Shillong, also fondly known as the Scotland of the East, is a wonderful hill town located in north-eastern India at an average altitude of 4,908 ft. It’s the capital of the state of Meghalaya and also the district headquarter of East Khasi Hill District. Over time, the place has become a tourist magnet, so much so that it has been voted as India’s Favourite Hill Station in 2016 by a leading global travel site.
If you are thinking of a vacation in a beautiful hill town in north-eastern part of India then like Darjeeling, Shillong should also be on top of your list. And interestingly, all these places are quite close to each other. You can even plan a combined trip to Shillong, Darjeeling and Sikkim, many actually do so.
The romantic name Shillong actually means 'The abode of clouds' and has a legend behind it. Locals believe that a virgin lady gave birth to a beautiful but still-born child who she buried in her garden. Years later the child was reborn in supernatural form and grew up to become so handsome & powerful that he was worshiped by the locals as a deity and called him U-Shyllong (meaning one who grows naturally). Shillong was later named after him. Even today the locals would pray 'Khot Shyllong' meaning 'Call Shyllong' at the time of severe misfortune or catastrophe.
View of Shillong town from Shillong Peak
Shillong is located at the center of the Shilllong plateau which is surrounded by the Garo, Khasi and Jaintia hills. Most natives here are therefore known by the names of these hills depending on their origin (i.e. Khasi, Garo etc). Majority are Khasis although the town of Shillong has a cosmopolitan mix including Bengalis, Assamese, and Nepali as well. The Khasis who are usually short with mongoloid features are mostly Christians while Bengalis, Assamese, Nepalese are predominantly Hindus.
You may know that Shillong was once an integral part and capital of undivided Assam. In January 1972, a new state Meghalaya was created and Shillong became the capital of Meghalaya, while Dispur which is part of Guawahati became the new capital of Assam.
The total resident population of Shillong metro well exceeds 3.5 lakhs while that of the town itself is over 1.4 lakhs. And the total area of Shillong town is about 64.4 square kms. The highest point and a popular tourist site here is the Shillong Peak located at an altitude of 6,449ft offering panoramic views of the town and the surrounding landscapes. This is also the highest point of the state of Meghalaya.
So what does this charming hill station have in store for you as a tourist? Actually numerous... lovely view points, breathtaking waterfalls, scenic lakes with boating facility, museums, great hotels & restaurants of all types, and plenty of activities as well as shopping. More over, the people are charming & friendly and the weather is cool all through the year making it an irresistible travel proposition.
Getting To & Around Shillong
Shillong is best approached from Guawahati which is the largest city of Assam and located at the base. From Guawahati the road NH6 connects to Shillong in about two and half hours (104kms) of lovely scenic uphill drive through lush green mountains.
Limited flights also operate to a small airport only 35kms away from Shillong. Meghalaya Helicopter Service operates helicopter service between Guwahati and Shillong. And there are regular buses that operate to Shillong from Guawahati and other nearby places.
And once you reach, how do you get around in Shillong? Well for tours you can find plenty of tour operators who offer various sightseeing packages by car. Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) also conducts local guided tours in buses and few tours in private cars, and they offer several packages depending on destinations. Another option is to negotiate a package with a local taxi.
For point to point travel within city limits, there are ample taxis available at numerous stands across the town. All taxis operate on shared fare basis and will pick up five passengers (three at the back and two in front) either from the stands or along the way. You can of course pay for all five seats and reserve a taxi for local transfers.
One of my all-time favorites has been the wonderful drive from Guwahati to Shillong, take a halt midway at Nongpoh – a small mountain village in Meghalaya, have some tea & snacks and move on. And about 15kms (i.e. 25 minutes) before reaching Shillong, stop again at the Umiam lake (also locally known as Barapani), one of the largest in Asia, and soak in the serenity & magnificent views around before heading off to the beautiful hill town.
On the way to Shillong from Guwahati
Like rest of Meghalaya, the route and the hill town are clean and charming.
Shillong’s cool and pleasant climate attracted the British during the colonial days who made it a health resort (a sanatorium) for themselves as early as 1829. Although there was a stiff resistance from the Khasis for such foreign occupation of the land, but they could not stand against the mighty power of the British and finally paving way for development of a great health sanatorium for the British similar to that of Darjeeling.
Winter typically starts from December and ends in February. It’s usually quite cold and dry during winter. March to May is a great time to visit Shillong, the temperature is pleasantly cool around this time. June onwards the monsoon starts and can rain incessantly. Monsoon lasts till August and even beyond. October to November is again a great time to visit Shillong.
