Tawang : A Buddhist mountain paradise

High in the Indian Himalayas, very close to India’s border with China and Bhutan, at the end of a long and arduous 10 hour sumo jeep ride from Bomdilla (or a quick helicpoter rider from Assam if you have more money than time) you will find the Buddhist mountain paradise of Tawang.

Buddhist Tawang is a peaceful high altitude heaven. Tawang boasts the largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India as well as the monastery famous for being the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama. The country side is green, the mountains are stunning and the people are friendly. What more could you want?

I travelled through all of Arunachal with a friend I had met in India last year. On arriving in Tawang, our first main stop in this isolated and untouched state, we attempted to walk in pouring monsoon rain to find the nunnery or ‘Ani Gompa.’ Without directions, which proved very hard to come by in the whole of Arunachal we where unsuccessful, we limped back to town, drenched to the bone and went into a guest house run by the friendly Dolma. She took one look at us and had us in by the fire in seconds, warming us with Chai. The hospitality we experienced here had us feeling more like honoured guests than customers and we spent most of our time here in the kitchen with the family (and incidentally the stove which made the room very warm).

Visiting the main monastery we were lucky enough to meet the monk who is in charge of the school and who offered to take us through the classrooms. He was a very friendly person who spoke great english and laughed constantly. We where privileged to have him as our guide for the day. We were greeted by cute little monks, who stood as we came in and chanted in unison, ‘Good Morning Sir,’ which was quickly corrected to ‘Madam’ by their teachers. It is tradition for local families to send their sons here to be schooled. However with changing times most of the students now don’t continue on as monks and return to normal life once their schooling is finished.

Little Monks at school

Young monks at school in the Tawang Monastery

The principal monk was so friendly he even offered to take us out to the nearby nunneries of Tawang in his car. Driving along the slippery and unguarded mountain roads, we were visiting during the monsoon of course he reassured us that nothing would happen as long as he was there. There are two nunneries on ‘Ani Gompas’ in Tawang. The first we visited there is no road too and it is quite likely without a guide you would never find it on your own. Secluded in a little mountain enclave we came across a friendly group of nuns working with male members of there families on reconstructions and making butter ornaments for the impending new moon ceremony.

The nuns spoke no english, but greeted us with smiles and butter tea – a hot Tibetan drink made of melted butter, salt and a sometimes a little milk that is always offered to guests, it is really an aquired taste. It is rude to drink less than three cups, so after we where given it in the morning by our friendly hotel manager and visiting both nunneries, we where a bit butter tea’d out.

A Monpa Tibetan nun making butter ornaments

A Monpa Tibetan nun making butter ornaments

Getting There
Tawang can apparently be reached by helicopter from Guwahati, Assam if you have more money than time and are not inclined to spend 20+ hours in a shared jeep taxi with 10 of your newest close friends. If like us however you have more time and not so much money the only transport making it’s way up here is the shared Sumo taxi.

Taxis leave from Bomdilla at 5.30 am every morning taking about 10 people each and take about 10 hours. You can get to Bomdilla from Guwahati or Tezpur Assam or Itanagar by Arunachal Pradesh State Transit buses, which is again approximately a 10 hour trip.

Things to know – Permits
If you are a non Indian citizen you DO require a permit to go to Arunachal Pradesh and you will be required to leave a copy of the permit at every place you stay as well as with every official you come across who feels like asking for it.

Some tour operators will tell you you have to take a tour (their’s preferably) to get this permit. As at the time of posting this it is possible with a group of two or more to obtain a permit for independent travel. You can get this at Arunachal House in Kolkatta or Delhi – but not Guwahati. There are a couple of tour agents in Guwahati that may do it for you but it is advisable to get it before you get there if you can.

Should I go
Yes. Definitely Yes. Tawang while still off the beaten path is one of the more toursited areas in Arunachal Pradesh and as such there is some tourist infrastructure here, which means you will have relatively easy access to transport and accommodation.

This was the first major stop on a month long journey through Arunachal Pradesh and I know I may sound gushy, but I cannot recommend going there enough! Get there now, before everyone finds out about it.

I think Tawang has become one of my favourite mountain towns and I started making plans to return here before I left. What’s your favourite place in the mountains

A cow in a prayer field

A cow in a prayer field

The road is not sealed for the most part but the scenery along the way is stunning and will help take your mind off the bumps.

Newari House - Bandipur

Bandipur : The ‘Europe of Nepal’

Winding up the hillside, squashed into the front seat of a local Nepali bus to Bandipur, I was reminded that any ideas I had about personal space needed to be firmly put out of my head when travelling on local buses in Asia.  I don’t speak fluent Nepali, but I do understand some and I’m pretty sure that the woman at the end of the row just told the man next to me that we are squashed because he was fat and ate to much buffalo, or  maybe she was just talking about an actual buffalo?  She definitely used the words ‘fat’ and ‘buffalo’.

As we wound up the steep hillside towards Bandipur I realised that although squashed, the trip was unusually umbumpy.  The road was actually new and devoid of the usual potholes.  On arriving in Bandipur I was even more pleasantly surprised, clean, washed, paved streets surrounded by delightful little Newari guesthouses.

Bandipur, I have heard labelled as the ‘little Europe’ of Nepal, and it’s not far from the truth.  I don’t mean to offend the rest of Nepal with this statement, but Bandipur is clean, clean even by Western standards.  Bins are strategically placed and signs on the walls encourage people to use them.

Newari Culture

Bandipur is a Newari town. The Newari people are one of over 40 ethnic groups of Nepal and are the most prominent, and indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley.  The term ‘Newar’ has been in use since at least the 1600′s and refers to ‘people of Nepal’.  Their buildings often consist of tiny little carved wooden windows and tiny little doors and can be seen a lot still in Kathmandu itself.  I find these building just adorable.  The inside is the same, even I have to duck my head and the different floors are connected by wooden foot ladders.

Newari house

The little tiny doors and windows of a Newari house

Bandipur Village

The road ends when you reach the start of Bandipur, which means the village itself has no cars and no motorcycles!  The peace and quiet was remarkable.  Bandipur, it appears to me has been setup for tourism.  Nearly every building on the main street is a guesthouse.  This is good news as it means you get to stay in an authentic Newari house pretty much whichever guesthouse you choose.

While I was able to find a reasonably priced room (400 rupees with outside bathroom), the majority of the places seem aimed at the more up market tourist and are definitely more expensive than what you might be used to paying in Kathmandu and Pokhara.

What to do in Bandipur?

Paragliding is possible and popular from here and there are several day hikes to surrounding villages and temples.

For me, it was a relaxing, peaceful weekend break from the noise of the cities that was my favourite part of the town.
Newari food is also worth a mention and is abundant supply in Bandipur.

Getting there

Bandipur can be reached by a local bus from Dumre for 50 rupees, if you prefer not to get to intimate with your fellow man you may prefer to hire a taxi which will set you back about 400 rupees.
Micro vans and local buses regularly leave from Kathmandu and Pokhara for Dumre for around 300-400 rupees..

Should you go?

If your looking for a quiet, peaceful, dust free place to relax and re-charge, Bandipur is a great and easily accessible option.  If your looking for an action packed adventure you probably won’t find it here.

Come for the serenity and fresh air and you won’t be disappointed.
Bandipur Village

Bandipur Village