The best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji: Monsoon!

One part of India that I had not visited at all in my years of travelling, was the north-eastern states. I finally broke that jinx by visiting Meghalaya, the predominantly tribal state carved out of Assam in the 1970’s. After my wonderful trip to Meghalaya in the height of the rains, I am now convinced that the monsoon is the best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji, the two most important places to see in Meghalaya. It seemed right to be visiting the wettest place on earth, in the middle of the monsoon season! I’m now a huge fan of Meghalaya’s natural beauty,  and would love to share with you a little information about the places to visit in Shillong and Cherrapunji.

Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, is a busy little foothill town with the usual urban paraphernalia of shopping centres, cafes, schools, markets, even traffic jams. However, if you take the time, you will also find charming places of interest in Shillong that will show you what this town might have been like a few years ago before the spread of urbanisation. There are some very pretty churches in town, and a lake called Ward’s Lake where you can go for a stroll. The town also has a few very nice cafes that play great music, and I enjoyed chilling out at some of them. In the military cantonment area, you will also find a pretty waterfall called the Spread Eagle Falls.

Misty hills on the drive from Shillong to Cherrapunji

Outside Shillong, in the midst of nature, is where you will really see the true beauty of Meghalaya. “Meghalaya” means “abode of clouds” in Sanskrit; whoever coined the name must have visited during the monsoon! I found myself enveloped more than once in clouds of mist during the drive from Shillong to Cherrapunji and back. The distance from Shillong to Cherrapunji is only 50km but since it’s a hilly route the drive will take 2.5 to 3 hours one way. It is a really scenic route though, and you will enjoy the drive. Since there are limited options of hotels in Cherrapunji, most visitors cover Cherrapunji sightseeing in a day-trip from Shillong.

Aside from the fact that it was once the district with the highest recorded rainfall in the world (this position is now held by Mawsynram, also nearby), Cherrapunji or Sohra as it called locally, also offers amazing views of nature in all its grace. Places to visit in Cherrapunji include the Wah Kaba Falls, Dainthlen Falls, Eco Park, Nohkalikai Falls and the Seven Sisters Falls. I believe that the monsoon is the best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji because the highlight of this area – the waterfalls – are at their peak during the rains. The pictures do not do justice to the beauty that I was witness to.

 

Meghalaya also has a large number of limestone and sandstone caves; cavers from all over the world visit in order to explore them. One of the places to visit in Cherrapunji is Mawsmai, which has limestone caves that are open to tourists. The stalactites and stalagmites are indeed imposing to see. The world’s longest sandstone cave has also recently been discovered near here in Mawsynram.

Two other interesting places to see in Meghalaya are Mawlynnong and Dawki. You can either stay overnight at a homestay in Mawlynnong or take a day-trip from Shillong combining both places. Mawlynnong is known as the cleanest village in Asia, and after seeing the place I didn’t really doubt the title. From here you can easily get to the nearby Living Root Bridge in Riwai. Living root bridges are natural bridges found in a few places in Meghalaya and are one of the most important places to see in Cherrapunji and around. Locals would take the roots of Indian Rubber trees, and train and weave them into a mesh. They would then plaster the mesh with mud and stones to form a natural bridge, allowing people to cross over streams. Ingenious idea, and the bridges are still going strong. Be prepared for a hike up and down several steps though!

The Living root bridge near Mawlynnong

Dawki is about 100km from Shillong and you can easily combine a visit here with a Mawlynnong excursion. It offers scenic views of the Umngot river and the India-Bangladesh border. Outside the monsoon season, the river is very popular for boating. It is said that the water here is the clearest you will find anywhere in the country.

At Dawki overlooking Umgnot river and the India-Bangladesh border

 

Getting there:

Flights to Shillong are only available on Air India from Kolkata and tend to be very expensive. Instead, fly to Guwahati. Guwahati to Shillong is an easy 2-3 hour drive; you can either take a shared cab that will cost you around Rs. 300 per person and drop you at Police Bazaar, or hire a private taxi and have the comfort of stopping en route as you wish. I had hired a private cab for the duration of my trip.

