The explosion of colorful customs, an array of delightful traditions, a versatile terrain that changes almost every mile and a host of numerous activities to experience that aid spiritual well being; India is a wholesome sensory delight. Do the idyllic Himalayas, backwaters of God’s own country Kerala, the lifesize boulders of Hampi, or the free-spiritedness of Goa beckon you but you are not too sure how you’ll adjust? Fear not, we just prepared this list of ten tips for people planning to visit India for the first time!
Just drop all your expectations but prepare for culture shock
You might have traveled to many countries before and think you’ve seen everything but do not underestimate India’s ability to culture-shock the hell out of you. Visiting India for the first time is an assault on all senses. India’s glorious chaos and diverse contrasts will get under your skin and will turn your world upside down. This country is known for succeeding to frustrate even the most patient world travelers but it’s also the only one that will make you forgive all of its daily frustrations and keep craving for its vibrant soul.
Bu one cannot expect anything less from the world’s most culturally diverse country. India’s 1.3 billion people are squeezed into an area almost 4 times smaller than that of the US. These 1.3 billion people have 22 official languages but also more than 400 unofficial languages. Even though most people are Hindu, Hinduism itself has more than 3,000 casts and 15,000 sub-castes. This alone would be enough to bring any other country to the verge of a civil war in a matter of time but not India. Fascinating, isn’t it? This proves that…
We all can learn something from India
This might come surprising for some but yes, we can all learn a lot from India and you should come here with that mindset. Yes, the streets are dirty. Yes, you will see cows walking in the street. The traffic is horrible, the cities are overcrowded. Yes, there are a lot of poor and homeless people. But despite all of this and despite all of this diversity, people are happy. They’re genuinely happy regardless of their financial condition or their status. You will be welcomed warmly, whether you’re in one of the most expensive neighborhoods or in the slums of Delhi or Mumbai.
You’ll see some stunning landscapes, ancient religious sites, and important historic monuments. In fact, most people visit for this reason. WRONG! Don’t get me wrong, the above-mentioned places are stunning but you’ll find the real beauty of India in the faces, characters, and lives of the people you see every day.
It’s in these people that you’ll discover that India is not, as many people keep calling it, an ‘underdeveloped country’, but from a historical and cultural perspective, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay. And that’s the mindset you should come here with rather than looking down on people.
With that being said let me try to give you some more practical tips. Let’s start with…
Planning the budget for your India trip
India is a cheap destination for travelers but it’s not free, so don’t make the mistake of underestimating your costs. If you stay at hostels (there are a lot of decent ones across the country) you’ll be paying around 5-6 dollars per night on average. If you eat in cheap restaurants, you can have a meal in $2 and if you eat three meals per day that means you’ll need around $12 per day or 4360 per month. But that’s just the basics. Always go shopping for groceries at the local vendor and not in big supermarkets. Local vendors are always cheaper because they don’t give receipts. No receipt= no tax= cheaper prices.
I’d double that cost if you’re traveling around and need to take care of your transportation too. You also might not find a hostel room so cheap everywhere you go. If you want to stay in a hotel with a separate room, you could get a decent one in around $20. Domestic flights are more affordable than ever but trains and buses run across the country and cost only a fraction of the price. You can also find some good deals on Yatra, Makemytrip, GoIbibo, and even Agoda.
Now, you might think eating street food might not be safe and you would rather go to a western restaurant. Let me tell you why you shouldn’t do that.
You’ll get sick anyway- don’t panic
No matter how strong you think your stomach is, at one point you’ll probably get the famous Delhi-belly. Don’t panic, that’s just India’s way of saying hi. It happens because your belly isn’t familiar with many of the local bacteria. This normally passes after a day or two. After that, you get used to the local food and the surrounding.
Now, if I were to visit India for the first time again, I would eat street food every day. But I would give my body a few days to adjust to the new environment. And once you’re ready to hit the street market, just go to places where you’ll see more people waiting at the stall. This means that you’ll get some good food here. Or if you can’t find such a place, just ask someone, they will help you…
Indian people are friendly but they are a bit shy
If your skin color is white get used to getting stared at a lot. Don’t feel offended though, people are not trying to be rude they are just curious. I’ve even experienced people hanging around me and staring in the local market and it tuned out they just wanted to make sure I’m not getting ripped off.
