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Khonoma, Asia’s First “Green Village”: Why I Left Earlier than Planned

I tossed and turned on the bed at my homestay in Khonoma and finally sat upright.

Just the previous morning I had hitched a ride from Kigwema to Kohima, spent hours in search of a bus headed to Khonoma that nobody seemed to know anything about, finally landed at the NST Bus Depot in town and booked myself a seat in an afternoon bus heading to this small village I had heard so much about.

khonoma homestay nagaland
Sunset at my homestay in Khonoma

As the bus jostled to a stop in front of a beautiful church with dust clouds everywhere, I saw a small wooden board welcoming me to Khonoma, “Asia’s first green village”. I had heard plenty of this little obscure village some 30 kilometres from Kohima that had successfully converted from a hunting village to a nature conservation site. Reading high praises about Khonoma’s strong sense of community, I had somehow managed to make my way and see it for myself. But the day turned out to be quite different from what I had expected.

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First impressions at Khonoma

After I picked up my bag from the boot of the bus that was now completely covered in yellow-brown dust thanks to the wonderful roads of Nagaland, I went into the tourist information hut that sat right at the entrance of the village. The first thing I was asked to do was pay the “sustainability fee” that this village charges to ensure that Khonoma is as green as its title claims to be. First thought? My shoestring budget was not too happy to pay the paltry sum of 50 rupees to ensure entry to the village. I asked what this fee was for and got no clear responses in return, just a few vague terms like “sustainability”, “green village” and “environment” being thrown around loosely. But I convinced myself that it is probably (hopefully) going for a good cause and moved on.

Tourist Information Center, Khonoma asia's first green village
Tourist Information Center, Khonoma

At the information centre, I learned that due to peak season because of the Hornbill Festival, all homestays in Khonoma were booked and there was no room for me. I was asked to sit inside while the people at the centre made phone calls here and there to find someone willing to accommodate me. As I was sitting on a foldable chair in that small room, I noticed the big posters hung on the walls, detailing out the tour packages one could avail at the village. Guided walks like “paddy field visit” and “heritage walk” for a whole 1000 rupees sounded too commercial to me, and just an extended version of the Hornbill Festival where people who do not have the time to immerse themselves properly in a place’s culture pay for these short tours which are usually too planned out and made up and don’t really offer the real experience of the said place.

So, I decided to not take any of these tours which turned out to be…let’s just say not the greatest idea. I realized the tourism culture in Khonoma was heavily based on money instead of real experiences. Unlike Tandi in Lahaul, where my host took me on a leisurely stroll to through the village one day or later in Longwa, Nagaland itself where I received very eye-opening insights from my host into the tradition of headhunting, in Khonoma I felt information or experiences were only exchanged for money. My visit to the village’s fort, a tomb and the bird sanctuary they claim to have made to conserve the Blyth’s Tragopan, were all lined with guides asking me if I wanted a guided tour and then negotiating the price with me if I refused. To cut it short, it was way too ~touristy~ for my taste, period.

Blyth's Tragopan Sanctuary, Khonoma nagaland
Sunset walks at the Blyth’s Tragopan Sanctuary, Khonoma
The Burmese girl

When I finally did get a homestay assigned to me after endless calls, I was taken in and fed some milky chai to help me unwind. What ensued next was a tour of the house and its members including the pig, the roosters and hens and the dog. Human creatures here included a husband, a wife, their daughter and…their other daughter(?) “This is Aki”, my host told me, “and she is from Burma”. I was very confused at this bit of random information that was thrown at me for no reason. What did she imply? That the girl was not their daughter? Or that she was like their daughter, but not quite? To this day, I do not know and I thought it would be too rude to ask so I never did.

Aki, the 7 years old “Burmese Girl”.

From what I gathered was that they probably took her in when she was young (the whereabouts of her real parents are a mystery to me) and that they have fed her and educated her since and continue to do so now. But there’s a but. She does way too many chores in the house while the others are away at work. From what I understood, she was a young girl of 7 or 8 who was their house help who in exchange was treated almost like a child of the family. But the fact that this young, shy girl cooked and cleaned instead of playing hopscotch with her friends. Who am I to judge their business, I thought, but it made me uncomfortable nonetheless.

My host with her daughter
The dog

I knew my days in Khonoma were already over the moment I befriended the house dog.

With a heavy bias, I didn’t make much of the tour I was getting of their animals, all kept in small wooden pens and fed several times every day- only to be eaten ultimately, until I was taken to the back of the house where a beautiful dog with a shiny silver coat sat by her wooden kennel, tied with an iron chain to a pole nearby. I got excited at the sight of a furry friend and reached out to pet her only to find her whimper and disappear into the kennel. Disappointed, I went to bed.

feeding the pig khonoma nagaland
My host feeding the pig its meal
Cock-a-doodle-doo

The next morning, my host fed me a hearty breakfast and after telling me what’s what, she made her way for a meeting at the village’s women’s society. As she walked out the back of the house and passed the dog’s kennel, the dog leapt out and tried to get her attention – and to my surprise, my host didn’t as much turn to look at her.

