Surfing India, and everything you tried to find out
India is not only a huge country, but a Subcontinent on its own.
It is more than a backpackers paradise, and a place a lot of people from around the world have chosen for early retirement. It’s a country where people come to, with the hope of finding themselves, in search of enlightenment, or an overall different and unique experience. It is a country as diverse as it can get, and offers everything from some of the worlds highest mountains, to beautiful beaches with white sand and palm trees, and everything in between.
Christopher Columbus was looking for India when he found America back in the 15th century, and more than half a millennium later India still possess an utterly unique aura which keeps people on the pursuit of finding something rare.
India has 7000 km of coastline and the idea of finding waves here is not that creative after all. The only surprise may be the question of why there are not more people coming here in search of waves and with a population of more than 1.3 billion, why don’t Indians surf more?
If you come here during the northern hemisphere winter, from around December, your chances to find waves are best in the most southern tip of the country, in the State of Kerala. The waves are usually small but clean until around April to May when the pre-monsoon season starts and the size picks up. Unfortunately, the winds also pick up, but if you wake up early enough you should still have a few glassy hours. Once it gets too messy here, you can move over to the surrounding areas of Chennai where the waves are at their best from June to September. By then the monsoon season should come to an end on the west coast, but with bigger swells still coming through. It is also said to be the best time to be in between Goa and Kerala until the end of the year when the whole circle starts again.
How accurate is this? Well, it is Mother Nature who decides this, and with all the climate change, it is hard to tell. Another fact you should keep in mind is, that different people like different waves. And to them, different seasons are considered the best time of the year. And once you’ve been in India, you know that you’ll never find two people who will give you the same answer to the same question! So maybe India still is, and always will be, what it always was… A place you come to in hopes of finding something, but you never know. So all you can do is to relax and go with the flow. The more time on your hands, the better your chances, but you can never be sure.
The other thing to keep in mind is, that India is still cheap enough to have some luxurious traveling at an affordable price and that India is divided between the rich and the poor in a much stronger way than most other countries. We travelers have enough money to not work for some time and fly around the globe. So we’re definitely part of the rich society here, and this is how I traveled for a few days. I had my own driver with his air-conditioned car, who drove me to the touristy places, the hotels and restaurants, while he went to eat and sleep in the servants quarter. It was not how I like it. It even felt uncomfortable and weird to me. But this is a big part of India’s society ( rich people having their own driver) and looking at it from this perspective was well worth the money for this special local Indian experience.
Delhi, the Capital city of India, is a surprisingly green city. There is not that much to see and I’d say it’s a good idea to get out of it as quick as possible, but even so, it is more beautiful than you would expect.
Jaipur is an incredibly beautiful city with much to see. The Amber fort is probably the main attraction here with many elephants carrying up the lazy tourists, but there are other things as well. It’s a place where having a driver is more than convenient as most places of interest lie far apart. And your driver probably knows some people who can teach you about their traditional fabric printing and have expert knowledge of tea, spices or their gems.
Agra is where the Taj Mahal is, the place every tourist visiting India wants to see. It is only a few hours by train from Delhi, and it is possible to get there early in the morning, see the Taj, the fort, and whatever else you’re interested in, and go back to Delhi in the same day. BUT don’t go on a Friday. The Taj Mahal is closed on Fridays because of Muslim prayers and in order to maintain the place.
I went to see the Taj early morning. The gates open around sunrise, and it’s a good idea to be there a bit earlier to buy your ticket. The entry fee is with 750 Rupee pretty much the only fairly expensive entry fee in the whole country and is well worth it. If you go early morning bring mosquito repellent, trust me! Other than this, bring nothing you don’t need. There are regulations what you are allowed to bring, and it’s not a lot. But what do you need? Your clothes, camera and some money, that’s it.
One interesting thing in Agra is to go and visit one of the families that did all the marble and gem work on the Taj. They still work with the same techniques today, and they are happy to show and explain it to you.
