The plan for Durga Pujo 2022 holiday was always in mind. I wanted to do something daredevil this year. Recent articles and movies about the extreme northeast region of India made me lock Arunachal Pradesh. But with our new SUV could not let go of the mouthwatering prospect of the Arunachal Pradesh road trip from Kolkata. My spouse and four years twin boys joined me on the ride. The journey was 1500 km each way and went through West Kameng district towns Bomdila, Dirang, and Sangti Valley and entered Tawang through Sela Pass and went to the Indo-China border Bum la Pass. Sounds thrilling? Then read through for our detailed experience.
Preparation For Arunachal Pradesh Road Trip
Inner Line Permit
An Inner Line Permit (ILP) is an official travel document issued by the Government of India to allow inward travel of an Indian citizen into a protected area for a limited period. Indian citizens from outside those states must obtain a permit to enter the protected state. As Arunachal Pradesh falls under a restricted area, one must obtain an Inner Line Permit (ILP).
Getting ILP is a straightforward process, with an online application option. Each application shall include your photo, identification/address proof, districts for the visit, hotel/homestay address and duration/purpose of visit. Apply for each tourist separately. We also applied eILP for four years twins. The application gets processed within a day, and in the case rejected can reapply with rectification. Do not go for group applications of all tourists together as that online application only takes supporting evidence from the applicant; hence the application will be rejected for all. The checkpoint gate verifies the approved eILP printout. For the Arunachal Pradesh road trip, we entered through the Balemu checkpoint.
Vehicle Readiness for the Arunachal Pradesh road trip
Before embarking on a long Arunachal Pradesh road trip, the driver should ask himself if he is confident enough to drive through some treacherous mountain roads and the amount of drive one has to do each day on a continuous stretch. Whatever vehicle type you drive needs good ground clearance. Also, if you are travelling with your family, prepare them mentally.
- Do complete vehicle service before the trip.
- Do check the lubricants, oil and coolant levels.
- For emergencies, carry a strong tow hook, tow cable and battery jumper cable.
- Newer tires will have a better grip on treacherous roads. Also, check the spare tire.
- Must know how to use a jack and change the tire.
- A first-aid medical kit inside the glovebox is a must.
- Be aware of your car boot space so you can plan packing accordingly.
- Validate if all five seat belts are functional.
- Download an offline Google Maps for offline navigation.
- Save your trip stop plan on the map for the whole itinerary.
- If you do not have an infotainment system, carry a tough mobile stand.
- Do not drive more than 12 to 14 hours on highways and 6 to 8 hours on the hills daily.
- Each day’s driving hours will help you to set your road trip duration.
- Keep enough high-tempo songs in your playlist.
Route Plan for Arunachal Pradesh road trip
Bomdila is a small town with about 10,000 people and is 8800 feet above sea level. The road to Tawang is long and arduous, so using Bomdila as a stop on the way to Tawang is a highly convenient way of making the journey more pleasant. Whether you want to soak in the blissful views from the town, go monasteries-hopping, or savour local food. But if you have time, Bomdila deserves at least a few days.
The 1962 war caused a lot of casualties in the town. Nonetheless, Bomdila returned better quickly and retained its calming charm, enticing more and more tourists and curious travellers every year. Bomdila Monastery was established in 1965, located in the heart of the town. The monastery, overlooking the city and the beautiful valleys, is a sacred abode to Buddhist monks who reside and visit for higher learning and practices. The large prayer hall leading to the sanctum, home to a massive Buddha statue, is adorned with jewels and gifts. You can find intricate paintings on the wall and the interiors depicting various tales and mythological scenes from Buddhism.
There are few accommodation options for hotels in Bomdila, but Doe Gu Khil Guest House – the monastery guesthouse is a wonderful option. The guest house is quaint, cosy, and homely, and the warm smiles of the hosts were enough to warm our hearts too. Ground floor family rooms are large with comfortable beds, clean toilets and hot water from a geyser. The kitchen served a warm home-cooked dinner which we enjoyed immensely. The guest house has a tuck shop for snacks and drinks with a huge parking area. For booking call +917085160806.
The Chillipam Monastery, or Chillipam Gompa, is offbeat Bomdila – situated 30 km from Bomdila. The monastery on a hillock offers a sweeping panoramic 270-degree view of the surrounding Himalayan valleys. The road to the monastery is tricky; unless you are an expert motorist. The holy sanctuary has intricate murals, wall paintings, and artwork depicting scenes from Mahayana Buddhism. The Chillipam Gompa is the only Indian monastery built exclusively by a Chinese architect. Therefore the monastery has a large amount of Chinese architectural evidence. A cafe with limited snacks and drinks is also present here. This secluded sanctuary is worth adding to your list of the best offbeat places in Bomdila.
