One month backpacking in India – Part 3

Jun 19

A traveler once told me, it would take 2 lifetimes to finish visiting India. Since I only have 1 month, I decided to take full advantage of the limited time I had by going on a grand tour of India. The journey was so grand that it took me from the south to the north, from the baking desert plain of Rajasthan to the freezing snow capped mountain of the Himalayan, from the beaches of the heritage Goa to the spiritually intense Ganga and from the border of Pakistan at the west straight into the heart of Bangladesh at the east. In total I have traveled more than 7,500 km on the ground, resting at 16 places. Out of the 16 places, 6 of them are listed as World heritage sites. Out of the 6 World heritage sites, one of them are considered as 7 wonders of the world. The following map shows the trail I have taken. Click on it for enlarged view.

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These are the 16 places I have visited…

  1. Trichy, Tamil Nadu (21 ~ 22 March 2009)
  2. Manipal, Karnataka (23 ~ 25 March 2009)
  3. Panaji, Goa (26 ~ 27 March 2009)
  4. Mumbai, Maharastra (28 ~ 29 March 2009)
  5. Udaipur, Rajasthan (30 ~ 31 March 2009)
  6. Mount Abu, Rajasthan (31 March ~ 2 April 2009)
  7. Jaipur, Rajasthan (2 ~ 4 April 2009)
  8. Agra, Uttar Pradesh (4 ~ 6 April 2009)
  9. Amritsar, Punjab (7 ~ 8 April 2009)
  10. McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh (9 ~ 11 April 2009)
  11. Manali, Himachal Pradesh (12 ~ 13 April 2009)
  12. Shimla, Himachal Pradesh (14 ~ 15 April 2009)
  13. New Delhi (16 April 2009)
  14. Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh (17 ~ 18 April 2009)
  15. Kolkata, West Bengal (19 ~ 20 April 2009)
  16. Dhaka, Bangladesh (21 ~ 22 April 2009)

So what is India?

The moment I stepped into India, one thing that struck me was poverties were rampant. The size of the slums were simply mind boggling. Beggars of all ages is a common sight in the pastel colored world. Cows having its meal in the flies and maggots infested garbage dump with human sitting next to it like it is his home. At every corners I turned, I have to keep my head low to scan for “land mines” contributed by not only from cows, but also from human. Every wall is a public toilet. All these made a storm of smells unknown to me before, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. India is indeed the dirtiest country I have ever visited. It makes Penang look so clean.

On top of that, India is extremely noisy even for Malaysian standard. I was constantly bombarded with all kind of noises such as vehicle horns, drums and loud musics. That is why ear plug is a saver when I want to sleep.

The heat can be unbearable sometimes. When I was in Calcutta, India was hit by heat wave. According to CNN, certain part of India was 45 degree Celcius hot! No wonder I couldn’t stop sweating when I sleep at night even with fan on full blast. With such extreme condition, electricity blackout and water shortage is very common.

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Kid beggars from Mumbai slum at Chowpatty Beach

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One of the slums in Mumbai

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Man taking bath by the road side in Chandni Chowk, Delhi.

However, don’t let all these deter you from going to India. Just accept it as part of the experience. A true traveler don’t choose the experience he/she wanted to experience. He/she just want to experience any experience coming his/her way! To truly enjoy your stay in India, don’t look with your eyes, but look with your heart. That’s when you will begin to see something beautiful despite the lacking of our so call modern comforts such as the joy in the eyes of the slum dwellers and the beautiful friendship among them. The kids do not need PlayStation to be happy. All they need are some friends and some empty space they can run around. Joy can never be simpler than this. How about strangers sit around and share the same meal like family members inside the train or the biggest smile from strangers that sweep the streets of Mumbai or the ingenuity of handymen that can fix anything with scrap materials or a stranger who willing to take me around the Golden Temple in Amritsar for few hours without asking for a single cent or a stranger who willingly pick me up on his motorbike and drop me at the bus station in Manali because I was late? All of these are priceless experiences that can’t be bought by tickets.

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Chatting with Carlos Martin of Goa. He was sitting there and watching the day pass by when I came up to him. He is 101 years old.

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Kids playing cricket; India’s favorite past time.

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Food sharing is very common in train.

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Street beggars receiving free medical treatment from volunteers in Delhi.

India has everything to offer, including the not-so-welcome experiences. Like everywhere else, pick pockets, con men, dishonest salesmen and thieves are something you must beware of. I heard of many scary stories from friends and it made me a little bit paranoid when I was there. Luckily, nothing bad happened except for a close call in Calcutta where I caught a man trying to pick my pocket in a crowded public bus. Other than that, I just ignored every pleads of help from strangers when I was in Mumbai. They can give you all sorts of excuses such as losing his passport or money. If you really wanna shop in India, do so with extra care. I found it is very hard to find an honest sales person in India. Everything from auto-rickshaw to guest houses works on a commission basis. For example, a stranger can come up to you and help you hail an auto-rickshaw for free. The auto-rickshaw driver would pay him a certain commission without your knowledge and the ride would cost you more than it should. Just practice a little bit of common sense and you will be fine. If anything bad ever happen to you, just take it as a tuition, but make sure you don’t pay too much for the fee.

