Backpacking India… It’s a hell of an experience. I have visited India five times now, spending nearly two years backpacking across this crazy sub-continent.
When I was nineteen, following a life-changing injury, I threw all of my shit into a battered pack and caught a one way flight to Delhi, I had just $2700 to my name and was able to make this last over a year whilst backpacking in India.
The wonderful thing about backpacking India is that pretty much anybody can afford it, especially if you don’t mind being a little uncomfortable.
I jumped off the deep end and hitchhiked, couchsurfed and slept rough a lot to make my travel dreams a reality but, to be honest, backpacking in India is so cheap that you don’t really need to do this… A budget of just $500 a month will go a long way when backpacking India and it’s possible to do it for far less.
Table of Contents
- What To Expect From Backpacking India
- Best Itineraries For Backpacking India
- Places To Visit In India
- Backpacker Accommodation in India
- Top Things To Do in India
- India Travel Tips
- Staying Safe in India
- India Travel Guide - Getting In and Around
- India Backpacking Costs
- A Brief History of India
- Final Thoughts on Backpacking India
What To Expect From Backpacking India
Since I was nineteen, I’ve been coming back to India again and again. Often I promise myself that this will be the last time and like many India backpacking veterans, I have a love/hate relationship with India!
Your first time in India may well come as something of a shock even for experienced travellers. It is generally dirty, crowded, noisy, chaotic and frustrating. There are wild animals everywhere, a lot of extreme poverty and widespread dilapidation. Some of the local customs also take some serious adapting to – get used to been stared at, hassled, scammed & having your personal space invaded.
So yes, the real India can be a real challenge but, for adventurous backpackers, India offers some of the most incredible exploring in all of Asia. If it gets under your skin, you will keep on coming back time and time again.
Best Itineraries For Backpacking India
After nearly a total of two years backpacking in India, I reckon I’ve only seen about half of this truly incredible, massive, country. The country is so big that is really does make sense to plan your backpacking route before you rock up and to focus on seeing one part of India at a time. There are plenty of amazing spots to explore but you need to be sure you choose the right spots at the right time – you don’t want to be travelling in the Great Thar Desert during summer!
To make things a bit easier, I’ve popped together some different india backpacking routes; these can easily be combined or added together to create a truly amazing longer trip. Whatever India backpacking route you take, prepare to be astounded, amazed and a little bit frustrated! You need at least one month in India to enjoy these itineraries.
Backpacking India itinerary # 1 – Spiritual Extravaganza
Duration: 3 – 5 weeks
Best time to go: November – March
Suggested route: Delhi – Varanasi – Khajuraho – Agra – Jaipur – Pushkar – Bundi – Jodhpur – Jaisalmer – Udaipur (3-5 weeks).
Rajasthan is a great introduction to backpacking India! This is an area that checks most boxes – There are plenty of chilled out sites well on the backpacker radar but if you dig a little deeper you can find isolated villages and hidden temples rarely visited by travellers.
One important thing to note is that Rajasthan can be damn hot… This means that you really, really want to try and explore this part of India during November to March; outside of these months it can be fairly unbearable.
Backpacking India itinerary # 2 – Off the beaten track adventures and Goan parties
Duration: 2 – 4 weeks
Best time to go: October – March.
Suggested route: Bombay – Ajanta and Ellora – Nashik – Bidar – Bijapur – Hampi – Goa – Gokarna.
Backpacking India and keen to escape the crowds? India is a big place and full of untapped adventures… This is perhaps the best India travel itinerary for explorers keen to see a bit of the real India before diving into the heady parties of Goa and Gokarna.
This part of India is often ignored by backpackers due to the poor transport links and very limited accommodation options.
For some backpackers however this is the real deal; this is real exploring and if you persevere you will be rewarded with holy ghats, cave temples and ancient citadels; all of which you will have totally to yourself. Unless you have already been travelling in India for a while I do not recommend starting with this itinerary. Consider exploring Hampi or Rajasthan first.
Backpacking India itinerary # 3 – Mountains and Yoga
Duration: 4 – 6 weeks
Best time to go: May – September
Suggested route: Rishikesh – Amritsar – McLeod Ganj – Bhagsu – Manali – Vashisht – Kasol – Leh – Srinagar – Jammu.
Traveling to India to find yourself? Then this itinerary may be for you. The Himalayas are unlike any other part of India, mountains have always held a special place in my heart and the Indian mountains are some of the best in the world… although not quite as incredible as neighbouring Pakistan, the ultimate adventure destination!
The welcoming Sikh province of Punjab, the mountaintop temples of Leh and the war-torn meadows of Kashmir are worlds apart and yet they are all easily accessible if you journey into India’s Himalayan provinces.
Be warned; travelling in the Himalayas is uncomfortable, tiring and sometimes dangerous. It is worth getting to grips with your route before you go travelling in India, planning on the road doesn’t work so well in the Himalayas as the roads have a tendency to get washed away!
I suggest heading into the Himalayas when the rest of India becomes too hot to handle, I prefer to hang out in the lower Himalayas between May and June. July to August is the best time of year to travel in Ladakh and Kashmir. There are many, many more spots within the Himalayas that I strongly recommend checking out, this itinerary just covers some of the best options…
Backpacking India itinerary # 4 – Exploring the South
Duration: 3 – 5 weeks
Best time to go: November – March
Suggested route: Bangalore – Kodagu – Mysore – Fort Cochin – Alleppey – Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary – Munnar – Varkala.
Southern India is, for the most part, super laid back… The people are fairly relaxed and less interested in taking advantage of ‘rich foreigners’ backpacking India.
There is a huge amount to see in Southern India; from elegant cities and backpacker beach communities to old colonial towns and teeming wildlife reserves.
I recommend spending at least a month in the South of India, if you only have a short while in India you may want to consider flying into Bangalore and exploring the south for a couple of weeks before heading up towards Hampi and Goa.
Places To Visit In India
Many backpackers arriving in India for the first time will start their adventure in Delhi, which is unfortunate. Delhi is probably my least favourite city in the whole world and whilst it may have some hidden charms, I have yet to find them despite visiting the city over half a dozen times. The traffic is crazy, and driving my multicoloured rickshaw through the streets was a truly nutty and hair raising experience.
Delhi is not one of the friendliest places in India. When you arrive into Delhi’s main airport, catch a metro into town and make your way to the Panchsheel area; this is where you can find the widest array of backpacker friendly accommodation and is the best area in Delhi to stay in. Some of the best hostels in Delhi are in Parganj and others in Horse-guards.
In general, I recommend getting the heck out of Delhi as quickly as possible… There are plenty of much lovelier places within India to spend your time.
No trip to India is complete without a Varanasi experience… I say experience because Varanasi is totally nuts and will leave you reeling as you navigate through twisting alleys, passing holy men and funeral processions, stray cows and colourful stores selling silken saris. Make your way to the river and catch a sunset boat ride on the Ganges, the most holy river in Hinduism. On the way, make sure to pick up one of the best lassis in all of India at Blue Lassi in the market.
If you want to be close to the action, stay in the kickass Stops Hostel in Bhelupur. For a more chilled pace, check Roadhouse Hostels over at Assi Ghat. Varanasi has to be seen to be understood… I recommend spending three or four days here. There are good train links between Delhi and Varanasi and I recommend catching a sleeper train – go for 3AC class.
From Varanasi you should be able to catch a train directly to Khajuraho. As always you should book your ticket in advance and try to get a night train to save on accommodation. This area is famous for its hilariously erotic temples. The Yogi Sharma Ashram Lodge is a lovely place to stay. Hire bicycles as some of the main sights are spread out and it is a great way to explore.
Try to catch the temples at sunrise, they are amazing. It is possible to arrange a tuk tuk to take you to a lovely river where you can swim, ask around. Touts are persistent here and like to target fresh backpackers. I recommend staying for two to three days so you can get a well deserved break before heading onwards to Agra…
There’s only three things worth seeing in Agra. The first and best is ‘Jonie’s Cafe’ – it offers the best, and cheapest food in all of India. The second is the Taj Mahal, it costs a whopping 1500RS to get in and this will probably continue to rise for foreign visitors in the coming years. Finally, 26km outside of Agra is the ruins of Fatehpur Sikri which is interesting if you have time but is unfortunately filled with very pushy touts.
The Taj Mahal is chief amongst the top sites to see in India. However, Agra itself is a true shit-hole of a city and not to be dwelled in… From Agra you can catch a train to Jaipur but may have to change at Delhi. Two days in Agra is more than enough. You can stay at Backpacker Panda, another pretty cool hostel chain in India.
My second least favourite city in India is undoubtedly Jaipur. You can however mitigate its horror by choosing carefully where to stay in Jaipur. Try to spend just a day here if you can as the city is stressful and ugly. Ajmer Palace, 12km outside of the city, is stunning and worth the trip. The Monkey Temple (Galtaji) is not to be missed – set beautifully into the side of a hill, make sure you go all the way up and over to the other side of the hill to find it. Other than the old buildings, Jaipur is a great place to shop for textiles, custom made clothes and jewellerey.
