Backpacking India Travel Guide
India is huge and as much as I like to be spontaneous and see where my travels will take me, having only 4 weeks to cover as much of India as possible planning a route and itinerary is pretty necessary so here's my whistle-stop tour of India...
Before I arrived in India people had given me mixed ideas of what to expect, mostly keep your wits about you and the Indian head wobble will always be confusing... to be honest, most people weren't wrong. India is a wonderfully diverse and huge country so planning your itinerary is no easy task-it can often feel like many different countries in one. I was travelling with my usual adventure buddy my twin sister, and her boyfriend also joined us on this adventure. Planning exactly where to go and what to see meant weeks of messages back and forth on our group chat and many coffee dates trying not to start a fight when we would have to leave something out that undoubtedly one of us really wanted to do. However, my sister and I are firm believers that it is always a good idea to leave something behind so you have to come back.
Currency: Indian rupee, closed currency can only get on arrival at the airport and make sure to change any money before leaving the country. As of August 2017 approximately £1 = 90 Indian rupee.
Language: Hindu is the most spoken language in India, however, India does have the world's 2nd highest number of languages so expect to hear lots of dialects.
Travel Vaccines: Recommended that you have hepatitis A, hepatitis B, typhoid, cholera, yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and rabies. For any up to date information make sure to speak to your GP or check your countries health bureau.
Religion: India is the birthplace of four of the world's religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, this means there are a variety of different regions found in India.
ATMS: There are various ATMs all over the country and the majority of them do not charge, however, more often than not the machines run out of cash and you will need to keep exploring to find another machine.
Safety: The majority of people are often shocked when you say your off to travel around India, but there was honestly never a time where I felt unsafe or in danger. India unfortunately, has a bad reputation, especially for girls. The best advise I would give is to make sure you have your wits about you, India is not for the fainthearted do your research, keep your eyes open and you will have the best time in this country.
Entry Requirements for India: Visas
The Visa situation is actually a lot more straight forward today and most nationalities can get a 60 day e-visa online prior to arrival. The process is simple and costs $100 USD.
Since India is a huge one of the biggest challenges facing backpackers is getting from one place to another, and the challenge is probably a good word to use for getting around India. If you like to travel cheaply, like me, then more often than not you will find yourself cramped in a third-class train carriage for over 20 hours.
For the majority of my trip, we used trains and a few buses but from Goa to Jodhpur we decided to book an internal flight simply because we only had 4 weeks to cover as much of India as we could.
TOP TIPS FOR TRAINS
When backpacking India using the train is by far the most popular and the easiest way to get around. There are different classes and you can opt for air-con or non-air-con if you're on a tight budget, then sleeper class (SL) is the best way to go. When we boarded our first train initially we did think the worst, however, after the first 10 hours, it begins to feel like home. The carriages are divided into open plan compartments with six beds in each (I would recommend asking for a top bunk when booking). The beds are stacked vertically with three beds on either side. Beware its crowed, it's hot with only a small fan on the roof and it can be very dusty. However, if you want to truly experience India then travelling SL is a great way to meet people from all walks of life and is the perfect start for an adventure.
To book your train tickets, I would recommend you register online before you go with IRCTC – avoid booking your train travel through an Indian travel agent; they will usually rip you off - or if you haven't managed to register online with IRCTC the majority of Indian run hostels are more than happy to book your train for you and for you to give them the money.
Trains tend to sell out really fast, I was there in June - August which is typically off-season but even then trains would book up quickly so I would recommend booking in advance where possible. If you haven't been able to book online then you will need to head to the reservation office, which is usually found in the train station itself, or in a separate building just outside. Trying to find the reservation office is where you will most likely begin your difficulties. Often many people claim to be taking you to the reservation office but in-fact are leading you to their travel agency. Once you find the office all you need to do push through the crowd, grab yourself a reservation form, fill it out with the details of the train you want and hand over those rupees. You'll need a copy of your passport too (although it was actually only in Delhi they demanded a physical copy everywhere else was more than happy to accept a photocopy).
HANDY TIP to note: If you are told your train is fully booked, there is an emergency quota released 72 hours before departure at a slightly higher price known as Taktal.
BUSES IN INDIA
Buses can be the best and most efficient way to travel when there aren't any train lines between places. There are air-con buses set up for tourists but these tend to be pretty expensive for a cheap backpackers budget, alternatively, there are also non-aircon buses for a slightly cheaper price.
