Sunday, February 22, 2009

Rajasthan tour with Kundu Special, Kolkata

‘Kundu Special’ is a tour operator company based in Kolkata. Over long 75 years of its existence, it has achieved a sort of cult status amongst travel-crazy Bengalis. Check out to learn more about this organisation.

Though Jaya and I are as travel-crazy as any good Bong, we had never tried Kundu Special till recently. As a matter of fact, barring one tour of Lakshadweep on a cruise ship, we had never taken any major conducted tour before this. We holiday a lot, but we usually travel in our own car and make our own itineraries. Even when we travel to faraway places in India or abroad by rail / air / road, we usually make our own itineraries with the help of friends, relatives and the internet.


So how come we suddenly decided to use the services of KS (Kundu Special)? Jaya’s parents and grandparents had travelled with KS and having heard glowing tributes being paid to KS right from her childhood, Jaya was keen to try them once. So when we thought of a Rajasthan trip (not very convenient by car from Jamshedpur) we decided to approach KS.


Booking the tour with KS was anything but easy. First of all, I discovered that KS don’t have any presence on the net (they don’t have a website; interestingly, a similar-named tour operator called ‘Kundu Tirtha Special’ have set up a website). I couldn’t even find any reviews of KS tours on the net. Anyway, I at least found their phone number and called them up – only to be told that all their Rajasthan tours were booked till 2010!


Not being the kind who gives up easily, I sought the help of a friend of mine in CESC Kolkata as the KS office on 1, Chittaranjan Avenue is directly behind Victoria House (CESC Head Office). This resourceful friend of mine personally visited the KS office and luckily there had been some cancellations in the tour commencing 23.01.09 and our tickets were booked. The 13-day package cost the two of us Rs 21,225 (Rs 10,613 per head).


I found out much later from the fellow tourists in our Rajasthan tour group how ‘lucky’ we had been to have got the tickets at the last moment. Apparently, KS periodically give out microscopic classified ads in Ananda Bazar Patrika (a leading Bong daily) announcing the schedule of their forthcoming tours. People start queuing up outside the KS office right from the evening on the day the ad is published and the next morning all the tickets get sold out within a few minutes of the opening of the KS office! One can understand why KS does not have to bother with internet bookings or sales promotion – demand for KS services far exceeds supply. Such is the reputation of KS in Kolkata!


One of the reasons why I am sharing my experience with KS in such detail is that I could not find any user review on the net. I hope my review will help prospective users of the services of KS.


I am fond of photography – some pictures I took during the Rajasthan tour can be seen at my web albums


Kundu Special Rajasthan tour itinerary :

Day 0 : Dep Howrah station just before midnight by Jodhpur Express, a train which is considered mediocre, even by Indian standards.


Day 1 : On board train. All meals provided and served by accompanying KS staff [bed tea – breakfast – non-veg (fish) lunch – evening tea with snacks – non-veg (egg) dinner].


Day 2 : Bed tea and breakfast served on train. Arr Jodhpur at 8 AM. Major baggage (tagged by KS staff during train journey) unloaded by KS staff upon arrival at Jodhpur station, loaded in the bus and delivered directly to the hotel room. Proceeded to hotel Beniwal Palace (not far from station) by bus (41 seater bus with 2x2 seating, non-AC – this same bus would be used for our entire tour of Rajasthan). Rest at hotel. Veg lunch at 1 PM. Sightseeing commenced at 2.30 PM – Umaid Bhawan Palace and Mehrangarh Fort. Returned to hotel around 6 PM. Evening tea and snacks served in room. Time till dinner free for shopping. Veg dinner at 9 PM.

Kundu Special's manager briefing the group at Jodhpur railway station


Day 3 : Bed tea served at 4.30 AM. Dep for Jaisalmer at 6 AM. Breakfast en route at a small dhaba. Reached Jaisalmer around 11 AM and checked into hotel Saroj Palace. Non-veg (fish) lunch at 1 PM. Depart for Sam sand dunes (around 40 km from Jaisalmer) at 2 PM. Camel ride (around 40 minutes) to sunset point. Walk down (10 mins) after sunset to desert entertainment camp run by M/s Oasis India. Evening tea and snacks there. Rajasthani folk music and dance programme (mediocre) at the camp. Return to hotel at Jaisalmer. Non-veg (chicken) dinner.

 Breakfast at a roadside dhaba on the way to Jaisalmer

Day 4 : Started for sightseeing at Jaisalmer at 9 AM after breakfast. Visited Gadsisar Lake, Jaislamer Fort (Sonar Kella) and Patwa-ki-Haveli. Returned to hotel for non-veg (chicken) lunch. Rest of the afternoon / evening free for shopping. Evening tea / snacks served in room. Non-veg (chicken) dinner.


