A solo backpacker’s guide to North East India | Part 1 — Arunachal Pradesh
In October of 2018, I was fortunate to land a new job. As I put down my papers at my existing job, I wanted a break between jobs to get ready for my new journey. I have always wanted to visit the North East of India but never found the required time. It had always seemed mystical and isolated to me. So, I quickly planned a trip and spent 14 days in November, exploring the North East of India.
I am writing this series because I found it relatively difficult to find information for my trip. I also realised that any information available was from people outside India. So, this is my attempt to inspire you and provide enough information to help you explore the North East yourself.
I have divided this series into three parts — Part 1 will cover my travel in Arunachal Pradesh, Part 2 will cover Assam and Part 3 will cover Meghalaya. There are other states in the North East but I couldn’t visit them, so you’ll have to look elsewhere for information on them.
I have always loved the mountains so I had to go to Arunachal Pradesh during my trip since Arunachal Pradesh is made up of the last leg of the mighty Himalayas. This is what my itinerary in Arunachal looked like.
Arunachal is also a disputed territory with both China and India laying claim to it — though India currently administers it. Hence, getting inside Arunachal requires a permit.
Getting a permit to enter Arunachal Pradesh
Skip this section if you are more interested in my experiences in Arunachal.
Indian citizens need an Inner Line Permit (ILP) to enter Arunachal. Before applying for it, you need to decide three things — when, where you will be traveling in Arunachal Pradesh and a local contact there.
One cannot go anywhere one pleases in Arunachal. The government there has specified 12 tourist circuits that you can choose from.
- Tinsukia-Tezu -Hayuliang
- Doimukh-Sagalee-Pake Kessang-Sepp
- Jairampur — Manmao- Nampong — Pangsau Pass
Of these, only the ones with Tawang or Ziro in them are allowed for solo travellers. I wanted to go to both places but then decided against Ziro in the hope that I can come again in the future during the Ziro music festival.
Once you decide the circuits you want to travel in and the dates of your travel, you will need a local contact. The best way is to book your accommodation and then to give their contact as the local contact. I’ll talk more about accommodation and transport later in this post.
When you have everything sorted, you can apply for the ILP online here. Submit the required documents. You can track the application and if everything is correct, you’ll get the ILP in your email inbox in a few days.
You can also get your ILP in person at the Guwahati Airport or at any of the places listed in this link. Processing time at the places listed in the link might take 1–2 days, so I wouldn’t advise that option.
People coming from outside India have to get a Protected Area Permit. The process is similar to the ILP and more information can be found here. There is no option to apply online
The gateway to the North East of India is Guwahati. It is well connected to all the major metros by air and rail. There are direct flights to and from all major cities. Hence this is where you want to land first.
I landed on Nov 9th, a Thursday. I had booked a room in Hotel Maharaja at Paltan Bazaar. The room was decent considering I paid only ₹500 for it. Paltan Bazaar is the place in Guwahati to stay since it is right next to the train station and all buses and sumos start from here. There are also AC buses that run to and from the airport and Paltan Bazaar.
I had the evening to myself, so I took a walk and made my way to the banks of the Brahmaputra. I spent some time there and started looking for places where I could get an authentic Assamese Thali. I walked into a restaurant called Atithya and ordered a Thali. I was served the below.
When I asked about the dishes, the guy serving me rattled off names I couldn’t grasp. When I asked him to repeat it, he gave me a look to imply that I was stupid to not know these names.
Funnily enough, when I was leaving the restaurant, the guy who owned the place mentioned he did his BTech in Chennai at SRM University when I told him I was from Chennai. Of all the places to meet someone from SRM!
I didn’t spend much time in Guwahati, so I have no recommendations on places to visit. Paltan Bazaar was lively so that is worth a visit. Also, don’t forget to buy some Assam tea!
The main form of transportation in Arunachal is Shared Sumos. Sumos are a model of SUVs manufactured by Tata and the locals here use it as their mode of transportation. Buses take twice as long so Sumos become the obvious choice. You can book seats on the sumos in advance. Generally, 12 people are stuffed into a sumo.
Pro Tip: Book early and ask for seats 1,3 or 6. These are the window seats in the front and middle row. Avoid the last row at all costs! If you aren’t traveling solo, you can even book two seats for each person so that you are comfortable.
Since the journey from Guwahati to Tawang is an 18 hour drive, you need to break in-between. Most people choose Bomdila but I chose Dirang because the locals and some friends said it was a better place (It was!).
I booked my sumo through Zam Zam Travels (+91 3612639617) which has a stand near Paltan Bazaar. A ticket for myself to Dirang in a Shared Sumo cost me ₹800.
