India & Sri Lanka
From the Taj Mahal to Ranthambore National Park, from the Thar Desert of Rajasthan to the beautiful beaches of Matara, the people and places of India and Sri Lanka were breathtaking.
We began our journey along the streets and narrow alleyways of Old Delhi with a cycle rickshaw ride. It was a fascinating way to explore the markets and life of the people. We also visited Humayan's Tomb and the Sikh golden temple of Gurdwara Bangla Sahib. The Sikh people believe serving others is a sign of humility, and they shun egotism.
Lodi Gardens was a quiet respite from the sprawling city of New Delhi. And Mughal Gardens was in vibrant full bloom. We explored the Red Fort of Delhi as well. An added bonus was witnessing the training techniques of the muscular kushti wrestlers at the Guru Hanuman Akhara. We utilized the Delhi Metro to get around, and occasionally solicited the aid of a local tuk tuk (auto rickshaw) as well. We stayed at The Lalit - New Delhi, where the breakfast buffet was immense, and we received a free room upgrade!
“We also enjoyed the camel decoration competition at the Jaisalmer Desert Festival, where camels are adorned with colorful pompoms, beads, mirrors and even seashells!”
Next we journeyed by train to Arga, where we took in the stunning Taj Mahal at dusk and dawn. When we arrived at dawn we had the upper courtyard all to ourselves. The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1632, and completed in its entirety in 1653, by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The Red Fort of Agra was also very impressive with it's detailed and intricate red sandstone carvings. It was the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal dynasty until 1638, when the capital was moved from Agra to Delhi.
From Agra we again utilized the railway system to travel to Sawai Madhopur, home to Ranthambore National Park. We went on three separate tiger safaris, witnessing blue bull antelope, spotted deer, langur monkeys, peacocks, sambar deer, and even a glimpse of the elusive tiger. We also enjoyed a river boat ride down the Chambal where we spotted rare gharial crocodiles. We stayed at the scenic and peaceful Fateh's Retreat, where our host took great care of us.
We spent a night in Jaipur, where we went on a walking tour of the old town and market. Our tour consisted of the ︎New Gate, ︎Bapu Bazaar (fabric, shoes, perfumes), ︎Sanganeri Gate, ︎Johari Bazaar (jewelry), ︎LMB Hotel, ︎Jama Masjid, ︎Badi Chauper, ︎Tripolia Bazaar,︎ Jantar Mantar, ︎and the City Palace. I also got my first henna tattoo! And following a friend's advice, we visited the gorgeous and very photogenic Patrika Gate, built by the Rajasthan Patrika Group of Publications in 2016.
In Jaisalmer, we attended the Desert Festival, where we witnessed the most beautifully adorned Rajasthan women and men. We also enjoyed the camel decoration competition, where camels are covered in colorful pompoms, beads, mirrors and even seashells! Jaisalmer Fort, with its stunning Jain Temple, and Gadisar Lake were two additional highlights of the desert. We also went on a camel safari while we were there. We stayed at Hotel Fifu, richly adorned in traditional Rajasthan architecture and colors, and with a wonderful and charismatic host. We utilized SpiceJet airlines to fly from Jaipur to Jaisalmer.
In Colombo, Sri Lanka, we were able to witness a Hindu holiday at the Sri Ponnambalam Vanesar Kovil temple. We also enjoyed seeing the Gangaramaya Buddhist temple at night, and the red mosque of Jami Ul-Alfar Masjid. And the best place to shop for Sri Lankan handcrafted souvenirs was definitely at Laksala. The Lotus Tower would be a nice place to visit as well once it opens to the public. We lodged at the Taj Samudra.
We took a train from Colombo Fort down South to Matara, where we relaxed for a few days on the beautiful beaches at The Seascape hotel. Sunrise, sunsets, surfers, swimming, fresh coconut water, wonderful Sri Lankan cuisine, and nice long walks along the beach. We also spent a few days at Yala National Park, where we spotted asian elephants, crocodiles, spotted deer, monitor lizards, bee-eaters, langur monkeys, and all manner of bird life.
