Day 1: Kolkata to Jorhat – embark MV Mahabaahu
We left Kolkata by 8am to transfer to the airport for our flight to Jorhat with Indigo Air. It is a short flight, touching down in Guwahati before taking off again. Jorhat airport was previously a military airport so the amenities are limited. The transfer to the ship took 40 minutes through some picturesque villages. Our car had to dodge some cows, chickens, goats and dogs who were roaming the roads. We witnessed one dog actually looking to cross the road which none of us had seen before.
The landscape changed quite a bit on the journey, you would see bricked buildings with gated homes right next door to bamboo huts with families going about their everyday lives. On arrival we were given a welcome drink which consisted of soda, cinnamon and pomegranate - delicious. We were ushered into the Mungri-Mungram room, also known as the main dining area where specially prepared street food awaited us and the safety briefing began. We were informed of the activities for the evening and the programme for the following day. We then had chance to unpack in our floating accommodation which would become home for the next seven nights. A quick change for the evening and we were greeted with a champagne shower and a toast and welcome from the hotel manager Nina. The tables were pre-planned for the first night which gave us a chance to mingle with the other guests on board and also meet the crew. Dietary requirements can be catered for. You get to choose from a menu provided on your table. which features Western and Indian meal choices are available. We worked our way through four courses whilst getting more acquainted with our fellow travellers for the next week. Most passengers called it an early night after dinner, aware the next few days of exploration needed them to be jet-lag free.
Day 2: Sibsagar visit and home-hosted lunch at tea estate
Breakfast would soon become one of my favourite times of day. Many guests are early risers so we were surprised to be one of the last down for breakfast. A buffet selection is available where you can help yourselves to cereal, hot breakfast options, fresh fruit, and made-to-order eggs from the chef and hot beverages on tap. After a brief talk on Sibsagar, the ancient city and capital of the Tai-speaking Ahoms, all guests went to the car assigned to them the previous day and took the short transfer to Shiva Dol, believed to be the tallest Shiva temple in India, built by Queen Ambika in 1734. Here we saw three temples, the largest of which we explored. On arrival, we could smell the incense burning that each worshipper would light before they entered to pray and hear the clanging of the bells. The temple was a cave-like room where we found a larger number of people praying. As we exited the temple we had the opportunity to light a candle and make a wish.
We could also be blessed by the local priest who tied a lucky thread around our wrists and blessed us individually.
Our next stop was Rang Gghar (Ran meaning ‘colourful’ and Gghar meaning ‘house’). Rang Ghar was Asia’s first amphitheatre built by an Ahom King and was known as the house of entertainment. Here, important meetings and sporting events would take place. Members of royalty watched buffalo and elephant fights and other sporting events from the upper storey, whilst other spectators enjoyed the views from sitting on the earth mounds that surrounded the area. The Ahom King would only be transported by elephants and as you wander around you can see that the amphitheatre was built specifically for this purpose. More steps were built at a later date to allow tourists to explore the panoramic views from the building and see the views from where the royals stood all those years before. We then moved onto Rangpur Palace which was constructed in 1751. There are two parts to the Palace, Kareng Ghar which is the Royal Palace and Talatal Ghar, the underground home. We had time to explore both.
After a full morning of different stops, we had an hour and a half transfer to the tea plantation where we enjoyed a traditional Assamese lunch. Having a traditional Assamese home-hosted lunch at the tea plantation was something we were particularly looking forward to. Owners Indrani and Rajib opened up their home to allow us to enjoy a relaxed meal in the tea plantation which has been in the family for more than a century. It is incredible that the tea leaves are plucked every seven days due to the desirable climate. To make the process easier, they have divided their 500 acres into seven areas so each day of the week the leaves are picked in a different part of the plantation. The bushes are grown to waist level, which makes it easier for the leaves to be picked by a workforce which is 70% female. The tea bushes remain dormant from December to March and with the vast area for production, they produced 500,000kgs of tea annually. We had time to taste the tea before heading back to the ship.
The sun was soon to be setting and we were keen to see our first sunset aboard the Mahabaahu. A short drive of 30 minutes had us back on board on the Donyi Polo deck to witness the sun going down with the beautiful views of the mighty Brahmaputra river. A deep orange skyline made for some excellent photo opportunities. Venki, is also a keen photographer and had been taking photographs of the scenery and guests all day. These were shown on the big screen as we enjoyed another tasty dinner, which included masala chicken with rice and bread made in the traditional clay oven on the back of the ship.