If heading to the town centre, head to Elegant Restaurant for Tibetan Momos and Chicken Dumpling Soup. A no-frill eatery with two small rooms does serve some fantastic delicacies. The Chicken Momos with peanut chutney was smooth and slurpy. But the Chicken Dumpling Soup got excellent garlic and cilantro flavour – it amps up the taste bud. A must-try!
Also, read about Darjeeling’s offbeat places.
The following morning we checked out early from the monastery guesthouse. But first walked to the Bomdila monastery to witness prayers and gained backdoor access to the monastery kitchen to enjoy fantastic morning tea. It’s now time to hit the road towards Tawang – the most important destination of the Arunachal Pradesh road trip.
For breakfast, we stopped after 57 km at Hotel Samjhana – a Nepali dhaba on NH13. What impressed me was that the place seemed to be owned and run by women. There are provisions for veg and non-veg thali. Outside the dhaba, there are stalls to stock up your snacks, candy and fruits, as there are few options ahead before reaching Tawang town.
We opted for roti and poori thali. Rotis are prepared on a wood fire, leaving a subtle smoky flavour. The ideal breakfast before hitting the twist and turn of Sela Pass. Another must-try!
En route Sela Pass
Sela Pass is one of the highest motorable roads in the world that connects Tawang to the rest of the world. The road from Sela Pass to Tawang is a beautiful but complex one. One will reach Sela Pass through bumpy, winding roads through mist, rain and mud. Due to drizzle and recent landslides, the streets are slippery. Hence drivers have to be extra cautious at steep bends.
One can have a quick toilet stopover at the army-managed Baisakhi Army Cafeteria to catch your breath and stretch your legs. Sip some tea and have options to buy military-grade warm clothes. Tea here is extra sweet as military personnel need an extra dosage of glucose for their physical activity. Sela pass is also a strategic location on the Indo-China border, so one will find military truck convoys, army camps and soldiers nearby.
- Sela Tunnel will be the longest twin-lane tunnel above 13,000 feet worldwide.
- Will cut down travel time to Tawang by at least one hour.
- The tunnel will provide access to Tawang throughout the year.
- Planned opening on January 2023.
After crossing Sela Pass at the summit, there is a gate to enter the Tawang district from West Kameng. The gate is an entrance to cross, which can be closed due to inclement weather. The region has 101 lakes, but Sela Lake lies at the pinnacle of the pass. The pass is snow-covered throughout the year, and the lake freezes during winter. Even during October, please do not dare to step into the water, as it will be a bone-chilling experience.
En route 40 km before Tawang lies Nuranang Waterfall. The fall is also known as Jang Falls, located near the town of Jang. The waterfall originates from the Nuranang River over the slopes of the mighty Sela Pass. The beautiful two-step fall drops down 100 meters from high mountains is by far one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the country. But a few years back, hardly anyone knew about it until a Bollywood movie featured the spot in a song sequence. The entry fee is Rs 40 per adult. There are a series of steep steps that lead down to the falls. Although walking down was easy, climbing back was a bit challenging.
You can go near the falls and feel the water spray on your face. Be careful as these rocks are always wet and hence highly slippery. Suggest visiting during the afternoon to witness a beautiful rainbow – the closest one can get to any rainbow!
We reached Tawang town around sunset. By then, we realised it was too late to visit Tawang monastery for the day. We checked in at Bliss Homestay, close to Tawang Monastery. The two-storied house is neatly maintained, and the ground floor has multiple guest rooms. The rooms are enormous and have comfortable beds. The most crucial factor is the neatness of the place. The food was cooked with hygiene in mind, but the taste was okayish. For booking, one may call +919436229701.
Sangha Elated Cafe
The homestay owner informed us about a new cafe, Sangha Elated Cafe, in the neighbourhood, which is run and maintained by Tawang Monastery. After a tiring 10 hours drive, it was the perfect reason to indulge in a caffeine intake session with some local bakery. The spick and span cafe serves only vegetarian food at a reasonable price. We had a cappuccino and blueberry cheesecake. Food is decent at the menu price but does not expect quality and taste like cafes one will find in metros and cosmopolitan cities.
We were excited about the following day’s journey through the Bum la Pass trail. Signed off the day with home-cooked food at the homestay and moments later crashed into the comfortable beds.
