The complete guide to Shillong

The small capital city of Shillong, tucked away in the north east of India, is an absolute study in contrasts. While some of the most stylish young men and women in the country (think coloured hair and calf length boots) can be spotted on its streets, the region is also home to the Khasi tribal group, with their traditional Jainsem robes.

Shillong came into its own under the British as a garrison town, and retains a laidback colonial charm, with its cathedrals and cottages dating from that era. Although at first glance, it feels like any other noisy, overcrowded Indian town, all it needs is a gentle scratch under the surface to see its innate beauty. And if the commotion gets too much to handle, there are plenty of easy getaways from town, from day trips to weekend vacations.

Here are a few of my suggestions on what to see and do in Shillong to get the best out of this city:

Go on a Dylan pilgrimage

Shillong is aptly known as the rock capital of India, boasting of even an annual Bob Dylan festival on the legendary musician’s birthday in May. The city is a great place to pay homage to this artist, beginning from the newly opened Dylan Café in the busy Laitumkhrah neighbourhood, an ode to the rockstar. Complete this experience with a live concert at night by Lou Majaw, known as Shillong’s Bob Dylan; he usually performs at Café Shillong or the Cloud 9 Restolounge.

Window shop at Bara Bazaar

From fresh meat to a few dozen varieties of chillies, punctuated with stalls selling colourful winter wear and quilts, Bara Bazaar promises a sensory overload. The best time to visit this local market is in the morning, around 9 am, just when the bustle is at its peak. Apart from window-shopping, this is a great place for street photography and people watching, especially the animated interactions between the locals.

Visit the Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures

For a clear understanding of the history and culture of the north eastern states, collectively known as the Seven Sisters (along with one brother Sikkim), there is no better place than the Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures. Spread over seven floors of interesting and instructive exhibits, this museum presents glimpses into this fairly unexplored part of the country. From agricultural practices to natural resources, from handicrafts to musical instruments, there is a wealth of information in these rooms.

Enjoy a bird’s eye view

It is an easy drive out of the city through the towering evergreen trees of Upper Shillong towards Shillong Peak. Visit early in the evening for panoramic views of the city in the distance, just as the twinkling lights of shops and homes get switched on. Before this, make sure to turn off at the road leading to the Air Force Museum, and go further on to the popular Elephant Falls to see how lush Meghalaya really is. Fuel up with coffee and sandwiches at the ML05 café on the way, cleverly themed around bikes and cars. Or carry a picnic basket to indulge in from the quiet environs of Shillong Peak.

Watch an archery lottery

In this unique and fascinating local sport called Teer or Siat Khnam, groups of archers who are members of the local Khasi Archery Association gather at the Polo Grounds every evening around 3.30 pm. At a signal from the leader, the archers let fly dozens of arrows towards the cylindrical bamboo target in the middle. The shooting stops in four minutes, and the arrows are counted; the last two digits of the number of arrows is the winning number for the day. Stay back after the match to watch the process of counting and announcing the results.

Head out to Umiam Lake

In the heart of Shillong is the picturesque Ward’s Lake, a favourite evening rendezvous spot for locals and tourists alike. With small fountains and flowering trees everywhere, this is a quiet oasis in the midst of all the urban chaos. For an even more pleasant experience, make your way to Umiam Lake, a quick 45 minute drive away on the road to Guwahati. Sprawling over 200 square kilometres, the soothing blue waters of this lake lend themselves to a range of activities, from kayaking to angling.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Stay

Royal Heritage Tripura Castle is the converted summer palace of the erstwhile royal family of Tripura, and one of the best luxury stay options within the city. For a calmer experience by the waterfront, stay at the Ri Kynjai Resort right on the banks of Umiam Lake.

Eat

Café Shillong always has a youthful buzz, along with food for the soul and live music on weekends. Dylan’s Café also has an interesting vibe and great food, along with dozens of Dylan memorabilia, from rare posters to cheery wall paintings. For Indian food, the restaurant at Tripura Castle is one of the best options.

Shop

Glory’s Plaza at Police Bazaar is the shopping hub of Shillong, where all the local fashionistas go for the latest trends. Pick up shawls and scarves in typical north-eastern designs and cheerful colours, or local bamboo and wicker handicrafts from the Meghalaya Handloom and Handicrafts Development Emporium or any of the smaller shops in the area.

