India is not for everyone. It is one of the oldest civilizations and one of the most populated countries in the world. It is also the birthplace of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism making it one of the most holy countries in the world. And it is not perfect. It is overcrowded, chaotic, heavily polluted, and a completely different way of life than we’re used to. But in-between the hectic streets and moments of culture shock you’ll find a country deeply rooted in spirituality, tradition, and culture. It is alive. And you somehow find yourself in a balance between chaos and spirituality so unique you are left in a dreamy daze by the time you leave.
My friend Risa and I were meant to go to India for work and decided to make an adventure out of it. We spent three weeks exploring the Northern region going between New Delhi, Varanasi, Rishikesh, Dharamsala, and ending our trip in Jaipur. If you haven’t traveled to India (or somewhere similar) there is a sort of finesse to it. We found that most Indians let things happen to them (due mostly in part to their culture and tradition) and we tried to do the same. If you embrace and move with the harum-scarum you are more likely to have an enlightened and enjoyable experience.
Here are some tips and suggestions for traveling to India based on our experience!
Official Languages: Hindi, English
Timezone: UTC +05:30 India Standard Time
Exchange Rate: 66 INR to 1 USD
Price for gas: $3.80/gallon
TIPS FOR TRAVELING TO INDIA
KNOW THE CULTURE BEFORE YOU GO. Always do research before going to a country you are unfamiliar with. Start to identify cultural do’s and don’ts before your trip and prepare yourself for a little cultural shock! For example, don’t drink the water under any circumstances, most Indians are vegetarian, cows are treated better than some humans, haggling and the potential of getting conned is inevitable. And lines are merely a suggestion that is rarely ever used (so be prepared!)
DRESS CONSERVATIVELY. Indian women typically dress conservatively and if you’re not Indian you will usually get extra stares anyway. So if you want to avoid extreme amounts of attention (from men in particular) be sure to cover up! We always wore baggy clothes, no tank tops or shorts, and undergarments for anything that was a little more revealing. And be sure to bring a scarf (or the like) for certain temples that require you to cover your head!
ASK BEFORE YOU SNAP. It is always polite to ask someone if you can take his/her photo. Indian people are always dressed so vibrant and look so unique it is hard not to get a little snap happy. And although a lot of Indians enjoy having their photo taken it is always polite to ask permission before you push the button. I made sure I asked anyone before I took their photo and complied if they said no. It’s the respectful thing to do!
ASK A LOCAL. As a tourist you are likely to succumb to confusing situations and cultural diversion. You are most likely to get overcharged for everything including taxi’s, entry fees, and products. We usually asked our hotel or local friends how much we should be getting charged for certain things and talked down the price accordingly.
BEGGARS AND GIVING. India has a lot of poverty and begging that comes with it. Some people are there to take advantage of you and others really need a helping hand. It is easy to get caught up in it and start giving to everyone or ignoring them all together [depending only your personality]. I decided to narrow it down to children, elderly, and the disabled. I always carried small bills with me and gave about 10-20 rupees and typically gave more if someone was working for it (i.e. cute little boy doing magic tricks for us!)
We only stayed in New Delhi for one full day and wish we had more time! Instead, we used it as a traveling hub to/from all the other cities we visited. But all our friends who frequent and/or live in India love Delhi for its shop, restaurants, and plethora of activities.
GETTING THERE. The Delhi International Airport is a brand new airport and pleasure to fly in and out of. All major airlines fly in and out of New Delhi. I suggest using Google Flights to find the right travel dates and airline for you!
WHERE TO STAY. We stayed at the The Manor Delhi. It is tucked in a private, residential area with a highly rated restaurant and spa. We treated ourselves to a massage and it was one of the best we ever had!
PLACES TO SEE. We went to a couple of places on our short stay in Delhi including:
RED FORT: Iconic 1600’s imperial residence and museum
THE LOTUS TEMPLE: beautiful, unique architecture
OLD DELHI: the best markets and old city shopping
KHAN MARKET: modern shopping and dining
INDIA GATE: the 1920’s triumphal arch and war memorial
GOOD EATS. I love good cafes and restaurants. Unfortunately, we only had one meal in Delhi and decided on the Café Turtle in the Khan Market. It was a cozy little café right above a really cool bookstore!
