Showing posts with label Travel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Travel. Show all posts

Travel to North East India - Sikkim


Itinerary, tips, what to shop for, where to eat and things to know before you go for a 10 day trip to North East India including the states of Meghalaya, West Bengal and Sikkim.



The North East has been blessed with natural beauty - the towering Himalayas, the clear rivers, white waterfalls, varied wildlife, diverse fauna, clear blue skies, fresh hilly air, and clouds. Ever since my first visit in 2009, I had been craving to take Raj there. And finally, we made it this year. And we have some more trips planned based on our current experience.

This travel post (like all my travel posts) is divided into 3 parts so that I can detail out our itinerary, the sights to see, places to eat perhaps, our plans and misses, and how I would replan it for the future.

Our overall itinerary:


Day 1 - Travel from Bangalore to Guwahati by flight. Then drive down to Shillong.
Day 2 - Sohra (Cherrapunji) sightseeing
Day 3 - Mawlyngong and Dawki
Day 4 - Drive back to Guwahati. Fly to Bagdogra. Hire a cab to Darjeeling.
Day 5 - Kalimpong sightseeing
Day 6 - Darjeeling sightseeing
Day 7 - Take a cab to Gangtok.
Day 8 - Nathu La Pass
Day 9 - Gangtok sightseeing
Day 10 - Take a cab to Bagdogra. Fly back to Bangalore.


This post details our travel and stays in the state of Sikkim. Read about our stay in Meghalaya and Darjeeling.

Sikkim

Sikkim was one of the last princely states to join the Indian union. It is a small, but very beautiful state located in North East India. Gangtok is the capital city. Located in East Himalayas, Sikkim is home to Mount Kanchenjunga, the third-highest peak in the world. Sikkim shares its borders with Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan.

Sikkim is the first state in India to have 100% organic produce.

View on the way to Nathula



Day 7: Travel to Gangtok



The drive from Darjeeling to Gangtok took us 3hours. The traffic was almost nil as it was a festival day, else, we've been told to expect the drive to take 4 hours or more.
We booked GoZo cabs (highly recommended) for the drive. We were picked up right on time by Mr. Bikash Chhetri (+91 7029706909/7797836186), and driven safely to our destination - Summit Denzong Hotel on Kazi road. The taxi was slightly more expensive as Mr. Chnetri had to be called from Siliguri to drive us, as most of the locals were unavailable due to the festival. But we didn't mind the extra cost as the drive was comfortable.

I suggest not planning much for the first day if you are driving in from either Darjeeling, Siliguri or Bagdogra, as traffic can be unpredictable and you may miss your appointment.
Instead, use this day to book your tours for the rest of your stay in Gangtok.

We reached the hotel at 11am, which was a lot sooner than their check time of 2pm. So, we parked our luggage at the reception and decided to check out MG Road. Read about my review of Hotel Summit Denzong here.  The hotel was a short downhill climb that took us around 10 mins. The walk uphill was a different story. The distance is short, but the hill is very steep and definitely not meant for the elderly.

MG Road in Gangtok is the best MG Road ever! The only word that comes to mind for this road is Cute! It is a wide stretch of road that is blocked for vehicular traffic. It is lined with benches and bushes in the center with shops and restaurants on both sides. Vegetarian and Non-vegetarian food is easily available here. Local food is predominantly non-vegetarian, but there are several North and South Indian restaurants that have vegetarian food. We bought souvenirs, had lunch and checked out the local market at Lal Bazaar. Lal Bazaar is a multistorey local market that has fresh produce on the lower levels and clothes, shoes and other things on the higher levels. There were some unique and indigenous vegetables and ferns available there that I have never seen or tasted. We picked up some glass noodles really cheap.

View from our room


MG Road

Day 8: Nathula, Tsomgo Lake, Baba Mandir, and Flower Show


We chose to go to Nathula pass on our second day in Gangtok. We had prebooked this tour from Darjeeling through Tenzing (+91 9733147740/ 9434257036) from Patola Travels. He was very helpful and organized a Mahindra Xylo to take us around, very comfortable.



Nathula is a mountain pass up in the Himalayas that connects India to the Tibet Autonomous Region. This Indo-China pass was a part of the old Silk Route. It was opened up for trade again in 2006. Only Indian nationals are allowed to the pass, that too, after obtaining a permit from Gangtok. The pass is open for public from Wednesday to Saturday, plan accordingly. The pass is situated at an altitude of 4310m, which is almost half the height of Mount Everest. Due to the altitude, the air is thinner up there. People with hypertension or hypotension may experience dizziness or other symptoms. Talk to your doctor before visiting. Those with altitude sickness may also need medication. If you feel extremely unwell, inform your taxi driver or the army personnel at the pass and they will take you to the closest medical center. The weather at those altitudes is also very unpredictable. When we were there it was 2 degrees C and sunny. But by the time we left, the weather was already getting cloudy and we got rain on the way back. Go prepared for rain and cold. Wear warm clothing, shoes and carry a cap and gloves if possible. Also, carry either a raincoat or an umbrella. It wasn't snowing when we went, but there was snow on the mountain peaks. Once it starts snowing in winter, the pass is open for public only if the weather is good that day and the Army allows you. There have been instances when they have turned back tourists because of bad weather.

This is one place that is more about the journey than the destination. The pass just had 2 buildings, one Indian and one Chinese and a small platform where you can see vehicles entering and leaving. But it does arouse a sense of patriotism when you see the harsh conditions that the Army lives in to protect our borders. Photography is prohibited in certain areas, please respect it, else you may be forced to delete them by the Army. There is a stall where you can buy a certificate that says you were there.

