Enchanting BhutanDiscover the natural and cultural wonders of Bhutan on one of our most intriguing South Asian tours.
We ate our last curry at the Dhing Dhaba wayside travellers’ Restaurant along the way to Dibrugarh. The sign declared ‘Its your life make it Large’ and although the dishes were delicious we were indeed thinking of waist lines and bathroom scales. There had been too many fine meals, too many regional dishes to taste and quite a lot of tea boiled in condensed milk to drink at tea shops during our journey from Yangon to Dibrugarh. Now we had just a few kilometres of traffic to dodge and we would arrive at the end of the trip. Road journeys in India are an experience in themselves regardless of the reason for coming and the endless fascinating things to see. Good drivers are are critical component of that experience and we had two of the best. Men skilled at dodging anything that lurched into our path and capable of taking the Mao Road in their stride.
At Tizit the village where foreigners must register and presumably be de-registered before and after tackling ‘that’ road the wayside was lined with elaborate Christmas decorations. Christmas trees, Santa’s and a rotund snowman sheltering under an umbrella. It was sweet but also weird. If there was a Christmas decoration competition we voted Tizit the winner. Now we are cast up in the flashest hotel in Dibrugarh. Its our farewell dinner and the wine waiters are circling. In a land where wine is served by the glass, they must think us a strange crew to be drinking it by the bottle. Mind you its a much better deal than the one we got from the smiling Mr Bhramaputra. Tomorrow on the way to the airport we have a tea plantation to visit and then its Airportland for as long as it takes to get back to friends and family. We have seen a lot and shared much along the way. Our local hosts and drivers have made the experience all that much more rewarding and for that we thank them. The Mandalay – Kohima Trail was an idea that provided new insights and took us to interesting places. I think that we’ll do it again in 2016, perhaps a little differently, so let us know if you want to put your name on the trip list....read less
Early on Friday evening we pulled into the Bhramaputra hotel in Sivisgar, Assam after a long day on the road. It was a pleasant and seemingly unpretentious hotel in a region without any competitors for the foreign tourist trade. That should have got my radar turning but after a few days in the ‘dry’ state of Nagaland my attention was distracted by the presence of a near by liquor store, the Black Dog, purveyors of fine wine and cold beer. After a long day dodging vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists on narrow overcrowded roads a cold beer seemed the perfect nerve tonic. Dinner at the Bhramaputra was a convivial affair just perfect to celebrate with a few wines. The price on the drinks menue seemed reasonable too but our bonhome crashed and burned when we discovered that IRP600 was the per glass price not the per bottle price! Should have paid more attention to that blip on my radar. The lovely gentleman at the Bhramaputra was heavily into blatant profiteering. Well at least he did it with a smile and surely we could afford it.
Our journey to Sivisgar got underway with a game of dodgems on the Dimapur Road. We dodged the traffic coming up the hill and they dodged us going down. The road condition was exceptionally good compared with the Mao road about which we had been forewarned and would encouter on Saturday. Tea plantations rushed past. Tea shop stops were made to sample the ‘local leaf’ and as dusk fell it was back to dodgems with the local traffic amongst which were a disconcerting number of cylists riding unlit bikes. I offer this as the reason that I failed to see the smiling Mr Bhramaputra Hotel rubbing his hands in anticipation when he passed over the wine list.
Yesterday we encountered the much talked about and greatly feared Mao Road. I now have a new yardstick for which to separate a good road from a very bad road. There is no doubt that this 4 hours of spine jolting, torso wrenching road would put bum knots in the bottom of even the most hardened traveller. Quite why it is in this parlous state seems to elude the 200,000 Naga’s who live at the top of it. No one has any expectation that it could be different. Well, the great concern is that it could be worse. Heaven forbid. And on that subject the Naga’s arent getting too much help from that quarter considering that they are mostly Baptists who have invested labour, love and resources into whacking great concrete churches when some might properly have gone into the road.
