How to survive India while backpacking and have an awesome time!

Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India

Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh, India

Oh India…the pot of gold at the end of the spice route, known for delicious food, sacred gods and Bollywood. Such an interesting and friendly country but for those who don’t know what to expect, India can be a huge culture shock from our comfy western ways. Never fear! Here are a few tips on backpacking through India, actually surviving, and having an AWESOME time!

1. Bring an antidote to the dreaded “Delhi belly”

I don’t know the exact statistic but out of all the people I know that visited India, 90% of them have had stomach problems while there (the other 10% were either from India and somehow grew immunity which seems like a scientific enough explanation OR they have been feeding their stomachs disgusting food for years so it was a walk in the park. I belong in the latter – all those years of greasy Chinese food and late night McDonalds visits finally paid off!)

For the rest of the 90%, the best way to combat stomach problems is precaution and drugs! And no, I don’t mean illegal drugs. I mean the talk to your doctor and get a prescription kind of drugs. I went to see my trusty travel doctor in Canada and he suggested that I don’t take Dukoral because it wouldn’t help in India. Instead, I was told to stay away from drinking tap water, bring along anti-diarrhea medicine (Immodium) and received a prescription for trusty ciprofloxacin which is an antibiotic taken after the initial signs of Delhi belly (i.e. diarrhea). I didn’t need to take the cipro in India but my friend and travel buddy, Mike, swears by ciprofloxacin when he took it and regained his appetite after losing 10 lbs in a week-long battle with the toilet. Trust me, even the strongest and healthiest get sick in India. Just ask Mike – all it took to take him out of commission was one dirty train ride.

2. There will be people EVERYWHERE.

The country’s population is over 1.2 billion and all of that is squeezed into around 3,287,263 square kilometres – that’s approx. 371 people per square kilometre which means yes, there will be lots of people and yes, they will be everywhere that you want to be. Instead of stressing out about how congested the streets are or getting pushed around in a train, just sit back, relax and enjoy the symphony and theatre show that is before you.

The best way to conquer it is to join in on the fun. Mike and I quickly learned that crossing 8 lanes of traffic is a lot easier when there are 50 other jaywalking buddies beside you. We played the game of count how many schoolchildren they can fit onto one bike rickshaw (the number to beat was 13 by the way) instead of turning on the TV while enjoying our morning chai tea. The intense density of the country only adds to the buzz and will make you even more grateful when you eventually get a patch of sand that you can claim as your own to wiggle your toes in.

3. Queuing is an art.

Queuing (or lining up for us North Americans) does not really exist in India. It’s more of an elaborate dance of wits and patience. Don’t be surprised if you are touching the person in front of you in line and same thing for your suddenly very friendly neighbour behind you. This is to prevent anyone else from slipping in between or any type of budding (front bud, back bud, switchbacks etc). However, none of this actually makes a difference because it’s all about commanding the attention of the person behind the counter – think of a super busy club bar but a thousand times worse and on crack. Whether it’s buying a ticket at a train station, queuing to see the Taj Mahal or lining up to buy water, it all comes down to an art.

I suggest you come up with a plan because here’s one place where western manners and etiquette will not make a difference in service quality. Mike and I devised a very clever and effective method. Due to my smaller, ninja-like size, I would squeeze my way into any small opening at the counter and Mike, being double my size, 6ft 100 inches tall and sporting a very threatening beard, would put both of his burly arms out straight and rest his hands on the counter surrounding me in a protective shield and allowing me to shout at the person behind the counter. This helped tremendously as Mike’s main responsibility was to prevent people from sneaking in so I could focus on our primary task of buying Micky D’s vanilla ice cream cones.

4. Bargain everything.

You know how you always wonder if you’re being ripped off while in a foreign place? Well in India, that answer is always yes. The fabric of Indian consumerism was built on bargaining so everyone knows that the listed price is not the real price. You can bargain taxi rides, hotel rates, souvenirs, heck, you can even bargain internet cafe rates. The key is not to get the lowest price possible but to get to a price that you’re comfortable with paying while keeping your dignity. Some people are masters of the bargain and can put on a bluff worthy of an Oscar. Others can’t hide how much they want something and give in at the earliest sign of defeat. It doesn’t matter if your rickshaw ride was double what your bus seat neighbour paid, you’re comfortable with what you paid and didn’t get spat on. I would call that a win.

