India is a diverse country. The diversity stretches in landscape from the highest mountains in the world to the backwaters of Kerala, in architecture from the tombs of Mughals to the gopurams of the Cholas, in food from the roti and dal to the momos, and in origins from the Indus Valley Civilization to the Dravidians of the South. In that diversity, the region that stands out in all aspects is the North East region of India. Comprising of eight states, all delicately joined with India through the Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal, a passageway that is at most 40 kilometres at its widest, this region has influences of China, Tibet, Burma, Bangladesh and Bhutan and sometimes it is easily forgotten that it is also part of Incredible India.
Our recent India trip finally took us to this region, to the state of Meghalaya, the abode of the clouds, as it’s called in Sanskrit. This is one of the lesser known and traveled regions in India but less was definitely more in case of its beauty and hospitality. Dubbed the “Scotland of the East” (one of many actually) by the colonial British, it’s definitely a visual natural treat.
We started our 4-day long Meghalaya trip from Bangalore and since Meghalaya has no stable, functioning, commercial airport the best way to get to there is to fly into Guwahati, the capital of the neighboring state Assam. A three hour direct flight followed by a 3.5-5 hour, traffic-dependent drive will bring you into Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya.
Day 1 was spent in travel. The drive from Guwahati, along a double-lane mountainous highway lined with pineapple shrubs was scenic and comfortable. Along the way, Jiva Veg Restaurant is the most common rest spot, and gave us the chance to taste our first momos from the region.
The sun sets by 4 pm in January, so we had time for a stop at Umaim Lake, ‘Barapaani’, a beautiful man-made lake which resembles the Scottish Lochs. The sunset views of the surrounding hills and lake were stunning and I wished we had more time to explore the area and try the water sports that the area had to offer.
The last 8 km stretch into central Shillong took over 2 hours as there is just one road leading into and through Shillong. The over saturated traffic and the infrastructure that hasn’t kept up with the growth was probably the most frustrating part of my experience with Shillong. The locals avoid the central roads between 8am – 10am in the morning and 5pm-7pm in the evenings which is totally crazy! After sitting in traffic, getting rear-ended and hearing about an all day bandh (strike, protest) for the following day it did not look like a very promising start for our first ever northeast experience. We checked into our hotel, The Habitat, very frustrated and apprehensive.
Day 2 involved just lounging at the hotel since Shillong and most of the northeast was completely shutdown from 5am to 5pm. The Habitat has an amazing library where we read books showcasing the art, culture and traditions of the northeastern states and planned future trips. The Habitat is also a cultural center, called the Asian Confluence, and has art from across South-east Asia.
After 5pm we ventured into Police Bazar, a popular and busy market in the heart of Shillong with a large pedestrian area and plenty of shopping options. We picked up plenty of shawls, as while in Meghalaya do as the locals do, protect yourselves from the cold with patterned shawls. We returned back to The Habitat for a scrumptious home cooked meal from on-premises kitchen staff. The service and friendliness of the staff and the coziness of the hotel made this forced day off very enjoyable and maybe just the right start for us to slow down and learn about the region. We highly recommend the Habitat Hotel.
Doors of Shillong. Thought there was a bandh, it was okay to walk around the neighborhood streets.
Day 3 – After an early breakfast and saying goodbye to the staff at the Habitat, we set off to explore the Mawlynnong and Dawki area. En route to Dawki, a perfect pit stop is the Mawkhong View Point. This is one of the highest points on the drive and from here the miles of undulating mountains, hills and valleys of Meghalaya are visible. This is a good place for some hot chai too.
Dawki or Dauki is a border town in Southeast Meghalaya about 2.5 hours from Shillong and one of the few road connections between India and Bangladesh. Unlike Wagah border (in Amritsar between India and Pakistan) there is no formal border, wall, fence, gate, line, marking this border but it still instills a sense of nationalism.
The Jawans of the Border Security Force (BSF) make their presence known and ensure no one unregulated crossing happen. We took a serene boat ride on the crystal blue-green waters of the Umngot River where you can see the river bed even at depths of 40 feet. The river flows under the Dawki Bridge, a suspension bridge built by the British in 1932, and between deep ravines. The whole trip takes about 40 minutes but could be longer if you stop at the banks.
The next stop was the single-decker Jingmaham Living Root Bridge in Riwai village, Mawlynnong about 1.5 hours from Dawki. Living root bridges are a form of tree shaping common in the southern part of Meghalaya. They are handmade from the aerial roots of rubber fig trees (Ficus elastica) by the Khasi and Jaintia peoples of the mountainous terrain and take about 10-15 years to become functional. If you are a nature lover, don’t miss this natural wonder. The walk to the bridge was a steep path of steps that took about 15 -20 minutes and was about 500 meters downhill. You have to climb back up but it’s well worth the trek!