Also, read about Gangtok’s food trail.
Bum la Pass
The homestay caretaker knocked on our door with morning bed tea. For Bum la Pass, the homestay had arranged a Scorpio with a local number plate as the army does not allow cars with other state number plates until Bum la Pass. The rate is fixed at Rs 5500 per car with permit fees.
Bum la Pass, at 15200 feet, is a strategic India-China border post only at 35 km distance from Tawang. In 1959, the Dalai Lama, on his way from Tibet to India, is believed to have escaped via Bum la. In the India-China War of 1962, the Chinese army invaded the Bum la Pass. Hence, it can be said that Bum la lies at a strategic location in Arunachal Pradesh. The pass itself is buried in snow for most of the year due to the high altitude location. There were efforts to re-open the Bum la Pass for trade in 2006.
En route Bum la Pass
Bum la Pass needs a separate permit (not ILP) from the Office of the Deputy Commissioner of Tawang district and then evaluated multiple times by the Indian army check posts. One needs to leave early, by 8 am, because as the day progresses, the weather deteriorates at Bum la Pass. Every day, a limited number of tourist vehicles are allowed to ascend to the top of Bum La Pass. We were not too lucky with the weather – it was an overcast sky and scattered drizzle. The road to Bum la is treacherous. For the Bum la Pass trail, always visit the border first and then the lakes. The army closes the border after 2 pm, and as the day progresses, the weather becomes unpredictable. As the wheels rolled over the treacherous road, the astounding beauty of the rugged mountains overwhelmed us.
In many parts, the trail is a dirt road. Bunkers, tanks and Bofors guns are stationed at both sides of the road, and some areas are strictly no photography zones due to national security. Being a border location, it is always advisable to maintain protocols and act responsibly.
At Bum la Pass
At the Bum la Pass, the ice-cold wind hit us as soon as we got out of the vehicle. Army officers directed us to the reception hut for tea and biscuits while they prepared the batches for the actual border visit. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) is a few hundred meters walk. There is a small souvenir shop also in the hall from where we got Indian Army winter caps as souvenirs. Once we reached the LAC, the army representative gave us a brief about the border management system being followed by India and China and various restrictions, which we needed to obey during our temporary stay at Bumla. Witness Chinese troops also patrolling the border at their end.
My eyes welled up at the realisation of the efforts and sacrifices our soldiers go through to keep us safely tucked inside the cosy comforts of our homes, even in such harsh, unforgiving conditions. My respect for the brave hearts increased multifold. We spent about an hour at Bum la Pass till it started pouring. However, if you can not make it to Bum la on a day, permit for the next day. So in Tawang, at least three days is a must for the Arunachal Pradesh road trip.
Tongpen la Cafe
We stopped to have hot coffee at Tongpen la Cafe a few meters ahead on the return. The army-maintained cafe serves only Maggie, tea or coffee. It is claimed to be the world’s highest cafe, but it’s incorrect but one of few cafes in the world at more than 15000 feet. The coffee was very average for Rs 40, but once in a lifetime experience. Richen Cafe at Khardung la is the world’s highest cafe at 18360 feet.
After crossing the Y-junction, amid hills in the rugged terrains, one could suddenly see a patch of water, giving you the feel of an oasis. Sangetsar Lake, commonly known as the Madhuri Lake – after Bollywood actress Madhuri Dixit shot her film Koyla here with Shah Rukh Khan. The lake, originally a gazing ground at an altitude of 12000 ft, was formed in 1950 during an earthquake. But the tectonic plate shift caused the lake to move to today’s location, thus submerging a significant chunk of pine tree forest. And even today, one can see the top of the tree trunks popping out of the water. There is a beautiful walking path around the lake for a lazy stroll. Visitors can also enjoy their food from the café in the open seating area amidst the pristine surroundings. Army manages the cafe and a counter to buy warm caps and gloves from the counter at nominal prices. The small stretch of land adjacent to the café is a beautifully manicured park with yellow fences, open seating arrangements, and neat pebbled pathways.
Further ahead lies Pankang Teng Tso Lake, famously known as PTSO Lake. The charming lake offers mesmerising views of the mountains, clouds and calm waters. It gets its name from the Pankang tree, whose log was collected in 1914 by the Tibetan Government. If you have time, climb down the slope to the lakeside for a more captivating sight of the lake and a wooden bridge. Be aware of steep climbing back.
