Bagan, the old kingdom, had given us a special place to discover. We trailed the tracks off the beaten track to far away temples and now and then bumping into groups of tourists. Unluckily a bug that had been popping up since Yangon decided it was time to strike and Martin got a bronchitis which meant it took more time to be back on the road. We finally left and had made our plan via Pauk and Hit Lin towards Gangaw, Kalay and Tamu.
Leaving the comfortable tourist bubble Bagan has become Martin was coughing and letting go of a lot of snot. Cycling in Myanmar is very dusty and being on these roads with sensitive lungs is not nice at all. So the going was steady but after 60 km it was time to find a place to sleep. After asking people in shops we were pointed towards a town’s government house who said next town, we asked at a monastery who advised to ask at a NGO, who said no, so back to the monastery who said yes and then no. So we were a bit lost thinking where to sleep and knew we wouldn’t make it to the next town. Martin stopped at a house which looked like a local guesthouse, but was just a house and asked the man if we could sleep and he said yes straight away. They even had empty rooms we could choose from. Susanne went looking for food and got driven off on the back of a motorbike to a restaurant further on. So by this time the whole village knew we were there and we had definitely expected a visit from the police. But they never came. It was a rare situation in Myanmar and we were very happy for it. During the evening neighbouring women came by to have a look at this peculiar couple 🙂
The next day we crossed Pauk and the road started to go up and down. On the sides of the roads many times we came across small fires. In the villages people burn their rubbish in the morning and evening. This does not make the air fresh and we are surprised uncontrolled bush fires do not occur more. Martin still not feeling well we were considering options and thought we might hitchhike over the next mountain because we knew we were running out of visa time and we don’t want the lungs to damage. But no cars showed up so the thought passed and we cycled on on this road which became smaller and hillier. All of a sudden Susanne heard a beeping car, looked back and it was a pick-up truck. She shouted: “pick-up” to Martin who was ahead and exactly when the car passed he lifted his hand and the car stopped. He could bring us to Hti Lin. It was an exhilarating ride through the hills going fast and with a lot of horn blasting and we made it to Hti Lin just before dark and found a guesthouse.
From the moment we arrived Susanne was getting bites. We had the idea that it was flees, after first thinking that it were very active mosquitos, but it might have also been bed bugs, we are not sure. In the evening she already had 50 bites and this continued and in the morning she was covered. This was not a nice insect attack! So it was definitely time to leave this place! Hti Lin is on the border with Chin State, a little visited state of Myanmar where they also have very strong culture and traditions. We came across two women on separate occasions with tattoos in their faces. Interesting for us to see such a strong culture and tradition. We cycled through villages where children were waiting and we learned from school teachers that it was exam period and students were studying for their exams and also coming to central locations from villages to have the exams. Exciting times for the students.
Although we had expected the hills to lessen, they didn’t so it was a hard slog to get to Gangaw. In this area there have been many floods 3-4 months ago. It is still very visible where the water has come through and many bridges have been damaged. In some areas trees have been unrooted and while cycling there have been many roadworks to get the bridges back to functioning again. It is hard to imagine the multitude of water that has come through because it is so dry, sandy and dusty now. In some villages there are signs with references to the floods considering lost houses and victims.
In Gangaw we were happy to find a friendly guesthouse next to a small hospital and it had the perfect teahouse next-door with the best food for very cheap prices and great taste and they even had WIFI 🙂 In the evening we got asked by two men if they could join us while we were eating. The man said he wanted to practice his English, but slowly we figured out we was working for the police and they had come to know more about us and our purpose in Gangaw. They were friendly enough and after having answered their questions they left us to enjoy their time at the teahouse. In the morning we had breakfast sitting next to two cute kids having their breakfast before heading to school.
From Gangaw the first 40 km was a bit hilly and after we had done that the temperature again was rising up and up. It was 36 degrees and we were not so fast. The time on our visa was ticking. At a crossroads a small truck showed up and we had a nice encounter. Martin asked where he was going and the man said: “Kalay”. We only hesitated a second and asked if we could load our bikes in the back and so we were on our way. The road was almost flat but this way we could save a day and definitely cycle the last stretch in Myanmar. We were already seeing more and more churches in the country side and before also met some missionaries who were active in Chin State. Myanmar is mainly Buddhist, so it is quite different seeing the churches and you can even see a difference in people and their behaviour.