The journey through the winding roads with a row of green hills and clouds below us was breathtaking. At one point you can see Darjeeling, ask your driver to show you. There are lakes on the way - manmade and natural, waterfalls along the road and just plain scenic beauty wherever you turn your eyes. Since we went in October, we saw fall colors and they were so beautiful - shrubs of all colors lined our way - red, green, yellow, orange and brown. That's a sight you rarely see in India. Also, to keep you entertained, Border Road Organization (BRO) has painted witty quotes and proverbs along the route.

There are also Army bunkers and training centers along the way where photography is prohibited, please refrain from clicking photos.

Permit:


  • Only Indian nationals are allowed to visit Nathula. 
  • To obtain the permit one needs to submit 1 passport sized photograph and a copy of a Government issued ID proof like election card or passport. Aadhar was not accepted, so carry some other document as well.
  • The documents have to be submitted by the agent organizing your tour one day before the planned travel within 10am.
  • The permit is per vehicle as well and we heard that there is a limit of the number of vehicles allowed per day, hence the travel agents have come up with a sharing option. More about that later. Your taxi driver will come with the permit when he picks you up for the tour.
  • Please carry your original document too, the army folks at the booth, ask for it.
  • Private cars/Self-drive cars may not get the permit, please check with at the Tourist Information Center on MG Road. We did see 2 motorbikes though, but we also saw them frown when someone wanted to get a permit for a Zoomcar (I don't think they got it). The roads are narrow and due to landslides in the region, there are parts of the road that literally don't exist, hence I believe the discouragement to non-local folks.


Firstly, I mentioned that the documents have to be submitted by 10am the previous day and we only reached Gangtok by 11am and yet we got the permit. Mr. Tenzing made it possible. We sent him all the required documents over WhatsApp and he managed to get us the permit. He was very resourceful and thus, we recommend him. He got us the permit when the driver, Arjun, came to pick us up. We also paid him then for the tour.

Secondly, about the shared option - the Xylo took us as close as 3kms from Nathula. At this point, we were asked to move to a different vehicle with another family for the short 3km drive and that vehicle had our permit. We didn't mind this as the ride was very short and our cost of the trip reduced to almost 60% because of this. Since the terrain is not very hospitable, small cars are not allowed to go to Nathula, only SUVs and 4 wheel drives are allowed. An exclusive car for just the two of us for the entire tour (including the cost of permit) was around Rs. 9000 when we went. We heard the spike in prices was due to the influx of tourists for the holiday season. Mr. Tenzing arranged the same for us for Rs. 5000. In nonpeak season, the rates may be lower, call up different travel agents before finalizing. The sharing option isn't bad if it cuts your costs.

After the pass, we moved to our designated taxi, the Xylo and continued in it for the rest of the tour. We went to Baba Mandir next.

Baba Mandir is a temple dedicated to a late Army soldier - Harbhajan Singh who died in 1968. The army personnel in the region believe his spirit protects them in the inhospitable and harsh conditions of the Himalayas. There is a canteen near the temple that sells veg momos and tea. There is also a souvenir shop.

A little beyond the parking lot is a beautiful waterfall and a huge white statue of Lord Shiva. The mountains were covered with shrubs of all colors, the waterfall cascaded down to a squeaky clean river and there were clouds moving high up on the mountains. It was a beautiful and calming spot that we just loved!

After stuffing ourselves with the momos and tea, we headed towards Tsomgo lake or Changu lake. This is a sacred natural lake that changes its color with the season. The lake is serene and is surrounded by mountains. The lake is frozen in winter and the mountains get covered with snow. In summer, this snow melts and feeds the lake. You can opt for a boat ride, sit on a yak and take photos or ride the cable car across the lake. The cable car is operational from 8am to 3pm. Let your taxi driver know in advance if you are planning for this. Tsomgo lake is open to foreign nationals as well, but they need a special permit to visit.

We stayed for a short while here as it started raining. We then headed for a lunch of hot Maggi noodles and tea.

Since we completed our tour early, by around 4pm, we asked Arjun to drop us near Whitehall and went to see the flower show. If you are used to large shows like the Lalbagh Flower Show in Bangalore, you may be underwhelmed by this one. But the flowers are different and the ticket is only Rs.10, so no harm in visiting it. From there we walked to our hotel.

Fall colors near Baba Mandir

Shiva statue near Baba Mandir


Waterfall near Baba Mandir

Tsomgo Lake

Tsomgo Lake

Day 9: Gangtok


We decided not to book any tour for the last day of our vacation. We listed down just a few spots that we wanted to see and took a local taxi to them. Since our hotel room gave us a mesmerizing view of Mount Kanchenjunga, we did not plan for any of the viewpoints. Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, is famous for hiding behind a veil of clours. Remember, how I said that we barely got any view of it from Darjeeling? Sikkim was a little better. We got amazing view of the mountain at 5.30am. By 7am, the cloud cover was back.

We went to Ganesh Tok and Enchey Monastery. While the zoo was right next to Ganesh Tok, we couldn't visit it as it is closed on Thursdays. Plan accordingly.

Things to see/do in Gangtok:


  1. MG Road - Stroll down this pretty road in the heart of the city. Shop/eat while here.
  2. Ganesh Tok - Temple dedicated Lord Ganesh that has a spectacular view of the hills. Dress up in the local Bhaku dress and take pics.
  3. Zoo - Visit the zoo to see Himalayan animals local to the region.
  4. Hanuman Tok - Temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman that is also famous for the view it provides.
  5. Tashi Viewpoint - Offers a beautiful view of Mount Kanchenjunga.
  6. Enchey Monastery - Buddhist monastery in the heart of Gangtok.
  7. Institute of Tibetology
  8. Banjhakri Waterfall
  9. Ranka/Lingdum Monastery
  10. Rumtek Monastery - This is almost 22kms from Gangtok. It is the biggest monastery in Sikkim.
  11. Do Drul Chorten Stupa
  12. Gangtok Ropeway - You can glide over the city in a cable car.
  13. Bakthang Falls
  14. Helicopter rides - You can take a 15mins joy ride in a 5 seater helicopter for 15 minutes. The joy ride costs Rs.9000 for the entire helicopter. You can also book a 1-hour helicopter ride to East, West and North Sikkim. The longer ride seats 4 and costs Rs.18,000. Photography is prohibited.

