Browsed by
Category: Destinations

Things I wish I’d known before I went to India…

Things I wish I’d known before I went to India…

 

Some simple tips that will go a long way for your time in India:

Cows. Literally everywhere, they are considered a sacred animal of India. This is because they are the mother provider – their milk sustains our young, without them we wouldn’t survive. So it is illegal in India to kill cows, which explains why there is a surplus! Once a cow reaches the stage where it is no longer productive on the farm, the farmers will release the cow from its paddock, where it tends to wander into the streets and ends up living off the garbage on the side of the road. No matter how crazy the traffic might seem in India, it will always stop for a cow, and the cows know it!

Young local guys asking for selfies. I never really got used to it either, especially when people wouldn’t ask and would just try and take a sneaky selfie from afar. Where ever we went, I found that people were constantly coming up to members in our group asking for our selfies. I read somewhere that there isn’t really a problem with group selfies, but just be cautious of individual selfies, because it is not uncommon for young guys to then photo-shop your face and use it for inappropriate purposes. People seemed to have a general fascination with our blonde hair and comparatively pale skin.

Traffic. Something that you never quite get used to, but something that almost becomes endearing. Every journey was always an adventure, and more often than not, would leave me with some kind of adrenaline rush. It’s a bizarre system (well, lack of) yet it seems to work. Horns are used by drivers to let others know that they are there, rather than exclusively in times of road rage. Beeping your horn is a constant form of communication, to assist with their pro-active method of driving (compared to the reactive driving we are inclined to see in the Western world). Similarly to New Zealand, the Indians drive on the left hand side of the road, but unlike New Zealand it is common to overtake on the left hand side of the road as well. Rickshaws are a common sight; except for in Mumbai, where they are banned from the inner city (which helps with traffic congestion; Delhi could learn something here). Do not trust Google Maps when timing distances – unfortunately for us all, Google Maps knows nothing about cows, bicycles, pedestrians and tuk-tuks. Supposedly there is a law that everyone is required to wear a helmet when riding a bike, except for Sikh’s, who are exempt because it gets in the way of their turbans! On our first day in India we learnt a phrase that stuck with us the whole way through the trip, and that is when driving in India you need three things: good brakes, a good horn, and good luck!

Tipping.  Being from a country that is not accustomed to tipping, I actually found it quite a difficult adjustment to make. I had to work super hard to think of the tip as being part of the price, rather than something extra. It made it slightly more palatable this way. It’s actually a funny thought, because really you are tipping only one or two dollars at a time, but it gets to you when it starts feeling like it is adding up! A rough guide to tipping is paying 10% of the price for drivers and at restaurants (although check first at restaurants, because sometimes they will include a service charge on the bill, meaning that you don’t need to tip) and 10-20 rupees for porters, bell boys and the people who look after your belongings at temples.

Clothing. Dressing appropriately is important. Females should take care that their knees and shoulders are covered (which can be hard to do when it is so incredibly hot). It can be a bit more flexible depending where you are – the further south you go, the more relaxed it seems to be. It is compulsory to cover up at religious sites, and even in places like Goa, you should still prepare yourself for a few more stares than usual if you decide not to cover up. I got into the habit of carrying a head scarf in my bag, so that if I felt uncomfortable anyway I could just slip it around my shoulders.

The Indian sideways headshake. It is quite confusing what it means, because it seems to be used in all kinds of situations, but it’s something that I found extremely endearing. Sometimes it means yes, sometimes it means no, and honestly sometimes it just means maybe! It was something I always enjoyed looking out for.

Expect the unexpected. A warning that we received on the very first day, and something that you really need to embrace. If you can, you will find your entire India trip rewarding and enriching; but if you can’t, it will be so much more stressful and exhausting. It also pays to be patient – miscommunication is certainly a daily part of life as a tourist in India.

Don’t forget: sanitiser! India is grubby, and with the heat, dust and bad smells, I can personally guarantee that you won’t regret taking it. Face-wipes, for similar reasons, go a long way to freshening you up after a long journey or a sweaty day exploring. Bug spray is another essential; nobody wants to catch malaria!

Mumbai

Mumbai

Those who have read Shantaram would understand my excitement in visiting Mumbai. I couldn’t wait to explore the sights experienced by Shantaram during his time in Mumbai. Knowing this, you have you to empathise with the distraught I felt when I found out we only had one full day to spend in Mumbai. I was nervous, because if traffic was anything like it had been in Delhi, from experience I knew I wouldn’t get to see even half of what I’d wanted to. Fortunately, there are no rickshaws in Mumbai, so getting around was far easier than I had hoped.

I was fortunate again (in the eyes of Shantaram at least) to be staying in the charming district of Colaba. With a population of 20 million people, Mumbai is the world’s fifth most populous city. The city is lively and exciting, it is a port city, it is India’s financial centre and it is home to the Bollywood film industry. Mumbai is an absolute mecca when it comes to shopping, restaurants and nightlife. Despite all of this, Mumbaikers (as the locals refer to themselves) are notoriously chilled out.

