INDIA (Mumbai, Varanasi, Khajuraho, Orchha, Agra, Jodhpur, Delhi) Part I of INDIA travel series
- When: 21 December, 2018 – 7 January, 2019
- Where (accommodations): Mumbai: Suba Palace Hotel and Vivanta President; Varanasi: Kedareswar B&B; Khajuraho: The Lalit Temple View; Agra: Courtyard by Marriott Agra, Jodhpur: Radisson Jodhpur; Delhi: Shangri-La’s-Eros Hotel
- Transportation: Flights from Boston (BOS) to Mumbai (BOM) and back on Qatar Airways. Flight from Mumbai to Varanasi – Spicejet Airways. Flight from Varanasi to Khajuraho- Jet Airways. Drive from Khajuraho to Orchha and then Agra- driver hired through the hotel, followed by a drive to Delhi. Flight from Delhi to Jodhpur round trip –Jet Airways.
- Sights/attractions: Mumbai: Gateway of India, Elephanta Caves, The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Rajabai Clock Tower of Mumbai University, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus railway station, Fashion Street, Dharavi slum tour, Dhobi Ghat, Kamala Nehru Park, Hanging Gardens, Marine Drive (Queens Necklace), Bandra district/bridge. Varanasi: Old Town tour (guided), Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Sankat Mochan Temple, Durga Temple, evening ceremony from the boat, sunrise boat ride on the Ganges, Dashashwamedh Ghat, Manikarnika Ghat, Brij Rama Palace. Khajuraho: Khajuraho Western Temples (guided tour); Orchha: Orchha Fort (Jahangir Mahal, Raja Mahal), Shri Ram Raja Mandir temple, Chaturbhuj Temple; Agra: Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah; Jodhpur: Mehrangarh Fort, Blue city guided tour, wholesale market, Maharani textiles store, Camel Safari at Osian dunes; Delhi: Rashtrapati Bhavan- president’s house, Akshardham Temple, Lotus Temple, Jama Masjid Mosque, Humayun’s Tomb, Qutub Minar, Red Fort, Chandni Chowk Market.
- Food/drinks: Mumbai: Leopold Cafe, Delhi Darbar, InterContinental Marine Drive, Thai Pavilion; Varanasi: Suryoday vegetarian restaurant, Mona Lisa restaurant; Orchha: Amar Mahal hotel restaurant, Agra: Master Chef restaurant; Delhi: Saravana Bhavan restaurant (southern Indian food), Parawthe Wala in Chandni Chowk Market, Tamra Restaurant. Try anywhere you can masala chai tea– best made on the street, for desserts- gulab jamun balls.
PREPARING FOR THE TRIP
Sean and I have done our fair share of travels and usually it does not take long to plan the trip once we’ve chosen the destination. With India it was quite the opposite. I’ve never read so much about the weather, customs, recommendations, do’s and don’ts of what to pack, wear and what to expect when going to this huge, densely populated country. Well, because India IS very different from all of the places we’ve been to so far. I don’t know if there even is anything like it in the world. It was absolutely incredible experience and I cannot wait to share it with you.
First, and biggest dilemma was – which part of the country we’re going to explore. Having two weeks of vacation time to play with, initial thought was to spend one week in the northern part and then a week in the south of India as the two are significantly different in culture, cuisine, weather, etc. We did a lot of online research, talked to friends and family that have traveled to that part of the world, and finally settled to explore more of the northern side this time. However, beach lovers that we are, we could not pass the opportunity to surf and soak up some sun before returning to cold Boston. That’s where the idea of ending the trip in the neighboring country Sri Lanka (separate blog post) came about. The rest was a LOT of serious planning!
I will share some travel tips that I feel would be beneficial before you step on a plane to India:
Travel tip #1: Travel documents. Depending on what country’s passport you are holding, most likely you will need a visa to India. Make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months from your date of arrival to India.
US citizens as well as Lithuanians need e-VISA, which is very easy to obtain. Below is a website that has all of the info and a three step process- apply, pay visa fee, receive e-Visa: https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/evisa/tvoa.html . You have to upload a photo with a light background (my coworker took one of me near the wall at work) and a copy of your passport page. Process is simple and we got an email confirmation the next day that our e-Visas were granted.
