Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Sibsagar: An Ode to Assam’s Glorious Past

Rang Ghar - Asia's first amphitheatre at Sibsagar, India

Far in the forests of the Brahmaputra river basin exists a land that was once a powerhouse of a kingdom. Known as the Ahom kingdom, this Assamese kingdom evaded all kinds of attacks (Mughal, Burmese and mainland India) for six centuries till they finally fell to the Burmese in the early part of the 19th century and then later annexed by the British. Somehow, Asia’s first amphitheatre (Rang Ghar), a couple of palaces (Talatal Ghar, Kareng Ghar) and some other traditionally designed Ahom buildings have surprisingly stood the vagaries of time. The best part about these buildings is its architecture, which has very minimal influence from the rest of India.

Maze of bells at Shiva dol, Sibsagar, Assam, India

Today, this land is surrounded by lush forests, tea gardens, lots of agricultural tract and scenic tributaries of the mighty Brahmaputra river. And located right in the middle of this gorgeous nature is a town called Sibsagar, which literally means ‘the ocean of Lord Shiva’ and which is known for its large water tanks. This town of Sibsagar, which was formerly known as Rangpur, was the capital of the Ahom kingdom from 1699 to 1788. Today, it is an ode to Assam’s glorious past and has in its home striking marvels from the rich Ahom era. And jot just that, it is home to four amazing 18th century temples – Shiva Dol, Vishnu Dol, Devi Dol and Ghanashyam Dol that add a religious and spiritual fervor to this town.

A couple next to the ancient walls of Rang Ghar, Sibsagar, India

As a visitor, this erstwhile capital of the Ahom kingdom offers everything from rich history, stunning ancient monuments, scenic nature walks, great Assamese food, colorful street market action and a peaceful temple experience. My personal recommendations are an early morning or late evening walk around the Sibsagar water tank, a visit to the temples during Aarti time, explore the Rangh Ghar inverted boat amphitheatre and the Talatall Ghar at around sunset time and a walk in the markets post sunset.

Skyscape near Rang Ghar, Sibsagar, Assam, India

A day trip from either Dibrugarh or Kaziranga National Park is definitely recommended. If you have time, you can also spend a relaxed couple of days here too. Either ways, don’t miss out on exploring some of Assam’s glorious past!

How to get here:

Traditional Assamese cuisine - deliciousness overload

The nearest airport is Dibrugarh, though the one at Guwahati has more options and hence better connectivity. The nearest train station is Simalguri, about 16 kms away. Trains heading towards Dibrugarh and Tinsukia usually stop here. Road connectivity is decent and one can take public buses or hire cabs to reach here from Shillong, Guwahati, Kaziranga or Dibrugarh.

Where to stay:

Most of the hotel properties are located in and around the market area opposite the Shiva Dol temple. I stayed at the Hotel Piccolo and it was a comfortable mid-market hotel that offered a convenient base to explore all the sights and attractions of this city.

Other Nearby Attractions:

Carvings on the walls of Rang Ghar - Asia's first amphitheatre

There are a whole bunch of things to see and do in this region:

1) Kaziranga Tiger Reserve, which is a great getaway for a rich wildlife experience

2) Majuli island, for those interested in a unique cultural experience on a river island

3) Dibrugarh, in case you are interested in a relaxed tea holiday

4) Hoolongopar Gibbon Sanctuary, for those who are interested in seeing India’s only ape

5) Pani Dihing Wildlife Sanctuary, for those interested in a rich birdwatching experience

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Monday, August 07, 2017

Travel Photo: Decorated Pillars of Lepakshi Temple

Maze of beautiful sculptures on the pillars of Lepakshi temple, Andhra Pradesh

Last weekend, I took my motorcycle out of Bangalore after a long two year gap. I was definitely rusty, but my motorcycle was just getting the feel of its brand new engine (the old one clocked 1,65,000 kms). As it is a new engine, I cannot open throttle as yet and hence wanted to choose a destination that wasn’t too far from Bangalore and that wouldn’t tempt me to hit the gun to the metal. The destination that I had in mind was the Veerbhadra temple at Lepakshi that is located near Hindupur in Andhra Pradesh, but at just 5 kilometres from the Karnataka border.

People speak Telugu, Kannada and Hindi (owing to the heavy Muslim influence) here and the temple speaks a language of arts and sculpting from the mighty Vijayanagar empire. Bearing a close resemblance to the Vittala temple of Hampi, this rock cut temple is known for its magical pillars, the Naga protecting the Shivalinga and the fact that Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva share the inner sanctum sanctorium. This is definitely an off-beat day trip from Bangalore and one that is heavily recommended if you are a temple lover. More pictures and the entire experience in the full blog post that will follow soon. Do stay tuned.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Impulse Social Enterprises: Empowering Women of India’s North East

Traditional loom being prepared by hand by Mishing Tribe woman, Assam

A year and a half back, when I was giving my TEDx talk at IIT Guwahati, I met a lady whose story truly moved me. She was one of the speakers and her story was about how she empowered the women of the North Eastern states of India to fight prostitution, human trafficking, domestic abuse and child trafficking through the use of their traditional art, craft and weaving skills. The lady I am talking about is Hasina Kharbhih, the founder of Impulse NGO Network and one who has slowly and steadily created an active environment for the last 25 years that is addressing the root causes of human trafficking in the North East region.

