14 September 2014
I was recently asked for some advice by a person who was planning their first trip to India. Before I knew it, I had managed to fill a couple of pages with my recommendations, based on my own experiences of travelling the subcontinent that span almost three decades!
Most people start with a visit to Mumbai (Bombay). My partner and I love Mumbai for all of its chaos, colour, sound and history. In saying that, unless you are willing to truly explore some of the markets, backstreets and perhaps be an extra in a Bollywood film (yes, this is possible, they are always looking for foreign extras, and this is sold as a tour option in Mumbai!), then three days is enough. I suggest staying in the centre near “The Maidans”, Marine Drive, “Gateway to India” or ChurchGate Station. These areas are all in the old part of Mumbai, and afford an easy walk or tuk tuk ride to most of the sights of this enormous and frenetic city.
Rajasthan is probably the most visited of all of India’s states. I’m guessing this is because it has the highest concentration of sights and palaces. It is also the most tourist-focused of the states in India. Rajasthan holds many palaces, temples and experiences that are well worth seeing. My favourite spots are Jaipur (think ‘Best Exotic Hotel Marigold’), Jodhpur (palaces and amazing forts), and Jaisalmer (more palaces, desert camps and camels).
Delhi has some great places to see; however I’ve never really got excited about the nation’s capital. But not far from Delhi is the wonderful Agra, home to the Taj Mahal. To experience the Taj, I suggest getting up early and being amongst the first in. Don’t be tempted to take photos (along with everyone else) of sunrise over the alabaster dome. The monument gets more and more crowded as the tour groups arrive, so rush through the gardens and into the Taj itself and experience it without hordes of people. You can explore the rest later.
Old Agra, the part of the city immediately around the Taj, is medieval, so all the quality chain hotels are further out. We stayed in a hotel that was well below our standards in order to be next to the entrance. Consequently, we were third in the early morning queue to get in – well worth the dodgy hotel room! Otherwise, stay in a nicer hotel, but arrange a very early pick-up. I can’t remember which day it is, but the Taj Mahal is closed on a certain day of the week, so plan ahead. And don’t miss an opportunity to have a meal on one of the many rooftop restaurants in the old city overlooking the Taj.
Varanasi is still one of my most cherished experiences. It’s one of India’s most holy cities on the edge of the Ganges. Pilgrims travel for months to die in this city, and it has 24 hour ghats (riverside crematoriums) to service these pilgrims. But it’s not a city of mourning – don’t forget Hindus believe in reincarnation. Even if I was in my early twenties ‘hippy period’ when I visited, I guarantee that most who experience Varanasi also experience the pervasive spirituality of the city. In Varanasi I climbed from the winding narrow streets to the top of a flat-roofed hotel and watched, in wonder, as every roof had a child flying a handmade kite from it.
Goa, on the South West coast, has always been a mecca for hippies and beach lovers. A stretch of coast that is home to palm-fringed beaches, full moon parties and a proudly Portuguese history. However, we chose to visit Kerala (the state ‘below’ Goa) two years ago. We rented a houseboat and crew to explore the ‘backwater’ canals, lakes and tributaries of this beautiful state.
In 2015, we will travel to Kolkatta, Darjeeling and then Pondicherry, the French colony, to experience the South East coast. The guide books – and cook books, with their combination of Indian spice and French sophistication – make it sound very appealing!
Incredibly, virtually every major airport in India is brand new. I would be careful, however, when choosing which airline to fly with internally. The country has gone through a spate of new airlines. Some are highly unprofitable and you run the risk of the airline going under (So long, Kingfisher!); others you run the risk to your life. Jet Airways is probably the best we’ve used, and Air India/Indian Airlines is the government-owned airline. If you purchase your tickets online, check on luggage fees and check-in procedures, which may incur additional fees.
Indian trains are a great experience. Some of the tourist trains have great seating, and acceptable toilets. Other trains … not so much. But travelling by train creates wonderful opportunities to meet locals and feel like you are experiencing the real India. Just don’t drink lots of water before boarding, because the facilities can be, well, “challenging”! Check online for websites to purchase e-tickets.
Stay in a palace, at least once, and if it’s in your budget, stay in as many as you can. You may not be coming back, and it’s a wonderful experience that is unique to India. My all-time favourite is Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, an Art Deco wonderpiece with the Maharaja still living in one of the enormous wings of this sprawling palace. Do remember, though, that if the hotel states “Palace” in its title or description, don’t presume it actually is one!
India has inherited a love of bureaucracy from the British, so be prepared for a lot of documents with multiple copies, inexplicable queues and numerous rubber stamps.
Although importing Indian Rupees is technically illegal, I always try to obtain local currency beforehand for when we arrive, for the initial taxis, tips and much-needed bottle of water. It avoids the need to focus on finding a foreign exchange booth as your first priority on arrival.
Be prepared for begging on an industrial scale. You will be presented with some appalling stories and sights. I travel with the idea that you can’t help everyone, and the moment you look like you may be going to, you will be surrounded by humanity. Instead of having your hand in your pocket distributing coins constantly, I work on the theory of giving a larger amount to one individual every day. I think it makes more of an impact, and it relieves your own guilt. The guide books warn against giving “bon bons” or sweets to the children, and they will ask. Instead, pens or similar would be more beneficial than tooth decay that they can’t afford to repair.
The most amazing festivals to be in India for are Holi (February or March), a festival of colour, and Deepavali (October or November), the festival of light.
Most importantly, go with the flow. India has a rhythm and way of doing things that often beggars belief, but it works, and has done for centuries. As I often reminded my other half on our most recent travels there, “let it wash over you, don’t fight it, because India will always win”.
As you can see I’m quite passionate about India and can rave about my travels for a lot longer. But I won’t bore you.
My last word is go there, but travel with the right frame of mind, otherwise you won’t experience the beauty and mystery that is India.