I started from Dirang around 7am in the morning. As we left Guwahati, this was the first time I saw the plains of rural Assam. Assam is flat. On either side of the road are paddy fields that stretch to the horizon.
As you get closer to Arunachal Pradesh, the Himalayas loom large in the distance — like the wall that keeps the White Walkers away. This is what struck me about the North East. Each state has it’s distinct Geography. Assam is flat while Arunachal has the Himalayas.
The entry point into Arunachal Pradesh is generally Bhalukpong but due to some issues with that route, we entered through Bharaikunda — the point where Assam, Arunachal and Bhutan meet. We actually went into Bhutan for petrol and then entered Arunachal!
I was the only tourist in my vehicle and the rest were soldiers from the Indo Tibetian Border Police (ITBP) returning to theirs posts in Dirang. We made some stops for breakfast and lunch and it was around 5:30pm by the time I reached Dirang. My driver was kind enough to find a place to stay for me. I also booked a ticket for Tawang on a shared Sumo the next day — it cost me ₹500 . Since it was dark, I couldn’t do much and went to bed early.
The next day, I rose at 5am and made my way up a hill on top of which the Thubsung Dhargyeling monastery is situated. It is a new monastery that was opened in 2017. As I walked up the hill, I could hear the throat singing and deep chants of the monks echo through the valley. It was the morning prayer. The monastery is surrounded with prayer bells that devotees spin as they walk and pray around the monastery. The monastery walls also has depictions of various Buddhist Myths and legends. I briefly attended the prayer in the temple before stepping out to enjoy a magnificent view of Dirang town.
Pro Tip: One can also stay at the guest house at the monastery though it is a bit expensive — 1000–2000 for a room. You can also camp in the Sapti valley in Dirang which is very very beautiful — something I will be doing the next time I go.
I made my way back to my accommodation and went to the taxi stand to catch my sumo to Tawang. To my bad luck, I was pushed into the back seat of a packed sumo. It was uncomfortable, to say the least.
On the way to Tawang from Dirang, one has to cross the Sela pass. The pass is located at a height of 14000ft and is very cold. It is also very beautiful. There is also a large glacial lake near the Sela pass called the Sela lake.
I had started from Dirang around 7am and I reached Tawang around 12pm. After two days of tough travel, I was finally at Tawang.
Pro Tip: There is a helicopter service from Guwahati to Tawang which takes only 2 hours and costs ₹3500. Pretty good, I would say. My suggestion would be to take it one way so that you can enjoy the views from the Sumo the other way. The only downside is that the flight is prone to cancellation at the last minute due to bad weather conditions.
Legend goes that the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, wanted to build a monastery in present day Bhutan. However, his horse went astray and he found it in present day Arunachal. The Dalai Lama then decided to build the monastery where he found the horse and called the place Tawang — ‘Chosen by Horse’.
Tawang has had historic significance for the Tibetians. The Tawang Monastery is the largest in the world outside Lhasa, Tibet. When the current Dalai Lama fled China in 1959, he spent some time in Tawang on his way to Tezpur. The Chinese also invaded Tawang during the 1962 Indo-China war. Today, there is a strong military presence in Arunachal but the army co-exists with the civilians, unlike Kashmir.
Tawang is inhabitated by the Monpa tribe. This tribe makes up a majority of this part of Arunachal and a majority of them are Buddhists in faith. Instead of Shiva or Jesus, you can see the Dalai Lama hanging from the rear-view mirrors of the vehicles in this region
Pro Tip: Tawang was so cold that my breath condensed 24/7. Temperatures reached -10°C and -15°C. If you didn’t bring enough layers, you can buy good quality winter-wear for amazing prices at the Army stores around town. (Think ₹1500 for a double layer waterproof jacket)
I was staying at Hotel Dungphoo run by Tenzin Zoipa (+91 82580 80764) who also runs an Instagram page called MyTawang.(He also arranges travel packages to Tawang if you are interested). I paid around ₹500 per night there.
The biggest challenge I knew that I would face on reaching Tawang is figuring out how to travel to the nearby tourist attractions. The other travelers in my hotel had come on their own bikes and I wasn’t confident to rent and ride one myself. A sumo for myself would cost ₹5000! Not feasible. I had reached on a Saturday and I was planning to go to Bum La Pass and Sangetsar lake on Monday. So I started walking around, checking other hotels and sumo stands to see if they knew any group that I could tag along with on Monday.
