What's it like to travel in India?
March 26, 2017 4:34 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I are thinking about traveling to India for vacation. We've mostly travelled in Europe, with the most exotic other destinations being Morocco and Central America. What should we expect to be different about traveling on our own in India?
posted by smackfu to Travel & Transportation around India (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I struggled greatly with a solo trip to India about 5 years ago. I've traveled solo in east Africa a number of times, but I found that beggars and scammers were much more aggressive and omnipresent in India, and their constant onslaught whenever I left my hotel room put a huge damper on the trip. However, I was a young white woman traveling alone, and there were so many wonderful things to see there - I'd definitely go back if I had a male travel companion.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:43 PM on March 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Other caveat, I was traveling mainly in the Golden Triangle, so to more touristy locations than other parts of the country.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 6:44 PM on March 26, 2017

I did a 2 week trip to north India last month. Prior to that I had traveled a fair bit in China, SE Asia and Central Asia, so had been to less developed countries before. Here is what surprised me about India:

1. Walking is unpleasant in big Indian cities, so factor that into your distances. I love walking and try to walk wherever I go rather than take taxis, but in India I just couldn't do it. Sidewalks are mostly nonexistent, meaning that you have to walk on the shoulder of the road with cars, tuk tuks, and motorcyclists whizzing just a hair away from you in both directions. The pollution is bad and there is constant horn beeping. There are cows and other animals standing around. There is cow manure and plenty of other rubbish on the road.

There will be plenty of people trying to sell you things, or tuk tuk drivers trying to get you in.

Crossing the road always feels rather life threatening because there are no signals and cars/motorcycles may be coming from the opposite direction you expect.

In small towns at night time the roads outside town may be completely unlit, keep that in mind if you pick a more secluded hotel.

I ended up taking tuk tuks everywhere, even short distances of only 1-2 miles because walking was just so unpleasant. If you are like me and enjoy taking long walks around a new city to get to know it, just keep in mind that won't be very pleasant in India. Basically, the foot distances seem much much longer than they do in a more developed country.

2. There might still be a shortage of cash in ATMs. The currency redenom thing happened last year, but as recently as last month, we were unable to find ATMs with cash in the middle of Delhi! Seriously, the first day we were there, we had a taxi driver ferry us around to around 10 different ATMs and none had cash. We were lucky to have had some pocket money in USD to exchange and pay for expenses before we eventually found an ATM. Bring a decent amount of money in USD or EUR to exchange for rupees.

3. Be extra careful with the water and fresh vegetables and some street foods (such as pani puri). I know everyone tells you this, but I've always been super lax about this in most countries I travel to - I'm not drinking out of the tap, but I'd brush my teeth and rinse w/ the local water, eat the street food, none the worse for wear. Well, I did that in India, and got giardia which is basically a lingering parasite that gives you horrible diarrhea/gas/bloating for weeks until you get antibiotics to kill it. I had it for a month after I got back to the US and it was not fun.

4. The train stations are pretty disorganized. Meaning, you can be in a big city train station, and past security there is literally nobody on the platform wearing a uniform or looking like they work there. The screens showing which platform can sometimes be broken or just not show the info you need. The worst part is figuring out where you need to be standing on the platform to get in the right car. If your train is only stopping for 5 minutes you might end up having to run from one end of the train to to the other. The train cars are assigned letters and are not in any particular order. Very soon before the train is to arrive, in bigger stations they light up signs showing which car will be where. But that still isn't super helpful if it's an extremely long platform so make sure to run up and down until you find where you need to stand. Also nobody checks your ticket as you enter the train.

On an overnight train, if your stop is before the last stop, set an alarm to wake yourself up, because nobody comes to wake you, and also nobody announces the stops. You need to look yourself out the window. A cell phone w/ a working GPS signal is very useful to figure out where you are.

Also don't eat the train food. It might not make you sick, but it is incredibly greasy.

5. If you want to travel by train, you need to book stuff way in advance. It can be done with credit card but involves a lengthy process involving e-mailing a non-responsive customer support desk. Read the Seat61 guide.
posted by pravit at 7:18 PM on March 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

I have been to India a few times and I absolutely love it there - but I found it a very difficult place to travel in/to, and I am well traveled in Europe and Central/South America. This was different.