One of the main attractions in Shillong is the Centrally located large Ward’s lake. Almost all tourists flock to this beautiful lake and many take part in boating. Shillong Peak is another favorite attraction here to get a panoramic view of the hills and the town from the highest point.
Lady Hydari Park is a centrally located lovely parkland full of flowering plantations and trees. Elephant falls located in the outskirts is another awesome sight of a waterfall cascading in three successive steps. Many tourists make a day trip to the vast Umiam lake (also known as Barapani) about 15kms away to enjoy its stunning natural beauty and many go for various watersports.
And there are many more attractions in Shillong including museums with great collections & exhibits showcasing the history & heritage of Meghalaya, Cathedrals with magnificent architecture, high altitude natural golf course etc.
The location Cherrapunjee (also known as Sohra) which was once the wettest place in the world for highest rainfall is only 56kms away and is full of lush green foliage, numerous waterfalls cascading down deep gorges, great caves and many other natural attractions which you will love to see. While many tourists stay at Cherrapunjee for couple of nights, you can also make a great day trip from Shillong.
The small village Mawlynnon 90kms away has the distinction of being the cleanest village in the whole of India and was also awarded being the cleanest village in the whole of Asia. It draws large number of tourists due its sheer pretty sight and wonderful people. There are many home stays that have come up here attracting people for overnight stays. But it also makes a great day trip from Shillong.
Mawsynram is now the place which has highest rainfall in the world replacing Cherrapunjee and it's not too far away from Cherrapunjee either. It's about 60kms from Shillong and takes about 2 hours reach by car. Other than highest rainfall, the place is popular for its Botanical garden which is full with a range of flowering plantations and fruit trees, and also for beautiful pool and great caves.
While you can take a local taxi, bargain a package and get to the tourist spots, a better way would be to take a proper guided tour from the state government run Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation (MTDC) or a well known tour operator. MTDC offers bus tours that operate on per person rate and can turn out to be much cheaper if you are in a small family of 3 or 4. They also provide a guide with such conducted sightseeing tours and day trips. The well known operators usually provide a reserved car of your choice and can customize the tour the way your want. They also have set tour packages.
Whether you are budget traveller or looking for a luxury vacation, you are bound to be confused with number of choices you get in Shillong. There are hotels, Guest Houses and Bread & Breakfast accommodations of all types here. Over the years plethora of tourist accommodations have mushroomed in and around Shillong.
Center of the town is known as Police Bazaar which is the commercial hub of Shillong. This is where you will find most hotels of all types. However this area is also quite congested with traffic and shops. Most tourists prefer to stay in or around Police Bazaar area for convenience, shopping, dining options and easy taxi availability for touring.
But the flip side is hotels centrally located are more expensive and some hotels that take advantage of the location can be really pathetic. If you go further out to places like Polo Grounds, there are several nice hotels with great value for money. And there are some excellent hotels and guest houses little away from the town center which are barely known to tourists.
Out of all the hotels, the longest standing is the Hotel Pinewood, a heritage hotel which was originally made by a Swiss couple in late 1800s during the British days. The wonderful plush cottages are made of Burma teak wood and complete with fireplaces. It is run by Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation. But now there are more that strongly compete with this one too.
Can you imagine a town as small as 24 square Kilometers could have more than 100 restaurants? That’s true for Shillong. Most are clustered around the central location of Police Bazaar but there are many others in the vicinity and some are hidden gems tucked at the corners of the town.
And you get all kinds of food you can ask for including Chinese, Tibetan, Indian (both north and south), Western, Continental and even local Khasi and Garo delicacies. And there are a few nice restaurants for pure vegetarians as well.
If food has to be accompanied with some alcoholic drinks or you are planning for late nights, Shillong does give you options of nice bars and night clubs although limited. Most of such options like Cloud 9, Club Tango, Pine Borough Sunset Bar etc are located centrally in Police Bazaar area.
Police Bazaar, Bara Bazaar and Bhutia Market are the most popular shopping areas for both locals and tourists. While Shillong would anytime lead in fashion wears, there are many other great local purchases to consider ... shawls & stoles, Khasi scrubs, Scottish clothing, organic produces like local jams & jelly, local fruits like sohions & red plums, cashews, various spices etc, hand crafted items especially those made from bamboo shoots & dry fibers, many gift & souvenir items and lot more.