There are some moments when you travel where you stop and think, “I have found paradise.” They’re rare moments but when they happen you never want to leave. A tiny village in the remote jungles of south Meghalaya, called Nongriat, was such a place, a paradise.
There’s very little information on tourism in the Northeast but of what there is, the root bridges of Meghalaya, feature quite predominately. Yet, the only other tourists I met there were people from Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya, who were visiting on a day trip and a couple of random foreigners who were as lucky as me to have heard about this place through a friend.
The root bridges are naturally formed from the roots of the trees and simply guided by the local Khasi people to form a bridge across the many rivers that run through the area. The Khasi people have been forming these bridges since anyone can remember and the villagers still very much live as they have been since then. It sounds almost like a picture perfect for a fantasy movie set and if you see the photos you instantly want to go and see it.
But seeing the bridges is not that easy. There is no road access and only a long staircase that has been recently concreted all the way down into the valley and back up the other side. I’ve read varying numbers for how many stairs, but somewhere between 2500 and 3500 is about right. It’s not just root bridges either, there are countless cable bridges that have been constructed along with the concrete stairs. Although I felt that the root bridges were safer than the wire ones!
First I got a shared jeep from Shillong, the capital, to a town called Cherrapunji which has beautiful views over what the tourism department refers to as the Scotland of the East. I stayed one night in a small cottage there owned by the guy who used to have the well known By the Way hostel. The next morning, I was told one public bus passes through between 9-9.30am towards Tyrna. So I stood in town hoping that this bus would in fact come and I see an old beat up metal shell with luggage and people sitting on the roof and hanging onto the back come screeching through town. I waved it down and squeezed myself on.
The bus let me down after 30mins at the turnoff to Tyrna and I had to walk into the town literally at the end of the road. From there the road ends and the stairs begin their descent. It took me around one and a half hours to reach the tiny village of Nongriat, the main base for exploring the bridges and home to the most famous double decker bridge.
From there I kept going for another tough hour on a rocky, steep track to Rainbow Falls, an incredible waterfall with fluorescent blue water. The local day trippers were there taking their selfies before heading all the way back again. I had planned to stay in the village for the night.
There was one guesthouse called Serene Homestay which I had read about on the internet and I assumed that I would stay there. However, as I was coming back into the village at around 5pm I ran into a German girl who had been staying at a homestay with a beautiful little family and my mind was changed. I went to see Santina and she showed me a small bedroom inside her house where I could stay. There was no bathroom, and the best part was the shower was just standing on the back balcony and pouring fresh river water over yourself. After the outside shower and a huge plate of rice and vegetables that had been collected from the jungle, I went to sleep listening to the sounds of the river gushing and insects chirping. It seemed like luxury compared to the horns honking and people yelling that I usually hear from the hostels at night.
I ended up staying three night at Santina’s home. She had five children but none really spoke any English. Not that it mattered though, one of the girls picked me fresh flowers and always poked her head into my room when I was there.
It’s a matriarchal tribe; the children get their mother’s surname and the women own the land titles, which was so refreshing after being in one of the most obviously patriarchal countries in the world.
There were no shops, little electricity and definitely no wifi. I watched as children played sword fighting with sticks and chased each other down jungle paths, the men walked off in the morning carrying machetes to collect food from the jungle and many were still scared of seeing a white person walking around and I had many children stare at me intrigued.
Give it a couple of years though and I’m so afraid that this place is going to change dramatically. The Northeast is starting to really open up to tourism and the root bridges are the perfect poster child for drawing foreigners in. The local tourists already know about it, the government has invested in concreting the paths and families are starting to put little hand painted signs up saying “Homestay, room available”. Now it’s just, wait and they will come. And just like many other places before it, it will soon become just another stop on the tourist trail and a lot of the magic will disappear. For me though, it was the perfect paradise and made me realise exactly why I like going to places where few foreigners go.
It was such a beautiful experience, that I wish I could have stayed longer, but my permit for Arunachal Pradesh was fast running out and I had to get all the way to Tawang!