Travel tip #2: Paper copies. PRINT all your travel documents. Does not matter that you have your itinerary and boarding pass on your phone- India’s airport security is VERY strict and before you even get through the airport door there is an officer checking everyone’s documents and their flight details. We saw people being turned down when they did not have paper copies of their flight info, they were sent somewhere to go print it out. I know, we are all trying to kill less trees, but trust me, in India having paper back-ups will come a long way. Print the e-Visa approval email. Immigration officer will ask for it and the last thing you want to do is fumble on your phone trying to find that email confirmation when you are exhausted after a very long flight.
Travel tip #3: Money. If you have a chance, get some Indian Rupees in advance. Lots of places took credit cards, but there were many more that only accepted cash. Cash is certainly king in India. You will need it for tipping the driver, bellman, buying street food, paying the guides, getting a tuk tuk ride or the taxi that is not from the airport. At the airport, at least in the major cities, you can pre-pay the taxi at the taxi stand using your credit/debit card. Uber is very good in India, also in big cities, but you need cash to pay the drivers. You have to set your account to Uber cash in order to request one. Rupees were hard to come by in Boston and the only place that we were able to get them was at the Travelex booth in the Terminal A and E in Boston Logan Airport. The rate was definitely not great, so we did not exchange much, but it was convenient to have some cash to start the trip. The rest we took out of ATMs (had to try a few of them before we were able to take out enough cash, as some were out of money).
Travel tip #4: Packing. Check weather forecast for the places you are going to and pack light. This was our first experiment of traveling for two weeks with only small carry-on roller suitcases and a little backpack each. It was very beneficial in some cases, especially when we did not have to wait to collect our bags and just walked out off the planes. However, in other instances, the airlines weighed the carry-ons and because they were more than 7kg each, we still had to check them, regardless of how small they looked. One disadvantage of small bags was that we had no space for buying things while in India (or maybe it’s an advantage, because that limited our spending 🙂 ). Regardless if you check the bags or not- don’t over-pack. You can buy pretty much everything there and for a lot better price. Clothes for men are same as anywhere else in the world- you can wear t -shirts, shorts, pants, jeans etc. For women it’s a bit more conservative, but don’t overthink it. I was quite stressed out packing, because of reading all the articles about how modest you need to be in India. It’s only partially true. In big cities like Mumbai you will see girls dressed same as in Boston- skirts, short dresses, tight jeans etc. Other parts is more covered up, but also it was a lot colder when we went in December. My best advice for women- leave shorts and super short dresses at home. You will not need those for sure. Bring light pants, skirts and dresses that are up to the knee or longer. Wear any tops you want, but carry a shawl for covering up the shoulders when needed. If you have colorful clothes- bring them, if not- buy them there. India is not a place to wear black, gray, brown or other dark colors. There is so much color in this country! Plus bright outfits look so much better in pictures! I did not have many colorful clothes to bring, so I bought a couple pants in India and then supplemented by getting a bunch of colorful scarves and shawls! True, I might not ever wear them again in USA, but they were not expensive, they were super light to pack and made a lot of good props for the photos. We really needed warm jackets in the evenings in Varanasi, Agra and brought the kind that rolls into a small ball and takes up pretty much no space in the luggage. Wear comfortable and easy on/ easy off shoes- you have to take them off entering the temples. Bring your own medicine. We came well prepared and did not need any, but Sean got a sinus infection from the polluted air in Delhi and typically Sudafed clears it up- well, that’s one medicine we did not bring and they do not sell it in India. We managed, but in case you have something specific that helps you at home- pack it for the trip.
Travel tip #5: Book your guides in advance but don’t use hotel cars. We made all arrangements through our hotels and the few times that we did not book a guide in advance it was a bit harder to get one on a spot. Especially, if it’s on a Sunday. It was a lot more convenient to check into a hotel and confirm that our guide is already waiting for us to do the city tour. Simply email your hotel after you make the reservations and ask if they can arrange a guide. I do NOT recommend getting the hotel car though. The guide arranged through hotel typically cost us 1250 INR (around 18 USD) per day. For more extensive tours it was more. Yes, it’s pricier than a guide from the street, but you also know that it will be a trusted and verified person. The car service from the hotels varied per hour and we were quoted as high as 3500 INR (50 USD) for 3hrs use of a car. We decided to not take any of the hotels cars and use a taxi driver to drive us and the guide around the city. In Delhi we got a taxi driver to drive us around with different drop offs for at least 6 hours throughout the day and it cost us only 1600 INR or about 23 USD. Traffic is massive in India, so agree on a price per day rather than 1-2 hours as you might not see much in that short of a time.
