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10 Mistakes to Avoid in North East India

There’s a tendency to bracket North East India as one region. However, just as North, Central, East, West, or South India, the North East is a combination of highly diverse states with many proud communities, cultures and indigenous lifestyles. Therefore, just as elsewhere in the country, respect diversity while visiting this incredible region too. Remember this point zero. Always. Drop that stereotype. Abhijeet Deshpande, author of Backpacking North East India: A Curious Journey, shares a list of ten mistakes to avoid in North East India.

For those who do not know what northeast India is like, it comprises of eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. The Himalayas and its waters define the region’s terrain, climate, rich biodiversity, and the peculiar indigenous lifestyles her people follow. That North East India is bound by Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet to the north, Bangladesh to the south and west, and Myanmar to the east hints at the eclectic mix of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. This is where elements of Asia come together to do what they do best – cast a spell.

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Beware – no two Indians share the same idea of their country, region, or state. Hence, social standards of acceptance may vary for each of these and, if you ask around, you are likely to get a slightly different version of a list every time. For whatever its worth, here’s one take on things to avoid. Do not:

01. Assume Indians look alike

Skin tones and facial features may change as you head from north to south or west to east. India’s North East is its gateway to South East Asia. Many, not all, people in the region have mongoloid features. Remember point zero about diversity? So, drop that stereotype. Avoid patronizing comments or questions like: “you do not look Indian” or “why do you look different?” As an offshoot, unless you want to attract potential angry reactions, do not ask questions about nationality: “do you think of yourself as Chinese (or Myanmarese or Nepalese)?” Tied with race, this could be seen as insulting.

02. Pigeonhole beliefs

Needless to say, diversity exists in the realm of religion too. In addition to Buddhism, Christianity, and Hinduism, there are indigenous religions / religious beliefs in north east India. Avoid patronizing questions like: “why are you a Christian?” or “why aren’t you a Christian?”. While Mizoram and Nagaland are predominantly Christian, Assam is home to the unique practice of Shakti school of Hinduism – the feminine divine power is revered, and the higher reaches of Arunachal Pradesh and the state of Sikkim are Buddhist. Besides, indigenous beliefs also co-exist.

03. Leave out languages

Is there anything sweeter to a host than have a guest speak her language? North East India has over two hundred (200) languages and dialects. While most, not all, people are skilled to speak Hindi or English, and will extend the courtesy to visitors, everyone is proud of their language. If you want to maximize on your travels, it is recommended to learn basic words on-the-go.

Learn words that help you, as a visitor, to say hello and thank you, to seek help, seek directions, to get food and water, etc. If you have traveled thousands of kilometers to get to the least explored North East India, do not be lazy in the last mile of languages – pick up useful words from the street. Language is your only access to enjoy fulfilling homestays in some of the remotest areas of the region.

Backpack Northeast India

04. Codify cuisines

Just as North India goes way beyond cottage-cheese (paneer), do not assume that North East India is all about noodles and momos (dumplings). From a dazzling mising thali on the island of Majuli to smoked meats in Nagaland, you are in for a ride. From the ghost-peppered eromba in Manipur to the near-absence of spices in Mizoram, North East India offers one of the widest spice-spectrum on the culinary menu.

However, if your palette desires something familiar, do not irk your hosts by asking for ‘Indian’ food. Be specific, ask for parathas, dosas, etc. When with strangers, do not ask patronizing questions like “do you eat dog meat?”. Some eat. Most do not. Remember point zero about diversity?

Manipur Travel Guide

05. Break alcohol rules

Brewing alcohol is an intangible heritage for most communities of North East India. So, enjoy the local brews in every state you visit. Beware though that, as of this writing, two out of eight states, viz. Manipur and Nagaland, continue to be prohibition states. Travelers’ baggage may be frisked at entry-points to these two states. So, unless you want to risk social embarrassment and/or legal troubles, do not carry alcohol (even to gift to someone) while traveling to Manipur or Nagaland.

06. Judge customs

The cultural landscape in the north east is unique. For instance, in Meghalaya, a man might live with his wife at her parents’ home after their wedding. The youngest daughter takes care of the parents and inherits the family wealth. While this may be the norm in Meghalaya, it is not the case for everyone in North East India. In other places, you may come across some (not all) couples living-in and a formal wedding may only happen after a few years. If you harbor an alternate perspective on love and marriages, keep quiet. Do not use your own moral lens to judge lifestyle choices.

Meghalaya Maidens’ Festival

07. Jump the gun

In some parts of North East India, hunting may co-exist with agrarian practices. So, you might observe people carrying guns and machetes (daav). Mostly, these are licensed guns and do not represent a threat. Hence, there is no need to be shocked or to raise an alarm. Be calm.

08. Forget the context

  • Talk Politics? North East India is safer than you think. Most places in the region are peaceful and welcoming to tourists. However, given a legacy, people might be sensitive to topics such as insurgencies. As a thumb rule, and unless in the company of trusted friends, avoid political conversations.
  • Loud and Clear? In the hills, people might frown upon a loud voice and an aggressive tone. Please be mindful of this. On the other hand, people in urban centres of Guwahati or Agartala may not only tolerate it but also be loud themselves. It is contextual.
  • Poker Face? People in rural areas, will invariably offer a smile and a warm greeting to strangers. So, drop that poker face. However, this may not happen in crowded cities like Guwahati or Agartala or Imphal. It is best to observe such nuances on the go.

Nagaland Travel Guide

09. Forget courtesies

This is more of a good practice than something that might attract arguments. When someone invites you home, do not go without a souvenir (howsoever modest that might be) for your host. If there are kids in the hosts’ family, take goodies for them.

