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A Travel Guide for Kolkata and The Sundarbans

Updated: Jun 18

In this travel guide for Kolkata and The Sundarbans, we will tell you everything you need to know to visit one of India's most vibrant cities alongside one of the world's most fascinating ecosystems.


CONTENTS




 


Why Visit?


Ever since reading 'The Hungry Tide' by Amitav Ghosh, I had dreamt of visiting these wild mangrove forests on the shores of North-East India, a natural boundary between West Bengal and Bangladesh. Known as 'The Tide Country' - the Sundarbans is one of the most inhospitable places on earth and home to the Bengal Tiger.


If you're coming from India, the city of Kolkata is the gateway to the Mangroves, and it's a place where the chaos and colour will knock your socks off.



The Hungry Tide
The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh

 


About Kolkata


Kolkata is the capital city of West Bengal, a state in east India. Bengalis have a rich culture and have greatly influenced the fields of art and literature, and they are known for their warm hospitality and oh-so-delicious food.


Kolkata used to be the capital of India under the British Raj, as well as home to the controversial Mother Teresa. It's a fascinating city and one of the last places you can experience a ride in a hand-pulled rickshaw, as well as drink chai (tea) from a clay cup and smash it on the ground afterwards.


Kolkata is regarded by many as the cultural capital of India, and it's certainly a chaotic and colourful city that gave me goosebumps!


Kolkata has an international airport which links to many Asian cities, it is also well-connected with the rest of India by cheap and frequent domestic flights.



A bus and a building in Kolkata
Kolkata Scenes

 


When to Visit Kolkata & The Sundarbans


October - March


This is one of those places where seasonality is really important. April - June is summer and extremely hot and humid, whereas June - September brings the monsoon with torrential rain and potential flooding.



 


Packing Essentials for Visiting Kolkata & The Sundarbans


For all of the details on how to prepare for a trip to India, check out my article:


For a full backpacking packing list, check out my article:


*Something you will absolutely want to bring plenty of is Odomos - which is a mosquito cream you can buy from any local chemist in India.



 

FOR TRAVEL INSURANCE for India, do what U do and have a browse on Travel Supermarket and choose a cheap policy with a high Defaqto rating.


 


Things to Know When Arriving in Kolkata


The beauty of this travel guide to Kolkata and The Sundarbans is that you can learn from my mistakes!


I had read online that Russel Street was a busy backpacking neighbourhood, and that there was no need to book accommodation, as you could easily find a hostel just by turning up. This turned out to be untrue.


Russel Street is approximately a 60-minute drive from Kolkata Airport - and both Uber and Ola are available in the city.


I was very unlucky that there was a cricket match on the day I arrived and almost every hotel was full, the ones that had vacancies did not allow non-married gender mixing.


I recommend you book your accommodation ahead of time using booking.com.


After a lot of hassle and a few tears, I ended up staying at The Sunflower Guest House. It was simple but ideally located and secure, and it had a cute rooftop to enjoy a beer!



The Sunflower Guest House Kolkata
The Sunflower Guest House Kolkata


Even as a seasoned traveller AND in a group of five I wouldn't walk the streets of the bigger cities after 9pm or so. It's not safe and there's not much need for it anyway, the magic is in the liveliness of the daytime.



 


How to Spend One Day in Kolkata


First, let me say I really struggle with the Tripadvisor 'Top 10 things to do in ...'. It's always filled with some kind of memorial or shopping mall. I'm personally not that interested in checking sights off of a list, I prefer to get immersed in a place and get a feel for it, even if this does mean missing out on an important landmark or whatnot.


I've always found the best way to do this is to WALK. Now honestly, some cities are not pedestrian friendly *cough cough Kuala Lumpur* but Kolkata really IS.



Where to Walk in Calcutta:


  • Malik Ghat Flower Market - This was epic!

  • College Street - So many books!

  • Howrah Bridge - We found a little floating restaurant - a 'floatel' - with a view of the bridge and stopped for a much-needed footrest and cold beer.



This may not seem like many stops, but along the way you will stumble through countless markets, little cafes and coconut stands, sampling street food and fresh lime sodas!


Just being in the city itself is both exhausting and exhilarating!



Two Important Tips for People-watching in Kolkata


  1. Always ask people before you take their photo.

  2. If you see something distressing try not to stare too much and cause embarrassment.



'Nimbu Wallah'


Where to buy a fresh lime soda. The classic version is to add salt and sugar, so if you don't want this just ask for PLAIN. They'll know what you mean. Depending on how bewildered you look, this will cost you between 20 - 80p.



A hand-pulled rickshaw in Kolkata
A hand-pulled rickshaw in Kolkata


A Note on Food in Kolkata


Food is a huge part of travel for me, especially in India, and this travel guide to Kolkata and the Sundarbans would not be complete without a segment on local treats!


You will find the best food if you go little and go local.


The menu will rarely be in English, so ordering can be tricky, and quite funny if you keep in good spirits about it! A local meal for a hungry person in a little and local place will set you back 50p - £1.


