India is everything, and more, all at once. It’s a visual explosion of bright saris, lumbering cows, marigolds and bursts of sunlight.
A constant cacophony of beeping horns, high-speed Hindi and the cawing of thousands of crows. A melange of smells – of incense, spices and, ahem, more human smells.
And while Mother India, with her 1.2 billion inhabitants, can inspire, astonish and enlighten many who tread her soil, her innumerable challenges and chaotic madness can also overwhelm and exhaust unprepared first-timers. Or even put them off completely.
After living in Mumbai and travelling throughout India for seven months last year here are my essential survival tips to ensure you don’t waste a second on your first visit to this magical country.
So how long for your first trip? A lifetime, if you’ve got one to spare. If not, a month would be ideal to make the most of each place you visit. At a stretch, you could get a taste of India’s magic in two weeks.
Allocate two nights at least for each place you visit and, as always, the longer you stay in a city the more you’ll be able to cosy up to locals who can give you their hot insider tips.
I recommend a rough itinerary encompassing accommodation and transport, leaving room for unavoidable Indian mishaps and adventurous detours.
All of India simply cannot be experienced in two weeks, two months, or possibly even two years. For first-timers stick to the north – the land of turbans, moustaches, palaces and mountains – where you’re guaranteed to craft your very own Darjeeling Limited experience.
If you’re anxious about the sensory overload you will no doubt experience, or if you would just rather sit back and enjoy the ride, then get a guide. As for the language, Hindi isn’t spoken by everyone in India – in fact there are more than 20 languages spoken throughout the country and English tends to serve as a common lingo.
However, a few Hindi phrases will definitely help break the ice: “Namaskar” (hello), “shukriya” (thank you), “aap kaise hai” (how are you), “kitna hai” (how much) and “naam kya hai” (what’s your name), is enough for your first trip.
As for money, you’ll be dealing in Indian rupees – there are about 55 rupees to each Aussie dollar. Credit cards are widely accepted, but make sure you know all your pin codes as signing has been phased out around the country.
And take advantage of the baggy clothes you’ll be wearing by using a money belt without worrying about any embarrassing bulges.
TOUR GROUP OR GO IT ALONE?
Intrepid, World Expeditions, Bunnik Tours, Wendy Wu Tours, Thomas Cook, Cox and Kings and Kesari are all reputable operators, or you can head to the Indian Association of Tour Operators (iato.in) for more options.
Alternatively, you can plan your own trip and enlist the help of local guides at specific monuments or for the occasional half day when you want a little extra information and insight.
HOW TO STAY WELL
Don’t even think of drinking tap water – even if it’s filtered, nasties can get through and you just don’t want to risk it. Avoid ice, eating fresh fruit juices and salads and street food, which can look tempting but usually isn’t worth it.
Even if you’re fit and healthy, you’d be a fool to travel to India without comprehensive health insurance. Make sure your vaccinations are all up to date, pack a full medical kit (include Probiotics and Travelan, both good for healthy gut flora, plus some general antibiotics as prescribed by your GP), and do take a truckload of hand sanitiser to keep those mitts fresh.
There’s an excellent oral vaccine that helps prevent traveller’s diarrhoea called Dukoral, which you can grab from your doctor a few weeks before you go. And think about gathering the numbers of English-speaking hospitals along your intended route, as well as the address of the Australian embassy.
HOW TO STAY SAFE
The numerous assaults on women in India recently have been well publicised, but by taking a few precautions female travellers can definitely travel safely.
Women-only rooms or floors are on offer in a few big Indian hotels including the ITC group of luxury hotels (itchotels.in), and the Indian tourism ministry has called for this to be standard across hotel categories.
You’ll need to prepare for being stared at – more blankly than lecherously – but it’s best to avoid curious gazes since returning them can be considered flirtatious.
Dress conservatively (loose ankle-length pants or skirts, tops that cover your shoulders and shawls), and avoid travelling alone during festivals when thick crowds can be used as an excuse for a pinch or a grab.
The large wealth divide in India means lots of beggars, particularly in urban and tourist areas. While it’s heartbreaking to see, by giving money you can contribute to the problem as many are kidnapped, abused and exploited by bosses who force them to beg.
It’s best to give something consumable (fruit, rice, medicine) or contribute through charities or by volunteering (giveindia.org is a good place to start).
HOW TO GET AROUND
In big cities, it’s auto rickshaws and taxis all the way. Sure, they’re ancient and beat up and might break down, but they’re an experience in themselves and are as cheap as, well, papadums. If you’re getting a taxi from an airport to your hotel, organise it from the pre-paid counter inside most terminals, or risk being scammed.
Trains are notoriously overcrowded and run down – they’re fine for short trips and economical (a 24-hour trip halfway across the country can cost as little as $11), but not recommended for overnight travel since safety’s not at a premium. Ditto for overnight sleeper coaches.
A great option is to hire a car and driver, particularly if you’re travelling within one state for a few days. Indiabycaranddriver.com is a reputable company offering everything from old-school Ambassadors to SUVs and mini coaches. Private cars are surprisingly affordable by Australian standards, however roads can be choked beyond belief and cruising down an Indian highway can often mean taking your life in your hands. Perhaps, then, the quickest, most fuss-free way to get around is to get up in the air. You can get super competitive internal flights with budget airlines such as IndiGo and SpiceJet (sites such as Skyscanner.com will help you find the best deals).
WHERE TO STAY
When it comes to Indian accommodation, you can spend as little or as much as you like – from $2 to $2000 a night and beyond.
