India – Pompous Places in Rajasthan, Yoga retreats in Goa and street cremations in Varanasi… Not to forget the one and only – The Taj Mahal !
In Part One of this article I shared with you my feelings and emotions about the incredible India. I also took you with me on a spiritual path to Rishikesh and to the Himalaya. Today I would like to tell you a bit about the rest of my trip – Rajasthan, Goa, Agra and Varanasi. You will also find tips & tricks which might be useful for your own India experinece.
Rajasthan – culture & sightseeing
Jaipur (the Pink City): 2 nights, 1.5 days, accommodation at Blue Beds Hostel
The real India-chaos started for us here. Jaipur is a big city, so we hired a tuk-tuk driver. We visited the Amer Fort, the Hawa Mahal, Jal Mahal, City Palace. We walked around the narrow streets, the markets and enjoyed the sunset at Sun Temple. The first evening we were invited for dinner to the house of our tour operator, Vaseem. A very nice gesture with a personal touch to the tour. The second evening we went to Peacock. Very nice restaurant with a rooftop terrace. Recommendable!
Our hostel was quite ‘posh’ and very western. Magda and I shared the penthouse suite. If you want your privacy – the hostels often have private rooms.
Our private tour (with a driver)
Pushkar (The Holy Lake) – 2 nights, 2 full days, accommodation at Rang Mahal Hotel***
Pushkar is a lovely small town built around a lake. It’s famous for its annual Camel Fair, which we just missed. We opted for a more luxurious hotel, outside of the city, yet still walking distance. I really liked this town. Full of colours, with nice roof-top cafes and bars, cute shops with colourful saris, robes, scarfs… There was a cosy atmosphere around the streets. It reminded me of Rhishikesh. We visited the Brahma Temple, walked along the lake (it’s holy so no shoes!), watched the sun setting by the water while listening to street musicians and had lovely meals at the roof-top places.
Udaipur (The White City) – 2 nights, 1 full day, accommodation at Bunkyard Hostel***
On the way to Udaipur we stopped to visit the Ranakpur Jain Temple. Dedicated to Tirthankara Rishabhanatha the temple has a spectacular marble architecture.
I found Udaipur was like a bigger Pushkar. Same nice ambience of a town with rooftop places, a (bigger) lake, lovely architecture, street musicians, nice shops, relaxed atmosphere. My highlight was the visit to the beautiful City Palace with its colorful frescos.
Bundi – 2 half days, 1 night, accommodation at Bundi Inn A Heritage Boutique Haveli***
Bundi is a small rustic town, known for its palace, situated on a hill. The palace is adjacent to the Taragarh fort and is famous for its traditional murals.
We stayed in very nice guest house which was situated just a few meters from the Bundi Palace. I really liked this cute place with family ambience (and great rates on the top of it)! We arrived late in the afternoon and still had time to visit the Palace. This time we didn’t have to share it with many other visitors. There were just a few of us and a mystic atmosphere to it. Later on we had a stroll around the town and enjoyed dinner at the rooftop restaurant of our guesthouse, overlooking the nicely illuminated palace. Next day before departure we had time to discover the town, which is also known for its step wells and water tanks. I personally liked the back streets with colorful house facades and murals.
Ranthambore National Park: 2 nights, 1 full day, Tiger Safari, accommodation at Sultan Bagh Jungle Camp Resort*
I liked the glamping at Sultan Bagh. We stayed in luxury tents in a Nature Reserve. How nice to simply relax on the porch with a tea, being far away from the street chaos. We booked a tiger safari, which was a nice experience (my first safari ever). We saw many animals. Unfortunately not the Tiger.
Agra (The Taj Mahal): 2 half days, 1 night, accommodation at Joey’s Hostel
On the way to Agra we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, a small city with red sandstone buildings and the Jama Masjid mosque.
Agra itself is very ugly and not worth visiting except for one obvious thing: The Taj Mahal! We stayed in a hostel which was marketing itself as the hostel with the view of the Taj Mahal. I wasn’t nice at all (like the whole town) but we took a private room situated on the rooftop terrace. It had indeed a view on the Crown Palace. At least.
The Symbol of Love – Taj Mahal
We visited The Taj Mahal first thing in the early morning because we wanted to enjoy the sunrise over the building. Did you know that this architectural jewel is actually a mausoleum? The Crown Palace is the most romantic tomb, an expression of eternal love between emperor Shah Johan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal. She died giving birth to their 14th child. Her grieving husband built this masterpiece of white marble in her memory. The ornaments and mosaics are built with gemstones from all over the world! Breathtaking! When our guide illuminated one of the flowers (a coral) with a tiny pocket lamp I actually had tears in my eyes!
