The A to Z JourneyVisiting every country in the world, one step at a time

Meghalaya, India – Home of the Clouds

The scenery is dominated by varying shades of green that extend for miles. The reassuring babble of the river is somewhere in the background. People here are soft-spoken and kind. The sounds of Khasi fill the air. Help is never far, and you are always warmly welcomed by everyone. This is Meghalaya, in the north-eastern corner of India.

The scenery is dominated by varying shades of green that extend for miles. The reassuring babble of the river is somewhere in the background. People here are soft-spoken and kind. The sounds of Khasi fill the air. Help is never far, and you are always warmly welcomed by everyone. This is Meghalaya, in the north-eastern corner of India.

An orange seller on the streets of Dawki

Interestingly, in contrast to many Indian states, Meghalaya has traditionally followed a matrilineal system where the lineage and inheritance follow the woman’s side. The youngest daughter inherits all wealth and also takes care of her parents. Best of all, I didn’t feel like an outsider as I do in most parts of India – nobody batted an eyelid when I said I didn’t speak any Hindi, but instead tried to speak with me in English (or sign-language!).

Guwahati – my first pitstop for the night

The streets of Guwahati

Northeast India is home to numerous indigenous people having their own cultures, languages, and cuisines. My first foray into this region was when I landed in Guwahati, Assam where I spent a night before heading down to Meghalaya.

I immediately felt more calm, a reduction in overcrowding and more order compared to the hectic frenzy of Chennai. It was here that I saw tuk tuks or rickshaws that were not engine-run but powered by people themselves!

I excitedly tried out a vegetarian Assamese Thali at a restaurant round the corner from my Airbnb – with Rice (Joha), Yellow and Black Dhal, Xaak Bhaji, Mixed Vegetables, Aloo Pitika (mashed potato), Khar & Pani Tenga. I also had the great luck of eating all of this on a ‘maihang’ – a special metal plate that stands on 3 legs used by nobles of the Ahoms dynasty. Deepak, at the restaurant, told me that people still have these in many Assamese homes although it is now traditionally used just for special occasions like weddings or when special guests come to visit.

Dawki Bridge and the Umngot River

Glancing down from Dawki Bridge – a suspension bridge over the Umngot River
Boating on the Umngot River

The mere mention of the North Eastern state to family and friends generated a lot of curiosity and interest. And I’m so glad there’s excitement to see and learn about this beautiful part of India. Pictures speak volumes, and it was actually a photograph of the Umngot River which my friend Kainaz sent me that opened my eyes to the beauty of this forgotten corner of the country. Once I got there, despite the grey clouds which meant sunshine couldn’t pierce through the river water, it wasn’t hard to see how clean the river was. Before coming here, my impression of rivers in India was that they were crowded, polluted, and filled with rubbish. I’m glad that the stereotype was broken here. Apart from the few tourists that were boating up and down, and the fishermen patiently positioned at various points in the river, there was no one else.

I went on a boat ride twice while I was in Dawki, in awe of the clean water, the majestic towering cliff-sides that hugged the river, and the general tranquility. The only area where I saw a lot of people was at the border line between India and Bangladesh (which cuts through the river) – many day visitors from Bangladesh come here to take photos, and enjoy wetting their feet in the river by the border. 

Wettest place in the world? Yes, that’s in Meghalaya

A town called Mawsynram in Meghalaya has the highest annual rainfall in the world. At more than 11.5 metres of rain each year, it’s almost 20 times wetter than London! The locals have adapted to this in various ways – from always leaving the house with an umbrella to constructing bridges made of living tree roots. Fortunately for me, I just saw lots of grey clouds and no heavy showers when I visited (during the relatively dry period in February). Meghalaya in Sanskrit means Home of the Clouds – quite an apt name for the state.

