Assam Memoirs Part 6 – The Hidden Paradise

As the six of us researched about the possible places to visit while planning our trip, one location that stood out the most. “Paradise” we muttered, as the images of crystal clear water and the shadow of the boats falling on the golden river bed 12 feet below filled our smartphone screens. Needless to say, we found ourselves heading to Dawki after being left utterly speechless by the numerous attractions in Cherrapunji.

We continued our eventful journey through the cool hills. Meghalaya never ceased to amaze me even for an instant – earlier it had been the deep green hills and the cottony white clouds and now it was the weather. We were pleasantly surprised to observe contrasting weather conditions in really short distances – within a short span of 2km, the weather had varied from cool and misty to a slight drizzle to a downpour and finally to bright and sunny. The winding roads only made the road trip feel like a roller coaster – at times we were literally flying off our seats (a sincere thank you to the seat belts!).

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We covered the distance of 95km and reached Dawki in a little less than two hours. Sandwiched between India and Bangladesh, Dawki is a tiny town in the West Jaintia Hills. The picturesque Umngot River is a natural boundary between Ri Pnar of Jaintia Hills with Hima Khyrim of Khasi hills. Crossing a narrow single-lane suspension bridge, we found ourselves close to the entrance to the shore of the Umngot River.

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The place was really pretty. Boats lined up the shore and had people lining up for the boat rides. We were slightly disheartened as the place looked significantly different from the photos we had seen online – the advent of the monsoon had caused the water to become slightly turbid. While four members of the group decided to go boating for the next hour, a friend and I decided to stay back and enjoy the view. Speaking to locals, the two of us learnt that monsoon isn’t really the best season to visit Dawki and that the river is truly a sight to behold in the winters. Even though the water was slightly turbid, the place did appear as if it was out of a fairy tale.

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After a short stroll at the river bank, we soaked our feet in the cool river water and chatted as we saw the boats go by. We noticed that although there were boats on either side of the river, they wouldn’t touch the opposite bank – the other side of the river bank happened to be Bangladeshi territory! We spent the remainder of the little time observing the tourists and chasing butterflies on our way back to the top. It was just adorable to see babies wearing life jackets staring at the river with their wonder-struck eyes.

We proceeded to the Indo-Bangladesh border after having enjoyed the beauty of the Umngot River. Managed by the BSF, the border looked nothing like what I had in mind. There was absolutely nothing to suggest that it was an international border, other than a couple of boards and a BSF outpost. A couple of BSF Jawans kept a close watch on the people from either side, urging Indian tourists to not go too close to the Bangladeshi side.

Finally losing their temper after a few requests, they sternly instructed the tourists to go back to their vehicles. This experience was truly special – visiting an international border for the first time is something that I will remember for a while (I now officially have the bragging rights to seeing two countries in a span of ten days!). We retraced our route back to the suspension bridge soon after and admired the waterfalls en route to the next place on our itinerary.

 

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Choosing to skip lunch, we proceeded to the next place on our itinerary – Mawlynnong Village. With a population of approximately 500, this tiny village was termed as Asia’s cleanest village in 2003. The level of cleanliness in the village fascinated me – there were dustbins almost everywhere and the people in the village took every effort to maintain cleanliness. The numerous simple yet elegant guest houses invited the travellers to enjoy the place a little more.

Adorned with a wide variety of flowers, the greenery elevated the beauty by several notches. After spending the better part of an hour exploring the village and the unique culture and a rather interesting-looking dragonfly, we proceeded to a place called Sky View, which is an 85 feet high bamboo viewing tower offering beautiful views of not only the village but also Bangladesh.

We finally visited one of the most popular attractions of the area – the Jingmaham Living Root Bridge. The walk to the bridge felt quite long, although the time taken was approximately 20 minutes. A number of vendors had set up their stalls on the path to the bridge, selling juicy pineapples and other sweet treats. The most innovative part about the attraction was the ticketing counter, which is set up at a very strategic location. It’s located almost at the end of the 20-minute-walk and the bridge is just out of sight. The people, having traversed such a long distance, agree to pay. Considering that the attraction is just a hundred metres ahead, they aren’t inclined to just turn around and walk away.

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The bridge was magnificent – made by the roots of the huge rubber tree, it offers a pathway across the stream. After another 20-minute walk, we began our journey back to Guwahati, retracing our journey through Cherrapunji and Shillong.

Here are a few tips which may help if one intends to visit Dawki and Mawlynnong in the near future –

  • Dawki is only 95km from Shillong and can be reached in a couple of hours from there.
  • Ideally, visit Dawki before the onset of the rainy season, that is, between October and April.
  • Boating in the Umngot River is supposed to be a real pleasure in the winters. One can rent boats on for ₹500 on an average.
  • While visiting the Indo-Bangladesh border, do listen to the instructions of the BSF Jawans and only go as close to the border as they allow.
  • Mawlynnong, Asia’s cleanest village, is not too far from Dawki and can be reached in a couple of hours.
  • The Jingmaham Root Bridge at Mawlynnong is definitely worth a visit. However, the walk is quite long.
  • From Guwahati, Mawlynnong is approximately 190km away and takes approximately 3-4 hours to reach.
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Assam Memoirs Part 5 – The Abode of Clouds

Having lost ourselves in beauty and bounty of Shillong, the six of us embarked on our journey to one of the wettest places in the world – Cherrapunji. The journey was very eventful – we listened to the latest Hindi and Punjabi songs (having heard them countless times over the past couple of weeks, I am now addicted to “Naja” and “Main Tera Boyfriend”), and the obvious crowd-pleasers “Despacito” and “Shape of You.” We reminisced our university life en route and wondered how quickly the time had passed since our exams ended, and how it felt as if the concrete jungle of Mumbai had been replaced with the natural jungles of Meghalaya. The smooth zigzag roads leading to our destination certainly had the hint of a roller coaster.