People will stare for different reasons, so you better get used to it. You are in India after, all and should get used to their way of doing things. If you ever wondered how does it feel like to be a celebrity, you’ll get the chance to experience that if you’re a white foreigner traveling around India. Talking about things you should get used to…
Get used to the lack of personal space
The concept of personal space isn’t really a thing in India. And I couldn’t blame them for that. India has 5 times more people than the US squeezed in an area three times smaller! Get used to getting squashed when using public transport and when walking around some of the busy street markets. But that’s not all.
The lack of personal space transfers to verbal communication as well. Indians like to keep things open. So, don’t be surprised if people ask questions that you might find personal and intrusive. Remember, Indian culture is completely different from anything you ever saw before. But just like with the staring, personal questions are a mere indicator of local’s polite interest in you. Even though it might not seem like it to you.
Having this in mind, another thing you should know if you want to travel around is…
Never wait until the last minute to book your train or bus to the next city
Again, I can’t emphasize just how overcrowded India will be. Never forget that millions of Indians and tourists commute between different cities every day. This might not be such an issue in the bigger cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, or Bangalore. However, if you’re visiting a smaller but yet touristy town like Pushkar, Udaipur, Manali or Rishikesh, the number of buses in a day is limited and they fill up really fast.
I found myself having to spend an extra day in one of these cities just because I didn’t book my ticket on time. Or even worse, I had no other choice but to ride on this train which I thought can only be seen in movies. When I put it like that, I guess it doesn’t sound so bad…
Now, I know that what I said will be contradictory to what I’m about to say but…
Don’t try to rush anywhere and get used to “Indian time”
If you’re hoping to get things done fast in India, I have some bad news for you. And this applies everywhere, starting from paperwork, bank transactions, bus schedules, meetings with friends, and even business meetings. The concept of “Indian time” means that you will arrive somewhere whenever the spirit moves you. You’ll find yourself waiting for your Indian friends for half an hour when they promised they’ll come in five minutes. Most of the time the bus that was supposed to leave at 7 AM will leave at 7:45 etc.
So, when you’re planning your time, do include Indian Time in your plans. Rushing through India isn’t a good idea because every region is different climate-wise, food-wise, and culture-wise. This means you’ll need more time to adjust. Traveling around India is not like a Eurotrip that covers the biggest cities in Europe.
The roads in India are pretty bad, oftentimes include middle-of-the-night stops at dhabas with horrible food and disgusting improvised toilets, a lot of people staring at you while you sleep in the bus, and an argument with a rickshaw driver that’s usually trying to rip you off to get you to your hotel. And once you reach there, you realize you don’t have the strength for anything else. If you do this, you will have a lousy time in India because you’ll spend most of your time on the road.
So, if you only have a short time, focus on a couple of states in the same region and don’t try to cover too much ground.
To do that, you should…
Know what’s the right time to visit each state
Most states have monsoon seasons during a different part of the year. The Indian Himalayas are difficult to visit in December because many passes are closed during heavy snow. You won’t get to Leh (by road) from November to May. Goa gets heavy rains in June and gets completely empty.
Kolkata and the Northeast get a ridiculous amount of rain between May and September. Kerala also gets a lot of rain and even floods in July and August. Delhi is unbearable hot in Maj and June. The peak season to visit the Taj Mahal is in December because the weather is cooler. However, this is also the time of the year when Agra is most polluted and you’ll see the Taj surrounded by fog.
Overall, if you’re planning a trip across India, the best time to do that would be October to March. And don’t make the mistake of…
Heading straight for the Taj Mahal
For most people, the first stop in India is Delhi. Many of them head to the Taj Mahal straight after that. If you don’t have a lot of time and the Taj is on the top of your list that’s fine. But if you’re going for a longer trip and decide to take my tip and start in October, head of to Goa or Kerala as a first destination. This way, you’ll be here just before the high season starts (November). The weather will still be nice but it won’t be as touristy. Plus, the south of the country is a lot cleaner and a bit less chaotic than the north.
When the season starts, move up to Mumbai and then explore Rajasthan before eventually getting to Delhi. February is a great time to visit Delhi and the weather is really pleasant. It’s the same with the Taj Mahal. The weather won’t be too hot and there won’t be as many people around. After that, you can start exploring the Indian Himalayas in the month of March and complete your trip with a visit to the Northeast and Kolkata right before the monsoon season starts.
The most important piece of advice I could give you as a first-time visitor in India is to REMAIN CALM NO MATTER WHAT. Frustrations easily boil over in India and if you really want to your trip, you’ll have to be able to control them.