India is an eclectic mix of colour, food, culture, weather, people, travellers, history, sites, shops – you name it, India’s got it. While this incredible part of the world tends to get a bad wrap from the media, India is so diverse that you can tailor virtually any trip to suit your needs. Whether you want to lay on a beach and forget about the world in Goa, explore the wonders of Kerala in a house boat, experience a first-class tour through the deserts of Rajasthan, motorbike around hundreds of temples in Hampi or rough it backpacker-style through the south – India has you covered.
It sounds clichéd to say ‘India is a culture-shock’, but it really is. The place seems impossibly chaotic jumble of bikes, car horns, people, dogs, colour, sparkles, bells, prayer, food, waste, shacks, shops, cows and petrol. Road rules are pretty loose, trains are packed, monkeys rein supreme in some areas and cows like to hang out on railway tracks – the first few days can be an intense experience, but as you travel, you’ll start to see a system emerge. The country doesn’t exist in disarray, it’s just extremely different to the west, making it a place like no other, and the food is incredible!
When To Go:
November to March is the best time to go. It’s pretty hot down south all the time, but if you go further north (depending on how far you go) it’s actually kind of cold. Many places around the beaches and deserts shut down in the low season (April to June) so make sure you do your research if you’re going during that time – it’s also super hot and wet until about November!
How Long For?
India is so big you’d need at least two months to get around the whole thing. The more time you spend in a place, the more there is to learn, so I recommend one month as a minimum and limit yourself to the north or the south, but you can get a taste of India in about two weeks that’ll leave you itching to go back.
An Indian tourist visa should be applied for in advance, will cost around AU$100, and is valid for 6-months, starting from the visa-approval date. You need a square photo (rather than a regular passport-sized one), which can usually be obtained from a photo booth in your local Indian consulate (the one in Sydney is AU$15 for one set, and the machine only takes $1 coins).
NOTE: I was working as an editorial assistant for a book when I applied for my visa, and they were very worried that I was a journalist planning on publishing stuff about in a bunch of Australian news outlets. It’s only because I wrote a statement declaring I wasn’t a reporter that they let me in to the country, so if your occupation even sounds like it’s got something to do with media, be prepared for questioning.
Indian Rupees (INR, and the symbol is ₹). Head to XE for currency conversion – the examples below are correct as of April 2017.
1 USD = 64.8088 INR
1 AUD = 49.4589 INR
1 CAD = 48.6505 INR
1 GBP = 81.2941 INR
India is supremely inexpensive by Western standards. Depending on where you go, meals can cost less than 25₹, and a decent hotel room cost between 500-1000₹. In touristy areas like Rajasthan and Goa, these prices are jacked-up significantly, but it’s still got nothing on what you’d pay for the same thing at home. Whether you choose to rough it or ‘fork out’ for something a bit nicer, India fits within everyone’s budget.
Thanks to the enormous amount of Indian people travelling around their own country so much of the time, public and private transport options are in abundance, along with hundreds of travel agencies to get you to where you want to go. Generally speaking, you can rely on Indian travel agencies. If they say there’s a bus leaving from a certain place at a certain time, it might be a little late, but it will be there. See my article Getting Around India for details.
There are hundreds of thousands of hotels ranging from shoeboxes to palaces, catering to any budget. In the south, rooms are usually allocated in 24-hour slots – if you book at 6pm on Tuesday, checkout is 6pm on Wednesday. Mid-range hotels will cost 800-1000₹ for a double room, and while air con (AC) will cost you extra, all linen is included. The north is a little cheaper (500-800₹), but checkout is usually around midday, regardless of when you checked in. As with all places, cleanliness varies greatly from place to place. I’ll always put in my recommendations, but it’s good to consult guides like Lonely Planet for a full range of options, or walk around to a few hotels and check them out yourself.
Food is cheap, and ranges from wonderful to wonderfully terrible, depending on where you are. Unless you’re in a touristy town, make sure you eat where the locals are eating. I didn’t get food poisoning the whole time, and I ate at some pretty shabby-looking places. It ultimately doesn’t matter what the place looks like, as long as the locals are eating it. Generally speaking, unless you’ve been deprived of your homeland food for months and need to have a pizza or something or you’ll die, stick with local cuisine. Indians don’t do Western food very well (think masala baked beans, pizza with ghee and curried pasta), so if you do order something more familiar to you, don’t raise your expectations too high.
1 Samosa: 10₹
1 dish at a no-frills Indian eatery: 20-60₹
1 dish at an upper-class Indian eatery: 300₹+
1 litre of bottled water: 10₹
1 750ml bottle of King Fisher: 50-250₹
While alcohol is usually available (except in holy cities like Hampi), it’s all a bit hidden away. No one really talks about drinking, and there’s a very under-the-table approach in places like Tamil Nadu. Having said that, beers flows freely in Goa, Kovalam and places around Rajasthan, so you can down all the King Fisher you want.
Other Things To Note:
While very tourist-friendly with thousands of tour guides, offices and hotels, India will test you in ways you never thought possible. Having travelled extensively around the country, we experienced the highs and lows, and while it shouldn’t stop you going, I can’t stress how different the culture is – there are some things to be wary of:
You will probably get scammed at least once, and while it may happen to you a bit more because you’re a tourist, Indians get scammed too. You can try and combat this by shopping around or doing your research before making purchases and haggling, but often you’ll only be taken for a dollar or something by someone who’s probably just trying to feed their family. It gets annoying after a while, but try not to let it get to you.
If you’re a female travelling with a male, you might have to get used to being ignored when making purchases, and conversing with others. It’s a hard fact to deal with and probably goes against everything you’ve been taught, but if you can let it wash over you and not take it to heart, you’ll have a better experience. Marriage is also taken very seriously in India – a man and woman would never live together unmarried, so you might want to say you’re married even if you’re not to avoid serious judgment.
Women Travelling Solo:
We met quite a few solo female travellers who were having the best time ever and hadn’t had any problems at all. Like anywhere, dangers decrease if you do your research, make informed decisions and don’t wander around weird areas alone at night. There are lots of Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet forums about travelling around India solo, so don’t strike India from the list too soon.
Depending on where you are, the staring as you walk from place to place can be full on, particularly if they start photographing you without your permission. They don’t see this as rude, so if it bothers you, you’re better off politely telling them to ask you for a photograph before whipping out the camera. It’s also not uncommon for people to ask you to hold their baby or stand with their children in a photo.
Generally speaking, Indian people are very inquisitive – a quiet conversation with the person next to you on a train can quickly turn in to a conversation with half the carriage, but it all comes from a place of curiosity. You could be asked anything from ‘how much does a bag of rice cost in your country?’ to ‘what is your salary?’ – they really just want to know what you’re doing in India, whether you love it like they do, and what it’s like where you come from.
The class system dominating the population means there’s a lot of extreme wealth, and even more poverty, and it can be pretty confronting. It can be hard to look at children living in the abundance of slums, and while you may feel compelled to hand out rupees to those less fortunate, be aware that some aren’t what you think they are. If you see kids performing in the street (singing, ect), they generally work for adults and don’t personally see any of the proceeds. If you want to help these kids, give them some food, or donate to certified organisations.
If you’ve travelled around India, I’d love to hear all about it!