Jaipur is a great place to be during the festival of Diwali. Stay at one of Jaipurs best hostels or get a Jaipur Airbnb. From Jaipur, you can catch an overnight train to Jaisalmer and work your way backwards towards Delhi across Rajasthan or jump to Pushkar. The airport does some good value domestic flights – if you book ahead you can get to Goa for $40.
Finally, somewhere to relax now that you’ve done the obligatory sights of India! You could happily spend a week in Pushkar, exploring the many temples and the gorgeous lake within the centre of the town. Pushkar is renowned as a town of religious importance and you can’t drink or eat meat here… meaning that, of course, you can but your beer will be disguised in a teapot and will cost more. Pushkar is a shoppers paradise and is filled with thousands of stores selling pretty much everything…
There’s a strong backpacker community here, the town suffers from many a hippie-wannabe, and there’s lots of yoga and meditation classes available. Whilst exploring the lake, avoid the priests like the black plague – they are extremely skilled scammers. Do not let them place a wristband upon you, they will ask for a ridiculous payment.
For a truly striking sunset, climb one of the nearby hills surrounding the town. Zostel is a great place to meet other backpackers in India or, if you want something a little less hostel-ey, check out Hotel Everest run by the friendly Bunty. Sai Baba does affordable private rooms and has a lovely ambiance.
Pushkar has great but, very strong, Bhang (marijuana) lassis; these will knock you out if you are not careful. Every year, the famed Pushkar Camel Festival comes to town – this is a totally insane event but well worth seeing if you happen to be in India at the time; book your accommodation in advance as everything tends to sell out. Four to five days is about right for a visit to Pushkar although its possible to linger for weeks.
To get to Pushkar you must first catch a train to Ajmer and then catch a forty five minute bus onwards to Pushkar itself. From Ajmer you can catch a bus to Bundi, a logical next stop.
I loved Bundi. It’s well off the tourist radar and definitely worth visiting. I stayed in a lovely little guesthouse called simply The Lake View Guesthouse. Rooms were cheap, just $6 for a huge double with bathroom. Bhayvam Homestay does rooms for $3 but they are basic and you have to share a bathroom.
The guesthouse is run by a lovely old man who reminded me of Yoda. You could also stay at Shivam Tourist Guesthouse – a nice and clean little place. Definitely visit the palace and the fortress atop the hill (take a stick to deter the monkeys) as well as Kipling’s house. Hire bicycles to go exploring outside the city, you will be utterly alone and this is a great chance to do some real exploring.
Stay for at least three days in Bundi and be sure to call into to Krisna’s Chai Shop. For more information on Bundi, check out my Bundi destination guide.
Although there may not be a great deal of tourist sites to visit, Jodhpur is an excellent example of a Rajasthani market town, a good wander through streets to soak up the busy vibe and colours is a must during your stay. In the state where every town has a fort, Jodhpur is no exception and it’s definitely worth visiting.
It’s one of the most amazing fortresses in the world. Take the audio tour to find out plenty of awesome history about this amazing place. The brightly painted Cosy Guesthouse is definitely worth staying in as it’s a backpacker institution. I would stay for one or two days. You can catch a bus from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer.
A giant sandcastle rising out of the desert, Jaisalmer fort is one of my favourite places in all of India and the starting point for the annual rickshaw race across India. Even better, if you’re keen to go camel trekking and to spend a night camping out in the desert with fellow backpackers, this is the place to do it! Haggle hard… The prices vary wildly!
The legal Bhang shop sells shakes and cookies – they can get you very high and are a fun way to while away an evening; as always, be careful if you’re experimenting with drugs on the road. Not including time for a camel trek, you only need two days to explore Jaisalmer. There are good train links out of Jaisalmer. Check out this guide to Jaisalmer for more info.
What a truly wonderful place. I lingered here for almost a month when I was on my first backpacking trip to India at the age of nineteen. There are wonderful restaurants, interesting cycle rides, captivating lakes and atmospheric temples. Try to stay somewhere near the central Jagdish temple. Shop around for accommodation as it’s possible to find good rooms for $4. I got some beautiful, custom made shirts in Udaipur which cost about $4 each – well worth it.
You could stay at Moustache Udaipur, which is a pretty cool hostel. ‘Savage Garden’ and ‘Paradise Cafe’ are both worth visiting for top notch food. Five days is a good length of time to spend in Udaipur before catching a train back up to Delhi or travelling onwards to Goa or Mumbai. A train to Goa, via Gujurat, takes around 46 hours and I strongly recommend that nobody ever attempts this again… It was one of the most god-awful journeys of my life!
Let’s start with the name. Nobody calls this sweltering city Mumbai and the city is very much Bombay. Now that the name is out of the way, let’s get onto the city. Bombay is, in a single word, intense! If you survive Bombay you have done well. Bombay is not only dirty, crowded and full of touts, it is also the most expensive city in India and can quickly drain your bank account on account of the wild nights out… Tinder works well in Bombay.
I loved Bombay and spent over 2 weeks hanging out but I was couchsurfing and had some great friends to show me Mumbai’s best neighbourhoods and help keep my costs low. I highly recommend trying to make a friend in Bombay as they will show you a side of the city that most backpackers in India simply are not aware of. In case you can’t find a host, worry not as there are now loads of decent Mumbai hostels. You should definitely brave the local trains at some point, they are packed to bursting but are a quintessential Indian backpacking experience.
From Bombay, you can easily catch a train to Aurangabad.
Backpacking Ajanta & Ellora
The famed cave temples and dwellings of Ajanta and Ellora rival those of Petra... Huge temples and structures have been carved into the rock and occupied by holy sects for centuries, the history here is absolutely fascinating.
To visit Ajanta and Ellora, you will need to make a base in Aurangabad; a quintessential middle-of-nowhere Indian town. The Hotel Shree Maya is a good place to crash and to eat, it's a five minute walk from the train station.
You'll need a full day to visit the incredible cave temples of Ellora, travel by tuk tuk for 600RS. Be sure to make a stop at the truly awesome ruined fortress of Daulatabad, a place with a bloody and fascinating history.
On day 2, take a taxi (1200RS) if in a group or a bus (150RS each way) if you are on your own to the Ajanta Caves; a collection of thirty Buddhist monasteries carved into a shoehorn of rock sitting above a lush green forest. On day 3, get the heck out of dodge (there really is fuck all to do in Aurangabad) and catch a train (6 hours) to Nashik.
The ghats, stone steps leading down to the river for washing and praying, in Nashik are truly mesmerising and, unlike in Varanasi, there are no pushy touts looking to make a quick rupee from backpackers.
If you are into your photography, Nashik is one of the best places to visit some truly untouched Ghats and to capture scenes of Indian rural life.
One day in Nashik is enough; besides the ghats there isn't much to see. I couchsurfed here and found myself in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class in the evening... such is travelling in India! If you fancy spending a second day in Nashik, there is a pleasant day hike to Trimbak which is worth checking out.
From Nashik you can arrange a sleeper bus towards Goa, or if you are feeling adventurous catch a train to Gulbarga and then onwards to Bidar and Bijapur, you may have to go via Bombay. I couchsurfed in Nashik.
The epic fort in Bidar is probably one of the most untouched forts in all of Asia and, best of all, if you visit you will probably have it all to yourself.
From Gulbarga, a bus (three hours) runs to Bidar, there is very limited accommodation options here - I stayed in the Hotel Mayura, right next to the bus station. Bidar Fort is filled with hidden, locked, passageways and epic buildings.
If you find an attendant, you can tip him 100RS to wander around with you or, even better, simply give you the keys. The fort alone is well worth coming to Bidar for but the city itself does have some other interesting sites and is one of the most important places of pilgrimage for the Sikhs. From Bidar, it's a seven hour, ass-bruising, bus ride to Bijapur.
Palaces, tombs, gateways, temples and minarets, all carved from solid basalt and covered in twisting vines and flowers. The architecture in Bijapur is simply stunning and it is widely renowned as one of the most important historical cities in India, despite this it attracts very few backpackers and you are likely to have it all to yourself.
A couple of days is adequate time to see all of the sites, it could be done in one single day if you are tired of the heat and are keen to hurry on to somewhere a tad more relaxing. I recommend staying in Hotel Pleasant Stay, the cheapest accommodation is next to the bus-stand - it's fairly horrible. From Bijapur, catch a bus to Hospet (3 - 4 hours) and from Hospet catch a thirty minute rickshaw to Hampi...
Hampi is hands-down my favourite backpacker hub in India. I've been a total of five times and, every time, it's changed drastically. It is famed for its climbing boulders as well as the assortment of ancient temples.
Local buses from Hosepur to Hampi begin running at around 7am but expect usual Indian delays. The ride takes 30 - 40 minutes and costs about 15 rupees. Tuk Tuks are available and will charge you between 200 - 400. Tuk Tuk drivers will also lie and tell that you that the busses to Hampi start at 8.00, 9.00 or even that there aren’t any at all to try and get your custom.
Scooters can be rented cheaply in Hampi (300-400 rps), but aren’t actually necessary. Bicycles can be obtained for 100 - 150 rps. I recommended joining a bike tour around the temples and ruins of the main island - they can be joined for 300 including bike, last 4 hours and cover about 9km with lots of stops - bring sun cream and water.