Unfortunately you only have 3 hours for the visit which is not much. If you take a guide you want to listen to his stories but also enjoy the grounds afterwards on your own, taking pictures. In my opinion, the time frame for all that is a bit tight.
Before leaving we also visited the Agra Fort, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. This walled city is known for its rich history because it has been owned by many emperors. You can observe the changes done by those rulers in the appearance of the Forts architecture.
Goa – beach time & yoga
I heard that Goa is a bit like Bali. There are many yoga retreats, an offer on spiritual events, ayurvedic massage places, nice cafes with healthy food hype. In conclusion, it has a reputation to have a bit of a hippie vibe.
As you might know, Bali is kind of home for me. Therefore I was curious about this part of India. So after the culture trip I was really excited to come down here and see it for myself.
Panaji – 1 night, 1 full day, accommodation at The Crown Goa*
As a kick-off to our Goa relaxation time we decided to visit Goa’s capital. Panaji is different from the rest of India. Because of its colonial buildings it reminded me of Cuba. Of Havana, Trinidad and Cienfuegos. I liked the cobblestone streets lined with colorful house facades from the Portuguese colonial era. Panaji is catholic, therefore you find here Maria statutes rather than Ganesha. High above the city sits the catholic church – Our Lady of Immaculate Conception, from the baroque 1619. I enjoyed the vibe here and I can only recommend visiting it during your India-Travels. In addition I also recommend the 5 star hotel we stayed in. It has a nice breakfast buffet.
Generally speaking, I liked our choice of accommodations. It was a good combination of guest houses, hostels and fancier hotels. Sometimes authentic, sometimes luxury. You need the balance. Especially in India.
Patnem – 6 nights at Patnem Garden Cottages
From Panaji we drove down to Patnem Beach. Palolem’s smaller sister is situated just south (walking distance) of it. It’s more yoga, less party and I chose it because it was recommended by a like-minded friend. We found a nice garden resort and stayed for almost a week in our lovely cottage right next to the beach.
Our cottage had two floors, and so we could stay together in one house, each of us having his own private space with a gigantic bed. There was a lovely ayurvedic spa in our resort and an offer on yoga, sound healing and other meditation sessions. However, I prefered practicing yoga right on the beach. There are a few places. I really liked the Lotus Oasis.
We ate a lot of seafood and fish curries at the countless beach restaurants. It was epic to have your seafood platter served to you right at the waterfront, in the sand. The beach bars offer live music and because Goa is not as religious as the rest of India, you are able to drink alcohol (if that’s what you want after all those days of abstinence). There are lovely sunset spots. A variety of simple, chilled bars and cliff clubs serving fancy sundowner-cocktails.
This week was a welcome break from the chaos of the streets and so I really enjoyed the beach & yoga time. After that we took a flight to Varanasi.
Varanasi – the ‘real’ India
From relaxed Goa to chaotic Varanasi. Ganga Aarti, steet burials, goats in T-Shirts, musicians and artists… People call Varanasi the ‘real India’, so we left the ‘real thing’ for the end of our India experience. In other words, for when we were ready.
Varanasi: 2 nights, 2 full days, accommodation at Dwivedi Hotels – Palace On Steps**
This surreal and holy city where life meets death, dirt meets art, animals are wearing shirts and babas (wise men) are stoned, can’t leave you untouched. The shocking scenes I have seen got under my skin and made me emotional. Crazy roller coasters where you feel at peace one moment and irritated the next one (I wrote more about it in ‘part one’ of this article)…
We stayed in a nice hotel overlooking the Ganges. While Nik went on his early morning photographic walks I sat on the balcony with my coffee and watched the sunrise. Amazing! We spent our days walking around and wondering. Varanasi is built along the river. And because the river is holy, that’s where most of the activities are happening. In the morning you observe people bathing in the river and washing their clothes. Later on you see them sitting there, chilling, meditating, taking visitors on boat tours. During sunset they are gathering together for the rituals of the Ganga Arti, similarly to Rishikesh (see ‘part one’ of this article).
A thin line between Life and Death in Varanasi
There are two burial sites on the Ghats (river banks, steps) where cremations are happening at all times of the day and night.