Portrait of Mishing tribal woman weaving on her traditional loom, Panbari village, Assam

What started as a small initiative in her home state of Meghalaya is now a full fledged not-for-profit NGO (Impulse NGO Network) and a for-profit Impulse Social Enterprises (home to the Empower clothing, accessories and rural travel brands) across all the north eastern states and the surrounding international borders. Both these organizations fight human trafficking in the region. While the Impulse NGO network aims to report, rescue, rehabilitate, repatriate, and reintegrate human trafficking victims, the Impulse Social Enterprises aims to promote local artisans and create sustainable livelihood that helps prevent potential cases of dangerous migration, which might lead to women and child trafficking and abuse.

Mishing tribal women setting the threads right for the looms

Today, Impulse Social Enterprises has over 30,000 weavers under its wings across the Karbi, Mishing, Bhoi, Mizo, Idu-Mishmi and many other tribes of the north eastern region. They hand-hold these weavers and enable them to create traditional designs of scarfs, sarongs, bags, cushion covers, table runners, and many other accessories. These women weave whenever they find time amidst their day to day activities (cooking, washing, taking care of kids, running home, etc.). These clothes and accessories are then sold across India and even internationally too. And the weavers get a significant cut of the sales, thus creating a sustainable livelihood for them without having to venture out of their village region. All of this functions under the Empower brand. Some of their products are also sold online on their Empower store.

Mishing tribal women and their traditional looms, Assam

Another interesting product offered by Impulse Social Enterprises is Rural Tourism wherein you get to experience the life of a weaver up close, stay in their homes, eat with them, explore the true countryside life and spend a relaxed holiday. This way, you get an offbeat rural holiday experience while the village home that is hosting you makes some additional revenue that allows them to follow their traditions and yet improve their quality of life.

Mishing tribal women and their colorful clothing, Assam

I have personally experienced staying with the weavers at the Mishing village of Panbari located on the fringes of the Kaziranga National Park in Assam and I have to say that the experience was very humbling, a treat for my palate and one that I would repeat in the blink of an eye. In fact, I hope to stay with such weavers across all the different tribes in the different states of India’s North East.

Mishing tribal woman learning the art of weaving at Panbari, Assam, India

If you wish to do your bit in empowering the women of the North East and help Impulse NGO Network and Impulse Social Enterprises in achieving their mission, you can do any of the following:

1) Offer your services as a Volunteer to the NGO

Mekhla and Chadar being woven by Mishing tribal women, Assam

2) Buy some of the products created by these women in their eye catching traditional and yet trendy designs

3) Spend a off beat rural holiday with them in their village and see unique cultures of their tribal life up close

I hope all of us can do our bit in protecting the people and traditions of the beautiful north eastern region of India.

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Friday, July 28, 2017

7 Practical Tips to Create Captivating Travel Photos

The high village of Dhankar in scenic Spiti valley, Himachal Pradesh, India

How do you create travel photos that are not only stunning, but are remarkable as well? It can be tricky to take photos that are both compelling and unique, especially when there are many other travellers who have already done the same shots.

There are a lot of articles out there which explain about photography techniques, so this article will give you a few tips on how to create extraordinary travel photos, focusing more on the practical aspects. From planning your trip to keeping your best work in a photobook after your travel, here’s what you can do to create captivating imageries.

1. Embrace the unexpected

The spotted leopard look, Tadoba Tiger Reserve, India

There are times when things don’t go well, no matter how carefully you craft your plans. Thick clouds that cover what would otherwise be a stunning sky full of stars, a group of tourist coming earlier than you and ruining your hope of getting good shots of Milan Cathedral, are just a few examples of how things might not go plan. Instead of feeling disheartened at the thought of losing an opportunity to create magnificent shots, why not embrace the surprises and capture them? The tourists in front of the monument can be the human elements that you need to add a sense of scale to your photo. A sudden fog that covers the mountain can be beautiful in its own way. When unexpected things happen, don’t pack up your camera and leave, but keep shooting as the scene unravels. Sometimes, the best photo comes from the unexpected circumstances.

2. Beat the crowd

Taking photos without people in the background can be extremely frustrating, especially in the famous tourist destinations. Sometimes, human elements can add more to the photos, by adding to the sense of scale and feel to the scene. But often, we want photos clean from the crowd to really show the grandeur of a place.

