In December 2016 I was invited on a seven-night cruise along the magical Brahmaputra river in the Assam Region of India. I set off from London Gatwick with three travel companions for this once in a lifetime adventure which started with an overnight stop in Kolkata…..
After flying from London to Kolkata via Dubai we were ready for a good sleep before doing too much else. We checked into the Grand Oberoi Hotel and had a couple of hours sleep before exploring the city with a whistlestop tour. We only had time for a half day tour which meant we weren’t able to see a great deal, particularly given the hectic traffic which meant travel was slow moving. Having visited Sri Lanka earlier in the year I was prepared for the chaos of the roads. Our guide told us people in India use their horns more than their brakes. I am confident he was right and I swore I would never swear about the traffic in England again… I have never had been held up on my way to work in England by someone riding their elephant down the street after all!
We visited the Black Hole of Kolkata memorial in St. John’s Cemetery. This commemorates the lives of the people who perished in June 1756 at the infamous Black Hole Dungeon, a prison within Fort William, where troops of Siraj ud-Daulah held the British army. There are many other memorials here and the history of British rule and history is highly evident here.
After leaving St John’s we ventured to the city flower market. A vibrant, bustling market filled with the stunning colours and smells of beautiful flowers and the loud voices of people both buying and selling everything from funeral wreaths to spectacular wedding headdresses. We walked through the market and our guide stopped and pointed out various different types of flower, arrangement and techniques which was fascinating to see. We came out of the market on the banks of the Hooghly River where people were bathing, washing their clothes and dishes and generally relaxing.
Kolkata is thought of as the cultural capital of India and the presence of The Victoria Memorial is a key factor to that. The memorial building holds largest and oldest museum in Asia. Unfortunately it was close to closing time by the time we arrived, but we walked through the stunning gardens where many locals were relaxing with their families.
We visited a few temples next including the Kalighat Kali Temple. This temple is believed to be one of the places where the 51 parts of Sati’s body is said to have fallen. There is a large market around this area and one of the stallholders (a friend of our guide) took care of our shoes while we walked around the temple and visited various alters and took in the sights. Sadly at this point we ran out of time and we needed to head back to the hotel for dinner. Unfortunately this meant we missed out on going to go to “mothers home”, the former home of Mother Theresa, but due to traffic we had no time left.
We had an eye opening first day in Kolkata – which everyone still refers to as Calcutta locally. The poverty was evident from the moment we set foot out of the airport with people living in the central reservations and children as young as probably 5 years old begging on their own in public spaces. As amazing as Kolkata was, I was relieved we only spent one day there. It was all very intense and we were found we were being stared at an awful lot, which was quite intimidating for a small, all female, group of travellers. I was ‘citied’ out very quickly and yearned for the peace and tranquility of the Brahmaputra.
After an excellent nights solid sleep we flew out to Jorhat, via Guwahati (which offers a stunning view of the Himalyas!), and spent seven nights sailing along the Brahmaputra River on board the luxurious MV Mahabaahu. The Mahabaahu is one of only two river cruise vessels currently on the Brahmaputra and is by far the more luxurious of the two. Our transfer from the airport was quick and stunningly scenic. Before we knew it, we were hopping on board, just in time to see our first magnificent sunset, something we were treated to every day. Our travelling companions were mainly Norwegians with a few other Brits.
On the first day we visited the temples of Sibsagar where we received a blessing from a priest who tied a string bracelet around our wrists and said a prayer for us – I was told it was a prayer, but he could have been saying anything to be fair! It was a lovely day and we spent an awful lot of time being asked by locals ask to have our photos taken with them (you would have thought it would be the other way round?!). Our guide advised us not to have too many photos taken or someone might build a temple dedicated to us! We ate lunch at a local tea plantation and had a very interesting talk on tea production in Assam.