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Auto-rickshaw. You can see them everywhere in India.

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One of the dishonest street vendor who cheated us with his oversize balloons.

Growing up in a multi-culture, multi-racial and multi-everything country like Malaysia, I thought I know everything about Indian food until I come to India. Indian food is not only wonderful but full of adventure. You never know when you gonna get diarrhea. To be safe, here are some rules of thumb to follow. 1) If you don’t know what is that lump of black stuff in your banana leaf meal, just put it aside. 2) If it is hot, it is safe. 3) Don’t drink tap water. Other than that, it all depend on your luck.

If you really want to enjoy your food, listen to my advice; don’t ever go into the kitchen. It will frighten your appetite away. Like this kitchen…

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Believe it or not, it is consider “clean” for Indian standard. The guy actually trying to stop me from taking photo.

Since there are so many varieties to choose from, I don’t bother to remember all of them. To add in the fun, I just closed my eyes and ordered the first thing I pointed on the menu, like this mirchi pakoda I ordered in Goa…

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In case you still cannot tell what is that, it is actually chili fritter. Do expect a lot and I mean, really a lot of spices in Indian food. Every bite is like explosion of spices in my mouth. Good news is you won’t have constipation problem in India. If the spices did not stimulate your bowel, then the high fiber recipe will help. Indian food are mostly made from non-meat ingredient because religion has strong influence in the food. The Hindu doesn’t eat beef while Jain and Buddhist are mostly vegetarian. That is why most restaurants in India are vegetarian restaurants. At one point, I was having vegetarian food back to back for almost one week and the funny thing is I am not complaining. When I was traveling in a train, I told an Indian family that in Malaysia, the Indian doesn’t eat beef, the Malay doesn’t eat pork and the Chinese eat everything that moves. It wasn’t suppose to be a joke but they all were ROLF (Rolling On the Floor Laughing).

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Veg. Thali; a vegetarian set meal.

Talk about religion, India is a very spiritual country. At every turns, you will find temples, monasteries, churches and mosques. Not surprisingly, most places of interest in India are places of worship. After all, it is the birth place of few major religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism.

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Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Trichy

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Basilica of Bom Jesus

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The mosque beside Taj Mahal

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The Golden Temple of Amritsar

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Tibetan monks in McLeod Ganj

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Digambara Jain Temple

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Spiritual Ganga at Varanasi

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Dhamekh Stupa in Sarnath. Buddha gave his famous first sermon here to a handful of followers in a deer park

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Final resting place of Mother Teressa

Did you know that India has the highest rate of road accidents in the World? And I can see why. They floor it on a narrow road like it is nobody’s business and blow the front vehicle away with their extremely loud horn while skilfully avoid the incoming 16 wheeler truck. Not surprisingly, most vehicles do not have side mirror. It is either folded or broken. Who need a side mirror anyway? All they need is a figurine or an image of Siva, Jesus or Buddha place strategically in the middle of the windscreen decorated with colorful animated LEDs. You don’t need skill to drive in India, but you will need plenty of luck and a perfectly working horn. It is a miracle I came back in one piece.

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Train traveling is still the safest bet in India.

Unfortunately, not everything in India is as face paced as those on the road. Yes, it is unfortunate because it means I needed a lot of patience for every single tasks such as buying train tickets and ordering food. If you are a civic minded people like me (ahem), then most probably you will not be able to buy a single train ticket. Jumping queue is an art in India. Everybody seems to know somebody especially those ahead of me in the queue. I just have to push my way through the chaos and aim my hand into the tiny pigeon hole at the counter. That is how the ticketing guy determine I am his next customer. Sometimes it helps to be a foreigner. They tend to have more patience for foreigner. But don’t push the patience by asking too many silly questions such as asking him to explain the meaning of tatkal while the restless crowd behind you trying to push their hand into the pigeon hole. BTW, tatkal means emergency in Hindi and Tatkal ticket means you pay a premium for confirm seat. I will explain more on this in my future post on train traveling.

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The “toy train” of Shimla.

No matter how complicate train traveling in India may seems, I managed to decipher the secret of Indian train with the help from fellow passengers. I had plenty of free time when I was traveling in the train and I was surrounded by friendly people who are eager to share their beloved country with me. I took the opportunity to learn as much as possible about the culture, the people and every mysteries I came across in India. So, put away whatever books you plan to read and unplug those earphones. You don’t know what you are missing.

