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Calcutta, Goa & Mumbai. Is India the Vacation from Hell; or Paradise on Earth?

India; Probably the world's most polarizing travel destination. And i'll tell you why....

Whenever I shared my interest in making India my next travel destination, I always received two widely differing responses from the following two groups of people; Westerners (because I used to vacation in Europe every 3 months) and Singaporeans (because i'm a local).

Westerners: "Oh India! I've always wanted to go there! (or I've just been there) India is such an amazing country! I spent two months in India and it wasn't enough!"

Singaporeans: "Huh! Crazy ah? Go India for what? So smelly, so dirty, and everyday must eat curry. Plus cannot bring my girlfriend, later she get raped. Yuck, i'll never go there." (add in a disgusted look on Singaporeans faces)

So, being really curious about why India as a travel destination could generate such polarizing responses, I decide that rather than just talk about it, (like most Singaporeans; all talk and no action) I might as well find out first hand.

I went to India.

Note: I managed to find a travel buddy (Jamie) for this trip as "The Girl" had just changed a job and wasn't able to take leave.

Regions Covered:

1. Kolkata (Caulcutta)

2. Goa

3. Mumbai

Imagecredit: Jamie Ong (my travel buddy for this trip)


I don't usually begin my posts with "accommodation", but because Singaporeans make up 80% of my 15,000 monthly visitors (it's actually closer to 20,000), let's just begin with accommodation so no one has to waste time reading further if they can't accept the "accommodation standards" in India.

Because I stayed in hotels (unlike me, I know) on the Kolkata/Mumbai part of our trip, i'll use the cheapest, most budget accommodation I stayed in while I was in Goa so Singaporeans can have an idea on the minimum standards to expect for accommodation. I spent $7.50 a night in Zostel Goa (pictures below). If you don't mind spending more than I did, just imagine the "luxury" say $30 a night can get you.

The above pictures are of our room in Zostel Goa. We took these straight from their site since they do a better job of photography than I can. For $7.50, I thought Zostel was pretty good. Lockers, comfortable bed, a warm shower, and air-conditioning if you don't mind paying a couple of dollars more.

The only drawback? You get a free flow of mosquitoes. A buffet, with us part of the meal. Their meal.

We spent 3 nights in Zostel Goa. Here's the "common area" where all us tourists would gather to chit chat, read books, watch some TV, basically just lazing around. Planning to go to India but no "typical Singaporean" travel buddies to accompany you? Not much of an issue so long as hostels exist.

Oh and here's also the place where some backpackers pick up a guitar and attempt to "sing" female backpackers into their beds. Yeah, and they succeed most of the time, so I guess the "guitar thingy" does work. Either that or most female backpackers are just lonely.

So my dear Singaporean readers, by now you should have an idea if the rest of this post is worth your time. The above, is probably the lowest standard of "tourist accommodation" you'll find in India under $10 SGD (assuming you need air-con).

Still not able to accept traveling in India? No worries, I understand; we're Singaporeans after all.


What's There To Do?

Most of the time, if you come across Singaporeans who have been to India. (when I say Singaporeans, i'm not referring to the NRI; non resident Indians, I'm referring to "TRUE BLUE" Singaporeans) it's probably because they were there on a business trip. Either that, or they're air-crew.

While I find India interesting, I would hardly classify it as "exotic". When visiting India, just plan as you would if you were going to say Taiwan, or Seoul; it's nothing too different.

So, here's what we did.

1. Visit "iconic landmarks" like a typical tourist

Victoria Memorial Hall, Kolkata. From afar it kind of looked like the Taj Mahal. Well, close enough

As I obviously didn't spend the past 6 months in India, i'm not going to bother claiming to be a pro. All Jaime and I did was to "shortlist" some of the main stuff worth visiting in the parts we were at.

Simply do what you'd do if you were say visiting Rome. You'd visit the Colosseum wouldn't you? Or if you were in Paris, i'm sure you'd bother seeing how the "Real" Eiffel Tower looks like.

Imagecredit: Jamie Ong (my travel buddy for this trip)

So, that's just what we did; we hunted for "iconic landmarks" to visit. (Above) Jaime taking a selfie at the "biggest attraction" in Mumbai; The Gateway of India.

In Goa, one of the key attractions we visited was the Basilica of Bom Jesus, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Attractions in India can be ridiculously over priced. Some attractions like the Taj Mahal (more on that in another post) have ticket prices for locals, and "special" prices for tourists, usually many times more expensive.

It's kind of like China in that aspect. Because their currency isn't worth much, and standard of living isn't the greatest, they have to fleece tourists from "attraction fees".

Jamie at the Elephanta caves, accessible with a day trip from Mumbai

I won't elaborate on the various iconic landmarks to visit since you can find those by simply googling "Mumbai/Goa/Kolkata key attractions".