On reaching Tawang, we realised the town has few food options, and Dragon Restaurant is the only terrace-seating restaurant. An indoor seating option is more popular for climatic conditions. We went for local flavours and ordered Chilli Pork and Pork Fried Rice. Kids preferred steamy chicken momo after a tiring journey from Bum la.
The restaurant is always busy for the upscale ambience, so the order-taking process was painstakingly slow! It took me a lot of time to understand if the Chilli Pork was boneless. Arunachal Pradesh has fewer boneless meat preparation options. The momo was served after 30 minutes of wait and was decent, soft and steamy but nothing extraordinary. The kids had no complaints, and we got a piece from their plate.
They served Pork Fried Rice and Chilli Pork inside a steel casserole. For a restaurant, that was weird and never experienced, even in roadside dhabas or shacks. The Chilli Pork was more like mild watery gravy with fatty pork pieces. More fat portion than meat. Not sliced meat or semi-dry gravy, which we generally prefer. Pork Fried Rice was a complete waste with hard, over-cooked, chewy pork meat topped on dry fried rice. I will suggest sticking food from your homestay – better and cheaper. Or stay near Tawang monastery for the nearby cafes.
The following day, car horns and the local hustle and bustle woke us up. Life starts very early in the morning in Tawang. Tourists prefer to stay in hotels and homestays near the monastery to be a part of the morning prayer that is held daily. Tawang is located at 10000 feet, the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, thus of immense importance to Tibetan Buddhists. Tawang monastery was established in 1860 and is the largest monastery in India and the second largest in the world. The monastery’s traditional name is Galden Namgey Lhatse, which means “celestial paradise in a clear night.” Tawang Monastery is a big three-storied building with an assembly hall, residential quarters, a school and a centre for Buddhist cultural studies. About 400-450 monks stay at the monastery. It has about 65 residential quarters, accommodating up to 700 monks.
By 6 am, we reached the monastery. The young monks were assembling for prayer. The spiritual atmosphere created here by the sound of the drum and horn was hypnotic. We stood there silent while the prayer was in process. The view of the Buddha statue from the first floor gives a different perspective. Tawang Monastery is the definition of tradition and cultural values still alive today. Even the kids were sitting quietly and watching the simple daily life of the monks. Walking through the narrow alleys of the monastery takes you back 400 years in a time machine. In the 21st century, it’s so easy to forget the world outside of our phones and social networks. Keep extra time in hand to soak in the monastery life.
It’s a shame we had to return early as we wanted to stay longer at Tawang. We headed to a local coffeehouse for breakfast, and the return journey started through Sela Pass. But we still have Sangti Valley as the last leg of the Arunachal Pradesh road trip.
Dharma Coffee House
On our way to Sangti Valley, we stopped at Dharma Coffee House for brunch. The cafe is about a km from the monastery and is the best in town for its coffee and food. But aside from the cafe, it is also a library with several books to read, and one can donate too. This an excellent opportunity to read some interesting books on Buddhism and Tibetan culture. The cafe always plays soothing music, complementing its airy ambience and wooden furniture. The only place in town where they serve fantastic cappuccino and dark chocolate cake. But the Veggie Burger was the showstopper. It was fresh, crispy vegetables and a flavourful patty. We were full before our long treacherous journey back through Sela Pass.
Tourists, in general, en route to or coming back from Tawang, only think about visiting or stopping at main towns like Dirang and Bomdila. But 7 km offbeat Dirang lies the hidden, gorgeous and secluded Sangti Valley. The valley is tucked away in the mountains, with the flowing Sangti river snaking through it. The riverside accommodation adds to the definition of serenity. But, due to the bumpy, potholed, narrow roads, the drive will take around 40 minutes. Instead of the hustle and bustle, one will only hear the river flowing, birds singing, cattle roaming, and the greetings by the locals. So, if you are visiting for peace, Sangti Valley will be your shrine. The people here are Mahayana Buddhist Monpas. They grow corn and hang it out to dry to get the seeds for the next season. There are also apple and kiwi farms. There was no kiwi farm or apple orchard during October. Bird lovers may want to consider their trip with the migration of the black-necked crane during November.
Lanjom Homestay is one of the well-known accommodations in the valley. Lanjom Homestay, which includes rooms, riverside cottages and also a tent. The riverside tent stay is around 3,000 rupees per night, so it’s not cheap! But you are mainly paying for the location. We checked into the riverside tent. The tent accommodation has all the basic facilities, a western toilet and a geyser. We never had any issues while staying inside the tent. Prolonged and sloppy service but lots of decency among the owners and staff somehow compensates.
