Back in 2014, I made a personal goal to visit the 7 wonders of the world before I die. It wasn’t until late last year I set about planning the first destination, Taj Mahal in Agra, India. To kick start this goal, I planned just so I would reach the steps of Taj Mahal on my birthday, 11th February 2017.
Planning a trip to India needs ample time, preferably 2-4 months in advance especially if you are on a backpacking trip or budgeting. Train bookings across cities and states start as early as 3 months and they get filled up fast. Visas are a pain to process and a rejection letter will not indicate why you were rejected, making you reapply and paying the administration fee again! You are better off booking hotels online as they are cheaper when you get deals from Booking.com or Agoda. You may get lucky with getting a good deal in India but most will jack up the price there.
Once the planning is done, the trip itself will pay off on its own. India’s sheer beauty and culture will blow your mind!
My route was Jaipur –> Jaisalmer –> Agra. Travelling in a group of six, we set off to Jaipur International Airport from Singapore. February’s weather is just about nice, ranging from 25 degrees during the day and 10 degrees at night.
Jaipur is the capital and largest city of the Indian state of Rajasthan in Northern India. Also known as the Pink City due to their distinctly earthy colored buildings, she is well known for her textiles, jewelry and pottery. Nestled within the Pink City sits their historical buildings and statues. Hawa Mahal is truly a sight to behold, the City Palace is intricate and majestic and the roads leading up to the various forts are filled with shopkeepers selling their handicrafts, delicious street foods and chai teas. Camels and elephants share the road with cars. Cows, goats, dogs and pigs are at home within the city while birds dramatize the skies at every monument. Although the road leading up to the ancient forts are long and winding, tuk-tuk drivers will stop you halfway to let you soak in the view of Jaipur from the hilltops.
For shopping, most shopkeepers will jack up the price to tourists so do be careful with your money. Tuk-tuk drivers will often bring you to their commissioned shops to make a quick buck and these are cash-drainers. Refuse them with a firm NO if you don’t intend to buy anything and haggle to bring it to an acceptable price if you do. Don’t forget to visit Bapu Bazaar! It is cheap and everything the city has to sell can be found here. The city of Jaipur takes 2-3 days to explore unless you take your time like me. I spent 5 days to soak in and learn the culture and people. All in all, Jaipur is a busy hub of traders that integrates perfectly between ancient buildings, crafts and modern people.
The highlight of my trip (apart from Taj Mahal) would be the city of Jaisalmer. Known as the Golden City, it lies in the heart of Thar Desert. We hired a car from Jaipur that took us 9 hours. One thing to note is to never drive yourself in India as their roads are chaotic and drivers have this obsession to keep their hands continuously pressing the car horns. Upon reaching, we made our way to our inn, Desert Boys Guesthouse in Jaisalmer Fort. Again, cheap and fantastic themed rooms.
Jaisalmer’s architecture is amazing. Jaisalmer Fort is literally a life-sized sandcastle and is lit up dramatically at night. Made out of sandstone, every single building is a work of art with intricate details. We were lucky to experience the Cleaning Jaisalmer Festival – candles were lit up at every corner of Jaisalmer Fort – and the Desert Festival when we were there.
Spending the night in Thar Desert amongst the sand dunes completed the desert experience as we rode camels to our campsite, got treated to a folk dance by the locals and had our meals cooked on campfire. Shopping in Jaisalmer is extremely cheap and exotic. Silk shawls, kurtas, crafted bags, camel leather books/shoes and colorful sarees will fill your luggage and we spent a great deal on souvenirs for friends here.
If you are game for an adventure, take a ride on their sleeper bus when travelling between cities! I did just that and what an experience it turned out to be. Although pricier, book the upper deck as it ensures your seat will not be shared and cramped with 3-5 other passengers. The ride was a full 24 hours, interchanging at Jaipur and allowing you to see sights you don’t normally see from planes, cars and trains.
Reaching Agra at 6pm, I got a glimpse of my birthday treat, Taj Mahal! Looming over the horizon, its beauty from far is surreal. We had our dinner and walked around the hotel area for a bit to familiarize with the place. Our hotel was 600m away from the entrance to Taj so we prepared ourselves for a treat the next day.
What can I say, Taj Mahal lives up to its expectations and more and the best birthday gift I gifted myself. Its majesty and beauty is overwhelming and I can see why it is called a Monument of Love. Built between 1631 and 1648 by order of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife Mumtaz Mahal, it is made of white marble and adorned with precious stones and minerals. Of course, behind every history is another side of the story, or “her-story”. Did you know some groups insist Taj Mahal was originally a temple and Emperor Shah Jahan converted it into a mausoleum and mosque after his conquest? Or that construction of the Taj was impossible until four brothers prayed to God everyday during construction from the four corners of the minarets to drive away the water Djinns, blessing the area and died as soon as the building was completed? A shopkeeper from Kashmir told us to explore the surrounding areas to search for evidence of these theories.
Leaving India back to Singapore left a longing desire to want to return and explore more of India’s secrets.
There is a saying that visitors to India will either love or hate this experience. Indeed, India is a place I love for her beauty, people, cultures and colors. My advice for travelling to India (or all trips for that matter) is to leave behind what you have in your country and visit India with an open mind without expectations. For sure, this will be a spiritually moving trip.
To safe and wonderful travels!