Incredible India is like several countries in one – culture, religion, language, food all differ from state to state, and one could easily spend several years backpacking around the country of a billion, and still only see the tip of the iceberg!
Lonely Planet is the best guide for India, but try to get off the beaten track and check out accommodation and restaurants not listed. Hostelworld.com is great to see what fellow travellers are currently recommending in India.
Rupees are a closed currency – you can only get them in India. The cheapest way to get cash is with your ATM card – all cities have machines, as do all airports. If, however, you are taking traveller’s cheques, dollars, euros or sterling etc…, go to Chequepoint, on the main bazaar in Pahaganj, Delhi for the best rates the country.
The budget hostels listed in your Lonely Planet are generally fine (the worse I experienced was a paper-thin foam mattress and a mammoth-sized cockroach or two, 95% were ok!). Dorms will always be the cheapest option, at just a couple of pounds, but I rarely saw them outside of Delhi All rooms, no matter how cheap, will have ceiling fans. Air-con rooms are perhaps around £5-£10 whilst luxury digs can start at just £25. Share with friends to make a saving. Camping isn’t much of an option on India’s beaten track.
Both cycle and motor-rickshaw men make an absolute pittance and you’ll notice many actually sleep in their rickshaws. Tourists are overly paranoid about getting ripped off and you may see conceited backpackers having heated arguments and fights over 20p with drivers. Politely decline offers from rickshaw ‘wallahs’ (drivers) to ‘take you shopping’ or ‘pay a visit to his friend’s very cheap discount store’, they will receive commission or petrol vouchers, and you’ll just get inflated prices and the hard sell (watch out for this when you first land in Delhi!)
Seeing India by train is one of the most amazing travel experiences you will ever have. All of Indian life passes through the carriages and you can buy almost anything from traders as they pass through the train in turn. To save on accommodation, go for over-night journeys to the next city – don’t go air-con first class, ask for “sleeper – top bunk” (it is more secure on top; you can sleep with your valuables and chain your backpack up under the bottom bunk). Expect hassle and often blatant lies (‘trains-all-cancelled’, ‘I’ll-help-book-you-tickets etc…) from random people at train stations – best to go straight to the official air-con luxury of the ‘tourist booth’ where they more than likely speak good English and will help you to fill in a booking form.
Cheapest deals are offered by the hotels/hostels in Pahaganj in Delhi. Most train stations also offer a storage service.
Weather / When to visit:
India’s climate is defined by three seasons – the hot, the wet (monsoon) and the cool, each of which can vary in duration from north to south. The most pleasant time to visit most places is during the cooler period: November to around mid-February. I visited in summer 2003 and it was a horrible 53 Celsius!
Always haggle – as a rule of thumb, offer 1/3 of their offer and work your way up to a price you’re both happy with. Keeping it cheerful and pretending to walk off are good tips, and try to only begin bartering if you are willing to complete the purchase. For some items and in some stores, bargaining will be more of a thing, in others it won’t apply at all. To save on your luggage allowance and weight on your back, items can be posted home fairly cheaply – some stores will even stitch you a package so it can be sent by surface mail.
Whether it be adventure sports, guided tours or travel arrangements – your hotel or local specialist agent will always be more than happy to help out. Group tours, often with transport and food, can be booked through almost any hotel, hostel or specialist agent – if you don’t go to them, they’ll certainly come and find you! Haggle and shop around. Alternatively, just get a group of fellow backpackers together, jump in a rickshaw and go yourselves!
Things to take:
Aside from the obvious, ear plugs are essential. A sleeping ‘liner’ rather than a sleeping bag should be taken – apart from being huge, bags are unnecessary as in the few places (such as in the mountains) where it gets cold, blankets will be supplied.
The North and South differ in terms of culture, language, food and climate. Hindi is spoken across the North, but south of Hyderabad, there are several state languages – English is often spoken as a second language, at least by those dealing with tourists. Though the North has more to offer the traveller, many agree that the South is nicer and more welcoming.
Stay in Pahaganj (pronounced “Par-har-ganj”), as in your guide book, there are lots of cheap hostels along the main bazaar. The Ba’hai Lotus Temple is Delhi is impressive, very calm and spiritual. Humayun’s’ Tomb is cool, you will see how much it inspired the Taj Mahal – the government are making efforts to make it into a big tourist attraction. The Red Fort is Delhi’s main attraction, also take a look around Old Delhi and perhaps go clubbing in the centre!
