Insightful India and the Brilliant Brahmaputra
In December 2016, four of the Fred.\ River Cruises team were lucky enough to enjoy a seven-night downstream sailing on the Brahmaputra River, sailing on board Far Horizon’s unique river vessel - MV Mahabaahu. Here, our Marketing Executive Sarah Garnham and Digital Marketing Supervisor Sarah Fisher tell of their time on this magical cruise.
Day 1 - Kolkata
Our trip began in Kolkata with a stay at the Oberoi Grand Hotel and a tour of the city. Having flown in on board our Emirates flight from London, via Dubai, we were glad to enjoy a couple of hours’ rest before we set out to explore the city. Our guide greeted us in the hotel lobby and swept us off for a whistle-stop tour of this remarkable city of contrasts.
We enjoyed visits to the Victoria Memorial, home to the largest and oldest museum in Asia; St. Johns’ Church Cemetery, with its memorial to those who were lost in the Black Hole prison in June 1756; and several wonderful temples, each with its own meaning and story. We also visited the bustling Kolkata flower market, which was filled with bright colours and amazing smells and was a particular highlight.
Day 2 - Flight to Guwahati and transfer to MV Mahabaahu
On our second morning, we transferred to Kolkata airport and flew to Jorhat, via Guwahati. We were met at the airport by our cars and, after a short drive through stunning scenery, we boarded MV Mahabaahu just in time to see our first glorious sunset on board.
Once on the ship, we were treated to welcome drinks and local street food, prepared by the crew. We then had a safety and general briefing. This included information about the area we were in, the ship and general dos and don’ts - not to wear footwear in the temples and to always carry deet! Although, due to the ‘colder’ weather, the mosquitos are sparse in the winter months, it’s still better to be prepared.
After unpacking and a quick change, we made our way to dinner for 7pm. We were greeted with a champagne shower and a toast from Nina (Hotel Manager). We sat down for dinner where our tables were already pre-planned in order to create a 'happy family' vibe. For starters, there was cream of spinach soup followed by a prawn cocktail and river fish in batter and for main a combination of chicken stroganoff, king prawns, lemon and parsley vegetables, mushroom risotto and spaghetti in a spicy sauce. Desserts arrived shortly afterwards, including a slice of banoffee pie.
There was an option to go into the lounge and have a casual drink with the other passengers and crew, however, we went to bed! Jet lag had got the better of us.
Day 3 - Sibsagar visit and Home-hosted Lunch at Tea Estate
After a lovely breakfast on board in the Mungri-Mungram restaurant and a talk on Sibsagar, we headed for our short transfer to the Shiva Dol temple. Here, we visited an area where there are three temples, the largest of which we explored. The incense and smoky smells grew stronger with every step we took into the cave-like room where a large group of worshippers were sitting in prayer. As we moved outside the temple, we had the opportunity to ‘light a lamp’ - it’s popular here for worshippers and tourists to light a candle and make a wish. We then moved onto having our wrists ‘tied by the lucky thread’ by local priests who sat on each side of the temple and gave us blessings.
From here, we moved onto Rang Ghar - Ran meaning ‘colourful’ and Ghar meaning ‘house’. Rang Ghar was Asia’s first amphitheatre built by an Ahom King. Here, important meetings would take place, which could only be reached using an elephant to bridge the large gap in the steps! The amphitheatre was built specifically for this purpose – with more steps being placed in at a later date for tourists to climb up and have panoramic views from the building.
Next stop was Talatal Ghar to explore the multi-storeyed structures once visited by the royals. They are still investigating whether this was a palace.
We then took a picturesque drive to the Haroochai Tea Estate, where we enjoyed a traditional Assamese lunch followed by tea tasting and a talk about the tea-making process in Assam. We then took a 30-minute drive back to the ship for some relaxation time before dinner, during which we enjoyed a Punjabi menu. This included a lemon ginger salad, Masala chicken with rice and bread, and a selection of desserts.
