Using your mobile phone in India and elsewhere

Mobile signals throughout South Asia are generally good, even in remote areas. However, bear in mind that overseas call charges – and mobile data, should you turn it on – are likely to be expensive. If you take your smartphone, we recommend limiting its use to areas with a Wi-Fi connection.

Food in India: What to avoid

There’s a huge amount of delicious spicy food to sample in South Asia, though before diving in it’s worth giving your digestive system a couple of days to acclimatise. After that, you can look forward to trying some of the freshest, richest and most delicious meals on the planet. ‘Delhi belly’ is by no means a given if you stick to the following rules:

  • Wash your hands before every meal or use hand sanitizer
  • Avoid salads – they may have been prepared in tap water
  • If you order water, make sure it comes from a sealed bottle
  • Never have ice in chilled drinks
  • Opt for vegetarian meals in remoter areas (vegetarians are extremely well catered for)
  • Use common sense when trying street food: follow the crowd where possible, check how clean the utensils are and avoid meat and sliced fruit

What time zones are India and the rest of South Asia in?

India

Time zone: GMT+05:30 (Indian Standard Time)

Dialling code: +91

Sri Lanka

Time zone: GMT+05:30 (Sri Lanka Standard Time)

Dialling code: +94

Nepal

Time zone: UTC+05:45 (Nepal Time)

Dialling code: +977

Bhutan

Time zone: UTC+06:00 (Bhutan Time)

Dialling code: +975

Taking photos: What to be aware of

India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan are among the most photogenic destinations on Earth. No matter which country you’re visiting, taking a camera is a must. Remember, though, that it’s forbidden to take photos at airports, military locations and inside temples and monasteries. Likewise, if you’re visiting Varanasi, refrain from taking pictures at the burning ghats’ cremation sites. Flash photography may also be forbidden at certain religious sites. Note that many monuments, museums and places of interest charge visitors a modest camera fee.

People across South Asia, generally, love being photographed, though it’s important to respect the privacy of those who don’t. In the age of ubiquitous camera phones, it’s likely you’ll be asked to pose for quite a few pictures, too! Note that tea pickers, fishermen and street performers may charge a small fee to be photographed.

How much to tip drivers, guides, waiters and porters

There are no hard-and-fast rules for tipping in South Asia; a common response from a waiter, guide or private driver when asked is “As you like”. Ten per cent of the value of the service provided is a generally accepted amount, whether after a particularly tasty meal at a restaurant or a few days travelling with the same driver. Notes of smaller denominations will be gratefully received by porters at hotels, train stations and airports.

Where to get hold of the local currency

It’s not possible to get hold of Indian, Sri Lankan or Nepalese rupees, or Bhutanese ngultrums, before you depart owing to their status as ‘closed’ currencies. Either bring your debit card and withdraw the local currency at an ATM, or bring cash to exchange on arrival. Whichever method you choose, remember to keep your receipt – this will come in handy should you have to exchange the local currency back to pounds sterling before you return home. Note that because the ngultrum is tied to the Indian rupee, it’s possible to use the latter – with the exception of ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes – throughout Bhutan.

ATMs

ATMs are becoming ubiquitous in most parts of India and Sri Lanka, particularly in urban areas – though a small minority of machines may not accept international cards. ATMs tend to be a little more unreliable in Nepal and are generally limited to the cities. In Bhutan, meanwhile, certain ATMs can only be used by customers of the respective bank.

Road travel in India and elsewhere: What to expect

India

Road conditions vary hugely in India – alongside impressive new highways and expressways are pothole-laden tracks. The country’s road infrastructure is improving, though speeds don’t tend to average more than 50 km/h. Roads have to be shared with pedestrians, trucks and animals, after all.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s roads, while generally well maintained and in good condition, can be quite narrow. Like India, speeds can be limited owing to pedestrians, cyclists and animals sharing them.

Nepal

Road travel in Nepal is certainly an experience – potholes are common, while maintenance efforts are often hampered by the effects of the monsoon. On the same journey it’s normal to come across recently opened stretches of road, sections under construction and parts in poor condition.

Bhutan

Generally, roads are maintained to a decent standard in Bhutan. However, they’re usually winding owing to the mountainous terrain, meaning speeds are often limited to 35 km/h. The single main road is vulnerable to falling rocks and mudflows during the monsoon, while snow can cause delays in winter.

Learning the local language: Is it necessary?

