Cathay Pacific, Chennai, Fast Track Taxi, Flying Elephant, India, Leela Palace, Madras, Mahabalipuram, Maharajah Mac, Marriott, McDonald's, Park Hyatt, Seasonal Tastes, Sholinganallur, Spectra, Tamil Nadu, Thoraipakkam, Travel, Velachery
Some time ago, I left my job as a software developer in IBM for a technical role in one of the global banks. I felt it was the right time back then for me to explore other opportunities so I took it. Little did I know, I was in for a roller coaster ride that lasted for almost four months.
See, when I took that job, I thought my life will finally have some normalcy. I saw myself getting thrown to different locations in my first job so I wanted a bit of change. Imagine how surprised I was when less than a month into my new job, our team was told that we’ll be sent to Chennai.
Chennai, formerly known as Madras, is the capital city of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It is located at the Coromandel Coast off the Bay of Bengal, east of India. It’s the fourth-largest city in India and is known as the safest city in India.
Before I begin describing the experience, let me just say that I was not excited at all when I found about the trip. My idea of a business trip, based on my previous role, was in Singapore. Maybe Kuala Lumpur. Probably Jakarta or Bangkok. My other friends even went farther like New York, Istanbul, and London. But Chennai?
Finally, I just thought everything will be fine. Or maybe not.
From up above, it looked like any other major city. Bright lights, busy streets. Things got a little different once we stepped out of the airport.
See that man on the left wearing the white lungi (a garment worn around the waist)? He’s walking with bare feet. And the road’s not as clean as it seems. Instant culture shock for me.
(Please don’t crucify me yet. I’m just beginning to tell the entire experience.)
Anyway, for our entire stay, we lived at the Aloft Chennai along the Old Mahabalipuram Road also known as Rajiv Gandhi Salai. It is in the Sholinganallur* suburb of Chennai and is near our office in Thoraipakkam*.
*I managed to remember these tongue twisters. My colleagues depended on my Fast Track taxi booking skills because I’m the only one who remembered the names of the places in Chennai.
The hotel is managed by Starwood Hotels. The hotel had a youthful vibe to it, not like the business hotels I usually stayed in when I was in IBM. It’s actually far from the city center and our weekend trips going there usually take an hour. The plus side? The staff there are warm and welcoming. Service can be improved but after a month of staying there, the staff became our friends.
Our life in Chennai was repetitive.
During work days, every morning, I call Fast Track for a cab to bring us to office. At lunch, we walk to the Fortune Select Palms hotel and have lunch at Zodiac. At around 5:30 PM, I call Fast Track again for a cab to bring us back to Aloft.
During the weekends, we woke up late. We would go to Phoenix Mall in Velachery on Saturdays and have lunch there. Usually, Nando’s or California Pizza Kitchen. On Sundays, we pretty much rested.
The Phoenix Mall is actually a nice mall. It’s probably the best in Chennai. It’s not as nice as the nicer malls in Manila but it was good. The shops there usually hold sales and they’re much more affordable than in Manila. I was able to score Lacoste polo shirts for around 1,500 PhP! There are other malls in Chennai such as Spencer (Avoid!), Express Avenue and Bergamo but Phoenix was our favorite.
Going there (and going back) was a bit of a challenge though. Actually, going around Chennai was a challenge for us. The bus was not an option for the three (I was the only one who tried riding the bus — with and without air-conditioning). The auto rickshaw drivers usually rips us off. Taxis? What taxis? You need a phone to book one (we learned our lesson and I bought a sim).
The photo above was taken in Velachery. We had lunch in Westin Chennai Velachery then headed to Phoenix Mall after. Yes, that’s their more affluent area.
Transportation in Chennai is quite interesting. I’ll let the photos talk for themselves.
