Palace on Wheels - a train journey through the Indian state of Rajasthan
It has been already a couple of years ago, when I first came across some advertising for the “Palace on Wheels” – which was promoted as a luxury train journey through the North Indian state of Rajasthan. So years later and with some savings aside, I decided that this would be the right time to book myself into this exotic looking journey.
The Train and the costing
Well, the Indian railway system and Indian passenger trains are not having the best reputation. Pictures of overcrowded platforms and trains with people hanging out of windows and doors usually pop into my mind. When booking a luxury train journey of course other standards are expected, so I started this journey with lots of curiosity.
On the website (www.thepalaceonwheels.com) the train promotes itself as a luxury train in colonial style – that the website looked kind of old fashioned ringed already a little alarm bell, but with a price tag of around 4000 EUR per person for a 7-days trip I thought nothing can go wrong.
Well, to summarize it first the overall impression of the journey was good and quite an experience. You come to see so many different places in such a short time, that I really don´t regret this trip – however if you are planning to book yourself into this trip I recommend to put expectations not too high.
Speaking about EXPECTATIONS I think these were the major issues for me and also my fellow travellers. The train is historic and epic, no doubts about that. But standards are a maximum of 2-3*, which they are selling on 5* prices. The Palace on Wheels needs an urgent refurbishment, otherwise it can be only sold as a basic touristic train for half the price or less. The Palace on Wheels was the first tourist train of its kind in India, but nowadays you can find other trains in the market that deserve the luxury label ways more than this train.
And yes it is India and working laws and circumstances are different, but I was shocked when I found out that our 60 years old cabin butler has to sleep on the train floor beside the passenger cabins – for him it seemed to be normal, for me it was horrific. From a luxury train charging its passengers such high prices, I expect better working conditions for the staff.
How to book
You can either book the train direct through the website or if you need more assistance also with pre- and post train tourism packages I would recommend to approach a selling agent.
I booked my trip through one of my previous clients, Mustafa Air Travel www.mustafa.com.sg (they are based in Singapore, but are one of the major selling agents for the train).
Arrival and Check-in
Upon arrival at the Safdarjung Railway Station in Delhi, you will be greeted with some folkloric music groups, flower garlands and a welcome gift.
Better you already get familiar with that arrival tam-tam as basically in every main station on this journey, they will organize a welcome show for you. Also here I have a controversial opinion as on one side it is nice to see some local dances and rituals, but on the other side you feel like they are setting up a Disneyland for you in the middle of the Bronx. The train arrives throughout the journey at the common train platforms of each city, so you can already assume what the poor local travellers must be thinking, when they observe all this show for the wealthy tourists. And this puts you in a quite unpleasant situation, as you just want to tug away and vanish.
Only the station in Delhi is in a remoter place and therefore no spectators will be around when you get your trip briefing on the platform. Afterwards you get picked up from one of your cabin butlers to show you your “residence” for the next seven days.
Are looking nice on the advertising pictures, also in reality when you first step into your cabin.
But with a closer look you will see that also here the furniture and technology in the bathroom needs an urgent refurbishment. Our bathroom shower was leaking, the toilet flush always went on a diving trip and the ceiling had deep cracks.
Size of the cabin is tiny, but I expected that as in the end you are on a train. Beds were ok, but also don´t expect too much sleep on that journey. The Indian railway system is not the best and due to the age of the train there is almost no suspension. So in remote places where railways are the worse, you will literally be catapulted out of bed every night. To sleep on your side is almost impossible, straight on your back is the best position strategy-wise. On some nights I really thought the train will take off in a second. But sometimes they show mercy with their passengers and let the train stand for some hours overnight at some stations, so you can catch some basic sleep.
Each carriage has their assigned two cabin butlers – who will do their best to make your journey pleasant. Poor guys, as they know very well the problems of the train, but they try to smile them away. Most of the attendants are old and are working for the train almost all their life.
The majority of cabins are same in size and amenities, there are only a few so called Suite Cabins, which are larger in size and with a different service. Biggest plus of the Suite category is that you will have a private car and guide during all sightseeing programs and therefore you don´t need to squeeze in with the rest of the other passengers in the regular tour busses (our bus group counted 35 people).
