India is a challenging country to visit and people are often nervous about it. Those who get it right find it to be an incredibly rewarding destination but there are people who end up not enjoying the experience. It is one of our all-time favourite places and we get asked about it a lot. Here are our top tips for getting the most out of your Indian adventure.
Take your time
You first few days in India will probably overwhelming, ours certainly were. The deluge of noise, smells, crowds and touts in the large Indian cities is hard to describe, while the slow pace and bureaucracy involved in getting anything done can be infuriating (on our most recent trip it took us a full week to get a working SIM card). Ideally, we would recommend planning a trip of at least 2 weeks and preferably 3 so that you have time to acclimatize and settle into enjoying the unique atmosphere. A longer trip also means that you have the luxury of spending two or three days at each place instead of rushing between them – India is frenetic enough without the additional stress of a jampacked schedule. Having more time will also give you the space to fit some essential downtime into your itinerary – visit an hill station or wildlife area; or spend some time in one of the more chilled out cities like Pondicherry, Jaisalmer or Udaipur.
Don’t panic about hygiene
Between us, we have spent something like 6 months in India and neither of us has ever experienced any serious stomach issues. There is no need to panic about the hygiene issues as long as you apply some common sense.
- Do not take any chances with water. This includes brushing your teeth with bottled water and avoiding food that may have been washed without subsequent cooking such as salad. Be careful of cut fruit (on buffets or street stalls) which may be splashed with water to keep it moist. Table water and ice in more upscale restaurants are fine, but avoid on the streets.
- Stick to eating at busy restaurants and food vendors. Stick to local food and if in doubt order vegetarian (chicken and mutton is best eaten at restaurants that specialize in “non-veg” rather than just have a few non veg menu items). Avoid beef, western food (except at specialist western restaurants), buffets and anything else where you suspect that the turnover of stock might be low.
- If you ask, there is generally somewhere with soap to wash your hands before and after every meal (and the Indians will think it’s pretty disgusting if you don’t). Carry hand sanitizer for the rare occasions where there are no hand washing facilities.
- India will not be winning any toilet awards in the near future, but once you get used to the squat variety, they’re not that bad. Carry a pocket pack, and don’t bring anything inside that you have to put down (the floors are always wet because of the washing system). Avoid public toilets (e.g. bus stations) if possible.
Learn to love the food
Indian food can be a major highlight of an Indian trip or a source of constant stress and frustration. Obviously if you completely despise curry in all forms you will struggle, but for most people there is something they will like amongst the massive diversity of options available. Our top tips:
- Research the wide variety of Indian dishes and find things you’d like to try and that you think might suit your tastes. Look for regional specialities and restaurants that specialize in specific dishes (e.g. It is a waste of time ordering biryani at a non-specialist restaurant).
- Book a food tour or cooking course (preferably both) early in your trip. This will expose you to a wider variety of food and make you braver about which restaurants and food vendors you try. Many guesthouses and small restaurants will happily take you into the kitchen and show you how to make things.
- Eat regional Indian food at places where Indian people eat. Westernized Indian food and Indianized Western food in touristy restaurants generally disappoints. Reviews on Zomato and Google Maps are good for this, whereas the Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor can be useful but are biased towards Westernized places. This doesn’t necessarily mean eating somewhere basic – there are plenty of very upscale restaurants frequented by upper echelons of Indian society. That said, some of the best food we’ve had has been in basic restaurants, especially in the south (and so cheap: 50c to USD1 for breakfast, under USD3 for a main meal).
- Do not try to order your food mild, medium or hot. Indian food doesn’t work like that (although you might occasionally be asked if you want chili in something). Instead, certain dishes are typically milder than others, so do your research.
- All Indian food is spicy, but not all Indian food is hot. If you are worried about food being too hot, order a variety of dishes so that you can leave anything you don’t like. Thalis are great for this (a thali is an Indian set meal, usually with a number of small dishes and rice). Breads and raitas do a good job of countering heat.
- It’s not all about curry – try biryani, dosa, idly, tikka, rotisserie chicken, samoosas, soups, sweets etc etc.
- Don’t insist on meat – some of the best restaurants and dishes are vegetarian.
A special request from us – please don’t eat or pose for photos with dead sharks, these are only caught for tourists and many are endangered species.
Spend less (or maybe a bit more)
It is possible to visit India, stay exclusively in 5 star hotels, eat at gourmet restaurants and be chauffeured around with a private guide but we think this is missing some of the point of the Indian experience. We’re not saying you have to slum it, or skip the luxury experience entirely, but we think you should mix it up a bit. Stay in a homestay (some of which are very upscale homes and/or heritage buildings) or a small guesthouse. Take a stroll around a market area in the evening (Indian cities come alive at night). Eat at local canteens or street-side stalls. In particular, take some public transport (especially the trains) – this isn’t even really slumming it, travelling by car in India can be terrifying and nausea-inducing.
On the flip side, India is an awesome budget destination and is by far the cheapest place we have travelled. Use a little of what you’ve saved to treat yourself occasionally – book a tiger safari, visit a high end restaurant or just stay somewhere with a hot shower!