Indias northeasters states called the seven sisters are definitely the most unknown part of India. These states are located east of Bangladesh and geographically, more or less isolated from the rest of India. Everything here is visibly different: people, mentality, sights and climate. India and India is not the same and India’s northeast even more.
Geographical Location: East of Bangladesh and Brahmaputra’s Influence
After quite some time in India, including a longer period living there, I have to say: nothing is like the Northeast. Clocks are ticking differently here, even cities are different.
Geographically, India’s Northeast has been separated from the rest of the country ever since the state of Bangladesh was founded. During British colonial rule all seven states were called Assam but is no longer the case nowadays. The east is very close to Myanmar and, in the North, to Bhutan and China.
The area is strongly shaped by the Brahmaputra River which runs through the entire area. Three quarters of the population live in close proximity to the river. Most people stay in the more developed cities in the south and east. Many residents have tribal ancestors. The second largest area, are the mountain in the North (Meghalaya, Nagaland) that have been largely influenced by Christian missionaries.
Arriving from Guwahati and Assam
Center and most important city of the Northeast is Guwahati, Assam’s capital. When you travel northeast, you will arrive in Guwahati. Guwahati has 800,000 residents and is, for Indian standards rather small. Even the entire northeast is rather sparsely populated (45 million people in total, in contrast to 19 million in Mumbai or Delhi). Guwahati can be reached from all major Indian airports; there are tons of domestic flights available. You will not be able to find a nonstop flight from Germany, a stopover in Delhi is definitely needed. Guwahati is the gateway to all other states and cities in the northeast.
Guwahati, after all, is a more relaxed Indian city but a city like any other in India. You don’t have big problems with cab driver and rikscha drivers (very much the opposite from all other cities in India). You can find anything here: more traditional bazaars, little vegetable sellers as well as fancy shops, malls, big chain restaurants and stores, huge cinemas, restaurants and coffee houses. There are also many hotels with different standards and price ranges. You can use GS Road, which crosses the entire city and the Brahmaputra River as reference points to find your way. All in all, Guwahati makes a good beginning for India.
There are no big sights in Guwahati. Some temples and monasteries (Umanada Tempel , Kamakhaya Tempel, Navagraha Tempel). Holy temples of different religions can be found here in a big colorful mix: Madhava Temple where Buddha went to the Nirvana, Pao Monastery very important to Muslims, Hajo Pilgrimage which has five temples that are important for all five religions.
Moreover, Guwahati has three Bazaars: Paltan Bazaar, Pan Bazaar and Fancy Bazaar.
Three national parks can be found in the surrounding area: Mana National park (175 km from Guwahati), Probitora National park (40 km) and Kaziranga National park (217 km).
I would not plan too much time for Guwahati. 1 – 2 days is enough, you can recover from the trip, visit a few temples and if you are interested some Bazaars and Malls.
Things start getting interesting when to decide where to go next.
National Parks in Kaziranga and Mana
Distances are large, driving takes a long time because the streets are mostly bad. Yet, the national parks in Kaziranga and Mana are worth a visit. From Guwahati you should plan an entire day to drive there. After Guwahati, you need to drive up a mountain range, all vehicles can only move slowly, even though it does not sound that much, 200 km in India is in general a long distance, even more here in the Northeast. The further you travel from Guwahati, the worse the streets get.
Everything gets more rural, there are no more typical Indian metropolis but more “villages”. The term village might create some misunderstandings; even a village in India can have 200,000 residents. Don’t base that on the number of people living there. For Indians, a city with 5 million people is a small town. A village is rather defined by its bad infrastructure, bad streets, few hotels and that it’s difficult to reach. You need to lower your standards a bit here; many “Western” things are missing. One example is warm or hot water. It’s not available everywhere but, sometimes you find it where you least expect it. But you definitely need to accept certain lower standards when it comes to hygiene.
Close to the big attractions there are, rather surprisingly, upper-class hotels with higher standards. Target group of these places are wealthy Indians, who, in the end, don’t expect a lower standard than people from the West (Europeans and Americans).
We decided to visit Kaziranga, right at the Brahmaputra River, close to Bhutan. Visiting Bhutan in a second step would have been nice but is rather difficult, to get the Bhutan visa is very difficult.
Here you can read more about Kaziranga National Park.
The State of Assam
Kaziranga is at the edge, but still in Assam. During colonial times, Assam was the name for the entire region but nowadays it includes a much smaller area.
Two ethnic groups mainly meet in Assam: immigrated Begalis and tribals. There were certain separations of tribals (e.g. Nagaland and Meghalaya). The states as they are today have existed since 1972.
In Europe, Assam is mostly known for its tea. This is one of the tourist attractions here: tea plantations. They are everywhere Assam has the largely connected tea plantations in the world.
