Wherever you go in India, you’ll find something that you have never done or seen before. There are many experiences to be had — fascinating, exhilarating, shocking, comforting, confusing, educational, or just plain frustrating — all day long, no matter where you happen to be.
During my time living in India for about 15 years, I got to understand the country in a unique way. I found my fellow countrymen to be warm and big-hearted, but also traditional and dogmatic, as if almost stuck in the past. Every year, we would go traveling to some part of the country, and I got to experience many surprises, adventures and frustrations along the way.
Meeting so many new people, the way they live, the things they sell, the scenery, the customs were fascinating. Each experience turned into a wonderful memory, and I barely remember the frustrating parts. The incredible variety of memorable experiences is exactly why I think India is an amazing place for a westerner to travel. You simply won’t get enough and will feel the need to return over and over again for more.
Forget the Taj Mahal, and other touristy items on your list! Here are some unique experiences to be had when in India:
1. Take a Camel Ride
Camel safaris are a fun and unique way to explore arid deserts without getting lost. They typically include night stays at village camps located across the desert. The dessert state of Rajasthan is an obvious choice for many, as it boasts of three hotspots: Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Bikaner.
Other amazing places for camel rides are Ladakh, Pushkar and Mandawa. These are great cities for shopping, trying out local cuisine and catching some unique photo opportunities.
2. Dip in the Holy Ganga River
While this may come with some risks (and the internet is filled with articles on this), taking a dip in the Ganga is a ritual infused with sacred religious beliefs. The water of this holy river is meant to absolve people of their sins, which is what makes it an important pillar of all Hindu festivals and other auspicious traditions.
Major efforts are being taken to clean up the Ganga River, but I would recommend caution where you take the plunge (literally). Haridwar, Rishikesh and Varanasi (Benaras) are holy cities on the banks of Ganga, where millions of devotees each year visit and bathe in the holy river.
3. Go horse-backing through the Himalayas
In recent years, Ladakh has become a tourist hotspot. Known as Little Tibet, it boasts of being home to the elusive Mountain Ghost. This picturesque mountainous kingdom is located in the foothills of the Himalayas boasts of dramatic snow-capped peaks, pristine monasteries, and windy alpine trails.
While visiting Ladakh, take time out of the motorcycle rides and the sight-seeing, and try to venture out on horseback. If you are interested in horseback-riding, or are already an avid rider, nothing can beat the experience of exploring the wilderness of Ladakh on a horse. You will be amazed at the pristine beauty of the region, and will get to explore the culturally-rich Gompas at your own galloping pace.
4. Travel by local train
Traveling by train is a quintessential Indian experience. Whether you are a five-star luxury traveler, or a budget-backpacker, trains offer more space and a smoother ride than buses. While air travel is equally or more comfortable, you’ll get to experience more of India, its people and culture just by gazing out of the train window. It is also a great opportunity to talk to people sharing the booth with you.
India’s rail network is one of the largest and busiest in the world, and approximately 12,000 trains carry 23 million passengers each day. You can choose from the eight classes of travel, from the most basic to First Class Air-Conditioned.
5. Visit the malls
While this might not seem like an obvious choice to include in your itinerary, Indian shopping malls are an important stop to make during your travel. You’ll find a wide unique array of western clothes, including the traditional indian attire as well.
You are bound to get lots of oohs-n-aahs back home, as Indians love to be hip and dress up fashionably. And as an added bonus: pretty much anything you buy in India will instantly become “designer wear” in your home country.
6. Spend a day or two in a boat house in Kerala
Exploring the backwaters of Kerala in a traditional thatched boathouse is an exotic quintessential experience you must have.
The majority of houseboats are hired from Alleppey. There’s a wide range of destinations to choose from to suit all travel plans. Houseboats will usually crawl a distance of around 25-30 miles through the backwaters each day, so you’ll get to see lots of different scenery.
7. Get a Panchkarma treatment
Panchakarma (literally translates to “five actions”) is a unique, natural, holistic, health-giving series of therapeutic treatments that cleanse the body’s deep tissues of toxins, and bring life-enhancing energy thereby increasing vitality, inner peace, confidence and well-being.
While many Panchkarma clinics have opened up in the West, especially in the USA, I highly recommend getting one in South India. Many of the herbs and ointments are local to the region, and are not even available in the West for legal or logistic reasons. The treatment methods are a highly guarded secret often not revealed to outsiders. So you will not get the original authentic Panchkarma treatment in the US or Europe.
8. Get re-married in a traditional Hindu wedding setup
Hindu weddings are an elaborate affair, often extending over days, consisting of several rituals and traditions. They are filled to the brim with vibrant, cultural events lasting over the course of a few days.
While you certainly may not have time or budget for such elaborate extravaganza, you can certainly have a private ceremony in a temple, chant mantras and re-affirm your marital vows in front of the holy fire. This will be a very unique and special experience, all the way from shopping for your wedding attire to getting your hands hennaed.
9. Explore in a wildlife sanctuary
There are more than 450 wildlife sanctuaries in India. The wildlife calling is indeed adventurous and enthralling… there is nothing like spotting rare species in their natural habitats. Ride on elephant backs through the tall grass and feel the thrill of seeing a tiger stalk its prey. See rhinos, elephants, deer and bears roam wild in their natural surroundings.
You are sure to have the adventure of a lifetime, and come back with many memories and amazing photos.
10. Visit street shops
Street shopping in India is a wonderful experience. The crowded bazaars in the hidden streets of India are the best places to pick up exciting treasures. India is a melting pot of cultures and traditions; each region cherishes their fabrics, crafts, statues, artwork and furniture, many of which has been in practice for hundreds of years.
From exquisitely carved statues to glamour woven in silk, you can find amazing products in the local markets. Do not let the crowds of Indian markets scare you, have fun and come back home with unique treasures to be cherished and admired for decades.
11. Buy a sari
Every state across India has its own special weaves and fabrics for its saris. Whether buying for yourself, or for a loved one, you cannot go wrong buying this as a gift.
What is a sari (spoken like in Ferrari)? It’s a traditional attire for women in India. On the face of it, all it is a 9-yard piece of fabric that is stylishly draped around.
A petticoat is worn underneath, and a matching blouse is custom-stitched to your dimensions. It might seem like a mystery at first, what with its many pleats and folds. Some popular sari types are the Kanjeevaram, Banarasi, Bandhani, Gadhwal and Pathani saris.
A trip to India is full of the unexpected… but one thing’s certain: you won’t return home quite the same! So, are you ready for it?
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