Varanasi is a rollercoaster of emotions from the moment that you land in this crazy city to the moment that you leave. So, if you want a taste of the ‘real India’ and don’t mind a big slap in the face getting it, this holy city on the River Ganges is it!
Although it’s on many people’s travel bucket lists to visit here once in their lifetime, not many people are prepared for the fact it is hot, dirty, smelly and not to mention absolutely insane! Labyrinths of small alleyways, bulls, dogs, bodies and bikes all mixed in can be a pretty hard cocktail to swallow.
So, here’s a survival guide for Varanasi to prepare you before you go!
READ UP BEFORE YOU GO
It’s good to do some research to prepare you for your visit. You may have seen some of the pretty pictures on google of the Ghats and the sunrise on the river but understanding this place and what it represents will soften the blow of witnessing cremations, bodies in the river, naked baba’s (holy men) and why there are so many bulls!
Banares (another name for Varanasi) was founded by the Hindu god Lord Shiva. The holy waters here are a pilgrimage site for Hindu’s and it is thought that bathing in this water can bring peace. It is also the place that Hindu’s wish to be cremated as it is where your soul can find salvation.
You don’t have to watch cremations if you don’t want to. At most, you will see the fires from the burning ghat on the river ride. But, you may see bodies being carried through the street on wooden stretchers. They’re covered head to toe in red cloth and so you won’t see much. If you hear bells and screaming, stand to the side and get out the way.
You may also find that you will get ashes on your clothes and hair from the burning. Baba’s dedicated to Shiva will cover themselves in ashes from the dead.
Bulls are thought to be the living embodiment of Lord Shiva and there are hundreds here. So much more than anywhere else. Watch out for charging in the small alleyways and always look down to avoid stepping in cow dung!
WATCH OUT FOR SCAMS
If you thought Agra was bad for hawkers and scams, wait until you arrive here. Varanasi is the kingpin of hustle.
Most people get a first-hand experience of touts from the moment they arrive and try to negotiate a rickshaw ride to their hotel. They will find that they will negotiate a price and be taken to what they think is their hotel. But in reality, they are on a wild goose chase getting dragged around the city by the driver. Their hotel has suddenly closed, burned down or ‘doesn’t exist’, then the driver will offer a ‘better hotel’ (where they get a commission) and charge double! To avoid this, make sure you have the address handy or open google maps and direct them the right way.
There are also cremation scams where people will ask you for money for wood for their family members pyre, take you for a ‘better view’ of the cremations only to ask for a large sum of cash and people that will take you to imitation stores and restaurants. Don’t buy into any of it.
Any tour guide or rickshaw driver that offers you to visit a tourist/government shop is just after your hard earned cash. You will be charged a ridiculous rate as the commission is so high. Just politely decline and if you feel uncomfortable – walk out!
You will also see mothers carrying empty bottles for milk for their babies. They will charge you a stupidly high price for a bag in the shop and the mother will get some money when they give the milk back.
Boat rides for a rowboat should be between 300-500 per hour. Don’t pay more than that. If you share it should be around 50-100 rupees per person depending on how many people.
KEEP YOUR BELONGINGS CLOSE
The train/bus stations in Varanasi are notorious for pickpockets. You get off the overnight train from Agra a little delirious and this is the perfect time for them to strike. It could be items within or your whole bag entirely! Don’t let your luggage out of your sight until you’re safely in your hotel transfer.
Personally, I have luggage locks on my daypack and backpack and I keep my little handbag close to me with my hand on the opening. That way, it’s difficult to open and grab my stuff! Another pro- tip is to keep noisy keyring on the zip, that way you know if someone is touching it!
The Ganga Aarti in the evening by the main temple is also a typical area for pickpockets due to the crowds and noise. They even announce it over the tannoy. Just keep your bag close and lock it if you’re really worried.
GO EASY ON THE BHANG LASSI
As Varanasi was founded by Lord Shiva, it’s only right to follow in his footsteps and drink a Bhang Lassi or Special Lassi. It’s essentially a concoction of legal cannabis, mixed up in the traditional Indian lassi (yoghurt drink).
A lot of people will ask you to try these but I would say take caution. These contain a mind-altering drug and they make these strong. Only buy from authorised Government shops and don’t drink these alone.
I know we’re not at school anymore but don’t feel pressured into taking it if you don’t want to. It’s a risk and if you feel even slightly unsure of it or scared, it may make you go a little crazy on your ‘ride’.
BE CAREFUL CHOOSING A RESTAURANT BY THE RIVER
My guide and countless others recommended choosing wisely in where you eat if you’re by the Ganges. A lot of the hygiene here is pretty questionable and I heard that some use the water from the river to wash things… (can you imagine?).
Try to pick a place which has good reviews on places like TripAdvisor like the Brown Bread Bakery or Blue Lassi. These are tried and tested by travellers and won’t make you sick (hopefully).
AVOID TOUCHING OR BATHING IN THE WATER
Although this is a holy river and its waters are supposed to provide a blessing. It has been recommended by the government time and time again that people should avoid swimming, washing or drinking the Ganga Jal (Ganges water). If the polluted brown water alone wasn’t enough to put you off, the side effects of drinking the water could cause illness.
There are burning ghats which throw bloated bodies in the river, leprosy colonies in the ghats and animals who are also thrown inside. So, I wouldn’t risk it. It’s best left to the locals who are going to be praying, washing and meditating by the river.
IF YOU WANT A PEACEFUL SLEEP CHOOSE CANTONMENT
Varanasi is LOUD. As it’s a holy city, the hustle and bustle can start as early as 4.30am! Pooja in temples, horns from Tuk-Tuks, motorboats on the river, noisy generators when the electricity cuts out all contribute to a sleepless night. When I arrived recently, they were expecting a visit from the Prime Minister of India and so all the power was taken. No A/C, light or wifi by the river. So, we moved to the part of town that still had a bit of normality!
If you want peace and tranquillity and a decent nights kip, I would recommend picking a hotel in the Cantonment area. Here, you’ll find 5* resorts and big names like the Clarks, The Radisson and Ramada.
It is good to mention these are around a 30 minute drive to the river Ganges, but it is SO worth it to actually be able to sleep.
So, that’s a guide to surviving one of the craziest stops you’ll experience in India. It’s truly an amazing part of the world and would say that if you’re coming to India you HAVE to visit. It will give you the culture shock of your life and open the deepest paradigms of your mind. You cannot unsee it and it will stick with you for months after you’ve left. Be brave, bold and open here and you’ll have one hell of a time!