Welcome to the “Land of Kings”. Rajasthan is a true state of contrasts, and Rajasthan travel reflects that!
From desert scrub to holy lakes, one thing that is hard to grasp for the first-time (or even repeat) visitor is the sheer size of the place. I had about a week to explore the desert state. That clearly wasn’t sufficient to get to all of the major sights. I did, however, linger longer in areas that would be easier to pass through in a shorter time frame. I also went well off the path more trodden on a couple of occasions—which meant more travel time.
In researching a state of contrasts, I was happy to find that the relatively well-developed tourism infrastructure is matched by the gradual appearance of eco-friendly options. More than that, were the options which make an effort to connect visitors to Rajasthani culture beyond a superficial level. Thereby creating more opportunities for responsible travel in Rajasthan.
Here is my guide to ethical travel in Rajasthan with a blend of adventure, covering places to stay, attractions and activities. This covers different ethical tourism efforts that are being made, from improving environmental sustainability, to sharing the economic benefits of tourism with the local community.
Here I cover travel in Jaipur, Pushkar, Ajmer, Udaipur, Jodhpur, the Thar Desert, Jaisalmer and Bikaner. My seven days in this vast land is filled with countless memories and activities to help you plan your trip ahead.
The pink city – Jaipur
Part of the “Golden Triangle” and the capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur was very different from how I thought it might be. Famous for being the “pink city” and for its wonderful palaces, I’d developed a somewhat mystical vision of Jaipur. The reality is a dusty, noisy and crowded city (even by Indian standards) that is used to tourists with plenty of money and little time to negotiate. The hustle starts right from the airport.
But this doesn’t mean you can skip Jaipur!
Where to Stay in Jaipur.
I stayed at an affordable home stay located in the central business district of Jaipur . Family owned, the hotels/ guest houses are all taking steps to reduce their environmental footprint, and you’ll find a homely feel at all of their properties. one of the most centrally located hotel; It’s certainly advised to stay in the Bani Park area of the city which is quieter and has a very homely feel.
Things to do –
The main sights of Amer Fort (also known as the Amber Fort) and City Palace are un-missable and the top sights for good reason. If you go to the City Palace it is worth paying the extra to see parts of the palace that are not open to the general public – some of the rooms are stunning. I didn’t go in to the Hawa Mahal—the view from outside was enough for me, and reports are that it gets pretty claustrophobic inside the corridors.
- Visit the Anokhi block printing museum, a short walk from the Amber Fort in Amber. Block Printing is a beautiful, traditional Rajasthani art that is fast dying out.
- In Jaipur itself you can visit the Anokhi store which sells clothing made from the hand-printed fabrics, or enjoy lunch at their organic cafe. If organic eats are your thing, you can also check out the Poppin Organic Cafe.
- Do avoid riding the elephants at the Amber Fort. Debates about the ethics of riding elephants aside, recent government inspections have revealed inadequate housing conditions and animal abuse. Limits have apparently been put in place for the number of rides an elephant can do per day. Unfortunately, the demand for elephant rides continues to rise
A stay in Rajasthan’s holiest town, Pushkar, was one of the highlights of my Rajasthan trip.
A visit to Pushkar is the kind that turns from one night into two, into far longer than expected. Pushkar does not have any eco/responsible travel qualifications as such, but it is a great way to experience some of the culture of Spiritual India in Rajasthan. Pushkar Lake – around which the town is formed. It’s also the only place in India where you can find Brahma temples. Aside from the odd temple visit, there’s also not a huge amount to do in Pushkar, which I found to be one of its charms. Seeing as its a Hindu Pilgrimage Town, alcohol is not allowed in Pushkar.
An early morning or evening walk around town and soaking up the atmosphere by the lake will give you all the introduction needed to this place. The cafes at Jaipur Ghat are a great spot to sit with a chai and watch the sunset, or morning goings-on.
Where to Stay in Pushkar.
There are many small guesthouses in the centre of Pushkar and around. I always recommend over big hotel chains both in terms of having a more personal experience and the economic benefit reaching the local community more directly.
Ajmer is the nearest large city with train and bus connections, trains run frequently from here to Jaipur.
Recommended food worth trying – Daal Bhatti
The “City of Lakes” is branded as the “Venice of the East”. I also found it to be Rajasthan’s most touristic. I think I got lucky as the crowds were elsewhere. The centre of the city around the lake has been set up almost entirely around tourism (with most buildings being a travel agency, hotel, shop, restaurant), but that does not mean Udaipur should be overlooked. Watching the morning mist clear over the mountains beyond Lake Pichola from the battlements of the City Palace is a memorable sight. My best advice? Do get up earlier than everyone else for some moments of solitude.
Do stop by the vintage car museum owned and run by the royal family and the state government. The swanky old school rides are worth checking out.
