North East India is probably one of the most under-rated regions in the world for the best backpacking experiences. The good thing about how low-key this region is though, is that it hasn't become a tourist hotspot yet. So, expect a small crowd, very few backpacker hostels, limited online travel information, but LOTS of hidden gems and untouched beauty that will excite the wanderlust in you, capture your heart and soul, and be forever embedded in your fondest memory.
I had lived in South India from 2010 till early 2016 as a student. While South India is rich in colours, cultures, and traditions, and i certainly did enjoy my fair share of butter dosa and chicken briyani, I had always been intrigued by what's up north, especially the North East. North East India comprises of what we call "The Seven Sisters" i.e. 7 states, each touching an international boundary - Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, Bhutan, and Nepal.
With all these cultural influences coming from up, down, left, and right, no wonder this region is such a bursting pot of cultures! Having heard of exciting stories about tribal headhunters and pristine natural waters of this mysterious region, i vowed to explore this place someday - and i did! Just last year, end of 2015, i spent 2 months backpacking through North East India, and i'd like to talk about some of the things i did and the places i explored.
Things To Do in North East India :
1. Marvel at the beauty of Living Root Bridges in Cherrapunjee, Meghalaya.
Get yourself into the warm embrace of Mother Nature at Nongriat, Cherrapunjee - the wettest place on planet earth. A short trek of an hour or two in the subtropical forest, and you will find these Living Root Bridges, which are intertwined aerial roots of Indian rubber trees, weaved skillfully to form natural bridges stronger than any other manmade bridges in the world. A great example of Bio-engineering, and a magnificent sight to behold.
Found a natural swimming pool too, with the bluest, purest water. It would be a sin to not dive in! After sweating a bucket trekking in this subtropical forest, trust me, you wouldn't wanna miss this refreshing treat. I dived in, swam for an hour, and was REBORN.
2. Meet the Tribes at Hornbill Festival, Nagaland
Held every year in the first week of December in Kohima, The Hornbill Festival attracts renowned journalists and photographers from all over the world, as it showcases a mélange of distinct cultural displays. Over 17 different Naga tribes come together under one roof to celebrate cultural diversities - dances, songs, food, martial arts, games, crafts, ceremonies, etc. Watch these tribal men dance and sing, excite your taste buds with rice and pork traditionally cooked in bamboos, and drink homemade rice beers to your heart's content.
I personally had an interesting experience with a particular tribal group, who adopted me and invited me to stay with them in their traditional morung/hut, where i learnt so much about their culture, food, and the undying spirit of Naga people.
3. Experience the city of Shillong, Meghalaya
Shillong is the capital of Meghalaya, a hillstation, and a pitstop for most backpackers traveling in this region. There are a few interesting activities to do around here like visiting the Elephant Falls, museums, churches and viewpoints, but i didn't do any of those because i was too busy getting my momos & chowmien fix, and too overwhelmed by the shopping crowd in Police Bazaar!
4. Relax and Unwind on Majuli Island, Assam
Wanna stay in a bamboo hut perched in the middle of wide green paddy fields, wake up to the lively chirping of birds, greet the rising sun over the horizon good morning, and rejoice at the fact that you can do absolutely nothing and relax the whole day? Yes, then Majuli Island is the place for you.
Majuli is the biggest river island located on the mighty Brahmaputra River of Assam. It is a place like no other. Fresh air, greeneries, pleasant vibes. Most travellers extend their stay here and don't wanna leave!
Rent a bicycle and explore the villages on wheels. Say hello to the indigenous tribes. Visit the local temples. Watch Assamese ladies skillfully weave traditional shawls and baskets. Have some puri sabji with a cuppa chai while enjoying the serene village vibe.
5. A Himalayan valley town - Menchuka, Arunachal Pradesh
Men : Medicine, Chu : Water, Kha : Snow (Menchuka : Medicinal Water of Snow). This is possibly my favourite place in North East India. A quiet valley town surrounded almost 360° by snow-clad mountains, Menchuka is the northern-most part of Arunachal Pradesh, bordering Tibet. Takes a whooping 12 hours of bumpy ride and motion sickness to get here from the capital Itanagar, but trust me it's worth it. Experience the quiet local lifestyle here - have a bowl of homemade thukpa, sit by the fire and have a chat with the locals, learn how to knit, play with the kids, go for short hikes, say hello to wild horses, listen to the gentle sound of riverflow. I was here with 2 other backpackers and we were the only foreigners there, goes to show how remote and hidden this little piece of paradise is. So if you're the kind of traveler who loves hitting the unbeaten path, i highly recommend it!
6. Meet the Apatani Tribe in Ziro Valley, Arunachal Pradesh
Ziro Valley in summer is great - acres and acres of lush green paddyfields across the whole valley town. What's very special about this place is the opportunity to meet descendents of the Apatani tribe. This photo shows an old Apatani lady, with the signature Apatani nose piercings and facial tattoo. Many decades ago, these ladies, being the most beautiful women in the region, used to get kidnapped by men from the neighbouring Nyishi tribe. Therefore as self-protection, they made themselves ugly with these dramatic piercings and tattoos.
7. Join little monks in prayer at Tawang Buddhist Monastery, Arunachal Pradesh
Tawang Monastery - the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India and second largest in the world, is situated in the northwestern part of Arunachal Pradesh, close to the Tibetan and Bhutanese borders. I remember waking up at 5.30 am on a cold misty morning to walk uphill to the monastery to join the morning prayers with about 100 little monks. It was heart-warming to sit with these little bright souls, listen to the soothing chants, watch the sleepy heads fighting hard to stay awake, and get served hot butter tea. I'm also thankful for the privilege to have a short conversation with a Lama, who answered a few questions of mine about Buddhism.
These are the highlights of my 2-month adventure in North East India. Due to time constraints, i couldn't visit the rest of the 7 states but it was an extremely fulfilling trip nonetheless. If you plan to visit, do allocate more time because you wouldn't wanna miss other amazing places like Sikkim's gorgeous lakes and mountain treks, Tripura's temples and ancient stone carvings of Lord Shiva, Manipur's cultural villages and dance recitals, and Mizoram's virgin forests and scenic waterfalls.