I don’t have any major communication problem in India because English is widely spoken in India. Most younger generation can speak English fluently. However I found it otherwise for older generation in northern India. That is when a little bit of Hindi can draw huge smile from them. According to Lonely Planet, 1,600 languages and dialects are spoken in India! Not everyone speaks Hindi in India and my smattering Tamil I learned from my friends in Malaysia is only useful in South India. Don’t be surprise to see Indians converse in English with each other.

There are many weird stuffs I experienced or seen in India such as being swarmed by locals for photo taking session and these guys holding hand in the public as a sign of friendship.

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If you ask me, what do I like about India, I can’t give you a discrete answer because each places never cease to amaze me with its own uniqueness. Like the slum dwellers, each major cities are unique with its own character, living in its own history. Beaten but very much alive. The whole country was simply mind blowing. I was constantly showered with all kinds of new experience from one extreme to the other extreme. When I accepted India as dirty, dusty, smelly and very noisy country, I saw this…

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It was the best view I ever seen in my whole life. The air was fresh and it was so peaceful. This heaven is at Naddi, McLeod Ganj.

With this, I conclude my 3 parts “One month backpacking in India” series. By now, you should know what to prepare and pack, how much to budget, where to go and what to expect from India. Good luck on your backpacking adventure in India. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I do.

That is not all. I will continue to write more about India especially all the wonderful places I have visited. Do expect them soon.

15 comments

  1. juarez fong /

    dude this is a fantastic india grand tour! I salute you and I dont know when i will have time and courage to do this! anyway I am looking forward for my indochina trip! keep up the great job….we only live once!

  2. lee /

    Hi..your site is very informative and at the same time painting a realistic experience of India.

    I was in New Delhi for 3 days business trip and i must say indeed its very interesting experience.

    I totally agree with you on the smell and sanitary conditions.

    However, India is a fantastic place to stay humble and keep me in check with the blessings i have in my life.

    Boy it does not make Penang looks clean..it makes us looks rich !

    I am looking forward to back pack in India again.

    Cheers and keep up with your work in this blog Ben.

    Cheers

  3. Wow! Sounds like you’ve had an amazing adventure mate. Thanks for sharing such a great story!

  4. What an amazing story!!! I had been to India a few times but never in my life i can come up with such a very detailed post. Anyway, i agree with most of your points from food,people,religion,etc. I liked the part you mentioned “To truly enjoy your stay in India, don’t look with your eyes, but look with your heart” — Beautiful.

    Looking forward to read more of your posts. Tc.

  5. wow. 1 month? I was there only for 16 days and visited 5 places. But I noticed all your staying weren’t really long, must be very tiring but worth right!

  6. Me too. Especially Varanasi πŸ™‚

  7. kas /

    Hi,

    I just came across your blog. I did a 1 mth backpacking in india a couple of years ago and when i read what u have written here, i felt like someone just wrote my own experience almost word for word! Specially “from one extreme to another extreme”- the exact words i used.
    hahaha! what irony but given india i m not suprised.

    I m thinking of doing another round n am actually looking to see if anyone is interested in joining, could you drop me a line if you are?

    Kas

    • Janine /

      Hi Kas

      I’m planning to do India for 2-3 months next year. You mentioned in your post that you were planning to go again but as that was a year ago, I was wondering if you actually ended up going already or still have plans to go?

      I’m planning to go around Jan/Feb 2012 time… I’ve been before but only for 3.5 weeks so just got a taster of the amazing country – and only travelled north of Goa.

      Janine

  8. Tami /

    this is great.. planing to go to india next year, and you help me a lot.. thanks

  9. Janine /

    Hi Ben – quick question (actually 2). If you could recommend just 5 places to visit that were awe-inspiring – what would they be?

    And did you work in india for any period or can you recommend any types of jobs in any area that could result in making a small amount of cash (or an exchange for accomodation) to enable one to extend their trip beyond their initial time scale set…

    thanks in advance… and I’m so impressed with your blog..

    do you have any sites that you can recommend to help prepare for a backpacking trip (anything from what to be aware of, what to pack, places to visit etc etc) – the usual stuff – … but as there’s so many sites out there, trying to find the best ones can be tricky.

    Thanks in advance (oops.. just realised i asked you 3 questions) – sorry!)

    Janine

  10. The pictures are absolutely Stunning !!

  11. I’m a little bit envious of you. Unfortunately I have no time for such a trip πŸ™

    Thanks for your report and the beautiful photos.

  12. Good and useful blog!!! I will be travel around India may be by my own, but what make me worried is the safety and hygen. Do u think it is safe for a female self back-pack in India? If the tap water is not recommended, what about boiling water or should buy drinking water in India?

    Your reply is much appreciated, thanks so much!!!

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