Northeast India is perhaps the country’s most underrated and incredible adventure. It’s a region that is so often overlooked by travellers because of its complicated past and its highlights are rarely promoted on any travel platform or guide. However, it’s a unique slice of Asia that is home to fascinating tribes, beautiful and varied landscapes and attractions that you can’t see anywhere else.
With limited information available online or in guide books, this is a detailed post on everything you need to know about travelling in Northeast India, including the places to add to your itinerary and how to get around.
If you’re up for an adventure like no other, then keep reading to find out why you should go to Northeast India and what to expect if you do.
About the Northeast region of India
The Northeast region of India is an oddly shaped piece of land wedged between Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China and Nepal and connected to India by a skinny corridor of West Bengal state. For a long time the region was off limits to tourists, as its precarious security situation left India’s central government struggling to control and unite the different tribes and ethnic groups.
It’s a part of the country that has been characterised by violent independence movements led by insurgent groups, drug trafficking, foreign incursions and border disputes over time. It’s also home to varied cultures and religions, from the Christian-majority Mizos and Nagas to the Buddhist Monpas in Arunachal Pradesh, as well as many tribes who still practise animism. For these reasons, the region’s seven states, known as the Seven Sisters, are India’s least visited and often most misunderstood.
Why you should go to Northeast India
I could list a hundred reasons why you should go to the Northeast, but I’ll try and summarise it for you here. Exploring this region is a true adventure and although the words ‘off the beaten track’ get overused these days, Northeast India is the epitome of what that truly means. It’s the India that most people don’t know exists. It’s far less crowded and hardly visited by foreigners and the people that inhabit the region are very different.
Moving from one state to another in the Northeast, the ethnic groups, religion, language and culture changes quite dramatically. Even within the states themselves, the individual tribes differ from place to place. The whole region is so rich in culture and tradition despite taking up such a small size on the map.
Regardless of how small the region appears, it can take months to get around to all of the areas. The landscape, and sometimes climate, is so challenging that infrastructure is limited and travelling from one place to another takes a hundred times longer than expected.
It’s certainly not for the faint hearted and I wouldn’t recommend you go if its your first backpacking trip or first time to India. From the winding mountain roads that make any stomach hurl, to the food delicacies like smoked beef heart. From the rural villages where boys carry rifles over their shoulders to the cities which get locked down when a protest breaks out. From being crammed in the back of a shared jeep for eight hours to no transport turning up at all for multiple days straight. I’m not lying when I said it was a true adventure.
However, if you’re prepared for all of this, and, if meeting remote tribes and travelling in isolation for weeks gets you excited, then the Northeast may just be the best travel destination in Asia.
When to go to Northeast India
The Northeast can be visited all year round. The main months people visit are between October and May. However, the cold winter months from December to February make some parts difficult to visit such as in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Nagaland. If you bring warm weather gear though, you should be fine.
The rainy months are from May to September, but for most of the region this hardly affects travel. Except, Meghalaya which is one of the wettest areas on earth, so expect rain for days on end in the wet season there.
Festivals in Northeast India
Many of these states also have fascinating cultural festivals, which are good to time your visit around. The most interesting of these festivals are:
First day of the lunar Tibetan calendar – Losar (Tibetan New Year) in Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh
14th April – Bohag Bihu (New Year) in Assam
5th July – Dree Festival in Arunachal Pradesh (particularly Ziro Valley)
September – Ziro Music Festival in Arunachal Pradesh
Second week of November – Wangala festival in Meghalaya
1st – 10th December – Hornbill Festival in Nagaland
December – Lossong (start of harvesting) in Sikkim
Best places to visit in Northeast India
When it comes to deciding on where to go, the seven states all have their challenges and merits and it really depends on how much time you have and what your main interests are in travelling there.
At the moment, the most visited of the seven states are Assam and Meghalaya. The rest still remain off the radar for most people and hardly any foreigner would be able to recognise the attractions or highlights in the others. I spent over three months covering all seven of the states, plus Sikkim, and I can say that they all boast plenty of sights to see.
Assam is the largest of the states and is probably the most similar to the rest of India in terms of culture, people, religion and food.
It’s the most well known of the Seven Sisters thanks to its huge tea production, but Assam also has some worthwhile sights. Kaziranga National Park is a favourite for most foreigners, however, Majuli Island on the mighty Brahmaputra River is an underrated highlight. It was once the world’s largest river island and is home to unique neo-Vaishnavite satras.
