India Travel Advice for Backpackers

Woman selling bananas in India

Backpacking Tips for India

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There is a lot of good India travel advice for backpackers to share. Indians are generally friendly and would like to speak with you. While knowing a little Hindi might help you get what you need around town (I never needed it), you can really connect with people in English. It is widely spoken by people from all walks of life.

There are 20+ national languages in India, so not everyone speaks Hindi anyway. On the other hand, you will meet many people who speak five or more local languages and English (not to mention French, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish…).

Why is he staring at you? The casual glance is one thing that the British never brought to India. Staring is not rude in India. They will take in all of you until they are satisfied. Get used to it, especially on long trains when you may be facing the same person for hours.

You’ve just climbed the top of a twisty-turny mountain road, avoided the thieving monkeys and reached the Hanuman temple that over looks a valley (there are many of these around the country, for example in Hampi, and are well worth the climb).

An Indian tourist approaches you with a camera and asks to take a picture. Then he hands the camera to his friend, puts his arm around you and your buddy and smiles. Why? He wants a picture with the white people.

No…I’m serious. He’s probably seen countless Hanuman temples, but you are a curiosity. Will they understand if you don’t want to take the picture? Probably, but the picture takes five seconds and fending off a persistent local can take ages.

Indians will often ask very upfront questions, within seconds of saying hello. Conversations will often go, “Hello how are you what is your name?” all in one breath. As soon as you answer these questions, or possibly before, they will follow with “Are you married? Do you have children? What do you do for a living? How much do you make?”

After these basics are covered they will move onto more interesting subjects of “Why are you traveling” or play the “How much does this cost in your country?” game.

“Why are you traveling” usually has to do with why you would want to leave all your family and friends and the “How much does this cost” game ranges from potatoes and haircuts (much cheaper in India) to laptops and plane flights (about the same).

And I wouldn’t want to leave off my personal favorite question, “How many servants do you have?”

Learn to wobble your head. I can’t really explain it. It’s a side-to-side wobble, not a shake like when Westerners mean “no.” In India, this wobble means everything from “ok” to “I understand” to accepting a compliment.

You will notice it as soon as you land. In any case, if you are in an uncomfortable situation, smile and wobble, they will probably return the favor.

A Little About Religion

There are countless different religions in India. New ones spring up every day following a different Sri. Take some time to learn about them. Many temples (specifically Hindu but probably other religions also) won’t allow non-Hindus to enter, but always ask.

There are plenty of temples that will allow you to enter, or at least enter up to the central compound.

Always ask before taking photos. This goes for all of India but in temples in particular. Yes, the insides of temples are beautifully colored and have amazing sculptures but your memory does a surprisingly good job. In most of the larger, obviously touristy temples (such as in Madurai) there will be signs posted (and tourists ignoring those signs).

Take your shoes off before entering a temple. The large pile in front of the door should make it pretty obvious where to leave them. Sometimes there is a “shoe guard” of sorts that you can leave your shoes with and pay a small fee when you leave. They aren’t official or run by the temple, they’re just some guy outside the wall.

If you don’t feel safe just leaving your shoes in a pile then leave them with that guy. He has something to gain by you getting your shoes back after all. Cheap sandals also help in this respect.

India Travel Tips for Getting Around

“On time” is not really an often-heard term in India. Things leave when they leave, and you just have to wait. Bring a book, play some cards, or chat up your neighbor. The one time you assume your train or bus is going to leave an hour late is the one time it leaves on time.

Indian trains are fun! Just remember that when you are sitting five people to a three-person bench with three people sitting above you on the luggage rack. That’s only in the unreserved class though. I recommend taking unreserved, once, on a short trip, just for the experience. If your strapped for cash though you can get anywhere in India for ridiculously cheap.

Most backpackers take the sleeper or sitting class. It’s economic and reasonably comfortable. Three people to three bunks or chairs and room for your luggage. If you are grumpy in the heat do yourself a favor and take the upgrade to AC class. It’s a lot more by Indian standards but still cheap to a Westerner.

I generally took regular class and only upgraded to AC when the sleeper was full. If you are on an overnight train, the AC class is quieter and provides you with sheets, blankets, and pillows. Not always necessary but if you really plan on sleeping in transit it could be worth it.

Train food in India: Chai, Chai, Chai, Chai. Drink it! It’s tasty and oh, so sugary. Cost about 2-3 rupees (5 cents) for a cup. The food they bring down the train is so-so. If you’re on a long one (20+ hours) you probably don’t have a choice. On the shorter trips try to bring some food with you or jump out for some excellent samosas or pakoras at a long stop.

Buses and mini-buses go the few places (mostly in the mountains) that the trains don’t. Yes they do go at top speed and try to pass smaller vehicles even though there is on-coming traffic, but they do this every day, right?