Sorry India. Visiting Bangladesh was the main highlight of my trip, you were just a bridesmaid (hence I put in less effort in planning)

2. Hit The Beach!

No vacation is ever complete without a day of lazying on the beach with a cold beer in hand. In fact, i'll always remember Goa because I received my job offer (for my current job) while lazing on this beach. It was a 12 minute phone call from Singapore detailing the terms of my job package. When I received my bill, I realized it cost me $80 (no complaints here, since I took up the offer).

We arrived in Goa with huge expectations. After all, when people talk about Asian beaches, the usual suspects are the beaches in Bali, Phuket, Koh Samui and of course, the magnificent Goa (if you truly haven't heard of Goa, you're living under a rock). Yes Sentosa is not in the list, no surprise there.

The "beach part" of Goa is pretty much like Phuket. Motorbikes for rent, rip off restaurants, everyone trying to sell you a "tattoo" or some beach stuff. Goa is filled with backpackers, loads of them believers of the YOLO mentality, just drinking and bonking everyday until their money runs out or till it's time to go home, whichever comes first.

The beach of Goa.

Ah the beach; well it isn't what I envisioned it to be. Based on the hype, I sort of expected a Maldivian sort of experience.

It was, in the words of another Canadian backpacker I met, "Just a sea filled with Indians". Nothing against them of course. I've loads of Indian friends whom I get along really well with and are great people. In all fairness, it was probably because I was there during "peak season" when probably half of India was there on vacation as well.

Imagecredit: Jamie Ong (my travel buddy for this trip)

If you hit the beach early enough though, you do get a lovely beach to yourself for a couple of hours before the crowd starts piling in. Else, there are a couple of other quieter beaches (in the "less happening" part of Goa) you could visit to escape the crowd.

The bottom line?

Do visit Goa; the sea is warm and welcoming, sand feels soft at your feet, and people are generally friendly and nice to tourists. Just don't bother visiting between October to January, unless the experience you're looking for is that of sardines in a can. Goa is at it's most beautiful during monsoon season between June to September. And apparently, hotels offer the most discounts during that period.

3. Soak up the Local Culture

Chilling at a park in Kolkata with the locals.

When Singaporeans travel overseas, their idea of a vacation usually revolves around Disneyland (or themeparks), shopping, cafe hoping, and getting their photo taken with one of the "iconic" attractions to "show they've been there".

The closest Singaporeans get to experiencing a country is probably a "local dance" at their hotel's welcome reception or while waiting for dinner to be served.

Sometimes, the truly enjoyable thing about traveling is to (as much as realistically possible) "feel like a local".

Travel around the country on "local transport", (which saves you money anyway) hang around the parks, have a chat with the locals. If thousands of people chill on park benches and people watch, surely there must be something enjoyable about it.

To cross the river, instead of taking a taxi across the bridge, we took a local ferry. It cost us $0.20. And yes, it was fun while it lasted...

Been to the Shihlin Night Market in Taiwan? Or perhaps the night market in Patpong, Bangkok? If you enjoyed those, you'll enjoy India. It's pretty much the same thing, bargaining, snacking on street food, prostitutes for your selection; all available at a lower price point.

Imagecredit: Jamie Ong (my travel buddy for this trip)

I had no idea if this fella was selling condoms or balloons...

Imagecredit: Jamie Ong (my travel buddy for this trip)

Bargain hunters anybody? Singaporeans should visit, we're supposed to be good at bargaining for discounts aren't we?

We arrived at Caulcatta train station in the city's trademark Yellow Taxi.

Local children bathing in the harbour. We chose not to participate in "this particular" local activity.

Now, i'm not claiming my form of travel is the authentic one, it isn't. I don't volunteer for disaster relief, neither do help out teaching the local children how to read. This ISN'T a competition for the "Most Authentic Travel Award".

But if your idea of a vacation is living it up 5 star hotels and cafe hoping, why even waste your money going overseas? Go book yourself a stay-cation in Singapore, it'll save you the time of queuing at the customs. Where was your last travel destination? Did you really experience the country?

4. Food Hunting! (like how you would in Taiwan/Japan/Korea)

While westerners might need some getting used to when dining in India, we Singaporeans should be somewhat used to it. Indian cuisine is extremely popular in Singapore, probably except among those on a diet. In fact, you'll find "The Girl and I" at a prata house every other week.

A Singaporean's idea of Indian cuisine (among non Indians) is pretty much Prata, Naan, Thosai, and maybe Briyani. In India, the selection is astonishing. They serve the stuff we eat in Singapore in a hundred variations; though I must admit almost all of those food variations involve curry.

If you hate curry, dining in India might not be that pleasant an experience for you.

Just like in another other country, there is street food available for a snack when you want it. In Kolkata, we had corn on the cob! We can't always have curry right?

