India is a vast country that holds its own against even the most diverse continents on the planet. Rich in sights, sounds and smells, India is a full blown sensory overload of beautiful, lush waterways, majestic mountain regions, vast, arid deserts and swarming, congested cities teeming with more people than you could ever imagine fitting into one place. Exotic and eclectic cultures, romantic monuments, frenetically packed bazaars and an ancient culture that clashes endlessly alongside a society that has surpassed modernity and is racing toward the future at breakneck speed. India is frustratingly confusing, confounding and astonishingly diverse. Ultra modern malls are springing up alongside some of the biggest slums in the world and there are more ethnic groups, creeds, castes and religions per square mile than almost any other country.
Most visitors to India either absolutely love it, or absolutely hate it. Often at the exact same time. There is no middle ground here, India is a land of extreme polarity that throws everything at you all at once. Culture shock doesn’t just hit you here it runs up to you and smacks you in the face with a baseball bat.
Despite this India remains absolutely compelling, and will grab hold of you and keep hold from the second you step off the plane. In spite of the hassle, the problems and the poverty, India will weave its magic over you and change your whole outlook on life forever.
Culture and etiquette.
India has a long, diverse and rich tapestry of religions, cultures, castes and creeds that it celebrates with an intense and unapologetic fervour. It is easy for first time visitors to make the mistake of assuming that India is one unified whole, when in reality it is a melting pot of languages, religions and beliefs that stretch back centuries. Hindu, Muslim, Jainism, Catholic and many other religions all coexist side by side, and ancient traditions are still found intertwined with the crashing relentlessness of modern consumerism and the still visible cultural and architectural remnants of British colonialism.
India is a very conservative, patriarchal society, and travellers should respect that in their dress and manner. The easiest way to do this is simply by dressing modestly. Both men and women should wear tops that cover the shoulders, and women in particular should wear long trousers or skirts that cover their legs. A shawl comes in useful for covering up quickly and easily, especially if you want to visit a place of worship.
One of the things many first time visitors to India struggle with is the absolute lack of – and even complete lack of a concept of – personal space. Almost everywhere you go in India, particularly in the cities, you will be surrounded by people. All of the time. You will be jostled, bumped into, pressed up against and stared at (constantly). There is no such thing as a queue in India, and people often do not think twice about spitting in front of you or using the street as a toilet. It is best to simply adopt a bemused indifference.
What you need to know.
No matter what country you are from odds are you will need a visa to enter India. Citizens of the UK, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA and almost every other country needs one.
Six month tourist visas can be gained from Indian embassies or their third party equivalents in the UK, Australia and Canada. It is a simple procedure to apply by post or online. Remember that the six months start from the day you get the visa back, not the day you fly out or arrive in India, so if you get it a month before you leave you will only have five months left on it. If you want to travel to another country during the time of the visa government rules state you are not allowed to re enter India within two months, and there are additional restrictions dependent on which country you travel to, so factor this into your plans.
Currently it isn’t possible to extend your visa within India, and if you plan to leave and come back into India again or wish to stay longer then student visas or business visas may be more suitable. Most visitors however find that a tourist visa is more than suitable.
It is important to check with Indian embassy officials if you are visiting border regions of India, particularly disputed borders with Tibet and China, Himachal Pradesh or Ladakh, as you may need a permit to travel through these regions. The Inner Line Permits are generally just a formality and are easily obtained, but the Restricted Area Permits are generally very difficult to get outside of specific circumstances.
*Update As of October 2013 the Indian government is pressing ahead with plans to extend the Visa on Arrival programme to 40 further countries, including the UK, much of Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the UAE and many more.
Any traveller should already have the full course of routine vaccinations that are provided throughout childhood and early adulthood. The UK provide these free on the NHS and are often given routinely. If for some reason you do not have any of these, or if you are unsure, then go and see your GP or staff nurse.
Hepatitis A and Typhoid are recommended for all travellers visiting India, as there is a strong chance of contracting these diseases there. Polio is also a strong risk in India and travellers who have not had the adult booster shot are recommended to go and get it as soon as possible before departure.
