Backpacking through Meghalaya

Are you one of those who has a DP that says ‘If travelling was free you’d never see me again’ or whose search history is saturated with travel sites? Always dreaming of making it there someday? But not brave enough to take that first step because of budget, safety concerns, work commitments & etc? Yes, I have been there but it wasn’t until my recent dive into a backpacking adventure across Meghalaya in January 2017 that made me realize that one first step is all it takes.

Written by Chimi Wangmo,

Photos by Shraddha 

Waiting at the train station in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal.

The beauty of backpacking is in going with the flow figuring out what to do, where to stay and what to eat, thereby turning you as an independent traveler to create memories (on a budget).

We had no plan. Only the destination (or destinations rather) in mind. The excitement at the anticipation of what experiences awaited our travels made it all worth it. So, I decided to put together a simple guide for ‘backpack beginners’ starting from the Northeast of India (if ever, you feel the need to be spontaneous). If you’re thinking of taking a week off to explore mesmerizing valleys of Meghalaya but neither want to see touristic destinations nor can you trust your own judgment to go with the flow, here’s a suggested itinerary from a one-trip backpacker veteran.

When to Go There and What to Pack 

I travelled in winter with my friends, when the weather wasn’t as freezing as in Thimphu and we could still swim in those clear rivers. Monsoon, locals say, is good time to go too because that’s the time when you’ll get to see the most breathtaking waterfalls. If you’re deciding on winter do take warm clothes. Additionally pack your bag with only the necessity such as comfortable clothes, rain gear for monsoon, swim suit, sun screen, sleeping Bag, a pair of flip flops, a pair of good hiking shoes and energy bars (you’ll thank me while climbing the stairs in Nongrait).

Our host family in Guwahati.

My A-Week Itinerary

Get to Guwahati first because that’s going to be your gateway into Meghalaya. I took a train from Jalpaiguri that took five hours to reach Guwahati. A long wait with no good food at the train station but it turned out to be a comfortable journey. In Guwahati we stayed with an Indian family whom my friend knew but you have options of many budget lodges to choose from if you don’t have anyone. The hospitality we had been showered with in the form of a space to stay and best-bengali food, even though we had been strangers to the family till then, was a joyful moment to cherish and be grateful for.

Room at the By The Way Hostel in Cherrapunji.

Day 1 – Guwahati to Shilong to Cherrapunji

The following day took us from Guwahati to Shilong on an exhilarating drive through gorgeous looking landscapes instilling in me a desire for a road trip through the same route. We hired a cab so that we could afford countless stops to eat the juicy pineapples and kew (roasted corn slathered with lime) by the road side and see Umiam Lake half way to Shilong where you can boat and click pictures. After a five hour journey to Shilong, we left for Cherrapunji that evening hiring a cab that cost us Rs.1500.

Having lived in country with nothing but pointed mountains, the drive through the plateaus from Shilong to Cherrapunji was spellbinding. You could see the depth of the valleys on either side of you. Having reached Cherrapunji by 5pm (2 hour drive) we checked into ‘By The Way Hostel’ which was reviewed perfect for backpackers on TripAdviser. Impeccable indeed costing us Nu 200 per person for a night and we had fellow hostelliers with whom we chatted in the wee hours of the night over a cup of chai.

The Iron Bridge on the way to the Living Tree Bridge in Nongriat.

Day 2 – Cherrapunji to Nongriat 

With help on planning from our hostel owner, ‘the cool dude with dread locks’ (his name was difficult and he didn’t believe in sharing information for me to confirm but coming there to find out) we left for Nongriat the following morning by 7am in a hired cab (Nu 400).

A 4km drive through narrow roads that gave motion sickness we got dropped at the base of the climb to Nongriat. Few houses that formed Nongriat stood on the other side of the valley at a distance you could see. Oozing with confidence to be able to make it there soon, we started our step down the stairs in the valley. A 15kg backpack and continuous steep stairs downhill was not a good combination even to regular hikers. Before long our knees started shivering uncontrollably that you could do nothing but rest after countable steps.

Another advice is to take a good night rest before heading to Nongriat to be in shape to climb countless stairs up and down. You literally are going straight into the valley and then climbing uphill on the plateau which makes each step on those 4000+ stairs a mega strain.  Also avoid weekends as the places are flooded with local tourists which might hinder the heavenly serenity the places have to offer.

We finally made it to the depth of the valley which housed few shacks. A little detour and you could see the first ‘Living Tree Bridge’ woven from the roots of trees. The strength of it surprised me when it did not creak slightly even when we were all walking to and fro on the bridge trying to get the best shot (which we did after nearly dropping our phones in the flowing river)

The two-tiered Living Tree Bridge in Nongriat.