For dinner, we made it to Leopold’s – a Shantaram classic! My mutton rogan josh was one of the best meals I had in India, even if the prices are more expensive than usual. The bullet holes from the 2008 terrorist attacks are still very much obvious, and the shattered glass upstairs serves as a continual reminder of the damage that was caused. For Shantaram fans, if you pay a visit to Leopold’s, make sure you take a trip upstairs to get a real feel for the place; downstairs really just caters for the tourists.

10 of the top things I would recommend in Mumbai (entirely achievable in one day) are:

1 Chhatrapati Shivayi Terminus: also known as the Victoria Building, this train station is a UNESCO World Heritage Site similar in grandeur to King’s Cross.

2 Chowpatty Beach: Not long before travelling to India I read ‘Heavenly Hirani’s School of Laughing Yoga’, which was a fantastic read by a New Zealand author, Sarah-Kate Lynch. The setting for the school of laughing yoga was Chowpatty Beach, so I was intrigued to see it in real life. There was loads of golden sand, grey smog and dull water – I think the locals are far more likely to swim there than tourists.

3 Gateway of India: another architecturally splendid monument, the Gateway of India was built to commemorate the 1911 royal visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Bombay. Ironically it wasn’t actually built until after they had been and gone. It is free to visit, and it is also open at night. In 2008 it was targeted in a bombing attack (where over 150 people were killed).

4 Antilia House: this place was most recently valued at US $1.67 billion. It has 27 floors, and houses Mukesh Ambani (the chairman of Reliance Industries, a massive Indian conglomerate holding company) and his family. There is over 600 staff! I thought the place was absolutely ridiculous and just shows the massive difference in rich versus poor in India. He would have had a prime view of Dharavi Slum (and probably others!).

5 Dharavi Slum: With a completely contrasting population density to Antilia House, Dharavi Slum houses between 700,000 and 1 million people in a space of 2.1 square km – making it one of the most densely populated areas on earth. There is massive diversity in religions and ethnicities. We did a tour there and it was absolutely fascinating. Far more industrious and proficient than we are led to believe – we were told slum has an annual turnover of about US $1 billion.

6 The largest open air laundry in Asia: its formal name is Dhobi Ghat, and while it might sound like a bit of a non-event, the size and scale of this place is astonishing. There are just so many clothes and sheets all flapping in the wind; it was so incredibly beautiful to witness. The washers there mainly wash the sheets and clothes from local hotels and hospitals.

7 Mani Bhavan: the residence where Ghandi started his Quit India Movement. The place is very inconspicuous apart from the groups of tourists loitering nearby. The day we went just happened to be Ghandi’s birthday, but we couldn’t work out if that meant it would be busier or not. Entry is free (but donation is encouraged) and there are quite a few different rooms with relics and books from back in Ghandi’s day. The part I found most fascinating was the museum on the top floor; it was very insightful, very easy to read and stay engaged and very informative!

8 Haji Ali Dargah: a mosque and tomb located on an islet off the coast in Southern Mumbai. It is a very distinctive landmark.

9 Nariman Point (waterfront area) and Marine Drive (the Queen’s necklace): Nariman Point is the business district. Marine Drive is a 3.6 km long boulevard in South Mumbai. It has six lanes. It is known as the Queen’s necklace because when it is viewed at night from an elevated point, the street lights resemble a string of pearls in a necklace.

10 Hanging Gardens: a water reservoir located up on the top of Malabar Hill. There are supposedly sunset views over the Arabian Sea, but we actually struggled to find where you could even sight the see. The water reservoirs here source most of Mumbai.

I really enjoyed Mumbai (well what I got to see of it). It definitely has more of an international city vibe than Delhi, and it seems wildly more developed. Transport was far more slick, and the people (or at least the people I encountered) seemed to speak better English. The main thing that got to me was the pollution – it made the whole city seem so grey, and the waterfront views were almost non-existent. Mumbai is somewhere that I would have no qualms going back to.

 

Udaipur

Udaipur

Udaipur was the only destination in our whole trip where I felt like the foot was taken off the accelerator, even if it was for just a brief time. With the nickname ‘Venice of the East’, I had high standards, and Udaipur does its best to live up to these expectations. It is a warren of charming, winding streets, majestic palaces and shimmering lakes. I had seen on the map that our hotel was right opposite some (massive) gardens (which were so big they included a zoo and a library) and I was excited, ‘coz boy was I ready for some lush!

We stayed at Hotel Vishnu Priya, which was probably the flashiest place we stayed on tour – although the staff seriously need to learn a thing or two about customer service (and that Westerner’s really do use and NEED toilet paper). I really appreciated being so close to what ended up being Gulab Bagh, the largest gardens in Udaipur, because it meant each morning Mum and I could get up and do some exercise (for a change). Otherwise, I think it would have been preferable to stay further up the hill, closer to Jagdish Temple, just because it was more of a touristic area, with lots of cafes, shops and restaurants.

If you have two full days in Udaipur, here’s how I would recommend you spend them:

Day One:

  • City Palace: As one of the largest royal palaces in India (it took almost 400 years to build!), I was super glad that we actually got a tour guide for the morning that we were here so that I could just play follow the leader as we explored the massive grounds (and learning something while I did it). Certainly not essential though, it would have been quite easy to have just spent the morning wandering around. The palace is accessible by walking alongside Lake Pichola up to the entrance. The views are fantastic; make sure you pause to enjoy.

