In the far northeastern reaches of the Indian subcontinent, you can find a small mountain town called Tawang. Located in a spectacular valley of Arunachal Pradesh close to the borders with Bhutan and Tibet, it is home to the second-largest Buddhist monastery in the world. Its remote location means few travellers make it there, but the astounding views along the way make the journey worth every hairpin bend in the road. This blog post will explain how to get to Tawang as an independent traveller.
It’s not an easy journey. The roads are rough, the travel time is long and the precarious nature of this region of India means a permit is necessary. However, it’s one of the greatest adventures of Northeast India and is worth all the effort and time.
If you’re wondering how to reach Tawang, this post will help explain the various transport options you have for getting from Assam to Arunachal Pradesh.
Travel permits for Arunachal Pradesh
Permits are required for travelling to Tawang and anywhere else in Arunachal Pradesh for that matter. The state is a particularly sensitive part along the India-China border and security in the region is taken extremely seriously. Indians who are not residents in the state of Arunachal Pradesh need an Inner Line Permit (ILP) and foreigners need a Protected Area Permit (PAP).
How to apply for a permit
An ILP is usually valid for 15 days and cost 100 rupees (as of 2019) and can be applied for both online and offline. You can apply online through the official website here.
For foreigners, a PAP is valid for the length of time that you plan on travelling in the state, with a maximum of 17 days. They can only be applied for offline at a designated office and cost 3500 rupees (as of 2020). It is possible to arrange one through a local travel agency in Guwahati, but this will generally cost more. The best option is to apply yourself at one of the issuing Commissioner offices:
- Deputy Resident Commissioner Office of Arunachal Pradesh in Guwahati
- Resident Commissioner Office of Arunachal Pradesh in New Delhi
- Deputy Resident Commissioner Office of Arunachal Pradesh in Kolkata
The process can take up to two days, although I managed to get a same-day turn around by arriving at the Deputy Resident Commissioner Office in Guwahati in the morning. They’re open weekdays from 10am until 5pm.
They require a photocopy of your passport and Indian visa, as well as a passport photo. They will supply a form that you need to fill out which includes information on exactly where you plan on going in Arunachal Pradesh.
Solo travellers are somewhat more restricted. As a solo traveller, you can only visit Tawang (including places on the way there), Itanagar and Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. If you can find another couple of foreigners, then you can apply for a permit together which allows travel to other parts of the state.
When is the best time to travel to Tawang?
The best time to visit Tawang is during the warm summer months from March to June. This is when the weather is pleasant and the nights are not so cold. This also means less snowfall and better conditions on the road.
An alternative good time to visit Tawang is in September and October, after the monsoon rains and before winter sets in. This can be a quieter time to explore the region while still having pleasant weather.
Winters are extremely cold in Tawang and snowfall is likely in December and January.
I travelled there in February when very few people are around at all. I had great weather with clear blue skies, but it was extremely cold, especially at night. However, this meant that prices were low and hotels were almost empty.
Read next: The Ultimate Travel Guide to Northeast India
Travelling to Tawang
Most people’s journey to Tawang begins in Guwahati, Assam. This is the main transport hub and major city of Northeast India. It is well connected to other parts of the Indian subcontinent and is the last major train station in the northeast. It also has a major airport with daily flights to all over India.
There’s not a whole lot to do in Guwahati except to use it as a base for exploring more of the Northeast region. You’ll find plenty of accommodation options to choose from, depending on your budget.
Guwahati to Tezpur
Technically, there is one public bus service direct from Guwahati to Bomdila (a town in Arunachal Pradesh). This is a rough trip that can take around 10 hours. From Bomdila, you can stay the night and then take another bus service the next day to Tawang. However, a more comfortable option is to head to Tezpur first and arrange a trip from there.
Tezpur is a major town in Assam on the bank of the Brahmaputra River. It serves as the main transport hub for reaching Tawang and other places in Arunachal Pradesh.
You have a number of options to reach Tezpur from Guwahati. There is a daily train that runs between Guwahati and Tezpur in the afternoon which takes around 5 hours. Another option is to take an Assam State Transport Corporation (ASTC) bus. They leave from the ISBT station in Guwahati with two departures in the morning and two around midday. I went on one of the morning buses which took four hours.
Tezpur has a few accommodation options, mostly clustered around the centre. I can recommend:
The Bhowmick’s Bungalow – This homestay style place has a good reputation amongst travellers. It’s pretty good value, with a nice homely vibe and friendly hosts. Check availability here.
Tezpur to Tawang
From Tezpur, you can begin your journey to Arunachal Pradesh.
You have two transport options to reach Tawang from Tezpur; public bus or shared sumo (local jeep). The bus is cheaper, slower and there is only one daily departure in the early morning around 6am. On the other hand, sumos are quicker and there are generally a few different options all leaving in the early morning around 6am as well.
With the bus option, you have to break your journey up in Bomdila, a town in Arunachal Pradesh on the way to Tawang. With the sumos, you can choose to either take a direct sumo from Tezpur to Tawang or break the journey up in Dirang. It is really up to your own preference and how much time you have for your trip.
