Whenever my family visits, we have so many uncles and aunts to see that I’ve never really been a tourist in India; instead, we see the same four places, usually stay with the same people, and keep to the same schedule. Despite going to India numerous times, I’ve never been north of Bangalore, and I’ve never traveled anywhere (except maybe when I was very young, and my family was living in India).
Now that I’m earning, I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to travel to various locations without my parents. Two years ago, I got to be a tourist in India for the first time as my friends and I spent a week in Pondichery by ourselves. Funnily enough, I was the only person who could speak and understand Tamil, so I happened to be the translator (a position I am usually supremely unqualified for). We had an absolute blast. We stayed in a resort 30 minutes south of the town, and we rented motorcycles to travel all around. Driving in Indian traffic, swimming in the Indian Ocean, and trying out all the various restaurants was so fun that it made me realize just how fun India could really be - when divorced from all the usual baggage that comes with religious rituals, relatives, and capital ‘t’ Tradition.
In the chaos of all the wedding planning and religious preparations that were going on, I wanted to utilize the week before my wedding to remind myself of the fun India once more. So this time, a group of eight of us took a trip through North India.
The eight of us landed in Delhi as the central meeting point; Ahana, me and Ahana’s sister were coming from Bangalore in the south, while Ahana’s friend Divya was coming from Mumbai. Divya, unfortunately, missed her flight and was arriving later, while my friends Mark, Ariel and Silvie were coming from the US and landing in the international terminal. Delhi airport apparently does not allow parking in the international terminal, so we kept the 12-seater van parked in T2 while I walked around T3 to find everyone else and help them lug their bags over. Due to the scattered arrivals, we ended up staying there for about 90 minutes (and parking is charged on every 30 minutes). We set off immediately to Agra. After a couple initial introductions, people inevitably ended up collapsing from the exhaustion and we all slept. That night we just went to the hotel, had dinner there, and collapsed in preparation for an early morning.
The Taj Mahal was very impressive. Most blogs will tell you that it’s best to arrive very early in the morning, and I was extremely glad that we followed this advice. It opens at 6AM, but security is similar to airport security. We kept all bags behind in the van (making sure to leave no valuables in the bags - those were left behind at the hotel), and arrived with empty hands excepting cellphones. We left the hotel at 5:15 AM and reached by 5:25, but most vans aren’t allowed on the road leading up to the Taj. Instead, we had a 25 minute walk to security. Security itself is a breeze as long as you don’t have too many bags. No external food or water is allowed either, so leave any in the car.
At the entrance, you’ll see a large crowd taking shots in front of the full courtyard. While these shots are decent, I’d recommend almost skipping them entirely and going ahead - there are far better ones to be hand.
The most coveted shots are usually the water ones where you can see the Taj Mahal and its reflection on the pond below. The Princess Diana bench (which is about halfway between the entrance and the Taj Mahal) is definitely the best spot for this.
Ahead of the bench, you’ll get the prized water reflection shots, and this is well worth waiting in line for. If you’re lucky and come very early (we were one of the first 100 or so), there will hardly be a queue and you can get pictures without strangers in your shots.
Up close there are two symmetrical mosques on either side of the Taj; it’s not really necessary to check both out, as they’re exactly the same, but I’d recommend taking some nice Instagram shots next to the various arches.
Behind is the river - typically at night, the moon causes the Taj to reflect onto the river, but in recent years the river has receded quite a bit so it’s unlikely to happen.
Inside the Taj Mahal, all photography is prohibited, and to be honest there isn’t much to see. The Taj and his most beloved wife are buried there, and there’s quite an echo due to the way it’s built. There are some surrounding rooms which are empty, but also have a view into the inner sanctum. Overall, I wouldn’t worry about rushing inside. Focus on the outside - it’s really what you’re there for.
After the Taj Mahal, we set off to Jaipur, which was about a 5 hour road trip. On the way, there is a rather famous step-well called Chand Baori - avid Batman fans might know that it’s actually the stepwell that’s featured in the Dark Knight. Google Maps is actually fairly inaccurate in this area though, so we stopped by a random temple that we initially thought was the stepwell; we quickly realized our mistake, but having already told the driver to go, we took a 10 minute walk (in 95+ degree heat) to the stepwell.
The stepwell itself is very beautiful - there’s not too much to see, but it’s hardly 15 minutes out of the way if you’re taking the toll road to Jaipur (and there are a lot of tolls, by the way).
Having seen Batman’s training camp, we proceeded to Jaipur playing some card games and other road trip staples along the way. We stopped by a road stall for a quick snack to carry us over to an early dinner. We stopped by the hotel, and after checking in, set off to Chokhi Dani for dinner. For whose who don’t know, Chokhi Dani is a resort that’s designed to look like a traditional Rajasthani village from the (approximately) 1800’s. Entering, you’ll see numerous stations featuring traditional Rajasthani dancers, musicians, camels, horses, and all sorts of other stations.
