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I spent 2 months backpacking around India solo in early 2015. I covered over 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) and visited over 13 cities. I wrote this post as a general travel guide to anyone who aspires to visit India. My goal in this post is to educate you a bit about the country, tell you what to expect from Indian culture and provide recommendations for food, nightlife, attractions, etc – all based off my own experiences. Please note that I will be 100% honest with you in this post, so take everything as you wish.
If you have any questions or need help planning your trip, then please comment below or email me here!
And also, please see my other blog posts about India:
– 7 Lessons I Learned from 7 Weeks in India
– Top 7 Party Cities in India
– Smoking Hash & Weed in India.. It’s Common!
– Top 10 Best and Worst Highlights in India
– An Insane Experience at Holi Festival
– What it was like to Survive a Huge Bus Crash
– How I got in a Bollywood Movie, and how you can too!
General Thoughts & Reactions
As they say, “If you can travel in India, then you can travel anywhere.” That statement is nothing but the truth.
The subcontinent of India is unlike any place I’ve ever been. I spent 2 months backpacking from the South (Goa) to the North (Punjab) and it was the most eye-opening and life-changing trip I’ve ever been on. In total, I visited 13 cities, 8 states and I covered a distance of more than 4,000 kilometers by means of 7 trains and 8 bus rides.
Here is a map of the journey that I took:
Traveling India is like a roller coaster of emotions of both ups and downs. It’s a giant mix of good and bad, happy and evil. It’s both challenging and inspiring. And everything is thrown at you in the face at the same time.
Because of this, I began to develop a love/hate relationship with India. One moment, I loved it, and the next, I hated it. At times I felt enlightened and inspired, and other times were filled with anxiety and exhaustion.
Because of my love/hate relationship with India, half of this post is going to sound positive and the other half will sound negative. But it’s all honesty coming from my heart.
–> Here are my Top 10 Best and Worst Highlights from traveling around the subcontinent.
I do realize that India has received a bad reputation in recent years from tourists who have visited and had bad things happen to them. Especially, from the American point of view – India is seen as a very dangerous place to visit.
But I would like to say upfront to not make any judgments of the country until you visit for yourself and see life unfold with your own eyes. The same goes with any country, not just India.
You may have noticed that I’ve been referring to India as a “subcontinent” as opposed to a country. Here’s why:
Firstly, there are 1.26 billion people. That is the same as 1,260 MILLION people, living in a country that is 1/3 the size of the USA. Think about that for a long second.
Or put in other words, there are more people living in India than ALL of Europe, The USA, Canada, Australia and Mexico COMBINED.
Here is how small India is compared to the USA:
India has 29 states, each with their own traditions and diverse histories. The constitution of India recognizes 18 official languages, but there are actually more than 1,600 local dialects. In fact, the language barrier in India has become a huge issue amongst Indians themselves, because there is no uniform language (or national language) that everyone in the country can speak. Even though the most common language is Hindi, it’s more used in Northern India vs. Southern India.
Luckily, English is widespread all over the country (because India was a British colony for hundreds of years until 1947), so you don’t need to worry about a language barrier. Almost everyone at least can hold a basic conversation in English. And for the educated Indians, English is virtually their mother tongue because all of their schooling is in English. Even for large amount of Indians who speak several languages, English is usually their second most fluent.
Therefore, it’s common for two random Indians to communicate in English when meeting for the first time, especially if it’s a Northern India and a Southern Indian.
Another reason for why India is more like a “subcontinent” is the geography of the land.
The landscape of India drastically changes everywhere you go. The north is home to the largest and highest mountain range in the world- the Himalayas. The south is tropical and very hot. And in the middle, you have plains, fields, valleys, beaches and everything in between.
The land of India, in my opinion, is just as diverse as America.
There’s not much you can do to prepare yourself for what you are about to experience in India, so just have the mentality to ‘go with the flow.’ Prepare all of your senses and expect the unexpected.
