You Can Do India With No Indian SIM Card
It Takes Planning and Flexibility, But, Really, You Don’t Need to be Daunted by India
The title on this one may seem weird. You may have read some of our previous travel blogs like, “You Can Roadtrip Across Peru” or “You Can Do An Unforgettable 67 Hours in Viet Nam.” What’s the deal about SIM cards????
Well, anyone who’s ever planned a trip to India knows what the deal is about SIM cards. Let’s say you’re headed to India, and you want to book a train ticket. You will need to make an account on the IRCTC website to book tickets normally. To do that, you, supposedly, need an Indian SIM card. Spoiler: you actually don’t, but it’s a pain doing things the foreigner way.
But maybe trains aren’t your thing: maybe you’ll do bus travel! Sorry: most bus services will ask for your phone number for verification.
Okay but surely aside from travel, you won’t need one? Surely you can, say, book a tiger safari without an Indian SIM card?
Nope! To book yourself, you need an Indian phone number to verify online registration for tiger safaris!
But lodging at least will be fine, right? WRONG! As soon as you contact your AirBnB host, the first thing they say to you will be, “Let me know your Indian phone number.” If your answer is, “Actually I communicate via email,” you will have difficulties.
But of course, procuring an Indian SIM card isn’t the only issue. Even if you have an Indian SIM, if you’re booking stuff from a continent away (in Hong Kong in our case), that SIM won’t work! You won’t get verification messages anyways!
We didn’t know any of this. As a result, when we whimsically booked flights to India 2.5 weeks before our departure date, we had no idea the planning insanity we were in for.
But let us offer you some assurance.
You can have an AMAZING trip to India with no Indian SIM card at all, no help from anyone in-country, and just a few weeks to plan. IT IS REALLY HARD TO PLAN, but if you’re up for it, you can do it. We will give you all the info you need to make your trip a success. But our first trip tip is…
Trip Tip 1: Plan your trip 3 months in advance at least. India has 1.3 billion people. Trains, buses, activities, lodging — they book up. To maximize your options, especially if you are traveling for less than 2 weeks, or flying in and out of different airports, you should really be booking stuff months early.
The next thing to understand about our trip is one thing that makes us different from most American and European India-goers: we are a married couple. If you read travel blogs of India, or look up trip guides, or just look around at the Westerners you see at tourist sites, you’ll notice that singles and unmarried couples dominate. Having now been to India, this is surprising to us: India is a fairly conservative country. Being married made lots of interactions easy for us; nobody had any beef with us traveling together. But our impression was that if we had been unmarried, there are a lot of pleasant interactions that would not have happened. And if we had been traveling alone, there are a lot of situations that instead of being crazy and adventurous, would have been scary.
Trip Tip 2: Overall, we would advise that if you aren’t married, the best way to do India, in terms of having the best interactions with locals and feeling most comfortable wherever you are, is to travel with a few same-sex friends.
Now. Let’s get to the actual trip!
Day 1: Delhi
We live in Hong Kong, and thus whereas most Americans’ travel story begins with some marathon 20-hour transit, ours begins with a cheap, direct, 4–5 hour flight from Hong Kong to New Delhi. We touched down a bit late due to some delays, but whizzed through customs and security. We used the e-Visa system, and it was super fast. We got our visas within 3 days of applying, and at the airport we were sent through an expedited line for no charge.
Trip Tip 3: The E-visa system is super easy. We didn’t pay for any extra expediting, and we didn’t use any travel agency or get any help. We applied from the official website and did the forms ourselves. It asks some odd questions, like your parents’ religions, but oh well. On arrival, e-Visa holders have a separate set of lines that seem much faster than the other lines. The speed with which we cleared customs was a pleasant surprise. The only trick is you can’t apply for a visa until you have an in-country address: for this, just use the address of your first night’s hotel. But that of course means you need to book a hotel before applying for the visa!
After the visa, we went to a cab stand to get a cab into the city. We did not check any bags, as we would be doing tons of traveling during the trip. We only packed a single backpack each, and even that we didn’t completely fill, to leave space for purchases in-country.
Trip Tip 4: Whatever your baggage situation, assume you are going to buy tons of stuff. India has so much fun stuff to take home, and it’s all so cheap, that you are going to end up filling a bag with souvenirs. Plan for that.
For our first experience in India, we would be meeting up with one of Lyman’s Twitter friends for lunch. He’d given us an address of where to meet him, and we gave that to our cab, and we were off! We don’t really have any pictures from these first few hours in Delhi. But basically, we found our friend (despite not having an Indian phone!) and had a lovely lunch.
However, BEFORE we found our friend… in the middle of a bustling intersection, this small child runs out into traffic, runs up to our window, and asks for food or money. We didn’t give anything: we had no food on hand, and giving cash in the middle of traffic is aiding and abetting the willful endangerment of that child by their adult handler. However, it was heartbreaking. We immediately realized that we couldn’t go our whole time in India and not give anything to beggars, not least because the local cultural norm among Indians is to give to the beggars. Luckily, Ruth thought of a very good solution.
Trip Tip 5: Immediately upon arriving in India, buy a jumbo-pack of individually-wrapped snacks of some kind. When beggars ask you for things, notice that they are usually asking for food, not money. So give food! Put these snacks in an accessible pocket in the top of your bag. Hand them out at will, to anyone who asks. This way, you can treat the beggars you see like actual human beings, look them in the eye, and give them something, and not just awkwardly ignore them because you’re worried about getting out your wallet and handling cash in public. As Christians, “just ignore the beggars” simply was not an option for us. But “give out cash” wasn’t a great option either given a) limited hard currency in a foreign country and b) pickpocket issues. “Give individually wrapped snack items” was a good compromise, and we highly recommend it.
Trip Tip 6: Regardless of whether you have a phone plan or not, one thing is absolutely non-negotiable: download an offline map from Google Maps for every location you expect to be in for the next 4 days. Conserve phone battery when out. It is easy to get overwhelmed and confused about where you are in India, and while traveling by train or bus it’s often hard to figure out what stop is next. You will need a map. So download offline maps, save them, turn on airplane mode and battery saver mode, and just check your maps periodically.
After lunch, our friend drove us around New Delhi a bit to see some of the city, and then took us to the train station. While we actually would have loved to spend more time in Delhi, our plan took us to Agra right away. And that takes us to our first pictures!
That’s the New Delhi (NDLS) train station. It’s overwhelming. EVERY Indian train station is overwhelming. There are flashing boards, numbers, signs, hoards of people… it’s total chaos. But what we found was that people were eager to help us. We didn’t know if the papers we had printed off counted as a ticket, or if they were just vouchers: but we quickly found some people who were (maybe) workers and they helped us find our train.
SPEAKING of trains… let’s talk about how to book a train ticket in India!
Trip Tip 7: You want to ride trains in India. It’s a delightful and fun experience. Everybody does it when they go to India. But alas, how to book a ticket? The tutorial below will tell you!
____________________________________________How to Register on IRCTC As a Foreigner
Step 1: Be a lame sucker and take the easy way out. If you are booking far in advance, it is likely that you can find a ticket to wherever you want to go that can be booked on the website https://12go.asia/en . We booked our Delhi →Agra ticket this way. If you are ABLE to book all the trains you want via this website, then you should just admit that you’re an un-adventurous coward and book via 12go.
Step 2: 12go didn’t have a ticket to where you wanted to go? Steel yourself for combat. Prepare to use whatever profanities you permit for yourself, and a few that you usually don’t.