English is spoken to a good standard across India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, but making the effort to learn a few phrases in the local language will go down well.

India

In a country of so many languages, English serves as India’s lingua franca – alongside Hindi it’s officially used by parliament and business. While there have been attempts to promote Hindi as India’s national tongue, it’s a language that’s largely confined to the north – those speaking the Dravidian languages of the south cannot, by and large, relate to it. As a result, English is the second tongue of hundreds of millions.

Sri Lanka

Approximately one in ten Sri Lankans speak English fluently; millions more speak it to a conversational standard. It’s the preferred language of the government, which has designated Sri Lankan English as an official language alongside Sinhala – traditionally the language of the country’s Buddhist population – and Tamil, which is spoken by its Dravidian minority.

Nepal

English is becoming increasingly spoken in Nepal, to the extent that it may overtake Nepali as the country’s lingua franca. Despite its lack of British colonial history, English is the only language used by Nepal’s higher education institutions. While it’s widely spoken in cities, learning a few Nepali phrases will come in handy while travelling in rural areas.

Bhutan

While the country’s official language is Dzongkha, English is used in schools and other institutions – meaning it’s widely spoken in most places. Educated people tend to speak English fluently, while the language is also used on road signs and menus.

Travel adapters: What you’ll need in India and South Asia

The three-pinned Type D plug is used throughout India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, which is compatible with the two-pinned Type C found across Europe. Because pins in South Asia tend to be thicker, European adaptors may fit in sockets quite loosely, meaning secure connections cannot always be guaranteed. Very occasionally in Sri Lanka, sockets compatible with the UK’s Type G plug can be found. Electricity outputs in each of the four countries is 230 V.

Clothing and supplies: What to pack

Travellers heading to Nepal, Bhutan or the Indian Himalayas should pack comfortable clothing and sturdy, soft-soled shoes. Depending on what time of year you visit, warm clothing may also be necessary.

No matter where you’re heading to in South Asia, it’s worth taking loose-fitting trousers and a long-sleeved top in case of visits to temples or other religious institutions. Because shoes must be removed at such sites, packing socks is also recommended.

It’s important to dress conservatively in villages – the general rule of thumb is that legs and shoulders should be covered.

In terms of medical supplies – and aside from standard toiletries, which can generally be replenished in cities and more popular tourist destinations – we recommend packing a travel-friendly first aid kit, diarrhoea medication, antiseptic cream, anti-histamine cream, antispasmodics (in case of stomach cramps), paracetamol, DEET-based insect repellent, hand sanitizer and high-factor sunscreen.

Other items to pack include a hat, sunglasses, a travel adaptor, a mobile phone charger and sealable sandwich bags to bug-proof any snacks. A small torch and earplugs may also come in handy.

Remember also to take a photocopy of your passport’s photo page, a copy of your travel insurance policy and a print out of your itinerary.

Oh, and don’t forget your guidebook and camera!

Travel vaccinations for India and Sri Lanka: What you’ll need

We recommend booking an appointment with the nurse at your GP practice two months prior to your departure date to find out whether you need any vaccinations or malaria tablets. If you do, remember to ask for an International Certificate of Vaccination, which details the list of jabs you’ve received.

You can find out more about travellers’ health per country by visiting the India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan pages of the National Travel Health Network and Centre.

Travel insurance for India: Get the right policy

You can’t go wrong with Alpha Travel Insurance. Visit their website to get a tailor-made quote.

The best times to visit India and South Asia

India

India’s country-wide cool and dry season – between November and March – is the best time to visit, though temperatures between north and south vary hugely. While Delhi can be pretty chilly during December and January, Tamil Nadu’s temperatures remain tropical. Generally, though, this is the most comfortable time to experience Rajasthan, Delhi, Varanasi and Madhya Pradesh, while the ‘winter’ also coincides with Goa and Kerala (and, indeed, Tamil Nadu) being at their most pleasant.

Things really start to heat up in May and June, to the extent that travel isn’t recommended to any of India’s low-lying destinations. This is the start of trekking season, though, with the Himalayas offering respite from the heat – and the subsequent rains – until September.

The monsoon arrives on the coast of Kerala in the latter half of May, taking approximately six weeks to travel north-east across the rest of the subcontinent. The north experiences its final monsoon downpours in September, though clouds can linger in the south for a few more weeks. A second smaller monsoon hits southern Kerala and the coasts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh from October to early December.

