Backpacking India: Travel Tips

India - Calcutta
My biggest tip for someone backpacking through India: Be open to new experiences and learn to let your guard down. It won’t be easy. The most frequent word you will say is ‘no’, as you duck away from rickshaw drivers and merchants trying to sell you things you don’t want. There are people who will try to take advantage of you, especially in the heavily touristed places where you’re likely to start your trip. But once you get past that, you’re more likely to find genuinely hospitable locals who just want to spend time with you.

There is no scam when they offer you food, ask you personal questions on the train, invite you over for dinner, teach you to play cricket, share their religious ceremonies, or if you’re really lucky, attend a wedding. It took us too long to realize it, but once we did we met a lot of amazing people, and we got a wedding invite, but it was unfortunately 3 days after we flew home.

We also learned some more practical tips useful for anyone going on a multi-month trip through India.

Packing
You can’t bring everything you will need, so don’t. Most items are cheaper to buy in India than at home anyway. Clothing, toiletries (although we never tried to buy deodorant or feminine hygiene products), laundry soap, and food are all cheaper in India. That said, there are a few essential items you will want to bring from home.

Essential Items
Hand sanitizer
Nail clippers
Ear plugs
Eye mask
Sunglasses
Travel towel
Head lamp
Sleeping bag liner
Clothes line
Power adapter

Although it’s not essential, I’d recommend taking a few bills and coins from home. The Indians we met loved seeing Canadian money. Luckily we had $5 and $10 Canadian bills on us. I wish we would have brought some small coins to give to the kids.

We bought water in plastic bottles as we went, but hated all the waste that was produced. The one thing we wished we had packed was a travel water purifier like the SteriPEN.

India - Mysore
Shopping
Expect to do a lot of bargaining. We initially found it intimidating, but it gets easier as you learn what the prices should be. You will overpay at first. Packaged goods have a maximum retail price (MRP) labelled on them, which acts as the price tag. For negotiable items, like things you buy in the market, expect to be offered inflated foreigner prices.

Rickshaw drivers are the worst offenders for trying to gouge foreigners. There are some techniques to keep prices reasonable. If you’re at the airport or train station, look for the government regulated prepaid stands, but make sure the driver you get knows where you’re going. You should almost always ignore the drivers who meet you at the train and try to snag you before you have left the station. If they’re targeting foreigners, they charge way too much and often sell “sightseeing tours”.

Itinerary
We only had a rough idea of where we wanted to travel when we arrived in India. It’s a big country and every corner offers something unique to see. It’s a good idea to pick your travel itinerary based on the weather. There is a big difference in temperature between the north and south and the monsoons start and end at different times. We got really lucky with weather, starting in the south in December and slowly making our way north, with Rajasthan in February and ending in Delhi in April. There are also hill stations (like Darjeeling and Shimla) to check out if it gets too hot, but they can be frigid the rest of the year.

Here’s a summary of all the places we went.

Cellphone
Having a cellphone and a local SIM card is extremely useful. Getting a SIM card is a great introduction to Indian bureaucracy and the country’s love for paperwork. We got ours through Vodafone. I just show up at one of their stores with a copy of my passport and visa, a passport-sized photo, and an address from my hotel. It shouldn’t take long, but it does. The rates are super cheap, and 3G internet (2 GB for less than $5) was often faster than the hotel WIFI. The only annoying thing is the SIM card will only work for 3 months (Indian government regulation). After 3 months, your phone will stop working, any money on your account will disappear, and you will have to start the whole process from the beginning.

Kalka Shimla Railway - Monkey Thief
Trains
The best way to travel in India is by train. You can’t beat the combination of speed, price, and entertainment value. However, booking your first train ticket can be intimidating. You can visit a travel agent and pay a commision to have them do the work, but we prefered to book tickets ourselves online. Really short routes we went unreserved, medium length trips we booked about 2 weeks ahead, and most of the long distance routes we booked a month ahead. It is very difficult to get a reservation on and around holidays.

There are three invaluable sites when figuring out the train system – India Mike, India Rail Info, and Cleartrip.