Alright let’s dive into some facts:
– Population: 1.26 billion people
– Currency: Indian Rupee (INR)
– Language: There isn’t a “National Language,” but Hindi and English are most common
– The name “India” is derived from the River Indus– the valleys which were the home of the early settlers.
– Civilization in India began over 4,500 years ago
– Chess was invented in India, as was Algebra, Trigonometry and Calculus
– India is the largest democracy in the world, the 7th largest country and one of the most ancient civilizations
– India is the world’s largest English speaking country
– Indian Railways is the largest employer in the world
– 4 religions were born in India: Hindiusm, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. These 4 religions are followed by 25% of the world’s population.
– Islam makes up 15% of the Indian population, which makes it the second largest Muslim country in the world (behind Indonesia).
– There are 300,000 active mosques in India.
– Yoga originated in India some 5,000 years ago
– India has the largest number of vegetarians in the world (30-40% of the population)
– India has the 2nd largest pool of scientists and engineers in the world
– India has the most post offices in the world
– Varanasi was called the “Ancient City” when Lord Buddha visited in 500 B.C., and it’s the oldest, continuously inhabited city in the world today.
– Martial arts was created in India
For me, the most amazing part about traveling India was being 100% immersed in the culture – more so than any other country that I have visited.
Maybe it’s because there are so many people in India that it’s impossible to go anywhere without being surrounded by Indians – even in the most touristy areas.
Here is a photo of me learning how to play cricket with these amazing kids in Jaipur.
My eyes were wide open everywhere I went and my jaw was on the ground. My brain was trying to process everything that I was seeing. Everything was shockingly new.
The easiest way to explain Indian culture is in these 2 words: Anything goes.
It’s almost as if there are no laws… People just do what they want and nobody says anything. For example, I witnessed kids under 10 years old openly smoking cigarettes with their friends. I saw several adults taking a shower naked under a faucet in a public train station. I saw entire families of 5 fitting onto one motorbike on the freeway. Anyone is free to do whatever he/she wishes – at least it seemed that way to me.
And driving/crossing the street is a nightmare…
The streets are filled with crazy, impatient drivers and it’s an absolute disaster to cross the road. This is where my anxiety levels were out the roof.
Most streets don’t have lanes, and they are filled with all types of vehicles ranging from rickshaws, trucks, buses, taxis, bicycles, and motorbikes, mixed together with pedestrians and beggars. Rush hour seems to be every minute that the sun is shining, and it’s is unbearable in big cities. Cars literally never stop honking. They honk for no reason.
Crossing the street in India is like playing the final level of Frogger. You either make it across, or die trying.
Poverty is everywhere.
Over 40% of the entire population lives on less than $1USD per day. With this much poverty directly translates to beggars on the streets. You can’t avoid them because they are everywhere. Poor people will even grab you as they beg for money. You must get used to this.
The streets are very dirty. In some places, human feces are seen in alleys and in rivers (mostly in the slums). The smells of trash and urine are volatile. The living conditions for many are unsanitary, and much of the water is contaminated (drink only bottled water!) In the summer months, the heat and humidity is unbearable and A/C isn’t common in taxis or hotel rooms (unless you pay extra for it).
Stray dogs, cats and cows almost outnumber the people on the streets. In fact, cows are considered holy in India (so nobody kills them) and there are over 600 million cows wandering the land. That is one cow for every 2 people in India, or more surprisingly, 2 Indian cows for every 1 American person. Wow.
Another thing to note about Indian culture is corruption. It is seen everywhere. The black market in India is the biggest that I’ve seen around the world. If you have money, then you can get away with almost anything.
Moreover, if the police stop you for any reason, you can literally bribe them by paying them off. It happened to me when I got stopped on a motorbike and asked for my registration papers. When I didn’t have them, the officer threatened to take away my bike, but I just put 200 Rupees ($3USD) in his hand and I got away with it. Easy as that.
But despite all of this chaos mentioned above, everything in India works. Somehow, life just flows naturally.
