22 Mar 2018

Jaisalmer: A bit better

Jaisalmer Fort, from Hotel Tokyo Palace's rooftop restaurant.

We arrived in Jaisalmer after an overnight train journey from Jaipur, which departed around midnight and arrived just before noon. After spending time in Varnasi, Agra, and Jaipur, we were really looking forward to getting to a much smaller place and seeing if it would feel a bit more livable than anywhere else we had been in India.

The touristy part of Jaisalmer is dominated by the eponymous fort, which sits high up, surrounded on all sides by two levels of tall vertical walls separated by a steep hillside of sand. It’s smaller than it looks in a lot of photos, and takes less than 20 minutes to walk the road looping around the circumference of its base. The amazing part about it that unlike the forts in other cities we visited that have been preserved as tourist attractions, this one has flourished as a hotspot for shops, restaurants, and homes. There’s no charge to enter, since it’s basically just a neighborhood, and you’re free to wander down alleys looking for interesting food or good views. According to Wikipedia, “it is believed to be one of the very few (perhaps the only) ‘living forts’ in the world, as nearly one fourth of the old city’s population still resides within the fort.”

(Sadly, the fort is no longer lit up at night. Our waiter we chatted with about it said it used to be, but that a small mudslide knocked out some of the electrical wires and they haven’t had funds to repair it.)

We stayed at Hotel Tokyo Palace, which ended up being a really great choice. We spent a bit extra on one of their larger rooms, still well within budget, and ended up spending a lot of time in its air conditioning during the hot middle of the day. The restaurant on the roof seemed like one of the best in the area for our needs, and the service was really great. We’d definitely go back if we returned to Jaisalmer. They also arrange camel treks, which is what most tourists come to Jaisalmer for–we weren’t interested in doing one as they sound fairly miserable.

Ultimately, Jaisalmer was a nice change of pace, but still doesn’t have nearly the amount of charm that the places we spent time in Southeast Asia had.

What We Did in Jaisalmer

Day 1: Our sleeper train from Jaipur arrived to the small Jaisalmer station, its terminus, and we found a group of hotel drivers in the parking lot holding up big signs advertising where they were going. A number of hotels in the area, including ours, offer free pick-up/drop-off at the train station, since it’s only about a 5-minute drive away and with only a couple trains a day is pretty manageable. It was pretty amazing to not get harassed by a single tuktuk driver and get to our hotel so quickly.

Arriving at Jaisalmer Station, and spotting our hotel's driver.

After we got checked in, we had a quick lunch at the rooftop restaurant, rested a bit, and then went for a walk to check out the area. While much more walkable than Varanasi, Agra, or Jaipur, that difference is just because it is so much less crowded, not because there is any infrastructure like sidewalks or crosswalks. Before arriving we had marked some restaurants and sweet shops we wanted to check out, and we were a bit surprised to find that after only 20 minutes of walking counterclockwise around the base of the fort we had been by almost all of them!

We went up into the fort itself and worked our way through the maze to Surya Restaurant, which we had seen some recommendations for. We were apparently visiting at an odd hour as we had to ruin the server’s nap to seat us in an otherwise-empty restaurant, but that meant we got the best seats in the house: right on a balcony overlooking the city and surrounding area. The view was definitely the best part about the visit, as the banana lassi may have gotten me sick…

Our view from Surya Restaurant's balcony table.

We wanted to have dinner at Sunset Palace Restaurant but after exiting the fort and circling around the backside to its marked location on Google Maps… found nothing. Turns out it is actually up inside the fort, on the west side. We didn’t have the energy to climb back up, so went back to our hotel for dinner. We ended up checking out the menu a couple days later and were glad we hadn’t tried to have dinner there, as it was quite limited and more expensive than expected.

Left: Amy on the balcony at Surya Restaurant. Right: An up close view of the fort, from the south..

Day 2: Unfortunately, I woke up in the middle of the night not feeling well and spent the rest of the early morning hours in close proximity to the bathroom. It broke a nearly 3-month streak dating back to before Christmas in Myanmar of me not feeling sick. After so many warnings before we got here, making it through two weeks of India before getting sick still seems like an accomplishment.