Our trip to India and Sri Lanka left us with many memories. We're so grateful for the opportunity to visit these beautiful countries, see their wildlife, and meet their people. We will truly never forget it.
While Winters in Utter Pradesh and Rajasthan may have sunshine and cooler temperatures, the air was thick with orange smoke and the aroma of burning fires. Symptoms of this poor air quality included eye irritation, nasal congestion, and a sore throat. While you will find trash on the streets in the larger cities and towns, the most problematic issue for us was the feral animal fecal matter. Cows, pigs, and dogs roam the streets freely, and deposit their droppings there as well.
Sri Lanka was infinitely cleaner, with no trash on the streets and no animal fecal matter. The air quality was also good.
We occasionally traveled by train. In India, it's a two-step process to be able to purchase train tickets online. First, you need to register an account on IRCTC (Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation). You'll be asked to verify your email address and mobile phone number. Make a note of your username and password, you'll need it in order to complete train ticket purchases. The second step is to register a new account on Cleartrip. This is where you'll purchase your tickets. Once you've created your account, sign in and select Trains. Enter your To and From information, Class (when in doubt just select AC First Class, you can select other options later), Date, and number of passengers. Once you've selected your train, you'll be taken through the purchasing process. This is where you'll need your IRCTC information.
In India we utilized the railway system to travel from New Delhi to Agra, and from Agra to Sawai Madhopur. The trains run late, anywhere from 30 minutes to 6 hours, so we used the Rail Radar mobile application to track them. There were hardly any foreigners at the railway stations. In fact, in most instances, there were none. While train tickets are relatively inexpensive, the unfamiliarity with the railway system appears to dissuade most foreigners. Most tourists hire a private taxi to get them around the country. We did this as well from Sawai Madhopur to Jaipur. It's more expensive than a train ticket, but also more comfortable and reliable. Flying is another option.
In Sri Lanka we took the train from Colombo Fort to Matara and back again. We purchased the AC 1st Class tickets, which only exist on their new, European style train. It was a very comfortable ride, with tons of legroom, reclining seats, and even window curtains. We purchased our tickets at the railway station for about 800 rupee ($4.40 USD) a piece each way. You can purchase tickets a week or two in advance.
Tuk tuks, or auto rickshaws, are relatively cheap, averaging 100 - 500 rupees (India $1.40 - $7 USD, Sri Lanka .55 to $2.75 USD) a ride. We would state our destination, try to ensure the driver knew where it was, and ask "How much?" before we entered their vehicle.
Some of the nicer hotels had sockets which accommodated both American and European power plugs. Almost everywhere accommodated the standard Indian/Sri Lankan rounded three-prong plug. One lodge in Sri Lanka only accommodated the older three-prong British power plugs.
Food and drink
We love Indian food and enjoy it consistently in Los Angeles! Following the advice of other travelers, we only ate at the hotels in India and Sri Lanka. We never had any issues with the food or illnesses from it. We were still able to sample a large variety of local dishes and delicacies. And we only drank bottled or filtered water.
At the New Delhi railway station (NDLS), a man approached us and asked to check our tickets. He stated that we had accidentally purchased local tickets when we should have purchased foreign tickets. The man instructed us to go to a foreigners ticket booth, which was closed but with a man standing in front of it, to exchange our tickets. The man standing in front of the booth stated we needed to go to an Internet cafe or kiosk to correct our ticketing error. However, once we boarded the train we discovered our tickets were actually fine. The ticketing agent just asked for our seat numbers and names and didn't even look at our tickets.
Children on the streets of the big tourist areas would also approach us, point to our shoes, and state "There's a problem with your shoe! Let me fix it for you." Needless to say we knew our shoes were fine.
In Sri Lanka, the only scams we ran into were tuk tuk drivers offering to give us a tour of Colombo. We politely declined each time. Also, along the Southern coast of Sri Lanka where the famous stilt fishermen are present, one offered to pose for us for 2000 rupees. We declined the offer, but could find no actual fishermen fishing that day. Money appears to trump morality, so just be weary of others trying to solicit rupees from you.