A Backpacker’s Guide to India

India is one of the most varied and beautiful countries in the world – a heady mix of beautiful beaches, lush rice fields, holy temples and hectic cities. Its city streets are a riot of color, and its peaceful natural landscapes and breathtaking architecture inspire even the most jaded traveler to find his inner guru.

With cheap food, welcoming locals and hundreds of hostels in India, it’s no surprise this country is a well-trodden stop on the backpacker trail, but visiting such a massive place can be overwhelming – do you start off by trekking around the Himalayas, seek out a hippy-chic beach break or dive in to the dusty streets of Mumbai?

Here is a guide to the destinations that should be at the top of every backpacker’s list!

Goa. Photo credit - Christopher Chan.

Goa. Photo credit - Christopher Chan.

Goa – More than a Hippy Paradise

Goa has been a hippy paradise since the 1960s, when bohemian travelers would head for hedonistic holidays on the 105km sandy coast. The area is still popular with backpackers, who have left a trail of good Goa hostels in their wake.

Most people come for the sun and surf, and trance-y beach parties under the stars. But there’s far more to Goa than meets the eye – this former Portuguese enclave is peppered with historic churches, interesting architecture and a cuisine all of its own.

The Himalayas. Photo credit - FreeBird.

The Himalayas. Photo credit - FreeBird.

Scaling the Heights of Himalayas

The mountain scenery of the Himalayas in the North of India is worth braving even if you are afraid of heights. In the winter ski-enthusiasts flock to the snow-capped peaks, and in the summer adrenaline junkies can try their hands at trekking, rafting, and paragliding. A chairlift to the top promises breathtaking views of one of the most dramatic landscapes in India.

Mumbai. Photo credit - lecercle.

Mumbai. Photo credit - lecercle.

Chaotic Mumbai

Mumbai is one chaotic city – everything seems to be crammed into this sprawling metropolis, from the slum housing to the slick skyscrapers and glamorous restaurants. But the glitzy home of Bollywood is well worth a visit, with ancient Bazaars for bartering, more colonial monuments than you can shake a stick at, and cricket at the Oval.

You may not want to mingle with Mumbai’s mega-moguls in the expensive bars and nightclubs, but there’s something for everyone away from the crowded center. Beach bums can unwind at Chowpatty beach, before marveling at the Shiva sculpture and temples carved out of the rock at Elephant Island.

Calcutta. Photo credit - RickyDavid.

Calcutta. Photo credit - RickyDavid.

Colorful Calcutta

Despite its poverty-stricken reputation, Calcutta is a fascinating and vibrant city to visit. The home of Mother Theresa, Calcutta has a rich cultural and intellectual heritage, and as the former home of the British Raj, is full of remnants of colonial architecture, from the Victoria Memorial to the Palladian Villas.

North Calcutta is fiercely Bengali, where you’ll find the bust streets of Shambazar thick with colorful market stalls, the city’s oldest church and an impressive Marble Palace. More scenes of local life abound at the Kali Temple at Kalighat.

Delhi. Photo credit - Rob & Ale.

Delhi. Photo credit - Rob & Ale.

Delhi, a tangle of Old and New

The capital is a captivating tangle of old-world villages and ultra modern residences, and you’ll find some of the most fascinating ruins jostling alongside modern shopping malls and cinemas in New Delhi. Check out the ruined 13th century palace along the banks of the Yamuna river, Qtab Minar in the south of the city and Huaz for more awe-inspiring relics.

Delhi is one of the oldest cities in the world, and has racked up an exhausting list of cultural sights – make sure you see the Red Sandstone Fort, Humayun’s Tomb and the Qutub Complex of Mosques and Minarets, a UNESCO world heritage sight with beautiful gardens.

The Taj Mahal in Agra. Photo credit - Stuck in Customs.

The Taj Mahal in Agra. Photo credit - Stuck in Customs.

Impressive Taj Mahal at Agra

An industrial and sprawling city, Agra draw hordes of tourists for the magnificent Taj Mahal, which more than lives up to the hype. But Agra is also home to other impressive architecture left by the Mughal emperors, with grand forts and grand riverside tombs such as the ‘Baby Taj’ Itimad-ud-Daulah.