The train facilities / restaurants
Well, as everything else in the train, the facilities are aging as well. Somehow a nice try to put a fitness room on the train – well, it´s not a room it´s basically in the aisle right in front of the restaurant (hm, should this be a message???) and the treadmill is the biggest joke 😊if you are taller than a child, you won´t be able to run on it as you will knock yourself out. The ceiling is just centimetres away from your head. So considering that the train is moving and you are bumping down while running – ouchhh, that calls for a doctor. Hmm, so what a surprise I haven´t seen anybody working out on this trip.
Further a beauty salon and massage centre is available. I haven´t tried them out, so I can not give any comments on that – but whenever I was passing by, the staff there seemed quite jobless.
So we are coming now to one major factor of a successful journey – the food!!! The train has a total of 2 restaurant wagons, which have both a quite old fashioned colonial ambiance. However in terms of the restaurants that historic look fits and gives a nice atmosphere. Each wagon has a bar as well, where you can have a pre- and post meal drink.
The food, well that was one major disappointment – for sure cooking in a train for so many guests is a challenge, but then again for the price we paid you expect that they master this in the best way. I can not say that the food was a total failure as some dishes indeed were really tasty and with a good quality, but it was more the menu itself. Each lunch and dinner that was held on the train you got a menu that was wildly mixed with international and Indian dishes – starters, main courses, side dishes and dessert. Fine, not everybody likes Indian food so it is a good gesture that they also have other cuisines on offer. This would be all good as long as you can choose the dish you want and get it plated on your table. However what they actually do is to serve everybody everything – and also often not in order. So you end up with a plate of 10 different dishes and every second a waiter shows up to serve something. Much better option would be to let people choose in advance their set-menu and serve it accordingly.
The good thing is that not all meals are held on the train, so the meals that we had during tours were all excellent and in nice luxury hotels or restaurants – for these arrangements they definitely deserve plus points.
So after your cabin check-in in Delhi in the late afternoon you will have some free time before a first get-together in the restaurant wagon. We already met some nice fellow train travellers who made our train journey pleasant over the next coming days. And well, then wherever on a group trip you get the notorious complainers spreading bad mood – so better to avoid them, however in a confined train not always easy.
After dinner, you will get your first bumpy, sleepless night – the cabin butler always promised the coming night will be wayyyyyys better – well, until the end we were waiting for THAT night.
After a so-so breakfast (where were all the delicious fresh fruits of India!!!!???) we arrived in Jaipur and left the train for our first sightseeing program. The platform show was performed here by some musicians plus some how they called it – Royal Elephants. About all the animal misery in India I won´t discuss this here now, as that would go too far…….
The train manager and his subsidies developed obviously a military-like organization of the tour program over their years with the train. So expect to get precisely arranged time tables through which you will get rushed through – always under the watching eyes of the guides. I think the train management is too worried to lose some passengers somewhere in the Indian street chaos, so they assume everybody needs their assistance 24/7. But to be fair I must say that for older or less travel experienced guests this system for sure makes sense – but not for a free bird like me. You will get your group name and bus number already assigned at the check-in. So you are branded 😊
First visit was at the St. Albert Museum, which is hosting a stunning collection of different kind of artefacts (www.alberthalljaipur.gov.in).
Next we stopped at the amazing Hawa Mahal - Palace of Winds (www.hawa-mahal.com) with its 953 windows, from where the ladies of the palace could observe the hectic street life unseen– the palace is one of the most pictured motives of Jaipur.
Afterwards our tourguide gave us a quite interesting introduction in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Jantar Mantar (www.jantarmantar.org) – an impressive historic sun observatory.
Next came the Pink Palace (www.royaljaipur.in), home of the Jaipur Royals, with its stunning architecture. You will see quite a lot of these palaces during the trip and some might assemble the other, however each has really very specific and rich details plus the architecture is breath-taking. Therefore you won´t get bored to see more of them and you will always feel like in a Bollywood fairy tale.
Same interesting as its monuments are also all the different kind of people in India. Guru´s like him you will come across a lot in the streets.