Lunch at hotel Saroj Palace, Jaisalmer

Day 5 : Started for Mount Abu at 7.45 AM after bed tea and breakfast at Jaisalmer hotel. Non-veg (mutton) lunch and evening tea / snacks at dhabas en route. Reached Mt. Abu in the evening and checked into hotel Savera Palace. Soup served in the room. Non-veg (chicken) dinner. 

The roadside dhaba where we had lunch sitting on charpoys on the way to Mount Abu

Day 6 : Started for sightseeing at Mt. Abu after breakfast. Visited Nakki Lake and Dilwara Temple. Returned to hotel for non-veg (chicken) lunch and rest. After evening tea and snacks taken to Sunset Point. Returned to hotel after sunset. Non-veg (egg curry) dinner.


Day 7 : Departed from Mount Abu at 8 AM after breakfast. Non-veg (fish) lunch en route. Visted Rana Pratap Museum at Haldighati en route thereafter. Reached Udaipur in the evening and checked into hotel Hariyali Palace. Evening tea / snacks and non-veg (chicken) dinner at hotel.


Day 8 : Sightseeing started at 8.30 AM after breakfast. Visited Saheliyon-ki-Bari, Moti Magri and Udaipur City Palace. Returned to hotel for non-veg (fish) lunch and rest. Taken to Udaipur Lake in the evening for boating but boating was not feasible. Returned to hotel. Evening tea / snacks and non-veg (chicken) dinner.


Day 9 : Departed from Udaipur after breakfast at 8 AM (today’s destination is Pushkar via Chittorgarh). The bus stopped at the base of Chittorgarh in front of a dhaba and tourists were taken to Chittorgarh by autorikshas. At Chittorgarh fort we saw the Kumbh Shyam temple, Meera temple, Vijay Stambh, Samadhisvara temple, Kali temple, Padmini palace, etc.


After returning from sightseeing at Chittorgarh we had non-veg (fish) lunch in the dhaba where our bus was parked. Thereafter we left for Pushkar. Stopped on the way for tea / snacks. Reached Pushkar around 6 PM and checked into hotel Goyal Inn. Tomato soup was served in rooms prior to a veg dinner.


Day 10 : Bed tea was served at 3.45 AM and we left for Ajmer Sharif at 4.30 AM. It was necessary to visit Ajmer Sharif very early in the morning in view of bus parking restrictions. The bus was parked about ½ km from the dargah and we walked to the dargah. Most tourists purchased floral offerings, etc., before entering the dargah. Even at 5 AM the dargah was quite crowded. I did not attempt to enter the sanctum sanctorum and returned to the bus after going around the Ajmer Sharif complex and seeing the two gigantic degs (metallic cooking vessels). Jaya and most other women in our group were keen to offer prayers and offerings and entered the sanctum sanctorum (dargah of Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Hasan Chisti) after a long and arduous crawl. They realised that they had done a big mistake by entering as the crowd was totally chaotic in the absence of proper crowd control and all doors leading to the dargah were being used both for entering and exiting (separate entry and exit doors were not earmarked). Men are apparently given preference over women as only men may offer namaz inside the Dargah. Many women in our group were groped by men right inside the Sanctum Sanctorum. They came out with great difficulty with aches and pains which lasted for days. 

Decent dining area at hotel Goyal Inn at Pushkar

After returning to the hotel from Ajmer Sharif we had breakfast and left for Pushkar Lake. We saw the lake, Brahma temple, etc., and thereafter returned to the hotel for veg lunch.

Left Pushkar at 2 PM and reached Jaipur at 5 PM. Checked into hotel Aroma Classic near Panch Batti. Evening tea / snacks and non-veg (chicken) dinner.


Day 11 : Left for sightseeing at Jaipur after breakfast. Stopped in front of Hawa Mahal for 5 mins (to enable taking pictures) and Jal Mahal for 10 mins. Thereafter, we proceeded to Amber Fort. The bus was parked at the base of the fort and we ascended to the fort by Jeeps. After seeing Amber Fort very nicely we returned to the bus and went to Jaipur City Palace. We saw the City Palace and Jantar Mantar. Thereafter we returned to the hotel for lunch.

This lunch at Jaipur needs special mention because this was a ‘special’ lunch, popularly called ‘Feast’ by Kundu Special. It comprised mutton biryani, fish (Katla) curry, chicken cutlets, paneer kofta, salad, chutney and vanilla ice cream. After this sumptuous meal one could help oneself to paan and cigarettes with compliments of KS!

The afternoon and evening were free for rest, shopping, etc. Jaya and I, along with some fellow tourists visited Hawa Mahal (on our own) in the evening and did some shopping at Bapu Bazar. Returned to hotel for non-veg (chicken) dinner.