Travel tip #6: Set achievable goals. Decide what is your absolute MUST see/do and plan your trip around it. For us it was Taj Mahal. We were convinced something will go wrong, because we had so many flights (10 in total), car rides, multiple hotels etc. We told ourselves- as long as we get to see the Taj, we will consider this trip a success. At the end, it all worked out and we had a very successful trip, but at the start of the planning it helps to lower your expectations and reduce the potential stress of not seeing everything.
Lots of travelers recommend picking only a few cities in India and not moving around much. It’s not our style and I am very glad we did not listen to that advice. So there it goes, our ‘crazy’ 10 days with 7 cities in India with a side trip to Sri Lanka. It went like this: Mumbai – Varanasi – Khajuraho – Orchha – Agra – Delhi – Jodhpur – Delhi – Sri Lanka – Mumbai. Because there is so much information, I will break down the story in several different posts. This one will be about Mumbai and how to spend 2 days in this buzzing city!
Formerly known as Bombay, Mumbai is a financial, commercial and entertainment capital of India. Over 15 million people live in the the city and after reading the book Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts we decided that this international city will be perfect to start our journey through India.
We left Boston Friday evening, had a short layover in Doha, Qatar and landed in Mumbai at 2am local time. The line at the customs was pretty long- three other flights landed at the same time. We did not have any trouble with immigration, though nobody was in any rush- prepare to be patient. As we did not check our bags, we went straight to the exit and started looking for our driver from the hotel. We expected a lot of people, but even so, it was a bit shocking to see at least 400 people waiting in the arrivals area. Some had the signs with the names of the passengers they are picking up, some were just waiting for their families- it took us good 10 minutes to spot our name on one of the boards the driver was holding. Next thing you know, we are on the way to our hotel where we will catch a few hours of sleep!
Suba Palace Hotel is located in a popular Colaba area, only a few minutes walk away from a lot of tourist attractions. It’s definitely not a palace, but a simple hotel with a very comfortable bed and filling, delicious breakfast.
We were staying in Mumbai just a little over 24 hrs at the beginning of our trip, so we wanted to be close to everything we wanted to see on the first day.
FIRST DAY IN INDIA
We did not have a guide for our first day in Mumbai, which we started exploring after a few hours of sleep. Hotel did not have anyone readily available on a Sunday and the guide they were able to reach asked for 40 USD for a half a day tour, which we politely declined. We were staying at a very good location and I was sure we can manage on our own. Sean was slightly hesitant- we have heard all these stories about how foreigners get harrassed on the street, how everyone will be in your face etc. None of that was true at all. We certainly stood out and quite a few times throughout the trip were asked to take photos with the kids or families, but nobody was ever rude or annoying about it. So we made our itinerary for the day and ventured out on our own. Today we will see Gateway of India, Elephanta Caves, The Taj Mahal Palace hotel, Leopold’s Cafe, Rajabai Clock Tower of Mumbai University, Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus railway station and Fashion Street. That seems like a full day, but it was very easily manageable.
Gateway of India
About 5 min walk away from our hotel we reached one of the most popular landmarks of Mumbai – the arch monument that was built to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary at Apollo Bunder on their visit to India in 1911. You have to go through the metal detector to enter the plaza, so I would recommend going there early, before the crowds start gathering. It was fairly empty at 9am on a Sunday, but the view was completely different in the afternoon!
We wanted to make a 9am boat to Elephanta Caves, so we went straight behind the arch and got the tickets without having to wait in line. You need cash to buy the tickets and it’s not expensive – 200 INR per person, which is about 3 USD. Pay the extra 10 rupees (15 cents) to sit on the top deck to get the best views and the nice sea breeze.
