Kolkata is the third most populated city in India, and it's also one of the poorest places I've ever been. Kolkata's poor live on 27INR per day, which is roughly US$0.50, and reside in roadside slums. If they're lucky, they live close to an open public urinal. If not, they just use the street.
We weren't expecting much from this city, as we only ended up here due to an AirAsia flight sale. But once I did some research, I was interested. In the 17th century, Kolkata was nicknamed the "Jewel of the East" and was the capital of the British Raj. It was a huge trade center, full of Victorian buildings and educated elite. But in 1911, the British transferred their capital to Delhi and Kolkata began to fall into disarray.
That's pretty how much we found it when we landed in October. Buildings that elsewhere would be the pride of the city were literally crumbling to the ground, coats of paint dissipating in the sun. The famed Indian Museum was closed, supposedly for repairs. The National Library was in ruins. Human feces and naked children ran down the street and most of the adults wanted to sell you hash, likely the only thing that makes them any money.
The most curious thing about Kolkata were the "coin collectors." Everyone from beggars to shopkeepers to waiters collected "coins." We assumed it was because they wanted to trade foreign currency for Indian rupiah, or maybe even to keep it in case the rupiah fell any further. Let's just say I helped one collector out. In return, I got a lighter wallet and perhaps some good karma.
See and Do
Lonely Planet and Frommer's both have decent itineraries for two days in Kolkata, in case you do find yourself in this busy and chaos-filled city. The activity we enjoyed most was sitting under the shade in front of the Victoria Monument.
Other areas of interest are the B.B.D. Gagh, which is the current administrative center and chock full of crumbling colonial buildings, and Chowringhee Road (now named Jawaharlal Nehru), which is full of people trying to sell you stuff plus the stunning, and now seemingly badly located, Oberoi Grand Hotel.
Since we got super sick on our second (and last day) in Kolkata, I can't give personal advice about the Marble Palace, but we heard from other travelers that it was "worth a look," though you needed to get the free permit from the Visitor Center in B.B.D. Gagh before venturing over. The National Library and Khaligat Temple were, in our opinion, not worthy detours.
We paid 990INR for an AC room at Hotel Galaxy. It had a good location and tons of hanging space, but the hotel and room itself were rundown. That said, I don't know that we could have gotten anything better for that price. Most of the other guests volunteer at one of the Mother Teresa charities and seem to stay for a long time.
The hotel was in the Sudder Street area, which is backpacker central if there was one in Kolkata. Be prepared to be harassed by taxicabs, but this is also the best (and only) place to go if you're arriving into town without reservations.
Eat and Drink
Be careful with what you eat or drink. We were both sick for a day despite having been on the road for almost seven months AND being super picky about our food in Kolkata. This would not be the city in India to experiment with street food...
Blue Sky is the backpacker hangout restaurant in the Sudder Street area. It's cheap and has good WiFi. I'm not sure if it was their food that killed me, but it tasted good either way.
Ambassador cabs are the best-looking transport ever!
They're also really affordable. Rides to the train station should cost around 100INR and around town the price will usually be around 50-70INR.
We did go to the police once, when we were told to pay 3x the meter price after the driver showed us a card. The police confirmed that instead of changing the taxi meters, the taxi company uses a multiplier displayed on "official" cards. Needless to say, we were still suspicious.
Fixed priced taxis from the airport are available. Ours was 275INR.
Have you visited Kolkata?
What was your experience like? Share your tips for backpacking in Kolkata by leaving a comment!