My general rule of thumb is to ask for the price, think about it and come up with a maximum price you’re willing to pay. Then counter offer with 50% of the asking price. If you think they quoted something ridiculously high, 20-30% of that will put them in their place. Act like you can walk away with it (even though we all know we can’t walk away from pashminas and wood-carved statues of Ganesh). Never get angry and always be polite and courteous. This is all part of the game so instead of being insulted, look at it as a challenge.

5. Last but not least, just take a deep breath and relax.

India can be stressful – you’ll get lost in alleyways, transportation will take twice as long as you originally planned, and you will be side-stepping cow, dog, chicken, goat and buffalo poop in flip-flops – but just take a minute to pause and remember, you’re in frickin’ INDIA! How awesome is that?!

For all the stress and hectic days, India has so many beautiful and unique things to offer. Don’t let the little, unfamiliar details ruin your trip and if anything, these stressful moments will all turn into great party stories at home. Just ask me about the time I was dragged onto a movie train by a crowd of people or woken up by kids yelling and trying to feed an elephant that was dodging traffic in the narrow streets. That’s India for ya!

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Essentials for a comfy trip

Yes, you can rough the backpacking trip and only bring 1 change of clothes and a Swiss Army knife like Bear Grylls on Man vs. Wild but if you have the extra cash and prefer some comforts to backpacking, there are some items that will make a huge difference but not weigh down your bag.  Most of these items can be found at the drug store, Walmart, bartering with friends or for those Canadians out there, Mountain Equipment Co-op.

  • Ear plugs – to drone out a noisy hostelers, fighting geckos, snoring bed mate
  • Quick-dry towel – when you don’t have time to properly dry your towel or if you’re visiting humid places, this is a must to keep your towel bacteria and odour-free.  I have the Adventure Towl which has lasted me 3 backpacking trips so far.
  • Travel wipes – shower replacement, wipe your hands, face, butt (although hopefully not all with the same one)
  • Laundry detergent – just bring a small travel-sized bottle to wash your clothes along the way
  • Sink stopper – you’ll have to eventually wash your clothes (at least underwear) so you’ll need to plug the sink.  This will make any sink your personal washing machine.  Find one that’s a flat mat to fit most sinks.
  • Swiss Army knife or Leatherman multi-tool – I joked about this above but it is very handy to have in case you need to cut anything, open beer bottles, measure something? (why is there always a ruler?!)
  • Head lamp – if you’re going to be doing any camping or be in areas with no electricity, there’s nothing worse than going to bathroom in the dark.  Check out this awesome head lamp!
  • Hostel sheet/sleeping bag liner – this is a MUST to prevent getting bit by bed bugs! You can either buy one or sew a bedsheet in half (very easy instructions here)
  • Plastic and Ziploc bags – these will make it easier to find and pack your things since everything is compartmentalized (i.e. put all your clothes in one bag, toiletries in another, shoes in another etc.), also used to put wet bathing suits, shoes or laundry

As always, open for suggestions so please suggest anything you found that was helpful on your trip!

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The wonderful world of showers

Away with the Fairies Hostel, Hogsback, South Africa

I’ll be the first to admit, although I’m not a dirty-hippie, dreadlocked and black-footed typical backpacker, my hygiene level does significantly decrease while travelling.  Frolics in the ocean become relaxing baths and baby wipes become a must-needed 2 minute shower.  Running water and private bathrooms are luxury amenities and for some, backpacker showering may be horribly unappealing.  But for those of us who can turn a blind eye (or for those of us who don’t wear our glasses or contact lenses while showering), bath time becomes a novelty item much like kitschy souvenirs. So in order to navigate the path to cleanliness, here is a guide to showers across the world! Feel free to leave your experiences or advice in the comments below.