Day 3: Majuli Island; Neo Vaishnavism & Mishing Tribal Village
We all agreed every morning should start with yoga on an uninhabited island! We practiced the art of breathing and stretching on glittering silver sand, before we enjoyed another delicious breakfast aboard the ship. Other guests had taken the walking option and were fortunate enough to spot various species of bird.
We were given a talk on Majuli Island as we sailed and were informed about the people and culture found there. Majuli Island was formed by an earthquake in 1750. The village people here are part of the Neo-Vaishnavite movement, initiated by Srimanta Sankardeva in Assam in the late 15th century; a social reformer established the monotheist form on Hinduism. Majuli Island is the world’s largest inhabited river island and home to Neo-Vaishnavite history as well as the cultural capital of the Assamese civilisation. Once there, we witnessed Sutradhar, Dashavatar and Mukha Bhawana - a type of performance art with origins in the Krishna-centred Vaishnavism monasteries of Assam. We were then given a special performance by the Priests whereby we watched them perform “Gayan Bayan”, a traditional prayer dance. The monk dance was a highlight of the trip so far. They have long hair and earrings and take the look of a female due to the monk way of living. When they reach puberty they then have the option to cut off their hair and follow the monk way.
We were treated to two cultural performances by the local college students and workers, who had taken the time from their breaks to tell us the story of Shiba through the art of dance and music. Brightly coloured costumes and masks were adorned. As we watched the
performance, there was a film crew who recorded some of what was going on – we later discovered the film crew were from a local TV station. At dinner that night, we watched and waited to see ourselves feature on ‘News Live’ TV but we didn’t quite make the cut.
Late afternoon we moved onto the Mishing village, home to an ethnic tribal group. After a short walk through the fields, we were greeted by lots of locals who were selling beautiful and colourful fabrics, displayed on a washing line. There were lots of banana trees and Areca Palm trees which grow betel nuts. Despite being extremely harmful to human health and a carcinogenic, chewing on a betel nut has become very popular in these parts as a strong cultural activity that dates back thousands of years in South Asia. In India, chewing a betel nut comes from a tradition created by royalty, who would chew on a nut with one leaf, dating back to the pre-Vedic period (the time when the oldest scriptures of Hinduism were composed). The nuts are still used in religious ceremonies, handed out as a sign of hospitality, they are a sign of luck and are considered to be a holy plant throughout India.
The village is known for the houses constructed of bamboo and for the huts on stilts, locally known as ‘Sang Ghar’, due to the frequent rains that occur in this region. It’s a simple and very clean way of living. When walking around the village, we saw a lady making rice beer on a stove, a common drink to make in these parts and apparently one that packs a punch! Others welcomed us into their small community, inviting us to take a look around their homes on stilts. We climbed up a pole with indentations for your feet one by one before entering into an open-plan room, which just enough space for everything you need to cook, clean and sleep.
After purchasing some fabric made by the Mishing tribe, we walked through the village to enjoy the scenery and bright orange sunset. We then tendered back to the ship where we relaxed for a couple of hours and got ready for a traditional Oriental dinner/evening.
Day 4: Boat Safari at Dhansiri Confluence at the Eastern Range of Kaziranga
After a morning of yoga or a group walk, we had breakfast consisting of French toast, fresh pineapple, pomegranate and a large cup of tea (no milk considering what we had learned from the talk at the tea plantation!). We had a talk on Assam before heading to the sun deck for a cool drink and to enjoy the welcome river breeze. This morning was time for relaxation as we sailed towards Dhansiri for an afternoon of wildlife spotting on a boat safari. This was a great time to take a dip in the pool, use the sauna and jacuzzi facilities, read on the deck or sit and watch the scenery as you sail by.
As we boarded the tenders, armed with cameras, we set off in the hope to spot wildlife. This area is just outside of the national park and, as it was late afternoon with the sun gradually setting, we were really hoping to spot a number of species along the water’s edge – we were not disappointed. 17 species in total were seen in this afternoon, including turtles, deer and wild buffalo. We had a bird expert on board so he was able to point out the different species that we come across; grey heron, bilstock, pied kingfisher and changeable hawks to name a few. We spotted river dolphins very close by, as well as a magnificent water buffalo keeping cool at the water’s edge before making his way further up the bank. As the boat safari took place just before sunset, it provided a beautiful backdrop to the wildlife that we saw before us.
