I’m sure many of you would have seen pictures of a green, green, green crystal-clear river in Meghalaya, a rustic boat floating gently on its surface, the water so transparent that one can even see the rocks and vegetation below. The place looks magical, other-worldly, like Fairyland. Have you?
Well, the river in question is Umngot, which flows through the little village of Dawki in Meghalaya, barely 95 km from Shillong. Right next door is Tamabil, the land border between India and Bangladesh, manned by extremely friendly army jawans. The specialty of the Umngot is its pristine water, so clean and clear that you can see right through to the river bed in spite of it being about 20 feet deep. The water here usually has a beautiful greenish hue, and is so transparent that the boats plying on it look as if they are floating in mid-air. So, it was but natural that when the husband and I visited Dawki in May 2017, we came with huge expectations. Sadly, the sight we met with was less than magical and our boat ride across the Umngot was definitely not the awe-inspiring thing that we had imagined it would be.
Our first sight of the Umngot
Our visit to the Umngot was scheduled en route to Shillong, after spending a day in Mawlyynong, touted as the ‘cleanest village in Asia’. The drive was beautiful, across scenic vistas, with gushing waterfalls taking us by surprise every now and then, barely any vehicle crossing our path. As we got nearer and nearer to Dawki and to the Umngot river, though, the atmosphere changed – the surroundings were still beautiful, but hordes and hordes of tourists started appearing. It was, after all, the month of May, the start of monsoon in Meghalaya, when the state is at its best, supposedly tourist season.
Our cab driver dropped us at the spot designated for drop-offs, where we were met by our tour guide. He led us through the winding maze of tourists, and we had our first sight of the Umngot. The river looked muddy and in no way clear as crystal, and was FULL of boats. To me, the water looked angry, almost threatening to overflow its banks. We were told this was because of heavy rainfall the previous day – apparently, the water is pristine only when you visit in the summers. Disappointment seeped in.
The husband and I decided to go ahead with the boat ride, as scheduled. A visit to Meghalaya does not happen frequently, after all! Thankfully, we did not have to bargain over the fare for the boat ride, as we saw so many other tourists doing – since we had booked a complete package, everything had already been arranged for us.
Getting down to the boat
We climbed down some very narrow stairs, rendered slippery with rain and slush, as careful as could be, holding hands, tightly gripping the bub’s hand in ours. Under normal circumstances, I am guessing, the descent would not have been so harrowing.
The boat ride
Soon enough, we were introduced to our boatman, a sweet guy called Joseph. We were seated in a pretty, old-fashioned boat that seemed quite sturdy. Joseph began to row us across the Umngot – quite a long stretch, actually – and we began to relax slowly.
The husband and I began to take note of the beautiful surroundings around us. My camera came out, and I began clicking away. If the place could look this beautiful with muddy waters, just how pretty would it be on dry days?, we wondered aloud.
We passed through nooks and crannies in the hills, the sunlight playing hide-and-seek with the rocks.
Little waterfalls along the route sprayed water on us, providing us relief from the stiflingly humid weather.
All the while, the water lapped impatiently against our boat. We wondered if we had taken a huge risk in deciding to undertake the boat ride when the river was so very full, but at that point there was not much we could do about it. We sent up a silent prayer to keep us safe.
The island of rocks
After a while, Joseph anchored the boat near a small island in the midst of the Umngot river. The island – full of rocks in all shapes, sizes and colours – It was a pretty little spot. It would have been just perfect for pitching a tent or lying down and gazing at the sky, on a cooler day, I think. No wonder people all around us were going crazy taking selfies!
We took a few pictures here too, and sat dangling our feet in the water. The water around the island is very shallow, and the bub had a fun time letting the little waves lap over her feet.
As we got ready to leave the island, we picked up a few pebbles, to bring back home with us as keepsakes.
The Bangladeshi side of the Umngot
We cruised along the river some more and came to the border between India and Bangladesh, right there in the waters. The spot was marked by a string of plastic bottles, bobbing merrily in the waves. ‘This side of the bottles is India, and that side is Bangladesh,’ Joseph told us. Precisely how this demarcation was arrived at, I am curious to understand.
In spite of being a small village, Dawki is a busy place, I understand, thanks to its strategic location. Trucks pass through it all the time, ferrying goods for trade between India and Bangladesh, two countries which have friendly relations with each other. Dawki is a fishing village too, with a number of fishermen operating on the Umngot river on a daily basis.
‘Earlier, there used to be free movement of boats between the Indian side and the Bangladeshi side, on the Umngot,’ Joseph told us. ‘That is no longer the case,’ he added.
The end of the boat ride
After about 25 minutes on the river, we were brought back to the boat docking area, and escorted safely back on level ground. Thankful to be safe, we bid adieu to Joseph and Dawki.
This particular boat ride had been less than satisfying.Now, however, we have had a glimpse of just how magical the place can be in a different clime, different time. We cannot wait to visit again, to see the Umngot in all its crystal-clear beauty.
Tips for travellers
- If the clear waters of the Umngot are what you want to see, please do plan your visit in drier weather, between October and April. In May, the monsoon begins in Meghalaya, and the Umngot turns angry and muddy.
- In hindsight, we think we should have skipped the boat ride, considering the river was threatening to overflow its banks. If you are in a similar situation, I would suggest that you follow your gut instinct.
- Be sure to enquire about a reasonable charge for boating on the Umngot river, from your tour guide or hotel help desk.
- Make sure you leave your belongings in your cab as you descend for boating, keeping just the bare minimum with you. The steps are safe, but quite narrow. The descent can be a bit steep for very young children, the aged and infirm.
- Do visit the India-Bangladesh border at Tamabil, which is just adjacent to Dawki.
- Dawki can be covered as a day trip from Mawlynnong or Shillong. Do request your tour guide or hotel to help you plan the trip.
- Considering that Dawki is quite a small village, there is no reliable public transport to and from the place. A private cab hired from Mawlynnong or Shillong would be your best bet.
- You can shop for little Bangladeshi articles in the little shops around Dawki. We tried out a Bangladeshi litchi drink here, which was absolutely delicious, priced at a princely sum of INR 10. Our cab driver also suggested we pick up a soap from Bangladesh here, just for the fun of it.