Nagaland: the land of fierce warriors, bumpy roads and opium addiction

Nagaland may just wear the crown for the worst roads I’ve ever travelled on and I’ve travelled on a lot of bad roads. Road travel averaged around 20km/h, with the journey from Imphal, Manipur to Kohima, Nagaland (the main road connecting two state capitals) taking six hours to cover the 140km and the 210km journey from Mokokchung to Mon (where the jeeps have to go out of the state and back in to avoid the even worse roads in Nagaland) taking 10 hours.

I emerged from the bus in Kohima with sore hands from gripping the seat in front of me, frazzled hair from being thrown around uncontrollably and a backpack covered with a thick layer of dust. And then when I arrived at my homestay, I proceeded to have a long and entertaining conversation with the host about just how bad the road conditions are.

My host for the four days I spent in Kohima, Mr Sting, provided innumerable entertaining conversations and occasionally the neighbour also came over to join in, a colourful and friendly woman. Most of the time the conversation encircled corruption, politics and, you guessed it, how terrible the damn roads are.

Kohima
Kohima

Sting, originally from Meghalaya, said on some days when he has plans to go somewhere by bus, he wakes up in the morning and then thinks, “Nope, not facing the roads today,” and cancels his ticket. I don’t blame him.

He also said, between fits of laughter, “Can you believe people own Ferraris here, you know? But where do they drive? You can’t on these roads!”. And who owns these Ferraris? Well, it’s likely the son of the Minister for Roads and Transport.

Kohima is an unassuming city, perched on a hilltop in the rolling landscape of Nagaland. It’s the state’s capital although it’s a pretty mild and chilled city for Indian standards. I walked all the way to the State Museum a few kilometres from where I was staying to find it closed, on a day it was meant to be open. So, yeah, it’s pretty chill.

Kohima
View from my homestay

Nagas are devout Christians, so devout in fact that on Sundays the entire state is in shutdown whilst everyone attends church. The only thing open in the entire city I could find was KFC. Luckily Sting whipped up some delicious Indian meals at the homestay.

On another day I tried to visit a small, traditional village called Khonoma, the neighbour’s late husband had come from there and it came highly recommended. I attempted to find shared taxis in the morning but there were none going and then I went to the bus station to discover there was a bus. I returned an hour before departure to find a crowd of local people. I thought, ‘surely they will not all be going to Khonoma?’ But, yes, apparently so and I missed out on a ticket.

Mokokchung bus
Mokokchung bus from Kohima

So back to colourful conversations about corruption with Sting instead. “It’s human nature,” he went on. “If you had the power and money today, you would have thought, no shared taxi, no bus, okay I take flight instead.” The helipad in the city he told me is frequently used by government ministers so they don’t have to take the roads, at taxpayers expense of course. The road to and from the helipad is the only nicely sealed road in town and Sting joked, “The minister comes to Nagaland and then says, ‘Oh Nagaland is very nice,’ but really they just flew in, had lunch and flew out.” I believe him too.

So after not really seeing a whole lot around Kohima, I went to Mokokchung. It was a town that appeared to be a smaller version of Kohima, sitting on a hilltop, and was essentially just a stop on my way to Mon, in the north of the state and my main destination for Nagaland. The bus from Kohima to Mokokchung was an old metal shell that trundled along the road with me and a grand total of four other local people inside.

Mokokchung sumo
Mokokchung sumo/jeep

I stayed one night in Mokokchung and then headed off again before the sunrose the next day to Mon. The long 10 hour journey via Assam was arduous, especially being cramped with 10 other people in a jeep. Before we’d even left on the journey I noticed that the tyre tread had been completely erased already and the rubber had started to split. Low and behold we stopped a couple of times for tyre changes along the way just to make it to our destination.

Mon holds a sort of exotic reputation, as it is the main base for exploring the tribal villages that Nagaland is known for. However, the small, dusty town is just that: a small, dusty town, with not much going on. There’s no existing tourism infrastructure despite the famous Konyak tribes being the state’s main attraction. I was told of one place to stay called Helsa’s Cottage if it was open and thankfully it was when I arrived.