Read next: How to Get to Majuli Island
Meghalaya has risen of late as an up and coming destination in India because of its picturesque living root bridges. Deep in the jungle of the Khasi Hills is where you can hike to these root bridges made by the local Khasi people and they have become the sort-of poster child for the entire Northeast region.
You can hike to villages in the dense jungle and stay in homestays completely cut off from technology and modern luxuries. On the other hand, its capital, Shillong, is also one of the most trendy and popular cities in the region.
The last frontier of far eastern India with a precarious border to China, Arunachal is an incredibly wild, yet beautiful state. It’s home to the second-largest Buddhist monastery in the world at Tawang, which is worth all the effort of getting there, and the snow-capped mountains mean the Himalayas are not too far away.
It’s also home to fascinating tribes in the Ziro Valley, which along with Nagaland offers one of the most unique cultural experiences in the region.
Read next: How to Get to Tawang Monastery
The real tribal state of the Northeast, Nagaland is known for its fearless and still traditional tribes that inhabit the lawless border regions near Myanmar. Its rolling hills are difficult to navigate with the limited infrastructure but the rewards of spending time with some of the Naga tribes is unforgettable.
The Konyak tribe is the most well-known with villages around Mon welcoming tourists to experience some of the remaining ancient culture.
Read next: How to Get to Longwa Village
This was once considered India’s most dangerous state and, although it still sees regular protests, it has some incredibly beautiful landscapes to explore. The most striking attraction is Loktak Lake, the world’s only floating body of water and national park. The people are also incredibly welcoming and friendly, despite their national reputation and I enjoyed my time there immensely.
This small state actually boasts quite a few significant sights plus a relatively well-organised tourism department with accessible information and government lodges. At the same time, it’s also one of the least visited states in all of India and you’ll most likely not see another foreigner.
The carved faces in the rocks at Unakoti are worth seeing, plus the beautiful architecture of the Neermahal at Melaghar and the grand palace in the capital Agartala reminded me of Rajasthan without the crowds.
Perhaps the most isolated of the seven states, Mizoram is difficult to reach by road but the green, lush rolling hills makes all the long travel days seem worthwhile as the views are spectacular. It doesn’t have much in terms of sights but the people are friendly and it’s one of the only places in India where you can still see completely untouched nature.
Read next: A Travel Guide to Mizoram and Tripura
Often added on to the group of seven states in the Northeast is Sikkim. Although divided from them by a part of West Bengal, its different culture and turbulent history have led to many considering it an extra sister to the Northeast states.
Sikkim was once a mountain kingdom until it became a part of India in 1975. It has a strong Buddhist culture and many descendants of Tibetans live in the sparsely populated villages. Most of the state is designated national park, home to the third highest mountain in the world, and it’s been a completely organic state since 2016.
Read next: A Travel Guide to Sikkim
Safety and security concerns
Although the Northeast was once considered off limits to foreign travellers, it’s certainly much safer now to explore. To be honest though, the insurgent groups seeking independence, the drug trafficking across international borders, street protests and border disputes are all ongoing issues in the region.
Still, as a foreigner, you will seldom notice any of this, other than significant military presence in some areas. The locals will repeatedly tell you how safe it is. Many of them are sick of the central government and others labelling the region as unsafe or unstable and I was treated with the utmost respect and care by everyone I dealt with in my time there.
Protests, which do occur occasionally, are mostly in Manipur but also sometimes in Mizoram, Nagaland and Assam. They are often politically motivated and directed at the central government. They are generally peaceful and sometimes lead to strikes when everything comes to a standstill and people don’t open their businesses for a day or two. This is never targeted at foreigners or tourists, though, so don’t be alarmed, it can just be inconvenient to travel plans sometimes.
Drug trafficking is a major issue, particularly on the Myanmar border. However, generally as a tourist you would never encounter or see this, even if you visit some of the Naga villages like Longwa (although you will likely see drug use though).
The border region with China in Arunachal Pradesh is especially precarious, and technically, both countries do not agree on the borderline. China has made incursions there in the past, and you will notice a heavy military presence and many checkpoints on the main roads. This is why a permit is still needed to visit the state. However, unless a sudden move by China was to happen, the area has been relatively peaceful for some time now.
Politics in the Northeast is an extremely complex affair and I couldn’t possibly summarise it here and nor do I claim to fully understand the region’s politics. However, there are a few things I will note because they were significant issues that local people frequently engaged in conversation with me.
Corruption is a common political issue across all of India but in the Northeast many people brought it up with me in conversation. It’s not necessarily worse than in other states, it just often enrages people on top of other grievances that they have with the central government.