Varanasi is one of the holiest places in India. A lot of people get cremated here, and their ash goes into the Ganges River (As well as a lot of whole corpses). There are some ceremonies every night you can watch for free and a lot of holy people from different beliefs walk the streets. It’s an interesting place to watch life (and death). Really touristic, but if you walk away from the most touristy places for only a couple of minutes, you’ll be the only foreigner you see. You’ll see a lot of beggars here. Not only because of all the tourists but also because there are so many holy people, who simply don’t work. Varanasi can be intense, but it is incredibly colorful, full of life (again… and death), and exactly the India you imagined.
Mumbai, former Bombay, is another one of India’s huge cities. It has the comforts of big city life and with so many tourists and foreigners here, it accommodates well to there needs. Here you find Mc Donalds, English Books, Nightclubs, Bars, Disco and all the big city things. Mumbai is one of those places, where the super-rich live just right next to the poorest of the poor. People who sleep with their whole family in the streets because they have even less than the people in the slums. And on the other side of the street, the fat rich guy in his expensive car and his young supermodel girlfriend.
Mumbai is not only all this and a lot of cricket on top. No, it is also Bollywood!
Bollywood produces almost a thousand movies a year, this means around three per day and if you keep in mind that the production of a whole movie takes maybe three whole months, plus postproduction, it’s easy to see that there is always a lot of work to be done. There are a lot of people living in this city who work within the movie industry, but there is still so much more work that has to be done by other people. They always need foreigners to play an extra in one of their movies. And walking around in Colaba, a neighborhood where most tourists stay, is usually enough to attract someone who is looking for a white guy, to play in a movie in the coming days. Maybe you get the first offer when you check in to your hotel, or when ordering a coffee, but if you want to make sure you get a job, write me an email, I can get you in touch with some people.
They pay you 500 Rupee per day, pick you up in the morning, bring you back at night, and provide you with food and drinks. It’s not about the money, but a great experience and chance to see behind the scenes. I highly recommend this to everyone who has one day to spare.
The Indian West Coast is the Arabic sea. It gets waves, but the higher up you go, the less and smaller they get. Around Goa and north, you can get some good small days during the dry season, but they are rare and far between, but during monsoon season you get big waves. Unfortunately, they are messy most of the time and not what you would travel around the world for. But as I said: You can get lucky, with waves like the beach break on the picture. This wave is a fair drive north of Varkala.
Goa is the dream for many backpackers and longtime travelers. It is cheap, warm, great food, cheap alcohol, and easy access to drugs in general. (I’m not interested in drugs at all, BUT it is here, and pretty much in your face, if you like it or not.) When the weather gets cold in Europe, the season here starts and all the places are packed from around September to April. Techno, Raves, flee markets (picture to the right), hippies, yoga, and all the things I already mentioned are plentiful, and the ones who come in search for this, will leave satisfied. Of course, there is more to Goa than this, so rent a scooter drive around and explore.
Surf-wise there is the odd good day every now and then, and the fairly consistent pre and post-monsoon season, but with still small waves. The good thing about this is that all the other tourists have left by the time the wave season starts, and rooms are even cheaper.
I would say Goa is a good place to go, if you go for something else than the surf, and are just happy to have all the waves you get when they are there, but to go there for surfing? Well…there are many other places around the world I would rather go.
If you’re in Goa, and trying to find out about the surf here, contact Surf Wala . I unfortunately haven’t met them in person, but we spoke a couple of times together, and they seem to be really helpful people.
Gokarna is a bit south of Goa, and can easily be reached by local buses. It might take half a day, but it’s no big deal. Gokarna is becoming more and more popular for travelers as it is a bit like what Goa used to be, some say. However, during the season (the same season as Goa) it is really crowded, and all the guesthouses along the beach are full of foreign tourists, most of them are Russians. It is a relaxed atmosphere, cheap, good food and with a lot of religious and spiritual people. Gokarna is said to have no magnetic fields, which makes it easier to get in touch with nature, the universe or with yourself. It’s the same in Goa and in a few other places around the world, but it is a really rare thing. At least this is what I have been told.
The surf is a long beach break (picture) with no jetties, no piers, no bends or anything that would help to produce good sandbanks. Most the time, it’s just a closeout wave all along the beach. There are a few other places nearby with some good waves sometimes. But in general, come here with low expectations.
