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If you’re planning a visit to Manipur in North East India then you have to factor in a trip to Keibul Lamjao National Park.
It claims the title of the world’s only floating national park and is an important part of the ecosystem of Loktak Lake. The largest freshwater lake of North East India!
It’s also the only place on the globe where you can spot the endangered Sangai deer who make a home here on the biomasses of the lake, called phumdis.
Spotting some of these majestic creatures is easily one of the highlights of visiting Manipur. It’s their state animal and their pride and joy.
I didn’t initially plan to make a visit here on my travels. In fact, I didn’t even know it existed before I landed at Imphal airport and saw some Sangai statues in arrivals.
However, it came highly recommended from the owners of my floating homestay and I’m really glad I decided to go.
Here’s a complete guide for visiting Keibul Lamjao National Park with details on how to visit and what to expect!
What is Keibul Lamjao National Park & why is it special?
Keibul Lamjao National Park is the only floating national park in the entire world located in the Bishnapur District of Manipur in North East India.
It covers an area of 40 km2 (15 square miles) and plays a massive part of the ecosystem in Loktak Lake.
It can be hard to believe that the national park is actually floating when you visit. This is because a large area is entirely covered in biomasses, or decomposed plant materials, locally called phumdis.
These phumdis are formed naturally in a swamp marsh and are made of organic garbage, biomass, and hardened soil particles. The water is still underneath but the floating phumdis are strong enough for animals and even humans to walk on.
You’ll most likely see the famous ‘rings’ on Loktak Lake. These were all formed in the same way!
Another reason why this park is so special is that it’s the only place in the world where you can have a chance of spotting Sangai deer who make a home here.
This park is now predominantly a wildlife sanctuary for the endangered Eld’s deer or brow-antlered deer. It proudly boasts a strong herd of over 204 males and females, with more babies being added each year (aw!).
A large part of the park is owned by the state of Manipur with the rest of the land being shared between the Thang, Brel, and Maril tribes.
The history of the world’s only floating national park & Sangai deer
The ‘discovery’ of the Sangai deer was made around 1836 during the British Raj when Captain Guthrie was building the Cachar road.
During the process, he captured sight of many animals in the valley including tigers and the Sangai deer. During this time, Sangai could be found all over Manipur in abundance.
I say ‘discovery’ but the Sangai deer has played a huge part in the folklore and songs of Manipur tribes for centuries. So, I guess it’s more appropriate to say that Captain Guthrie and the British were very excited to see this ‘new’ species of deer on the landscape.
In 1838, the Sangai came to the attention of Lieutenant Percy Eldi who was a Political Assistant in Assam. He saw as many as 300 while visiting Loktak Lake with Captain Gordon of Imphal.
Captian Guthrie and Lieutenant Percy Eldi both sent off skeletal remains of the Sangai deer to the Calcutta Natural History Society.
In 1844, the society then gave the deer the name Cervus eldi eldi in honour of Eldi who ‘discovered’ the Sangai!
Unfortunately, after this, word soon spread in medical journals, the papers, and to the British game enthusiasts in the Raj.
Manipur Valley and Loktak Lake then became a hunting ground and the Sangai deer was the main prize. It saw many of the deer population wiped out.
By 1951, the Sangai deer was reported as extinct. That was until a British tea planter and naturalist Edward Pritchard Gee rediscovered a small population in the biomasses of Loktak Lake.
He immediately called for the area to be protected and classed as a national park to protect the Sangai Deer.
By 1975, the park had a small herd of 14 deers. Over the decades the protected Sangai population has been able to thrive and today, there are now reported to be over 204!
Is this floating national park at risk?
Although the phumdis have been a vital part of the ecosystem of Loktak Lake for centuries, it seems that in recent years human intervention is contributing to their destruction. They are rapidly depleting each year.
Through recent studies, it seems like a large part of this is down to the Ithai barrage on the Manipur River. This was installed as a Loktak hydroelectric project in 1979.
Although the plant does provide much-needed electricity and fresh drinking water to the area. The installation of the plant and the growth of human settlements on the lake meant that many of the natural resources, and phumdis, were submerged.
The lack of cultivation of crops from these resources meant that farmers essentially became fishermen in the water. But, in turn, this swallowed up the fish numbers too!
On the other side of the coin, the phumdis almost ‘swallow’ a large part of the water. A vital resource for the local people and the plant.
