Why go for a group?

Jump the queues — often tour groups have tickets pre-arranged to major or busy attractions meaning you don’t have to wait in crazy, boring long lines to get into an attraction.

Everything’s done for you — it’s all organised on your behalf, including how you get there, what you see and where you stay. Just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

It’s super social — if you’re on a multi-week tour you get to know your other travelers.

Local expert — most tour groups provide you with a host or guide knowledgeable about the area you’re travelling in/to.

It’s all inclusive! Once you’ve paid your fee for the group tour, all you’ll really need is spending money (note: look to what meals are included as sometimes not every meal is covered in the fee).

Skill up — choose a tour group that has some kind of ‘learning’ aspect involved (like cooking school, a local craft workshop etc).

Big and small — there’s SO many group tour providers to choose from and you can go as big or as small as you want (check out the “tour capacity” to see how many you’ll be travelling with).

You don’t need to group it the entire way — consider something like adding a small five day group tour in the middle of a trip.

What are the pitfalls of group travel?

Follow the flag — a big downside to being a part of a group is that you’re a member of a really conspicuous pack, so you don’t blend in and can be a target of pesky street vendors.

Odd man out — group tours can be a bit like travel Survivor if you don’t like you’re fellow travellers you may want to have yourself voted off the bus stat!

Everything’s done for you — the downside to having things organised for you is that the choice of where to eat and stay is taken away from you.

I want OUT! Group tours do offer some free time but you’re on a schedule, so this will be the first thing to get cut if there’s a scheduling issue.

 5 golden rules for group travel

Check the total capacity of the tour so you know if you’re joining a big beast or a petite bunch.

Read up on the itinerary — make sure you’re covering the things YOU want to see. If it cover 3/4’s of what you wanted to see then it’s a great option.

Try and travel with a companion — that way if you can’t stand the other travellers you’ll have someone to talk to and you can share your accommodation with them.

Choose a tour group that has an ethical or sustainable ethos.

Find a tour group that facilitates a lot of free time so you can go off exploring yourself, also meaning you spend your traveler cash with locals and inject some money into local economies.

  • Taken from an interview of Chris from Lonely Planet.  You can read the full interviewhttp://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/drive/group-travel/9371388

Intoxicating, crazy, exasperating, wonderful, beautiful, daunting, overwhelming,  fantastic.  India is all these things, and more. (Lonely Planet)

How can you possibly prepare yourself?  Having lived, worked and traveled frequently throughout India,  I have put together 10 of my best travel tips for women so that you can  get the most out of your travels in India.

