How-to City: 24 hrs in Shillong, Meghalaya
Shillong, once the capital of the erstwhile Assam Province and now the capital of the northeastern state of Meghalaya, has transformed from a quaint colonial retreat to another bustling city in the expanding urban map of modern India. The rolling hills around Shillong have earned it the sobriquet of Scotland of the East but Shillong is more than its magnificent waterfalls, its stunning lakes, or the cherry trees that wash it in blush pink in spring. Every November, Shillong hosts the annual Autumn Festival: a three-day extravaganza for rock, metal, goth, and punk enthusiasts with performances by local, national, and international bands. It’s a treat in every season but if you want to avoid the crowds, avoid the summer holidays, Durga Puja and Christmas breaks when tourists, mostly from Bengal and Assam, arrive in droves.
Don Bosco Square, Laitumkhrah | 3:00 PM
Arrive in Shillong from Guwahati and make your way to Don Bosco Square, Shillong’s equivalent of Calcutta’s Park Street where the young and trendy seem to be tirelessly meting out lessons in fashion and styling. Both an academic and cultural hub, this is where young love blossoms under the watchful eyes of the statue of Don Bosco, educator and apparently a romantic instigator. Settle for lunch at Jadoh, a renowned café serving authentic Khasi cuisine. Smoky meat curries are their best sellers but the menu has vegetarian options too. Spend some time people watching and if you are still not full, indulge in a plate of Puri Sabzi (INR 30 / $0.50) from a street food vendor and wash it down with milky chai (INR 10 / $0.15)!
Jacob’s Ladder to Ward’s Lake | 4:00 PM
Burn the calories by hiking down the steep Jacob’s Ladder to St. Anthony’s College and onwards to Ward Lake. As you catch your breath, observe the quaint colonial architecture and wooden bungalows that line Camel Back Road and plop down on a bench on the banks of Ward’s Lake, an artificial water body surrounded by lush greenery (and overrun by tourists later in the day). After your heart has regained its usual pace, amble around the lovely flowerbeds on cobblestone paths. The botanical garden next door houses numerous species of orchids and other exotic flora native to the region. Entry fees are nominal (INR 5 / $0.08) but you have to pay a little extra if you want to take photographs inside.
Shillong Peak, Indian Air Force Base | 5:00-5:30 PM
This is a vantage viewpoint located inside the Indian Air Force base. You need to keep your IDs handy to gain entry. Foreign nationals are not yet allowed here. At an impressive 1962 m above sea level, the peak offers breathtaking, panoramic views of the entire city of Shillong with the Himalayan range looming in the background like a protective figure. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the pancake-flat plains of Bangladesh, Legend has it that the spirit of “Leishyllong”, the protector of the hills according to Khasi beliefs watches over us from here. The sunset from Shillong peak is mesmerizing. Come here to witness the throbbing red disk of the setting sun as it sinks and the glossy fuchsia and orange skies before the world seeps into starry darkness. While you can ride to the top of the peak, we’d suggest hiking from the entry gates of the Airforce Unit. That is the best way to take in all the views! Photography is not allowed inside till you reach the peak. At the peak, telescopes are available for getting a bird’s eye view of the city. The entry here is free.
Police Bazar | 6.30 PM
With the sky splattered with stars and the last of the garnets dissolving in purplish oblivion on the western horizon, head back into the city. Like most hill towns, Shillong goes to bed early. But before you start making dinner plans, spend some time in bargain town, Police Bazar. The central hub of the city doubles up as the street food Mecca and the shopping paradise in the evening. Be it for cheap woollens or trendy footwear or tribal jewellery, bargain hard. Stroll through shopping complexes for hidden bakeries or liquor stores selling local brews. Have some fried eggs and sip a chilled beer at a local bar as Shillong shines brightly. For dinner, take your pick from Tibet Kitchen for a taste of Tibetan Chinese or Trattoria for authentic Khasi Cuisine. INR 200-300 / $4-5.
Also Read: A Nostalgist’s Guide to Eating in Darjeeling
Barapani/Umiam Lake | 5 AM
Start your day with your eyes set on the crimson sun as it rises over the dark waters of Barapani Lake, 15 km east of Shillong. This reservoir was created by damming the Umiam River in the 60s by the Assam State Electricity Board. Entry to the lake is free but entering the Water Sports Complex where you can avail pedal boating, river bus rides, or yachting is chargeable at INR 100 per head ($1.5) but can be underwhelming. Instead, take a paddle-boat ride (INR 20 / $0.30). The gigantic scale of this water body is humbling and is just what you need to cleanse your soul early on.
