Tourism is the main industry in Jaisalmer. Simply put, if the foreigners stop coming the city would eventually crumble into nothing more than an outpost at the end of the line of civilization. What was once a powerful regional trading post along the Arabian merchant route, today Jaisalmer is host to a city of salesmen. Everyone from the tuk tuk driver to the barber has their hand in the tourist cookie jar. Prepare to be hard sold from your waking hours until the lights go out at night.
Hotels outside of the fort have sprung up to accommodate not just the influx of tourism to the area in recent years, but more so as an answer to the continuing problems plaguing the fort’s foundation. Overuse of water has forced the water table down to a level never expected when the fort was constructed. As a result, a call to save the iconic monument is in progress. A plethora of choices in all budget ranges outside the fort are just as charming as anything found inside. And many offer stellar rooftop views from a perspective you wouldn’t find otherwise.
It’s rather easy to dismiss the fuss of commercialism if you dig into the history of the city. Fascinating remains still hold a spot around the area, just don’t allow yourself to be talked out of visiting these places. Comparisons to the lawless wild wild west knock repeatedly on the door of your conscience. Men can move about town with relative ease however women should travel in pairs or groups. Hard as you try, no matter how seasoned a traveler, both genders will fall prey to at least one scam during even the briefest of stays in Jaisalmer.
Maharaja Palace, Jaisalmer Fort
The Main Chowk of Jaisalmer Fort is where tourists will find the former palace of the maharaja, a five storied building of meticulously carved stone balconies and window arches. It’s official name Jaisalmer Fort Palace Museum & Heritage Center is a whopper to spit out so locals and tour guides commonly refer to it only as “the palace”.
Gadi Sagar Lake
A short walk from the Jaisalmer fort will land you on the banks of Gadi Sagar, a popular local hangout. Tourists come by default as part of their preplanned itineraries, and Do-it-Yourself travelers make an appearance following the advice of guide books. Tuk tuks are the easiest way to the lake, although walking will yield a different perspective of the sprawl outside of the fort’s walls.
Rs 10 passes for the entrance fee into this small museum near the main gate of Gadi Sagar. Displays of Rajasthani folk art and textiles are somewhat interesting but easily missed if time doesn’t permit a visit after taking in sensational views from the nearby lake.
Eventually after twists and turns of the narrow fort alleyways you will find the Jain temples. Follow the crowds into the golden stone structures connected by small corridors and stairways.
Laxminath Temple lies in the opposite of the Jain temple complex. Take the long way through the fort city or directly from the main chowk. Built in 1494, this is the most impressive of the Hindu temples within the Jaisalmer fort.
Be sure to stop at one of the few ATM’s of Jaisalmer prior to entering the fort walls. Everything from bedsheets to books, fabric and shoes to any leather bag imaginable is sold by an endless stream of merchants. Alleyways already crowded from tourists and lingering cows are cramped just a bit more by racks of garments waiting to be bought. Through every confusing turn of Jaisalmer’s streets there is an over-abundance of salesmen eager to strip each and every tourist of their last rupee.
Rajasthan is well known for its share of extravegant havelis. In Jaisalmer, there are 3 multi-storied beauties attracting the camera lenses and wallets of travelers.
Nathmalji-ki-Haveli: This behemoth, the most easily located mansion of the group, was built by two brothers who individually completed each side of the house separately. Minor differences can be spotted by those who marvel at the hand carved latticework and floral designs. Entrance is free. The included gift shop offers nothing you can’t obtain in the main market.
Salim Singh Haveli: A real architectural delight. The upper level is entirely enclosed by an overhanging balcony eerily similar to British Gothic, yet still purely Jaisalmer. Now more than 200 years old, the family home is as striking as ever. A small entrance fee is charged. You’ll definitely want to hire a resident guide or offer a small bribe to a lingering kid for help finding this hidden gem.
Patwa Haveli: Prepare yourself for a zoo of tourists. Bus loads of foreigners arrive en mass to see this highly decorated home built by the Patwa brothers. Successful in business, each brother inhabited a separate suite complete with it’s own entrance from the street. A small entrance fee is required. Views from outside are the most breathtaking.
North of Gandhi Chowk, the main bazaar of Jaisalmar city (not fort) lies Vyas Chhatri. Better known as Sunset Point among the travel agents, tourists are expected to make one stop here during a visit to the western Rajasthan city. Average folk come to see unimpeded sunset views over the Thar Desert while history buffs seek out the surrounding cenotaphs or royal tombs nearby. A particular find here is the tomb of Sage Vyas,the man who compiled the Hindu epic Mahabharata, the longest scripture in the world with almost 300,000 verses. A small entry fee is collected. Tuk tuks are a popular mode of transportation to and from town. Be sure to arrive with plenty of time to set up your camera, winter sunsets disappear into the skyline quickly.
Royal Cenotaphs, Bada Bagh
Atop a hill just minutes away from the desert city of Jaisalmer, travelers will find the eerily calm setting of Bada Bagh or Big Garden. Wind whips through crumbling cenotaphs, made of the famous golden stone of Jaisalmer, built in memory of the city’s rulers. Deserted all but for a few touts peddling stock postcards to the handful of tourists who venture here, the already trivial entry fee is a pittance for the stunning finds discovered in near isolation.
Sand Dunes of Sam
There is no secret that visitors on a tour of India come to Jaisalmer for the desert and camels. Thoughts of wind-carved sand dunes covered step-by-step on the back of a camel is par for the course in the remote Rajasthan city. Cars filled with locals and foreigners scream along the lone road to Sam to mark the passing sun of another day atop rented camels among the beginning sand dunes of Desert National Park.
Bargaining skills are well advised when booking this popular activity in Jaisalmer. Competing camel safari agent’s signs litter the city for tourist’s attention; and everyone, I mean everyone will try to sell you a package deal. Prices and services offered vary as the wind flies. Ask for recommendations from fellow travelers, be wary of hotels who offer to arrange a safari for you without price comparing, and never take the first option offered. An overnight expedition into the sand dunes is enough for most visitors, however treks can last as long as 2 weeks for the truly adventurous.
Every February, tourists can experience a crash course in Rajasthani traditions during this 3 day event. Camel races, turban tying competitions, and best mustache contests are just the beginning of the Jaisalmer Desert Festival. Listen to Rajasthani folk music as dancers from across the state show off the best in classic dances. There is no shortage of food or souvenirs to purchase. No need to worry about money, mobile money changers, as well as credit card terminals, are always easily found.
Desert National Park
Outwards from Jaisalmer roughly 40 kms lies the largest park in Rajasthan. The protected sanctuary of Desert National Park is a harsh landscape of sand dunes with limited vegetation. Bird lovers will enjoy the migrating species which pass through on their way to richer climates; yet there are a host of resident birds found within the park. November to March is the ideal season to view the park by jeep.
Originally the capital of the Jaisalmer region, what remains of this former city is nothing more than a few Jain temples. Exquisitely rebuilt structures are architectural masterpieces, a remarkable feat among the strong competition within Jaisalmer. Alas, few foreign tourists find this of interest, instead caught up in the more popular desert activities. Roam around the high-walled complex in virtual peace. Arrive just before sunset to watch the ubiquitous golden stone buildings glow from the last bit of light. A small entry fee is required. Arrange a taxi from town.