Gluttony in Shillong

By far, the best gastronomic experience I had in Meghalaya was at Sankrita’s house in Mawsynram. It was local, authentic, delicious, generous and homely. But you don’t have to compare everything to the best. So here’s a few cafes and restaurants in Shillong that I tried over multiple trips –

Trattoria – Don’t go by the misleading high-brow Italian name. If all you want to do when you’re in Shillong is to have some authentic Khasi food in a no frills, inexpensive environment, then stop right here. This little place near the Police Bazaar circle is tiny and often full and unlike proper restaurants, has slim communal benches arranged in rows in lieu of tables. It is also run like a canteen so you might have to wait your turn before they take your order and serve you. But for people who don’t mind the barebones ambience, it’s excellent. For newbies to Khasi cuisine like myself, they have helpful pork/mutton/fish platters that have a little bit of every preparation served with Jadoh rice. Can’t recommend this place highly enough.

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The pork platter with Jadoh rice at Trattoria

Café Shillong – This trendy first floor café in Laitumkhrah may be done up as a cool hang-out spot where food is secondary but it’s quite fantastic for grabbing some meaty Khasi dishes. Their steaks are decent but their succulent pork ribs are to die for. I also tried the smoked pork bastenga which was a bit too pungent and salty for my taste. The coffee wasn’t as good as the last time I was here but they have a double shot cappuccino option which is significantly better than the ordinary one. It has live music on Sunday evenings for those who like to go for that sort of thing and generally has a pleasant, cheerful vibe.

Delhi Misthan Bhandar – Hot and sweaty aren’t two words you would ever use to describe anything in a town like Shillong but that’s exactly what Delhi Misthan Bhandar is. It’s always packed to the gills with people and as if the challenge of serving so many customers with a handful of waiters isn’t enough, they complicate things even further by having a strange booking system. So you go to the counter, pay for your chola bhatura, take your slip and go upstairs. Here, you wait for a waiter to show up in a crowded, unventilated sitting area and transfer your order slip to the kitchen. You see them flitting all over the place but no one ever stops by to take your order. You’re getting angry and so are some of the people around you and after half an hour of feeling like you’ve been baked in an oven, you shout at one of them asking when he’s going to get the order. He stares at you sternly and waves an open palm gesture and runs away. Then you go to the manager who asks you to go back to your seat and wait like the other people are doing. Soon you realise that people who came after you have been getting their orders. You are not the sort to kick up a fuss but you try to. The manager looks at your order and says quizzically, “Oh, sirf ek chola bhatura?” (Just one chola bhatura?) and makes a waiter go get it pronto.

The chola bhatura is pretty good and probably the best you’re going to get in all of Shillong.

Smoky Falls Tribe Coffee – This little café with two tiny tables in Police Bazar does the best coffee in Shillong by a fair margin. The coffee is sourced from local growers from different parts of Meghalaya and roasted and packaged by the family that runs the business. It promises to be pure coffee without any added chicory. The place was only open once during the time I was here but I highly recommend picking up a few packets because it’s homegrown, local and run less like a business and more like a passion.

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The Smoky Falls Tribe Coffee place

Swish Café – Another place that does great coffee is this hip little cafe in the Laitumkhrah Beat House. This is known to be among the oldest cafes to open in Shillong and is a charming and friendly place to have a cuppa. I had a whiskey flavoured coffee on the suggestion of the woman taking my order and it was splendid with just the right amount of tang and texture. The food is pretty good too with some filling breakfasts, pork ribs, burgers and pancakes on offer.

Dylan Café – This is a pretty cool place to hang out if that’s all you want to do. There’s a nicely done-up interior area and an open terrace to lounge about. Predictably, Dylan pictures, lyrics and quotes form a significant part of the decoration. The food is college canteen standard and I found the burger and the noodles pretty ordinary. The coffee here was the worst coffee I had in all of Shillong. But still, a good place to chill with friends if your expectations from food aren’t too high.

City Hut Dhaba – Possibly the best place to have North Indian food in Shillong. It’s a tourist favourite and you might have to wait for a table during weekends. The ambience is geared squarely towards big groups and families, so brave solo travellers who venture here might feel slightly out of place (like I did). But the tandoori food here is good and the waiters are friendly and helpful.

