They call it incredible India because of the rich variety of people, places, natural and unnatural landmarks, traditions, colours, cuisines, customs and many more. Home to the wondrous Taj Mahal, the famous Ganges river and the historic Amber Fort many people travel here each year to get a glimpse of one of the most interesting and diverse places on earth.
Ask any traveller however, and they’ll tell you that India is not an easy place to travel independently. Unless your tour has sorted out all the complexities of your journey then a little extra effort is needed to tackle this gigantic country on your own, although with great rewards.
Backpacking India is surely possible, and makes for one of the most incredible adventures you could imagine. Here are 10 things to know to get you started on your journey.
You’ll need a visa to enter the country
India is a little bit stricter with its visa requirements that other countries in the Southeast Asian region. Most nationalities require a visa to enter the country and you cannot acquire this at the airport when you arrive. If you’re travelling for 1 month then you can apply online here. For any longer duration you must visit an embassy. See our guide to applying for an Indian tourist visa while in the UK.
It’s cheap… Very cheap
India would have to be the cheapest country that I have ever travelled to. Everything is cheap – food, transport, accommodation, shopping, and the rest. If you eat at local restaurants your meal and drink will barely cost you more than £1. A bus journey across state can also be as little as £1. If you stick to budget travel you could get away with around £10 spending per day. Of course there are ways to splurge but, even so, the prices are much cheaper than any other country in the Southeast Asian region.
There are hostels in most major cities
Whilst you won’t find hostels in all cities across India, the major ones on the backpacking route do have a variety of decent and popular hostels. There are a variety of chains that tailor to the Indian backpacker including Zostel and The Hostel Crowd located in Kochi, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Agra, Varanasi, Delhi and Goa. Check Hostelworld for listings and meet other backpackers along the way.
Curry is often the meal of choice
Indians love their food, and curry is the food their culture is based upon. There are so many varieties that it’s hard to get sick of them, from rich thick Korma to light and hearty Dahl, vegetarian and non-vegetarian, there is an abundance to choose from. However, if you do find yourself getting sick of curry then I’m afraid there isn’t a lot of other options aside from the rare western menus or the odd Dominos pizza that will set you back £7. My suggestions is to try out the Indian food on offer, most venues will cater to your needs whether it’s spicy or not spicy, and most places are fully vegetarian for those avoiding meat.
Take a local bus at least once
Local buses go everywhere in India – how else would you transport 1.26 billion people across this great country? Which is why taking a local bus is an experience every Indian traveller must try. The advantages – they are cheap (roughly £1 per journey), they are convenient and can take you from one major city to the next. The disadvantages – they can often get incredibly crowded and the constant beeping of horns might wake you up, but hey, that’s all part of the experience.
Remember to use your right hand
It is etiquette in India to eat with your right hand only, and to also use your right hand only to touch someone, pass money or pick up merchandise. The left hand is considered unclean. If you’re wondering how to use the right hand to eat simply use your first three fingers and thumb, or just observe others and learn. Note that not all restaurants require this as some will provide you with cutlery.
Be prepared for attention
The truth is that when you’re in India you’re going to get attention. Even though many people have travelled here, our demeanours and appearances are still very foreign to most people in the country, especially if you’re venturing outside of main cities or off the beaten path. People stare, and they stare a lot. Even if you’re covered from head to toe, woman or man, people stare. It’s an example of the vast difference between cultures. If you feel uncomfortable with the unwanted attention then a few tips would be to dress modestly, travel in a group and avoid eye contact. Most of the time it’s harmless actions of a stare-struck country.
Always carry toilet paper
The first time I had to ask the hotel for toilet paper I thought that they merely forgot to put it there, but when I had to ask almost every hotel I figured that toilet paper isn’t really a thing here in India. The biday sprayers are usually the only option so if that’s not really up your alley then I suggest carrying a spare roll on your travels.
It’s not the cleanest place on earth
Sure, India has cleaned itself up a little in the past decade but it is still far from sterile. Air pollution is very high in main cities such as Delhi and Mumbai due to the high concentration of motor vehicles. Side streets and alleys often omit wafts of unpleasant smells from open urinals, and rubbish lines the streets where regular trash collection isn’t available (which is pretty much everywhere). Don’t drink the water as water treatment is non-existent and it wouldn’t hurt to carry some hand sanitiser around as well, just to be safe.
Prepare yourself for culture shock
India is a different place. Even if you’ve travelled the rest of Southeast Asia, India makes places like Thailand and Cambodia seem laidback and hassle-free, but the fact that India is different is what attracts us. The culture here is one of the most unique in the world and you no doubt will be shocked, whether it’s from the chaos, or the unique customs and traditions, or even something as simple as the food. You will love some things and you will hate some things but as long as you’re prepared then you’ll have a better chance of immersing yourself into everything that is India and gain the most from your travels.