I had first known about luxury trains when I read (and later watched the movie) Agatha Christie’s Murder in the Orient Express. There is just something about train travel — luxury train travel — that makes a trip, any trip, seem very romantic.
Can you picture it? Hi-so (high society, i.e., filthy rich) people in fine evening dresses mingling in the dining car, drinking champagne and spearing little bits of pink salmon off their plate, all the while watching the countryside go by.
As a digital nomad and long-term traveler, taking a luxury train hadn’t been in my plan. It costs thousands of dollars — money I don’t have at this point in my life.
You can imagine my surprise and gratitude then, when I was chosen by Incredible India to go on the Great Indian Blog Train, a weeklong trip through the states of Karnataka and Goa in the luxury train, the Golden Chariot. Out of 60 bloggers they picked from all over the world (to go into four luxury trains), only two were from the Philippines! Yay!
After my initial euphoria came a lot of worries (#girlproblem). What should I wear? As a long-term traveler, I can only bring necessities in my one small luggage; fancy dresses that aren’t worn everyday are out of the question.
I need not have worried. The Golden Chariot is no Orient Express, and that’s said in a good way. Here’s my Golden Chariot review, showing you what it’s like to travel through India in a luxury train.[toc]
The Golden Chariot Facts
First off, The Golden Chariot is only one of five luxury trains in India. There’s the Maharajas’ Express, Palace on Wheels, Deccan Odyssey, and Royal Rajasthan on Wheels.
How much does a single occupancy cabin cost? A whopping US$6,100+ for foreigners and US$3,800 for Indian nationals. Double occupancy rooms cost over US$10,000 and US$5,400 respectively. The following are included in the price:
- An airconditioned cabin with either twin beds or double bed, bathroom with shower and toiletries, towels and bathrobe, and a TV
- Personal butler service (available 24/7!)
- 3 daily meals (veg and non-veg with dessert) and all drinks except alcohol and softdrinks
- Group sightseeing tours — entrance fees, ground transportation (AC buses), guide
- Wifi (spotty but available in the bar)
- Use of the gym (treadmill, elliptical, etc.)
- Cultural (and other) programs
The good news? According to recent reports, fare in the Golden Chariot and other luxury trains will be reduced by up to 50%, in order to increase its occupancy rate.
Tips are also not included. Individual tipping aren’t allowed (because how about those people you don’t see, e.g., cooks?) so they just provide a box in the bar.
In a nutshell, these will be the places you’ll visit on your 8 days and 7 nights on the train.
- Mysore (Maharajah Palace, Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace and Mausoleum)
- Jungle Lodge and Safari (afternoon and morning safari)
- Chikmagalur and Hassan (coffee plantation and resort, the temples in Halebidu and Belur)
- Hospet and Hampi (heritage sites, river)
- Badami (cave temples)
- Goa (beach resort)
So if you’re raring to go to the South of India on the Golden Chariot, here’s what you can expect.
When on the Golden Chariot, you will feel like a celebrity.
The journey of the Golden Chariot started and ended in Bengaluru, a.k.a., Bangalore, and when we boarded at the railway station, there was a red carpet, live music, ladies garlanding us, and seemingly hundreds of people watching us board.
It felt unreal. So this is what being a celebrity feels like, I thought. I couldn’t wait to get inside, I was so uncomfortable with the attention. (My blogger friends made the most of it, taking photos and videos of the people around us. Too bad I was too much in a hurry to do so.)
On the Chariot itself, the service was exemplary. You can’t move a table without someone rushing in to help you.
Each car has a butler (ours in the Ganga car was called Amrit) who is on call 24 hours a day to help you with anything (I asked him once to iron my blouse.). He tidies the room and makes the bed everyday, too.
You get your own cabin, with a real toilet and hot shower.
Sure, your cabin would be small — have you seen the Murder on the Orient Express? Our rooms in the Golden Chariot are similar to their rooms; small with just enough space for twin beds, a bedside table, a table, and the bathroom — but the fact that you have your own room in a moving train is luxury enough.
I have traveled through India by rail (read: Backpacking Northern India in 3 Weeks), usually buying second class tickets (you get a bunk in an air-conditioned car) and I know the difference in the level of comfort.
However, since you are on a moving train, expect to get your sleep disturbed once in a while. For two nights (out of the seven we spent on the train), I almost couldn’t sleep because of the train’s movement. I even fell out of bed once!
You will love the food on the Golden Chariot.
It is amazing how such a small space (I’ve seen the kitchen!) can produce such delicious food for all of us. For all meals, you’re given a choice of Indian or international dishes.