Independence struggles are still alive and well in most of the states in the Northeast. In particular, Mizoram was where I had people openly express there wishes to be separated from India. In fact, in one shared jeep ride from Lunglei to Aizawl, a man spent hours explaining to me the history of Mizoram in order to demonstrate to me that they did not belong with India.
Citizenship has recently become one of the biggest political issues in India with Modi’s controversial Citizenship Bill. While I was in Manipur, for example, the entire state shut down for two days in protest to the Bill. It’s likely to be the biggest grievance of the Northeast states in the future, although it’s unlikely the central government will make any changes.
Religion in Northeast India
Religion is an interesting feature of Northeast India. For such a small area of the subcontinent, it’s religious makeup is so varied and complex, perhaps more than anywhere else in the country.
Hinduism still dominates overall, but only by a small margin and certainly less so than other parts of India. Hinduism is the major religion in only Assam (with a huge Muslim ‘minority’), Sikkim (although the Buddhist influence is quite stark there) and Tripura.
Arunachal Pradesh is mostly Christian, although it’s also well known for its Buddhist population who live around Tawang.
Manipur is very divided between Christianity and Hinduism, with almost an equal number of both.
On the other hand, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya have a large majority Christian population, who are also very devout. You’ll find that in these three states, Sunday being a ‘rest day’ in the Christian religions is taken very seriously. You won’t be able to travel anywhere, you won’t be able to eat anywhere and you certainly won’t find any people in the streets unless they are going to church. Okay, that might be slightly exaggerated, but when I was in Kohima the capital of Nagaland on a Sunday, it was very close to this. I saw no vehicles, every shop had their roller door shut and the only place I could eat in the city was at KFC! So plan travel days accordingly.
There are also still many tribes who practise animism to a certain degree. This is perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the region, as many of these tribes have either turned to religion rather recently after the work of missionaries or developed a sort-of mixed beliefs system.
Female travellers in Northeast India
Female travellers shouldn’t be concerned about travelling here any more than they do in other parts of India. In fact, I found as a solo female that people were very welcoming and friendly towards me, perhaps even more so than other parts of the country. It might have something to do with the various religions and different cultures that can be found in the Northeast, but I certainly never felt in danger because of my gender.
In fact, people were extremely helpful in general and I often had people approach me in the streets to offer help or ask if I was okay. In the Northeast, people are genuinely kind and rarely expect money in return, which was refreshing. I think it largely came down to the fact that because the area sees much fewer tourists they are desperate to prove that the region is safe for us to visit.
In saying that, the usual travel precautions should be taken, particularly in the large cities like Guwahati and Shillong where you’ll likely find some men staring or saying rude comments to female travellers. It pays to be aware of where you are and cautious of arriving anywhere at dark, unless you have accommodation pre-arranged. In general, however, crime is not a huge issue there, although I would still be careful of your personal belongings, as you should anywhere.
It might be interesting to note, that for female travellers visiting Meghalaya and particularly Cherrapunji and the Khasi Hills is fascinating. The Khasi tribe is traditionally matriarchal and it’s a refreshing and interesting experience to witness this different culture in India. I highly recommend it.
In terms of clothing, I would keep it relatively modest and similar to what you would wear anywhere in India. I never showed my legs in the Northeast and always had them covered with either pants or a skirt. I found leggings were perfectly acceptable when hiking around the Khasi Hills and I often wore a t-shirt on warm days. A scarf is always handy for when you want or need to cover up a bit more.
Travel permits for Northeast India
Gone are the days that you need to apply for annoying permits for most of the Seven Sister states. As of 2020, there is only one state left that still requires a permit and that is Arunachal Pradesh. For the other states, having a valid Indian visa is all you need.
Arunachal Pradesh permit
For Arunachal Pradesh, foreigners are required to get a Protected Area Permit (PAP). This can be obtained from the Deputy Resident Commissioner Office of Arunachal Pradesh in Guwahati, Assam or Kolkata, West Bengal. I got mine at the Deputy Resident Commissioner Office in Guwahati. It was a fairly painless process and you simply need to answer a few questions about the purpose of travel and where you intend to go. They also require a photocopy of your passport and visa. It’s not cheap though and it costs around 3500 rupees as of 2020.
Note that solo travellers are only permitted to visit Tawang, Dirang, Bomdila and Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh. So, when applying as a solo traveller do NOT mention if you have plans to travel outside of these areas. If you want to travel away from these places, you’ll have to find at least two other foreigners to form a group to apply for a permit together.
