7 Lessons I learnt from Camping at the Hornbill Festival 7

Woovly calls me the guy who chases festivals around the world. So, as you can relate, it was a life-long dream for me to visit the Hornbill festival in Nagaland.

And it almost turned into a nightmare.


How on earth did I end up Camping at the Hornbill Festival?

I was riding near Shillong in early November, and then realised that the Hornbill festival would take place in Kohima from December 1st to 10th. I wanted to get to Kibithoo by December 20th, for the K2K2K ride that I am currently on. So, the Hornbill fest looked like a perfect place to stop by. I planned my ride to go from Shillong to the rest of Eastern Meghalaya, then towards Manipur, finishing in Kohima before December 1st in time for the festival.


I wrote that last line pretending that I am the best travel planner you would come across. But what I did not plan at all, was the accommodation.

hornbill festival

If you haven’t got the drift yet, this is one of those posts where I get near-butt-naked embarrassed.


In almost all parts of my North East travel, I would just turn up at a place and start asking around for the cheapest accommodation. But when I was getting closer to the dates of the hornbill, some friends warned me that during the festival, it is ridiculously difficult to get accommodation anywhere near Kisama Heritage village. Kisama was where the festival happens, so it also made no sense to stay in Kohima town which was nearly 20 Km away from this village (although, I wouldn’t find any accommodation in Kohima either). Around Kisama village, there were a bunch of small, ‘ma’-named villages like Viswema, Kigwema, Zakhama etc, which offered home-stays for travellers. I was warned that these home-stays would be all sold out if I left my accommodation for the end.


Damn those advices. They were indeed sold out! Just a week before the festival, I started making some calls and emailing some properties. And came to the sobering realisation that they were all booked. At least a couple of months ago! The handful of those that did have some rooms, quoted me ridiculous costs of accommodation. I could always stay in Dimapur, which was 60 KMs away, but it took more than 3 hours to reach kisama village from Dimapur. 60 Kms in 3 hours? That should tell you a little bit about Nagaland roads.


When I had almost given up hope of visiting hornbill festival, a friend gave me an option. Camping! Actually, that was 2 different options bundled up as one. One, I could bring my own equipment and camp on the hill which overlooked the Kisama heritage village. There were a few concerns with this option. One, I did not have my own tent with me on this trip. Two, even if I were to get one, there are no facilities for toilets and water in this area. And three, I wasn’t sure if Nagaland was safe yet for me to camp alone. Yeah, I chickened a little.


The second option was to stay with a camping site. After a lot of research (ok, I checked the prices), I booked with Discover Northeast and their campsite, called Camp Zingaros.


I had never camped in India before, only outside the country. And even then, it was with almost all the amenities of a regular hotel or hostel. In hindsight, let’s just say that it was glamping. I didn’t know what to expect, but me and my motorbike made my way to the Camp Zingaros site, just 600 metres from the back entrance to the Kisama Heritage village. Even before I reached the campsite, I was elated. Because the campsite was located right on the edge of the hill and had a neat view of the entire Kisama heritage village!

From this point on, a simple festival camping experience started giving me some invaluable life lessons.

kisama heritage village

Viewing the kisama heritage village from the hill. Ok, it is a little dark right now. Cant you just enjoy the silhouette?

Lesson 1: Don’t chicken away from the unknown.

Any apprehensions that I had harboured, simply vanished into the thin Kohima air when I reached the camp site. The guys from Discover Northeast who ran the camp were not only friendly – but also young and super-fun! And so were the other travellers who were camping in the site. There were people from all parts of India. There was a strings artist from Mumbai (no, I don’t think she knew how to play a guitar. She worked on real artworks made out of strings), a travel-blogging couple from India and Ireland, a solo-biker who rode all the way from Bangalore, a traveller from Orissa who knew more about India that any lonely planet edition, a mountain-lover from Chandigarh who ran an adventure travel company, a lovely couple from Assam, some students from IIT Guwahati, and even 3 other bikers from Kerala, my own home state! Despite our differences in background, one thing united all of us. We loved the trimix adventure of Northeast, hornbill and camping.


camp zingaros

When the bonfires burns out at night, the camp looks even more beautiful!!

Lesson 2: Travel unites. And Festivals unite more!

Over the course of the next 8 days (I arrived at the 10-day hornbill festival late by 2 days), the group bonded like a house on fire. Before we reached the campsite, we were all solo travellers, but now we ended up visiting the festival together, and exploring the different Morungs together. Morungs are community huts of the Naga community, and there were more than 20 Morungs in the Kisama heritage village. As a group, we went together to each of the Morungs, to talk to the tribes in them. To jam with them on their indigenous music instruments. And sometimes, to drink their rice beers. Ok, not sometimes. Most of the times.