So, In 2011, the government ran a poorly organised clean-up project in the hope of clearing the lake for tourism. They cleared out over 13 million cubic metres of phumdi. But, ended up destroying homes in the process!
The lake was then organised into biodiversity zones with some of it being protected.
This is not an ideal situation for the people of Manipur who rely on this freshwater lake as a ‘lifeline’. The cultivation of rice is big business on the phumdis.
Is the Sangai Deer still at risk?
The depletion of phumdis could also mean a danger to the already endangered Sangai Deer.
If these phumdis in the National Park were to deplete further they will no longer be able to hold the weight of the deer. This could potentially see an end to these magical creatures and their last home destroyed.
Plus, despite there being wildlife protection rules and a ban on hunting. It’s not uncommon to hear of illegal hunts for Sangai taking place in these parts. Even with the wardens on patrol 24 hours a day.
Government conservation efforts are ongoing to try and help the situation of both the lake and deer conservation.
Although tourism isn’t the main source of income for locals here, your contributions to Keibul Lamjao National Park help conserve the area.
Incredible Sangai deer facts
- The Sangai deer is also known as the ‘dancing deer’ and is the state animal of Manipur
- It’s seen today as one of the rarest animal species in the entire world
- The name Sangai loosely translates to Sa ‘animal’ Inga ‘in waiting’. Also, the nickname dancing deer comes from its posture and strange behaviour while running.
- In Manipuri folklore, the Sangai is seen as the binding soul between humans and nature. They say when you respect the Sangai you respect nature. Killing one is seen as the ultimate insult.
- My Sangai guide said that it is very hard to study the Sangai deer as they are very sensitive to scent. It is said if you were to touch a Sangai deer, it would reject the smell and eventually itself. Some deer get so frustrated with a foreign scent they harm themselves. So, putting trackers on the Sangai is impossible, they are only observed from afar.
- Despite ‘rutting season’ taking place each year (February and May), there are very few births. It’s estimated that only one single calf has been delivered each year since the park opened.
- The word Sangai is used pretty much all over the region for restaurants, hotels and even tour groups!
Is Keibul Lamjao National Park worth visiting?
YES! I would highly recommend visiting this unique floating national park while you’re in Manipur. It’s the only protected national park in the whole state.
However, it’s nowhere near as extensive as other national parks in North East India like say, Kaziranga National Park.
Although the park itself is 40 km2, most of that consists of the protected phumdis where the Sangai deer live on the water!
The area that humans can access is extremely small. You don’t hire a jeep or anything like that.
There are no walking trails really to speak of. The short scenic trail through the park alongside the lake leads to a large viewpoint. This allows you to spot the Sangai deer from above.
Plus, if you wanted to investigate further, you can take a small boat ride into the phumdis to see the biomass. However, the chance of seeing a deer this way is almost nil.
What is the best time to visit Keibul Lamjao National Park?
The best time to visit Manipur would be from October – March. This is when the winter temperatures are cooler and there is less chance of rain. In summer, the heat can be unbearable.
Saying this, when I visited in November I found that the lake was ‘foggy’ with little to no visibility. But, luckily, it cleared up for a day and I could see everything for my tour around the lake.
The best time to visit the park would be as early as possible. Many articles say the park opens at 9am, but this isn’t true.
The ideal time to visit the park for the best chance of seeing Sangai deer would be around sunrise from 6am.
My guesthouse owner also advised me that the park opened later in the day. So, when I arrived at 10am there were little to no deer around. A ranger at the park reported seeing 12 Sangai deer in the morning the day I visited (dang!)
Don’t make that mistake!
Where is the floating national park of India located?
You’ll find Keibul Lamjao National Park in the Bishnapur region of Manipur around 52 kilometres from the capital of Imphal.
So, if you were basing yourself in Imphal, it will be an easy hours drive to reach the park by hiring a taxi. Or, self-driving down National Highway 2 (NH2).
Alternatively, you could catch the public sharing bus/taxis from Imphal to Loktak Lake. But, these aren’t direct services. You’ll need to switch bus routes at Moirang and Thanga.
Unfortunately, there are no trains operating in Manipur. The nearest railway station is Dimapur in Nagaland, a neighbouring state!
However, I would personally advise staying in the Loktak Lake area itself. I stayed on a floating homestay here called Loktak Aquamarine. There is also a Sendra Island Resort and a few other local homestays too.
You can either hire a private Tuk-Tuk to take you around the lake for the day or you could use the many public sharing taxis (rickshaws) to reach the park.
