By Nyein Ei Ei Htwe
The smoothly winding road through green paddy fields and mountains made my first highway motorbike trip a breeze.
I didn’t see even one small pothole in the 100-mile-long (161-kilometre) India-Myanmar Friendship Road, built in 2001 by Indian engineers to increase trade between the two countries.
My ride was slowed, however, by the 71 bridges between Kalay township and the border town of Tamu. These are made of wood, and as it was my first experience on such roads, it took me five hours to complete the journey. The many warning billboards in English and Myanmar did not help my concentration.
I arrived at the “Welcome to Tamu” sign in the dark, but my eyes had already adjusted from riding for two hours as night covered the hills. My friends and I passed only some small villages with electricity.
The India-Myanmar border at this point is unique because while others are connected by river or mountain, Tamu in Myanmar and Moreh in India are easily crossed by land, divided only by a barbed wire fence. This had made me eager to visit.
As soon we entered the town, we saw that many Indian people were living together with Myanmar, Chin, Kuki (a Chin minority) and Gawrakha people. We also noticed that, despite frequent electricity cut-offs, the internet connection here was much better than in Yangon.
It was cold, too, and although we thought we might find an Indian or Chin traditional restaurant for dinner, all we could get were Chinese and Thai dishes.
The sunrise the next day quickly made the air very hot again so that the whole town appeared a yellowish colour. The locals seemed used to this.
Early in the morning we visited Nang Phar Lon market, which is a famous trading point and gateway between the two countries. We found only dried coconuts, however, and betel nuts. It wasn’t much different from any other market in the country, except that the people here exchange rupees rather than kyat (1 rupee equals about K16).
Ko Kyaw Kyaw Lin, a native of Tamu and a dry-goods trader, told us that the border gate had been closed for two weeks last month but that the local merchants hadn’t suffered much in their business.
“The gate is often closed, but not for a long period,” he said. “Authorities close the gate for two or three weeks mostly without giving any reason. Then, the prices of goods go up and down.”
Another seller told us that now was the season for betel nuts. “No matter the quality of the nuts, traders are buying and making ready-made betel packages that they distribute throughout Myanmar,” he said.
After betel would come the season for coconuts, watermelons and myauk ngo fruits, other locals said.
The border area is also famous for scented woods like nant thar phyu and karamah, rare scented woods that are used to make sculptures, fans, drums and traditional medicine in both India and Myanmar. It’s expensive, and much wood marketed as the real thing is in fact fake. And it wasn’t easy to find out where to buy the good stuff because the wood is handled by a group of Indian merchants, shopkeepers explained.
In the past, almost all traders had to sell under the terms of Indian merchants because all trade took place in Moreh, Ko Kyaw Kyaw Lin explained.
“The prices were unfair, but if they didn’t go to Moreh, no Indian came to buy in Myanmar,” he said.
The sun was beating down hotly, but the locals didn’t seem to sweat although their bodies were wrapped in Indian saris and they wore no head covering.
We crossed easily into India. Only traders have to pay an entrance tax. Near to the gate, Indian rickshaw drivers were waiting for passengers.
Some areas near Tamu and Moreh have not yet been clearly divided and arguments over land have been known to cause some aggression among people on both sides.
“Until last year, we heard gunshots come from some problem areas on the borderline, but now we haven’t heard a shot for months. We hear only some voices and marching and shooting guns from India in the evening, and we think they’re training soldiers,” a local said.
It was already midday, and I knew I didn’t have enough time to study the trading system and lifestyles of the minority groups in Tamu. Though I wanted to stay longer, I had to go back to Kalay, which would take me another five hours again of crossing wooden bridges by motorbike.
DO THIS TRIP
Motorbikes can be rented in Kalay from Shinlon Hotel for K20,000 for two days. In Tamu, accommodation at Power Guesthouse costs K20,000 per night.