If you visit Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal on the same day you get a Rs 50 reduction in the ticket price- great for cutting the costs of cultural excursions!

Kerala. Photo credit - Negi.

Kerala. Photo credit - Negi.

Kerala’s Calm Shores

After a hectic city tour, Kerala’s calm shores and sleepy backwaters makes a welcome change. Pace of life is chilled in the heart of Southern India, and the lush green forests are abundant with wildlife. The network of rivers and canals characterize Kerala for most travelers, with lagoons leading to rice paddies, coconut groves and secluded villages.

You can spend a few days stretching out on a slice of golden sand, take a boat trip to traditional towns, or head inland to the hilly Ghats for trekking and spotting exotic animals. The local cuisine is an attraction in itself– food is flavored with cardamom from the spice plantations, served in a banana leaf and eaten by hand, and washed down with coconut milk.

About the Author. Lauren Smith. Lauren writes for HostelBloggers, the Insider’s Guide to Budget Travel. She wants to travel the world on a shoestring, and tries to cram in as much backpacking as possible when she’s not at work!

Wanderlust and Lipstick

April 28, 2009 by  
Filed under General Fun, Mythical Himalayas

Beth Whitman’s own wanderlust started years ago with a trip to India. While she’d seen plenty of the U.S. at that point, her only trip abroad had been a few weeks in England. But after three months in India, Nepal and Thailand, Beth was hooked.

Since that first trip, Beth has made a career out of traveling — especially to India and the surrounding countries. Not only has she written about the area, but Beth also leads tours to India and Bhutan. Beth says, “I… wanted to share what India has to offer with others. India can be a challenging country in which to travel and by starting out with a tour, it provides a person with a safety net until they get used to the people, the culture and environment. It’s my hope that I can help people feel more comfortable and provide them with enough confidence and perspective to then travel on their own.”

India. Photo credit - Stuck in Customs.

India. Photo credit - Stuck in Customs.

Looking at the itinerary for Beth’s latest tour group as they head to Bhutan, you quickly realize that Beth is interested in heading off the path that the typical tourist might follow. Part of this approach is due to the fact that (ed: unfortunately for me) many of Beth’s tours are for women only, allowing her to lead groups to see nunneries in the heart of Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. Beth also wrote a guidebook for women visiting India on their own, Wanderlust and Lipstick: For Women Traveling to India.

India. Photo credit - jpereira_net.

India. Photo credit - jpereira_net.

Beth says that it’s hard to pick just one thing to recommend seeing or doing in a country as large as India — though she says that if she had to narrow it done to just doing one thing, she’d eat!

“Where a person visits really depends on that person’s interest. Someone who’s interested in Buddhism may want to travel in the north and go to Dharamsala. Another person may want to head to the beaches in the south, Goa or Kerala, for example. A first time visitor probably has an idea as to what intrigues them most about the country and they should pursue that interest before simply wandering or arriving without a plan.”

Bhutan. Photo credit - Marina & Enrique.

Bhutan. Photo credit - Marina & Enrique.

Prayer flags in Bhutan. Photo credit - jmhullot.

Prayer flags in Bhutan. Photo credit - jmhullot.

Making that plan is a crucial part of Beth’s suggestions to travelers planning to head to India or any of the nearby countries. “Research. Research. Research. Read guidebooks, talk to people who have traveled there previously, and read travel stories about other people’s experience. While researching can’t completely prepare you for any journey, it will definitely help take some of the culture shock out of the experience.”

Beth adds, “And, no trip actually goes “smoothly” in India! The sooner you learn that, the more you can appreciate the country and people for what they have to offer. It’s a matter of just accepting what comes your way and embracing it. (Kinda like life in general!)”

You can find more about Beth Whitman, along with her travels, tours and books, at Wanderlust and Lipstick.

This is a guest post by Thursday Bram, from Working Your Way Around The World.com, a site with top-notch advices on building up a writing business that can have you.. working around the world! The site grew out from Thursday’s upcoming book of the same name, coming out later this year through Duffie Books. Congrats Thursday!

