Can you be in two countries at the same time? Well, if you are on the banks of the Umngot river in Dawki, the answer is yes. A little piece of heaven tucked away in Meghalaya, Dawki shares the border with Bangladesh. While the international boundary is guarded by the Border Security Force (BSF), there is no fencing to separate the two countries. Which means you can have one foot in India and the other in Bangladesh and be in two countries at the same time.
Surrounded by the majestic Jaintia Hills, Umngot is a three-hour drive from the capital city of Shillong. While the drive cannot be described as pleasant — the roads can use some repair — the destination is worth the discomfort of the journey.
As you enter the hilly region, lush green betel plantations on both sides welcome you and a text message appears on the phone: “Welcome to Bangladesh”. The road becomes narrow and serpentine.
Do not be disappointed by the initial sight of the river as the Bangladesh region appears first. But for small puddles, there is almost no water on the neighbouring side of the river, which has been robbed of its beauty because of rampant sand mining. All one can see here are trucks loading sand, which is then exported to India. (Dawki serves as a busy trade route between India and Bangladesh.)
After crossing several check posts and heavy vehicles, a suspension bridge takes you to the banks of the Umngot river. Break the tiring journey here with a Bengali thali
that is sold at shacks around the river. The fish curry (or fish fry), baigun bhaja
(fried eggplant), hot rice, dal and the local green vegetables will energise you in no time. The fish, caught from the Umngot river, is as fresh as it can get.
Fed and rejuvenated, you can then explore the surroundings and maybe head for the sandy beach. You can either take a stroll on the India side of the river or buy jhalmuri (puffed rice mixture) and pickled berries from Bangladesh. Keep change handy as they readily accept Indian currency. The porous border also makes it possible for Bangladeshi visitors to enter India. Many, in fact, do hop across for a photo op.
The wooden boats at Umngot ferry visitors to the other side of the river. It’s a 30-minute dream-like sail over crystal clear waters. The water is breathtakingly clear. The river appears like a huge aquarium with the complete underwater habitat visible. But if you are looking for something more adventurous than a boat ride, try out kayaking, snorkelling or camp on the rocky beach. With hills forming the background and the sparkling green water flowing in front, this beach is a haven of serenity.
On the way back to the sandy beach from the magical river, I wonder about the porous border and the possible security problem it might pose. The BSF guard assures me that while it is a friendly border, that does not mean they are not alert. He says they track every visitor and if, despite their vigilance, someone manages to sneak in, he would be caught at one of the several check posts located further ahead.
A waterfall along the way to the sandy beach of the Umngot river; sailing on the green waters on a wooden boat Photo: Harish Bhattad /Wikimedia Commons
I return from the pristine Umngot on a sweet note. The makeshift shops lining the exit route sell sweets, cakes, and biscuits from across the border. Later in the day, with the sand in my shoes reminding me of the boat ride, I take a bite of the cake I bought and bask in the memory of the emerald-like river.