Enough about the Mao Road. It is not why our small band of increasingly intrepid travellers is here at 900m in the misty heights of Nagaland. We have come to see the headhunter culture of the Konyak people. They don’t hang out in Mao but a further 40km beyond in the sticks near the India-Myanmar border and in remote villages where foreign travellers might still meet a sticky end had not the Baptist doctrine taken hold 50 years ago. Our excursion to Longwa on the India-Myamnar border was surprising and not just a little disconcerting. Surprising because the road was a veritable speedway by comparison to ‘that which shall not be mentioned’. Disconcerting because the remaining link with the headhunter days are elderly gentlemen who are all well into their 80’s. The Konyak villages are all interesting places with plenty of unrealised potential for ethno-cultural tourism but it seems that few other than us are much interested in the wider picture. The old guys are the main attraction and well they should be but it seemed intrusive to bowl into the Chief’s house armed with camera and morbid curiosity about how many heads he had taken in the bad old head taking days. There is definitely more to the Konyak culture than heads but it might take more time to uncover than we had available.
Tomorrow we are off down ‘that’ road to the Brahmaputra plain and onwards to Dibrugar. It will be a day of dodgems and bum knots but our spirits are lifted by the evening song from the Church across the valley from our quaint little resort. Sweet sounding voices have been raised to Hark the Herald Angels and Auld Lang Syne. Presumably in preparation for the the Christmas festivities for which the locals have been gaily decorating the towns and villages with elaborate Christmas trees and jolly Santa’s....read less
Razhu Junction lies at the intersection of Traders and Dimapur Roads in Kohima, Nagaland. I don’t know where the colloquial term ‘up the Razhu’ originated but it could easily have been here at this road junction during the battle for Kohima in April 1944. Garrison Hill, site of the famous seige at the Tennis Court is just up the road. These places are now inscribed in history as the Stalingrad of the Allied campaign to drive the Japanese Army out of Burma but until quite recently I knew almost nothing about them. Hundreds upon hundreds of Allied and Japanese soldiers died on these hill tops in a desperate see-saw fight to control the strategic Dimapur Road. The final act took place literally on the terrace of the Tennis Court above the District Commissioners bungalow. It must have been a terrible and bloody affair. When the sun rose on the morning of the 10th day the Allied forces were down to their last handful of bullets. The Japanese too were demoralised and exhausted, in fact they were too exhausted to make that final charge across the Tennis Court that might have resulted in victory. Later that morning when the relief force of Allied tanks rolled up the Dimapur Road to reach Razhu Junction the siege was lifted and the Japanese began to retreat. Today we went there, to Garrison Hill Commonwealth War Cemetery, to stand on the Tennis Court amongst the graves and consider the lives lost and the sacrifices made. Today it is a peaceful place in the middle of a bustling city of more than 1 million people. Seventy one years ago who could have known what the future might hold, yet were willing to make it possible.
We arrived in Kohima by the Imphal Road, itself the scene of bloody clashes between the advancing Japanese and the defending Allies. Now the road is at war with itself and the travelling public. In Asia there plenty of bad roads and the Imphal-Kohima road is definitely one of them. But it is no match for our small fleet of Toyota Innova wagons which have been bred in India for roads such as this and worse. We have been lured up to Kohima by the annual Naga Cultural Festival which take place on the first 10 days in December. It is a stunning spectacle of colour, song, dance and tribal culture. Sure its contrived but the primary focus is definitely on preserving and presenting Naga cultural heritage. Tourists are a bonus and we were happy to be there alongside other travellers. The Nagaland Tourism Department promote the event as the Festival of Festivals. We reckon that they have it about right.