5 Spiritual Vacations for Miss Lohan

April 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Attractions, Feature Highlights, General Fun, Nature

Dearest Miss Lohan. A fellow travel blog zine has recently implied your need of assistance. Apparently, you are heartbroken, broke and out of work. Adding to that, a somewhat complicated relationship problem seems to be on the horizon. As such, I would like to offer you our own suggestion of vacations that would help you heal your soul. After all, Asia has always been a land of mystical and spiritual healing. And down here, your dollar goes a long long way!

Rameswaram, South India. Photo credit - myriadity and technicolorcavalry.

Rameswaram, South India. Photo credit - myriadity and technicolorcavalry.

Spiritual Healing in South India

The spirituality of South India is one of colour, symbols, statues, incense, flowers and singing. Stay in inexpensive government-run hostels and do darshan (greet the Gods) in some of the holiest Hindu temples and pilgrimage sites in the region. Even outside the temples, India is a country that reeks with spirituality, from the fragrant garlands hanging in market stalls to the red paste adorning the forehead of men and the smell of burning incense left in offerings to the Gods.

The holy island of Rameswaram is known as one of India’s most venerated and most visited shrines, dedicated to Sri Ramanathaswamy (or Sri Rama for short). Spend some time here to take in the epic story of Ramayana, and learn for yourself the workings of karma. Find your artha (purpose), limit your kama (pleasure or desire) and gain moksha (liberation) by completing your due dharma (duty).

Ayurveda yoga and Beruwela's beach. Photo credit - fabola and DreamwizarD.

Ayurveda yoga and Beruwelas beach. Photo credit - fabola and DreamwizarD.

Ayurveda Treatment in Sri Lanka

Head towards Sri Lanka for a seaside retreat involving ayurveda, the 5,000 years old Indian healing system whose name translates as “the Science of Life”. You’ll be offered an array of holistic therapies such as herbal oil massages, steam baths and acupuncture, with yoga and meditation. We recommend a thorough purging of the system by incorporating them all into your medication. You need all the help you can get!

Try to enjoy and appreciate the beautiful ocean view as you practice the traditional Hatha Yoga from the resort’s roof top. At 56 km south of Colombo, Beruwela marks the beginning of 130 km stretch of mesmerizing beach for your admiration. Spend a quiet moment of two as you stroll along the beach, a luxury you’ll rarely find in Florida’s packed beaches.

Diving in North Sulawesi. Photo credit - naturemandala and Erwin Kodiat.

Diving in North Sulawesi. Photo credit - naturemandala and Erwin Kodiat.

Diving in North Sulawesi, Indonesia

With more than 150 dive sites and around 1000 reef fish species, North Sulawesi is a hotspot for avid scuba-divers. The beauty of the marine bio diversity here is unparalleled, one of the best diving spot in the whole world, but that’s not the only reason we recommend this site for you. There are still not much development in North Sulawesi, and it’s very easy to find a quiet island retreat away from the hustle and bustle of the world.

As you forget the stress and pressures of unemployment and impending bankruptcy, mesmerize yourself with one of the most pristine natural areas in the world. Swim with dolphin, sharks, giant turtles and even rare manatees as the local diving team guide you over vivid, unspoiled coral gardens.

Temple stay in South Korea. Photo credit - dailytransit.

Temple stay in South Korea. Photo credit - dailytransit.

Temple Stay in Seoul, South Korea

Seoul, South Korea, offers a variety of temple stay at one of its many Buddhist monasteries. One such place is the Woljeongsa Temple, a 7th century temple located in Pyeongchang County, a few hours east of Seoul. Wake up at 4 in the morning to the sound of moktak – a long, wooden, percussion instrument Buddhist monks use to start their day. Lateness is not acceptable, and will be punished by 3,000 times of bowing for punishment, and a day of fasting for everybody else!

The rigorous pre-dawn ceremony is designed to clear the minds – chanting prayers, standing and then bowing gracefully, repeating it for 108 sequences, symbolizing the 108 worldly desires you need to renounce. Attend Buddhist sermons by the monks, preaching the teachings of Buddha and how you can incorporate them into your life, and spend the remainder of the day helping out with chores, admiring the scenery and meditating in calm contemplation.