That’s when I realised that there is a bandh (a form of protest where all public services are suspended) on monday and hence, I had to go to Bum La Pass the next day. It was 3:30pm and I needed to get my permit for Bum La Pass by 4pm if I needed to go the next day. So, I rushed back to the hotel and asked Tenzin to help me using his contacts. Luckily he found a driver taking two people to Bum La Pass the next day. They got me the permit and I tagged along the next day. The driver charged ₹5500 for the vehicle and ₹500 for the permit. So split by three, I paid ₹2000 for my trip to Bum La Pass and Sangetsar Lake.
There are more than 108 lakes in the Tawang district and you can see a good number of them on the way to Bum La Pass. The bad roads make for a bumpy ride but the views are amazing. Some of the famous lakes are P TSo lake and Sangetsar lake.
Autumn was coming to an end and winter was soon upon us. This time of transition resulted in a wonderful palette of colours. It looked surreal. Some of the curves of the road, with its white snow, red leaves and green moss, looked like those pictures on those fancy calendars.
Bum La Pass by itself was nothing much. You see the border. You see a tiny Chinese radar on the other side. Apart from that it’s just an empty expanse.
After Bum La Pass, we made our way to Sangetsar lake. It also called Madhuri Lake after Madhuri Dixit. One of her scenes from the movie Koyla was shot here and the shot was of Madhuri Dixit taking a dip in the cold lake. Except it was a double. And the double died from the cold. And the lake was named after Madhuri Dixit. Go figure.
On the way to the lake, I was craving Chole Batura for some reason and an amazing thing happened. A Gurudwara on the way was having a pooja and hence were giving out free meals to everyone passing by. We were stopped by the army there and asked to eat. There was poori and chole and sabji and chawal and rasagulla and payasam and hot water. Best meal of the trip. Period.
The Sangetsar lake was formed by an earthquake which formed a hollow and submerged the existing trees and boulders. Today you can see the trunks of the trees sticking out of the lake, slowing decaying over the years. We spent some time there admiring the view and then we made our way back to Tawang.
I started for Bum La Pass around 8am and I was back by 2pm. Bum La Pass is at 15000ft and Tawang is at 9000ft. The rapid change in altitude can cause varying degrees of Mountain Sickness so make sure you are well hydrated!
Monday was the bandh so I couldn’t go anywhere using a vehicle. Due to this reason, I missed seeing the Chaksam Iron bridge and the Tribal villages closeby. However, I used that day to go explore Tawang Monastery.
Like at Dirang, I started early in the morning to catch the morning prayers. Tawang monastery is huge with a lot of houses for the monks and children and a big prayer hall. There is also a museum that you can visit.
I spent some time in the hall listening to the priest pray and watching the kids dozing off while an elder monk walked around hitting them awake.
Pro Tip: Always go to monasteries in the morning so that you can attend the morning prayers. It makes the experience more fulfilling.
I recorded the morning prayers at Tawang Monastery and you can hear it below. The constant chatter is caused by the kids. I guess children are difficult to control everywhere. These kids will carry forward the traditions and knowledge of the religion. Their development is thus, crucial to the monastery and Tibetian Buddhism.
I made my way back to my hotel after seeing the monastery and slept for a bit since the bandh prevented me from doing anything. In the evening, since it was my last day in Tawang, I wanted to eat something local and authentic. The dish that was recommended was called Charu sabzi, a curry made with Yak cheese and Bhoot Jholokia — the hottest chilly in the world! With respect to food, you get everything in Tawang — from local Monpa cuisine to American fast food. There are two cafes where travelers usually hang out — just ask your hotel reception where they are if you are in the mood for socialising. Alcohol is also very cheap in Arunachal because of low taxes. Drink up! You’ll need the warmth.
On Tuesday, I started the long 12 hour drive from Tawang to Tezpur in a shared sumo. The ride cost me ₹1050. Some operators do it for cheaper. On our way back, it had snowed around the Sela Pass and it looked beautiful covered in a blanket of snow. It was also dangerous because visibility on the roads was reduced to less than 100m. When we finally reached the plains of Assam, it felt good to be warm again, but I had already started to miss the mountains. I didn’t return to Guwahati after Tezpur and instead made my way towards the east of Assam.
I spent ₹11000 over 5 days in Arunachal to which you need to add ₹8000 for the flight tickets from your city to Guwahati. Of the ₹11000, I spent ₹4350 on transport, ₹3320 for accommodation, ₹2715 for food and the rest for miscellaneous expenditure.
That’s it about Arunachal Pradesh. If you would like to see more of my photos from my trip, go here. I hope you enjoyed it and I hope you found the information you were looking for. In Part 2 of this series, I talk about going to Kaziranga National Park and then to Majuli — the largest river island in the world.
Have questions? Leave a comment below. I’ll do my best to clear your doubts.