The surf community here is only a group of a few kids around Sandeep. Sandeep has his surf school (Gokarna Surf School) here, and has also opened a guesthouse. It is situated in the middle of some local farmers, and you couldn’t feel more connected with the place. It is as comfortable as it can be in such a basic environment, and if you’re happy with basic you will love it here. And the beach is only one minute walking from your door. Sandeep says this beach is pumping from September to December. He says there is usually one or a few sandbars a bit further out, that peel perfectly all day long. If this is true? I don’t know, but I’m keen to find out. He has some surfboards to rent and gives lessons as well.
This place is nothing like Goa in my eyes, but if you can live without the parties and the craziness and enjoy the simple life, you will love it here. I love the place and hope to go back there sometime (between September and December of course).
Varkala is another well know tourist spot. It is around 4-5 hours south of Kochin, and easily reached by train. There are plenty of different places to stay here. Many of them are a combination of a guesthouse and Aloe Vera Clinic. Varkala is full of restaurants and has some bars as well. It is not a party place like Goa, but you have the chance to have a drink and meet some people. The tourist season is still the same as further up the coast, but you get more waves here. Varkala has a few different beaches but the waves there are usually not that great. The best thing is to rent a scooter and drive up and down the coast. There are a few good waves close by and easy to find. The most famous one of them is at the same time one of the closest in the next town of Edavar (picture above). It is a lefthander that breaks in front of some rocks over sand. It needs a bit of a swell to work, and is a special place to go. It’s once more authentic India. There are a couple of huts on the beach, and countless fisherman, who like to have a crap on the beach before they drive out, and usually come back drunk. They spit around, shit around, drink, play cards and watch you with curiosity.
Sound too intense? No problem, keep driving up the coast. There are a lot of other places where you will find waves, and if you’re too lazy to go looking for yourself, there is still the chance of staying in the Sould&Surf Surf Camp. If you like this kind of place? It’s up to you! And if you want to spend that much money in a place that is otherwise still cheap? I don’t know. Anyways, have a look at there homepage. They have some pretty good description of the waves around, and this information costs you nothing. If you feel like spending all that money, do it. They have a stunningly beautiful place, and from my experience, they are good people. However, if you’re in the area, go there and have a look yourself.
Kovalam lies in the far south of Kerala and is only around 30 minutes by rickshaw from Trivandrum. There are two beaches facing different directions, and they almost always have some waves. This is probably India’s best known surf spot, but this doesn’t mean the best waves. Lighthouse beach has most of the time some surfable waves. (The picture is taken on a pretty good day.) They have a bit more power than the majority of other waves in this country but they also close out most of the year. You might get lucky and get one of those rare days when the waves are peeling perfectly, but you’re more likely to come across the old “you should have been here yesterday” thing.
Kovalam’s beachfront is packed with restaurants and hotels for all kind of budgets. As always if you’re looking for a cheaper option, go away from the beach a bit and you’ll find nice rooms for good prices.
The best option might be to find Kovalam Surf Club and stay with them. They offer a few cheap rooms and have delicious and cheap local food from Monday to Saturday. Most of the guys involved with the Surf Club are super friendly (as everyone in this country), and are happy to help you in whatever way they can. Unfortunately, there are a few that think of themselves as something better and show a fairly arrogant attitude toward other surfers.
The most outstanding thing about the Surf Club is their collaboration with SISP. Check out the link to find out more about it.
Big parts of the east coast don’t get much swell because Sri Lanka blocks it all. In the South, find out about a place called Manapad Point. It’s not that far from Kovalam, and if you get lucky…lucky you!
There are also some waves to be found in the far north of the east coast, but maybe the best, and for sure the easiest thing to do is, to go to Chennai or Pondicherry and surf between these two cities.
Chennai is in my eyes not just another big city, but much worse! I didn’t see much of it, but what I saw was different to the rest of India. It was missing exactly all those ingredients which usually makes India such a delightful place. Talking like this, I have to say, the food here was great, and of all the Indian foods, I probably like the Tamil kitchen the best.
In my experience, the state of Tamil Nadu in general, and Chennai as a city, are not as friendly as the rest of this country. Rickshaw drivers were unfriendly and even lazier than everywhere else in India, the hotels were far from what they talked about on their own websites and the overall vibe was just not something that could hold me any minute longer than necessary!
