Nestled in the East Khasi Hills District of Meghalaya, Shillong is cauldron of bustling street markets and almost lackadaisical hilltops – a colourful paradox where urban and rural life intertwines. With the city’s rich culture and its people’s insouciant lifestyle, Shillong is definitely a backpacker’s untapped paradise. Here’s a guide that will help the backpacker in you navigate the comely terrain of Shillong.
There are two ways to get to Shillong from metropolitan cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, or Kolkata. You can either take a train to Guwahati, or fly there. If your budget allows the latter, make sure you book tickets at least a month prior. The prices fluctuate according to the dates, but currently, tickets from Mumbai to Guwahati – via either Delhi or Kolkata – are priced at around 13,000 INR. Shillong itself does have an airport, but flights to and from there are alarmingly infrequent. For whatever reason, most commercial airlines do not fly to the Shillong Airport, except perhaps Air India. The more common alternative is taking a flight to Guwahati Airport, and then driving up to Shillong.
However, if you decide to take the train, you will end up saving up a considerable amount of money on travel fair. Here’s a train schedule from Mumbai to Guwahati. The only downside of taking the train is that the journey will take about forty hours, at a minimum.
Food & Lodging
A three-hour drive from Guwahati Airport, Shillong, at first glance, is a blur of brightly coloured doors and immaculate verandas, giving the city a cosy, domesticated aura. It’s a much-needed escape from the suburban heat that plagues most of the metropolitan cities in India during summers.
Lodging and food are both quite reasonably priced in the city. If you’re looking for semi-fancy B&B type hotels, we’d like to recommend the Eldorado Guest House, in Dhankheti. Rooms start at 750 INR per night, but for about 1,600 per night, you can get a cosy, spacious room with two beds, a view, and a fireplace. For simpler lodging, you may want to take a look at some of the hotels along Police Bazar, such as City View Inn, where rooms begin at 600 INR. For luxury lodging, do check out the Ri Kynjai Hotel. With an immaculate view of the Barapani Lake, the city’s extensive and gorgeous reservoir, this resort is definitely worth the price.
As for food, Shillong is a meat-lover’s nirvana (sorry, vegetarians). The city prides itself in the many delectable pork dishes it serves, especially the traditional Khasi dish ‘jadoh’, which is cooked with a sprinkling of pig’s blood, and isn’t nearly as gruesome as one might imagine. You’ll find a plate of jadoh for about 150 INR at most local Khasi restaurants. Check out places like Trattoria and Jadoh – the name is a dead giveaway – to sample more of the traditional Khasi and Jaintia food. For finer dining options, you can head to Shillong Café. They serve a mean steak, along with some quite delightful vegetarian options, as well.
Music, Festivities, and More
Shillong nightlife is a keen amalgamation of the city’s subversive counterculture, with Shillong Cafe at the heart of it, as the inadvertent outlet for several homegrown musicians, such as Lou Majaw, the brilliant blues prodigy himself. The city isn’t known as the “Rock Capital of India” for nothing. If you happen to visit Shillong this October, make sure you catch the two-day edition of Bacardi NH7 Weekender in Bhoirymbong. As the paramount indie music festival in India, it brings together some spectacular homegrown and international musicians every year. Albeit most places shut quite early in the night, select lounges and bars, such as Cloud 9 in Police Bazar can be found open till late.
You can also spend your afternoons walking down the maze-like streets and along the many local Khasi/Jaintia food-joints, or you can embrace the spirit of tourism and venture into the abundant picturesque sites that are in and around Shillong.
For the Nature Buff in You
There is an undeniable abundance of natural spectacles to explore in Meghalaya. Whether it’s Mawlynnong, dubbed the “Cleanest Village in Asia” and home to the Living Root Bridge, or the cataclysmic beauty of Cherrapunji, with its waterfalls and an unobstructed view of Bangladesh from several angles. Here are some you cannot afford to miss out on:
Located about two hours North of Shillong, Cherrapunji is famously – albeit inaccurately – known as the wettest place in the country. That honour lies with its neighbour, Mawsynram. Along with a breathtaking view of the East Khasi Hills, the drive up to Cherrapunji will give you the opportunity to visit the many waterfalls in Meghalaya. Some of them are the Seven Sisters Falls, with its seven consecutive streams, and the Nohkalikai Falls, with water so blue; it’s almost turquoise, and the tragic fable associated with it. For those who love trekking, make sure to stop by the many caves in the village of Mawsmai. They’re known for their peculiar beauty.
In 2003, Discover India dubbed Mawlynnong as the “Cleanest Village in Asia” on account of its effortless aesthetic value. Located about ninety kilometres from Shillong, Mawlynnong is place of cosy thatched roofs, bamboo tree houses, and pretty filigree. Not to mention the fact that a Living Root Bridge can be found a mere twenty-minute trek away.
A two-hour drive from Shillong, Dawki is a small fishing village all but two kilometres away from Bangladesh. Meghalayan tour guides will boast to you with glee about how close this place actually is to the border. The primary attraction, however, is the Umngot River in Dawki. This spectacular river puts even some Croatian water-bodies to shame. Marking the natural separation between the Khasi and the Jaintia Hills, this river offers tourists kayak rides that take you as close to the Bangladeshi border as one can dare.
Shillong is an ideal destination for those who wish to backpack on a tight budget. Assuming that you take a train there and back, the trip will cost you approximately 16,000 INR for a five-day stay in the city, including travel, lodging, food, and commute. This estimate is taking the cheaper stay and food options into account. The budget is, naturally, adjustable depending on when you book train tickets, and/or decide to travel via an aircraft.
Shillong is an unsung paradise for anyone seeking a quiescent retreat. The natives of the city are absolutely wonderful to tourists, but I recommend taking a guide with you to spots such as Dawki and Cherrapunji for a safer and more thorough experience.
Image: Living Root Bridges, Rangthylliang