Chaotic, bamboozling, intoxicating, crazy, exasperating, squalid, daunting, overwhelming: India is all these things and more. How can you possibly prepare yourself?
Start with these tips for going to India for the first time.
1. Choose your route wisely
Think about what interests you and what you like doing, then tailor your trip accordingly. The most popular India tour is the classic Golden Triangle. Clichéd, yes, but if time is short this is a fantastic introduction to three of India's very best destinations. Start in Delhi (Hamayun's Tomb, Red Fort) before hitting Agra (Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri) and Jaipur (Pink City, fort at Amber). Head back to Delhi's wonderful bazaars for a final shopping spree before you fly home.
If you have more specific interests, Delhi is the best for shopping, Goa is great for beaches, Himachal Pradesh has wonderful trekking, Rishikesh is the spot for yoga, tigers can be seen in Madhya Pradesh, thrill seekers should head to Manali, Varanasi has caught religious fervour and Kerala is the best for relaxing.
2. Slow down
Too many people try to cram too much into a visit to India. Do not be one of them. Seeing one place slowly is so much more rewarding than seeing many places in a flash. You will be less stressed, gain a deeper understanding of where you are and have more time to build relationships with the people you meet.
3. Avoid the crowds
Mingling with one billion locals can get to be a bit too much for some travellers, but India also has plenty of quiet retreats. If you need to escape the crowds in the sprawling cities, consider heading south to the backwaters of Kerala, north to Tibetan-influenced mountainous regions such as Ladakh or paying a visit to one of India's many hill stations.
4. Stay healthy
Avoid tap water, and any food that may have been washed in it, at all times. Do not eat any ice, salads and fruit you have not just peeled yourself.
Many travellers go veggie whilst in India. It is not a bad idea. A dodgy bit of meat will do you a lot more harm than slightly undercooked vegetables. Plus, many Indians are vegetarian, so there is a fabulous choice of vegetarian food. If you do eat meat, make sure it is well cooked. If in doubt, eat at a place that is packed with locals.
Toilets are notoriously bad in India, but they do not have to be health hazards. Consider using the left-hand-and-water-jug method preferred by many locals (it is, after all, so much more hygienic than using dry paper), but do not forget to carry soap with you so you can wash your hands properly afterwards.
5. Keep cool
India is renowned for its scams, for its in-your-face hassles and for being generally bloody hectic. There are various ways you can reduce the chances of being overcharged or just plain cheated, but there is no way you can avoid them altogether, so the single most important piece of advice for any India first-timer is to try to remain calm, no matter what. Frustrations boil over easily in India, and being able to control them, take a deep breath and move on is key to enjoying your overall experience.
Lonely Planet author Daniel McCrohan is currently researching the latest edition of the India travel guide.
The article 'Five tips for India first-timers' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.