India’s ‘golden triangle’ offers an insight into old-world India, from colourful bazaars in Old Delhi to Jaipur’s ancient palaces and the marble majesty of Agra’s Taj Mahal.
Colour and chaos in Delhi
We begin our trip in India’s capital, Delhi, a bustling metropolis split into two parts – ‘old’ and ‘new’. New Delhi is surprisingly green and clean, filled with colonial government buildings and heritage sites.
Old Delhi is the complete opposite – a vibrant mess of chaos and colour, street vendors, beggars, shop owners and locals spilling out in every direction.
We took a rickshaw through Old Delhi’s backstreets, whizzing through tiny bazaars filled with colourful sari shops, flower sellers, ox and carts, street food and spice stalls.
India’s ‘pink city’ Jaipur
Next day, it was time for the four-hour journey to Jaipur, India’s ‘pink city’ – painted in exotic hues of blush pink. As we head into town my excitement levels were high, yelling out names of all the interesting things I could see.
“Look, camels!” “Holy shit – elephants!
“Whoa, Jim! Manoj! Look! More camels! Camels pulling carts! Camels with Hindu symbols painted on them!”
At this point, Jim tells me to shut up about camels as our lovely driver, Manoj, sees them every day and is not interested to hear me yap on about them.
I stop talking about the camels and quietly observe the streets of Jaipur through the car window.
Athletic baby goats hop up steep walls, monkeys steal fruit from market stalls, slums spill out into urban areas and beautiful women wear rainbow-coloured saris. (“Little goats! Baby ones! Monkeys! Oooh, look – pretty colours!”)
We stop by Monkey Temple on the outskirts of town. This run-down temple has a faded charm and is totally overrun by wild monkeys who are very happy to play.
Encouraging feral Indian monkeys to stick their grubby little hands all over your face probably isn’t the most sensible course of action. But, it was hella fun.
Jaipur is filled with amazing architecture, rich history and a rugged natural landscape. Next day, we’re up at sunrise to visit the spectacular Amer Fort and palace that overlooks the city.
The ancient fort is built of pale pink and yellow sandstone and offers spectacular views across the city. Inside the palace, there are exquisite carvings and courtyards with a number of chambers to explore.
Many visitors choose to enter the fort on richly decorated elephants. A procession of them trudge up and down the hill daily, a magnificent sight as they deliver tourists to the fort.
New government regulations have recently improved working conditions for elephants, but the hill is steep, and sun hot. Concerned for the welfare of these beautiful creatures, we didn’t want to ride one.
Our guide told us the Maharajas who lived at the palace inside the fort in the 16th and 17th centuries would have hunted tigers on elephant back in the surrounding hills.
Agra, home to the ‘jewel of India’
Our last stop was Agra, a grotty town that sits on the bank of the Yamuna River, famous for the Agra Fort and majestic Taj Mahal, the ‘jewel of India’.
We rise early the next day to watch the Taj ‘wake up’ at day break. Joining throngs of jostling tourists from all around the world, there is a sense of excited anticipation in the air.
The Great Gate Archway is finally flung open at 7am and I catch sight of the white marble beauty. It’s a snapshot you’ve seen a thousand times and that first glimpse in person makes it all worthwhile.
Bizarrely, the Taj experience was amazingly tranquil, despite the crowds.
Ten travel tips for the Golden Triangle:
1.Arrive armed with some rupees. Recent changes to India’s currency system has resulted in cash flow problems. For three days, we struggled to find an ATM that wasn’t empty. We saw tourists everywhere – including ourselves – rely on guides to lend them cash to get by.
2. When you finally manage to get your mitts on some handy cash, break it down into small change. Cash is king here and everyone is going to be expecting a tip from now on. From the waiter, the snake charmer you take a pic of and the lady who hands you a tissue outside the bathroom. Make sure you have some twenty rupee notes to whip out – you’ll need them.
3. One of my guides said it’s fine for tourists to dress how they wish (within reason!) but a modest approach – pashmina, long sleeves or light-weight cardigan – will help you blend in. It’s a good idea to carry a scarf so you can cover up if visiting temples.
4. Local people will want a selfie with you! Our guide told us many of these people travel from remote villages to see the famous monuments and have never seen westerners before. Jim was very popular the day we visited the Taj. Apparently bald white guys often play the villains in Bollywood movies so his face was particularly interesting! An adorable little Indian girl grabbed my arm shrieking “Hello! Hello!Hello Hello!” delighted to be able to share her, somewhat limited, English with me.
5. Barter for everything. A good rule is to start at 70 per cent discount, then up to 50 per cent of initial asking price. If the answer is ‘no’ – act disinterested, shrug and start to walk away. Nine times out of ten the vendor will call you back “ok, ok, deal!” It can be emotionally exhausting after a while. The constant hustling and haggling drove Jim up the wall but it’s just the way it is in India.
6. Carry hand sanitiser, deet and tissues everywhere you go. Bottled water is a must and don’t eat any fruit you can’t peel yourself. Try not to overload on water during the day – you’ll find clean toilets few and far between. Obviously, avoid dehydration, but be mindful that you may regret chugging down litres of water when you can’t find a bathroom.
7. A private driver is a great way to explore the golden triangle and get the most out your trip. We used Manoj from Private Driver in India. He was friendly, professional and fun, helping us get off the beaten track to see the ‘real’ India. Manoj’s glowing testimonials on Trip Advisor tell the story of many other happy travellers.
8. If you don’t have a guide, be wary of ‘not a guide’. These random chancers lurk around famous monuments sniffing out tourists. They will then attach themselves firmly to you, spouting local information, and then, of course, expect a tip. Don’t be shy about shoo-ing ‘not a guide’ away.
9. Drink the local chai masala – milk-based tea made from tea leaves and ground Indian spices including cardamom, cloves and ginger. It’s served in neat little cups that make a Venti latte at Starbucks seem quite vulgar. Do give it a try, it’s delicious and refreshing.
10. Finally, keep an open mind. From a six-legged cow (yup, we actually saw one!) to beggars, babas and blaggers – you will undoubtedly see many unusual sights on your trip to India. Some will be confronting, others amazing. It’s all part of the unique charm of this crazy, wonderful country so drink it in, and enjoy.
What were your favourite things to see on India’s ‘golden triangle’? Leave me a comment, I’d love to know.