Trip Coach: January 16, 2007

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Diane Mehta, former editor of Fodor's India, answered your questions about India.

Diane Mehta: Hi Everyone,
Thanks for joining me today. I'm ready to answer your questions.
Cheers,
Diane

with Fodor's India

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Miami, FL: We have been to Northern India, but have hesitated to visit Southern India due to the hot and rainy weather. What is the best time to visit Southern India in order to avoid the heat and rain?

Diane Mehta: Hi, and thanks for joining me. Like the North, South India is perfectly reasonable in winter, from late November to early February. (India's monsoon takes place during our summer, around July and August---and leading up to that time, and after it, it's also very sticky.)


Except for the Himalayas, which is ideal to visit in spring or fall, the rest of India is best seen during winter time. And if you go up into the hills, say in Coorg or Munnar, in the South, the temperature will be very mild---cold enough for a thick sweater or jacket at night.

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Hollis, NH: We are planning a first trip to India next December going to the most important sites. We will also be going south to Kerala and Cochin. What shots and Medicines should we take before we leave

Diane Mehta: The safest way to decide is to check the Center for Disease Control website, and schedule an appointment at a travel clinic more than a month in advance. (cdc.gov/travel) Anti-malaria medicine and bug spray is a must. At any clinic, they'll want to know which region you're visiting at what time of year, so they can give you shots necessary for diseases that are prevalent in that climate. It also depends on how up to date you are with your vaccinations. For example, on my last trip, in winter, I visited Bombay, Rajasthan, Goa, and Kerala, and got a full round of shots for Tetanus, Typhoid, Polio (adult), and Hepatitis A. I would also recommend asking your doctor for antibiotics you can bring with you in case of diarrhea, Pepto Bismol, and anything else you might need for pain or inflammation, like Calamine lotion (though toothpaste works great for bug bites).

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Georgetown, DE: Can you recommend any sites or activities in India for elementary school children?

Diane Mehta: I think a tiger or jungle safari would be your best bet. The bigger cities don't have a lot of open space---a park or two, perhaps---and the smaller cities are great for sightseeing and temples. Most kids would be excited to see elephants, tigers, and other animals, however! In this forum I've already mentioned the Dubare Elephant Camp and Jungle Lodges in Karnataka, and Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan for tigers, but there is also the Green Magic Nature Resort in Northern Kerala (tree houses 5 hours north of Kochi, or Cochin), and the eco-based Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in Southern Kerala, south of Trivandrum. Both are excellent, and a lot of fun.

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Austin, TX: Is solo travel in India safe? Are their particular locations to be avoided? What about do's and don't for single travlers? I am in my sixties and very active. Finding a travel companion is not easy and in most cases the single "surcharge" is enough to discourage most single travelers; so I thought if I go it alone you could provide some guidance.

Diane Mehta: I traveled extensively through India, twice, by myself. One thing you may want to do is wear a wedding ring, so men won't harass you as much. Also, if you're alone it's advisable to stay in better hotels, which are safer and cleaner---so if something goes wrong or you get sick you're in good hands.

Also, you might consider joining a tour for part of the trip, or at least taking day tours where you'll meet other people. India can be exhausting and frustrating for anyone, and that gets multiplied when you're solo. So the more things you have set up in advance, the better. I would not recommend taking local buses anywhere alone, though a tour bus for a day trip will be fine. Trains are okay, but make sure you go first-class, as it will be safer, more comfortable, and much cleaner. I also wouldn't go to the less-traveled regions, like Sikkim, or along the east coast, since that's harder to get to, and the more rural, the less safe.

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Knoxville, TN: Is it difficult for a single woman to travel in India?

Diane Mehta: Not at all! I did it twice, each time for a month, and people were friendly and helpful wherever I went. Please see my responses to another woman in this forum, who asked the same question.

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Knoxville, TN: Is it preferable to book short tours in India with local travel agencies? Can you recommend reliable agencies?

Diane Mehta:
I've always done it that way, and it has been perfectly fine---and significantly cheaper. For example, in Manali, in the Himalayas, I booked private treks for $20/day. U.S. outfits charge a fortune.


It's difficult to recommend any one touring agency if you're not sure where you want to go, however. It's best to decide what you want to do first, and then find resources. There aren't really huge agencies with offices all across the country. I usually go with recommendations from hotels, as they tend to recommend the same people, and they stick with agencies and drivers who are reliable.