Step 3: Go to the IRCTC website. If it is working, you will be able to click “Register” near the top of the frontpage. Fill out the registration form. Make sure you select your country/nationality as whatever phone number YOU CAN ACTUALLY RECEIVE MESSAGES ON.
Step 4: Try to log in. When you log in, it SHOULD bump you to a page that looks like this:
Click “Make a Payment.” You’re a foreigner, so you have to pay IRCTC a tiny fee to register. Whatever.
When you click that button, it SHOULD bump you to a credit card payment page. In practice, for us, it did not. We tried different computers, different browsers, nothing worked. We contacted IRCTC customer support, and got no help. There was simply nothing we could do to pay our small registration fee.
Step 5: BUT DO NOT GIVE UP! Go to https://www.cleartrip.com/ . Find a train ticket you want to buy. Try to buy it. It will demand that you link to your IRCTC account. Do so. Now, because the cleartrip site is more functional than the IRCTC site, Cleartrip SHOULD bump you to a payment page for your IRCTC registration fee. It should. In practice, it bumped us to a payment page…. which promptly crapped out.
Step 6: Go back to IRCTC. If you successfully paid your registration fee via the Cleartrip hack, wahoo!! You can now book tickets easily on IRCTC! If the site crapped out via Cleartrip, don’t worry! Our experience was that once you made it to the payment page via Cleartrip, then the link on IRCTC became functional: you should now be able to click “Make a payment” and it should actually work.
Step 7: If any of these steps don’t work, don’t be ashamed to scream some profanities. It’s an infuriating process. Especially if, like us, you are realizing that you waited too long to book and all the good train tickets have been booked up and so your intended vacation is NOT shaping up as you expected. After screaming into the abyss for a while, come back, and try again. Maybe try a different browser. Maybe do some of the steps in different order. Eventually, you’ll find a way. We believe in you.
Step 8: Once you have a ticket, it’ll give you a PDF of a ticket to download. It tells you not to print it. HAH! Print it. Always have a paper copy of any ticket, lodging info, or anything while in India, especially if you have no Indian SIM card, like us.
Now, you may also be wondering about ticket classes in India. We don’t really know a lot about that, except that the sleeper class we booked from Delhi to Agra looked like this:
Pretty narrow beds, about 6 feet long (so too short for Lyman). Lots of people running back and forth. Bright lights. Noise. Great opportunity to make friends with other people in your cabin. Not actually great for sleeping. Later on we road in a chair car on another train… but overall, our impression was that you probably want 3AC or better for a comfortable, non-chaotic train ride.
That said, be aware that if what you want is the classic Indian photo where you’re dangling out the side of the train with the wind in your hair and a dusty landscape behind, that won’t happen in an AC class car. The AC cars are, obviously, air-conditioned. That means they’re insulated. That means they aren’t just wide open to the world like the sleeper cars.
Okay! Enough about trains! We took the train to Agra and got in that evening. Then we got a tuktuk from the train station to our hotel, Hotel Atulyaa Taj, which was very close to the Taj Mahal. Our tuktuk driver was pretty affordable; about 100 rupees for the drive from the train station to our hotel. He, of course, wanted us to hire him for the day on our next day: and eventually, we agreed. Why not? We don’t know what to do in Agra; may as well let somebody earn a day’s wages trying to show us cool stuff!
Anyways. He dropped us at Hotel Atulyaa Taj and we agreed to meet him around 10 the next morning.
Our hotel was fine. We had booked it on AirBnB… so were a bit surprised to learn it was a hotel. The breakfast was decent, the dinner and rooftop restaurant was decent. The room was decent. The location was excellent: it is as close to the Taj as their photos make them look, so was PERFECT for our planned sunrise outing to the Taj Mahal.
But that first night, we just crashed. We’d been on the move by plane, train, and automobile all day.
Day 2: The Taj Mahal Is AWESOME
Regular readers know that we Stones have a motto: do the thing the people do in the place. What this means is basically something like, “follow the crowd” or “if everybody does this thing when they go somewhere, it’s probably worth doing.” Alternatively, “don’t be too cool for school.” Every experience does not have to be off-the-beaten-path. Sometimes the reason the path is so beaten is because it affords unbeatable views of the surrounding countryside.
That’s the Taj Mahal. We had heard that it was too crowded, too touristy, or crumbling, or dirty, or not as big as expected, etc, etc. Whatever.
Trip Tip 8: People, the Taj Mahal is incredible, and you should see it before you die. Do it at sunrise or sunset. DO THE THING THE PEOPLE DO IN THE PLACE!!!
We got up before it was light and walked to the Taj east gate. There, we hopped in the credit card line (shorter) and bought tickets for about 1300 rupees each, which was a bit steep, but, whatever. Then we walked down to the gate itself, and waited. We waited and waited and were worried we’d miss the sunrise. The lines looked like this:
But eventually, we got through. And while there WERE crowds, they were not overwhelming. For the really “famous” photo spots you had to wait in line a little bit, but the truth is, the Taj Mahal is ENORMOUS. There are good photo spots all over the place.
So what did we do at the Taj Mahal?
We took pictures, of course! Tons of pictures!
Sidenote: apparently, jumping pictures are FORBIDDEN on the Taj Mahal grounds! A security guard told us so right after that jumping picture of Ruth. So that right there is CONTRABAND!
We saw the Taj from a distance later in the day and the crowds were insane. But at sunrise, they were quite manageable! Yes, there are a lot of people there to see ONE OF THE WONDERS OF THE WORLD. So what? Soak it in and enjoy it! It’s mind-blowingly big, and every inch of it is covered in incredibly intricate stonework.
However, they prohibit photography inside the Taj… which means we can’t show you that stonework.
Also, now’s a good time to mention another issue, since you can see it in the Taj Mahal pictures…
Trip Tip 9: India has bad air pollution (some of what you are seeing is morning fog, but a lot of it is air pollution). Bring throat lozenges, decongestants, allergy pills, an inhaler if you use one. Just be prepared for some degree of chronic respiratory discomfort. Strangely enough, the air pollution isn’t that much worse in big cities like Delhi or Mumbai than in a smaller town like Agra. In fact, Agra was definitely the WORST air pollution we saw! Apparently, much of the bad air quality is driven not by cars or factories, but by slash-and-burn field-clearing. As we traveled around India, we did indeed see lots of fields being cleared with fire, so this explanation we were given seems about right.
Since we had hired a driver for the day, he picked us up at our hotel after breakfast and after we checked out. We spent the remainder of the day being driven to other sites, where we’d get out and do pictures while our driver watched the bags. Our first stop was the “Baby Taj.”
Trip Tip 10: Go to the Baby Taj! All of the serenity, emptiness, and close-up-photos that you were denied at the Taj Mahal, you will find at the Baby Taj.
The Baby Taj is a smaller mausoleum built around the same time as the Taj Mahal. We’re not really clear on much of the history of these buildings because we didn’t hire guides, and Indian historical sights are astonishingly devoid of explanatory markers or other historic information. But our limited understanding is that the Baby Taj was build for a major advisor to one of the Muslim sultans during the Mughal period in the 1500s. Other than that, we don’t really know.
But what we do know is that at the Baby Taj, they let you get up close and personal with the stonework and take as many photos as you like!
Basically, the Baby Taj is a beautifully constructed building, very similar to the Taj Mahal in style and craftsmanship, but instead of being crowded and highly regulated, it’s mostly empty and has few rules. You want to go to the Baby Taj while in Agra.
