As I learn more and grow more familiar with Thailand, I am able to more clearly reflect on my time in India as well. The two countries are almost polar opposites, as India is a primarily Hindu country, extremely chaotic, highly overpopulated in urban areas, on the messy road to infrastructural and social development, and the size of a small continent. Thailand, in contrast, is a Buddhist country, indeed, the center of Buddhism in the world. There is a sense of serenity even on the roads of Bangkok, and markers of middle and upper class affluence are everywhere. Extreme poverty is not in your face, and more people seem educated.
Living and traveling in India was such an extreme experience in my life that I wonder if I will compare all travel experiences hereafter to my time there. I did indeed have problems with the culture and society, but I learned so much in exchange. I had to confront and try to understand many issues, such as being a woman, looking like I was from the Northeast or Nepal, the challenges of democracy, rural vs. urban resources, post-colonial issues, and more. If any of you will travel through India, slow down and take a look deeper into the chaos and madness around you. It might be the biggest learning experience in your life.
And if you go, you should know about your travel options. India is an enormous country, known as the great sub-continent, and how you get around may largely affect the quality of your time there. I do not necessarily recommend always traveling by plane, although that is the most comfortable way to move from A to B. There is much to see, hear, taste, smell, and wonder at in between.
Plane: The chic way to travel the country. India offers relatively affordable domestic flights, and domestic airports will be filled with her middle and upper class citizens, mostly businessmen and women with beautiful hair. Young backpackers may feel disheveled and poorly dressed in comparison, and you will wonder why you do not see this sort of people all the times in the cities. That is because they are most likely being driven around in the cities, as India’s moneyed mandatorily have drivers, or strolling inside air conditioned malls. I am fascinated by Indian airports, as they transport you to a place that doesn’t even seem like India: no chaos that isn’t more than a healthy amount of productive activity, no poor, no begging, no street food, etc. The whole place is like a hygenic, sleek, modern morsel of the country. As a solo traveler, I must admit though, it was very pleasant and comfortable for me to travel by domestic air. I faced no hassles, met some interesting, educated fellow plane passengers, and zipped from the south to the north in a timely 2 hours. The best Indian air company is Indigo. Not only do they rarely have delays, an extremely prevalent problem, but they also have amazing customer service and will refund any ticket (with a charge). They have few international destinations, but for domestic service, they fly practically everywhere.
Train: Train is by far the most cost-value effective option in India. The country has the most extensive railway system in the world; I have heard people tell me that if you lay all the tracks on a straight line, it would go around the world three times. Therefore, it goes to many of the remotest corners in India, including small villages and towns along the way. It’s difficult to understand the train system sometimes because there are five classes: 1st class, 2nd class, sleeper, women’s sleeper, and general but not every train has every one of these classes. Moreover, the train is so popular as a travel option in India that tickets are sold out weeks and months in advance. If possible, book your train ticket with a travel agent. He will likely charge a nominal fee of 50 rupees but that is more than worth having a waitlist ticket, which guarantees you nothing and will most likely not lead to a confirmed seat.
Bus: India’s roads are bad. Almost everywhere. Moreover, India’s traffic is horrible. You haven’t been in traffic until you are standing rock still in Mumbai’s streets. Therefore, it stands to reason that taking a bus is not a good option in India. I would recommend it only as a last option. They are generally cheaper than the train, but you will likely not be able to sleep a wink, and you will arrive at your destination a good 5 hours after you are scheduled to.
Tuk-tuk: These open-air motor powered contraptions are more commonly known inside India as “autos” and are a common feature in city centers. They are banned from certain places, like Mumbai, for safety reasons and a rare sight in smaller villages and cities, but their convenience cannot be denied. The driver should technically go by the meter, but will likely not, and therefore you should know where you are going and how much it costs. It is generally 19 rupees for the first 2 km and 6.5 rupees for every additional one. It seems that all auto drivers tell foreigners that their destination is 100 rupees. So everytime that you hear “one hundred”, know that it’s not, and ask to go by the meter. You can flag tons of autos down in most city centers, so keep on pressing until you get an honest driver. It might take a while.
Metro: An underground subway is a fairly new development for India. It only exists – to my knowledge – in New Delhi and Bengaluru. Their connectivity is still limited, but if you have the chance to travel by metro, take it. It’s much less hassle than struggling to get a reasonable fare from an auto driver, probably faster because you will not face the monstrous Indian traffic above, and comfortable, especially for women, who always have their own ladies compartment. The police actually enforce the rules of the ladies compartment, and kick out any men discreetly trying to hang out there.
So there you have it! An enormous country to traverse; it definitely takes time and patience to travel India. As a solo traveler, some options for travel are better than others. Women would generally want to stay in ladies’ compartments and also travel in the presence of other women nearby if possible. Tuk-tuks can help solo women avoid the stares and possible pinches they might receive if walking around the streets of crowded cities full of men. Like with all travel, do your research, ask lots of people, and make sure that your phone is charged and has credit.
Happy (and safe) travels!