Varanasi was described to me as, “somewhere between the beginning of civilization and the 70s.” This Varanasi Guide will be helpful to any traveler who thinks they have the stomach to come here.
There are so many cars with stop-go-honk insanity coming at you from all directions. When you put your hand out the window, you could touch other cars and all of the wild cows that roam the highways.
Once you get off the main highway that gets into town, to get anywhere in Varanasi, you have to walk toward the Ganges River, where most all of the accommodations are. No cars can fit through these streets.
When you first get here, you will notice the narrow cobblestone and the side-by-side concrete walls that are all touching and mushed together. The sticks, stones, tarps, and other rubbish glues all the buildings.
You’ll notice doors of all shapes and sizes. Some look like little triangles saw out from concrete, others look like a doggie door. Most everything looks as if it’s going to fall apart at any moment, and much of the architecture is only half-finished or half-torn apart.
These structures really look as if they were all put together thousands of years ago. You have to be extra careful walking through them.
Spend too much time looking up above at the wild monkeys running crossing the beams, and you’re bound to step in some “holy shit” — cows’ poop that sits in the street because it’s actually considered “holy”, according to the mainly-Hindu local believers.
People and animals are abundant. It can feel like there are mini-stampedes happening in all directions. When trying to move forward, be prepared for someone asking for something or shouting something at you.
Some people will actually grab your hand to stop you with the hope that you will purchase something from them. And in other cases, people will run up to you and mark your forehead.
How to deal? Politely say no once, give a quick shake of the head, and start proceeding. Expect to be followed for a minute or two and say “no” again. You might have to ignore them until they leave.
Mass Cremation Ghats
It’s also inevitable for you to see Indian men in orange rushing wrapped dead bodies to the Ganges River through the town. Why?
In Hindu religion, the Ganges River is a very spiritual river. Many people pilgrim from all over India to bathe in the river, bathe their dead family members in the river, and cremate them in the mass-cremation “ghats”.
The ghats are staircases that lead down to the river, where they hold these daily cremations. There are a handful of cremation ghats throughout Varanasi.
Followers of the Hindu religion believe that if they bathe their dead relatives here, with their ashes and bones placed in the river, then they have a more direct pathway into heaven. Pregnant women and children who have deceased don’t get cremated, but instead have a rock tied to them to sink in the Ganges River. This is why you hear stories from tourists who say they’ve seen dead bodies floating down the river.
Not surprisingly, The Ganges is one of the most polluted rivers in the world.
The Ganges River and its spiritual meaning are only some of the reasons Varanasi is considered such a holy place. Some of the gods in Hindu, like Lord Shiva, are believed to have lived in Varanasi thousands of years ago. More reasons on Varanasi’s holiness can be found here.
There are lots of scams that take place in Varanasi that stem from places you’d think would be trustworthy. We were scammed almost immediately after we got off the plane.
At the airport, we went to an official taxi booth to purchase a prepaid taxi to take us to our hotel. As our taxi was approaching Varanasi, a 45-minute drive from the airport, the driver had a friend come in the taxi, and we were told he would guide us to our hotel.
Sidenote: You really do need a guide to take you to your hotel because cars can’t fit through the roads and the walking paths are like a giant maze with no street signs.
So our “guide” took us to our hotel, Ganpati Guesthouse. For the first tip in this Varanasi Guide: You have to be careful when being guided to your hotel. Some guides will take you to other hotels when you first get out of your taxi and tell you the one you booked is closed or burned down. Then, you have to follow them to a different hotel, one that they’ll make a commission on.
When we got to our hotel, our guide said he’d meet us back in a few hours to show us around. We said okay, tried tipping him, which he didn’t take, then met him the next day.
We were expecting to pay him to show us around, but he said he just wanted us to come to his shop after our trip. Which would have been fine. We wouldn’t mind buying something from his family shop in exchange for him showing us around.
So a few hours later, we met up with him and he took us straight to the biggest cremation site in Varanasi (we didn’t ask for this). He said he’d wait outside this ghat and that a holy man caregiver would show us around.
At this point, we became suspicious, but sometimes you just lean into things, even if you know you’re being scammed to see where it leads.
This “holy man” gave us a really up close and personal tour of the cremation site. After Googling some of the information he explained to us, he did give us a lot of real info about the history and what it all meant. There were a few things he was lying about though …
After the 20-minute tour, the holy man basically demanded that we donate money for firewood. He said the people who come to burn their dead relatives don’t have money to pay for firewood, so it’s all paid for through donations.
We knew something was up, but we gave him $20 to get out of there. Then he got upset that it wasn’t $100!
At this point, it got awkward.
After getting back to the hotel, we found out the taxi driver, guide, and holy man were all in on it together and split the $20.
