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Backpacking India: Overland Travel from Kerala to Punjab

Are you thinking about backpacking India? There is SO much to see and do within the country! From tropical beaches, magnificent mountains and desert landscapes, to posh metropolitan cities and spiritual temples – India has it all.

How do I even describe such a special place?

It has this mysterious and enticingly exotic charm to it. It’s bold and chaotic, marching to the beat of it’s own drum. It is diverse, culturally rich and spiritually awakened. The vibrant sights and sounds captivate and overwhelm the senses – It can be infatuating and infuriating all at the same time. It’s the kind of place that will test your patience and your character; it will open your eyes and challenge your beliefs; it’s a place where comfort zones dissipate and life lessons are unveiled…and to top it off, just when you think you’ve begun to figure it out, India will blow your mind all over again.

Backpacking India:

I spent three months backpacking India solo by land, from Trivandrum (Kerala) to Amristar (Punjab). It is completely possible to do this independent of a tour group or guide, and to travel solo as a female.

Backpacking India

This guide is a loose itinerary and resource for you to help plan your backpacking trip. If you have more or less time then 3 months, simply use this article as inspiration  and modify it to meet your needs! I also always recommend Lonely Planet as a useful planning tool for new travellers, or those less familiar with backpacking logistics (you can get yours here).

Solo Female Travel in India:

My experience backpacking India solo was largely positive, apart from one taxi scam in Mumbai and a few creepy men (though I exercised quite high precautions, like not walking alone at night, not taking taxis alone at night, wearing very modest clothing, and covering my hair).

My main issues were discomfort in being stared at…hence why I chose to cover my body and hair (I use a buff) and with unwanted attention from males who I naively thought I made “friends” with. In one of these cases, he turned into a stalker who showed up in two different cities to find me. This was a lesson for me in gender dynamics in diverse cultural contexts).

With that said, as a female traveling alone I was still able to take night buses and third-class sleeper trains and felt safe — though again, I took precautions and locked my bag to my seat while I slept (I use this retractable cable lock).

I did try couch surfing in India 5 times (if you aren’t familiar with couch surfing, it is a social platform which facilitates travellers connecting with locals hosts with a spare bed or couch). Four out of my 5 experiences were amazing…the other one was a male host who falls into the creepy men category above. Unfortunately he had an immense number of glowing reviews on his profile, so be aware if you want to try out the platform to take reviews with a grain of salt, always trust your gut and always leave authentic reviews even if they are negative (it could help another woman avoid a situation which could put her at risk). There are a growing number of female-only platforms, such as She’s Wanderful, which offer similar home-stay experiences.

Overall, I would still return to India as solo female traveller and don’t want to scare you off from it. I am simply sharing my experience and emphasizing both the positives and negatives so you will know what to expect regarding safety.

Backpacking Logistics:

During my 3 months backpacking India, I spent a total of $1500 (excluding flights). That works out to roughy $16 per day, which I consider extreme budget backpacking. It is however quite easy to do in India and with a higher budget, you will be traveling like a King or Queen.

I took public transportation ranging from “third class” train carriages, air conditioned coach buses, rickety school-bus styled buses, to a filthy livestock truck claiming to be a sleeper bus. How you decide to get around will depend on your preference for comfort, your budget and the time you have to travel. I tend to travel on a whim without a fixed itinerary, which didn’t jive well with the foresight required to book a first-class train ticket.

India is quite a large country, so if you want to travel by land with public transport like I did, you may want to budget a significant chunk of time. If you only have a short vacation or have your heart set on other parts of the country, I would recommend considering hiring a driver to maximize your time (for example, you can drive to the Taj Mahal as a day trip from Delhi instead of taking a bus or train to Agra and staying over).

My accommodation ranged from yoga and meditation ashrams, hostels, guest houses, hotels and couch surfing. Bonus tip: For finding hotels ahead of time, try Hotels Tonight and get $25 off your first hotel booking). If you are comfortable “winging it” and finding lodgings when you arrive, you can actually barter the cost of a room upon arrival, particularly in off-season. I once got a private room in a guest house for $1.50 by doing this.

I did not try AirBnb when I was in India due to my budget, but I would 100% try it now. If you have yet to try AirBnb yourself, you can take advantage of $30 off your first booking with this link.