There were many quirks in Chennai, by the way. I guess I have established that by now. One of my favorite ways to entertain myself was through misspelled name cards in buffets. For example…
Would you like a glass of Crappuccino? Had they not described what it was I would’ve assumed it was something else. There were other interesting cards such as “Asian Erotic Vegetables” and “Chicken with Fungi“.
Another quirk? Only in Chennai did I find a Hard Rock Cafe that didn’t serve alcoholic beverages.
On the bright side, they served real beef burgers.
Sometimes, we would deviate from our usual weekend routine. We enjoyed trying hotel restaurants when we were in Chennai. My favorite was dining at Spectra at the Leela Palace. The buffet there was E-X-C-E-L-L-E-N-T. One of the best buffets ever! We ate there thrice I think. We also enjoyed the spread at Seasonal Tastes. Warning, food porn ahead.
Other than hotel restaurants, I researched recommended restaurants in the city. We also tried those. My favorites were Chao at T. Nagar and Tuscana at Nungambakkam. Again, food porn.
After a more than a month of our routine, I wanted to explore more of Chennai. I couldn’t accept the fact that what we’ve been seeing was all there was in there. Sadly, my colleagues weren’t as adventurous as I was. When we didn’t have anything planned on rest days, I tried to roam around. Again, it wasn’t easy.
One of the first things I did was to search for a McDonald’s branch in Chennai. Well, I Googled it and found out that there’s a branch along OMR (the street where our hotel was) and it’s within the same district. Thing was, the only option I had was to take a bus. In Chennai. So I did. Thankfully, there’s an online app for checking which bus to take.
The bus was pretty good. It was air-conditioned and the ride was smooth. Waiting for it was another matter. Still, I arrived at my stop.
My friends know that whenever I visit a new country, it’s a must for me to try their Big Mac. I sort of did that in India.
Ta-da! The Maharajah Mac. It’s like the Big Mac but it has chicken patties and it tastes like curry. Wasn’t the Big Mac I was looking for but I had to make do with what’s available.
I also went on a city tour of Chennai. I booked a Fast Track cab for half a day and asked him to take me around the city. Would I recommend others to do the same? Probably not. But hey, I was feeling adventurous.
My favorite and probably most daring adventure was on the day I went to Mahabalipuram. It’s has monuments tagged as UNESCO World Heritage sites including the Shore Temple. Again, I booked a trusty Fast Track cab for half a day and went there. It’s around 37 km far from Aloft Chennai and it took a little over an hour to get there via the East Coast road.
My trip was worth it. The sculptures in Mahabalipuram were amazing. There were many tourists when I visited, mostly local tourists. Some attractions, such as the Shore Temple, have entrance fees. If you’re a local, they’re pretty affordable. If you’re a foreigner, they’re not as affordable. For example, entrance to the Shore Temple costs 10 Indian Rupees for locals while foreigners need to fork out 250 Indian Rupees.
One thing I’d really recommend for a visitor in Chennai to try is dining in Dakshin. I can write an entry solely for this restaurant but I’m trying to plunk everything here.
Located in Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers, Dakshin offers superb South Indian food. According to reviews, it is THE place to try great, authentic South Indian cuisine and I have to agree. Without a doubt, the best meal I had in Chennai.
I opted for their non-vegetarian Thali which costs 1695+ Indian Rupees back then. The entire meal was like a production number. Each and every part of my meal was delicious.
The service in Dakshin is beyond outstanding. The staff are very attentive. Obviously, I didn’t know how to eat what’s on my plate. They taught me how to match what curry with what starch. When they saw me confused, they’d approach me.
What surprised me was how to eat the food. You have to eat them using your hands. They provide a bowl with water and lemon when you need to clean your hand. It may seem weird at first but it’s a great experience.
As the weeks passed, I gradually started enjoying my stay in Chennai. I learned to look past its negative side and appreciate its quirks.
Chennai is one of the places I never imagined I’d visit. Ever. If given the chance to visit the city again, I probably would. It’s not the destination we dream about. Far from it. But it’s one worth experiencing.