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The journey was definitely memorable – the emerald hills and the fluffy white clouds rising from them – it was the definition of picture-perfection. Having stopped to stretch our legs near the valley at Mawkdok/Dympep somewhere around 4pm, our faces lit up as we saw a person just zooming across a zip line. It was the best thing one could think of – literally gaining a different perspective and enjoying the valley from a bit closer. Determined to not let this opportunity go, I asked our driver how far the starting point was, and quickly he could get us there. We reached just in time to be told by the guys from Pioneer Adventure Tours that they had already packed up and were calling it a day. After getting to know a bit about our trip from Guwahati and how we intended to leave Cherrapunji very early next morning, they did something which really won our hearts – they reopened the ride for us. Handing us the harness and the gloves, they asked us to get strapped quick. We were to zip line to the other end and then back to a point a few metres below the start. The organizer jovially mentioned that a complimentary short trek back to the top was included in the ₹300 package.

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Helping three of us quickly with the harness and the hooks, they guided us to the edge of the hill. Listening intently as the instructor demonstrated the use of the equipment to a friend who volunteered to go earlier, I felt confident. After being hooked to the cable with the help of the carabiner and the lanyard, we were instructed to don a sitting posture and cross our legs. While we were supposed to hold the base of the trolley with one hand, the other hand was to be used for decelerating and braking. He also suggested to lean backwards to enjoy the ride more. The final instruction was to glide the braking hand on the cable and apply pressure only when we neared the white flag that had been laid out. “You should survive” he joked as I steadied myself before the ride began. I did scream a bit out of joy as the trolley picked up speed, leaning back as much as I could. The enormity of the bright valley was enthralling, and zooming past the cable with a pretty decent speed approximately 1200 feet above it was definitely a thrill in itself. As instructed, I began to apply pressure with the braking hand as soon as I reached the white flag. “Don’t press too hard or you will stop midway!” exclaimed the instructor at the other end, and I did just that. After repeating the process once more, I reached a point a few metres below the original one. Having the lanyard and carabiner detached, I noticed that another cable took us in a direction perpendicular to the original line. This one appeared longer and older. Although really tempted to give the older line a try, I had to pass up the opportunity. Cherrapunji is notorious for its foggy evenings, and our priority was reaching the hotel before the visibility became too poor. We began the mini-trek to the starting point, and after thanking and wishing the instructors the best for the future, we left for the hotel.

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The awesome team at Pioneer Adventure Tours

 

We had passed by our hotel at Sohra – Café Cherrapunji en route to the view point, and it was the perfect image of a quaint little resort that my mind could conjure. Having booked the hotel through Oyo Rooms, we didn’t know what to expect at such a short notice.

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We were pleasantly surprised as the hotel, despite being small (they had only six rooms, out of which we had booked two), was just amazing. The staff was more than accommodating to our requests, and made us feel welcome. Having spent almost the entire day travelling, we decided to relax for the remainder of it. The simple hot dinner served was certainly a contrast to the chilly evening. Having lived in near-tropical weather all our lives, three of us found the evening to be a bit too frigid. Finishing our dinner in haste, we raced each other to the nearest fireplace. After deciding the plan of action for the next day and playing a few rounds of Charades, we decided to call it a day.

The next morning was pretty hectic – we had initially planned to check out really early and explore a bit of Cherrapunji before heading over to Dawki. However, the breakfast timings at the restaurant made us revise our plans. After a decent amount of re-planning we decided to visit a few points of interest before returning to the hotel for breakfast. The first one on our list was a view point for three attractions – Mawlaikhlieh (three-headed stone), Wakhaba Falls and the Latara Falls. We enjoyed every second we spent there.

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The next attraction that we were looking forward to was that of the Seven Sister Falls. This was by far the most enthralling view we had ever come across – at first we couldn’t even get a hint of the waterfalls in the valley – the clouds appeared like a blanket of white enveloping the valley below. And ever so slowly they rose, giving us glimpses of the seven waterfalls. We understood why Meghalaya is called the abode of clouds – one could witness the birth of the clouds at the base of the valley and enjoy their rise and growth up the hills. I guess I can say that I had my head up in the clouds – I was literally on cloud nine!

 

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This was also the place where I added another language, Khasi, to my kitty, albeit with a single word – Khublei (which means “Thank you”). Lost in Meghalaya’s wondrous beauty, our hearts refused to leave. We did though, only after our driver reasoned about missing out on other amazing locations that he intended to cover. The first one on the list was the Mawsmai Cave, which is famous for its beautiful limestone formations. We all did have butterflies in our stomachs after reading a bit about and seeing the photos of the cave. Interestingly, we walked to the entrance of the caves only to realize that there wasn’t anyone at the ticket counter. It took us only a few minutes to register that the Curse of Murphy’s Law that had been haunting us a day earlier was back with a bang – the attraction wouldn’t open to the public for at least another hour and we just couldn’t wait that long! En route to the caves we happened to pass by the monoliths.

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The monoliths can be found throughout the Khasi and the Jaintia Hills, and are erected to honour the heroes who died in the battles and in remembrance of their clan members.

The Nohkalikai Waterfall, which is the tallest plunge waterfall in India, was the last on our list. With a height of about 1115 feet, it is the highest waterfall in the country. We discussed about it for a bit before realizing that we wouldn’t be able to visit owing to lack of time. We were already running late, and an extra distance of 15km one-way would have set us back by another couple of hours. We rushed to the hotel to finish our breakfast in haste so as to make up for the time lost. Little did we know that we would spend another hour after breakfast trying to sort out the miscommunication regarding the bill. Having booked the hotel through Oyo after being recommended by someone, we realized only at the time of the checkout that we had paid a LOT more than what we should have. Nevertheless, it was a lesson we learnt the hard way. With smiles on our faces after enjoying exemplary service, we began the next leg of our road trip – to Dawki.

