We had planned an Asia trip to celebrate “an important anniversary” in October , and I used
Trip Advisor extensively, particularly for hotels, tour guide advice etc. I have to say a big thank you for all the advice and comments - we had a spectacular holiday and I’d like to help others planning such a trip to have as good a time as we did. So here is my feedback. Our trip covered India, Hong Kong, Thailand (Bangkok and Phuket), Malaysia and Singapore. I’ll post separately for each destination.
The last time I visited Delhi, Agra and Jaipur was some 9 years ago, with a girlfriend. Then we were part of a small group travelling by bus and train (and I was a lot younger!). This time I was with my husband, and we wanted a bit more comfort, so I was much more specific (and demanding) with the various tour operators I contacted.
We gave ourselves a week to visit Delhi, Agra and Jaipur by car. After a lot of research on the web, and reading advice on Trip Advisor, we settled on Castle and King, based in Delhi, for the tour. Their website was very helpful, well written, and all our emails with questions and
queries were answered extremely promptly by Mr Arvind. From a vast range of hotels, to type of vehicle, we specified exactly what we wanted, down to the last detail (including start times - we are not early risers!) and he came back with a personalised itinerary fine-tuned to suit us. Other tour operators had poorly written web sites, and were very lax about getting back to us with answers to our questions, and seemed to want us to fit into their schedules and timings, rather than accommodate us.
Once we had decided on the detail of our trip, we received a very comprehensive email specifying times, hotels and itinerary. We sent 30% of the total cost to Castle and King before the trip, with the balance being paid on arrival.
I still cannot believe the value for money for our tour. We had decided to travel by road this time as 8 years ago I did a lot of travelling around by rain, (an experience but not one I would chose again). The roads now are dual carriage highways between Delhi, Agra and Jaipur and in a good state of repair compared to my last trip. But believe me when I say that in India you need a truly expert and skilled driver to combat problems such as trucks coming the wrong way down a dual carriage way, buffalo, goats, cows and camels meandering around, not to mention the sheer volume of trucks and other traffic on all the main (and not so main) roads. Not only was Krishna our driver, amazingly careful and competent, his company was delightful during the whole trip. He gave us such an insight into everything from village life, the value of buffalos, marriages in India, to politics and Government building and development programmes. The vehicle was immaculately looked after, the air conditioning could be adjusted by us, and there was an endless supply of cold bottled water throughout the trip
The last time I visited New Delhi, it was a chaotic, polluted city with a permanent smog haze and cows rummaging through the vast piles of rubbish everywhere, adding to the enormous traffic jams. Now all the tuk tuks and public transport run on gas, and the air is clean. Most of the cows have been gently and carefully loaded onto trucks and taken into the countryside, the piles of rubbish have mainly gone from the streets, so you can really enjoy the lovely green and leafy boulevards. There is a big refurbishment programme going on at the moment, with pavements being re-laid and repaired, and with an overhead rail link planned to link the airport with the city in time for the Commonwealth Games next year. What a difference 9 years have made.
Even the old part of Delhi has been spruced up. The rickshaw drive through the
narrow streets is still a great experience, with the same narrow, bustling streets, overhead wires laced from one building to another, and a few cows wandering around. Of course, there is always a downside, and perhaps some of the chaos which created the old charm is fading. But I was struck by how clear the streets were of rubbish, and how prosperous people looked, going about their business.
We chose to stay in The Lalit Hotel in Delhi, because of its position (Connaught Place), pool, and price. The rooms were spacious, with a large walk in shower as well as a bath, and our room had great views. The pool is a decent size so you can actually swim, and the changing rooms were comfortable. Security at the main entrance was thorough but quick, and best of all they have a 24 hour restaurant which we really appreciated when we arrived at the hotel at 2.30am local time. Staff were extremely accommodating and we got a late check out, but that maybe because we weren’t travelling in high season.
The Pindi Restaurant in New Delhi is a great place to eat – there is also the same restaurant in Jaipur, where I think the food is even (marginally) better. However the service and attention to detail was excellent in both, and both places were busy with local as well as international customers.
I also recommend popping into The Imperial Hotel, about 10 minutes away from The Lalit, just to savour the glorious contemporary/colonial style of the building and gardens, and have coffee and cakes on the veranda. Another world.
In Agra we chose The Mughal Hotel – we were only there one night and it was fine, but it did have a Sheraton feel about it, and next time I would chose something a little more characteristic, possibly along the lines of the Jai Mahal Palace in Jaipur. Here we were upgraded to a luxury room with sit-out (a little ground floor patio with table and a couple of chairs), and we loved the experience of staying in such an elegantly designed hotel. The gardens are beautifully looked after, with a large, quiet pool and lounging area surrounded by grass, trees and birds. We did eat in the restaurant a couple of times and rate it highly. Again, security was good in both hotels.
General tips and advice
Luggage and transfer times
If you are flying, take only carry-on luggage. It makes a huge difference to be able to walk straight out of the airport instead of hanging around waiting for luggage which may or may not turn up. But check carefully each airlines weight and size limits. We used BA, Jet Airways, Emirates, Thai and Malaysian. We discovered that Jet Airways only allowed 7 kilos carry on (we flew with them from Delhi to Hong Kong via Mumbai) although a kindly check-in person turned a blind eye to our bags (we had 14 kilos each) and allowed us to take them as carry-on. But Malaysian airlines insisted we checked in our luggage on the flight from Phuket to Kuala Lumpur. So I wouldn’t recommend flying with either of these airlines again if you want to take carry-on only.