It took me some time to realize this, but Indian culture is actually very peaceful. People generally respect one another. I guess with 1.25 billion people, there is no choice but to respect one another, or else there would be some sort of all-out war.
When it comes to entertainment, India only speaks two languages: Bollywood and Cricket.
Bollywood is the largest film industry in the world. It’s much bigger and older than Hollywood. When I was in Mumbai, I acted as an extra in a Bollywood film and it was awesome! Check out my Bollywood experience here, and how you can do it too.
Here is photo of me acting on set of a Bollywood film.
Cricket, on the other hand, is watched and played everywhere in India. And I mean everywhere! I’ve never seen a sport more popular in any other country than cricket is in India. In any given park, open area or even alley ways, expect to see a bunch of kids playing cricket together.
It’s charming and it made me happy to see so many kids involved and having fun together.
The majority of Indian people that I met are friendly. They are good people and they mean well. I met some really cool locals that showed me around their city, and many of them have already turned into my lifelong friends.
Indian fashion and style is unique and I loved it. Women dress beautifully in colors and men typically wear button downs and jeans. Many people, both men and women, wear a bindi, or a red dot, on their forehead in between their eyebrows. It has religious purpose and symbolizes many things such as energy, strength, concentration and love.
But aside from the select group of awesome Indian people that I met, most random Indians that I came across on the streets are very nosey and they were all up in my business.
Now, keep in mind that this is coming from my perspective – a white American kid with red hair. I know that I stood out like a sore thumb more than anyone else, so perhaps I received the maximum amount of attention possible. But, if you also have white skin, or other features that stand out, then you will attract a LOT of attention.
So, prepare yourself to get an overwhelming amount of attention everywhere you go.
What do I mean by “attention?”
People will stop you on the street and try to talk to you, touch you, or ask to take a photo with you. I lost count of how many random people I took a photo with upon their request. People would actually pull my arm to get my attention when I walked past them. I was invited to people’s houses for dinner on several occasions. I was offered homes to sleep in. In the cities, people followed me while tying to sell me hash and weed by whispering in my ear. One time, I was texting on a bench in an empty park and some guy came and sat right next to me, put his head over my shoulder and watched my every move.
The attention that I got was very much in-your-face and it took me a while to get used to it. I learned to walk fast with my head down, put on my sunglasses and ignore all of them. All the attention that I was getting gave me some extra anxiety when I was out in public.
Alright, I’m sure you get the point about the attention…
The next thing that I’m going to tell you is perhaps the biggest piece of advice in this entire blog post:
HAGGLE FOR EVERYTHING!
Haggle = Negotiate & Bargain for a cheaper price. Do it with every purchase.
The biggest realization that I had about Indian people is how smart and manipulative they are. I was honestly shocked. They are also REALLY GOOD salesmen. When it comes to selling, Indian people can run circles around Chinese People, Vietnamese, Japanese, Thai and all other Asian countries that I’ve been to. I think this is because the Indian people were some of the first traders and merchants in the world, so it has been in their blood for centuries.
Even though travel in India is very cheap (it’s one of the cheapest countries I’ve been to), that still doesn’t mean that you should get ripped off!
Street merchants and tuk tuk drivers will try to trick you for every last rupee in your wallet. I am telling you, very importantly, to negotiate for everything including your hotel rooms, rickshaw rides and souvenirs. I even bargained my haircuts for a cheaper price. You can even negotiate the police if they ask you for money for something. It’s normal.
Also, beware that you will be blatantly lied to by Indians so they can get your money. They will tell you false things just so they can convince you to buy something. Be careful and don’t believe everything that you hear. Sometimes, it’s hard not to believe people because they are so convincing and they sell you in such a friendly way. Consider yourself warned.
I was also surprised to see how everyone gets along with each other, despite the streets being overpopulated. In fact, India is widely considered the most peaceful country in the world. All throughout history, India has NEVER invaded another country. For having 1.25 billion people, everyone has immense respect for one another, and I was impressed.