Flower Show

Ganesh Tok

Dress up in local clothes at Ganesh Tok
Enchey Monastery

Window at Enchey Monastery

Beautiful walking trails

Day 10: Travel to Bagdogra and Fly back to Bangalore


Our flight to Bangalore was from Bagdogra International Airport in West Bengal. The drive from Gangtok to Bagdogra takes around 4-5 hours. We were asked to start at 6am for a 12pm flight to account for the traffic on the way. Luckily we didn't encounter any traffic, however, the bad roads definitely slowed us down. We contacted Mr. Chhetri to book our taxi to Bagdogra. He sent Mr. Gagan (+91 7872709898) to drive us to Bagdogra. We started at 7am and due to the holiday season, we did not get much traffic. Mr. Gagan is a friendly, jovial and enthusiastic person who kept us entertained the entire drive with stories of the region. I highly recommend him and Mr. Chhetri if you want an intercity ride in the region around Siliguri, Bagdogra, Darjeeling, and Gangtok.


If we were to replan:

  • Number of days - 2.5 days is definitely not enough to absorb the beauty of Sikkim. If we were to replan, we'd add in at least 3 more days to the trip and include a visit to North Sikkim at least. North Sikkim houses the beautiful sacred lake Gurudongmar and the beautiful Yumthang valley. To visit these places, you are suggested to stay at Lachen and Lachung respectively. They are 6-7 hours drive away from Gangtok. If you have more days at your disposal, you can visit the char dham replicas at Namchi in South Sikkim or trek through Khangchendongza National Park in West Sikkim, a UNESCO world heritage site. 
  • Time of travel - The ideal time to visit North Sikkim seems to be in Summers when the weather is more pleasant, hence we would plan for that. Also, the rhododendrons would be in bloom then.

What to buy:

  • Buddhist artifacts - There are several shops around MG Road that sell these.
  • Tea - Sikkim has only one tea plantation at Temi in South Sikkim. You can buy this tea at Chai Chun. You can also buy Darjeeling tea here.
  • Wooden masks
  • Crockery with dragon designs
  • Glass noodles, Chhurpi cheese, local vegetables, and ferns.
1) Souvenirs, 2) Chhurpi, 3) Local fern 4) Local vegetable

Where to eat:

  • Nimtho - Famous for local cuisine among locals and tourists. It also has a decent array of vegetarian food on the menu. It was closed for Dashain when we were there, hence missed eating here.
  • Baker's Cafe - Head here for a dose of baked goodies - savory and sweet, They also serve burgers, pasta, teas, and coffee. One of our favorite places to eat and enjoy the view. Their Mushroom Puff was heavenly.
  • Rasoi - Veg restaurant above the Tourist Information Center. The food here was good, however, the service could be improved.
  • Laxmi Sweets Bhandar - We satisfied our craving for Masala Dosa here. Very good dosas here.
  • Roll House - Head over here for a wide variety of vegetarian rolls. Try out their Aloo Dum with Sel Roti, we did and loved it.
  • Taste of Tibet seemed famous with the non-vegetarians. 
  • You will also get momos, chowmein and thukpas in a lot of places and that is considered local cuisine. 
Goodies at Baker's Cafe
1) Rose tea at Chai Chun, 2) Baked goodies from Baker's Cafe, 3) Maggi near Tsomgo Lake, 4) Burger at Baker's Cafe, 5) Dosa at Laxmi Sweets Bhandar, 6) Aloo Dum and Sel Roti at Roll House


Things to know before you go:

  • Sunset happens very early in Sikkim . Expect it around 4-5pm in the winter months. Sunrise is early too, it was sunny by 5.30am in October. 
  • Restaurants close early - 7.30pm to 10pm. Head for an early dinner.
  • Language is not a problem at all. English is the official language of the state and almost everyone speaks Hindi.
  • Google maps may show you that the distance between two places is very short, but be aware that these may be uphill and may involve long steep staircases.
  • Sikkim is India's first organic state, so enjoy your chemical free food!
  • You will need a permit to visit Nathula. See above for details.
  • Weather in North Sikkim and at higher altitudes like Nathula is unpredictable, be prepared for cold and rain. The air around here is very thin, so if you have altitude sickness or blood pressure issues, talk to your doctor before visiting. Young children below the age of 6 are not allowed at Lake Gurudongmar.
  • Roads to North Sikkim may get snowed in for winter. Do not plan these areas for winter months.
  • Gangtok has an airport, but it was closed for commercial operation when we travelled.


Useful links:

Sikkim Tourism Website - http://sikkimtourism.gov.in/
Our favorite website to compare flights - https://www.cleartrip.com/
Our favorite website to book hotel - https://www.agoda.com/
GoZo cabs - https://www.gozocabs.com/

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Travel to North East India - Darjeeling and Kalimpong


Itinerary, tips, what to shop for, where to eat and things to know before you go for a 10 day trip to North East India including the states of Meghalaya, West Bengal and Sikkim.


The North East of India has been blessed with natural beauty - the towering Himalayas, the clear rivers, white waterfalls, varied wildlife, diverse fauna, clear blue skies, fresh hilly air, and clouds. Ever since my first visit in 2009, I had been craving to take Raj there. And finally, we made it this year. And we have some more trips planned based on our current experience.

This travel post (like all my travel posts) is divided into 3 parts so that I can detail out our itinerary, the sights to see, places to eat perhaps, our plans and misses, and how I would replan it for the future.