Here are a few things we learnt from our Cherrapunji experience. I hope it will help you plan your trip out better.

  • The roads in the hilly areas might make some people uncomfortable. We found orange flavoured peppermint to be helpful in this situation. In any case, we would recommend carrying Avomine along. We also found that keeping your mind occupied with music helps.
  • Try to finish all your sightseeing before 3.30pm. Cherrapunji gets notoriously foggy in the evenings, and people do get stranded on the roads because of near-zero visibility. It becomes pretty cold too – carry warm clothing along.
  • In case you intend to go zip-lining at Mawkdok/Dympep, it is suggested to reach before 4pm. The guys from Pioneer Adventure Tours call it a day at 4pm. The ride is pretty reasonable – ₹300 for approximately 1100 feet.
  • Speaking of zip-lining, lean back, relax and enjoy the beauty of the valley. Do pay extra attention to the instructions given by the instructors.
  • We found Café Cherrapunji to be an amazing place to stay. It would be suggested to book the rooms well in advance (there are only six of them) directly with the hotel. Booking through an agency would unnecessarily increase your costs.
  • In case you are interested, there is a Maggi restaurant close by. Relishing hot Maggi on cold hilly evenings is an experience in itself.
  • The view point for the Seven Sisters Waterfalls is definitely worth a visit. Do ensure that it is a part of your itinerary.
  • Do gather information about what time the attractions open. Mawsmai Caves open to the public at 9.30am and close at 5.30pm. We reached a lot earlier before the opening time and thus had to go back empty handed.
  • Cherrapunji has more than enough attractions to keep one occupied for an entire day. If possible do visit all the attractions, and read up a bit about each one of them beforehand. It will only elevate the experience further.
  • Last but not the least… Cell phone cameras do absolutely no justice to the beauty of Cherrapunji. Don’t rely on devices to capture the visual treat – enjoy it with your eyes. Carry a DSLR if possible, along with battery chargers and power banks.

Assam Memoirs Part 4 – Scotland of the East

Fuelled by the success of our Bhutan trip, and after finally being able to book the hotel rooms, the six of us posted in Guwahati embarked on another adventure – exploring the neighbouring state famed to be the abode of clouds – Meghalaya. Learning from the Bhutan mini-experience, we hired the same vehicle and the driver.

 

The plan was to leave really early – at 5 am. I woke up groggily to find my roommate all dressed and ready to go – and it was just 4 am! After an hour and a quarter, we found ourselves in the vehicle all set to begin our journey to the sister state. A couple hours of peppy songs and amazing scenery later, we found ourselves at the Umiam Lake. Umiam, also called Barapani, is a reservoir in Meghalaya, about 15km to the north of Shillong. We were excited to visit it as it is a popular destination for adventure activities. Looking forward to boating and water cycling, we were disheartened to hear that the adventure sports activities only began at 9 am.

Nevertheless, we stopped our vehicle close to the bridge and savoured the amazing view it had to offer. We resumed our journey to Shillong, in hopes of enjoying a hearty breakfast there.

 

The early morning essentially was the proof of Murphy’s Law – whatever could have possibly gone wrong did go wrong. Almost an hour later, our guide and driver stopped briefly at the golf club for us to stretch our legs and an impromptu photo session. The peckish feeling had metamorphosed into full blown hunger by now, and the chilly Shillong breeze did little to ease it.

Our photo session ended with being shooed back to the car by some serious golfers. After some deliberation, the driver finally took us to City Hut Family Dhaba for breakfast. The first impression really wowed us – the place was beautiful, replete with a wishing well and a duck pond. The seating area was pretty good too, and the food being cooked looked seriously appetising (taking into consideration our burning hunger).

After waiting for a while for the service we were told that the breakfast service was only for the guests staying at the resort attached to the restaurant and that the restaurant would be open to the public only at 11 am. Disappointed once again, we decided to look for other options to satiate our hunger.

The next attraction our driver came up with was Ward’s Lake, which is an artificial horseshoe-shaped lake encircled by lush greenery. In addition to being one of the most scenic and popular tourist spots in Shillong, it wasn’t very crowded. Having passed up on a tempting opportunity to have Maggi at the roadside stalls, our faces lit up as we came across the Bamboo Hut Lake Café operated by the Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC). Overlooking the lake and the bridge connecting the opposite banks, the café offers a limited but rather tasty menu.

The little time we spent in the café was really memorable – it was really bright and clean, and we were the only ones there. “Aane wala pal jaane wala hai… Ho sake to isme zindagi bita do, pal jo ye jaane wala hai” the music system chimed, subtly reminding us to live every moment to the fullest. Finally, after a light breakfast, we strolled a bit in the light drizzle, watching the ducks play and people enjoy their paddle-boat ride. As we passed the roadside stalls on our way back, we vowed to gorge on hot Maggi sometime later in the day.

Heeding the advice of a couple of our colleagues, we went to Police Bazaar. Unfortunately, we couldn’t spend much time there as we were running late. We shopped quickly for handicraft articles and souvenirs for friends, and an umbrella as well (I do surprise myself at times – I really don’t know how I missed out on packing my umbrella considering that we were intending to visit one of the wettest places in the world!).

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After relishing an early chaat-lunch at Delhi Mistan Bhandar, we proceeded to the Shillong View Point, which offers an amazing view of the entire town. Looking at the queue of vehicles ahead and the estimated wait time of two-and-a-half hours, we decided to skip it and look for an alternative view point on the way, and began our journey to the next point on our list – the Elephant Falls.

