A journey to the Darjeeling region is a journey about tea. And not just how it tastes….but also how it looks, how it smells, how its processed, and how the a community thrives around it. Also consider that the history of tea in India is a bit of history into the history of colonial India itself. And so, a visit to the Makaibari Tea Estate offers insight into all of this, offering an amazing tea experience (and at a very affordable price). This tea estate is one of a kind: established in 1859, it houses the world’s oldest tea factory and was one of the original colonial tea estates in the world. I had a homestay and estate tour in Makaibari, and it was simply a fantastic tea experience, offering not just a glimpse of how tea is produced and how is tastes, but also a great experience about the community and history around tea.
Makaibari or Darjeeling?
In my opinion, one need not go all the way to Darjeeling to get an authentic tea experience. To be honest, Darjeeling can be a bit of a let-down, an opinion shared by many travel mates. It just sounds so cool doesn’t it: “Darjeeling”. You hear the name and then picture wide open green tea estate fields, blue skies, and quiet serenity. But really, Darjeeling city is a lot of noise and congestion. It’s just a smaller version of a typical Indian city. The real beauty lies in the tea estates in the hills much outside the city in the general “region” of Darjeeling. So instead of heading all the way up to Darjeeling, I opted to visit some of the beautiful tea hills outside Kursong (home to Makaibari and other tea estates), about 2 hours south of Darjeeling and much closer to Siliguri and Bagdogra, which are the nearest train stations and airports in the area.
I went to Makaibari on a tip from a friend who told me about an amazing homestay experience he had there. I just showed up to the Makaibari office to ask for a homestay which worked fine for me, but during high-season, its always preferred to call ahead to book in advance. The entire homestay experience ended up being truly authentic. I stayed with a lovely family for 2 nights in a very comfortable private room. The family (a grandmother, 2 parents, and 2 cute little kids) were just the nicest people. The kids were hanging on your every word and the grandmother always made sure that my place was full of food. Very hospitable people, excellent home cooked meals, cute little kids running around always just wanting to play and are just super curious. Sure, there are some communication barriers, but it’s also part of the fun, and sometimes you’re left with communicating with hand signals, trying to tell them that “No I’m full, really, I can’t eat another bite!!. Speaking of food, it was delicious. Home cooked meals consisting of fresh local chicken, rice, vegetables, and lots of spices. And they just kept piling on the food (and the tea, of course). And at 800 rupees per night, including 3 meals a day, the price was just fantastic.
Tea Estate Tour
After a lovely breakfast at the homestay, we started the tea estate tour around 8am. The tour was essentially split into 3 parts: 1) A tour of the tea factory including an overview on the various steps of tea processing; 2) A stunning walk around the tea plantation itself, and 3) a tea tasting of the various different types of tea leaves grown in Makaibari.
The tour of the factory was pretty enlightening. I never knew how many steps there were in the tea making process, and how a slight alteration in the technique of one of the steps could bring out an entirely different flavor of tea. It was also quite charming that the Makaibari factory still uses the same machinery in production from over 100 years, from the old colonial days.
The walk around the tea estate itself was beautiful of course. Meandering through the quiet hilly tea landscape covered in thousands of bright green tea bushes is breathtaking in itself. Also as interesting was the way in which the workers hand picked the tea (unlike most other parts of the world where the tea is chopped with massive scissors). The workers here really are part of a community and have a sense of pride in the quality of tea they produce, under the watchful eye of tea managers. This sort of system ensures the best quality of tea being picked and produced.
And finally, the tea tasting itself was especially fun. They lined up and steeps the 5 major brands of tell that they sell direct from Makaibari to various tea channels. We tasted and learned about the following brands: “First Flush”, “Second Flush”, “Oolong”, “White Tips”, and the crown-jewel “Full Moon” tea. Basically….teas have different types and styles (e.g. “flushes”) depending on what time of year they are plucked. For example, “First flush” tea is picked in the 1st 4 months of the year, “Second flush” is in mid year, “Full moon” is picked once or twice a year late in the evening during a full moon, etc. The tea tasting lets you experience all of the different types of green tea side by side for comparison, and your taste buds get ignited!
A great tea experience
Overall, I had an amazing two days in Makaibari and Kursong. Great people, great food, and an authentic tea experience all at a very cheap price. For anyone looking to go to Darjeeling to get this, I would say go no further than Kursong and Makaibari. It’s very authentic and way more chill.