Mandi

Found in: Indonesia and Malaysia
What the?! (a.k.a. how to use):
 A mandi is a traditional bathing technique involving 2 containers of water – a large bucket and a smaller scoop.  Simply scoop water from the large bucket using the smaller scoop, pour the water on yourself and voilà,  a shower! Make sure you don’t contaminate the large bucket with any dirty body run-off water because that may be the only water you’ll get that day.  Typical drainage is a hole in the ground and if you’re in a more modern facility, instead of a large bucket, you may find a spigot to fill your scoop with fresh water.
Tips:

  • Wash your hands first, that’s your sponge/loofah and no one likes a dirty sponge.
  • Girls, wash your hair by flipping your head over, it’s easier this way to get shampoo out with the small scoops of water.
  • If you’re using a mandi with freezing cold water in freezing cold weather (like half way up the 2329m Mount Bromo in Indonesia), don’t worry the shivering and shaking will stop eventually after wrapping yourself in layers of blankets and curling into the fetal position.

Shower Over Toilet
Found in: 
cramped bathrooms and fancy train bathrooms. I’ve encountered it mostly in South East Asia.
What the?! (a.k.a. how to use):
A shower over the toilet is similar to regular western showers except that the shower head is directly over or very near to the toilet.  There is no separate area or bathtub so drainage is again probably just a hole in the ground.
Tips:

  • Water will go everywhere so put your towels, clothes and toiletries far away from your shower area.
  • Put the toilet seat cover down, there’s something gross and uncomfortable about sitting down on a wet toilet seat the next time you need to go.
  • Remove the toilet paper from the showering vicinity.  What’s worse than a wet toilet seat? Wet toilet paper.

Electric Hot Water Shower Heater
Found in: 
anywhere without a hot water tank.  This is one shower that doesn’t discriminate based on geography  – I’ve encountered these in India, Japan, Europe, Hong Kong and South Africa.
What the?! (a.k.a. how to use):
An electric hot water shower heater looks like an electrical fuse box mounted on the wall of the shower near the shower head with pipes coming in and out of it.  It normally has a switch, knob or dial (depending on how fancy the heater is) and/or indicator lights to show that the water is sufficiently heated. Simply flip on the switch/turn the knob or dial to your preferred temperature and wait until the electrical coils inside the panel heat up the water to a lukewarm or scaling hot temperature (for you hot water shower sadists).
Tips:

  • Planning and preparation is key here! Make sure you turn on the heater in advance of your shower or else the water may not be heated until you’re halfway through the “repeat” of lather, rinse, repeat.

Nature’s Shower
Found in: approximately 75% of the Earth’s surface in the form of oceans, lakes, seas, rivers, ponds, creeks etc.
What the?! (a.k.a. how to use): Jump in and enjoy! Don’t do one of those teeter by the edge gently splashing water on your body with your hand moves.  Most likely, you’ll either fall in or some jerk friend will push you in.  Then you’ll just get mad and ruin your showering experience.
Tips:

  • Make sure you’re aware of what’s around you and the local customs before you strip down to your birthday suit.  You don’t want to be perved-on or worse, offend anyone with your pasty body.
  • Try to not use any soap at all but if you must, use environmentally-friendly soap.  You’re already contaminating the water with your grime, the fish don’t need the sodium laureth sulfate, citric acid and methylchloroisothiazolinone also.

Baby/Travel/Make-up Wipes
Found in: your bag.  Baby wipes or travel wipes or make-up wipes (or cloths) can be purchased at grocery stores, convenience stores, drug stores etc.
What the?! (a.k.a. how to use): Wipes can be used if there is no source of clean-ish water nearby.  This often occurs after long bus/train/plane rides or in remote locations.  A showipe (see how I did that? clever, right?) may seem gross but when you’ve been sitting in an 8-hour bus ride in front of a man holding a live chicken with the windows down on a dirt road in 35C, 95% humidity weather (yes, that actually happened in Kenya), a refreshing, slightly moist, cloth is your saviour! Usually, I can get away with using 2-3 wipes before I feel comfortably clean.  Note, you can’t possibly clean every spot on your dirty body with just wipes but all you need to target are the essentials – face, armpits, hands, neck, nether regions.
Tips: 

  • If you’re not allergic, use scented wipes which can mask BO and act as a nice perfume/cologne.
  • Save costs on buying bulk and keep things light in your day pack/bag by separating a few into ziplock bags to keep in your day pack.