Our overall itinerary:


Day 1 - Travel from Bangalore to Guwahati by flight. Then drive down to Shillong.
Day 2 - Sohra (Cherrapunji) sightseeing
Day 3 - Mawlyngong and Dawki
Day 4 - Drive back to Guwahati. Fly to Bagdogra. Hire a cab to Darjeeling.
Day 5 - Kalimpong sightseeing
Day 6 - Darjeeling sightseeing
Day 7 - Take a cab to Gangtok.
Day 8 - Nathu La Pass
Day 9 - Gangtok sightseeing
Day 10 - Take a cab to Bagdogra. Fly back to Bangalore.


This post details our travel and stay in Darjeeling. Read all about Meghalaya here.


Darjeeling


The famous hill station of Darjeeling is called the Queen of Hills. Built by the British to house a population of 10,000, it today houses almost 20 times that including the tourists. Located amidst lush green hills and tea plantations, Darjeeling offers one of the best views of the Kanchenjunga mountain range on a clear day.

This was my second visit to the city and Raj's first. The closest airport to Darjeeling is Bagdogra International Airport in West Bengal. We flew in there from Guwahati and hired a prepaid cab to go to the hill station. Thanks to the festive season, the influx of tourists and locals to Darjeeling had gone up manifolds and the usual 3 hour ride took us 6 hours. The road is steep and has several sharp curves. This is one place I would not suggest a self-drive. It is better to rely on the local folks who know the roads and its turns. Weather is extremely unpredictable and can go from clear to foggy within minutes. We witnessed the change in weather and concluded we would not risk driving here.
Our cab driver, Naveen, stopped at a small place called Zimba somewhere near Kurseong and we enjoyed our best momos of the trip at this tiny little place.  


Unfortunately for us, we chose the wrong time to visit. Durga Puja is a very big festival in this part of the country and it led to all sorts of problems for us. The festival brought in nearby villagers to the city for last-minute shopping, there were equal number of tourists taking advantage of the holidays like us, the local hotel staff and cab drivers were on vacation due to the festive season. Basically, it led to a high demand less supply situation that played to our disadvantage.

We stayed at the Summit Swiss Heritage Hotel in Darjeeling. The hotel is a part of the Summit chain of hotels and is well maintained with courteous staff. While most of the rooms offer a good view, ours did not. Read my review of the hotel on TripAdvisor.

We reached the hotel late in the evening of Day 4. Other than checking into the hotel and stepping out for dinner, we didn't do much. We did, however, book a cab that was willing to take us to see Kalimpong the next day. We struggled to find cabs due to the high demand, low supply situation that the time of the year put us in. I would suggest contacting the hotel in advance and booking your travel through the hotel. While this may work out slightly expensive, it will definitely save you some last minute stress.

Darjeeling Clock Tower

Day 5: Kalimpong


We wanted to start out early, but our cabbie had a different plan. He picked us up from the hotel at 9am. We stopped at a small park with tall trees called Lamahatta to take some pics and felt absolutely insignificant next to the really tall trees. There is also a lake 750m high up in the hill, we skipped visiting it as some of the folks who we met on the way said it wasn't worth the climb.

Lamahatta

From there we headed straight to the Lover's Meet viewpoint from where one can see the confluence of two rivers, Teesta and Rangeet. This point is known by various names - Triveni Sangam, Peshoke Viewpoint etc. The two rivers are always of different colors as per the locals, and even after they meet, they tend to carry their individuality for some distance until they finally merge and flow as one river. There are small shops here that sell snacks and tea. We tried the fiery chana chaat and loved it. You will also see the famous Kalimpong lollipops for sale here.

If you decide to go river rafting, then this is where you let your cabbie know. Our cab guy knew one of the organizers and asked him to meet us near the Teesta bridge. From there we were taken to the rafting point. From there we were transferred to a jeep along with the raft and two instructors and went on a bumpy ride to the start of our journey. If you take the raft locally like we did, then you pay the cost of the entire raft immaterial of the number of people in it. It worked out expensive for us. I suggest going for this if you are in a large group and the cost is justified. Try to bargain on the price. Also, the river Rangeet does not really have many rapids, so for most of the journey, it is just calm and feels like regular boating with no thrill. Teesta has rapids and the rafting there is classified into swimmers and non-swimmer areas. You can also go rafting in Teesta from Gangtok. Check out Thrillophilia for good rates if you are in a small group. Keep in mind that this is taking time away from your Kalimpong sightseeing if you combine it on the same say like that. We did that and then regretted doing so.

Lover's Meet - Confluence of River Teesta and Rangeet
Rafting on River Rangeet

After that, we proceeded to Deolo Park to soak in the view of the hills. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the highest point in Kalimpong, it was already 3PM and the fog was setting in. So we got no view, but we did see the park dirtied with a lot of trash - paper plates, spoons, cups etc, just strewn over the hillside. A very sad sight. Outside the park, we also had our lunch of momos and maggi with some really sweet tea.

We then went to the Science Center. This is a very amateur museum of science. If you live in a big city and have visited similar museums or are already in a field of science, this will not amuse you. We entered it and found that our local Visvesvaraya Museum in Bangalore was far more advanced and hence, immediately walked out. Children may, however, enjoy the Science Center.

From there we went to Hanuman Park which has a tall statue of Lord Hanuman.

Post this we visited Mangal Dham. It is a beautiful temple with a lot of art in it. This was one of the only things I felt one should visit Kalimpong to see. Peaceful and beautiful.

View from Deolo Park

Mangal Dham
The Pinewood nursery was closed as we visited Kalimpong on a Sunday. Either way, it is something that should be visited on the way to Kalimpong rather than during the return. It had already turned pretty dark by the time we reached the nursery while returning.

I found that our cab driver was not really interested in showing us the sights, he wasn't even aware of much. To avoid a disappointing experience like us, I suggest you check in advance what sights will be included in the sightseeing. The options of half day and full day tours from Kalimpong seem to be a better option, but may work out only if you stay in Kalimpong for the night.