I would organise transport with your hotel/homestay owner as they are local, speak Manipuri and will have connections.
Walking could be possible depending on where you’re staying in Loktak Lake but don’t underestimate the size of the lake! It runs for miles.
Opening times & entry fees
Although the official opening times are 9am – 6pm, my guide at the park advises visiting much earlier than that.
The gates and the park open as early as 6am as its the best chance of spotting the Sangai Deer. I’d recommend at least 1-2 hours to visit the park.
Be aware that the park is closed on Mondays.
Ticket prices are 30 rupees for domestic tourists or those from SAARC countries. It’s 200 rupees for foreign tourists. Like most national parks, foreigners pay more.
For children, it’s 15 rupees for domestic tourists and for 100 rupees for overseas.
If you want to take photos in the park, it’s 50 rupees for domestic tourists and 250 for foreign tourists. Videos however cost a lot more (6000 rupees for a foreign permit!).
I didn’t realise this until after I left and I did take some videos (oops) no one seemed to care at the park though. I had my GoPro out.
Top tips & how to visit responsibly
I’m not one to lecture on responsible travel – I’m far from perfect! But, I know it is really important and I always try my best to do my bit.
Here are a few top tips to protect the park and wildlife;
- Keep noise levels to a minimum – This is so that the deer don’t get frightened and scarper. However, on my visit, I joined a rather noisy school group who couldn’t stop screaming. Sigh.
- Bring water & snacks – there are no facilities in the park itself. So, make sure you bring some water with you. Saying this, no toilets either.
- Don’t leave litter – seems obvious but take it with you. I cringe at the term ‘leave only footprints’ but it helps keeps the animals and the biodiversity safe.
- Footwear – the area around the lake and the park does get quite muddy and boggy. So, wear a good pair of shoes. As before, there are no extensive hiking trails so you don’t need to go full on G. I. Jane but trainers will do.
- Clothing – like most of India, conservative clothing is advised. Also, wearing clothes that cover your arms and legs helps stop bites and sunburn. If you’re visiting in the early morning in the winter season, bring a jacket as it could be chilly.
How to travel around Sangai National Park
Unlike most national parks in India, you’re allowed to drive your own transport inside the park. You’ll pay an extra car fee.
Also, if you’ve hired a rickshaw for the day as I did. This is allowed to come with you into the park as well and take you up to the viewpoint.
Alternatively, you can walk through the park from the entrance on a long dirt trail up to the viewpoint.
Most of this trail has a barbed wire fence alongside the lake to protect the phumdis. So, you’ll be looking through this for the majority of the hike.
Once you reach the viewpoint area, you’ll find the boats parked up on the lake.
Then, you can climb up the stairs to the upper viewpoint. This gives you a birds-eye view of the protected biomass area and you have the best chance to spot the wildlife and Sangai deer from here.
However, once you’ve reached the viewpoint, the park comes to a dead end. So, it’s back the way you came!
Things to do in Keibul Lamjao National Park
Although the visiting area of the national park is small, there are quite a few things you can look forward to doing while you’re here;
Visit the viewpoint to spot Sangai deer from above
This is the main highlight of visiting the national park. As the phumdis are quite thick with tall areas of vegetation on Loktak Lake, spotting deer in amongst it is almost impossible!
So, being at a great height allows you to get a good look from above. In amongst the bushes, there is some scarring on the ‘land’ and this is where you’ll get the best chance to spot the Sangai deer.
I would highly recommend talking to the volunteer rangers who work at the national park. They will be here on most days and are happy to help answer any questions.
They usually have binoculars with them, so if you did want a closer look at the Sangai deer, they will be happy to help.
Despite getting here late, I did, in fact, see two female Sangai deers on my visit. They were very well camouflaged and so I needed binoculars to see them up close!
My camera lens wasn’t good enough to get a ‘great’ capture, but I still felt super lucky that I got to spot some of these rare creatures. If you were interested in photography, I’d bring as big a zoom lens as you’ve got!
I also learned a lot about the Sangai deer from the volunteers here. They told me all sorts of facts and even some Manipuri folklore stories. It really made my visit.
Take a boat ride on the river & discover the phumdis
Once you’ve finished spotting deer from the terrace, a great way to explore the national park is to actually take a ride on it!
Although it doesn’t look like it’s floating from up on the balcony, once you get to the bottom, you’ll soon see that there are small inlet rivers that flow through it. This is from the body of water that lies under the phumdi.
