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It is almost unfair to consider India as one country. As you move from state to state, you’ll realise that each one has its own unique culture, cuisine and language. What this means is that the diversity found here is almost unrivalled by most continents, let alone other countries.
From the flapping Buddhist prayer flags draped across the villages of the Nubra Valley, to the waves lapping at the feet of Hindu worshippers along the palm-tree-lined Kerelan coastline, India is full of intoxicating contrast.
India’s sheer size and variety can be overwhelming, but this means that there’s something for all tastes. Bordered by the peaks of the Himalayas to the north, the deserts of the Middle East to the West, the Indian Ocean to the South and the jungles of South East Asia to the east, all of these influences tumble into this country and blend together to form one of the most unique and absorbing cultures you are likely to find. Open yourself up to India and its wealth of experiences and it will repay a thousand times over. Your first trip to India will not likely be your last and your second may well be the beginning of a lifelong addiction to the tantalising anomaly.
Here are some of our favourite locations throughout this unique part of the world:
1. Fort Barli
Nestled between the two great Rajasthani cities of Jaipur and Udaipur, Fort Barli offers a glimpse into a different side of the great desert state, while giving a deeper understanding of its history.
The village of Barli is small and less visited, allowing you to see the rural side of Rajasthan as you watch street-sellers drive their wares through the narrow streets on ox-drawn carts. It has a very authentic feel, making it easier to meet local people, while taking a look at day to day life in its schools, pottery studios and temples.
Just because this village is off the tourist trail doesn’t mean that you need to worry about the level of accommodation. The descendant of the Barli Raj (Barli Rule) has restored the historic fort around which the village is based to a heritage hotel, making it the perfect place to break up the journey between some of the more well-known sights in the area.
2. Ranthambore National Park
Watching (and photographing) a tiger as it prowls through the ruins of a 1,000-year-old fort at the edge of a vast lake is the dream scenario. But believe it or not, Ranthambore has so much more to offer! One of India’s largest national parks, it is also home to gazelles, leopards, sloth bears, deer and crocodiles, as well as over 300 different bird species. Its location between Agra and Jaipur makes it the perfect stop between the two and with only a certain number of vehicles allocated to each zone, it ensures it never feels overcrowded.
While here, you can head out on a sunrise and a sunset safari, either by canter (up to 20 people) or a more private shared jeep (maximum 6 people). The option to stay in luxury tented accommodation just outside of the park means you’ll get to fully immerse yourself in the area and surrounding nature.
As you ascend the winding road from the flat plains of West Bengal and head up its northerly emerald hills, you get the feeling that you’re in for treat. As the views get more impressive, the jewel at the top does not disappoint. You turn the final bend and see before you the colourful buildings of Darjeeling cascading down the hillside towards the tea plantations below – oh yes, it’s well worth the journey.
Once you’ve settled and had time to explore the city, Buddhist influences and views over Khangchendzonga (the third highest peak in the world), you’ll realise why many people describe this as ‘the definitive hill station’ and why it was so popular with the British Raj.
If incredible views are your thing, then you are in the right place. Here you’ll find local lookouts at both Tiger and Observatory Hill. What’s more, Darjeeling is also the perfect jump-off point to head further north into Sikkim, to delve deeper into its Buddhist culture and get closer to its snow-capped peaks.
4. Kerelan backwaters
Sitting on the open deck of a traditional rice barge, watching the ripples in the water lap at the edge of a small coconut tree-lined cashew farm is, to many people, the highlight of their whole trip to India. It’s a relaxing and immersive experience and, if you have the time, we’d recommend spending two nights exploring the 900km worth of lush green waterways. In fact, the longer you spend on the water, the further you can retreat from ‘normal’ life and the better sense you’ll get for the life the locals are able to preserve in this beautiful part of the world.
The curvaceous, elegant houseboats take your breath away when you first lay eyes on them and once you are on board, you’ll fully understand the treat you are in for as they are equipped better than most hotels.
The food is also an unforgettable experience, especially when you take into account the kitchen is no larger than an aeroplane toilet! Regardless, you’re guaranteed to be fed a feast fit to grace the table of any palace in India.
5. The foothills of the Himalayas
This fascinating region perfectly symbolises the levels of diversity that can be enjoyed when journeying through India. Beginning in Amritsar and heading to Dharamsala you can take in the seat of two major religions at the Golden Temple (Sikhism) and perhaps even a public teaching by the Dalai Lama (Buddhism). After this, it’s worth heading to Shimla; a favourite summer capital of the British Raj, home to a mix of catholic churches and Hindu temples. Heading further east to Rishikesh, you’ll find the birthplace of yoga, where you can find peace at one of its countless yoga retreats or ashrams. Bar their reasonable proximity to one another, the thing that will bond all of these experiences are the beautiful backdrops of colourful rolling hills. If more mountains are calling, you can venture a bit further north and eventually be rewarded with some of the most famous snow-capped peaks in the world.
Meaningful travel in India
India is a country where the more you open yourself up to it, the more you’ll get back; smile (or give a little head wobble) at the family on the train as they stare at you and don’t be surprised if, after they smile back, they offer you some of their food and want to find out more about you. One of the legacies of the British Raj for a traveller in India is that such a large percentage of the population speak English. In fact, even those who don’t will still do their best to interact with you if you give them the opportunity to do so.
This, coupled with the mantra throughout India that ‘guest is God,’ you’ll soon find that India opens itself up to you in the most unique of ways.
For even more India travel tips, head to our travel guide below.