The good thing about our drive back was that the cab guy knew the road like the back of his hand and brought us in quickly. He knew internal roads in Darjeeling and that helped us avoid the traffic jam.

Other sights to see in Kalimpong:
  • Pinewood Nursery
  • Durpin Dara Hill - Monastery on a hill.


Day 6: Darjeeling


Day 6 was for leisure. We didn't book any local sightseeing. You can reach out to your hotel in advance if you want to book it or to any of the local tour operators. We chose to do neither. We only booked the toy train.

The narrow-gauge train that led to the rise of Darjeeling is known as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways or more popularly as the Toy Train. The train is used to transport people to and from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling. For the benefit of tourists, DHR also organizes joy rides that start at Darjeeling, take you up to Ghoom and get you back. A joy ride lasts about 2 hours including a 10 minute stop at the beautiful Batasia Loop and a 25 minute stop at Ghoom where you can visit the railway museum.

We booked the joy ride through IRCTC online. Book the tickets from DJ to DJRZ for the joy ride. The rates differ based on the type of locomotive being used for the ride. The steam engine rides cost Rs.1500 as of October 2019 and the diesel engine ride costs Rs.1000. When a better coach is used, the cost may increase by Rs.100 (vista coach). The booking counter at the station is open till 5pm if you want to book it in person.

Back in 2009, when I took the same ride, the view from the train was worth seeing, as we saw the valley. Due to a lot of construction along the road, the view is mostly blocked and there are just a few spots where you get an unobstructed view of the valley. Take this ride only for the experience. It is not every day that you get to ride a world heritage site that crisscrosses through the roads and markets.

Account for delays in the train schedule as the day progresses. Preferably book a morning slot. We had one cancellation and one delay.

After that, we visited the Peace Pagoda in Darjeeling. This is something worth visiting. It is calm and sits majestically amidst tall trees. We walked up the hill (extremely tiring), but I am sure you can hire a taxi somewhere in Darjeeling to visit the same.

We then returned to the market to shop for souvenirs and have dinner.

Batasia Loop



Peace Pagoda


Other sights to see in Darjeeling:

  • Tiger Hills - On a clear day, the sunrise from Tiger hills is beautiful. You can see Kanchenjunga all lit up with the first rays of the morning.
  • Ghoom Monastery
  • Dhirdham Temple - a Nepali style temple.
  • Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling Zoo and Bengal Natural History Museum
  • Tenzing and Gombu Rock
  • Happy Valley Tea Estate


Day 7: Travel to Gangtok


We had our breakfast and started to Gangtok very soon after that. We used GoZo cabs to travel to Gangtok. Book it in advance to get competitive rates. The service was amazing, the cab was clean and on time. We would definitely recommend it.


If we were to replan:


Sadly, if we were to replan, we would remove Darjeeling off our list completely. This is our personal opinion and this is why we would do that:
  • Traffic is harrowing. We don't like getting stuck in 2-3 hour long traffic jams on vacations.
  • Extremely crowded. The hill station is a popular vacation destination for tourists and this has led to overcrowding in the last few years. This is affecting the ecological balance in the area.
  • View is unpredictable - The first time I visited in 2009, the view was spectacular, this time, we never got one due to cloud cover. Most of the things to see in Darjeeling depend on the weather making it extremely unpredictable. 
  • Too many constructions - Where once upon a time one edge of the road offered mesmerizing views of the mountains and valleys, today, the same is covered with buildings and the only view you can see is from in between them.
  • Kalimpong is again over-hyped and there isn't much to take in there as well.
  • Cleanliness isn't a thing - You can blame the tourists for this or the locals, but the twin towns lacked cleanliness. We were upset to see paper plates and single serves spilled over the edge of the hills at tourist spots. They have restrooms in tourist places, but most are ill-maintained.

If you are still keen on visiting the hill station, this is how we suggest you plan:

  • Day 1 - Keep one day aside to reach Darjeeling. Do not plan anything for this day at all.
  • Day 2 - Take the toy train ride.
  • Day 3 - Visit the local sites, if interested, on Day 2 or 3, depending on your train schedule.
  • Include a trip to Sandakphu and Phalut to soak in the view of Mount Everest, Kanchenjunga, and several other peaks. If you are planning a trek, then keep aside 7 days for it. There are several operators in Darjeeling who can arrange this trek for you, or you can check out sites like Thrillophilia who will arrange it too. If you aren't the trekking sort, you can also hire a Land Rover from Manebhajan. More details here. Add 3 extra days to your trip if you plan a trip using Land Rovers.
  • Day 4 - If your next destination is Gangtok, then you can decide to spend one night in Kalimpong. It is on the way from Darjeeling to Gangtok. You can also use this day to do any adventure sports you want. Kalimpong offers river rafting and paragliding.
  • Day 5 - Kalimpong sightseeing, assuming you used Day 4 for adventure sports.
  • Day 6 - Proceed to Gangtok. 

What to buy:

  • Warm clothing - Head to Nehru road to buy jackets, shawls, sweaters, woolen caps and mufflers. 
  • Tea - Darjeeling tea is called the Champagne of teas and is a must buy. Buy it at Nathmulls, Chai Chun or Golden Tips. 
  • Buddhist souvenirs from the market - you will a lot of Buddha statues, bells, prayer wheel miniatures, flags etc. on Nehru road.