Note that as of February 2020, the local government has began totally demolishing the entirety of the development "across the river". This means all of the hostels and the entire Hampi backpacker hub is gone. The temples are still there, as are the rocks but to be frank, Hampi just lost half of its appeal and charm in one fell swoop. It remains to be seen how the demolition of 2020 will effect tourism in Hampi.
Find out where the best places to stay in Hampi are so you can be as close as possible to the attractions (or parties for that matter).
Probably the most famous place in all of India and a magnet for hippie wannabes and all kinds of backpacker assholes, Goa is a complicated, chilled, paradoxical place that is well worth a visit no matter what you hear.
The trick with Goa is choosing where in Goa to stay. Baga is for package tourists, Anjuna for party people and South Goa for those seeking some peace. I've checked out almost every beach in Goa and my two favourites are Palolem and Patnem in the South. Wherever you stay, there are some great hostels in Goa.
Both Palolem and Patnem are pretty relaxed. You can arrange fishing, dolphin watching and kayaking from the beach. There is a huge range of accommodation options on offer – the nicest beach huts are at Roundcube Patnem but they are a tad more expensive.
Another beach well worth considering is Arambol beach in the North. It's a lively, hippy mecca. There are loads of yoga classes and meditations, there are jam sessions every night and shops selling some genuine boutique items as well as the standard backpacker stuff. If you shop around you can still get a beach front shack for 300 - 400 rps though prices spike between Christmas and February.
Most restaurants along and around the beach are very similar and do perfectly decent Indian standards as well tantalisingly fresh fish tandooris. Cheeky Monkey has a great fusion menu and the shack next to the coconut seller does amazing thali's for 100 - 150 rps.
There are no big parties in Arambol itself although Rusta has began doing Wednesday Techno Parties. Morejim however is a short ride from Arambol (don’t drink/drug & ride) and has a number of club nights featuring all minds of music.
That said, Arambol itself has numerous happenings every single night until around 10:30pm (midnight if its away from then main drag). I recommend attending Ecstatic Dance at the Source and seeing what weird and wonderful stuff is going on at Magic Cafe and the Love Temple.
The big, wild, legendary Goa parties take place in and around Anjuna & Vagator. There are parties catering to different tastes each night during high season (Dec - March) so if you like commercial, techno, R & B or house you can find it. However, my absolute premium advice is to attend at least one Goan Trance Party as they are utterly mind blowing. Try Shiva Valley on Tuesday nights or Shiva Place on Friday, Saturday & Sunday. Hilltop & Origens claim to be "temples of trance" and do attract big name DJ's, but they are overpriced, soulless & shit.
Backpacking Goa can easily take up several months in itself and it is a place where travellers tend to get lost.
For a taste of 'Goa before the tourists', many people backpacking India head to Gokarna. The main beach is quickly catching on and becoming more touristy, much like Goa. That said, there are plenty of smaller beaches which are only accessible by boat and are home to small communes of hippies.
Gokharna is a short(ish) way from Goa and its relatively quiet. Beaches generally act as either a warm up for or come down from the madness of India’s tourism capital. Gokharna itself is classic Indian small town with a few temples, some dirt roads and lots of cows. There are plenty of guest houses, shops, travel agencies and ATM’s to be had here and its worth a look.
However, people come here for the quiet, secluded beaches which are 6km and 150rps in a Tuk Tuk away. My personal nickname for Om Beach is Jaffa Beach as its firmly established on the Hummus trail. By day, play volleyball, explore the temples in the old town or fish upon the high seas. By night, discover the real reason that many hippies have moved to Gokarna; a better supply of mushrooms and weed.
The guest houses here range from 300 to 500rps and the quality differs drastically. Shopping around and checking them all out is strongly advised as many don’t have WI-Fi or reliable electricity and are frankly depressing. The absolute pick has to be Mooksa with its extensive grounds at the back of the cafe. Dolphin Bay is to be avoided.
Some of these places don't even have electricity so if you're looking for something a bit more out there - this might be it. I would recommend staying at the Zostel hostel.
Kudle beach is similar again except with less Israeli’s.
The necklace sellers on the beach are mostly young and pleasant but do get annoying. If you don’t intend to buy anything then make it very clear and be firm without been rude. If you say “I may buy later/tomorrow” then they will try to hold you to that.
Snakes are also very common here. I found one, 2 foot long, in my room and saw several small snakes in the jungles immediately surrounding the beach. The local staff told me they’re not poisonous but Google tells me there are some cobras around. The beach dogs are very friendly and the beach cows are generally harmless, but may try to eat your belongings. Remember, these animals are sacred in Hindu culture so respond accordingly if this happens.
Famous since the Beatles first rocked up here and got stuck into an Ashram, Rishikesh is a popular stop with yogis backpacking India and is well worth checking out, even if you are not into yoga. If you are into yoga, Rishikesh is the perfect place to take a course or earn your yoga certification.
Catch a train from Delhi to Haridwar and then catch a bus (one hour) onwards to Rishikesh bus station - from here, you will then need to get a tuk tuk to drop you near Lakshman Jhula, cross the bridge and find a place to crash. There are lots of cheap backpacker accommodation options around as well as good Rishikesh hostels. I recommend staying at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram which is near Ram Jhula. You should definitely eat at the awesome Beatles Cafe, Ira's Tea, and Ramana's Café.
Check this list for more recommendations.
Whilst in Rishikesh, hire mopeds for 300RS a day and go exploring. The foot-traffic within Rishikesh of thousands of pilgrims can be quite intense but once you are over the bridge and happily zipping along the mountains roads it’s a lot of fun. You can also arrange to go white water rafting in Rishikesh.
I recommend three or four days in Rishikesh. There are loads of Yoga and Meditation courses available ranging from a matter of days to entire months. Oh, and “The Beatles Ashram” is now an urban art museum which is well worth checking out. From Rishikesh you can reach the incredible Valley of Flowers. I recommend taking around 3 days to make stops along the way. Trust me, it's so worth it. From Haridwar you can catch a train to Amritsar.
The Golden Temple, the most sacred temple in the Sikh faith, is simply breathtaking. Sikhism welcomes all and you can stay for free in the golden temple dorms. Wander around until someone shows you where to go. Ask the temple guards if unsure. Keeping with the spirit of Sikh hospitality, you can also get free food at the temple all day long.
You should visit the Wagah border ceremony in the evening and have a giggle at the ridiculous flag ceremony performed by soldiers from the Indian and Pakistani armed forces... It's better from the Pakistani side!
One full day in Amritsar is enough as it’s very hot. After a night in the temple dorm you can catch an early morning bus to McLeod Ganj. For more info, check out my amigos guide to Amritsar.
Backpacking McLeod Ganj
Home to the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan’s in Exile, McLeod Ganj (or little Tibet) is a chilled place to spend a couple of days among the Tibetan people and is a great place to pick up souvenirs. There are many interesting day hikes around the area.
I would recommend staying at Backpackers Inn but you can find tons of really cheap Tibetan family run places if you shop around a bit. We stayed at one of these for 250RS a night. McLeod is pretty small and a few days here should be more than enough unless you are doing yoga or choose to get involved with a charity.
There are several projects for volunteers here working with Tibetan refugees, be sure to check out Tibetan World where you can sign up for hour long language exchanges with the Tibetan monks, who are always keen to improve their English. The Black Tent cafe does a great Tibetan breakfast and for evening drinks check out Carpe Diem.
Backpacking Bhagsu and Dharamkot
Just a short twenty minute walk from McLeod Ganj is the backpacker hub of Bhagsu.
Lower Bhagsu is pretty modernised and my advice is to keep going up the hill. Bhagsu is an Indian backpackers paradise with hand made crafts, tie-dye clothing and Didgeridoo lessons at every turn. When travelling through India the first time, I fell in love with Bhagsu, and then in fell in love in Bhagsu.
The area is very popular with Israeli’s and there is even a Hebrew book exchange. In the evenings, head along the stone paths into the hills and follow the music and the scent of ganja, there are many little cafe’s and lodges along the trail where musicians jam into the early hours of the morning.
Bring a torch as finding you way back after dark could be a challenge on a night with no moon! There are some great treks that can be done from Bhagsu without a guide; the most popular is Triund which only takes about three or four hours and is manageable even for newbie trekkers.
You can rent a tent to sleep in at the summit, it gets cold so bring layers if you have them.
Backpacking Old Manali
Arriving into Manali, you will be dropped in the main bus station in the modern part of the town, whatever you do; don't stay here! The real Manali is still a couple of kilometers away and you can choose between basing yourself in Old Manali or Vashisht. Old Manali is far busier than Vashisht and definitely the place to base yourself if you want to party.
In Old Manali, The ‘Blue Elephant Cafe’ is a great place to catch breakfast. ‘Dylan’s Toasted and Roasted’ does great deserts and has a movie room. The marijuana in Manali is amazing and freely grows everywhere.
Manali is an adventurer's paradise and you can arrange white water rafting, paragliding, zorbing and canyoning... or, you could just get blazed all day. If you have plenty of time, it's worth checking out both Old Manali and Vashisht, if you're short on time, you'll have to choose...
If, like me, you prefer to simply chill with a cheeky smoke and watch the mountains, Vashisht is the place to go. Old Manali is great but, recently, it's become overrun with large hordes of party-orientated backpackers, usually from Israel. Vashist is just a fifteen minute, 50RS tuk tuk ride from Old Manali.