The Elephant Falls are among the most popular waterfalls in North-Eastern India and were named so after a rock at the bottom of the falls resembling an elephant. Unfortunately, the rock was destroyed in an earthquake in 1897. The three-tiered waterfall is paved with stairs and has a bridge crossing the stream. The stairs lead us to the end of the bottommost tier, which is by far the most impressive amongst the three.

Being a Saturday, the attraction was crowded, and the stairs were a bit slippery at a few place. Standing barefoot on the rocks at the shore of the bottommost tier was another marvellous experience – the cool water from the waterfall makes one feel really relaxed.

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Staying true to our promise made a little earlier, we treated ourselves to a bowl of hot and spicy Maggi once back at the top, before we embarked on our journey to Cherrapunji.

The limited time we spent in Shillong was enough to make us fall in love with it. I guess I will visit Shillong again soon – half a day is too less to do justice to its amazing beauty and culture. Here are a few pointers that we learnt the hard way, and which will hopefully be helpful if you intend to visit Shillong in the near future –

  • Make a note of when each attraction or restaurant that you plan to visit open to the public. In our case, we missed on a bunch of interesting places because of this. For example, in case of Umiam Lake, the adventure sports begin somewhere around 9 am and end around 4.30pm. Similarly for the restaurant City Hut Family Dhaba, rated the #1 restaurant in Shillong, which opens to the general public at 11 am.
  • Although this one is pretty obvious, do carry extra clothes, towels, and swimwear in case you are interested in water adventure sports at Umiam Lake.
  • Unless absolutely sure of the quality of food, avoid consuming street food.
  • Ward’s Lake is an amazing place, and the Bamboo Hut Lake Café is definitely one of the places worth visiting. It’s a bright tiny café having limited but really appetising menu.
  • Police Bazaar is a decent place to visit for handicrafts, but ideally one should have a decent amount of time to explore. Plus, good bargaining skills do really work to your advantage.
  • Delhi Mistan Bhandar was a good place to enjoy some chaat at Police Bazaar. However, if you do crave some western food, then KFC, Subway, and Dominos will surely come to your rescue.
  • Although Shillong View Point is famed for providing a beautiful view of the town, I highly doubt if it’s worth a 2.5-hour wait.
  • The Elephant Falls are spectacular multi-tiered falls. The trail to the bottom of the falls is easy. I personally wouldn’t recommend the trail for elders though, as it is a bit slippery at places.

Assam Memoirs Part 3 – Local Treasures

Having embarked on our journey to Bhutan very early in the morning, we found ourselves free at around 11.30 am. With the vehicle booked for an entire day and almost half the day in hand, we wondered about the future course of action. After a brief brainstorming session, we zeroed on a couple of places outside Guwahati city.

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The first place on the list was the Purva Balaji temple located in Lokhra, about 10km from the Guwahati city. The temple is dedicated to Lord Venkateshwara and is modelled after the Tirupati Balaji temple in Andhra Pradesh. The Gopurams have been constructed as per South Indian architectural style, and the temple looks divine in pristine white. There are other temples dedicated to Lord Ganesha, Devi Padmavati and Lord Garuda in the temple premises as well. One of the facts about the temple that really intrigued me was that the idol of Lord Balaji has been carved of a single block of stone weighing about 4 tonnes, and that the doors of the temple were crafted in Chennai. After a brief stopover for lunch at the Highway City Dhaba, we resumed our journey. The food at the Dhaba was good and not too expensive either. I would suggest ordering rotis with mixed vegetable and paneer suzbis (which worked out pretty decently for us).

 

The next spot on our list was the tea plantations – we had seen a couple of them on our way to Bhutan but couldn’t stop long enough to enjoy them. The one encountered after lunch was pretty good too (and needless to say we stopped for an impromptu photo session). Speaking to the caretaker of the plantation was a pretty nice experience – Shibiriya spoke about how the plantations were owned by a family living far away. Even though language was pretty much a barrier – she wasn’t very fluent in Hindi and I didn’t (and obviously still don’t) speak a word of Assamese, I could understand a fair amount of what she meant to convey.

She hails from a very rural area and came to live at the plantation many years ago. She works hard plucking leaves from the tea plants six days a week, with Sunday being her weekly off. Her eyes sparkled as she spoke about her journey and her three children – her oldest, Mary, must have been about seven or eight when they moved to the plantation. Her son Nelson is a university student, while her youngest daughter Ushmita (who is about eight now) was born at the plantations. After giving a very brief tour about the place, she explained a bit about the process of tea harvesting and processing – how only the new leaves are harvested manually for about eight months in a year, and how the process of curling and fermentation takes place. It was really refreshing to see someone work tirelessly with so much enthusiasm.

Having visited the farm we proceeded to the next and the final part of our itinerary for the day – the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, which is the home to one-horned rhinos. The sanctuary had been on the top of our to-visit list ever since we learned about the training schedule in Assam. The scenery en route to the sanctuary was very picturesque – the lake reflected the mild orange hue of the evening sky, while the birds sat on the electrical wires running parallel to the narrow road paying absolutely no heed to the vehicles passing by. It was only a few minutes later that we realized that it wasn’t a lake at all – it was the flood water, submerging acres of sanctuary land.

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Our driver told us that the situation has improved a bit in the past few days, as the water had receded to some extent, and that the sanctuary remains flooded for approximately half the year. Having spent almost half an hour scouring every possible patch of land for a sight of a rhino, we were about to give up. We finally spotted three of them far away (We saw just the back and the swaying tail). A tiny bit satisfied with our discovery, we resumed our journey to the guest house.