Hepatitis B, Japanese encephalitis and rabies are only recommended to certain travellers in at risk groups, such as those who will be working with animals or spending extended periods in rural areas away from medical facilities. Speak with the nurse or doctor at a local travel clinic to see if you are at risk.
There is no risk of yellow fever in India, but proof of vaccination is still mandatory if you are coming from an area where it is prevalent.
Malaria is a high risk across all of central India, including Goa and Assam. There is a low to no risk in the extreme North and South, as well as major cities such as Delhi and Mumbai, but anti malarial prophylaxis is highly recommended for all visitors in any area, speak to your nurse or GP to see which prophylaxis is right for you. Dengue fever is also a significant risk and anti mosquito measures are advised at all times.
Crime and Safety.
India doesn’t have the best reputation amongst travellers when it comes to crime, hassle and personal safety, and unfortunately not all of this reputation is wholly unfounded.
Overall, India is still safe for the absolute majority of travellers. Actual crimes such as robbery and pickpocketing are a potential problem, but the risks can be reduced significantly with simple common sense precautions for your own security such as keeping an eye on your valuables and belongings. Physical assault or worse does occur, but it is important to remember that incidents are extremely rare, and like with other risks, reasonable precautions can reduce the risk and keep you safe. There is no need to become overly paranoid, but simply keep your wits about you, be aware of your surroundings and use your common sense. That’s it.
By far the biggest problem you will face in India is neverending hassle from touts, tuk tuk and taxi drivers and con artists. This is more of an annoyance than it is an actual danger, but it is very persistent, and very constant and can wear the patience of even the most experienced of backpackers. The best thing to do is to read up before you go on all the most common scams and cons, so you can be aware of them before they even get your attention, and then simply ignore them and walk away. If you have to simply say no, be firm and walk away again. It goes against what you may consider to be polite, but don’t worry about it, touts use the same common conversation starters over and over again, and they are all a prelude to sell you something, take you to a shop for commission or otherwise part you from your money.
Women travelling in India can sometimes find themselves the target of unwanted attention and hassle. Apart from a few isolated examples it is generally just an annoyance and doesn’t go any further, but there are however a few practicalities for women in India that may make your trip go a little smoother.
Ensuring that you respect local customs and beliefs is a must, so wear respectable clothing (there is no need to go overboard, generally shorts or long cotton trousers and a basic cotton T shirt will suffice), and use a scarf to cover up shoulders and any exposed skin if entering into a religious site or a place of worship. Sometimes wearing a wedding ring, even if you are not married, can be enough to stop any unwanted advances.
If the hassle oversteps a boundary, then don’t be afraid to shout and draw attention to yourself. Remain confident and move yourself to a group of women or other backpackers as soon as possible. There are female only carriages on some trains in India, you are not obliged to use them in any way shape or form but if it makes you feel safer then they are a good option.
Costs and money.
The currency in India is the Rupee. You may still see it written as an R or Re after the number in India, as not everyone uses the new Rupee symbol despite it being in place since 2010, especially smaller businesses.
ATMs are common throughout India, but are harder to find in more rural areas. Check if your particular bank is part of one of the networks that is widely available. Citibank, HSBC, Barclays, Deutsche Bank and RBS are all very common.
India in general is a very cheap destination, but as always you can spend as much as you like when it comes to luxury. Budget backpackers can get by quite comfortably on £20 a day, with private rooms, plenty of food and a few activities, but it is easy to travel much cheaper.
Accommodation can be as cheap or as expensive as you want it to be. Cheap hostels can be found for £1 GBP a night in some places whilst luxury hotels can go for hundreds of pounds or more in Mumbai and larger cities. Price however is not always a guarantee of quality and at all but the highest price ranges you can literally get amazing bargains or places you would not allow an animal to sleep in. It always pays to shop around. £10 GBP will often get you a nice private room with en suite in most places, but you can easily travel cheaper than that.
