Monday, June 17, 2013

I Want to Go to India! Any Advice????? Part 4 - Five Must-Visit Places

Finally, the last installment in my series about traveling to India.  If you haven't read the first three parts in this series, you can find them here:

Part 1 - Getting to India
Part 2 - Getting around India
Part 3 - General things to keep in mind

First, I must emphasize that these are just the five places I'd put at the top of the list if you visit India.  This is NOT meant to be all-inclusive.  There are honestly far too many places to visit to fit in to one vacation, unless you have a month or more.  I'd suggest making your India vacation a minimum of 10-14 days, and these five places can be fit in to a vacation of that length.  Just go in with the knowledge that you can't do everything on one trip, and if you have a good time, well, you'll just have to plan another trip to see more!  Also, these descriptions are significantly abbreviated, just to give you a taste of why I think you should go.  I'll put up full reports of these places, and more, in future posts.

1.  Delhi

Unfortunately, while I've been to Delhi multiple times, all of my photos are on old hard drive that needs to be rescued, so you'll have to make do with a written description until my detailed post.  Delhi is the nation's capital, and is full of tourist sites that are worth visiting - India Gate, Delhi Gate, the capital building, Red Fort, Baha'i Lotus Temple, and Humayun's Tomb being just a few examples.  Delhi is also an excellent starting point for visiting many of the other places listed below, being centrally located and a hub for all modes of transportation - air, rail, and bus.  Best Time to Visit - November through FebruaryBUT - beware of periodic dense fog during the winter, which can bring air and rail traffic to a standstill.  Avoid - April through mid-June. 

2.  A Tiger Reserve

Tiger in Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan

A visit to India really isn't complete without visiting a tiger reserve.  The term "tiger reserve" specifically refers to 53 national parks located throughout the country.  The most well-known include Ranthambore in Rajasthan, Jim Corbett in Uttaranchal, and Kanha in Madhya Pradesh.  I haven't been to Kanha, but have been to the other two (snapping the above photo in Ranthambore at a distance of about 20 feet), and can attest that you really are wasting your trip to India if you don't visit a tiger reserve on your trip.  Even if you don't see a tiger, there are plenty of other varieties of fauna to see, including deer, elk, wild ox, leopards, sloth bears, crocodiles, and hundreds of varieties of birds.  Best time to visit - weather is best from November through February, but the best wildlife viewing occurs during the summer (April through mid-June), as the vegetation dries out and the animals come out into the open more often.  However, summer temperatures can be extreme - normally between 105-110 degrees, often rising to 115-120 - so decide your limits before planning.  Avoid - late-June through October, as the parks are closed for monsoon season.

3.  The Taj Mahal

Naturally, the Taj Mahal makes this list.  Who doesn't go to India without seeing the Taj Mahal?  I have to admit, I was slightly disappointed during my visit.  Don't get me wrong, it's beautiful, and I'm glad I saw it, but it didn't live up to the "life-altering experience" hype that had been served up by my buddies who had visited earlier.  Perhaps my experience was jaded by the big black hole of suck that surrounds the Taj Mahal - the city of Agra, which has to be one of the most awful places I've ever been to.  Beware of hyper-aggressive hawkers.  People say that seeing the Taj at sunrise is spectacular.  I'm allergic to getting up at 5 A.M., so I can't really comment on that.  Best time to visit - November through February.  Monsoon season (late-June through September) also isn't bad, as the crowds are down, and the monsoon in interior central India usually only creates serious problems a few days each month.  Avoid - April through mid-June.  The combination of 110 degree heat and increased crowds due to school being out is unbearable.

4.  Kerala

Kerala is known as "God's Own Country", and for good reason.  In fact, it's so awesome, it gets two photos - the Western Ghats mountains up top, and the backwaters from a houseboat below.  Experience wildlife and a traditional "Kathakali" dance in the mountains, or veg out for several days on a houseboat.  I highly recommend doing a houseboat, by the way.  It's like an all-inclusive floating resort, complete with a fresh catch for dinner (seriously - lobster fishermen will come up to your boat during the day, offering to sell you a lobster that the boat's cook will fix for you for dinner).  The capital Kochi also offers interesting, English colonial architecture, and hill stations such as Thekkadi are common summer getaways for those looking to escape the brutal summer heat.  Best time to visit - if you want to experience a houseboat, monsoon season (June-September) is actually best.  You really won't find much that's more relaxing than watching the rain while sitting out on the top deck of the boat.  If you want to see wildlife, December through March is best.  Avoid - while the summer weather isn't nearly as obnoxious as the rest of the country, April and May tend to be extremely crowded due to school holidays.

5.  Japiur

Jal Mahal (the Water Palace)
India has a rich history, and much of it is on display in the city of Jaipur, in Rajasthan state in northwest India.  Jaipur is best known for its forts - Amber Fort, Jaigarh Fort, and Narhargarh Fort - as well as architectural wonders including the Hawa Mahal (Wind Palace), the above pictured Jal Mahal (Water Palace, so named because it literally sits in the middle of a lake), and the Jantar Mantar, a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Central Jaipur is also known as the "Pink City", because all of the buildings are painted pink.  If you do visit the Pink City, beware of the monkeys, which can aggressively steal food, even if not provoked.  Jaipur is also conveniently located to Delhi (4 hours northeast), Ranthambore Tiger Reserve (3 hours east), and Agra (6 hours east), making it an ideal stopping point if you're trying to knock several items off your to-do list over a few days.  Best time to visit - November through February, with the best weather from mid-December through the first few days of February.  Sunny days with highs in the 70s make hiking the forts a breeze.  Avoid - you guessed it, April through late June, due to the searing summer heat.

Honorable Mentions

In addition to the Top 5, I thought I'd list a few more places that I considered listing, but that didn't make the final cut for one reason or another.

- Goa - on the west coast, about an hour's flight south of Mumbai, Goa is best known for its beaches, and the only place in India where you can visit a casino.  It's nice and all, but frankly, very westernized.  Avoid visiting during monsoon season, when rain occurs almost every day, making a visit to the beach rather uncomfortable.
- The Rajasthan desert cities - these include Jaisalmer, Udaipur, and Bikaner.  I've heard they're fascinating, especially doing a camel ride through the sand dunes, but I never made it out that far during my 27 months in India.  Maybe on my next trip.
- Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin) - located at the southernmost tip of India, it is where the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean come together at a single point, with three distinct colors of sand visible on the beach.  Hard to get to, which is the only reason I left it off the Top 5.
- Shimla - in the foothills of the Himalayas in Himachal Pradesh, about a 10 hour drive north of Delhi.  I really had to think long and hard about this one, but ultimately, like Kanyakumari, it's also hard to get to, which makes it tough to justify keeping on a list designed for those pressed for time.  That being said, if you have extra time, you really should visit.
- Golden Temple of Amritsar - the Golden Temple is the holiest site for Sikhs, and is reportedly a sight to behold.  I say reportedly, because I have unfortunately never visited it in person.  Another one at the top of the list the next time I make it to India.

And that does it!  As mentioned, I eventually intend to provide detailed posts on all 5 of the places listed here, plus more, so keep reading!

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