India 101: How to Make the Most of Your First Trip

November 16, 2012, 5:54 AM

India 101: How to Make the Most of Your First Trip

By Jennifer Chen

Travel Well is a column for Scene covering Asia-Pacific travel tips and trends. Got a question about travel in the region? Email us or tweet @WSJscene.

I will be traveling with a friend to India (New Delhi, Agra, Jaisalmer and Jaipur) for two weeks in December. This will be my first trip there. Do you have any tips on what to pack? Our main goal is to experience the culture, but we’re also interested in history and adventure. We want to see the forts, walk through bazaars, ride camels, take an overnight train and visit the Taj Mahal. Any food recommendations would be wonderful, too. Finally, how do I filter through online hotel reviews—which ones are legitimate?

—Sara, Los Angeles

What to pack: December is a great time to visit northern India thanks to the dry weather and comfortable daytime temperatures in the 70’s Fahrenheit (20′s Celsius) for New Delhi and Jaipur. The mercury, however, can dip down to the 30’s Farenheit (below zero Celsius) at night, so think layers when packing and make sure to bring a few warm items. Ashish Sanghrajka, the president of Big Five Tours and an India travel expert, recommends breathable cotton clothing as the best way to deal with the fluctuating temperatures.Keep in mind that northern India is culturally conservative; it’s best to leave the mini-skirts and sleeveless tops at home. One suggestion from Mr. Sanghrajka: Consider adopting the shalwar kameez, the traditional, loose-fitting tunic-and-pants outfit made of lightweight cotton. They’re pretty, versatile and they help you fit in. “You see much more of the country when you are dressed to blend in,” he says.

Jonny Bealby, the founder of U.K.-based tour operator Wild Frontiers, advises clients heading to Rajasthan to bring a backpack, duffel bag or any soft-sided luggage. They’re easier to transport and store than a large suitcase with wheels. He also has a recommended packing list that includes gear (sunglasses, water bottle, flashlight and a bandana to keep out the dust) as well as a basic first-aid kit.

Staying healthy: Before your departure, talk to your doctor about your itinerary. He or she may suggest updating your vaccinations or other precautions. Though hygiene has improved in recent years, water-borne diseases are still a concern. “You should always use bottled mineral water, even for washing your teeth,” Mr. Bealby notes. “It is available everywhere and costs very little.”

Whether to use a guide: Unsurprisingly, the tour operators I spoke to all agree that as a first-time visitor, you should consider hiring a professional guide. India is a wonderful destination, but its traffic and crowds can overwhelm even a seasoned traveler. Depending on how far your budget stretches, you can opt for luxury outfits like Abercrombie & Kent and Cox & King’s, or a Delhi-based one. Among the more reputable Indian ones are Jaipur-based Four-Wheel Drive IndiaIcon India Tours and Royal India Holidays.

I prefer independent travel, but there have been occasions when I’ve regretted not using a tour operator. One way of having the best of both worlds is to book a half-day tour so you can get a feel for a city, and then spend the rest of your time there exploring on your own.

Sights: As to what to see—that’s a huge question. It sounds like you have the basics covered, but check out this insider’s guide to Jaipur from our India Real Time sister blog. Also, sign up for a dawn or dusk walking tour of Old Jaipur and consider spending a day on the Dera Amer Elephant Safari, which is a far cry from the touristy elephant rides at the Amber fort. In the capital, squeeze in a walk through Old Delhi, where you’ll find some of the city’s oldest religious sites, as well as colorful bazaars and Asia’s biggest spice market. Delhi Magic conducts walking tours of Old Delhi.

What to eat: As a lover of street food, it pains me to say this, but you might want to give the food stalls in Old Delhi a miss, just to be on the safe side. “Personally, I never eat at street stalls,” says Bob Watson, a veteran agent at Valerie Wilson Travel in New York. If you’re determined to eat like the locals, sign up for a tour with experts who know which stalls are clean and reliable, such as Delhi Food Adventures.

Hotel restaurants are always a safe bet, and in India, it’s where some of the best cuisine can be sampled. Mr. Sanghrajka raves about the Spice Route at the Imperial Hotel for its take on south Indian cuisine. In Agra, the biriyani at the Oberoi Amarvilas is worth the five-star price. For a splurge, dine in royal splendor at the Samode Palace outside of Jaipur. Rambagh Palace and the Oberoi Rajvilas are good options in town.

Where to stay: If the Taj Mahal or Aman in New Delhi are out of your price range, look into the Manor New Delhi, a 16-room boutique hotel that’s in the New Friends Colony suburb, or the Park New Delhi in more conveniently located Connaught Place. The Samode Haveli and Royal Heritage Haveli are two atmospheric stays in Jaipur that consistently get good reviews.

As for your question on the reliability of hotel reviews, that’s a topic that deserves its own column. Stay tuned.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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