After a 17 hours train journey from Delhi, I arrived in Jaisalmer. Somewhat tired but still excited I stepped out of our train onto the platform thinking: I am ready to explore the golden city of India! First impressions of Jaisalmer told me that this city was very different than Delhi: smaller, less busy, and less honking cars. Jaisalmer is located in the western part of the Rajasthan state, close to the border with Pakistan. My stay in Jaisalmer resulted in a love-hate relationship with the city. In this blog post, I will tell you about the good (things to do), the bad (things to avoid), and the ugly (things you should never do) of Jaisalmer.
The good = great things to do in Jaisalmer
One of the best things to do in Jaisalmer is to visit the beautiful city fort. It was built in the 12th century as a way-station for Silk Road caravans and travelers. The location is photogenic: perched on top of a hill and surrounded by a thick wall with 99 bastions. Because of the yellow sandstone, the fort has a golden glow in the evening light. That’s why Jaisalmer is often called the ‘Golden City’. Within the walls, you can admire the Royal Palace and many havelis and Jain temples. The fort has a maze-like feeling with winding streets and alleys. There are still more than 3.000 people living inside the fort. These residents often earn their money with tourists. They run a restaurant, a hotel, or a souvenir shop. This makes the fort a bit of a tourist trap, but at the same time it brings it more alive.
the beautiful havelis
Not only the fort is beautiful, but another not-to-miss highlight is also the havelis. These are old mansions of rich Indian merchants and political elite. The most beautiful havelis are the Patwon Ki Haveli (actually consists of 5 havelis), the Nathmal Ki Haveli and the Salim Sing Ki Haveli. I also recommend to visit Mandir Palace This palace annex hotel is just outside the old town and not visited by many tourists. It really catches your eye because of the Tazia tower, the highest point of the city.
The bad = things to avoid
Commercial desert tourism
Spending a night in the Thar desert of Jaisalmer is a unique, romantic experience. Sadly, tourism has had a huge commercial impact on the desert camping experience. Every tourist is taken to the Sam Sand Dunes, a piece of the desert 40 kilometers outside Jaisalmer. Camp operators have set up luxurious tent camps. They look like resorts, with matrasses, toilets, and their own camels. In the evening there is a folklore performance with music and dance. The whole thing feels more like a tourist trap than an authentic experience. Outside the camps, you will run into vendors or kids wanting to dance or sing for money. These kids have learned not to let go: they will keep following you and keep asking for money. How do I know? My guide first brought us to such a resort village and we took a walk in the dunes.
What did I do?
Fortunately, there are also other options. Go to another dune (Khuri or Sundra) and go for an experience where you sleep in the open air or in a small tent. We did the latter. Together with a guide, we set up a tent in a quiet spot and watched the sunset from a sandy hill. At night we ate a lovely dinner (it is quite hard to see your dinner in the desert dark), talked with our guide about the Indian culture, and fell asleep in our own tent. It was a good authentic experience. The only downfall: the cold! We woke up with a thick cold fog. Not what we expected from the Indian desert!
The ugly = things you should never do
A standard part of almost every desert tour is a camel safari. In the Sam Sand Dunes, you will see a lot of camels and dromedaries with colorful saddles waiting for the touring cars with tourists. Personally, I hated to see these tourist animal rides on a massive scale. I understand that camels and dromedaries are transportation animals and they can handle a lot of weight on their backs. Still, using these animals for the entertainment of tourists is not okay in my book. The dromedaries had a pin jammed through their nose and had no access to water.
What did I do?
How did I discover the Thar desert? By foot! After the jeep ride from the city to the desert, we walked over the dunes and enjoyed the sunset from the hills. If you ask me, this is a perfect way to enjoy the desert. If you still want to go a camel safari, then I will advise you to always take a look at the animal first. Ask yourself, does the animal look strong and healthy? if not, don’t do it. Be a conscious traveler!
And.. would I recommend Jaisalmer?
Despite the commercialization and the camel rides, I do think Jaisalmer is worth a visit. The city has a beautiful fort and an amazing collection of havelis. However, tourism also resulted in some negative effects. Take for instance the fort. The huge number of people inside the fort has a negative impact on the drainage system and so the fort is actually sinking. It is recommended to pick an accommodation outside the fort to help preserve this monument. A second example is the one size fits all desert tours. There seems to be only one type of offer: a camel ride and camping in the Sam Sand Dunes. If you would ask me, Jaisalmer would be more beautiful if the local tour operators looked into small community based tourism and animal-friendly tours.
And there you have it: things to do and things to avoid in Jaisalmer. Would you visit Jaisalmer?