India is my favourite country in the world. Around every corner there is something new, every moment a new surprise, every day a new story. India surprises you, it amazes you, it also may scare you, but most of all, it leaves you craving for more and has the power to make you fall in love again and again.
I stepped foot in India for the first time in February 2014. I arrived and instantly thought why have I come here? I was scared, I couldn’t handle the new smells, the heat, the constant stares and most of all the constant traffic and the hassling.
Not for long though.
Despite those first feelings, I was filled with an excitement I had never had before. On my first bus journey in India I quickly killed my phone battery because I just couldn’t turn it off camera mode- I wanted to take photos of absolutely EVERYTHING and my eyes were continuously glued to the window! Everything was fascinating to me, and unlike most countries where this feeling wears off in a day or 2, this fascination continued for the whole 6 weeks I was there and ever since I left, I was planning my next trip back.
I have been asked lots of questions about India over the last few years, so I’ve put together a BIG list of essential things I believe all first time travellers to India should know before they visit. Here’s my Ultimate Guide to Backpacking in India!
Food & Drink
- Some foods should be avoided: For example it’s not always safe to eat ice cream, don’t drink the tap water and don’t order things such as salad that could have been washed in the water. Some people prefer to avoid meat and go veggie in India.
- Street food is generally safe to eat, especially if you can see it cooked there right in front of you.
- Eat with your right hand.
Travel & Accommodation
- Trains get booked up quickly. You can register to use ‘Cleartrip’, this site is good to check train times or book trains in advance (particularly if you want a higher class). Or, just make sure you buy your train tickets at a station at least a few days in advance if you are more flexible. We usually asked for 2 top bunks on sleeper trains as it’s easy to lock your backpacks up there.
- Mention the ‘foreign tourist quoter’ if you cannot get a train ticket. Try and talk to the station manager if needed (during our trip in 2014, when travelling on the main tourist routes, we found they will ‘usually’ be able to find you a ticket!) otherwise you can try and take a bus.
- At some stations in big cities, such as in New Delhi, you can visit the ‘International Tourist Bureau’ to book your tickets.
- Bring a padlock with you to India or buy one when you are there. Then buy a metal chain from one of the guys at the train stations to tie up your backpack on sleeper trains. Then use your bag as a pillow.
- There are various classes of train tickets in India. ‘Sleeper class’ is the lowest class for an overnight train and although basic, we found it completely fine. At first we booked AC2 (Air conditioned, 4 bunk beds instead of 6 in each berth, actual windows instead of metal bars, bedding, and a curtain for privacy) we then got sleeper class on our next train and it was honestly fine, plus you get to mix and chat with the everyday Indians that travel on this class of train regularly.
- Make sure you bring a sleeping bag/ blanket or a bed sheet if you want to stay warm as sleeper class trains and buses don’t provide these. In some very cheap guest houses, we often preferred to use our sleeping bags anyway if the bedding didn’t look clean.
- When you arrive at train stations, look for the pre-paid taxi counter, particularly in cities such as Mumbai. We didn’t do this in Mumbai and guess what, we got scammed. Some cities (such as Agra, Jaisalmer or Delhi) it is best to arrange a hotel pick up through your hotel as scams can be very difficult to avoid, otherwise you could try and book somewhere within walking distance. (Edit: there is now Uber in India! We used this lots on our trip in 2018-2019)
- Don’t take a big heavy backpack. Backpacking in India can involve lots of waiting around or walking around trying to find places! I ended up having to throw half my stuff away!
- Plan how you are going to get to your accommodation before you arrive at the destination, or at least have the name of the place written down on a piece of paper.
- Buy a local sim card for your mobile phone. This will be useful for contacting accommodation if you are lost or for pre-booking accommodation, we found that a lot of the budget accommodation in India did not have the option to book online, so the only option is to call in advance or just turn up and hope there is availability.
General customs and traditions
- Dress appropriately. Don’t wear revealing clothing and always cover your knees. For some temples, particularly in Punjab, you will need to cover your head and in most temples you will need to cover your shoulders, so carrying a sarong/ scarf can come in useful.
- Always remove your shoes when entering a temple or mosque. It is also good manor’s to remove your shoes if you are welcomed into someone’s home.
- Only eat and shake hands with your right hand, your left hand is considered unclean as it is what is used for visiting the bathroom!
- It is traditional to eat with your hands, some places may not offer you cutlery: For example, if you visit a traditional home or if you visit the food hall at the Golden Temple. I carried a plastic ‘Spork’ around with me at first, but then felt a bit silly so I just learnt to eat with my hands!
- Cows are holy in India. Don’t get in their way!
- Always haggle in markets or you will probably get charged more than you should, but our general rule was to pay whatever we are happy to pay, even if maybe it should be 50p cheaper. That’s a lot of money to the market stall owners, but nothing to us.
- Learn to not be surprised by anything anymore. In New Delhi, we saw a man squatting having a poo on the pavement in a really upmarket area!
- So the above is acceptable, however public display’s of affection are NOT. India is a very conservative country, avoid kissing and showing affection with your partner in public.
- Be sociable! LOTS of people will want to talk to you and get to know you, we spent one afternoon sat in a park with a group of young students who asked us questions for about 3 hours straight then we all exchanged email addresses. We also spent many train journeys answering continuous questions, from ‘Why do you have holes in your jeans?’ to ‘what social class are your fathers?’ We’ve even been offered to get married in one guys home with all his family’s elephants!
- It is normal to be constantly asked if you are married and have children, if you are not and don’t have children, don’t be surprised when you are asked why not and when. It is just the culture in India to get married and have children young.
- Don’t give money to street children.
- Don’t expect people to be punctual or for everything to run on time. In India, the concept of time is flexible.
- People will stare at you, deal with it. People will take your photo, don’t be offended, they may be from a village far away and never seen a foreign tourist before. Afterwards, ask if you can have a photo with them too, they will LOVE this and makes for some excellent photos to look back on!
Safety and Hygiene
- Be prepared to get sick, ‘Delhi Belly’, ‘Travellers Diarreah’ or whatever you want to call it. If you get sick, drink LOTS of bottled water, sleep it off, and avoid diorreah tablets as we found these don’t help, the bacteria needs to get out your body asap and these tablets made it worse.
- Culture shock will hit you. It’s okay to be scared at first, you will learn to relax and take it all in
- Bring mosquito repellent with you and make sure it contains an ingredient called ‘Deet’. If you do a backwater cruise in Kerala, there are quite a lot of mosquitos so a repellent with a high amount of ‘deet’ is handy. Mine had 80% deet! Not great for the skin, but fine on a rare occasion.
- Always carry toilet paper with you, this is rarely provided in public toilets.
- Wear a money belt under your clothing particularly in big crowded cities.
- Carry a hand sanitizer, apply it before you eat if there is not anywhere to wash your hands.
- I feel that solo female travellers should not be put off travelling in India. Places such as Kerala or Goa, however, may be a good place to start.
India is my favourite county for backpacking in, even if I didn’t love it from the very first moment. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with India and realise that maybe all the things I was scared about at first and all those things I found so different, are what made me find the country so exciting and are what caused me to develop an addiction to India that will stay with me forever.
So that is my big list of tips for backpacking in India! Have you been to India before? Are you planning to go and looking for further advice? Share your thoughts in the comments below!