India Mike has the best guide to the Indian Rail Network, amongst other things. Some of the content on the website is getting old and stale, but it’s still one of the best resources for foreigners in India. Any question you may have about traveling through India has probably been answered on this website.

india_rail_info
The best website for figuring out the train schedule is India Rail Info, which also has an excellent app. The user interface is intimidating at first glance, but it’s packed with essential information – like the average delay (some passenger trains are routinely 6-8 hours late), how many tickets are available in each class, and it will let you search for foreign ticket availability.

The easiest way to book tickets is through the Cleartrip website (or app), which accepts foreign credit cards.

Some extra information we figured out as we travelled:
– For overnight trains, you can choose between Sleeper (SL), 3 level air-conditioned (3A), 2 level air-conditioned (2A), or a private compartment (1A) with prices close to flying. We spent most of our time in very affordable 3A compartments, but also booked a number of super-cheap tickets in Sleeper class. Even though Sleeper and 3A officially sleep the same number of people (8 per compartment), you will find more people cramming into Sleeper (with families often sharing a single bed). 3A is generally more comfortable and the beds come with a pillow, sheets, and blankets (in Sleeper you have to bring your own). 3A is temperature controlled, so it is more comfortable when it is both hot and cold outside.

– Trains are given priority on the tracks based on their type. The fancy, express trains (the Rajdhani and Shatabdi Expresses) go the fastest and are hardly ever late. The slower passenger trains stop at more stations, have to pull over and wait for faster trains to pass, and are frequently several hours behind their schedule.

– Most trains reserve 2-10 seats for foreign tourists, which are great when you’re making last minute travel plans, but can be a real pain to book. They can only be booked in person at the major train stations. Again, India Mike has the best guide to Foreign Tourist quota tickets and a list of train stations where you can buy them.

– If the train is full and you can’t buy a Foreign Tourist Ticket, the next option is the Waitlist. We tempted fate on the waitlist twice and got lucky both times, but it was very stressful. If you are near the top of the waitlist, you might get a ticket when someone cancels, but most tickets are handed out 4-12 hours before the train leaves, allocated from unused quotas in special classes. You best have a good backup plan. There is also last-minute Tatkal tickets that go on sale at 10 am the day before the train leaves. The train station reservation offices are madhouses in the morning as people push and shove to get a chance at these tickets. We never bothered.

Buses
India has a great network of private bus operators that provide comfortable Volvo bus connections between most cities. Unlike the train, which can sell out weeks in advance, the buses were usually easy to book last minute. You can search and book tickets for most operators on a single website – Redbus. Some of routes are served by “sleeper buses”, which have horizontal beds (doubles and singles). Depending on the road conditions, the sleeper buses can be just as comfortable as the train and a great way to travel. There are government buses, which are cheaper and less comfortable than the private Volvos, and in some states they are the only option.

Laughing Buddha - Arambol
Hotels
India has a great selection of budget hotels, but don’t expect Western cleanliness or service. Many hotel rooms won’t have towels, sheets, or toilet paper when you check in, but if you ask they will provide them. You won’t find a clock, telephone, hair dryer, or daily room cleaning but most hotel rooms will have a shower in the middle of the bathroom with a bucket to wash clothing, a Western toilet, and a fan or A/C. Sometimes you will find a TV, mosquito nets (especially in the south), and included breakfast.

Money
We spent around 3000 rupees/person/day (full breakdown).
Almost all of our spending was in cash. Using a credit card was rare, especially outside of the major cities. Luckily there are a lot of ATMs that accept foreign cards. The best were the State Bank ATMs, which don’t charge any fees and are plentiful throughout the country.

Reviews
The best source of reliable reviews was TripAdvisor, especially for hotels and attractions. For food, Zomato was the best for finding great restaurants – the curated “Legendary” lists never let us down.

Language
Luckily most Indians speak good English, so you can get by without learning any other languages. We learned some tourist Hindi, but its usefulness was limited. Many states, especially in the South, have their own languages (Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, etc.). However, it’s always nice to be able to greet and thank people in their own language.

India - Gokarna
Have a great trip. India is a special place, full of amazing memories.