Things that I was not prepared for:
1. The cities are busy. Like really busy. Like busier than you have ever experienced in your life. The places I went had no real traffic control, so getting run over was always a risk if I was walking anywhere. There were just people everywhere going in every possible direction and it was mind boggling. Hawkers were ever-present, as were scammers. Don't be afraid to rent a car/driver for your trip - it makes things a lot easier. Your hotel/hostel can connect you.

2. It was hot when I was there and AC/refrigeration was limited. This is a real issue - keep it in mind.

3. Being a white female gave me a lot of attention. When I was at the Gateway of India there was actually a line that developed of Indian tourists who wanted their picture with me. People were stopping me everywhere I went to get a photo. People were nice when I said no, but I often obliged. I also got a lot of unappreciated attention from men, even when I was traveling with a man. This was more than in any other country I've visited. Your wife should be prepared for that.

4. Things became easier as soon as I bought local dress, I suggest doing it on your first day. If there is a Fab India in the city you fly into, make it your first stop.

5. Finding places in cities that are quiet can be difficult. Coffee shops are not like in Europe - they are more hyper - if you need a chill out place, try to find a temple that is ok with tourists or another meditation space.

6. There are poor children on the streets who will beg for money. This will probably be upsetting to you, it was to me.

My travels were a lot easier when I went with a friend who was Indian, as she could navigate a lot that I could not. If you have the potential to connect with a local, I recommend it.

The last thing I'd say that is different, was when I went to Europe or Central America, I'd often spend one or two days in a place and then hop to the next. I don't recommend that for India. I'd suggest choosing one city and seeing all there is to see there and in local towns. Find a home base and then do day trips out. There is just too much to do in/near every city, you should enjoy it.
posted by Toddles at 7:23 PM on March 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

Southern India, especially Kerala, is much more relaxed feeling in my experience than northern. The big cities like Chennai or Bangalore are still frenetic and overwhelming, but overall more manageable and pleasant and there are some great smaller cities and more rural spots that I absolutely loved (Trivandrum-- still a pretty big city--, Hampi, Pondicherry, Mahabalipuram, rural Kerala).

Same thing to some extent further north in Himachel Pradesh up in the mountains, felt more relaxed and friendly, though I didn't travel as widely there.

However, Delhi, Agra, the states of Jaipur and Rajasthan were very overwhelming with the attention and scams and heat and general chaos. They were also amazing in their own way, both in terms of the sites and the unique culture of the area, but definitely much more tiring and wearing.

I agree that you shouldn't try to see too much-- pick a city or a region, depending on your interests. It will take time to adjust.
posted by geegollygosh at 8:11 PM on March 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Agree with geegollygosh. As an Indian, I always recommend that first-time tourists visit South India first. The North and the South are practically different countries, and on the whole, the South is generally more laid back and less crime-ridden. There's plenty to see, even without the Taj Mahal.
posted by redlines at 8:29 PM on March 26, 2017 [7 favorites]

If you can arrange travel via an in-country agent you may want to do so (even Indians do this) -- local drivers who are motivated to help you avoid scams can be quite handy. If you're likely to start in the vicinity of Bangalore let me know and I can try to connect you with someone my family has used for quite some time; he can arrange trips throughout the country.
posted by aramaic at 8:50 PM on March 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Another Indian chiming in to say that South India is a better bet for the first-time traveller, especially Kerala - avoid Bangalore at all costs, it's a boring shithole whose only allure is cheap beer, and Chennai has lovely temples but the weather cycles between hot, scorching, and the Devil's own arsehole, so. (I'm from Chennai and have lived in Bangalore, so this is not a disgruntled northerner disparaging anything south of the Vindhyas.)

Also, build lots of downtime into your travel, and expect things to take longer - for example, it's only about a hundred miles between Chennai and Pondicherry (another good place for a first-timer, as it's calm, quiet, and the French influence makes for some really cool mixing of cultures) but it takes three hours to get there between the roads and the fact that vehicles just don't go as fast.

Nthing connecting with a local - it will make your life much easier, as India is notoriously hard to navigate for outsiders, especially if you look/sound visibly foreign. Especially if you are female.