Getting around Shillong and Cherrapunji:

Local cabs charge more or less flat fares for Shillong sightseeing and day-trips to Cherrapunji. A private cab would probably cost you Rs 1800-2000 for local sightseeing in Shillong, and Rs 2500-3000 for a day visit to Cherrapunji. Your hotel can also probably arrange transportation for you if you ask in advance.

Hotels in Shillong:

Shillong has hotels to suit nearly all budgets. However, I would recommend that you try and avoid staying in the Police Bazaar area unless you want to be stuck in traffic all day. It would be much better to stay in the Laitumkhrah area, which is what I did. One big plus of being there was that I was within walking distance of the famous Cafe Shillong! If budget allows, go for Ri Kyinjai which is a resort near Umiam lake and is considered one of the best hotels in Shillong. I was, unfortunately, on a more modest budget.

 

Meghalaya is a must-visit destination in India that offers natural beauty, offbeat experiences and an opportunity to get away from the concrete jungle. The people you meet here will, in general, be really warm and friendly, and you will feel welcome wherever you go. I know that I will be going back someday soon! If you’d like to learn more about the state, you should visit the official website of Meghalaya Tourism, it’s extremely detailed and helpful.

Visiting a green hilly destination during the rains makes it feel even more magical. I also believe that the monsoon is the best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji because unlike summer vacations when everything is over-run with tourists, this time there were relatively fewer crowds. Always a plus as far as I am concerned!

You might also like to read Top 7 Monsoon Getaways In India

 

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Places to visit in Shillong and Cherrapunji during the monsoon#Monsoon in #India is the best time to visit Shillong and Cherrapunji to fully appreciate their natural beauty

Rediscovering spirituality in Orchha

“Photo? Take my photo?” he says, walking after us as we stroll towards the bridge on the Betwa. I oblige, and the sadhu baba gives me a beatific smile. I wonder if money is now expected, realise I’m not carrying any cash to give him and say something to that effect. He smiles and says, “Beta I will never ask you for that.” I feel ashamed to have suggested it.

This small town has more than its share of saffron-clad men and women, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise because this is after all basically a temple town. Jhansi, the closest big city, is a mere 25 minute drive away – but the difference is dramatic. Orchha is small and still retains the innocence of a place untouched by the hectic nature of modern life. Oh sure you have the Tata Sky dishes and motorbikes and even – so I hear – a local radio station. The market has signboards advertising Italian cuisine, B&B’s and shops selling kitschy souvenirs. But the pace of life here is slower, gentler. The locals in the market all seem to know each other. Life revolves around the temples and the daily aartis. Nobody hurries, nobody has deadlines. Nearly everybody has a smile on the face.

A group of young boys watches as Christine and I walk across the bridge, get some shots of the Chattris , and walk back – just about managing to escape being pushed into the river by a truck that has rumbled too close past us. When we reach them, one of the boys shyly asks if we’d like to share a soft drink. We smilingly refuse and continue on our way.

Orchha is a medieval town, established in the early 16th century by a Bundela king . The palaces and temples of Orchha are reason enough to visit, especially if you are a history buff like me. The fort here has a number of palaces built during various periods of its history; Jahangir Mahal for example was built as a welcome gift for the Mughal emperor Jahangir when he visited. There is also a Sound and Light show held here every evening which acts as a good introduction to the history of the town, though a touch melodramatic.

There are many famous temples in Orchha but to me perhaps the best sight here were the cenotaphs (Chattris) standing in a row like brooding sentinels; these riverside memorials to former rulers are now in ruins and still starkly beautiful. I stand and watch the sun disappear behind them.

Cenotaphs (Chhattris) at Orchha
Cenotaphs (Chhattris) at Orchha

At night, the stars come out. Standing by the river I look up and try to identify constellations. I think I see Orion. I know for sure that it’s been a long time since I saw so many stars in the night sky. The night is quiet, peaceful and I could well be all alone – except for the half-full hotel just behind me.

