Spending a month in India, we didn’t even scratch the surface of this vast land and culture. However, we did begin to appreciate some of its quirks, people and regions. We have summarised these into some useful tidbits of info for travel in India.
We’ll start with the useful:
India may be the 7th largest country in the world but in terms of population it ranks in second place. Over 1.3 billion people to be more precise spread across 29 states and 7 union territories. There is more diversity than you might think for one country including religion, over 20 different languages, cuisine and culture. We met Indians who felt like foreigners when visiting other Indian states.
Many restaurants in India are confusingly called ‘hotels’, We’re not quite sure why. The majority of restaurants are vegetarian (as Hindus do not believe in inflicting pain on animals) and often restaurants serving meat advertise themselves as a ‘non-veg’ restaurants since it is less common.
You’ll never find beef on the menu as cows are considered sacred and kept for milking only. Pork is also less common because of the Muslim beliefs about the pig being a dirty animal. The meat you will find in non-veg restaurants will be most likely chicken, lamb or goat.
If you are white, tall or blonde at some point during your time in India you will most likely be asked for a selfie. It can make you feel like a film star at times and annoyed at other times. Love it or hate it, a lot of Indians just aren’t used to seeing foreigners and therefore you’ll need to get used to being stared at. A lot. As a female, have your wits about you, sometimes selfies frustratingly encouraged ‘unwanted touching’.
Indian people generally dress conservatively, especially the women. Ladies, I feel for you as you need to cover up your legs and shoulders and it’s very hot. However, it’s much better to dress in line with the locals as a sign of respect and to avoid unwanted attention. Maxi dresses or long pants are ideal.
One of the appeals of travelling in India is the cultural experience you can get for your money. The cost of living is very low in comparison to the U.K. For example, a decent size meal can cost between 30p to £4. Accommodation for a private double room with an ensuite and air conditioning cost between £10-£20 per night. Buses were inexpensive and trains were reasonable (the rate dependent on the class).
You can see so much fascinating wildlife and stunning landscapes in India. Periyar National Park in Kerala was very picturesque with wild elephants roaming around. Ranthambhore National Park was great for spotting Bengal tigers. The Indian peafowl or peacock is India’s national bird and we saw plenty during our travels.
There was much less Western tourists in India compared to South East Asia for example. You certainly get the local experience.
The food is amazing. Particularly the breads and curries. Trying the food and snacks from different regions of India was one of our highlights as they were so different! Delhi belly is a reality though so best to eat at reputable restaurants or street food vendors where you see them cooking the food in front of you. We stayed away from meat a lot of the time and didn’t touch salads or fruit unless you could peel the skin like oranges and bananas. The water is definitely not drinkable, we wouldn’t even advise using it to brush your teeth!
Not to stereotype, but we found the Indian people to always be so smiley and friendly. Even if it was broken English or using hand signs because they spoke no English at all, we found their hospitality to be second to none.
If you arrive in Delhi or another big city in India, it’s unlikely you’ll avoid witnessing poverty in India. It can be really hard to stomach the scale of it and seeing so many old, young, men, women and children sleeping on the streets.
It is not uncommon to see cows, pigs, goats, dogs and cats walk freely amongst the streets. The sad part, is that unfortunately a lot of these animals look malnourished and are often seen near or on piles of rubbish on the side of the street. I watched one cow gobble up 10 plastic cups, it was pretty awful to watch. The stray dogs and cats are often wounded and flea-infested.
Not necessarily a bad thing but something to get used to – foreigners pay more for things. Generally Indian states have a local rate and a higher foreigner rate for all of the forts, palaces and sights requiring a ticket to enter. The same can be said for tuk-tuks and buses. Sometimes as a foreigner you will be stopped and charged to enter free places of worship too. Normally you just have to suck it up and pay it. The only time you can negotiate is with tuk-tuk drivers. An Indian man told me, “when they see white people, they see money”, meaning many Indian people believe white people are rich. It helps if you have a rough idea of how much you should be paying for something.
Gender equality hasn’t quite reached the same level as western countries. I know in some areas there is gender equality (from working with Indian women in the U.K.) but we still felt there seemed to be a strong perception of women staying at home and raising children. There were times when Indian men would speak to Jonny and would ignore me when I spoke. The question I would get asked most commonly was “Do you have any children? Why not?”. We even saw some restaurants advertised as ‘women-friendly’.
