In my previous post Backpacking Across India I wrote about the draws of backpacking across India- it’s highs, it’s lows and the typical trails chosen by backpacker to discover this vast and diverse country called India. Here’s a practical guide to backpacking in India, that will help you plan and prepare for effect travel in India can have.
Most regions of India experiences hot tropical weather. The summer months May and June are hot, dry and dusty and many travellers find it uncomfortable to travel at this time of the year. The south is hot almost hot throughout the year but more bearable in the winter. The winter months (November – March) will see the most of the subcontinent enjoying relatively cool temperatures and clear skies. inaccessible in winter. Most regions are subject to monsoon rains between June and September. On the whole before and during the monsoon, humidity is far more of a problem than straight heat. The Himalayas experience much colder, damper weather in the winter and higher lying places are usually covered in snow, making them inaccessible.
Generally speaking, the best time to visit India is from October to mid-April but this can varies according to which part of India your visiting.
For Shorter Distances: Local and government buses can be good, but aren’t much fun or comfortable for longer distances. Private (as in not operated by the state) buses or shared taxis are much better – all run frequently. Some tourists in Rajasthan and other areas hire a car and driver for several weeks – great idea, but only if you get a good driver, so in many ways this is a gamble and quite expensive comparatively if you are one or few. For very short distances with in a city try the notorious 3 wheeler Auto Rickshaw.
For Longer Distances: India has a great rail service (www.indianrail.gov.in) which is also the world’s biggest employer. It covers over 7000 destinations and represents a great way to get around on a budget. There are frequent express trains between all major cities and local buses link up to cover smaller towns not serviced by the rail network. There are six classes of travel all of which are relatively inexpensive so most travellers opt for the second-air conditioned class, which is relatively comfortable and cheaper than first class travel whilst retaining the main benefit (the air conditioning). Getting a ticket can be a hassle, but many routes have foreigner quotas and most stations foreigner counters/information. Many agencies offer train booking services and major stations have special offices for tourists.
By Air: The sheer size of India means that unlike most countries internal flights are something worth thinking about. Indian trains are great, but costs in more comfortable classes add up and after 25+ hours on the same train you might wish you looked into flying. Many new budget airlines have recently started up in India, making getting around if you’ve a little extra cash to spare, much, much easier. On-line booking is possible for most airlines and it’s better to book in advance especially for popular routes that fill up fairly quickly because of the competitive prices.
Loads of cheap guest houses, most a little hot, noisy and very basic. Middle range rooms with AC are worth it at times. For cheaper budget accommodation there is a variety of Hostels spread out throughout each region. The department of tourism moderates these and you will generally be provided with a bed with a mattress, bed linen and a wardrobe with a lock. The standard of hygiene varies so it is often advisable to bring your own lightweight sleeping bag when staying in a hostel. Remember that you get what you pay for so a little extra goes a long way in terms of comfort and amenities.
Hot water is normally available, though not so much in the south where you may not even need it as the regular water is quite hot. However in some places hot water can often be charged extra on top of cheap rooms.
If you are hitting Goa at New Year or a tourist attraction during a festive, get there earlier or book ahead, otherwise there is plenty of accommodation and touts who will help you find it.
The Food options are plenty and you’ll never have to look far to find a meal. Roadside eateries are very cheap and scattered everywhere, but hygiene is questionable. If haven’t got a strong stomach be careful of what you eat to avoid the infamous Delhi belly. If the place you’re about to eat at doesn’t look hygienic, it most likely isn’t – not for your Western stomach, anyway. Avoid dishes with cream and dairy products and stick to simple rice, roti, vegetables and lentil dishes or chicken. Avoid food that is too spicy as your stomach may not be able to take the heat of Indian chillies. Be vary of seafood especially in non coastal cities. Fruit and vegetables should be washed and preferably peeled before consumption. Wash your hands carefully before eating as a common source of diarrhea is touching items that were touched by someone other who had diarrhea didn’t wash their hands.
The tap water in India is untreated and is not safe to drink, so stick to bottled water whenever possible and if your in a decent restaurant ask if their regular water is filtered or boiled before drinking it. At the same time remember to drink enough water and stay hydrated as your body loses a lot of fluids in the the Indian humidity and heat.
Alcohol availability depends very much on how the state you are in views it, Goa being famously the most relaxed.
Malaria is present throughout the year in most parts of India so caution should be observed. Your best bet for avoiding malaria is using a mosquito-net at night to avoid being eaten up alive.There are mosquito creams that are quite effective as well as coils you can burn to get rid of mosquitoes in the evening time – between 6.00 PM and the time you take rest.
Women can expect a lot of unwanted attention and some quite dangerous. To respect Indian sensitivities when in public Western women should avoid wearing skirts or at least keep the length of the skirt below the knees or longer. A better option is jeans or relatively loose slacks. Avoid sleeveless tops, tight trousers/pants, and shorts. These suggestions are especially important when visiting rural areas or tradition-bound urban areas.
Avoid giving to beggars who you can see are specifically targeting tourists. It creates more hassle for future tourists and a non-sustainable dependence.
Be careful with your belonging especially electronics like cell phones, mp3 player, digital cameras and so on. Don’t leave your bags unguarded and preferably have a lock on them. Keep any small bags you have at very close quarters while travelling on trains or buses otherwise get a simple and quick wire-lock or chain lock to keep your luggage safe. It will give you peace of mind and possibly save your trip from being seriously tarnished.
You may have notions that your exotic travel will take you far away from the modern world and all means of staying in touch. This is, however, rarely the case for any more than a short spell as the Internet is virtually everywhere. The connections may be a little slower than what your used to but easily accessible. It is also not uncommon to find larger more professional internet cafes located normally in the bigger cities.
If you intend to use your mobile a lot, really the best bet is to buy a local prepaid SIM card which can normally be found without too much trouble (make sure your phone is ‘unlocked’ if you plan to do this). Ask for a roaming facility that enables you to use the card across the country wherever your travels take you.