A Local’s Travel Guide to Assam
Ever since I moved out of Assam in 2005, I haven’t stopped expressing my love for the state to friends and strangers alike. A childhood spent adventurously in a tea garden next to a forest always made for exciting stories, until I went back last winter. With an urge to explore my neighbourhood, I travelled a few hours from home every other day and stumbled upon a completely different side of the state each time. Whether it be driving through untouched forest reserves, discovering local communities that live humbly by the mighty Brahmaputra, whiling away time in a quaint British Bungalow or taking a walk through a forgotten chapter of pre-Independence history, Assam will surprise and soothe you all the same.
Forget what the brochures are saying; here are a few experiences that you should plan your trip to Assam for.
Experience the tea garden life
I’ve been a tea garden kid all my life. Ever since I was little, I’ve spent my days to the rhythm of bird calls and whirring of machines in the factory. Lost in the charm of the slow life, I’ve often wished for those in the cities to be able to enjoy this pleasant solitude. Luckily, there are tea gardens that have now opened the doors of their heritage bungalows, complete with meshed verandas and manicured lawns, to travellers, and a number of travel companies organize these stays. Rest assured a 5 pm sunset will never seem monotonous when accompanied by a cup of the finest Assam tea and a field of lush green painting your vision. (Read: The Assam of my childhood).
Hike across a rainforest and enjoy the wilderness
There’s no denying that spotting a one-horned rhino in an early morning safari in Kaziranga National Park makes for quite a magical moment. But if you’re a wildlife enthusiast and looking to truly enjoy your experience in the wilderness, I suggest you head to some of Assam’s un-touristy spots instead. Dehing Patkai Wildlife Sanctuary in Tinsukia is part of a vast rainforest that borders Arunachal Pradesh. The forest division is not very well equipped, but put a leech guard on and the forest guide will readily take you on an early morning hike through the rainforest – the best way to learn about its interesting fauna and spot elephants and birds in the dense cover. Dibru- Saikhowa National Park, which lies scenically by the Brahmaputra and Dibru rivers, is worth a visit for spotting feral horses, the white-winged wood duck and a rich variety of migratory birds. Manas National Park, on the foothills of the Himalayas and by the border of Bhutan, is also exciting for its rich population of endangered species. And if you’re interested in a quick visit to the forest I grew up around, it’s now the Hollongapar Wildlife Sanctuary and home to a large population of India’s only ape family – Hollock Gibbon.
Live in quaint villages with local communities
I grew up reading about the many smaller tribes that add to Assam’s diversity, but it was only recently that I had the chance to interact with one of them. In the small villages of Tipam Phake and Nam Phake by the Buri Dihing River, a short drive away from Dibrugarh, lives the Tai Phake community that migrated from Thailand back in the 1700s. When commuting in fluent Assamese with the villagers and watching them weave traditional Assamese Mekhlas (waist cloth), it is hard to distinguish them from others in the neighbourhood. But the community continues to be Buddhist, following their own customs and spreading awareness about the same among locals and visitors alike. Tai Phakey eco camp provides accommodation to travellers and an insight into the villagers’ lives.
Not very far away, near the town of Margherita, is another cluster of villages occupied by the Sangpho community that is believed to have migrated from Tibet. The Eco Lodge in Ingthom village allows travellers access to the community’s most distinctive and recognized habit – food. Organic tea and spice farms surround the villages, and locals take great pride in offering you a cup of hand processed tea called Phalap, which has made it to the international markets owing to its unique flavor and taste. Many other such smaller communities dot Assam and spending a few days in one of their villages is the best way of learning about them.
Visit India’s largest inhabited river island
Majuli, known as the cultural capital of Assam, is India’s largest inhabited river island. A short ferry ride from Neematighat in Jorhat transforms you into a completely different world – one with abundant water bodies dotted by migratory birds, narrow village roads nestled by woods and charming bamboo houses built on stilts. In spite of annual floods and months spent in damage control, its inhabitants remain cheerful and hospitable, ever so eager to share stories about the island with you. You could hire a cycle to visit Majuli’s many Neo-Vaishnavite monasteries and learn about the rich Assamese culture from the monks or explore the villages inhabited by the Mising community and sample their delicious food and local rice beer, Apong, while you are there. A trip to Assam is perhaps incomplete without a trip to the picturesque island. (Read: Majuli – Assam’s shrinking Island).
Brush up on history lessons in a British era town
A rather small town in Assam, Digboi, which still seems time warped in the British era, is a great place for those interested in history. Digboi refinery, one of the oldest oil refineries in the world, dates back a century to the time when British colonies occupied India. The Indian Oil Corporation’s Centenary Museum packs all the information that helped put Assam on the country’s economic map back then and makes for an interesting visit. A few kilometers away is the Digboi Cemetery, a quiet and self-effacing World War II Memorial. It was built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to honor the war soldiers that fought against the Japanese troops in the area. Today, 200 graves lie there, reminding us of a dark history, and of men, so brave and young. (Read: Beyond oil refineries – Digboi, Assam).
Another small town called Sivasagar holds remnants of the Ahoms that ruled the state for nearly 100 years, starting 1699. Take a day trip and visit a royal pavilion (Rang Ghar), a seven-storey palace that served as an army base (Rangpur Palace), burial grounds (Charaideo) and a scenic tank flanked by temples (Joysagar). (Read: The forgotten glories of Sivasagar).
Best time to visit Assam
The winter months between November and March are perfect for a trip to Assam. Magh Bihu celebrations can be witnessed throughout the state in January allowing you to enjoy a traditional feast by a bonfire and watch performers dance to the tune of Dhols. Majuli can be visited either during the Raas festival in November or the Ali Ai Ligang festival of the Mising in February. These are also ideal months for soaking in the wilderness and the three-day long Dehing Patkai Festivalin January is a great way to learn about both the rainforest and local tribes inhabiting the area.
How to reach Assam
I’ve had many conversations with disappointed travellers who judged Assam based on their transit landing in Guwahati which, owing to its capital status, happens to be in a state of chaotic urban growth. To be greeted by rolling countryside and tea gardens as you reach, take a train or flight to Dibrugarh via Kolkata or Delhi instead and travel further from there. If you are a solo female traveler, I suggest you avoid the rail route completely and book your flight tickets in advance as the costs tend to be high.
This story was originally published in Travelyaari.