Cloud 9 Rooftop Lounge – On the top floor of the most prominent hotel in Police Bazaar, this is a fine place to go for an expensive drink when you’re in the mood. The whiskey sour I had here was as mean as it should be. The Pan-Asian menu leans overtly towards Thai cuisine and is pretty decent for what it is. If you don’t compare the food here to what you get in Chiang Mai or Bangkok, you’ll be fine. The main reason to come here is to unwind after a long day of seeing the sights and it does the job perfectly well.

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Around Shillong – Umiam lake and Shillong Peak

Anyone who’s been to the North-Eastern parts of India might have noticed one strange phenomenon, that the sun sets early and in a lot of places, as early as 4.30 pm. So while we were lazily finishing a leisurely meal at Café Shillong, still invigorated by previous night’s Steve Vai gig, we realised it was 3.30 and if we didn’t get out and do something immediately, the day might well and truly be over.

We hailed a taxi and went straight to the prettiest place around Shillong, the Umiam lake. This mass of hydropower water, about 20 kms from the city, is an unmistakable sight when you’re transiting from Shillong to Guwahati but it’s worth going there for its own sake. Since we were a bit late, we could only hit a couple of viewpoints. The first, on the way to the lake shore, is from an elevated platform that gives you a panoramic view of the entire landscape.

By far, the better view of the lake is from the viewing platform near the Orchid Lake Resort. The place charges a nominal fee to non-guests and what you get for the little money you spend is a marvelous, unobstructed view of the shimmering waters and the tree-laden hills around. There’s a water-sports corner where the more active tourists can take a ride in the still waters. In a way, we were fortunate to have started so late because we were just in time to see the sun down and for the orange-yellow sunset colours to deepen and dissipate in the clouds radiating over the hills.

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A few days later, we were making our way back from Mawsynram to Shillong and on the way, we did a detour off the highway to Shillong Peak. The turn-off to the peak begins about 10 kms before Shillong on the Cherrapunjee/Mawsynram road and if you have some time to spare, it might be worth the foray because at close to 2000 meters above sea-level, it is the highest point in all of Meghalaya.

The peak also houses an Indian Air Force Base and security is predictably tight. We had to furnish our IDs and one of us had to leave it at the gate in exchange for an entry permit before going inside. You aren’t allowed to get off or take any pictures on the way to the peak. But once you’re there, you can put your tourist hat on and whip out your camera because the tourist circus is well and truly in show.

There are two observation towers and one of them is equipped with a telescope if you want to take a closer look at the city. Shops selling trinkets, clothes and snacks are clustered together for the benefit of those who might want to do some shopping. There are booths where you can put on Khasi costumes for 50 Rs. and get your pictures taken.

We chose to go to the tower without the telescope because there was nobody there. The bird’s eye view of the city from here through the tall pines was both magnificent and somewhat distressing. You could see the extent of ugly urban agglomeration eating into the forested hills around. Nevertheless, like all sweeping landscapes, it was a pretty impressive peek at the city.

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Mawsynram

It never rained during the 2 and a half days I spent in Mawsynram but it is known to be the wettest place on earth because of a long monsoon season during which it receives a mind-boggling average of 11,800 mm of rain every year. It’s a fairly big village about 60 odd kilometres from Shillong, a typically beautiful ride through rolling hills and high clouds. The village itself isn’t particularly pretty with concrete houses galore but step outside of it and hidden groves, alluring knolls and obscure little caves are just a little hike away.

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We had booked a room at Emily & Sankrita’s Homestay through Airbnb and this beautiful cottage is perhaps the only comfortable place to stay in the vicinity. Sankrita’s friendly hospitality and delectable cooking is reason enough to make the journey here. We gorged ourselves on Jadoh (rice cooked in pork fat/blood), pork intestines in salty broth, pork salad, dry pork intestines sliced into small pieces, another preparation of pork served in a delicious broth and some chicken. We were also served some vegetarian dishes to go with these meaty delights like rajma, mashed potatoes, squash and carrots which were done so well that they would have been a perfectly satisfactory meal in themselves.

To burn all the calories we had consumed, we had to get some exercise. So Sankrita arranged for a local boy named Biang to take us on a gentle trek around the hills. The path wound down to a rivulet winding through rocky pools and then up and over into the airy hills. It was a quintessentially wild Khasi landscape with bald, bulbous hills punctuated by thick, forested groves. We reached a point at the top of one hill which was crowned with a pair of Khasi monoliths and dolmens, memorial stones erected to honour the spirits of the ancestors.