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Medford, OR: Dear Diane Mehta: My wife and I, both seniors 68-72, are planning a month-long trip to India around Christmas 2007. I was born in Bombay but left for the US 48 years ago. We haven't seen much of India. I would like to travel to places like Kerala, Calcutta, Khajuraho, Varanasi and other major landmarks of India. We would appreciate any advice you can provide in planning our trip. Thanking you in advance and with best wishes, Russy

Diane Mehta: You might want to start with deciding what kind of landscape(s) you want to see, and plan your trip from there. Rajasthan, in the northwest, is dusty desert, and it's more touristy, but it's filled with spectacular forts, princely sights, and hotels. Goa, which is beach and jungle, is similarly well-trammeled, but beautiful especially in the southern parts, and good for a beach break.


From Delhi you can take short flights to Khajuraho and Varanasi, and spend a day or two at each place, which would certainly be lovely. The erotic temples at Khajuraho and the ghats and smells/sights in Varanasi would be quite an experience. You may have to fly back to Delhi in order to get to Calcutta, however. And keep in mind travel distances: Kerala, which is one of my favorite places in India, is all the way at India's southwest tip, while Calcutta is all the way east, near Bangladesh.


You could combine a trip to Kerala and Karnataka, the state directly north of Kerala, but even then you'll be doing a lot of driving or flying. Karnataka is gorgeous but more rural, so you have to drive a bit to get places, like Coorg or Nagarhole, from the airport. In Kerala you could start in Kochi (Cochin), basically a lagoon dotted with islands (and ferries), and from there take a boat trip through the backwaters and down to Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.


Or, instead, you could drive east up into the hills of Munnar, in the Western Ghats, where you can stay at a tea plantation. (I'd recommend the Windermere or Mahindra Lake View, though there are plenty of options: hotelskerala.com/munnar.htm) In Munnar the views are spectacular, it's much cooler, and it's a welcome, leafy break from the rest of India.

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Fort Worth, TX: We're planning a trip next January/February. Do you have suggestions for a reputable agent in New Delhi to contact for setting up a self-guided tour? Thanks, Lorna

Diane Mehta: Peirce & Leslie are reliable agents in New Delhi (peirceandleslie.com). That said, with any travel agent in India, you'd be wise to check the rack rates and flight costs online first, if you choose to use an agent. Otherwise they'll often give you a lump sum price without a breakdown. Also find out beforehand what the cancellation policy is, or buy travel insurance in case something goes wrong.


Also, I should say that I prefer making reservations myself. Now you can do everything online---flights and hotels. If you go on a hotel discount site, or you email the hotel yourself and check rates for different time periods, you'll sometimes get a better rate. (For example, if you avoid high-tourist season, from Dec 10 to Jan 5 or so, you'll get better rates. Late November and late Jan-Feb are even cheaper, and the weather's still tolerable.) Here's a list of airlines: indianairlines.nicjetairways.comkingfisherairlines.comgoair.comairsahara.comallianceair.comairdeccan.netspicejet.comgoair.inflykingfisher.com

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Seattle, WA: My husband and I will travel to So. India in Oct. for 2 weeks. Places of interest are: Mysore, Madikeri and the Kerala coastal area. We'll come from Kathmandu via DEL by air. Where should we start? Chennai or Bangalore, and select what mode of transportation? Any suggestions on Ayurveda spas/hotels in the Kerala area? Thank you

Diane Mehta: You can fly from Delhi to Bangalore, then drive southwest to Mysore, and continue on for a few more hours west to Madikeri---the capital of Coorg---in Southern Karnataka. Near Madikeri is Nagarhole National Park, a great spot for game viewing. You can stay at the Kabini River Lodge (luxurious cabins within the park) or visit the Dubare Elephant Camp through Jungle Lodges. There are also plenty of other plantations and jungle resorts in the area.
For ayurveda spas/hotels, Ashtamudi resort is serious about ayurveda and yoga, and it's non-touristy, eco-friendly, and family-run (and reasonably priced). Ashtamudi is a short drive or boat ride from Quilon, on the coast, or 3 hours south of Kochi (Cochin). You can, alternatively, fly into Trivandrum and drive north a few hours to Quilon/Ashtamudi. (FYI, most resorts in Kerala offer some kind of yoga and ayurvedic treatments, though they're oriented toward novices.) If you're hard-core about yoga, the place to go is Sivananda Ashram near Trivandrum.