Mon
Mon

From Mon I went to the famous village of Longwa, home to the ex-headhunting Konyaks. Longwa is particularly well known because it uniquely sits right on top of the Myanmar-India border. The border line even symbolically runs right down the centre of the Angh’s (village chief) house so you can sit on the Burmese side of the kitchen or Indian side depending on how you feel.

I had read about Longsha, a charismatic man that opens his home to anyone wanting to stay in the village and I found his number somewhere online and gave him a call. He was thrilled to host me and was waiting for me when I got out of the jeep after the two hour ride from Mon.

Longsha's home
Longsha’s home
Kitchen in a rare quiet state

His family’s home is at the very start of the village and consists of a large round hut which is typical of all homes in Longwa. However, he also has a couple of concrete buildings across the road where some of the family members sleep and where he has two rooms for visitors to stay. However, the large hut is where everyone spends most of the time and there was always around 20 people inside, sometimes more, most I assumed were family and some just came over for a cup of tea and hit of opium.

Within half an hour of meeting Longsha and a quick introduction to his wife, kids and parents, he turned to me and said, “The men are smoking opium, come look”. I had read about the addictive habit that the Konyak men had succumbed to and it was on full display in the front room of the hut at 10 in the morning. A small fire was burning and there were four men sitting around smoking through a homemade bamboo pipe. Longsha introduced me, however, none of them spoke English so it was just an exchange of awkward smiles. He pointed to one and said to me, “He’s a headhunter,” but in the dark corner of the hut I couldn’t make out his face tattoos. It was a bizarre and sudden introduction to the village but I was intrigued and excited to explore more.

Longsha’s younger brother, Nockao, about my age, offered to take me out to see the village. He first took me up to the stone tablet that marks the border and has a view of the village below. The air was very smokey as the locals were all out burning their farms to prepare for the new planting season.

We then walked through the village with many people staring at me and asking Nockao where I was from. Longsha had told me that the village gets around 30 foreign visitors every year who come to stay and so it’s still quite a rare sight for people. On the way out of the Angh’s house, we bumped into Mannyem, an 85 year old headhunter and the oldest warrior left in the village. Nockao asked him if we could sit and chat and he agreed.

Longwa village
Longwa village

Over a cup of tea, I asked Mannyem about his life as a headhunter using Nockao as a translator. He had taken four heads in his lifetime and was a very decorated warrior. He told me he was a little ashamed of his headhunting days because he realises now that it is a sin.

The Konyak warriors were known as fierce fighters who dared to take the heads of their enemies. Usually, I would learn, it was done for revenge and for territorial control. Mannyem said the only reason he is proud of those days is because the Konyaks still control Longwa, because otherwise perhaps his people would have been landless. It was the 1970s missionaries who came and slowly turned the Konyak’s from their animistic and headhunting ways to the devout Christians they are today.

We then went and visited Chopa in his home, an 81 year old headhunter who has taken three heads in his life. He was much more proud of his time as a warrior and said that because of those days he has lived a good life. He had a cheeky sense of humour and said that he had many girlfriends back in the day, including one of the chief’s wife at one point. I was able to take both Mannyem and Chopa’s photos for a 200 rupee (AUD$4) fee each. Mannyem expressed shame for taking the money because I had come such a long way to meet him. He said he knew it was wrong but also that it helped him and his family so he appreciated it.

Chopa Headhunter
Headhunter: Chopa, 81 y.o.

Longsha told me that of course they never used to ask for payment until one day some people started offering money and now it’s become an expected gift. That’s one of the reasons tourism really irks me: the expectation that a foreign white person has plenty of money to give. Once one person flashes their money around, it ruins it for the rest of us. It almost taints the genuine experience I had with both Mannyem and Chopa, but it is what it is.

I spent four days in the village at Longsha’s home and felt completely welcomed into his family. His siblings spoke English, although he parents did not, yet they all tried to make my stay as comfortable as possible. I fell sick on the first night I was there and yet Longsha’s mum cooked me plain rice and tea and looked after me on the Sunday whilst the others went to church.