So when we arrived to Kalay we were stunned by the amount of churches. Apparently there is a lot of NGO work going on in Chin State. And this comes together in Kalay as a departing point for this state. The churches are very sturdy and pretty and compared to many of the houses people live in it seems there is a large discrepancy. We have asked ourselves: “who pays for these churches?”. We really don’t know and it is sometimes hard to understand how a different society works. Our advice for other travellers: If you do not need to stay in Kalay: don’t. Accommodation is hugely expensive, we had an early arrival in town and rode around 3 hours to find a decent place for an okay price. Where in other parts of Myanmar things are changing and the ‘foreigner license’ is not so tough anymore, they are still protecting this license in Kalay. We eventually opted for the Aung Yadanar guesthouse north on the way out of town.
With 130 kilometre left and two days on our visa we had decided to break up the section in two parts. The road however was great and having made good progress and not finding it easy to camp somewhere we decided to pull through and push on to Tamu. We reached the town in the dark around 19:00, found the guesthouse Shwe Oakar and went to find food. Tomorrow we would be in India. We bought two great avocado’s from a stall and had a nice dessert.
We cycled towards the Tamu – Moreh border to head from Myanmar into the Indian state Manipur. Immigration out of Myanmar was an interesting experience in the sense that you need to look for it and the man was just chewing his betel nut and asking questions that were hard to understand. We had the permit ready and thought we might have to pay for overstaying the permit which was dated 6 days earlier (not the visa), but we weren’t charged. We now still had one day left on our visa so that was fine. We crossed the small bridge and we were in India!! Then it was registration time at the Indian gate, registration and stamp at the immigration and declarations at the customs house, all in different locations. After half an hour everything was done and we went looking for Sangai Lodge to find some needed rest.
Moreh is an interesting town. The border has only been opened for international crossing for just under two years and things are still very much developing. Goods have crossed from Myanmar to India and vice versa for ages, and the goods are carried by land. So trucks are off loaded on one side, to be unloaded on the other side. The area was very important during World War II, nowadays it is a highly controlled area by the Manipur military. At the market in Moreh you can find everything and it feels like the wild east of India.
To reach further into Manipur state there is a mountain pass separating Imphal from Moreh. On this mountain pass called Senam (Shenam) there was a very important fight between the Japanese and the British army during World war II. We learned about this after we had cycled up the mountain. We cycled from 200 meters altitude to 800, to drop down to 400 and go up to 1500 meters. On the way we had a nice encounter with fellow cycle tourers Laura and Aitor. We slept in the village at 1500 meters and after asking at the church they said we could sleep there. We were joined while we were making dinner by a member of the church who explained the history of the area and he even said the hight of the mountain was decreased because of the bombing in World War II.
Cycling our way up the pass we had the feeling of being back in South East Turkey because it is highly militarised. A few military convoys passed, we had to register a few more times and military was asking if they could help us. Sometimes all of a sudden military guys would just appear from the bushes. The military is called Assam Rifles and has a double purpose of protecting the border area but there are also many groups in Manipur state that are not always on equal grounds with each other or with the military. It is a very complicated situation and it is very hard to fully understand what the position is of all the parties involved. Luckily the army was very friendly to us.
Coming down the mountain we reached the plain and after already having a taste of India on the way from Moreh, this is what India really feels like for us. Although many people have told us that the North-Eastern States are really not like India. For us it was hectic with a lot of traffic, honking, motorbikes, dust, overtaking, oncoming busses, etc. Peoples reactions are very different than what we have grown used to in Myanmar and it was nice to cycle into Imphal to try to learn more about Manipur and the area. We are staying at a fairly newly opened basic place, Chamalou Eco guesthouse, with a few other cyclists (Anna & Claudia and Andrew) just out of town where the air is clear and it is quite relaxed. Here we do our preparations for the next leg in India.