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  1. Try to get fit and healthy before you embark on your journey. Make sure you have good gut health.  I recommend you take good pro-botic before you travel as that will ensure that any nasties will stay away. There is a product on the market called grapefruit seed or citrus seed extract; you will need 10 drops a in bottled water each day This will help with any tummy bugs.  Both products can be found at a local health food shop or online.
  2. India can be dusty and dirty and in some of the bigger cities there can be pollution (depend on which time of year you are there). Bring a facemask which can be worn in the bigger cities.  The ones that will keep 80% of the pollutant particles out are 3M (the company) and the number of the mask is N95.
  3. Pack lightly as India has a lot of stairs and uneven roads. I recommend you bring a solid suitcase on wheels.  If you are travelling on an internal flight, most of the airlines will only allow 15kgs per passenger and 7kgs as carry on.  This rule is usually enforced and you will be required to pay the excess luggage fee around $10 per kg extra (which is payable by you).
  4. If traveling between September and December then pack light, cotton clothes.  Make sure that your necklines aren’t too low or your skirt lengths too high.  Bare arms are permissible.  In some temples, your head has to be covered so bring a scarf (lightweight if it is hot).  A scarf is invaluable when travelling as it can cover up, use for protection against the sun and also make your outfit be dressier.   Don’t bring high heels and leather soled shoes – As the pavements, roads, surfaces are very uneven, bring flat ‘sensible’ shoes, either walking shoes or if it is hot bring travelling sandals which can air your feet as well as provide protection.
  5. Don’t bring any expensive jewelery and keep your money tucked away safely. Either bring a handbag that you can cross the strap over your body or keep your handbag zipped up.     India is a poor country so best not to tempt dishonesty.
  6. India has its own time, slow! It is country where everything works slowly and this can take some adjustment.  Whilst planes run on time (mostly) and your days activities will leave on time also,  things can take longer than you are expecting.  Have patience!  It is the journey not the destination that is important.
  7. Whilst we are not used to tipping in Australia, it is encouraged and accepted in India. People you will come across whilst travelling won’t earn so much money so tipping is a good way to show your appreciation for a job well done, it also helps subsidize their otherwise low wages.  The average tip in a restaurant would be around IR100-IR200 per bill.  For groups it would be a bigger tip.  It is a good practice whilst you there.
  8. Don’t drink from the local tap or brush your teeth under the shower. Have a supply of bottled water or there may be places which say ‘drinking water’ as the water supply has been filtered (see above also for grapefruit seed extract).   Only buy food from recommended places – mainly good restaurants.  Don’t eat off the streets especially cut fruit and try to stick to vegetarian food in India. It can be questionable about how the meat is prepared and cooked.
  9. Beer and wine are served in up market restaurants and may not be available everyday of your tour. In this case, you may have to have a couple of ‘alcohol’ free days on your trip – particularly in out of the way places.  Wine is expensive in India.
  10. Men will stare at you in India, mainly on the streets. Your interactions during your travels with be mainly with men.   Men work in the hotels, shops, drive the cars/buses you will be travelling it.  The women are mostly invisible except on the streets shopping.  Keep your interactions with men in a slightly standoff manner and ignore the stares.   They are not used to seeing women in larger groups by themselves.

Finally, India is a country of men (where the women can often be invisible).   It has a strong patriarchal system, a modest and conservative country as far as women are concerned so it is courtesy to adhere to some of these tips in particular about the dress and behavior.

Vikas Kumar (our Tour Leader) performed  Pind Daan Ritual last week on the banks of the sacred Ganges in Varanasi. The ritual was following the death of one of our  Leaders (Amber Chand) whose mother, Asha Chand passed away at the age of 95 in the UK recently.   Pind Daan is a mandatory ritual which is to be performed after death. Pind Daan gives an ultimate relief to the departed soul and paves way into the world of peace.

Amber describes her mother as  a wonderful, most beloved soul. Born in India, lived in Uganda after marriage, and then in England for the reminder. The first Indian woman lawyer in East Africa.  Twice a refugee – first during partition (1947) and then after Idi Amin (1971-79),  the African dictator expelled her family out Uganda. She was a wise soul,  Amber lovingly remembers.

We are proud of you Vikas Kumar to offering to perform this important Hindu ceremony as it is considered a a great honour to perform this ceremony by someone not related to you.  May you rest in peace Asha.

 

Vikas Kumar performing Pind Daan ceremony in Varanasi December 2017
Vikas Kumar performing Pind Daan ceremony in Varanasi December 2017

 

“India, incredible, intoxicating and almost impossible to imagine” which is how this cover of this months Qantas magazine. Step beyond..with a great photo of the Chand Baori, in the village of Abhaneri.

 

Abhaneri is a village in the Dausa district of Rajasthan state in India. It is situated at a distance of 95 km from Jaipur, on the Jaipur-Agra road.

Abhaneri was originally named Abha Nagri, which means “city of brightness,” but due to mispronunciation, the name was changed. The city is now in ruins, but it attracts tourists from across the globe. Chand Baori consists of 3,500 narrow steps over 13 stories. It extends approximately 30 metres into the ground making it one of the deepest and largest stepwells in India.