Back on board with a hot towel and refreshing berry juice in hand, we sat down to a cooking demonstration that comprised of Somosas and Egg Pakoras of which we were able to sample and take home the ingredients list. Prior to dinner, fun and games were had on the top deck, which made for a pleasant start to the evening with lots of laughter.
We had a traditional Indian dinner comprising of cucumber salad, Murg Bhuna, Laal Mass, Shahi Pulao, Methi Poori and a selection of three deserts, Kalakand, Rasmalai and Rajasthani Churma – delicious! After dinner, we sat in the lounge for a talk and a drink before we made our way to bed for a full and restful night’s sleep.
Day 5: Bishwanath Ghat for weavers’ village, Silghat for Jute Mill and Tea Estate
It was an early morning sail from first light where we enjoyed glimpses of the Himalayan mountain range. At this time of year, it can be quite hazy, however in the distance you see snow-capped peaks in the morning sun along with herds of deer. There were options for yoga on the shore line or a brisk walk. We opted for a relaxed breakfast after two mornings filled with yoga which concentrates on breathing techniques and pressure points. Whilst at breakfast, we spoke to others who had been on the walk and they had seen tiger tracks!
The talk after breakfast told us more about our next port of call, Bishwanath Ghat, which is not an island but part of the mainland. We took a tender boat ashore to the small town with 3,000 inhabitants. There was a slight walk up a sandy hill initially and then the locals welcomed us into their homes, where an array of brightly coloured fabrics that had been made from their looms. It was a hive of activity as the women proudly stood in front of their weaves, a perfect chance to buy authentic pieces of material or scarves to take home. It is worth having small notes on you and your best bargaining skills also. Depending on the intricate design, items could be purchased from 700-2000 rupees.
Village life is a lot more positive and happy here, with children running and doing cartwheels on the greenery around the huts made of bamboo – one of our favourite places we visited. Children surrounded us, intrigued by our visit. When asked why they were not at school, we were informed that our visit from the ship is looked forward to and allows them to interact with foreign visitors.
There were a few brick houses which meant that the village comprised of both richer and poorer residents. We saw men hard at work fishing and boat making - something this island is famous for. We were able to go inside one of the family’s homes which was very simple, but everything inside had a functional purpose. Some houses and huts had weaving looms where the female residents would sit and make their fabrics from both cotton and silk.
On the tender back to the ship, the children waved in excitement and said their goodbyes. We then sat on the sun deck looking at the Himalayas through the binoculars that are provided and were told that the word is in two parts. ‘Him’ means snow and ‘alayas’ means place. As well as this stunning mountain view, we could see deer and Himalayan vultures on the river bank (which were huge!)
After a traditional Indian lunch, we had a talk on the wildlife of India and Kaziranga National Park. During this talk, we discussed the difference between African and Indian wildlife. The diversity of the land allows a wide variety of wildlife, flora and fauna along with a long coastline belt. There are 650 wildlife sanctuaries and 90 national parks, 15 species of monkeys and one ape. Forest cover over India is currently at 15% although it was over 35% at one point.
In the afternoon, we visited a Jute Mill. The Mill sees the production of jute (a natural fibre used for sacks, yarns or coarse cloth an many more house hold items such as curtains, carpets and hessian cloths). Here, we saw the poor working conditions in which the men operate every day. Although we were told that this is one of the better places to work due to the slightly higher pay and shares in the business, we were also informed that many of the men die from the fibres getting into their lungs and causing extreme damage. We were supplied with a face mask and ear plugs for our walk around the factory. This place was highly interesting as we got to see the production process from beginning to end. From gathering the river reeds, to drying them and collecting the fibres, to making the fibre into big sewing reels and creating big bags, it was very educational.
We stopped at a nearby tea plantation on route to the ship we stopped. Here, we enjoyed spectacular panoramic views of the green landscape where elephants would sometimes roam and eat the tea leaves. Unfortunately didn’t happen when we visited. A dance was presented to us by the local girls, whose mothers passed by from their long day of tea picking and proudly watched their children dance and sing.
On the way back to the ship, we were given another traditional Assamese Dance performance called Bihu, an Assam folk dance performed by mostly young men and women (these were college students). The male talks to the female and she responds to him in dance- it’s quite romantic. They have high pitched voices and a variety of instruments. The dance is also distinguished by quick movements and instruments playing. This was a great experience and concluded our day of exploring the culture nicely.