In fact they are doing pretty well considering that Nagaland is one of India’s ‘Naughty States’ which like neighbouring Manipur and Assam get little in the way of assistance from Delhi. For their sins, the naughty states get martial law and a military presence that closely resembles an occupation. Of course its true that insurrectionists lurk in the hills and violence has been used to settle scores with the folk who have the unenviable task of implementing Delhi’s policies in these strongly Christian States on India’s N.E Frontier. For all that the defence of Kohima back then has at least given folk the right to self determination. Its a thing that is catching on next door in Myanmar but probably won’t just up the block in China for a while yet. Tomorrow we are back up the street to Razhu Junction to take the Dimapur road down to Sibsagar on the Bramaphutra plains....read less
Our departure from Mandalay coincided with an auspicious event in Myanmar’s political landscape. Ang San Suu Kyi, leader of the victorious National League for Democracy, called all the successful candidates to a meeting in Yangon to in order to put them on notice. According Mr Soe Moe, our escort, guide and mentor on matters Burmese, the Lady’s message was short and to the point. I guarantee that you will go directly to jail if while in government you steal from the people, engage in corruption, employ corrupt officials or permit your families to steal or behave in a corrupt way. Sounds as if any portfolios that she dishes out won’t come with get out of jail free cards.
Our route has taken us over the Ayeyarwaddy from Mandalay to the provincial capital of Monywa. It’s a pleasant spot on the bank of the Chindwin River which is a mighty tributary of the Ayeyarwaddy. Our evening stroll along the river front port provided some stunning sunset vistas across a flotilla of abandoned Irrawaddy Inland Navigation Company hulks. There was no chance that these once stately steamers would ever get their paddle wheels a clunking again.
The disastrous floods of July took a heavy toll on the region’s infrastructure and on the people of Saigang Division. Bridges are still down and communities were devastated and displaced. It was the worst flooding ever known. As a consequence our road to the west was going to be long and circuitous by secondary roads over forested mountain ranges to Kale and then to Tamu at the border with India. It was a good chance to get in touch with countryside Myanmar. There is a lot of agricultural enterprise going on in this part of the country and not all of it is your usual run of the mill plantations of teak, rubber, rice paddy and horticulture.
At one comfort stop we encountered a mini oilfield operation where locals were plumbing the depths of a petroleum seep by means that looked Dickensian and definitely wouldn’t pass any occupation, safety or health scrutiny. The township markets are bursting with produce and imported goods, both locally made and from China. It seems a prosperous and forward looking region despite the dislocations and damage caused by the flooding.
Today we rose late, breakfasted leisurely and departed from Kale sedately for the 130km drive to Tamu. Teak and rubber plantations lined the road for most of the distance. To the west the hills of the India-Myanmar border closed in on the India-Myanmar friendship highway and pretty soon we were in Tamu, a bustling town where the border gate was attended by a gentleman sporting rotten teeth, a torn beetle nut stained singlet and a serious looking rifle. Our pre border foray to get the lie of the land was starting to raise a few hairs on the back of my neck.
When we fronted the border this morning in a slightly apprehensive frame of mind the post was occupied by a pleasant man in an immaculate uniform. Bustling about in the immigration station nearby were helpful young men wearing freshly pressed white shirts, name tags and smiles. It was all very relaxed on the India side as well and equally efficient if not just a tad over the top in the form filling out department. It was time to farewell Mr Soe Moe and our courteous driver Mt Than and greet out Manipuree Hosts Mr Pranam and Mr Rajip. Bye bye Myanmar and Hello India. Imphal was a 3 hr drive to the west across the forested hills of the historic Senam Pass where British and Indian armed forces had turned the tide of the Japanese advance into India in July 1944....read less
I can’t recall when I first heard Rudyard Kiplings epic poem ‘The Road to Mandalay’ but bits of it still leap to mind whenever I hear that place mentioned. Kipling never set foot in Mandalay or anywhere nearer than Moulmine on the Bay of Bengal but his poem captured the fascination that English had for their empire in the ‘east’. These days there are no paddles clunkin where the old flotilla lay, no flying fish playing and no dawn coming up like thunder outer China acrost the bay. The English, Dutch, Germans and us have arrived in Mandalay by air. It is just a short 25 minute hop from Bagan or Inle lake and is usually the last stop on the tourist ‘loop’. Mandalay is a big town so apart from one or two sites we wont be rubbing shoulders with the crowd from Studiosus or Viking.