Do not have high expectations about food – it will still be expensive due to its remote location. However, I found the basic hygiene inside the kitchen was questionable in a few instances. Suggest being careful as the area is remote, and there are few options in the valley. The homestay arranges table chairs on the riverbed to enjoy breakfast or lunch – at extra charge. That was our best time in the valley with kids. However the, during winter months stepping inside the river will be suicidal. At night time, there is a barbeque provision. For booking, call +91 8258827576.
Mandala Top is another new attraction from Sangti Valley, another 40 km, and a hidden gem. It will take about 90 minutes by car due to the narrow, winding uphill roads. Mandala Top is a series of 108 Buddhist stupas built in a circle on top of a mountain. It was built in 2018, and the central temple is still under construction. It is the first of its kind in India, where the mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ is inscribed on 108 pillars. Mandala Top or 108 Mane is a religious attraction; it is open round the clock for pilgrims and tourists. But it is recommended to visit early in the morning as the place is mostly covered with thick mist. In Buddhism, it’s tradition to walk clockwise around the stupa, so if you’re heading for a walk, make sure you clockwise. There is a wooden structure one could climb up and get an aerial view of the circle. Provision for seating and picnic tables too – so you could bring breakfast or lunch with family or friends to enjoy here.
For Sangti Valley, there are provisions to visit Thupsung Dhargye Ling (aka Dirang Monastery), Dirang Dzong and Thembang Heritage Village. I intentionally skipped the monastery as I wanted to prioritise visiting hidden gems. Dirang Dzong was once a fort, but in its ruins – it is not worth it. Thembang Heritage Village is claimed to be a heritage place, but there is hardly anything left of heritage. You can only see the old stone boundary wall surrounding the village and the gate to walk through the town. Again, one can skip it if there is a time constraint.
Hotel Highway Inn
From Sangti Valley, it is time to drive back to Balemu to exit the state through the check-post. On the way, one may opt to have a lunch stop at either Shergaon or Jigaon. But I preferred Tenzingaon because of a roadside stall that prepares fantastic food. Hotel Highway Inn, a roadside shack, gives lively vibes from the friendly owner and travel-friendly tourists. The last option is to leave Arunachal Pradesh with a local taste in the mouth.
Pork Momo was the instant order. Steamed dumplings topped with chilli sauce popped inside the mouth. Momo oozed the pork juice and burst with flavour. We were reluctant to order Chilli Pork after the Tawang experience. We ordered Chilli Pork post assurance from the owner. The Chilli Pork was the perfect example of sliced pork tossed in sauces and green chillis. The lean pork was mildly spiced and soft as it could melt in the mouth. Finally, after having a cup of strong coffee, the long and tiring journey back to Kolkata commences. The mood was dampened as the holiday ended.
Also, read about Kalimpong’s monsoon.
Essential Points during Arunachal Pradesh Road Trip
- Fuel stations are located at around a 50 km gap.
- Refill fuel whenever the tank is half filled.
- Fill only air in car tires. No Nitrogen option is available.
- For toilets, use the fuel station facility.
- The mobile network is poor; hence offline Google Maps will help.
- Due to the long distance between towns, buy water and snacks from market areas.
- Road conditions are poor in Jang and Sela Pass; only SUV is recommended.
- Army convoys and trucks always get priority on the road.
- Lots of turns and steep rides. Whenever possible, try to take a break.
- Never take photos in a restricted military zone like Bum la Pass.
Best Time For Arunachal Pradesh Road Trip
Winters are the best season to visit Arunachal Pradesh. Winter months begin in October and extend up to March. Major cultural and music festivals take place during the winter months. During peak winter, places like Tawang and Bum la will be under snow and, in bad weather, may have travel restrictions. October month is still pleasant. During the daytime, you can expect the temperatures to range between 10 to 14 degrees Celsius, while nighttime temperatures dip considerably at around 6 to 8 degrees. Alternatively, April is also a great time when the spring starts for the state.
Other options to reach Arunachal Pradesh
- By Air – Guwahati (GAU) airport for reaching the western side and Lilabari (IXI) airport for reaching the eastern side.
- By Rail – Guwahati (GHY) railway station enjoys the best connectivity in the region with the rest of the country.
- By road – Arunachal Pradesh is well-connected to other cities of India via road. One can self-drive either in a private car like me, or book from a rental agency. Bus service is not regular or connected to main cities.
For Arunachal Pradesh road trip queries, reach me by email at email@example.com or put your feedback/queries in the comment section.