Ethical Travel in Rajasthan.
Rajasthan is a true state of contrasts. 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 was fortunate enough to have three weeks to explore the “Land of Kings”. Even that 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, 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.
Do you have suggestions to add to this list? Let me know at the comments section at the end!
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 romantic 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 on arrival at the train station where you can expect to be met with persistent offers of transport from the moment you have one foot out of the train.
But this doesn’t mean you can skip Jaipur!
What it does mean is that you may be better off to keep your shopping until later during your trip, or if you do shop in the Bazaars of The Pink City, be prepared to haggle very hard. Pre-arranging pick ups from your hotel/guesthouse from the train station is also a great idea, especially if your train arrives after dark.
Where to Stay
I stayed with the Arya Niwas group who have several hotels in Jaipur. Family owned, the hotels are all taking steps to reduce their environmental footprint, and you’ll find a homely feel at all of their properties. Arya Niwas is the most centrally located hotel; I stayed at Tara Niwas in the Bani Park area of the city which was quieter and had a very homely feel. Tara Niwas is about 20 minute ride by auto-rickshaw to the city centre. The hotel has it’s own front and courtyard gardens, the former is even home to its own set of pet rabbits that have the run of the garden before guests are up! I loved staying here away from the hustle and noise of the Pink City.
What 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.
- Consider taking a tour with Virasat Experiences, a community tourism initiative.
- Do avoid riding the elephants at the Amber Fort. Debates about the ethics of riding elephants aside (see more below), 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 – is said to have been formed when a lotus flower fell from the hands of Lord Brahma. 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.
Pushkar is famous for its Camel Fair each year, which depending on your love for crowds and dust you may wish to come for or avoid. The town gets incredibly full during the festival so book well in advance. Ajmer is the nearest large city with train and bus connections, trains run frequently from here to Jaipur.
Where to Stay
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. I stayed at the Hotel Everest which is run by a local family, serves great food and chai, and has a wonderful roof terrace with views over the city.
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The “City of Lakes” or “Venice of the East” is branded as India’s most Romantic city. I also found it to be Rajasthan’s most touristic. Visiting in January 2017, 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.
Udaipur is well connected by bus and rail – I arrived by train from Ajmer (5 hours). There are no trains between Udaipur and Jodhpur – the bus journey is 6-7 hours.
Where to Stay
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, but unfortunately seemed to have employed Mr Grumpy as their main receptionist. Millets of Mewar (see below) have now opened a Guesthouse which focuses on eco / community tourism and connects guests to local NGO’s who work on social and environmental issues.
If you have palatial dreams and want to live out the true fairytale in Udaipur, the Taj Palace on the Lake is only accessible to those who have booked a room to stay there (no visits for drinks/tea allowed). Book well in advance and bring a large wallet!
What to Do
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. They’re the owners of the above mentioned guesthouse and also offer food tours of Udaipur and Cooking Classes.
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 and a chance to experience the Thar Desert away from the crowds of Jaisalmer.
Where to Stay
In the blue city, with a spectacular view up towards the towering Fort, Castle View homestay is a treasure that I discovered and did not want to leave. A lovingly restored house located in the blue city, this homestay has hints of moorish architecture about it and is decorated in stylish whitewash with hanging lamps, and boasts a beautiful rooftop restaurant. The deluxe rooms offer a view of the castle without having to get out of bed. I also liked the location of this homestay, away from the main tourist drag around the clocktower.
For those with kingly budgets the RAAS hotel has had rave reviews from the likes of Conde Nast traveller and is making efforts to keep its environmental footprint low. The famous view however, is available from many hotels in Jodhpur, at a fraction of the price.
About 40km away from Jodhpur I stayed at the beautiful Chandelao Garh Homestay, which offers the chance to stay in peaceful countryside and explore some of Rajasthan’s village life, but be close enough to Jodhpur to see the city on a day trip. You can read about my stay at Chandelao Garh in this post.
What to do
- 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 with Virasat Experiences 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. As well as different city tours, Virasat are able to organise responsible tourism trips to small villages nearby for the day.
- 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. I stayed with HACRA, an eco tourism project set up by a village community.
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 in Osiyan near Jodhpur (see above). 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. Due to the high levels of tourist hustle here, Jaisalmer was my least favourite spot on my travels around Rajasthan.
Where to Stay.
Because of the strain put on the fort from visitor numbers and water demands I advise staying outside of the fort in Jaisalmer. You’ll also get better views of the fort itself. There are no eco options, but there are a number of friendly family run hotels. I stayed at the very comfortable Hotel Jasmin Home, a short walk from the lake.
What to Do.
- 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.
- There are a number of pretty Havelis you can visit such as the Patwon Ki Haveli.
- Take a leisurely walk to Gandisar Lake to watch the local goings-on or enjoy some quiet time
Bikaner & Bundi
I hadn’t planned to go to Bikaner, but due to train delays / re-routings I got to spend a day here. And I’m glad I did! Not many individual travellers make it here (which is a reason to visit in itself) but the Junagarh Fort has some of the best preserved rooms inside that I saw on my trip. There’s also a beautiful old city to explore as well as a very colourful Jain Temple – Bhandasar Temple. Bikaner is a great alternative to Jaisalmer, with plenty of camel safari alternatives with fewer crowds.
Bundi I did not make it to on this trip, but would recommend looking into stopping here. Reviewers speak highly of Bundi and it has yet to see the levels of tourism that are present in some of the other towns of Rajasthan.
Of Elephants and Camels
One of the challenges of ethical travel in Rajasthan can be negotiating the ethics of some of the wildlife activities. The negative effects of elephant riding are well – publicised, yet elephant rides continue to be an option in parts of Rajasthan. Camel rides on the other hand, are a much less talked – of topic. In my mind, the problem was this: why am I not ok to sit on an elephant, but ok on a camel? I decided to reserve judgement until I was in India.
From what I saw first hand, the camels used for riding are often not well looked after. The camels that I saw in Pushkar were decidedly skinny, had sores on their skin, and generally did not look healthy. They also all have wooden sticks pierced through their noses to which the ropes for steering are then attached, something that does not seem to be done in other countries such as Morocco. I was told that this does not hurt the camel. All I know is that personally, I’d prefer not to have a wooden stick with ropes attached to it driven through my nose. On the flip side, the familiar arguments of there being few uses left for camels are raised in defence of camel riding. This much is certain: it brings a huge amount of revenue to the Region and is a financially important tourist activity in Rajasthan.
The happiest camels I saw in Rajasthan were a herd that I saw in desert scrub, completely wild and happily munching at the trees with not a tourist in site.
Whether we want to endorse such activities is ultimately a decision we have to make for ourselves, basing our decisions on what we can see of the animals’ welfare.
Getting around Rajasthan
Most of Rajasthan is well connected to Delhi and other parts of the North West of India by railway. Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Bikaner serve as the main train station hubs, although it’s also possible directly from Delhi to Jaisalmer by train (daily, 18 hours). Distances even within Rajasthan are still very large to cover – for example the train from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur is 8 hours, Jaipur to Jodhpur 5-6 hours.
Hiring a driver for some parts of the journey provides more flexibility and depending on your budget can be cost effective if a few people share for shorter routes. Udaipur to Jodhpur has no train service, so many hire a driver for the 6 hour route, going via the jain temples at Ranakpur. An alternative is to take the bus.
Buses in India tend to be less comfortable than the train, but have the advantage that they can be booked last minute (trains cannot unless you are lucky).
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Have you travelled around Rajasthan? Have you found options for ethical travel in Rajasthan that are not mentioned here? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!