We had set aside the next morning to visit the famous Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, which is one of the oldest Shakti Peeths. Having been advised to leave really early (around 5am) so that we wouldn’t have to wait in the queue for long. However by the time we were out the door of the guest house, it was already six. From the journey to the guest house on the day we landed in Guwahati, we remembered a bit about the location of the temple. The Ola driver ferrying us there mentioned casually that during the festival time approximately seven lakh people visited the temple, and that the waiting time was more than a day! We were pretty shocked with our experience too, as the wait time for the darshan for a person in the regular queue (there were three queues – VIP, Defence and regular) would be around seven to eight hours!

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Tiredness from travelling extensively the day before weighed in on us, and we purchased the VIP special darshan tickets. The sanctum sanctorum of the temple was very dark and was lit very dimly by lamps. We were done with our visit in a little more than an hour. After a brief stop at the nearby Annapurna restaurant (my suggestion for idli lovers would be to not try idli there) on the way down we visited the Bagala temple, post which we hiked down to the bus stop and booked an Ola cab from there. The rest of the Sunday was spent on catching up on our quota of sleep – Having negligible sleep over a period of 48 hours is really exhausting, especially when a good chunk of it is spent travelling.

Here are a few tips which might come in handy while exploring places in and around the Guwahati city–

  • The Purva Balaji temple is definitely worth a visit. I was wowed by the amazing South Indian architecture.
  • The Highway City Dhaba offers decent food at affordable prices.
  • Pobitora is a good place to visit during the winters. In our case, a good part of the sanctuary was flooded, and the sanctuary was closed. We were lucky enough to get a glimpse of a rhino though.
  • Personally I was a bit saddened with the Kamakhya temple experience, as the Bali ghar (the house of sacrifice) was attached to the main temple. We don’t laugh at the term “Bali ka Bakra” anymore.
  • If you do plan on visiting the Kamakhya temple, do so early in the morning, preferably on the weekdays. The wait period for the darshan on the weekends and public holidays is insane.
  • Purses and handbags are allowed in the temple while backpacks aren’t (we learnt it the hard way).
  • Preferably carry your own food while visiting the temple premises – the food in the restaurants near the temple may not suit everyone’s palate.

Assam Memoirs Part 2 – The Happy State

Finding that we had only a limited number of weekends, the six of us resolved to make the most of whatever time we had. Taking almost the whole of our first week to adjust and chalk out the plan for the weekend, we decided to explore Meghalaya and its gorgeous destinations. We were disheartened to find that our plan was made a bit too late – we ran out of hotels to stay in. Considering the suggestion of our new colleagues, we zeroed down on an impromptu trip to Bhutan instead. We wondered though if an international was possible, considering that half the group didn’t have our travel documents (Voter ID card or passport). A senior in the office came to our rescue. He mentioned about the tiny bordering town of Samdrup Jongkhar, and how one could enter through the first gate and explore a speck of what our happy neighbour had to offer.

Being overly excited about the first international trip (sans family) we woke up at 4 am and aimed to leave the guest house by quarter past five. Expecting to be greeted by a pitch-dark sky, we were pleasantly surprised to be welcomed by a bright morning. At 4 am. Despite all our efforts to leave early we ended up leaving only a little before six. We passed by IIT Guwahati en route to the tiny town of Rangia. The trip was just perfect for us – Samdrup Jongkhar is only about 110km away from Guwahati, and we estimated to cover the distance in a little less than two hours. To cure the sleepiness and add a zing to the morning my roomie started playing the latest peppy songs with a good tempo. The splendid morning scenery and the lush greenery helped greatly as well, and the butter-smooth roads only added to the comfort of our journey.

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We passed by acres of rice fields and tea plantations on the way. The funniest part of our journey was to see the cattle laze on the road – be it cows, buffaloes or goats – they walked and sat right in the middle of the two-lane road without a care in the world. We took the Rangia-Daranga Road, which took us to Samdrup Jongkhar in less than forty-five minutes. Once there, we were asked to alight and cross the border on foot.

 

It took us less than a minute to fall in love with the Bhutanese architecture. Even though the design of the buildings was pretty simple, it was very elegant – it appeared as though even the buildings seemed happy! We passed by a few prayer flag installations on the way to the restaurant. After a quick photo session, we proceeded to go for breakfast at one of the nearby restaurants called the Tashi Gasel Lodge.

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I was awestruck by the location – in addition to being a great sight itself, the place offered amazing views of the surrounding hills. We were slightly disappointed with the breakfast options available – even though the menu was expansive, all they had to offer on that day was masala omelet, sweet bread and fried rice. Finishing our breakfast as quickly as we could we proceeded to the next agenda on the list – sightseeing.

The first place we visited first was Samdrup Jongkhar Dzong. A Dzong is a fortified building with towering exterior walls surrounding a complex of courtyards, temples, monasteries and administrative offices. The Samdrup Dzong serves as the town’s administrative and judicial centre.

The intricate design on the outside and the perfectly manicured lawns really wowed us. The most interesting thing about the Dzong is that it is the newest and is made of cement, unlike other Dzongs which are made of brick or stone. Moreover, the Dzong at Samdrup is built on a flat-land, unlike the others which are usually situated on strategic cliffs or vantage points.

Soon after our brief visit to the Dzong, we went to the Rabdey Dratshang, which is the place where the monastic community of Samdrup Jongkhar resides. The monastery was inaugurated in 2004. We were mesmerised by the beauty of the monastery – right from the main entrance to the prayer hall and the houses behind, the art was very tasteful.

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I personally loved how the monastery exuded a sense of peace and calmness. Even though the weather outside was hot, the temperature in the monastery premises was pleasantly cool. We stayed there for a while absorbing its serenity, and after clicking a few photos we moved to the final part of our limited Bhutan experience – the local market.