Day 6: UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kaziranga National Park
Today, we had a wakeup call at 3am, a light breakfast (consisting of coffee) and an hour and a half drive to Kaziranga National Park. The transfer was very comfortable, however the roads were very bumpy. This was the part of the trip that many guests on board the ship were looking forward to. Many hadn’t witnessed animals in their natural surroundings before, so the thought of seeing rhinos and elephants waking up with the sun rising was incredibly exciting. It was a day to make sure your camera is fully charged and that you pack a spare battery just in case.
It was magical witnessing the sunrise and stillness of the park as the animals were waking and slightly stirring as we passed them. We peacefully watched elephants in the long grass, rhinos not phased in the slightest to what else was around them, deer in the distance and birdlife above. The photographs taken were truly spectacular, especially with the morning’s mist clearing as the sun rose.
We ventured to a nearby hotel for breakfast before continuing to explore Kaziranga National Park by jeep safari. Open top jeeps drove us further into the park where we spotted several one-horned rhinos. The sheer size of them was unbelievable and it was surprising how quick they are on their feet as one made its way between two of the jeeps. Elephants, deer, birds and monkeys were seen as we were driven around. The park has a number of locals who look after the animals’ welfare and prevent poachers making their way into the park. Sadly no tigers were spotted on this visit, they are a rare sighting and they clearly didn’t wish to grace us with their presence.
Arriving back on the ship for lunch, we then chose a traditional Assamese outfit to wear for that evening. So many choices of fabrics of all colours laid before us, all neatly pressed and ready to be worn for the evening’s entertainment. There literally is something for everyone, men and women.
After the exceptionally early start, the afternoon was an opportunity to relax and catch up on some missed sleep. The sunsets never got boring, especially when they have the snow-capped Himalayas as their backdrop. The evening started with us learning how to dress in our outfits - a little more complex than the men’s shirts. Luckily Nina was on hand to help and she kindly lent us jewellery to complement the saris. A bonfire had been lit on an uninhabited island and set around were chairs for us to get comfy. A temporary bar was nearby with Rajish serving drinks and delicious canapes were offered around. Crew pointed out the star constellations as the night’s sky was so clear with no light pollution. All of the crew on board were introduced so we could see who works behind the scenes on the ship that had now become home. Dinner followed with the photographs of the day’s activities rotated on the television screen. Post dinner drinks took place in the bar as we discussed the day’s programme.
Day 7: Local village visit
As the curtains were pulled this morning ,we couldn’t see the Himalayas due to fog. It meant that the programme for the day was altered and the visit to Peacock Island would take place the following day. We had a talk on Assam and the following day’s visit and learned more about the beautiful Golden Langur Monkeys.
Later in the day, we stopped at a local village. Interestingly, the ship stops at various different villages on route during the season. To spread the wealth amongst the local tribes and accessibility by tender due to the ever-changing sand dunes. So when the local people can see a ship is going to stop, they greet visitors along the water’s edge with waves and smiles. As we disembarked the tender, they kindly showed us around the place they call home. The children were highly excited, pointing at Sarah’s blonde hair and giggling away, very happy to have their photo taken, as long as they could see it on the digital screen afterwards. One little boy in particular had us mesmerised with his sun-kissed blonde hair and beautiful brown eyes. He was so shy and hid behind his sister for our whole visit.
When back on board the ship, tea, coffee and a selection of biscuits awaited us and before dinner we were given the chance to pack our cases ready for our departure home. Dinner was served and we said our goodbyes to the new friends we had made on board.
Day 8: Peacock Island – disembark MV Mahabaahu, Kamakhya Temple, flight home
Sarah was most looking forward to seeing the golden langurs this morning. We were informed that there were only five monkeys residing on Peacock Island and, to our delight, we saw them. Perched high in the tree were these tiny monkeys with long tails, golden bodies and small black faces with wide eyes. In total, we spotted three and they were quite tame. This was not surprising really as tourists have been known to feed them and one little monkey in particular had developed a belly. The Napolese King brought 35 Langur monkeys back to the Island and now only five of them remain.
As we bid farewell to the wonderful crew who had made our stay a memorable one, we were given a packed lunch box. The journey time from the ship to the airport was only half an hour. The drive to the airport offers the chance to visit Kamakhya Temple, known as the temple of sacrifice. Animal sacrifices take place here almost every day. The temple is devoted to the enternal feminine, the goddess of desire whose name is Kama Khya, granter of desires. Whether flying to Kolkata or Delhi for homeward flights, the transfer will take you to Guwahti Airport. Men and women queue separately for passport control so don’t be alarmed.