This post was originally published on July 28, 2014, and updated on September 6, 2017.
Chaotic and bamboozling, travelling in India can be confronting, even for the experienced traveller. The reality for solo female travellers is it can be even more challenging, but don’t let that put you off exploring incredible India.
This amazing country is so full of colour, fascinating people, religious icons, ancient sites, fabulous street food, sacred cows, and diverse landscapes; it’s everything and more, and all at once.
1. Handling the stares
As a female in India, you’ll enjoy your time much more if you come to terms with the fact that people will stare at you. This can certainly be confronting, but once you realise it’s a cultural difference, you’ll become more accustomed to it and it (hopefully) won’t get to you as much. Ways to avoid unwanted male attention include dressing conservatively and avoiding eye contact (wearing sunglasses during the day can help with this), as this can be considered flirtatious.
2. Staying safe on local transport
Female travellers are rarely the target of violent crime in India, however, like anywhere, you need to keep your wits about you. Some tips to help you stay safe on local transport:
- When travelling by overnight train, choose an upper berth for more privacy
- Avoid eye contact and chit-chat with unknown men: both can be misinterpreted
- Try to book seats near the front of long-distance buses
- Sit next to other women when possible; many trains in India have a women-only carriage
Avoid hailing rickshaws or taxis on the street. Instead, get your hotel to book one for you, and sit directly behind the driver. If you have a backpack, keep it in the backseat with you, rather than putting it in the boot. In Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, there are quite a few taxi companies with women drivers, which are a great, safe option for female travellers.
3. The crowds
Stepping onto the streets of India, one of the things that will hit you immediately is the crowds – literally. There are over 1.3 billion people in India. The extreme numbers of people can come as a shock, especially when you’re travelling solo. If the crowds become too much in the major cities, consider heading south to the waters of Kerala or up north to the chilled out hill stations of Leh or Ladakh to give yourself a break.
While hygiene standards in India have risen considerably in recent years, they are still often below what we are used to in the western world. Avoid buying food from street stalls that has been sitting around for hours or hasn’t been cooked in front of you and opt for shops and restaurants that are busy and appear to have higher hygiene standards. Use hand sanitiser throughout the day and carry your own supply of toilet paper and sanitary products. While you should always make sure you drink treated or bottled water, there’s been a rise in vendors selling bottled tap water (a telltale sign is an unsealed lid, worn labelling and often sediment in the bottle). If you don’t want to take the risk, consider drinking sparkling water instead – you can’t fake the fizz!
5. The poverty
With an increasing number of people living below the poverty line, the divide between the very poor and the very rich is extreme. Slums are home to many and you will see beggars of all ages, particularly children. While it is heartbreaking, giving them money can add to the problem, as many of the children are being exploited by bosses who make them beg. IF you’d like to help, consider donating through a reputable charity instead.
6. See the fun side
Finally, have fun and enjoy your time . Remain lighthearted and know that an easygoing attitude will get you further in a place where nothing runs to time. Stay safe and take precautions, but be open to delays, changes of plan and adventure.
For many, India is one of the most rewarding travel destinations. With preparation and an open mind, the beauty, profound spirituality and mesmerising chaos of India ensures it will be one of the most unforgettable travel experiences you will ever have!
Want to travel to India? Check out our small group adventures.
Feature image C/O Lucy Piper, Intrepid Travel.