The local market, Mella Bazaar, was the place we had been really excited to visit and shop for souvenirs. An interesting observation I made at the bazaar was that unlike their Indian counterparts the shops had really simple-looking name boards – the boards were dark (most of them either navy blue or black) and had the details written on them in white paint. I was a bit surprised to find out that most of the products in Bhutan were sourced from India – right from the vehicles to consumer products. We noticed that even the ice cream we relished at one of the shops had been produced in Guwahati itself! Among other things, we purchased prayer flags with the Divya Mantra on them – Om Mani Padme Hum. It was only after I read the meaning on Quora that I realized how beautiful the Mantra is –“In dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of the Buddha.”

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Refreshed, enthralled and enchanted we resumed our journey back to our side of the border. The entire experience had taken us a little more than three hours and gave us bragging rights such as having crossed an international border on foot (without a passport), and going to another country for breakfast.

Here are a few tips and tricks to help in case you are planning a trip to Samdrup Jongkhar in the near future –

  • The distance between the Guwahati airport and Samdrup Jongkhar is 110km. On leaving Guwahati early, one can reach Samdrup Jongkhar in a little less than two hours. The roads are pretty good.
  • Samdrup Jongkhar is the oldest town in Bhutan. To enter it from Assam one doesn’t need travel documents. However, as an Indian, if you wish to explore more of Bhutan, you would need to carry either the passport or your voter ID card. In the recent days, I have heard of the border authorities also accepting Aadhaar, but I am not sure about how accurate this information is.
  • In case you are wondering about the currency conversion between Bhutanese Ngultrum and Indian Rupee, you don’t have to worry much as the exchange rate is 1:1. Indian Rupee is accepted in Bhutan, and Ngultrum is accepted in parts of Assam near the border.
  • The route to the border town is replete with greenery and has acres of rice and tea plantations.
  • It is essential to carry some food (preferably some dry snacks) along with you for the journey
  • Preferably dress conservatively while visiting monasteries – preferably wear long sleeved shirts and full-length trousers. Avoid wearing t-shirts or short skirts. Usually, hats and umbrellas aren’t allowed inside either.
  • Please keep your phones in silent mode and talk in a quiet tone while visiting monasteries.
  • Photography is usually allowed in the courtyard of most monasteries.
    It is customary to give a small donation when visiting a monastery.

Assam Memoirs Part 1 – The Beginning

After a near-sleepless induction week, we forty trainees had the opportunity to let down our hair and enjoy a cocktail party. The day was pretty much fun – after completing the sessions with the respective department heads, we went to the venue directly from the office. The HR had planned out an event for the trainees – we were divided into six teams and asked to present alternate applications of a daily use product specified. It was a real treat watching the teams come up with insane levels of creativity making the best possible use of the resources. The next part of the evening that many enjoyed was the open bar and the dance floor. After a hearty dinner and some much-deserved chocolate mud-pie, we dispersed to our hotel.

As most of us were flying out to the training locations the morning after, we grabbed the opportunity to visit Marine Drive. I loved the experience of going there after the party with my batch mates (or should I say, soon-to-be teammates). The long walk from Nariman Point to the middle of the Queen’s Necklace was probably the thing that really helped us unwind. While being occasionally being drenched by the rogue waves crashing against the tetrapods, sitting and talking to my batch mates and was probably the best way to welcome the new phase of life.

The flight to Guwahati a day later was a pretty interesting one too – I had gotten a pretty decent window seat owing to my web check-in, and got treated to one of the most amazing sunsets. The dull dark clouds lined with a bright gold border and the crimson-orange background was definitely a sight I had not enjoyed in a while. The flight I was dreading turned out to be pretty interesting actually, as I got to the opportunity to interact with a CoBRA Commando and learnt a bit about his journey and experience. I was intrigued as he recounted his travels – hailing from rural Kerala, he had travelled the length and breadth of the country in the last three years and this trip had been his fourth to Guwahati. The commandos’ rigorous training regimen and the fitness requirements made me drop my jaw in awe – especially the fact that the commandos have to run approximately a marathon with their rifle and gear once a month, in addition to a number of varying distances in a very strict time period. They have very strict weight requirements and train really hard for the most daunting situations. It was only after talking to him that I realized how privileged and sheltered a life most of us live – he had witnessed the death of his battalion members on more than one occasion, and all he wished was to be safe and see his family at the end of each day.

The three hour flight finally landed in Guwahati long after the golden twilight had given way to a dark evening. In comparison to Mumbai, which becomes resplendent with lights as soon as the sun sets, Guwahati appeared comparatively gloomy. The HR at the Guwahati office had arranged for a cab to get us from the airport to the guest house, which arrived just as we landed. The journey to the guest house was reasonably long, and we got a glimpse of a couple of places on the way. The guest house was possibly the best place we could have stayed – overlooking the Brahmaputra riverfront, it offers the most enthralling views of the sunset.

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Splendid Evening View from the Guest House (River Brahmaputra in the background)

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Evenings at Guwahati

The office at Guwahati turned out to be a lot cooler than I could possibly imagine. After finally being able to put faces to the names I had been interacting with over the phone, I was able to see how awesome every person was. Taking time out of their hectic schedule to make six trainees feel comfortable and at home is something that I can never appreciate enough. The loveliest part of Guwahati is that everybody we meet helps us out with a huge smile on their face – being it just giving directions or acquainting us with unfamiliar concepts or just helping us plan out our weekends and make the most of our time. Right from the colleagues at the office to the customers on the field or the Uber drivers ferrying us from one point to another, everyone has made us feel more than welcome in our new environment.

