If you’ve got a free weekend, there is plenty to see and discover along the ECR and in Mahabalipuram. And no, I’m not talking about Dakshina Chitra and the Mahabalipuram Shore Temple – both of which are highly recommended and you’ve hopefully already visited. This is about all those other places that you can make a day out of just by driving down the ECR.
Of course, this being Chennai, nothing actually opens until later on in the morning. There’s no rush, so you can have a relaxed start to the day, maybe even get a continental breakfast at Tryst?
All filled up on coffee and croissants? Then let’s begin. Here’s a suggested itinerary of how you can spend your day, discovering everything on the ECR and in Mahabalipuram.
10:00am – 3D Clickart Museum at VGP Resorts
Your first stop is at the 3D Clickart Museum. It’s like an art gallery but the paintings are designed to be interacted with and photographed. It’s remarkably fun and you’ll be snapping away like a madman, adjusting your pose for that perfect click.
The museum isn’t particularly well sign-posted. It’s just a little beyond the main entrance of the VGP theme park on the left side. If you see a sign for the Snow Kingdom you are in the right place because the gallery is in the same building. Entry is Rs 150 for adults and Rs 100 for kids. You’ll spend a good 30-45 minutes here.
Don’t go alone because trying to take selfies doesn’t really work with this trick art.
11:00am – Madras Crocodile Bank
Once you’ve clicked more photos than the paparrazi following Taylor Swift on a night out, drive another 20 minutes down the ECR until you reach the Madras Crocodile Bank. If you’re anything like me, then you’ve driven past it a dozen times and kept thinking to yourself that one day you’ll go here. Well, today is that day! Let’s find out what’s inside…
…OMG, it’s about ten billion crocodiles! What are so many of them doing here? Shouldn’t they be in Australia? Big ones, small ones, enormous ones, even some cute ones. It’s quite a sight to see and with an entrance fee of just Rs 50 for adults, an absolute bargain.
It’ll take about an hour to see all the alligators and crocodiles. Once you’ve seen more crocs than Mick Dundee, get back in your car and head 10 minutes down the road to our next tourist spot.
12:30am – Tiger Cave
Tiger Cave is notable because it doesn’t have any tigers nor any caves. However, like the Crocodile Bank, you’ve probably driven past it countless times and wondered what was there. OK, it’s not strictly true that there are no tigers. There are rock carvings of tigers and the cave is a hollowed out rock. The whole place works as a prelude to the main act that you’ll find in Mahabalipuram: the shore temple and the Pancha Rathas (translation: Five Chariots).
Right then, hurry up, there’s no time to waste because by now you should be getting hungry and boy is there a treat waiting for you in the town of Mahabs. You need to drive for another ten minutes into the town. Don’t forget to pay the dubious toll to the shifty looking character as you enter the town.
1:00pm – Moonrakers Restaurant
Legendary among expats and locals alike, Moonrakers is the one restaurant you must try in the town. There have been plenty of new cafes and restaurants crop up over the last ten years in Mahabs, but Moonrakers is the original and still the best. Some restaurants are even trying to capitalize on its popularity by calling themselves New Moonrakers and the like, but don’t be fooled, it’s not the same restaurant.
Ask to see the catch of the day and select the fish you want. If you can’t decide, the Red Snapper is always a popular choice. Ask to get the fish done in the special Moonrakers masala fry. One fish and a side of fried calamari rings is enough to feed two or three hungry people.
If you want a beer with your meal, quietly ask for a Kingfisher. It’ll be brought out in steel mugs because technically they are not allowed to serve alcohol here. But it’s Mahabs, so it’s cool.
OK, eat up, eat up. There’s no time to waste here!
I’m assuming you have already done the Shore Temple. If you haven’t, it’s 500 rupees for foreigners and 30 rupees for Indians to enter. A few years back, expats who had a PAN card were able to show it as proof of residence and that we were paying taxes which in turn supported the maintence of these UNESCO sites. As a result we could get the Indian rates. For some reason, the PAN card is no longer accepted to claim Indian citizen rates. If you have an OCI card, then that seems to be acceptable if you make enough of a fuss.
We’re going to skip the Shore Temple today because there’s so much more to see. If you haven’t seen it yet, go ahead and do it, I’ll be waiting here to take you to the next point of interest.
