The least explored and arguably most beautiful region of India, the NORTHEAST is connected to the rest of the country by a narrow stretch of land between Bhutan and Bangladesh, and was all but sealed off from the outside world until relatively recently. Arunachal Pradesh shares an extremely sensitive frontier with Chinese-occupied Tibet and, together with Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, a 1600km-border with Myanmar.
Insurgency has agitated the region since Independence, with tribal groups pushing for autonomy as well as fighting each other. A huge influx of Bangladeshis in the last decade and the displacement of many indigenous people has also created further tension. The situation has improved in recent years, though Tripura and Manipur remain unsafe for travel and Restricted or Protected Area Permits are required for four of the seven states. Tourists are not a target of violence, however, and an extraordinary diversity of peoples and spectacular landscapes make a visit well worth the effort. One of the world’s wettest monsoon belts, the area also boasts an astounding array of flora and fauna, estimated at fifty percent of India’s entire biodiversity.
Until the 1960s the region comprised just two states, the North East Frontier Agency, now Arunachal Pradesh, and Assam, but separatist pressures further divided it into seven states, dubbed “the seven sisters”. Assam consists of the flat, low-lying Brahmaputra valley. Its capital, Guwahati, boasts two of India’s most important ancient temples and is the gateway to the region, while an encounter with a one-horned rhino in the magnificent Kaziranga National Park is a highlight of any trip to the Northeast.
The other six states occupy the surrounding hills, and are quite distinct from the rest of India in landscape, climate and peoples. Meghalaya boasts beautiful lakes and is home to the wettest places on earth, Cherrapunjee and Mawsynram. Its capital, Shillong, retains some of the colonial atmosphere from its days as East India’s summer capital. Majestic Arunachal Pradesh, one of India’s most remote states, is inhabited by a fascinating range of peoples, many of Tibetan origin. In the state’s northwestern corner lies the Buddhist monastery of Tawang, encircled by awesome mountains, while in the far northeast is the remote wilderness of Namdapha National Park. To the south, the lush mountains of Nagaland are home to fourteen distinctive tribal groups. Mizoram, in the Lushai hills, is predominantly Christian and has one of the highest literacy rates in India.
Manipur and Tripura have been deemed unsafe for travel over the past several years. Although tourists are not a direct target, both states suffer from inter-tribal disputes, kidnapping, banditry, arson and killings. The people of Manipur are more closely related to the neighbouring Burmese population, while Tripura is bordered by Bangladesh on three sides having been cut off from the Bangladeshi plains during the 1947 Partition.
The best time to visit the Northeast is from November to April, although mountain areas can be extremely cold by December. It rains heavily from May to the end of September. In two weeks you could travel from West Bengal to Guwahati, Shillong and Kaziranga, while three weeks would be enough to cover the main sights of Assam and Meghalaya. A month would enable you to enjoy the two most beautiful and remote states, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. To take in all the states together, including Mizoram, you’ll need considerably longer.Read More
Travelling through the Northeast
Travelling through the Northeast
Much of the region (particularly Nagaland) is easiest reached through tour operators, but it is possible – and richly rewarding – for the adventurous to travel independently, though this demands considerable amounts of time, energy and perseverance. Be prepared for bureaucracy, language barriers, long drives on terrible roads, basic accommodation and (except in Assam) extremes in temperature. Consider hiring your own jeep and driver, at least for part of the trip, and using public Tata Sumos, jeeps that operate like shared taxis and are generally much quicker than buses. If travelling in winter, bring a sleeping bag and thermals, as much of the accommodation is not set up for cold weather. People rarely drive at night because of the threat of banditry, and, since the region shares the same time zone as the rest of India despite being so far east, the sun rises and sets early and a lot of places close by 6pm. Outside Guwahati, money-changing facilities are rare, so bring what cash you need with you. There are regular bandhs (strikes) throughout the region when shops, restaurants and public transport shut down – during a typical three-week trip you’re likely to lose at least a couple of days to bandhs.
Access, permits and tour operators
Access, permits and tour operators
Although the region is gradually opening up for tourism, regulations can change according to the current state of security, so check the latest information with the Indian Embassy before travelling. Currently Assam, Meghalaya and Tripura are completely free of restrictions. Foreigners require Restricted or Protected Area Permits to visit Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram and Manipur; Indian nationals require Inner Line Permits for these four states. At the time of writing, the UK Foreign Office is advising against all travel to Tripura and Manipur. Arunachal Pradesh is the only state that charges for its permit (US$50), though Manipur demands a Rs1500 “royalty fee” when your permit is issued. Arunachal Pradesh permits are valid for 30 days; permits for the other states are valid for ten days, though it is sometimes possible to get an extension – ask on application or check with a tour operator in the region. Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh permits start from a fixed date; Mizoram permits start when you enter the state.