Leave yourself plenty of time if you are connecting through Mumbai. We had 3 hours between our flight arriving from Delhi to our departure from Mumbai to Hong Kong - and we didn’t have a minute to spare. The bus transfer from the national to international terminal took much longer than we thought it would, and together with security and immigration procedures we managed to be among the last people to board the plane.
Indian authorities in particular, love rubber stamping bits of paper. You will need to go to a check-in desk at the airport, even if you have just carry-on and you have checked in on line, because you must have your boarding pass stamped and carry-on luggage tagged and stamped.
Take your own notebook/laptop with you if connecting to the internet is important to you. All the hotels we stayed in in India, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore had free wifi. But if you use the PCs in the hotel business centres (with the exception of the wonderful Indigo Pearl Hotel in Phuket which had free unlimited internet use on all their pcs in their delightful internet room/library) you pay.
Liquids and other travel items
Don’t bother taking shampoo, body lotion etc unless you are particularly attached to a specific brand. All the hotels we used had a good supply in their rooms. I took Nivea sun protection (factor 50 as I am fair skinned) in two small 100 ml bottles and used this as moisturiser during my 23 day trip. I did take eye drops to sooth my eyes after long sunny, dusty days.
I took the excellent advice of a previous Trip Adviser forum contributor and took a batch of cheap cotton knickers with me to use and discard. Hotel laundry is expensive, and getting things dry is problematic when you are on the go each day. I also took lots of small packs of tissues which came in handy in toilets, and also for drying hands – they are a bit more robust than toilet tissue. And of course good old wet wipes.
Because you can’t get rupees in the UK, we cashed in the first hotel we stayed in and were pleasantly surprised at just how good a rate of exchange we got. We also went to a couple of ATMs during our trip (these are not immediately visible but the guides know where they are) and cashed but it is much easier to do it in the hotel.
Shopping is something that is almost “expected” of a tourist, and I have to say you can buy everything and anything, from silk shawls to exotic jewellery if that is what you enjoy. The only thing we bought this time was another kashmiri carpet (I bought one 9 years ago) from Kashmir Cashmere Cooperative in Delhi, telling them we wanted it delivered when we were back from our Asia Trip. It arrived perfectly packaged, on the date we had agreed. Like many others, we haggled on the price for a bit, and probably saved between 30 – 40% had we purchased the same rug in the UK. The whole experience was very pleasant. And every time I look at the carpet it brings back happy memories of a great stay. Don’t forget to bargain, whatever you buy – it is expected and part of the whole shopping experience. Oh, I almost forgot. I did buy a couple of maharani and maharajah puppets for my granddaughter. I bought them from a young boy outside the Red Fort, and paid, I think, 500 rupees. I discovered I could have got them for 350, but was delighted with my purchase anyway.
Talking in English
We found that everyone wanted to practice their English with us, from young children upwards. I found that this, in some ways, was one of the highlights of our trip – I could have spent hours talking with people and swapping information. If you can, spare some time for such conversations – you’ll find it worthwhile.
Book with a tour company which uses Government approved guides. The guides really do make or break a trip, and both Suni in Agra and Dev in Jaipur were particularly knowledgeable and patient with all our questioning. Through them we built up a picture of modern day life in India, as well having a better understanding of the history of the country. (I “listened in” to other guides during our visits to the Taj Mahal, Fatepur Sikri etc – a lot of them seemed to give a quick 5 minute overview and then left people to wander around for themselves).
As part of our Welcome Pack from Castle and King, we had a lot of good advice from the tour company on tipping. Like many others, we erred on the side of generous when it came to the guidelines. Tourism is down everywhere this year, and fewer tourists mean fewer tips. So we probably “overtipped” by about 15% to the driver, tour guides etc, and we were very happy to do this. Have lots of small notes to give to porters, bathroom attendants etc. We always left a few extra notes in restaurants, even when a service charge was included.
Give yourself plenty of time to complete the Delhi/Agra/Jaipur trip – travel between the cities can be slow, and you really do need to time and energy to do the monuments you visit justice. For example, the Agra Fort is really a walled city, with lovely geometrically laid out gardens, and even though much of it is not accessible to the public, you really do need to give yourself 2 or 3 hours to really understand the history and enjoy the stunning architecture and views. And don’t forget to take water with you!
Talking of which: I drank tea whenever it was offered (which was often!) with no side effects. But apart from that we stuck to sealed bottles, whether it was water or beer. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because a machine dispenses soft drinks in cups, its safe to drink. It isn’t. If it isn’t in a sealed bottle,(and check the seal) leave it alone.
I hope these comments and tips help others in their planning. Would I go back and do it all again? Absolutely. The kindness and generosity of the people we encountered during this trip was breathtaking. We found that, without exception, wherever we went, people tried to anticipate our needs, and yet were able to perceive when we wanted to be left on our own for a while. Next time I have promised to try and give myself time to take things at a more leisurely pace, and to enjoy the hotels we stayed in and places we visited more.