Varanasi was one of the highlights of our trip. It was full of everything you could imagine India to be. It is bursting with Hindu pilgrims and believed to exist before tradition. Sitting on the Ganga River, it is considered the holy capital of India and brings flocks of Hindu pilgrims every year where they believe the holy water (from the river) will grant them salvation. They release their dead in the same water they use to bathe and brush their teeth. The river is also a lifeline for millions of Indians who depend on its resources. Ironically, The Ganga River is considered the 5th most polluted river in the world.
GETTING THERE. Taking flights between Delhi and surrounding cities is fairly easy and affordable. We booked a $30/one-way to Varanasi on IndiGo Airlines and didn’t have any problems!
Note: Most domestic airlines only allow a certain weight for carry-on and check-in luggage. If you’re check-in bags are over 15kg you will need to pay an excess weight charge!
WHERE TO STAY. We stayed at the cutest locally owned homestay The Granny’s Inn. It is just a short walk to the Ganga River and a very affordable price! The manager, Mayur, was a great host and we now consider him a friend! He gave us a tour of the old city and gave us many great suggestions for places to eat and visit!
PLACES TO SEE.
GANGA RIVER: Hands down the most interest, unique experience you will have in Varanasi. Go early and hire a boat to go along the city for a visual overload. We even convinced our boatman to stop for some chai! Most of the ghats and temples are on the shoreline and you can decide where you want to go once your boat ride is finished.
SARNATH: Take a 45-minute tukh-tukh ride out North to visit the tree where Buddha gave his first teaching. You can also visit a variety of different Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain temples in surrounding areas. Although it does have a tacky, touristic feeling (the giant replicas of the Buddha and his gurus is interesting), it is still cool to see.
GOLDEN TEMPLE: The Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi’s old city is a beautiful Hindu temple dedicated to the Lord Shiva considered one of the most famous. Be sure to bring your passport as you will need proof of identity and leave any large backpacks at your hotel (you can’t bring it in with you!)
OLD CITY: Take a walk through the old city and visit all the ghats and temples (including in Nepali Temple known for its Kama Sutra practices!) You’ll also be sure to bump into all kinds of holy men including my favorite, the Sadhu’s! We made friends with one Sadhu in particular who we would come across just about everyday!
GOOD EATS. Our first authentic Indian cuisine came from a restaurant in the PDR Mall across from our homestay. We weren’t expecting much but it ended up being one of the best meals we had! I can’t remember the name but it is on the bottom floor on the right!
We were fortunate enough to make friends with Nidhi, the receptionist at our hotel who took us on a tour of the city from a local’s perspective. We rode on motorcycles far past Rishikesh and swam in the Ganga River, rented mopeds and drove through the city, visited Nidhi’s family home, and took one of the best morning yoga classes. And we wouldn’t have done any of that if we hadn’t made friends with a local!
GETTING THERE. Take a flight from Delhi to Dehradun or take the train from Delhi to Haridwar and hire a car from either stations to Rishikesh (I suggest booking a car through your hotel.) Flights run at about $50-60/round-trip on Jet Airways and the train tickets run for about $8/one-way on the Indian Railway.
WHERE TO STAY. We didn’t stay anywhere worth mentioning (besides meeting our new friend!) but we later found out that staying at Ashram’s and/or camping will give you the best experience in Rishikesh! If we did it again I would have definitely opted to camp! There are plenty of options including Camp Footloose, Aspen Camp, and Camp AquaForest.
PLACES TO SEE.
GANGA RIVER. Rishikesh is situated much farther north on the river than Varanasi making it closer to the source in the Himalayas and much cleaner. We took a motorcycle ride North of Rishikesh and hopped in the river (in a very quiet, secluded area) for one of the coolest experiences on our trip! You can also book at one of the many river rafting tour companies and raft down the river!