Can you imagine if 1.2 billion Americans people living in one country? Or 1.2 billion French people? I think that they would all rip each other’s heads off!
Aside from Indian people, the travelers and backpackers that I met around India were pretty cool. Most of them were hippies and an overwhelming amount of them were European – French, German, Dutch, British or Israeli or Russian. Everyone was very laid back, friendly, and are traveling India to temporarily (or permanently) escape the reality of life.
I didn’t really meet any Americans, which isn’t surprising because Americans don’t travel often when compared to many other countries.
Oh, and everyone in India gets high. You can find weed and hash everywhere, and it’s very cheap.
Indian food is sooooooo yummy!
Despite getting food poisoning on the 3rd day (it happens to almost everyone), I began to fall in love with the unlimited curry dishes, mouthwatering spices, fresh cooked chapati and hot Indian chai.
Indian cuisine offers a wide variety of spices, herbs, vegetables and fruits. Food dishes and styles change as you move around India, as each region is heavily influenced by religion and cultural preferences. In other words, what you will find in the South is almost completely different than in the North.
But there is one thing that’s found everywhere, and that is curry!
I thought that I’d get sick of eating curry for 8 weeks in India. I was proven wrong. There are SO many different varieties, flavors, spices and tastes that you will never get sick of it.
I will highly advise you to go vegetarian when you are traveling India. Trust me. It’s for your health and for your protection against food poisoning.
Due to the frequent power outages, the meat is often expired and just bad quality. I got horrible food poisoning from eating chicken curry. The chicken was not fresh, and I was on my hand and knees throwing up all night on my bathroom floor. Don’t let this happen to you.
Also, it’s very hard to find beef in India because they worship cows and seafood isn’t common unless you’re on the coast. I know going veggie will be hard for many of you, just like I was for me because I am a meat lover. But you just have to do it. I had been eating meat 2-3 times a day while living in Korea prior to my India trip.
But in fact, India has the largest number of vegetarians in the world (around 30-40%), due to religious reasons or personal choices or both. Not surprisingly, India is the largest vegetarian-friendly country in the world, and you will find a veggie menu in every restaurant around the country.
My favorite Indian dishes were:
Cheese Masala Dosa – a crunchy fermented crepe made from rice batter and filled with cheese and spices and dipping sauces. The best South Indian dish!
Aloo Gobi – Potatoes and cauliflower mixed with Indian spices
Pav Bhaji – Spicy red mixed vegetables with butter, cheese, dry fruits and served with warm garlic bread.
Palak Paneer – Spinach mixed with cottage cheese
Vada – A South Indian snack made of flour batter fried into a doughnut shape.
Garlic Chapati – Indian hot flat bread
Lassi – a popular yogurt-based drink, that comes flavored with fruits like mango or banana
Masala Chai – a sweet flavored tea made from black tea and spices and herbs. It’s always served boiling hot.
When most people think about India, they certainly don’t think about a crazy nightlife scene. The only exception may be in the hippie city of Goa, but even still, India widely unheard of in the world of partygoers.
I definitely had no idea of India’s nightlife prior to my trip, but OMG did I have a fun time!
During my trip, I made it a point to hit up all the cities with the best nightlife, so in a way, my trip was kind of like a “Party Tour of India.”
The 2 best Indian cities to party in are Goa and Mumbai. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have fun in other big cities.
In recent years, India has become popular for it’s bars, night clubs and music festivals. So whether your idea of partying is relaxing on a rooftop while sipping beer, or raging all night long at a night club, or dancing to EDM at a music festival, India has something special to offer all of you party animals.
Speaking of EDM, the scene is rapidly hitting India. I am an EDM fanatic and raver, so for me, this was amazing. I never knew that I could dance to EDM in India, and moreover, I never expected Indian people to follow all my favorite DJs!
Despite most of the general population staying away from alcohol and late night hangouts, there is still a party happening no matter which city you are in. I noticed that the younger generation is more liberal with an attitude to have some fun.