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Portland, TX: With only two weeks to spend in India, is it better to move around, spending two days in each target city; or, take day trips from a base? Maybe base one week of day trips out of Dehli, and move to a southern city and take day trips from there? (I am an experienced traveler, not afraid of getting off the beaten path.)

Diane Mehta: Given flight delays and driving distances from any major city (including Delhi) to other sites, I'd suggest doing a day trip or two here or there, but spending the bulk of time hopping from one place to another.


Most smaller towns can be seen in a few days, and beyond several sights in each place (for example, better-known temples), there won't be much more to see. And while Delhi's an historical city, Bombay's a shopping city. So if you're keen on doing a lot of shopping, you might want to spend an extra day or two in a larger city like Bombay.


Instead, I'd chart a course, say, north to south along the west coast, or do a temple circuit and jungle lodge (for example, the Kabini River Lodge in Karnataka), or tea or coffee plantations in the south (tea plantations are in Munnar, in Kerala, and coffee plantations in Coorg, in Karnataka). In Karnataka, especially, you'll definitely be off the beaten path.

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Sedona, AZ: I am traveing in Oct '07 from Kathmandu to Buddhist pilgrimage sites - Sarnath near Varansi and Bodh Gaya. As a first time traveler, I am a bit at sea on how to do this. I am traveling with my 14 yr old son and we need to know if we can fly into Varanasi directly from Kathmandu or must we go to Delhi first? Also, we are interested in hiring a car and driver, rather than attempting renting a car or the rail system (we only have a week for this portion of the trip). How do we find a car and driver? Lastly, if a driver is hired, is it possible to go to Kushinigara within that week also? That question is one based on the time it takes to travel between locations. Am I attempting too much? Thanks!

Diane Mehta: It does sound like a lot, since you're talking about visiting three different states. Jet Airways flies from Kathmandu to Delhi in the afternoon, so you'll have to stay in Delhi overnight before catching the next day's flight to Varanasi (also midday). (Indian Airlines used to have a Kathmandu-Varanasi flight, but right now it's not on the schedule. But it's wise to check all the airlines, in case things change.)


Keep in mind that flights in India, especially in the north (because of weather in the mountains and fog), are prone to delays---sometimes for hours, sometimes overnight. Do not try to rent a car yourself, but do get a car and driver, which is easily arranged from any hotel---the most reliable way to arrange a good car and driver service. If you do it in advance through a travel agent, it will cost you double or triple what you'll get locally.


To get to Sarnath from Varanasi, you can easily take a taxi, rickshaw, train, or bus---it's just 45 minutes away. But going to Bodh Gaya, in Bihar, and also Kushinigara in Uttar Pradesh, will be difficult in that amount of time. First and foremost, you need to check the flight schedules, since there may be only one or two flights per week (probably from Calcutta) to Bodh Gaya. And to get to Kushinigara, you have to take a bus or train (train would be better, about 6 hours) from Varanasi to Gorakhpur, and then it's an hour and a half drive from Gorakhpur to Kushinigara. (I'd recommend hiring a car and driver from Gorakhpur to Kushinigara, as it will be easier, safer, and more comfortable than a bus.)

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Ironwoord, MI: Is Antimalarial medicine needed? Travel will be the "Golden Triangle."

Diane Mehta: I would take the antimalaria medicine regardless of where you go, since people visit the larger cities from rural areas, and there's no telling whether you'll get sick in a big city or in a small one. To be safe, I always take the malaria pills. And especially since you start them a week before leaving, you always have a chance to see whether you feel any serious side effects---which is rare.

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San Francisco, CA: Hi Diane Mehta, My son and his wife would like to honeymoon the Golden Triangle in North India on November 6, 2007 and also visit a tiger game/wildlife sanctuary totaling about 12 days. Though he was born in Madras he knows little about India as he came here as a six year old. Should he take an escorted group tour on American Plan or try doing it on own? Thank you.