The boat ride to Elephanta Island took one hour and was very pleasant and smooth. People were feeding seagulls, so it was entertaining to see them follow the boat pretty much the whole way. Smog is very evident when you are sailing away from the city- not long after we left Gateway of India, we could barely make out the buildings on the shore. The island itself could use some cleaning as well- the coast was littered with trash, despite the signs asking to keep the island clean. We got off the boat and had an option to either walk about 10 minutes or take a little toy train that brings you closer to the stairs that lead to the caves. As it was a nice sunny day and we wanted to move, we chose to walk and take in the surroundings.
Soon we spotted our first cow in India and not long after took our first group selfie with some very happy Indian teenagers.
Elephanta Caves is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a collection of cave temples predominantly dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and his wife Parvati. The steps leading up to the caves are pretty steep and lined with cheap souvenir vendors on each side. We were happy we took the early boat in, because even at 10 am it was getting pretty warm and climbing the stairs would’ve been a lot harder in the heat of the day. Beware of the monkeys that live on the island- they will steal your bottled drinks! We watched a few grabbing a coke or a sprite and happily chugging it on the side of the stairs.
Travel tip: Say no to the ‘guides’ that are waiting at the bottom of the stairs. All foreigners are entitled to a free guide once you pay the entrance fee and enter the actual caves. Just ask security where to find the guide and they will point you to one of the people that will be happy to give you the tour for a small tip. We joined another couple and the guide was very informative. She explained the meaning of each carving, talked about the history and answered all of our questions. Well worth it as we would not have known anything about the caves if we just walked around on our own.
I would definitely recommend visiting Elephanta Caves for anyone that has some time in Mumbai. We took a 12.30pm boat back and an hour later were near Gateway of India, which now was mobbed with tourists. We took some photos of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and went to see it from the inside.
Taj Mahal Palace Hotel
It’s a heritage 5 star luxury hotel, which during World War I was converted into a military hospital with 600 beds. In 2008 this hotel was chosen for a terrorist attack that killed at least 167 people, many of them foreigners. At that time I worked at the emergency assistance company for travel insurance, On Call International, and was personally involved in the cases of bringing some of the injured travelers and their belongings back to the USA. I never thought I would be visiting the same hotel 10 years later, but given the fact that it was so close to where we were staying, I could not pass the opportunity to see it from the inside.
It’s grand, shiny, beautiful with a strict security to get in. As we noticed later on, most of the nice hotels had metal detectors and you had to pass your purse/backpack through the scanner. What was more shocking at the time, was the young woman with a baby that looked a few days old begging on the street right next to the fancy hotel. It was such a drastic contrast that we were quite appalled at the sight of the baby being carried around in the smoggy air. We offered her our snack- granola bar that we brought from home, but she wanted money and did not seem at all interested in the food.
We saw a boy, maybe 10 yrs old carrying another baby which looked barely alive and begging for money. We were shocked and mortified, until we talked about it with one of the guides later on our trip. We were told that government does help the poor, but those begging with the babies chose to stay on the streets. They even rent and drug the babies, so they stay asleep during the day and make a lot more money than what government offers. The same with the kids begging- their parents send them to perform street tricks, gymnastics, dances while the cars wait for the light to change and the kids make the money, which parents then take away from them. It is very sad and shocking and not something we are used to seeing, but hearing the explanation and offering food several times, which they did not at all appreciate, we started to get accustomed to this world and stopped offering all of our snacks that we brought for the trip. Talking about food- our next stop was famous Leopold Cafe.
Leopold Cafe and Bar
We read about this restaurant in the book Shantaram (one of my favorite books) and wanted to see it in person. Located on a busy Colaba Causeway it is for sure a total tourist place, but we are here and we are hungry. Despite the line, it took only about 10 minutes until we were seated in the upstairs area. The place is huge! And they actually serve very good food. In the book it mentions ‘surly’ service, but we were treated very nicely and I enjoyed my first Kingfisher- Indian beer and shared a garlic naan and Lahori chicken with Sean.
Cafe was one of the targets of the same terrorist attacks in 2008 that took place in the Taj Hotel. First they came to Leopold Cafe, killed at least 10 people and injured many more, and then walked over to the Taj Hotel, which was the main target. The place reopened, but you can still see the bullet holes in the walls. It’s a popular restaurant with both expats and Indians.