Where to eat:

  • Momos on the roadside at Chowrasta or on Nehru road.
  • Taste various types of teas at Nathmulls, Golden Tips or Chai Chun. We tried and bought the rose-flavored tea from Chai Chun.
  • Desserts at Glenary's. We tried the apple pie and the red velvet cake and both were yummy.
  • Vegetarian Thukpa at Lazeez Affaire. Thukpa is a very delicious noodle soup, and it was especially flavorful at Lazeez.
  • Thali at Hasty Tasty. We loved the full thali, we also loved their chole batura. The puri aloo looked amazing too.
  • Try out pasta, pizza and milkshakes at Ross's Cafe.
  • Milkshakes at Keventer's.
L-R from top - 1) Momo and chowmein at Zimba, 2) Desserts from Glenary's, 3) Chana chaat at Lover's meet, 4) Thukpa at Lazeez Affaire, 5) Chole Bature at Hasty Tasty, 6) Pasta at Ross's Cafe, 7) Thali at Hasty Tasty

Things to know before you go:


  1. Darjeeling gets overcrowded during festivals like Durga Puja and Diwali as well as when schools have holidays. Preferably avoid these times to visit Darjeeling.
  2. Weather is unpredictable in the hills, be prepared for cold days and rainy days.
  3. Roads are narrow and steep, it is better to hire a taxi to reach Darjeeling than attempting to self-drive even if it works out a little more expensive.
  4. Traffic jams!! Darjeeling has really bad traffic jams in the evenings because that is when all the tourists are returning back to hotels, arriving from the airport as well as local folks leaving for the day. It can take easily 1 hour to negotiate a distance of 2-3Kms.
  5. Do not trust Google maps if you are driving. It does not list the one-ways correctly, it is better to ask locals for directions.
  6. Since the town is built on a hill, the roads are steep. So while the distance may seem short, be aware of the terrain if you choose to walk someplace rather than hiring a taxi.


Useful links:


Treasure trove of information on Darjeeling - https://www.darjeeling-tourism.com/
Our favorite website to compare flights - https://www.cleartrip.com/
Our favorite website to book hotel - https://www.agoda.com/
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Travel to North East India - Meghalaya


Itinerary, tips, what to shop for, where to eat and things to know before you go for a 10 day trip to North East India including the states of Meghalaya, West Bengal and Sikkim.


After many debates, discussions and online searches later, we finalized our 2019 vacation destination as North East India. It was a vacation I had done ten years ago with my parents and chose to repeat the same with Raj.

The North East has been blessed with natural beauty - the towering Himalayas, the clear rivers, white waterfalls, varied wildlife, diverse fauna, clear blue skies, fresh hilly air, and clouds. Ever since my first visit in 2009, I had been craving to take Raj there. And finally, we made it this year. And we have some more trips planned based on our current experience.

This travel post (like all my travel posts) is divided into 3 parts so that I can detail out our itinerary, the sights to see, places to eat perhaps, our plans and misses, and how I would replan it for the future.

Our overall itinerary:


Day 1 - Travel from Bangalore to Guwahati by flight. Then drive down to Shillong.
Day 2 - Sohra (Cherrapunji) sightseeing
Day 3 - Mawlyngong and Dawki
Day 4 - Drive back to Guwahati. Fly to Bagdogra. Hire a cab to Darjeeling.
Day 5 - Kalimpong sightseeing
Day 6 - Darjeeling sightseeing
Day 7 - Take a cab to Gangtok.
Day 8 - Nathu La Pass
Day 9 - Gangtok sightseeing
Day 10 - Take a cab to Bagdogra. Fly back to Bangalore.


This post details our travel and stay in the state of Meghalaya.

Meghalaya


Meghalaya means the abode of clouds. And true to its name, that is exactly what it was. You can love it or hate it, but you just cannot ignore the clouds. Sometimes we were mesmerized by them, sometimes we wished they would all go away, just for a day. It has often been referred to as the Scotland of the East.

The state of Meghalaya was carved out of Assam in the year 1972. Shillong is the capital of Meghalaya. Meghalaya is flanked by Bangladesh on its west and south. It is also home to the wettest places on Earth - Sohra (Cherrapunji) and Mawsynram.



Our Journey: Day 1: Shillong


We took an early morning direct flight to Guwahati, Assam from Bangalore. Shillong has an airport too, however, it doesn't have a direct flight from Bangalore and we would need to hop flight at Kolkata. Guwahati worked in our favour as we were able to rent a self-drive vehicle from there, something that is still not available in Shillong.

Our original plan was to reach Guwahati early, pick up our Zoomcar (self-drive), visit the famous shakti peetha - Kamakhya in Guwahati and then proceed to Shillong, which is a 2.5 hour drive. And if there was still daylight, we planned to see a few places in Shillong. But things went wrong from the moment we landed in Guwahati. The location provided by the Zoomcar app took us to a drain 27kms away from the airport. We had booked a car from a location closest to the airport (4.5kms) as we did not get an airport pickup. Their customer service center kept telling us they had technical issues so they could not help us. We finally managed to get a vehicle from them even further away from the Airport (30kms) and that too 3 hours later. This meant we had to forego visiting Kamakhya as that had already closed for the afternoon and also, we had no daylight when we reached Shillong.

Zoomcar 

We had a very harrowing experience that I have not detailed here. To avoid something similar, I suggest booking a car well in advance and to only take an airport pickup in an unknown city. Otherwise, you may be better off just hiring a cab instead of taking unnecessary stress like we did. Also, it isn't as easy as it sounds. There is a lot of process to gain access to the car that they have for security reasons, but sometimes that plays out negatively. The car we got couldn't be locked/unlocked by the app and we had to call up their call center, who in turn had to get the owner of the car to unlock it for us. The only positive was, the car was decent and Zoomcar reimbursed all our uber receipts for the inconvenience. Unfortunately, we lost a lot of time and also missed out on visiting places that we had planned.

If everything had gone right, this is what we would have accomplished on day 1:
  • Pickup car at 11am.
  • Reach Kamakhya temple by 12pm. The temple is closed between 1pm to 2.30pm.
  • Have lunch and start for Shillong by 2pm.
  • Reach Shillong by 5pm. See Umiam lake on the way.
  • Explore the local markets and cuisine.
We managed to see the Umiam lake but skipped the temple. Umiam Lake or Barapani Lake is a huge man-made lake on the outskirts of Shillong. Since it is almost 15kms away from the city, it makes sense to cover it on the way in or out of the city, unless one plans on enjoying the water sports available there. There are several viewpoints near the lake which offer picturesque views, make sure to stop at one. There are small shops near these viewpoints that sell you tea, pakodas, aloo chops, maggi and cane knick-knacks. We tried the aloo chops at one of these and they were heavenly. We also picked up some cane vases and cups as souvenirs. 