To achieve this, you need to beat the crowd by getting there early, or late when the crowd is already thinning. It takes more effort and it can be exhausting, but it’s really worth it. You can plan your schedule to accommodate this. When you get up early and stay out late to get good shots, you’ll probably need a rest some time in the day, and you can do this in the midday when the sun is too bright, as taking photos during this time wouldn’t give you the best results anyway.

3. Make the most of the golden hours

Sunset at Tangtse

Every photographer relies on golden hours, so plan your itinerary accordingly. Do your research beforehand to prioritise the places that would need to be photographed during the golden hours, or more specifically, during sunrise or sunset. As the golden hours are fleeting, plan the locations/spots to take photos as well, so you can use your time more effectively once you’re there (a tip: use Google Earth when planning this to give you a better idea of the place, and also to spot potential viewpoints).

4. Find unique angles and perspectives

Young Monk looks skywards during Hemis Monastery Festival, Ladakh

How many people take the images of the Eiffel Tower from the front, or the images of Inari Shrine and its thousand gates with someone on the foreground? People tend to replicate what they see, and while they might produce decent images, these images wouldn’t be unique and remarkable to the audience, as they’ve seen many photos with similar views from similar angles before. Step further ahead and be different. Take your time to explore your surroundings and find the angles that are unusual. This way, your images will stand a chance of standing out.

Of course, there are times when this is easier said than done, especially when the destination is quite popular with fellow travellers. If this is the case, prepare to add something distinguishing to your photos. Jorge Saenz brought the highlight to his work by putting in dinosaur toys in his images. Drawing inspirations from Saenz, you can bring an action figure as your travel companion and put him in your travel photos. This is only an example though. Any unique object that helps tell the stories will also bring depth to your images and storytelling.

5. Tell a story with your photo

Tribal Kids, Mishing village, Panbari, Assam, India

Photography is a form of art, and it goes deeper than just how it looks. It is images that have stories that will stuck in people’s mind, even better if it evokes emotions. Whether it’s a story about the life of people in Gorem, or a story behind the photo of Glencoe landscape, make sure that your photo has something more to offer than just the face value.

6. Travel with the camera that you’re most comfortable with

Sometimes we feel the pressure to bring a better, ‘more serious’ camera to create amazing shots. But the truth is, it’s not about the gear. What’s important is that you know your camera and its features, and feel comfortable with it. Whether you shoot with a DSLR, mirror less, or phone camera, it’s you who creates great images. Don’t be trapped into thinking that your gear defines how good your photos will be.

7. Keep a travel photo book and learn from it

Your best photos deserve to be seen and appreciated by other people, so don’t keep them hidden on your computer! Choose the images that are visually stunning and tell stories, and keep them in a photobook. When you look through your photos and sort them, try to see the areas that need improvement. Ask feedback from people as well, especially photographers. There’s always a room to improve, and having someone experienced to give you a constructive criticism can be invaluable.

Picturesque Himalayas and the Spiti Valley as seen from Ki Monastery

Hopefully these practical tips can help you plan your travel to create outstanding and captivating photos, but don’t forget to also master the techniques, practice, and more importantly, have fun travelling!

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Homestead B&B: Fantastic Bed and Breakfast Property in Shillong, Meghalaya

Enjoying the monsoons in Meghalaya

Any trip to Meghalaya usually means that you stay a night or two at Shillong, the cleanest and one of the prettier hill stations of India. On my recent monsoon holiday to Meghalaya’s living root bridges, I too stayed at Shillong on my way in. But, this time around I did not stay at a hotel in the touristy Police bazaar, but opted for a room in a nice home called Homestead B&B, that I booked on AirBnB. This review is based on this recent experience of mine.

1) The property ‘Homestead B&B’ is a large home with newly constructed rooms on the top floor as well as rooms in a classic looking cottage. All of this is surrounded by gardens and pear trees. The rooms are cosy, comfortable with modern amenities like running hot water, free-wi-fi, satellite television, etc. The rooms are typically priced from INR 2700 per night. You can see all details either on Trip Advisor or on AirBnB.

2) The place is located right opposite St. Anthony’s college and hence enjoys prime location. From here, it is a short walk to Police bazaar, other markets and important landmarks. Even many restaurants, shops and ATMs are located real close by.

3) The lady Maria who runs this place and the other two ladies who help her with the day to day management are forever smiling and shower a lot of Meghalayan hospitality on you. Be it offering you a free cup of tea while you chat with them, helping fix small issues with the room or even giving you guidance and tips to make your Meghalaya holiday experience better, they are always there for you.

4) Simple and Wholesome Indian/Continental breakfast is included in the room tariff and is served in the open area right outside of the rooms. For lunch and dinner, you can either eat outside or the owner can order it from a nearby restaurant for you.

5) One of the perks of this home is its roof-top, which not only offers privacy from the rest of the home, but offers a great view, especially during rains when it is perfect to grab a chair and enjoy the rains with a cup of piping hot tea in your hand.

6) Free wi-fi access is available in the room and common areas.