Next stop was another controversial program point – as it was the first shopping stop and many would follow. The thing with that stops is that they are mandatory and fixed in the program – some few stops were really worth it as they were in places where they showed you real good and special artwork. However in general 2-3 stops like that per day is too much – and some free time instead would be better as not everybody wants to buy a carpet or some paintings. The train staff told us that the management is not getting any commission on that, but I doubt this. Further on a luxury train journey as such I think program points like that are a failure as they are usually parts of budget tourist roundtrips. Plus on the train website it always says the shopping stops are on some vibrant local markets, which would have been nice, but that they are isolated tourist stops/traps wasn´t of course mentioned.
Here we visited a factory for carpets and traditional pattern printing.
A short bus ride brought us then to the highlight of the day – the Hill Fort Palace of Amber. It is majestically located on top of a hill in a mountain valley and when approaching it feels like a Fata Morgana is coming up in front of you.
Well, a touristic elephant ride to climb up, might not be the best start for such a historic building, but once you reach the main courtyard you are entering the fairy tale world.
We had first our lunch in the historic Palace restaurant – 1135 AD (no website available, but it is the only restaurant directly inside the Palace). In this Boutique restaurant we enjoyed an excellent buffet in the glittering Maharaja´s dining room and had some time to digest in the courtyard.
Afterwards we got our guided tour through the rich architecture of the Palace. It is really impossible to follow all the explanations of the guide through all Indian dynasties and centuries, but some parts of it will catch your attention and in the surroundings of the Palace you can easily visualize these ancient times.
On the way back to the train we had another photo stop at a picturesque Lake Fort, one more shopping stop and a tea break in a hotel as the train was under maintenance and not yet back to the station.
We had a very early wake-up at 6.00 am as we were scheduled for a visit to the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve (www.ranthamborenationalpark.com) – one of my personal highlights and the visit I was mainly looking for. The wildlife sanctuary is a former Royal Hunting ground and now home to tigers, leopards, crocodiles and other species.
We got divided into smaller groups and departed in several Off-Road vehicles. After a 20-minute drive we reached the boundaries of the park and the excitement increased when we would spot a tiger.
However the first hour driving in the park, no tigers insight. The rangers did a great job in tracking their routes and resting places – but so far no luck. With all the excitement to spot a tiger you can easily forget how beautiful the other wildlife is in the park.
But still…..we came to see a tiger, so our disappointment rose when the guide told us after nearly 2 hours of driving it would be time to go back and that we were unlucky today.
But THEN……..already on the road out, this majestic and beautiful tiger crossed our way and he just seemed to say – hey, look it´s me to decide when I show myself. All of us were overwhelmed as he was so close to us and stayed for a while around.
And of course what you do first thing at breakfast when back on the train – check with the other groups what they have seen. And yeahhhhhhh we were the real LUCKY ones as all the other groups didn´t see any except one who only saw two of them from very far. So yes, we were on the right car 😊
Then we had some free time on the train plus lunch and reached our next stop Chittorgarh in the late afternoon. The welcoming committee consisted here of some traditional horsemen.
Chittorgarh Fort is the largest Fort of its kind in India and whole Asia and is spread over a huge plateau overlooking the city. The Fort was the site of many bloody historic battles including one of the biggest “Jauhar” in history, which is a mass suicide of women when the men are facing a certain defeat through their enemies. The recent Bollywood movie “Padmavaat” is showing this incredible history – even for non-Bollywood fans (ok that singing and dancing is not for everybody) I can highly recommend to watch it.
We had first a guided tour through the remains of the Fort including some fotogenic monkeys.
Followed by a tea-break before we watched the Sound & Light Show after sunset.
The next day brought us to the scenic city of Udaipur – also known as the City of Lakes and site of many famous Bollywood movies plus luxurious Indian weddings.
We first had a walk through the peaceful Royal Garden.
Then one of our beloved-behated shopping stops followed – however that was one of the few where I would say it was worth it. As we had the opportunity to learn about the difficult art of miniature painting. It´s such a detailed and delicate art – if you buy a souvenir here it doesn´t come cheap, but you will have a fantastic and worthy artwork.
We then had a visit of the City Palace, which was same impressive as the other counterparts. As I said earlier the artworks of each Palace are so beautiful and unique in its kind.
Lunch we had in the royal surroundings of the Fatehprakash Palace Hotel (www.hrhhotels.com/hotels/fateh_prakash_palace) with a view over the City Pichola Lake.