A young boy named Juju asked if we’d like a guide which we politely declined. However, he took us to his house on the way that sold food and we stopped for tea, boiled eggs and oranges. Having had our fill, we resumed our journey. Not surprisingly there were more stairs. Only difference was that we now had to climb them after crossing two iron bridges. An hour of strenuous hike brought us to Nongriat where we booked a room at ‘Serene Guest House’ (Rs. 300 for a person per night).

We dumped our luggage in the room, changed into our swim suit and rushed to the enticing two-tier ‘Living Tree Bridge’ a five minute walk from our rooms. The double-decker Living Tree Bridge had a pool of jade water below making it look like a scene right out of an anime movie. Swimming in the water, reading by the pool and painting were just a few things we did to pass the morning.

By afternoon we were on our way to the ‘Rainbow waterfall’ which supposedly was only an hour hike from the living tree bridge. However, after conquering 3 hours worth of stairs we couldn’t see the waterfall in sight. In short we got lost amongst the trees and stairs that we were confused ourselves whether we were searching for the source of the waterfall or actually where it falls. So you might as well ask for help if you were lucky enough to have a living soul cross your path. Beat the sun back to hostel where we met a guy from Delhi as hostel mate and a French guy cycling North East with whom we conversed on topics shelved in sub-consciousness over a cup of chai. The chai heralded a long night of debates and games with the host even joining us.

Day 3– Nongriat To Shnongpdeng Village at Dawn

The following day you will see yourself in no condition than with an urge to sleep through the entire day. But you have no choice than to trace back the 4000 plus stairs that you climbed the other day. We had to and we did it within three hours which lead us to our driver who picked us up for our sojourn to Shnongpdeng. You can make a detour to see Mawlynnong – the cleanest village in India where you can buy the local handicrafts (be warned that it’s a tourist destination and the prices are exorbitant though). But you should definitely invest Rs. 100 in getting a pic wearing their traditional dress. Also stop by Dawki which lies near the border of Bangladesh. You can boat till the border and like my friend joked you can touch the fence and boast of having your hand at least in Bangladesh.

The distance between Nongriat and Shnongpdeng wasn’t long. However, the narrow roads and heavy traffic especially on weekends made it an exhausting expedition. We were literally moving at snail speed. We checked into Halatong Guest House (Rs 250/person/night plus Rs. 90 for dinner) by late evening. It is a bamboo hut right by the side of the main road with an attached veranda on which was placed tables and chairs for our dinner. A candle lit dinner highlighted the night.

If you can drag yourself out of bed the following morning, you’ll be up at dawn to see the sunrise. The sun rays shined right through the rooftops of the shacks shedding light on the whole valley making it a picture perfect moment. Stand on the suspension bridge over the crystal clear river and watch the sun encapsulating the entire valley in wonder. After breakfast (given that you weren’t there on a Sunday because then there isn’t food since people go to mass), you can go boating (Rs. 100 per person). Do ask the guide to stop at a good spot and swim in the clear river (it might cost you a bit for the waiting time but it’s worth it). You can do zip lining for an adventurous feel. Halt the night camping by the river side (Get the materials from your host at an added cost). Cool breeze, camp fire, new friendships formed over coffee and conversation – I couldn’t have asked for a better memory.

Day 4 – Shnongpdeng to Shilong 

Ask the hostel owner to help book a cab directly to Shilong (it costs around Rs. 3000). We were in Shilong in 3 hours leaving us with ample to explore Shilong. There is the obvious list by Google of what you’d see. As a traveler and not a vacationer we enjoyed exploring the city at its low key. We walked through the streets of Shilong to the Police Baazar and went on a street-shopping spree. You can brisk along the Laitumkhrah main road– a youth centre point and check out the cafes there. Attend a live music at Café Shilong for the night and try their fresh juices and northeast menu. Visit Don Vosco Museum if you’re an art aficionado.  We spent the night at the Brail Guest House which charged us Rs. 250 for a night per person exclusive of food. They have a common kitchen with a nice seating area where guest can cook together or ask the employees to.

Day 5– Travel back Guwahati. 

After a good night’s rest and hot shower, you can go back to Guwahati either by hiring a cab or sharing a cab with other passengers to Guwahati or take the bus service from MTC bus station Shilong. I suggest to negotiate the price and hire a cab so that you can reach comfortably to Guwahati on time to find yourself a better lodge and good food.

The magnificent mountains and plateaus winding through the drive, meeting kind strangers, the adrenaline rush at the apprehension of not knowing what adventures awaited, made my backpacking trip in the Northeast of India one that I’ll definitely be trying again. The landscape and lifestyle seemed so similar yet so different to what Bhutan has to offer leaving me in awe of an unknown familiarity. Backpacking does deprive you of the comforts of a well-planned luxury vacation. However, the price you pay for these small logistic adjustments gives you rich, priceless memories that at the end of it all, traveling will have a completely new meaning – so take this chance and discover a whole world.

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