Vashisht is roughly set across the valley opposite Old Manali and is kind of like its little brother. The small town is much quieter than Old Manali and therefore a fantastic place to stay if you want some peace and tranquility.
There is a hot spring at the top of town and daily religious processions where you can watch devout locals fall into a state of trance. The Rasta Cafe is a great place to hang out and is famed for its Special Lassis (be warned, they can be very strong).
Accommodation can be found from between 200 – 400RS for a double room if you are willing to go door to door and haggle and you can sometimes even bag a room with a stunning mountain view. I recommend the simple rooms at Blue Heaven - a double, with bathroom, is just 250RS and the views are some of the best in town.
From Vashisht, you could consider getting hold of a Royal Enfield and exploring the Spiti Valley or, if you are short on time and funds, you can begin the epic journey to Leh in Ladakh.
The overnight minibus is supposed to take at least eighteen hours but when I did it, it took closer to thirty six hours due to landslides...
It was an awful journey but, ultimately, was so worth it. You can fly to Leh but, well, the bus journey is a rite of passage when backpacking India so you should do it, the views can be stunning if there is no cloud cover. Remember to take diamox with you to combat altitude sickness.
Alternatively, from Vashisht, you can head to Kasol for some easy treks within the lower himalayas.
The town of Kasol can be reached by a five to six hour bus ride from Manali for 200RS. Kasol has soared in popularity in the last few years and is now rivalling Manali as the backpacker hub for Himachal Pradesh.
Depending on how long you spent in Manali, it is definitely worth heading here for a few nights if you have the time. Kasol itself is largely popular with Israeli travellers and you will see many a hippie wannabe, from all nationalities, clad head to toe in hilariously impractical gear they have bought from the many stores selling hippy dippy shit upon every corner.
If you're into shopping, you will probably love Kasol. It's a good place to pick up quality clay chillums - 120RS - anyway. Kasol itself is, like Manali, famed for its' marijuana and its' laid back backpacker vibe.
There are many day-hikes and longer multi-day treks that can be attempted from around Kasol. For a full run down of chilled out places to visit in the area have a good look at the Kasol and Around guide by Drifter Planet.
Backpacking Kalga and Kheerganga
From Kasol, you can catch a minivan up into the mountains and trek for forty five minutes to reach the truly serene village of Kalga. It's well worth spending a couple of days here, hanging out in the very chilled Sunset Cafe (RS 250 for a double) run by the unendingly friendly Nepalese manager, Hans - he is a man of many names.
From Kalga, most backpackers head off on the six hour hike to Kheerganga where you can bathe in a hot spring said to be one of Lord Shiva's favourite places to relax after a hard day's godding.
Kheerganga itself has, sadly, been hit with rapid unchecked development and is not a particularly nice place to stay - accommodation is crowded, dirty and overpriced. If you have a tent, bring it. Kheerganga might have some of the most disgusting toilets in all of India, no easy accomplishment.
Despite this, it's well worth spending one night in Kheerganga to see the stunning night's sky at elevation; the lack of light pollution makes for some soul stirring star watching.
Backpacking Leh and Ladakh
Arriving into Leh's main bus stand, make a beeline for Upper Changspa, home to the best value backpacker accommodation in Leh, I recommend crashing in the Samba Guesthouse.
There is a huge amount to do in Leh; start off by visiting the striking palace and the massive Stupa and be sure to check out the Donkey Sanctuary as well.
There is a lot of trekking in Ladakh although there is very limited information in the backpacking India lonely planet. There are many Buddhist sites around Leh that can be visited as an easy day-trip.
Ladakh and Kashmir are truly fantastic places to have your own transport, i.e. a motorbike, but if you don't, it's possible to hitchhike in Ladakh relatively easily.
From Leh, you can take a jeep for a whopping 2200RS per person to Srinagar or you can fly. I would recommend flying... or avoiding Srinagar all together!
I visited Srinagar as one of the very last stops on my first fourteen month adventure in India and by the time I got there I was totally broke... Unfortunately, without cash, it's pretty difficult to see Kashmir as you really do need your own transport or to book yourself onto jeep tours which tend to start at around 2000RS a day.
In Srinagar, the one must-try experience, in my opinion, is to explore the lake by shikara. The lake is truly gorgeous and a peaceful place to spend an afternoon exploring. From Srinagar, you can catch a bus down to Amritsar or fly to Delhi.
Bangalore is something of a boom town in India and has firmly established itself as the centre of the sub-continents mega tech industry. The city is something of a typical modern Indian city; unplanned, chaotic and ugly.
That said it is much more tolerable than Mumbai and Delhi; you will get far less hassle and meet with less scams. Because of its booming tech and business scene, the city also has a young, educated, enterprising crowd who are in many ways the cream of India’s youthful crop. There are lots of micro pubs, some great places to eat, and a few clubs putting on gigs and electronic music nights.
For a kick ass Mutton Biryani, check out the ever busy and beautifully basic Shivaji Military kitchen in Banashankari and for a classic South Indian breakfast of rice cakes head to Sree Krishna Cafe in Koramangala.
If you’re exploring South India then you should consider flying into Bangalore instead of the disappointing, punishing shit hole that is Mumbai. International flights are regular and affordable.
A six hour bus journey from Bangalore lies the largely unexplored Kodagu region.
Although Lonely Planet claims to have been to Kodagu the information in the book is so point blank wrong that I find this hard to believe.
This is real exploring territory. It is easy to arrange a homestay once you reach the administrative capital of Madikeri. From Madikeri it is worth taking the hour long bus to Bylakuppe to visit a Tibetan colony. Nearby to Bylakuppe is the Dubare forest reserve where you can feed and bathe elephants.
The best thing about Kodagu is arranging a homestay, I recommend Homestay Kodagu, and simply heading off into the hills on a hiking adventure... A bus to Mysore from Kodagu takes about four hours. It is one of the most romantic destinations in India. Kodagu is perhaps one of the top romantic destinations in India.
Mysore is a truly ancient city and it still has a real feel of the British Raj about it.
You should definitely visit Chamundi Hill, climb the thousands of steps if you fancy a workout. The imposing Mysore Palace is well worth an afternoon and, if you can find them, there is word of underground parties in Mysore by night. Srirangapatna makes a great day trip from Mysore.
Mysore is, hands down, my favourite city in all of India... Saying that, it's still a city, in India and so you might want to do a runner after a few days to the more chilled out coast.
Backpacking Fort Kochi
Famed for the ancient Chinese fishing nets lining the shore, Fort Kochi is a great place to chill out for a couple of days. To get away from Fort Kochi, you must first travel to Ernakulam so that you can catch onwards transport (two hours by bus) to Alleppey.
There’s only one real reason to come to Alleppey when backpacking India... to arrange a trip on a houseboat and explore the backwaters.
A three day, two night jaunt is the standard and when haggling for the rental make sure food is included in the price. There are hundreds of houseboats so take your time choosing and make sure to haggle.
Check out this list of awesome Houseboats on the backwaters. If you do end up having to stay in the town there is a YMCA. Just outside of Alleppey is a little known but very beautiful stretch of beach and some interesting villages easily explored by bicycle.
Backpacking Munnar and Periyar
By now, you're probably a bit stressed and need some time out, never fear; simply get your ass to Periyar wildlife sanctuary. To get to Periyar you must first head towards the town of Kumily.
Once there head to the Klaus Guesthouse, it’s a bit expensive but wonderfully relaxing and the lovely German owner, Klaus, will offer you a joint quite frequently.
Bank to spend a week between Periyar and nearby Munnar as you cycle, hike and drink way too much coffee. There are buses to Periyar from both Ernakulam and Alleppey.
The very tip of India, Varkala is reachable by train from Alleppey (three hours) and the train line does in fact run all the way to Bangalore. Varkala is a lovely stretch of sand and restaurant shacks but sadly suffers from a crowd of rather pushy shop owners. Vedanta Wake Up is excellent value.
If you have your own transport, you can explore some of the surrounding, quieter, beaches where it's possible to camp without being bothered...
When I first went backpacking in India, hostels did not yet exist. Instead, there was mostly cheap hotels and guesthouses available. This is still largely true but there are now some backpacker orientated hostels popping up across the country, especially when backpacking Rajasthan and around Goa. Guesthouses and commune-style accommodation can be a great experience as well; I've stayed in some amazing places and ended up enjoying it so much that I stayed for weeks at a time.
