Author: John M.
Date of Trip: May 2007
Cruising the mighty Brahmaputra River in the north eastern Indian state of Assam is like taking a step back in time.
Sitting on your cruise vessel’s panoramic sundeck at dawn, as the sun shows as an almost scarlet orb and the mist lifts to expose the remote landscape, one could be forgiven for imagining one’s travelling companions are Mahatma Gandhi or Rudyard Kipling.
The voyages, operated by the Assam Bengal Navigation Company (http://www.assambengalnavigation.com) are not for the faint-hearted. But have strong appeal to serious travellers as opposed to tourists wanting to buy trinkets or to shop ‘til they drop. Rarely will passengers see another European face apart from those of their fellow travellers.
The ABN operates two vessels – the “Charaidew” and the “Sukapha” – which both accommodate up to 20 passengers in 12 well-equipped and self-contained cabins. Voyages extend from four to 10 nights, and also can include the Hugli River. Prices range from $185US to $275US per night plus taxes, and include all meals and on-shore excursions.
The Brahmaputra cruises operate along various sections of the majestic river which, in the monsoon, can become like a vast inland sea with some sections expanding in width to more than 25 kilometres. The River Hugli cruises are between Kolkata and the Ganges, a more intimate waterway with an emphasis on monuments and culture, whether Hindu, Muslim or Colonial.
My own cruise was seven nights aboard the “Sukapha” from Silghat to Sibsagar, and included Majuli Island, regarded as the world’s largest river island. It is a remote stretch of river with views varying from lush jungle through to barren stretches of sand and rice paddies. Because of annual river flooding, few villages at built on the banks, and those that we visited were often about a 30 minute walk inland – easy treks with the reward being opportunities to mingle with tribes whose lifestyle has changed little over the past 50 years.
When not on-shore, the vessel’s splendid sun deck also affords superb river views. We often saw wild elephants, fresh water dolphins, water buffalo and prolific birdlife, with the latter becoming most absorbing because of the knowledgeable bird-watcher who travels on all cruises. On some cruises, passengers have seen tigers roaming the riverbanks, although these eluded our voyage.
The deck also provides a marvellous photographic platform, especially for the sunrises and sunsets.
Over our 8 days aboard the “Sukapha”, we wandered through Mishing villages where Europeans are still a novelty, visited ancient temples and monasteries, saw monks dancing like dervishes as they played ancient musical instruments, and drove through Kaziringa National Park and saw one horned rhinos, elephants, water buffalo, hog deer, langur monkeys, bison and huge storks. These excursions were made even better because of the guide who travels aboard the vessel and who speaks excellent English and is highly knowledgeable.
The well-equipped vessel has all modern facilities – 12 air conditioned self contained cabins, a comfortable saloon at the bow which became an informal club for the passengers, a dining room with panoramic views, and a massage centre.
While the “Sukapha” serves excellent Indian cuisine in the dining room, we also enjoyed a memorable on-shore tandoori barbecue one night, and were entertained by villagers performing spectacular traditional dances.
All on-board meals take the form of a hot and cold buffet. Breakfasts are filling and are an excellent way to start each day. Lunch and dinner always have a strong Indian flavour, with local dishes being the highlight.
The “Sukapha” also has its own tender – a beautifully and brightly decorated launch that took us ashore for our excursions.
ABN also operates a basic but very comfortable jungle lodge – Bansbari Lodge – at the entrance to Assam’s Manas National Parks, one of India’s tiger breeding parks. We loved it, although once again, it is for serious travellers wanting an exhilarating experience rather than pampered luxury.
Rooms are spartan, and have twin beds, en-suite bathroom and toilet, and outdoor area. Electricity tends to be tricky, although when the main supply cuts out, the Lodge’s generator cuts in. But this is yet another sign that you are in a remote area where luxuries are far outweighed by the experience.
The Lodge overlooks magnificent and expansive tea gardens, and provides some of the best guided walks I have ever undertaken. We stayed there four nights, and each day walked for several hours through local villages where we saw tea being picked or were made to feel welcome by the friendly and generous locals as they went about their daily routine.
We also undertook two half-day safaris through Manas National Park.
Travelling in an open 4-wheel drive vehicle, the safari terminated at the border of India and Bhutan – 20 kilometres from the Lodge but about a 90-minute journey due to the torrid road conditions.
Along the way we saw herds of wild elephant and Indian bison, monkeys, various species of deer, peacocks, mongooses and prolific and exotic birdlife. The highlight was arriving at the border at sunset and being able to walk a short distance into Bhutan. The border scenery is breath-takingly beautiful, especially the sunset over the Himalayan foothills. It’s a photographer’s dream.
Assam is one of India’s forgotten states. But, by travelling with the Assam Bengal Navigation Company, it is one of those special adventures. We subsequently visited Agra and Jaipur – well known and popular tourist haunts. While we enjoyed the experience, they – apart from the Taj Mahal and Amber Fort – paled in comparison to our experience aboard the “Sukapha” and 4-night sojourn at Bansabari Lodge.
Assam is off the tourist trail. It’s remote, and there are few tourist luxuries. But by journey’s end, you know you have seen a side of India that only the lucky few have been adventurous enough to enjoy.