For visiting Sikkim, foreigners require an Inner Line Permit (ILP) for most of the state and a Protected Area Permit for visiting North Sikkim and border regions. You can apply for an ILP online here or at one of the government-approved offices in Darjeeling, Siliguri, Kolkata and New Delhi.
I got mine in Darjeeling at the Deputy Commissioner Office and its a simple process which can be done on the spot. You need to bring a couple of passport photos and photocopies of your passport and visa. The ILP is free.
The borders in Northeast India are quite precarious and heavily guarded. The Northeast area is bordered with China, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh, with the China-India border in Arunachal Pradesh particularly disputed.
Before crossing into India through one of these border crossings, you should check first if you can cross with an e-visa or whether you need to have an official visa processed through an embassy or consulate. For example, the Myanmar-India border at Moreh-Tamu required me to have a proper Indian visa from my consulate at home and a Frenchman with an e-visa was denied entry.
IMPORTANT: Please note that the information below about border crossings is as of February 2020. Immigration requirements and border crossings can change frequently so it’s best to check up to date and most recent information on official websites if possible, before heading to a border.
It’s certainly not the easiest part of the country to cross overland into other countries but it is possible. I crossed from Myanmar to Manipur in Northeast India at the Moreh-Tamu border crossing. There is also a crossing between Myanmar’s Chin state and Mizoram in Northeast India at Zokhawtar-Rikhawdar, but the terrain and limited or almost non-existent public transport in that area would make it a more difficult choice.
Read next: How to Cross the Myanmar-India Border
To cross into Bangladesh, most foreigners will need a pre-arranged visa from a consulate or embassy as most crossings do not issue visas on arrival (although this changes often). People have reported getting visas in Agartala in Tripura state, or otherwise, Kolkata would be your next best option in eastern India. The Akhaura border crossing is just 3km from Agartala and is the best option for the Northeast region as there are regular trains from Akhaura to Dhaka on the other side.
There is also another border crossing into Bangladesh from Meghalaya called Tamabil, which is only 2km from the town of Dawki in Meghalaya. It’s not as popular for tourists because its close to coal and rock mines meaning that the border is mostly full of trucks.
It is surprisingly possible and easy to cross into Bhutan from Northeast India, as long as you have everything organised. As a foreigner, you must be on an organised tour approved by the Bhutanese government prior to arriving in the country. There are a few nationalities with exceptions such as Indians but generally, this rule applies to everyone.
As part of the tour you can request to cross the borders but you must be met by your Bhutanese guide at the border crossing. There are two land borders between Bhutan and Assam in Northeast India at Samdrup Jongkhar and Gelephu.
The border crossing into Nepal from India is likely to be the easiest out of all the other country options as visas can be arranged on arrival for most nationalities in Nepal. One of the most common border crossings in eastern India into Nepal is from Siliguri at Panitanki-Kakarbhitta. I used this border crossing in early 2019 and it was a breeze. Although this is technically in West Bengal, it’s easily accessible from Guwahati in Assam or Gangtok in Sikkim.
Read next: How to Cross the India-Nepal Border
As far as I know, the border crossings with China are closed to foreigners. The Arunachal Pradesh border is heavily disputed and China considers it part of southern Tibet, so there is no cross border activity between India and China there.
The Sikkim and China border at Nathula Pass in northern Sikkim is one of only three open trading posts between the two countries. However, it is not allowed to be visited by foreigners, although it’s a popular tourist attraction for Indian nationals.
Money and budget
The Northeast states use the Indian Rupee like the rest of the country. However, you’ll find that your budget will be slightly more compared to the rest of India. With a very limited tourist infrastructure around, especially for budget travellers and backpackers, hotels remain the only official accommodation options, of which choices can be limited and prices are high (even when quality is not). A standard, cheap single room goes for around 1000 rupees or AUD$20. I paid this amount time after time for many places and it seems to be a standard for cheap hotels.
In saying that, you can sometimes find cheaper options by walking around and asking directly at reception desks because a lot of hotels are not listed on sites like Booking.com. I paid as little as 400 or 500 rupees by going into a random hotel not listed online. At the same time, I was often in places where I couldn’t find anything cheaper than 1500 rupees or AUD$30, so your budget certainly won’t be like Rajasthan where you can get a dorm bed for 200 rupees (AUD$4) for example.
On a more positive note for budget travellers, food is as cheap as other states in India so you can find a good meal like a thali for about 100 rupees (AUD$2).
Transport is another slightly more expensive factor about the Northeast, simply because you often have very limited choices and sometimes the only option being a shared jeep which is more than a public bus or train. Saying that, in Tripura and Assam you can use the train network and find tickets for as little as 100 rupees (AUD$2).