Day 12 : This was the last day of our tour and after breakfast the entire morning was left free for rest, shopping or independent sightseeing at Jaipur. After lunch (fish) we departed from Jaipur at 1 PM. Stopped on the way for tea / snacks. Reached Merta Road station at 6 PM. There was a long wait (4 hours) at Merta Road station. We were served packed dinner (chicken – aloo dum – roti – rossogolla) at the station. The train (Jodhpur Express) arrived at 10.15 PM and our luggage was loaded by KS staff.

Interestingly, the Jodhpur Express passes through Jaipur. So what is the logic behind a long (5 hr) bus ride from Jaipur to catch the same train at a nondescript station (Merta Road)? The official reason is that the train stops at Jaipur only for 20 mins and loading everyone’s baggage plus Kundu Special’s own substantial cooking / serving utensils, etc., at the unearthly hour of 1.40 AM could be problematic. Another reason could be that check-out timings in most hotels are around noon.


Day 13 : On board train. KS staff continue serving bed tea, lunch (fish), tea / snacks and dinner (egg).


Day 14 : Train supposed to reach Howrah at 4 AM. But was 2 ½ hours late. Just managed to catch the Ispat Express at Howrah for Tatanagar.

My experience with Kundu Special

1) The clientele of KS mainly comprises middle class Bongs from Kolkata and nearby places. KS USP's are value for money, good Bong food and homely service. The Rajasthan package cost the two of us Rs 21,225 (Rs 10,613 per head). Obviously, one cannot expect high class accommodation, transportation, etc., in this package.


2) The package included train tickets from Howrah to Jodhpur and back (Merta Road to Howrah) by sleeper class, 11 days sightseeing / travel all over Rajasthan by 41 seater bus (2x2 seating, non-AC), 10 nights hotel stay at different places on twin-sharing basis (economy hotels -- the kind that cost roughly between Rs 800 to Rs 2000 per night), guide fees and complete food (bed tea, breakfast, lunch, evening tea / snacks, dinner -- even on board train -- so food was provided for 13 days). The only exclusions from the package were entry fees / camera fees / rides (camel / elephant / horse). 

Hotel Savera Palace at Mount Abu was the best hotel during the Rajasthan tour

3) It is not compulsory for KS tourists to travel by sleeper class. One can travel by any class at extra cost. However, KS does not provide food on board train if one is not in sleeper class. Apparently, there are some restrictions in AC coaches for KS staff to serve food there.


4) We were a group of 35 tourists (all Bongs) + 8 KS staff (2 managers + 6 cooks / waiters / baggage handlers). KS staff carried kerosene stoves, essential utensils / tableware and some groceries from Kolkata.


5) Food was typically Bong fare and lunches and dinners usually had one non-veg dish. Even in the hotels, food was cooked and served by KS staff using their own utensils and tableware (recessed rectangular stainless steel plates). During travel by bus, pre-cooked food was carried and served on the way (usually in some wayside dhabas with whom KS have arrangements) after heating. On board train, KS serve food through some arrangements with railway catering staff.


6) Bed tea was always served in the hotel room. Evening tea and snacks were also served in the room unless we were travelling at that time. Sometimes, when we had to depart from a hotel early in the morning, breakfast too was served in the room. Lunches and dinners were usually in the hotels’ dining halls. Wherever the hotel did not permit the use of their dining hall, KS made dining arrangements (with awnings, etc.) in some other available part of the hotel.


7) Every person was permitted 2 no.s 'check-in baggage’ -- these were tagged by KS during the onward train journey and were handled throughout by KS staff. Before leaving a hotel KS staff would collect the baggage from our room about 45 mins before departure and deliver it to our room in the next hotel. This was a big comfort.


8) Service was quite decent throughout. I have already talked about baggage handling and room service. Service during lunches and dinners was quite satisfactory. There were thoughtful touches like serving candies and packaged juices during long bus trips. Professional guides were provided as required. Wherever shoes, cameras, mobiles, bags, etc., had to be left outside (like at some temples), KS staff looked after them. 

A local guide (provided by KS) explains the history of Saheliyon-Ki-Bari at Udaipur

9) KS sightseeing schedules are not very hectic and one does not feel rushed. There is adequate time for rest and independent shopping. It may be noted that clientele of KS are mostly middle-aged or retired people. Every group has some elderly people as well.


10) Adherence to timings / schedules was pretty good. Whenever we had to leave a hotel early in the morning (usually for a long bus trip), adherence to the scheduled departure time by all tourists was ensured by serving bed tea well in time, serving breakfast in the room and collecting check-in baggage at least 45 mins before departure.


