This post appears in a British Traveling digital platform www.thetravellingsouk.com too. It appears as a guest blog by Amitabh Sarma, the owner of this blog.
It is sometimes difficult to be a self-critic, especially when you have to present a viewpoint of your backyard. One tends to be either too critical or too placid. As someone who belongs to this part of the country. Northeast India seems easy to me but that might be just conceptual. As you move from one destination to another in this region, you tend to believe sometimes that you are an alien in your land.
Northeast India, if you include Sikkim is a region with eight states: Assam, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Tripura. With international boundaries with China, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Myanmar, Northeast India is connected to mainland India by a chicken-neck stripe of land measuring 21 sq km only.
This article highlights 10 things that you should anticipate when traveling to Northeast India and no matter how prepared you are, something for good or otherwise for different will need adjustments.
Anticipate unpredictable weather
The best time to visit Northeast India is considered between October and April. Again the summer and monsoon months has its charm. The greenery is at its best here and the rivers and waterfalls are up to their brim during the wet months. The Brahmaputra riverbanks are flooded though. In Northeast India, the weather is extremely moody. If the sun shines in your breakfast table, chances are you could miss your lunch date in the jungles owing to thundershowers and rains the same day. A sunny day drive can land you amidst a cloud of invisible blanket of fog on the same route. If you are thinking of taking a lazy day off looking at the dark clouds looming in the morning sky, the nest moment you might regret having wasted a beautiful sunny day. So in Northeast India, you do what you have come to do. The weather will always tease you. If you have a pullover and an umbrella in your backpack, you can be at your best any time of the day.
Anticipate the need of a travel itinerary
When you travel in Northeast India, you need a plan. Well to truly enjoy a place, you need to have an itinerary anywhere you are in this world. But here in this region, you need an itinerary with a flexible plan and preferably with a Plan B. Moreover, in Northeast India, a lot of places needs special permits to visit as outsiders. So an itinerary will save you time and money and from being entangled in administrative hassles of seeking and procuring permits at the last moment. The road conditions in this lower Himalayan states are different from the rest of India. Without a detailed itinerary, you might end up spending the greater part of your trip on the road.
Anticipate transportation woes
The best sights in Northeast India are connected by the worst roads that you have experienced. Many of the roads in this region are being repaired, restructured, or newly built. Therefore, there are constant road blockades. Besides, with India’s record of accomplishment on road construction timelines, this is going to see plenty of time for a finalization. With the prevailing weather conditions here, anticipate a lot of bumpy rides or drives.
As a traveler, it is always best to be part of an organized tour here. Backpacking is not a great idea. Since many international boundaries exist in Northeast India, many military movements happen. Moreover, occasionally civilian movements are restricted for hours on the road to make way for the military to pass through. Traveling in Northeast India takes a lot of time. A hundred miles in the rest of the country might mean a two-hour journey but here it could mean a four-hour ordeal. Also, flights or a rail network is limited, so expect to drive a lot through the roads connects not all places.
Anticipate a lot of rice!
In Northeast India, food habits differ from the rest of the country. The staple food is rice, so in certain places, expect rice at breakfast, rice at lunch, and rice at dinner. Most of the local cuisines are mild when it comes to using spices usually found in Indian curries, and are ingrained with traditional herbs found locally. If you are not too keen on chilies, be sure to announce it beforehand.
Vegetarianism is not a popular habit here and expect all sorts of meat to appear in your dish. Each region has its food habits and local cuisines. So if the mashed potatoes mingled with herbs and mustard oil is a favorite in Assam, anticipate smoked pork cooked in bamboo shoots in Nagaland. Of course, the major towns and cities in Northeast India have restaurants that serve all sorts of usual Indian, continental and foreign food.
Anticipate a lot of smiles!
Despite its aggravated travel permits, unpredictable weather, and choppy roads, the people in Northeast India are perhaps the friendliest in the country. A lot of them might not have much, but they sure do have enough to make a guest happy. Everywhere you go in this part of the country, you can be assured that the locals will take you in. For many, the degree of welcome in a foreign destination can make or break a journey. The Northeastern charm is certainly one of the things that will make you come back to this place.