Ïewduh (Bara Bazar) | 7:00 AM
Ïewduh (pronounced yyoh-dohh), popularly known as Bara Bazar, is one of the largest wholesale marketplaces in the northeast. It is the ideal place if you want to take a closer look at how locals begin their day. Make no mistake though for this is not a tourist spot but rather an animated and crowded marketplace where you can lose both your way and your wallet. From colourful heaps of the day’s freshest produce to arresting but revolting displays of uncured meat and animal entrails, from regular stationary items like soap to mounted butterflies and arrows, knives, and bamboo baskets handcrafted by the Khasi tribespeople, you can find everything in the folds of this labyrinthine market. If you are a weed worshipper, this is your place. For breakfast, gorge on fresh local berries, cut pineapples and melons, freshly baked muffins and bread, smoked pork, fire-roasted beef, and jadoh from the family-run Khasi stalls in the market. The Khasi diet has so much meat that they have a word: yngieit which means that distinct feeling of discomfort after having binged on too much fatty meat.
Don Bosco Museum | 9 AM
Whenever we are on the road, we try taking in not only the scenic beauty of the place but also the culture and lore associated with it and for a crash course in all things Shillong, arrived at Don Bosco Museum. Designed by Vivek Varma, the museum is an architectural pride of the city and was designed to be a centre for cultural awareness and educational forum of the state of Meghalaya, its people, their history and their stories. Exploring the entire museum would take at least half a day. Choose from the galleries you are most interested in. Our favourites were the Agriculture Gallery; Fishing, Hunting, and Gathering Gallery; Language Museum; Musical Instruments Gallery; Costumes and Ornaments Gallery, and the Basketry Gallery. The entry fee for Indians is INR 50 and foreign nationals are required to pay INR 200 / $3.
Lunch | 11 AM
If gastronomical motivations are your primary driving force, you are in luck because in the annexe building is a museum is an eatery that serves authentic dishes from all the seven sisters states of northeastern India. Take your pick from thalis representing indigenous dishes from Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Sikkim, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, and Nagaland (Naga thali pictured above). You can also get hard to find dishes like the Khasi Tungrymbai and the Garo Wakpura. The thalis are priced at INR 200-250 / $3-4. I must mention here that Meghalaya is a haven for a pork lover like me.
Mary Help of Christians Cathedral | 12:30 PM
High arches, stained glasses, and a humbling silence invoke reverence as you enter the Mary Help of Christians Cathedral, the principal place of worship of Shillong’s Catholic community. The 50-year-old structure is the second iteration of this church; the earlier wooden structure was destroyed by the Good Friday fire of 1936. The structure is built entirely on an artificial sand basin with no contact with the mountainous bedrock of the region to make it earthquake resistant. In 1980, the church was declared a shrine and a duly appointed pilgrimage as well. If you are a connoisseur of the arts, the added bonus is the ornate terracotta reliefs that adorn the interior flanks of the Church.
The Trio of Waterfalls, Upper Shillong | 1 PM
On your way back to Guwahati, explore the hillside around Shillong with its spectacular waterfalls. Sweet Falls, Spread Eagle Falls, and Elephant Falls are the three most visited. To observe them in full splendour: milky braids of water gushing down the lush mountainside, the rainy season is your best bet. In the winter when we visited, the falls had dried up significantly. Of the three, Elephant Falls is the most popular and can be found being gaped at by many selfie-stick wielding tourists! It was named because a certain rock formation at the base of the waterfall resembled an elephant. Unfortunately, it was destroyed in an earthquake of 1897. The locals call it the Ka Kshaid Lai Pateng Khohsiew or “Three Steps Waterfalls.” The entry fee is at INR 10 / $0.15.
Note: If you start from Shillong at 1 PM and visit Spread Eagle Falls, Sweet Falls, and Elephant Falls in order, you will reach Guwahati around 6 PM depending on traffic.
Teer, Polo Grounds | 3-4 PM
We couldn’t fit this into our schedule but you can plan to spend an hour at the Polo Grounds watching locals participating in teer, a traditional form of gambling that involves archery.
Shillong Travel Tips:
- To follow this schedule, plan to arrive in Guwahati by 11 am and leave Guwahati after 7 pm. Unless you plan to arrive in Guwahati early in the day, we suggest spending the day in Guwahati before setting out for Shillong.
- Most places in Shillong have an entry fee so keep cash handy. Be ready to be charged more for a camera (explains why not many photos here 🙁 )
- The fees help keep the city clean. Please don’t litter. Be polite to people here.
- Cabs-on-share (mostly Suzuki Alto) are available for point to point drops within the city and costs INR 10-20.