As a travel writer, the worst thing that could ever happen to you is “restricted mobility” which is what hit me hard when the Covid-19 pandemic began. Sitting here in metropolitan Kolkata, I was going berserk, having to fathom wave after wave of “lockdown” periods that truly tested my nerves. I was trying to make sense of the paranormal situation and the way forward; until I let go of all my inhibitions, fears and shadowy apprehensions associated with the pandemic, by embarking upon that epic 10 days tea vacation to my original home – Assam, which is where I grew up and spent the first 30 years of my life.
“Back to nature” has been the buzzword ever since the pandemic hit humanity and almost noiselessly the tourism phenomenon evolved beyond doubt - becoming more nature-based, immersive and value driven in terms of culture.
The other day I was flipping through McKinsey Global Institute’s report – The future of work after Covid-19 in which it states that the pandemic has “existing accelerated trends in remote work, e-commerce and automation” and further asserts that – “remote work and virtual meetings are likely to continue, albeit less intensely than at the pandemic’s peak. Some companies are already planning to shift to flexible workspaces after positive experiences with remote work during the pandemic, a move that will reduce the overall space they need and bring fewer workers into offices each day. A survey of 278 executives by McKinsey in August 2020 found that on average, they planned to reduce office space by 30 percent. Demand for restaurants and retail in downtown areas and for public transportation may decline as a result”.
In early 2020 with the pandemic at its peak, I was approached by a mid-sized IT firm in Kolkata’s Sector V to suggest probable destinations where they could set up remote work stations and send employees for better productivity. Being a native of India’s North East, I strongly recommended the concept of Tea Vacations in Assam, Dooars and Darjeeling, knowing fully well that high end tea estates that produce some of the best teas in the world have converted their century’s old British built Victorian style Tea Bungalows to cater to the exacting demands of today’s discerning world travellers.
Almost two years down the line, what was the upshot like? Well, not a single client came dissatisfied and most had no idea that these secluded tea bungalows in India’s North East were in fact the epitome of everything British, serenity personified, well staffed and the service was world class.
In the minds of wannabe travellers to the North East, the region conjures up images of poor connectivity, mountainous terrain, pot holed roads and the ugly spectre of terrorism – all of which are bullshit stuff! The region’s crooked image at the altar of world tourism is due primarily to the lackadaisical approach of the travel media.
I am enumerating just 5 aspects of North East that will counter all the negativity in one go.
- Sikkim is the world’s first 100% organic state.
- Mawlynnong village in Meghalaya is the cleanest village in Asia.
- Ima Keithel, the Mother’s Market in Manipur is one of its kind. This market is the only women operated market in the world.
- Mawsynram in Meghalaya is the wettest place in the world.
- The North East is one of the world’s largest producers of tea after China.
I was travelling to Upper Assam after a decade and the signs of urbanization were everywhere – high-rise apartments, trendy markets, malls and what have you. Yet, nothing compares to the freshness of tea estates enveloping you like a serenity blanket.
Assam is the world’s single largest Black - tea producer and the famed “Camellia Sinensis Var Assamica” has carved a niche for itself in the high-end global tea marketplace. The Upper Assam tea circuit consisting of Dibrugarh – Tinsukia - Margherita is perhaps one of the world’s most compelling tea tourism circuits.
Under the expert guidance of Purvi Discovery, a first-rate tea tourism company, I decided to lay anchor at Limbuguri Tea Estate – a century-old tea garden with British antecedents. The Wa Thai Bungalow inside the tea estate, which was my resting place for ten days, is ideally located, in close proximity to the magnificent Dibru Saikhowa National Park – one of the world’s great bird watching zones and the Dibru river flowing perennially close to this one-of-a-kind tea estate made for a truly captivating holiday in India’s tea country.
The spacious Wa Thai Bungalow is conspicuous by its old-world architectural charms – high ceilings, antique furniture and Victorian-era features. No wonder, travellers who come to date Kaziranga’s rare and elusive one-horned Rhinoceros prefer staying at this colonial heritage tea bungalow and in the process make the most out of their stay at Wa Thai, savouring two of the region’s superlative tourism products – The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kaziranga National Park and the stupendous tea gardens of Upper Assam.