YOGA ASHRAMS: Rishikesh is known for its active yoga community. Pick any of the yoga ashrams to participate in a plethora of different kinds of yoga (you can even go to 2-week yoga retreat in complete silence!) Our friend suggested going to Ved Niketan Dham where we took $2 classes!
BEATLES ASHRAM. Visit the once abandoned ashram where the Beatles took intense Transcendental Meditation sessions and considered this period one of the most productive for their music. It is a $9 entry fee for tourists and nature has had its way with what’s left of the facility. But it is still a really cool experience with beautiful architecture! (Note: Be sure to bring bug spray and avoid creepy crawlies! I got bit by a big black ant and it was not an enjoyable experience!)
GOOD EATS. All our friends who visited Rishikesh told us to eat at the Little Buddha Café. It is located right in the Laxman Jhula area and overlooks the Ganga River. There is a variety of food choices and I, of course, ordered the Butter Garlic Naan and Paneer Butter Masala (my favorite Indian dish!)
Going to Dharamsala was an entirely different experience than the rest of India. Not only did we use our time to rest and relax but it also gave us insight into the ongoing struggles Tibetan culture and tradition are currently facing. We got to learn about India’s acceptance of the Dalai Lama going into exile in 1959 and continued refugees finding asylum from Tibet.
GETTING THERE. Take a flight from Delhi to the Kangra Airportor hire a car if you are at a closer destination. Flights run at about $100/round-trip on SpiceJet. We ended up flying into Amritsar and hiring a car for a 4-hour drive to Dharamsala for about $100/one-way. It was a great way to see the countryside!
WHERE TO STAY. We decided to use Dharamsala to relax and enjoy the outdoors. We stayed in two different places during our time there including the Norling House; a hotel at the Norbulingka Institute, and Rakkh; a peaceful resort nestled in the Deodar jungle.
PLACES TO SEE.
NORBULINGKA INSTITUTE. This was such a unique, amazing experience. Over the last several decades China has been destroying temples, practices, and the traditions in Tibet and mined most of its resources. Since 1959 it is estimated that about 150,000 refugees have fled Tibetan with about 94,200 finding asylum in India. The Norbulingka Institute (named after the palace in Lhasa, Tibet) dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan art and culture. They have workshops available to the public including woodcarving, Thangka, wood painting, and applique.
KANGRA TEA PLANTATIONS. We got to take a stroll through the tea gardens while we were staying the Rakkh Resort. Tea is a huge part of India culture (they have mastered the art of chai tea) and the Kangra region where we were staying is known for their exceptional tea. We stopped at a roadside stand and got bags of gourmet green tea for only $1.50!
MCLEOD GANJ. Also known as “Little Lhasa” this suburb of Dharamsala sits on the Dhauladhar Range with a 6,831 feet elevation. We walked around the market and went to a few cafes before heading to the Dalai Lama Temple. The town is so high up you feel like you’re sitting in the clouds. It is common for it to rain so make sure you bring an umbrella!
DALAI LAMA TEMPLE. Walk through the serene and peaceful Tibetan temple where His Holiness calls home. You can also visit the Tibetan Museum and learn more about the struggles Tibetans are facing (that the media never tells you about!)
GOOD EATS. We happened upon the cutest little café, Moon Peak, on our way to the temple. We had some of the best espresso and carrot cake we ever tasted!
As our last stop on the trip, we treated Jaipur as our shopping and dining destination. Jaipur has become quite a trendy little spot with all kinds of foreign designers and creative people using the unique artistry and craftsmanship of the city. We didn’t hold back as we hopped from shop to restaurant to shop and back again!
WHERE TO STAY. We stayed at 28 Kothi, a lovely boutique guesthouse conveniently located in the Civil Lines neighborhood.
PLACES TO SEE.
AMER FORT: This massive building is one of the most frequented tourist attractions in Jaipur and known for its Hindu style elements. Situated at the top of a hill the view from the fort is just as incredibly as the intricate details of the Sheesh Mahal. The only way up is by foot or elephant. But don’t feel bad about taking an elephant! They are protected by the government and only allowed to work 2 hours a day (9am-11am) and well loved by their handlers!