The place itself is very nice and well kept, and it’s an interesting sight for first-time visitors to Jaipur. It’s actually about 25 kilometers south of Jaipur itself (can be an hour drive with rush hour traffic) - but Google Maps is awful at navigating there. It routed us to all of these insanely small back roads which our van could barely fit through. At one point, we almost got stuck on the road. If you’re anywhere near Chokhi Dani, you’re much better off asking the locals becuase they’ll know where the entrance is far better than Google. After about 30 minutes of wandering, we finally found the entrance.
Chokhi Dani has multiple dinner options, with some focusing exclusively on Rajasthani food and others having a mixed-cuisine buffet. We ended up going for the ‘royal’ option which was the mixed-cuisine one. Although the place itself was nice, the food was so-so. Most of the restaurants (Chand Baori has three or four, depending on the meal option that was chosen) are not air conditioned, and even the food quality was only decent. Drinks (even basic ones like a mango lassi) are not included, and combined with the overwhelming heat it did not make for the best dinner.
Still, it’s worth a one-time visit if you’re new to Jaipur - just have the expectations set accordingly.
The next day was our busiest day for the trip, so we went to bed early.
Most places in Jaipur’s city center are within walking distance of each other, so we planned to have the driver drop us off next to the Tripolia Gate. From there the original plan was to see Jantar Mantar, which opened at 9AM, and then City Palace which opened at 9:30 followed by Hawa Mahal. Unfortunately, the picture on Google Maps for Tripolia Gate is very different from the actual gate - Google uses the western gate that allows vehicles to enter the Pink City, whereas the actual Tripolia Gate itself is rather unimpressive and under renovation. It’s also yellow, despite being in the heart of the pink city. For a while we thought we’d been duped and went to the wrong location, but it turns out it’s just the picture that’s mistaken. The Tripolia Gate is the entrance to the City Palace, but only members of the royal family can use the gate to enter the palace; all other visitors must take the far less impressive entrance through the side.
Unfortunately, we didn’t know about this before hand. We had planned on just walking through the gate to the Jantar Mantar, but becuase it was closed we took an incredibly long way around through various street alleys. Unbeknowst to us, we were actually walking through the Muslim quarters - and it was only when we saw numerous goats tethered to the houses in preparation for sacrifice did we remember that it was actually eid. The locals seemed to immediately understand we were lost and quickly rushed us to the Jantar Mantar, and taking their advice, we ran out of there before the ritual sacrifices began…
Eventually we made our way to the Jantar Mantar entrance. In most places in India, they charge foreign visitors far more than domestic; Jaipur has a ‘composite ticket’ that allows travelers to visit seven different locations within a two day period of purchasing the ticket. We were only going to see three locations in the composite ticket - Jantar Mantar, Hawa Mahal, and Amber Fort (the City Palace is not included in the composite ticket). Doing the math, it was actually fifty rupees cheaper to buy the tickets individually, but the key advantage is being able to skip the ticketing lines in all future locations, which proved to be well worth it.
Jantar Mantar served as an enormous sundial used for astrological and time-measurement purposes. They had various sundials that could measure Jaipur’s local time up to a two second accuracy, as well as measuring the altitude of the sun and the rotation of the earth.
This was one of the few locations where I was quite glad we hired a tour guide; otherwise we would have just seen some random machines without a real coherent explanations of what it was or why they built certain objects.
Afterwards, we went to the City Palace. Visitors should be aware that most people are not allowed into the actual palace without paying a rather hefty 3.5k rupees per person or 5k for foreigners - most people are simply allowed to go to the museum and walk around the palace, which only costs 500 per person for foreigners and 200 for domestic.
The museum itself has four parts. The first was the clothing worn at the time.
Followed by a pretty cool armory featuring historical weapons. No photography is allowed in the armory unfortunately.
And finally a large courtyard featuring some very large pots and some artwork made out of guns.
In the end, visitors come to a large courtyard in front of the palace that has some reasonable views.
We had some difficulty finding the entrance for Hawa Mahal, as Google doesn’t really do a good job navigating you to the entrance. We ended up walking all the way around and asking some locals for help, and when they pointed us to a completely nondescript alley, we followed it through and it suddenly ended up at a very unimpressive entrance to the Hawa Mahal. It looks rather small from the outside, but it proves to be much bigger once you get in.
The Hawa Mahal has five stories and 365 windows. From the very top, observers can see who is coming, as the entrance is clearly unobstructed - the original intent was to allow royal ladies to observe street festivities without being seen (since Muslim women at the time could not be seen without the face coverings). One unintended side effect of this structure was that it allowed more wind and thus cooler temperatures, particularly during the hot Rajasthani summers.
It gives great panoramic views of the city.