Post lunch we took a boat, passing the famous Lake Palace Hotel (www.tajlakepalace.grandluxuryhotels.com) reaching a peaceful island in the middle of the lake.
We had some free time and a coffee break on the island and I was just wondering where I can find my Indian Tycoon to get married here…….I have never been a fan of opulent weddings, but when I saw these stunning scenery here….well, I think I can change my mind. So all Indian Bollywood stars, please see my email address below 😊
Today the desert city of Jaisalmer was on the program. After the usual welcome committee which mainly consisted of camels here, we started our City Tour.
First stop was at Gadisar Lake, a man-made water reservoir which was once the only source of water for Jaisalmer. Already on our first stop we felt that the climate here was hotter and drier than in the previous places and the ambiance of the city felt somehow rougher.
Next was the massive Jaisalmer Fort, which is an UNESCO World Heritage site (www.tourism.rajasthan.gov.in/jaisalmer.html#jaisalmer-fort). Built a hundred meters over the city you directly feel like thrown into an Arabian fairy tale of 1001 nights. The Fort is the second oldest Fort in Rajasthan and looks back to 800 years of history. The most interesting thing is that it is one of very few so called “living Forts”, as nearly one fourth of the old city population still resides inside.
You enter the Fort through its majestic yellow sandstone walls, which are even more spectacular in the later afternoon hours, when the sun is setting down and the yellow walls are camouflaging the Fort from the surroundings of the vast Thar Desert.
After exploring the inner Fort we stepped outside in the bustling city underneath. As in any other Indian city you always have many options for street food, if you have a strong stomach. Like the pani-puris here, which are deliciously filled with vegetables and a spicy sauce. You have to plop them in one piece into your mouth (otherwise it will be messy 😊) and enjoy the flavour explosion.
Jaisalmer has also an interesting number of beautifully carved mansion houses, like the Patwon Ki Haveli.
If you wander through the narrow streets of this historic city, you feel like in a different century and there are so many small architectural details to explore.
However as in all Indian cities this ancient beauty and the atmosphere is spoilt through all the dirt and rubbish around you. Plus watch out for the cows, in some narrow streets there won´t be space for you and the cow! And more important watch out for their droppings – as these are landmines laid down in every street of the city!
We returned to the train then for lunch and some relaxation time, before we set off for a trip to the Thar Desert. However coming from Dubai I am used to vast golden sand dunes – so this part of the Thar Desert was quite disappointing as it was mainly flat with rocks and bushes in between and only a few small sand dunes. And better not to mention the tourist show they were setting up here again. 80 tourists, 40 camels (even some with a kind of trolley behind for those who didn’t have the ehm, let´s say physical fitness to hop on a camel) and some baby dunes. But somehow you are in it, so better to smile it away…….
After the ride you get some refreshments accompanied by a traditional flute player – only the snake from the box was missing 😊
Then a quick shower on the train before we had another super touri program – dinner and cultural dance show in a luxury hotel in Jaisalmer. However the location – a garden courtyard, was very nice, food good and the show somehow entertaining.
So the city of Jodphur was next – with another epic Fort – the Mehrangarh Fort. But first came our obligatory welcome ceremony on the platform.
Our tour manager was in full force afterwards, when our bus got stopped from the local police. It was the day of a religious festival in the city dedicated to women, who were supposed to worship in the temple close to the Fort, therefore the police said no foreigners are allowed today to visit the Fort. However after some hearty discussions and phone calls, our bus could continue – and as the tour manager said due to his excellent connections to the local mayor and to the outstanding organization of the train management as Palace on Wheels guests are basically allowed to go everywhere – yeap ok, so no further comments here. We actually heard that quite often that we are so special and only guests from the Palace on Wheels can have this or that experience – but I actually wonder where these super exclusive spots should have been???
Women on their procession to the temple.
Anyway we made it up to the Fort and continued our tour there. The Mehrangarh Fort (www.mehrangarh.org) is one of the oldest Forts in India and located on a 125 meter rock-plateau above the city.
After you have made up your way by elevator to the first entry gate, you have a fantastic view over the city. With its blue-painted houses it resembles a bit the blue city of Chefchaouen in Morocco.