Packing:

I packed quite light for this trip as it was before my blogging days, so I didn’t have a laptop with me. I highly recommend bringing an unlocked phone with you though to get a local SIM, or using a hotspot device like Skyroam. I was stranded a few times due to not having internet, voice calls or texting capabilities.

For long term travel, I use a 85L Mountain Warehouse backpack and have taken it backpacking India and backpacking throughout Southern Africa. You probably don’t need one this big (especially if you are petite like me), but I personally really like it because 1) it easily stores all of my bigger items including my yoga mat, hiking boots and sleeping bag (and would easily store a tent), 2) it has multiple pockets and zippers for easy organization, and 3) it has adjustable straps and can be made smaller when not full.

For a more packing tips, you can see my full packing guide for backpackers or tips on how to pack lighter.

Travel Insurance:

During my trip through India, I used World Nomads travel health insurance. It turned out I needed to use it for a hospital visit in Jaipur and was reimbursed when I returned home (just make sure you keep your receipts). It was fairly straight forward so I recommend them!

For travel insurance coverage of my bookings (flights and accommodation) and theft or damage of my personal items, I get complimentary coverage through my American Express Simply Preferred Cash Back card. The annual fee is $99 per year but if you travel as much as I do, it is peace of mind to know you are covered for flight delays, lost/stolen baggage and more.

Backpacking India Itinerary:

Neyarr Dam, Kerala

Neyarr Dam is a small rural village approx. 30km outside of the larger city centre Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram), were I began my journey. From Trivandrum, I set off in search of Neyarr Dam’s serene ‘Sivananda Yoga Ashram’ founded in 1959 by Swami Vishnudevananda. Located on the waters of the Neyarr river, the ashram is as peaceful as it gets, where your days will be filled with meditation and yoga practice. I stayed in the ashram for two weeks, but it is totally possible to stay for just a few days. Alternatively, if you aren’t into yoga, head to Varkala where you can relax on a beach.

india round up 1

View of Neyarr River on our meditation walk

Varkala, Kerala

Varkala is a tiny, touristy beach town on the Western coast of India. Atop the cliffs you will find various shops, cafes and restaurants overlooking this beautiful beach, perfect for a few days of rest and relaxation.

Backpacking India

Varkala Beach

Kochi, Kerala

Kochi (Cochin) is a port town off the West coast of India, known for its history of trading and for its spices. Take advantage of this and pick up some amazing spices at one of the markets, or take a cooking class and learn how to cook traditional Indian cuisine.

india round up 3

Ingredients for the cooking class. 

Munnar, Kerala

Munnar is home to Kerala’s lush green tea plantations. Discover how tea and cardamom are grown while taking in the picture-perfect scenery. You can also do a gorgeous guided hike! I would recommend finding a guide for this versus going alone though, as there are wild elephants in the area.

Backpacking India

Munnar’s tea plantations

Mysore, Karnataka

Explore the vibrant markets and busy streets of Mysore, where you can see how incense and perfumes are made. Also be sure to check out the palace!

Backpacking India

Hampi, Karnataka

The architecture and geographic landscapes in Hampi are incredibly beautiful and intriguing. Take a tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites to learn about Hampi’s past and present gems. Don’t miss monkey mountain!

Backpacking India

The stone chariot in the Vittala Temple (Hampi)

Backpacking India

Zanana Enclosure (Hampi)

Mumbai, Maharashtra

With roughly 12 million people, Mumbai (formerly Bombay) stands out as the cosmopolitan jewel of India, offering a diverse range of cultures, religions, and cuisines. Its posh restaurants, shopping malls and nightlife are sure to provide tons to keep you occupied during your stay.

Backpacking India

Taj Palace in Mumbai

Udaipur, Rajasthan

Udaipur is an exquisite lakeside town in the state of Rajasthan, boasting dreamy sunsets, an eloquent palace on the water and romantic outdoor restaurants. Take a boat ride around the water palace, dine under the stars or take a hike up to see the distant mountains.

Backpacking India

The water palace!

Jaisalmer, Rajasthan

Take a camel-back, camping trip through these dunes in the Thar desert – it’s one of the most incredible experiences I have had! Sleeping out in the open under the stars, you can feel the immense silence and darkness envelop you and calm your senses. The sky is so clear, you may just see out into the galaxy!

Backpacking India

Thar desert

You can also explore the maze-like Jaisalmer fort, taking in the rustic beauty and old-world charm.

Jaipur, Rajasthan

With palaces and old-world kingdom walls, the history and architecture in Jaipur is not to be missed! Not to mention the famous Lassiwala shop!