Whichever one you choose, you should try to book your ticket the day before you plan to travel from the Tezpur ASTC bus station just south of the main bazaar area in town. You’ll find the bus ticket counter there as well as a sumo ticket counter. On the streets surrounding the station, you’ll find other small counters for booking sumos to Arunachal Pradesh, which are also fine.
I chose to take a shared jeep/sumo to Dirang and then continue the next day to Tawang. The journey is extremely long and over rough terrain and I was glad that I chose this option which allowed me to enjoy the journey.
Tezpur to Dirang
The shared sumo/jeep I took ran from Tezpur to Dirang, roughly the halfway point to Tawang.
The official departure time on my ticket was 6.30am, but it was more like 7.30am by the time we actually left the station. All our luggage was strapped to the roof with a tarp covering in case of rain. We had four people in the back, four people in the middle and three including the driver in the front.
The journey took around 7 hours with a stop at the Arunachal Pradesh border at Bhalukpong to show your permit. I was met by very friendly military personnel who had to record my information and passport in a register.
We stopped for breakfast near there and then continued driving into Arunachal Pradesh. Not long after, the landscape became mountainous and the road became a rough, bumpy roller coaster. However, the scenery was also beautiful which made up from the cramped jeep. We let a couple of people off in Bomdila and then finally arrived in Dirang.
Dirang is a quiet town with just a few hotels and basic shops. I didn’t pre-book my stay as it was a quiet travel period and I managed to just walk around and ask prices at various places. I eventually settled on:
Hotel Snow Lion – It was on the main road, just before the main centre of town and a couple of hundred metres from where the sumo dropped us. It was relatively empty when I was there but the lady was very nice. I paid 1200 rupees (AUD$24) for a large private room and dinner included.
Dirang to Tawang
I booked my ticket as soon as I arrived in Dirang for the following day. There are a couple of APSTC and sumo counters along the main road through town.
The shared jeep from Dirang to Tawang left at 7.30am.
The journey took 7 hours like the day before, and the views were spectacular (try to get the front seat if possible or at least a window seat). The road turned to rubble and dirt quite a few times and the incredible hairpin bends were stomach-churning, but the views have to be some of the best I’ve ever seen from a road.
It wasn’t too long into the day that we quickly gained altitude and the roadside around us was covered in ice and snow. This meant that we were heading up to Se La pass. The pass is marked by a beautiful decorated gate which marks the highest point on the road to Tawang at 4170m.
From there, the road descended past glacial lakes and incredibly rugged valleys. We stopped for some much needed chai just after the pass and we had a good 20 minute break to be able to take photos.
There were quite a few military check posts along the road after that, but we were never stopped. We finally reached Tawang and the driver dropped me right in the middle of the main bazaar area.
In Tawang, there are quite a few hotels scattered around town. The town itself is quite sprawled over the hillside and slopes, but the central market area is where you’ll find most restaurants and hotels, although it’s still a decent 3km walk to the monastery from there.
The monastery is free for people to roam around inside. Usually, the best time to visit is in the very early morning when the monks begin their morning prayers. You can ask someone to find out the exact time, but it’s usually around 4-5am.
Where to stay in Tawang
The hotels, in general, are not of great standard and prices are relatively high in comparison to other parts of India. Still, if you’re willing to spend a bit more on a midrange option then there are some decent stays. I recommend the following budget hotels in Tawang:
Mandrelling Inn – This is a homely four-storey place with nice hosts. The rooms are all clean and the balconies offer incredible views over the valley. Perhaps the best part about it is that it’s relatively close to the monastery, which makes for an easier early rise to catch the morning prayers. Rooms start from 1000 rupees (AU$20).
Hotel Snowland – For a place that’s right in the middle of the main bazaar area, this is a good choice. Rooms are large and comfortable and the staff are friendly. It’s close to all the restaurants and sumo stands which is helpful. Prices are around 1500 rupees (AU$30).
Dondrub Homestay – This is an extremely popular place that gets repeatedly good reviews. It has just a few rooms but they’re super comfortable and the hosts are incredibly warm and friendly. It’s in a slightly odd location, halfway between the main bazaar area and the monastery. Prices are around 2500 rupees (AU$50) per room.
Check Tawang accommodation prices here.
Budget traveller tip: It’s worth noting that in the offseason and quiet periods of travel, rates are very negotiable in Tawang. If you’re travelling in a quiet time, it’s best not to book a place before arriving and just ask for prices on arrival. This way you can compare places and bargain for a good deal.
Returning from Tawang to Tezpur
From Tawang, you have the same options to return to Tezpur as noted above; the bus with a stop in Bomdila, a direct sumo or a sumo to Dirang for the night.
I decided to do the full journey in one day back to Tezpur in a shared sumo. There are a few different sumo/jeep counters around the main market area of town and it’s worth checking them all out to get the best seat on offer as they fill fast.
I booked my ticket 24 hours before leaving, but you should do it sooner in peak travel season.
The journey from Tawang to Tezpur took 14 hours on the same road passing through Dirang and Bomdila and departed at 6am. Most drivers have similar departure times.
Once you’ve arrived back in Tezpur, you can either stay the night or it’s even possible to continue back to Guwahati. There are shared sumos from Tezpur to Guwahati available until after dark.