Off The Grid: A Road Trip To Namdapha National Park

It was one of those spur-of-the-moment quick drives to India’s eastern frontier, but the Mahindra Thar proved to be an impressive and capable companion when the road surface disappeared.

By Preetam Bora


11 mins read


Published on January 6, 2024

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  • Namdapha National Park is located on India's eastern frontier
  • The Mahindra Thar (Diesel AT) proved to be a capable companion
  • Drive across highways, broken roads & riverbeds on Thar

“Travel light and trust in serendipity,” goes a famous quote about travelling. And that is exactly how this trip to Arunachal Pradesh, India’s north-eastern frontier materialised. Me and my wife were visiting our parents in my hometown Jorhat. In fact, this time around, there was no plan to go travelling anywhere. But the stars aligned on a short visit to see a very old friend. He offered his new Mahindra Thar for a test drive and gave me verbal directions on a route to take, to experience it well, he said. So, Google Maps was ignored, and we decided to head out east to what was to become a short, but memorable driving adventure. 


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The Mahindra Thar offers a commanding view of the road ahead, and the big 16-inch wheels give a sense of confidence while driving through every kind of road surface. 


Thar Tackles Tough Terrain Easily


Switching from the subcompact sedan and exchanging it for the Thar immediately gave a sense of confidence. The tall seating position offers a commanding view of the road ahead and the bigger wheels seem tailor made to take on potholes and broken roads we immediately started encountering on the journey. Four-lane construction on the national highway towards Dibrugarh seems to have no sign of nearing competition even after nearly a decade. And on this stretch, innumerable diversions and sudden potholes was just what the Thar needed to flex its muscles on. 

Assam Paddy Fields

Paddy fields of Assam, ready for harvest this time of the year.


Based on the directions my friend had given, we soon left the national highway behind, and started off on a single-lane state highway. The route went through villages and along paddy fields ready for harvest. It brought back a warm flood of memories from a time when the national highway offered similar views many decades ago. But that was before “development” and the prolonged new four-lane highway work means it's been a perpetual construction site an entire generation will grow up getting used to. But I digress.


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Miao is a small town on the banks of the Noa-Dihing river and there are some quaint restaurants and cafes on the river side to grab a quick meal.


Destination Miao


The destination was Miao, just short of Namdapha National Park and Tiger Reserve, on India’s eastern frontier, and hugging the India-Myanmar border areas in Arunachal Pradesh. Known to be home to the world’s northernmost lowland evergreen rainforests, Namdapha is still relatively untouched, by tourism and the associated commercialisation that brings with it. So, accommodation in and around the forest is limited, and if you’re the kind looking for jeep safaris, Namdapha isn’t the place for you, because there aren’t any motorised safaris there.  But I digress.


Assam Tea Gardens

Tea gardens of Assam near Naharkatiya.


We drove along tea gardens lining the road on both sides near the town of Naharkatiya, and then along the fringes of the Dehing-Patkai reserve forest, one of eastern Assam’s densest rainforests. We soon left oil town Digboi behind, and headed east through Margherita, Ledo and Jagun, just short of the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border. Miao is just around 35-odd kilometres from Jagun, although the road conditions will not allow you to make a quick dash for it. The Thar though made light work of the broken road surface, and by lunch time we were already in Miao. Afterwards, we checked into the Namdapha Jungle Camp resort which was recommended by a friend.



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The cottages at Namdapha Jungle Camp Resort.


Later that evening, we explored the rocky banks of the Noa-Dihing river, driving along a trail on the riverbed that led us to what was a makeshift wharf, or “ghat” for a makeshift ferry for locals to commute across one stream of the river. Two-wheelers, cars, livestock, people and even small commercial vehicles all make their way across the river on these ferries. Sunsets are spectacular on the riverside, and even though it’s winter, the weather isn’t as chilly as the brutal cold of northern India. It was soon dusk, and we nearly got caught out in a wet, muddy patch of the riverbed while returning to the resort. And this is where four-wheel drive comes in handy, and the Thar brought us home easily, trudging through mud, slush, sand and rocks with nonchalant ease.

