• How to Backpack NorthEast India (FAQ, Answered.)

How to Backpack NorthEast India (FAQ, Answered.)

I recently spent some time in Northeast India in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam with Holiday Scout. It’s a misunderstood tribal area of India, and when I first came here 3 years ago, was barely mentioned in Lonely Planet; it was not recommended to visit because of safety reasons.

But now Northeast tourism is growing and NorthEast India travel is safer than ever in most areas. Before I share so much about my journey there, I just want to familiarize you with the area and answer the questions that I often got about how to travel to NorthEast India. 

I will be having more articles coming up over the next month with details on the areas I visited and the amazing stuff we got up to! For now, an introduction.

Places to Visit in BomdilaBomdila
sela pass arunachal pradeshSela Pass
itanagar

FAQ: How to Backpack NorthEast India

Where is NE India on the map?

So, this little chunk of India is kind of separated from everywhere and the term NE India doesn’t refer to West Bengal (Calcutta area); it’s actually much more NE that, on the other side of Bangladesh. It’s bordered by Bhutan, China (Tibet), Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Arunachal Pradesh used to be Tibet.

Where is NE India on the map

What states of India are in NE India?

The states are called the Seven Sister States plus there are two more. The Seven Sisters are Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura. The other two are Sikkim, and Jalpaiguri Division which are in the top bit that connects them to the rest of India. Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, and Nagaland are the main ones that tourists go to.

When should you go and what is the weather like?

The best time to go to this region is October through April. Yes, that is the cold months in the Himalaya region, but this side of India gets monsoon weather outside of this and places do close down, for example National Parks which can flood.

While I was there it ranged from -2 to 18 degrees Celsius. It was cold and you need to pack appropriately. I’ll be writing a packing list soon.

Jia Bhorelli goatsbaby goat!!!

What are the hotels like and are there hostels?

Hotels are new in some areas. Some towns we went to had only one or two hotels which were built recently in the 1990’s. They do not have central heat and the heaters that you plug-in the wall can cause carbon monoxide poisoning so you cannot keep them on at night. This means you will have some cold nights. Take warm clothes to sleep in. Every hotel I was in had hot water and if a hotel did not you can ask for a bucket of hot water from the kitchen.

Homestays are another great way to go so you can get the local experience. Homestays may not have bathrooms like you are used to and instead an outhouse. There are no hostels in this area.

sangti valley

How do I get the permits to travel NE India?

You do not need permits for every state in NE India. You can freely travel in Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya (and see the Meghalaya root bridges)and Nagaland, which do not require permits for foreigners, but Indian nationals need the Inner Line Permit. At this time, Manipur is not consider safe for travelers right now.

Neither foreigners or Indians need anything for Assam or Tripura.

In Arunachal Pradesh Indians get the ILP (Inner Line Permit) while foreigners have to apply for the PAP (Protected Area Permit). They are good for 30 days, you may not get approved if you apply to travel alone, and they cost $50. I got mine through Holiday Scout so did not deal with the details. I’m very for traveling with a tour guide in this area and think that them getting your permit is one of the big benefits.

In Sikkim, Indians don’t need the INL but foreigners do.

You need to check in at the police station or FFRO when you arrive in each state whether they need a permit or not. Again, our guide took care of this and I think it was done as soon as we crossed the borders. For more details read this article.

If you are from China, Bangladesh, and Pakistan there are different rules and actually, I’m not sure you would get approval to visit. People from Arunachal Pradesh cannot go to their neighboring China. India requires Indians show a Chinese visa when they leave for China, but China won’t give Arunachal citizens visas because they think they are Chinese as they believe the Indian state is theirs. Very complicated!

How do I get to NE India?

Guwahati is the gateway of NE India. The best way to get to this area is to fly to Guwahati and go by land from there.

tawang monastery

How do I get around NE India?

You can either take a tour like I did or you can travel by Sumo. I saw local buses but very rarely in some of the more rural areas. Even if you take local bus sometimes, you’ll need a shared Sumo at some point. They are very affordable and kind of like a mini-taxi. There are no Volvo or “tourist” buses and the trains are not connected here.