We ended up spending the whole day inside our hotel, with me drinking lots of bottled water and taking occasional naps, while Amy entertained herself. The one bright spot of the morning was the surprise of being given free breakfast at the restaurant. It wasn’t included in the room booking, and other guests didn’t seem to be given it, and the only explanation we’ve been able to come up with for why we got it was that we were nice and chatty with the gentleman who runs the restaurant.

A couple of our many meals at Hotel Tokyo Palace.

Day 3: We had planned our itinerary through India to allow for a day or two spent sick without causing too much stress, and Jaisalmer was more about the experience overall than a list of sites to check off. Our third day there was our biggest day of exploration, and we again started out by heading up into the fort.

Our goal was to wander through every part of the fort, just to see what was there, and our walk route (zoom into Jaisalmer on the home page to see it) shows we were pretty successful. It feels smaller within than when you’re standing down below looking up at it, and there isn’t anything too surprising. We found:

  • Shops: Lots of shops selling woven artwork, clothing, and knick-knacks, but also some shops that cater to the locals who live up there and need water, snacks, news etc.
  • Restaurants: Most, if not all, of the restaurants inside the fort are part of hotels/guesthouses, and they all promise the best view.
  • Viewpoints: There are a few cannon platforms still accessible with great views - the one on the north side seemed to be charging money while the one we found on the east was empty.
  • Temples: There are lots of signs pointing toward the well-known Jain Temple, but also a couple smaller temples down other alleys. We didn’t go in any.
  • Museum: Right near the entrance is the Fort Palace Museum, which at 500 rupees per person we skipped.
  • Ramparts walk: Near the southeast “corner” of the fort we found an open gate that led to the walkway right behind the ramparts circling the fort. No idea if we were supposed to be there, but we were completely alone and it was lovely.

Left: The Fort Palace. Right: The view to the north from Desert Palace.

After exploring all the alleyways of the fort, we headed straight to Gadisar Lake, about a 15-minute walk away. Like much else in Jaisalmer, it was smaller than we expected, but still nicer than it would have been in other Indian cities we’ve visited. Ringed by tiered stone blocks, temples, and carved walls, the water doesn’t look inviting but didn’t actually smell awful like elsewhere. We took some photos, enjoyed a break in the shade under one of the archways, and then headed back to our hotel. There were pedal boats available for rental, but why anyone would want to do that in 95 degree heat without shade is beyond me.

At Gadisar Lake.

For dinner, we were feeling a bit antsy and wanted to try something outside our hotel, even though every menu we’d looked at seemed both more expensive and less interesting. We ended up at 1st Gate Home Fusion, the rooftop restaurant of a boutique hotel right near the fort entrance. As we should have known going in, it was pretty mediocre, expensive, and left us wishing we had just eaten at Hotel Tokyo Palace again.

Day 4: With our onward overnight train not departing until 4:45pm, we had most of another day to enjoy laid-back Jaisalmer. We first sought out an ATM, since those we had tried over the weekend were all out of cash. We finally succeeded at a bank just southwest of the fort, where we joined a line of about 20 locals using the machines.

We spent the rest of our morning at Desert Palace Rooftop Restaurant inside the fort, having tea and reading on our Kindles while enjoying the view out to the north of the city. After another enjoyable lunch at our hotel they were nice enough to give us a spare room for an hour so we good refresh before heading back to the train station.

As if to welcome us back to the rest of India, Amy got to enjoy the experience of having a local woman walk up to her while she stood on the train platform, put her cellphone literally six inches away from her face, and then take a photo. The woman was very surprised we didn’t seem to be thrilled with her…

How We Did with Our Budget

For our time in Jaisalmer, we had budgeted as much as 45 USD a night for accommodations. We ended up spending only 33 USD per night for our Suite room at Hotel Tokyo Palace, which ended up being a really wonderful hotel. We had also budgeted 10 USD per day per person for food and 10 USD per day per person for entertainment. Out of that planned 40 USD total, we ended up spending only 15 USD per day on average, with a whopping 17 USD of that coming from our mediocre dinner at 1st Gate. Granted, our stay included a full day at the hotel because I was feeling sick, and most of meals at our hotel because it ended up being so good, but Jaisalmer was definitely a much better value than anywhere else we’ve been in India.

Left: One of the twisting alleyways inside the fort. Right: Sunset starting behind the fort.