Afterwards, we decided to go back to Tripolia Gate and find a restaurant nearby - we settled on Midtown Multicuisine Restaurant, which had decent ratings. It was deep inside some back alleys and up a very sketchy looking elevator, but once we got up to the third floor, the restaurant itself was actually quite decent. We had some traditional rajasthani thalis; overall, this lunch was better than Chokhi Dhani by far.
After lunch, we went to a Lasi Walla based on a friend’s recommendation; unfortunately, while I’m sure it was incredibly tasty, it also was untreated local water which is a sure way for any tourist visiting India to fall sick. We decided to pass based on how authentic the shop looked and instead explored Johri bazaar and did some light shopping.
Having explored the Pink City, we decided to move up north. First and furthest away was the Amber Fort. The fort itself is absolutely gorgeous, and when you first arrive you are met with this beautiful scene.
It’s quite a hike to go all the way up, and on this particularly hot day, many stops and frequent water breaks were taken, but eventually once we got up the view was well worth it. The crowd at Amber Fort is insane, and the composite ticket really paid off here. Amber Fort has more than 8000 visitors each day, and waiting in line for tickets in the sun is not a good idea.
Inside the fort is really quite a maze. The views are stunning.
On the way down, there’s the Water Palace, known as the Jal Mahal. There’s not much to do here besides taking pictures of the palace and the surrounding lake.
Lastly, we went down to the Galta Gate on the east side to begin our hike up to the Sun Temple. It’s a fairly hilly climb, but the most famous part about this hike is that along the way there’s a place called ‘Monkey Mountain’, where you can pay a cheap amount for a bag of peanuts, and the hordes of monkeys all around will gather around you to be fed. Occasionally if you hire a tour guide, they’ll give you a taffy with which you can bribe a monkey to jump on top of you.
Some people enjoy this more than others though.
Finally, when you make your way to the very top of the temple, you’ll see a rather amazing view of Jaipur.
For dinner, the original plan was to go to Oberoi Rajvilas, which was another fancy dining place - but that proved to be extremely expensive, even in US dollars. So instead we got some friends’ recommendations and went to Niros instead. Niros is really amazing; it’s well air conditioned (unlike Chokhi Dhani) and the food selection is amazing. If you’ve never had a great banana lassi, this is the place to try one.
The day was rather eventful, and even though it rained through a lot of it, it was a great time. We really did almost everything we set out to do in Jaipur!
The next day early morning we set out to Goa; we left the hotel at 6AM and made it to the airport by 6:30. Unfortunately, the luggage was treated unbelievably badly this time. It was drizzling in Mumbai (our layover), but not nearly enough to justify the state of the bags. My bag was absolutely soaking wet, and when I put my hand inside to see my clothes, they were drenched. Clearly, there was a puddle of some sort and they let the bags fall in. Worse, one of my friend’s hard-top suitcases was completely cracked, to which they just shrugged and said there’s nothing they could do.
Deciding to just move on and enjoy Goa, we took an hour long taxi ride to our hotel. By this time it was nearly 2:30, and we were all pretty hungry having not had breakfast or lunch yet. We were more than excited to settle into our rooms, but when we got there, my friend noticed bed bugs! In broad daylight! For those who don’t know (I certainly didn’t), bedbugs hide throughout most of the day and only show up at night. For them to be visible during the day, it meant that the rooms were infested. After the first room had bedbugs, we immediately warned everyone else in the party about this, and sure enough, three out of four of the other rooms had bedbugs as well.
Deciding that was it, we packed up and went downstairs to find another hotel. I explained the situation to the manager, and demanded a full refund. He wanted to transfer us to a nearby, more classy, hotel - to which I demanded to first see the rooms. After begging me to not tell the other hotel’s management about the bedbugs, he showed us the rooms; we didn’t find bedbugs (which are typically hard to find unless there’s a total infestation), but we did find mold and stains on the mattress, and given the proximity of the two hotels and the likelyhood of having a common staff between them, we decided not to risk it.
They offered us a car, but having been educated on the risks of bedbugs, we politely declined and just walked 15 minutes to another hotel.
This one was significantly better, and while there were some bugs like ants, there were certainly no stains or bedbugs to be found. By this time it was nearly 4PM, and we all sat down to have lunch at the hotel. And boy was it amazing. Lunch was one of the best meals I’ve had in a while. Normally, Indian restaurants don’t really do foreign foods very well, if at all. Not only was the Indian food great (that’s a given), but they had superb sandwiches, pastas, pizzas, and even burgers. We all ate heartily and were glad to be in such a great hotel.
The pool wasn’t quite deep enough to comfortably swim, but it was sufficient.
After sometime, we decided to find the closest beach and arrived just in time to catch a pretty great sunset.
Coming back home due to some light drizzles, Ahana and I decided to practice our dance for the wedding and have a relaxed night in while the others went out to explore the town.