All you need to do is open up yourself and respect the local culture. Northeast India’s commitment to progressiveness and diversity is an inherited trait. People are usually optimistic here and despite having face decades of hardship and unrest, Northeast Indians are hospitable, accommodating, and inviting. Here everything is Himalayan. Snow-capped mountains, vast river plains, thick jungles, rough mountains roads, and amazing wildlife. However, what makes this place special is the people here. Known for their self-satisfied lifestyle, in Northeast India what money cannot buy a simple smile can.
Anticipate basic accommodation
While the city of Guwahati in Assam, has hotels like Vivanta by Taj, Novotel Radisson Blu, and a host of similar high-end ones, as we go deeper inside Northeast India, accommodations might range from basic government circuit houses or inspection quarters to more humble homestays to nothing at all. The major towns and cities do have a vivid range of hotels and stays but in the interiors expect to shed of all whims and fancies of luxurious accommodations.
Abhijeet Deshpande in his book ‘Backpacking Northeast India: A Curious Journey’ sums up: ” Hot water in winters, a given otherwise, assumed disproportionate significance while on a shoestring budget on a road less traveled.” In remote Northeast India destinations are yet to wake up to the influx of tourists. Most of the accommodations in these places are family-run entities and hence they do not bring with them the nitty-gritty of commercial establishments. They will give you the best of what they have, you will have to be surprised with minimum expectations. It is best not to carry any sort of accommodation ideas when you travel to remote Northeast India and consider everything, including lack of service, to be a part of your travel experience.
Anticipate poor digital connectivity
Your emails and other things digital will need a vacation response until you come to a zone where the internet connectivity is better.
The digital connectivity has fairly improved in Northeast India in the last couple of years. However, there are chances that your state of the art devices that needs an internet connection would just be confined to a photo clicking machine. Wi-Fi is not available in most of the accommodations, other than the urban ones. In the remote areas, you will not even get a cell phone connection. Your emails and other things digital will need a vacation response until you come to a zone where the internet connectivity is better.
It is always best to carry a substantial amount of cash, as per your journey’s requirement in the local Indian currency with you. In the rural areas, cards and digital wallets are not yet a means of commerce. India’s nationalized bank, the State Bank of India has branches even in the interiors but most of these branches have limited banking functionalities. It is best to anticipate the amount of cash that you would need and make currency exchanges accordingly in the metro cities. Currency exchange is non-existent except in Guwahati and a few cities. Even the hotels in the smaller towns do not have the facility for currency exchange. If you use digital wallets, Google Pay seems to the local’s favorite at places where internet connectivity is there. Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) exist but expect long queues in rural areas.
Anticipate a lot of local life
Northeast India might not have sandy beaches, huge monuments, or luxurious accommodations. But what they have is unique in this world. They have a culture that speaks for itself. Here people are the subject and the region is the object. With physical features that clearly distinguish them from the rest of the country and make them more relatable to Southeast Asia, your travel experience is incomplete if you do not interact with the locals. Those long hours that you spend on bumpy roads are an effort gone in vain, if you do not get down to greet a local coming down from the farm. Language is not important here, vibes are.
In Northeast India, people treat outsiders with respect. Most of the traditional practices have an unwritten history and only a conversation with a local deepen your experiences and knowledge of the land. A sight hopping tour is not recommended in Northeast India. If possible get friendly enough with locals here to learn a skill too. These people have seen some hard life, if not anything else at least it will make you appreciate more what you have.
Anticipate a lot of festivals
Northeast India with its infinite tribes and sub-tribes is also home to myriad traditions. The whole year is filled with traditional and cultural festivals. It is important that once you finalize an itinerary and time of travel, you research the festivals at that time of the year. It provides a more enriching experience to your Northeast India travel.
The more popular festivals here are the Bihu Festivals in January and April in Assam, the Hornbill Festival at Nagaland in December, Dree festival at Arunachal Pradesh in July, Sangai Festival at Manipur in November and the list goes on and on. Apart from these, Northeast India is fast becoming a hotspot for contemporary art and music festivals and it is always a great addition to your travel program here.
