There’s packing for a trip. Then there’s packing for an adventure to a Southeast India, to part of a developing yet second most populous country in the world where many current customs and traditions date back to 8,000 BCE. Translation: prepare to be culture shocked (more on how to deal with culture shock). But first, here are some practical things to help ease into the whirlwind of colorful sights, sounds, smells and tastes before you go to India.
The official stuff
- Start with the sensible visit to your doctor or travel clinic for necessary and recommended vaccinations. Check out a list by the Center for Disease Control. Most important may be vaccines for Hepatitis A and Thyphoid which can both be contracted through contaminated food and water. Though one of your first thoughts is probably malaria, it’s low risk in Southeast India (and the hallucinogenic side effects of malaria pills may not be worth it) but that doesn’t mean the bites won’t still drive you crazy. Be sure to pack a mosquito repellent that contains at least 20% DEET. Brands like Off!, Cutter, Sawyer, and Ultrathon are good bets. Still, ask your doctor about your personal risk factors considering your specific travel areas and activities.
- You need more than a plane ticket and a passport to visit India. US citizens planning to travel in India for less than 30 days must apply for an Indian Tourist Visa. You can do this easily online which takes up to 72 hours to process and costs roughly $60 depending on the exchange rate. Just make sure that your passport is still valid six months after the date of your arrival. When you get to their airport in India, you’ll still have to get fingerprinted, show a copy of your e-Visa confirmation and get your passport stamped with your valid entry dates—good for 30 days after your arrival.
- Verify your baggage allowances with your airline (and read these tips on packing light). There are strict weight guidelines for checked bags and carry-ons that may differ from what you’re used to flying domestically.
The cultural considerations
Warm weather clothes, sunscreen and flipflops sound about right for South India’s tropical climes? Not so fast! Keep in mind some safety and cultural considerations—especially for women.
- Take slip on shoes
Get used to the idea of going barefoot inside Indian homes, temples and some businesses and shops. If you see shoes outside of a door, it’s a good sign you should also remove your shoes before entering. Pack some sturdy slip on sandals or sneakers so you can come and go easily. In smaller villages, walking barefoot all together is the norm. Bring a closed toe pair for long walks (around gritty city streets and natural park areas alike).
- Wear conservative clothes
Choose what to wear for comfort and respect for the culture—knowing what’s comfortable may not always be respectful and vice versa. Though South India is almost always hot, showing skin—especially bare arms, shoulders and legs—isn’t favored among the locals and is even prohibited in temples and other holy sites. Beat the heat with linen and light cotton materials. Think long pants, button downs or collared shirts (not t-shirts) for guys and long skirts (below the knee and preferably to the ankle), tunic-type tops or loose fitting short sleeve shirts that have modest necklines and fall below the waist for gals. A thin shawl or scarf is good to carry for wrapping around shoulders or even protection from the sun. Shorts and T-shirts may be fine in tourist hotels or at friends’ homes but when mingling in public, you’ll be stared at enough as it as just being a foreigner, so you’ll blend in a wee bit better by wearing appropriate clothing.
- Find pants and skirts that hike up
This may sound odd, but wearing pants and skirts you can hitch up easily may help you out when “you gotta go.” Indian bathrooms are stand up/squat style (no commodes) and toilet paper is hard to come by in a restroom. Instead, it’s common to have large buckets of water and a pail to wash on a self-draining floor. For this reason, you’ll find bathrooms are usually wet and can be tricky to deal with when you’re dropping trou. Convertible hiking pants that roll up and tie may be helpful as well as light-weight skirts that you can easily bundle up. Alternatively, take along two large safety pins to hold up garments over wet bathroom floors.
The smart traveler stuff
Here’s a list of helpful supplies to have when you’re on the go—for safety, convenience and just to have your days run smoother.
- Any prescription or even over-the-counter drugs that you take regularly or may need in case of emergency. I got a cold during my travel and though my friend who was hosting me was a doctor, it was very difficult to find plain old nasal decongestant. There are “medical shops,” as they call them, scattered about but brand names are often different. (For example acetaminophen, your generic Tylenol and standard headache pain reliever is labeled as Paracetomal.) Hydrocortisone cream is good to carry in case of insect bites and any OTC medicines for stomach and indigestion issues. More on handling prescriptions abroad.
- Tissues, hand wipes and hand sanitizer. As mentioned above, toilet paper is uncommon so carry your own. Water sources aren’t always hygienic according to Western standards so hand sanitizer and wipes are great for cleansing before and after mealtimes.
- Empty water bottle. You never know where the day will take you. Car rides to seemingly nearby places take twice as long when you factor in traffic. Pack a reusable 24 or 32 oz. thermos or hiking style water bottle to fill when you find a trustworthy water source or can use a Steripen to sterilize tap. Water quality in India varies greatly—even if it’s bottled. Trustworthy brands include: Bisleri, Kinley and Aquafina. Remember to brush your teeth with bottled water, too.
- Electricity adaptor, chargers and extra batteries—for your phone, your camera and your computer (if you bring one). IndianElectrical Poweris 230 Volts, 50 Hz with two- or three-pin plugs. If you expect to be in a large city right away, you can easily buy one when you get to India for less money. If you’re taking several devices, consider a universal power strip with a surge protector since brownouts and power surges can happen often.
- Headlamp. When you need a bathroom break in the middle of the night and don’t want to wake your neighbors or you’re staying in a natural park and hear something go bump in the night, a wearable, portable light source comes in handy!
- Sun hat and bandana. Outdoor stores like REI and EMS carry nylon hats especially made for heavy-duty sun protection. The material itself blocks harmful rays and also usually repels water as dual rainy day headgear. Locals often walk under umbrellas for sun protection but a wide brimmed hat may be easier since it’s hands-free. The roads in India are super dusty and with A/C hit or miss in cars and cabs, a hanky may be handy for keeping dust away from your face.
- A small backpack or shoulder bag. Take one with a lot of compartments as one of your carry-on allowances. Since travel always brings surprises, it’ll be nice to have a convenient bag to stuff your water bottle, tissue paper, camera, snacks and have space for things you buy along the way.
So there you have it. Not an exhaustive packing list but a few things you may not think of on a typical trip. India is truly rich in colorful sights and experiences, and you’ll have a better time navigating the cultural and developing-country differences with a little extra planning.