The official national language in India is Hindi, but you’ll find a host of other languages within the area with some estimates declaring that there are over 200 languages between the seven states. Official languages amongst the states include English, Assamese, Mizo, Khasi, Garo, Bengali and Nepali.
However, you’ll find that a lot of people speak English, especially those who are university educated or amongst the younger generations. I had no problem getting by, although you’ll find shared jeep drivers, taxis and rickshaw drivers often speak little or no English and the same with many local restaurant staff. But basic words will be understood and most people are happy to try their best to help.
Internet and SIM card
Unlike the other far north in Kashmir where a different SIM is required, a normal Indian SIM card will work relatively well in the Northeast (although naturally in the remote areas it will be limited coverage). It is generally accepted that the best SIM to get in India is Airtel and you can pick one up in any of the official Airtel offices which are usually in the major cities. Unofficial phone shops will likely not issue a foreigner a SIM because of the paperwork involved, however, if you ask around you may find someone who will do it for you.
Otherwise, WiFi can be found in most hotels throughout the region. However, if you are interested in going to places like Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh or Majuli Island in Assam, then I would recommend you get a SIM so you don’t have to rely on WiFi.
Transport in Northeast India
Transport in the Northeast is fairly limited when compared to other parts of India. Buses and shared jeeps will be your only way of getting between most places.
The national train network mostly comes to an end in Guwahati, Assam, with the train station there a huge national hub serving many of the big cities in the rest of the country. However, it does continue to other cities in Assam and down into Tripura and I would highly recommend using it there.
Other than that, there are the state-run government bus companies which operate between most major cities and towns. They generally run to a timetable and you can purchase tickets the day before or on the day from the counters at the main bus stations.
In the Northeast, these buses are generally old, run-down and extremely slow, with the exception of Assam which has newer buses and more frequent services. However, overall the bus travel experience in the Northeast is quite memorable and certainly… an experience.
The best option for transport, and which you’ll likely have to use quite often if you plan on reaching some more remote areas, is the shared jeeps, often referred to as sumos. They are four-wheel drives that fit three people in the front, four people in the middle and four people in the back, and when I say ‘fit’, I really mean squash. If you want to have a half comfortable ride, I recommend trying to secure the front seats next to the driver, or window seats in the middle section. The back is notoriously the worst seats to get.
These jeeps tend to go to most places and congregate around a parking area or garage where you’ll also find counters that you can buy tickets from. Depending on the journeys, they usually release tickets the day before (or sometimes earlier) and it’s always best to purchase at least the day before if you want to get a decent seat.
The tickets usually quote a departure time and then a time when you have to be at the parking lot ready to board, which is usually 30 minutes before departure. Of course, this is either adhered to or not, it really depends on the driver! Sometimes they leave on time, other times they’ll leave two hours late or they’ll wait until the jeep is full which could be even longer. You’ll get the hang of it!
Food in Northeast India
The food in the Northeast is not really anything to write home about. Although India is known for its incredible food, the Northeast is not particularly known for its cuisine. You can find thalis in Assam and on many roadside restaurants where the shared jeeps stop, although they can be rather basic and just include rice, dahl and a veg curry.
In the major cities like Shillong and Guwahati you can find cuisine from all over India, including some good South Indian restaurants.
You can certainly try some interesting food in the region though. For example, Nagaland is known for its extremely spicy food, often with boiled meat as the main base. I also tried smoked beef heart in Longwa village at my homestay family, so you can be as adventurous as you like there.
Majuli Island is well known for its red rice and I had delicious red rice thalis at the local restaurants there. In Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim, Tibetan food is a big favourite with momos and soup found in most restaurants. In the Khasi Hills, I had rice with interesting vegetables from the jungle that I didn’t even know exactly what they were.
It’s best to be open to trying whatever is available as some of the small towns have very limited supplies.
Accommodation options are generally limited to hotels, as hostels are not a ‘thing’ in the Northeast. You can also find some family-run guesthouses which can be a good experience.
However, my favourite kind of accommodation and which certainly led to many of my most memorable experiences in the Northeast was homestays. There are definitely some great homestay initiatives in the region which I would highly recommend if you want to get the most out of the experience and immerse yourself in some of the most fascinating tribes and people you’ll find in Asia. They generally can’t be found on Booking.com, although that is starting to change as more tourists come to the region.
Some of the best places to try homestays include:
- Nongriat in Meghalaya
- Loktak Lake in Manipur
- Longwa Village in Nagaland