7) As the property has many rooms available, they are ideal for many groups of couples, a large family or a large group of friends traveling together.

If you are looking for a comfortable stay option in the heart of Shillong and one that is priced reasonable, I would recommend taking a look at Homestead B&B. As of now, you can only book them through AirBnB or may be through their Facebook page too.

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Highlights Of A Trip To Colombia

Stunning island beaches of Colombia

Colombia can get a bad rap when it comes to South American tourism. Because of the country’s history in drug trafficking and spikes in kidnappings some 20 years ago, many perceive it as dangerous. The truth is that Colombia has come a long way since its most dangerous days. It’s still important to exercise caution and stay in safer areas if you visit, but as one article put it, you’re more likely to be eaten by a shark in Australia than you are to be kidnapped in Bogota!

So why would you want to visit in the first place? Many international travelers have only the faintest idea of what to expect in this lush South American country, because the aforementioned drug trafficking history tends to dominate our perception. Here are some of the highlights you might look to enjoy if you get the chance to visit.

Relax In Cartagena

Sunset view of Cartagena, Colombia

Bogota is the most famous city in Colombia, probably the most modern and also the capital. Medellin is also among the most famous cities, as a former hub for drug cartels (and the city used as a title for the fictional Pablo Escobar movie that dominated much of the popular TV show Entourage. But Cartagena may be the most appealing urban area for tourists who want to relax and soak up some Colombian culture.

Thanks in large part to the Old Town and some ancient castles you can still tour, Cartagena is designated as a world heritage city. There’s plenty to see and do, but for pure relaxation you won’t find a better city in the country, or really much of South America. Playa Blanca is one of the best beaches in the nation, and can be easily reached by boat from the city (it’s on Baru Island). Within the city there are plenty of quaint, enjoyable cafés to sit at as you sip coffee and try some of the local food. It’s a wonderful place to spend a few days with some friends or someone you love.

Tour Coffee Farms
Stunning Landscape of Colombia

This is an activity best suited for those who happen to love coffee. But just as you might want to tour vineyards in Napa Valley or certain places in France and Italy, Colombia is the place to get a feel for where some of the world’s best coffee is made. You can see the fields that produce coffee berries, speak to the people who run the farms, and usually find yourself some pretty incredible brew in the process. It’s a fascinating experience for anyone visiting Colombia, but if you happen to be a coffee lover it’s something you should definitely have on your list.

Visit Sugamuxi

Sunset on the Amazon - Colombia

This is a province within Colombia that's appealing in its natural beauty, but it’s also home to the Muisca, The Muisca are an indigenous people that still have descendants and traditions alive in the area today, and if you like diving into cultural experiences, you can experience some of their ways of life. Most interesting of all is that you might learn something about how ancient Muisca rituals sparked rumors of the golden New World city of El Dorado.

Today, we know El Dorado as the legend that has been used to inspire many fantastic adventures. There was an animated film about the quest for the city years ago, and now a video game about El Dorado is featured in a collection of slot games online. It's called “Gonzo’s Quest,” and it consists of a slot arcade based around an animated conquistador’s search for a gilded metropolis. It’s all good and playful fun, but back in the age of exploration, El Dorado was a very real concept to a lot of people. One explanation for the legend is that elaborate Muisca rituals involving lots of gold ornamentation led to stories about a city of gold. Of course there is no such city (unless the Muisca have hidden it extraordinarily well!), but you may learn some about the legend.

Explore Tayrona National Park

Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Colombia is home to some wild and beautiful forests, and Tayrona National Park may be the best of them. It’s a large area in the northern part of the country right up against the Atlantic coast, and it has a a bit of everything. There are foothills, stretches of rainforest, all kinds of interesting animals (including monkeys), and ocean lagoons where you’re free to swim. Not all of the swimming spots are safe, but you can usually find guidance or signs indicating where it’s okay to get into the (extremely alluring) water. A hike through this park is an outstanding way to rope some adventure into your vacation.

Take A Mud Bath

Totumo Mud Volcano - Colombia

That’s right—this is a real attraction in Colombia. And it’s one that a lot of tourists wind up enjoying immensely. That’s in part because the mud baths happen to be in the caldera (a sort of crater-like depression) of a miniature volcano. Pointing it out as an unusual thing to do in the country, Atlas Obscura called the area a 15-foot diameter lukewarm vat of greyish brown silt the consistency of a thick cream soup. That might not sound like the most appealing place you’ll ever visit but imagine the full picture. It’s 45 minutes outside of Cartagena, on top of what appears to be a medium-sized hill but is actually an active volcano. You reach the top by climbing a few stairs, and find a bath of naturally heated mud. It’s definitely bizarre, but it’s a fun idea to put on your list. The locals even say it’s therapeutic!