  • Jagdish Temple: an intricately carved temple, paying homage to Vishnu; the Hindu god of preservation. Despite being a tourist attraction, I think there is far more beautiful things to see when in Udaipur. However, given that it is in the middle of town, it only takes about 10 minutes and it is especially significant for the reason that it has been in continuous worship since 1651, I suppose it is worth taking a look.
  • Rajasthani Culture Show (on Gangaur Ghat): At the museum down by the water, this show is a good opportunity to witness some authentic music and dancing. The show goes for about one hour, so it pays to get there a little bit early to ensure at least a semi-decent seat (it was pretty hot; it pays to sit near a fan if possible). An additional fee is required if you want to take photos.
  • Ethereal white marble Lake Palace (Jag Niwas) and the Garden Palace (Jag Mandir): Basically just cool structures that sit on the lake, but if you want to get closer (by boat) there is a whole lot more to be seen. They look like they are floating on water and are both very beautiful. Get closer by taking a lake cruise (catch a boat down on the waterfront). Jag Niwas Is actually now a luxury hotel with 83 rooms and suites which feature white marble walls. The royal family used to use Jag Mandir as a summer resort and pleasure palace for holiday parties.

  • Walking tour: Udaipur is a good place to walk around – you definitely still get the intensity of the traffic, but it is a little more manageable than Delhi and Mumbai in terms of still being walkable. We did a walking tour where we got to check out a bunch of spices, oils and a fruit and vegetable market. There are so many goats, cows and dogs just roaming the streets.

 

Day Two:

  • Bike tour. Get up early to do this, else you’ll be cycling in the heat. There are heaps of companies that offer tours. The one we went with picked us up from our hotel, drove us into the country where we biked mostly in rural areas (verging on the city just a tiny bit – quite an experience!) through villages and along the lake. We stopped for breakfast by the lake before heading home. Expect to pay about 1500 rupees.

  • Monsoon Palace: Located 5km west of Udaipur, the Monsoon Palace derived its name from the reason it was built – to watch the monsoon clouds. The palace features in the 1983 James Bond film ‘Octopussy’. I would suggest going up at sunset; it really is a beautiful sight. There are sweeping views of the city and surrounding lakes and countryside. There are loads of monkeys, but interestingly enough we noticed that after the sun had gone down the monkeys were nowhere to be seen. There is also a very odd museum at the top, containing descriptions of a bunch of weird animals – not what you expect! For 300R it is certainly worth a visit, but you are really just paying for those panoramic views; the palace itself is extremely run-down.

  • Eat at Flavours. This place was SO cheap. Another rooftop (I swear we only ate at rooftop restaurants!) restaurant, the food was super delicious. It was pretty hot though – they lacked air con / a decent fan, so it was pretty hot. Another rooftop restaurant was Vairoo, which was more expensive, more classy but still delicious. I had the aloo gabi (cauliflower and potato spiced curry) and would highly recommend. Next door was Olorados, which served as a convenient breakfast and lunch option for our group on many an occasion. It served a wide range of Western and Indian options and everything we tried was pretty decent. Lastly, Gingers Café (down on the waterfront) had beautiful views and served lovely coffee and cake. Easy place to spend an afternoon, with the water literally lapping at your feet.

 

Goa

Goa

Described by Lonely Planet as a cocktail of sun, sand and spices, it breaks my heart to say that I was somewhat disappointed by Goa. I think that the reason for this was not necessarily due to Goa itself, rather it was just a run of bad luck for us (a combination of not enough time, atrocious traffic and poor accommodation choices being the main factors). Although we absolutely tried to make the best of a bad situation, I still don’t think I’ll be rushing back there anytime soon.

We were told that Goa International Airport was about an hour from Goa. We must have struck hideous traffic, because it took us well over an hour and a half to reach our accommodation. Our hotel, Alor Holiday Resort, was subpar, and you had to pay for wifi. We were staying near Calangute Beach, so we headed down there for sunset. Now people say that Goa’s golden sand beaches are the best for miles around. There are many different beaches stretching along the coast, each with its own reputation. Calangute (where we stayed), along with Baga, is famed for its cashed-up tourists (just what I wanted to hear!). It is supposedly a party area and by night the markets are very vibrant and a mass of colour, with vendors selling almost everything you can think of. The beach itself was (surprisingly) lovely though, a great place to watch the sun go down. The night was completed by an absolutely mouth-watering meal at Souza Lobo (the kadai chicken I ordered was fantastic, and the desserts were even better).

Unfortunately for me, our full day in Goa was not spent worshipping the sun at a series of glorious beaches. Rather it was spent sight-seeing. It turned out to be pretty interesting – we visited Old Goa, which is full of rich history and impressive architecture. As the former colonial capital of the state (colloquially known as ‘Rome of the East’), the convents and churches are stunning. The whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Portugese influence remains hugely prominent in the buildings today. I would recommend about 1.5 hours to explore the area (there are vendors and shops selling ice-cream and coconuts etc) and make sure you check out the St. Augustine ruins – they were superb.