Public transport in India by bus and train was generally always overcrowded. If you purchase a seat, it generally meant you had to share it.
The Indian head nod, was both fun and frustrating for us. We’d ask a question and sometimes get the head shake in response which meant it was hard to decipher a concrete yes or no. We think it just means okay, I hear you.
The toilets are generally pretty basic, especially those on the trains. No toilet paper but a tap for running water – Indians use their left hand to clean themselves. Some Indians thought toilet paper was unhygienic so bring toilet paper with you if you don’t want to clean yourself the Indian way. If you are eating in a restaurant or shaking someone’s hand, remember to use your right hand!
India is 100% worth visiting. The diversity, culture, landscape, sights, wildlife and food are breathtaking. There are so many incredible places to visit both in the cities, countryside and coastline.
As a backpacker, it’s amazing how much you can see and do with a relatively low budget. Plus very authentically as there are less tourists that South East Asia for example.
However, I would say keep your wits about you, particularly if you are female. Look out for scams and be open-minded.
Read up as much as possible about the culture and the places you will visit in advance if you can. Use your hotel/homestay/hostel as much as possible to help you during your stay if you have any questions.
Oh and remember to bring toilet roll (and Ladies, bring tampons as you’re unlikely to be able to buy them in India!).
We hope you have an amazing trip!
You can read our other blog posts about India here:
We arrived in Delhi on 7th May 2017. I guess because South India is closer to the equator, we expected the north of India to be less hot, if not the same. How foolish.
At midday, Delhi and the surrounding area got to between 40-46 degrees celsius. So our schedule had to fit around what we thought we could realistically manage in the heat. We prioritised the Taj Mahal (obviously), seeing a Benghal Tiger (we’d not managed to see one in Periyar National Park in Kerala) and the three Rajasthan cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. The three places that make up the classic ‘Golden Triangle’ of India consist of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Our itinerary looked like this:
A) Agra (for Taj Mahal) – 1 night
B) Jaipur – 3 nights
C) Ranthambore (for the National Park) – 2 nights
D) Jodhpur – 2 nights
E) Jaisalmer – 4 nights
F) Delhi – 2 nights
This portion of our trip was characterised by beautiful forts, palaces and desert land.
The best way to take long distances in this region is by train. Getting to Agra from Delhi would be much better if you purchased tickets in advance. We had tried using the website but the registration did not go through in time so if you plan to use the trains in India make sure you do this well in advance. This blog is amazing at spelling out the various train classes and how to book tickets.
Arriving at New Delhi train station was certainly an experience with lots of Indians sitting or sleeping on the floor, various different queues for the ticket office, beggars and lots and lots of touts. At the time I was too frazzled to take a photo but I found this blog which provides some pretty accurate photos!
Unfortunately, we weren’t entirely sure where to buy our tickets. A friendly staff member told us the next train to Agra was in two hours and we had to go to another building to purchase tourist tickets. Being none the wiser to the scam being played on us, off we went to this other building to get train tickets only to be told there were no trains available. This was when we realised something phishy was going on and quickly made our way back to the train station. As we entered the station, a train Security Officer asked to see our tickets. Since we didn’t have any he said we could not enter the station and must walk down the street to the ‘tourist train reservation office’. He was quite authoritative, even showing us his ID, and began escorting us down the road. We were naturally skeptical from the last scam. Thankfully, a foreigner happened to be walking down the street and told us quietly the tourist office was inside the main train station on the 1st floor. We immediately turned on our heel and marched back to the station, ignoring everyone until we got into the station. Eventually we found the tourist office which was very busy. There was a ticketing system and after a further painful two hour wait we finally had all our train tickets.
The train to Agra was pleasant enough, lasting about three and a half hours. We sat in the air-conditioned 3rd tier class (there are eight classes in total) and spoke to an Indian family along the way.
Our hotel, Sai Palace, was pretty impressive in terms of location and price for £11 per night! You could even see the silhouette of the famous Taj Mahal from the rooftop restaurant.
Very early the next morning we walked to the Taj Mahal for sunrise to beat the crowds and the heat. It was truly spectacular.
We ate breakfast back at the hotel and also managed to check out Agra Fort before catching the train to Jaipur.
This train ride was really comfortable in the air-conditioned chair class and we were even given food!