Some things I didn’t like with Kundu Special

1) The 41-seater bus (2x2 seating in 9 rows for 36 tourists + one last aisle-less row with 5 seats used by KS staff) is built on an elongated truck chassis where the rear part of the bus sticks out about 10 feet behind the rear axle. Therefore passengers sitting on the last few rows experience excessive jerks even when the road has minor undulations. On bad roads (they are everywhere in India) the ride is horrible.

 The bus that was used throughout our Rajasthan tour

KS has a rule according to which the person who books his tour ticket first gets to sit on the first row of the bus, and so on. Since I booked last, my wife and I got to sit on the last (9th ) row. This same seating plan is followed throughout the tour. Needless to say, Jaya and I used to dread our long distance rides. Why should some tourists be subjected to this punishment when they are paying the same tariff? There is no such illogic in the seating plans of any airline or train. I feel that KS should modify the rule whereby those who book first get to sit on the front row on Day 1 and everyday passengers move back by one row (with the last row coming to the front row). Alternatively, seating in the bus should on a first-come-first-served basis everyday so that the latecomers get the rear seats.


2) Some venues (usually roadside dhabas) for tea / lunch breaks during bus journeys were quite bad. At one dhaba we were required to sit on charpoys and have our lunch with some of the adjacent charpoys occupied by truckwallahs. At another dhaba, where we stopped for a breakfast of oily luchis, the water (for washing our hands) was freezing cold, had to be drawn from an earthen pot by an empty Mobil (engine oil) can and there was no soap. Surely, a kettle of hot water could have been poured in that pot of chilled water. KS could have easily provided a mug and liquid soap. 

Waiting for lunch on charpoys on the way to Mount Abu from Jaisalmer

3) Since our tour was during relatively cold part of the year, availability of hot water was very important in the hotels. However, most of the hotels did not have round-the-clock hot water. Some hotels had wood-fired water heaters and unless one timed one’s bath very precisely with the once-in-a-day heating cycle, one missed out on hot water altogether.


4) At hotel Beniwal Palace at Jodhpur, dining arrangements had been made by setting up awnings behind the hotel. This hotel is situated in a very dusty and windy place and during lunch copious amounts of dust was falling on the food in certain parts of the makeshift dining area. 

The dusty dining area behind hotel Beniwal Palace at Jodhpur

5) The worst incident during the tour took place on the very second day of sightseeing at Sam sand dune point near Jaisalmer on 26.01.09 when Mrs. Sabita Mitra (w/o Mr. Sudip Mitra) fell down from a camel and suffered a serious injury (shoulder dislocation and fracture). Mr. and Mrs. Mitra had to abandon the tour and fly back to Kolkata after preliminary treatment at Jaisalmer. In my opinion, KS are at least 70% responsible for this accident by forcing all tourists to take this camel ride. On the way to Sam sand dune point, the bus disgorged all the tourists at a point a couple of kilometres short of the Oasis India camp. KS managers told the tourists that they HAVE TO hire camels (at extra cost) to go to the Sunset Point and Oasis India camp. Jaya and I were not too keen on the camel ride and I specifically asked Mr. Parimal Das of KS whether I could reach the sunset point by any alternative means. He told me that only a camel could take us there because it was impossible for a man to walk on the sand dunes. Subsequently I found that he had misinformed us – our bus was parked right outside Oasis India camp and anyone could comfortably walk from the camp to the sunset point in the sand dunes in less than 10 minutes. In other words, any tourist could have easily reached the sunset point by our bus itself without taking the camel ride. The disinformation by the KS manager forced even tourists in their 70s to take a camel ride or use a camel cart (same cost as camel ride) to see the much-touted ‘sunset’ which was, in reality, nothing special. Mr. Ganguly, a gentleman from Kalyani who is almost 80 years old also took a camel ride but fortunately soon realised that it was more than what he could handle and got off the camel with the help of the camel handler and slowly walked to the sunset point! The KS manager could have had a vested interest in sending everyone for a camel ride (with an empty bus going to the sunset point).


6) Another accident took place barely 100 meters short of Merta Road station on the very last leg of our tour (on 04.02.09). A low-hanging overhead electric cable got entangled with the roof of the bus and snapped as the bus was in motion. The snapped cable along with an insulator hit the bus with great force breaking glass panes and showering some tourists with shards of glass. Fortunately, only minor injuries resulted. This accident appears to be a fault of the driver in that he failed to notice the low-hanging overhead cable while driving a fairly tall bus. 

Glass panes of our bus damaged by whiplash of snapped overhead cable and insulator

7) There is no feedback mechanism for KS higher management to know the problems faced by tourists and their grievances. If KS management are serious about customer satisfaction and improvement of their services (which should be a continuous process) they should institutionalise some simple feedback mechanism like providing a suggestion book or feedback form / questionnaire to the tourists during the return journey to Kolkata. I shall be mailing this blog entry of mine to KS on their email addresses , and to provide feedback.


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