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Backpacking India: Travel Upgrades

In our four months of backpacking through India, we made more than a few sacrifices to save money – choosing crowded, local buses over private taxis; eating at local hangouts instead of fancy western restaurants; and staying in some sketchy hotels. It was part of the experience and we don’t regret our choices, but it was also important to splurge occassionaly. We found a luxury hotel for our wedding anniversary and fancy restaurants for our birthdays. That might have been the extent of our of our splurging, if it wasn’t for a thoughtful gift from our good friends, the Holdings. Before we left, they gave us three upgrade coupons (with an awesome board game theme) and some money to ensure we weren’t always choosing the cheapest option, especially when we were feeling down. Here’s what we upgraded.

Transportation
India - Darjeeling
If Player 1 or Player 2
Is Feeling Too Crowded
Shaken About,
Or Smog Shrouded
They May Play This Card
To Upgrade Their Train/Bus

In Darjeeling, we upgraded to first class tickets on the toy train to Kurseong instead of another squished shared jeep.

Food
Upgraded Meal
If Player 1 or Player 2
Thinks They’ve Been
Fed Too Much Fibre
They Don’t Have
To Be A Briber
To Get Some Grub
They May Play This Card
To Upgrade Their Restaurant

In Kolkata, we ate a luxury meal at one of the top-reviewed vegetarian restaurants in town.

Accommodation
India Hotel Upgrade
If Player 1 or Player 2
Needs To Cool Off,
Dry Off,
Tune Out,
Or Just Conk Out
They May Play This Card
To Upgrade Their Hotel

In Udaipur, we spent three blissful days in the country at Krishna Ranch.

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5 Peaks 2015 – Golden Ears

2015 RS 5 Peaks BC Golden Ears-187
I am quiet possibly the least photogenic runner ever.

From the 5 Peaks – Golden Ears Race.
I ran the 8 km Sport course in 44:46.
Finished 9th / 293.
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Backpacking India: Travel Expenses Breakdown

India is a very cheap country to travel through. Our biggest expense was flying in and out. Surprisingly, even after over 4 months travelling, we paid more for our flights than accommodation or food.

So, how much does it cost to backpack through India? Less than $1000 per person per month. Our average daily expenses were $63 per day, and that includes everything – hotels, food, trains, a cellphone with a data plan, haircuts, toiletries, and all of our souvenirs. To put that in perspective, our rent alone in Vancouver costs about the same.

Two round trip flights in and out of India cost us only $1,236 each – we got lucky there. Pre-trip expenses like visas, vaccines, and a guide book cost another $342.20.

Our hotels averaged 1100 rupees or $22 per night. The beach hut in Gokarna was the cheapest place we stayed, costing only $5. We splurged to stay in a boutique resort for our anniversary in Darjeeling, our most expensive night but still only $55. The hotel in Mumbai was almost as much and not nearly as nice.

Trains were the cheapest and most atmospheric way to get across India. We travelled in the unreserved carriages a few times – which are unbelievably cheap but often very crowded. It cost us only $1 each to travel the 250 km between Jodhpur and Ajmer in unreserved second-class. Even our most expensive day train, the high speed train from Amritsar to Delhi, was only $16 a ticket. Our best value was probably the overnight train from Goa to Mumbai, when we paid $11 per bunk bed in a non-AC car. The average overnight train ride in air-conditioned carriages cost $20 each.

Our trip slowly got more expensive as we moved north. Our first 50 days through South India were the cheapest – mostly because there weren’t any expensive sights to see and we weren’t buying any souvenirs. Then we hit Mumbai, the most expensive city in India; Agra, with the Taj Mahal and other tourist traps; and Jaipur, where we paid too much money for an elephant experience. The most expensive part of our trip was the 4 days treeking through the Himalayas with porters and cooks, but it was worth it. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of our souvenir shopping happened in the last week of our trip.

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Backpacking India: Trip Summary

India - Jaipur - Amber Fort
After 4 months backpacking through India, we have a lot of fond memories and unforgettable stories. We did our best to see as much of this amazing, diverse country as possible. We took dozens of trains, buses, and shared jeeps, covering more than 13,000 kms (further than the distance from Vancouver to Delhi) traveling between 35 destinations. There are individual blog posts about each stop on our trip, which you can read if you have hours of free time. Otherwise, here’s our recap.