 

Spiti Valley in India is a very remote location with limited tourist infrastructure.  This makes this part of the world a little-visited but rewarding destination. Voted as number 8 of the of Lonely Planet Best in Travel Regions 2018 this is a must for adventurers who want to see and experience extreme beauty, remoteness and never to be repeated landscape ever again. From the ancient Monasteries of Tabo, Dhankar and Ky, you will also be able  take a glimpse in the exotic life of these remote and isolated communities of Kaza and the small villages that make up this beautiful valley.  SpitiValleyTour2018

As one of their writers describes the Spiti Valley  – “Imagine an arid land set high in the Indian Himalaya, a high-altitude desert punctuated by small patches of green and miniature villages of white, flat-roofed houses perched below stark rocky hillsides and jagged snow-covered peaks. Picture high passes blocked by snow and ice for half the year, and scattered stabs of colour from fluttering prayer flags and precariously perched Buddhist monasteries.
John Noble, Lonely Planet writer  

There has never been a better time to come and enjoy this amazing place.  Get there before it becomes popular!

If it is one thing that India does really well, they know how to throw great parties and festivals.  They are a  mecca of colour, culture and brightness.  Weddings in all their glitziness, music, beautifully dressed people outstrip anywhere in the world.  Their festivals are no exception.  They are full of colour, music, marigolds, camels and whatever is on offer.  One festival has all that and an added bonus, camels! Where else in the world would you find a camel fair with all that thrown in.  Pushkar in India of course.  Situated about an hour from Jaipur in Rajasthan, in the middle of the desert and is also a very spiritual town to boot!  It’s annual Camel Festival is a big draw card and certainly worth a visit.  We run a tour each year but you can also travel with our help if you wish.  Treat yourself to something very different, you won’t be disappointed.PushkarCamelFair

Pilgrimages are a part of nearly every religion. The faithful set out in hopes of finding virtue and gaining merit. Among Buddhists, they visit places where a spiritual master once spent time meditating. His presence makes the place seem somehow blessed or charged, as if there is some kind of electricity around it. Pilgrims come to feel these mysterious vibrations. They try to share in the visions of the master. Along their road, they undertake hardship with no thought of material reward. Their every step, every movement, becomes filled with a sense of spiritual progress.

We Buddhists believe that merit is accumulated when you take part in something religious, with discipline and faith, because in doing so you shape a proper attitude within. With the right attitude, any journey to a sacred place becomes a pilgrimage. In our tradition, the Buddha advised that in times to come people interested in his teachings should be told about the places associated with the major events of his life. His purpose was not to ensure the aggrandizement of the person of the Buddha, but rather the welfare of his followers. We believe that expressing respect and admiration for the qualities of the Buddha—by making offerings or undertaking a pilgrimage—contributes to our own spiritual progress.

There is a strong nomadic strain in the Tibetans, which lends itself to the rigors of pilgrimage. Our land itself is a source of spiritual inspiration, not only because of the profusion of temples and monasteries, but because we regard even the physical features of the land as sacred. Mount Kailash in western Tibet is especially famous. Buddhists revere it as the sacred location of the meditational deity Chakrasamvara. For Hindus, it is the abode of the deities Shiva and Parvati. Jains and Sikhs have their own special associations with it. Even for those without a specific faith, the mountain’s physical form and color make it a natural symbol of purity.

For Tibetans, India is also a holy land. It was the birthplace of the founder of Buddhist culture and the source of the wisdom brought to our mountains hundreds of years ago by Indian saints and seers. My first opportunity to pay my respects there came in 1956, when I was invited to attend celebrations of the 2,500th anniversary of the Buddha’s birth. I was overjoyed. I was to have a chance to visit Bodhgaya, the place that, like every Buddhist, I associated with the highest achievements of the spiritual path, the Buddha’s attainment of perfect enlightenment.