In any case, they are cheap and crowded. For overnighters make sure you have an assigned seat because they will oversell it. It is also a good idea to make sure you know where the bus is leaving. It might not be from where you bought your ticket; it might not even be from the same town.

If it’s really far away they will usually offer you a free transfer, and by offer, I mean not tell you what’s going on, put you in a car and drive you at top speed for two hours, then ditch you at some truck stop and tell you that someone will come get you.

For getting around town you will probably be mostly in Rickshaws, although in Mumbai they aren’t allowed in the city center and you are stuck in the more expensive taxis. On occasion you may even get a chance to ride on a motorcycle taxi, super cheap and ultra fast…notice I didn’t mention safe. Better still is to try and take the local buses.

It’s often easy between smaller towns but it can be hard to negotiate in larger cities like Delhi and Mumbai. You may also run into some places where it is cheaper for three travelers to share a rickshaw than to get three tickets on a minibus.

Advice for Eating Out in India

Many Indians are vegetarians. They do eat dairy and eggs, but getting vegetarian dishes, and vegan if you are careful, is not difficult. At the same time, there are varying diets in India just as everywhere else. Some Indians eat only fish while others will eat just about any meat.

You will have no problems finding meat on menus in India and it can actually be more of a task to find a vegetarian only restaurant. It will, however, be very difficult to find beef (holy to Hindus) or pork (holy to Muslims).

Indians eat with their hands. They use spoons to serve the food from the pots but then they use either a bread (naan or roti) or rice to soak up saucy dishes or daal (lentils). When using rice, make a ball of rice using the sauce and vegetables to make it stick. You can work it for a second so that you don’t dribble it all down your chin. Then cup it in your fingers and use your thumb to pop it into your mouth.

If you haven’t mastered eating with your hands, ask for a utensil. Most restaurants in cities and the more touristy ones outside of cities will have forks and spoons on hand.

The smaller restaurants, especially Thali shops, might be confused for a second, then scramble around and end up handing you an oversized serving spoon. They won’t be offended, but it might be just as awkward to eat with a spoon that big as to use your hand. Also, it is technically rude to eat with your left hand. That includes using it to help tear roti, but not many people will care and no one will say anything.

Make sure to wash your hands before and after your meal. If there is not a sink or washbasin around they will probably bring you a small bowl of warm water, often with lemon in it.

Thali shops are an excellent bet for a cheap lunch. It starts with a banana leaf on your table and you will get a large amount of rice dumped on that. Next they will come around with some daal, curry, and pickle. They are usually all you can eat and a server will just continue to fill you up until you wave them off or roll up your banana leaf.

Eat the Indian food! If you don’t like it, you’re traveling in the wrong country. They’ve been making this food for longer than they’ve been making Western food and they have the ingredients they need, instead of needing to import supplies.

A lot of cheese in India (unless its paneer, Indian cottage cheese) comes from a can and not the spray can. More like a tuna can. The point is, if you are worried about getting sick, the Indian food is a much safer bet.

Advice for Beaches in India

An important part of traveling in Southern India is the beautiful beaches. There is nothing quite like a tropical Indian sunset. For the most beautiful and tourist laden beaches in India head for Goa. If you try, you can find quiet beaches there, but if solitude is really what you are looking for there are plenty of unfrequented beaches further south and on the East coast of India.

Beaches in the larger cities can be popular, such as in Mumbai or Chennai, but are usually dirty and have polluted waters. Although that doesn’t stop the locals- so jump in!

Using Money in India

ATMs are in most places and will accept foreign cards. However, it is important to make sure you have enough cash to get back to a major city in case you cannot find one in a local town.

Large notes can be hard to break. 500-rupee notes can often be used to pay for your room, train ticket, or at fancier restaurants. 1,000-rupee notes are a pain anywhere.

Warning: some 1,000-rupee banknotes have been demonetized!

Don’t accept torn, damaged, or dirty money. You know it’s still good, they know it’s still good but it’s easier to not accept it in the first place than to try to get rid of it. If you do end up with someone who will not accept a damaged bill, a taxi driver for example, just stuff it in his pocket and walk away. He knows its still good money, but he doesn’t want it for the same reason you don’t: it’s harder to spend because someone else doesn’t want it, and so the cycle continues.

Almost all prices are negotiable. The exceptions are usually: restaurants, Western style malls or stores, and anything government run (like trains or tourist attractions). Always haggle. The first price is never the right one. If they won’t haggle at all it is not because they gave you a fair price but because the next tourist will pay. Walk away. If they don’t call after you with a better price, the guy in the next stall, who just heard everything, will offer you a “deal”.

Meet the author of these India travel tips:

Ayal Mesher lives in California and spends most of his day job planning for his next trip. He can’t wait to experience a new land and a fabulous adventure, but he always remembers, “once I get gone, I miss my home.”

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