So there it is! A starter’s guide to the wonderful world of showers.  Happy showering!

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Guide to island hopping in the Gulf of Thailand

Haad Khuad/Bottle Beach, Thailand

Islands hopped: Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao

Duration: 2 weeks (May 2008)

Sawadee! (that means Hello! in Thai by the way)

Here is a guide to the islands in the Gulf of Thailand.  So why did I pick the islands in the Gulf of Thailand instead of  the more glamourous Koh Phi Phi or Phuket on the Andaman Islands side? Simply said, mother nature.  Depending on what time of the year you go, either the east or west side of southern Thailand will experience their monsoon season.  On the west coast (or the Andaman Islands), it often rains from April through to October.  On the east side where I visited, it rains mostly between September and December.

I didn’t have enough time to stay at different beaches on each island so I picked one beach on each island after doing some research in advance.  Do research which beaches to stay at depending on what type of experience you want.  Check out this site on a guide to Thailand’s beaches.  With the shear number of beaches and what each have to offer, you can spend weeks on the islands and have plenty of stories to tell your jealous friends back home!

Koh Samui – Chaweng Beach

  • Beach: I picked Chaweng Beach because it is the most developed beach on the Koh Samui and I wanted to be able to experience a mix of tourism and seclusion.  The beach was perfect – white sand and clear blue water.  There’s also enough shade from the palm trees to get away from the strong sun.
  • Accommodation: Jungle Club in Chaweng Beach.  I found this place online through sawadee.com and picked it because of it’s location away from the busy beaches of Chaweng.  Jungle Club is like a posh resort but at backpacker prices – the grounds are beautiful, well maintained and the staff are super friendly.  I stayed in the Jungle Hut which was very new and clean.  The restaurant opens out to a breathtaking mountain top view and there are plenty of places to chill (for example, in the gazebos perched on the edge of the mountain complete with plush pillows and lanterns or the sun chairs surrounding the infinity pool on the mountain edge!).  The staff are very friendly and welcoming and they definitely go out of their way to make you feel at home.  Travelfish.org and sawadee.com have lots of places to stay listed.  If you’re looking for more relaxation and peace/quiet, stay away from the main Beach Road area and out of Chaweng Beach where there is a definite party atmosphere.
  • Activities: beach and sun, do I have to say any more? Chaweng Beach is beautiful but more touristy than most beaches.  But then again, Koh Samui is more touristy than its neighbouring islands Koh Tao and Koh Phangan.  Beach Road, which is the main road that runs behind the beach, is especially busy with many tourist agencies, sunglasses stores, restaurants, bars/cafes and “Armani” suit shops.  Word of caution though: I doubt the store “Armane” which sells “Armani” suits is real.
  • Transportation: flew into Koh Samui from Penang, Malaysia via Firefly airlines.  A very convenient way to get to the islands from the mainland or from other islands is with Lomprayah High Speed Ferries.  This is the most popular company operating between the islands and the mainland.  They are very organized and a convenient way to go island hopping.  Since Jungle Club is perched on the top of a mountain, a 4×4 jeep is the only mode of transportation from the town below.  Within the town itself, it’s very easy to find songthaews, especially along Beach Road.  These go short and longer distances and are the cheapest way to get around (cheap as in less than $1).  If you don’t feel like finding/bargaining your own transportation, most accommodations can arrange transportation to and from the airport and the ferry dock (to get to other islands).
  • Food: Most resorts and places to stay have their own restaurants which have a variety of Thai and continental cuisine items on their menus (depending on the place) .  There are also multiple cafes along Beach Road which serve a mean mango shake.