Note: The photographs have been borrowed from under the Creative Commons License. Each photograph has been linked to its respective page on

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Monday, July 24, 2017

Monsoon Holiday to Meghalaya’s Living Root Bridges

The living root bridges of Meghalaya - one of the best monsoon holiday destinations of India

What better way to spend your monsoon holiday than in the state that is called as the ‘land of the clouds’ and in the wettest region in the world? You got it right! I am referring to Meghalaya’s Cherrapunji region where rains don’t take a break for three months and where clouds merge one with the land.

Nongriat village, clouds, dense greenery and monsoons - a perfect way to rejuvenate your tired body and soul

While nearly everyone knows about Cherrapunjee region’s iconic status as the wettest region in the world, not all know about the ancient Khasi tradition of building bridges from roots of trees. Or may be, many know due to the sheer publicity that this place receives these days. :-)

The Nongthymmai living root bridge sturdy as concrete, Meghalaya

In case you wish to know the story…The families of Khasi tribes have passed on traditional bridge architecture knowledge down their family tree for generations. This knowledge teaches them to use the roots of the rubber tree and train them to entwine into strong bridges over a period of many years. Usually, these bridges connect remote Khasi tribal villages and should allow free movement of people and goods all round the year. As a thumb rule, locals identify places where native rubber trees are present on either bank of the fast flowing, but narrow mountain river. They then, try and direct the roots of these rubber trees towards each other. What follows next is a wait of many years where these living roots are directed like climbers till they form sturdy bridges that can easily carry 20 to 40 people with loads on their backs.

A drive in the clouds at Cherrapunji, Meghalaya

Having stood on these bridges over two separate trips, I can easily vouch that they are way stronger than steel rope bridges, feel more safe and definitely feel sturdier. And the best part is that these bridges are still growing, which means that they potentially will last a very long time with minimal wear, tear and maintenance. And, because these well trodden bridges are akin to national highways for these villages, they don’t gather moss or turn slippery even during the heaviest of rains. Now, that is truly eco friendly bridge architecture, a treat to the eye, a photographer’s delight and an adventurer’s thrill.

The longest living root bridge at Nongthymmai village, Meghalaya

As far as I know, there are close to 36 such living root bridges in this region of Meghalaya, each providing access to different Khasi villages. In addition to these 36 fully operational living root bridges, there are many more that are under construction. Some of these bridges are small, while some of them are as long as 100 feet, but the one that takes the cake is the double decker living root bridge at Nongriat village.

Rain and colorful umbrellas at Nongthymmai village, Meghalaya

If you are planning on experiencing the iconic living root bridges of Meghalaya, you should definitely plan to see the double decker one at Nongriat. While each of these living root bridges look beautiful, the one to Nongriat requires you to climb down close to 3000 stone steps, cross two swaying steel rope bridges over raging mountain rivers and white water, cross a small living root bridge, walk through tiny remote villages and walk through pristine lush green vegetation that is a high in itself.

Action packed hike across swaying steel rope bridges to Nongriat village, Meghalaya

During the monsoons, the rains are omnipresent, the rivers are roaring and nature is at its prettiest best! This is possibly the best time to see these living root bridges of Meghalaya in Technicolor. Even though this was my third trip to Meghalaya and the 2nd trip to the living root bridges, this was my first trip during the monsoons and I have to say that I enjoyed every bit of exploring these tiny hamlets in persistent rains.

The land of the clouds that is called Meghalaya

From the time you start at the church in Tyrna village where the descent to Nongriat begins to the time you are actually walking on the double decker bridge, you will take anywhere between 60 and 120 minutes one way. Add 30 to 60 minutes extra for the detour to the longest (100 feet long) living root bridge at Nongthymmai, 30 to 60 minutes extra for photography and 30 to 90 minutes more for breaks. It is the steep climb on the way back that will make your quadriceps groan and your heart pound, but when walking towards the village, do not think about this climb, but soak in the view of the wild orchids, flowers and bountiful nature, revel in the adventure of crossing high steel rope bridges that can sway sideways from time to time and just simply enjoy walking in the rains.

The iconic double decker living root bridges of Nongriat, Meghalaya

Once you reach Nongriat, do take a dip in the stream under the double decker bridge and if you have some gas left in the tank, head further to the Rainbow falls and swim in its gorgeous pools. On your way back, chomp into some hot piping maggi noodles or omelette and wash it down with a hot cup of tea. The pace of life is slow here and it feels like your life force is rejuvenating itself even though you have just spent oodles of energy climbing up and down the steep trails to this village. And that is why a lot of people stay back in this village and spend a good part of their holiday in pristine remoteness.

Nongriat village tucked under dense rainforests, Meghalaya

In addition to Nongriat, there are other living root bridges nearby such as the ones at Umkar, Umunoi and Laitkynsew that you can explore and experience in this region. And while you are enjoying these adventures in Meghalaya’s living root bridge villages, do spend some time conversing with locals and learning about their unique Khasi cultures and traditions. In simple words, make it a monsoon holiday like no other!