Diane Mehta: That's a great question, since so many people do exactly this trip. I think if you're on a honeymoon you may want to consider going it alone---you'll have leisure, you'll get to stay in some of the world's best hotels, and you'll eat better. And assuming you're talking about the Delhi-Agra-Jaipur trip (called the Golden Triangle), it's an easy trip to take, as the flights are good, and nothing's difficult to get to. (A group tour, or even a day tour, is better for the harder-to-reach and rural areas.)


Plus you'll get a chance to visit Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan's famous royal hunting retreat and tiger sanctuary. (Best time to visit here is Oct-March, and transport around the park is by government jeep.) It's worth it---most people do end up seeing tigers (and other wildlife) there. And there are quite a few jungle lodges around here, ranging from exorbitant to reasonable.


In Delhi, Ashok Travels and the Delhi Tourism Department both run tours of the historical sights---or what I like to do is hire someone through the hotel to give you a more personalized look at the city (both Old and New Delhi). And if you're on your own, you can arrange a stay at Delhi's loveliest hotel, The Imperial, a combo of Art Deco, colonial, and Victorian styles. They have terrific food, and the interior is gorgeous.


In Jaipur, the Oberoi Rajvilas and Taj Rambagh Palace are both stunning, if not a bargain. (But if you're going in early Nov you may get a decent deal.) Agra's top hotel is the Oberoi Amarvilas, again worth stopping at for a meal at least. (Agra is a 2-3 hour drive from Delhi, doable in a day.)


Finally, if you want to do some serious shopping, and also get clothes tailored for cheap, you'll only have time to do that if you're on your own.

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Boston, MA: I hope to spend several months in Dharmsala. What is the best time to be there in terms of weather/climate? Seeing wildflowers? Avoiding biting (flies, mosquitos) insects?

Diane Mehta: Dharamsala, a hill station in the state of Himachal Pradesh, is a hub for trekking, so you'll have no problem seeing wildflowers wherever you go! Fall or spring is ideal, since the summer's too rainy and Dec-March is pretty cold.


The Mountaineering Institute just north of Dharamsala arranges trekking expeditions in the forest. But if you're there for a while you should be able to find a private guide and arrange walks/treks for cheaper. (But start with an official group and see how it goes.)


Incidentally, you'll see plenty of beautiful Buddhist temples there, frequented by the many Tibetan refugees who have settled there. And anywhere in India I always bring mosquito repellent, just in case, though it's not less of a problem outside the rainy season or in the alpine areas. Since it's the Himalayas, and out of reach, I'd bring all the possible medicine you need for every possible circumstance---especially since you'll be there for a while.

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Fairhope, AL: What is the availability of bottled water in the more rural areas?

Diane Mehta: Bottled water is available throughout India, even in the less-traveled parts.

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Denver, CO: I will be meeting my daughter in India in February. She has been there for several months and knows the culture well. We will be spending most of our time in Rajasthan. Do you have any good ideas for places that we must see that are somewhat off the beaten path?

Diane Mehta: Rajasthan is terribly off the beaten track---it's one of the top destinations for both foreign and Indian tourists. But few make it all the way west to Jaisalmer, a fort town in the Thar desert, close to Pakistan. It's a good six-hour drive or train ride (late at night) from the city of Jodhpur, so it's quite out of the way, and it's a great place to arrange several-day camel treks in the Thar desert, outside the city. (Jodhpur is also a good base for camel safaris, if you don't make it all the way out to Jaisalmer.)


Alternatively, you can go to more popular places like Udaipur, which is a gorgeous hilly town built around many lakes, and take day trips to Ranakpur, a huge, beautifully carved Jain temple in the forest, and to Kumbhalgarh Fort, a citadel on a hill (if you're up to it, you can visit both in one very long day). West of Udaipur is Mt. Abu, a Jain pilgrimage site and the only hill station in Rajasthan.

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Easton, CT: My husband and I (ages 60) are going to north and south India Oct. 2007 for a 27 day vacation and will end up in Chennai. Should we substitute time in Chennai and visit Periyar Tiger Trail for a day or two? Would Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary and Nat. Park do instead? We want guaranteed tiger sighting. What is most worthwhile?

Diane Mehta: That's a tough question. I don't think you can guarantee tiger sightings anywhere.


Periyar is larger (more than 700 square kilometers), but there are, if I remember correctly, less than 50 or so tigers there. Still, the people working there have been doing it for a long time, and are bound to be excellent trackers.