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We then wound our way down a narrow trail deep inside a forested grove bisected by a dainty little stream. The trail here was slippery and we had to cut our way through the thick foliage to get back up to the main trail at the top of another hill. From here there was a stunning view of the forests below with a beautiful stream winding its way through white, curvy beaches at the edges of the jungle.

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Our final stop was a limestone cave formation called Krem Dam. Meghalaya Tourism appears to have big plans for the place because they were constructing a staircase to enable less hardy tourists to reach this spot more comfortably. We had to sidestep the construction site to scramble our way down to the stream which runs down the cave. It was an impressive sight and a bit of a struggle for less sure-footed people like myself and S to get to. Biang, who was springing over rocks like it was a garden stroll, wanted us to follow him and have a look inside. But we had a hard time just balancing ourselves on the slippery knife-edge of the rocks we were standing on, so hopping over them like Biang wasn’t ever an option.

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After the cave, both of us were tired and hungry. Biang wanted us to see another (in his opinion) unmissable cave nearby which apparently had a naturally-formed Shivling but neither of us were too keen. This exercise was exhausting and rejuvenating enough and all we wanted to do was go back to Sankrita’s house and eat more food.

Mawsynram was also memorable to me for one other incident. After the late lunch, Biang took us on a walk to a “sunset point”. On the way, I slipped on a loose slab of rock and hurt my left arm. It was already badly fractured a few years ago in a terrible accident in Laos and two metal plates had been holding the bones together since then. We ran immediately to the Primary Health Care Center and I had a few anxious moments as I was waiting for the doctor to arrive at seeing the soft tissue on the injured section swelling up. But thankfully, there was no fracture. After getting back to our room, Sankrita came up to give me a bottle of a local tribal ointment which she said would help my wound heal quickly. I never used the ointment but hey, it’s the thought that counts and I’ll always be grateful to Sankrita for showing concern.

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Mawlynnong

Mawlynnong, a peaceful little village of 80 odd households tucked away deep in the Khasi Hills might seem like an unlikely candidate for mass tourism when you go there and look at it but as of 2018, it’s among the most visited spots in Meghalaya.  The reason people come here in droves is because of a splendid marketing campaign advertising the place on the one hand as “God’s Own Garden” and on the other as the “Cleanest Village in Asia”. While the latter moniker may sound gimmicky and the claim appears a bit of a stretch, the people of the village have earned their right to it by keeping their surroundings commendably clean over many generations.

I wish I could say something nice about the room we stayed in though. We had to trawl through online forums and have a local contact named Embor book a room for us because all the places we called appeared to have been booked out by a big South Indian film crew that had set up camp in the village. While Embor was highly efficient in arranging a good driver to take us in and out of the place, the homestay was a disappointment. The room cost 2000 Rs., which was somewhat outrageous for what it was. There was a tiny living area, another cramped, musty bedroom and a bathroom with a squat toilet. The man running the homestay told us he had given the room we had originally booked (allegedly nicer and furnished with a western commode) to a family that checked in before us. We had booked for two nights but the room was so crummy that we chose to spend just one. It was a pity because that gave us very little time to explore the village at leisure.

To cater to the tourists who make their way here on day trips from Shillong, some “attractions” have been devised. So there’s a “Balancing Rock” (essentially one big rock on top of a tiny rock that looks like its levitating in the air) and a “Sky View Point” which is a bamboo ramp leading to an elevated platform that delivers views of the Bangladesh plains in the distance. These views are considerably better in other parts of the Khasi Hills, most notably Cherrapunjee, but the one from Mawlynnong is nothing to sneeze at. Having arrived here late in the evening from Dawki, we could only catch the dawn view which was very good.

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By far the best thing we did was to walk 2 kms to the village of Riwai where a flight of stony steps leads down to a stream above which hangs one of Meghalaya’s famed living root bridges. I have been to half a dozen bridges in the Khasi Hills and this was the easiest to get to. It might be the reason why it’s among the top draws for day-trippers from Shillong. We avoided the crowds by leaving at the crack of dawn and the only company we had was another group of people taking in the scenery quietly while we watched bands of butterflies flitting about and little fishes and tadpoles swimming underneath the crystal clear waters.

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So having spent just a night and a few daytime hours in Mawlynnong, do I have the urge to come back here? Probably not. Life is too short, the journey is a bit too tedious and there are far better spots to idle in the Khasi Hills. But I’ll say this, if the accommodation had worked out and the film crew hadn’t taken over the place, I could easily have spent a couple of days lounging around its brooks and groves.