Meditate in the silence of nature. Photo credit - felix42 and aimforawesome.

Meditate in the silence of nature. Photo credit - felix42 and aimforawesome.

Silent Retreat in Thailand

The idea of a silent retreat is simple. You go somewhere quiet and don’t talk. Not only that, most artificial sounds and distractions – reading, writing, music, caffeine, alcohol and music – are not allowed. The Suan Mokkh Temple in Thailand offers 10 days of silence in which you simply sit there and do nothing but meditate. A senior monk leading the retreat chimes in time to time with teachings to contemplate.

The concept behind this is that our mind is constantly bombarded with distractions and information. It is over-saturated, always thinking about the next thing to do, always contemplating about the past which has happened. The silent retreat is designed to have us confront these distractions, to know these shallow pleasures and let go of them. Only then will you be able to connect with your true self.

The attrition rate for silent retreat are high up at around 25% in the first few days, and usually ending with less that 50% the original attendees. With the constant distractions that’s been bombarding your everyday life, we felt this would be good for you, so try to last till the end will you?

About the Author. Nikolas Tjhin. A graphic and web designer in its previous incarnation, Nik’s journeyman career has seen him do work for various creative studios in Wisconsin, Minneapolis, Singapore and Jakarta. Now, he’s settled down for the time being and focusing his efforts on Unearthing Asia.

Tweaks and Twitter-rific @UnearthingAsia

February 4, 2009 by  
Filed under News

Hello again! First off, a very big thank you for the people to the right of this screen. Yes, you! Thank you so much for having joined us! As you can see, there has been tweaks and changes in the site layout. The recent week has been a steep learning curve in the art of social media and web promotion, and I’m trying my best to make this site better, so every comment countsdo comment!

This week, my personal highlights to share with you starts with this tale of Riverland Relaxation – which reminds me a lot of my past New Zealand trip. There is a certain charm to traveling in a campervan, you’re free to tweak as much of your itinerary as possible! There is also this list of savory delights you’ll find in India, and the fashionistas’ guide to shopping in Seminyak, Bali’s little cousin.

Outside UnearthingAsia, I’m delighted to have found some like-minded travel-cum-tech geek, Jeff, who hosted his own travel blog on Have Pack. Jeff shares with you tips and tricks for the independent traveler, and I’m hoping to do some guest-posting and vice-versa on his site. We’ll see how that goes.

Culinary Adventures of India

January 27, 2009 by  
Filed under Culture, Gourmet, Mythical Himalayas

India’s culinary landscape can be summarized into three words: spicy, herb-rich and vegetarian. Most foreigners will find these less appetizing compared to their usual fare, but choosing to miss out on them when traveling to India would be your loss.

Trying out the unique local flavor is part of the exciting adventure that makes up India, and one challenge that every self-declared independent traveler should take! Unearthing Asia takes a look at the various local delicacies that one would encounter here, and gives you a slight outlook on what to expect from each of them.

Rice and Bread
Rice and bread is very popular in India, and are daily served as a main entree to be paired up with the various dishes, such as curry or thali. In the Northern part of India, bread is the more popular choice while in the South rice gets the nod. The rice used in India is long and grainy, and are usually spiced up with saffron, giving it a unique yellow coloring, refreshing aroma and slightly bitter flavor. A popular dish is called the briyani, which is this yellow rice cooked with ghee and served with your choice of vegetables and or meat.

Similarly, the bread is also served usually with curry to be used as either a dip or fillings. The bread is flat and round, and looks more like your usual Subway wrap instead of the bread we’re accustomed to. Bread cooked with tandoor is called Naan, while those deep-fried is called puri.

This very Indian dish is usually served on a large banana leaf, tho nowadays a lot of restaurants substitutes a large platter for it. It’s basically a mix of various choice dishes in small portions, served all at once together for your enjoyment. A perfect way to taste the unique intricacies of Indian’s cuisine, thali usually consists of rice, bread, dhal, spicy vegetables, and curry. Thali are usually vegetarian, but if you try it in a non-vegetarian restaurant you can simply order additional dishes as much as you need.