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Exploring the rocky riverbed at Miao. The Thar drove like a boss, over mud, slush, sand and rocks.


Miao to Namdapha 


The next morning, we decided to spend one more day and head to Namdapha National Park for a quick visit. The entrance to the park is less than 30 km from our resort, but it takes close to an hour. The narrow road through the forest soon lost its surface and became an off-road jungle trail. Where any other car with less ground clearance would have struggled, the Mahindra Thar seemed to come into its own in such terrain. The automatic gearbox works like a dream, and shifts are quite seamless, whether hitting a higher gear or when the need arises for a quick downshift. Of course, there’s the option of a “manual” up or down shift as well. But despite my inclination towards manual shifts, the automatic gearbox on the diesel Thar didn’t make me feel the need to switch to manual at all.


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Entry fees to Namdapha National Park is ₹ 500 per vehicle, per day. If going for a day trip, you have to get out of the park before 5 pm.


We decided to have lunch at the Deban forest rest house inside the reserve and a boatman took us across the Noa-Dihing river where we decided to go for a short hike on the opposite bank, before heading back for lunch. Although Namdapha is officially a tiger reserve, the dense forest cover makes it impossible to spot any of the big cats, and it has all four in residence – tiger, leopard and the elusive snow leopard within the park’s higher elevations. The park is also a bird watcher’s delight, and if you’re into birds or wildlife you can spot plenty of it even from the roadside. But for serious enthusiasts, it’s always recommended to make a day-long trek into the forest. This time around, we didn’t have the luxury of time. To our extreme excitement, what we did spot at the forest rest house is a Malayan giant squirrel in the canopy, jumping from tree to tree.

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At Deban forest rest house, Namdapha National Park and Tiger Reserve.


The next day it was time for the drive back. This time around, we decided to take a detour through Namsai and then through Kakopothar in Assam, and through Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and back from the national highway. The Mahindra Thar proved to be an able companion. For two people, it’s nearly perfect. So long as you don’t want to chase triple digit speeds all day long, the Thar offers a great view of the road ahead and it’s certainly a good companion for a long drive. And when the road surface disappears, you have the confidence to go over any kind of terrain.  


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The trail snakes along the forest on the hillside with the Noa-Dihing river on one side for company.  


How to get there?


To get to Namdapha National Park, the closest airport is at Dibrugarh, from where it could take anything from 3.5 – 4.5 hours by road to reach Miao. The closest train station is at Tinsukia, from where Miao is a 3.5 hour drive. If driving from Guwahati, it will be a good 13-15 hours drive to Miao, depending on the route taken and the number of stops you intend to take. If you’re driving from Guwahati, the best option will be to break the journey in either Dibrugarh, or Tinsukia. The other option is also to make a loop around eastern Arunachal Pradesh visiting Pasighat, Dambuk and Roing after crossing the Brahmaputra at the Bogibeel bridge in Dibrugarh. From Roing in Arunachal, there’s the almost 10 km-long Bhupen Hazarika Setu (a.k.a. Dhola-Sadiya bridge) at Sadiya in Assam to Tinsukia on the south bank of the Brahmaputra. 


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Exploring the Noa-Dihing riverbank at Miao as the sun heads to the horizon.


Depending on where you want to break your journey in Arunachal and what all places you intend to visit (apart from the ones mentioned), it could take anywhere from just 2 nights, extending to more than a week, if you have enough time on your hand and want to add more places on your itinerary. Keep in mind that during winter, days are extremely short in the northeast, and daylight hours brief. By 4-4:30 pm, the sun will set, and by 5 pm it’s like night, and daybreak will be around 5:30-6 in the morning. My personal mantra is to always drive during daylight hours as far as possible, particularly in far-flung areas like Arunachal, and avoid late night driving as far as possible. In summer though, it will be light at 4-4:30 and sunset will extend to 5:30 - 6 pm or so, depending on how east you are, geographically.