There is a lot of commune-style accommodation around; it tends to attract plenty of wannabe hippies but don't give up if your first experience isn't great, try a few of them to see if you can find a place with a vibe to suit you. Zostel Hostels is a decent backpacker hostel chain worth checking out.
|Location||Accommodation||Why Stay Here?!|
|Delhi||Madpackers Hostel, Jugaad Hostels||Make your way to the Panchsheel area; this is where you can find the widest array of backpacker friendly accommodation. You can get a room for around $9.|
|Varanasi||Zostel, Stops Hostel, Roadhouse Hostels||If you want to be close to the action, stay in the kickass Stops Hostel in Bhelupur. For a more chilled pace, check Roadhouse Hostels over at Assi Ghat. It should cost you about $5 a night.|
|Khajuraho||Yogi Sharma Ashram, Zostel||Both are pretty awesome places to stay at for $5 a night.|
|Agra||Backpacker Panda, Big Brother Hostel||You can get super cheap acco in Agra for close to $3 a night!|
|Jaipur||Zostel, Roadhouse Hostels, The Moustache||Again, get really cheap accommodation here. If you're lucky, for under $3 a night. And you can meet a ton of fellow travellers as well.|
|Pushkar||Zostel, Pappi Chulo||Pushkar is a hippie paradise so you'll find a lot of cheap and chill places in Pushkar for like $3 a night!|
|Bundi||Rajmahal Guest House||I stayed in a lovely little guesthouse called The Lake View Guesthouse - it's not online and you should try to find it. Rooms were at $6 for a huge double with bathroom.|
|Jodhpur||Cosy Guest House,Royal Heritage Guest House||At around $6 a night, the brightly painted Cosy Guesthouse is definitely worth staying in as it’s a backpacker institution.|
|Jaisalmer||Dylan Cafe and Guesthouse, Hotel Renuka||Get a bed in a 6 bed mixed dorm at a dollar a night! Yup, this was easily the cheapest place I stayed at, and pretty comfortable too!|
|Udaipur||Moustache Hostel,The Journey Hostel||Shop around for accommodation as it’s possible to find good rooms for $4. You could stay at Moustache Udaipur, which is a pretty cool hostel.|
|Bombay||Anjali Homestay, Bombay Backpackers||Its a nice little hostel to stay at especially if you're using Bombay as a transit point between places. The dorm beds are priced at $10 a night.|
|Aurangabad||Hotel Avon International||This is a decent property to stay at. They can also help you with figuring your transport to Ajanta and Ellora caves. You can get a room for $12.|
|Nashik||DS Group Serviced Apartment and Guest House, Bramhagiri Resorts||DS Group Serviced Apartment and Guest House, Bramhagiri Resorts|
|Bidar||Hotel Mayura||There are very limited accommodation options here – I stayed in the Hotel Mayura, right next to the bus station.|
|Bijapur||Hotel Pleasant Stay||The cheapest accommodation is next to the bus-stand – it’s fairly horrible so I recommend staying at Pleasant Stay.|
|Hampi||Murali Homestay||Most of the best backpacker accommodation is found on the far-side of the river. So cross over and shop around a bit for great deals. You can get a bed for as cheap as $5 a night.|
|Goa||Roadhouse Hostel, Zostel, Backpacker Panda||All good hostel chains in India have a hostel in Goa and give out dorm beds for as cheap as $4. Beware of backpacker assholes though, Goa hostels are full of them!|
|Rishikesh||Bonfire Hostel Rishikesh, Zostel||You can get dorm beds for $6 but I would advise you stay at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram which is built right on the ghats.|
|Amritsar||Jugaadu's Hostel, Wow Backpackers Hostel||For roughly $5 a night you can find comfortable accommodation in a hostel in Amritsar - I like Wow Hostel.|
|Dharamsala||Backpackers Inn, HosteLaVie||You can also find tons of really cheap Tibetan family run places if you shop around a bit. We stayed at one of these for $4 a night.|
|Manali||The Lost Tribe Hostel, Born Free Hostel and Cafe||The Lost Tribe is a pretty chill hostel and a great property to just kick back and chill at.|
|Vashisht||Blue Heaven||I recommend the simple rooms at Blue Heaven – a double, with bathroom, is just $4 and the views are some of the best in town.|
|Kasol||Nomads Hostel||A pretty chill place, this is the only hostel I found in Kasol. You can look around for home stays and guesthouses for really cheap as well- sometimes for less than $2 a night.|
|Leh and Ladakh||Ecology Hostel, Tsetan Guest house||Get a comfortable bed for $4 a night and wake up to misty mountain views!|
|Srinagar||The Shelter Group of Houseboats||Forget hostel beds, rent a houseboat for $15 a night!!|
|Bangalore||Cuckoo Hostel, Electric Cats B&B||Good vibe, cheap hostels at $5 a night, where you can meet a ton of fellow travellers.|
|Kodagu||Homestay Kodagu||The best thing about Kodagu is arranging a homestay, I recommend Homestay Kodagu, and simply heading off into the hills on a hiking adventure|
|Mysore||Sonder, Comforts Hostel||Stay at one of these cheap hostels at about $5 a night and do short day trips to places around Mysore.|
|Cochin||Maritime, Adams Woodhouse||You can find a lot of really nice Dutch style hostels around Fort Cochin for about $5 a night.|
|Alleppey||The Wind n' Waves, Artpackers life||You can either check these lovely hostels around $5 a night or check into the YMCA.|
|Munnar||Nakshatra Inn||There are not too many backpacker friendly places in Munnar, you'll probably have to head there and look at homestays. The hotels start at about $26 a night.|
|Varkala||Sherin Cottage||This is a really great place to stay in Varkala! Very chilled atmosphere, it's affordable, quiet & cosy.|
India is a truly weird and wonderful country, travelling in India is totally unlike travelling anywhere else - this is a subcontinent comprised of 29 states, each of which could be, and once was, it's own country.
When backpacking India, you will be assailed on all sides by mind boggling sights, sounds, smells and tastes... Here are a few must try experiences whilst travelling in India...
1. Try the street food
Eating plenty of street food is one of the best ways to stretch your budget and you can pick up meals for as little as 10RS in some places...
Indian street food can be truly fantastic; I highly recommend Masala Dosa but Pokhara's, Paaj Bhuri & Fried Chilli's are also delicious. Try to pick a vendor with lots of Indian customers, they usually have the best food.
If you are a vegetarian, check out this article for top vegetarian street food to try in Delhi.
2. Visit a Hindu temple
India is absolutely full of stunning temple ruins, my favourites are in Khajuraho and Hampi, but it's not just the ancient temples that should appeal.
For a taste of something a little bit different, check out a Hindu temple that is still running; some of the best ones are in Udaipur.
3. Couchsurf with the Sikhs
Couchsurfing in India is a great way to keep the cost of traveling in India low, and to get to know the local people. The Sikhs are some of the most hospitable people in India and whilst travelling in India I was frequently invited to stay by turbanned fellows sporting mighty fine mustaches.
These guys were almost always unbelievably hospitable and kind. Turn to Couchsurfing to help keep your costs down whilst backpacking in India.
4. Attend a festival
India is world famous for it's truly amazing festivals, my favourites of which are Diwali, the festival of light and Holi, the paint throwing festival. However, please note that Holi is not so cool for female travellers. Basically, local men get very drunk & excited which often culminates in spates of sexual assault; sorry to have to be so blunt.
There are tons of festivals in India, check out this timetable for more info, so be sure to catch one whilst backpacking India.
5. Travel India with your own transport
The best way to see the real India is to travel with your own transport. I've motorbiked extensively across India and, more recently, drove a rickshaw 2500km across the country.
Even if you just hire a scooter for a day, travelling with your own transport in India is the best way to peel back the layers and get to grips with this amazing country.
6. Try a real adventure
The backpacker enclaves of sleepy little Hampi, Goa and Manali are always full of backpackers chatting shit about how much they love India... the only thing is; this isn't the real India.
The real India can be tough, it can be challenging but it is also one of the most rewarding budget travel destinations in the world. Furthermore, if you take the time to get off the beaten track, to hit the road and to go on a proper adventure you won't regret it.
Best of all, when the real India has tired you out, then you can make a run for one of the backpacker enclaves... Click here for more ideas on awesome places to visit whilst backpacking India. India is a good place to have a tent as it really opens up a ton of off the beaten path options... If you really want to head off into the wilderness; take a good backpacking stove.
India Travel Tips
Best Time To Travel India
Below is a general guide to India’s weather patterns, but India's massive size means you need to closely investigate the weather patterns for your specific destination at the time of year you plan to visit. For example, some careful planning could see you travelling just in front of the monsoon as opposed to travelling in it, it could see you hitting the hill stations in the heat and the plains in the cooler months….
The “best” time to visit India is generally October to March when the weather is warm, dry and sunny. The Himalayas are cold but clear. This is peak tourist season and the time when most backpackers visit India. Around April to May, the temperatures and humidity start to increase along with periodic thunderstorms so this part of the year is when it makes the most sense to head up into the mountains. From June to September the Indian Plains are scorching and many locals retreat to hill stations to escape the heat, eventually, the cooling monsoons sweep across the country.
Be aware of the very real possibility of heat stroke and dehydration particularly if landing in Delhi. Ladakh in the far north is generally only accessible between June and September by road, but careful monitoring of conditions is necessary if you are headed that way. Road closures due to weather changes can be instant, and last for weeks. My overland journey between Manali and Leh took a horrific 35 hours when an avalanche washed away part of the road.
On every adventure, there are five things I never go traveling without:
1. Security Belt with Hidden Pocket: I never hit the road without my security belt. This is a regular looking belt with a concealed pocket on the inside – you can hide up to twenty notes inside and wear it through airport scanners without it setting them off. This is hands down the best way to hide your cash.