You can witness the whole ceremony happening just a few meters away. The arrival of the funeral party, the washing of the body, the placing it on the pyre, the burning… You can see the body dissolving in front of your eyes, dogs licking the bones and cows eating the marigold flowers, which before were decorating the bamboo stretcher of the dead person. People around you are playing with their phones, taking pictures and posting on social media. Someone who is sweeping the ashes onto a pile is yelling up to me (I’m standing above the scenery on the stairs), asking me what is the time. When I turn around I see men laughing while talking a bath (and the river water into their mouths) just a few meters away from the family who is washing their dead grandfather in the same waters! Just imagine this image…
As I mentioned before, for me this scenery was shocking. For the locals it was their reality and therefore I tried to take all of it with an open mind. I have to say I was happy I came here but I was also happy to leave. Taking the mental images forever with me.
Delhi – the polluted capital of India
India’s capital is a massive city. Our respective return flights were obviously out of Delhi and so we took the chance to visit it. Nothing really special if you ask me, and so polluted that you can’t see the horizon. I was happy we didn’t stay longer.
Delhi – 2 nights, 1 day, accommodation at The Suncourt Hotel Yatri***
We visited the India Gate, the Museum of Modern Art and the Jama Masjid Mosque. After sunset we walked around the streets of Chandni Chowk, a vibrant bazaar/ shopping area, where you can buy silver jewelry and colorful saris. I prefered the narrow side streets because they are so vibrant. Filled with food carts, traditional sweets and dried fruit shops, essential oils and spice stalls. Chaotic and therefore authentic.
To finish our trip we decided to have a fancy dinner with cocktails and went to Connaught Place. Connaught Place is a modern business and financial hub, centered on a ring of colonnaded Georgian-style buildings. Among the many bars and restaurants we found Farzified Café. Sitting at the bar and sipping cocktails we let the amazing, crazy India experience ease down…
The time after India
You get India under your skin and it will take some time until you get India out of your system. You will have a lot to talk about when you return home. The curious thing that happened to me is the realisation that I could go back very soon! Sooner than I had expected. I don’t know what it is but this country is like a magnet! It attracts you even if you don’t really want to go. Strange. Inexplicable. Magical!
Useful Tricks & Tips for India
Be prepared that local people will want to talk to you all the time. Often they want a selfie with you. If you don’t want to reply to the question where you are from (for the 100th time that day), just smile, nod and continue walking
Sometimes you will feel frustrated but you don’t have to be rude! Be friendly, but assertive if needed to be
Bargain !!! (with a smile but confidently)
When taking a tuk-tuck, agree upfront on a fix price for x hours, or based on places you would like to visit
Don’t be afraid of pickpockets. India is a very religious country and people believe in Karma
Revolut works perfectly, but it’s good to always have cash on you
Have your own toilet paper always with you! The public toilets and toilets in the bars and restaurants are horrible! Often there is no water to wash your hands
Antiseptic gel is your best friend !
Cocoon yourself into bed. Maybe bring a small sleeping bag. Hygiene in India has different standards, so be prepared to have dirty sheets even in a nice hotel
When in Rishikesh – visit the Beatles Ashram! Magical atmosphere at sunset
If you have enough time, take audio guides when visiting the Palaces. They tell you interesting stories about the emperors and their wifes. It’s like time travel
Take a boat trip when in Varanasi (even if you know what is below you). It’s an experience
Buy fabrics, clothes, a sari. They are beautiful and cheap. If it’s not in your gusto, they make beautiful gifts!
India is mostly vegetarian and non alcoholic. Play along. Try it out, so you save money and do something for your health!
Even if you are not into meditation and yoga. Please open your heart to it while in India. It’s the best moment!
Please don’t ride elephants!
Contacts for your India Trip
Himalaya Trek: I can only recommend our experienced guide Kaly and his partner Ewelina – Mapping the Himalayas!
Rajasthan Tour: Viaggi Incredible India (also on Facebook) – the agency specialises on the Italian market, however Vaseem Ahmed (the owner) speaks English very well. Our driver Sunil was very polite and organised. We really enjoyed spending time in his company. His car was like a luxury bubble in the India street chaos.
Yoga studio in Patnem: Lotus Oasis (right on the beach)
Ayurvedic Spa in Patnem: At Patnem Garden Cottages (ask for Maya)
In this spirit…
Please don’t be afraid to go to India because you would miss an amazing adventure!
Be open minded and take your India trip with an open mind and an open heart!
It may be a life changing experience if you allow it ! : )
Namaste & Love