Goa was annexed by the Portugese in 1510 and remained under their rule for 450 years. The rise of Old Goa under the Portugese was astonishing, but the city was abandoned in the 1600s following cholera and malaria outbreaks. From Old Goa we drove maybe half an hour more to do a tour of a spice plantation. You pay 400R and get a tour of the area (it only lasts about 20 minutes, but this is enough in the heat and humidity) and then you get a free buffet lunch. As a regular user of herbs and spices, I like knowing about their origins, but if you don’t care the tour might not be for you.

If I were to go back to Goa I would definitely stay somewhere that was right on the beach, and preferably one of the nicer ones! Unfortunately for Goa, I think there is going to be a fair few places I visit before it gets its second chance.

 

Jaipur

Jaipur

 

About a four hour train ride from Agra, Jaipur (or the ‘Pink City’) is the capital of Rajasthan. It is famed for local artisans; ranging from jewellers, textiles (including block prints and carpets) and general thrift markets. It also plays host to the annual Jaipur Literature Festival (the largest free literature festival in the world). It is certainly an easier city to clock up time in than Delhi; while there is still loads happening it is far more manageable.

We stayed at the Hotel Bissau Palace for two nights, a place I grew to be very fond of. Three words to describe it are rustic, eccentric and colourful. There was a big courtyard surrounded by what felt like a rabbit’s warren of rooms which actually just comprised a lobby. If you could find your way through from one side to the other, you would come to a pool with a lawn just beyond the restaurant. The wifi was notably terrible. Our room was covered from top to bottom with hideously charming patterns and pictures – it was quite a lot to absorb.

Two days in Jaipur is more than enough time, we also squeezed in a day trip to Pushkar (more below) while we were there. The top sights in Jaipur are:

1. Amber Fort: Receiving over 5000 visitors a day, Amber Fort (also known as Amer Fotr) is the main tourist attraction in Jaipur. It is a 20 minute drive from Jaipur, the fort sits upon a massive hill. We parked at the bottom and caught a jeep up to the top (everyone seems to, I think because the roads are so narrow and in rough condition). The fort is surrounded by a wall that is second in length only to the Great Wall of China. The fort is packed with Hindu and Muslim architecture. My favourite part was the mirror section – you can get some seriously cool photos with the angles! The fort overlooks Maota Lake, which used to serve as the main water source for the palace.

2. Hawa Mahal: known colloquially as the Palace of the Winds. It got this name because it is essentially a high screen wall built so that the women of the royal family could observe the street festivals back in the day, whilst remaining unseen from the public eye. It is basically a building in the middle of town that you observe in passing – you can’t go in.

3. Jantar Mantar: an observatory and astronomical site, which I actually didn’t visit. Specifically, the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur is one of five in India (but Jaipur is the largest) and it is a massive sun dial, with the ability to measure the time of day, correct to half a second, as well as the declination of the sun and other heavenly bodies.

4. City palace/old city/nearby markets: it was very easy to wander this area for quite a few hours. I love wandering through the markets, and these markets were pretty fun because they were quite touristy. We noticed that the owners seem to work cooperatively; that is, if you show interest in something at the first stall, all of the owners down the strip would point out that same thing at a cheaper price! So it pays not to buy at the first shop you go into, but definitely register your interest. The shops are all very long and skinny, and the owners tend to sit there in the dark until they see you coming, whereby they jump up and switch on the lights and the fan.

 

5. Local artisans – most give you demonstrations on each thing (and there is usually A/C!). First we visited a gem shop where they showed us how they cut the stones and then embed them into jewellery, and then we visited a block printing workshop where some of our group actually got to have a go with the block stamp to make their own prints. Carpets and other textiles are also very popular there; it is quite the shopping hub!

6. Bollywood film: the Raj Mandir is supposedly a spectacular Art Deco film house, where you can go and watch Bollywood films for an authentic Indian experience. Unfortunately we ran out of time to do this, but would be perfect if you wanted to fill up an evening!

We finished a busy day of sightseeing with a rooftop dinner at Handi. It was funny eating out with the group; we were always really hungry and exhausted at about 6pm, and would note the lack of locals eating at the same place as us. We were informed that it wasn’t so much the places we were eating at, rather the time – Indians tend to eat closer to 9pm – I was often not far off sleep by then!

Pushkar

An activity that my whole group opted to do was a visit to Pushkar for a camel safari. We did it in a day and it was seriously exhausting, so I think a better option would have been to actually stay the night and explore Pushkar a little bit more. It was a 4-5 hour bus ride each way from Jaipur.

Pushkar is one of the oldest existing cities to remain in India and it is extremely popular with tourists. It is nestled over a lake (I would have chosen to stay somewhere near here as it was very cute and peaceful), and has a main street absolutely crammed with Western-targeted markets containing cheap souvenirs and trinkets of all kinds (including clothes, jewellery and leather bound books). There is also a lot of temples in Pushkar, and one of the most famous, Brahma Temple, lies just off the main drag.

A Blue Star is a Mediterranean restaurant in Pushkar that I seriously couldn’t recommend more. It had a lovely courtyard, fabulous wifi and most importantly, delicious food. There was even a pet tortoise! We were fortunate that our group was so big we just had a bunch of different plates brought out to us, so I got to try a wide variety of dishes from the menu. I would highly recommend the deep-fried pizza base topped with olives and mushrooms, as well as the hummus and pita bread, the fried eggplant and the falafel.