Day two started with a trip to Majuli Island, which is said to be one of the largest inhabited river islands in the world. We visited a local monastery where the priests performed the ‘Gayan Bayan’ prayer dance, which involved lots of very loud drumming and chanting. It was an amazing performance, but a little odd because we were asked not to applaud at the end. As it was a prayer to the Gods, which we were allowed to watch but was not actually being performed for us, it was deemed inappropriate to clap. After having a look at the monk’s accommodation (sparse!) we travelled through the island to an area on the river bank where a group of local students performed another dance for us. This one was a story about Princess Sita who was kidnapped by the Demon King and had to be rescued by her husband, with some help from the monkey king and his army. Typical woman causing problems! It was a very colourful performance with lovely costumes and masks. Apparently our visit was very exciting for the island, with even the local news crew coming down to film us.
In the afternoon we visited a Mishing village, a local tribe with skills in weaving. The people here were welcoming, but seemed more nervous around us than in any place we visited, the children hid behind their mother’s legs while they bought out lovely fabrics for us to buy. It doesn’t get much more fair trade than handing the money straight to the weaver themselves! The houses here were wooden huts on stilts due to the village being on the floodplain with the animals and looms being kept below.
Day three was mostly spent cruising, but we did enjoy a boat safari in the afternoon where we saw wild water buffalo, river dolphins and lots of birds! Every night we moored at a desert island in the middle of the river and the crew pole vaulted onto the shore to tie up, which was fun to watch. In the mornings we were able to either take a walk or partake in yoga on the sand. I did yoga which was lovely as the sand was like flour with glitter in and I came back feeling all relaxed and sparkly. One morning the walking group saw tiger tracks, but no tiger… I’m not sure if that was lucky or not!
Day four was probably my favourite day. We visited Bishwanath Ghat, another weaving village but this time much bigger and a little more developed. The children here in particular were very excited to see us and the adults greeted us warmly with a “Namaste” and little bow, which we reciprocated. We went to the main market area in front of the temple where the women again brought out their fabrics, this was much more hectic and high pressure than the previous day, but our guides did a very good job of protecting us, bartering on our behalf and telling the women off for being too pushy. I bought a lovely emerald green and gold saree for myself and some fabrics for Mum and Mother-in-law for Christmas. Beautiful hand woven fabrics for around just £12 with seller and buyer both as pleased as punch. We had a good wander round this village and looked at the village school and temple and the local women showed us their looms and how they create their weaves. The children were clearly more experienced with visitors than the previous village and happily posed for photos with cheeky grins, before being told off by their elders for not being at school!
Back on the ship and we sailed to Silghat while we had lunch where we were once again greeted by very excited children. We had a tour of a jute mill where we were given face masks, but were definitely still coughing by the end of the tour. The men here work 8 hour shifts (without the masks!) and get paid just £1.50 a day. It looked like very grim work and there was a distinct lack of health and safety. It made me feel guilty for buying jute bags from Poundland! Whilst the men work in the factory, the women work at the local tea plantation which we visited next.
The local boys hoarded round us for high-fives from our Norwegian travel companions and ran alongside us as we made our way to the outskirts of their village. Here the girls did a nice little dance for us, as their mothers walked in from the tea fields with their big empty baskets on their backs. We bade them farewell and made our way back to our ship as dusk fell, where yet another local group performed a traditional Assamese dance and drumming for us called Bihu.
Day five was a very early 3am start so we could drive to Kaziranga National Park and enjoy our sunrise elephant safari. I still have mixed feelings about riding elephants. It would have been rude not to do it as we were invited guests, so we went ahead. The elephants here were much healthier and better cared for than we saw in Sri Lanka and the reason we had to ride so early was because the elephants are free to their own devices after 7am, so they don’t have to walk after it starts getting too hot. The baby elaphants walked amongst us, alongside their mothers as we rode and it certainly was an amazing experience, as the sun rose over the mountains and burnt off the fog. We saw wild rhinos, buffalo, swamp deer and much more. After our elephant ride we took a jeep safari through the park where we also saw monkeys and a glimpse of a wild elephant.
Following this, the British group of us had a special VIP visit to the Kaziranga Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation. It is not usually part of the tour but we had special permission to visit from the minister of something! We were told William and Kate had visited when they were in India last year too. We saw orphaned elephants and rhinos that were being taken care of until they were strong enough to be reintroduced to the wild.