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Kapili Hostel, IIT – Guwahati

In the limited time I have spent here Assam has also reminded me about the rewards of being patient and enjoying the simple pleasures of life. Along with a couple of other trainees I got stranded at the IIT Guwahati campus in the evening. The Uber driver allocated to us had forgotten his license and hence was not allowed inside the main gate. After spending a good amount of time walking to the gate and booking another cab, we found one who wasn’t fluent in Hindi. The guards at the gate were pretty kind – understanding that we weren’t able to converse in Assamese, they communicated with the driver on our behalf. When he refused to serve citing long distance, they gave us an idea about alternate modes of transport we could take. We gave Uber one last attempt and were allocated a driver who said he would be there in a short while. We decided to enjoy the picturesque evening and the beautiful campus in the meantime. Being third time lucky, not only did we get a bigger and more comfortable car than the last time, but also a cheerfully polite driver named Sharan who had the most amazing playlist ever and gave us some quick tricks and tips for navigating in the city. Well… Amazing things do happen to those who wait. Speaking of which, I now eagerly await the amazing experiences that lie in store for the remainder of my stay.

Half a Week in the Hills… Ooty!

My parents and I had a layover of about a couple of hours before our connecting flight to Coimbatore. Sitting at Chennai airport at 8am flooded back the memories of the last year. This was certainly one of the most exciting moments ever – being my last family trip as a student, I was had been looking forward to it. I had spent the Indigo flight from Mumbai working on one of my class assignments, and was glad that it was on the verge of completion.

Waiting for the boarding announcement we pondered about the course of action for the day. We planned to get to Udagamandalam (or should I say Ooty) from Coimbatore, and were brainstorming about how to get there. I was an advocate of renting a car – it would give us a good deal of flexibility while travelling, and would feel like the road trips we used to take when my sister and I were kids. My parents were more interested in hiring the services of a driver, as it would give my dad an opportunity to sit back and relax. After a brief discussion, we agreed on renting a Hyundai i20 from Zoomcars for the next 3 days and made the payment en route to the aero-bridge.

Having finished the remainder of my assignment during the connecting Indigo flight, I was relieved. It was heartening to see the coconut plantations from the airplane window as we began our descent at Coimbatore. A little while later we were greeted by the tropical South-Indian weather as we made our way to the baggage claim. Since the Zoomcars request processing time is approximately three hours (we had booked the vehicle at 9am), we found ourselves with a little less than two hours to kill. My sister joined us in the meantime, and we had a short breakfast comprising of ready-to-eat noodles and ice-creams from the general store outside the airport. Little did we know about the adventures that lay ahead of us!

After getting picked up by the Zoomcars representative, we headed to their nearest depot. Having completed all the formalities, we found ourselves driving to the Adiyogi Statue twenty minutes later. We had been looking forward to visiting since we saw the unveiling ceremony on TV, and our trip to Ooty was the best opportunity we could possibly think of. Google Maps had become our best friend, as the hour-long journey to the statue was really eventful – we found ourselves passing by fields of coconut trees, and small patches of land blooming with yellow and orange marigolds. A couple of bridges and a few narrow roads later, we found ourselves at the entrance of the parking lot.

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The Adiyogi looked majestic – the peace, coolness and serenity one feels after regularly practising yoga was clearly visible on His face, and definitely was a stark contrast to the punishing Coimbatore afternoon. We spent some time there, and after a pradakshina of the statue we were ready to head to the next place on our itinerary – a restaurant before beginning the journey to Ooty.

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Getting the car out of the parking spot was certainly the most hilarious part of the trip. The gearbox of the car was slightly different from the ones dad had driven previously. Contrary to most other cars, the reverse was the leftmost gear, and one needed to press a button to activate it. Ignorant of the fact, we found it impossible to get the car out of the parking lot – it kept going ahead when we wanted to take a reverse! Ultimately mom, sis and I got off and pushed the car behind while dad kept it in neutral gear. We got stuck behind a vehicle and it was impossible to get out without reversing the vehicle – and that was when we decided to approach the driver of one of the vehicles parked there (who had been confusedly observing us ever since we began pushing the car). He found it difficult to contain his smile as he helped us out. I am sure those 5 minutes were the most entertaining minutes of his day, and that he must have laughed his heart out once we left. The next hour and a half was spent in searching for a decent restaurant that was not too crowded. The day being declared a bandh didn’t help us at all – we couldn’t find one restaurant that was open! We ultimately gave up on the idea of lunch by 4.15pm.

The journey to Ooty was by far the most memorable road trip I have had yet. And the fact that we rented a vehicle (and not hired one with a driver) made the experience so much better. From cruising on the well maintained roads to trying to find an inexistent road and retracing our path by about 4-5km, we experienced it all. We discovered during this experience that the people in the small towns here feel really happy to help others out – never before had I seen anybody so enthusiastic about guiding us towards our destination, be it a lady carrying vegetables home or a pan-shop entrepreneur! Our ascent to Ooty finally began at about 5.45pm after we finally found a small restaurant where we stopped for tea. I dreaded the ghat section because I was really prone to carsickness as a teen – however this time was something different. We rolled down the windows and took in the freshest air possible, sang along with the songs on the phone, cracked jokes, enjoyed the beautiful scenery outside, observed the fluffy clouds, looked out for monkeys, and finally witnessed the sun take the rest of the day off. The most interesting part of this journey was seeing the buses travel up and down the slope – for a bus, the speed at which the drivers drove was just insane, and the way they navigated at the blind turns was nothing less than a work of art. By the time we reached the Club Mahindra Derby Green Resort, it was dark. We missed a couple of turns and ended up adding an additional half hour to the duration of our journey.