First impressions of Myanmar

I’ve just got back from a spectacular week of travel in Myanmar, my first time in that country, although I have been dreaming about it for years now. Myanmar is still untouched as far as tourist hordes go and there is a lot of uncertainty, misinformation about travel to that country. I found my own experience smooth and hassle-free throughout and here are my first impressions about the country:

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1. Myanmar is by and large a peaceful country, and there is no cause for worry for travellers, although the military is still officially in power. That is set to change soon, with Aung San Suu Kyi’s party forming government in April. There is a sense of optimism everywhere, and people seem hopeful of better things for their country.

2. The big package tour groups and backpacking hordes have not made Myanmar a stop in their travel itineraries yet, but that is only a matter of time. Go now, when the country is still fairly untouristy and innocent (and that also means no touts and beggars) – these days will not last long. I went there in the peak tourist season of January but was not overwhelmed by crowds anywhere, including the big tourist sites (compared to say, an Angkor Wat).

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3. One of the best things about Myanmar is its friendly people – they are a shy lot and prefer to keep to themselves but the minute you greet the them with Minaglaba!, they break into a broad and welcoming smile.

4. English is still not spoken everywhere freely but you should be able to get by in major tourist areas and in restaurants / hotels without a problem.

5. One of the first things that struck me in Yangon was how orderly the traffic was – absolutely no honking, no lane cutting, no rash driving – very unusual for a south Asian country! It is not so in other places, but by and large, there are no traffic pile ups or unruliness.

6. The best way to get around the country is by domestic flights – expensive but the quickest option. Roads connecting towns are not in the best condition and most trips take between 8-10 hours. Railways are equally slow, in some cases, even slower than buses. And there is no concept of self drive cars and in places like Bagan, you cannot even hire a motorbike (only ebikes are allowed).

7. Almost everyone wears the traditional sarong longyi (pronounced lonji) – the longyis for men are drab and devoid of any character while the women wear theirs like wraparound skirts, with pretty, matching blouses. Teenagers, especially boys, are slowly discovering jeans and coloured hair but in general, the attire is longyi with thanakha paste applied on the face to keep the skin cool and tan-free.

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8. Although we were warned that there were no ATMs in the country, we found them almost everywhere, especially in crowded tourist spots and inside premium hotels and shopping malls (it is another matter altogether that many of these ATMs were out of order but we always managed to find another nearby). Credit cards and debit cards are still not widely accepted except in some luxury hotels, so it is best to carry cash, either in kyat (pronounced chaat) or in crisp, new US dollars (soiled, folded, torn notes are rejected straightaway).

9. We had anticipated difficulty in finding vegetarian food in Myanmar but to our utter surprise and delight, there were a variety of options (more on this in a detailed post soon). From soups to salads and noodles and fried rice, we ate to our heart’s fill at each meal.

10. The idea way to travel around a country is obviously to take it slow and linger where you like, but in practical terms, that is possible only for a lucky few. Myanmar has several significant sites but the unmissable ones are Inle Lake, Bagan and Mandalay – budget to spend atleast two days in each place and you can make yourself a decent itinerary in 7-8 days.

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5 tips for smart winter travel

It’s the season not just to be jolly, but also to bring out the woolies, the warmers and the boots. Travel in winter can be great fun , with all the snow and ice, with the mulled wine and garam chai, and with the festive season in tow. On top of that, there is the advantage of off-season discounts everywhere plus lesser crowds at most places.

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But it can also be a stressful time for travel – cancelled flights, snow storms, the bitter cold and so on.

Here are a easy few tips I have for you, from my own experience travelling in winter (and I have a trip to Ladakh coming up in January!)

1. Keep track of the weather

This seems like an obvious thing but in winter, it is important to keep yourself updated on the weather conditions in your place of origin as well as your destination. Reconfirm your train and flight bookings, if only to find out whether the flight / train is on time or is going at all that day. Try to follow your airline, train company and the airports you are dealing with on twitter, because almost everyone now has a social media presence and send out updates for customers.

2. Be flexible on time

Unlike travel during other times of the year, keep a flexible schedule in winter. And that means keeping a lot of buffer time everywhere, not making tight bookings / connections and trying to travel late in the morning, rather than early mornings or late evenings. Have a Plan B, and not just during travel but also during your stay at your place of holiday, which means, say, a museum instead of a park, or a local activity instead of a day trip out, or some times even an alternate destination.