Rajabai Clock Tower of Mumbai University
Well fed, we are ready to explore more of Mumbai on foot. Rajabai Clock tower is a beautiful 85 m structure located next to the High Court, in Mumbai University Fort Campus. The tower is closed for public due to several suicide attempts by visitors. You can walk by it and enjoy the beautiful architecture from a distance.
There is one more place that is within walking distance and we are looking forward to visiting- Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus
Formerly known as Victoria Terminus, this railway station is a UNESCO World heritage site and used by more that 3 million commuters daily. The property spread across 2.85 hectare area is an outstanding example of Victorian gothic architectural revival in India, blended with the themes from Indian traditional architecture.
It was interesting to see the “Ladies coach” – women’s only train area. It was made for security purposes, but again, something we are not used to seeing coming from a different culture. This train station has been the location of filming some of the songs for the movie “Slumdog Millionaire” and is one of the most photographed buildings in India, after Taj Mahal.
I have to mention this, just so you can SKIP IT. It was one of the places recommended for shopping and it was a total mayhem. Long, narrow sidewalk with vendors selling same clothes on one side of the street. It was hard to breath at one point- it was that many people there. You have to basically step on the street in order to get by and unless you want to buy jeans or a sweatshirt or some other generic clothes, then maybe it’s a place to go. I wanted something colorful and more Indian looking and there was nothing like that in Fashion Street. Honestly I could not wait to get out of there and after checking it out and seeing same clothes in basically every stall we left as fast as we could. Definitely do not go there if you have any sort of anxiety over crowds or tight spaces- I don’t have an issue with that, but there I was starting to develop one.
With that, we decided to end our unguided first day tour of Mumbai, go back to the hotel and then find a place for dinner. As we were walking back, a pleasant man fell into stride with us and started chatting. ” What is your country? What is your good name?”- the questions we typically got whenever someone local talked to us. So we are walking, chatting, he asks where in India we are going to, we give him a run down of our planned itinerary. Then he says- I just want to give you an advice, nothing in return, I just want you to be happy in my country. So he proceeds to tell us that at the famous monuments that we are planning to visit, we should be wearing Indian clothes! Because “otherwise people will know that you are tourists and will try to take advantage of you”. Long story short, he wanted us to buy clothes. We walked to a store with him, tried the local clothes, looked ridiculous and luckily came to our senses and left without buying them. Foreigners don’t have to wear local clothes and you can if you want to, but that will only attract more attention. Moral of the story- do not fall for the scams.
Our first day in India would not be complete without an Indian dinner. We chose the place close to the hotel with good reviews- Delhi Darbar. I enjoyed my palak paneer and a sweet mango lassi. Sean did not order what he was hoping for and was not too impressed that his chicken had bones in it. He LOVED the sweet mango drink AND my food of course 🙂 .
LAST DAY IN INDIA
Now I am jumping to the last day of the trip, since it was spent in Mumbai as well. I feel like it makes sense to talk about it here, so if you only have two days in Mumbai, it would be easy to plan having all the info in one place.
We arrived from Sri Lanka and the process for immigration was a lot shorter, since there is a separate line for re-entry visitors. We had a double entry e-Visas to India, so it was a quick check of the documents and we were on the way to the hotel. This time we also chose a place in Colaba, around 40 min drive from the airport. Vivanta President is a nice hotel (especially the lobby), and even though the hallways and rooms could benefit from some updates, we had a good view of the city from the upgraded room on the 14th floor.
We had a hard time organizing the tour via email with this particular hotel, so eventually called and spoke to someone at concierge. We were assured guide is all set, but when we arrived, nobody had any record of this conversation…Lucky for us, the girl working at the reception -Tehseen, went out of her way and made several calls until she set up a guide for the Dharavi slums with Reality Tours and Travel company. First thing the following morning we set of to explore different side of Mumbai- Dharavi slum, Dhobi Ghat, Kamala Nehru Park, Hanging Gardens and Marine Drive (Queen’s necklace).