We arrived at our hotel Pandya Niwas about 10pm. The room was really modern and the staff friendly. The next morning I realised I had left my sunglasses in the hotel in Agra- oops. The hotel confirmed they had them but they would not post, only collect them in person. If these had been a cheap pair of sunglasses I would not have been bothered but Jonny had bought them for our honeymoon. So our first morning in Jaipur was spent booking train tickets back to Agra for the following day. We had a late breakfast and spent the rest of the day meandering through the streets. We saw Hawa Mahal at dusk, a high-walled palace built for the Royal women to watch the streetlife. We ate at a rooftop restaurant which overlooked Hawa Mahal.
The next day we caught the first train back to Agra. Fortunately, I retrieved my sunglasses and not wanting to waste the day, we took a look around the other sights of Agra including the Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daula often referred to as the ‘Baby Taj’, the Jama Mosque (built in the 1600s) and the Mehtab Bagh gardens with a view of the Taj Mahal from across the river.
We also decided to spoil ourselves with a great Bon Barbecue lunch.
In the evening we travelled back to Jaipur. Jaipur is the capital of the Rajasthan state and is called the ‘pink city’ because the buildings were painted pink for a royal visit from Queen Victoria in 1876. The main sights are the City Palace, Jantar Mantar (an astronomical observation site built in the early 18th century) and Amer Fort. We managed to do all of these in one day.
Amer Fort is located 11km from Jaipur whereas the City Palace and Jantat Mantar are centrally located. Amer Fort was certainly worth the visit and made for some impressive views.
Talking food for a moment, we found a very authentic small street food vendor that many locals ate at. We were served a 50p meal consisting of chickpea curry and poori bread or rice – and if you weren’t full from your first plate they would keep on serving.
Ganeshi, a small restaurant recommended in lonely planet I believe, had really friendly staff and you could watch them cook your meal. It’s quite hard to spot though as the entrance is in between shops. The food was yummy and very cheap.
Another of our favourite restaurants in Jaipur was Natraj, the peshwari naan and potato bomb curry were the best! This time, I gobbled it all up without taking a photo.
On our last day in Jaipur, we decided to do something a little different. We’d heard there were elephant sanctuaries in the area but were slightly sceptical of how well the elephants were treated. After some research we decided to visit Elephant Joy. When we arrived we were greeted with three elephants: Rangoli, Moti and Gori. It was a relief to see they were not in chains and free to wander. The owner explained how Rangoli was rescued from a circus and Gori was an orphan. We fed and washed the elephants which was really fun.
We were also able to ride Moti bareback (because the wooden boxes hurt the elephants). The owner was also keen to ensure we weren’t too heavy for the elephant . To be honest although the ride was an experience, we both felt bad riding it. I know people ride horses and camels but an elephant just felt wrong somehow.
On the plus side, the elephants seemed to be treated really well and had vet care every month. They certainly seemed to enjoy being fed and washed! Overall, we had a really fun experience and it was amazing to be so intimate with these huge creatures.
Our next stop was Ranthambore for the Tiger Reserve. We really wanted to spot a wild Bengal tiger. We took the first train and arrived by lunchtime. In the afternoon, we managed to secure a safari after a lot of waiting and patience. The ticket office was home to a lot of touts and a long line. Someone said to Jonny “if you wait they will not come to you, you have to shout to be seen!“. By 3pm, we were in a jeep racing towards Ranthambore National Park. When I say racing, this was no word of a lie – the driver did not slow down for anything: herds of goats, pot-holes, bumps, bends and even the wildlife (which was the point of the Safari). We were bouncing around all over the place in the back of the jeep, it may as well have been a bouncy castle! It was also ridiculously hot with no shade so we bought emergency rags at the side of the road.
Amazingly, we did actually spot two tigers up close! Other wildlife we spotted were birds including kingfishers and peacocks, samba deer and monkeys. I just about managed to take photos whilst the driver raced on.
After a restful second day in Ranthambore town, we caught two trains to Jodhpur. We had a 2 hour wait in Jaipur so took a taxi to the Peacock rooftop cafe for breakfast. This place was really nice and relaxing.
The train ride took up the whole day and we arrived late to our homestay Suraj Haveli. We were welcomed by a lovely family. The Mum made us Thali which we ate with beer on the rooftop with an impressive view of Mehrangarh Fort.