We had booked Hotel M Crown, bang in the middle of Police Bazaar. I could play devil's advocate for the location of the hotel - it was right next to the market, but that made it a nightmare to reach it. Read my review of the hotel on TripAdvisor. We reached Shillong by 6pm and it was already pretty dark, but Police Bazaar was alive with its hawkers and shops. We managed to battle our way through the crowd and take a glimpse of the market. We also managed to eat momos on the street and rich Bengali sweets from Delhi Mistan Bhandar. We also finished our souvenir shopping of cane goods and fridge magnets. 

Sights to see in Shillong:

  1. Umiam Lake -  We visited this on our way to Shillong on Day 1.
  2. Elephant Falls - Elephant falls is on the way to Sohra/Cherrapunji. It is a 3 level water fall. We visited this on Day 2
  3. Shillong Peak - Highest point in Shillong from where one can view the entire city. We planned for it but it was closed by the time we reached there. It is open from 9am to 3.30pm.
  4. Ward's Lake - A large lake in the middle of the city with a small garden on the side. You can do boating here. We visited this on Day 2
  5. Lady Hydari Park with a small zoo
  6. Museums - There are a few museums in the city related to air force, military and local culture. 
  7. Churches, Temples and Mosques 



Umiam Lake

Elephant Falls
Ward's Lake

Day 2: Sohra/Cherrapunji


We started early for Sohra or Cherrapunji. Sohra is the local name and Cherrapunji is a British corruption of it. Locals prefer it being called Sohra, so Sohra it is. We started at 6.30am from the hotel towards Sohra. Sunrise happens early here, around 5am, so it was bright daylight when we started. If breakfast is included in your hotel stay, ask for a boxed breakfast the night before, most hotels will keep it ready for you. If you eat eggs, then head to police bazaar for a quick egg and roti breakfast. Else, you can eat at Nongkhlaw Cafeteria on the way. We got some aloo paratha and puri bhaji there along with some really good ginger tea.

We then continued our sightseeing in the following order:

  1. Duwan Sing Syiem View Point - Dress up in local Khasi clothes here for Rs.100 per person and take photographs. View the lush green valleys from the viewpoint.
  2. NohKaLiKai Waterfall - This is the part where we hated clouds. Fog like clouds covered the falls and we barely got a glimpse after a good 30-minute wait. We bought some cinnamon here and a local snack of sweet almonds - tasted like some sweet flour coated peanuts. 
  3. Seven Sisters Waterfalls - Again, clouds covered these and it was a test of patience as we waited in the hope that it would clear. They finally did clear and the sight was breathtaking.
  4. Ecopark - This park is located at the origin of the Seven Sisters Waterfalls. Worth the visit.
  5. Wah-Kaba Falls - You can stand near a waterfall here, hence, we loved it. 
  6. We also returned to Shillong by 4pm so we covered Elephant falls and Ward's Lake in Shillong too. 
  7. Shillong Peak closes at 3.30. If you are not hampered by clouds in Sohra, you can manage to cover this on the same day as well.

Other sights to see in Sohra:

  1. Mawsmai Caves - Dimly lit limestone caves. I visited this in 2009 and didn't personally find it special, hence skipped it. There are sections in the caves that are narrow and you may need to squeeze through. Also, be aware that the caves have a strong odor due to the natural mineral deposits.
  2. Double Decker Root Bridges - Definitely a must-go if you are physically fit. The trek to go here involves going down 3500 stairs to see the bridges and climbing back up the same stairs to get back to your car. If you plan to visit these, it is better to halt at Sohra for the night and go here early as this may take a good 2-3 hours to visit.
  3. Rainbow falls - A short trek from the double decker route bridges. If you visit the bridge, then plan for this too.
  4. Wei Sawdong Waterfalls - View 3 levels of waterfalls if you have the courage to bear the bad roads. We planned it and skipped it after traveling a few kilometers off the main highway. The bumpy ride wasn't for us.
Duwan Sing Syiem View Point 
Khasi Dress
NohKaLiKai Waterfall

Seven Sisters Waterfalls







Ecopark
Wah Kaba Falls


Day 3 - Living Root Bridge, Mawlynngong and Dawki:


We had a scrumptious breakfast at the hotel and started day 3 around 8am. Personally, I'd say start earlier as the roads are not good and they slow you down. We wanted to cover three places on our trip in the following order:

  1. Living Root Bridge - If you skipped the double decker root bridge like us, you can visit this one. This is a short 15-minute walk from the parking. It does involve stairs, but much fewer than 3500. The point where the road deviates from the highway is narrow, surrounded by thick foliage, has no cell reception in most places and is full of pot holes. It is a bumpy ride of 13kms that easily took us upwards of 45 minutes. But the sound of the river is calming and the feat of engineering is humbling. 
  2. Mawlynngong - Declared the cleanest village in Asia in 2003, it is only 2kms from the Living Root Bridge. The villagers are extremely conscious about cleanliness and the tourists are also expected to be so. There is a nice bamboo tree top viewpoint, which was under maintenance when we went, but appears to be nice if functional. We ate lunch at the village square and it was a simple yet good meal.
  3. Dawki - If the time is right, the waters are clear. Dawki is located on the India - Bangladesh border and is famous for the illusion of boats floating in the air when the water is clear. The time to witness this is from November to April. The water was green when we went and we didn't mind it at all. The water turns muddy brown during monsoons and is not recommended at that time. There are several boating locations as you near and you will find agents pouncing on your car asking if you want to go boating. We went to the absolute end near the border and chose to go boating from there. It cost us Rs.700 for one boat. Life jackets are provided. The rowboat is taken until a small island where the water is clear and you are given time to take photographs and to soak your feet in the clear and cold water. As per Raj, this was the highlight of the entire trip for him, so I guess something went right here. You can also see the plains of Bangladesh from here.
The drive back was slightly scary as night had fallen by the time we were negotiating the hills and it turned all foggy and cloudy. The visibility was near zero and the rain didn't help much either.