2.Travel Water Bottle: Always travel with a water bottle – it’ll save you money and reduce your plastic footprint on our planet. AR bottle are tough, lightweight and maintain the temperature of your beverage – so you can enjoy a cold red bull, or a hot coffee, no matter where you are. For every AR bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an initiative to reduce plastic in our oceans!
3. Microfibre Towel: It’s always worth packing a proper towel. Hostel towels are scummy and take forever to dry. Microfibre towels dry quickly, are compact, lightweight and can be used as a blanket or yoga mat if need be.
4. Headtorch: Every backpacker should have a head torch! A decent head torch could save your life. If you want to explore caves, unlit temples, or simply find your way to the bathroom during a blackout, a headtorch is a must. Currently, I’m using the Petzl Actik Core rechargeable headlamp - an awesome piece of kit! Because it’s USB chargeable I never have to buy earth polluting batteries.
5.Hammock: Taking a tent backpacking is not always practical but hammocks are lightweight, cheap, strong, sexy (chicks dig hammocks) and allow you to pitch up for the night pretty much anywhere. Right now, I’m rocking an Active Roots parachute hammock – it’s light, colourful and tough.
6. Toiletry Bag: I always travel with a hanging toiletry bag as it’s a super efficient way to organise your bathroom stuff. Well worth having, whether you are hanging it from a tree whilst camping, or a hook in a wall, it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.
For plenty more inspiration on what to pack, check out my full backpacking packing list.
Also see this helpful list of what to bring and what to wear in India
Books To Read About India
You will get so much more out of your backpacking trip to India if you read up a bit whilst out there... Luckily, India has to be one of the most written about destinations in the world and there are some fantastic books out there, here are a few of my favourites.
The Backpacker Bible – Get it for free! Learn how to ditch your desk and travel the world on just $10 a day whilst building a life of long-term travel with an online income. To inspire and help the next generation of Broke Backpackers, you can now grab ‘How to Travel the World on $10 a Day’ for free! Get your copy here.
Shantaram: The first book I ever read on India, Shantaram inspired me to book a one way flight to Delhi and travel around India for 14 months. The book follows the possibly true, possibly exaggerated, story of an escaped Australian convict who finds his way to India where he falls in love, works for gangsters, fights the Russians in Afghanistan, gets imprisoned in Bombay, becomes a professional forger and an amateur doctor and experiences life in an Indian slum. The book is extremely well written and paints an accurate, although somewhat rosy, picture of life in India.
Last Man in the Tower: 21st Century Mumbai is a city of new money and soaring real estate, and property kingpin Dharmen Shah has grand plans for its future. His offer to buy and tear down a weathered tower block, making way for luxury apartments, will make each of its residents rich – if all agree to sell. But not everyone wants to leave..
The White Tiger: One of the first books I read whilst backpacking India, this is a really useful, often amusing, sometimes horrifying, tale which will help you better understand the caste system.
On a Shoestring to Coorg: This is the first travel book that tested the idea that a five-year old daughter makes for a decent travelling companion. A really interesting read on the now-defunct Indian state of Coorg, this book gives a fascinating insight into the origins of backpacker travel in India.
Nine Lives: A Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet – then spends the rest of his life trying to atone for the violence by hand printing the best prayer flags in India. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend ritually starve herself to death. Nine people, nine lives; each one taking a different religious path, each one an unforgettable story. William Dalrymple is one of the best writers when it comes to offering an insight into Indian culture and I highly recommend reading everything he has written.
Siddhartha: A travel classic, Siddhartha is perhaps the most important and compelling moral allegory our troubled century has produced. Integrating Eastern and Western spiritual traditions with psychoanalysis and philosophy, this strangely simple tale, written with a deep and moving empathy for humanity, has touched the lives of millions since its original publication in 1922. Set in India, Siddhartha is the story of a young Brahmin’s search for ultimate reality after meeting with the Buddha.
Are you experienced: An easy read and a funny satire on the whole concept of student travel and the backpacking India trail.
Full Tilt, Ireland to India with a Bicycle: Shortly after her tenth birthday, Dervla Murphy decided to cycle to India. Almost 20 years later, she set out to achieve her ambition. Her epic journey began during the coldest winter in memory, taking her through Europe, Persia, Afghanistan, over the Himalayas to Pakistan, and into India.
Useful Travel Phrases For India
There are countless languages and dialects spoken across India. The 2 official languages however are Hindi and English. If you speak English, you will get by fine. English standards vary dramatically.
Here are some useful Hindi (North Indian style) phrases;
Hello - Namaste (When talking to the younger generation, I would suggest you stick to a simple 'hi/hello' as these are used colloquially instead of a stiff, formal namaste which i usually reserved for the elders)
My name is ___________- Mera naam __________ hai.
How are you? - Aap kaise hain?
I'm fine. - Main theek hun.
I don't speak Hindi - Mujhe hindi nahi aati.
No plastic bag - koee plaastik kee thailee nahin
No straw please - nahin puaal krpaya
No plastic cutlery please - koee plaastik katalaree krpaya
Cold = Thanda/ Hot = Garam
Where is the bathroom? - Bathroom kidhar hai?/ Bathroom kahan hai? (Your stomach will thank you for knowing this.)
How much does this cost? - Yeh kitne ka hai?
I want water- Mujhe paani Chahiye
This is too expensive - Ye bahut mehenga hai
Make your price less - Bhaav (or daam) kam karo
Help! - Bachao!
I do not know - Mujhe nahi pata
Idiot/ Dumbfuck - Chutiya
Stop - Ruko
Okay/good/whatever - Theek hai
Please/ Sorry/ Excuse me/ Taxi/ Train/ Bus/ Plane are all things you can say in English and people will get you just fine!
Apps to Download Before Backpacking India
There's a few apps which I absolutely swear by when travelling the world. Almost all backpackers these days have a phone and you can make your travels that little bit easier by installing the following adventure friendly apps...
Maps.me: Hand's down the best offline maps app on the market, and it's free! I've used this baby in the mountains of Pakistan, the deserts of India and the jungles of Thailand; it works when all over map apps tend to fail.
VPN: Surfing the web with privacy is important and, in some countries, the government is watching your every move. In countries like Iran or China a VPN is actually required just to be able to get on to sites Facebook. I've used a whole bunch of VPNs around the world and I recommend Hide Me which is one of the fastest and most reliable options out there. This particular VPN allows for up to five connections which is handy for keeping all your devices connected without having to purchase multiple VPN packages.
Skype: The cheapest way to get in touch with friends back home or your bank when they mistakenly cancel your card because you've been using it at 3am to buy a bottle of Rum in Absurdistan.
Xe: The best currency conversion app around.
Uber: For big cities, this is hands down the best way to get taxi's.
Staying Safe in India
India can be a real assault on the senses, the body and the mind. This is a country with many lessons to teach. Whilst India is generally not considered a "dangerous" destination, there are actually a lot of little hazards to watch out for.
Perhaps the single biggest danger is traffic. Roads are jammed and motoring standards low and reckless. Take care when crossing roads and try to follow locals across. If you rent a bike or scooter, drive very carefully, cautiously, wear a helmet, and do not drink/drug drive - tourists are killed in this way every year.
Other dangers are disease and sickness. Do not ever drink tap water and even take care when showering in low budget guesthouses as the water can cause infections. Food hygiene standards have improved but "Delhi Belly" can still strike; try to avoid very dirty restaurants, eat only fresh street, frequent busy eateries, and use hand sanitiser.
You should also see your Doctor before visiting as a number of vaccinations are advised.
Bring sickness. and diarrhoea medicine from home along with a supply of paracetamol and anti-septic. Whilst medicine is available in India, a lot of it is fake.
Crime against tourists is pretty rare (except for sex crimes against women) but pick pocketing occurs and unattended valuables will go missing. A simple padlock is well worth taking with you and if you want to go all out, I recommend the PacSafe to protect your gear.
That said, scams against tourists are very common and you can expect to encounter them daily. There are far too many to list but a few classics include holy men asking for donations, various street beggars, been sold invalid tickets and taxi drivers saying your hotel is burned down. Basically, as a rule distrust pretty much everybody who approaches you and anybody who can make money out of you.
In 2016 veteran adventurer Justin Alexander, went missing whilst trekking around Kheerganga with a Sadhu of dubious intent. Justin was a real mountain man and a big inspiration for me. The Sadhus, wandering Hindu holy men of India, are a fascinating group of people but can be extremely dangerous, I do not recommend interacting with them if you are alone - many of them are outlaws, frauds & drug addicts. Hiking into the mountains with them is not a good idea.
Be careful with the police in India, getting arrested is not fun. You can bribe your way out of most situations fairly quickly but the trick is to do it fast; the more police become involved the more expensive it will become - get your ass out of the situation before you arrive at the police station.
There are plenty of animal hazards in India. These inside street dogs & as well as mosquitos, snakes & parasites. Monkeys are amusing but can be vicious and will try to steal from you (phones, food, washing lines etc). Even street cows can get aggressive so keep your distance. If you head into the wilderness then add Tigers, Bears, Hyena's and Elephants to this list of beasts.
Another hazard is falling coconuts - they claim a lot of lives across Asia each year.
Despite the daily challenges, Backpacking India is an experience that easily outweighs these small dangers.
Check out Backpacker Safety 101 for tips and tricks to stay safe whilst backpacking.