I asked Aki if the dog was ever left unchained and she explained to me how the villagers are always afraid that the dog might attack and bite them so it’s a rule in their community to ensure all house dogs remain chained. Why do they even keep dogs then, I wondered out loud and the little girl replied, “to eat them”, nonchalantly. And that is when I learned what a sinking heart truly feels like.

I was no one to say what’s right and what’s wrong in their culture, I was merely an outsider, a visitor. So over the course of the day, I made relentless efforts to gain the trust of that poor dog who was so intimidated by a stranger’s sight. And when I eventually did, I regretted it immediately. The moment I would step out of the reach of her little chained radius, she would cry for my attention. If she saw me move past the window of the house, she would beg to be touched and played with. That night, as I went into the kitchen to grab myself a cup of water before going to bed, the deprived dog saw me and began a seemingly endless cry for love and attention.

I twisted and turned in my bed that night listening to the voice of her – and my – breaking heart, and decided it was time for me to leave.

Also read:“My Journey From Khonoma to Dzuleke”.

paddy fields khonoma nagaland
Paddy fields from the top of Khonoma Fort

The picture I had in my mind of Khonoma- thanks to the plenty positive accounts I had read online- turned out to be very different from the reality I experienced in the village. Though I had bare minimal interaction with the locals in my meagre one day and a half there, I felt like I learnt a lot. Maybe I rushed out way too quickly to give myself a chance to actually learn about the village’s beauty, or maybe the few unpleasant things I encountered marred my entire experience in Khonoma, but the truth is that I left disappointed. In my two years of travelling, this was by far the most uncomfortable I’ve felt at a new place. I may not have learnt much about Khonoma’s green initiative and their title of “Asia’s first green village”, but I was happy to get out of there as quickly as possible, only to find out that my journey would take a complete flip in the coming days and that I would experience Nagaland in the rawest, most beautiful and loving way possible…

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A twenty-something solo adventurer, Avantika finds comfort in learning about various cultures, its people and listening to age-old folk tales. When not on the road, she can be found cuddled up with her dog in her room, with a book in her hand.

46 Comments

  • Jitaditya Narzary

    It happens in Nagaland at times. It is not the easiest place to backpack and also very expensive. In short, this is one place that I covered for the sake of documentation but won’t return to relax and enjoy like I’d do to Himachal… Or Arunachal for that matter.

    • Avantika

      I feel you! Nagaland sure is expensive and it’s a tedious task to travel in the state with the bad roads and public transport. I did however have exceptionally great experiences too, that may have made up for the bad experiences I had!

      • Jayashree

        I love reading your blogs. Especially because how you smoothly tell a tale through it. It is indeed your absolute grasp on the Words ❤Your village experience at Khonoma is lovely. I love to stay and experience places. I had a chance to experience Ravangla up close. I would love to visit Nagaland too someday.

        • Avantika

          Thanks so much for your kind words, Jayashree! I’m glad you liked reading this. I haven’t been to Sikkim yet, hopefully will get to visit soon 🙂

  • Navneeth and Shishira

    Oh, we didn’t know this side of the NE – but is there a way that one can still get the best value for their money in Nagaland? It appears quite beautiful, but humans have yet again made it challenging to enjoy Earth’s beauty. On a side note, very well written! 🙂

    • Avantika

      Thanks for reading! Honestly, “value for money” is such a subjective term- I’m not sure how to answer your question. I did have absolutely great experiences in Nagaland after this little blip on the road, so I think it’s safe to say it’s not all bad 🙂

  • The Exploring Eyes

    Loved the way you have covered the other side of travel which may not be as expected always !!
    Though for a small village like this, money based tourism may only makes sense if this is flowing to the people who actually need it

    • Avantika

      I’m glad you liked it! I have always felt an urging need to express my experiences as they were, without the rose-tinted glasses that most people write with.

      And I absolutely agree with you that money based tourism is essential for those who make tourism their bread and butter but I still feel there’s an unsaid fine line between ~real~ and monetary experiences.

  • Ami Bhat

    I have been reading about Khonoma and its green initiatives for a while now and I thought you might have seen a bit of it. However, your story was a total twist 🙂 Glad though that you made your move early.

    • Avantika

      Haha yeah, some experiences are just not how you foresaw them to be! Glad I left too, I possibly couldn’t have survived another night there.

