Last Updated on May 4, 2023 by Christine Kaaloa
5 Top Travel Tips India: Surviving Indian Culture
25 Things to know before traveling India
These are India travel tips and mindset perspectives that will help you travel India with less internal friction and frustration.
1. Accept that India will be unpredictable
I always describe India as a challenging country to travel. It’s not so much because it’s hard or dangerous. The challenging part is that you’ll see things in a raw and real way. India can make some travelers feel strongly. Either they love it or hate it.
But the thing is despite all that, a good chunk of travelers like myself, will fall in love with India even harder.
My advice is to accept that’s the way it’s going to be straight off. Accept the poverty and that traveling in India will be unpredictable, chaotic, delayed and a challenge from the lifestyle you come from… but… it will be an adventure you’ve never experienced.
There are many things that go awry in India, even with the best laid plans. But India is not dangerous as it is unpredictable.
Being this was the third trip to India India, there’s one great Indian lesson I’ve learned…. nothing goes as expected.
It’s an old country and things break down. Your bus can break down in the middle of your journey, your train can get delayed,…Travelers with a tight and unforgiving itinerary will be frustrated by India. In fact, I never expect time tables to be on the dot and I always soft pad my train and bus travel days giving it at least a day.
For Indians, this upset of order and acceptance of it, is built into their philosophical lifestyle. They deal with it by casually going with the flow, waiting and taking the next best option. Afterall, why fight against something you cannot change. Western travelers freak out when this happens, often because they don’t trust there’s a next best option or that things will work themselves out. Western countries are more rigidly organized and we’ve learnt to rely on rigid structures.
2. Anything is possible …in India
The motto I’ve experienced in India is that anything is possible until its not.
Indian culture does not look at the impossible nature of things (at least that’s what I’ve noticed especially of working locals in lower economic brackets). I have had many travel moments when I didn’t think something was possible — like making the train on time in the thick of traffic, stuff like that… I’d ask a local (usually a taxi driver or service man). The response I often get is — “Yes, is possible”. Quite often, They found a way to make it so.
3. India will make a better traveler of you
The key is go with the flow. The more I move fluidly, intuitively, patiently and trust things to work out, they do. Oddly. That’s my secret to traveling India.
But there’s something to this way of accepting the Indian way of flowing. India’s system works by an organized chaos. Somehow, it all works out neatly when you got with the flow. Traveling in India is intuitive; not rigid.
For travelers, it teaches you to have faith in the greater good and yourself. Personally, it’s led me to find better resources and options I never knew existed . It’s also given me confidence to know I can adapt to flexible situations.
Things about India that will Shock You
In India you’ll see an overwhelming amount of poverty, children begging at your window when your taxi rolls to a stop, workers sleeping in cots on the street or on blankets on a hotel rooftop. My first morning in India, I walked down to my hotel front desk to find the workers asleep on blankets in the lobby. Shocking, right?
5. Chaotic traffic
Everything converges on the streets from cars, buses, cows, bicycles, motorbikes, pedestrians and lots of car honking. When I think back on my trip to Kolkata, I can distinctly hear car honking in my memories. In Varanasi, you see an abundance of homeless cows on the street walking, lying down in the road, eating waste on the streets.
Not all Indians believe in trash cans or holding their trash until they get home. It’s the first time I’ve seen bus passengers toss their trash outside of a moving bus. You’ll find trash in the streets and ultimately, they get swept into piles and burned.
7. Recycled Items reused
The good news about some littering is that Indians are resourceful and some items are reused items. India doesn’t believe in recycling, but due to cost effective measures, vendors use items made from recycled materials. From banana leaf bowls to earthen clay chai cups and newspaper packages. These disposable items are organic.
8. An overwhelming sea of men
As its a patriarchal society, you’ll see men in every visible job. From cooks in kitchens, street food vendors, wait staff, front desk clerks, barbers, etc.. Women do not have many public jobs with high visibility. Many are kept indoors due to what their families feel is safer. You might see women in safer jobs, such as retail shops, office workers, an bathroom attendant.
9. No sense of body space
If you don’t like being pushed or pressed against like a sardine, avoid crowds in India. Avoid long queues to get into an event and crowded Indian buses and trains. There is no sense of spatial parameters in that regard. Locals will push you to pack themselves in.
10. The Indian Stare
95% of the time, Indians stare out of curiosity. If you’re a foreign traveler, you look different to them or you may be carrying something that is foreign to them. However, there’s two things I’ve noticed Indians will stare at.
Big city folks and Indian tourists at tourist attractions can care less about your camera, because they’re already striking poses for their own mobile cameras (I’ve seen a handful even doing their own photoshoots!). But outside of those heavy urban environments, you’ll find more curiosity towards the camera. Unlike other countries, an Indian staring at your camera does not mean thieving intentions. Cameras are equated with films and fame and just honest curiosity.