The high point of Purvi Discovery’s tea trails is garden walks, factory visits, tea tasting, trips to wildlife sanctuaries and immersive cultural visits to villages that dot the tea estate borders. For many visitors, watching the phenomenal process of plucking tea leaves by native tribal womenfolk all the way to the factory where these tea leaves are manufactured is an education by itself. First-time visitors embarking on a tea vacation are advised to coincide their visit to Assam during festival time.
Being a onetime native of India’s North Eastern state of Assam, we have this natural inclination of being close to nature and this is perhaps due to the fact that the region is home to 250+ ancient tribes – The Apatanis, Naga, Monpa, Mizo, Bodo, Kachari, etc. who are blessed with the uncanny knack of understanding Mother Nature like nowhere else in the world. This region of India is a living testimony of how human beings can live in harmony with nature and concepts like sustainability, eco-friendliness, climate change, responsible travel, and zero carbon footprint were mastered long back by these tribal indigenous people of North East.
When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the sheer dreadfulness of being confined to my home was revolting and rubbishing all my horrors aside, I took a call to connect with my place of nativity – Assam and was convinced that if there was any place on planet earth that would heal my pandemic - induced mental pangs, it would be Assam.
I based myself in Limbuguri Tea Estate’s Wa Thai Heritage Bungalow for 10 days and each day ventured to hitherto lesser-known destinations – Margherita, Inthong, Longding. Places you won’t find in any tourist guides! Out here life is slow, native people are innocent, stupendous tribal diversity on offer and of course those never-ending miles after miles of lush green tea estates to rejuvenate your badly bruised pandemic nerves!
Consider for instance Inthong’s Singpho Eco Lodge, located at a distance of 55 km and driving on National Highway 315 (NH315) from Limbuguri, I came face to face with one of the region’s most outstanding community-centric tourism projects which is gaining in popularity and whose “mantra” is to highlight the rich tribal culture of the indigenous Singhpho tribes.
This unique tourism initiative of Singhpho entrepreneur duo - Manje La & Protima Ningda has won rave reviews from travellers worldwide. The rich vernacular Singpho architecture, which is every bit wood & bamboo affair, inclusive of bamboo room decor and nicely complimented by thatched roofs makes for an engrossing setting in the midst of sylvan tea garden surroundings. Presently there are 11 impeccably appointed quintessential Singpho rooms and the standout feature is that there are no beds here. Instead, visitors are encouraged to sleep on comfortable king-sized beds on the floor - The Singpho sleep therapy for today’s jaded traveller!
Here at the Singpho Eco Lodge, you are actually in India’s “Tea Country” and the traditional Singpho tea – “Phalap” could be a game changer as far as brewing your own cuppa tea at home! Here at the Singhpo Eco Lodge, guests marvel at the fine art of brewing “Phalap Tea”. The process of tea leaves being roasted on wood-fired ovens, the roasted tea being stuffed inside specially designed Singpho bamboo tubes and finally drying stuff on “Dhoa Chang” thereby producing the signature Singpho Tea, which is then offered to the discerning guests.
The Singpho Tea is unlike any other – smoky flavoured and gels ideally with jaggery. I bought a few packets of this rare variety of tea which were on sale at the lodge’s sales counter. This special variety of tea is exported worldwide and is in huge demand especially in South East Asian countries.
To take my pandemic-induced travel to Assam one notch higher, I gorged on the gastronomic delights of the Singpho cuisine – Mind you, traditional Singpho menus, be it veg or non-veg; do not use oil. Instead, locally available spices and oriental herbs are relied upon. Try out their signature Pork and chicken dishes, served not in fancy cutlery sets, but on traditional, centuries-old “Kou Paat”- a special leaf that grows in abundance in this part of India.
I am compelled to quote BBC Travels’ insightful article on the new normal? Travel in the world of Covid-19 wherein the editor cites – “Today, as much of Asia begins to emerge from lockdown, an industry that accounts for about 10% of world GDP is looking towards the new normal. And travellers, many of whom have been largely confined to their homes for months, are starting to dream again of beaches, mountains and monuments. Yet reopening travel presents its own challenges”.
If you are up to the challenge and your spirit of wanderlust is alive, give India’s North East a shot. The lush green tea gardens will take care of the rest!