 

There is a famous camel festival which happens every November in Pushkar, but we were there in September and just there for the safari. We all got given a camel and people who walked alongside us to guide our camels. Our wee procession of 12 camels made its way into the desert, the landscape lit up by the sinking sun. We trekked for about an hour to where we disembarked from our camels and went up to this cosey little spot that had been set up for us. We watched a magic show, dressed up in saris (punjabs for the lads), watched fire eaters, traditional dancers (we even got involved) and were treated to a delicious Indian meal as we watched the sun go down over the desert. It was spectacular – one of my favourite memories of the trip.

 

 

Afterwards we caught a (car) ride back to our bus and headed back to Jaipur. I know it’s possible to do camel safaris that go for longer than just an hour worth of riding, but to be honest, an hour was definitely long enough! It starts to get quite uncomfortable after a bit – our camel riding was the perfect length to reach that point of having had enough, but still feeling like you’ve been on there for a decent time. I would highly recommend doing a safari!

Agra

Agra

With a population of about 2 million people, Agra is so much bigger than I ever realised. Here I was, thinking that the glorious Taj Mahal was way out in the wops – little did I know there was SO much more to it. Obviously, Agra is home to the Taj Mahal (basically the only reason I think anyone has actually heard of Agra) which is certainly India’s most famous structure, and one of the Seven Wonders of the World… and with good reason. The majestic marble structure sits poignantly and prominently, rising above Agra, allowing its beauty to be appreciated from every direction.

  

As if it’s sheer beauty wasn’t enough, there is actually a wicked love story behind the Taj, just to make it that little bit more awe-inspiring. Without giving too much away, the Taj was built by the emperor Shah Jehan as a testament of his love to his wife Mumtaz Mahal. Every single detail about the Taj is perfectly symmetrical, except for the size of the two tombs of Mumtaz and Shah Jehan – an act performed out of spite by the emperor’s son.

 

When visiting the Taj Mahal, I would recommend you go early, early, EARLY! Sure, getting up in the dark sucks, but how many times in your life are you going to experience the Taj Mahal, so why not experience it at its finest?! My group were literally the first people through the gates into the Taj Mahal (make sure you buy your tickets from the counter before you line up outside the gate) and to have our initial impressions untarnished by mobs of tourists was something really special. A bonus too was the photos we got – no-one likes having an otherwise spectacular photo ruined by a stray tourist’s head! When inside the Taj you have to take your shoes off, but you will be given protective booties along with your ticket. If you visit the Taj later in the day you will actually be really thankful for the booties, as they protect your feet from the heat of the marble.

  

Take your time, don’t rush – it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity that will most likely stay with you forever. Be careful of people offering to take photos and do other random things for money. Also, don’t get too excited about seeing the inside of the Taj Mahal – there is a reason you haven’t seen photos of it already, and that is because it is drastically underwhelming!

There is many a good viewing spot of the Taj Mahal from further afield, which can make really great places to watch the sun set and observe the colours of the fine white marble transition through into darkness. A number of bars and hotels overlook the Taj (including The Oberoi – we went here: disclaimer, it’s astonishingly beautiful but will cost an arm AND a leg. Cocktails sit at a minimum of about $20 each), as well as there being plenty of cute spots along the river. Magnificent but more distant views can be obtained from the Agra Fort.

The Agra Fort is the second of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Agra. It is a fort which more closely resembles a palace, and is made from both red sandstone and white marble. One of the most important battles of the 1857 Indian rebellion happened here, and it resulted in the end of the British East India Company’s rule in India. From many of the rooms and courtyards the Taj Mahal is visible, and our guide showed us this really cool optical illusion showing how perspective affects the apparent size of the Taj. A highlight for me was the anecdote told to us about any attacking army:  they would have to encounter a moat full of alligators, the defensive army, then a pit of starving tigers, bears and monkeys before scaling a 70 foot wall whilst being attacked by the defensive army throwing boiling water down. No wonder the Agra fort never really got attacked!

 

The third and final UNESCO World Heritage Site in Agra is the Baby Taj (or formally known as the Itimad ud Daulah Tomb), and it’s not hard to see how it earned its nickname! We visited here before we went to the Taj Mahal, and I am glad we did because it allowed for maximum wow factor. I suspect that if we went to the Taj Mahal first, the Baby Taj would have felt less impressive. Instead we got to be wowed by the Baby Taj, the distant views of the Taj and then the actual Taj close up the following day. The Baby Taj sits alongside the river (similarly to the Taj Mahal) and also similarly, it has some pretty spectacular gardens.

Not only were the marble inlays at all three structures extremely beautiful, I was also fascinated by the craftsmanship that must have gone into all this handiwork. It is possible to visit the marble workshops and learn how it’s done (or at least get an appreciation) and there is the option of purchasing various marble souvenirs as well. I couldn’t resist a cute wee elephant, but you could buy big chess sets, tables and artworks.

Agra is a must visit when in India, for obvious reasons. We stayed at Hotel Athithi which was in quite a touristy area and had a stunning pool. My favourite place to eat was a restaurant called Maya – which had a nice rooftop terrace with some delicious food.