The ‘oldest city in the world’ and the spiritual capital for Hindus. Described to me as “in-your-face-India”, it is certainly an intense experience which is best enjoyed towards the end of your travels. Stay in the ‘real’ Yogi Lodge – not an imitation. Go for a Ganges river tour with someone reputable; check out the body burning furnaces.
Home to the Taj Mahal, best viewed at sunrise. Agra is just a couple of hours away from Delhi, and – if need be – can be done as a day trip. Best perhaps to spend a night in the area though.
A lovely, relaxed, old hippy hangout – little to do but unwind and explore the bazaar and temples. I had a great time at Hotel Om. Hire a motorbike from your hotel if you fancy some desert biking.
Along with Agra and Delhi, Jaipur forms the tourist ‘Golden Triangle’. The ‘pink city’ is home to India’s best cinema – great if you want to catch some Bollywood action.
The lake has been dry for a few years due to poor rains but the city has a great atmosphere. Hotel Dream Heaven was fine. Arrange a camel trek, motorbike or elephant ride (just ask a passing Brahmin for a ride!). Lots of good temples, City Palace is a good afternoon out, and I recommend taking a motorbike up to Monsoon Palace, which overlooks the city.
A planned town, capital of the Sikh state of Punjab and was eerily quiet when I visited. The only real attraction, if you’re looking for an unusual travel anecdote, is the Rock Garden. It is a wonderland, created by one man, from trash and waste – nothing magnificent, but very unique and described by some as India’s answer to Disneyland.
During the hot summer months, the colonialist administration moved operations up to this mountain town. It retains many imperial characteristics – you might be forgiven for thinking you’re back in England (albeit a 1950s England). It is a lively and charming place, popular with tourists and an excellent escape from humid weather in the summer. The YMCA is a great, safe bet.
Further up into the Himalayas in Manali – famed being a hippy hang-out and for its marijuana, which grows freely everywhere (best avoided as the penalties in India are brutal). Spend your time doing adventure sports – in three days I went paragliding, white-water rafting and mountain biking, as a guess I probably did it all for under £60 by finding the respective adventure companies rather than booking through a hotel or agent.
Amritsar (and Wagah):
See the Golden Temple, the Sikh capital of the world – go at sunset, it is magnificent at night time. Enjoy the Sikh hospitality at the temple, which offers free food and accommodation. Group up with some friends from your hostel and take a share-taxi to the Wagah Border with Pakistan. Join in the patriotic hollering in stadium-style seating during the evening ceremonies, where the flags are lowered and border gates closed. Aside from being free, it’s an unforgettable experience if you join in the fun!
Cochin, and indeed anywhere in the communist state of Kerala, is well worth a visit. A back-water cruise visiting the villages, watching elephants being bathed and tasting coconut from the trees is a romantic and fascinating way to spend a day or two. The atmosphere is completely different to the rest of the country and Vypeen Beach, although not easily accessible, is pristine.
An awesome spiritual hub, riddled with historic protected World Heritage sites. Lots of ruins to see, the stone chariot is particularly special as it was carved from a single stone. India’s answer to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.
Goa is a state, not a town, but features a string of lush beaches and is very much a package tourist hot spot. Palolem Beach in the South is said to be amongst the best beaches in the world – I spent a weekend there and stayed very cheaply with a family.
Overrated metropolis, some good museums, shopping etc… Marina Beach is great.
A very Westernised, modern city and once the silicon valley of India. It is still a technological and IT capital, but is now more famed for its call centres. There are some great bars, clubs and shopping and, as it is high above sea level, it is a good place to cool off in the summer months.
At the Southern tip of the sub-continent you can sit on the beach and see three different shades of water as three oceans meet.
Some places I didn’t have a chance to visit include Mumbai (previously Bombay), the capital of the world’s biggest film industry, Bollywood – but otherwise a big city like any other. Calcutta features many colonial influences, I hear it’s fantastic. Leh, even further up in the mountains, is home to mainly Tibetans and the world’s highest airport – highly recommended to me. Dharamsala is home to the Dali Lama. Check on the situation in Kashmir, I believe tourists are beginning to return to the troubled state, it is meant to be stunning!
One could literally backpack around India for years and not see everything worth seeing – let alone begin to understand the rich, vibrant culture and way of life. A suggested, less traditional, itinerary if you have 3-4 weeks to spare would be Delhi (with a day trip to Agra), Shimla, Manali, Amritsar, Udaipur, Pushkar. If you have longer, check out the South.
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