This region of India is totally different from the rest of the country and isn’t exactly on the tourist trail…
Arunachal Pradesh is one of the seven sister states of Northeast India, and along with Nagaland, one of the most popular to visit. If you’re picturing India and thinking that Northeast India is Calcutta, you are close, but it’s actually much further east than that. On the map, it’s over on the other side of Bangladesh nearer to Bhutan and China.
This section of India is probably the least travelled part, for which there are a couple of reasons. One of the causes is that it was a conflict zone (and still is) for a long time with tribal wars and land disputes between India and China.
Another reason is that it is a permit-only zone. Therefore, your Indian visa alone won’t get you there; you’ll have to apply for more permits. Most travellers won’t take the time to do this. Not to mention, location-wise, Northeast India isn’t exactly on the tourist trail.
You’ll want to read up on safety before you go as there are some states which are safer than others and even in Arunachal Pradesh you’ll need to be prepared: it’s very cold during tourist season, they won’t have hot water, heated rooms, or many transportation options.
The roads are dangerous in some areas and WiFi is a big “nope” 99 per cent of the time. Think ahead about what to pack and whether you want to take a tour of NE India, which is what I did with Holiday Scout. They say that a permit would probably be denied for a girl applying alone, so a tour is a good option for solo female travellers.
You’ll likely fly into Guwahati in Assam and head over to start your trip in Arunachal Pradesh through Bomdila. My tour guide was from Bomdila and I’ll always cherish the time we spent at his mom’s house making momos with his sisters.
This region of India is totally different from the rest of India. Some areas are called Little Tibet, because it used to be a part of Tibet at one point. Tibetan Buddhism is the religion of most of Arunachal Pradesh and the people look and speak Tibetan, and eat the food too.
There was a famous monk in this small town who tells fortunes. He doesn’t do it for tourists, only for locals and since my guide, Sange, had just started tours and grew up here, the monk offered to come by for a reading.
What an insane experience! It ended with me calling my dad and brother and telling them not to go hunting the next day (in Ohio as they planned) as the monk said something would attack them in the forest!
Bomdila is 8,800 feet above sea level and has amazing views. It is home to many tribes like the Monpa, Aka, and Miji. Check out the Bomdila Pass, GRL Monastery (I played duck, duck, goose with the monks) and make sure to see some of the intricate Mandalas.
We passed through small villages of Dirang and Sangti Valley as we headed up North to Tawang – the most famous town in the state. I loved spending time in these small villages as they are so untouched by tourism.
These towns are so small they don’t even have a Wikipedia page. Wander through apple and kiwi farms, sheep farms, and play with a baby goat or two. Watch out for the notorious black neck crane which is a rare bird that is only in these regions of India and Bhutan.
The main reason people go to Arunachal Pradesh is to visit Tawang and go over the Sela Pass. It’s not always open as the roads get pretty bad, and if it’s not there aren’t many options of places to sleep while you wait days even weeks to pass through.
It was snowing when I went and about -5 degrees, but we made it through and headed to the very famous Tawang Monastery. Tawang was once Tibet and as India allows Tibetans freedom, they can practice their religion here openly unlike some areas in China. It is the largest active Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the world.
You can mingle with the monks, learn from them, and drop in on the children’s school classes. Definitely check out the handicrafts that the local women make. I really adored the textiles here which were vibrant neon woven patterns. I bought quite a lot of fabric which I later took to a tailor and made into modern clothing like party dresses and even added bits to leather jackets.
There are also lady monks in Tawang at the Tsun Gon Thog Jee Choeling Nunnery. They were so sweet, immediately inviting us in for tea and to talk about their lives.
While there are a plethora of Monasteries around Tawang I would recommend making time for a hidden one that no one visits. It is the sixth Dalai Lama’s place of birth: Ugyenling.
Arunachal has a lot more to offer but this article wouldn’t be complete without the most memorable place to visit in the state: Ziro Valley.
Ziro is home to the Apatani Tribe who you might recognize from National Geographic. They are notorious for their facial tattoos and nose plugs, among other recognisable traits. They are sun and moon worshippers (Donyi-Polo) and make animal sacrifices as part of their religion. Take time to chat with a family and learn about their past (and their future of their land becoming a UNESCO heritage site).
You can actually stay the night with them in their bamboo houses. I didn’t sleep there but did stay for dinner. They put raw egg and chicken into bamboo sticks which they cooked over the fire, cracked into pieces, and served us with rice. The government has put the kibosh on many of their rituals and customs because it is claimed they “promote tribal warfare”, so this is a culture that you won’t see for much longer.
Arunachal Pradesh is by far the most unique state I’ve been to in India in the five years I’ve been travelling here, and also the most difficult to travel. I don’t think I would have gone without a guide. I felt 100 per cent safe but there just isn’t the infrastructure in place for tourists at this point.