HANDY TIP to note: If you are travelling by yourself make sure you are booking a single bed since the buses are single beds on one side and double on the other, there's a chance you could be sleeping next to a stranger for the next 12 hours.
Alternatively, there is an option for local buses. They are cramped, hot, and very bumpy but can honestly make the best of stories and hey if you're on a really tight budget you can get a 6-hour ride across the country for no more than a £1.
KERALA (3 Nights)
We flew into Kochi international airport and after the usual panic that our backpacks didn't make it, hopped into a taxi and made our way to our first hostel in Fort Cochin (surprisingly there is no Fort just to save you the embarrassment of asking someone where the fort is).
Fort Cochin is a wonderful place just to walk around with huge old Chinese Fishing nets and stalls and markets down by the pier. All throughout Kochi are old colonial buildings from when the Dutch had hold of it and there is the Jewish quarter, which is extremely interesting to walk around and explore. There are lots of narrow lanes where the spice trading used to take place and great street art, even the trucks are colourfully painted.
The Famous Houseboats:
We had heard the houseboats along the backwaters of Kerala were a must-do. These waters used to be the roads for the city and are chains of lagoons and rivers that run all the way down to Alappuzha (Alleppey). If there is a group of you, you can hire a houseboat for a few days, however, since we only had a few days down here we just booked a day tour through our hostel for a small cost. I would definitely recommend at least doing a day tour here, it was amazing to see local village life and have freshly cooked traditional Kerala cuisine.
Where To Stay: Maritime Hostel in a great central location, offers days tours and dorms cost as little as £5 a night.
Mysuru (Mysore) (2 Nights)
To get to Mysore from Kochi we had to get our first overnight bus, we booked this through the hostel, which we later found out we overpaid for. The get to where we thought the bus was leaving from we had to take a ferry across the river and a tuk-tuk to the bus station. Since my sister and I have travelled a lot before we are pretty used to things going very wrong particularly when something seems like it should be simple. After arriving at the bus station we were told we were in completely the wrong place and no-one seemed to want to help us or care. We finally meet a very nice tuk-tuk driver who happened to know exactly the shop this bus company ran from was and he took us straight there.
There was no direct bus to Mysore, so we had to get a bus to Banglore first. When we got on we found out we had booked one double bed and one half of another double bed meaning I was meant to be sharing a bed with a man I had never meet. I am all for trying to get stuck in and experiencing the culture the best I can, however, if I am honest I felt very uncomfortable thinking that the next 10-12 hours I would be sleeping right next to someone I did not know. Thankfully my sister and her boyfriend let me bunk up with them and all 3 of us squeezed into the top bed, which many locals found very funny. I am very used to overnight buses and slept like a baby. Once we arrived in Banglore we got our first taste of busy Indian cities and took our first Indian local bus to Mysore.
Mysore is famous for its royal heritage and magnificent buildings and it is arguably most famous for the Mysore Palace where the maharajahs used to live. Entrance to the palace costs 200 rupees (£2.25) for foreigners and this also includes an audio guide. The palace can get super busy during the day and at night it is all light up and looks very pretty. We found the best way to get around cities and see everything since we only had a couple of days in each place, was to ask around rickshaw drivers and barter a price to take us around all the best spots for the day. We were always able to get a very good price and it meant we could experience cities on a short time scale.
Another place not be missed is Chamundi Hill, where you can learn all about the history of Mysore, formally known as Mahishur which means “the town where the demon buffalo was slain.” Mysore was ruled by a demon called Mahishasura who was killed by the Goddess Chamundeshwari and this is what gave Mysore its name. As a result, the temple is the holy grail of Mysore and sacred land for many Hindus. If you are feeling active you can climb over 1000 steps with the many other pilgrims who bless every single step. The Sri Chamundeswari Temple is at the top and has a special energy and buzz of people in the most colourful saris (not to forget the cheeky monkeys roaming the temple).
I would also recommend putting Devaraja Market on the list, which is over 100 years old and still bustles with the busy Indian life, colour, spices, vegetables and incense.
Where To Stay: Sonder Hostel, offers free delicious home cooked Indian breakfast and extremely helpful, friendly staff.
HAMPI (3 Nights)
We got our first overnight train from Mysore to Hampi which took approximately 12 hours and honestly it went extremely smooth. At most stops, people jump on the train and sell food and chai. We slept on our backpacks as our pillows to keep our stuff safe and I always travel with a sleeping bag liner, it takes up no room and comes in handy on overnight buses and trains when it gets a little colder and you want to snuggle up. As we were approaching Hampi in the morning looking outside the train we could see the landscape had changed drastically and looked almost desert-like with huge boulders scattered everywhere.