Got to get to work but I'll come back later with more as I think of it.
posted by Tamanna at 9:18 PM on March 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nthing what everybody says about getting a driver- well worth it!

Recognise that time is a different concept in India than in the western world.

And cultivate a sort of mental bubble around you - it is ok to ignore the people who want you to look at their stall, who beg or whatever - but it takes a while to get used to doing that. My colleagues of Indian origin who live in the west explained to me these things don't even register for them. I couldn't get there but I got to a place where the onslaught started to feel less overwhelming because I had started to treat it as background noise.
posted by koahiatamadl at 3:04 AM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's substantially harder to navigate than you're likely used to: roads aren't necessarily marked, addresses may be informal, and GPS locations can be inaccurate. Main roads are fine, but trying to find a particular establishment within a neighborhood or down a side street was highly frustrating for me. On the other hand, I was fine with walking except for the heat - you do need to be alert, but I still found it a better way to get oriented than catching rides.

The above is based on traveling in the big cities, particularly Delhi and Mumbai, as a white woman dressed in modest but non-Indian clothing, sometimes alone during the daytime.
posted by orangejenny at 8:29 AM on March 27, 2017

are practically different countries

In the same way that southern Spain feels quite different from Berlin, India can often provide a variety that matches your preferences.

My sequencing went Mumbai>Delhi>Kerala>Goa, which is basically most urban >>> least urban. Since in my first couple stops I was 'embedded' with locals, I had an easier time. I think (summarizing the above) a good primer is:

(1) Prepare to be exposed to street poverty
(2) Prepare to defend your space (especially females), to guard your property and to negotiate for more things than usual
(3) Take care for health basics that aren't always at western levels (food, toilets, pedestrian space)

I have a healthy tolerance for smells, attention and the rapidity of urban space. If you're not used to these things, you may not enjoy the bigger cities.

But there're lots of other areas and while waste management wasn't always top notch, there was plenty of beautiful areas and especially natural beauty.

I found transport to be relatively easy. Tuk tuks, for sure, but also air travel was easy and cheap within the country (this was 2009, tho). Trains were the biggest learning curve (see above) and the least comfortable. Although I did get a 5 hour train ride for something like 80 cents.

I'd disagree about the comment saying you can't 'enjoy taking long walks'. I took these in every location and even during the commuting rush in Mumbai, I felt safe and able to enjoy taking in the environment.

To me one of the best things about India is exactly how some areas have yet to take on global/international aesthetics. Places still felt distinctly Indian and sort of undiscovered.

I also can't say enough good things about the people I met, even strangers. Especially in Kerala, people were hospital, generous and engaging in the best ways.
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 9:38 AM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you ... enjoy taking long walks around a new city to get to know it, just keep in mind that won't be very pleasant in India.

Seconding this, because of the relentless traffic at every street-crossing; the necessary constant monitoring of the surface where you're walking; and the motorcycles mixing with pedestrian traffic, even honking at you to get out of the way.

Tip for train reservations: go upstairs at the big-city stations, to find the first-class ticket office.
posted by Rash at 9:01 PM on March 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

Make sure you have enough cash. With the recent demonetization stunt, cash and change are difficult to come by with.

Be on the lookout for people trying to scam you with older currency. Rs. 2000 and Rs. 500 bills have been introduce and replaced respectively. There is no longer a 1000 Rs bill.

+ Everything above.

Also, please don't travel to India during the summer or monsoons. Summer usually lasts from April until June/July after which the rains kick in. The summers are scorching and you wouldn't want to travel anywhere between 11 AM and 7 PM since the heat becomes unbearable.

For more specific information feel free to memail.
posted by rippersid at 2:01 AM on March 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Confirming the comments upthread about the south being so chill it's almost asleep. Travel is easy in Tamil Nadu and Kerla, people are helpful and the vibe relaxed.

Train platforms are still fucked up though. We would have the taxi driver walk us to the platform and show us where to stand. Taking an overnight Indian train was simultaneously the greatest and worst experience of my life. Highly recommended.
posted by Keith Talent at 12:19 PM on March 28, 2017

Response by poster: Thanks everyone! It sounds like the northern cities are a bit like Morocco in terms of harassment and hard sells, which was a bit intense. South might be a bit better.
posted by smackfu at 4:05 PM on April 5, 2017

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