I explored a few parts of North East India in February; my journey started from Guwahati and continued around parts of Meghalaya, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. In money terms, I spent on an average 800 Rupees per day including all expenses. Out of these I thought Meghalaya was really easy to navigate and being in close proximity to Guwahati airport, easily accessible too.
Affordable flight fares to Guwahati from all parts of India has meant Meghalaya has become a happening ‘weekend destination’ for the well heeled traveller who wants to see and experience something new and offbeat. Theoretically it is possible to fly to Guwahati and explore Meghalaya over a long weekend of 4-5 days and go back via Guwahati airport without even going to Guwahati city. I would go as far as to say ‘Meghalaya is the new Ladakh!’
Here is a step-by-step guide for backpacking in Meghalaya :
Arrive in Guwahati
Take an early morning flight or just make sure your arrival time is latest around noon. The Gopinath Bordoloi airport in Guwahati is located on NH-40 and is bang on the highway to Shillong. A right turn on the main road outside the airport will take you to Shillong and the left one will take you to Guwahati. Distance of Shillong from Guwahati airport is 120 kms. This way one doesn’t necessarily have to go to Guwahati and can end up saving valuable time. Also, unlike many other states in the North East, Indian tourists don’t require a permit to visit Meghalaya.
There are shared taxis available all the time just after you walk out of Guwahati airport (look for ML numbered – yellow number plate cars and SUVs). Some of them have come to drop tourists from Shillong and are most likely to ask passengers where they want to go. Rates can be negotiated and are around 200-300 Rupees per person. Meghalaya Tourism buses also ply between Guwahati airport and Shillong twice a day, ask at the MTDC tourism counter. If both these options don’t work, one can always wait on the main road and sit in one of the shared sumos that ply all day between Guwahati and Shillong (these charge 170/- per person) – from Khanapara in Guwahati.
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The road between Guwahati and Shillong is excellent and generally takes around 3 hours to cover. All shared taxis usually make a stop for snacks and food at Nongpoh (after entering the State border of Meghalaya). In Nongpoh, there are delicious pineapples on sale and variety of pickles that can be picked up at the time of the return journey. I won’t advise arriving in Shillong in the night if you don’t have pre-booked accommodation.
Widely known as the rock capital of India, Shillong is a bustling city with a wide range of accommodation options. The shared taxi drop off point in Shillong is at Police Bazaar, from where you can either hire a local taxi or walk to wherever you want to go in Shillong. There are small dhabas near the PWD building where the taxi drops you and local Khasi snacks can be tried. Shillong is also the biggest town and capital city of Meghalaya and lies in the East Khasi Hills district.
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Staying in Shillong can be a costly affair although a few cheap places can be found near the Police Bazaar itself. There are a few eateries where authentic Khasi food can be sampled in Shillong Bazaar. Dylan fans and other shenanigans aside, Shillong does have some fine music and cafés with a dazzling array of offerings. There are frequent buses and shared taxis to all parts of Meghalaya from Shillong.
Places to visit in Shillong : Ward’s Lake, Shillong Golf Course, Elephant Falls, Smit, Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures, archery at Siat Khnam, Mawphlang sacred forests. Umiam Lake (Also called Barapani) is around 15 kms before reaching Shillong and is quite serene when there are clouds floating by.
Cherrapunjee (Also called Sohra)
The distance from Shillong to Cherrapunjee is hardly 55 kms and usually takes less than two hours to cover. There are cute yellow coloured shared taxis (charge Rs. 70/-) and buses (charge Rs. 50/-) that ply all day from near Bada Bazaar in Shillong. The Bada Bazaar is a market place to buy all sorts of produce and fruits.
Buses and taxis drop passengers to the main market in Upper Cherrapunjee (locally called Sohra) near the Sumo taxi stand. There are a few homestays near the main market where local products can be bought. There’s a popular hostel for backpackers in lower Sohra and another dormitory option too for budget travellers.
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Attractions and places to see in Cherrapunjee : There’s a weekly market in upper Sohra held on a different day every week, ask the locals for the same when you are there. Dympep viewpoint has fabulous landscapes of the canyons en-route Cherrapunjee. Rama Krishna Mission Ashram is in upper Sohra and is a must visit for its Tribal Khasi Museum.