The best way to describe Hampi is a town from The Flintstones, the majority of travellers haven't heard of Hampi until another traveller tells them, but let me tell you it is a beautiful, peaceful village in the centre of the hustle and bustle of busy India. It has this magical spiritual aura about it.
Hampi is a very old religious temple town and is built on ruins from the Vijayanagara empire. You can hire bikes, mopeds or tuk-tuks to get around Hampi and explore the ruins. I would recommend a couple of days here, it is a beautiful place to relax, enjoy sunsets and the locals are extremely friendly and welcoming. To read more about Hampi and the local people click here.
Where To Stay: It is hard to find hotels or hostels online however, once you arrive there are plenty of local, family-run guesthouses that are very reasonably priced. They mostly all offer a basic twin bedroom, with a shower and the majority of them are more than happy to add an extra bed into the room to let 3 of you stay in there.
GOA (4 Nights)
When we were planning our trip to India, Goa was one of the places I was most excited about visiting, I had heard really good things about it, it sounded full of life and people had talked about the beautiful beaches that we could go to. However, honestly, I didn't get that vibe at all from Goa. We were in India in the down season which means it was a lot calmer than usual and most of the shops, bars and cafes in Goa were closed. Although I can imagine it turns into quite the party place in peak season.
We hired mopeds for a day with one of the guys we met on the overnight bus from Hampi and went exploring around Goa and went to Fort Aguada. It rains a lot, and I mean a lot, in the down season so be prepared to get wet. Also if you are on bikes be prepared for the police to pull you over, make sure you have your helmet on and make up a story about how you were just stopped and fined by the police, they will usually let you off if they think you have already been fined.
The hostel we stayed in was just around the corner from the restaurant and beach bar Curlies which I would recommend for food and drinks.
Where To Stay: The Funky Monkey Hostel super friendly staff, super friendly people.
JODHPUR (2 Nights)
This was our first city in the state of Rajasthan and boy oh boy it did not disappoint. Getting lost and experiencing the blue city is a must with the majestic Mehrangarh Fort sitting above. Mehrangarh Fort is beautiful however the entrance fee is expensive, if you are on a very tight budget you can explore around the grounds for free, it 100% worth at least going up even if only for the view you get from the top.
Mandore Gardens are also an amazing place to get lost in and enjoy the Greenery that is not usually found in Rajasthan. If you fancy getting stuck into the busy city life I would recommend checking out clock tower and Sardar Market, which pretty much sells everything.
Make sure to try a Rajasthan thali before you leave which is a selection of curries, bread and some pickled onions. These are extremely affordable and sure to keep you full for a long time. Shahi Samosas also sells the best samosas in town, extremely popular with the locals and are very very cheap.
Again we took a tuk-tuk around the city and split between four of us it was only 600 rupees.
Where To Stay: Global Hostel and Guest House run by 3 young friends who are very welcoming, have great stories and want you to truly experience India. Hey, we even got invited to one of their weddings later in the year.
JAISALMER (1 Night)
Most people head to Jaisalmer to experience the desert and sleep under the stars. We hoped on a night train from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer and when we woke up we arrived in a city in the middle of the desert. It was hot and it was dusty. Something funny about India is in every new city we always found a new animal that was let run around, there were always cows, sometimes goats, sometimes chickens and Jaisalmer...has pigs.
Once we arrived we sat upon the rooftop and soaked in the city, we meet 2 girls from New Zealand, an Irishman, Englishman, German girl and an American (this is not the start of a bad joke I promise) and all booked to spend a night under the stars together. I would recommend picking up some rum and beers before you head out if you want to have a few drinks. We spent the night eating homemade Indian curries with our hands around a fire and enjoying each other's stories before wrapping up and sleeping under the stars in the middle of the desert.
Even though the desert is the main attraction to Jaisalmer, I would also recommend making a trip up the fort before leaving.
Where To Stay: Abu Safari Jaisalmer, very very cheap and super easy to book a desert safari through.