Living Root Bridge


Mawlynngong
Mawlynngong
Dawki

Dawki

Zero Point - India Bangladesh Border at Dawki

If we were to replan:

  • Number of days - 2 days is definitely not enough to absorb the beauty of Meghalaya. If we were to replan, we'd add in at least 3 more days to the trip and include a visit to Kaziranga National Park in Assam. It is 4 hours from Guwahati. Kaziranga is closed for the general public from May to October every year.
  • Time of travel - We definitely want to see the clear waters of Dawki, and would hence plan this during November or December. I would not recommend closer to the summer as the waterfalls may dry up. 
  • We would stay at Sohra for the night and cover the double decker root bridges for sure.

What to buy:

  • Chillies - North East India is famous for its extremely spicy chillies. Buy them at the market at Police Bazaar. This may be seasonal.
  • Apples - We got some amazing crisp apples here. It may be seasonal though.
  • Pickles - Loads of local pickles on sale here in various quantities - chillies, local fruit, bamboo and fish. Take your pick.
  • Cane products - Bamboo grows in abundance here and hence, they have a lot of cane ware for sale - bowls, vases, baskets. 
  • Long lemons and other local vegetables - I loved the lemons and bought home a few. They are served in all restaurants and they tasted different to me. I also saw a lot of different vegetables that I would buy if I were heading home straight from Shillong.
  • Spices - The shops in Sohra sell spices, I picked up some fragrant cinnamon.
  • Shawls and Jackets 
Chillies for sale at Police Bazaar
Shop for pickles and spices at Nohkalikai Falls

Where to eat:

  • Red Rice Restaurant - If you want to try local Khasi cuisine, head here. We tried our luck on two days and managed to get a vegetarian thali on day 2. It was a simple fare, but delicious.
  • Delhi Mistan Bhandaar - If you love sweets, you have to go here!! I loved their sweets. It may be one of the best sweet shops I've ever visited. Try their special sweet, you won't regret it. Skip the nimkis (too salty for my liking).
  • Trattoria - A small hole in the wall in the market that serves local food and is frequented by locals too. It closes at 8pm and I'm not sure it serves veg food. Ask before settling it. Vouched for by most people online for non-vegetarian food. 
  • We also tried Lamee and the restaurant in M Crown Hotel, and preferred the latter. The service in Lamee was slow and the food was average.
  • Momos on the street were average, you can try it once though. 
  • Police Bazaar circle offers a lot of variety in non-vegetarian food - there is biryani, jadoh, momo, kebabs, chops, fried goodies etc. Judging by the looks of it, these are extremely popular with locals, so it must taste good. Try if you are adventurous and non-vegetarian.
  • The same circle offers roti and masala boiled eggs in the morning. You can give that a try too.
  • Wahrisaw restaurant- We ate a simple thali lunch here when at Sohra and it was good.
  • Dapbiang Restaurant - Again, we ate a thali here when were at Mawlyngong. The salsa that accompanied our meal was spicy and full of flavor.
  • Tea near the boating counter at Dawki - This has to be the best tea I've had in a restaurant. Absolutely loved it.
  • Berries from Bangladesh - Give it a try at Dawki if you are feeling adventurous. I did not really like them, but you may.
  • Ja and Cha shops - There are several Ja cha shops all along the highway. Ja means rice and Cha means tea. A simple ja meal is rice, dal, one vegetable (usually okra/bhindi) and one boiled egg if you want. If you want to eat like locals, pop into one of them.
Clockwise from L-R - 1) Sweets at Delhi Mistan Bhandar, Meal at Mawlynngong, Meal at Sohra, Manchow soup at Lamee, Aloo Paratha at Nongkhlaw Cafeteria

 1) Tea at Dawki 2) Khasi meal at Red Rice, 3) Long lemon 4) Sweets at Delhi Mistan Bhandar 5) Sweet almonds

Things to know before you go:

  • Sunset happens very early in Meghalaya. Expect it around 4-5pm in the winter months.
  • Restaurants close early - 8pm to 10pm. Head for an early dinner.
  • Language is not a problem at all. English is the official language of the state and almost everyone speaks Hindi.
  • Street food is mostly non-vegetarian. Ask before you eat.
  • Shillong has a lot of one-ways and Google maps isn't accurate. Ask the locals for directions. Do NOT rely on Google maps.
  • Be aware that Shillong has a lot of traffic jams. It may easily take you 1 hour to cover 4kms in the evenings. 
  • The highway is prone to landslides during monsoons. Be cautious.
  • The city has extremely narrow roads, drive carefully.
  • The state is proud of its cleanliness, there are a lot of dustbins all over the tourist places as well as restrooms (they are well maintained mostly). Use them and do not litter on the streets.
  • All major festivals are celebrated in Meghalaya, so it is better to avoid visiting during Durga Puja, Diwali and Christmas unless you love crowds.
  • Most of the sights in Shillong are closed on Sundays. Ward's lake is closed on Tuesdays. Plan accordingly. 

Useful links:

Meghalaya Tourism Official Website - http://megtourism.gov.in/
Kaziranga National Park Official Website - https://www.kaziranga-national-park.com/
Our favorite website to compare flights - https://www.cleartrip.com/
Our favorite website to book hotel - https://www.agoda.com/
For details on Kamakhya temple - https://www.maakamakhya.org/
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