The roads are INCREDIBLY bumpy and some areas don’t even have roads yet. You will be driving SO slow, maybe 30 km an hour in mountainous areas so think about that before you travel by local bus. I explored only Arunachal in detail and a little of Assam and was in the car every day for about 6 hours on average. Imagine trying to see more of the area: you’ll want a little comfort.

There are helicopter rides but they often crash at these high altitudes and are not considered safe as a form of transport.

What Language do they speak in NE India?

It is a huge variety! Each area has their own language, and many tribes speak a different language then the area they live in. Some areas know Tibetan. Kids learn some English in school and in some states they’ll speak Hindi, Bengali, Nepali, and many others.

What do they eat in NE India, is it “Indian Food?”

Some places it is Indian food but others it is Tibet food. In some areas it’s “Indianized” Chinese food. Snacks can be different like smoked rats, live caterpillars, and yak jerky. I ate momos a lot which was heavenly. On the road side at dhabbas you can have a thali or a local dish they are making, or if you really want something “100% clean” they can boil noodles and make you packaged Maggi (Ramen). Don’t forget to try an Assamese thali!

Places to Visit in Bomdila momos

Can I travel anywhere once I have a permit?

No. Even with a permit there are “approved circuits” or routes that you have to stay on. Even if you go 1 km off this route they will stop you. There are conflict zones you cannot go near. For example, borders to the other countries are conflict zones and you cannot go there. Some areas that you cannot go are dangerous anyways or the people haven’t been Westernized in any way and don’t even have roads. Many areas of military and you will see signs that you cannot take photos or enter.

What itinerary should I take?

The permit guidelines will help you set an itinerary. I haven’t been outside Assam and Arunachal so can’t go into detail on this. I would say to take a lot of time in this area if you want to see more than one state. I think that this would be difficult to fit into a “2 month backpacking India trip” because I think you need a minimum of 10 days over here to see one state. If you want to see a few states, I would recommend 20 days. If you have 3-6 months in India, then taking almost a month in this area would be an easy decision for me.

sela pass arunachal pradesh

Is it safe in NorthEast India and what are the conflict zones?

Northeast India is the area that India has a hard time governing because of the many different tribal areas and it’s being secluded from the rest of India. 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 was once dangerous, it was deemed safe to travel, and recently had a small “separatist” insurgent attack, but is still okay for travel. Confusing, right? 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 my tour guide has 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 anyways).

There have been some situations with tourists that were not safe, like hostage situations. There are road taxes that tourists may have to pay. I won’t go into all the little things, but you can read about it online. I can say that I felt safe the whole time I was there, but would skip Manipur as my guide doesn’t even take tourists there at this time.

What should I pack for the cold weather in NE India?

I wore the same skinny black jeans every day with leather ankle booties that had a small heel and a leather jacket. I was happy to look like I had a cute outfit in my photos (sorry!) I didn’t do any trekking but you can if you want and hiking boots may be advisable. You do not need “snow” clothes as in big puffy jackets and snow pants but you can bring a hat, gloves, and a scarf. It was chilly pretty much at all times. Take leggings, long thick yoga pants, and thick sweatshirts to sleep in. Bring lots of socks! I will do a packing list in detail soon.

Places to Visit in Bomdila18

Who are the main tourists who come here?

There are foreign tourists who come as well as Indian Nationals. Most of the tourists we saw were from Calcutta and areas of West Bengal. I saw very few foreigners while I was there. The places I did see them were Kaziranga National Park and Ziro Valley.

Will I see tribal people?

Yes! There are many places you can see tribal people and you can interact with them. If you have a tour guide it will be easier. They can ask if you can take photos, and will offer something like tobacco in return. They may know families that you can go in and have dinner or lunch with. If you’re there alone, especially in areas of Nagaland, they may go in their homes when you pass through and not want to speak to you.

ziro valley tribalsa woman from the Apatani tribe

What is the religion of people in NE India?

They are Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, and Donyi-Polo. Many people who were Donyi-Polo (sun and moon worshippers) have been converted to Christians by the missionaries.

Places to Visit in Bomdila monastery

Have some areas never seen tourists?