There are a lot of interesting things to see around Mandalay so our small group of travellers will be staying two nights. For starters the region has been the site of three Royal capitals at Ava, Amapura and Sagaing. At Mandalay itself the last King Thibaw and his Queen Supayalat were unceremoniously bundled off to exile in India by the British in November 1885. A replica of the Royal Palace and its imposing walls has been built to replace the original which was looted and partially burned down by the British then completely destroyed by Allied bombs diring WWII. We climbed the original watchtower from where Queen Supayalat had looked out to the Ayeyarwaddy River and seen the ‘old flotilla’ its paddle wheels a clunking as the British disembarked.
Thibaw was a very religious man who endowed Mandalay with many monuments and pagodas. Several are on the tourist circuit and all are impressive but for us it was the artisan district in old Mandalay that took our interest. Here there are streets of carvers in teak wood and marble, bronze casters and sharp eyed delicate fingered ladies stitching intricate tapestries. It is a crafty little backwater in an otherwise big and self important commercial city at the geographical heart of Myanmar at the crossroads between China and India. Today we are heading west across the Ayeyarwaddy River to Monywa and beyond to Imphal in India. The border to India is only recently opened to foreign travellers and we have an expectation for adventure away from the madding crowd....read less
Its boring when travellers reminisce about how it used to be. Well now that I have seen the best and worst of how it used to be at magical Inle Lake I know what they are talking about. By all means lets have democracy in Myanmar but can we please also have some of the sanctions back too. I can be specific about the sanctions that I’d like to see imposed on the travel industry of which I am a small cog in a very big wheel. First up I’d like to see groups of more that 20 persons banned. Myanmar just isn’t a suitable place for mass tourism. The season is short and the infrastructure required for mass tourism is damaging the environment and overtaxing the country’s ability to manage it. I’m keen to see group size limited so that everyone who comes to the Golden Land of Myanmar will get a good experience while the nation gets a better outcome. Secondly I’d like to see sanctions imposed against multi-national hotel corporates who invest in inappropriate and grandiose property developments in places where there is no proper arrangement to provide potable water or waste-water treatment. Thirdly I’d like to see the big Euro mass tourism wholesalers sanctioned for cynically treating Myanmar as just another S E Asia curiosity at the expense of the peoples’ culture and their ethnic heritage.
Boo Hoo you may be thinking. The authorities in Myanmar should get their own act together, do proper planning and set some well considered policies into place. Sorry to say it, but that kind of thinking is a decade away from implementation. Right now its a case of show me your money and tell me how much of it may end up in my bank account. Poor old serene Inle Lake has become the honeypot in the Myanmar tourism larder and the old guard are taking it to the bank in a big and not very environmentally sensitive way. My case in point is the ghastly visual ‘clash’ between the traditional designs of Inle’s ‘floating’ hotels and the contemporary European modernist styles that are popping up on the hills and shore line of the Lake. In addition Euro package tour groups of 60+ lurch around the craft village circuit as if on a ride in an amusement park wondering just what it was we came all this way to see and why didn’t they tell me that this place is only accessible by longtail boat. I’m convinced that only bad things can come of this conflict between industry pressure and the social and natural environment at Inle.
Happily our small band of travellers have been soaking up the Inle experience and enjoying every minute of it. Mind you we have a bit of an inside running on the crowd of first timers in that we know the place well and we know how to avoid the worst of the madding crowd. It was nice to return after a couple of years absense but it was a surprise to find eight aircraft on the apron at Heho airport and it was a not so pleasant surprise to find the once restful little town of Naung Shwe , kicking off point for the longtail boats to lnle, creaking under the weight of over development. Down the lake at the lovely Serenity Resort ‘floating’ hotel the lagoon and lotus pads were quivering under the onslaught of nail guns and concrete mixers churning away on the new Novotel that is going up right next door. Sacrebleur! That the lovely Serenity should have its serene bubble burst by such a moderist nonsense is too much for my sensitivities. I say off with their heads. As it happens our ecologically appropriate small group of travellers will soon be leaving the still lovely Inle for the head hunting hills of Nagaland. Perhaps we can encourage some of those boys to revert to their bad old ways and sign up on the Novotel project....read less
Mr Soe Moe, our gentleman minder during our travels in his quirky but hospitable country, has kindly interpreted our birthdates and days by the Buddhist calendar. This has to be done on a one to one basis least sensitive personal information should slip into unintended ears. Its the sort of information that enables one to find their ‘corner’ at a pagoda so that homage can be paid to the guardian of the corner. Seems that I’m a Sunday corner kind of person watched over by the Garuda. I’m not sure if this is a good symbol but on our evening perambulation at the Shwedagon Pagoda the Sunday corner was sparsely attended while I was loitering. When I enquired if this was the right spot for my kind of person an elderly gentleman took me aside and explained that Garuda likes to fight with serpents. I was obviously in the right spot.
