We moved on from Vietnam to India this week, where we met our daughter, Rebecca, in Delhi.
Our final Vietnam treat was the cooking class mentioned in last week’s post. I’ve done two cooking classes now, the other in Thailand. Both were very good, although I like the Thai food best.
As well as cooking, we meet nice people in the lessons. This time it was a couple from Australia and a girl from Hong Kong, along with our Vietnamese teacher. The class started at the market, not for the squeamish, then crab fishing in traditional round basket boats before the cooking and eating.
My travel planning wasn’t clever and we spent much of the next two days travelling, first from Hoi An to Hanoi and then from Hanoi to Delhi, where we met Rebecca on Wednesday evening.
Until now, we’ve attempted to be "travelers” more than organised "vacationers". We’ve had a flexible itinerary, mostly booking accommodation a day, or sometimes only hours in advance. Thinking this may be more difficult in India, and because it’s Rebecca’s vacation, we’d pre-booked hotels, a car, driver and a tour itinerary.
After meeting our driver and guide on Thursday morning, we headed to Old Delhi. First stop was the Red Fort, followed by a rickshaw ride in the small streets of Old Delhi including the spice market. Then to Qutub Minar, Jama Masjid, Humayun’s Tomb, Akshardham and brief stops at India Gate and Parliament House.
If it sounds a lot, that’s because it was a lot. For sure it was interesting, but it was probably too much squeezed into one day. Taking a little longer at less places may have been better.
The next morning was a 3-4 hour drive from Delhi to Agra for an afternoon visits to Agra Fort and the Baby Taj. However, Agra's star attraction is undoubtedly the Taj Mahal, which we would visit at sunrise the following morning.
It’s mind boggling to imagine how the Taj Mahal was built in the sixteenth century. The logistics and exquisite craftsmanship would be a challenge now, let alone more than 400 years ago. We stayed two hours taking lots of photos. Rebecca would have stayed all day given the chance.
Instead it was back to the hotel for breakfast and a close to 6 hour drive to Ranthambore. We stopped en-route at the palace of Fatehpur Sikri. It also dates from the sixteenth century and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Although similar to some of the other places we visited, our guide was very good at listening to what we were interested in and adjusting the tour accordingly. That made a huge difference.
We returned to the car to complete the drive to Ranthambore. Although long, the car journey isn’t wasted time. Passing through towns and villages where people are going about their normal everyday life is where you see the real India. I loved watching it all.
The typical Golden Triangle tour visits the cities of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. I’d added Ranthambore for a safari for a change from the cities and historical buildings. Fingers crossed that we’d see a tiger in the wild.
We did two safari trips, one early morning and another in the afternoon. The morning safari showed us beautiful landscapes, deer, monkey, crocodiles, boar and lots of birdlife. But no tiger.
It didn’t matter. What we saw was already more than enough to make the safari worth doing. But it was our lucky day, and during our afternoon safari we spotted a tiger. Just forty metres away, he strolled in front of us, without a care in the world. It was a special moment.
Here are a few observations after our first four days in India:
It’s not quite been the assault on the senses that I’d read about. Sure the cities are busy and somewhat chaotic, but no more than Hanoi or Bangkok. Cows, pigs and goats in major cities is a bit different though, but they just add to the experience. None of this should put you off.
Not on our itinerary was being bitten by a street dog during our first day in Delhi. It’s not common, and it seems I was just unlucky. On the positive side, it was minor, with the biggest pain being the precautionary course of six anti-rabies injections that I’m having.
The forts, palaces and the like are seriously impressive and extraordinarily well preserved (or restored?). But my favourite part has been watching normal everyday Indian life in the towns, villages and fields as we’ve driven between cities. The safari was my second favourite thing. I know I’m supposed to say the Taj Mahal, but for anyone upset that I haven’t, I can tell you that it was my daughter’s favourite.
We sometimes found the tipping culture developing around the tourist areas to be annoying. Brits (like me), struggle with tipping more than some other nationalities because we're not used to it. We found efforts to win tips sometimes too "in your face" and it became aggravating and sometimes intrusive. We’ve now Googled “tipping in India” and hopefully we’ll be more prepared for next week.
Having a car and a driver has been good, but the guides were variable. I’d be tempted to replace the human guide with a good guide book, perhaps rent the audio guides where available, and use some of the money saved to buy a local SIM/data package and have Google on hand to help.
The tour guides will take you to some showrooms (shops) where you may feel pressured to buy something. Buy if you want but stick to your guns if you don’t want to. I also suspect lunch restaurants pay the guides a commission for bringing the business and, while I have no problem with that, let your guide know if it’s not what you’re looking for. We eventually started to do this as we wanted to eat where the locals go rather than the made for tourist restaurants.
People are very friendly. We spent half our time returning the waves and smiles directed at us as we drove by. In fact, whenever we went to a tourist sight, we had many Indian people ask to take their photo with us. It made us giggle to feel like a superstar for a few moments.
It feels like I’ve rambled on too much this week. So, summing up, we’ve done two thirds of India’s Golden Triangle: Delhi and Agra, plus we added Ranthambore safaris as an extra. Next week we’ll complete the Golden Triangle tour by visiting Jaipur, before heading South to Kerala to see a different part of India.
Daily diary and costs
I'm including a list of what we did during our week and the approximate costs - I'm using this part of my blog as a mini diary for myself, but feel free to read if you're interested.
Week 15 - what we've done:
Monday – Hoi An, Vietnam. Cooking class in the morning. Old Town in the afternoon.
Tuesday – Transfer from Hoi An to Hanoi by plane.
Wednesday – Flight from Hanoi, Vietnam to Delhi, India.
Thursday – Delhi, India. Red Fort, rickshaw ride, Qutub Minar, Jama Masjid, Humayun’s Tomb, Akshardham, India Gate and Parliament House.
Friday – Agra, India. Car transfer from Delhi to Agra. Agra Fort and Baby Taj.
Saturday – Agra, India. Taj Mahal at sunise. Fatehpur Sikri. Travel to Ramthambore.
Sunday – Ramthambore, India. Safari.
Week 15 - we spent a total of £1,688 / $2,380 for 2 people on:
Accommodation £471 / $666 Staying in mid range hotels in India is not cheap. Or maybe we overpaid?
Meals/Coffee/Snacks £173 / $243
Transport £275 / $387 Car and driver for one week in India
Visa £161 / $227 India visa for 2 people
Vaccinations £194 / $274 Vaccinations for 2 people for India
Attractions/Fees £288 / $405 10 plus entry tickets, 4 guides and 2 safaris
Souvenirs £77 / $108
Laundry £26 / $37
Toiletries £2 / $3
Medical £21 / $30 Rabies injections after dog bite
We booked a package in India including the hotels, car and driver plus guides, so I've had to guestimate the split. What I do know for sure is that it's cost more than I thought! India hasn't been the low cost destination that I expected.