Tip:You’ll find India is a photogenic country, with the best and most genuine smiles. If you take a photo, show them the photo. In rare cases, I’ve gone to the local copy place to make copies.
.Blond hair and blue eyes is a bit of a novelty in Asia in general. But in India, there are many Indians that haven’t seen many ethnicities outside their country or town. Rural folks will be especially in awe of this. If you’re a family with young children who fit this description, keep in mind, your child may become the new sensation. Some Indians who don’t know any better, may try to touch it. I was traveling with a fellow yogi and her family of two sons and a husband. We were waiting in line to get into the Wagah Border Ceremony when locals started to reach out to touch her son. He had blonde hair and likely the locals around him were from a village. The locals were naive. They didn’t mean harm or bad intentions, but I’m pretty sure they felt they were touching an angelic being.
India doesn’t have great hygiene. As men have most visible jobs in society, they are often serving and handling food and drinks so you need to pay attention to the hygiene. Some workers come from poverty and don’t have proper facilities in their homes like toilets or wash basins. Some come from slums where they don’t have toilets but squat in a bush or alongside a railway. Migrant workers come to the city from villages and other economically challenged neighboring countries and don’t have homes at all. Instead, they sleep on cots outside their workplace. In Kolkata, I’ve seen street food vendors sleep in their own food stalls.
India Travel Tips
12. Avoid drinking tap water and do not accept ice in your drinks, even if you are in a restaurant.
Mc Donalds, Starbucks, western chains and shopping mall food courts are a different story. Very commercial businesses have a reputation and they cannot risk locals getting sick.
13. Eating in India
Sometimes food is washed with tap water. If you are drinking soup, make sure the soup is hot and not lukewarm.
The rule of thumb of eating produce in India is make sure you only eat fruits and veggies produce that can be peeled or skinned, like bananas, pineapples and oranges. That said, say goodbye to tossed salads when you’re in India unless you are in a fancy restaurant where they can afford to use good or boiled drinking water!
Read more India food tips
14. It’s okay to eat with your hands
Eating with my hands is something I love about India. It’s messy but the salt on your fingertips add to the flavor. Read my how to tips to eating with your hands. Bring hand sanitizer or baby wipes to clean your hands before you eat. When you’re finished, visit the wash basin to wash your hands off.
15. Conservative Dress Code
India is overall, a conservative country regarding sex and the sexes. When traveling India as a solo female traveler, I like to dress modestly so as not to attract attention. Personally, I like to be respectful and respected.
While times are changing in society and urban youth dress more liberally in larger, well-touristed cities like Delhi, Goa or Mumbai, it’s still smart for female solo travelers to dress modestly and respectfully, so they are prepared for any situation they encounter.
Although westerners may see the sari as sexy and revealing by flashing skin in the middrift and open back, Indians consider short mini skirts, V-neck blouses which show cleavage and off the shoulder blouses to mean sexually confident and improper. Partially due to the popularity of Hollywood and their sexual standards, white foreigners hold a stereotype of being sexually loose, so if your dress is revealing, expect to get stares from Indian men.
If traveling rural towns of India, dress is conservative and blending helps you to stand out less. Even in urban cities, I cross paths with locals from rural localities.
A safe rule of thumb on how to dress in India: No bare shoulders or thigh high micro skirts or short shorts. It’s safe to just cover up and bring a scarf along whenever in doubt. Scarves can also be used when entering temples (especially Sikh ones). I like to buy Indian clothes like the salwar kahmeez (a long long-sleeved shirt and baggy pants) to appropriately blend in. Pajama pants are loose fitting and fun in a boho chic kind of way.
Indians will also look a little higher on you vs a typical tourist, as usually dressing in Indian garb shows your attempt to connect with the country. The Indian long-sleeved tops are lightweight and is cooling in the heat. Kurtas are also good for Indian modesty.
16. Is India safe for travelers?
I’ve gotten a lot of male Indian harassment on YouTube for speaking about this subject. The truth is, traveling India, I have and haven’t experienced the worse that is reported and promoted by the media. Let me explain…
India is not dangerous as it is unpredictable. Firstly, I haven’t experienced or heard of much theft and crime against travelers. There’s a sentiment that some Indian police can be corrupt, but luckily, I’ve not had to go to the police. Aside from your occasionally aggressive tout and scam guides, I’ve felt pretty safe navigating. But it doesn’t mean crime can’t happen. As a female solo traveler, I always practice street smarts. Read my street smart safety tips for female travelers.