Average low and high annual temperatures (degrees C) range from:

  • 10 to 17 in Shimla
  • 19 to 29 in Bangalore
  • 19 to 31 in Delhi
  • 23 to 31 in Kerala
  • 24 to 31 in Mumbai
  • 19 to 32 in Jaipur and Varanasi
  • 22 to 32 in Kolkata
  • 23 to 32 in Goa
  • 24 to 33 in Chennai
  • 24 to 34 in Madurai

Sri Lanka

The best time to visit Sri Lanka is complicated by their being two monsoons: Yala, which strikes the west and south-west coasts – in addition to the hill country – between May and September; and Maha, which arrives on the east coast in November before petering out by March. Downpours can also occur pretty much anywhere on the island nation during October. December to March, then, is the ideal time to visit the south and west coasts – and the hill country – while the east coast is best experienced between April and September.

Sri Lanka has little variation in temperature owing to its proximity to the Equator. The coast and low-lying regions typically average between 26 and 30 degrees C during the day, though Kandy, at an altitude of 1,600 ft, averages between 18 and 22 degrees C. In Nuwara Eliya – positioned more than 6,000 ft above sea level – temperatures are cooler still; generally between 14 and 17 degrees C.

Nepal

From late September till the end of November, Nepal’s days are warm and the skies clear – making this the most popular time to visit. With dust having been washed away by the monsoon, mountain views tend to be crystal clear.

The period between February and the middle of April – characterised by longer days and warm temperatures – is regarded as the ‘second’ tourist season. While haze can compromise mountain views from lower altitudes, this is the ideal time to spot Nepal’s wildlife.

Temperatures peak towards the end of April until early June. Travelling during this time is not recommended owing to the heat, increased cloud cover and pre-monsoon showers.

The monsoon typically begins during the middle of June before gradually dying out by the end of September. While travel disruption is more likely, the rains – which usually occur in the evening – bring much of the country to life. Fresh produce is everywhere – as are butterflies – while the air is especially clean. Mountain views are few and far between, though.

The weather is generally clear during December and January, though the cold can put paid to any trekking. The winter is a good time to visit Nepal’s warmer lower-altitude regions.

Because of the low-lying Terai plains and the high-altitude Himalayas, temperatures in Nepal vary wildly. In Kathmandu – which is approximately 4,600 ft above sea level – temperatures tend to range between 15 and 24 degrees C in autumn, 16 and 23 degrees C in spring and 23 to 25 degrees C during summer. In winter, temperatures usually hover between 9 and 12 degrees C.

Bhutan

Like Nepal, the skies are clear and the temperatures warm between late September and late November, making this the best period for visitors and trekkers to experience stunning mountain views.

Mid-March to May is another excellent time to visit – magnolias, rhododendrons and other wildflowers are in bloom, while birdlife is abundant. Clear skies are regular, but there may be more cloud cover and rain.

Bhutan experiences its winter from December to early March. While the skies are generally clear and the sun shines brightly, temperatures plummet once it retreats behind the mountains.

The monsoon arrives early in June and stays until the beginning of September, resulting in light to heavy rain, though mainly in the afternoons and evenings.

Between mid-May and September, temperatures typically reach between 22 and 26 degrees C in the day and 17 to 18 degrees C at night. In March and April, and October and November, minimum temperatures fall into single figures.

Applying for a visa to enter India, Sri Lanka, Nepal or Bhutan

In addition to a valid passport, travellers arriving in India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan must possess a valid tourist visa.

India

UK citizens need to obtain a tourist visa in advance of travelling to India. Since August 2015 travellers have been able to apply online for an e-Tourist Visa. This permits entry at 16 Indian airports including Amritsar, Bengaluru, Chennai, Cochin, Delhi, Goa, Kolkata and Mumbai.

To apply, travellers’ passports must have two blank pages and 180 days’ validity from the date of their intended arrival in India. Travellers must also have already acquired their international return tickets (or onward journey ticket).

Travellers need to submit a square passport-style photograph and a copy of their passport’s photo page when applying. The e-Tourist Visa fee is $60, excluding any debit or credit card surcharges or processing fees. Once approved, the e-Tourist Visa will be emailed to the traveller, usually within four days. This must be printed and taken to India.

The e-Tourist Visa – which is issued electronically but stamped in a traveller’s passport on arrival – is valid for only a single entry into India. It cannot be extended beyond 30 days. On arrival travellers can expect to submit biometric data, including fingerprints.