After the Baby Taj, our driver took us to Agra Fort! This is a big castle where the Mughal Sultans actually lived.
The Agra Fort was something we were glad to see, but not wow-ed by. It has a ton of different architectural styles within it from different periods. And it pretty clearly shows that Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal, really really liked white marble. Large parts of the Agra Fort have their intricate interior ripped out and replaced by Jahan’s signature all-white-marble-with-no-decorations look.
But again, Indian historical sites are a bit light on useful historical markers. So while we got a little more sense of what the Mughal rulers may have been like… we really didn’t get much!
Trip Tip 11: Overall, the Agra Fort was fine, but skipping it wouldn’t have been disastrous. The trick is of course that it’s one of Agra’s major tourist attractions, and there isn’t a ton of other stuff to do in Agra besides see these types of sights! Our experience of Agra was that one full day was plenty of time to do everything we wanted to do. And honestly, we barely remembered we even went to the Agra Fort until we were looking back through pictures: compared to the Taj, it just doesn’t compete.
But there is, of course, the REAL reason we came to India…
Trip Tip 12: India has the world’s best food culture. Do not skimp on food. Don’t waste a meal by just doing little snacks or something. Enjoy the food. And remember that even an overpriced place in Indian terms is still cheap by American standards.
Trip Tip 13: Let’s talk about hiring drivers. Overall, hiring a driver for the day is usually the most economical way to get around. Using single-trip rentals runs up the cost pretty fast. Plus, having somebody around all day who won’t be paid until the end of the day means there is someone who is motivated to ensure you have a good time and that nothing goes wrong with your day. For a very modest price, that’s a huge benefit! Depending on the city and exact time, hiring a tuktuk driver for the day will run between 400 and 1200 rupees. A driver who costs 1200 rupees should pick you up before 10 and keep you out until sundown, and should also be something of a tour guide, and give you good off-beat recommendations. He should also have good English. A driver who costs 400 may have limited English, the day may be a bit shorter, and you’ll probably just see the major sites. But whatever the case, all in all, we like hiring a driver for the day! THAT SAID, the major shortcoming of hiring a driver relates to other spending. Drivers usually have preferred places to take you for food and shopping. Sometimes, these are places where the driver may get a cut. But more likely, they’re just places that the driver knows are “safe.” That is, a restaurant that takes credit card and that many foreigners are known to eat at, so must have low food poisoning risk. Instead of a crazy bazaar where you may get ripped off for shoddy goods, the driver will prefer to take you to a nicer, upscale place where your experience may be overpriced, but won’t be unpleasant. That means that if you want to eat like a local and shop in crazy bazaars, you will have to explicitly tell your driver this, and repeatedly explain that YOU DON’T WANT THE BORING WESTERNER PACKAGE. We are all for doing the thing the people do in the place, but do the *actual* thing they do, not the thing tuktuk drivers take them to do because they don’t know any better.
After lunch, our driver took us to do some shopping. Agra is famous for its marble work; the local government schools even teach special marble-working classes to support this heritage craft, and also to ensure a constant supply of stonemasons who can provide for the upkeep and maintenance of the Taj Mahal and other monuments. Needless to say, Agra is the best place to get affordable, authentic marble crafts. Now, because it was our first stop, we also bought other stuff: some sapphire earrings for Ruth, a shirt for Lyman… these items were not necessarily local specialties, and were probably not the cheapest we could have gotten. But oh well: we liked them, and they were still cheaper than they’d be in the US.
Trip Tip 14: If you’ve read our other travel blogs, then you know our take on buying souvenirs in 3rd world countries: we are pro-haggling, especially if the cost comes to more than $5 or $10. At the same time, we are pro-buying. When you’re in a country like India, you can afford to buy some stuff. Don’t think too much about it. Don’t worry that the price may be better somewhere else: it’s already 75% cheaper than in your home country! Don’t worry that the goods aren’t “authentic traditional handicrafts”: they aren’t costing you an arm and a leg! And if you want super-authentic goods, awesome! Have at it! Go buy some of the expensive stuff (we did)! But keep in mind that the discount vendors need jobs too. Buying some little stuff as gifts for friends and hosts is not a bad idea.
After lunch and shopping, our driver took us to the bus stop for our night bus west to Jaipur. The bus stop looked like this:
We stepped in the office, confirmed that, yes, they were expecting us… and then we waited! A few minutes later, a van pulls up, and some people got in. A guy wandered around announcing something in Hindi… and then, on an intuition, we walked up and asked him, “Is that us? If we’re going to Jaipur, should we be in that van?” He looked at us, looked at our ticket, looked at how crowded the van was, laughed, and said, “Yeah, this is you!”
So we piled into a van that we HOPED would not be our ride for the entire 4 hours west to Jaipur, still not TOTALLY sure we were in the right place… and headed off down the road!
Thirty minutes later, we were dropped off at a gas station, where we boarded our actual bus! And here’s what a sleeper bus in India looks like:
This was our first Indian bus experience. It would not be our last. This one was just 4 hours. We tried to sleep on the bus as much as we could, which was not very much. But eventually, groggily, we arrived in Jaipur. We grabbed the first tuktuk we could find, paid the overpriced fare (200 rupees!), and were whisked off to our AirBnB. We had to have the tuktuk driver call our AirBnB host, because we didn’t know how to find the place.
For reference, here’s approximately our journey thus far in India.
We arrived at our AirBnB and went straight to bed.
Day 3: The Amber Fort
Before we tell you anything else about Jaipur, we need to tell you about our AirBnB.
It was amazing.
You can find the AirBnB link to Khandela House here. Our hosts were amazing. They set us up with a tuktuk driver for the day for one thing, which was nice. But beyond that, they were simply the exact kind of hosts you want when you visit a very culturally different place: hospitable, kind, and extremely enthusiastic to get to know you, tell you about their culture, and learn about yours. Somprabha and her family made us feel welcome and at home, and were undoubtedly one of the two or three best highlights of our entire trip.
Oh, and their home is a lovely, century-old family house as well.
Trip Tip 15: If you go to Jaipur, stay in Khandela House! It’s an awesome location, a lovely home, and the hosts will make your time in Jaipur unforgettable.
Okay, so, what did we actually do in Jaipur?
Well, the first stop was THE AMBER FORT.
Oh, wait, what? Why is the tuktuk pulling over? This isn’t the Amber Fort… oh, you want us to see a real Indian temple where people actually worship? Okay… let’s do it!
Anyways, our tuktuk driver just decided we should see this temple… and it did not disappoint. Indians *love* their shiny temples!
Anyways. Back to our regularly scheduled itinerary! We drove up into the mountains, to see the Amber Fort!
It’s a big fort. And it’s kind of an Amber color? It’s not clear to what extent it’s supposed to be the “Amer” fort vs. “Amber.” Maybe both?
Suffice to say, it’s a big fort! However, unlike the Agra Fort, the Amber Fort is genuinely impressive in its own right.
Lyman legitimately thought it was the set for “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” until re-watching recently and determining otherwise.
And if you arrive early enough in the day, the way you get up to the fort from the valley bottom is…
Trip Tip 16: If you want to ride elephants, show up at the Amber Fort before 10:30 AM. You’ll get to ride elephants. There is a long line, but it moves fast.
