Northern Chin State diary – opening up to foreigners

September 05, 2013

I began my journey in Kalewa, which is to the east of Kalay and can be reached by bus or by boat up the Chindwin River from Monywa. The Head of Surveillance I met in Kalewa told me I could go to Falam, Hakha and Tidim but said it would be difficult without a guide as I cannot speak Myanmar, and nobody speaks English there. But after having a very simple chat in Burmese, he told me I’d manage. He gave me his number and told me to call him if I had any problems.

I took a 7am pick-up to Kalay and arrived at around 9am. I then found a motorbike taxi and asked the driver to take me to the bus station from which I could go to Tidim, Hakha or Falam. He stopped on the way to ask a policeman if it was ok for me to go there; I was then asked if I have a permit. I didn’t have one, told the policeman I didn’t think I needed one, and asked where I can check if I really needed a permit. He told me I could risk it, but they might turn me back at the Kalay checkpoint.

The checkpoint was only 16km away, so I decided to go and check; it was no problem. When I started asking questions, the guy at the checkpoint just took a map of Chin state from the wall, drew lines on it, circled open towns with a marker and asked me to give it back when I was finished with my travels!

It was Saturday, and because Chin state is very Christian, there are no buses on Sunday – which meant I would have to wait two days if I wanted to take the bus. A motorbike taxi driver told me he could take me there and we just continued driving – eight hours on a motorbike in the mountains. This turned out to be a two day journey (207 km one way) and cost K65,000 (room, food and petrol included), and I feel like it was a fair price.

We stopped in Falam as there were some problems with the chain, so I went to a tea shop. There I met a local called Daniel, who knew ten languages – the majority were dialects but he spoke decent English. We agreed that when I am back to town, I would give him a call and he would show me around.

In Hakha we stayed at Rung guesthouse. I paid K10,000 for my room and half the price for the driver’s room. I got discount as I stayed two days – normal price for foreigner is K15,000. The room had a shower and western toilet. I saw two other places which looked more plush; one looked like it had been built recently. The girl at reception didn’t know if other guesthouses had licenses. There is lots of construction work going on in Hakha at the moment, so there might be more guesthouses soon.

I was surprised so many people spoke English and couldn’t understand the Kalewa policeman’s concerns. I met a few people as well with whom I was not able to communicate in Burmese – they only knew Chin. Along the main street I saw three internet spots – two of them were open on Sunday and the internet speed was really decent (probably because it was Sunday!). A handful of simple convenience stores were open but almost everything else was shut. There is a restaurant with good food called Chin Taung Taan, which you can find just to the left when you face the clock tower in the centre of town. Its existence is not obvious as it is on the first floor and signs are only in Burmese.

I was told that the bus back to Falam and Kalay leaves at 6am; the girl in the guesthouse told me it sometimes leaves at 5am. I decided not to spend an additional day in Hakha and woke up at 4.30am. The bus turned out to leave at 5.40am, but I am pretty sure it could easily be a bit earlier or later. I was in Falam at 9am. There were four landslides on the way and the guys got out of the bus to remove the stones and make the road passable. I went with Golden Lion Express Hakha Kalay, and the ticket was K2000.

In Falam I stayed at Moon guesthouse and the owner is a charming, very welcoming person and speaks English. The room was K8000 and I got a key to a private bathroom with a western toilet. I saw two internet cafes in Falam, and they were open till 9pm.

I met a guy in Falam called He Dun who speaks very good English; he shared many interesting stories with me, and his knowledge of Myanmar and Chin state was really impressive. If you go to Falam, I’m sure He Dun would be happy to meet you. He gave me a list of places that are now open to foreigners in northern Chin. From the south, heading north, these are:
Hakha, Falam, Taingen, Tedim (Tidim), Tonang (Tonzang), Cikha (Chikha).

The regular bus from Hakha to Kalay leaves at 7am and costs K3000. However, as the road is very bumpy I decided to go for the later, more luxurious minibus, which left at 9am and costs K7000. We arrived in Kalay at 1pm.

Each time I took a bus in Chin state it stopped at some point near the beginning of the journey and everyone prayed. Religion plays a huge role here and the biggest group are the Baptists. Typical names in Hakha and Falam were “Mercy” tea and net café, “Holy” guesthouse, “Nazareth” fashion shop, “Genesis” café, and my personal favourite – “Blessing” internet café!

This was my second visit to Chin state and I find it a little bit strange to feel the difference between Christian and Buddhist people in Myanmar. Dogs definitely look better in Christian areas; in Buddhist states dogs tend to look miserable. But nevertheless I twice saw people kicking them… that’s their life. On the other hand, I feel super safe in Buddhist areas, where I might be happy to leave the door to my room open when I’m having a shower; the padlocks and chains in Chin state made me feel a bit uneasy. I’ve never had anything stolen anywhere in Myanmar, but the feeling of trust definitely seems to change.

In Falam I was taken by a guy from my guesthouse to a Baptist church and after a mass, a woman approached me and was trying to explain something. I told her in Myanmar that I didn’t understand but she kept on speaking Chin. I just left but she followed me, I turned out and repeated I didn’t get the point, so she pulled my bag and wanted to open it. I guess she wanted to be offered some money. It might be simplification referring to religion but this is just what I noticed.

I was told that the last foreign traveller in Falam was in October 2012. I am really glad I did it; this part of Myanmar is amazing nature-wise and people are so happy to see foreigners. Of course the poor infrastructure can make travelling hard, but the area has a lot to offer and is still untouched – which is a great value. Strongly recommended!

Dagmara Bałusz – 3rd September, 2013.

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