The steep 3000 plus steps that lead one to Nongriat village and the living root bridges of Meghalaya

Remember this golden piece of advice
…even if people scare you about the climb down and up to the double decker living root bridge of Nongriat, do try to experience these living root bridges as they are really some sight and definitely doable even for the person with basic fitness levels. The trail is not slippery, there are hand rails to take support, wooden staff available on rent and guides available to help you in case of any trouble.

If there is one monsoon holiday that I have to recommend, it has to be the living root bridges of Meghalaya! I hope you get to live it this year or in the years to come. I have laid out a small guide and some handy tips below to help you with your overall planning. 

What other attractions can I see:

A closer look at the green village called Nongriat, Meghalaya

Apart from the iconic living root bridges, one can indulge in a lot of water based activities, but considering the heavy flow of water, watersports are usually not recommended in the monsoons. Instead, one can indulge in the umpteen sightseeing options present nearby.

1) Noh Kalikai Falls – one of the tallest single plunge waterfalls in India. If you feel adventurous, you can trek all the way down to the bottom of the waterfalls

2) Thangkharang Park – for its canyons and waterfall views

3) Mawsmai cave – for the eerie stalactites and stalagmites

4) Mawlynnong – for Asia’s cleanest village

5) Dawki – for views of Bangladesh’ flood plains

6) Laitkynsew – for a traditional Khasi village exploration

7) Many other view points, but again that depends on your luck as most view points will be enveloped in thick cloud cover or mist.

Where to Stay:

Bangladesh flood plains as seen from Latikynsew village, Meghalaya

If the living root bridges are specifically on your agenda, you should either stay in Nongriat village or somewhere near by. But, do remember that, the only way for you and your luggage to reach Nongriat is by foot. You can hire porters to carry your luggage, but do plan for that well in advance with the homestay/guest house that you are staying with. Nongriat’s Serene Homestay comes heavily recommended by fellow travelers, though I did not stay there. The village is a great place to stay if pristine nature is your thing, but do remember that facilities will be basic.

If you do not wish to stay in Nongriat, but still wish to be in close proximity to all the living root bridges, plan to stay at the Cherrapunjee holiday resort at Laitkynsew village. This comfortable property, located amidst pristine views is easily accessible to close to 8 living root bridges, either by foot or at max a 10 minute drive by car. I stayed at this property for 5 days and made many day trips to different living root bridges, Khasi villages and view points. And at the end of my physically tiring day, I returned to a warm room, running hot water and delicious food.

If you seek luxury, stay in and around the Cherrapunjee area. But, to reach the living root bridges, make sure you start your day a bit early and keep a car with you at all times as all living root bridges are at least an hour away from Cherrapunjee.

How to reach here:

Waterfalls galore at Latikynsew, Meghalaya

Shillong is the closest airport, though a lot of people prefer Guwahati due to lower fares. If only Meghalaya is on your itinerary, I would recommend flying into Shillong rather than Guwahati. This will help you avoid Guwahati traffic, Shillong traffic and the drive from Guwahati to Shillong on both your way in and out.

From Shillong, one can easily find taxis and shared taxis to Cherrapunji. A shared taxi costs about 80 rupees per person. The journey takes about 2 hours, but the vehicle leaves only when it is full. If you wish to hire a full vehicle such as a Maruti Alto, it will cost you INR 600 rupees to Cherrapunjee and INR 1200 up until Tyrna village from where the trek to Nongriat begins. You can also negotiate in case you wish to do some sightseeing stops enroute. These Shillong taxi drivers are much cheaper than hiring a car full time, unless you plan to drive it.

Hire a full vehicle only if you plan on seeing many places and are on a very short trip. If not, it is economical to hire a vehicle when needed. A lot of local taxis are available at your beck and call and all rates are fixed. Plus, this also gives you the excuse to walk more.

Handy Packing Tips:

A game of football surrounded by nature's bounty at Latikynsew, Meghalaya

If you are visiting Meghalaya during the monsoons, do expect very heavy to extremely heavy rains. An umbrella becomes a necessity and will come in handy almost always, though it can be a bit tricky to use while crossing steep rope bridges and on slippery surfaces. Raincoats and waterproof jackets are also nice, but due to the high humidity, I would not recommend that. Even though you will be hiking and walking a lot, I would not recommend wearing boots. Instead, I would recommend waterproof sandals or quick drying shoes. Personally, I walked with flip flops and honestly, I was very happy with my choice. As clothes do not air dry at all, don’t bother with thick cottons or any heavy material. Rather, wear those kind of clothes that dry super quick. Evenings and early mornings can get nippy from time to time. Hence, carry a light jacket or jumper to keep you warm when you are in a dry environment. You don’t need any warm wear during the hike.