Yes. I don’t know them all but for example the far NE of Arunachal Pradesh doesn’t have roads yet and they wouldn’t be used to seeing tourists.

Are there National Parks and can I see tigers?

Yes! But tigers are NOT the main attraction to this area of the world surprisingly. It’s the endangered one-horned rhino! 2/3 of the world’s population are here! There are many National Parks: Namdapha National Park, Manas National Park, Kaziranga National Park, Orang National Park, Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, Sipahijola Wildlife Sanctuary, and Keibul Lamjao National Park. It’s great that there is so much protected land in this small area!

Endangered One Horned Rhinos at Kaziringa National Park

Do they smoke really opium in NE India?

Yes. In Nagaland the men do smoke it openly and will invite you to join. It’s not legal. I didn’t go Nagaland and didn’t see this myself, but my guide told me.

Can I go to Northeast India alone?

Sort of. Some areas you can, but others will not give permits to people traveling alone. It’s best to travel with someone anyways. Because conflicts can come from nowhere or strikes can happen, you could find yourself stuck somewhere for a while and it would be better not to be alone.

If you’re headed to India, you can also check out my Guide to India which is a 100,000-word ebook with 6 years of travel knowledge – it will make sure you have the most epic trip. Read more about it here.

 

2018-05-12T21:09:43+00:00

About the Author:

Rachel Jones left a career in nursing and lived on the beaches of Goa, India for the five years. Now she lives in Mexico where she gives advice on the 40+ countries she’s visited in the last 10 years. She’s the author of two India travel e-books: Guide to India and Insider’s Guide to Goa. Her blog, Hippie in Heels, like its name, is a contradiction combining off-beat adventurous places with glamorous and bespoke travel. Hippie in Heels has been featured in ELLE, Marie Claire, Grazia, and Cosmopolitan magazines. She’s a writer for Bravo TV.

49 Comments

  1. venus john December 14, 2015 at 11:51 pm - Reply

    thanks for all the info…strange and a bit scary..

  2. Deb Che December 14, 2015 at 11:59 pm - Reply

    Hi Rachel, I’ve been following you for a while now and I’m happy to say that I am currently planning my first trip to India! Unlike you though, this will be a family trip and we will only be visiting for a very brief period this time around. I love seeing your pictures, since they’re of places I’ve never been to before. I’ll be emailing you shortly about a specific question I have about travelling in India. Thanks in advance!

    • Rachel Jones December 18, 2015 at 11:25 am - Reply

      Great! :) I hope you have the perfect family trip.

  3. Jitaditya December 15, 2015 at 4:49 am - Reply

    I guess you can spare a few days in Meghalaya next time… much easier to reach from Guwahati and quite a few notable destinations…
    Also, if you visit in winter, you can catch scores of Migratory birds in all the national parks…

  4. Kirk Beiser December 15, 2015 at 6:22 am - Reply

    This is exactly the kind of travel that I want to do in India. It won’t happen in the next few years but I am pinning this for future reference. Awesome.

    • Rachel Jones December 18, 2015 at 11:26 am - Reply

      Good! It’s honestly the coolest thing I’ve done in India so far.

  5. Damanbha Lyngdoh December 18, 2015 at 5:29 pm - Reply

    If you happen to come over to the Northeast again and if you visit Meghalaya (the abode of clouds), then do come during the monsoon if you want to experience how it feels to be in the place with the highest amount of rainfall on Earth (Place is locally called Sohra else known as Cherrapunjee), sacred groves, root bridges, etc. Moreover, you will get a glimpse of the Matrilineal Culture prevailing here.

  6. Himsa Narzari December 18, 2015 at 5:30 pm - Reply

    Tourists are most welcome here in the states of North East India. Anyone wants to gather some information about the area before planning to visit NE India, you are most welcome. I am from Assam and I have friends almost in all the North East States. So feel free to ask or you can email me here himsa.narzari@gmail.com anytime so that we can help you plan better.

    Thank you for sharing Rachel Jones.