Delhi

Delhi

Talk about a smack in the face. Or maybe something slightly more pleasant; a bucket of ice cold water tipped over you on a really hot day – an idea which would actually go down a real treat on your typical day in Delhi. This is India at one of its most extremes, and because this is where a lot of tourists begin or end their Indian journey, it tends to have a lasting impression – and often not a good one.

Home to over 20 million people, as well as the infamous Delhi-belly, Delhi is fast-paced, dirty and at times extremely frustrating. Traffic is dense, scams are aplenty and it is extremely hot and crowded. Dig a little deeper however, and you can see that the city is almost certainly underrated. With good food, abundant shopping and a rich culture, Delhi is certainly a well-intentioned capital, and a place that should be approached with an open mind.

 

The city is full of enchanting sights, and below is a short list of some of the must-dos while in Delhi:

Qutab Minar: It costs 500R to get in as a tourist (vs. 30R for Indians!), and at 73m high it is the tallest brick minaret in the world, and the second tallest minar in India. It is about an hours’ drive from the city and I would recommend you allow yourself at least 1.5 hours to explore. There are a few coffee shops at the end of the road if you need replenishing.

Red Fort: A historical fort that served as the main residence of the Mughal emperors for nearly 200 years. It pays to keep your ticket beyond entry at these kinds of places, because there is a tendency to inspect tourists randomly for tickets.

Humayun’s Tomb: 500R entry fee (again, 30R if you are a local). So far, this list is three from three UNESCO World Heritage Sites (these are the only three in Delhi) and this one was by far my favourite. The place is massive; contrary to what the name suggests, Humayun’s Tomb actually consists of massive grounds, with beautiful structures. The tomb of Humayun (a Mughal Emperor) is actually probably the least exciting part of the whole place.

The architectural splendour that is the President’s Residence. Not far from town, and virtually overlooking the India Gate, the residence (formally known as Rashtrapati Bharan) has over 300 rooms. Security is high; as tourists we weren’t allowed to stop and get out of the car, we just slowed to a crawl so that we could take in its beauty and steal some snaps, but we had to keep driving.

The India Gate is a monument (just a monument), but I suppose you can call it spectacular. Fortunately there is no entry fee, but instead you will be greeted by stacks and stacks of vendors – selling all kinds of trinkets and food, from toys to grilled corn, to handbags and sweet potato. There is something for everyone, so prepared to be pestered. The earlier in the day you go, the smaller the crowds will be – by quite a significant difference, actually.

Old Delhi: check out India’s Muslim history and Jama Masjid Mosque – which is the largest mosque in India.

The Lotus Temple is a Bahá’í House of Worship, which serves as the Mother Temple of the Indian sub-continent. This means that the temple is somewhere that anyone can go and worship – the particular religion does not matter. It is absolutely stunning as a structure; it is shaped perfectly like a lotus flower. Unfortunately it was closed on the day we went, so we could only view it from a distance.

Shopping. The Dilli Haat Market offers textiles and trinkets. There is an entry fee, but once inside you will find yourself at a massive open air food plaza and craft bazaar. So many colours, smells, noises and even textures! Something to be cautious of during your Delhi adventures is locals doing anything they can to get you to their emporiums. Probably for a commission, tuk-tuk drivers and chatty people on the street are all about getting you to visit their ‘brother’s shop’ for a ‘quick look’. Unfortunately we had a nasty experience with our tuk-tuk driver, who after about 3 stops at various emporiums we had to make it very clear that we weren’t interested in shopping (it was day one of our holiday and our only full day in Delhi) and he got very grumpy and just dropped us home without taking us to any of the other stops.

New Delhi’s Shri Lakshmi Narain Temple (Birla Temple). A beautiful temple in New Delhi that made me feel as though I was wandering through some kind of candy land out of Willy Wonka- the place was absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take photos (but I took one of the outside), and because it is a Hindu temple you are not allowed to wear shoes. Despite a massive sign saying “no tips”, rest assured you will be asked for a tip for the storage of your shoes.

Gurudwara Bangla Sahib: number one place to visit on Trip Advisor, and with good reason. There is a special room for tourists to leave their shoes in (sounds like a scam to me!). We learnt that it was polite to walk in a clockwise direction, and it was certainly easiest to move with the people than against. There is a big beautiful man-made lake right outside the temple itself. Because it is a Sikh house of worship, it is essential that no hair is showing, so don’t forget your headscarf!

 

Give Delhi a chance… but I still wouldn’t recommend staying more than 2 nights there. I think the best way to do it is to write a list of all the things you want to do (using my list as a base is a great place to start) and then hire a tuk-tuk/driver to see them (possible a tuk-tuk for the inner city sights and a driver for when you head further afield).

Uluwatu

Uluwatu

Uluwatu was one of the more surfy and relaxing spots we went to. Lots of Australian accents drifting past, and lots of modern dining options. We were advised to stay near Padang Padang beach, and although our hotel’s description of ‘beach front’ was pretty misleading, Padang Padang was a pretty cool spot. The Uluwatu Hotel Guna Mandala was all round pretty dingy, but although it wasn’t beach front, it couldn’t have been much closer.

Padang Padang Beach was just across the road, past the entry fee (!! Thankfully not much) and through a long narrow tunnel, around which the monkeys tended to frolic. The beach was incredibly small, and far too crowded for any of our likings, but if the beach had been deserted it would have been positively stunning. The water was clear, warm and shallow for days. There was also a cave right nearby which was extremely fun to explore.