What to bring back home as Souvenirs:

Wild forest honey of this region is a specialty. So are turmeric and bay leaves. I have bought them and can hence can personally vouch for its supreme quality. The honey is so good that I am kicking myself for not buying some more. Local weaves are also very popular, especially the traditional tribal designs. And while you are there, do chomp on some uber juicy and delicious pineapples and plums as they come in season during the rains.

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Hotel Tea County: Modern Comfortable Hotel in Dibrugarh, Assam

Tea estates of Dibrugarh where you find the best Assam tea

In one of my recent posts, I mentioned how Dibrugarh is a great base for your holiday to India’s far north east. If you have taken my advice and are looking for a comfortable place to make your pad in Dibrugarh, you can take a look at Hotel Tea County, a modern 3 star business styled hotel located enroute from the railway station to the markets and the Brahmaputra river bank. This hotel review is based on my recent experience of staying with them.

1) As a newly launched property, everything about this hotel appeals to the eye. The entire property and rooms smell fresh and clean. This is something rare to find in the other hotel properties of humid and sultry Dibrugarh.

2) The property is located right next to a tea garden, which means that a walk in the tea garden is possible any time of the day and may be even straight about your morning cup of tea. Another aspect about the location that I like is that while the hotel is located in a quiet lane of the city, it is just a short walk away from the hullaboo of the local markets and the riverside, which means that you are never too far away from the action.

3) The hotel rooms are spacious and comes with all typical modern day facilities, like running hot water, air conditioning, satellite television, hot water kettle, etc.. Most rooms face a tea garden, and you can specifically request for one.

4) Simple, wholesome meals are served at the hotel. Breakfast is included in the room tariff and is served buffet style at the restaurant downstairs. There are also many cafes, restaurants and sweet meat shops in case you wish to try out something different.

5) The hotel reception, chef and other staff are extremely helpful and always eager to be of service.

6) The hotel has a sky bar on the roof top that offers great views of the lush green cityscape. This is a perfect place to head to after a long day either exploring the city or in office.

7) The hotel offers free wi-fi and connectivity is pretty good as I received decent speeds even in my corner room.

If you are looking for a modern comfortable hotel in Dibrugarh that falls in the mid-range category, I would ask you to take a look at Hotel Tea County. A tea garden view and easy access is just an added bonus.

Note: Hotels in Dibrugarh are usually more expensive than the rest of the country for the same amenities and standards.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Backpacking, cheapest locations

Cheapest Countries for Backpacking

Backpacking is one of the most liberating ways to travel around the world. Being able to walk, bus or hitchhike, staying under canvas or in cheap rooms and trekking to beautiful sites while avoiding the tourist traps are great ways to see the ‘real’ countries. Trying to backpack on a budget needs some careful planning – you need cheap food, economical accommodation, access to low-priced public transport and some cash to visit special attractions.

1. Malawi

Malawi - A cheap destination for African Wildlife

The Republic of Malawi – to give it its full name – is a landlocked country in the southeast of Africa. It’s bordered mainly by Mozambique to the east, south and west, Zambia to the northwest and Tanzania to the northeast.

We would be looking at a daily cost of $20 due to a very favourable exchange rate and a negligible tourist industry. Accommodation-wise you will be able to find a bed for under $3, and a decent, locally-sourced meal will set you back less than $2. Public transport is cheap and cheerful, if not a little hair-raising.

For outdoor activity you can try your hand at water-skiing on Lake Malawi for a fraction of the cost of a similar experience at more well-known resorts. Cape Maclear is a beautiful backpacker’s destination where you can enjoy swimming and diving in the crystal-clear waters or sunbathe on the beach. Malawi is a relatively small country and you can easily trek through the entire length of the country in a day or two. The safari trail is a big attraction – elephant-spotting being a popular draw. The views from the mountainous areas are spectacular and watching the sun setting over the amazing vista as you prepare to bed down for the night is pretty special.

The capital city of Lilongwe has extensive markets and you will be hard-pressed not to buy a few bargains.

The people are typically welcoming and friendly – keen to be good hosts and continue to earn their reputation as the ‘warm heart of Africa’.

Be sure to have a good travel insurance policy as Malawi is a known malarial region. If you are travelling for more than 3 weeks look at a dedicated backpacking policy. We recommend not to swim in Lake Malawi (as many do) due to the number of water based parasites which can causes diseases like bilharzia.

2. Turkey

A Blue Mosque Skyscape, Istanbul, Turkey

The eastern border of Europe gives you the chance to experience standards that Westerners are used to but at prices more typical of Eastern countries. For a little over $30 a day you will be able to pick up some remarkable memories as you travel around enjoying fabulous fare, culture and scenery.

Accommodation will set you back around ten bucks in a hostel in the capital city of Ankara. Other cities will give you the same standard of lodging for around half this price. The southwest coast is expensive and touristy and not good for a budget-conscious traveler. Heading east will get you rooms that come with breakfast and lunch included too for around $30. And, indeed, it’s the eastern side of Turkey that is the real joy for budget backpackers.

