its a day trip only affair.
Getting a bite to eat.
Another great thing about coming here is the food. Indians have come from all over the subcontinent to start a new life in this tropical heaven, and that means food from all over India is available, and it is delicious. Oddly one of the best places to sample Indian cuisine, in my opinion.
In the mornings there are several restaurants around that you can fill up on south Indian delicacies such as Dosa and Letcha paratha. All served in the traditional south Indian style with, Coconut chutney and Sambar. There is a small market in the evenings that serve all the deep-fried snacks you would have learned to love on a long trip on the mainland and all washed down with a cup of masala chai.
I have two favourite restaurants in this town, one is called Gagen, and you can find it near the clock tower. Portions are good value, and everything is cooked to perfection. The seafood is particularly good and its all super fresh, what’s more, it is much cheaper than we could get back in our home.
My other favourite is Annapurna and is just around the corner to Gagen. At first, it looks like a no-frills dining experience, and indeed it is. You are given delicious food in sterile surroundings, but the food is divine. The portions are enormous! Excellent value south Indian food, so Do try both if you have the time.
Getting a nights rest.
When it comes to accommodation, I always stay at Aashiaanaa guesthouse. It is close to the port and is in a quiet spot comparatively. You have to pay for Wifi, but the rooms are quite affordable, and the owners are super friendly. There are surprisingly not many guest houses with affordable beds so it may be worth booking ahead. They don’t seem to have there own website so book online through a company like Booking.com unless you want to chance walking in as I always do.
Getting there and away.
All flights take off and land in the morning as it is a military airport that allows for domestic flights. There are flights from many major cities on the mainland such as Dehli, Chennai and Calcutta.
When you arrive at the airport, you will have to apply for a restricted area permit. It is quite straight forward and lasts for thirty days. It is possible to extend it from the immigration office on Kamaraj road in the capital. It is free, and you will need to keep it handy as you cant book any boats without it or check in to hotels. This permit quite obviously does not include any tribal areas and don’t try and get there by yourself as if you are caught you will be in the world of trouble.
A rickshaw into town costs 1oo rupees, and that’s pricy as its only 4 km. Still, you won’t be able to get the price down as there seems to be a syndicate where all rickshaw drivers work together so that you will be paying 25 rupees a kilometre, unfortunately. There is a bus if you want to wait that drops you in the heart of the city for 10 rupees. Government buses run from the city centre all over the Andaman Islands and are frequent and reliable.
To access the islands, you have no choice but to take a boat. There is a helicopter service, but it is pricy, and I just wouldn’t get an Indian helicopter anywhere to be fair. For interisland connections, boats leave from Phoenix bay, and the office is very ordered and efficient. The booking office is open between 9 am and 1 pm and then 2 pm to 4 pm Monday to Friday, and on a Saturday just 9 am till noon, closed on Sunday.
You can book the boats up to three days in advance so don’t be shocked if there are no seats for the same day. But do not despair as Port Blair has excellent connections to good beaches with a short bus ride, such as Wandor or Chidiya Tapu if you need to feel the sand between your feet straight away.
It can seem daunting to work out how to move around India, so I have made an in-depth post on getting around. It is packed with tricks and tips to make it all seem a little more clear.
In summary of a Backpackers guide to Port Blair.
If you are heading to the Andamans, you will have to pass through here. As is easy as it is to make a beeline for one of the many tropical paradises around here, there is also plenty to keep you busy here in the capital. If you get stuck here for a day or two waiting for your flight, remember that is not the end of the world, far from it!
That just about wraps up my backpackers guide to Port Blair. I hope you have found this post useful and if you need any more information on the area then just leave your questions in the box provided and until next time my fellow intrepid travellers, happy travels.
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