5 reasons why you need to travel in Northeast India, one of our favorite regions of India to date.
In case you haven’t noticed, we’re totally in love with Northeast India. That is, the seven “sister states” of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, and Tripura. We spent about 2.5 months there, and would’ve gladly stayed longer if monsoon hadn’t rained us out. We didn’t make it to Mizoram or Tripura, but we hear great things. Needless to say, we hope to visit these states soon.
The region is a dream, and not just because there are fewer honking horns than the rest of India (though that certainly plays a part). The relaxed pace of life is alluring to even the speediest travelers, and warm local hearts slow visitors down to their own steady beat. Birdcalls sang to us from the depths of lush tropical forests, and fresh Himalayan air nipped our noses as we crossed sky-high mountain passes. Friendships were forged over beers on the banks of rushing rivers, and stories were shared while scrambling up muddy mountains in the pouring rain.
Best of all, Northeast India is still well away from being a beaten tourist track. As tempting as it is to keep it a secret, the wonders of the Northeast are something to be shared. The region’s tourism potential is enormous, and could provide a steady source of income for many of its people. We can’t say no to that!
If you enjoy straying off the beaten track and into nature, are titillated by the possibility of adventure, or simply want to explore a new part of India you haven’t seen before, here are five reasons you need to travel in Northeast India.
Many people add Sikkim to their Northeast itinerary. Want to know more, check out this guide on Sikkim!
5 reasons why you need to travel in Northeast India
1. There are more cultures than you can shake a stick at.
We reference Northeast India as one entity to make things easier. In reality, the region is wildly diverse, home to hundreds of different tribes. Travelers could explore the region for a lifetime, and still only scrape the surface of the region’s cultural offerings.
Fiercely proud Naga people live in bamboo villages in the hilly regions spanning several states. Calm Tibetans occupy towns and villages precariously perched on the edges of mountains in Arunachal Pradesh. Peaceful Khasi tribes act as forest guardians and protectors in wet Meghalaya.
When people ask us if we ever grow bored of traveling in India, we always chuckle and give the same response. “In India, if you take a bus for two hours, you’ll be met by a different group of people with a totally different language, culture, and history from the place and people you just left.”
Northeast India is no exception.
2. It’s completely different from the rest of India.
Despite being equally as diverse as the rest of the country, much of the Northeast couldn’t be further from “stereotypical” India. Aside from Assam, the places we visited felt much more like Southeast Asia… minus the mass tourism and backpacker pancake trails.
We often asked locals if they felt like they are a part of India, and the responses were overwhelmingly similar:
“Yes, I feel this is India. I am Indian. But we are not like other Indians.”
The difference is visible almost immediately. Gone are the massive throngs of loitering men, eyes staring incessantly as you walk past. Young girls stroll the streets without a care, and it’s totally normal to see groups of young girls and boys hanging out together in public in villages.
Faces are broader and fairer, eye shapes reminiscent of past Burmese or Mongolian ancestry. Time moves more slowly, and pace of life on the streets is more relaxed. Perhaps most importantly, people seem to understand honking your horn doesn’t make traffic move faster.
If you’re a traveler in need of a vacation from the rest of India, or simply want to appreciate how diverse the country truly is, time to pack your bags and book a train to the Northeast!
3. No matter where you go, you’re traveling off the beaten track.
Bar parts of well-developed Assam, virtually all of Northeast India qualifies as off the beaten track. There simply aren’t many tourists visiting this part of the country!
Take 2015, for example: in that year, 118,644 foreign tourists visited the Northeast region, only 0.5% of total foreign visitors in India. That same year, 1.43 billion domestic tourists visited other states, but only 7.2 million of those were in the Northeast. That’s nothing!
You might run into the occasional tour groups in the most popular destinations in Assam or Meghalaya, or need to share the view with selfie squads at Tawang monastery in Arunachal, but that’s about it. No need to worry about streets lined with souvenir stalls, or untrustworthy touts on a quest to part you from your money.
Tourism in the Northeast is still finding its feet, and we assure you, any Northeast India destination you choose will feel like an offbeat adventure.
4. You can see what unspoiled Indian nature looks like.
Yes, such a thing exists in India, which can be hard to grasp given the state of many sights and natural areas in the rest of the country!
That’s not to say the region is spotlessly clean—there are plenty of people who like to use nature as a trash can rather than respect it—but there are still a good number of places where you can roam without tripping over bottles and cans. or tangling feet in plastic bags and kite strings.
The offbeat and untraveled status of the region is part of the reason so much of the nature is unspoiled, but in some areas, the credit belongs to the people. Many of the tribes in Northeast India worship nature, particularly the sun and the moon, which leads to a greater respect for their natural surroundings.
The Khasi tribes in Meghalaya are the perfect example. A Khasi village named Mawlynnong is famous for earning the moniker of “Cleanest village in Asia”. Aside from the fact that this is a slightly absurd and very unfortunate competition, it’s a clear case of the Khasi tribes’ devotion to respecting their environment. Even outside of Mawlynnong, it’s not uncommon to see Khasi adults and children picking up trash from the ground… something we never expected to see in India.
Instead of taking my word for it, come savor the nature yourself. More importantly, be inspired to action by the cleanliness of the Northeast’s nature and people.
(And please, for the love of god, clean up your trash while you’re there.)
5. The people.
We came to the Northeast for the nature, but it’s the people we met who left the most lasting impressions.
On Majuli river island in Assam, a friend led us all over the island. He acted as a guide and translator, helping us better understand the place and its people, hoping we’d share our experience with others.
In Imphal, Manipur’s capital, our homestay host and friend took us around the city and the surrounding areas (despite proclaiming there to be nothing for tourists in Imphal). He showed us everything from local hangout spots to ladies at the city bazaar secretly selling weed!
A young hotel owner in Daporijo, Arunachal Pradesh, loaded us up on the back of his motorbike one afternoon. We bounced and bumped over muddy roads for over an hour so he could show us a cave temple hidden amongst misty mountains.
To be fair, we admit this would not necessarily happen to everyone and anyone. Sebastiaan is a tall, white, blond foreigner who immediately attracts attention—usually positive—wherever he goes. It’s privilege at play, but if you’re a clear-cut foreigner, you’re likely to experience the same.
Domestic tourists may face a different welcome. Bitterness towards mainland Indians is not uncommon in the Northeast. Many men from the Northeast study in other parts of India; they often face harassment, racial slurs and jokes, and general discrimination. Experiences not easily forgotten.
Domestic tourists, don’t let this deter you. Travel to the Northeast is an opportunity to learn more about the homelands of your distant brothers and sisters. It’ll encourage better understanding between the Northeast and the rest of India.
Many locals are excited to see domestic tourists. “Before we only saw them on television and in Bollywood films, and now they are coming in real life!” a man in Ziro Valley exclaimed over chai one evening. If you are kind to the local people and give them a chance, they will not disappoint you.
Get inspired for your trip to Northeast India
So ends my list of reasons you need to travel in Northeast India. I’m assuming you’re all aboard the Northeast India train by now (if there were more trains through Northeast India).
If you’re looking for inspiration on India’s Northeast, below are all of our blog posts on the region. Make yourself a cup of tea, get comfortable, and enjoy reading!
Our travel blog posts on Northeast India
- Travel guide to backpacking in Arunachal Pradesh
- How much it costs to go backpacking in Arunachal Pradesh
- Headhunters and ricebeaters: tribal culture in Longwa
- Junkies for Jesus in Longwa
- Rolling hills and flowers galore in Dzukou Valley
* For more travel advice and how-to guides, see our Northeast India archives.