Kuki tribe morung

Jamming with the kuki tribe in their morung.

Lesson 3: Rice beers make you a better dancer!

After the last point, I have to explain a little bit about rice beers. Each Naga tribe – and there are more than 20 of them – have their own distinct ways of distilling rice beers. And one of the best ways to sample them is by going around all the Morungs and rating each of the beers. (NO!Not on the same day dummy! You have 10 days, so drink responsibly!). That’s what we did too, trying out all the different Naga rice beers. And followed it up with some partying at the Morungs, and dancing like we were auditioning for ‘North East Got Talent’. The Nagas love to party! And that probably explains the rice beers, because, the last time I danced like that, I was still at an age when I was shit-scared of acne!


Tip: Wondering who had the best rice beer? We think it was the Zheliang tribe. Sorry Angamis. You came very close!


Pro-tip: Venture beyond the rice beers and try the rice wines! They are stronger, so use caution. And trust the Pochuris and Kacharis to make them best!

Naga tribal game

And once you are drunk on Rice Beer, you have to try this boat-like thing in the Naga morungs, where people bang away in cohesion. Great for team-building. Not great for your poor palms.

Lesson 4: Be early in life. Especially if there is an Amphitheatre

Of course, most of the interesting things during the hornbill festival happen at the Amphitheatre, which is where they have the Naga cultural performances. First of all, this is definitely not authentic – it’s a stage show for the tourists. But given the diversity of Nagaland, consider this to be a crash course in Naga culture and the various tribes. But to get the best view of any event at the Amphitheatre, one needs to go slightly early (like 15 minutes before the 10 AM show) to catch the best seat to view the festivities. Even when I forgot this (after one too many rice beers the previous night), I had others in the camp who would remind me of this early morning. Sometimes, even by shouting outside my tent.

kisama amphitheatre

This photo is brought to you by my endeavour to reach early and get the best spot.

Lesson 5: Know your weaknesses. Especially in the cold.

Before I came to the hornbill festival, I only had hornbill on my mind. I am not a trekker, and I try to avoid treks like other Keralites avoid beef politics. So, it was difficult for me to say ‘no’ to the other camp-mates when they decided to go for a side-trek to Dzukou Valley – a gorgeous, verdant valley not too far from where we stayed. Gritting my teeth, I joined too.


The plan was to stay overnight at Dzukou valley, where the temperatures would drop to – 5 C or even less at night. After considerable thought, I informed my friends that I would do the trek with them – but there is no way in dear hell that I am staying overnight in that freezer! So, I trekked to the valley viewpoint, and returned back. Alone, but still content at not having to shiver to death at night later.

dzukou valley trek

Warmer times on the way to the Dzukou valley viewpoint

dzukou valley

Somewhere along the trek, when I had enough breath in me left to pause for a click.

Lesson 6: One good phone network can hotspot 5 others

Camping in Kisama did have one drawback. Everybody’s mobile connection was spotty. And mobile data was almost a non-existent factor. I used a Reliance Jio and it had surprisingly good mobile coverage AND mobile data. The saga started with me lending the hotspot to one of the campers. Then another. And another. Soon, I had 3 to 5 people connecting to my phone at any point of time. And surprisingly, the goddamn connection still worked! All of us were happy to update our instagram photos and facebook updates. No FB live, though. That shit wouldn’t fly on a hotspot.


(Note: This is NOT a sponsored post for Reliance Jio!)

Campsite wifi

No wifi. Only Abhi’s hotspot.

Lesson 7: Showers are over-rated. No, seriously!

At Kisama, the temperature hovers around the single digit mark in the evenings, and is marginally better during the mornings. Being a campsite, there is no luxury of a proper hot shower/bath. The didi who worked at the camp kitchen would boil a bucket of water if we asked her. But it was extra work for her on top of her main chore – feeding a bunch of hungry campers.

I took a bath on the first day. Then skipped a day. Then skipped 2. By the time the festival had ended, I had taken a total of 3 baths. Oh, if you are judging me already, I’d love to see the grin wipe off your face when you pour a bucket of fucking freezing cold water over your head!

hornbill campsite

The winter works in our advantage at the camp. Nobody stinked. Seriously.

So, do you think you are ready for the hornbill-camping experience the next year?



This post is part of my travel stories about festivals. Click here to check out other amazing stories from festivals around the world. 

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About Abhi Surendran

Abhi quit his corporate job, and decided to immerse himself in travels, photography, occasional periods of bankruptcy, and copious amounts of insanity. He is currently working on a book of his experiences, and a dream road trip through South Asia. Both in a haphazard fashion. He blogs at Iamnothome and you can also catch him at times on Facebook and twitter.

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