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The Namdapha Jungle Camp resort offers simple, clean cottages and nice homemade food.


Food And Accommodation


There are plenty of accommodation options available in Miao at all price points. We chose Namdapha Jungle Resort on a friend’s recommendation which was on the banks of the Noa-Dihing river. Comfortable rooms, great food and a pair of friendly dogs made our stay even more memorable. The drive from the main road to the resort is somewhat of an off-road trail. Yes, two-wheel drive cars will make it, but it’s recommended to have a car with more ground clearance than your usual sedan. 



Singpho cuisine is simple, flavoured with local herbs, and easy on the palate. Definitely a must-try for those seeking a culinary adventure.


The other option is to stay inside Namdapha National Park, at Deban forest rest house. It’s always better to book the Deban rest house in advance, since accommodation may not always be available. For those looking for a more adventure, you can drive through Namdapha National Park into Vijaynagar, on the India-Myanmar border. But that 150 km will take around 6-7 hours, since it’s a narrow trail through the forest. And accommodation is extremely limited in Vijaynagar, with only the circuit house available as an option.


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You can spend all evening at the riverside at Miao, and the sunsets are specatular!


In and around Miao, the population is predominantly from the Singpho tribe, as well as some Chakma settlements. Food will be the usual dal, chawal, and sabzi fare, as well as momos and chow mien, which are available almost everywhere in restaurants and cafes. For the adventurous ones who may be interested in trying out new cuisine, do request for Singpho cuisine at any of the restaurants at Miao. It’s simple, full of flavour and easy on the stomach. But if you’re used to oily and spicy food, you may be disappointed.


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The Mahindra Thar is the near-perfect choice of vehicle for a trip like this one to Namdapha National Park.


What Car To Drive To Namdapha?


Major roads across Arunachal Pradesh are superb, possibly some of the best in the country, and in recent years most highways have surfaces which are excellent. Most of the river crossings which were a way of life across makeshift ferries and small boats are a thing of the past. The Bhupen Hazarika Setu and Bogibeel Bridge have been a blessing for road communication from upper Assam to Arunachal. So, to travel to places like Pasighat, Dambuk and Roing, you can use any hatchback or sedan. But in and around Miao road conditions aren’t great. To get to Miao, you will not need a 4X4 vehicle, but driving through Namdapha, a 4x4 or AWD is recommended, even though a two-wheel drive crossover or compact SUV with decent ground clearance will be sufficient.


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The lack of boot space, and tight second row space makes the Thar lack practicality for four passengers. For two people, it offers more than enough space. And its go-anywhere ability certainly can't be questioned.  


The Mahindra Thar proved to be the ideal companion for two of us on this quick getaway. While it’s not the most comfortable vehicle for cruising on highways, due to its body roll and slightly bumpy ride quality, when the road surface deteriorates, the Thar is difficult to find fault with. I’m usually one who’s more inclined towards cars with manual transmissions, despite the convenience of an automatic transmission. But the Thar’s torquey diesel engine with the seamless automatic transmission has been a revelation for me, and possibly my favourite variant of the Mahindra Thar. And I’ve driven the manual diesel as well as the petrol automatic versions of the Thar in the past extensively. 


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The Mahindra Thar proved to be an entertaining and capable companion.


Most of all, for a journey which will have a fair bit of off-road driving involved, as well as pothole-infested and broken roads, the Thar seems to be the ideal vehicle. Overall, it returned decent fuel economy of around 11 kmpl. It may not offer practicality and comfort for four people and luggage or a plush ride on good highways, but for an outdoor experience with trail driving involved, the Mahindra Thar certainly makes a very strong impression. This quick getaway to Namdapha was a pleasant surprise indeed, and so was the time spent with the Mahindra Thar!


Namdapha National Park Road Trip Photo Gallery:


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