When I finally stood in the presence of the seat of enlightenment, I was profoundly moved. Reflecting on Shakyamuni Buddha’s great accomplishment in this place, I also could not fail to remember his overwhelming kindness to all sentient beings. Not only did he achieve perfection himself, but also he revealed that each of us has the potential to do so, too. I believed then, as I do now, that the teachings of the Buddha could lead not only to inner peace in the lives of individuals, but also to peace between nations. At Bodhgaya, as at other Buddhist sites, I was also filled with admiration for the masterpieces of Indian religious art, expressions of creative genius and profound faith. I was reminded that sectarianism and communal conflict have in the past harmed this great heritage. Yet ultimately, India’s underlying spirit of tolerance and religious freedom has always restored peace and calm.

Essentially, all religions teach us to discipline and transform ourselves so that we can achieve inner peace and a kind heart. Yet today, in different parts of the world, we see the flames of conflict being fanned in the name of religion. People take up arms in the name of religion only because they are too narrow-minded to grasp the true meaning of their respective faiths.

I firmly believe we can take steps to help nurture understanding and harmony among religions, and thus promote peace and security. One of the important ways of doing this is to encourage contacts among the faiths, perhaps by visiting others’ places of pilgrimage. If possible, they can pray together; if not, they can just sit in silent meditation. Pilgrimages like this are an immensely valuable and deep experience.

It was in this spirit that, in 1993, I went to Jerusalem, a site holy to three of the world’s great religions. I went to the Wailing Wall with Jewish friends. I visited Christian places and prayed with Christian friends, and then I visited the Mount Rock, the holy place of our Muslim friends and prayed with them. I have also paid visits to various Hindu, Islamic, Jain and Sikh shrines and places holy to Zoroastrians both in India and abroad. Sometimes we prayed together and sometimes meditated together in silence.

More recently, I joined Christian and Buddhist leaders in a pilgrimage of prayers, meditation and dialogue at Bodhgaya. Each morning under the Bodhi Tree, we all sat together and meditated. Since the Buddha came more than 2,500 years ago, and since Jesus Christ came almost 2,000 years ago, I think that this was the first time such a meeting had taken place. (Source: Newsweek  April 23rd 2007, edited for Ekno Experience)

Amritsar has changed since I was last there.  It has been updated, modernized.   There is now 4 storey car park and a huge open air mall which spans 2 of the main connecting streets leading up to the Golden Temple.  The shops are secluded by a light brown and maroon façade, the names of the shops painted in the same text and there is not a neon-in-your face light to be found.

Of course, you don’t need all the glitz and glamour.  The Golden Temple is it….all rolled into one.  From the moment you wash your feet in the foot bath, there is a transformation and you are hooked.  The balmy evening, the marble, the vast amount of people, to sounds of the music rising from the actual temple.  It is luring and enticing.

After taking the initial photos, we began to stroll watching the devotees praying, and dipping themselves in the water to enhance their spiritual experience.  My companion from Australia thought we should also have the complete experience by eating at the temple.  At first I was reluctant initially thinking it was for ‘poor people’ and didn’t want to take their food.  How wrong was I?  As soon as were within cooee of a line we were handed a plate, bowl and spoon and ushered along upstairs.  There was no return.  We entered this big hall which had sitting mats in a long line and was told to sit down.  The place was full; people all sitting cross legged on the floor eating.   There are two dining halls, upstairs and downstairs with a combined seating a capacity of 5,000 people.

A man with a bucket full of Dahl, walking up and down the aisles put a large ladle full on our plates, next came a man with the Rotis (Indian flat bread) and handed one or two to us, then came vegetables (it was a turmeric colour with a bit of potato) followed by the piece de resistance, kheer (a sweet rice in milk).  I was fascinated to learn that the largest Roti (flat bread) making machine can churn out 25,000 rotis an hour.

