North East India 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.
Abhijeet Deshpande, author of Backpacking North East India: A Curious Journey, shares some sights from this incredible land, few thoughts on why it retains the tag of least explored, and why you must visit this region – sooner than later.
The Least explored Northeast India
Home to the wettest places in the world, the state, organized into three areas viz. Garo Hills, Jaintia Hills, and Khasi Hills, is aptly named in Sanskrit to mean abode of clouds. Towns like Cherrapunji (also known as Sohra) and Mawsynram are known to record highest rainfall on earth. It sports few of wildest national parks, some breathtaking waterfalls, rivers, and lakes, and the famous living-root bridges.
Meghalaya’s matrilineal society, wherein the youngest daughter inherits the family wealth, lends it a unique characteristic. Besides, it is one of the few states of the country where lottery is legal. So, when visiting, do not forget to buy yourself a teer-lottery ticket – it is based on a system that declares winners on the outcome of an archery event held in its capital, Shillong. All of this merely scratches the surface.
Bordering Myanmar to its east, Nagaland is home to the legendary headhunters who once had the Britishers in a quandary. It dons one of the most colorful outlooks in the region and hosts the iconic Hornbill Festival – named after the state’s bird. Nagaland’s capital city of Kohima commemorates some of the bravehearts of World War II at a sprawling landmark cemetery.
Nagaland has an interesting Japanese connection. Few Japanese continue to visit the state to pay homage to their beloved who died in the war. What is peculiar is how a Japanese sub-culture thrives-on in the state – teenagers pick up Japanese slangs, design anime avatars and participate in related cosfests (costume festivals). Nagaland is also where the Siberian Amur falcons stop by while migrating to southern Africa. Indeed, Nagaland’s allure does not end here.
Did you know that Nepalese is an official language in India? With Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet to its east, west and north respectively, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual Sikkim is one of the smallest states in the country. It holds enviable distinctions of enforcing a smoking-ban in public places in letter and spirit, banning plastic water bottles, and, being India’s first 100 per cent organic state. Of course, Sikkim offers stunning scenery too.
Besides organic oranges and the classic Temi Tea, visitors are lured to try hot selling thukpas, dumplings, and its signature Tongba (millet-brew, mildly intoxicating). In between the binge, enjoy visiting Buddhist monasteries, with colorful prayer flags fluttering atop. All of this against a dramatic landscape, lends this Himalayan state, a distinct outlook. Gangtok, the picturesque state capital, offers both – soul-soothing Tibetan music and, places to let your hair down.
This is just an overview for three of eight states of North East India. Impressive, isn’t it? Yet, it remains the least explored part of the country. Why? The short answer? Because the bulk of explorers are looking elsewhere. Having said that, it is somewhat tricky to club the entire region as one. Sikkim near the Siliguri corridor is a relatively popular destination. And so are a few places 500-700 Km east of the corridor, such as Kaziranga National Park in Assam, or parts of Meghalaya, etc. The least explored bit starts as you go deeper. So, what happens there? Why does it remain relatively untouched? Well, there’s a legacy.
Northeast India is transforming
Concerns that impeded travel to this glorious region are becoming a thing of the past. Concerns that used to be real are quickly moving to the realm of mere perception. North East India is opening up to host an ever increasing number of footfalls every year.
Safer than you think
Insurgencies that once plagued the region are receding quickly and, are limited to specific remote areas, especially along the international borders. North east India is a collection of eight states – not just two, three or four. If at all, your travel is more likely to be affected by bandhs or peaceful shutdowns (resulting in nothing more than delays). For more on the topic, read this.
Better access, more options to sleep, food galore
Flight and train connections allow to get there faster. Buses and shared taxis connect all remote areas. Alternately, you could hire private cabs. To sleep in, besides the tourism rest houses, there are guesthosues, homestays, hostels, and hotels (advance bookings may be required during peak season of October to April,). Finally, 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. For more, read How to backpack North East India?.
Easy travel permits
This is a British-era legacy. To protect their assets (oil fields, tea estates, etc.), the colonizer had restricted entry to some areas of North East India. Three out of eight states continue to ask Indian nationals to acquire Inner Line Permits (ILPs) and for foreigners to acquire Restricted Area Permits (RAPs) / Protected Area Permits (PAPs). The good thing is that such permits are routinely issued for tourism-related visits. Read more on this topic.
Think Northeast India
The region’s innate charms have remained under-explored. Travelers, who figure out how to backpack in North East India, find gems such as Dzükou Valley all to themselves. Importantly, the hospitable people of the region make sure that visitors take back the choicest of memories.
Meanwhile, 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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