After a long drive back to the ship we were able to relax and enjoy the rest of the afternoon sailing. In the evening we had a traditional Assamese evening where we were all given a different saree to wear and enjoyed a bonfire on the island. I definitely enjoyed wearing my golden saree and I think we all looked very glam!
Day six we visited a Bangladeshi village on the riverbank. We were told it was only the second time the ship had visited this particular village in the five years it has been sailing, so as you can imagine we caused quite the stir. The children came running along the river bank to greet us and by the time we reached the shore there were probably around 60 people waiting to meet us. One group of teenage girls latched on to me and my friend. They were fascinated by my friend’s hair as she is blonde and I don’t think they had ever seen blonde hair before. They pointed and giggled and watched our every move. Due to the language barrier our Nordic travel companions entertained the amassed crowd by singing “heads, shoulders, knees and toes” (in Norwegian), the villagers enjoyed it a great deal and laughed their heads off, I’m sure they thought we were quite mad.
A very nice and beautiful lady clutching her gorgeous baby invited us into her hut and proudly showed us her home. It was very primitive with no water, electric or stove. The hut and bed alike were made out of bamboo lashed together and reed thrown over. It has really stuck with me how happy the people here were with so little, and made me feel quite sick and embarrassed about our own society where we thrive so much on needing stuff to make us happy. I felt quite sad about it when I attempted to go Christmas shopping back in England amongst the competitive mothers and tantrum throwing English children.
On our last day we were stuck out on the river for a long time, unable to cruise due to thick fog. For a while we were worried we might miss our flight, but all was well and the fog lifted. We had a quick stop at Peacock Island. In contrast to Majuli Island at the start of our cruise, Peacock Island is one of the smallest inhabited river islands in the world. It is home to just a handful of monks and five stunning Golden Langurs, a monkey with beautiful golden fur. We didn’t have long here due to our need to catch a flight and quickly moved on and off to the airport for our flights back to England.
All in all India was an amazing experience and certainly made me appreciate the things I have. On my return to England I felt a strong sense of responsibility to the street children I had seen in Kolkata and sought out a charity to donate to reguarly. I chose Future Hope who have been doing excellent work for over 30 years to help street and slum children in the city. Follow them on Twitter.
In the less touristy areas of India such as Kolkata, particuarly if you are female, you may well experience some staring from inquistive locals. For safety and you own peace of mind it is advisable to always cover your shoulders, arms, cleavage and legs and wear sunglasses to avoid eye contact wherever possible. I also wore a fake wedding ring throughout my trip and stayed with the group as much as possible when I felt a little intimidated.
Tipping is part of the way of life in India. Carry small denominations and tip little and often. We visited India during the period of time where the currency was in a transition and we weren’t able to change much money at the airport at all.
Ask you guide to assist with haggling. In the very remote regions English is rarely spoken and it is best to seek assistance when purchasing things from markets so both you and your seller get the best deal.
The Assam region is within a malaria zone. You can buy prescription malaria tablets from your pharmacist without visiting the doctor in the UK for around £20 but be sure to heed any warnings surrounding their use and take the entire course as prescribed. I would still advise visiting a doctor as well to ensure you are up to date with all of your travel vaccinations before visiting India (or indeed anywhere in the world). Wear high quality deet spray at all times rather than just insect repellent and reapply reguarly.
Hygiene facilities very limited in some parts of India. Carry sani-gels and baby wipes at all times and wash your handss at every opportunity you can. If you are unaccustomed to using a squat toilet then I would recommend using a European style toilet at any opportunity you get, even if you don’t feel the need! Do not pet stray animals and stay out of the rice paddies to avoid diseases. Always carry a good supply of anti diarrhoea tablets…. just in case!
You must apply for a visa prior to your arrival in India. You can apply online at https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/visa/index.html. Immigration takes a while to get through upon arrival so expect to wait in several lines for a long time. You will need to have you photos taken and fingerprints scanned upon arrival.