Thali is best eaten slowly, for you to savor the unique taste each differing pairings bring. A common mistake is to mix the rice with all the dishes, one you must not do! Instead, try eating them in pairs, mixing each dishes with another as you deem fit. Be surprised by the rich, differing flavors each pairings bring.

Meat Lovers
Worry not, while vegetarian food is a huge part of India’s culinary arsenal there are still various dishes that would please your carnivorous palate. Kebab, various choice cuts of meat and vegetables in a satay stick, is a popular dish, as well as Shami, slices of meat and vegetables wrapped in bread. Cow is considered holy in India, so lamb is the meat of choice. Another popular meat dish is the chicken tandoori, which pairs very well with both rice and bread. Be careful however, as some tandoori can be quite hot! Less adventurous eaters would be well advised to ask for a mild, less-spicy version of this dish.

About the Author. Michelle Lee. There is an idea behind every writing, and magic in bringing words to life. For Michelle, words create worlds beyond ours. A writer based in Singapore, Michelle seeks to inspire thoughts, ignite emotions, and explore the unfound as much as boundaries can be ventured into. Her inspirations spiral from overseas escapades filled with wild diversities of culture and traditions. “Abandoning responsibilities, work and the hustles of life to a place where everything is fresh, new and alienated. That, is sheer fascination.”

India’s Top 5 Sites

January 19, 2009 by  
Filed under Attractions, Feature Highlights, Mythical Himalayas

India is an amazing land, full of fascinating attractions worlds away from the holiday destinations of the west. But perhaps the most impressive thing about this remarkable country is just how varied the attractions are. There is something for everyone, from the outstanding food (you should be warned, curries have been cooled considerably for western palettes!) to the spectacular wildlife to the fascinating culture and history. Narrowing a list of recommendations for your luxury holiday to India down to just five items was tricky, but hopefully this will give you an idea of just how varied and exciting a tour of India can be. And just to be awkward, I haven’t included the Taj Mahal – which is of course a must-see!

Darjeeling Toy Train
Although it’s universally nick-named the toy train, the Darjeeling-Himalayan railway is actually a narrow gauge train route traversing nearly 90 kilometres of the Himalayas. The toy train provides a romantic view of the Himalayas, and allows you to explore the different regions; taking is some outstanding views of the mountain peaks. This is something that everybody should do on a luxury holiday to India.

Sundarbans National Park
If you want to see Indian wildlife in its natural habitat, the Sundarbans National Park is a must. As well as being one of the largest reserves of the famous Bengal tiger, the park contains a huge selection of wildlife including fishing cats, macaques, wild boar, flying fox, pangolin, chital, olive ridley turtles, estuarian crocodiles and gangetic dolphins. Wildlife lovers looking to tour India should make the Sundarbans National Park a priority!

Goa Trance Parties
Although they won’t be on everybody’s list of highlights when taking a tour of India, Goa trance parties have reached legendary status. While you can now attend similarly themed events around the globe, you can’t beat heading to the source! Although nowadays it’s more common to find them centred around bars, rather than the beaches and forests that they were in their 1990s heyday. If you have the chance, heading there around new year brings the most bustling parties, with people from all walks of life joining the celebrations – from all over the world.

Valley of Flowers
One of the most beautiful places on the planet, the Valley of Flowers is located high in West Himalaya and boasts over 500 varieties of flower. The national park is only open between June and October (on account of it being snow covered for the rest of the year), but in this short window, the sheer beauty of the flora cannot be questioned. On top of this, the fauna is also fascinating, and the park is home to many types of animal – most notably the Himalayan black bear and the beautiful snow leopard.

Relax in Ladakh
Lying between the Kunlun mountain range to the north and the Himalayas to the south, this is one of the least populated regions in India. It’s renowned for its remote mountain beauty and there are few places in the world more tranquil. An absolute must to visit on your luxury holiday to India.

I could go on. The truth is that narrowing this list down to five things to do on a tour of India has been incredibly hard. Go take a luxury holiday in India yourself, and prepare to be amazed by the diversity of this wonderful country.

About the Author. Kieron Sellens. Kieron Sellens is the marketing manager of the Association of Independent Tour Operators (AiTO). With AITO’s selection of luxury Indian holidays you can tailor-make your dream itinerary.

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