This was a bucket list item for Ruth, so we absolutely had to do it. And it was pretty cool for the first half of the walk up. But as you go up, the elephants have to exert themselves more, and to cool down, they spit on themselves, which means they spit on you. It’s not entirely pleasant. Still. Worth it. We rode elephants up to a hilltop fort in India.
Once at the top, we located the audio tour stand and got ourselves some headphones. Which… may have been a mistake.
Trip Tip 17: The audio tour headphones are not very good quality, so it’s hard to hear. And the audio tour itself is hard to follow: it has you zig-zagging confusingly through the building without a map, and it’s easy to get lost. In the end, the audio tour became very frustrating. We may have been better off over-paying for a guide. However, an expensive guide whose English is hard to understand isn’t much good either. At the end of the day, like all of India’s historical sites, the Amber Fort suffers from a critical lack of good-quality historical signage. The signs are mostly either boring architectural minutiae that just describe what you’re seeing without explaining it, or a strangely specific historical note that doesn’t help you visualize what life was like. Make your own choice about audio tour vs. guide, but just be aware you are likely to leave with unanswered questions about this remarkable place.
But while the tour quality isn’t great, the building itself is remarkable.
At one point, a sign described this wall as representing a high form of “Indo-Islamic Art.” And we realized that someday, when we are outfitting a house, our aesthetic will probably basically be identifiable as “Indo-Islamic.” Exciting colors! Bold patterns! Powerful contrasts! Verandas and courtyards and reclining areas! That’s our style. This meant that it was very hard not to be constantly jotting down future decorating notes as we toured all these remarkable sites.
But eventually, we had to hurry down from the fort. Our driver was going to take us to the next sight we had wanted to see: a STEPWELL!
You’ve probably seen a stepwell before and didn’t know what it was. They are popular images, as they look uncannily like an optical illusion in certain light.
Sadly, they don’t let you go down into the stepwell. Major bummer!
However, we took the relaxing opportunity to take care of some important business. Since we were IN Jaipur… we needed to PLAY THE GAME Jaipur!
We felt very meta.
Also, let the record state that in the only completed game of Jaipur played physically within Jaipur… Lyman won.
Trip Tip 18: The Amber Fort is worth doing. It’s beautiful and interesting. And as you do it, don’t miss out on the stepwell in the old city below. It’s a neat thing to see, and much more accessible than some of the larger, more famous stepwells.
Trip Tip 19: If you do India the way we did, you will spend a lot of time on trains and buses. Bring things to do. Books, podcasts, whatever you like, bring it. We also recommend bringing fun, replayable, compact board games. Games help pass the time on long bus rides, give a break from reading, and can be used to get to know locals as well, as they may want to join in!
From there, our driver took us back into Jaipur! But first, on the way back, we stopped and got photos of this super cool palace…. which sadly you cannot go to:
Then we did lunch. This was one of those days where we didn’t put up enough of a fight with our driver, so ended up at a Westerner-friendly restaurant. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t anything special.
But then we did something that was special! Our hosts at Khandela House had instructed our driver to take us to at least one export-quality block-printing shop, which is a specialty traditional artform of the Jaipur area. This experience is not to be missed in Jaipur!
Basically, they make natural dyes and press it onto the fabric, then let it bake in the sun to set. This shop let us take a stab at the artform using a simple block they had on hand. We… had only modest success.
We then had a look at their wares. And folks, if you know ANYTHING about us, then you know that a shop full of artisan textile goods is basically a recipe for the financial ruin of our family. In the end, they only took about 2,500 of our rupees, mostly because we resisted the urge to splurge on a saree for Ruth, even though in Lyman’s opinion she looked pretty great in one. But, it was probably wise to stick with just the items we did get, and particularly the 12 matching block-print floral pattern napkins we got, an addition to Ruth’s growing arsenal of tea party decorations.
Once we’d gotten our loot, and a few gifts for friends, we left.
Trip Tip 20: Do not leave Jaipur without visiting a nice block printing workshop! The one we went to was called Krishna Textile, but that’s probably no help in finding it. There are a lot of shops like it around Jaipur, however. Don’t miss them!
From there, our driver took us back to the house. We spent the late afternoon sitting with our hosts and just chatting: talking family, history, politics, real estate, wherever the conversation meandered. Really, if you stay at Khandela House, do not book every minute of your time. Spend an hour or two in just getting to know them. If you listen with a desire to learn about Indian history and culture, you will learn more from a few hours chatting with them than from all the historical markers and tour guides in Jaipur. They evidently enjoy chatting with their guests which, if you’re as much of an AirBnB veteran as we are, you know how rare a genuinely interested and invested host can be!
After we’d shot the breeze for a while, it was time for our cooking lesson. The Khandela House AirBnB page does not, as far as we know, advertise that they provide cooking lessons. But upon arriving, our hosts casually mentioned that they do teach cooking lessons for groups of tourists. We immediately asked if we could have a lesson, since, as mentioned earlier, India has the best food culture on Planet Earth. They said we could, if we were okay with getting the lesson in their small traditional kitchen. They said this apologetically not realizing that, to our Western tourist ears, “Would you like an Indian cooking lesson in our small traditional Indian kitchen?” is basically catnip. So for less than the price of a fancy meal out, we got a lesson in preparing an incredibly good meal in. Under Somprabha’s capable instruction, we prepped the meal for the whole family that night!
Trip Tip 21: We’ve already told you to stay at Khandela House. You really should. And while there, you should ask to take a cooking class! You will NOT be disappointed! Ultimately, we learned to make paneer masala from scratch, masala chai, paratha and roti, and daal, all in one lesson! And they sent us home with nice printed recipes too! This evening spent getting to know our hosts, talking about life and culture, and learning to cook a delicious Indian meal was one of the most relaxing and pleasant few hours of our entire trip, and for that we owe everything to the hospitality of our wonderful hosts! Hosts like them are the reason we like to book AirBnBs instead of hotels!
We stayed up late talking and then eventually went to bed.
Day 4: The Pink City
We woke up on Day 4, packed our bags, stowed them in a lower room to retrieve later in the day, and said goodbye to our marvelous hosts. The whole trip was a whirlwind, as you can tell, and so here we are on just DAY 4 finishing up our 3rd city in India! If you couldn’t tell from our other travel blogs, we do stuff FAST!
Our plan for this day was to just explore the city of Jaipur itself, as it is very historic, and has lots of shopping. We started out by just walking the few minutes from Khandela House into the “Pink City,” so-called because of the pink hue of the historic buildings.
Once inside, we just walked along the rows and rows of shops, looking at the tea, the spices, the textiles, and all the handicrafts. We were out early, so a lot of shops weren’t open, but the locals were all out doing their grocery shopping.
Trip Tip 22: We repeatedly kicked ourselves that we didn’t buy more tea and spices in Jaipur. The prices we saw on tea and spices at the streetside shops in Jaipur were better than almost anywhere else, including Mumbai. As you’ll see below, we eventually got totally taken on tea and spices later in the trip, because we were panicking that we had missed our shot at buying. So we recommend that you buy tea and spices while in Jaipur, unless you have a concrete plan to go shopping at the cheaper markets in Mumbai, the spice market in Delhi, or are visiting a tea plantation somewhere.
Our goal was the city palace of Jaipur. But along the way, we saw this big tower called Isaheli Tower. The admission fee was cheap, so we paid it and walked up.
And it turns out, this historic tower, which was built by a Raj of Jaipur after he defeated his brother in a war of succession as a gigantic “no, in YOUR face BROTHER”, is one of the tallest things in Jaipur!
