Beyond camels

The holy city of Pushkar in western India is a treat for the solo female traveller

Pushkar is on the shores of the holy Lake Pushkar. Prangthong Jitcharoenkul

We have heard that women are strongly cautioned not to travel alone in India. We've heard ominous warnings and deep-seated prejudices, and of course, not all of them have grounds. I spent three years as a student in Mysore, Karnataka in southern India, and many people often questioned if I was afraid being there by myself -- they even used the word "rape", a broad generalisation of a country based on a few headlines.

My dream was to become a solo backpacker in India after graduation -- a dream I fulfilled last year when my mind wandered through the map of India in my bedroom. Thinking of where I should go for a two-week vacation, my eyes stopped at a dot in Rajasthan, on a town called Pushkar.

Located 14km from the main railway station in Ajmer district, Pushkar is a small town in western India that's truly worth visiting, offering a break from the familiar itinerary of Jaipur and Agra.

Camels are the stars of Pushkar ka Mela, where hundreds are shown and traded. Prangthong Jitcharoenkul

Like most visitors, I started to feel a change of atmosphere when the local bus reached the town. It was a surprise that there was no crazy honking that seems to be the norm in most Indian cities (a common phrase "Horn OK Please" is painted on all commercial trucks, local buses and taxis in India).

Pushkar is a Hindu pilgrimage town on the banks of Pushkar Lake. It boasts 400 Hindu temples and 52 bathing ghats or a series of steps leading down to the lake. The water in the lake is believed to cleanse sins and cure skin diseases. Among its temples, the best-known is the Brahma Temple with its red spire, one of the few dedicated to the creator god that still stands tall.

Besides religious sites, another highlight is the "Pushkar ka Mela" or Pushkar Fair, one of the world's most famous camel festivals held during the five-day Hindu festival Kartik Poornima to celebrate the full moon in October and November.

The fair is magical. Dust swirls in the ground populated by camels, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, traders, snake charmers and gypsy families gathering on the sand dunes as thousands of traders bargain for their camels. To attract buyers, the animals are adorned beautifully and differently according to their owners' ethnicity. It's still a camel market, though it has become the main tourist attraction.

I spent a couple of days in Pushkar and regret I couldn't stay for the entire fair, which usually lasts about seven days or more. Pushkar ka Mela also features hot air balloon rides, a competition for the longest moustache and football matches featuring camels. Intrepid tourists can also join a cricket match between the local Pushkar club and a team of visitors.

Pushkar, which is 150km from Jaipur, has a cozy atmosphere despite the growing number of backpackers. I love that all the attractions can be navigated freely and easily on foot. A mixed feeling of spirituality and adventure is at the right balance here; every morning the sounds of puja or prayer woke me up (and I wanted to sink my face into the pillow) and as in other religious cities in India, only vegetarian food is served in all hotels and restaurants. Several laid-back rooftop restaurants line the main market road and offer delicious vegetarian meals with a beautiful view of the holy lake. Meat is strictly prohibited -- and lo, I still managed to put on weight!

To emphasise the point, it was perfectly okay to hang out on my own. I chilled out at the bazaar all day and returned to my guest house as late as 11pm. A simple stroll along the lake watching the spiritual bathers is a tranquil experience that puts you at ease -- again a contrast to the hustle and bustle of Indian cities.

True, caution is important everywhere you travel in the world, and in Pushkar -- in India -- you'd only need the same level of attention and not more, for both a lone male or female traveller. Just in case anybody is still worried about travelling alone, local companies offer spiritual walking tours where you can find other foreigners and Indians from different states joining the trip.

In short, I wish I could have stayed longer.

Camels are the stars of Pushkar ka Mela, where hundreds are shown and traded. Prangthong Jitcharoenkul

A girl dressed as an Indian goddess attracts tourists at the main market. Prangthong Jitcharoenkul

Travel Info

Pushkar is a town in the Ajmer district in the state of Rajasthan. To get there from Bangkok, you can fly directly to Jaipur, Rajasthan's capital, or fly to New Delhi and take a short flight from there to Jaipur.

From either New Delhi or Jaipur, you can take a train to Ajmer and connect to Pushkar. Hiring a private car from Jaipur, 150km away, to Ajmer and Pushkar is also a good option.

The best time to visit is during the camel festival end of October to beginning November, but the town is pleasant all-year round.

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