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 and more often swinging from one extreme to the next on a daily basis. 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.
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.
Most nationalities will need a visa before travelling to India, including UK citizens. Make sure you get the right one as the range of visas you can get is typically confusing and bureaucratic. You can find further information about how to apply on the Indian High Commission website.
For the majority of travellers, the relatively new E Visa will be the one they will need. The official Indian government e Visa website should tell you what you need to know.
You can choose different lengths of e Visa, from 30 days to a year or 5 years. Please bear in mind however that although it is technically straightforward, (fill in the online form, pay, get your e Visa), the process is extremely laborious, bureaucratic and buggy, especially when you reach the payment section which may or may not work at the time you choose to do it.
Make sure you aren’t doing this last minute.
It is also important to check that your passport is the newer machine readable type as India’s Bureau of Immigration has announced that foreign nationals who arrive at an Indian port holding non-machine readable passports will be denied entry.
All the routine vaccinations such as the MMR vaccine, varicella and the diptheria, pertussis tetanus vaccine for example are highly recommended for everyone. 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 at a local travel clinic.
Hepatitis A, Hepatitis B and Typhoid are generally considered routine travel vaccinations and 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.
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 (the yellow book) is still mandatory if you are coming from an area where it is prevalent.
Malaria is a high risk across parts of central India including the south of Kolkata around the Mahanadi river and Cuttack. Anti malarial prophylaxis is highly recommended for all visitors in these areas, speak to your nurse or GP to see which prophylaxis is right for you. The rest of central India is low risk but with raised risk factors for travellers spending a significant amount of time in rural areas and professional advice should be sought. There is a low to no risk in the extreme North and South, as well as major cities such as Delhi and Mumbai. The majority of travellers who don’t go to Cuttack or south of Kolkata, and don’t fall into any other at risk group will likely not need antimalarial prophylaxis.
Dengue fever is however a significant risk throughout India 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 minor crimes such as robbery and pickpocketing are a small 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. Just like you would at home or anywhere else in the world. 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, it is certainly not as widespread an epidemic as the media would have you believe, but there are however a few safety 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 staring or 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 wildly.
Technically speaking the high season is from December to March, when the weather is pleasantly warm with cool nights. But this invariably brings with it peak tourism and peak prices. The low season is from April till June, with hot weather, especially in the North, high humidity in the south and the Monsoon season starting from June sweeping from south to North. This isn’t entirely unbearable though and does bring less crowds and competitive hotel prices.
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!
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.
The Ajanta Caves.
The UNESCO world heritage site of the caves of Ajanta are a stunning must see site in Maharashta. The whole site consists of thirty carved Buddhist caves in a vast gorge, all containing masterpieces of Indian and Buddhist sculptures and art.
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.
The Statue of Unity.
The statue of Unity in Gujurat is a world wonder in all but name. Erected on October 31st 2018 to commemorate the Indian independence activist and symbol of national unity Vallabhbhai Patel, this colossal statue is beginning to be touted as one of the worlds new ‘must see’ destinations and measures in at the tallest statue of its kind in the world. Easily dwarfing the famed Christ the Redeemer, the Statue of Liberty and even the previous record holder, the giant Spring Temple Buddha in China, it is certainly worthy of a new modern wonder of the world status and should by all definitions qualify as such.
Dandi Kutir is the worlds largest and only museum built around the story of one man, Mahatma Gandhi. The building itself is a huge shock the first time you see it, and many will be forgiven for thinking it is a pyramid when it is in fact a huge salt mound, reflecting the importance of salt to the region and a metaphor for Gandhi’s vision as everyone living in a pluralistic society. With the heart and vision of Gandhi directly at the heart of what the museum is, and the legacy of Gandhi so important to Ahmedabad, you have to visit this amazing museum while you are here.
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.
Go on a food tour.
Every region of India has its own diverse and unique taste, so wherever you go you will be introduced to an almost entirely new cuisine, and the best way to get yourself aquainted with the unique smells and tastes of each new place is to take a food tour. From the sweeter, fruitier flavours of the south to the spicier flavours of the north, you won’t get bored of the food when travelling through India!
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!
Attend a festival!
India has so many festivals the traveller really is spoilt for choice and no matter where you are in India odds are you won’t have to wait long for one to happen. From the festival of colours that is Holi and the epic dance off of Navratri to Diwali and Onam, you may have to put up with some mild inconveniences of closed shops or extra crowds but the cultural experiences more than make up for it.