And just to show you how tall it is…
Trip Tip 23: The tower is cool. It’s worth taking a few minutes to do.
Then, we were going to tour the City Palace… but ultimately decided not to. We still had some shopping to do, we’d seen our share of palaces, and we REALLY wanted to find a market. We were on the hunt for “Jaipur Blue Ceramics.” This is another famous local handicraft. But unlike block printed textiles, which are everywhere, Jaipur Blue Ceramics are not everywhere. Finally, we just asked a tuktuk driver if he could take us somewhere where we could get them. He said, sure… but there’s only one place where you can get it. From the Jaipur Blue Ceramics factory. And it’s well outside of town. So we hired him to take us out there.
We were not disappointed.
Trip Tip 24: Jaipur Blue Ceramics are pretty, and reasonably affordable. They are a bit tricky to find around Jaipur, so you’re better off just going to the factory and buying them off the rack. They can pack them securely for the trip home.
After procuring some ceramics, we had our driver take us back into town. Along the way, we asked him to take us to somewhere where we could get lunch: and not a Westerner restaurant. A restaurant where locals might eat. He obliged. Driving back into town, we stopped at a little streetside fried food stand.
And then after that, we went for actual lunch, which did not disappoint in quality or in (low) price.
Trip Tip 25: Vegetarianism is extremely common in India. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 25 and 75 percent of Indians intentionally abstain from meat at least some of the time, and 20–30 percent abstain all the time. All those meaty curries you have in American Indian restaurants do exist, but not at every restaurant. Probably half or more of restaurants are vegetarian. In other words, you will eat a lot of vegetarian meals, and, if you want meat, you will sometimes have to be intentional about finding it.
From there we headed back to Khandela House to pick up our bags: the day was winding down. We stopped and did some shopping along the way… and realized we were going to run out of bag space, especially with all our newly-bought ceramics. So, we stopped in at a cheap bag store and bought a $7 little backpack, which became our day-bag for the rest of the journey. The walk back through Jaipur during the day was insanely crowded… which we were glad to experience, since fighting through a crowd seems like a very India thing to do?
But finally, we got back to Khandela House, retrieved our bags, and then flagged down a tuktuk to take us to our bus stop. We would be boarding a bus to Mumbai.
To clarify, it’s a 26-hour trip by bus from Jaipur to Mumbai.
That’s a long time to be on a bus! We boarded in the afternoon on Day 4, and finally finished the bus ride on the afternoon of Day 5! But for simplicity, I’ll call the bus trip “Day 5”.
Day 5: The Long Bus Ride
26 hours on a bus. It sounds like a nightmare to many people. But we were prepared. Our 4-hour trip from Agra to Jaipur had enabled us to figure out the basic logistics: how frequent are bathroom breaks, what’s bedding like, etc. We’d read up, and knew to bring snacks, water, and lots of bladder space.
The trip began in daylight, which was nice. We got to see a lovely sunset over Rajasthan, and lots of countryside. Over the course of the trip, the bus stopped many times, always at this little roadside hotels. Here’s an example of what the hotel restaurants look like:
We have now eaten at many roadside hotel restaurants like this. Usually, you only have a few, highly mediocre, food options. You stop for 20 to 40 minutes, about every 2 to 4 hours between the hours of 6 AM and 11 PM. There might be one stop during the night, maybe. You never know exactly when the next stop will be, so timing your hydration is a bit tricky.
But in the end, we made it work. And honestly, we had fun! We read, we played board games, and, at each stop, we made friends with our fellow-travelers. We were the only westerners on the bus; we were greeted with incredulity at each stop. “You’re still on? You go all the way to Mumbai? Westerners never travel like this! You are traveling like an Indian!” But really, the trip gave us many hours to chat with locals and meet new people. We don’t really have pictures from this day, so you’ll have to let your imagination do the work. But we do have some tips!
Trip Tip 26: The sleeping births are usually about 6 feet long. That is to say, they’re slightly too short for tall people. If you can get diagonal that helps, but to do that you need to book a double berth and have a comfortable bedmate. Speaking of berths, you DEFINITELY want a double berth on the top level! You definitely need blankets, as the AC can be overpowering. Plenty of water, snacks, games, books, and a good charge on your phone battery are key as well. The buses have outlets, but they often don’t work, and the jostling of the bus will repeatedly knock the plug out of the socket anyways. Overall, sleeper buses are a decently comfortable way to travel if you are a patient person with good bladder control. We recommend taking at least one overnight bus while you’re in India, if for no other reason than to get the experience.
Finally, after 26 hours, we arrived in Mumbai. Our bus ticket only technically booked us until a stop way in northern Mumbai…. but our busmates encouraged us to stay on until further into the city: we were assured we wouldn’t get in trouble. And indeed, staying past our exit stop turned out fine. Eventually, we got off and, with help from one of our new friends, hailed a taxi, which took us to our hotel. Our hotel was a bit tricky to find, but, eventually, we found it. The hotel, called Mint Magna, had not been our first choice. However, it was close to the train station, which was important for a later leg of the journey. Overall, the room was fine. But the staff gave us a very good recommendation for delivery for dinner. Both nights in Mumbai, we got dinner delivered to us, ordering from a nearby restaurant, and honestly it was some of the better food we had in India.
But on Day 5, after getting food delivered, we were tired. 26 hours on a bus will take it out of you. So we just crashed.
Day 6: Mumbai
We woke up on Day 6 excited to explore the bustling city of Mumbai. Mumbai is one of the world’s largest metropolises, with 21 million people living in it. Exploring it was an absolute must.
Our hotel was very close to the Dadar Flower Market, which we’d heard was a lot of fun.
Trip Tip 27: Maybe we were there too early in the morning, or maybe we were there on an off day. But the Dadar Flower Market was overrated. You won’t be missing that much if you don’t go.
We were staying in the Dadar/Lower Parel area because it was close to the train station we would need to be at very early on Day 7. What we didn’t realize was that this is not a big tourist area. In other words, we (and especially Ruth) got a lot of stares. Nowhere else in India did we feel as uncomfortable, due to the staring, as we did in the Dadar area. This probably colored our experience of the flower market as well.
So we flagged down a taxi and asked him to take us to a market in Mumbai that all the travel blogs said was really good: the Chor Bazaar, or “Thieves’ Market.” Allegedly this was a great place for off-beat souvenirs, and to see a historic market. Well, maybe our taxi driver took us to the wrong place, but we did not feel safe getting out of the car. One of our working barometers for “is this a safe place” is “how much of the foot traffic is composed of women, and of that, how many of them are in full-body coverings?” This may seem like an odd barometer, but as one of our party is a woman who wasn’t wearing a full-body covering, it’s a relevant metric. More to the point, all-male environments do actually tend to be rougher and have more crime. But honestly, even then, had we seen an interesting looking market area, we would have braved it. But driving through the Chor Bazaar area, we just didn’t see anything interesting!
Trip Tip 28: The Chor Bazaar area may be really great if you have a guide. But for an unaccompanied westerner, it doesn’t seem to offer much of interest. Skip!
So having struck out at the Flower Market and the Chor Bazaar, our morning in Mumbai was not making us very happy with the city. Luckily, things turned up from there. We asked our taxi driver to take us on to the Crawford Market, another big tourist area and market. And that was a much more accessible experience!
But before shopping… we were ready for some food! We got a restaurant recommendation from a random guy we met on the edge of the market. Just across the street, we found a restaurant, and were very pleased with our lunch!