Water was bought along in big vats on wheels, had bike handles and a brake system when pull opened a value poured water into your very own bowl.  Ingenuous really, no hard work needed, just someone to walk up and down working a brake like system.  Whilst I’m not a lover of India food, it tasted good and my friend said it was the best he had tasted since he came to India.

People1After finishing our meal, we were then directed down to where we put our plates, which we handed to the plate scrapping area which in turn is then taken to the plate washing area.  This was about 10 rows of men, women and children with their hands dipped in soapy water washing the vast amount of plates.  The plates are washed 5 times before being used again.  All the Volunteers were happy, it looked as though it was also a spiritual experience, all service to the greater good…..I thought in a land of divisions and castes, and this was one place where this had been laid aside.

Next stop was the kitchen.  Giant vats full of food were standing, attendants dipping buckets and filling them then hurrying off to the serve straight to the plates.  This is a kitchen that can feed up to 100,000 people per day.  The sheer scale of this operation which is all run by devoted volunteers prepare and serve the food every single day of the week and as I saw it with love and devotion.  It is the largest free kitchen (or known as the langar) in the world.People

I also discovered that ever since Guru Nanak who was the first guru of the Sikh people started the tradition in 1481 and still serves free food to (mainly on Sundays) in Gurudwaras throughout the world.  The Golden Temple being the most holiest of all Gurudwaras serves daily.

Eating at the Golden Temple was a highlight; I saw selflessness at its best, the hearts and souls of the devotees who came to volunteer and help and did it with such pleasure.  What a remarkable and amazing place, I for one was completely blown away by the whole experience.  Something so simple as eating a meal but once you know the story behind can change your perspective of a place forever.  In this case the Golden Temple will always hold a special place in my heart, heat or no heat.

Sharon Thrupp and Ray Baker from Back Track Adventures travelled to Amritsar courtesy of Ekno Travels www.eknotravels.com.au #eknotravels

We arrive in Amritsar and to blistering heat.  After a long relaxed lunch and a planned siesta, we were told by our hosts at the home stay to hit the road early for the Beating Retreat Border Ceremony of India and Pakistan at Attari- Wagah. He has had reports of hoards of people and we may not get to see it if we delay.

So mid afternoon, in the heat,  we hit the road heading west to the border.  As predicted the traffic was heavy, there were masses of people.  Mostly domestic tourists, school children and a few foreigners all coming to patriotism at its best (Indian style).  Loud music, children, women, men running  up and back in the middle of the road with an outsized Indian flag, Bollywood dancing, a Compare (or Master of Ceremonies) giving the crowd instructions either through addressing them directly with his microphone and through a series of mimes when he wanted to crowd to cheer.   He was dressed in white clothes as if he were some sports trainer.  The people, lots of people came looking for a good show.  And it was!

Border-Ceramony1The border guards – men (and 2 token women to lead the group) doing a version of sand crabs walking, tilting their hats (not sure if that was part of it or they were just uncomfortable)…whatever they were doing it had a magnetic effect on the crowd.  They loved it, shouting Hindustan Zindabad (long live India) and Ji Mata Di (hail to the Goddess – used in the Hindu religion).   Having the tallest men in India looking fierce, brave and protecting the nations’ borders is an absolute recipe for success.

As we sat near the Pakistani end, the men protecting their border were fiercer looking in their black commando style outfits, beards and dark complexions.  The people on the Pakistani border side were quiet and it was only half full.   I somehow felt we got a better deal on the Indian side, or perhaps the Indians simply love drama more than the Pakistanis.

The finale is the lowering of the flags on each side while a fierce soldier stands at attention on each side of the gate and it was all over.  The border was closed; the main stars (the tall Police) took protection behind security gates so they wouldn’t get mobbed. We left, along with everyone else for the drive back to Amritsar.