PUSHKAR (4 Nights)
Arriving in another city, means another night on an overnight train, by this point we had got pretty used to them. Since India is so big the majority of trains do run through the night, but travelling through the night is a good way to save money on accommodation, plus it means more time to explore. Pushkar is a very spiritual and sacred place, it is a Hindu pilgrimage sight and has a lake right in the middle. However, it is worth noting locals will pretend to be very friendly and tell you about the lake, offering you flowers to put in the lake only to turn around and ask you for money, they can get turn pretty nasty.
If you had your heart set on picking up some hippie clothing then here's the place, Pushkar is filled with everything. We hired mopeds here and explored the beautiful countryside, took a walk all the way up to Savitri Temple and enjoyed new friends company while watching the sunset over the lake.
All around India cows wander the streets, I think that was one of the things I loved the most about India the way these animals are seen as sacred that they get to live alongside humans - it is such a stark contrast to how the western world lives alongside cows. Anyway, the whole time we had been in India we had never thought anything of them we just got on with it as the locals did until we meant our friend Connor...who was slightly hobbling. It turned out to our dismay, while he had been visiting a temple in Jaipur a bull had run up behind him and taken him out. You could still see the two red marks in his back where the bull had broken skin and thrown him in the air. Although this story sounds like it might put you off India, the next thing he told us is exactly why India is a beautiful country. In pain and hurt as you can imagine every Indian was crowding around him, however, this one family took him to hospital, paid for all his medical bills and took him back to their family home, let him rest and cooked him food. These selfless acts are seen all over India and I am forever thankful knowing people like this still exist.
Where To Stay: Zostel Pushkar, Zostel is a brand of hostels that run through-out central and northern India and even in Kathmandu in Nepal. The one is Pushkar has a pool, which makes it very popular.
JAIPUR (2 Nights)
Getting to Jaipur was a little more difficult, Cara, was the only one of us that got sick while we were in India, it didn't last long but it's never nice seeing someone unwell. Still, she managed to push on and feel well enough to jump on the local bus for 6 hours to get from Pushkar to Jaipur.
I am not going to lie by this point in our trip, we were getting a little bit tired of constantly being ripped off, everywhere you went you would have hostel owners telling you what to do and how much you should be paying, only to get an in a rickshaw and be told twice the price at an absolute minimum since the first price was the only local price. I understand we are tourists and it makes sense that we pay more, however it is tiring constantly being told how much something is and budgeting for it only to be refused for this price.
That being said, Jaipur is beautiful, picture-perfect, full and of forts, palaces and tombs.
Where To Stay: Roadhouse Hostels
DELHI (2 Nights)
The train journey from Jaipur to Delhi was the only time we travelled through the day...it was at this time I understood why people paid extra to not be in sleeper class. THE. HEAT. WAS. UNBEARABLE. The wind from outside when the train was moving was like a heater blasting hot air, the hot air blew dust-up in the carriage and your "seat" was shared with 4 families and 10 children. Not going to lie the sharing I didn't mind, people talked to us, they were interested in what we're doing here and the children were very very cute. However, for 7 hours by the time we got to Delhi, we vowed to never take a train during the day again.
We had heard so many things about Delhi, the hustle excited me, this was the capital of India and we were ready. We needed to book our trains to Agra and onward to Varanasi since we knew these were going to book up and we only had a few days left in India. We had planned our day, we were going to book our trains then head out to the Red Fort, Humayun's tomb, India Gate, Delhi Lotus Temple and indulge in Delhi street food...there is no doubt Delhi is full of things to explore. After standing in the heat for hours to our dismay and annoyance, Delhi is unlike anywhere else in India and tourists cannot fill out a form and book a train as the locals, you have to go to the International Tourist Bureau, hidden at the back of the station. (It is worth noting many locals dress up as officers and charge you for a train ticket as a scam.) When we finally got to the tourist office, waited our turn to be seen we were told there were no seats left on the train we wanted even though we could see online that there was - we just couldn't book them since we didn't have an IRCTC account - and we were also being told not to go Sleeper class, even though we had travelled this way for the past 4 weeks around India. When the lady finally agreed there was in fact space on the trains we wanted, she asked for our passports. This was pretty common, not all train stations ask but most need to see photo identification. We all pulled out our passport photocopies, which had worked everywhere else in India and most people we had met had been doing the same, it saves you carrying around your passport on you, and we were then told this would not be okay and we cannot book without our passports. By this point, we had had enough we had spent over 4 hours in a train station standing in the heat and now we were going to have to go all the way back to our hostel to get our passports only to come back and spend another 2 hours waiting to book our trains. It was extremely frustrating since nowhere else in India had we been told we needed our passports, or had booking trains been this difficult.