The next morning, the family prepared a special breakfast with sweets because it was Jonny’s birthday. He even got a garland and a tikka on his forehead!
The Mehrangarh Fort was very impressive, followed by a visit to the Clock Tower in the middle of Sardar Market.
Cafe Royal was a little gem tucked into the little shops surrounding the market with a great view of the clock tower. The owners were really sweet and lent Jonny their guitar for a bit.
Around 5 o’clock in the afternoon, a friend of the homestay took us on a walking tour of Jodhpur. It was a very personal tour as he showed us his school and home, as well as a step well and some temples. Jodhpur is known as the blue city and it’s easy to see why.
Dinner was at On the Rocks- a restaurant complex with lots of choice and an actual bar (this was the first bar we’d come across in India with alcohol advertised).
On the way back there was a sandstorm from hell and we had to remain in the fetal position in the tuk-tuk!
To get to Jaisalmer we had to get up at 4am and arrived by train around midday.
The hotel we stayed in was the best yet- it was actually part of the Lal Garh fort wall. The balcony was awesome and we easily lost a good few hours sitting out watching the world go by.
The breakfasts were great too – banana and honey pancakes with chai tea on a rooftop with a view!
Jaisalmer is not too far from the Pakistan border and located very close to the Thar desert. The average temperature was 44-47 degrees celsius which limited the amount we could do in the day. The sights of Jaisalmer include a lake, the fort palace and the desert.
To get a break from curry, we found a fun cafe called ‘Cafe +’ which served western food and had lots of space to chill out.
We took a overnight trip into the desert which involved visiting a deserted village, an hour camel ride and sleeping out under the stars.
It was low season in Jaisalmer – there aren’t many tourists silly enough to come here in the heat. It worked in our favour though as we got really good deals on accommodation and for the desert tour it was just the two of us plus our guide so felt very much like a private tour.
After the camel ride, our guide cooked us dinner on an open fire.
Camping consisted of sleeping on a bed exposed to the elements. It’s difficult to put into words how surreal this was – we were in the middle of the desert, no signs of civilisation for miles, no toilet, no huts – just us, a campfire and some beds! The stars did look incredible though.
We were right next to a giant sand dune which was hilariously hard to walk on, particularly in the dark. You’d fall about everywhere and sand filled up your shoes instantly.
The next morning we had breakfast and then messed around with some fun ninja moves on the sand dunes.
On the way back I rode the camel myself which was both terrifying and satisfying. I survived nevertheless.
When we got back to Jaisalmer, feeling brave we thought we’d try something else pretty random – driving a tuk tuk! A friendly driver taught us how to operate the gears, clutch etc and then let us have a go! It was brilliant. We couldn’t stop laughing!
The next day we had an 18-hour train ride back to Delhi. We decided to fork out the extra money and get first class (which essentially means you pay for space). It was worth it because we actually got a decent night’s sleep.
In Delhi we stayed near the train station which had a good atmosphere and there were lots of restaurants. We saw the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India, but we didn’t stay too long as before we knew it we had a queue of Indians wanting selfies with us.
The Red Fort nearby was closed so we wandered back through the streets full of people on the streets selling food, clothes or drinks. Some of the streets were pretty run down with lots cables dangling between buildings.
For our last night in India, we decided to stay somewhere nice and booked the Marriott in Gurugram, 30-minutes from the airport. The hotel had a pool and gym so we spent some time there and in the evening they had a drinks reception and food in the Executive Lounge (something I had access to with all my travel with IBM). My first glass of wine in a month! We went to bed feeling very satisfied.
Annoyingly, at 4am I woke up feeling completely shit. I threw up all morning. We’d done quite well to not get a serious dose of Delhi belly throughout our trip so getting so sick right at the end of our trip and at a nice hotel was a shame. In fact, I was so poorly we missed our flight to Bangkok but the Marriott were good and let us stay an extra night for free.
Needless to say, our time in India had its ups and downs- it is busy and chaotic, sometimes things don’t make sense and you can’t miss poverty. Yet on the other hand, there is such beautiful scenery, wonders of the world, fantastic forts and palaces and amazing wildlife. Overall, we’re really glad we went!
Next stop Bangkok followed by a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam 😊
You can read our other posts about travel in India here: