Tuesday, September 9, 2014

India for Dummies

India is not a popular travel destination for us Filipinos so it came as no surprise that my friends and I had a hard time gathering facts when we were arranging our trip. Now that I've visited India, I want to share the information I learned first hand to those who are planning to make India as their next travel destination. Hopefully this guide will not only answer most questions future travelers to India have but also encourage more Filipinos to visit the incredible country of India.

When is the best time to travel to India? 
It's best to schedule your trip anywhere from late October to mid-March (India's winter months). It's not recommended to go from April to May because it's extremely hot with temperatures reaching upwards of 40 degrees centigrade. One should also avoid the monsoon season which starts from late May to early October. Our group went to India in the month of February and experienced almost perfect weather.
How to get to India?
There are no direct flights from the Philippines to India. We did consider taking the budget airline route but the airport layover proved too time consuming. In the end, we chose to fly to Delhi via Cathay Pacific which only had a short stopover in Hong Kong. Price for roundtrip economy class tickets from Manila to Delhi was $660.

Do you need to get a visa to enter India?

Yes, Filipino citizens need to get visa in order to visit India. One can apply online at https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/ but our group chose to take advantage of the Visa on Arrival program since Filipinos are eligible. The requirements for Visa on Arrival are as follows:
  • Passport with 6-month validity 
  • 2 passport size photographs (2 X 2 will do) 
  • Photocopy of second page of the passport 
  • Hotel booking, if applicable. 
  • Return ticket    
We read somewhere that it's highly suggested to bring bank certificates and related documents to prove the availability of sufficient funds for the duration of stay in India but it was not requested by the officer who processed our passports. Do note that the Visa on Arrival facility is only available at the Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata airports 24 hours a day. Visa on Arrival fee is 60USD which is around 12USD more expensive than the online application option. We didn't mind because we were paying extra for the convenience. Should you apply for visa on arrival, make sure to bring exact amount because the immigration officer that facilitated our visas informed us that he didn't have smaller bills.

UntitledHow long does it take to process Visa on Arrival?
We arrived at the New Delhi airport past midnight and there was only one immigration officer manning the Visa on Arrival booth. It took about 30 minutes for four visas to be issued. The procedure was fairly simple as we only had to fill up a one page form, submit the requirements, and answer basic questions such as the length of our stay in India. The activity was very informal and laidback so much so that the gentleman in charge took his sweet time processing our visas. 

What cities did you visit during your trip?
Our group visited Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Udaipur. Each city had its charms but if I had to pick the least memorable place, Jodhpur would be it. I do regret not going to Varanasi, the holy city of India, due to lack of time. For those who are even more time-challenged, it is recommended to embark on the Golden Triangle tour of Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. The Golden Triangle tour hits the most popular attractions of India in as little as 6 days.

 Office of Leisure India Tours
How did you organize your tour?
We initially wanted a D.I.Y. trip but realized early on that it would be a nightmare, logistics wise. We decided to hire Leisure India Tours, a tour agency we chanced upon on Tripadvisor because they offered the best rates out of the five agencies we contacted. It also helped that Himanshu, the owner of Leisure India Tours, was very accommodating and patiently answered all our questions via email. Overall, I was satisfied with the services of Leisure India Tours and was grateful that they made our trip to India problem free. The office of Leisure India Tours is in Jaipur and they can be contacted via email at info@leisureindiatours.com. You can also check their website here.

How much did you spend on the tour?
Daily Essentials
Our tour called the Rajasthan Forts and Palaces Tour lasting 8 days and 7 nights cost 749USD per person. International airfare not included. We got a pretty good deal considering that we chose to stay at 4 star hotels and the rate even included our one way domestic flight from Udaipur back to Delhi. It, however, didn't include the entrance fees to the monuments because we preferred to pay directly to the ticket offices. Another exclusion is the the tips we gave our guides and driver. Do note that in order to book a tour with Leisure India Tours, they require a 30% downpayment via money transfer. The rest will be paid on arrival. 

What were the top 3 attractions of the tour?
1. TAJ MAHAL in Agra: Iconic, Breathtaking, JUST GO!

2. CHANDNI CHOWK in Delhi: Crazy/Beautiful Representation of What India Is All About

3. LAKE PICHOLA in Udaipur: Dream Scenery that Comes to Life

Where to get rupees?
We asked around and called a few money exchange shops but rupees turned out to be quite scarce here in Manila. We just brought USD and had little exchanged at the New Delhi airport because rates there were not very competitive. Our driver Ranjeet helped in exchanging our dollars to rupees by bringing us to reputable foreign exchange centers. Our travel agency did warn us that changing money through unauthorized representatives is not only illegal but also involves the risk of receiving counterfeit money. Make sure to exchange just the right amount because it's very hard to have rupees changed to pesos or dollars back in Manila.

Typical Tourist Attire
What clothes to bring and wear?
A lot of guidebooks say that it's best to dress conservatively and modestly when in India to avoid unwanted attention. We followed this advice and wore pants and tops with sleeves long enough to cover our arms. We did see a few foreigners who wore sleeveless tops, shorts, and flirty dresses but majority of tourists were really covered up. For ladies who simply can't help it, the minimum is said to be below-the-knee shorts or skirts. Choice of footwear doesn't really matter but some prefer to wear sandals because it's easier to take off when visiting religious sites. 

Are vaccinations necessary? 
Our tour agency suggested that we get shots before going to India but we didn't follow and turned out fine. Do bring your own medicine especially for diarrhea, upset stomach, fever, and allergies to be sure since all medications in India are locally manufactured and you may not find the same brand names.  

This is NOT the Norm
Is India filthy?
Sadly most assume that India is filthy because most shows that feature India highlight the squalor that can be found in the slums. Based on my experience though, India is not the dirty, stinky place it has always been portrayed to be. It's true that there are plenty of beggars at the tourist spots and some garbage are scattered on the streets, but this is also the case for most developing countries of the world. India is similar to the Philippines in the sense that there are highly modern commercial establishments as well as poverty stricken areas. As Filipinos who grew up exposed to the gritty side of our country, we will not be shocked with what we will see in India. 

How safe is India?
I never felt threatened when I was in India though I have to admit that my guard was always up. I probably felt safe because a local guide accompanied us wherever we went. We also didn't explore after dark and we made sure to be back at our hotel right after dinner. Always be careful and never walk alone outside your hotel at any time of the day. Vigilance is key and one should not take risks when in India. Our travel agency also shared some tips to avoid losing valuables:
  • Don't keep your wallet in the rear pocket. Keep it in an inside jacket pocket or side pocket.
  • Don't hand over your luggage to any person except a member of the hotel's bell staff. 
  • Make sure to collect a receipt for stored luggage. 
  • Never leave your luggage or other expensive items unattended at airports, bus stands, taxi stands or railway stations.                                                                                            

Are Indians hard to deal with?
The Indians we encountered were generally friendly and nice. We didn't have much trouble communicating or dealing with them. But just like in any other country, there are those who will try to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists. Just be careful and take time to know the going rate for a service or item you want to purchase to avoid being ripped off. When buying souvenirs, start haggling at 10 to 20% of the quoted price.

What is there to eat in India?
Curry Party
Contrary to popular belief, not all food in India are spicy. There are many dishes that have little or no spice at all. For those who love spicy food though, avoid taking it all at one time soon after arriving in India. Take only one spicy dish each meal until your system gets used to it. It's also advisable to stick to only cooked foods and to only eat fresh fruits whose skin you can peel off or remove. Beef is also not available in restaurants as cows are considered sacred in India. Expect to eat lots of curries, tandoori, and rotis. Only drink bottled water, bottled drinks, hot coffee and tea. We did get tired of eating Indian food while on tour and took breaks by ordering Western dishes but all turned out not so good.

How much to tip?
IMG_8628 (2)
Our Driver Ranjeet with a Herder
Just like here in the Philippines, tipping is expected by service workers in India as a large chunk of their income comes from the tips given by guests.  Tipping is only not necessary in restaurants when service charge is included on the bill. When there is none, a tip of 10% is customary. 
For porters who take your baggage to your room, 50rupees (36php) is usually tipped per bag or 100 to 200rupees (70 to 140php) per trolley. Tips can be lower for 3 star hotels and below. 
Tipping of drivers depends on his services and courtesy. It's paid at the end of the tour and the average is said to be from 500 to 800rupees (360 to 580php) per day. Similarly, tips for guides depend on his services, knowledge about the places, and courtesy. However, the minimum according to Leisure India Travels is 500rupees (360php) per day.

What souvenirs to buy?
My Two Scarves from India
There are many souvenirs that one can bring home from India. T-shirts, magnets, keychains, jewelry, books, etc. are available in most tourist attractions but my best buys were the spices we bought at the Jodhpur market and the hand crafted scarf I got from a random store in Udaipur near the City Palace. I do wish to have bought plenty more scarves in India because the prints were all uniquely beautiful and price was reasonable. I spent less than 3,000php for two exquisite scarves. Other items I brought home from India were traditional Indian costumes for my nieces, a Maharaja headpiece, and Lay's Magic Masala Potato Chips.

Would you recommend a trip to India?
Definitely! India is so rich in culture and history that everyone should visit the country at least once. It was like nothing that I've ever experienced before and I'm sure the memories I made will last me a lifetime.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

India Day Eight: Final Day of the Tour

Our hotel in Udaipur was the Sheraton Palace Resort & Spa near Fateh Sagar Lake. Pick this hotel if you need not stay near Lake Pichola because rates are reasonable given the excellent service and modern facilities of this Sheraton property.
Hotel Entrance




Our first agenda during our final day in India was to take a boat cruise on Lake Pichola. Lake Pichola is the oldest and most visited lake in Udaipur famous for its picturesque background. It's interesting to note that Lake Pichola is an artificial fresh water lake built in the year 1362AD.

During the cruise, we passed by Amet Haveli, the hotel where we had dinner and enjoyed scenic views the previous day.
Amet Haveli

We also got a glimpse of Taj Lake Palace, a luxury hotel, located in the middle of Lake Pichola.

However, nothing beats the panoramic view of the city of Udaipur from the lake.

We even got to see these women bathing and washing their laundry by the banks of Lake Pichola.

In the middle of Lake Pichola is Jag Mandir, a palace where the royal family used to hold parties and retreat during the hot summer months.

Carved statues of elephants welcome guests at the jetty of Jag Mandir.


Today, Jag Mandir is still owned by the royal family but has been redeveloped into a luxury hotel perfect for guests who wish to feel like royalty even for just a day. Jag Mandir is also a popular venue for weddings in Udaipur.

Due to our tight schedule, we only had little time to explore Jag Mandir and were back in our boat in a jiffy. Here's a picture of the loading dock for departing guests located near the garden of Jag Mandir.

Last attraction we visited in Udaipur and all of India was the Udaipur City Palace.  Udaipur City Palace was built in 1559 til the late 18th century and is considered as the largest palace complex in Rajasthan. Having been built by different rulers over a period of nearly 300 years, the Udaipur City Palace has an eclectic mix of Midieval, European, and Chinese architecture.

It's also the most visited attraction in Udaipur so it can easily get crowded.

There was so much to see inside the City Palace that it can get overwhelming. We explored the City Palace for over an hour and here are the standout pieces of the palace for me:
Badi Mahal 

 Pigeons Carriers

Mirror Room 

Royal Swing

Peacock Square

Peacock in Mor Chok Wall

After touring the City Palace, we rushed to the airport and took a domestic flight out of Udaipur to New Delhi. From Delhi, we headed straight to the international airport and left India.

I enjoyed every moment I spent in India and would encourage others to consider India as their next travel destination. My final post on India will be a series of questions I had when we were still at the preparation stages of this trip. I want to share the information I garnered in the hopes of  helping those who will be travelling to India in the near future..

Sheraton Palace Resort & Spa is near Fateh Sagar Lake, Ambamata Udaipur - 313001, Rajasthan, India. For more information click here.
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