2:30pm – Krishna’s Butterball
Time to ditch the car, where we’re going there won’t be any roads. The Butterball is a ten minute walk from Moonrakers. It’s literally a roundish ball of rock that’s impossibly perched on a rocky slope. The lightest touch of air could send it rolling down the hill at any moment. Except…it won’t.
Local guides and Wikipedia would have you believe that the damn British tried to move the Butterball with elephants but as much as they heaved, the rock wouldn’t budge. It stubbornly refused to move and eventually the British got bored and invented cricket instead. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know, but a citation is needed in Wikipedia for this little fact so it’s up to you to find a reliable source.
Go up to the rock, give it a nudge, see if you can achieve what seven elephants could not, give up and move on to the next point of interest, it’s just a couple of minutes walk away…
2:45pm – Arjuna’s Penance
This sculpted relief is called Arjuna’s Penance. Why did he need to do this? Because he wanted the water to come. He hasn’t eaten, he’s become emaciated as he’s turned his whole life over to giving penance so that the water may flow once again.
Can you spot Arjuna?
Watch out for the spritely old man selling you postcards, he knows a trick or three to help him make his sale.
Clicked some photos? Got some postcards? Cool beans, let’s move on up the hill. Click photos of the rock carvings as you go. We’re heading to that temple on top of the hill called the Mahishasuramardini temple.
3:15pm – Mahishasuramardini Temple
Watch your step, mind the goats, up we climb. Check out the amazing views from the top. Over there is the Mahabalipuram lighthouse. There’s an even better view from up there, so let’s go and check it out.
3:30pm – Mahabalipuram Lighthouse
A word of caution, climbing the Mahabalipuram lighthouse isn’t for those who are claustrophobic or scared of heights. It’s Rs 15 to go up and the winding stairs can get very tight and narrow towards the top – it’s almost like a spiral ladder than a staircase.
From the top you’ll get spectacular views across Mahabalipuram towards the Shore Temple and beyond. Careful as you come back down though. Is it best to go down those spiral staircases backwards like on a ladder or facing forward so you can see where you are going? I’m not sure, neither seems particularly optimal.
Reached the bottom safely? Right, now we’re off to a bit of an unusual place: the Mahabalipuram Seashell Museum. It’s about a 15 minute walk and you might have to navigate the bull run of traders and hawkers selling you everything for a discount and at a good price.
If you have done the Shore Temple but not the Pancha Rathas, then you should take 30 minutes to do it as you pass. It’s Rs 500 again for foreigners and 30 for Indians. If you did the Shore Temple earlier in the day then you can use the same ticket to enter though.
4:00pm – Sea Shell Museum
For reasons unknown, a local gentleman has gone totally gaga for seashells. It’s not even a hobby and goes somewhere beyond whatever comes after obsession. This gentleman has traversed the shores of the seven seas picking up, collecting and cataloging seashells.
His life work can be seen in the Seashell Museum of Mahabalipuram. Thousands upon thousands of shells are expertly presented in pristine glass cabinets. From the tiniest shell the size of a grain of rice to some of the biggest seashells you’ve ever seen – possibly the biggest in the world – there isn’t a type of shell not on display here.
As odd as it sounds, you can easily lose an hour in the museum looking at all the shells. You’ll share in the joy of finding an ultra-rare left-spiralling shell or the amazement of seeing a pearl in mid-formation.
Once you’ve seen enough shells to last you a lifetime you are probably ready to think about heading back home. But wait, there’s one more stop you need to make on the ECR before you reach home.
5:30pm – Sangeetha’s on ECR
It’s gone five, the masala fry fish from Moonrakers can only keep you going for so long. You’re a little peckish. What could cap off a wonderful day out on the ECR and to Mahabs better than some traditional south Indian snacks – collectively called tiffin items.
Stop at Sangeetha’s on the ECR, it’s just next to Dakshina Chitra. Sit outside if the weather isn’t too oppressive. Order a filter coffee and a masala dosa. Your fatigue will drain away, your hunger will fade and you’ll be ready to hit the traffic of Thiruvanmeyer and beyond as you drive back into the city.
Here’s a map with layers that points out the location of each place mentioned in this ECR and Mahabalipuram itinerary. It’s also got the driving and walking directions so you know where to be going!