Northeast India is an unexplored paradise and it's the hottest addition to the list of offbeat places. Known as the 'Seven Sisters', the Northeastern frontiers of India is a treasure chest of culture, heritage, history, traditions, natural beauty, adventures and soulful experiences.
I recently spent some time in Meghalaya, Manipur and Nagaland and I should say it is one of the most beautiful places I had seen in this country so far. The entire Northeast is like a different land because of their unfamiliar lifestyle. This uniqueness makes the place even more intriguing. The term 'Northeast India' is collectively used for geopolitical reasons, but culturally and ethnically every state is different. Thus, you possibly cannot visit all the 8 states at one go (unless that's your plan). But before planning a trip to the region, you must keep a few things in mind. Based on my trip, I have addressed the most frequently asked questions here.
FAQ's on backpacking across Northeast(NE) India
What states of India come under Northeast India?
Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura. All these 7 states put together are called as "Seven Sisters". Assam and Meghalaya are the most popular ones among the tourists followed by Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland
When should one go to NE and What's the weather like?
The best time to visit the place is from October-April. Winter is extremely cold in certain regions such as Arunachal Pradesh but it's mildly pleasant in other states. Monsoons make the journey difficult and dangerous as this part of the country receives huge rainfall.
Is it safe to travel to Northeast? What are the conflict zones?
India has a hard time governing Northeast states because of the many different tribal areas and it's being secluded from the rest of country. The reasons for fighting here are usually ethnic but also are because of the countries that border them and disagreements about land.
The conflict areas move from state to state. While Nagaland which was once dangerous was deemed safe to travel now. If you read about these places they might all seem dangerous because only the negative is shown in the news. From my experience and what locals and my taxi driver told me all areas are safe now except for the state of Manipur and some areas on the far east side of Arunachal Pradesh (but you can't get permission to go there anyway).
There have been some situations with tourists that were not safe, like hostage situations, especially in Manipur. There are more than 16 small terrorist groups in that belt. So it is best to skip Manipur to avoid unnecessary troubles. If you're asking me why I did Manipur, I had a friend working in the Army to take care of things. I can say that I felt safe the whole time I was there but if you don't know any Army officials, just skip the place for your own safety.
Is a permit required to visit the states in Northeast?
Yes. Indians do need to take Inner Line Permit (ILP) for visiting Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Mizoram. For other states in the Northeast, this is not required. It is a routine document that can be applied both offline and online.
Where can I apply offline/online for ILP?
You will need the following documents and can apply at the mentioned places in the tabular column.
1.Passport size photograph
For a detailed understanding of application process, read ILP in detail. For foreigners visiting India, you need to get a Protected Area Permit or Restricted Area Permit for visiting Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim.
How does one get to Northeast India?
The gateway to Northeast India is Guwahati - the capital of Assam and it is the most developed city in the Northeast. The best way is to fly to this city and take the land from here. It has rail connections to the rest of India (although it's a really long journey) and regular flights from Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Bangalore. There are a couple of interesting temples and museums here but you will probably mainly use it as a gateway for traveling in Northeast India.
How does one get around Northeast India?
If you're travelling in big groups, the best way is to hire a cab or rent a self-drive car. For smaller groups, you will find black and yellow taxis at the marketplace. If you're in for more adventure, you can rent a bike for the whole trip. For solo, budget travellers, taking local bus comes handy but you should also be aware that except major routes, the buses don't ply to villages that often. One word of caution here: the roads are good in Assam and Meghalaya but in most of the other places, the roads are bumpy and in some areas, there are no roads. All you can see is only dirt and mud. So take your call accordingly.
Where to go in Northeast?
Northeast India is huge and diverse and due to the long distances, poor infrastructure and difficulty in travelling in Northeast India you may want to focus on a smaller area to explore. Assam and Meghalaya are the easiest states to visit as they have the best infrastructure and no permit or registration requirements for both Indians and foreigners. Arunachal Pradesh is the most difficult state to visit due to the mountains landscape, lack of infrastructure and permit requirements. Nagaland is also starting to develop as a tourist destination but still suffers from bad roads that can make travel draining. Manipur is in the middle of a political crisis; hence it is least safe to travel.
What should be the itinerary for Northeast India?
Don't underestimate the time it takes to travel in Northeast - if you have limited time its best to focus on one area than trying to cover the whole region - travelling in Northeast India can be challenging and time-consuming. I think you need a minimum of 10 days over here to see one or max two states. If you want to see a few more states, I would recommend 20 days. Also in Arunachal Pradesh, you can't actually just go anywhere - there are government approved tourist routes that you will need to stick to whether going solo or with a tour company. Also, its best to soak in the place and go slow rather rushing to all the states.
What language do they speak in the Northeast?
Each state of NE has its own language. People speak Hindi, Bengali, Nepali, Khasi etc.
What is the local cuisine of NE?
They are heavy meat-eaters. You can even find Dominos and KFC in Guwahati, Shillong and Kohima. As you travel to the interior parts of the state, the staple food is rice and meat-curry. Northeastern people believe in eating everything from various boiled vegetables to full of protein silkworm snacks and most likeable meat pork. Northeast has various dishes to savour like Nagaland's smoked pork, Meghalaya's Jadoh - a pungent pork Pulau, Sikkim's Thukpa to Manipur's Iromba. Make sure to spruce up your journey with the delectable cuisine of Northeast.
What are the hotels like and are there any hostels?
As tourism is still in its infancy here hotels and accommodation can be lacking in quality and choice and most are not found on popular booking websites so it's better to get a tour operator to book your accommodation for you. In many places it might be a good idea to opt for a homestay which will give a better, more personal experience and also help out local people although whichever accommodation option you choose don't expect much luxury as conditions can still be basic - expect frequent power outages, bucket showers, squat toilets and sometimes limited eating options. Nagaland can also be hard for vegetarians. Also, there is no backpacker's hostel in this area.
Is the network connectivity good in NE?
Wifi is pretty much non-existent in hotels in remote areas of Northeast India unless you're staying in a 5-star property. Airtel has the best coverage but is prepared to be mostly offline while travelling in Northeast India.
Is there any special festivals to attend?
Yes. It is a good idea to visit the states of Northeast during the seasonal festivities. That way you get the opportunity to see local cultural practices first-hand. Some of the common festivals are Hornbill festival in Nagaland, Bihu in Assam, Autumn festival in Meghalaya, Ziro music festival in Arunachal etc.
If you guys have any further questions, do comment here. For visiting Bhutan and Sikkim, take a read at the detailed itinerary to must know pointers before travelling.
Northeast is one of the unexplored places that has immense beauty and culture to it. So go out and explore the place when it's at its best!