Northeast India has remained on the fringes of a travel map for far too long. That is changing. If you are considering to explore this land of many stories, equip yourself with the necessary information. Read on to know why and when to visit the region, what to pack, how to get the necessary travel permits, how much do guest houses, local transport, or local food cost, and what faux pas to avoid. Abhijeet Deshpande, author of Backpacking North East India: A Curious Journey, shares few ideas on how to backpack 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 NE 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.
Why should I visit Northeast India?
Sometimes, the challenge of sorting through gems and picking up a select few can make those left behind, exclusive. It is particularly true of Northeast India and it is what makes the region evermore mysterious. The possibility of discovery accompanies every visitor’s footsteps, and follows every story from the region.
Visit India’s North East for its indigenous culture, wildlife, stunning landscapes, untold history, solitary relics, diverse places of worship, high-octane festivals, culinary delights, and more. For details on this topic, here are the must-read reasons to visit North East India.
When to visit Northeast India?
The recommended travel season is between the winter months of October and April. However, if you want to enjoy the larger-than-life waterfalls, plan your travels between May and September. Northeast India is home to the wettest places in the world. Towns like Cherrapunji (also known as Sohra) and Mawsynram are known to record highest rainfall on earth.
Besides, the famous annual Ambubachi Mela (festival) celebrating the divine feminine power is typically held in the month of July or August. Remember though, national parks and forests are inaccessible during monsoons. Pick a time that suits you best and keep close tabs on local travel conditions.
So, how to backpack Northeast India? Let’s break it down.
What to pack for travels in Northeast India?
The weather and topography variation in NE India can baffle first-time visitors. From snow-capped high mountains of Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim to warm, almost tropics-like, plains of Assam, northeast India raises the bar by a few notches. Though it can hold visitors in awe, such variation can put packing decisions in to a spin. If you are new to this style of travel, you may use these tips for first-time backpackers. That said, what to carry is a very personal choice and, the following is just one take.
If traveling in the winter season, wear clothes in layers. So, while moving from cold to warm areas, you just have to take off your jacket and / or jumpers. Carry at least one pair of leggings, a pair of jeans, a pair of shorts, 3-4 tees, a jumper, a jacket (preferably waterproof), and a pair each of hand-gloves, walking shoes and flip-flops.
To cut down the weight on your shoulders, try merino wear instead of heavy thermals. Some mountain rides (especially along the Manipur-Assam border) can get dusty, very dusty – so, carry a pair of sunglasses, a hat, and a scarf to completely cover your head, eyes, and face.
A smartphone is a given – besides helping in communication, it serves as a camera, a torch, a writing pad to keep travel notes, a timepiece, a navigation device, etc. Just carry a power bank to keep it charged. Other than that, keep a personal electric kettle, especially if you are planning to stay longer in remote areas. Few places in the region may not offer a hot shower. A kettle serves you warm sponges, boiled water (should you run out of water bottles), tea and coffee (pack few bags / sachets), and noodles-in-a-cup on a rainy day. Multipurpose gadgets work best to cut down weight.
If you are planning to stay longer in remote areas (of which there will be opportunities), make a small pouch of commonly available (over-the-counter) medicines. It won’t add more than 50-100 grams to your backpack but can mean the difference between staying fit during hikes and tied to a bed in a jungle. At a minimum, keep paracetamols, anti-allergics, rehydrate solutions, muscle-relaxant, and mosquito repellent (recommended to keep throughout India). You know your health best – customize your medicine kit to your needs.
Do I need travel permits to visit Northeast India?
Indians require Inner Line Permits (ILPs) for only three out of eight states: Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, and Mizoram. On the other hand, foreigners (including Overseas Citizens of India or OCI card holders) require Protected Area Permits (PAPs) for only Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.