Rape and Sexual Harassment in India
The top question of women interested in traveling India is about the rape and sexual harassment situation, we’ve all read in the media. Due to bad media publicity in the past, India has been called out as a country with a smudge on their reputation. Yes, India has a big sexual harassment problem and rape does happen. (Read my shocking experience of witnessing what I believed was rape against a local girl).
But lets look at facts first:
17. India is not considered the top country for rape according to world statistics.
Sweden, the United States and the U.K. take the gold, silver and bronze in the ‘rape category’. Sweden is clocked at 114.9 rapes per 10o,000. India has something like 1.8 per 100,000. Even with the large population and number of unreported rapes in India, the western countries have a rather high number to catch up to.
18. Indian women can feel oppressed and scared about voicing themselves.
In a patriarchal society, men are free to act boldly and have public opportunities. They are seen as an asset to society and breadwinners in the familial structure. Men are very visible in blue-collar jobs, working in restaurants, laundry, and jobs you might find women doing in a western country. Thus, there is an overwhelming ratio of men to women on the streets. This intimidated me as a female solo traveler . It always takes me time to get comfortable with this aspect of India. Many Indian families like to keep their women safe at home and indoors, so they are not subject to male attention and sexual harassment. Indian women are on the streets, only when they need to be. Although younger generations are changing society in bold new ways that offers Indian women a stronger voice in society and this is hopeful.
Nonetheless, in rural and uneducated areas, a girl is seen as a burden to a family. In the past, the family had to give a dowry payment for her marriage into the groom’s family. Female babies in poor families, were found drowned or left to die as it is one more mouth to feed and an expense to the family. So there is still a faint stigma against women.
Indian women can feel like second-rate citizens and unheard, even by their families. Rapes can go unreported, due to the fact the woman is stigmatized, the family shamed (and in some cases, even angry at their daughter for bringing this shame) and the police have not always been helpful in this aspect.
19. Sexual harassment laws in India are strict
Moreso than western culture (however, as in any country, law enforcement doesn’t always catch transgressors).
Did you know that singing lewd songs directed at women is considered sexual harassment? Jail sentence: up to 3 months or fined or both.
Unwanted physical contact against a woman’s consent . Jail sentence: 3 years.
Watching, capturing, sharing images of women in a private act without her consent is voyeurism. Jail sentence: 1-3 years + fine.
I advise female travelers who fear safety to go online and google what Indian law considers a crime of sexual harassment. Know your rights going in the country, so you understand what’s punishable compared to your own country. Read one woman’s account of How it feels to be an Indian woman.
20. Sex Segregation
Although flawed, Indian society is protective of their women. India is cognizant that problems exist and thus, have taken measure in an attempt to control the situation. There are Women Only seats on buses and in metro cars. It’s not a perfect and you will find men occasionally dipping into the seats and metro cars, to escape crowded male spaces. If found in the metro cars, the police will take measures to fine or arrest them.
21. Is traveling as a female solo traveler in India safe?
You might experience eve teasing (public street harassment or molestation) or sexual harassment in the form of light brushing. In one scenario, my boob got grazed by someone’s elbow. My reaction? I laughed a bit. As a westerner, it felt minor. But while a boob graze is seen as accidental and common in a tightly packed Western crowd, it js not common in India. It can be considered sexual harassment.
My friend, fellow solo travel blogger, Solitary Wanderer, experienced a stronger dose of eve teasing. (read here).
Knowing that foreign travelers are more tolerant of such transgressions, some Indian men or boys may try to test that to see how far they can push it. Generally, much unwanted physical contact is a minor infraction to westerners. And these actions are more the exception than the rule.
Tip: Avoid going out in public during Holi festival. While Holi is a beautiful festival, I’ve heard many traveler accounts of eve teasing manifesting under drunken, rowdy fun and throwing of powdered colors. Some female travelers still risk the danger, so they can experience the festivities.
How to deal with sexually harassment in India?
22. Call attention sexual harassment or groping
Fight back by doing an elbow jab to keep them away. I’ve even had little boys try to touch me as a dare and I shoved one away rather hard. Make your upset recognizable and LOUD. Call the attention of the public or police. It’s not supposed to be happening and locals may come down on the offender.
23. Avoid being overly friendly to men.
Although there are many kind, gentlemen in India, I advise women to avoid showing overly-friendly interest or flirting with Indian men, if there is no romantic interest. Politeness can be misinterpreted as an invitation.
24. Avoid giving out your phone number or contact details to a man
In the past I’ve given my number or email out to helpful Indian men who showed concern over my safety. My phone rang several times a day, and I was emailed by one gentleman for a few years.
25. If you reach out for help, look towards families and women first.
Indian families and women have felt concerned for my safety as a solo female traveler. Many have looked out for me or invited me to join them.