Having a snack at the bus terminal. The "chef" had to cook for a whole line of hungry travelers after hours on the bus.

There are two main deal breakers when it comes to stringing the words "Singaporean" and "India Vacation" in the same sentence. They are accommodation, and hygiene. (and perhaps safety. Singaporeans have a lot of "traveling fears")

Should you be worried about food cleanliness in India? Well, it's not that bad to be honest. We tried all sorts of street food but never had to visit the toilet more than usual.

The finished article. Chow Mien India style! Pretty good to be honest.

Going on a long bus ride? Don't forget to stock up on the tidbits!

Come to think of it, I did have a tummy ache once, after ignoring advise about not having ice cubes in my drink (our Singaporean stomachs are used to ice cubes made from distilled water).We had just arrived in Kolkata from Bangladesh, and I was so badly in need of an ice cold coca cola after surviving on just water and tea for the past 5 days.

Nah, this isn't Prata, it's Chapati. (I prefer Prata though)

To get a rough idea if your stomach is suited for what India has on offer, all you need to do is take a quick test. The next time your in Bangkok, buy a fried chicken from a roadside stall, drop it along the road, and apply the 3 second rule before taking a bite. If your stomach can take that, you're ready for India.

Alright, i'm kidding. Food in India isn't that unhygienic. It's manageable.

How We Got Around

Getting around India by public transport might be a bit of a challenge even for typical Singaporeans who "think they are well traveled. Because in all likely hood, these "well traveled Singaporeans" experiences when it comes to moving around a country are probably limited to the comforts of their tour bus or grab taxi.

Trying out the various local transport in each city can be a pretty fun travel experience though. Let's take a look at some of the "modes of transport" we used to get around India.

1. Taxi

We were in Calcutta, our first stop in India.

I'm not sure if you remember the song by Dr. Bombay. It goes something like "Caulcutta, I am a taxi driver in Caulcutta, taxi taxi driver in "Caulcutta". Well, something along those lines at least.

So in Kolkata (also known as Caulcutta) we made it a point to hop onto one of these old yellow taxi's left behind by the British years ago. It was quite a novel experience (when compared to other taxi rides) I must say.

2. Ferry

At the edge of Kolkata lies the Hooughly River. We had two ways to cross it. Either hail a cab, and cross the Howrah Bridge (linking Caulcutta to Howrah) or take a ferry with the locals.

We chose the ferry, and boy was it fun. It felt like I was part of The Amazing Race!

Jamie's snapshot of the ferry before we boarded it.

3. Train

Imagecredit: Jamie Ong (my travel buddy for this trip)

Rail travel in India can be a fascinating experience. If you're willing to spend more money than I did, opt for a luxury train ride across India. The Palace on Wheels ranks among the most exotic Rail Journeys in the world. They organize stops and sightseeing tours across the some of the major attractions in India.

The only problem? It starts from $340 USD a night. (no, the picture above is just a local train like our MRT; NOT the luxury train ride)

4. Motorbike

Just like in Phuket, bike rentals are all over the country. You might want to reconsider though. If you thought the traffic in Ho Chi Min was bad, wait till you see India (and even worse, Bangladesh). I really doubt you'll want to rent a motorbike here.

But oh well, just a point of interest for the "accident seekers" among you.

5. "Tuk Tuk"

Imagecredit: Jamie Ong (my travel buddy for this trip)

You get almost the same experience in Bangkok, nothing new here; other than the incessant horns from other drivers when you Tuk-Tuk driver is attempting to squeeze their way through jams.


So, in conclusion; is India worth visiting?

YES, if....

- you want a two week vacation but you've a maximum budget of $1,000. (an air ticket to India is around $500)

- you want a vacation experience that broadens your horizons and doesn't involve shopping, cafe hoping, or theme-parks.

- you're looking to discover the meaning of life. (India is very spiritual country with lots of temples or secluded areas for you to "discover yourself". Guess which country "Eat Pray Love" was based in? Yoga anyone?)

- your a history/architectural kind of guy

- you enjoy great food at cheap prices and don't mind getting a stomach ache once in a while.

- your a pampered mummy's boy who really needs to see how the "real world" is.

NO if....

- you exclaim "eeeee. yuck" at the slightest contact with dirt.

- your idea of a holiday is lazing in a resort and going out occasionally to snap a picture beside it's most iconic location and calling it a day once that's done.

- if you subscribe to the herd mentality and only want to be seen traveling in places your ignorant friends will stamp their seal of approval on.

Sunset at Goa

Would I visit India again? Probably yes. I'd love to visit the magnificent Kashmir someday and float around on an Indian houseboat. But was I truly wowed by India? I'd have to say no.

But one thing's for sure. While India didn't turn out to be the Paradise I was hoping for, it certainly wasn't that hell hole most Singaporeans make it out to be.

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