A City in the Desert: Sightseeing in Jaisalmer, India
Rajasthan was everything we had hoped for. We feasted our eyes on gigantic forts, decadent mansions, over-the-top palaces and exotic street scenes. We filled our stomachs with delicious thalis and met so many friendly locals while riding the local buses and trains (and some unfriendly ones while lining up for train tickets). Jaisalmer was our last port of call in Rajasthan, and this city in the desert didn’t disappoint.
Join me on a tour of Jaisalmer’s historic sights, from the spectacular sandstone fort looming over the city to the countless grand (and sometimes completely ruined) havelis scattered throughout the old town streets.
Walking the streets of Jaisalmer
Jaisalmer’s monotone, sand coloured buildings form a cohesive streetscape — it feels like you’re wandering through another world. It reminded me a lot of the medinas in Morocco. We strolled by lots of old havelis, several market areas and even a psychedelic drink shop (more on that later).
Jaisalmer Fort (Sonar Quila)
Jaisalmer Fort looks like it was conceived in the mind of a science fiction writer. The huge defensive walls form a ring around a bustling little suburb full of hotels, mansions and temples. It’s basically a more compact and less attractive version of the old town below the fort. It looks far more interesting from a distance but it’s still worth a quick trip to experience it up close.
You don’t need to pay to explore Jaisalmer Fort, but you’ll need to fork over 500 INR to enter the palace/ museum. There really isn’t much to see — it’s completely lacking the detail, colour and opulence that most forts in Rajasthan have in spades and can easily be skipped. The fact that Jaisalmer Fort is a living, breathing town means it’s in danger of being destroyed by its swelling population (possibly as many as 5000), most of whom cater to the thousands of tourists who visit every year. Due to this it’s recommend that you don’t stay at a hotel within the walls of the fort. Read more about the plight of Jaisalmer Fort.
“As far as I am concerned, the goose is already dead. Once a favourite destination of tourists, the Sonar Kella is now just a place to shack up for back packers,” — Amita Beg. India consultant for the World Monument Fund (WMF)
There are so many havelis in Jaisalmer that it can be hard to choose which ones to visit. We walked passed heaps of them but only went into Patwon-ki Haveli, which is actually a collection of five different little mansions. Some are free and some will set you back a couple of hundred rupees. We went into one of the free ones and saw an awesome view out over the city. There wasn’t much of interest inside but we ended up buying a cool little rug in the shop downstairs (which is obviously how they make their money). The outside of this huge complex of havelis is free to walk around and the details are incredible. We were going to visit Salim-Singk-ki Haveli but a guy at a nearby restaurant said the inside is nothing special (the outside was nice though).
The Bhang Shop
There’s a little shop in Jaisalmer that specialises in bhang (marijuana) beverages. You can get the bhang mixed into a lassi (yoghurt drink), juice or any number of other drinks You can even buy bhang biscuits, which the shop owner recommended for long train rides. You’re probably thinking this all sounds very illegal, but it’s perfectly above board. The Bhang Shop has been operating for decades and has been featured in mainstream guidebooks as well as by Anthony Bordain in No Reservations.
Jaisalmer Travel Tips
- Where to stay in Jaisalmer: As I mentioned earlier, it’s advisable not to stay within the fort walls. We stayed at Hotel Pleasant Haveli, lured in by the excellent reviews it receives on Tripadvisor. It’s a great midrange option with a top notch restaurant and awesome views of the fort. The hotel has a classic Jaisalmer haveli aesthetic and the rooms are really comfortable — it was a relief to return to a nice, air-conditioned room after roasting in the Rajasthan sun (we visited in July). Check out Gia’s review of Hotel Pleasant Haveli over at mismatchedpassports.com.
- Getting to Jaisalmer: We caught a bus from Jodhpur which took around 6 hours — lots of buses ply this route so you won’t have to wait long. From Jaisalmer we took a midnight train to Jaipur and then another train to Agra. The train connections in India are great — with a little planning you can get to almost anywhere with only 1 or 2 connections.
- Camel Safaris: Most people go on a camel safari while visiting Jaisalmer. We opted to have our Thar Desert experience in Osian instead, but I’ve heard good things about the tours near Jaisalmer.
And with that, my little series on Rajasthan comes to an end. I hope it inspires you to travel to this special region of India — if you have any questions feel free to leave me a comment or send me a Facebook message / email.
Disclaimer: I was hosted by Hotel Pleasant Haveli. All thoughts and opinions are my own.