Almost like no other place on Earth, India conjures up plenty of clichés about colours and contrasts – from the ‘yoga by the pristine lake/temple/forest’ of the Incredible India campaign, to the sparkly spectacle of Bollywood, to the grittier portrayals of poverty and social issues we see daily on current affairs.
In truth, travel in India will expose you to all these things – but the reality is often quite surprising and rewarding in ways unexpected. In all the clichés we have in our heads about India, it is easy to forget the speed of economic and social change that is happening throughout much of the country, and what this means for the traveler.
The scale and pace of India’s modernisation is such that most creature comforts are entirely within reach. Although no-one would advocate doing so - it is entirely possible to spend all your days in one of India’s major cities hanging out in airconditioned shopping malls, existing on Pizza Hut and McDonalds, sipping lattes at Café Coffee Day and staying in comfy hotels.
Don’t let any of this put you off. India is hardly a place where tradition and diversity has been bulldozed for the strip mall. It is fascinating to see how different generations are responding to the huge changes that are occurring and how young people are negotiating a world that is quite different to that which their parents, and even older siblings grew up in.
The natural beauty and contrast of the regions – from tropical to Himalayan to desert – overlaid by history and unsurpassed richness of the many communities that make up India – make this a destination that is totally unique.
My first trip to India was couple of years ago - it was an epic adventure beginning in Delhi, travelling west to Agra and Rajasthan, passing through Gujurat and the city of Ahmedabad before heading south to Mumbai, Goa and Kerala. We then flew to the southern city of Chennai, hung out in Pondicherry before heading up to Calcutta and almost back to the start in the holy city of Varanasi.
All that took five weeks and included an excellent Intrepid tour to cover some of that ground.
We have since been back to a couple of those places, as well as adding in short trips to cover some northern cities in greater depth.
Subcontinental Circuit - 5 weeks
Delhi – 4 nights Delhi to Goa tour - Intrepid tour for 15 days – Delhi to Goa via Agra, Rajasthan (Jaipur, Udaipur, rural Rajasthan), Ahmedebad, Mumbai. We did a food-lovers tour which has since been updated. The closest to our tour was something like this one – or this one. Kerala – 5 nights – Cochin, Munnar, Alleppey Pondicherry – 2 nights Chennai – 4 nights Calcutta – 4 nights Varanasi – 3 nights
I can’t stress enough, that when planning to visit India, it is important to consider not just what you want to see, but when is the best time to see it. While the realities of life don’t always allow for a perfect match in this regard and I would always advocate to GO somewhere than not – do consider that traveling particular regions of India, the weather will be an important factor in the kind of experience you have and even your enjoyment and impression of the place.
We have travelled to Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan in Summer and Winter, and it is not exaggerating to say it is like visiting an entirely different places depending on the season. Beautiful though it is, traveling the Rajasthani Desert and yomping around forts with hundreds of stairs is not so much fun when it is 48 degrees Celcius, but can be positively magical in winter time.
The same goes for many other parts. But the good news is that with such an enormous geographic and climactic variation – from tropical to Himalayan to desert – you can usually find some respite from weather extremes – even within particular regions. In summer, for example, many northern parts and hill stations are lovely so even if you are planning on some hotter destinations, factor in some downtime in a cooler, more elevated spot.
The key is to think about the kind of things you want to do, and then think about how comfortable you will be in the kind of conditions you may experience.
2. Roll with it and ease into it
India can be a challenging destination and it doesn’t agree with everyone. This can come as quite a surprise to some people, despite their best efforts to enjoy and make the best of things. In particular, some of our fellow travelers have found particular aspects confronting, frustrating or simply had the distress of health problems on their travels, which can quickly make things pretty miserable, no matter where you are.
A kit of prescribed from our Travel Doctor, supplemented with other pharmacy favourites, has been very useful and much comfort to our fellow travelers on multiple trips to India and other destinations so would highly recommend that as part of your pack when traveling anywhere - not just India.
And aside from usual precautions on street food, water etc. my advice on managing the most likely digestive discomfort travelers face would be to go easy on food in general – especially for the first week. While your digestive system is adapting to Indian cuisine three times a day – which is in itself far heavier than most foreigners are used to – don’t dive into the veritable curry buffet on the first day. Sample plenty, but enjoy everything in moderation and keep your meals smallish to begin with.
3. Internal travel planning
With millions on the move every day by every possible mode of transport, careful forward planning is needed to make sure your train and plane tickets can be secured in good time. With train travel so popular and affordable, many routes sell out almost as soon as they become available, and the booking system for Indian State Railways is a singular mystery to many folks – with the rules about payment from foreign credit cards prone to change without notice, we have spent many hours struggling with this system, despite our familiarity with it.
Internal flights are somewhat easier, but not always as convenient, ‘romantic’ or cheap as trains. There have been a slew of low cost carriers plying domestic routes – some of these airlines come and go – but current ones with a variety of routes include IndiGo and SpiceJet.