On the Monday the whole village was marking the beginning of the crop planting season by each family going down to their respective farms and blessing the land and eating a feast. I was welcomed to join Longsha’s family and we spent the day sitting on their large plot on the slopes of the hill and eating rice and meat from a banana leaf after praying for a good harvest.

I returned to Mon and felt so grateful for the experience I’d had in Longwa village. I’d been able to witness a culture and people that will simply become a memory once the last remaining headhunter passes and I believe that the unique experience I had with Longsha’s family would really stick with me forever as a true highlight of my travels.

Longsha and his son
Longsha and his son

Nagaland travel guide

Kohima

Where I stayed

Morung Lodge, right in the centre of town. A bit overpriced, as a dorm bed was 1000 rupees which usually I got a private room for that, however, there was never anyone else there for the four nights I stayed so it was practically a private room anyway. The food is delicious and home cooked and the view from the balcony is unbeatable. Also, there are great books about Nagaland and the Northeast region in the lounge and excellent wifi.

How I got in

I took the bus from Imphal at 9.30am to Kohima, which took 6 hours on perhaps one of the worst roads known to man (although I had the back seat which notoriously makes the potholes feel 10x worse).

How I got out

I took a bus to Mokokchung at 6am from the Nagaland State Transport Corporation station, it’s an easy 15 minutes walk from Morung Lodge. I didn’t pre-purchase my ticket and didn’t need to, there was only a handful of people on the bus. The trip took 6 hours in total.

Mokokchung

Where I stayed

I initially went to the government-run Circuit House but they didn’t have any rooms so I walked next door to Whispering Winds and was so glad I did because for 1000 rupees I had a nice room with a bathroom, very nice staff and good room service. They’re both a steep 2km uphill walk from town centre.

How I got out

I pre-booked a ticket to Mon from the sumo/jeep counter for a 6am departure. Link Transport has a couple of jeeps per day and it’s best to book the day before. The counter is underneath the MMC Shopping Complex in town and the sumos also leave from there. Although, don’t expect to leave at 6am, we left at more around 7am. The journey took 10 hours and goes via Assam where the roads are apparently better.

Mon

Where I stayed

First I stayed at Helsa’s Cottage, 10-15 minute walk out of town from the bus/sumo stands. For 1000 rupees I got a room with a bathroom. They also have dinner available which is delicious and served on the balcony with nice views. They’re not always open, however, and when I returned from Longwa in fact they were closed as the two girls running the place were away.

So I then found Paramount Guesthouse, in town and above the SBI bank. It was also closed but the guy who runs the little shop on the street told me to just call the number on the sign and someone will come and sure enough a woman arrived and opened the place up for me. For 1000 rupees I got a room (seems the standard price here everywhere). She also cooked and delivered dinner, which was nice.

How I got out

From Mon I wanted to get to Jorhat, the jumping off point for Majuli Island. I was able to get there all in one day by starting early.

I first took a shared sumo at 6am to Sonari in Assam. You can’t book in advance so just go to the counter in Mon at 5.30am and try to secure a ticket. The journey took around 3 hours. From Sonari, I took a bus to Sibsagar which leave frequently throughout the day and took around 2 hours. Then from Sibsagar I took another bus to Jorhat which also leave frequently from the station and took nearly 3 hours.

Many people helped me along the way and whenever I asked where to catch the bus from or how to get to x, people were generally helpful especially the bus conductors and sumo drivers.

Mon shared jeep/sumo

Longwa

Where I stayed

Longsha’s Homestay is highly recommended for at least two nights. He charges 1000 rupees for the room and around 150 rupees per meal, as well as 1500 rupees if you use him or his brother as a guide per day although I only paid this for one day as the rest I spent with his family or walking around on my own. Longsha’s number is +91 8974390751, it’s highly recommended you make contact at least a day before arriving.

How i got in and out

A shared sumo leaves Mon at 7.30am from a small shop down towards the Mon-Longwa road. Ask around because there’s no sign or any indication. It’s best to book the day before but it wasn’t full the morning I left.

Many shared sumos leave Longwa every morning going back to Mon and Longsha can secure a ticket for you. The journey takes around 2 hours.

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