India. The very name evokes both awe and fear in first-time travelers. The lure of grand palaces, exotic food and mysterious temples is countered by the thought of Delhi belly, intense poverty and chaos. Guide books frequently confuse the issue further. Cheap guesthouses or 5-star hotels? First-class carriages or 3rd-class seats? An organised tour or solo travel?
But it is possible to organise your trip, your way. I’ve visited India regularly since 1994, so here are a few tips:
- Budget Airlines:The likes of IndiGo, spiceJet and Air-India Express have made long-distance travel a whole load easier. A short flight now replaces a 24hr+ train journey. And you can book online before you reach India. It’s a no-brainer.
- Train: A train journey is an absolute MUST. Indian Railways has 8 classes, with 3 seating types. Don’t despair. It comes down to this: 2nd-Class is fine for daytime trips up to a few hours. For longer journeys or sleepers consider 1st-Class (with A/C if necessary). You need to pre-book sleepers (local travel agents can help). Then sit back and enjoy. Buy your coffee from the man with the silver urn or order lunch from the waiter (delivered a few stops later). This is India in microcosm. Don’t miss it!
- Hire Cars: In India, you hire a car plus driver. One look at the roads and you’ll understand why. Seriously, this is a very viable option either for day trips or for short tours. There’s nothing quite like sinking into the back seat of a Hindustan Ambassador to make you feel like you’re part of the Raj.
- Buses: Buses are useful where there’s no train network. Avoid the front seats if you’re of a nervous disposition: they provide a perfect view of the insanity of India’s roads.
- Rickshaws: Auto-rickshaws are little yellow and black 3-wheelers – that clog Indian roads and pollute the atmosphere. But they’re de rigeur for short journeys. Agree on the price before you set off. Cycle rickshaws pop up occasionally and there are still hand-pulled rickshaws in Kolkata.
Where to Sleep – Accommodation
From $1 a night fleapits to $500+ a night fit-for-a-Maharajah luxury, India has it all. Whisper it gently to those on a luxury tour, but mixing it up is the most fun way to go. Save cash by staying in cheaper places, and then splurge on the tea estate bungalow, the Raj-era relic or the converted palace.
My best memories?
The tea bungalow in Assam where I breakfasted on the veranda and was attended by servants. Or the boutique hotel owned by a cashew magnate, where I shared the dining room with the Prime Minister’s bodyguards! Booking is usually only necessary in the high season or if there’s a festival on.
Here are some of India’s legendary hotels:
- Darjeeling (The Windamere Hotel) Sunrise over the Himalayas, porridge for breakfast, afternoon tea and hot water bottles at night.
- Udaipur, Rajasthan (The Lake Palace Hotel) Romance and mystery mingle on Lake Pichola. (If you do stay here, please let me know what it’s like)
- Kolkata (The Tollygunge Club) Come to “Tolly” for G&Ts in the lounge or a round of golf. Just remember to follow the dress code.
- For something more personal, home stays are a new arrival on the Indian accommodation scene. Try the Mahindra Homestays website.
Where to Go and What to See
The Classics – The vast majority of visitors to India ply the “Golden Triangle”: Delhi, Agra (Taj Mahal) and Rajasthan (Jaipur, Udaipur, Ranthambore National Park). Now I’m not knocking this. Hey, I’ve done it. But prepare to be surrounded by tourists, hassled (a lot) and escorted to ‘shopping experiences’. That said, the Taj Mahal is stunning, the Amber Palace in Jaipur is exotically beautiful and you may even find a use for that sari that you bought…
Off the Beaten Track – This is a small list. You may want to stick to a ‘theme’ or see a variety of sights.
- Tamil Nadu: Visit Hindu Temples galore: Trichy (on a rock), Mahabalipuram (on the beach) and Madurai (Hall of 1000 pillars). Escape the heat in a hill station like Kodaikanal or Ooty.
- Kerala: Turn the dial to ‘slow’ as you meander through “God’s Own Country”. Hang out on the beach at Varkala or Kovalam; visit the spice farms in the Cardamom hills; take cookery lessons in Fort Cochin. If that sounds like hard work, just hire a boat and drift along the backwaters instead.
- The North-East: Visit Kaziranga National Park in Assam (elephants, one-horned rhinos and maybe tigers). Head east up the Brahmaputra River to Majuli Island, where Hindu monasteries meet tribal villages. Then relax in a tea bungalow.
What to Eat – Food and Drink
We Brits are introduced to Indian food in the nursery. For other folk, here’s a short guide:
- Idlis: Dome-shaped rice pancakes, eaten for breakfast by every Indian from road-sweepers to Maharajahs. Accompanied by dhal (lentil curry) or samba (coconut dip).
- Chapattis, Parathas, Naan: Indian breads. Flat, flaky or puffy.
- Biriani: Rice cooked with spices, raisins and almonds. Accompanied by fish, meat or vegetables.
- Lime Soda: Freshly squeezed lime juice with club soda
- Lassi: Yoghurt drink (sweet, salted or even fruity)
- Chai: Indian spiced tea. You either love it or hate it.
- Other useful words to know are aloo (potato), paneer (curd cheese), chana (chick peas), gobi (cauliflower) and palak (spinach).
- Money: Back in the day, changing money in India meant travellers’ cheques, a good book to read and a morning in the bank. So now we all say a silent prayer to the God of ATMs. Although I do miss those mornings in the bank. Sort of. Hold onto your small change for tips, donations and small purchases.
- Visas: Every single time I’ve been to India (6 trips and counting), the visa system has been different. Forget queuing in the rain: I now use a visa service. Plan in advance, especially if you’re not applying from your home country. Check with your local Indian Consulate for details.
- Telecoms: Check with your operator, but most mobile (cellular) phones work fine in India. Coverage may be limited in remote areas. Internet cafes abound. Costs are around Rs40 ($1) per hour. Most have USB ports, Skype etc. Access is generally fast. Wi-Fi is restricted to upmarket hotels.
- The Media: India has an extensive and vocal media. Try Tehelka or The Week magazines for the status quo in Indian business and politics. Or NDTV for a rolling news programme. On Sunday, peruse the matrimonial ads in the newspapers. The complexities of Indian marriage requirements (age, religion, caste, height, horoscope, numerology) are mind-boggling.
And finally, my last tip…Come prepared with some conversational topics because Indians love to talk. Expect to be quizzed on your job, marital status, income and prospects as well as on all major sporting events. India is a large country with a population somewhere north of 1 billion. It can be hot, dirty and tiring. Transport is slow – don’t expect to cover distances at the speed you would at home. Factor in a few hours each day for relaxation and take some time to explore for yourself.
Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s things to do in India and Delhi tours & sightseeing, including the4-Day Golden Triangle Trip to Agra and Jaipur from Delhi and the Old and New Delhi in a Day Private Tour.