  7. Fred December 18, 2015 at 5:53 pm - Reply

    Hi I would just like to point out that Indian nationals do not need Inner Line Permit to visit Meghalaya and foreigners as well can travel freely in our state. All are welcome to visit us. :)

  8. Partha Das December 18, 2015 at 8:15 pm - Reply

    Do Explore Guwahati (Assam) and Meghalaya. Meghalaya’s capital city is Shillong about 103 kms from Guwahati. Its one of the most scenic places in NE India. Next is Cherrapunjee (the place with world’s highest rainfall). You will also find a waterfall named Nohkalikai Falls which you will find on your way to Cherrapunjee. Talking about Guwahati,well its a place of historical interest (sort of). There are numerous temples of the 15th century or so. Balaji Temple in Guwahati is a nice place. You can make your stay in Guwahati quite well because there you will find no difficulty in accomodation. Also the island of Umananda (Peacock Island) is a must visit , afterall it happens to be the world’s smallest river island.

    • Rachel Jones December 20, 2015 at 12:21 pm - Reply

      Hi! Yes, I did stay in Guwahati only one night, would like to go back. There’s so much to see in NE!

  9. Anto Rukbo December 18, 2015 at 8:40 pm - Reply

    Hi Rachel Jones. Your article is accurate. Please meet us when you come to Arunachal again.

  10. Keith December 18, 2015 at 9:36 pm - Reply

    Hi Rachel, Was a good read! I am from Shillong and travel a lot all over the NE Region. From what i gather, your guide has not been to Manipur, and like all tourists, takes what is written in tour-guide-books as a reality without 1st hand knowledge. If you are culturally inclined, you will have the best time in Manipur besides it being a safe & friendly place for tourists. Yes there are many places in the region to discover. Happy Travels :)

    • Rachel Jones December 20, 2015 at 12:22 pm - Reply

      He has been, but recently says it’s not as safe. I trust his opinion on the matter as he is from NE :) but, like many places it’s based on personal opinion.

      • Keith December 20, 2015 at 1:25 pm - Reply

        Shillong is in Meghalay which is in the NE too Rachel :) I travel the region and Manipur all the time, have taken many western musicians & friends there too hence my comment. Anyways all good!

  11. Partha December 19, 2015 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    I belong from Assam and the facts that you have shared are pretty accurate.Its sad that the mainstream India neglects this part of the country so much.There are so many places to explore.And safety is not an issue nowadays,specially in Assam,Arunachal,Tripura,Sikkim and Meghalaya.Oh ya..you should definitely travel to Meghalaya :)

  12. James December 19, 2015 at 8:52 pm - Reply

    I am going on Manipur. Let me tell you that it’s safe to be here ….. It’s all media hype that it’s not safe blah blah…. During November month , there are lots of tourist from outside India for a festival here. Polo tournament was also held.team USA, England, Australia, and Thailand came. You need more information before that no entry tag. I wonder how your tour guide in Arunachal Pradesh declared “manipur is not safe”…

    • Rachel Jones December 20, 2015 at 12:24 pm - Reply

      He’s from NE and has traveled there. I trust his opinion & it is true they are in an unrest at the moment. It’s personal opinion whether you want to go and I share my own opinion on my blog :) I’m sure you could go and have no problem, but it would be irresponsible for me to pretend it’s all rainbows and butterflies there.

      • James December 20, 2015 at 12:32 pm - Reply

        Being a traveller your opinion matters alot so I just want you to collect more information before a tag. And NE is a collection of states . and he is from NE doesn’t make sense. AP is a far place ..i mean very far place. I really doupt he had been here or near manipur…Yes, its all personal choice to choose a destination. You are more than welcome here and you won’t regret. Soon there will be a bus servicefrom here to Mandalay and Bangkok. And thanks…

  13. niki December 20, 2015 at 12:03 am - Reply

    Hi Rachel,
    Read your article.
    Nice to see that you are trying to bring the beuties of northeast in limelight.
    However, whatever you have written about Manipur is not true and very negative.
    You cannot just believe everything a guide tells you and write it down. Your blog might also bring negative thoughts and affect tourism in Manipur. It is a very beautiful state with Imphal the capital, a valley surrounded by nine hills. Tourists are welcome there. It is safe too. Request you to change the wordings in your article. Thank you. Enjoyed reading your article. You sounded very natural.

