Thar Dessert; a mausoleum, a ghost town and a camel called Gerald

There are a number of sites to visit and activities to do in the vicinity of Jaisalmer, in North west India. We visited a number, getting a feel for this part of the Thar desert, close to the Pakistani border.

Our first stop is just outside of Jaisalmer, at the Bada Bagh Cenotaphs. These are memorials to the Maharajas of the Jaisalmar State from the 18th, 19th and early 20th century. The small temple like buildings as seen on the picture below are called Chhatris. They are made of sandstone and have an onion shaped roof.

After paying the entrance fee you can walk around freely, enjoying the peace and quiet here outside the bustle of town. We found ourselves in the company of a herd of friendly goats as we walked around slowly. Very few tourists make it out here, even though it is very close to town.

Bada Bagh Cenotaphs

The most recent cenotaph is from the 20th century, it has a portrait of Maharaja Jawahar Singh in it. His death coincided with Indian independence, and the cenotaph was never finished.

Each chhatri includes a headstone with a carving representing the maharaja on a horse. There are also a number of ladies carved out alongside the maharaja, representing his wives. The most impressive ones have a number of seperate headstones to include up to a dozen wives. Yes, they must have been very brave men!

Memorial headstone representing a Maharaja and his three wives

We grab a leisurely lunch at a local restaurant before heading further into the Thar desert.

Our next stop is Kuldhara, a ghost town. This town was build in the 13th century by the Paliwal Brahmins, and was quite prosperous at the time.

Apparently the town was found completely deserted and abandoned one day, about 200 years ago, and has remained empty ever since. The reason why it was abandoned is not known, local legend has it abandoned in fear of persecution by State minister Salim Singh, others suggest an earthquake, or a dwindling water supply.

It does make a nice stop on the way to the Thar desert camel safari camps. This site has featured in a large number of movies, it is well preserved and has some interesting and well preserved architecture.

Kuldhara ghost town

As we travel on, we realise quickly that glamping (i.e. camping in tents that are permanently in place and include bathroom facilities) and camel safaris, are big business here! There are dozens of them. Each of them claiming to be in the middle of the desert…. and yes, they are, neatly aligned one next to another.

Not really what I had in mind for a camel safari, our previous one was in Wadi rum, and our tents were in the middle of nowhere, with no other tents in sight. On hindsight, I might have preferred to do the camel ride and then return to Jaisalmer for the night.

We stayed at the Tao Lakhmana Desert Camp, at least a bit further away from the larger clamping developments.

After checking in to our tents, we headed out to the camels for our sunset camel safari. The animals here appear well treated. It takes some getting used to, you get on top of the camel as it is lying down, and then you hold on tightly as it stands up. It tips quite a long way forward and then back as it gets up, and if you don’t hold on tight enough, you risk going over its head. That is why most of us have a dedicated guide, who not only controls the camel but also makes sure you don’t fall off. And once it gets up, you are up on high!

Although our camels probably all had names of famous actors or popstars, Mike decides to name his camel Gerald. And Gerald and him are getting on like a house on fire. They call camels the “ships of the desert”, and the slow rocking from side to side does resemble wave action. Mike looks like a slightly taller version of Lawrence of Arabia, with his scarf wrapped around his head to keep of the sun and his sight set on the horizon (when will this end, I can’t feel my legs anymore…).

We head out towards the sand dunes to watch the sunset. We are not the only ones, there are easily another half dozen camel trains heading towards the same area, and then there is a jeep safari criss crossing the dunes. Altogether not as peaceful as anticipated, but still great fun.

Contemplation of the Sunset Camel Safari

Most camps put on evening entertainment; ours is a local music group with two dancers. Audience participation is expected, and no, I will not share the video that highlighted our clumsy attempts, next to the graceful and highly acrobatic young dancers.

Rajasthan dancers

The next morning we get up early to watch the sunrise over the desert. It is lovely and quiet, obviously, most visitors are still sleeping off their evening entertainment. After a quick breakfast, toast with banana & boiled egg for me, curry and rice for a much braver Mike, we head off just after 7 am as the desert awakens.

From Jaisalmer we headed into the Thar desert and stayed at a desert camp

Travel details and tips

Accomodation: we stayed in the Tao Lakhmana Desert Camp, which was a bit away from the main thoroughfare. It was clean, the food was fine, and the camels took us straight from there to the sand dunes. If you have never done a desert camping trip before, this is a nice introduction to the experience.

Instead, if the clamping doesn’t sound something you would like, you could do this in a long day trip from Jaisalmer. It can all be organised locally when you are in Jaisalmer and you could then take the latest experiences and information from your fellow travellers into account.

Tip: when riding a camel, make sure you hold on to the front of the saddle. It has a nice large wooden support there. The camel getting up and lying down again are the biggest motions, and they are a deep dip forward and back, so make sure you hold on! For the rest, camels are gentle beasts and the swaying motion is quite comfortable. If you are not used to riding, you may experience some discomfort in your hips and thighs.

And do wear trainers and long trousers for comfort, and avoid wearing scarfs or lose clothing that can startle the animal.

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