There are usually a few large wooden boats parked on the banks of the lake for boat rides. I was told that foreigners couldn’t go on a shared boat ride and I had to pay more for a private boat.
But, seeing as it was only 250 rupees I didn’t mind. Pretty good for a private charter! So, my tuk-tuk driver, the boatman/guide, and I took off.
These don’t have engines, so they don’t pollute the lake. They are traditional wooden boats that require manpower to row you down the stream!
As the phumdis make the water quite shallow, you can’t go very far inside the park.
The boat ride is also short and will come to a natural end when you feel the phumdi pulling too much on the bottom of the boat. But, it’s still a fun way to see them up close for yourself.
At the end of the ride, your guide will let you get out of the boat and explore a tiny area. It was extremely wet and squishy.
I was excited at the chance of spotting a deer on the boat trip. But, the chances are slim as they avoid humans like the plague.
Spot birds, wildlife and rare fauna
Although Sangai is the prize of Manipur. There is more than just the dancing deer that makes a home in the biomasses of the park.
You’ll also see that wild pigs and hog deer share this floating sanctuary with the Sangai amongst many rare aquatic plants.
Bird lovers will enjoy this park as you’ll find thousands of birds who make a home here. You can spot at least 116 species including 21 species of waterfowl.
You’ve got a good chance of spotting the East Himalayan pied kingfisher, black kite, and the Burmese pied myna. As well as many spotted billed ducks, jungle crows, and cranes.
I would definitely bring binoculars for the best chance of spotting wildlife here. Sometimes the rangers have a pair you can borrow as well.
After, visit the Women’s Initiative for Sangai Conservation (WISC)
The park doesn’t have a souvenir shop or anything like that. But, just nearby, is a fantastic women’s association that you can support.
It’s called the Women’s Initiative for Sangai Conservation or WISC and they run a small shop just outside the gates of the national park. It’s supported by both the Manipur Forest Department and the Wildlife Institute of India (WII).
Inside, you’ll find bottles of water, local snacks, pottery, art, handicrafts, and even some Keibul Lamjao National Park souvenirs like caps & t-shirts.
Personally, I fell in love with the gorgeous handmade Sangai scarves that they had on offer. So, I snatched one up.
It was a peach colour and beautifully embroidered with a pattern of a Sangai deer. I wore it on my adventures through Manipur and still wear it now. The quality was so lovely and I paid around 1500 rupees for it.
All purchases made in the store help the ladies out and make an important contribution to save the National Park. Definitely worth splurging for a good cause!
Looking for more things to do in Loktak Lake?
Loktake Lake is truly the jewel of Manipur and it’s what most tourists to the state make a beeline for!
It’s honestly one of my favourite places in North East India and there is plenty to do in and around its largest freshwater lake.
You could take a traditional wooden boat ride for a tour of the lake to see more of the phumdis. I wouldn’t recommend taking the electric boats as it’s bad for the ecosystem of the lake. On your ride, you can watch the fishermen arranging their nets and trying for a catch!
Or, you could pop over to the Sendra Island Resort for one of the best views of the lake, plus their restaurant serves up the BEST noodles.
Really, as opposed to trying to ‘do’ too much, the best experiences can be found by meeting the locals and seeing traditional ways on the water.
So, I would also recommend staying in a homestay or on the lake itself to really understand the culture!
Where to stay in Loktak Lake
I knew that I wanted my experience here to be a culturally immersive one as tourism isn’t quite there yet. I was really excited to meet some of the locals and see how they lived on the lake here.
When I found out that there was a ‘floating homestay’ that opened up on Loktak Lake, I knew I simply had to book as it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience!
It was called Loktak Aquamarine Homestay and my accommodation was a private traditional hut that sat on the phumdis of the lake!
So, in order to reach there, my suitcases and I had to be delivered by boat. Also, walking around the phumdis was quite a challenge as you’re essentially doing a balancing act on the water. There were shared shower facilities and a western-style toilet.
It’s run by a friendly Manipuri family who cooks home-made meals for you each day. Breakfast is included but you pay extra for dinners etc. They can also organise boat rides at sunrise or sunset for you.
I will put the link here to book it on booking.com, but I actually think it’s cheaper to book directly through the homestay itself.
So, you can contact them here and see if you can get a good rate. It’s definitely a unique way to experience life on Loktak Lake!