HAWAL MAHAL: Translated as “Palace of the Winds” is a palace built in 1799 with high walls so women in royal households had a better view of street festivals. It is very unique, beautiful architecture and the perfect photo op!
CITY PALACE: City Palace is another beautiful structure built between 1729 and 1932. The palace is in the heart of the old city and another beautiful example of Hindu style and architecture. It is a great palace to find refuge from the bustling streets.
OLD CITY. You know you’re in the old city when all the sandstone buildings are pink! This is your opportunity to walk through the different bazaars and purchase anything from lac bracelets, traditional shoes and sandals, copper utensils and whatever else you can think of!
GOOD EATS. There are such great places to eat in Jaipur! Most of our trip we had to avoid a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables (in fear that it might make us sick!) but there are plenty of hygienic cafes in Jaipur with healthy eating options! Here are a couple of my favorite options: Anokhi Café, Jaipur Modern, and Bar Palladio.
Some other notable places to get your chai and lassi fix is the Sahu Chaiwala at Chaura Rasta and the Lassiwala on MI Road. Both are quite well known and the best in town! Even famous celebrities and dignitaries stop by both places to get their chai and lassi fill!
SHOPPING. And if you are into shopping like we were here are a couple of places to stop and get everything you need from Kantha quilts to antique pompoms! My favorite shops in Jaipur include Anokhi and Ratan. Jaipur is also known as the Jewelry Capital and just about anything is possible! Go to Gem Palace or Amrapali for some of the most beautiful, high-end jewelry. Or ask around and get custom jewelry made!
Everyone told us to wear covered shoes while we were in India but now that we’ve been they couldn’t have been more wrong! We made the most use out of our Original Universal Sandals and wore them everywhere! They were especially useful when we were entering and exiting temples (you have to remove your shoes.) Believe it or not, even my white Original Crafted Leather Sandals barely got dirty during our 3 week trip!
But my all time favorite pair of Teva sandals are the Original Universal Ombre (in Tan). They fit my kinda funky, kinda retro style and add a pop of color to all my monochromatic outfits! And they are the most comfortable pair of sandals I own. I wish I could get enough pairs to last me a lifetime!
We made the most use out of our boots in Dharamsala were it was rainy and a little colder. I also loved using my Coromar Boots traveling on planes, cars, and trains. They were so comfortable and easy to pack. They were pretty much the perfect pair of boots to be in transit with!
AND SOME RANDOM THOUGHTS:
THE FOOD AND WATER. Although some people in India eat meat (mostly lamb and chicken) I would suggest going vegetarian unless you absolutely know where your meat came from (i.e. you watched them kill, skin, and cook your meat up until it reached your plate.) Indians do not require the same level of hygiene and health standards we do and have way higher immunity than we ever will. Our bellies cannot handle what their bellies can. Always drink bottled water and never get ice in your drinks. We even brushed our teeth with bottled water. I would also avoid eating street food and always make sure your produce has been washed with filtered water. We watched a guy using water from the gutter to mix with garlic puree. Although it may look tasty and the idea of eating the local cuisine is tempting, your stomach will pay for it. Fortunately, we were really conscious of what we put in our body and never got sick (which is really rare for a westerner in India!)
POVERTY. Poverty is a very real thing in India. You see it on the streets everywhere you go and it’s a heartbreaking reality. According to the World Bank, India has the largest concentration of people living below the World Bank’s international poverty line and over 30% of children under five years old are malnourished. There isn’t much you can do as a foreigner without creating havoc within the system and culture. You don’t want to give so much that people develop a dependence and/or indignant attitude towards giving. I encourage you to find a non-profit organization that you believe in and try to support them. It’s the least you can do to give back to the places you visit. I really like Beyond the Surface International because they are teaching young children (particularly in India) life skills through surfing and arts!
And there you have it. Incredible India.