Day 4 - Yoga, Majuli Island and Mishing Tribal Village
We started our day with yoga on an uninhabited island. We practised the art of breathing and stretching on glittering silver sand, before enjoying another delicious breakfast aboard the ship. We were given a talk on Majuli Island and the culture within it. Majuli Island is one of the world’s largest inhabited river islands and home to the Neo-Vaishnavite history, as well as the cultural capital of the Assamese civilisation.
We were then given a special performance by the priests at the monastery. We watched them dance in prayer, something known as ‘Gayan Bayan’. This was definitely a highlight of the trip. After the dance, a few others sat beside the monks whilst they made a prayer for them and also to show respect for showing us their dance.
We then moved on to another area of the islands where some local students performed the story of Shiba for us. Shiba is about a princess being kidnapped by the demon king and being rescued by her husband and the monkey god. It was a very bright and colourful performance with fantastic costumes and masks.
After lunch, we sailed on to the Mishing village, home to a tribal group. Here, we were greeted by lots of locals who were selling beautiful and colourful fabrics, displayed on a washing line. The villages live in bamboo huts on stilts, known locally as ‘Sang Ghar’. This is due to the frequent rains that occur in this region which cause flooding in the village. We were invited to go inside and have a look around one of the stilt houses. We climbed up a pole with indentations for you to place your feet one by one before entering into an open-plan room, holding what 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 5 - Boat Safari at Dhansiri Confluence at the Eastern Range of Kaziranga
After a morning of yoga, we had a talk on Assam, before we had a full tour of the ship. This included a look at the cabins, spa, pool, kitchens and clay ovens used to make the bread we had been eating with our meals. We decided to have a cool drink on the sun deck - the warm sun hits your skin which is being cooled by the river breeze.
In the afternoon, we took the ship’s tenders and went for a boat safari along the edge of the Kaziranga National Park. Previous tours have spotted tigers in the river bank but on this occasion they remained hidden. We did, however, see river dolphins popping in and out of the water, some wild water buffalo cooling themselves in the river, a herd of swamp deer, turtles and multiple birds.
After the safari, we were welcomed with a cool berry juice drink and a hot towel, before we sat down for a cooking demonstration that comprised of samosas and egg pakoras. After the demonstration, we were able to sample the finished snacks and take home the recipe! We then made our way to our cabins to get ready for a traditional Indian dinner comprising of cucumber salad, murg bhuna, laal maas, shahi pulao, methi poori and a selection of three desserts - kalakand, rasmalai and Rajasthani Churma. Everything was 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 6 Bishwanath Ghat and Silghat
We woke for optional yoga or a walk along the nearest island but decided to take a lazy breakfast instead. Whilst at breakfast, we spoke to others who had been on the walk and they had seen tiger tracks!
We were given a talk about Bishwanath Ghat prior to departing the ship and we were greeted by a large group of villagers as we arrived on our tenders. Village life is very positive and happy here, with children running and doing cartwheels on the greenery around the huts made of bamboo. This was another highlight. There were a few brick houses muddled in with traditional bamboo huts, as well as shops, market stalls, a school and temple.
We bought some fabrics in the local market area. The village market became extremely busy with ladies selling their hand sewn fabrics. This was a little bit more of a high-pressure environment, but our guides did a fantastic job of looking after us and getting the best deal so both seller and buyer both went away happy.
We saw men fishing and boat making, something this island is famous for, and were able to go inside one of the family homes. Everything inside had a functional purpose. Some houses and huts had weaving looms where the female residents would sit and make their fabrics comprising of both cotton and silk.
On the tender back to the boat, the children waved in excitement and said their goodbyes. We sat on the sun deck and looked at the Himalayas through the binoculars that were given to us. We were told that the word is in two parts, ‘Him’ meaning snow and ‘alayas’ meaning place. In the distance, against the backdrop of the mountains, we were able to spot animals on the river bank including deer and Himalayan vultures (which were huge).