Officially Nagaland and Mizoram require you to travel in a group of at least four. However, Nagaland may allow married couples to enter on their own, while in practice Mizoram tends to be more flexible (you can often obtain a permit even if you are travelling alone). Arunachal Pradesh officially requires you to be in a group of two, though individual travellers, applying through a travel agent, can obtain a permit by paying the full two-person US$100 fee. Make lots of photocopies of your permits, as you will have to leave copies behind at the border, with hotels and so on.
When you cross into Arunachal Pradesh or Mizoram, you may have to tell the border guards that the other – non-present or fictitious – people on your permit have been “delayed” and that you are meeting a local guide once you reach your destination, regardless of your actual intentions. Nagaland is far stricter, however, and you’re unlikely to be allowed in on your own or without a guide; realistically you need to visit the state as part of an organized trip. If you are travelling with a tour operator in any of the states, expect to pay at least US$50 per person per day.
Independent travellers should have their permits endorsed at the Foreigners’ Registration Office (or with the Superintendent of Police) in the state capitals. Permits are not date-stamped when you cross a border, so if your travels take you in and out of a state more than once, there may be some confusion as to whether you are allowed back in again. Passes are valid for the full period they are allocated for, no matter how many times you enter and exit a state, but in practice you may find yourself facing border guards demanding bribes. Stand your ground.
The easiest way of getting a permit for Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh is by applying several weeks in advance through a tour operator. You’ll have to pay an administration fee – and sometimes a few rupees to “ease” the permit’s progress through the state bureaucracy – but they may be able to help put a group together. The alternative is to apply to the Foreigners’ Division of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Lok Nayak Bhavan, Khan Market, New Delhi, or the Foreigners’ Regional Registration Office, AJC Bose Road, Kolkata; however, the permits issued from these offices are often limited to certain areas within the states, which may not fit in with your travel plans. It is best to give yourself around a week to get the permits sorted. It’s also possible to obtain permits from Indian embassies abroad – however, they all have to get permission from Delhi, so apply at least two months in advance.
To obtain Inner Line Permits, Indian citizens should apply with two passport photographs to representatives of the state governments concerned. Applications should only take a day to process, and can be extended for up to six months in the relevant state capital.
State Government representatives
Arunachal Bhawan, Kautilya Marg, Chanakyapuri, Delhi t011/2301 3915; Block CE-109, Sector 1, Salt Lake, Kolkata t 033/2334 1243.
Manipur Bhawan, 2 Sardar Patel Marg, Chanakyapuri, Delhi t 011/2687 3311; Manipur Bhawan, 26 Rowland Rd, Kolkata t033/2475 8075.
Mizoram Bhawan, Circular Rd (behind the Sri Lankan Embassy), Chanakyapuri, Delhi t011/2301 0595; Mizoram House, 24 Old Ballygunge Rd, Kolkata t 033/2475 7034.
29 Aurangzeb Rd, Delhi t011/2301 6411; Nagaland House, 12 Shakespeare Sarani, Kolkata t033/2242 5269.
Hotel Alpine Continental, Shillong, Meghalaya t 9436/303978, whttp://www.culturalpursuits.com. Friendly, experienced and extremely well-informed Canadian operation arranging trips throughout the region, including tailor-made excursions for budget travellers.
Gurudongma Tours & Treks
Gurudongma Lodge, Kalimpong, West Bengal t03552/255204, whttp://www.gurudongma.com. Highly professional team arranging tours, trekking, mountain-biking, tribal and wildlife holidays in Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh, with particular expertise in birdwatching trips (w http://www.allindiabirding.com).
Jungle Travels India
GNB Road, Silpukhuri, Guwahati, Assam t 0361/266 0890, whttp://www.jungletravelsindia.com. Guwahati-based agent organizing quality group and tailor-made tours, including luxury cruises.
Jalannagar, Dibrugarh, Assam t0373/230 1120, w http://www.purviweb.com. A tour operator with excellent guides, arranging personalized wildlife, fishing, golfing, horseriding, war memorial, tribal and tea tours around Dibrugarh and throughout the Northeast.
Travel The Unknown
52/1 Friends Rd, Croydon, London, UK t 0845/053 0352, whttp://www.traveltheunknown.com. A responsible and well-run UK-based company specializing in off-the-beaten-track destinations, with tours throughout the region, including to Tawang, Kaziranga and Cherrapunjee.