Dharavi slum tour
Dharavi is second largest slum in Asia and fifth in the world. Around 1 million people live in the area of just over 2.1 sq kilometers (0.81sq miles) and that makes it one of the most densely populated areas on the planet. The tour took about 2 hrs and was something out of this world. Out of respect for the residents the guide asked that no pictures are taken while in the slum, so all of the images are forever etched into our memory.
We were allowed to take pictures at the entrance and on the private school classroom, which is as bare and basic as you can possibly imagine- simplest old fashioned desks and a blackboard for writing.
We did not know what to expect during the tour, but it was surely a mind blowing experience. I will share some facts that struck us the most.
Tight spaces– families of multiple people share rooms the size of a closet. Some work at night while the others sleep and then take turns, since there is not enough space on the floor.
Sanitation issues-there is approximately 1 toilet for 500 slum residents! Does having to share a bathroom with your significant other still seem like a problem to complain about? Despite that though, we were surprised of how little it smelled in the slums and how clean the little rooms and alleyways we walked were. People are very clean- women wash themselves inside, while men- right in front of their houses. We passed the man that literally soaped himself head to toe while still in his trousers, poured the water with a cup from a bucket, rinsed off, dried himself with a scarf and then wrapped that scarf around his waist. He took off the pants, washed them and went on with his day. Grateful for what we have at home does not even begin to describe it…
It’s expensive– the slum is centrally located near the train station with easy access to the city, so people actually want to live there, because they can work in Mumbai and not deal with traffic. They pay around 800 USD a month for this tiny room and therefore it has to be shared with many people, otherwise nobody could afford it.
Work conditions in the industrial part– slum has over 15 thousand local business- from plastic recycling to pottery- people work ALL the time. We saw the small part of the plastic recycling and the paint cans recycling business in the industrial part of Dharavi and it was enough to want to wear a mask. Paint fumes, dust from crushing the plastic- people work in these horrible conditions 10 hr days and make around 4-8 USD PER DAY. Does the office job still seem so bad? Not for me for sure…These workers are villagers that come to work in the slum, sleep right near the toxic work environment and send the money back to the families. As guide put it- they are uneducated, only speak two languages. I looked over at Sean and had to laugh- most Americans know one language and some barely so.
The tour was very informative, shocking and somewhat sad. But at the same time- all people that we saw there did not seem down, depressed or upset. They greeted us with broad smiles and went back to their daily chores.
We jumped in the cab and went to check out another phenomenon (for us at least)- open air laundromat. Dhobis- the washers, do the laundry in the open air and hang the clothes and linens in the neat rows to dry out in the sun. You can see the whole area from the top of the bridge and it’s once again a reminder of how much western comforts we all take for granted.
Kamala Nehru Park and the Hanging Gardens
The park is part of the Hanging Gardens complex and is located at the top of Mumbai’s Malabar Hill. It’s very popular with tourists, especially those with children as there are places for them to run and play. We enjoyed walking around in a much less noisy part of the city and I can see how beautiful the gardens would be after the rain. This time of the year it was a bit dry, but still a nice area to step away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Below you can see the views of the famous Marine Drive (Queen’s necklace) where we went next! But not before we had lunch from the local stand- a big filling meal that came to be a total of 2 USD!
Marine Drive (Queen’s necklace)
We took a taxi and went to the InterContinental Hotel located right on the Marine Drive. The so called Queen’s necklace is a 3.6 km long boulevard in south Mumbai. The ‘C’ shaped drive goes along the bay and is popular with tourists and locals alike. If viewed from an elevated point at night, the street lights resemble a string of pearl necklace, hence the nickname. InterContinental hotel has a rooftop bar (opens at 5pm) and a lower terrace, which we totally enjoyed with a drink and dessert before going for a stroll at the promenade.
From slums to luxury, the last day in Mumbai was just as has been this whole trip- full of incredible contrasts.
While ending the story about our Mumbai experience, I have to mention the Thai Pavilion– high end Thai restaurant located right at our hotel.
Both- service and food was superb. We dined there two nights in a row and that restaurant alone was worth the stay at Vivanta President.
Mumbai did not steal our hearts, but it was a great place to begin and end our India adventures. Read more about the rest of our trip as we are off to VARANASI!