Sharon Thrupp and Ray Baker from Back Track Adventures #backtrackadventures travelled to Amritsar courtesy of Ekno Travels www.eknotravels.com.au #eknotravels 

 

Holi is one of the most important festivals in India.  It is celebrated far and wide and is one of the most vibrant with people celebrating in the streets throwing color at each other and to anyone who dares to go out on streets.  It has an ancient origin and celebrates the triumph of ‘good’ over ‘bad’ and the people are usually happy and smiling.  The time of Holi is magical time to visit India as it is the beginning of spring and everything feels alive. Happy Holi 2017 .  For our 2018 tour visit http://eknotravels.com/tours/holi-the-festival-of-colors/

EknoTravelsHappyHoli

To get to special places in the world always require a bit of a special effort.  Ajanta and Ellora Caves in the state of Maharashtra are two of these special places.  A long way of the beaten tourist route, the nearest big town is Aurangabad which is south east of Mumbai.

Ajanta Caves is a UNESCO World Heritage site and consists of  30 rock-cut Buddhist cave monuments which date from the 2nd century BCE to about 480 or 650 CE.  There are delicate coloured paintings on the walls in some of the caves as well as finely crafted stone statues of the past and present lives of the Buddha.  Only discovered by the English in the 1920’s the caves are preserved by their sheer location

Images of the Buddha
Images of the Buddha

from the force of nature.

Ellora Caves are just as important with monuments and artwork of BuddhismHinduism and Jainism from the 600-1000 CE period. There are over 100 caves with 34 being open to the public and you are free to wonder around unassisted.  The main Hindu cave is the most impressive with its rock carvings dedicated to Shiva and the detailed carving work is impressive.

The caves are certainly worth the effort – both are in rural locations and can be reached by car or by local bus.

Take a flight to Aurangabad from Mumbai (the closest big city) or Delhi or take a train from Mumbai.  Ajanta is 95kms and Ellora 35kms from Aurangabad.  We have 3 day 2 night packages www.eknotravels.com.au

Source: Wikipedia

It’s on again!  The Greatest Show on Earth has been going since 2005 and is held at the famous Diggi Palace, owned by a royal family that now doubles as a hotel.  Our tour starts and ends in Delhi – 16-25 January 2017 and will be lead by Canadian Maggie Westhaver and Australian Sharon Thrupp, both long time residents of India and active writers.  For further details http://www.eknotravels.com or contact Sharon at tour@eknotravels.com.au.  If you want to extend your trip or simply visit other parts of India we have some great add-ons.

Ladakh is exotic, remote, stunningly beautiful and one of my favourite parts of the world.
It is no ordinary place. Leh, it’s capital is built in the rarified air of 3,500 metres. It sits in a green belt surrounded by arid and desolate and lunar looking landscape Due to its remoteness and proximity (close to the Chinese/Tibet border and Pakistan) it is a sensitive place strategically for India. There is no mobile coverage for foreign visitors and limited internet connection. It is a disconnected place, and has its roots far beyond technology . It’s history is thousands of years old. You can see it in the landscape and in its buildings – the most prominent being it’s monasteries.
One such monastery is Hemis, 90 minutes drive from Leh. Hemis is famous for its festival that is 300-year-old and features lama dancing, colour parades and ancient ceremonies. It is a showcase of how its traditions can bind people from across generations. The festival organised in the honour of Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, the annual two day Hemis Festival at the Hemis Monastery has become an important date in the calendars of travellers from across the world.
This year is especially different as it is the grand Naropa Festival 2016, to be held from July 1 to 31. This spiritual programme takes place once in every 12 years and one of the features will be the unveiling of the giant Thankga (Buddhist painting) of Guru Rinpoche and the display the ornaments belonging to Naropa, the 11th century Indian saint and are some of the holiest treasures of the Himalayas.
For anyone wanting to escape to somewhere completely different or simply to be part of an ancient festival, this is the place for you. As part of our festival tours we are running an 8 day 7 night package from 11-18 July 2016. Details : http://eknotravels.com/tours/hemis-festival-and-ladakh/ Contact us: tour@eknotravels.com.au