As soon as we arrived in Cherrapunjee, we took one glance at each other and knew we were drastically un-researched for this unique part of the world. Not that it was any fault of our own. We’d read the guide books (one paragraph…thanks Lonely Planet), Googled various blogs and conversations on Trip Advisor, and from what we could tell this was a 3 night destination before we headed off to explore the rest of the North Eastern States of India.
Oh how wrong we were.
After a few quick conversations with the handful of starry-eyed and blissfully chilled out backpackers that were either on their way to or from the unique village of Nongriat, we quickly realised that we had stumbled across a place that might just be one of the most special places we’ve discovered in our eight months of travel so far.
3 nights here was never going to be enough. We didn’t even know the village of Nongriat existed, let along the fact that you can stay in one of the two family owned guest houses, surrounded by lush jungle forest and eating the divine simple and fresh local cuisine.
So whats the deal with this place called Cherrapunjee, where is it and why have I never heard of it? And what the heck is a living tree root bridge I hear you ask? Well, here are a few answers to these questions you may be thinking, and most importantly, how you get there so you can discover this fairy tale world / jungle book fantasy all for yourself.
-What is a living tree root bridge??
It is, literally, just that. These bridges have been carefully crafted over hundreds of years by the local villagers, training the roots of Rubber Fig trees (Ficus erratica) slowly and painstakingly over the years to create living walkways that even come complete with handrails.
Many are started with a wire or timber structure, which over a period of 20-50 years, would usually start to deteriorate and need maintenance and repairs, perhaps even a new bridge installed. By this time, the tree roots should have grown to a point where they have completely enveloped the original structure, and will only grow stronger as time goes on.
We saw bridges that were trained with wire and bamboo, but the most impressive were the ones that were completely natural, grown over the years with roots alone. Seriously, walking on these incredible pieces of natural architecture is a childhood fantasy come true, its the Jungle Book meets Lord of the Rings meets the Enchanted Forest, and the best thing is they are created by the villagers for every day use. They might take a long time to grow, but these people are long-term thinkers and these incredible bridges will be around for many generations to come.
-So who makes the bridges?
The Khasi villagers are the guardians of the tree root bridges, and everyone takes on the maintenance of them as part of their every day life. As I mentioned, these are people who look to the long term future, and know that their close and intricate relationship with the natural world they live in is inextricably linked with the quality of their lives.
Hailing originally from Cambodia, they come from a tribal warfare background, where long term thinking was the only thing that was going to guarantee their families survival. Interestingly, a result of this is that the women are the matriarchs of the families, the main decision makers and the youngest girls will inhere the family property. Why’s this? Because the boys were more likely to be killed in battles, and the youngest girl is most likely to survive the longest.
It’s so refreshing to spend some time with these amazing people. After coming from Varanasi (which we recently discovered is the 7th most polluted city in India) Nongriat is a massive contrast, where it is second nature to care for the environment that you exist in. Waste is carefully recycled where possible, there is no rubbish to be seen, and if it is, its most likely from the day tourists that come in and rush out…leaving a trail behind them. It’s beyond us why anyone would come into this dream land and abuse it like that. On the bright side though, it was so lovely to see the young village girls picking up left behind rubbish without a second thought. Seriously guys, if you visit here…respect the place and its people, and take your rubbish with you.
-How do I see them?
Excellent question. We wish someone had told us this before we got there.
The best way to see the bridges and the villages is to give yourself plenty of time, and stay more than a few nights in Nongriat.
Once you get down there, its just a matter of exploring until your hearts content along the many paths connecting other small villages in the valley. The tree root bridges are a functioning part of the network that exists without cars or roads, so by foot is your only option to get around.
-How do I get to Nongriat?
Having a bit of time on your hands is a big advantage in getting down to Nongriat, as things move at a much slower pace in this part of the world, and even more so if you are trying to get anywhere on a Sunday. Allowing two days of travel from Guwahati is a safe bet.
Guwahati is the closest train station, and usually the gateway for most people to the North Eastern States. The bus station is directly across the road from the train station, where you can get a Sumo (shared 4WD Taxi seating somewhere between 6 and 12 passengers) to Shillong for 180 INR (£1.80). Its a 3 hour ride along some surprisingly good quality roads, just a little windy through a landscape looking oddly Scottish, complete with tartan wearing locals.
If you make it to Shillong in time, its another 3 hours to Cherrapunjee by Sumo again. We were at the end of our tether though after one of the worst overnight train rides we’d had for our entire trip from Darjeeling and the 3 hour trip to Shillong, plus it was getting late in the day so we opted for a taxi for 1200 INR (£12) to get us to Cherrapunjee.
From Cherrapunjee, you can get another Sumo to the village of Tyrna (15 INR), or a taxi for around 400 INR (easiest option if it happens to be a Sunday).
When you get to Tyrna, it's about a one hour walk down an easy to follow but steep concrete pathway of 2000 steps to get to Nongriat, which is 5 mins from the most famous of the tree root bridges, The Double Decker, and an easy walk from many more.
-What else is there to see?
Apart from marvelling at the beauty of the tree root bridges, staying at the village of Nongriat is a pretty unique experience, where you can immerse yourself in the lush jungle and spend days seeking out new swimming holes and visiting other villages.
One of the biggest highlights is the Rainbow Falls, a stunning waterfall around an hours walk from Nongriat. We loved it so much we spent two days there, splashing about in the pristine waterholes and soaking up the sun on giant boulders.
You’ll probably end up with hand drawn maps every day from your guest house, sending you off on new adventures and explorations if you’re the kind of travellers like us who just can’t sit still.
-How many days should I stay for?
We initially planned to spend two days in the area, but that immediately blew out to six. In a week, you will feel like you’ve done the area justice, although we met many people staying for much longer, including one awesome couple who tried to leave, got as far as Shilong, and then just had to turn around and come back for another week in paradise.
-Where do I stay?
On the way down from Guwahati it probably makes sense to stop over in Cherrapunjee before heading off early the next day. Most travellers seem to end up at By The Way Guest House, which is a pretty functional dorm style place literally along the main road in Cherrapunjee. We’d read raving reviews about the owner being ‘the Bob Marley of India’, but we’d say he’s probably just more of a chilled out dude who may or may-not be helpful depending on the mood he’s in. You can't book in advance, so just turn up and hope there is room.There’s not really need to linger in Cherrapunjee…just get your ass down to Nongriat ASAP!
In Nongriat, you really will meet the most genuine, friendly and helpful person you’ll probably meet in all of India; Byron, the owner of Serene Homestay (firstname.lastname@example.org/ +919 436 739 655 or +919 615 252 655). He will cook you the most delicious food daily, draw you maps and make sure you have an amazing time, all the while having loads of time for a chat and a massive smile on his face.
It's best to give a call or email before you arrive, as sometimes the village does ‘fill up’ (and by that, we mean about 12 tourists). If Serene if full, Byron will be able to put you in touch with the only other guesthouse in the village, otherwise its a long walk back to Cherrapunjee….or you could always bring a tent.
-So it’s warm and quiet, does that mean… skinny dipping?
If you’re game! Just make sure none of the locals are spying from the tree tops ;)
-How much does it cost?
Daily food: 400 INR (£4)
Accommodation (double room): 600 INR (£6)
Visiting Nongriat and the Tree Root Bridges: PRICELESS
EMMA & PETE
We're just two Aussie's who met in London, married in Prague and travelled overland back to Australia.