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Tips on travelling to India from Philippa Griggs

Philippa was born with the wanderlust gene, and is always looking for the next exciting destination to explore. Nothing makes her happier than travelling the world, and her favourite country, the one she keeps coming back to, is India.

To read more about Philippa's travel adventures check out her blog: 

What are your favourite things about India?

It is hard to choose just one thing. I love that the spirituality is palpable. It's everywhere - from the ginormous religious statues of different gods, to the whiff of temple incense blowing in the wind, to the colourful shrines that every taxi or rickshaw driver has on his dashboard. You can't escape it.

I love that you can sit next to a complete stranger at a bus stop, and in five minutes, you've discussed, at length, life, death, reincarnation and karma, knowing that you will never see them again, but feeling like you've made a life-long friend.

I love that I can find beauty in everything in India - sometimes it is difficult not to take your finger off the shutter button of your camera. India is a photographer's dream! The interesting people, the beautiful landscapes, the intensity of colour and texture all beg to be captured.

The food of India is also most definitely a highlight. Don't be afraid! I prefer to eat in the local dhaba 'snack bars' and restaurants, so I can taste authentic Indian cuisine. Once you try, you'll never go back. The spices and flavours literally dance around in your mouth.

Where would you send a first time visitor in India?

Definitely to the south of the country. I always find southern India more user friendly. The locals speak more English, the transport systems work quite well, the food is fresher as they utilise local ingredients like fish and coconuts, you can swim to escape the heat, and generally things feel a lot more relaxed.

A nice place to start would be the beautiful state of Kerala, and the colonial, artsy city of Kochi. In Kerala, you can peruse art galleries, cruise the backwaters on traditional, handmade houseboats, go on safari at the numerous wildlife sanctuaries, lose yourself in the high mountain tea plantations of Munnar, or relax by the cliff-backed beaches of Varkala.

If you want to amp things up a little, then you'd better head to the state of Goa. In Goa, anything is possible. There are a variety of watersports to enjoy, including scuba diving and paragliding, and courses in yoga and reiki. The shopping is great and eclectic, the local food is to die for, you can ride your scooter from beach to beach, and there are enough beaches for everyone if you wish to party the night away.

What are your favourite places and attractions in India?

Leh and Ladakh - with its moon-like landscape - is a high altitude hiker's paradise. Visit the numerous Buddhist monasteries in the region, unbelievably built into the sides of mountains, and the colourful Buddhist Stupa's dotted around town.

Rishikesh, dubbed 'the yoga capital of the world', is an easy going traveller haven, where foreigners come to learn yoga and meditation in a local ashram or guesthouse. The region also makes the best apple samosas in all of India.

The famous Agra, where it is best to hire yourself a guide and visit the breathtaking Taj Mahal. Its history sounds like something you would hear in a story book, but it really is quite magical and an attraction in India that is not to be missed.

Varanasi, where you should take a sunrise boat paddle up the Ganges River to experience this colourful, holy city at its finest. Don't miss the nearby village of Sarnath, an important Buddhist site, where Buddha delivered some of his first readings.

Is there good infrastructure for tourists in India?

Infrastructure is improving in India, but at a slow pace. Roads, public transportation, reliable electricity, and clean public toilets are not a strong point, and are sub-standard compared to most countries. At times it can be risky and uncomfortable, but use your common sense, have no expectations, and remember this is India.

What is the best means of transport in India?

I like to take the train. I think it is the most scenic and easiest way to travel in India. Once you have your ticket, you are assigned your own seat or berth, and you can relax and enjoy the ride. There is also an extensive bus system throughout India. The buses vary considerably in age and condition, but you can find an Indian 'deluxe' air-conditioned bus to most major destinations. In cities and towns you can use the convenient rickshaws to get around, though the journey can be hair-raising and rickshaws are best only for short rides.

How safe is India for tourists?

I have never felt unsafe in India; however, it is really important that you respect the local customs, and that you exercise general common sense and judgement. Women should cover legs and shoulders with loose clothing, and it is a good idea to carry a scarf or shawl to cover up. In beach areas like Goa, things are a lot more relaxed, but it is still advisable to cover up if you're heading through a local village on your way home. There are lots of stories about tourist scams, so make sure you always confirm your hotel and train bookings, and don't let anyone ever convince you that your hotel is full or has burnt down. Just be aware, and follow your instincts.

What are your favourite meals in India?

I love Bhel Puri. It is a savoury snack, originating from Mumbai. It is made out of crispy puffed rice, tomatoes and onions with a mint/coriander/tamarind/date chutney. It is delicious and cheap. I also love the masala dosa you get in the south of India. The dosa is like a fermented rice flour crepe, and it is stuffed full of spiced potatoes and onions, served with sambal and a selection of different chutneys. And you can't miss out on trying a thali when you are in India. It is a stainless steel plate, with several different compartments, that hold different delicacies like dal, rice, vegetables, roti, curd and chutney.

Are there any parts of the country you would tell travellers to avoid?

If you are planning to visit somewhere on the borders of Pakistan you should do some research and exercise caution. I've never had a problem in India, but talk to other travellers on the road and listen to the advice of locals.

What are the best souvenirs to buy in India?

It is hard trying not to buy everything! I usually like to stock up on handmade, recycled paper journals, silver jewellery, semi-precious stones, hand embroidered/beaded cushion covers and bedspreads, sarongs, cashmere pashmina shawls, incense and books.

How long would you recommend people spend in India on holiday?

It takes a little while to understand the rhythm of India and the way things work. Things generally take longer in India, from buying a train ticket, to ordering a coffee. For a first time visit, three to four weeks would be a nice introduction.

How expensive is India as a travel destination?

India is a fantastically economical country to travel to. Generally, meals, accommodation and local transport are really cheap. Staying in local guesthouses or beach huts is often the cheapest option, and travelling by train can also save money. Food is extremely inexpensive and delicious. As a rule, if you are eating at Western-style restaurants, things are more expensive.

You can explore India on an extremely tight budget, or choose to splash out a little and enjoy its luxurious side. India can fit the bill for all budgets.

When is the best time to visit India?

It really depends where you want to travel. India has three distinct seasons: the hot, the wet (monsoon), and the cool. Generally it is most pleasant to visit from November to March, although the climate varies hugely from north to south. It starts to become quite hot and uncomfortable from April onwards, until the start of the monsoon in June, when things get really humid. When the monsoon ends in October, it is a comfortable time to visit the north and the south, but from November to January it can start to get really cold in the far north.

To read more about Philippa's travel adventures check out her blog: