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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
a 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.
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!
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.
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