Koh Phangan – Bottle Beach/Haad Khuad

  • Beach: I highly recommend staying at Bottle Beach for anyone visiting Koh Phangan or the Gulf of Thailand islands for that matter.  It is very secluded since it’s only accessible by long tail boat and has a sense of community since everyone knows each other. Walking down the beach, you’ll be greeted by name by locals and tourists alike.  As for the beach itself, the water is very shallow so good for wading around but be careful of the rocks.
  • Accommodation: Haad Khuad Resort (or more affectionately called Bottle Beach 3) in Bottle Beach.  There are 4 places to stay along the beach – three creatively called Bottle Beach 1, Bottle Beach 2 and..you guessed it…Bottle Beach 3 and are all owned by the same family.  The fourth place to stay is Smile Bungalows which is on the west end of the beach.  All are clean and have a range of accommodation from thatch huts that almost touch the water to larger 2 bedroom cottages further away from the beach.  I picked Haad Khuad Resort just because it was the newest one but walking around, they all seemed the same.
  • Activities: I’m a beach bum so of course, I just relaxed on the beach most days.  There’s also another nearby beach which you can hike to but be warned: make sure you stay on the path or else it’s very easy to get lost in the jungle (I did, which in hindsight is a funny story but at the time was pretty scary).  You should also have some cash on you because there’s a man who charges 20 Baht to cross through his land on the mountain which the path does.  At night in Bottle Beach, it’s a very different story! Each night, there is a poi fire show on the beach with dancers and drunk tourists who think they’re fire dancers.  You can also take part of the communal lighting of paper lanterns and drinking out of the communal plastic bucket of liquor (you do get your own straw though, we’re not savages here!).  And then there’s the Full Moon Party which Koh Phangan is famous for.  I’m not going to go into the details of what this is since I’ve heard and experienced too many crazy unbelievable stories to count so if you don’t know about it, just google it.
  • Transportation: The best way to get to Koh Phangan is via a high speed ferry.  Lomprayah (see Transportation section for Koh Samui above) is the most popular choice.  You can get around the island either by long tail boat, songthaews, taxis or by scooters (but be careful, the number of tourist deaths per year by scooter accidents is alarming).  It all depends on what your budget is and how adventurous you are!
  • Food: All four places to stay on Bottle Beach also have their own restaurant which serve delicious Thai food and ice cold drinks.  All the places are about the same in terms of quality of food so my suggestion is to try all 4 places.  Also, don’t forget to get an ice cold Singha while you’re lounging on the beach.

Koh Tao – Haad Sai Daeng

  • Beach: I picked Haad Sai Daeng after looking through Travelfish’s guide to accommodation.  It is less busy than most of the beaches in Koh Tao and the one thing that attracted me was their close proximity to Shark Island where you can scuba dive with reef sharks.  There are only 2 resorts in Haad Sai Daeng so it is very peaceful.
  • Accommodation: Coral View Resort.  The resort consists of multiple island huts and villas tucked in a little cove along the water.  I stayed in the Traditional Island Hut which was rustic and still very clean but not as spotless as the huts on the other islands.  If you have the cash and are sensitive to noises (especially from crickets and geckos), splurge for the villas.  The main positive was the dive center – Coral View Divers.  The dive instructors are all very friendly and the groups are small so it’s more personalized.  In fact, I was the only student with the Dive Master, Robert, who was super nice and patient since it was my first time scuba diving.
  • Activities: Diving, diving, diving! Koh Tao is known as one of the best places in the world to dive so if you have the chance, go diving! Most resorts have their own Dive Center who can arrange everything for you.  They offer a variety of courses and dives ranging from those who have never dived before to pro-star divers.  If you’re still uneasy going scuba diving, you can also see lots just by snorkeling.  Most resorts can either arrange a snorkel trip for you or rent out snorkel gear so you can swim around to your little hearts desire.
  • Transportation: Coral View was very helpful in arranging transportation for me after being herded off the Lomprayah ferry from Koh Phangan.  There was a driver waiting for me at the pier holding a sign with my name on it even though I never told them what time I would be arriving.  I can’t comment on getting around the island because I mostly stayed in Haad Sai Daeng and got around on foot.
  • Food: Delicious as usual.  The green curry at the restaurant inside my resort was amazing! And as always, accompanied by a mango shake.  The view from the restaurant also drew in tourists who weren’t even staying at the resort.  There are lots of places to eat around the pier in town which serve a variety of food if you’re all Pad Thai-ed out.

So there it is, a quick guide to the islands in the Gulf of Thailand! For more information, don’t forget to check out travelfish.org or look through the many travel guidebooks out there (my personal fav is Lonely Planet)!

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