After a traditional Indian lunch, we had a talk on the wildlife of India and Kaziranga National Park. There are 650 wildlife sanctuaries and 90 national parks which are home to, among other animals, 15 species of monkeys and one species of ape.
In the afternoon, we visited the Silghat Jute Mill. Jute is a natural fibre used for sacks and many household items such as curtains, carpets and hessian cloths. We saw the whole process from gathering the river reeds and drying them to collecting the fibres they create, making them into big sewing reels and creating big bags.
On the way back to the ship, we were given a dance at a nearby tea plantation that had spectacular panoramic views of the green landscape where elephants would sometimes roam and eat the tea leaves. The 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.
After the tea plantation and on the way back to the ship, we witnessed an Assamese Dance performance called Bihu, which is an Assamese folk dance performed mostly by young men and women (these were college students). The dance is characterised by quick movements and instrumental playing. This was a great experience and was a lovely end to our day of exploring the culture.
Day 7 - UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kaziranga National Park
Today, we had a wake-up call at 3am, a light breakfast and an hour and a half drive to Kaziranga National Park. The transfer was very comfortable, however, the roads were very bumpy in parts so seatbelts are a must! Once arriving at the park, we set out on our safari as the sun was starting to rise over the mountains. It was so peaceful in the park, with long elephant grass, elephants, monkeys, rhinos, deer and plentiful birdlife flying around us. The animals were in harmony with each other, as well as the landscape that nature provided them. As the morning mist cleared, we were able to truly see the park for what is was, a serene and breath-taking place. We felt so lucky to be there.
We also met a few of the locals and were greeted by some the many anti-poachers on site, dedicated to looking after the animals’ welfare. We didn’t come across any tigers, although we were told that there may be tigers watching us.
Following our safari, we drove back to the ship to pick out traditional Assamese dresses to wear for our evening meal. We spent a few hours relaxing after a very early start and taking more photos of the stunning Indian sunset that sat against a backdrop of the Himalayan snowcaps – what a sight.
The evening started with a bonfire on an uninhabited island, with barbequed snacks and cocktails. We were shown some star constellations by our onboard naturalist and guide. The lack of light pollution made the night sky light up with an array of piercing pins against a deep navy backdrop of what could have been ink.
Day 8 - Local village visit
We woke to fog, which meant our itinerary had to be altered slightly to make up for lost time during which we could not sail. However, after a lovely relaxed and casual breakfast with the usual selection of fruits, bread, cereal and hot food, we were given a talk on general Assam life and Peacock Island, ready for the next day.
We visited a local Bangladeshi village where the locals were extremely friendly and welcoming. There were a group of girls here that pointed at Sarah Garnham’s blond hair often, so she took photos of them giggling away and one of them blew a kiss to the camera – a moment we won’t forget. During our tour of their land and homes, we were followed around by excited children. They cartwheeled and ran around the land as some of the members in our group ran around with them.
Once back on the ship, we were given tea, coffee and a selection of biscuits and a few hours of sailing before the evening proceeded. Dinner was delicious as usual, although, I opted for the western menu to give our stomachs a break from the spices. After all, our delicate stomachs aren’t used to it.
Day 9 - Peacock Island, transfer to airport and flight home
We had been looking forward to today since booking our flights – monkeys! Peacock Island is, in contrast to Majuli Island, one of the smallest inhabited river islands in the world, being home to just a few monks and five golden langurs. We arrived at Peacock Island after a very short tender ride, with concern that we may not get to see them with their only being five. Then, there they were! Golden bodies with tiny black faces and wide eyes - so beautiful. We saw three in total, one of which was getting all he could from the tourists with food. They have recently developed bellies due to visitors wanting to get up close to them. However, they were a sight and definitely another highlight for us.
After our visit, we were supplied with a packed lunch and taken to the airport where we quickly checked in and, before we knew it, were on the first plane home.
If you would like more information about our Brahmaputra River cruises, or you would like to book your own trip on board MV Mahabaahu, contact our sales team today.