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Dawki

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On the way from Shillong to Mawlynnong aka “the cleanest village in Asia” as its known in tourist parlance, we made a longish detour through the settlement of Dawki.  It lies on the Indian side of the Indo-Bangladesh border crossing on the southern edge of Meghalaya but the reason a lot of us casual tourists come here is not to enter Bangladesh but to float in the clear waters of the Umgnot river on the fishing boats idling on the riverbanks. I had been to Dawki back in 2010 and while the place has been well and truly discovered now, it was still pretty quiet with just a handful of tourists for company.

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On my previous trip, I had two sunny days to enjoy the setting and the crystal clear waters all the way to the hamlet of Shnongpdeng which is a handy base to explore this area with a few homestays offering basic food and accommodation. This time around, it was cloudy and rainy and while the lack of sunlight meant you couldn’t see all the way to the bottom of the river-bed, it was still beautiful to be on the river.

In a way, I liked the fact that I got to see the place in different conditions than before even if it meant getting my clothes and the camera drenched. My lenses went all misty on me for the shot below but I quite like this foggy, grainy image of the fishermen in Dawki working in the drizzle on the turquoise waters of the Umgnot river.

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There have been proposals since time immemorial to demolish the 86 year old suspension bridge that you see in the shot below to build a new, sturdy one that could support the coal economy of the region more efficiently. Call it bureaucratic lethargy or lack of political will but they haven’t been able to get it done yet. So for now, people like myself who like their architecture more old-fashioned and aesthetically pleasing can still gawk at the old structure that connects the Khasi and Jaintia Hills and provides overland access to Bangladesh.

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The boat rides on the Dawki river take you to a wide sand-bank where, if it weren’t for the rainy weather, I could imagine myself sitting for hours on end reading a book and staring at the misty mountains beyond. I looked wistfully at a couple of guys setting tents on the sand and wished I had come here with more time on hand. It is as tranquil a setting as one could imagine.

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Cherrapunjee #4 – Mines, meadows and a jaw-dropping view over the Bangladesh plains

Just a little beyond the view of Nohkalikai Falls is this gobsmackingly beautiful wilderness of rolling hills, dainty meadows and if you’re lucky, double-decker clouds in the sky. It’s better than it sounds because none of the crowds that flock to see the falls on package tours ever make it to this place and we had the entire landscape to ourselves. Certainly a highlight of my trip here.

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One of the defining features of the Khasi and Jaintia landscape these days is the ugly gash of mining that’s cutting up the hills. It’s an unavoidable sight no matter where you go here. The mining money is big and it’s one of the reasons the Khasi Hills have the best roads in all of North-East India bringing some prosperity to a few of its denizens.

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We were fortunate to find a last-minute reservation at the spectacularly located and busy Kutmadan Resort in the outskirts of Cherrapunjee. It was quite late by the time we finished wandering the meadows around Nohkalikai and chose to skip a trip to the Mawsmai Caves. It was a wise call because the view across the edge of the Khasi cliffs down to the watery Bangladesh plains was just jaw-droppingly beautiful. The Resort itself comes highly recommended because while it’s on the pricier side, if you’re in a small group, the price evens out and the rooms are huge and well-appointed. Our room had a living area with a fireplace which was bigger than some hotel rooms I’ve seen and another spacious bedroom area. It goes without saying that the views from the place are worth the price of admission in itself.

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Shillong – Intro, Getting There, Cafe Shillong

Until the end of October, 2017 was a lean travel year by the standards of every other year I’ve had post-2009. Aside from a month in Tamil Nadu, a couple of weeks in Gujarat, a trip to Kolkata for my brother’s wedding, most of it was spent consolidating and editing the ton of pictures I had taken over 8 years, painstakingly organizing all my travel notes and replenishing my ever diminishing bank balance by saving up. I also had to deal with travel fatigue, saturation and burn out and my middle-aged body (I’m in my mid-30s) ached for rest after years of bumpy rides, bad food and poor sleep.

So the only reasons I went to Shillong was because NH7 was happening, Steve Vai was playing, some of my closest friends were going and it would be a short trip that I was hoping to finish in a couple of weeks to resume a monotonous routine in Mumbai. One of my favourite guitar players Uli Jon Roth was scheduled to play in Mumbai in mid-November and I was planning to make it back to the city by then. I certainly did not believe that I had another rough, months-long, largely off-beat exploratory journey left in me for the time being.