3. Go prepared for the drive

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If driving, make sure to be abreast of weather predictions to make sure you don’t get caught unawares in the middle of your journey. During a recent trip to New Zealand, it had started snowing mildly when we left Queenstown to drive towards Fox glacier – and because the weather reports were iffy, we decided to drive on instead of stopping wherever we fancied (as is normal in a road trip) – and that saved us a load of trouble because cars which left 10-15 minutes after us got caught in the snow on hilltops. Also it makes sense to keep snow chains, emergency phone numbers and some basic supplies handy (dry food, extra water, flashlight, external mobile charger, toilet paper) – I know of people who have been stranded in Ladakh in the summer months thanks to the snow!

4. Pack smart with layers and layers

Winter2Packing for winter can be a bitch, especially if you like to travel light. After years and years of struggle, I have finally learned the fine art of layering. One winter season spent in Delhi (even though nowhere close to freezing temperatures, still bitterly cold) taught me the tricks. Travel with several layers of thin, easy to pack and carry woollens (keeps you warmer and keeps the bags lighter), with one thick coat or jacket for the top layer – and also keep space for the all-important accessories like gloves, mufflers, socks, hats (and keep back-ups).

5. Make the most of your travel

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(image source: Wikipedia)

Although this seems like a truism, relevant for travel any time of the year, winter travel can be special if you plan it to coincide with festivities like Christmas markets, Thanksgiving feasts, the sauna season in Scandinavia, the skiing season in the Alps and in India, with the Lodi or Sankranti festival – you get to see a bit of local colour and culture, along with the usual travel experiences. Another tip to save money is to avoid travel in the peak season between mid to end December – many places charge a premium for this period, dropping prices immmediately after the 1st of January. So look out for these deals, so that you can plan to stay put at home or wherever you are based at that point in your travels for the holiday season.

What has been your experience and what are your tips for comfortable winter travel? Do share them here in the comments.

5 reasons why New Zealand is great for road trips

I have just returned from a two week holiday in New Zealand, a whistle-stop tour of both the North and South Islands. For most of this trip, we had a rental car to get around from from one stunning place to another. My husband drove all of it, and though we were on the road for anywhere between 3 – 6 hours almost everyday, he ended each day with a smile, if not a big grin.

True. New Zealand is the ideal destination for road trips. And here are a few reasons why you should think of a self-drive car when you visit the country.

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1. The roads are practically empty

Come on, this is a country with a population of a staggering 4.4 million, so how many people are you likely to find on the roads? Of the entire population, almost a third lives in Auckland in the North Island, so the highways on scenic routes are devoid of any traffic. On some days, on some routes, we went for miles without seeing another car. In some ways (oh my god, what if this car suddenly stops), it is a little scary but it also makes for super easy driving.

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2. Everyone follows road rules

If you are a traveller from India, you will know what a surprising and pleasant experience this can be: right of ways, speed limits, no honking… sheer bliss! You get to drive comfortably in the knowledge that some car (or worse, pedestrian, autorickshaw or cow) is not going to appear on the scene at great speed from a side lane. Although most of the country roads are narrow and single lane, it is easy to navigate them at a decent speed, since everyone keeps to their lanes, without tryingovertake as if in a great rush to get somewhere. So, it follows that driving in New Zealand is not stressful or tiring as it can be in some Asian countries.

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3. The roads are super smooth

I don’t mean just the condition of the roads but also the way in which authorities make life happier for drivers. The roads are clearly marked, with excellent banking, so that curves are easy to tackle. Apart from the standard speed limits – 100 kmph on highways and 50 kmph inside towns – we found that every single curve on the winding mountain roads (and they are everywhere in the country – I mean everywhere) had yellow reflective signs and specific speed suggestions, making sure that we were driving at the safest and smoothest speed. And you do not need an SUV or large, fancy car to get around – there are enough budget rental options that will work just as well.

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4. Driving is the easiest way to get around

Road trips are the quickest and most convenient way of travelling within this country, especially given that bus and train connections are not that frequent or regular. Of course, there are inter-city buses like Kiwi Bus and scenic trains like the Tranz Alpine, but these may not always match your schedules. So, get into a car and start driving. The added bonus is that you get to stop and explore a dozen new places along the route every day, instead of just getting from Point A to Point B. After all, that is the fun of a road trip, and New Zealand has enough easy walks, seaside attractions, forest paths and crystal clear lakes to entice you.