 

On our second day there we hired scooters and hit the road running. We made our way to Bingin beach, and clambered down the hill (over far more steps than what we could count). Bingin beach was a popular surf spot, evidenced by the boards in the water and the schools lining the shore.

After a delicious lunch stop at The Cashew Tree (read about all the yum places we ate at here) we kept on scootering to Dreamland Beach. This place had massive waves that broke really shallow, which made for some hilarious people watching as people took tumbles more often than not. After observing for a bit, we were confident in our ability to master the timing and make it out past the break without being dumped by the waves. Once past the break, it was easily the best beach we swum at our whole time in Bali. The water was crystal clear and like being in a bath; we literally stayed in the water for hours.

To get our daily dose of culture we headed along to the Uluwatu Temple for sunset and then bought tickets (100,000 IRD) to the Kacek dance afterwards. Again there were monkeys frolicking about, so again I had to take a wide berth. The dance show went for about an hour, so it is actually worth getting there about fifteen minutes early in order to secure a good seat. I would also recommend taking water and snacks… it gets a little slow in places. By the end of it, the others were quite impatient to leave – however I still thought it was really good to see.

Ubud

Ubud

We left Nusa Lembongan at 8am and caught a ferry to Sanur. From there, our pre-organised taxi driver (courtesy of our Lembongan hostel) met us and drove us to Ubud. It only took about 1.5 hours, so we were there by mid-morning. Our Air BnB was lovely, and our host organised for us to be picked up almost immediately and taken on a tour. We went to a number of spots across the course of the day, and our driver Gede would just wait for us at each spot.

First we went to the Tegallang rice fields in Gianyar. This would have to be one of the most photographed sights of Bali, and it was easy to see why. Loads of people (unsurprisingly) but still worth the trip. We actually ate lunch at a wee restaurant overlooking the fields, and it was such a beautiful setting for a meal. It was a really nice way to appreciate the fields from afar, because there is not much else to do there besides walk around the fields (and then you are right up close). After lunch we headed down into the terraces; it was extremely hot and I was very glad for my waterbottle. We probably spent about 45 minutes walking around and taking plenty of photos.

From here we headed to Tirta Empul Tampaksiring, a temple where people go to bathe and be cleansed in the holy water. The queues were massive, and to be honest the water looked pretty grotty (especially when filled with so many bodies) so none of us were keen to get in. We ended up walking around for a bit and then moving on. Leaving the temple actually required walking through so much market space, where the vendors were all highly competitive and almost confrontational. I think we all actually ended up buying something – probably mainly to shut them up! It was definitely fun though, and provides for an interesting experience.

 

From here we went to Mount Kawi. This was a temple with a lot of steps! We noted that both temples we had visited had made all four of us (i.e. the boys included) cover up our shoulders (they lend scarves). We set off down the steps (sooooo many steps) into a wee temple valley, where there were lots of temples (slash remains) surrounded by pretty dense bush. It was rather beautiful. The hike back up the hill was much harder, and we were very relieved to see a sign for ice-cream as we approached the top.

The last stop of our tour was Monkey Forest. It was such a cool experience, and that’s coming from someone who is extremely hesitant about monkeys. It is quite a big park in which you can just wander around and watch the monkeys play. You can also buy food to feed them (they will happily climb all over you) but I was much happier watching from afar. They can get pretty aggressive – I would definitely recommend leaving your valuables in the car (sunglasses being a classic example of things they love to pinch!).

Ubud was certainly the most cultural feeling place we went to. There is some very cool markets and shopping generally. There are loads of places offering massages, and The Yoga Barn is certainly famed for its yoga and all round zen habitat. I think that of all our destinations in Bali I thought Ubud was the most interesting and had the most to do (with the obvious omission of no beach). The food was also extremely delicious (check out that post here).

Nusa Lembongan

Nusa Lembongan

Nusa Lembongan couldn’t be more different than Gili T. Given that we had just jumped from one island to another, we had expected them to be somewhat similar, so it was exciting to see such a massive change. Gone was the party, the hectic streets and the mass of vendors; Nusa Lembongan was all about the scooters, the rural villages and the different spots to explore.

We stayed at Lembongan Hostel. Upon arriving on the island we got into a tuk-tuk which dropped everyone on the boat at their respective accommodation. We weren’t sure whether it was free or if it was part of the ferry ticket, but it sure made our journey hassle free. The hostel was clean and very well air-conditioned. The bunks were incredibly high (the kind that I hate to imagine the damage caused if you fell off the top). The showers were a bit gross, and the breakfast pretty simple, but the staff were so incredibly helpful – they were the real highlight of staying there. The hostel was down a long gravel road which had too many potholes to count.

There are a few different spots you can stay when you are at Nusa Lembongan, although it doesn’t really matter because you basically have to scooter everywhere you go anyway. Down in the village would be ideal, not only is there a good beach, but most of the bars and restaurants are down there too. On our first evening there we hired scooters (70,000 IRD per scooter) and headed to Sunset Point to, you guessed it, watch the sun set. The scenery is certainly spectacular. Not far from there is Devils Tear, which is another awesome spot to watch the sun go down. It’s also absolutely incredible at high tide; it reminds you just how powerful the ocean can be.

