India doesn’t have a great reputation for safety—especially women’s safety. While it’s true that the enormous country does have serious problems regarding violence against women and patriarchal social structures, as a foreign traveller, you’re unlikely to encounter the worst of this. With a few common-sense safety precautions that you’d take in any destination—not walking around alone at night in unknown places, erring on the side of modesty when it comes to clothing, and trusting your instincts when it comes to men you’ve just met—India can be one of the most exciting and rewarding travel destinations.
I’ve been seven times in eight years, and am always looking for another excuse to plan my next trip to this colourful, crazy, beautiful and hospitable country. India is hands-down my favourite travel destination in the world. Here’s why.
1. The helpful people.
Sure, many people in the big cities like Delhi can come across as abrasive. But the same can be said of big cities everywhere—do New Yorkers have a reputation for friendliness? Not exactly. Travel around India and you’ll find the majority of people are very friendly and welcoming of foreign tourists, and will go out of their way to help you.
In Gujarat—a ‘dry’ state, meaning you can’t buy alcohol—my boyfriend and I were invited back to a guy’s place for ‘a drink of milk’! While taking a fifteen-hour train trip across the country, an elderly man made everyone in the compartment move over so that my boyfriend and I would have more space. Why? Because we were from New Zealand, and as a former employee of India’s dairy development programmes in the 1960s, he appreciated all the help New Zealand had given India at the time. He wanted to repay the favour. Only in India!
2. The enormously diverse—and beautiful—landscapes.
On my first day in India back in 2008, I remember sitting down in the shade of Mughal-era Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and being amazed by how beautiful the country was. I had expected it to be interesting, challenging and memorable, but I hadn’t quite expected it to be so beautiful. The more I explored, the deeper this impression became. From the barren, Tibet-like landscape of Ladakh, to the lush rainforests of Kerala; from the mangrove-filled swamps of the Sunderbans to the palace-filled deserts of Rajashthan; from the church-dotted beaches of Goa to the Himalayas: India is simply drop-dead gorgeous.
3. It’s really easy to get around.
With an enormous railway network that covers practically the whole country (except much of the mountains), and zillions of state and private bus networks, it’s so easy to get around India. If you want a first-class train ticket or are travelling during major holidays, it’s a good idea to book in advance. Other than that, you can usually make your travel plans a day in advance and get anywhere you want to go. Normally you can show up at a bus station and you’ll be put on the right bus. Those infamous stories of riding on the roof of the bus, or sitting arm-to-wing with a chicken, do still occur in the countryside, but you’re more likely to be impressed by the quality of the Indian roads and the punctuality of the buses. (For true chicken/goat-on-bus and roof-riding experiences, head to India’s northern neighbour Nepal instead!)
4. The scammers and hassles are very, very isolated.
India also has a bit of a reputation for schemers, touts and scams intended to part you from your money. But in seven extended trips to the country, I’ve never even come close to falling for one. Most scams happen in the big cities—Delhi is notorious—but even then, they are very isolated, mainly around the New Delhi Railway Station and the traveller hang-outs of Paharganj and Karol Bagh. Stepping away from the places where most tourists congregate will eliminate the majority of shady characters. If you know what to watch out for—people telling you your hotel is closed/fake tourist information offices etc—you’re unlikely to encounter any problems.
5. The centuries upon centuries of history.
Anyone with even a passing interest in ancient, medieval and more contemporary history will be blown away by India. There’s Varanasi–first settled over 3,000 years ago—which is situated on one of the holiest points of the River Ganga. In Delhi you can see the archaeological remains of the eight ancient cities of Delhi, all within the modern metropolis. In Ladakh you can witness Tibetan-style cultures practicing their religion the traditional ways, which is not even possible in Tibet any more. In Goa you can experience the layered history of Portuguese, British and postcolonial Indian influence. Everywhere you go, the people, cuisine, architecture and landscape tells a different historical story. And it’s all fascinating.
6. India is generally quite untouristed.
It’s easy to avoid the tourist hoards in India—very easy. If you’re on a whistle-stop ten day tour of the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Jaipur and Agra) then you will definitely disagree. But there are thousands of smaller places in India that get very few tourists. In such places there are almost never any hassles, and people are even more eager to make sure you have a pleasant stay. Tired of the crowds in Rajasthan? Head south to Gujarat instead, where there are desert landscapes, ancient forts and palaces and untouched beaches. Can’t deal with the hassles of Delhi, but are interested in medieval Islamic culture? Then try the south-central city of Hyderabad instead. Want a big-city experience that most tourists skip? Friendly Kolkata is a dream.
7. The food!
As a vegetarian, there is no better place to travel than India. And even if you’re a meat eater, there will be plenty of options. Indian food isn’t all just butter chicken or vindaloo—these are regional specialities that have become popular in the West, but they are a tiny fraction of India’s culinary landscape. From Tibetan-style noodle soup in Ladakh, to banana leaf meals in Kerala; Goan prawn curry to biriyani; Indian food is diverse, delicious and cheap!