Budget options are generally OK, but mid-range is where you get the best value for money, though if your budget can stretch you’ll find the luxurious five-star hotels of the Indian-owned Taj group (tajhotels.com) to be world class.
The chain also has hotel brands, such as Vivanta and Gateway, offering more affordable four and three star-level rates.
Boutique stays are becoming popular. In Delhi, a personal favourite is The Rose. It’s in the heart of the hip Hauz Khas village (therosenewdelhi.com) and is part art gallery, shop and cafe, part fabulous yet simple boutique accommodation.
Think white walls, plush yet simple furnishings, tons of light and views of the adjacent rose garden, for about $80 a night.
In Udaipur, another favourite is Hotel Madri Haveli (madrihaveli.com) which dates back 300 years and has 14 stunning boutique rooms, each with stained glass windows, Rajasthani archways and day beds (a deluxe room is about $60 a night).
There’s also a rooftop terrace restaurant that’s perfect for lake-view dining.
WHERE TO SHOP
Rajasthan is where it’s at for colourful embroidered textiles, as well as miniature paintings, papier mache puppets and embroidered leather shoes (Ganesh Emporium in Udaipur is a textiles and antique jewellery mecca; more than 20 rooms overflow with treasures sourced from around the country).
To buy precious and semi-precious gemstones head to the “pink city” of Jaipur, where gorgeous blue-glazed pottery is also made.
Marble wares inspired by the Taj Mahal, some of them exquisitely detailed and inlaid with semi-precious stones, can be sourced in Agra, while Varanasi is a popular place to pick up silk and saris.
GO SOUTH: WHAT TO SEE ON YOUR SECOND INDIAN TRIP
Take in the glitz and glamour of the home of Bollywood, tour the world’s biggest slum (realitytoursandtravel.com) and, if you have time, hire a driver and head two hours to Matheran Hill Station to trek through the dusty red hills, ride horses and stay in a historic colonial mansion.
A former Portuguese colony turned beachside hippy party town, Goa’s the place to head for sun, surf, seafood and, if you’re game, one helluva beach party.
Possibly the most beautiful natural scenery you’ll see in India (think palm trees interspersed with sculpted boulders stacked against the hills), Hampi also has some of India’s most beautiful architecture. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
A slice of southern France in the Bay of Bengal, thanks to French colonisation until 1963. Take in the French Quarter on bicycles or stroll along the seafront. Boulevards are lined with chic boutiques and pastel colonial mansions.
Cruising along the palm tree-lined backwaters of Kerala on a houseboat, watching local villages and lush jungle slip by while your on-board chef cooks up a storm, is an essential South Indian experience.
SPEND 24 HOURS IN MUMBAI HERE
READ MY REVIEW OF UDAIPUR’S TAJ LAKE PALACE HERE
Fly into the nation’s capital and spend 24 hours zooming about in an auto rickshaw, acclimatising to the chaos. A visit to the 17th-century World Heritage-listed Red Fort complex, a drink at the swish Imperial Hotel for a taste of how the British Raj lived (stay from $300 a night, theimperialindia.com), some respite in Lodi Gardens and dinner in hip Hauz Khas village, should all be on the cards.
By Agra we mean the Taj Mahal, because aside from this stunning wonder of the world, Agra isn’t very inspiring. Take a day trip from Delhi (about three hours each way by private car, about $90 return). Try to arrive at sunrise for the best light.
Built around Lake Pichola, India’s most romantic city is all traditional Mughal architecture, gorgeous textiles and delicious North Indian cuisine. Ride a horse into the surrounding desert, tour the 16th-century City Palace and consider splashing out on a stay at the Lake Palace, the floating hotel which was originally a summer palace for kings (rooms from $440 a night, tajhotels.com).
From Udaipur, it’s a five-hour drive to Rajasthan’s bustling Blue City. Its signature powder-blue buildings are scattered about the majestic Mehrangarh Fort, which begs to be toured, as does the Umaid Bhawan palace, where Liz Hurley once got hitched.
Rajasthan’s Golden City rises majestically out of the sands of the Thar Desert; the modern city spills outside the old walls, but inside it’s relatively tranquil. The royal cenotaphs of the erstwhile Maharajas of Jaisalmer are stunning, and a sunset camel trek through the desert just might change your life.
Two days in the holy city of Varanasi are a must for any Indian neophyte, but we wouldn’t suggest staying much longer – its gaggle of ash-covered holy men, bodies burning on the shores of the Ganges and warren of teeny laneways can overwhelm. Take a sunrise stroll along the river to see the morning fire ceremonies, or a wooden boat ride at sunset.
Tucked away in the far north of the country between Kashmir and the Chinese border, the “land of high passes” is where to head for otherworldly Himalayan treks and visits to 15th-century Buddhist monasteries. An overnight trip to Pangong Lake – a 134-kilometre expanse of crystalline blue water – is bucket-list stuff.
The home of yoga and where The Beatles found enlightenment, Rishikesh is a spiritual wonderland full of ashrams, holy men and schools teaching every esoteric art from palm reading to tarot.
Tea is the order of the day at this peaceful Himalayan hill town. Well, that and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, temples, ponies and the UNESCO heritage-listed toy train that takes visitors chugging through the mountains.
Home of the Dalai Lama, McLeod Ganj in Dharamshala is full of spiritual courses. The main drawcard, however, is getting a public audience with His Holiness; when he’s in residence they’re scheduled regularly.