Then, we headed in to explore Crawford Market!
While wandering Crawford Market, we found something amazing, something we cannot find even in Hong Kong, and have been missing since moving abroad:
We cannot explain how happy it made us to find Golden Grahams. They are the best cereal, and the best snack, and they totally gouged us on a stale box, but we didn’t even care. We had GOLDEN GRAHAMS!
The day was looking up!
Trip Tip 29: Crawford Market is easy and accessible to do as a foreigner, and is a decent place to grab snacks, goodies, some souvenirs, spices, and tea. We kicked ourself in hindsight that we didn’t buy more food and spices there, as it was the last reasonably priced place we saw for buying spices and tea.
Happy with our Crawford Market experience, we headed on to the next market of the day: “Fashion Street.” We had no idea what to expect. But first, on the way there, we went through this fun underpass, which was surprisingly clean and devoid of anybody selling stuff?
Then we made it to Fashion Street. Fashion Street is just what it sounds like: a long street selling clothes. But it’s not high-end fashion houses. It’s street vendors galore, selling items that may be knock-offs of name brands (“Aridas” “Guci” etc), may be items sold off the side of an exporting factory, or may be from a local designer just getting their start. It’s a wonderful cacophony of low-cost Indian fashion and design. We bought quite a bit of clothing. The downside is that many places don’t like you to try clothes on, so sizing can be tricky. But overall, we made pretty much all our new clothes fit.
Trip Tip 30: If you want an exciting experience shopping for Indian styles at an amazing price, don’t skip Fashion Street. It’s a delightful and fun experience, and there are just tons of great designs. As you know by now, we are big fans of Indian aesthetic sensibilities, so Fashion Street was a huge hit for us. You’ll find it easiest to find suitable clothing if you are a smaller size, as Indians tend to be a bit smaller. Most sizing seems to just change the length of the clothing near the bottom end, not width. So it can be a bit tricky if you aren’t shaped like an Indian person but, even so, there are lots of good options. Also on sale: cheap knockoff sunglasses, bags, small textiles, scarves, etc. All your random clothing items and accessories can be found here. We spent at least an hour on Fashion Street and didn’t reach the end of it.
After Fashion Street, we just walked around the historic parts of Mumbai for an hour or so, meandering towards the waterfront.
And, of course, enjoying Indian signage, which often reads more like some wise old proverb than a command from an authority.
Eventually, we arrived at the waterfront to watch the sunset.
We just sat down along the waterfront boulevard south of the beach area called Chowpatty. There’s a long waterfront walkway and sitting area, and some informal beaches people climb down to. We just sat and enjoyed the waning light, the beautiful colors of the sunset, and watching the Mumbai locals plunge into the water in their full clothes. It was a serene and perfect close to the day. While Mumbai’s first impression on us wasn’t great, the close of the day more than made up for it.
Along the waterfront walk, we also got to meet some locals, like the man pictured below who invited us to have dinner the next night with his family (sadly, we had a train to catch so could not). Or the dancers pictured below, who were apparently doing dance performances around Mumbai to publicize a city cleanup and beautification campaign.
And about that beautification campaign: we saw signs for it everywhere, and Mumbai did indeed look cleaner than many other places we went, and was certainly cleaner than our mental image of Mumbai coming in.
Trip Tip 31: When in Mumbai, make sure to visit the waterfront area. It’s a pleasant way to close the day, and the people hanging out there are in a chatty mood. It’s an easy place to make friends, relax, and escape from the hectic busyness of the big city for a moment.
We then caught a taxi back to our hotel. Upon arriving, we ordered takeout again, and were again wow-ed by the quality of the takeout food. We then called some family to chat (and belatedly celebrated Christmas virtually), and soon enough midnight was approaching. And since it was New Year’s Eve, the fireworks got going. We were on the 14th floor, and the buildings around us were not as tall. As a result, the fireworks being shot off from the street or nearby buildings were exploding basically at our eye level, which was actually quite a treat. Eventually, the fireworks died down, and we went to bed for a short sleep before our very early train out of Mumbai.
Day 7: To Goa and Hampi!
Can you believe this is just day 7? Our time in India was PACKED!
We woke up before 4:00 AM to pack our backpacks, shower off, and get ready for the day. Our train would leave from Dadar station around 5 AM, headed for Goa. We’d heard that the train from Mumbai to Goa was exceptionally scenic, and so we’d booked tickets that would give us a comfortable day-time journey along the route.
We were not disappointed.
Well, we weren’t disappointed in the scenery. We were a BIT disappointed in the train. We’d booked some of the last available tickets…. which meant we were in the tourist car. Big viewing windows! Air conditioning! Comfortable seats! Meal service! That’s all great! It was nice to be comfortable on the ~9 hour train ride south. Speaking of, here’s how our journey looks, approximately:
We’d come a long way since Delhi. And we were excited to go even further south!
But alas, thanks to the glassed in windows and sealed car for AC, we had no way to get a clean, no-window scenery shot. No way to dangle out of the train. Or, at least, it SEEMED there was no way to do so.
After taking through-the-window shots for a while, we finally got fed up and decided to take matters into our own hands. Or, rather, Ruth decided to take matters into her own hands and Lyman was a chicken.
So, Ruth just walked up to the front of the car, waited until nobody was looking… and opened the door while the train was moving! She just…. did it!
We ended up going up at several points to open the door and lean out for some fresh air and a view.
Trip Tip 32: Even if you’re in an AC car, it seems to us like nobody really cares if you open the door and lean out, as long as you don’t leave the door ajar to lose the AC. Go ahead and have some fun. The worst that can happen is you get arrested in a foreign country and your trip is ruined. Or you fall out of the train at a high speed and die. Or, really, any number of terrible disasters. But mostly it’s pretty fun.
Eventually, we arrived at our destination. We’d booked our ticket as far as Margao, the last stop for the line we were on. But we eventually decided that, instead of spending time in the tourist traps of Goa, we’d head on to Hampi. The best option for getting a bus to Hampi on the day we arrived in Goa, and also seeing one of Goa’s well-regarded markets, was to get off a little early, at a town called Thivim. From there, we caught a taxi into the nearby town of Mapusa, which was supposed to have a nice traditional spice, produce, and craft market.
In Mapusa, we immediately headed to the main market. And there, we found some tailors, and got them to modify some of the clothes we’d bought in Mumbai so that they fit better. For just a few dollars US, we were able to transform our new clothes into much more wearable items.
But from there, while the tailor worked, we explored the market!
So much produce!! There were also scarves, saris, craft goods, anything you’d want. And we stopped in for some cool drinks in a local shop, as, given that we’d headed further south towards the equator, it was pretty warm that day.
But what we really needed was spices and tea. We’d heard Goa was famous for its spice markets, so we were confident we’d find spices.
But alas… for quite a while, we found no spices! Until, finally, a helpful woman took us to one guy selling tea and spices. Happy to have found our last chance to buy these necessities, we bagged up a bunch of spices and spice blends, and teas to give as gifts, without asking the price. Ruh-roh!
So, we got taken on the price. Which is to say, by my calculation, we paid about 50–75% of what those same spices and teas would have cost in Hong Kong or the US. We paid exorbitantly higher than any reasonable local price, but, in the end, we weren’t really out that much money. And, in fairness, the spice blends we bought have turned out to be excellent. So we got what we paid for!
Trip Tip 33: The spice markets in Goa may be good elsewhere. But in Mapusa, they are less extensive, less diverse, and more expensive than in other places, like Jaipur. Don’t count on easy spice shopping in Goa.