The next day, when our guide came to meet us, I gave him a piece of my mind, and let him know that we knew about the scam.
If you go to Varanasi and want to check out the cremation ghat, know that families buy their own wood for super cheap, and the only people taking donations are the scammers.
This was also confirmed by the Ganpati Guesthouse staff. Also, if anyone asks for donations to tend to the old and sick in a “hospice”, know that there’s no hospice either.
Here are a number of more scams to watch for.
Best Place to Stay
Ganpati Guesthouse. This was our oasis. The Guesthouse is clean, beautiful, spacious, and affordable. It’s in the perfect location and is to everything. The rooftop restaurant is amazing! We paid $18 a night.
Things to Do & Foods to Try
1. Go on a walking tour. But ONLY with a guide your hotel recommends. Your guide will also make sure business owners don’t badger you while touring the city. He will walk you past the burning cremation ghats, famous and very old Hindu temples, show you Hindu signs to look out for all throughout Varanasi, take you to some shops (only if you want to), and take you through some pretty biblical-looking streets.
Needless to say, Varanasi is one of the most photogenic places in the world.
2. Take a boat ride on the Ganges River to an early morning Hindu ceremony (around 4 a.m.) or an evening ceremony (around 5:30 p.m.).
3. Sip delicious chai tea and eat tika marsala (or any marsala). We loved the food so much at Ganpati Guesthouse, we ate there for almost every single meal.
I know, I know, where’s the adventure?! Well, the street food is cooked next to piles of trash, cow shit, human shit, piss. You’re not appetized walking around Varanasi. While we were a little bummed not to be able to try more places, we didn’t want to get sick either.
You don’t have to stay at Ganpati Guesthouse to eat at their restaurant. The food is delicious and affordable — we’re talking $2 a meal. Beautiful views of Varanasi included.
Things Not to Do
Everyone will tell you to go to the Golden Temple. DON’T GO TO THE GOLDEN TEMPLE. Unless you are a devout Hindu person. Many travelers will disagree.
It’s a zoo with what seems like thousands of people trying to get in to this very congested, small place.
If you’re walking around Varanasi, and see a crowded entrance with a metal detector, that’s the entrance to the Golden Temple.
You have to take your shoes off and walk on a soaking wet floor upon getting in. If you actually want to see the Golden Temple, prepare to try to squeeze in a swarm of people looking down at it without any organization. Think: The hardest time you’ve ever had ordering a beer at a bar, multiplied by a million.
So for me, a short deer-eyed tourist, having a view down the actual Golden Temple obviously didn’t happen. I’d have better luck trying to order that beer…
The Golden Temple doesn’t really appear to be a “temple”. It basically looks like a well. And if you look down into the well, which is probably about ten feet in diameter, you see a gold figure way down at the bottom.
In all seriousness, the statue is a shape of a penis (Lord Shiva’s) going into a vagina (Lord Vishnu’s), a sacred symbol in Hindu religion. The shape is more abstract looking, however. I wouldn’t actually know that this is what it was a shape of if I didn’t take the walking tour.
If you really want to see this, know that as a foreigner, you can skip the line to get in the grounds after you get your passport checked in the designated spot (which looks like a giant hole in the wall), about 20 feet down from the metal detector.
Once in though, you can’t skip the “line” to see the Golden Temple.
Varanasi Travel Tips
1. If you want to take photos of the (fake) holy men, just pay them. It’s all part of the experience. Give them 50 rupees and they’ll be happy.
2. Don’t stay too long. Usually, I’m a huge advocate for slow travel — staying places a little over two weeks. But three days in Varanasi is enough time to do everything.
3. Bring TP in your pockets everywhere. I mean everywhere.
4. Bring earplugs for sleeping. You will hear people hacking up I-don’t-know-what at all hours.
5. It’s best to be back at your hotel before dark. It gets a bit creepy at night.
6. Don’t wear flashy jewelry or clothes. This is definitely a place you want to blend in as best you can. Ladies, you may want to consider wearing a headscarf if you are not fond of extra attention.
7. If you are going all the way to Varanasi, there’s no “skipping the burning ghats”. Visit the ghats in a respectful way. Don’t take photos, and stay off to the side of the ghats. Don’t go trudging through them.
8. Don’t take young kids to Varanasi. We saw some “hardcore travelers” doing this, and I just felt bad for the kids.
Should You Go to Varanasi?
Varanasi is not for everybody, and hopefully this Varanasi Guide is helpful. Varanasi is for the traveler who has a very open mind in regards to how others live, for the traveler who can politely say no to people constantly stopping them in the street, and for the traveler who is looking for something totally out of this world.
If that’s not the traveler you are, and still decide to visit Varanasi … well … that’s the traveler you will become!