Confused? Our How To Apply For An Indian Tourist Visa guide explains the whole process step-by-step.

Sri Lanka

UK citizens must have a visa to enter Sri Lanka. A 30-day tourist visa is available in advance online via the Sri Lanka Electronic Travel Authorization System – these cost $30 and can be paid for using a debit or credit card, usually taking up to two working days to process. Once approved, travellers are requested to print their visa confirmation and bring it with them to Sri Lanka.

While it is possible to obtain a visa on arrival for $35, this is not recommended owing to the potentially lengthy queues.

Passports must be valid for at least six months (180 days) from the date of arrival in Sri Lanka.

Children under the age of 12 are not liable for the tourist visa fee.

Travellers wishing to visit Sri Lanka for more than 30 days must contact the Department of Immigration and Emigration to extend their tourist visa.

Nepal

UK citizens must have a visa to enter Nepal. A 15, 30 or 90-day multi-entry tourist visa – valid from the date of issue – can be obtained in advanced from the Embassy of Nepal in London.

Travellers must download, print and complete the Nepal visa application form. If applying in person at the embassy, travellers need to take their form in addition to one passport-sized photograph, their passport (which must be valid for at least 180 days and have at least one blank page) and the visa fee in cash. Debit and credit cards, in addition to personal cheques, are not accepted. Tourist visas applied for in person are typically processed within two working days.

Postal applications are also accepted, with visa fees accepted via a postal order or bank draft. These can take up to two weeks to be processed. You can find out more about postal applications for Nepal visas on the embassy website.

Tourist visa fees are as follows (not applicable for children under the age of 10):

  • 15 days: £20
  • 30 days: £35
  • 90 days: £75

Visas can be obtained on arrival at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport. Travellers are requested to pay in pounds sterling and to bring two passport-sized photographs. Visa application forms are available in the arrivals hall, though some airlines may provide these before landing in Nepal. Passengers in possession of an electronic passport can utilise the visa registration machines, which will automatically complete the application form once a passport is inserted. Depending on the number of passengers, the process of obtaining a visa on arrival can take up to one hour.

Bhutan

Bhutan tourist visas are only available through licensed local tour operators. Passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of arrival in Bhutan.

In order for the visa application to be processed, travellers must submit a colour copy of their main passport page at least 30 days before travelling. Once approved, the Tourism Council of Bhutan issues a visa clearance letter, which must be presented when checking in to the flight to Bhutan. The visa itself is stamped onto the passport on arrival.

The visa fee of $40 is part of the Royal Government of Bhutan’s policy of all tours being pre-planned and pre-paid according to a minimum daily tariff. Local tour operators are required to take care of all travel arrangements, meaning travelling independently in Bhutan is not possible. This doesn’t mean, however, that tourists must travel as part of a group; rather, only that backpacker-style travel does not exist there.

Travelling with children in India and South Asia: What you need to know

India and Sri Lanka are two of the most family-friendly destinations in the world, while the mountains of Nepal and Bhutan are utterly spellbinding for curious young travellers. Because children are central to family life across South Asia, visiting families are assured of numerous warm welcomes – though such attention can occasionally be tiring for less-outgoing children. It’s basically a case of keeping tabs on young children and making sure they’re not overtired – the temptation can be to pack in as much in as possible, such is the excitement of travelling in this part of the world.

Generally, hotels will happily provide extra beds in rooms and prepare less-spicy meals – especially in the more popular destinations. On the road, meanwhile, the ever-popular Parle G biscuits are ubiquitous in India, as are bananas and stomach-friendly samosas.

Female travel in India and Sri Lanka

Our holiday ideas are suitable for both female and solo travellers. In India and Sri Lanka especially, it’s an unfortunate reality that women travellers are stared at – though dressing conservatively, or wearing local-style clothes, will limit the amount of unwanted attention. We recommend arriving at new destinations in the day and, if you take any overnight trains, to travel in an upper berth.

Disabled travel in India and elsewhere

South Asia can be particularly challenging for travellers with physical disabilities – generally, only high-end hotels are wheelchair friendly, steps are the norm at historical sites and restaurants, and well-maintained pavements are few and far between. However, problems can be reduced by travelling with a partner, friend or relative who is able bodied. Wheelchair-friendly vehicles are generally available.