But as it turned out, Uli cancelled his tour and I am yet to return to Mumbai as I write this. The 3 hour flight to Guwahati turned into a couple of weeks in the Khasi Hills, a month in Mizoram, a month in Tripura, a couple of weeks in Assam, another month in West Bengal, then Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. So I thought I should recount this journey while it’s still fresh in my memory along with my posts about my travels from other years.

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The flight to Guwahati might have been painless but getting to Shillong from the airport was a puzzle we had to solve at the airport. A had booked an Ola cab before we left Mumbai to do the transit to Shillong but when we reached the airport, the driver refused to pick us up and canceled our booking. We had arrived at 8.30 p.m., perhaps not too late for a city like Mumbai but the counters for the cabs to Shillong at the airport had shut down. There were a few cab drivers waiting outside, all approaching us with varying levels of disinterest until one gentleman agreed to ferry us to the city for 800 Rs.

I’m continually amazed at how disorienting it feels when you go from Mumbai to any other city in India. While Mumbai would have been bustling at 9.30 p.m., making you curse the traffic snarls you might have to negotiate even at late-night hours on a holiday, Guwahati looked absolutely deserted. The drive from the airport to the city was a breeze through empty roads and haunted streets. Once we reached Guwahati, our driver’s eagle eye caught a Shillong registered vehicle and in a couple of hours, after a quick meal and a swift ride through the foggy hills, we were in Shillong.

We had booked our hotel in Shillong over a month in advance and it’s a good thing we did because the NH7 clientele appeared to have booked out all accommodation in the city and its tentacled suburbs. The hotel we chose was The Best Holiday Inn which, if you have a budget of over 2.5k INR, I highly recommend. It’s in the quietest of lanes in the Lachumiere area of Upper Shillong and was run with pinpoint efficiency. The room, where R, S and myself were staying was on a higher floor with a good view of All Saints Church and Lower Shillong and was quite spacious even for the 3 of us.

The next morning, we began our Shillong explorations with a gentle amble 2 kilometers down to one of Shillong’s photogenically kitschy park, Ward’s lake. I had been to Ward’s Lake on my first trip to Shillong in 2010 and I’m pleased to report that nothing has changed. It’s fairly clean and well landscaped and is a peaceful place to amble about for an hour or two. Hell, if you can find a seat on one of the benches in the shade, you can plonk yourself here for hours reading a book.

But we didn’t have such luxury of time because there was shopping to do, food to eat and a gig to attend. The Police Bazar area is the prime shopping street in Shillong but R had a hard time finding a decent windcheater for himself. It was a bit weird because if there was one place you would imagine would have good windcheaters for sale, it should have been the capital of the wettest region in the world. After much enquiry and investigation, he found a decent piece at an amiable store run by a man from Mumbai.

Ever since I mentioned the fact that Café Shillong, one of Shillong’s best cafes, did great coffee and awesome steaks, S’s paranoia had kicked in. He had been agonizing over the idea that if it was indeed as good as I claimed it was, there would be a veritable stampede of starving people who would be queuing up outside its doors from the wee hours of the morning to finish off all the food they had in a matter of minutes. So ingrained was this fear in his head that as we were making our way to the café, he laboured at length to convince us not to go because he was certain the food must have run out by the time we got there.

To put it mildly, his fears were overstated. It was entirely empty of people and we had a free choice of tables to occupy. S ordered their signature Pork Spare Ribs, which judging by his orgasmic expressions, must have been quite delicious. I ordered the Smoked pork bastenga, a sour khasi curry with bamboo shoots served with rice, which was a bit too tangy for my taste but had enough texture to make me not regret the choice. I did wish I had ordered a serving of S’s PSR after taking a bite though. R, being vegetarian, made do with a vegetarian burger which he assured us was fantastic. A joined us a little later and ordered a sandwich which also appeared to be fairly satisfactory. The cappuccino (light on the coffee heavy on the milk) was strictly okay and looked like it needed another espresso shot to make it taste more like coffee. Caveats aside, if you’re in Shillong and aren’t on a shoestring budget, this little café in Laitumkhrah is likely to serve you well.

This gastronomic excursion meant we were late to catch the shuttle bus to the venue. I was wondering whether to skip day 1 altogether because very few of the bands lined up played the sort of music I like listening to. But since we had already paid for the tickets, we made a rush to the central bus stand where the shuttle buses operated from. An NH7 shuttle bus rolled past as we hurried into the bus stand desperately hoping we hadn’t missed the last bus out.

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