Backpacking India

Amber Fort

Backpacking India

Hawa Mahal (Windy Palace)

Agra, Uttar Pradesh

The world famous Taj Mahal is sheltered within Agra’s city limits – the ivory white mausoleum is quintessential to any trip to India! Be sure to avoid going on Fridays like I did (oops) because it’s closed to the public. You can get a beautiful glimpse of the Taj from behind.

Backpacking India

Taj Mahal from behind, across the river.

New Delhi, Delhi

India’s capital city has much to see and do! For amazing food, historic sites, theatre, shopping and culture – look no further! During my time in New Dehli, I ate my body weight in thalis, saw a play, shopped in the markets, photographed some amazing sites like Humayun’s tomb and met some new friends at my hostel.

Backpacking India

Humayun’s Tomb

Backpacking India

Terrific thali in Delhi

Manali, Himachal Pradesh

Manali is known for its laid back mountain vibes, positioning itself as a perfect base to explore the Himalayan mountains. Take a time out from the hustle and bustle of larger Indian cities and find a trekking group to set out in the heavenly Himalayas. I did a 4 day hike and camp trek and absolutely loved it.

Backpacking India

The heavenly himalayas

Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh

On the edge of the Himalayan mountains, this city is home to the Dalai Lama’s temple and a rich Tibetan culture. Learn about the Tibetan government-in-exile, partake in some meditation courses at the Tushita Tibetan Buddhist centre or get some fresh mountain air in the himalayan foothills. I was lucky enough to be in the area for the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday celebration and even saw him in person!

 

Backpacking India

Houses in the hills in Dharamshala

Amritsar, Punjab

Best known for its treasured Golden Temple, pilgrims come from across the world to to bathe in its sacred waters, which are said to be blessed. In the temple complex, you can literally feel the positive vibrations as hundreds of people simultaneously pray and chant to pay homage to the Sikh holy book. The temple has a “foreigner dormitory” where you can stay overnight by donation. Don’t miss the free chai and chapatis generously made by volunteers and provided by the temple.

The Gorgeous Golden Temple

Have you tried backpacking India? If not would you? Let me know in the comments below!

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Backpacking India

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Abhimanyu said:
Hey Steph, I have been reading through your lovely blog and just realized its been 1.5 hours. You are an inspiration to travel solo. The pictures are amazing and i look forward to more stories.
February 23, 2017 at 1:22 am
thepinkbackpack.com said:
I did travel by myself and it was one of the most amazing experiences! I knew a few places that I wanted to go, but also wanted to be open to opportunity, so I only made a loose plan of starting in the south and traveling north. I stayed in a few hotels, but mostly guest houses or with hosts via couch surfing!
June 28, 2016 at 7:42 pm
Sanjay said:
Wow this is awesome! did you go by yourself? How did you think of the places to go? Did you stay in hotels, hostels or with friends?
June 25, 2016 at 4:17 am
thepinkbackpack.com said:
Hi Lauren, So nice to hear from you! I definitely fell in love with India while I was there - Munnar was just so serene and beautiful and the Golden Temple was one of the most spiritual places I've been to for sure! I did visit Mumbai, but not long enough to do the place justice. I hope to write more specifics about my adventures soon!! :) - Steph
June 23, 2016 at 1:43 pm
thepinkbackpack.com said:
I was hoping to highlight the diversity of India with my photos, as well as its sheer beauty which is often not properly portrayed to the West! I'm glad you feel that I grasped its essence because I definitely felt connected to it while I was there! - Steph
June 23, 2016 at 1:41 pm
Satish said:
Your photos of India illuminate a side of India that few get to experience. You covered a lot of territory in so short a time, yet you seem to have grasped exactly what India is all about. A country made up of many nations and many cultures all trying to exist in this modern time while honouring and adhering to tradition.
June 22, 2016 at 10:43 pm
LAUREN @ LAURENSOMEWHERE.COM said:
Hey lovely lady! I am so happy that you had a fabulous time in India. It looks like we've both visited the same places. Seeing your photos makes me squeal with job! Wasn't Munnar just a fresh of breath air from the sweltering heat? Isn't the Golden Temple the most beautiful, awe-inspiring place? Delhi is my faaaavorite <3 Did you happen to visit Mumbai? I fell in love with that city too.
June 21, 2016 at 9:41 pm