By definition, India is a country. In terms of its size, it’s more like a continent. But when it comes to life in the land of a million gods, it’s in a world of its own. You could go to Serangoon’s Little India a thousand times, and get yourself lost in the seemingly infinite labyrinths of Mustafa, but nothing would prepare you for the real deal.
A round trip from Singapore to Mumbai costs slightly over S$450 and instead of buying the new iPhone X, you could easily use that money and travel India for at least a couple of months. Trust me, the face recognition phone lock experience is nothing compared to the bliss of looking into your own soul.
That was why I decided to go there in the first place. There’s been so much talk about “if you go to India, you would find yourself”, and after multiple shopping and eating trips to Bangkok over the years, I figured that I wanted something different.
I wanted to go somewhere that felt more like an adventure, rather than a passive, lazy holiday. I wanted to challenge myself to go out of my comfort zone and experience something powerful. Cliché, I know, but true.
So I saved up for a few months after graduating from university and bought the ticket. Four months in the embrace of Mama India, here I come.
I was 25, a fresh grad from SMU, refusing to settle straight into the working life and start earning big bucks for a bank. Instead, I was on a budget flight to Mumbai on AirAsia, with nothing more than a backpack and less than S$5,000 in my bank account, which I figured later, was more than enough for me to splurge and live in relative luxury for the whole duration of my trip.
Even as I stared out of the window as the plane left the safety and comfort of Singapore, I already felt different. I felt brave, having never left my parents’ home for so long.
For our readers in Europe, most Singaporeans live with our parents up to the day we get married. So yes, unless I ate out, all my meals had been cooked by my Mom. And all my laundry? Mama. To be honest, I wouldn’t even know which buttons to press on the washing machine to make it start.
So of course I felt independent, I felt like a real adult. I had no plan, no booked hotels, just this innocent, maybe naive, idea that Kai, the young adventurer, would be able to deal with all sorts of shit that came my way.
To someone used to the smooth and wide PIE, the actually-pretty-damn-reliable MRT and LRT, and air-conditioned buses that actually move, Indian traffic is a complete chaos.
Forget queues, forget timetables, and forget comfort. You’ll be travelling on rickety rickshaws, ultra-packed trains, speeding buses that miraculously seldom flip over, and taxis that claim to use a meter but because of “traffic” have to charge extra.
If you’re willing to fork out loads of money, you can always hire something luxurious to take you around and sleep in first-class carriages in trains. But to get the authentic India traveller experience, I’d highly advise you to try everything.
Advice No. 1: Always book sleeper train tickets in advance for longer rides
If you’re gonna be taking a train for more than six hours, pay a little extra for a sleeper booth. So then, you’d be guaranteed a 50cm by 160cm personal bed space to do your shit on. Even when the beds are folded up when you’re not sleeping, the bottom bunk serves as a comfortable seating space for three people.
Advice No. 2: Buy “General” train tickets to save the most money
If you’re a generic human being, chances are, you’d enjoy the experience of “General Class” on Indian trains. You can buy them at the train station anytime before the train leaves. Basically, what you get for almost no money is to get on the train.
In General Class carriages, it’s a free-for-all f*ck fest. There are no assigned seats, so if there’s space anywhere, even on the luggage racks, you sit. If not, you can just stand around and try not to fall out of the doors. When everyone’s packed so tightly, there’s a lot of gracious seat sharing, lap sharing, and floor space sharing. It’s pure beauty, and I recommend going general at least once.
Advice No. 3: You don’t always have to haggle
If you’re not local, you’re getting overcharged. As long as the overcharging seems like a reasonable price that you can afford to pay, go for it. Yes, you might be saving a dollar or two if you try to haggle, and you’ll probably go on and spend that on beer. But that little bit of money means a lot more to the driver than it does to you, so be smart, but not cheap.
Advice No. 4: Don’t worry, you might die, or you might not
Many Indian drivers have learnt to navigate the ocean of madness like fish in water. Even though it seems that you’d come very close to crashing, chances are, you wouldn’t. So there’s no point worrying, just buy the ticket, take the ride. If you die, Shiva will take care of you.
Mumbai is a must. The vibrance of the city, its smells, its timeless vintage atmosphere – this is where the pulse of modern India is.
From the ultra rich to the street kids, it seems that everyone’s just trying to get by and trying everything they can to climb up the capitalist social ladder. The creativity, the absurdity, and the pure grit that arises out of this strive is definitely something to learn from once in your life.
Goa and Gokarna. These scenic beaches have been the bedrock of the 60s hippie counterculture.
Immerse your eternal soul in weekend-long psytrance parties, dance your inner tribal Goddess out at sunset drum circles, buy Shiva posters and flower of life necklaces, go for a massage / yoga course, or just sit all day in a sun chair soaking in the Indian sun while ordering countless numbers of fruit plates, Briyani, and Kingfisher beers.
If you’re in Goa, Arambol beach is where the coolest people hang out and love one another. Gokarna is in the south of Goa, and when you’re there, you’ll want to be at Om beach.
Hampi happened when the Hindu Gods decided to try Lego. Insane rock formations are perched precariously on even more insane hills. If you would like to see how a perfectly round rock can balance itself on a huge slope, come blow your mind here.
Kerala. Further down south in the thick tropical forests, the backwaters of Kerala let you hire a houseboat (with a driver) and cruise through the meandering networks of rivers, some of which are used as part of their public transport system.
Float across the calm waters with almost complete privacy, get fed with amazing seafood, enjoy a quiet night of peace, and fall asleep under the stars.
Rajasthan. Now we head a little up north into the Great Thar Desert. Explore the ancient fortress of Jaisalmer and ride a camel into the vast sand dunes. Experience the Gods and Goddesses in the holy cities of Udaipur and Jaipur, while bargaining for the cheapest Indian souvenirs you could find in the country (ish).
The Taj Mahal is overrated. Everything there is like a tourist trap and everyone is trying to make you pay for everything. Go take a selfie, and get out.
Visit the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala and feel the zen of this Buddhist highland town that’s right smack in front of the Himalayas. Trek up to the peaks and witness the might of the snowcapped mountain ranges. It was also the very first time I saw snow. And I cried a lot.
Varanasi is considered to many Hindu devotees as the holiest city in India. Yes, Mother Ganga, or the Ganges River, passes through this city. Here’s where you can walk the same steps where millions of dead Hindus have been cremated, and millions of alive ones bathe and wash their clothes, as they celebrate their belief in the healing powers of the river water.
It’s a powerful experience, and despite what Lonely Planet tells you, it’s perfectly fine to take a two-second dip in the waters if you ignore the dead cow floating past.
India offers the traveller every imaginable, and unimaginable, experience available. You’ll get to see rainforests, beaches, deserts, cities, slums, mountains and valleys, meet tourists, street kids, scammers, holy men, super rich spoilt brats, and super kind strangers. It’s a continent of sights, smells, tastes and places that will make you fall in love over and over again.
Don’t squeeze too much into your trip. Buy your ticket and go with the flow. Allow yourself to get stuck in some places because they’re too amazing, and allow yourself time to really feel the vibe of the places before you make a judgement. Maybe then, when you’ve discovered that you actually like yourself as a traveller in India, you’ll start liking life more.
And maybe then, we would all understand the true meaning of “Namaste” – I honour the God in you.
We're hiring lifestyle writers!