We decide to attend morning Aarti before leaving Orchha. The Ram Raja temple is the only temple of its kind – Ram is worshipped here not as a deity but as a king. In deference to his royal status, a pair of cannons is posted at the entrance of the temple. Sentries are on guard duty outside and inside. We go in, a few minutes before the morning Aarti is to begin. The temple courtyard is full mostly of locals, who from the looks of it seem to be regulars here. There are of course also a few gawking tourists like us. I have a vague sense of unease, feeling like an intruder – I never visit temples if I can help it – but I soon start feeling better.  Finally the sanctum doors are opened and the Aarti begins; the devotional song being sung is one that I’ve never heard before, but the entire congregation seems to know it well. They sing loudly, un-selfconsciously, with all their hearts. A mother picks up her toddler son to allow the priest to touch his forehead in blessing. An old man is getting a wedding card blessed by Ram Raja. The hymn goes on, soothing yet cheering. I look around. I feel tears running down my face that I can’t stop. And finally, after years of declaring I don’t believe in prayers, I find myself saying one….

(Written in 2011 and published on an earlier blog. Migrated here now)

So, what’s to see in Phuket?

I’ve been meaning to write this post since my visit to Phuket over a year ago. When I visited I was with a group of friends and had no idea what to do or where to go – so I just went along with all the others! I now know a little bit more, and can share that little bit with those in a similar situation 🙂

Contrary to what the first-time visitor might imagine, there is a lot more to Phuket than the famous Patong beach and Phuket/Patong nightlife. Granted that the nightlife is a major draw for most visitors, but here are some other suggestions on things a visitor can also enjoy in Phuket:

  1. Boat trips – Tons of options are available for day trips on speedboats or larger cruise boats to neighbouring islands and beaches. If you are not planning to stay at Phi Phi, a boat trip to see Maya bay might interest you. If you only have time for one excursion, I would recommend the excursion to Pha Nga bay instead. The boat will take you to this impossibly scenic bay and the famous James Bond island, and later give you an opportunity for canoeing and swimming off a secluded beach. A good lunch is usually included.
Phuket
On a boat trip to James Bond island

2. Spas – Thailand is known for spas, and there are some really great ones in Phuket offering massages, scrubs, foot rubs etc. at really decent prices. After a hectic day out, a good foot and back massage can be just what you need, before a night of partying!

3. Beaches – Naturally, you cannot be in Phuket and not spend time at the beach. The most commonly known beach is Patong of course, but for the same reasons it can also be crowded. If you prefer a quieter, calmer beach experience then head to Kata or Karon beaches. I loved the sunset at Karon. Kamala and Nai Yang beaches are also recommended.

4. Street food – Try some of the local food being sold by roadside vendors. You will find delicious fruits, pancakes with a variety of fillings, soups, noodles, seafood and a host of other interesting dishes being sold very cheap. Be as adventurous as you like!

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5. Heritage tours – If you are the kind (like me) who likes to learn something about the history and culture of the place you are visiting, this one is for you. The Old Town of Phuket still has beautiful examples of Sino-Colonial architecture – buildings dating mostly from before the second World War. These include old merchant mansions, shops, gardens, hotels etc, and are best seen on a walking or bicycle tour of the Old Town.

6. Adventure – For those seeking an active holiday, there is no dearth of interesting options in Phuket. You could go white water rafting, scuba diving, take a bicycle or ATV ride into the countryside, try ziplining or even river canoeing.

Getting There: Phuket can be reached from Bangkok via flight (most convenient) or by bus (cheapest, but a 12-ish hour ride).

 

Of memorable sunrises…

There is something magical about sunrises. Wherever on earth you may be, watching the light change slowly around you as the sun comes up and the world slowly comes to life, can be a soul satisfying experience. The effect gets magnified if you are watching this in the vicinity of one of the “alternative” wonders of the world.

Anyone who has been to Siem Reap will tell you, you can’t miss watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat. Get a tuktuk man to drive you over at the unearthly hour of 4.30 am; any later than that, and you won’t be able to find a good “seat” for the show. Find a nice comfortable spot in the grass near the lily pond, where you will get the best view.

Since a picture can speak a thousand words, here is what it looks like

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Some of the stages of an #Angkor Wat #sunrise

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Definitely, one for the bucket list!