Pick yourself up a backpacker security belt to keep your cash safe on the road.
Check out this post for plenty of ideas on ingenious ways to hide your money when travelling.
I strongly recommend travelling with a headlamp whilst in India (or anywhere really - every backpacker should have a good headtorch!) - check out my post for a breakdown of the best value headlamps to take backpacking.
Staying Healthy In India
Travelling in India and totally avoiding traveler's diarrhea is pretty impossible. Be sure to completely avoid the tap water, even when brushing your teeth (use purified water!) to improve your chances of escaping...
Many backpackers travelling in India tend to go vegetarian for the duration; not a bad idea considering Indian's suck at cooking meat.
Eating street food is fine; just make sure the food is well cooked and is cooked in front of you - you don't want something that's been sitting out for hours. Potato and egg dishes tend to be the safest.
Female Travellers in India
Time to touch on a touchy topic...
One of the biggest problems with India is the attitude of many Indian men towards women, especially foreigners. Frankly, the way women are treated is utterly disgusting and the country is sadly in serious denial about the problem.
Most female backpackers encounter some sort of problem at one time or another whilst travelling in India. This can range from being stared at, "wanked at", groped, followed or worse. Female travellers need to be extra careful and super vigilant at all times in India especially on public transport and after dark. You can minimise hassle by dressing modestly, saying you are married and being direct - note that any politeness you show to strange men may be interpreted as a "green light".
Having some self defense skills when you're on the road, or off it, is always worthwhile and in my opinion everybody should have a go at training in martial art at least once in their lives.
I've met many kick ass ladies who have travelled India by themselves and I've asked a whole bunch of them for their advice on the matter... For even more tips on how to travel the world fearlessly as a kick ass solo female, check out my mate Teacake's Top Tips for How to Travel Safely as a Women - she is a legend and I have a huge adventure crush on her.
Check out Emily's post on the most lady-friendly destinations in India for solo female travelers.
Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll in India
Marijuana is widely available across most of India (it's where it came from) and it's also possible to pick up psychedelics and party drugs pretty easily in places like Goa. Take the usual precautions when buying and taking drugs as arrests and deaths do occur. Usually, it's smoking weed that will get you arrested so be subtle to avoid problems in the first place. Avoid buying weed from tuk tuk drivers.
Tinder works in India and is a great way to meet people, especially in some of the bigger, more modern cities. However, Indian society is conservative and sex a taboo subject. Don't expect to get your rocks off with the locals.
If you are travelling with your partner, I advise saying you are married. Keep public displays of affection to a minimum especially in holy cities and especially when there are a lot of local men around.
Check out Backpacker Safety 101 for tips and tricks to stay safe whilst backpacking.
Insurance For Backpacking in India
I strongly recommend travelling with a headlamp whilst in India - there are power outages, especially on the beaches, pretty frequently plus a lot of dark temples, caves and mysterious places to explore - check out my post for a breakdown of the best value headlamps to take backpacking.
Whenever you hit the road and go travelling, you need insurance. I have been backpacking for nine years and have had to claim a total of three times; if I didn't have insurance I would have been utterly screwed on all three occasions. I recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance - they hands down have the best support and if you do need to claim they will help you get it sorted quickly.
India Travel Guide - Getting In and Around
Arriving into India
There are multiple international flights to dozens of cities in India but most backpackers arrive via Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Goa or Kolkata. You can also cross the Wagah border from Pakistan, cross from Nepal and Bhutan or with the correct permits, cross from South East Asia via Myanmar over the recently opened Tamu-Moreh border.
Entry requirements for India
You will need a Visa to enter India unless you are from Nepal.
The Indian Visa process has undergone a lot of changes in recent years and the types of Visa available, and fees, varies between nationalities with little logic or consistency.
Most nationalities can now get a sixty day E-visa online, prior to arrival and this is the most coming visa type. However, sixty days travelling in India is simply not enough. If you have the time, I suggest taking 3 months or more. Note that citizens of the UK, EU and US can now get a 12 month or even 5 year Visa. Other nationalities should check.
For further information visit the Indian Government E-visa website .
I recommend iVisa for sorting your visa ahead of time - these guys are quick, efficient and not too expensive - a good shout if you are low on time and want to get your visa sorted in advance.
Note that if you have a Pakistani or Bangladeshi visa in your passport, this may complicate your Indian visa application although it will still probably be granted in the end. If you have visited these countries in the past but don't have a visa in your current passport, simply don't mention it. If you have the visa in your passport, then allow more time for your visa application to be processed and expect as face to face interview.
Getting Around India
One of the biggest challenges facing backpackers is travelling around India. India is a truly vast country and sometimes the travel distances are absolutely massive. I once spent thirty two hours crushed into a third class steerage carriage on a long-distance train, it was an interesting experience...
The most comfortable way to get around India is usually by internal flights but for backpackers on a budget, the trains are usually a better bet. There are also VIP tourist buses, super cheap local buses and, of course, hitchhiking is always an option.
I spent a good bit of time on local busses. Whilst they are cheap, they can be seriously uncomfortable. For journeys of over 5 hours, I strongly recommend booking ahead and paying the extra money for a tourist, VIP bus.
Transport in India has suddenly got a LOT easier! Rather than just rocking up at the bus stop in the hope they will have space to fit you on, you can now book tickets in advance using 12Go.
Read this article for more tips on how to save money while travelling in India. When you are in the cities, try to avoid catching taxis or rickshaws as this is where you are most likely to get ripped off.
Train Travel in India
No India guide is complete without some train talk. When backpacking India, most travellers opt to make use of the trains and this is a quintessential experience. In general, most backpackers in India go for the 3AC class; these are six bed cabins with air-conditioning (which is usually fucking freezing; avoid the top bunk!).
You can also opt to go for the non air-conditioned coaches but these are often rammed full of people; for short journeys it's OK but for longer, overnight, train journeys I recommend going for 3AC. To book your train tickets, you should register online with IRCTC but note that the website can be confusing as fuck. You can book train travel via a travel agent but note that they will charge a fee - some even rip you off by selling you less class than you asked for but this is just one of the many, many scams played on travellers in India.
Train tickets tend to sell out really fast; book in advance if you can. When travelling on trains in India, take a padlock and chain to lock your backpack to something; you can usually buy one on the station from a tout for 100RS. Keep valuables in a day pack and use it as a pillow. Often when you book a train you will be put on a waiting list - provided you have booked a couple of weeks in advance and are in, say, the top fifteen you will almost always get a seat.
You must book in advance though. If travelling alone I recommend booking a 'side upper' berth as it has a curtain and you won’t be bothered as much. When you book your train make a note of the train number, the time it leaves, arrives and the PNR number, you will need this to get your ticket off of the PNR machine at the station or from a mobile phone.
UPDATE: 12Go is now a much better way to book train tickets.
Travelling By Bus in India
In general, buses tend to have fixed prices and you buy your tickets on board. There is a ton of VIP sleeper buses set up for tourists and these are the most comfortable way to travel when there are no rail-links; beware though, due to the hairpin bends, crazy driving and shitty roads, a good night's sleep is rare unless you have a Valium to hand.
If you're heading off on a proper backpacking adventure and leaving the tourist zones, local bus is often the only way to travel in India. Travelling by local bus is one hell of an experience; it can be frustrating, rewarding, enlightening and sometimes simply damn hilarious.
You will meet a lot of Indians on local buses who will try to befriend you. They can sometimes be annoying but do try to be patient - it's not every day they meet somebody travelling in India... Be mindful for some common scams that you might get pulled into.
Tuk Tuks in India
In general, it makes sense to get tuk tuks rather than taxis for short distances as they are usually cheaper. You must ALWAYS haggle when getting a tuk tuk or a taxi in India, otherwise you really will be taken for a ride; check out my haggling guide to learn how. I drove a multicoloured rickshaw across India, this is the best way to travel in style...
Note that Uber (car, bike and Tuk Tuk) is now available in most major cities and ensures better services and better prices. There is no Uber in small towns, many backpacker enclaves and Uber is strangely absent from Goa.
Travelling India by Motorbike
One of the best ways to see India is from the back of a motorbike and if you have a tent with you your options vastly expand... Suddenly it's possible to get pretty much anywhere, to live off the beaten path and to camp out in some truly stunning places. The iconic Royal Enfield is the bike of choice for most backpackers in India and you can normally buy one for around $2000. If you are travelling India by motorbike it's well worth taking a good backpacking tent.
Hitchhiking in India
I'm a huge fan of hitchhiking and have hitched rides in over seventy countries, India can be a great place to hitch a ride but it's not recommended if you're a solo female traveler - please, don't even try it. It helps to have a sign and a map so you can make it 100% crystal clear where you want to be dropped. Before you get in the vehicle, make sure you clarify that you are not going to pay for the ride - some Indians will expect payment as you are a 'rich backpacker'.
India Backpacking Costs
Daily Budget For India
The good news is that India is one of the cheapest countries in the world to go travelling if you're smart with your money it's possible to travel in India on a budget of just $10 a day, even less if you haggle like a pro.
The trick to super cheap backpacking in India is to travel slow. The faster you travel, the more it will cost. In general, it's likely you will spend between $10 - $30 a day depending on how comfortable you want to be.