Broken and now having spent the whole day being let down we returned to the hostel in low spirits, it was now too late to visit anything we wanted to in Delhi, and we needed to leave tomorrow to make it into Nepal on time. We finally managed to book them at the hostel, paying a small service fee but by this point, we had given up on Delhi.
That being said I will 100% be back to fully explore the city, making sure this capital only brings back happy memories.
Where To Stay: Joey's Hostel with super friendly staff, daily tours of New Delhi and a real backpacker vibe.
AGRA (1 Night)
There is really not much going on in Agra, some people decide to do day trips, however since we were heading east, we opted to stay the night here. When someone says India, the first thing people think about is the Taj Mahal. This white marble building has become the symbol of India. Here is my trip to the Taj Mahal.
First of all most people talk about getting up at 05:00 to watch the world wake up and the sun rising over the Taj, however, Agra is extremely cloudy and if you manage to get a picturesque sunrise you must be one of the luckiest people ever. However, it is worth being up and at the Taj early to avoid the crowds and enjoy the peacefulness of this tomb. There is a real sense of excitement when you are entering, the entrance is split into female and male then you meet on the inside.
All over the internet you see these incredible shots of the Taj and there we were feeling very small and extremely excited, only to turn the corner and see this huge marble building...covered in scaffolding!
Regardless of the scaffolding, it was beautiful to walk around the building and take it all in. All in all, if I am being honest I was a little let down by the Taj, once you are inside there is a sign that says 'No pictures, please be silent'... children were climbing on the tomb, people taking pictures, and we even saw a man who had climbed over the barrier into the centre to pick up the money people had thrown in. There was litter on the grounds and we could not help but get annoyed at all the Indian men constantly taking pictures and following us around while the Taj Mahal was right in front of them.
THE BEST SPOT TO SEE THE TAJ
Upon speaking to a rickshaw driver he had told us we must go to The Mehtab Bagh (gardens). This is just a short drive from the Taj and it is situated across the river...honestly this is what made me see the real beauty of the Taj. After being slightly disappointed we arrived at the gardens and after just a short walk surrounded by greenery and absolute silence (this is very very rare in India) we turned the corner and could see the beauty of the Taj Mahal glistening in the sun. If you are in Agra on a clear day I can imagine sunset over the Taj from here would be life-changing.
There are also many other things to fill your day in Agra, the Red Fort, Baby Taj (These can all add up and be very expensive quickly).
VARANASI (2 Nights)
This would be our last stop in India and honestly, I would put this as one of the top things to do in India. We had heard super mixed things about Varanasi but Varanasi has to be seen before you can truly understand it, somewhere in-between the dust and chaos there is something magical.
Varanasi is a very religious and spiritual place, located along the banks of the River Ganges pilgrims come from all over India and beyond to bathe in the river and perform religious devotions along the Ghats (steps). Varanasi is particularly sacred for those Hindus who are approaching death, as it is thought dying here brings you salvation. All along the Ghats, you see funeral ceremonies of bodies burning where their ashes are scattered into the River. Before the ceremony, the bodies are wrapped in orange cloth and covered in flowers so it can be blessed by the river Ganges one last time. At first, this was a little bit of a shock, we took a sunrise boat tour out on the river and as a Westerner to see open bodies being cremated it is simply not something we are used to, however, there was something so pure about seeing the way death is almost celebrated. Families had travelled for miles to make sure the ones they loved received the correct goodbye.
I have to say the highlight for Varanasi for me, was the evening ritual Ganga Aarti on the Dasaswamedh Ghat, that takes place every night to celebrate life. I have never seen so many pilgrims, all dressed in orange, together in one place to celebrate. You can take a boat out and watch from the River Ganges, or like we did get right in the middle of it and watch this truly magical ceremony unfold.
Where To Stay: Stops Hostel includes delicious breakfast
Top Tips for India
Always keep an open mind (you will find yourself in the best of situations, India is crazy, expect crazy and you will see the beauty in it)
Plan your route (India is a huge country you will never have time to see it all in one trip, having at least a rough route will save you a lot of time)
Ask the locals where to eat (they will know the best places)
Be prepared to be stared at (it can be uncomfortable and annoying but it will still happen there is no point getting wound up about it)
SLOW DOWN (India will definitely test your patience and emotions but bear with it, India is crazy beautiful and somewhere everyone should experience at least once in their life)
Next up 35 hours on a bus to Nepal......