    • Rachel Jones December 20, 2015 at 12:27 pm - Reply

      I promote travel in India but there are some places I wouldn’t tell people to travel like Manipur or Bihar.. of course that could offend people in those areas, but it’s personal opinion if you want to risk traveling there. It is true there is unrest in Manipur and it’s the most difficult state in NE to keep balanced. For example, an article from only yesterday http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/2015-when-peace-continued-to-elude-manipur/articleshow/50243599.cms Because people come to my blog for advice, and i’ve been told and read about it being dangerous, i tell my readers just like i would tell a best friend that it’s better to avoid at this time.

      • James December 20, 2015 at 12:37 pm - Reply

        You r making really difficult… Compare manipur with Bihar… You r really funny …instead Google some one from your country who is here or was here… And take his or her advice…. It’s long story…you will need lots of time to learn about Manipur. Just Google it and I won’t be meshing around… This is my last… Feel free to contact me on my mail, if you really need to know more

  14. Benjamin Khiangte December 20, 2015 at 3:18 am - Reply

    you should come to Mizoram if you already haven’t. Its a CHRISTIAN MAJORITY state; also dubbed MOST PEACEFUL…and oh we LOVE singing too… lots of singers and bands here.

  15. Peter December 23, 2015 at 1:06 am - Reply

    I found a lot of answers for my questions in your post. I’d been expecting long-long googling before my Indian trip, but I encountered this post and found out a lot :). You are so consistent, the article is so clear to understand. I like your live photos!

  16. Tim UrbanDuniya December 23, 2015 at 9:22 am - Reply

    Yes!! I’ve been looking forward to this post!! And the next ones! I’d love to go to Northeast India… it’s one place in the subcontinent I’ve never been. Intriguing!

    • Rachel Jones December 23, 2015 at 2:22 pm - Reply

      Awesome :) I hope you like all the upcoming ones, I have about 12! :)

  17. Zayku December 23, 2015 at 11:17 am - Reply

    Loved the writing!!
    Should upload more pics!! :-)

  18. David Muivah December 24, 2015 at 7:52 am - Reply

    Very true info about NorthEast India

  19. Kishaly Boro December 25, 2015 at 11:31 am - Reply

    i hope u like north east india… but there are much more places to visit in northeast. starting from assam, meghalaya, nagaland Manipur mizoran. ln arunachal pradesh tawang is the starting place. and there are much more place to visit in arunachal…

  20. Nane December 25, 2015 at 4:43 pm - Reply

    I am from Arunachal Pradesh and I am very disappointed how you portrayed my state. Not saying whatever you wrote is false,majority of them are true. “Arunachal Pradesh use to be tibet” sorry? How do you know that? ” Arunachal Pradesh doesn’t have roads yet”? I am from a very interior part of Arunachal Pradesh and like you said; we don’t have roads. I swing from branch to branch all the way from Delhi to Arunchal.
    I bet your guide is a Tibetan refugee settled in Arunachal.

    • Rachel Jones December 26, 2015 at 4:48 pm - Reply

      He is Monpa and Tawang & surrounding in Arunchal was Tibet at one time. You can read about it here: “Tawang was historically part of Tibet inhabited by the Monpa people” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tawang_Town & I said specifically some areas in NE Arunachal don’t have roads yet, because they don’t have proper roads with infrastructure- they are off the approved tourist circuit and in fact it wasn’t my guide who told me that, but a tour guide at a museum about the state.

      My tour guide was not a Tibet refugee and your comment is very rude. You are “disappointed how I portrayed” your state, although you admit what I say is true – what makes no sense is that I portray it as a place to visit as it’s a state I loved and have 10+ more positive articles coming about it. They are really honest and portray Arunachal as a place to travel- so I doubt you will enjoy them :)

  21. Christian Lindgren May 10, 2016 at 8:44 pm - Reply

    Thanks for a good and informative post about North East in India, Rachel.

    But you are NOT required to have a guide to obtain the permits, to visit any of the places in north east, it´s gone be a lot easier with a guide, but you can get them on your own, even Arunachal Pradesh, I did it myself with no problem.