These prices are based on the current exchange rate of 73 rupees to the dollar (March 2020).
Money in India
There are lots of international ATMS but they can be tough to find once you are outside of the cities and are in more remote areas. Also note that some ATM's will not accept certain cards and a lot of them are often empty or broken. Typically, you can expect to try 2 - 3 ATM's before finding one that works. Many will charge 200 rps per transaction and this is in addition to any charges your bank levies.
It’s advisable to avoid small ATM transactions and get out a bunch of cash at once - just make sure you hide it well. If you need to transfer money internationally, use Transferwise, it's the fastest and cheapest way to move money around when travelling.
Tips For Visiting India on a Budget
Normally, my top three tips for budget travel are to hitchhike, camp and cook your own food but in India, food, transport and accommodation are already so cheap that this is not really necessary unless you are backpacking India on a budget of just a couple of dollars a day.
Don't get me wrong - it is totally possible to travel in India with almost no money, I've done it, but it's also possible to go travelling in India on a modest budget and still travel in relative style.
Local Transport: India is home to over one billion people and since this is a highly religious country and there are plenty of pilgrimages going on, many of India's people need to travel great distances on just a few rupees. Indian local transportation is some of the best in the developing world. Journeys can be long and uncomfortable but it is possible to get from the top of India to the bottom for cheap. The sleeper trains are a great way to travel around India cheaply and the buses are a decent second option.
Couchsurf: Accommodation in India varies wildly in quality and cost but, in general, you can find a quality room for just a couple of dollars - especially if you are in a backpacker hub. It can be harder when you are out exploring the wild side of India but, as always, Couchsurfing comes to the rescue. I couchsurfed in India about twenty times and it was a great way to cut down on costs - just be careful when picking a host; you want somebody with plenty of positive reviews.
Haggle: India is the worst country I have ever been to from the point of view of people trying to rip me off... Even when the price of an item is clearly printed on the packaging, some unscrupulous motherfuckers will try to charge three times as much. India is a country where you simply must haggle for almost everything - accommodation, tuk tuks, street food, souvenirs... All can be haggled down.
Become an expert: Learn the secrets to unlocking sustainable long term travel.
Volunteer in India
Long term travel is awesome. Giving back is awesome too. For backpackers looking to travel long-term on a budget in India whilst making a real impact on local communities, look no further than World Packers. World Packers is an excellent platform connecting travelers with meaningful volunteer positions throughout the world.
In exchange for a few hours of work each day, your room and board are covered.
Backpackers can spend long periods of time volunteering in an awesome place without spending any money. Meaningful life and travel experiences are rooted in stepping out of your comfort zone and into the world of a purposeful project.
Worldpackers opens the doors for work opportunities in hostels, homestays, NGOs, and eco-projects around the world. We’ve tried and approved them ourselves - check out our Worldpackers in-depth review here.
If you’re ready to create a life-changing travel experience and give back to the community, join the Worldpacker community now. As a Broke Backpacker reader, you’ll get a special discount of $20. Just use the discount code BROKEBACKPACKER and your membership is discounted from $49 a year to only $29.
Teaching in India
Perhaps one of the best options for backpackers wanting to explore India long-term and experience living in this truly incredible country is to get a Teaching English as a Foreign Language course online. TEFL courses open up a huge range of opportunities and you can find teaching work all over the world. To find out more about TEFL courses and how you can teach English around the world, read my in-depth report on teaching english abroad.
Broke Backpacker readers get a 35% discount on TEFL courses with MyTEFL (simply enter the code BACKPKR), to find out more, please read my in-depth report on teaching English abroad.
India, as you're aware, is something of a haven for yogis as well. It's not uncommon to get a yoga training certification in India, which is a great travel job to have under your belt. There are yoga courses for certifications and to improve your personal practice.
Alternatively, if you want to find a cheap way to stay in this incredible country for as long as possible, check out Workaway - for just $29 a year you get access to literally thousands of projects around the world where you can volunteer in exchange for food and accommodation.
Make Money Online Whilst Backpacking in India
Traveling in India long-term? Keen to make some cash when you are not exploring?
Teaching English online is a great way to earn a consistent income—from anywhere in the world with a good internet connection. Depending on your qualifications (or your motivation to obtain qualifications like a TEFL certificate) you can teach English remotely from your laptop, save some cash for your next adventure, and make a positive impact on the world by improving another person’s language skills! It’s a win-win! Check out this detailed article for everything you need to know to start teaching English online.
Learn what it's like to be a VIPKID teacher, a top company in the field of online English learning.
Whether you are keen to teach English online or looking to take your teaching game a step further by finding a job teaching English in a foreign country, getting your TEFL certificate is absolutely a step in the right direction.
Internet in India
Despite been home to pretty much every internet service provider call centre on earth, India actually suffered from lamentable internet quality for years. Service was slow, inconsistent and relatively expensive. However, things are now improving and during my last visit (February 2020) I was perfectly able to life and work as a digital nomad.
Most non-budget guesthouses and hotels now have decent Wi-Fi and I was even able to stream Netflix. I was able to work on this site from most backpacker restaurants and cafe shops in Goa & Rajasthan. Note that local dharbas, public spaces & budget guesthouses usually don't have any Wi-Fi and the standard at hostels varies. 4g Sim Cards can now be bought and $10 per month will get you can 2MB per day.
Note that some areas are better than others. Goa still suffers from frequent internet "drops" so don't expect to stream anything and do save work regularly. Internet service in the mountains and remote parts of India is still lacking. Also note that there are regular power cuts in India and when the power goes, the internet goes with it.
A Brief History of India
India is ancient and boasts as much history as them rest of the world combined. What is now India existed as a series of separate & often warring states, sultanates and 'Raja's' from antiquity, until been unified under British Colonial rule during the Victorian era.
Modern India was formed on 15th August 1947 when British rule officially ended. Upon leaving, the British partitioned the sub-continent into India and Pakistan. Goa remained a Portugese Colony until 1967 when the Indian army annexed it - many Goan's still consider themselves not to be Indian.
Today, India is undergoing something of a personal identity crisis. The current Prime Minister Modi is a Hindi nationalist rabble rouser who is stirring anti-Islamic sentiment. Bizarrely, this is manifesting in a pitiful attempt at the "de-mughalisation" of India.
Final Thoughts on Backpacking India
How did you enjoy the best India travel guide on the internet? Backpacking through India can be one hell of a crazy party at times. Take it from me, it can be easy to get carried away. It is important to keep in mind that you are an ambassador for your country, which is awesome. We can make a positive impact on people when we travel and get rid of any ugly stereotypes that may be associated with your country.
If you visit indigenous villages or small communities in the rural areas always ask before taking photos. The people who live in these villages are not exhibits in a museum. They are normal folks just living their lives. Always show them the complete respect that they deserve.
When buying a local craft, do not haggle so low that the price is unfair to the person who spent countless hours crafting it. Pay people what they are worth and contribute to the local economies as much as possible.
Being a Responsible Backpacker in India
Reduce your plastic footprint: Perhaps the best thing you can do for our planet is to make sure you do NOT add to the plastic problem all over the world. Don’t buy one-use water bottles, the plastic ends up in landfill or in the ocean. Instead, pack a tough travel water bottle.
Go and watch A Plastic Ocean on Netflix – it’ll change how you view the plastic problem in the world; you need to understand what we are up against. If you think it doesn’t matter, get off my fucking site.
Don’t pick up single use plastic bags, you’re a backpacker – take your daypack if you need to go to the shop or run errands.
Bear in mind, that many animal products in countries you travel through will not be ethically farmed and won’t be of the highest quality. I’m a carnivore but when I’m on the road, I only eat chicken. Mass-farming of cows etc leads to the rainforest being cut down – which is obviously a huge problem.
Recently, my gear-venture, Active Roots has started to sell water bottles. For every Active Roots water bottle sold, we donate 10% to PlasticOceans.org – an awesome initiative aimed at educating people on the risk of single use plastic and helping to clean up our oceans. Help save the planet, whether you take an Active Roots bottle or not – TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for your plastic footprint, don’t be a dick.
Need more guidance? – Check out our post on how to be a responsible backpacker.
I know it can be hard, but do your best to use the least amount of plastic water bottles that you can. Refill the ones that you do buy! Use the Grayl Geopress. The ONLY all-in-one filter water bottle setup you’ll need. Refill at your hostel! There are plenty of ways to reduce plastic!!!
Backpacking India or any region for that matter often illuminates some of the great socio-economic inequalities of the world. Never take it for granted that you are healthy and financially able to go traveling. Show the world around you some gratitude and help to make a positive impact on it. Most of all have the time of your life and spread the love!
Want to learn how to travel the world on $10 a day? Check out the Broke Backpacker's Bible for FREE!
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Writer and entrepreneur. Adventurer and vagabond. Master of the handstand pushup. Conqueror of mountains, survivor of deserts and crusader for cheap escapades. Will has been on the road for thirteen years, travelling to far-flung lands on a budget. Today, he runs a number of online ventures, including The Broke Backpacker – the world’s largest budget travel blog. He is passionate about solving the plastic problem and cleaning up the oceans. Currently, Will is based in Bali where he plans to open his first Tribal Hostel in 2020.