The price of public transport is remarkably cheap and for around $15 you can get a good standard of bus service across the country. As you head east, the culture becomes distinctly Middle Eastern as the influence of migrant Kurds exerts its friendly influence. You can get very tasty meals for just over $4 – a real bargain!

Turkey has some amazing ruins and historical attractions – it’s seen many cultures come and go and is constantly evolving. Explore the ghost city of Ani on the Armenian border and travel to the Gobeklitepe Temple where this amazing structure is still being painstakingly unearthed and revealed!

3. Ethiopia

Smiling eyes, Ethiopia

To the south on the Horn of Africa lies Ethiopia, the most populous landlocked country in the world with over one million souls living here. Backpacking around the country will set you back just over $12 a day. Depending on your comfort requirements a bed for the night can cost as little as $3 but, for a few dollars more, you can enjoy a few more frills. If you avoid the tourist areas and head to the authentic streets you will be able to eat healthily for less than a $1 a meal. You would expect to pay up to $2 for a meal in a restaurant so either option is still a good price. If you enjoy your coffee you must take every opportunity to sample it here, Ethiopia started the world’s coffee addiction and it now accounts for over half their foreign trade and employs more than 10% of its citizens. Oh and for a fraction over 10 cents a cup you can’t go wrong.

Travelling by bus works out at about a dollar per hour heading between cities. These are typically very crowded and hot though but if you go opt for a higher class of bus at around $3 per hour you will have more space, comfort and welcome air conditioning!

Some of the best places to visit are the temples at the UNESCO World Heritage Sites including Aksum. For five bucks you can search through the chapels that reputedly house the Ark of the Covenant. Aksum dates back over 4,000 years and, according to tradition was where the Queen of Sheba met with King Solomon.

4. Nepal

Sadhu at Pashupatinath temple, Kathmandu, Nepal

Our last choice is a perennial favorite of the budget backpacker. An adventure through Nepal can cost as little as $14 per day. Despite the earthquake two years ago, Nepal is recovering and is very welcoming to visitors.

Hitchhiking is popular and commonplace in areas like Jomsom, there is a strong sense of community and the willingness to help each other out is humbling. Public transport is mainly provided by modern minibuses that have air conditioning. A public transport pass costs only $12.

Food is inexpensive; a restaurant meal comes in at under $2 and if you shop in the local markets you will eat well for $1.

Some of the best sites in Nepal are free, the awe-inspiring World Peace Pagoda (Nepal is home to two of the world’s 80 Peace Pagodas) south of Phewa Lake in Pokhara. The snow-capped mountains of the Annapurna Range are beautiful and you can easily spend a day hiking around the circuit of the Annapurna Conservation Area.

Note: The first four pictures in this post have been re-used under the Creative Commons License.

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

A Vegetarian Assamese Meal: Must Taste on your next holiday to Assam

Traditional Assamese cuisine - deliciousness overload

One of the perks of living and traveling in India are the abundant opportunities available to dip into lip smacking vegetarian meals and dishes all across the country. Such are the number of options that not only do we vegetarians get all our protein and calorie requirements, but we end up gliding way up the food ladder to heaven and a good many times end up gaining some weight too. This perk holds good for the north eastern states too, especially the state of Assam, which in spite of being a heavy fish eating state, serves some fantastic vegetarian Assamese cuisine.

Delicious plate of Assamese Thali, Sibsagar, Assam, India

I have always had a soft corner for Assamese food as the local food has almost always delighted my senses. A typical Assamese vegetarian thali or meal would include:

1) Local white or red rice (depending on season and region)

2) Bhoot Jhukoliya (Ghost Chillis – the hottest chilli in the world) - handle with extreme care

3) Aloo and Baingan Pitika (Steamed and salted Potato and Eggplant)

4) Dhekiya or Lye saag depending on season

5) Aloo, Aloo Potol, Cabbage, Beetroot or any other vegetable in season Bhaaji (Assorted Vegetables)

Delicious Assamese meals at Mishing tribal homes

6) Yellow or Black Masoor Dal (Thick Lentil Soup)

7) Khoreo (Highly pungent and delicious ground mustard served with onion, garlic and other spices)

8) Pudina, Coconut, Sesame Chutney (Mint, Coconut or Sesame paste prepared with herbs and spices)

9) Salad made out of young bamboo shoots (If you eat with local tribes, these bamboo shoots will be usually the wild one that grows in the nearby forest)

10) Paste made from raw mangoes or ground jackfruit seeds

Rice beer and Chang ghar dining - Mishing tribal village, Assam

11) And finally some rice beer for the alcohol lovers and some rice kheer (sweet dish made from rice and condensed milk) for the dessert lovers

Depending on the season, there could be other dishes on your plate. And if there is a local festival like Bihu, be prepared to be totally spoilt for choice. The food is wholesome, unbelievably tasty and available all through the state. I would totally recommend tasting them on your next holiday to Assam.

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