Our family of 5 (three teenagers) spent a few days Amritsar sightseeing a few months back. This included visiting the Golden Temple, but also included visiting other important sites such as Jalianwala Bagh and the Wagah Border, a short drive away. It was an extraordinary experience, but just one part of a remarkable two week trip to northern India. I’ve written lots of articles about our trip. If you are interested, I will list them at the end for you review.
Amritsar was our gateway into India. And quite frankly, we were not properly prepared to be a tourist there. We had a tour company waiting to help us in our Amritsar sightseeing and I thought “good enough”. I had been to over 50 countries – my children around 35. We were well versed in travelling in developing countries. With our experience and some local guidance, we would be ready for our Amritsar sightseeing.
I was completely wrong!
1. You need to dress conservatively
Flight to Amritsar
After spending a few days in Dubai, we flew to Amritsar to start our Amritsar sightseeing. What a contrast! Notwithstanding Dubai is a Muslim country, foreign women may dress as they choose so long as it is respectful. Me and my 12 year old daughter wore shorts, t-shirts and dresses that were above the knee. We never felt uncomfortable and did not face any more attention than we would normally receive in Canada. That is to say at my age, I was basically ignored!
However, fast forward a couple of days, and we were on our flight to Amritsar. My daughter and I wore shorts and loose fitting t-shirts. Essentially, comfort clothes for a flight from a hot country to another hot country. I immediately knew we made a mistake upon arriving at our gate at the Dubai airport.
The waiting area was filled with Sikh men dressed in long pants and long sleeve shirts. Once they noticed me and my daughter, the staring began. First of all, there wasn’t another woman in sight. Indeed, once we boarded the plane, I counted three other woman, all of them Indian. Second of all, these three women were fully covered with pants and long sleeve shirts notwithstanding the heat.
Lesson learned for Amritsar Sightseeing
I felt very uncomfortable at the gate, on our flight and at the Amritsar airport going through immigration. My teenage son became alarmed by the staring and also, quite interestingly, angry at us for the attention. He wanted us to change as soon as possible and stop drawing attention to ourselves. I wanted to be swallowed into the floor.
We changed at our hotel and headed out to the Golden Temple. Once there, everyone continued to stare. Now what?
2. Everyone stared at all of us
No matter where we went or what we did while Amritsar sightseeing, people stared at us. We all wore long pants/skirts and loose fitting tops, and yet the stares continued. However, it was different than before. No longer were the looks disapproving and reproachful, but merely curious. And the stares were not only directed at me and my daughter. People could not keep their eyes off all of us. My husband and sons are enormous (6’5″, 6″4′ and 6’2″, or 196 cm, 193 cm, 190 cm) and we were all obviously tourists (we are caucasian).
We did not feel threatened by the stares, but were not happy with them either. Over the week or so that we were in Punjab, we slowly understood that we were one of only a handful of non-India tourists that come there and do Amritsar sightseeing. I guess they were as curious about us as we were about them. It was an interesting situation to be in, and one for which you should be prepared if you visit this region.
Staring in other regions of India
As an aside, men continued to stare at me and my daughters (my 19 year old joined us in Delhi) during our whole stay in India. On occasion, men followed us, once 10 – 15 of them, even while surrounded by my husband and sons, and an Indian guide. Unfortunately, the stares and attention were no longer curious or felt innocent. My daughters and I often felt threatened by this kind of attention, notwithstanding our long history of travel. For more information about other concerns that I had while travelling in India, please see my article India with Kids: Eight Reasons Not To Go.
3. We were popular with the Paparazzi!
We could not take a single step in and around the Golden Temple without someone asking one or all of us for a photo. They didn’t care which one of us was in it, they just wanted that photo. Better yet, if one or all of them got in the photo with us!
Initially, it was unnerving and then, overwhelming. If you are a seasoned traveller, unfortunately when you are in a foreign country and a local wants a photo of you, you brace yourself for the scam. You wonder if they are intending to pick pocket you, or use that as a segue way to ask for money, offer you a tour, or try and sell you a trinket. Nothing good usually comes from the connection.
At first, we refused the requests for photos. However, after the third or fourth appeal by another smiling person, I asked our guide what was going on. He said that they were all so proud that we were visiting their most important religious site that they wanted to show their family and friends that we had come. After that, how could we refuse?
However, we eventually had to or we would have never gone more than a few feet from our spot. It felt odd to be so in demand and even more odd to say no to these enormous families with the cutest kids who all wanted to have their photo taken with you. But, we learned to say “no” and move on.
4. Time and Scheduling is Fluid
My experience on our travels is that when I book a three hour tour, it lasts around three hours. Normally, there is a predetermined schedule with approximate times to be spent at each place. However, that wasn’t really the case during our Amritsar sightseeing.
We used a professional travel company for our tours while in India called Indian Vistas. They were truly excellent. Every driver and guide showed up on time and were knowledgeable and helpful. However, a lot of tours ran as long as you wanted or needed, and they were very happy to take a detour from the preassigned schedule to show you something interesting. There was never a complaint or an excuse.
As wonderful as it sounds (and it was wonderful), sometimes it was confusing to figure out whether we were still on the original plan or on another one; whether we were surpassing our original allotted time (and should offer to pay more); and whether we were somehow inconveniencing the guide or the driver, whether it was our idea or theirs!
I learnt during our time Amritsar sightseeing and in India generally, that my concern was a Western preoccupation. Our guides and drivers were happy to spend time with us showing us the sites. Time spent and the original schedule were starting points. We made sure we tipped well to show our appreciation and more importantly, relaxed about the unexpected twists in our day!
On your next trip to Amritsar or the Punjab state, remember:
- to dress conservatively;
- people stare because they are curious;
- strangers will ask to take your photo (preferably with them in it) because they are happy you are there; and
- tours are just a general guideline to the day ahead.
Amritsar sightseeing was remarkable. Enjoy your time there!
For other articles about our time in India, please see the list below:
- Fourteen Days In India With Kids: Cows, Culture and Chaos;
- Best Places To Visit In India: Four Reasons Why You Should Go;
- India with Kids: Eight Reasons Not To Go;
- Rathambore Safari in India: How My I-Phone Flashlight Saved My Life;
- Escaping Death Near Rathambore National Park In India;
- Exploring The Golden Temple in Amritsar India.
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