On the other hand, Mudumalai is smaller, over 300 square kilometers, but I'm not sure exactly how many tigers they have. But since you'd already be in Tamil Nadu it would certainly be much easier to get to, and perhaps a better use of your time.


Perhaps the most likely place to see tiger (the most sightings I've heard from other travelers) is Ranthambore National Park, in Rajasthan.

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Washington, D.C.: My son and his Indian fiance will marry in Chennai in late December. I'm aware of the fact that this is the time when the whole world of expat India returns home. Is there any way that we can book a budget roundtrip flight from DC to Chennai? We are willing to fly round the world tickets. Thanks, Jack and Ruth

Diane Mehta: The prices actually aren't all that much different from one season to the next. The problem is actually getting a flight, and paying top prices for a hotel. If you book before the summer, with a local agent, you may get a slightly discounted price ($1200 vs $1500), with a stop in Europe. But once fall comes around, you'll have a harder time booking any flights at all.


One piece of advice is to have your son's fiance arrange a group discount rate at a hotel, so you won't be paying standard high-season rates. If they're guaranteed a booking of, say, 50 or 100 people, they tend to bargain down.

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Easton, CT: My husband and I will be in India Oct. 2007. We will be at MANVAR DESERT CAMP (tent). It seems very isolated (Thar Desert). Is it safe?

Diane Mehta: Manvar's right between Jodhpur and Jaisalmer, maybe a 3-hour drive west of Jodhpur. Indeed, it's isolated. The Thar desert is punctuated here and there by towns, but if you're with a hotel/safari camp I wouldn't worry. There's no saying whether one place is safer than the next, but if you're traveling together (versus a woman alone), a safari camp in the Thar desert should not be a problem.

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Easton, CT: Can we mail payment and visa application forms to Consulate General of India in New York? If so,how long to get it back? I get no one to speak to when I call.

Diane Mehta: Indeed, you have to call and call and call. After 40 minutes or so, someone usually picks up---other times they don't.


Nevertheless, you can do it this way, but I'd recommend giving yourself plenty of time. Usually the turnaround time is a few days, but as high season approaches it may take a few nail-biting weeks. Go ahead and mail the payment and application, and make sure you follow the directions precisely. Worse comes to worse, you can actually go to the Consulate and inquire about your Visa. It is unlikely, however, to get to that point.

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Minneapolis, MN: My question is: Does the toy train from Kalka to Shimla operate in the winter months? I will be in Northern India from February 18 - March 4, 2007 on a business trip. I have traveled to India before and have traveled to Shimla by train. However, my previous trip to Shimla was during August. I would like to visit Shimla during a different time of year. My 4th Edition of Fodor's India has served me well on my previous four trips to India. However, I can not find anything in the book to indicate whether or not the toy train to Shimla is seasonal or if it operates year round. And, if it is not seasonal, is there any source of heat in the train cars during the winter months? There will be three adult passengers on the train trip. My train trip to Shimla would be during the week of Feb. 26, 2007. Thank you, Ann

Diane Mehta: It's my understanding that it does, though naturally you'll have weather to deal with. (But you should check with the Himachal Pradesh government to make sure.) That's a very good question --- whether it's heated --- I've never taken the toy train, but the journey from Kalka to Shimla isn't very long, so even if it isn't heated the trip will be quick. Feel free to email me at dianemehta@yahoo.com next week and I'll look into it for you.

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Yonkers, NY: I would love to travel to India, but none of my friends want to go there. What is the best tour group for a single woman to see India? When is the best time of year to go?

Diane Mehta: I think you should first figure out what you want to see and do --- do you want to trek, say, up in the Himalayas? Or would you rather see temples and cities, and the major tourist sites?


For trekking, I would go with the oldest and best established U.S. companies, like Mt Sobek Travel or Wilderness Travel. They tend to keep their groups small, and they've been doing it for decades, so they really know the areas they're traveling in. And you'll be well taken care of. Mt. Sobek does more trekking in the Himalayas, while Wilderness offers a variety of tours, from Rajasthan to South India.


If you're traveling to the Himalayas, most tours would leave in the spring or fall. The rest of India is usually best seen from Nov-Feb.

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Diane Mehta: Thanks for all your questions everyone! I had a great time, and hope I helped you out with your planning. Look for more tips in Fodor's Indi.

Best, Diane Mehta

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