Me being me, I usually had fried eggs for breakfast (although I did let Chef Aswini convince me to have dosa for breakfast once) but mostly Indian dishes for lunch and dinner.
My favorites? Thali, of course. Or any dish with mutton. Mmm.
All meals and drinks are included — except softdrinks and alcohol (beers cost $5). I don’t drink much, I only had beer twice (I loved Bira, although halfway through the trip they ran out and only had Kingfisher, which was just okay for me).
What I did have a lot, though, was Indian coffee. Try it if you like your coffee with milk and sugar.
And yeah, while the dining cars look very grand, you are NOT expected to dress up in your best evening gown just to have dinner. (Wearing high heels is also a bad idea, for obvious reasons.) We showed up wearing what we usually wear, me in my jeans and shirt, the others in their regular day dresses.
You will visit A LOT of amazing places.
I have written about cities where the Golden Chariot stops (read about our Pride of the South itinerary) and I tell you, a lot of it are just amazing. Most of them I haven’t heard of before, which made me realize that the Ministry of Tourism’s decision to bring bloggers was a really good one.
After all, when you think of India, what comes to your mind? The Taj Mahal, New Delhi, Varanasi, Goa. And yeah, maybe Mumbai for Slumdog Millionaire and Bollywood.
Have you heard of Halebidu’s 11th century temples? Or Hampi’s archaelogical ruins? How about Badami’s caves that reminded me of Petra’s glorious tombs? Or the mini Taj Mahal — the sultan’s mausoleum — near Mysore? And of course, there’s Mysore’s spectacular Maharajah Palace as well.
I bet that of all the places I mentioned, only Mysore is familiar, if at all.
There are A LOT of cultural and historical heritage in the state of Karnataka, and if you take the Golden Chariot, you will definitely get a chance to see them, not to mention go on a safari to (potentially) see tigers and elephants! (We didn’t, but then, that’s the way it should be when it comes to wildlife. There are no assurances.)
There are some experiences included in the trip.
While the current itinerary of the Golden Chariot focuses more on sightseeing — it is understandable given the many important places you can see along the route — there were some experiences that were part of the tour.
We watched the sunset along the river (Hampi). So imagine walking for hours along these archaelogical ruins, seeing intricately sculpted stone temples and rows and rows of columns that are reminiscent of the Roman Forum, and then ending up by the river watching the sunset. Magical, isn’t it? It was definitely one of my highlights!
We had a henna tattoo session on the train. Two young artists were brought on board to give us henna tattoos. It was my first time to get one, and I was amazed at how fast they worked and how lovely their designs were. It was too bad it faded after only a few days. I would have wanted it to last longer.
The Chef gave a cooking demonstration. Chef Aswini Kumar took the time to teach us how to cook Kundapuri Chicken. It looked really easy to make (he made it look so easy!), but when I saw the ingredients list, I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it myself. Still very delicious, though.
We had a big dance party with a DJ brought onboard especially for us. Yep, what’s a luxury train for but for dancing the whole night long? I jest, of course, but we did have a really good time dancing.
It wasn’t just us bloggers, too, some of the other guests (i.e., the paying guests) participated, including a Filipino American who danced the cha-cha beautifully with Leticia who was from Argentina. He asked me to dance as well (he said: “I can recognize a fellow Filipino anywhere!”) but having no musical sense whatsoever, I lasted only a few steps before floundering.
My Golden Chariot Review: Is it worth it?
If you have to save up for months to be able to afford a cabin in the Golden Chariot, I would say this: don’t.
Take out a portion of that money and invest the rest. Go backpacking in India — take the sleeper trains, stay in backpackers’ hostels, eat at restaurants in the market. Experience travel in its rawest form possible. It’s what I did the first time I traveled to India, and I am grateful I did, because I could appreciate all the more the comfort and luxury offered by the Golden Chariot.
However, if you are at that stage in your life where budget doesn’t matter, but time and efficiency does, I say go for it. There is a lot to be said about luxury train travel, especially in India that is so big and overwhelming.
With the Golden Chariot, everything will be taken care of and you just have to show up every day. No need for you to worry about how to go from one place to another, where to buy the ticket, which places to visit. You see the best of the South of India in a week, with the least effort on your part and the utmost convenience. It is definitely worth it!
Have you taken a luxury train trip? Would you want to?
Disclaimer: While I was brought onboard the Golden Chariot by India’s Ministry of Tourism and the Incredible India campaign, this review contains my unbiased opinions. My admiration goes to the India Blog Train team for their efficiency in organizing such a major campaign!