Inside the Fort holds an impressive collection of Royal dresses and medieval weapons. Even the staff looks like they are museum statues.
Additional inhabitants of the Fort.
Next was a stop at Jaswant Thada, a cluster of cenotaphs in white marble. Quite a scenic mausoleum place opposite the Fort.
Before our lunch we had the best shopping stop on the whole tour. Well first, when the guide said we will stop at another shop the whole bus almost went on a strike and nobody wanted to get out. But then a real shopping paradise opened up in the basement where hundreds of fabrics, scarfs and bed covers were stored. This factory is working for very large European fashion labels, so you can get exactly the same scarfs etc. there, however of course without the fashion label, but design and quality are exactly the same. So the planed 15 minutes at the shop turned out to be an hour and almost everybody bought something – including us of course 😊 Maharani Textiles & Handicrafts (email@example.com)
Lunch was served at the Hanwant Mahal Boutique Restaurant in a nice garden setting. The restaurant is part of the The Ajit Bhawan Palace Resort (www.ajitbhawan.com).
Post-lunch we had the visit of the Umaid Bhawan Palace scheduled, which is one of the largest private residences in the world. Some parts of it are a luxury hotel managed by the Taj Group (www.tajhotels.com) and some other parts are a museum and open for the public. The palace has 347 rooms in total and is the principal residence of the former Royal family of Jodhpur. Some parts of their private collection, like for example a stunning Oldtimer fleet can be seen in the museum area.
Back to the train for dinner and another bumpy night.
Next day we had an early wake up at 6.00 am for our exploration tour through the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary (www.bharatpursanctury.com) also known as the Keoladeao National Park, which is a famous avifauna sanctuary which hosts thousands of birds, especially during the winter season. But at any time of the year you have a good chance to see some local and migratory birds here.
It was a 30-minute drive from the railway station to the park entry. The drive took us through the typical Indian chaos.
Once at the sanctuary we hopped on a cycle rickshaw. A peaceful way to explore the nature in the park, plus the rickshaw drivers are of course professional for bird spotting. We had in addition a nature guide with our group, who explained more about the fauna and flora to us and who let us watch the birds through his giant binocular.
Here are some birds that we spotted, unfortunately we didn’t come in the best season.
Plus some other inhabitants of the park.
Back to the train for breakfast and to get ready for the highlight of the tour – the visit of the world famous Taj Mahal.
But once we arrived in Agra, we first had a visit of the Red Fort, another UNESCO World Heritage Site (www.agrafort.gov.in). The Fort can be more described as a walled city and has been the main residence of the former Mughal Dynasty.
Lunch was served at the ITC Mughal Hotel in a nice rooftop restaurant (www.itchotels.in).
And then THE VISIT – to the Taj Mahal (www.tajmahal.gov.in). I already thought before that it is quite overrated, especially in aspect of all the majestic palaces that we have seen on the tour. Of course the Taj Mahal is so famous and very beautiful – but in the end it is just one of so many stunning buildings you can find all over India.
For those who don´t know – the Taj Mahal is an ivory-white mausoleum and is considered as the jewel of Muslim Art in India. It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to house the tomb of his favourite wife. This costly monument attracts now million of tourists and is considered an UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After all this stunning bliss the train management of course can´t leave Agra without another final shopping stop for us. The marble artwork was pretty, but please tell me who is going to buy some marble table on a train journey????? Yes, they can ship it home…but still…..
Back on board of the train the poor cabin butlers tried hard to sell some last minute souvenirs to us – I am very sorry for them as for sure that would add some rupees in commission to their meagre income – but again this procedure is something that I don´t expect in a luxury train.
Last was the gala dinner – with another overwhelming mix of local and international cuisine and the last words of the train director about his glorious train – although he seems very well aware of all the deficiencies of the train, as he promised that in due time (let´s say something between 2-5 years) this train will get replaced with a modern version.
After an early breakfast we reached back to the Safdarjung Railway Station in Delhi, where all has begun a week ago.
Like I said earlier I am not regretting this trip and for sure we had many positive experiences. However this trip didn´t come up to our expectations regarding the price we had paid.
So all in all Rajasthan is a stunning part of India to which I would love to return, however on my next trip I would chose another mode of transportation.