Festivals form a part of the daily life of the people here. Most of the traditional festivals are harvest related, the society predominantly being an agrarian one. And these festivals even in states dominated by Christianity are deep-rooted into practices that were followed before Christianity setting foot in this region. The Hindu festivals of course have been in existence for a much longer period, synonymous with the religion itself.
Anticipate using Tour Operators
Northeast India is being mapped into the tourist map of India steadily. And with its unpredictability in vivid forms, experiences through tour operators makes traveling here an easy one. While to an end-user using the services the general idea of using a travel agent seems to be an expensive one, and one might even think that it confines travel experiences, but that is not the case always. Travel in Northeast India is yet to be available on technological platforms and thus the role of local tour operators assumes fairly important. And some of the local operators are very good here.
If you do the mathematics, at the end of the day, using the services of a tour operator saves you time and money. There is nothing worse than a vacation gone wrong. There is no do-over. Travel agents in Northeast India are very flexible and since most of them are from this region, they gave access to experiences that are limited to an outsider. Here they suggest, adjust, understand, and become a friend. No pushing around. For the small fee that you pay, I think it is worth much more, Tour operators in Northeast India can save you hours and take you to places you might not have even heard of on the internet.
How to reach Northeast India?
Northeast India is connected by an array of airports. LGBI airport(GAU) at Guwahati is one of the major airports in this region. It is connected by a network of flight destinations to all the major towns and cities in India. Regular flights from Thimpu also arrive and depart to Guwahati airport. Your other ports of arrival could be Dibrugarh Airport(DIB), Jorhat Airport(JRH), Dimapur Airport(DMU), Imphal Airport(IMF), Baghdogra Airport(IXB), Agartala Airport(IXA) and Aizwal Airport(ALJ).
What not to miss in Northeast India?
While different travelers have different objectives, there are some common points of interest for a first-timer to any place. If you love wildlife you would not want to miss a trip to Kaziranga National Park, Manas National Park, or the Dibru Saikhowa National Park in Assam. Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh is where His Holiness the Dalai Lama made an entry into India. You might not want to miss interacting with the pierced nose women of Ziro valley in Arunachal Pradesh or the tattooed ex-headhunters of Mon district in Nagaland. A trip to Assam’s Majuli River Island is an eye-opener to the monastic way of life. Hornbill festival in Nagaland should be in your bucket list. Well, there are a thousand more reasons to visit Northeast India that would need multiple pages of articles and I will leave the research to the abilities of your internet surfing.
Tips for first-time travelers to Northeast India
- Always ensure that you have proper identification documents and permits with you. Keep an adequate number of hard copies.
- Always leave behind an easily reachable emergency contact number, like a friend or family with your travel agent or local contact here.
- Respect local customs, traditions, and culture. And always try to carry a smile.
- Please do a research and formulate a travel plan. Northeast India is primarily a non-vegetarian region, so if you are a vegan, be prepared to survive on white rice, lentil soup, and fried potato wedges.
- Currency exchange is limited to just the urban cities, even in banks. SO carry enough cash in the local Indian currency as per your requirement. Please do not depend on cards or digital wallets.
- A small backpack is advisable that has an umbrella or a poncho, a small first aid kit, your required medicines if any, and a chocolate bar. You never know when your next meal would be.
- Plenty of mosquito repellents and bug spray
- Respect the environment. Do not litter or throw garbage or try to uproot trees. I hope you got the general idea.
- Experiment but know your limitations. Please do not push yourself. Remember that you are interacting with a local, living like a local but you are not a local.
- Always come to Northeast India with an open heart and an empty mind.
For a region that boasts of the cleanest village in Asia, a dynasty that is the longest unbroken in Indian history, that witnesses the first sunrise in India, has the largest tea growing areas in the world, Northeast India is cultures within a culture and communities within a community. They say in Northeast India, every person you meet knows something that you don’t. You just need to be humble enough to learn from them.
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