Came to this lookout point one day during a hike only to see it enveloped in clouds

Living Root Bridges – astonishing man-made natural wonders

The Living Root Bridge in Riwai – sustainable engineering, all the way from 1840

Ingenious members of the Khasi tribe from Nohwet village in 1840 trained the roots of ancient Indian rubber trees that were planted on both sides of the Thyllong River (River of the Gods) by weaving them into beautiful, sturdy living structures and training them to grow across the river. This then formed over about 15 years into a ‘Living Root Bridge’ nearly 30 metres long – originally designed to help villagers cross the swollen rivers in Meghalaya. Given the heavy rainfall, most wooden structures decayed easily and got destroyed in the tough monsoon seasons, so this was their natural, longer-lasting solution. Ingenious.

Krang Suri Waterfalls

Despite the cloud and mist, this magical waterfall with all of the greenery around it was almost like watching the opening scenes of a movie

Having tried to find a shared taxi from Dawki to Amlarem and then seeing that there were not enough passengers, I started walking (most shared taxis leave before 10.30AM). It wasn’t long before Sanjay – a Bengali chap who had spent several years working as a security guard in Andhra Pradesh – stopped and offered me a lift. From Amlarem village, it was a further 45 minute walk through deliciously empty fields before seeing the first glimpses of the shimmering Krang Suri Falls, surrounded by much greenery and boulders. 

Getting closer, I came across signs for ‘No Alcohol Drinking’ – which made me curious as to whether mass booze parties used to happen here once upon a time. Today there was little trace of any raucous revelry. For the first time in my life I saw ‘Selfie Danger Zone’ signs – which the security guard explained was to make sure people didn’t get carried away and slip/fall while taking selfies. Despite the clouds and mist (after all, Meghalaya is home of the clouds), seeing this magical waterfall with its jewel blue-green plunge pool surrounded by tree-covered hillsides that stretch as far as the eye can see, was almost like watching the opening scenes of a movie.

On the kindness of strangers

Meat vendors in the village of Amlarem – the majority of Meghalaya is Christian, and eats meat unlike some parts of India

There were no more shared taxis going back from Amlarem to Dawki where I was staying (a theme I was becoming familiar with…). So I started walking: 5.5 hours to get back to my guest house was long but doable. Luckily for me, a man called Rissam and his wife saw me walking alone, stopped, kindly picked me up and drove me all the way to Dawki (even though they were not planning on going that far). He said in their culture, it’s considered rude to drop people off on the side of the road on their own and leave them to walk. So despite my protests on how I could walk just fine, they made the detour for me.

While in the car, Rissam asked if I had experienced the warmth and hospitality of Northeast India. When I probed further, he told me how isolated they felt from the rest of the country. Most times when they see other Indians or look on social media, they are treated as outsiders; as non-Indians. It broke my heart to hear this. Meghalaya has different cultures, cuisines and languages – but so do most people across India. People from Meghalaya are some of the nicest I’ve met and they definitely embody the spirit of India far more than many other people I’ve seen. To me, they are most definitely Indian.

An Indian language written in Latin script? 

Khasi is written perhaps surprisingly in Latin script

It’s amazing to see how people’s faces and eyes lit up when I attempted to say a few words in Khasi (one of the local languages in Meghalaya). Perhaps surprisingly, Khasi is now written in Latin script (after the efforts of a Welsh missionary). An action that takes so little effort but can be such an amazing way to make a connection with someone. One that is an immediate source of smiles and joy. One that touches the other person more than you can imagine. And usually leads to further laughter, smiles, and more conversation. I’ve always felt much warmth and gratitude from the other person. So that has been my MO in every place I visit. 

My Khasi Phrase Book:

  • Hello! = Kumno!
  • How are you? = Phi long kumno?
  • I am fine = Magna bieng
  • Greetings / Thank you = Kubhlei
  • What is your name? = Phi kyrteng aiu?
  • Sorry = Maap

The Bangladesh Border Escapade

I often get excited when someone presents me with a challenge. I get even more excited when they say, ‘No, that’s too difficult – you can’t do that.’ The same applied when I was chatting to my family about venturing to the India/Bangladesh border near Dawki. They urged me to move with extreme caution and strongly advised me not to venture too close to the border line without a Bangladeshi visa.