Our last stop was the village of Mawlynnong, once voted Asia’s cleanest village. It’s a clean and well planned village but at this point it is more of a tourist trap. There are restaurants and vendors and too many bed and breakfast homes that it is hard to distinguish where the village of locals begins and where the commercialization of a decade old award ends.
We did “dress up” in the traditional Khasi costumes and sometimes things like that helps slow down the go-go-go vacations and spend a little more time, time well spent to the others dressing up and learning about them.
After a long and packed day we headed back to Shillong and checked into the Ri-Kynjai resort our home for the next day.
Day 4 – I woke up to a magnificent sunrise from our treetop cottage at Ri-Kynjai resort. Ri-Kynjai or ‘land of serene environs’ in Khasi, is an upscale boutique resort overlooking the picturesque Umaim Lake, 20km from Shillong. The architecture is inspired by original Khasi thatched huts and is a perfect blend of local tradition and luxury. From the cottages and rooms, it’s a relaxed 30 minute stroll down to the lake but the reverse journey can be quite a strenuous climb. The views from the lake are stunning and the reflections of the trees in the calm lake with the early morning fog, leave you refreshed and inspired. Meghalaya is called the Scotland of the East and at this spot it was clear why.
After the brisk outdoors walk, it was time to explore Shillong, the capital. We started with the famed Don Bosco Centre on Indigenous Cultures – The largest cultural museum in Asia with a wealth of information about the many north eastern states and its rich indigenous and tribal cultures. The museum, run by the Salesian of Don Bosco of the Catholic Church, is spread over seven floors and can take two hours or more to explore.
While you can easily get lost and getting educated in the exhibits, the real surprise in the museum is the roof. There is a Gaudi like mosaic roof structure and on that there is a walkway that winds around it, guarded by see through grills. This provides one of the best views of Shillong’s rooftops and surrounding hills.
The next must see place is Ward’s Lake, known locally as Nan-Polok. It is an artificial lake with garden and boating facilities. As I walked around the brick-laid path, I wondered how a small city like Shillong can reach a sense of civility that affords the people of Shillong to enjoy this space of tranquility within their chaos. Big cities like New York have Central Park, and this doesn’t compare, but set against other Indian cities like Bangalore, Shillong wins. The lake is clean, the walking paths are spotless, the boat riders are picturesque, the migratory birds are plenty and was the perfect place to draw a breath.
While we had the rest of the day all planned out, a visit to Shillong Peak, maybe a drive to Elephant Falls and even the Sacred Forest, our grand plans were cut short by another announcement of a bandh, all of Meghalaya was going to be shut down by 7 pm that night and will not reopen until 2 days later. Assam, the neighboring state had also called a bandh starting from 5 am the next day till 5 am the day after. We had planned to stay one more night in Ri-Kynjai and our flight out of Guwahati was at 3 pm the next day. Everything need to be re-planned.
A civic lesson on the the Northeast. In constant fight over neighboring countries on where the borders are, and a constant struggle for its citizens to get recognition and equity in status as Indians and belonging to India, the Northeast has always been in turmoil. The current set of bandhs were called due to the Citizenship Amendment Bill introduced by the central government as part of its campaign promise but with very poor favor with the Northeast states. Read this article for the lesson. What is the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill?
We did re-plan, headed back to the hotel, checked-out and drove immediately back to Guwahati, crossing the Meghalaya border just before the clock struck seven. We might not have turned into pumpkins or be attacked but it was not a risk worth taking. To make our suddenly hassled trip calmer again, we did check into a 5-star hotel by the airport, the Kiranshree Grand. This was a good choice as the views of the large blue pool from our room almost compensated for the views of the lake from our cottage. It was also very close to the airport so even if the bandh in Assam was strictly enforced we could still walk to the airport to catch our 3 pm flight. Luckily, the area around the airport the next day was fine and we got a hotel shuttle to drop us.
We boarded the flight back taking stock of our initial Meghalaya plan – day trips to Cherrapunjee and the close by double-decker living root bridge, the Sacred Forest (or Mawphlang), the traditional Khasi meal and Khasi massage we had booked at Ri-kynjai and while a little sad, we converted our adventure into the natural Northeast experience. A little beauty, a little chaos, a struggle for normalcy, nature’s gifts, making a living, surviving a growing tourist population and immigration and slowly and steadily, truly being part of India. For us, after visiting it, we appreciate even more the diversity of Incredible India. Meghalaya is a must visit and provides a “nice and easy” introduction to the lesser known Northeast states of India. Check for bandhs, and then pack your bags and go!
Post written by Shwetha Shrivatsa (Blog: Stress to Soul) and Karthik Raja