5. The landscape changes every half hour

And finally, what is perhaps the most interesting thing about driving in New Zealand – no stretch along the road is like others you have seen earlier. Several times in an hour, you will find that the scenery looks different. And this is despite the fact that most of the country (especially in the South Island) is filled with hills and lakes of all sizes and shapes. One minute you are driving on a windy hill road and the next, you find yourself right next to the sea that gives you company for the next hour or so. And then the cattle – hundreds of cows and thousands of sheep grazing in lush green patches right by the roads… heck, we even saw ostriches once – Believe me, you will never get bored or tired in a “been there, seen it” kind of way. The flip side to this is the temptation for the drive to look at the stunning landscape or stop at random to take photos. But hey, that’s why there are all those stopping bays and lookout points everywhere.

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So, if you ever find yourself in New Zealand or even planning a trip, make sure to include a few days of self drive in your itinerary. Who knows, this may turn out to be your most favourite experience in the country?

7 must dos in Cologne

1. Marvel at the Cologne Cathedral

domThe Cathedral, or Dom, is the single biggest attraction of Cologne – and rightly so. It is an imposing structure that dominates the skyline, starting from the minute you step off the railway station. Although the foundation stone for this imposing cathedral was laid in 1248, it was finally completed – to the shape we see it in today – only in 1880. The stained glass windows inside are stunning, especially the modern interpretation towards the left side of the altar.

The Dom was also destroyed during World War II bombings and had to be extensively restored.

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2. Ramble by the Rhine

One of the best things you can do in Cologne is take long walks by the river. In the evenings, the pubs and cafes by the side start to fill up and the whole area comes to life, with both locals and tourists heading here. That apart, the riverside is a pleasant walk, with lots of trees and old buildings lining one side of the promenade. In certain seasons, it is also possible to do boat rides on the river.

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3. Explore the old city

The old city, known as Aldstadt, is the area behind the Dom and the Rhine walking path – it is a maze of narrow, cobble-stones lanes filled with charming houses and pubs. The best way is to start from the Cathedral and make your way without a map or a plan. During World War II, almost 75% of the old town was destroyed and what you see now has been rebuilt and restored with great care. If possible, go on a guided walking tour of the area, to get into its rich history, especially from the Roman times.

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4. Visit the museums

For such a small city, Cologne has a wealth of museums – start with the one that this city is known for, Eau de Cologne. The Farina fragrance museum takes you through the history of this evergreen perfume, through guided tours. Museum Ludwig is another great place to spend a few hours, with its wide collection of modern art mainly from the 20th century. The museum, houses in a quirkily shaped building near the Dom, has the largest collection of pop art outside the USA. Another favourite among visitors is the Chocolate Museum on one end of the Rhine promenade. It is fascinating tour into the history of chocolate, and includes tasting tours.

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5. Drink Kolsch beer

kolschYou cannot leave Cologne without a few glasses of Kolsch, the local beer. The words Kolsch itself means “Of Cologne” or refers to the local dialect. It is a pale brew with a mild taste, served in tall, thin glasses. For the best experience, it is to be had in one of the original Brauhaus (brewhouses) in the city. I had mine at the centuries old Peters Brauhaus, with its ancient wood panelling and dark interiors.

In Cologne, the tradition is that the waiters keep coming up with refills the minute your glass is empty. When you are finally done for the evening, and cannot take in one more sip, you place the coaster on top of the glass.

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6. Shop for cologne

colognePick up some Eau de Cologne (which literally means “the water of Cologne”) to take back home as gifts (and for yourself). Many shops sell this perfume in many forms, but you are better off buying the original Farina Cologne at the Farina House (museum), which also has a small retail area. The other popular brand is 4711, to be bought at the 4711 House close to the Opera House.

If you are looking for small boutiques and designer stores, then head to the shopping area of Schildergasse, a pedestrianised street that attracts thousands of shoppers each day.

7. Make merry in the Carnival

Finally, the most anticipated event of every year – the Cologne Carnival (read my earlier posts on the Carnival: 1, 2). Although the Carnival season officially starts in November, the one week before the starting of Lent is the most boisterous. This is the time for costumed parades with music and dance, and candy and flowers thrown out to spectators. These are known as the Crazy Days, with specific days set aside for women, children, local associations and so on.

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