India's Hampi, a grand and rich city in its prime, today offers a visual wealth and allure few can resist, writes Tim Roxborogh
It's fair to say that all too quickly I fell for escaping the dusty mayhem of Indian cities and recharging in, oh, I don't know, an old palace or colonial mansion.
Dusty mayhem is great fun but so is paying a small fee to swim in luxury pools, rest your head in the places where royalty once slept and dining in faded colonial grandeur.
And then it would be back to the tuk-tuks and the chaotic, addictive rhythms of whatever city I was in, be it Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Madurai or Mysore. Historic, World Heritage-listed Hampi was always going to be a little different though. For a start, although many centuries ago it was a regal city of half a million, these days it's really just a series of villages.
More importantly, for all the considerable charms of the Indian cities of the south I'd seen, in Hampi there is nothing to escape from — it itself is the escape. Located 300km east of Goa in the state of Karnataka, Hampi has a pace so peaceful and attractions so otherworldly that one day it may rival Asian peers such as Burma's Bagan and Cambodia's Angkor temples.
Elevating Hampi to the status of those two may seem like hyperbole, but the broad selling points align: a beguiling natural landscape coupled with camera-friendly ancient religious architecture.
Nature comes to the party in Bagan with a jagged mountain range and river encasing its temple-dotted plain.
In Cambodia, the temples of Angkor fight the wilds of the lush Southeast Asian jungle. In Hampi it's the gigantic, frequently precarious-looking boulders that give the temples an almost fantasy-fiction motif. Add to that rivers, lakes, palms, banana plantations and rice fields, as well as a decidedly chilled tourist vibe and you soon realise Hampi is unlike anywhere else in India.
Our accommodation wasn't far off a backpackers' price and yet our pseudo mud huts weren't a small revamp away from abodes for which wealthy would pay hundreds of dollars a night. From the hotel's open-air restaurant it was a five minute walk through rice fields to the river where you could dodge local fishing nets and swim with water buffaloes against a boulder- and temple-filled backdrop. These temples number in the many dozens but if you can only make it to a couple I strongly recommend going for the Virupaksha and Hanuman temples.
Virupaksha is easily found in the centre of Hampi, a short boat ride from the main backpacker riverside sprawl. Guides will do their best to relieve you of coin in exchange for a personalised tour of the 500-year-old temple, but if you are like me you'll forgo this in favour of your own wanderings. These took me through the temple surrounds before I decided to linger high above the whole area amid a slope of boulders and ruins.
This was a place to park the backside and remind yourself of the good fortune of being able to explore corners of the world other than your own. New Zealand scenery may be world-beating, but nothing in Aotearoa looks like this.
The 360-degree views from high on the hill, looking down towards the historic walls and structures were like little else I'd seen.
But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that this particular outlook soon paled against what was to come.
Overcoming a bumper-denting incident between my tuk-tuk and a tardy herd of goats — "get the flock out of here", I said to minimal laughter — our group was taken to the foot of Anjaneya Hill, site of the Hanuman Temple. Hampi is one of those destinations where it's easy to feel annoyed for being forced from your sunset viewing position, no matter the charisma of the person insisting they know an even more remarkable spot.
Sometimes being forced is just what you need and Anjaneya Hill is a strong case in point.
If you can combat the exhaustive stairs and the over-friendly monkeys — Hanuman is sometimes called Monkey Temple — the rocky landscape rewards you with something truly unforgettable.
Surpassing even the jungle and waterfall view we'd scrambled to from high in the Keralan highlands a week before, this was something so amazing that the brain had trouble computing.
Seemingly freeze-framed boulders tumbled over each other as the sun set, showcasing the greens of the rice fields and the blues of the rivers and lakes below.
Suddenly, the countless stories of tourists who'd stayed 20 nights in Hampi — having meant to stay only two — made sense.
Getting there: Emirates flies from Auckland to Thiruvananthapuram via its Dubai hub.
Details: Flight Centre has a 16-day South India Unplugged Intrepid tour from $1280pp, twin-share. Departs Thiruvananthapuram and takes in the sights of Varkala, Kerala, Kochi, Periyar National Park, Madurai, Mysore and Hampi before finishing at Goa. Flights additional.