10. Forget point zero: Diversity

Its never enough to stress this bit so you do not stereotype people. Just as Indians elsewhere, people in North East India are proud of their cuisines, heritage, languages, and lifestyle. Respect diversity.

Think North East India

Need reasons to visit North East India? Pick up a copy of Backpacking North East India: A Curious Journey. It covers over two dozen places and attempts to answer the question – what is it like to travel in the region? Give it a read and make your own choices. Buy now!

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Have you been to or live in North East India? If yes, share your experience and stand to win a free paperback! Click to Learn More.

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61 thoughts on “10 Mistakes to Avoid in North East India”

    1. Thank you for stopping by. We hope you travel to India soon 🙂 Number of days totally depend on how many places you would like to visit and how long would you stay at each of them. Also, what modes of transportation you choose for getting from one place to another.

  1. This is quite useful as I think I would have done some of those things you mentioned

  2. A great insight into the culture of North East India. I’m sure you must have found my country diverse. 🙂
    There are variations in culture and beliefs throughout the nation and yet everything is bonded together into a strong bond of unity <3

  3. Wow this is a very informative post, thanks for sharing all of these tips with us. Many of these I would have never know.

  4. I’m planning to visit India this year. I want to see the Taj Mahal. Thank you for sharing this information. Captivating photos!

  5. I love this! I feel like sometimes we commit these without even knowing so it’s nice to see it written down.

  6. It’s so important to really learn about the culture before you visit any place that is new.

  7. This is so interesting and well written! So much information to digest, and definitely makes me dream of traveling to Inda!

  8. I have stayed in Nagaland for 2 years and have travelled through north east extensively. You have shared a lot of insights about the culture and customs.

    1. Hi Pujarini. It’s lovely to hear from someone who has travelled and stayed here. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Carmen | Wellington World Travels

    When I was still new to ‘traveling’. I was one of those who assumed Indians look alike. I met a lot of Indians-looking-Chinese (even made friends), and they corrected me. This is what I like about traveling. It teaches us to ditch our stereotypes, be open -minded and respectful of other cultures.

  10. whenever i visit to a new place i make sure to use google translate to learn the basic conversation words of that place. Haven’t visited north east much but keep in mind these tips for my next trip.

  11. Very informative post !!! Nice tips ! North east is an awesome place to explore !! rich culture heritage , clean environment and Soothing places !!!

    1. You pinned it right. There is a lot to explore in the region so rich in culture, heritage, environment and fantastic places.

  12. Blair Villanueva

    Thanks for sharing your insights. What I don’t like in travel is stereotyping – thinking that all people in one place are the same.

  13. I’m really impressed, I confess that I knew very little about this part of india, your post has caused in me great admiration and curiosity. I wish to go soon and be able to see more closely everything that you have written

    “Do not use your own moral lens to judge lifestyle choices” love this

  14. Very informative post about different customs and practices in North East India. I was not knowing that 2 out of 8 states practices the law of prohibition. Also loved to know about the role of daughters in Meghalaya, as they care of there family and husbands accompany them after their marriage. I want to experience all these family customs and living in North East India myself now. It is always great to take some small or big gift when someone invites you. Thanks for sharing wonderful tips and also clearing many doubts for North East India.

  15. I have come across so many articles online with wrong information about what North East is like. Finally I’m happy to have come across yours. Your article proves that you really did explore and experience life in North East. Thank you for this genuine article.
    And please do visit North East again.
    Cheers.
    P.s. I’m from Nagaland and FYI Hornbill Festival is coming up 😉 1st-10th Dec.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words Esther. We feel truly humbled 🙂 We look forward to meet you on our next visit. Hornbill Festival is on list for sure.

  16. Stereotyping is something that will leads many travelers to many faux pas, and gladly this will change through constant travel itself. I learned to many things, and being open-minded is a huge plus. Asia is a continent that is very diverse than the rest, it is like a non-stop exploration.

  17. Another great post about the Northeast of India and their customs and practices! I am familiar with some of these things but I wasn’t aware that 2 out of the 8 states practice the law of prohibition. I have tried some local breweries and they were really amazing and so different than the local breweries in the rest of the country. Thank you for sharing this great article, keep up the great work.

  18. These are some really good tips for the first time visitor to North East India. India being a vast country with customs and traditions being different in each region.

    1. You are right Arnav. Knowing certain local practices and customs goes a long way to have great travel experiences.

  19. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I believe everyone should respect each other during travels. I haven’t been to North East India yet. I think I might visit soon.

  20. Great insights that are useful not only in North East India but while traveling generally. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten the biggest smile even over a terrible pronunciation – the effort was appreciated. And keeping an open heart and mind allows us to learn so much more about the cultures we experience while traveling.

  21. Very god info! I suggest every traveler should make a little research about the customs and facts of the country they visit. This is not only to avoid embarrassing situations but also preventing of defending the locals.

  22. Amazing tips to explore north east. I have never been to that part of India but have been to Bhutan and heard the culture is similar. In many ways they are a more liberal and modern society where gender gap is thinner. I stayed for one night at Shillong and was surprised at the impeccable English pronunciation of a domestic helper.

  23. I am not surprised that you’re bringing up the point about people thinking that all Indians look alike or rather feeling that Northeast Indians don’t look India – these kind of perceptions are common and I live in a country where there’s a lot of diversity, I have often come across people who tell ME that I don’t look Indian because they expect me to have a dark skin tone! I have never been to Northeast India myself, it is on my bucket list and your tips here are super helpful, especially in terms of not being alarmed to see hunting guns or expecting a lot more from the food than just noddles and momos!

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