Breakfast can be purchased on the street for something closer to 15p.


I've always eaten street food in India and have never gotten sick, but if you have a sensitive stomach you could consider taking Activated Charcoal Tablets alongside.

*I am not a doctor, this is not medical advice.



'Nimbu Wallah'


Where to buy a fresh lime soda. The classic version is to add salt and sugar, so if you don't want this just ask for PLAIN. They'll know what you mean. Depending on how bewildered you look, this will cost you between 20 - 80p.



Chai in a clay cup, Kolkata
Chai in a clay cup, Kolkata


Rule Number One on the Streets of Indian cities


Act confident!


People can always tell when it's your first day in a city, and they'll take advantage of that (who can blame them?)


If someone asks you how long you've been here, always say at least a few days - and they'll assume you know all the tricks and regular prices of things and leave you alone.


Be aware of your surroundings and be street smart, but don't expect everyone living here to have criminal intentions, there is a balance. I've always found the people of India to be smiley and warm (if a little nosy!)



 


Exploring The Sundarbans


After an exhilarating couples of days in Kolkata we were excited to head out to the largest mangrove forest in the world!


I booked a trip with the guys from Tour De Sundarbans. They were awesome! A 2 Day, 1 Night tour starting and ending in Kolkata was £40.


This includes:


  • Transport from Kolkata

  • Accommodation at an eco-village on the island of Gosaba

  • Evening canoe through the mangroves

  • Full-day boat safari

  • All food

  • Transport back to Kolkata



The young guys running the company were really laid back and had good fun, we shared our tour with one other group but had a yurt-style hut to ourselves. It was modest but very homely and characterful.



 


Getting from Kolkata to The Sundarbans


The journey from Kolkata is 6-7 hours and includes a bus, a rickshaw and a water taxi.


Once out of the city, the views are STUNNING.


The tides in this area are so unpredictable, the region is battered by storms, and sometimes the islands are completely submerged. The mangroves are an extraordinarily tangled mess of nature, and being killed by Crocodiles or a Bengal Tiger is still a big threat to the people that live there, believe it or not.


A lot of the forest has been designated a Protected Tiger Reserve, but that doesn't stop local people from entering to collect honey illegally. I can't really admonish this, what else are they to do? The human-tiger conflict is complicated.


A local man told us that two honey collectors had gone missing in that fortnight alone, but because they were trespassing illegally no one had reported it. Life there is so fragile.


I think it is important to speak to local people and hear their stories, otherwise, your backpacking experience can be floating somewhere above the surface; ticking off world wonders but not really feeling anything.


I've always found that the Indian people I have met are PROUD that you're visiting their home, and are always willing to chat/interrogate you back!



The Sundarbans Mangrove Forest
The Sundarbans Mangrove Forest

 


Things to Do in The Sundarbans


When we arrived at The Sundarbans our first activity with Tour De Sundarbans was for some local fishermen to take us out on their canoes. We had fun clambering through the mud amongst the scattering crabs.



Bengali man canoe Sundarbans
Our Bengali Captain


The next activity was a sunrise boat tour the following morning. By law, you will need to collect a government ranger along the way to accompany you.


Our ranger seriously lacked people skills, in what turned out to be rather comical. Before we were about to depart the 8-hour-long tour through the waterways, he announced that we were gonna see NOTHING. Yep, that's right!


He said that it was too hot and too late (we visited in April) so we were unlikely to see any animals. Being the good-spirited group that we are we found this very, very funny, however, he was right!


This is by no means the fault of the lads or the tour company, you can't control nature. Hopefully, you will have better luck. In fact, the tour group the day before us DID see a Bengal Tiger...or so they said!


Anyway, at the end of the day, we were told...


YOU MAY NOT HAVE SEEN A BENGAL TIGER... BUT ONE DEFINITELY SAW YOU!


Mud mangroves Sundarbans
Mud and Mangroves


 


Moving on From Kolkata & The Sundarbans


From Kolkata you could choose to travel the least visited part of India, by moving deeper into the far North East. We choose to jump on a train to Sikkim.


Train travel is a fantastic way to explore India, and if you want to hear about the time I travelled on a 3rd class train ticket from Agra to Jaipur check out my Through Rajasthan article. It was BONKERS.


For a step-by-step guide on buying a train ticket in India, check out my guide: Train Travel in India for Tourists & Train Classes.


My final piece of advice for this travel guide to Kolkata and The Sundarbans, and travelling India in general, is to try to ride the wave of highs and lows. Backpacking here requires a lot of patience, but it is also so rich and rewarding that you can learn to embrace whatever comes your way.



 


I hope you have enjoyed this travel guide for exploring Kolkata and The Sundarbans, if you enjoyed the read please consider subscribing to my blog where I post articles once every 1-2 weeks about my current travels.



For more travel advice for India, check out my post on planning a trip to India with a pre-departure checklist and pro travel tips!


Happy Travels

xx

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