  • TANAYESH TALUKDAR

    Thanks for sharing just in time post. I am planning to go to North East post ta period to document the vanishing and unique things this part of country has to offer. Khonoma has to be visited now.

  • Zenia D'Abreo

    I’ve heard plenty things about Khonoma too! It’s unfortunate to know you had a bad experience. But yes, I can understand what you mean when you say a place became ‘touristy’. It’s sad that the moment a place gains some recognition, they want to squeeze in as much benefit as possible. I just hope not everyone there is like that.

  • Divyakshi Gupta

    Oh Boy… There are places that leave you underwhelmed as well. Especially when you visit it with a lot of expectations and they don’t live up to the hype. Reading about the dogs bit made me extremely sad. Being a vegetarian , atrocities towards any Animal for me is unthinkable. I guess this is what travel does, gives us some forgettable memories so we can cherish the unforgettable ones!

    • Avantika

      Indeed, it’s important for us to receive a shock every once in a while to be able to appreciate the good that’s with us. This one definitely was a good shock for me hahaha!

  • Debjani lahiri

    Remember this post when I read it earlier while going tborugh another blog of yours .. it’s like unless we go ourselves to a particular place we can’t rely on any positive negative opinion about a place by reading other experience .. like your experience will be completely yours and mine will be mine .. hence we are the best judge to ourselves

    • Avantika

      I’m with you, one hundred per cent! There have been times where people have told me “there’s nothing to do there” but I’ve ended up coming back with great experiences. other’s accounts can serve as a heads up, but can never be exactly how you would experience it yourself!

  • NB

    Nicely written article, well also a warning before I plan my trip to this side of North East. Some places are commercial and we do no hit them right away. Honestly, some part of it I did feel in Bhutan. Though people say it is known for happiness, etc but I found all of it missing. People were running behind money (and not happiness) which made me wonder what we have been made to hear may not be always true. So I am totally able to read to your feelings. We need more of such honest blogs. 🙂

    • Raksha Nagaraj

      I would be heart broken too if I had heard what the little girl said. Sometimes I do feel helpless when I come across such situations. I know Nagaland is going to be interesting when I visit and not sure if I will enjoy it. Only time will tell when I visit.

  • Nishu Kumari Barolia

    Nicely written article, well also a warning before I plan my trip to this side of North East. Some places are commercial and we do no hit them right away. Honestly, some part of it I did feel in Bhutan. Though people say it is known for happiness, etc but I found all of it missing. People were running behind money (and not happiness) which made me wonder what we have been made to hear may not be always true. So I am totally able to read to your feelings. We need more of such honest blogs. 🙂

    • Avantika

      Oh man, I felt the exact same way with Bhutan! Kinda nice to have someone to share similar experiences with, no? I thought I was the only one who didn’t feel as “happy” as others usually claim to!

  • Amrita

    Nagaland does overwhelm at times. The place is such that it can give you either a great memory or a wretched feeling. I guess this is one of the facets of travelling that we usually ignore. Loved reading your account about Khonoma. I have been thinking that Hornbill Festival has become too touristy. Good to know that there are a few who thinks the same.

    • Avantika

      Oh, I felt that- “either gives you a great memory or leaves you with a wretched feeling”. So, so true! Nagaland has by far been one of my biggest educators on the road, and has helped me grow as a person with such uncomfortable experiences!

  • Anindita Chatterjee

    Oh my god !! This is such an eye opener. Loved the honesty and candour in the blog. I had been planning to go Nagaland since a long time and yes the Hornbill festival is super popular but at times you don’t understand what the hype is all about until you are actually there. Your article was a total twist to what I was expecting ! Thanks a lot , need more such lovely bloggers like you in the world.

    • pamela

      I felt sad while reading about the dog. How pathetic and saddest part to capture them and eat them. The Burmese girl and her story also surprised me, why the feed her , only for house hold or just a child of the family.

      • Avantika

        Humans do that with a lot more animals, don’t they? I don’t think it’s right to be sad about dogs being eaten, and not care about chicken, mutton, fish etc… But yes it was hard to see and know for sure!

  • Lancelot Quadras

    It’s quite heartbreaking to see this was the experience you faced. I wouldn’t have been able to sleep thinking about the dog too. Guess we can’t always believe on online reviews wholly.

  • PRIYANKA SENGAR

    North East is a beautiful place with so many beautiful surprises. But yes, all destinations will bring a happy experience is not true. With time most of the tourist places are getting commercial day by day and loosing the spot from tourists mind.

  • Vidur

    Fantastic write up and am glad to have read this. Lovely off beat destination and I am adding this to my bucket list.

  • Nidhi Gupta

    Thanks for bringing the reality of the place to the fore. Green village is a great concept but this is what it does to people and humanity, wonder if it is worth it??

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