 

There are two spectacular day trips to be had from Nusa Lembongan and I don’t even know which one I would recommend more.

The first is doing a snorkeling trip. There are so many cool spots to snorkel at, including swimming with manta rays. This was one of the coolest things I have ever done, even though I felt the execution of the trip was nowhere near as good as it could have been. We were picked up from our hostel at about 2 pm, and taken to Mushroom Beach were we climbed aboard a pretty small boat. There were six of us snorkeling, and just the one driver (who only spoke limited English). We set off, and about half an hour later pulled into the first of our three snorkeling spots where we were told to ‘jump in’. It was my brother’s first time snorkeling, and he looked at our driver as though he was joking. Upon realizing that he was deadly serious, he questioned where the life jackets were. And understandably so. The swell was huge, and we were surrounded by sheer cliff faces that didn’t look all that pleasant to crash into (in fact, they looked deadly!). What was worst though, was that right next to where we had stopped the boat,there was a floating, bloated dead DOG. It was awful. We spent our time in the water taking ‘dog shifts’, because we wanted to stay as far away from that thing as possible. There was a stack of rubbish in the water, which was actually really sad to see, because the ocean in those parts of the word is so painstakingly beautiful, and receives next to no TLC from its people.

However, the real purpose for jumping in the water was to see the manta rays. The moments that weren’t spent watching for a certain dead dog were spend with our heads underwater, absolutely in awe of these massive creatures that were so majestically gliding about. Occasionally they’d pop up for air, and if you happened to be looking at the right spot at the right time, you could this massive animal launching itself about the surface. It was quite scary when they came close – they are so big (and quite ugly!) but they certainly lived up to their gentle giant reputation.

After our time with the mantas we headed to snorkel spots #2 and #3. Firstly we snorkeled on a coral reef, and lastly on a mangrove reserve. I was actually feeling pretty sick and contemplated sitting the last stop out, until the others jumped in and stressed just how much I was missing out on this spectacular mangrove reserve. So in I got, and man I did not regret it. The mangroves growing underwater formed a thick grassy terrain, which provided the most spectacular backdrop for some pretty interesting fish. It was definitely one of the best snorkeling sites I have ever visited.

The other day trip well worth making is one across to Nusa Penida. It is possible to stay on this island, and I daresay we would have if there was any more time. Instead we got up early and headed down to the Yellow Bridge where we negotiated our way to a return fare to Nusa Penida. The boat ride took about an hour, but felt so much quicker because the whole way we were entertained by the smallest puppy I have ever seen. Once we got to the island we hired two scooters and we were off (80,000 IRD each).

The island is actually pretty big, and so much bigger than I ever realised. From the get go we were going to be pushing to make it to all the places that we had talked about, but we decided to give it a crack anyway. Our first stop was Ahtu Beach. We headed off around the island through villages and along the coast, up and down hills; boy it was even further than we realised. We got to the top of the biggest hill yet and noted that Andy and Summer’s scooter was almost on empty. Because we were basically in the middle of nowhere, we thought we should make filling up a priority. After about half an hour I think we found what must have been the only petrol station on that side of the island. Half an hour behind schedule, we continued on.

Following the signs to Ahtu Beach we made our way onto a gravel road, which got increasingly bumpy and narrow. Summer and Andy kept suggesting we park up and walk the rest of the way but Jamie and I wanted to press on as much. Well, until we saw Summer and Andy’s scooter hit a rock and slide out sideways beneath them. Summer was a bit grazed, but the worst part was that the scooter wouldn’t start. Panic set in, and Jamie and I helped the other others drag the scooter to the side of the ride and park it. We fiddled for a bit and realised that it definitely was not about to start. Jamie and I managed to convince the others (I’m not kidding when I say it took some serious persuasion) to lock the scooters and just head along to the beach anyway. It was quite a trek down, and everyone was pretty tense. Unfortunately it made the beach trip a little less enjoyable, as the others would pretty worried about how the afternoon was going to play out. It wasn’t entirely unwarranted, given that we were literally in the middle of nowhere. The beach was beautiful to look at, but average for swimming as the undertow was full on. I thought it was far too hot not to swim; but I was the only one.

We were so incredibly thankful to get back to the scooters after the hike up the hill (it felt like forever!) and then a miracle happened when both scooters started on first attempt. We were keen to get out of there pronto and back to civilisation… just in case. We stopped at The Gallery on the way back for lunch – even though it was such a hot day the curry sounded too good to resist; it was definitely the right decision by moi!

Up next was the iconic Klung Klung beach – or more famously known as the T-Rex beach. Another long scooter ride (and in the opposite direction) saw us bouncing over many a pot hole, topping up with petrol (AGAIN) and all getting rather a lot of sun. The views at this beach were absolutely incredible. We didn’t go down to the water’s edge (it was a very long way and it looked so hard and steep that we didn’t know if we would have the energy to climb back up!) but we did manage to get some epic photos.

In the end we had to forego the waterfalls we had planned to visit, because we were just too pushed for time. If I had the option, I would probably choose to stay two nights on Nusa Penida, just to ensure a more thorough exploration of the island.