While planning a trip to Manipur, one of the things that interested me was the Myanmar Day Trip. I have been intrigued by Myanmar ever since I read “The Glass Palace” by Amitav Ghosh. This opportunity to squeeze in through the border at Moreh, Manipur into the mystic land of Myanmar sounded exciting. The trip seemed mystical through the battle fields of Imphal, the trading town of Moreh and right into Tamu on the other side.
We started off early in the morning and within 30 minutes we were cruising on Imphal Moreh Road which passes through the hills where sunflowers grow in the wild. This is the area where the fiercest World War II battles between the British and Japanese were fought. Historically known as Shenam Saddle, this was perhaps the only war where Indians were pitched against each other. We stopped at Pallel and Tengnoupal for customary checking with Assam Rifles. Yai my guide from Imphal Walks pointed over rich green planes at the foothills of a mountain range- that’s Kabaw Valley !! India gave away Kabaw Valley of Manipur to Burma in 1953 to resolve a long standing territorial dispute. I could see him trying earnestly to conceal pain and disappointment over Kabaw that nearly every Manipuri feels; a pain of loss they have carried for six decades.
After 2 hours we reached the border town of Moreh and after producing our I Cards and Indian Citizenship proof, we were given a permission letter to drive to Burma with the car. We adjusted our watches since Myanmar is 1 hour ahead of Indian Standard Time. As soon as we crossed over the Friendship Bridge we had to drive on the other side of the road. Our first destination was the Monastery, which seems to have seen glorious days in the past. The large Buddha Statues, the gilded pagoda tops and the bright yellow flowers added color and harmony to the sound of silence. We climbed a watch tower to get a glimpse of Tamu town. The Buddha statues here were in Bhumisparsha Mudra where the fingers of the right hand touch the earth signifying the earth as the witness at the moment of his enlightenment. Everything around, seemed to have some strange connection with Hinduism; Buddha protected by a large Cobra similar to Shiva, the nine forms of Buddha arranged the way the Navagraha Planetary temples are in India. Just then a group of pretty young girls in colorful sarongs came by, kneeling down in prayer and quietly left before I could manage to strike a conversation.
Everything around seemed to be straight out of a 70’s Indian movie, appearing in sepia shades, the people, the buildings, the vehicles on the road and pretty women with Tanakha paste on their faces and bamboo hats. Nearly everyone smears Tanakha (aromatic paste made from Tanakha tree to protect from scorching sun and is anti-aging too) on their face.
We did a quick tour of a series of pagodas and a pond which had a connection with the folklore Princess Thoibi of Moirang (Manipur) who was exiled in Tamu for loving a commoner. Next stop was Tamu Market. As I walked through the different lanes in the market, I realised that every brand right from the tooth paste to the oil was different seemed local or imported from Thailand. The glitzy branding of the Western World seemed to have not made any inroad yet’ courtesy internal strife over last few decades in Myanmar. Winds of change have started blowing with the elected democratic party in power.
Burmese seem to love their eggs and the pretty ones of the quail seemed like marble stones. I was surprised to see the flat pan that is frequently used in South India for Paniaram and Unniappam. I quickly bought 5 pieces for Rs 10 . One bite into the delicious ball, it was soft and gooey; rice flour batter mixed with egg. This seems to be an Indian influence since Burma has a long history with people from India specially Tamil Nadu who migrated in droves in 19th century to set up businesses and join the civil & administrative services. We lunched at the local favorite Waterland and settled down for some Chicken with Bamboo Shoots and shredded herb chicken with sticky rice. The chicken was not spicy but the fermented bamboo shoots were more than pungent. Unlike my usual self, I was playing it safe since I had a long ride ahead and kept the Mohinga or Khau Suey for another day. The crowd had a good mix of locals and Indians, Manipur being a dry state this is the nearest watering hole for Indians. Except for the hip owner, the young sarong clad waitresses did not speak Hindi or English yet they did not hesitate to tap their feet to Bollywood numbers.
On our way back, we stopped by at the Namphalong Market which is flooded with cheap Thai and Chinese goods. I loved the hustle and bustle of the wholesale market, many sellers seemed to be of Indian origin and were more interested in bulk orders from the traders in Imphal. I picked up a pair of floaters with sunflowers for all of Rs 100/-. This market has tilted the trading situation; with the Indians from Manipur now shopping there instead of the Myanmarese coming into Moreh as they did years ago. With the borders opening up and the road link between India, Myanmar and Thailand getting formalized, turn of fortune may be just round the corner.
As I walked down the path through the friendship gate into Moreh, I seemed to have entered a melting pot of cultures. I could hear a spattering of almost every Indian language in the street. Sarong clad women with flowers in their hair sipped on filter coffee and the smell of sambhar was not far behind. After the coup in Burma in 1962, there was complete disintegration of civil society and the businesses owned by Indians were nationalized turning them into refugees overnight. They came to India and most of them settled in border town Moreh, as close as possible to where they had it all. However, the younger generation are migrating to other parts of India in search of better prospects rather than live in the fragrance of Burmese proximity. Whoever gained by living in the past ?
If the Trailer to Myanmar had so much promise, how would the real show be I wonder. Yes, Myanmar is on the cards for 2016, let the mysticism unfold. Until then, I am smearing Tanakha on my face to grow a couple of years younger !!:)
Travel Tip: Day trip from Imphal. Optionally, you can stay at Moreh if you want to explore further. Non Indians are not allowed into Tamu unless they have a Myanmar Visa. If you travel in local transport, take a bus or a shared vehicle to Moreh, spend the day in Moreh and Tamu and return the following day.
My trip was organized by Yaiphaba Kangjam of Imphal Walks. He can be reached at 9774386858; firstname.lastname@example.org