5 Tips for Solo Backpacking in India.

by Anannya Deb.

In March earlier this year, I did a small session on Backpacking in India for The Goa Project. Based on my personal experiences of traveling in India over the last 10 years, these are my notes on self-learned and self-taught lessons.

Based on those, I am putting down 5 things that can make your travels more enriching. In particular, these 5 things are addressed to the solo traveler, a rare species of traveler, I must say, at least in India.

Photo by Jhong Dizon.

1: Serendipity is good

One of my adages of backpacking is to just buy the return tickets and have a broad plan. In Diwali this year, I decided to spend 3 days in Uttar Kannada district. I bought bus tickets from Mumbai to Hubli and back. I ended up visiting two historic towns, Banavasi and Gadag, as well as enjoying a restful Diwali at Gokarna.

With no hotel bookings, I roamed freely around Gokarna taking in the sights and sounds. Tramping around, I came across this beach shack shown in the picture. The little bridge over the tidepool was just too tempting. I just had to stop here. A whole day to just laze, have couple of beers and listen to music coming out of the communal iPod plugged into a large amplifier. I would never have experienced this quaint place since it is not listed on any major travel site. At Rs 300 for a bed per night, it was a steal. 

Om Shree Ganesh at Om Beach, Gokarna, India
Om Shree Ganesh at Om Beach, Gokarna

2: There is always time

Backpacking does not require taking long sabbaticals from work. For most Indians, this is nigh impossible. Our lives are unending from school to college to employment. Of course there are some who hit a goldmine in investment banking or sell some of the ESOPs they get from their software company which may generate some savings to retire from work. But it’s a small minority.

In my case, at least 50% of my explorations were partly official trips. (A slight caveat - my work involves doing lots of field trips and the nature of the projects I worked in took me to Orissa, MP, UP, Tamil Nadu and many places in Maharashtra).

When on work, there is always some free time - usually because of flight schedules. That free time can be used quite productively. I had to make a number of trips to Orissa on work. There was one Indian Airlines flight from Mumbai which landed at 2 pm. Typically I had a full day’s work so I could only take the return flight two days later. The return flight was at 2.30 pm. So I had an entire afternoon the day I landed and an entire morning on the day of my return. Why hang around? Off we go - to Konark, to Dhauli, to Khandagiri.

Even the most mundane of business trips - Mumbai-Delhi, for example - can give you opportunities to take off.. You just need to have an open mind. Here’s a tip - if you are in Mumbai and you have a few hours to kill, try exploring old, second hand bookstores or circulating libraries. There’s always one in every part of the city. Spend your time there and if you like your comic books, you might hit some old gems. Or if you are an amateur photographer, go off to a nearby public space and practice your street photography skills.There is always something one can do.

3: Being a Culture Explorer

I am a Culture Explorer. Well, I did not invent this term; I came across it on this site here. This, for me, matches with the kind of experiences I have relished most. Of course, occasionally, one does take in the natural landscapes and all that. But culture and human habitation is a more enjoyable experience everywhere. Every place I go, there is a new piece of culture that I experience. Very rarely have I ever seen two different places in India offer a similar experience. It is my observation (and I take the liberty of putting in some hyperbole) that every 50kms, there is a new cultural experience waiting. It might very subtle or it might be a drastic, but there is a change.

A walk through the older parts of Gadag (the birthplace of Pt Bhimsen Joshi as well as a prominent location for some of the most beautiful medieval Indian temple architecture) is quite magnificent. The colonial houses, the homely decorations (it was Diwali) and some 11th century structures in the distance make it a worthwhile trip to make; and it’s just 1 hour away from Hubli. 

Street leading up to Chalukyan style Veera Narayana temple in Gadag, Karnataka
Gadag, the street leading up to the 11th century Chalukyan style Veera Narayana Temple

4: Be a Local AND a Tourist

One should never forget that one is backpacking in his/her own country, so retaining the “local” identity is important. Take local transport. Eat where the local residents prefer to eat. Buy stuff from shops where the local families go to. As a “local”, you will immediately get quoted more reasonable rates. Speaking in Hindi or the local language always helps. People open up and if you are of the kind who likes to sit down with people and listen to stories, then this attitude will take you a long way. In short, develop empathy with the local cultures, the people, their arts, crafts, practices and customs.

Of course you should also be a responsible and helpful “tourist”. There are two things you can do. As a “customer”, make sure you demand quality and give feedback (but politely and in a civil, helpful way) so that the local service providers can improve. And more significantly, try to patronise the local mom-and-pop enterprises more than the bigger corporate chains. As a backpacker, whether you stay in those fancy resorts or not will make no difference to their revenues. But for the local enterprises, in many of these places that you will go to, your expenditure forms a significant means of livelihood to those people (which they will never get from tour operators or online travel portals since they mostly cover 3-star and above resorts and hotels). And when backpacking, do you really need to pay the high rates for the swimming pools, gyms, extra soft pillows, etc. when most of your day is going to be spent outdoors?

In Hampi, I stayed in the village itself, Rs 300 per night, one bed and a bathroom. Since I was out exploring the area, this was just right. And in the morning, for breakfast, I would walk down to the river, like everyone else in the village, and sit on the banks having coffee and a cigarette. 

Tungabhadra river, Hampi, Karnataka

5: Turn on, Tune in, Drop out

For my last point, I am borrowing a line from Timothy Leary. The way I read it is
- Turn on your eyes, ears, mind
- Tune in to the life around out
- Drop out of the network (read it as keep your mobiles off for a while)

A friend of mine told me once of how, on a trip into the forests of Assam, he came across a couple of youngsters strolling with their iPods. He was shaken. Here in the forests, with sounds of birds (and some rare ones) all over, how could these two youth switch off the world with their earbuds? Did they have to come all the way here just to listen to their iPods? They could have stayed home, wherever it was.

Rainbow in the monsoon at Bhandardara near Mumbai, India
A trip to Bhandardara, about 150 km from Mumbai, in the monsoon is a lovely experience. Through the clouds and misty rain, a small rainbow fights to get noticed.
That’s it from me. Hope these five points help you have great travels. Bon voyage.


Author Bio: Anannya Deb is a Mumbai-based full-time professional working in a business consulting firm. In his free time, he travels and dabbles with writing about his travels. His travel blog is called The Road Below, a title borrowed from RL Stevenson’s poem The Vagabond. His travel photography is available on Flickr.


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