But I think on some level, that spurred me on and set me a new challenge. How could I tiptoe over the border and return, without falling into trouble with the authorities? So I ventured towards the India-Bangladesh Friendship Gate one day, mildly nervous, with a photocopy of my passport. At the border control post, I met the police officers who didn’t seem too concerned – they said I was free to take photos and roam around as long as I didn’t cross over onto the Bangladeshi side.

By the India-Bangladesh Border

Now the border here is not a clearly drawn line as such, so I wandered excitedly and curiously looked at what was on the other side. Carried away with adrenaline, I didn’t hear the initial yells that started getting louder with security officers coming towards me. I had no idea if I was in trouble since my knowledge of Hindi was woefully poor. Worst of all, I thought the BSF officers were the Bangladeshi Security Force (I quickly learned BSF officers are part of the Indian Border Security Force).

Emulating my fearless mother who used charm and wit in these situations I apologised profusely to the stern BSF officers who came and brought me back onto the Indian side. While they were generally confused as to what I was doing there, I smiled and suggested we take a selfie that I could share with my family, showing my first encounter with the BSF. Within moments reprimands turned into poses, and I thanked them before walking back to Dawki, with a palpable sense of relief.

With the Indian Border Security Force after they made sure I was firmly on the Indian side of the border

#ADMINTIPS

Guwahati

An air-conditioned bus from Guwahati Airport to Paltan Bazaar (City Centre) is INR90 (£1). From Paltan Bazaar station, a bus to most places in the city costs about INR 10 (£0.1). I found a great homestay with breakfast, that was self-contained (an annex) for ~£8 per night.

Getting to Dawki

Fly to Guwahati Airport from any part of India (Shillong airport is actually closer, but there are fewer flights to Shillong than there are to Guwahati). Then it’s about 200km to Dawki, the border town with Bangladesh. To make this journey you can take a direct cab, which is faster but more expensive. When I checked in early 2019, Gozo Cabs charged INR 4600/- and estimated 6-7 hours.

Travelling solo on a budget, I chose instead to take shared taxis. The most common route is to take a shared taxi from Paltan Bazaar Station in Guwahati to Shillong followed by another shared taxi to Dawki. Each of these journeys costs about 200-300 INR (~£3) and takes about 2-3 hrs. Three lessons I learned:

1. Beware there are multiple shared taxi stations in Shillong – check that you’re at the right one for Dawki (Shillong Anjali station; could involve a 10-15 min walk from where you are dropped off). 

2. Leave Guwahati as early as possible (e.g. 7am), because the last shared taxis from Shillong to Dawki leave early afternoon (there’s no set schedule but in general most leave in the mornings, few in the early afternoon and none in the evenings – they only leave if there are enough passengers). I was very lucky to find a shared taxi that left Shillong around 2.30pm.

3. Sunday is somewhat like the Sabbath in Christian Meghalaya – Dawki virtually goes to sleep (people refer to it as the day of God). There is slim, if not zero, chance of getting a shared taxi out of Dawki on a Sunday. I luckily learnt about this a day before, jumped on one of the last shared taxis to leave on Saturday afternoon and spent the night in Shillong with an extremely hospitable Airbnb host, before finding a shared taxi on Sunday to Guwahati Airport (this too was a bit of a struggle).

Staying in Dawki

There aren’t that many places in this small village, but I came across Lamin Guest House run by Chan, who was very easygoing and helpful. We communicated over Facebook Messenger to confirm my booking for the cheapest single room with an ensuite (INR 800 or ~£8.50 per night in Feb 2019). There’s a small restaurant next to the entrance of the hotel, where I had most of my meals of plain yellow dhal and rice (easy on the tummy, no rushing for toilets).

Getting from Dawki to the living root bridge in Riwai

Hop in a shared taxi from Dawki to Shillong and get off at Pongtung (10km) – be sure to let the driver know in advance. Then get another shared taxi going to Mowlana – the cleanest village in Asia (10-15min) –  and get off in Riwai. There’s a restaurant there that does fairly decent thalis (rice with an array of curries). From there, it’s a further 15 minute walk to the bridge.

Jumping in a shared taxi with these guys after standing by the side of the road for 30 mins enroute to the Living Root Bridge in Riwai

I visited Meghalaya in February 2019

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