Udaipur is well connected by bus and rail – I arrived by train from Ajmer on a Royal Enfield. There are no trains between Udaipur and Jodhpur – the bus journey is 6-7 hours.
Where to Stay in Udaipur.
I stayed on the Hanuman Ghat side of the lake – a stone’s throw away from the main part of the city across the lake, and with (arguably) much better views than from the other side. The Panorama Guest House where I stayed is family run and had incredible views of the lake from my room and the rooftop restaurant.
What to Do in Udaipur
The City Palace and a boat trip on Lake Pichola are the main attractions of Udaipur.
- Boat trips: The City Palace arranges boat trips from the grounds, but a cheaper option is to go yourself to the booking office on the end of Lal Ghat, from where boat trips also operate.
- The City Palace: reports are that it gets unpleasantly crowded later in the day, so go for opening time (09.30am). I walked in through the gates at 09.15am and pretty much had the place to myself.
- Art of Bicycle offer tours which are a great way to see Udaipur beyond the lake and the surrounding countryside
- Millets of Mewar is a great spot to eat some of the healthiest food in Udaipur – of both Indian and International varieties.
The Blue City has a real local charm that leaves many travellers smitten. Despite being a popular spot, that doesn’t seem to bother the locals who seem as friendly as can be. I didn’t go to Jodhpur with particular expectations, but found that there is something special about this place. Even the travel industry heavy weights such as Conde Nast have put Jodhpur on their hotlist.
The Mehrangarh Fort is as dramatic as forts come – even in Rajasthan. Towering over the city it’s visible from wherever you are, and many hotels and guest houses in Jodhpur have wonderful views of the fort. Jodhpur’s charms reach beyond its fort however. Once you’ve seen as many blue houses as you can manage in Jodhpur’s old blue city, or reached your shopping limit in the bazaars, there’s plenty more to see outside of Jodhpur. and About an hour’s drive away is the remoter town of Osiyan which boasts some magnificent Jain Temples.
Where to Stay in Jodhpur
In the blue city, with a spectacular view up towards the towering Fort, Castle view guesthouse is a treasure that I discovered and did not want to leave.
What to do in Jodhpur
- As well as being one of the most spectacular, the Mehrangarh Fort is also one of Rajasthan’s best organised when it comes to tourism – the included audio tour is of very high quality.
- On the way down from the Fort, don’t miss Rao Jodha desert rock park. In 2011 this eco tourism project opened. The former wasteland has lovingly been transformed into a desert garden, planting species native to the region that require little water. There are different paths / trails to wander along and appreciate the landscape with the view of the fort and city below as a backdrop. Best enjoyed outside of the mid-day heat!
- I took a half day tour of the Blue City. It was great to see the old part of Jodhpur through the eyes of a local and discover where the best tea and snack stands were. What left the greatest impression on me was the friendliness of the locals who all had time to chat, exchange greetings or simply a smile.
- Osiyan is the nearby gateway to the Thar / Great Indian Desert. From here it’s possible to go on a multi-day desert safari up towards Bikaner or Jailsalmer, or to enjoy being in the desert in Osiyan for a few days.
Often described as appearing out of the Great Indian Desert like a mirage, my personal experience with Jaisalmer was less romantic. Even though it did begin with a sunrise overlooking the city.
Jaisalmer Fort looks like a giant upside down sandcastle. It’s a different type of fort than others in Rajasthan in that it is still a living fort. The old city of Jaisalmer is still home to a few, and houses many visitors: unfortunately the city inside the fort is these days one large tourist trap. The tourism industry is also taking its toll on the sandcastle as more and more guesthouses open and more water has to be pumped inside, the old fort (it dates from 1156) is not able to cope with the volume of water that needs to be drained away. Leading to problems of erosion and subsidence, and the fort slowly ‘sinking’. UK based charity Jaisalmer in Jeopardy has been raising awareness of the problem and the need for conservation.
The main business in Jaisalmer is tourism, and of that Camel Safaris play a vital role in the area’s economy. For most working in the tourism industry it’s all about selling camel safaris and rides. I did not choose to go on a camel safari on Jaisalmer, having already had my desert experience before. You may find that if you come to Jaisalmer not planning to do a desert trip there’s not that much to do – although some visitors seem happy to stay and wander for a few days.
What to Do in Jaisalmer.
- Camel rides aside, the Fort is the main attraction. The museum / fort palace is a rather poor relation compared to those in Jodhpur, Amber and Bikaner however, and you can get a flavour of it just by walking around the city inside the walls, which are free to walk around.
- Take a leisurely walk to Gandisar Lake to watch the local goings-on.
- Try BHANG!!
That folks was one memorable trip to the royal state of Rajasthan. I managed to squeeze in as much as I could in seven days, each city deserves a lot more than a quick stop. Do reach out if you need any assistance in planning your trip.
Until next time 🙂