From there, we went and chilled in a coffee shop and bakery for a while, played some of the two-player board games we’d brought, and waited for the time to come for our bus to arrive. Aside from the market, Mapusa doesn’t have tons of activities. Finally, it was about time for the bus, so we headed to the bus stop, just a few blocks from the market.
We had an 11-hour overnight bus ride to our next destination, Hampi. So instead of detailing the always-wonderful experience of long-distance buses in India, let’s talk about Hampi!
Hampi is the modern name for the old city of Vijayanagar, which was the capital of the Indian late-Medieval/early modern state of…. Vijayanagar. We are told the word means “Winning place.” So much winning.
Hampi had half a million residents in the 15th century. Today, it has under 25,000. There are huge, sprawling complexes of ruins spread out over miles and miles of countryside. In every hill and valley, there’s a 5- or 6-century old temple complex. But while it was once a densely populated area, now Hampi is a quiet hamlet in the countryside, surrounded by rice farms, and the rolling, stone-hills of Karnataka state. Hampi is one of Asia’s premier bouldering locations thanks to its quasi-Martian boulder landscape, a major historical destination thanks to the ruins, and a major leisure destination thanks to the quiet, slower pace of life, and lovely scenery. We were told that in the summer, the town basically dies, because its inhumanly hot. But in the winter when we were there, the weather is magical. Warm, and genuinely hot for a few hours in the afternoon, but otherwise just pleasantly warm. Cool evenings. Sunny and dry all the time. Really just the perfect climate for vacation. We met several people who vacation to Hampi every winter.
Once we learned about Hampi while planning, we decided to spend several days there, to have a relaxing finish to our trip. That was the right choice.
Trip Tip 34: If you can make it happen, find a way to get to Hampi. It is a magical place. Someday we will return to India. And as much as we want to explore other parts of India, like Kerala, or Assam, or the Himalayas, Hampi will always have a powerful draw for us. It is one of our favorite single destinations we’ve ever visited on a trip, up there with Colca Canyon in Peru, Sa Pa in Viet Nam, and the lakes outside the east gate of Yosemite. The travel blogs we’ve seen really catastrophically undersold Hampi. As such, we will be trying to rectify that problem, and convince you to visit Hampi.
Day 8: Relaxing in Hampi
We got into Hampi around 6 AM. Here’s how the bus ride to Hampi changed the shape of our journey:
On arrival, we immediately hired a tuktuk to drive us to the river ferry. This turned out to be unnecessary: the bus drop point to the ferry was a very short walk. But we needed to get to the ferry because, you see, most of Hampi’s better lodging options are actually across the river from the main town… and there’s no bridge! You have to take a boat!
Trip Tip 35: The north bank of Hampi has better lodging options, is more scenic, and is where most backpackers go. But perhaps more importantly, it is more tourist-friendly, and so the restaurants all serve meat. On the south bank, in the historic town, the restaurants are basically all vegetarian-only.
See the boathouse in the photo on the right? Yeah, that’s a 6-century-old ferry post. It’s still the ferry post. And this is legitimately the only way to get across the river without going way out of town, or paying through the nose for somebody to row you across.
Trip Tip 34: The ferry starts going around 5 AM, and keeps going until about 6 PM. It does NOT run super early or super late! Keep that in mind for planning your daily itinerary!
They basically keep loading the boat until it is uncomfortably full. The boatman assured us the boat could hold 20 people…. but we’re a bit skeptical of that. Whatever the case, it didn’t sink, and the river isn’t that deep anyways.
Once across the river, we walked down the road until we got to our lodging: Shanthi Guesthouse. Shanthi is available on AirBnB, but we booked them directly. Shanthi did not disappoint. The room and bathroom were simple but comfortable. It’s a traditional thatched-roof bungalow with a rice-terrace view, however, so while very basic, it was very fun. And the porch swing was extremely relaxing.
As soon as we’d checked in, we took a walk. Shanthi is near the river, and right by some rice terraces.
Hampi’s countryside is lovely. But you’ll see more of that later.
For now, it’s enough that we went on a walk, saw some nice countryside… and then got hot. The afternoons in Hampi are hot even in the winter. So we headed back to Shanthi and got some food in the cool shade of their gazebo-restaurant.
The food in Hampi was great. Basically every restaurant we stopped at offered a similar set of tourist-friendly menu options, but everything was good. Dining norms vary around India, but, for whatever reason, in Hampi, the norm seems to be to recline to dine. In northern India, it seemed like the norm was usually to keep shoes on and eat at a table. In Hampi, the norm seemed to be shoes off, reclining. We really like reclining. Partly because it makes the post-lunch nap in the shade during the hottest part of the day so pleasant!
After our nap, we woke up and talked to our hosts about some logistics: how to rent motorbikes, how to do a historical tour, etc. And then he also recommended to us a good hill to hike up to see the sunset. So, with sunset approaching, we set up to hike aptly-named Sunset Hill.
So, calling it Sunset Hill is very appropriate. It’s an awesome place to watch the sunset. And it’s an easy walk: just 5–15 minutes from the area with all the hostels to the top. There are people all around, so its easy to find; and there are kids selling masala chai everywhere too if you want anything to drink. Still, the hilltop is big enough that, despite all the people around, it’s nonetheless pretty peaceful.
After that, we walked back into town, got some food, and then hit the sack. We had big plans for the next day!
Day 9: The Day We Rode Motorbikes
We woke up on Day 9 and headed back down to the river, for a photo op of course. All of Hampi is incredibly photogenic, so you just have to take a lot of pictures.
Then we watched this guy fish in his coracle boat for a while.
Then we went and got masala dosai for breakfast. This dosai was the cheapest food on our side of the river, and also some of the best. It’s just basically a little food stand in the street with some plastic chairs out where you can sit to eat. It’s not hygenic, but who cares?
Then, we went back to Shanthi. Ruth got a massage (highly recommended to do this often in India if you like massages!) and Lyman chilled out in the restaurant. Then, we got ready to rent motorbikes from Shanthi Guesthouse. Unfortunately the motorbikes they had for rent were very big, fancy motorbikes. For those of us with little or no previous motorbike skills, we simply couldn’t do it. Plus, Shanthi had no open space where we could practice riding. Ultimately, Shanthi made the right call and declined to let us rent their bikes. We would have crashed them for sure.
So then we went looking for a less risk-averse rental company! And we found Tom & Jerry’s.
Tom & Jerry’s had two vital assets: 1) smaller motorbikes that are easier for beginners, 2) a big vacant lot beside it where we could practice riding.
You can tell that one of us is appropriately sized for these bikes, and one of us is, ahem, a bit large.
The price at Tom & Jerry’s was about the same as we saw listed everywhere else, and they also gave us helmets, which we appreciated. So we saddled up and headed out! Our first destination was a reservoir some ways up the road where we were told we could go swimming. But we rapidly just started doing our own thing. Living in Hong Kong, we haven’t been behind the wheel of anything in months, so we were ready to be master of our own fate on the road once again. We’d planned to spend the day seeing various sights. Instead, we basically just drove for the whole day, enjoying the wind, the sun, the scenery, and the open road.
Trip Tip 35: Tom & Jerry’s is a good place to rent motorbikes from, especially if you’re a beginner.
And eventually, we got to the lake.
After that, we were hungry! So we stopped in at another excellent little restaurant along the road.