Except Kaziranga and Mana, there are two smaller national parks: Probitora and Orang. Another interesting thing is the huge and powerful Brahmaputra river, in Majuli you find the largest river island in the world.
Traveling here is still easily possible. The streets were partly not that good, but progress is on the way. A lot of construction work can be found anywhere, in particular around the main attractions, tourism is common. There are drivers and jeeps for the national park, and tourism is well-organised here. I think, you can easily travel here you just need to decide what you want to see.
Meghalaya: Cherapunjee and Shillong
The same counts for Meghalaya, the state south of Assam and its capital Shillong. Shillong as well as Cherapunjee (Sohra) are main attractions for (domestic) tourism. The tribals’ root bridges are interesting. Information on that Cherapunjee can be found here.
Shillong is called “Scottland of the East”. There are mountains covered in fog but also lakes and old Victorian buildings. It used to be a British hill station. Shillong Peak is on more than 1500 meters and offers a great view of the Ward Lake. Plus, there are several waterfalls in the area (one example the fourth largest in the world, Nohkalikai Water Fall).
Bengal, Sikkim and Darjeeling
Some more states, that are often counted as Northeast States are Sikkim, Bengal and the very popular Darjeeling. All these places are further west, not east of Bangladesh and are not part of the Seven Sisters. That is which is choose to do an extra group called Sikkim and Darjeeling.
Here can be found information on…
Off Assam and Meghalaya
Anything outside Assam and Meghalaya definitely makes the Northeast a place for adventurers. The not-so-good-streets become worse. It becomes difficult to move forward, there is rarely any tourism at all. But you can find more and more tribal areas that are protected which means you cannot travel at all or only with extra permit.
Arnuchal Pradesh: Has one of the most beautiful landscapes of the Seven Sisters, reaching from the foot of the Himalaya Mountains to the Brahmaputra River, also called Assam-Himalaya. A mountain state that difficult to access, with very mixed religious groups. Also strongly influence by its tribals even though China claims parts of its area.
Nagaland: largely stettled by tribals (16 different tribal groups), that are in vast majority Christians. Official language is English, but every tribal has its own language, not all of them are compatible among each other. There are four national parks here, but almost no foreign visitors. Some areas are restricted and cannot be visited by foreigners.
Manipur and Mizoram: The most eastern of the Seven Sisters and its southern neighbor form the border to Myanmar. There are mountains ranges with 3000 meter mountains (Patkai mountains) but also lowlands and valleys. No tourist development at all.
Tripura: close the Bagladesh Valley, a more communist state largely remote and secluded, mostly interesting for its landscape, can be reached by plane (airport in the capital Agartal) from Calcutta.
All these states have one thing in common: tourism is still in the very beginning. Problems of how to reach and how to move forward derive from that. Moreover, occasionally there are tribal areas that are protected, restricted or even fully closed. You should ask about these regulations right before your tour, changes come every now and then. One thing for sure: it’s not for India beginners, only for adventurers. But you can see pristine, secluded nature, quite often mountain regions of the Himalayans.
Religion in these states varies strongly: some have been strongly missionized (as bad as this is!), there are three mostly Christian states: Meghalaya, Nagaland and Mizoram. Influences here are Baptist.
If you think about going to any of these states, bring enough time and do some thinking about what kind of standard you can handle. I talk about factors of development of a county: availability of power, running water, transportation, streets, hygiene etc.
What is different in the East Compared to Other States?
The short answer is: much, basically everything. People are much more relaxed, life is more quite and calm. We were left alone, nobody followed us, nobody yelled after us, you don’t get cheated at in every corner, there were no “feelable” resentments against Whites.
There were in total fewer tourists, you are not trapped in these enormous masses of people. People seem friendly and, as a foreign guest welcome you without prejudice.
I was rarely photographed without asking (only once), nobody followed me and a very rare and outstanding thing: no men were talking to me, asking for my contact number, nobody touched me, annoyed or molested me. I, a white woman, was left alone. I have not had that anywhere in India, not even Goa.
I cannot guarantee anything for single women travelers but, I have felt save. Everything I have experienced was 100% positive; I have not though this was possible in India. You always need to be careful but I have always felt safe.
Not only women travelers have an easier life her: we could agree faster with Rikscha drivers, shopping was easier, the prices they charges were ok (of course always a bit higher for Whites, but not three times the regular amount). The bazaar had fixed prices, for me these prices were fine.
And: It’s much cleaner than in most parts of India. That came as a total surprise, I was not expecting it at all. Much less trash on the streets.
On a political level there are always some turmoils and separation movements. I find so many warnings about this online. I have seen very little of that. I think, at that point, as a visitor from Europe you have very little problems. , it’s more a domestic issue.
The Northeast was a positive surprise to me, I was not expecting this at all.