Nohkalikhai waterfalls are the fourth highest in the world. They make for a grand sight and lie only 4 kms from Cherrapunjee. One can walk to the top of the waterfalls via a 40 minute path and experience other waterfalls and strange rock formations on the way to the top. Mawsmai caves is also a must visit place with fascinating stalactites and stalagmites. Mawsynram is the wettest place on earth (Cherrapunjee’s claim to fame!). Among other places to visit are Dainthlen falls, Khasi Monoliths and the 1846 built First Presbyterian Church.
Living root bridges of Nongriat : The most fascinating activity and attractions around Cherrapunjee is the trek to the ‘double decker root bridge’ of Nongriat village. There are two routes for the same; the first one (easier) is from Tyrna village and involves a descent of around 3000 steps while the second one is a long trek that begins from the view point of Nohkalikai waterfalls. Tyrna village is approx. 26 kms away from Cherrapunjee.
It is advisable to stay for at least one day in Nongriat to allow the knees to rest and enjoy nature’s bounties. There are many living root bridges (indigenous method of the villagers to make bridges with roots of growing trees) in close vicinity of Nongriat.
There are affordable stay options in Nongriat and it is a great place to see rural life of the Khasi tribe of Meghalaya. Walk to the spectacular rainbow waterfall and stumble around to find natural pools of water. I highly recommend spending lots of time around both these sites. There’s a small church in Nongriat and also one in Tyra. Allow 3 hours to walk back to Tyrna village from Nongriat. Hitch a ride with one of the vehicles from Tyrna that is headed to Cherrapunjee.
If you have seen rustic boats floating in crystal clear water in photographs of Meghalaya on the internet, most chances are that they are taken on the Umngot river. Dawki is the last village on the Indian side of the Bangladesh border of Tamabil. The route to Dawki bifurcates around 25 kms on the Cherrapunjee-Shillong highway; so one can access it from Cherrapunjee without having to go to Shillong again.
There are regular buses and shared sumos going to Dawki all day from Shillong (Bada Bazaar) and the distance is around 80 kms. The plains of Bangladesh are visible as the bus makes its way to Dawki. Dawki is located right on the highway and is in fact a dirty town. It makes sense to go to a small hamlet by the name of Shnongpdeng to experience the beauty of the pristine waters of Umngot river. Shnongpdeng is 7 kms away from Dawki and is accessible by a rough road, shared taxis are available.
There are a few homestays in Shnongpdeng, most are cute structures made of bamboo and stand on a stilt, prices charged are around 400-700 Rupees. The river bank resembles a Goa type of atmosphere with shacks and bamboo huts scattered around a small beach. Camping options are available too in Shnongpdeng. The best time to photograph is from early morning till 2 pm in the afternoon. Aerial shots can be taken from the bridges in Shnongpdeng and Dawki and one can also enjoy boat rides on Umngot river.
Attractions near Dawki Shnongpdeng : Activities like scuba diving, cliff jumping, fishing, snorkelling, rafting, zip lining can be experienced depending on the season.
Mawlynnong has been bestowed the title of the cleanest village in India; there’s a bamboo skywalk to reach a viewpoint with a landscape of Bangladesh plains. Riwai living root bridge is closeby and can be seen if one has not visited Nongriat.
Food in Meghalaya
While both vegetarian and non-vegetarian food is easily available, sometimes on Sundays (when most businesses are closed) vegetarians may have an issue. Keep emergency food ready with you and remember that fruits are available in plenty in Meghalaya. Enjoy nature’s goodness!
Other information :
English is widely spoken by Khasi people across Meghalaya but in remote towns it is possible for someone to not know both Hindi and English. Do not fret, sign language works best when there is a language barrier.
Meghalaya and most States in the north east practice a matrilineal system, where women take the family name and are dominant in the household affairs. Most shops are managed by women. Observe this welcome change while you are in Meghalaya.
Meghalaya takes its holidays seriously and Sunday mass is widely attended by everyone. There is singing in the church and all men and women are smartly dressed while all shops and local taxis are on holiday.
Kwai is local betelnut that everyone seems to enjoy all the time everywhere in Meghalaya (and the entire northeast). You can try it too, remember to ask the locals to give you kwai with as little of the white accompaniment as possible.