The Highlights:

Hampi Ruins
Hampi
We spent four days exploring the massive ruins around Hampi and the boulder strewn landscape. We could have spent more. Every day was special, but there were two very memorable moments. On the first day we hiked over a ridge and found ourselves alone with a sprawling ruins below us just begging to be explored. On our last day, we rented a motorbike and explored the north shore. We got lost on small dirt roads amidst rice paddies, hiked up to a monkey temple, and ate lunch at a packed, chaotic restaurant where no one spoke English, there was no menu, and the only thing they had was an unlimited thali with the tastiest food served on a banana leaf – no plates or cutlery.

India - Holi in Varanasi
Festivals
Indians know how to party and we got to celebrate a few big festivals. We were lucky to celebrate India’s most colourful festival, Holi, in its most holy city, Varanasi. It was a riot of colour – fun but intimidating too. We brought in the New Year in Kochi with elephants, fireworks, and burning Santa Claus.

India - Jaisalmer Camel Safari With mystic tours
Camel Safari in Jaisalmer
Riding a camel might not be the most comfortable or fastest way to travel, but it sure is memorable. We slept under the stars at night and played cards under a shade tree during the day. Our camel ride left from Jaisalmer, one of the most relaxed and picturesque towns we visited in Rajasthan.

India - Pushkar yoga Swamiji and us
Yoga in Pushkar
Yoga in India is much more spiritual than the purely physical form you find in Vancouver. We really enjoyed many of the classes we took and our excellent instructors, but the highlight was meeting Swamiji in Pushkar, who we formed a deep personal connection with during our short stay. He really impressed us with his teachings on the fundamentals of yoga and his wisdom. We plan on making yoga part of our daily routine in Vancouver.

India - Gokarna
Beach Time in Goa
Far way from the chaos of India’s cities, the beaches of Goa and Gokarna are in a different world. For 10 days we slept in dirt-cheap huts and spent our days doing yoga, hiking, and reading on the beach. It was a great opportunity to recharge our batteries after our first month in India.

Chandrashila Trek
Himalayan Trekking
Our first attempt to hike the Himalayas along the Singalila Ridge didn’t go as planned, but we knew there was something special about the worlds highest mountains and signed up for another trek. The second time, Dan joined us for an epic 3-day hike to the top a snow-capped Chandrashilla Mountain. It wasn’t easy, even with porters carrying our gear and cooks making our food, but we survived and were glad we did it.

India - Calcutta
Karma in Kolkata
We met a lot of fascinating people throughout India, both locals and other travelers. In many ways the people we met were more memorable than the sights we saw. In Kolkata we were lucky to meet Karma and his friend Priya. We spent two days talking with them, sharing stories, and talking about our hopes for the future. They also showed us a part of the city we would have never found on our own.

India - Udaipur
Udaipur and Krishna Ranch
We spent a whole month in the Rajasthan, a state rich with history. After a while many of the cities started to blend together. Every one had an imposing fort, and ornate palace, and divine temples. But Udaipur really stood out from the pack with its beautiful setting on a lake with floating palaces. We also spent 3 relaxing days just outside the city at Krishna Ranch, enjoying the tranquil setting and doing some adventurous hiking/bushwhacking.

India - Tashiding, Sikim
Sikkim
The northern state of Sikkim, next to Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan was another unique Indian gem. Rich in Buddhist culture, we loved the views of the towering Himalayas, ornate monasteries, Nepalese food, and our epic shared jeep rides between towns.

India - Munroe Island - backwater canoe tour
Kerala Backwaters
The tropical, jungle atmosphere of the Kerala backwaters in South India stole our hearts. We stayed in a lovely guest house on Munroe Island and enjoyed exploring the canals that connect the local villages by canoe. We also stumbled upon a Hindu festival with drummers and actors dressed up like gods and demons from the Hindu scriptures.


Mischievous Monkeys
Monkeys in India are like racoons in Canada – cute but mischievous pests. But monkeys are not afraid of people and are active during the day. We lost count of the number of times got close to an adorable monkey, smiled (big mistake), and ran away when it bared its teeth and hissed at us. On Christmas morning at Karuna Farm, monkeys stole food from our outdoor kitchen while I was cooking breakfast. In Varanasi, one tried to pee on us from a rooftop. And in Hampi, we sat and watched monkeys jumping from roof to roof and making a mess of clothes lines and water barrels.