The most common local beer is Kingfisher. It’s really cheap (less than $1 USD per bottle) and it’s not bad!
Different states in India have different laws, curfews and legal drinking ages. For example, in Delhi, the drinking age is technically 25 (although not strictly enforced), but in Goa, it’s 18. Most other states in India is 21, but once again, places will just want your business, so they usually won’t ask for your ID (unless you’re in a swanky night club). Unfortunately, most parties finish at 1:30 with the exception of Goa where parties on the beach go all night long.
I wrote a post about theTop 7 Party Cities in India, so check that out to read more about each hotspot!
Planning Your Trip
The best way to travel India is to have no plan whatsoever.
Just have a general idea of where you want to start and finish, and then go wherever the wind takes you. This is what I did, as well as most travelers that I met. It’s the best way to travel India.
However, this requires you to have some time to move around freely. So, I recommend traveling in India for at least 1 month. This way, you won’t feel rushed and if you really like a place, then you can stay longer (and vice versa).
The next question is deciding whether to travel the North or the South. They are much different, almost like different countries. The North is generally more touristy, because there is more to offer. But the South is more tropical and has the best beaches and some of the biggest cities.
If you like beaches, then you should visit Kerala in the South. If you like hiking, then go up north near the Himalayas in Kashmir or Hamachal Pradesh. If you want to taste the best Indian food, then visit Punjab.
But the best overall state to visit, in my opinion, is Rajasthan. It is India’s largest state located in the North Western part of the country. It has a very rich history, diverse culture, and many historic landmarks to visit. You can also visit the Thar Desert (India’s largest desert) and go on an overnight camel safari like I did!
Check out this epic selfie that I took on my camel.
But if you only have a few days to travel India, then I recommend doing the “Golden Triangle.” That is Delhi -> Agra -> Jaipur.
You will get a taste of India’s biggest and craziest city (Delhi), then see the Taj Mahal in Agra, and finally get to experience the capital city of Rajasthan in Jaipur. You can do this Golden Triangle in a week or less if you rush it, and it’s very common among travelers.
Here are some other helpful blogs about travel in India!
Hippie in Heels – Rachel is living in Goa and blogs about Indian life and gives awesome tips for girl travel in India. One of my favorite travel blogs!
Breathe The Dream Go – Mariellen is a veteran when it comes to travel in India, and her blog was one of the first that I’d ever read. Her travel advice around India is not to be missed!
– Book your hotels in India on this link 🙂
– Go to India during the peak season from October – February… March-July is the HOT season, and July – September is monsoon season. If you travel during the hot or monsoon seasons, then you trip may be miserable.
– Go Vegetarian to protect your stomach and health
– Don’t come to India if you plan on getting any work done (I’m talking to you bloggers and digital nomads). The wifi in most places is horribly slow, and there are frequent long-lasting power outages that happen everyday. Don’t get frustrated if it takes 45 minutes to send one email.
– Frequent power outages occur mostly in the countryside areas and they can last up to 12 hours a day. Sometimes, I was in the middle of taking a shower and everything went pitch black. Or I was eating at a restaurant and the lights went out, so they lit a candle on my table so I could see.
– Watch out for Cow shit everywhere on the streets
– Only drink Bottled Water
– Bring Napkins and toilet paper with you everywhere (bathroom don’t have it)
– DON’T TAKE BUSES! Only take trains, and preferably in daylight. I got in a deadly bus crash and I almost died. Just avoid them, period.
– Learn the basic words of “Please, Thank You, Yes, No, etc”
– Bring copies of your passport/visa/passport pics. Many hotels and travel tours will ask for them.
Lastly, I will leave you with these final words:
The truth is, India is going to be exactly what you make of it. It’s not a country to see, but rather it’s a place to experience with all your senses. Whether you like it or hate it, it’s a different experience for everyone, and I can guarantee that it will be life changing. You won’t ever forget it.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed my post about India! Please comment below with your thoughts and questions 🙂
Stay updated on my travels & follow me on Snapchat (@drewbinsky)!