Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Royal Rajasthan - Jaisalmer

We visited Rajasthan, primarily Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer and Udaipur in Dec 2015.


Desert tents under moonlightJaisalmer desert sunset

As a city, Jaisalmer is probably one of the smallest that we have seen. It takes about 10 minutes by car to cross the city. There is nothing much within the city, other than military camps. Its proximity to Thar desert and the border with Pakistan makes it strategic defense outpost.

From a touristic point of view, Jaisalmer can be characterized by two things: "Golden" Fortress and Thar desert.

Golden Fortress

Jaisalmer "golden" fort

The "Golden" Fortress (or "Sonar Kella" in Bengali) is special for us Bengalis as it has been immortalized in our memories by Satyajit Ray's movie of the same name (link). 

The golden color is of course due to the ubiquitous yellow sandstone found here -  out of which the fortress, and almost all buildings in the vicinity, are constructed. As a result, the city itself is referred to as the Golden City - see the color of the houses in the panorama below.   

Jaisalmer city panorama
Jaisalmer Golden fort panorama

A very unique thing about the fortress is that people still stay inside the fortress. So there are both houses and shops within the fortress. The shops range from small souvenir shops to jewellers who make / export very expensive jewellery.

Our guide told us that the govt. is now trying to encourage the people living inside to move out of the fortress - as their daily activities, esp. water usage, is slowly damaging the fortress. However, most people are of course unwilling to do so, due to obvious short term commercial gains. As such, the guide was basically asking us not to purchase souvenirs from shops inside the fortress. The point is that going forward if more people refuse to buy from shops inside the fortress, it will automatically force the people to move outside the fortress.

The castle itself is quite huge, so keep around 2-3 hours for exploring the castle. Most tours for the fortress start from the Gadsisar Sagar lake (below) - so you will find most guides there. There are govt. certified guides there and the standard rate for the full tour is around INR 700.

Gadsisar Sagar Lake Patwon Ki Haveli

Some more pics from inside the fortress:

Desert Camps

The other absolutely 'must do' experience in Jaisalmer is to stay in a desert camp and experience the sunset. Sam Sand Dunes is the most popular resort for this activity.  It is slightly outside the city and there is a well marked route leading to the camp from the city. Although we did not stay at the Sam Sand Dunes, we heard that there are around 1000 camps in the resort, as a result of which it can get quite crowded. (This is in no way a criticism of their services, or the camp in general; as we did not actually stay there.)

So we stayed at the Damodra Desert camp which offers a more personalized (albeit expensive -:)) experience - and thankfully we were not disappointed. We had a great time there and can definitely recommend it. The camp has only around 10 tents, so kind of 10 families at a time.

The tents are equipped with a fully functioning bathroom, even including hot water. So it is really 'luxury among the wilderness'. There is also a heater in the room, however it is the desert - and it can get very cold at night - so be prepared with your sweaters and warm clothes. The camp is run by people from the nearby Damodra village. As such, the service is great, and the people really treat you as their family "guests".

One of main attractions here is to see the sunset over the sand dunes. The sunset point is approx. 30 minutes drive in a closed jeep from the camp, and the drive can be bit bumpy; so be prepared esp. if you have small children with you. There is sand everywhere, so you are likely to get a lot of sand in your face as well - scarves and goggles are thus very much recommended.

Once you reach the sunset point, there is an optional camel ride around the sunset point. If this is the first time that you are riding a camel, hold on to whatever you can :), esp. when the camel is getting up. Do not underestimate this part, as we saw a couple having a bad fall right in front of our eyes.

The sand dunes, although not very extensive, is still quite impressive. If you are lucky enough to have a clear day, the sunset is absolutely magnificent and worth every penny / effort that you made to get here. Depending on the sunset time on a particular day, they usually plan so that you reach the sunset point at least half an hour before sunset, and then leave well after sunset - tea and refreshments are served in between. A few pics of the sandscape during sunset below:

Jaisalmer desert sunset
Jaisalmer desert panorama
Walking off into the sunset

Up on returning to the camp, you are given a traditional Indian welcome with garlands and 'Tika'. Once changed, and after having gotten rid of some of the sand; there is a bonfire going on in the middle with traditional dances and fire shows. You are welcome to sit around with hot snacks and cold drinks.

Fire show at desert camp

After a sumptuous diner, you are welcome to walk around enjoying a perfect moonlit night in the desert.

Desert Camp under moonlight Moonlit desert camp


This blog would not be complete without mentioning the Suryagarh hotel. Other than the desert camp, this is the best place to stay in Jaisalmer. Yes, it is expensive, but it also one of the best 5-star hotels we have stayed in - both service and decor wise. It is not a traditional palace per se, in that it is not hundreds of years old; but it otherwise resembles every bit a royal palace. Check out the pics below to get the royal feeling:

Suryagarh lights at night
Suryagarh hotel illuminated at night
Suryagarh night lights 
Stairway to ...
Royal dining @ Suryagarh

One last thing, if you get time check this out: 'Breakfast with Peacocks' (link). Unfortunately, we noticed this at the last minute; hence did not get a chance to check it out - but does sound very interesting.