In Manipur, Mizoram, and Nagaland, foreigners are required to make a simple police-registration (often facilitated by guest houses or travel guides) within 24 hours of arrival. Lastly, Assam, Meghalaya, and Tripura do not mandate any travel permit for Indians or foreigners. How about we simplify all this with a visual?
Procuring travel permits is easier than you think. For details on how Indians and foreigners can get these, please read travel permits to North East India.
How do I get to Northeast India?
The region is connected by air routes and long-distance trains (with buses and shared taxis for the last mile). For short visits (say, to Northeast India’s famous festivals), you could fly direct to the nearest airport such as Aizawl, Dimapur, Imphal, Gangtok, Guwahati, etc.
However, if you wish to backpack for a relatively longer duration, there are options. To travel in the general direction of north to south, get to popular railheads like New Jalpaiguri, or Guwahati, near the Siliguri corridor and weave your route on the go. If you plan to backpack in the opposite direction, and have the budget, flying to Lengpui Airport in Aizawl (Mizoram) or Agartala (Tripura) could be good options to start your journey.
Is it safe to travel in Northeast India?
Follow safe travel practices as you would elsewhere. Practices such as arriving at a new place before sundown, following local advice and local news, picking up local language words, and showing respect toward indigenous communities and culture. Such common practices often make up for backpackers’ customs or an informal code of conduct. In India’s Northeast, do all this and, if you want to hike through jungles or visit remote areas, always use a local guide.
North East India is declared safe for tourism and is hosting an ever increasing number of footfalls every year. If you delay that visit, you lose. You lose out on the near exclusive access to some of the greatest marvels on earth and some of the best places that the country offers. For more on this topic, read North East India is safer than you think.
Where to stay in Northeast India?
Except in Sikkim, backpacker-hostels are not in vogue yet in Northeastern states of India. Most towns in the region have tourism lodges (run by government), private guest houses and hotels that offer rooms in the price range of ₹200-2000 per night (shared toilets, sometimes). You may try the following links for your accommodation needs in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura.
When in the region, look out for homestay options too – usually these offer the best experiences and memories. Lately, AirBnB has made inroads and you may use the popular phone app to make bookings in NE India. Before getting in a homestay arrangement, just pickup local language words (some folks may not know English or Hindi) and carry a souvenir, howsoever modest, for the host or goodies for the family’s kids.
What to eat and drink in Northeast India?
When it comes to food, you are spoilt for choice. If you think Northeast India is all about noodles, soup and dumplings, think again. For everyday meals there’s rice, vegetable and fish curries, daal, eggs, and smoked meats. A local, street side, meal should cost between ₹50-150, depending on what you eat. For those hesitant to try the delicious indigenous cuisines, there’s good news – all cities have a mix of eateries offering local, popular vegetarian, or even continental food.
Besides, brewing alcohol is an intangible heritage for most communities of the region. So, except Manipur and Nagaland (prohibition states), enjoy the local brews everywhere you go. Be it the millet-based tongba in Sikkim or the rice aphung in Arunachal Pradesh.
How do I get around places in Northeast India?
Except Assam, most of North East India is mountainous with limited rail connectivity. Flights and buses are available but shared taxis (Tata Sumo vehicles) are the preferred choice for long distance commute. For intercity travel within the region, shared taxis usually cost between ₹300-900. You may also try your luck hitch hiking!
PS: To rent a car and drive in India’s northeast, look for car-rental options in major cities such as Guwahati, Gangtok, or Shillong.
What faux pas to avoid in Northeast India?
Just as elsewhere in the country, respect diversity while visiting NE India too. Let us drop that stereotype. Avoid the assumption that all Indians look alike. Let’s not pigeonhole beliefs, judge social customs with our own moral lens, disrespect indigenous culture, or raise an alarm if and when you see someone with a gun or a machete! For more on the topic, read ten mistakes to avoid in Northeast India.
North East India is likely to expand your notion of India itself. The incredible hospitality of the region makes sure that visitors take back the choicest of memories.
Think North East India
Need more? 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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