    • Rachel Jones May 10, 2016 at 11:36 pm - Reply

      Christian, I agree as I mentioned in the article? You do not need a guide to get the permits, but as I said, for me it was one of many benefits that the tour company got it and I didn’t have to deal with it.

  22. Anjum July 20, 2016 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    Rachel you have beautifully portrayed the image of North- East India in your blog.Its a wonderful endeavor to promote tourism in this not so explored place. North -Eastern India is one of the 34 hot spots of the world with a wide variety of endemic species.So, its an attractive destination for the nature lovers. You can also plan a trip to the beautiful state of Sikkim which is a 5 hour drive from Siliguri.The Yumthang Valley (Valley of Flowers) of North -Sikkim is a beautiful site to drop in.

  23. Ed November 22, 2016 at 9:59 pm - Reply

    thank you for your write up. it was very detailed and informative as I’m planning to visit NE india in the near future. Looks like this is going to be something really challenging to do on my own :)

  24. Anonymous January 11, 2017 at 3:42 am - Reply

    Nice article. loved reading. Thanks for promoting our region.

  25. chalohoppoguy April 26, 2017 at 6:25 pm - Reply

    Hey Rachel, This piece is really helpful to excite those who have been considering a trip to Northeast India. I came across this blog while searching for articles related to hostels in the region since I moved back to the region last August (2016) and have been running my own experiential travel firm focused on alternative accommodation along with authentic northeastern experiences. But nonetheless it was worth a read.

  26. Rimjhim Borthakur February 18, 2018 at 9:32 pm - Reply

    Hi I am from Assam, northeast India. Love this article, informative

  27. AKASH P BARUA March 12, 2018 at 3:46 pm - Reply

    Hey Rachel , thanks for highlighting the North East India. Leave out Non Indians only few Indians know in details about North East India, as it is a totally ignored chapter of India, mention of which is not found in the History text books of India. ITS THE ONLY REGION WHERE MUGHAL ARMY WAS DEFEATED SEVENTEEN TIMES AND THEY WERE UNABLE TO ENTER BRAHMAPUTRA VALLEY.

    Moreover as the region is differrent ( Mostly mongoloids) from mainland India , Indians are ignorant about North East Indians history / culture and beliefs. in 2018 it can be said to be one of the most preffered destination as the area is peaceful. Some places of Wild life Interest are — Manas Wildlife Sanctuary ( Rhino ), Kaziranga National Wildlife Sanctuary ( Rhino / Tiger ), , Pakke Tiger Reserve ( Tiger ), Nameri National Park ( Angling / Water Rafting/ Birding), Dibru Saikhuwa National Park ( Wild horses/ birding) ,Namdhapha Tiger Reserve ( extensive dipterocarp forests ), . Other places of Interest in Assam are Digboi ( 100 years old OIL REFINERY and MUSEUM, Common Weath Cemetry), MAGHERITA ( COAL MUSEUM), PARSHURAM KUND , Dholla-Sadiya Bridge ( 9.25kms) , Sibasagar ( AHOM DAYS PALACES) , Majuli ( Religious ), Nambor ( Hot water Springs / Elephants). Some Places in Arunachal — Mechuka / Pasighat / Allo, Roing/ Mayodia/ Anini, Tezu/ Walong / Kibithu, Miao, Pangsua Pass ( Stillwell Road) , Bomdilaa/ Dirang / Sela/ Tawang so on…

    • Sreekumar S April 5, 2018 at 7:26 pm - Reply

      hi sir – planning to explore north east india in the month of june 2018. any chances to see 1 horned rhino during this period as most of the parks will be closed. how will be the condition of the roads as we are few bikers from kerala

  28. Sreekumar S April 5, 2018 at 7:28 pm - Reply

    aakash sir – below is the road plan. can you advise if its ok or we need to make some changes in this route. we will be covering bhutan first and then to north east india

    siliguri – darjeeling – gangtok – pheutsholing – thimpu – punakha – paro – alipurdaur – guwahati – tezpur – dirang – tawang – bhalukpong – kaziranga – majuli – kohima – imphal – aizwal – silchar – mawlynnong – cheerapunji – shillong – alipurdaur – bagdogra

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