When I was staying with my Indian family in Varanasi, the most drastic news broke about a foreign woman getting acid thrown in her face. She was staying with an young Indian man, having relations and then wanted to leave. The Indian family I was staying with at the time, feared my leaving their home, due to this incident. This case was an extreme case that generally doesn’t happen to travelers, but …acid throwing is something Indian women in extreme cases, have been subject to in the past.
What are your India travel tips and things to know before traveling India?
Traveling India for Solo Travelers (playlist)
City Guides and India Travel Tips
As a female solo traveler and YouTuber, I take you inside Indian trains, how I got a foreign tourist quota, how
to get your Sim card and how to navigate Indian transportation, food and cities. These are all filmed as I travel through India alone, so you can see the degree of difficulty or not. I love India but I am certainly not invulnerable to trip difficulties, worry or culture shock.
Related posts you may like:
Things to know before you go to India
Planning a Trip to India | Top 5 Things
Is taking the Indian Bus Safe for Solo Travelers?
India Survival Guide | India Tips
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very nice article, the culture of Indian and Nepal is similar because of Hindu, we both country has many gods, it is adventure for culture lovers and also trek to Himalayas nature lands.
Thanks Himal. Yesss… very similar. Both are a wonderful adventure– although I do find Nepal a bit more laid back than India. 😉
Hi nice article. i noticed that in India that you have to know the culture!!! Actually Indian culture is more advanced, but one has to understand it.
And in that, single travelling girls who are having an adventure dont really fit into the culture, so that is one reason there is some difficulty.. seeing a lone girl wandering around just looks totally strange in indian culture!!!! Indian Girls are always surrounded by family.
A cultured girl is one who is taken care of in every part of her life. She does not take on many stresses that men do. She does not talk to men outside of the family
An independant girl who talks to any man is considered uncultured, and this sometimes equated to a prostitute. Also western girls have a got a bit of a bad reputation because of movies. Western girls are known to have many boyfriends and be loose because of the image given in movies(which is actually a realistic picture…) My husband told me that, who is Indian
Anyways if you have people with you then there is no problem or awkwardness
This reply honestly doesn’t help our reputation – especially since it seems you are a woman yourself. She has already taken quite a positive side to our cultural differences from the West.
Hi Christine… your article is very informative and it’s great to see my beloved, but confusing, country neatly captured. As a girl, having grown up in India and now living abroad, the stark differences of what we had learnt as kids about sexual harassment and what we should stand up against vs. how I see it now is quite apparent. A lot of things can go wrong, and I’m glad you’ve mentioned that reaching out to the public (especially women and families) should definitely get you the help you need. Moral policing is much more effective than the real cops! 🙂
@Leela Yes, western culture is much different in attitude when it comes to speaking up. I’ve always found women and families in a lot of places as more protective of women.
I forgot to touch upon the Indian police as I hear they’re to be avoided in India. The west might have corrupt officials but often they are in different sectors of corruption which don’t affect normal public.
you have given useful information. India’s culture is different, has a different kind of dress code in India. I like reading your blog. Thanks for sharing the great information. Good luck!
Your post is great and even the comments are informative. Thanks!
Great post! I’ve been to India a number of times (mostly for work). I love visiting although all that chaos can exhausting. Here are a few tips from my experiences there:
1. If you’re there for work, bring a local with you if you go shopping at an open air market. You’ll get better deals as a result with less tourist mark-up.
2. Consider going vegetarian while you’re in India. The dishes are amazing and you’re less likely to get ‘Delhi Belly’ if you only eat cooked veg dishes.
3. Don’t every drink the water. Even brush your teeth with bottled water and close your eyes and mouth in the shower.
4. Flights from Europe tend to arrive in the middle of the night. I used to travel to Hyderabad so I’d take a flight with a layover in Delhi, spend the night at the transit hotel in the airport, and then catch my Air India flight to Hyderabad in the morning. Always made me feel safer than the thought of arriving at 3 am at my destination.
5. Think carefully about the timing of your trip. I’ve visited in February, March, May, and November. The regional monsoons can wreak a bit of havoc and make exploring less fun. May was always *very* hot in Hyderabad. November and February were perfect.
Great Tips and thanks for sharing!!
That’s quite well summed up!
Thank you Ashutosh!
Thank you Patricia! =D
Read the story of Solitary Wanderer. Horrible Incident. Can’t even imagine how that German girl would have felt; getting groped in front of Police Officers in broad Daylight! But that is the way it is in the developing nations. It is the mindset and something to do with the society and upbringing; I think.
@Raushan: Those are both unfortunate cases, I agree. I hear it gets pretty rowdy and drunken during Holi,such that not even Indian women go out, much. But that’s something our travel guidebooks don’t always mention. It’s sad that bad apples can spoil a barrel. =(