I always look forward to staying at Club Mahindra – I love every bit of the experience, especially their hospitality (they go to extra lengths to ensure that our stay is comfortable) and the amazing food. On arrival we were greeted with hot towels, honey herbal tea, and sandalwood paste. The slightly-sweet hot tea complemented the chilly Ooty evening, and the untimely rain helped in quickening our journey from the reception to the 1-bedroom apartment (which also had a kitchenette!). The bandh interestingly proved to be beneficial for us – our room got upgraded owing to the fact that one of the guests cancelled at the last moment! We had a hearty dinner at restaurant Ascot. We were spoilt for choice when it came to dinner, as there was every cuisine we could possibly want. With minds full of eventful experiences, and tummies full of amazing food, we finally retired to our mini-apartment for the evening.

As there were no 1-bedroom apartments available for the next day, we were allotted a couple of hotel units (it’s essentially room + bathroom). We explored the area a bit in the morning before the amazing continental breakfast at Ascot. We reached the clubhouse after a bit of a climb and discovered a number of hidden gems there, including a 6-player Carrom board. The pencil sketches made by the previous guests were really interesting – it was almost homely.

We were torn between going for a trek nearby and attending the salsa class at the club – interestingly we ended up doing neither. We spent the afternoons chatting in our rooms, playing card games and relishing on the delicious alphonso mangoes that we carried with us from home. We were serious mango-vores, having consumed mangoes on almost every day of our stay.

We decided to explore the different delights Ooty had to offer us, and began with the Botanical Garden. We couldn’t even park the car the first time we went there owing to a HUGE group of  100+ people who had come to visit the garden. The next day was a similar story – we managed to get a parking spot, but couldn’t enter the park as the system was down. We gave up after waiting for more than half an hour in queue. We passed through the Tibetan market on the way back to the car park. Spotting an Ibaco icecream outlet brought the biggest smile to my face – I frequented it a lot during my stay in Chennai, and finally found an opportunity to share the amazing experience with my parents and sister. I made them the best possible ice-cream I could fathom, and we finally left the parlour feeling really full.

On the second-last day we wanted to experience breakfast at a restaurant called “The Earl’s Secret” in Ooty. Although the hotel “King’s Cliff” to which the restaurant is attached is at an enviable location, our experience was less than satisfactory. There was no coordination among the staff – we were told on phone that there would be a buffet (and even quoted the per-head price beforehand), there was none.

Dejected, we ended up going to the other Club Mahindra property: Danish Villa, where we enjoyed a nice buffet. The last night at the Club was the most eventful one – we enjoyed watching Herbie Fully Loaded and Impractical Jokers while savouring a pizza. The three days flew past us pretty quick – I only realized how much we had enjoyed only when our stay came to an end.

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The Reception

The day of our departure was another eventful one. Google Maps gave us a hard time – it showed us inexistent routes and we spent a good amount of time getting back to the normal road after being stuck somewhere uphill. We decided to stick to the advice of the local people until we reached the base of the hills. Having committed to returning the car at 10am, and did everything possible to reach the Zoomcar depot in time.

Google Maps bestowed upon us its benevolence this time, showing us routes with really smooth roads and negligible traffic. We made it to the depot in the nick of time and proceeded to have breakfast at a restaurant called Sree Annapurna near the airport after completing the formalities. Besides being affordable, the food was just amazing – the Thayir-wada (dahi wada) was the easily the star of the day, and the filter coffee was the most amazing one.

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The flight back home was interesting too. We had a three-hour long layover scheduled in Hyderabad, where we bumped into one of my cousins and his family. Coincidentally they were booked on the same flight as us, just ten rows ahead. We chatted for a while, discussing about our experiences since the last time we met (on Diwali last year), and how my cousin Yash seems to grow a couple of inches every time I meet him! Our trip to Ooty has certainly been one of the best memories of this year yet. From last minute bookings to weird Google Maps experiences, we had it all. A special thanks to the staff at Club Mahindra for making our experience amazing.

Well, for those who intend to plan a similar trip, here are some pointers that might help –

  • If you plan to go from Coimbatore to Ooty, I would highly recommend renting a vehicle if you don’t have one. We found Zoomcars to be a very good deal for approximately ₹6,500– A Hyundai i20 Elite for 70 hours and 350km (over which we would be charged ₹12/km). The fuel was included in the package as well. BTW the airport pick-up and drop service is available
  • Speaking of renting a car, ensure that you take photos of the car from all sides to make a note of any prior damage the car has withstood and share the photos with the representative.
  • Although we loved visiting the Adiyogi, it would be best if one visits the place after approximately a year or two. A lot of landscaping is going on at present, and once complete, the experience will be something different altogether.
  • Do research about the bandhs well in advance. We travelled through a number of towns, and not a single restaurant or shop was open until 5 in the evening. Carry enough food just in case.
  • Plan in advance, especially for Club Mahindra (unless you are a Violet Card holder). We were really fortunate to find a place at such short notice. The food there is just amazing, albeit slightly expensive.
  • Carry adequate warm clothes. It is always cool there. We experienced that summer afternoons in Ooty have weather comparable to Mumbai evenings in winters. Preferably carry umbrellas for the sudden untimely rain.
  • The Derby Green property of Club Mahindra overlooks the Race Course and has a number of activities for the guests. Make sure you experience at least a few of them. Avoid visiting the property in winters – it is really cold. The staff there mentioned that the guests hardly ever come out of their rooms during winter.
  • The Tibetan Market in Ooty has great fruits, if you are interested. Chocolates are also available nearby. And if you haven’t already, do give Ibaco ice-creams a try. I just love the experience.
  • Google Maps is not highly accurate in the hilly regions. Asking the local people for directions could be more helpful. We had at least three occasions where the Maps pointed us to inexistent roads.
  • On a lighter note, if you are a mangovore like us, avoid having mangoes before a road trip on an empty stomach.