Food is incredibly cheap and great value for money in India. A pound or two will get you a full, hearty and delicious meal, even in restaurants you will rarely spend more than a few pounds. Street food is delicious and plentiful, as is food off markets. Fresh fruit juice is also plentiful, and you are in for a treat if you go in Mango season!
Transport can be very cheap in India, but taxi and tuk tuk touts are notorious for trying to rip travellers off and overcharge them, so be aware. Always use official pre paid taxi stands or insist on a meter. Long distance coaches and trains are a bargain too, especially considering the distances involved. If you are travelling long distance however, my tip is to buy as comfortable a class as you can, it literally works out at pennies or pounds more in some cases, and you will thank me later, believe me!
Activities and sights again are very cheap, but dependent on what and how much you do the costs may still add up. In most cases however the cost is generally minimal, maybe a pound or two, and in many places there are plenty of sights and museums that are free too. The one entrance fee that will make you balk is the Taj Mahal, which – for Westerners at least – is a very Western price tag! It is more than worth it to see inside but just be prepared. Another thing to get used to is the dual pricing system. Many places has one price for locals and one for tourists, and it is usually a significant hike. Don’t worry about this, it is legitimate – most of the time – although the line between legitimate and a con is very often blurred here.
When to go.
India is huge, and the climate varies wildly. The North is very different from the south, and the East can be very different from the West. It all depends where you go and what time of year you are there. Although there are basically three seasons, the hot, the wet and the cool, these can often vary. India is in reality a year round destination and you could feasibly travel around the country over an extended period and experience a range of climates and weather systems. If it is too hot and humid in Kerala in the hot season, simply move toward the Himalayas. If Kolkata doesn’t have weather to your liking in the cool season then head East to Rajasthan!
Places to see.
The Taj Mahal.
Yes it is perhaps the very definition of a tourist hot spot, but for damned good reason! This UNESCO world heritage site is perhaps the most famous landmark in all of India. You simply can’t visit here and not see this magnificent, romantic monument. It can get very crowded with tour groups later on so get there early to avoid at least some of the hordes of people striking stupid poses pretending they are picking it up. The East gate is generally – but not always – less busy with queues than the West gate too. Spend at least a few days in Agra and take advantage of seeing the sun rise or set over the Taj from a rooftop restaurant, and take a short ride to the Mughal gardens and the Yamuna river behind the complex too, where you can get a perfect, uncrowded and peaceful view of the Taj Mahal.
Mehrangarh is a vast, soaring fort in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, and one of the absolute must see sites in the city. You can easily spend most of the day here, and the audio tour (common in most sites like this across India) is of a very high standard and infinitely preferable to the tour guides and touts who pester you at the entrance.
Gateway of India.
For a little bit of colonial opulence and history, you can’t beat the Gateway of India in Mumbai. It was built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George V, and is an excellent start to any walking tour of the city.
Khajuraho temple complex.
This magnificent temple complex, built between 950 and 1050 A.C.E are one of the great underrated attractions of India. A UNESCO world heritage site, these temples are also colloquially known as the Kama Sutra temples because of the erotic carvings of various poses and positions that literally cover them from head to foot! The complex itself is extremely well maintained and very peaceful, well worth relaxing and spending the day in.
Things to do.
Take a cookery course.
There is nothing like learning how to make an authentic curry or bake a naan bread from scratch in the kitchen of a local! There are plenty of these courses dotted around the country – you won’t have a problem finding one – and they are generally reasonably priced! Well worth it to impress your friends with your new talents back home!
A yoga course is the reason many people actually come to India, and devote a significant portion of their travels to staying in or near a school. Serious students can even go on to obtain certificates and diplomas depending on the school.
Be a Bollywood extra.
Okay, this one is a little hit and miss, and basically relies on luck. But there are many stories of backpackers in Mumbai being plucked off the street to be an extra in a Bollywood movie because they happen to have the right ‘look’ the director is looking for. It doesn’t really pay anything substantial, and it involves a lot of boring waiting around, but hey, it’s a unique experience!