If you’re looking for waves here it’s best to go south. You can take a local bus to Mahabelipuram, that takes you one hour if the traffic is light, but probably a bit more.
Mahabelipuram or simply Mahaps, is for sure one of India’s @ surf spots. Not only this, it is also a UNESCO world heritage site and a fisherman’s village, turned tourist town. It has countless hotels, western style restaurants and on the weekend and holidays, a good number of white people who like to have a few more beers than the Tamil culture likes. And of course, they found ways to accommodate these needs.
You can find cheap places to stay (from a few hundred rupees), up to nice hotels with not only air-con, but generators for the power cuts, that happen as good as every night.
The surf is a right-hander pointbreak that breaks in front of a jetty build to protect the shore temple. It is a sand bottom wave, which means if the sand is wrong, there is just nothing to surf! And this beach is moving around a lot of sand all over the year. Usually, the wave disappears in October or November, and there is no pointbreak until May, when most of the sand gets washed away from the beach and leaves only the perfect sandbar from the jetty. June and July are usually the best months, with clear water and perfect waves. But until around late September, the wave should be great. This picture is taken early season, with a small swell, when the waves started to come back.
The surf community here is very tight as there are around 20 surfers with much fewer boards. It’s tight but at the same time a surprisingly open and welcoming community that is happy to meet foreign surfers and share their waves and stories with them.
The number of boards and surfers is increasing steadily, thanks to foreigners who come here and leave their boards behind and thanks to Temple Surfboards. I met the people who work there, and I’ve seen their workshop. They have already come a long way, and still have much to learn, but they do it with passion and the best available materials. This is to say, not the best materials they can get their hands on in India, but they import the blanks and most of their materials used in the boards. So why not order a board before coming here?
A friend of Temple surfboards and the only place in Mahaps to rent boards or take surf lessons is Mumu from Mumu Surf School. Every surfer in India knows Mumu, and if you come here to surf, you will get to know him as well. He is a great guy who tries to help surfing to develop as much as possible in India, and a fun guy to take your first surf lessons or to have a few drinks with at night.
Around 30 minutes north are some more waves, again right-handers. Make Mahaps your base to explore those places.
f you want to go and surf in the former French colony of Pondicherry, your best bet is to stay a bit north, right next to Auroville. There are two good places here. The Only Place Guesthouse, which is right next to the Auroville junction, well…a few hundred meters walking from there, or Kallialay surf school which is a few minutes towards the city.
Auroville is one of those places that you’ve never heard of before, and once you have, you’re curious why not the whole world knows about it! Just look at the picture, looks amazing, right? It’s well worth a visit, and even more to read about and to find out about the ideas and ideologies behind it.
Pondicherry is often referred to as one of Indias most beautiful and unique cities, with its French and Indian part. It is true, they have those two different parts, as well as a Muslim part, but I guess all the people who claim the French part looks like France have never actually been to France. Sorry to tell you the truth, but it doesn’t look anything like France at all! Pondi has a lot of cinemas and plenty of bottle shops, selling all different kind of beer and booze, but other than this, it isn’t much different to other cities here.
All in all…
India is an incredible, ever-changing place, unique in its diversity. It is not one of the worlds most visited surf destinations, and never will be. But If you come here and you really come because of the surf, your best chance is to go to one place during the best season, and surf the main break. It will be relatively uncrowded compared to most other places around the world.
Or even better, rent a bike and explore the area during the season. Most of the places depend a lot on the sand and change with every big swell or rain. Spend a lot of time in only one area, drive around, check all the places under all different conditions and you will find waves. But it is India and not Indonesia! Don’t expect to come here and surf perfect waves six times a week! You’ll have fun waves and some good days every now and then, and if you’re happy with this, you will enjoy it.
However, India is so much about its culture, and if you visit a place with less than great waves, take some time to absorb the culture around you, and go and see more than beaches and waves.
India is one of the most amazing countries if it comes to individual traveling. It is intense as soon as you leave the beaten track, which is really small here anyways. Go there, try to stay friendly and polite, take it all in, and make surfing one of the reasons to be here, but not the only one. This way, you’ll have not only an unforgettable trip, but also some good days in the water. But if surfing is your only reason, maybe it’s better to go to Sri Lanka or the Maldives.