Bonus Photos
India - Jodhpur - Mehrangarh Fort

Rafting the Ganges
Continue reading

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Backpacking India: Amritsar

India - Amritsar - Golden Temple
Instead of spending our final Indian weekend in Delhi, we decided last-minute to take the train to Amritsar. The trains were all sold out, but we had no problem getting foreign tourist tickets. We were excited to visit Punjab, see the Sikh holy city, and also check out the border with Pakistan. It was only after we arrived that it was right before Vaisakhi, one of the 3 major Sikh holidays.

India - Amritsar - Golden Temple

The city was extremely busy, especially around the Golden Temple. The lineup to get into the temple was 4 hours long, so we only got to see it from the outside. Even without going inside, we were struck by the beauty and awesomeness of the temple complex, with the golden temple floating in the middle of a lake. It’s a site on par with the Vatican in Rome.

India - Amritsar - Golden Temple

Even though much of the city was closed for the holiday, we did manage to take a walking tour of the historic buildings and check out the Jallianwala Bagh, a park memorial to the Indians who lost their lives to trigger happy British soldiers in 1919. Considering the horrific events that took place there, the park had an oddly festive atmosphere. We weren’t the only ones posing for pictures with the shrubbery soldiers.

Shrubs with GunsIndia - Amritsar

Amritsar is located close to Pakistan border and the nearby town of Wagah has historically been the only crossing between the two nations. Every evening, the border is closed in an elaborate ceremony that would delight any Monty Python fan. There was plenty of high kicking, muscle flexing, and funny hats. But before the guards took the stage, each side of the border blasted tunes and pumped up the crowd. On the India side, women were invited to run around with the Indian flag and dance to Bollywood tunes. I think it was designed to show the Pakistanis how free the women are in India. Emily noticed it was the first time we had seen women dancing in public. On the Pakistan side, a one-legged boy wearing Pakistan green danced and spun around with a flag. On the India side, the crowd was overfilling the stands and people cheered loudly. On the Pakistan side the women sat in burkas with the children, separated from the men, but the cheering was equally passionate, even if the crowd was a quarter of the size. The ceremony was mostly comical but I don’t think the nationalistic fervor that is encouraged does anything to help the tense relationship between the two countries.

India - Wagah Border Ceremony

More pictures on Flickr: Amritsar.

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Backpacking India: New Delhi

India - Delhi
New Delhi is the capital of India and home to some 13 million people, and our last stop on our journey through India. We flew home on April 15 from the Indira Gandhi International Airport.

Much like in India’s other big cities (Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, and Chennai), we enjoyed the top-notch restaurants, fusion of people, large market areas, and efficient public transportation systems. Delhi seemed to take these to the next level, with the dozens of bazaar areas for shopping and the most modern and extensive Metro system in India. We relied heavily on the Metro to get us around. Delhi is a really sprawling city and the attractions are spread throughout the city, and the traffic is horrible.

India - Dan in Delhi Leela
Our highlights from Delhi include accompanying Dan on his first authentic Indian dining experiences and Bollywood movie, exploring the winding lanes of Old Delhi and the spice market, visiting the ruins of Qutab Minar, and going to Akshardham – which I can only describe as a Hindu temple and Disneyland combined together, complete with a Small World-esque boat ride and a reenactment of the life of a Hindu saint featuring animatronic robots. Needless to say, Akshardham was bizarre but amazing. We also crammed 4 months of souvenir shopping into our last few days, visiting many of the the markets around the city and picking up clothing, spices, and tiffin containers.

India - Dan in Delhi

There is a constant smoggy haze over the city, which makes it difficult to appreciate the impressive buildings, especially around the Rajpath, which connects the President’s official residence to the India Gate. It was no surprise to us, that Delhi is ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the world.

Our first few days in Delhi didn’t go well. We were staying in the touristy Paharganj neighbourhood, where pickpockets and touts prey on tourists. Emily had her sunglasses lifted and I had my cellphone pick-pocketed. Those experiences clouded our experience of Delhi a little bit, but we still enjoyed the city. Maybe not as much as Mumbai or Kolkata, but it was a good place to end our trip.

India - Delhi

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