Really folks, every little random hostel/restaurant in the Hampi area has good food.
After food, some board games, and short siesta, we carried on. We went to a sacred lake… which was not very scenic so we took no pictures. We drove for miles across the countryside, not taking pictures, just enjoying the view. Honestly, we don’t have that many pictures from the day, because we spent the whole day just soaking it all in. After so much noise, chaos, and crowdedness in India, and honestly in Hong Kong, the pastoral landscapes of Hampi were like medicine.
However…. eventually, we popped a tire. Whoops! So we headed back to Tom & Jerry’s and turned in the bikes… and surprisingly we weren’t billed for the tire!
Trip Tip 36: When you go to Hampi, dedicate an entire day to exploring the northern areas on motorbikes. Get off the main road. Explore the dirt-tracks and little farming villages. Swim in the lake. Walk around in the smaller temples. Admire the work that goes into rice terrace management. Relax. A day motorbiking around Hampi will be one of the most relaxing things you can do in India. Don’t have an agenda. Don’t get your sights set on a specific destination or objective. Just explore.
After motorbiking, we went back down to the river… for more photos!
Have you every met anyone as vain as we are? Don’t worry. At the end of this post, we’ll show you what most of our pictures actually look like.
Luckily, we were able to flag down some Israeli tourists (did we mention Hampi has so many Israeli tourists a lot of the signage is in Hebrew) to take some pictures of us.
Having suitably documented the evening, we went and grabbed dinner, then hit the sack. The next day was our historical tour day.
Day 10: Historical Hampi (Vijayanagar)
The day began with more dosai for breakfast from the awesome dosai place.
Then we said goodbye to our hosts and headed to the ferry. Shanthi’s manager had set us up with a guy who would drive us around all day to all the sights, and tell us a little history.
Trip Tip 37: Absolutely do not try to hire tuk-tuks incrementally between historic sites. We paid about 700 or 800 rupees for the whole day, including some historical description and guiding. But we often saw people paying 200–500 just for a single leg between historic sites. Either book a driver for the whole day, or rent bicycles, or walk. Incremental tuk-tuk hiring is a sucker’s game at Hampi. They’ll never bill you less than 200 rupees no matter how short the trip, and the crowds are big enough that they know they can hold out for a better price. Also keep in mind if you’ve been walking all day, it will be hot at the end of the day and you’ll be exhausted. Tuk-tuk drivers know this, and so afternoon prices seem to rise. Even if your all-day driver doesn’t do any guiding, he’s almost certainly going to be cheaper than hiring a new driver at each stop.
Our driver met us at the ferry stop, and then took us to a nearby hostel where we could drop our bags for the day (arranged by our AirBnB host). And with that, we were off to see the capital city of the Vijayanagar kingdom!
Our first stop was the hilltop temple complex/acropolis overlooking the city. It has some remarkable ruins and structures, and striking views of the countryside.
Trip Tip 38: This picture was taken by some locals who were touring. One thing we noticed was that we often got locals asking if they could take a picture with us or of us. This was a bit odd and awkward, but ultimately we figured, why not? We’d often do a trade: you take a picture of us, and we’ll take a picture with you. We’re not sure exactly what motivates the desire of Indian tourists to take pictures with Western tourists, but whatever the case, it meant it was never hard to find a photographer!
This guy was determined to get his instagram picture. Just after this, security kicked him out. Climbing on the columns is not allowed.
Across the street from this temple complex is a huge historic market area.
After exploring the massive market (seriously, Vijayanagar must have been an impressive commercial hub), we headed on to the next temple!
We’re not totally sure if stone-elephant-riding is permitted… but other people were doing it too.
From there, we headed on to 2 or 3 other temples. Each a bit different, but, eventually, we were about templed-out. Luckily, that was precisely when we switched from temples to administrative buildings!
The very limited historical signage, map markers, and explanations from our driver made clear to us that this complex was an administrative governmental site. But who built it, when, for what purpose… all varied. We were even told that an area called the “Mint House” was named that both because it is where coins were minted and because wild mint grew there. The coincidence seems unlikely. Overall, Vijayanagar could use more signage. But still, it was fun exploring the historic area and imagining life there!
From there, we went back into town for a quick lunch, and along the way saw colorful stuff to take a picture of!
Then it was back into Vijayanagar!
Hey look, another stepwell!
Hey look, the architectural inspiration for the future Stone Family Mansion!
You’ll note we don’t have tons of pictures of building interiors. That’s because we refuse to pay the repetitious entrance fees for buildings that are pretty similar inside. Also, not to dis Vijayanagar, but… the Mughal art and architecture from the same period is more impressive. Partly that’s because Vijayanagar was looted and destroyed by the Mughals, but partly it’s because Mughal civilization consciously fused styles from the Islamic and Vedic worlds, while Vijayanagar was both not quite as rich as the Mughals, nor as centralized, nor exposed to as many various art forms.
Look, the exterior of a famous Hindu temple we declined to pay to enter!
Really though, we ended the day by walking along the riverfront temples east of Hampi. And they were gorgeous. Substantially more impressive than most of the temples and other sites south of Hampi.
We finished the day joined by a couple visiting from California, and we served as each others’ photographers.
The beautiful day ended with another of India’s incredible sunsets. Really, this whole trip had more amazing sunsets than we’ve ever had in any other trip.
And then we headed back into town to get dinner at the hostel where our bags were stored. And then our driver for the day picked us up and drove us to a nearby town, where we would meet our overnight bus to Bangalore. Here’s the last map:
That was the end of our trip! We didn’t photograph the bus ride back: just another overnight bus. We rolled into Bangalore before sunset and flagged down a taxi to take us to the airport. At the airport it was a bit of a fiasco.
The Bangalore airport requires you to have proof of ticket before entering the airport. We had that! But we didn’t have a boarding pass, so we couldn’t pass security. We went to the airline desk to get boarding passes: but you can’t get boarding passes until 90 minutes before your flight. We were almost 4 hours early, because we 1) assumed the airport would be chaos, instead of the extremely regulated orderly system they actually had, 2) had heard Bangalore wasn’t worth seeing, 3) were really tired. The lobby area has little food and little comfortable seating. So we were stuck in tired, miserable limbo for a few hours.
But finally, we got boarding passes, cleared security, and got on the plane home (well, there was also a 12 hour layover on the Kuala Lumpur airport floor in there, yay!).
Our trip to India was amazing. We want to go back. The trip was incredibly fun. Coming up on 4 months later, we keep looking back and remembering anew how awesome the trip was. And in total, for 11 days, including airfares, lodging, trains, and tons of souvenirs, we spent less than $3,000.
One horrible thing about the modern, social media world is how curated life looks. You see only the good, shareable photos of peoples’ lives, and so it creates ridiculous expectations.
Our photos are curated too. They’re good pictures that make us look good, or at least funny and interesting. The scenery looks picturesque, and the historic sites look uncrowded.
This is all a lie. In fact, we are two not-at-all-photogenic people. It took creative cropping to get the landscapes looking how they look. And the historic sites were totally slammed as it was a holiday. We want to give you realistic expectations, so here are some blooper shots. To be clear, these pictures or others like them, or just gazillions of photos that are out of focus or poorly lit or terribly composed, make up about 90% of the ~3,000 photos we snapped over our 11 days of travel. But while the pictures are a lie, the fun was real.
If you liked this piece and found it useful for planning your travel, feel free to check out our previous travel blogs! We love to travel, and we love to help others find places they’d want to go!