On the subject of said mythological beast I noted that Garuda is also the symbol of Indonesian Airlines. That too seemed auspicious given that the next destination on our travels in Myanmar required a flight north to Bagan where there are a great many pagodas and presumably lots of Sunday corners for me to loiter at. As it happens Myanmar seems to have taken to airlines with a passion that would be unheard of anywhere else. At last count 8 domestic carriers were said to ply the fly ways of the Golden Land. To someone like me who lives in a land of price gouging airlines and laughable competition this all seemed as mythical as the Garuda. But one should never judge a bird by the colour of its tail feathers and there truely are 8 different tail feathers flying the friendly skies of Myanmar.
We have been travelling with KBZ Air. I’m sure that in Burmese this stands for ABC. We were in steady hands tho, the company slogo is ‘fly beyond your expectations’. We could equally have had a ‘Royal experience’ with Yadnarpon Air or ‘arrived safely’ with Yangon Airways. The other options all featured subtle messages about arriving safely so I suppose if your expectation included that then KBZ was probably a good choice. The journey up country from Yangon was smooth and clear. Our whole ATR 75 load of foreigners was delivered safely and our expectations were met. But Bagan is one of those rare places in S.E. Asia that will exceed your expectations every time. Here the tamarind fields are littered with red brick pagodas and stupas of every shape and size. Over the course of 350 years the Bagan Kings and their descendants industriously built +/-10,000 stupas and pagodas on an area bout the size of a smallish city. It is a truly surprising place in a land that holds many surprises for travellers like ourselves.
Things began to go badly for the Bagan kingdom when Kublai Khan took an interest in the source of the ‘jade for silk’ trade from which his rivals in the Dali kingdom of Yunnan were doing so well. The story goes that he sent young Marco Polo down to have a chat with the Baganians. It turned out that negotiating a way into the trade was a lost cause. Better just to march down there with the Mongol horde and make them an offer that they couldnt refuse. After the Mongol invasion of 1287 Bagan never fully recovered but history treated the artifacts kindly and several thousand have survived intact. Today regiments of modern day invaders are having their expectations exceeded and being ‘deliver safety’ by the ATR load. Tomorrow early for us its going to be off by KBZ to Inle lake as the sun rises behind the pagodas.
In Yangon (Rangoon) its high fives all around since the National Democratic League won a landslide election last week. Its time for THE big change said our travelling companion and guide Mr Soe Moe who had decided not to wash the ink from the finger with which he cast his first ever vote in a fully democratic election. The ink was staying on until the future of the newly elected Government was fully cast. Many voters feel the same edgy uncertainty. Everyone remembers what happened to the NDL last time it won a landslide election in the ‘Golden Land’ of Myanmar and everyone that we have so far spoken to dreads a repeat of that awful disappointment. Its all delightfully refreshing if not also a bit humbling to be abroad in a land where democracy may be about to take flight.
We are enjoying this rarefied post election atmosphere at the start of a trip that eventually will take our small group of travellers ‘up country’ to Mandalay and west across the border to Imphal in India’s Manipur State. The journey is going to include ‘must see’ destinations in Myanmar and some places that are well off the beaten track in the wilds of the Nagaland frontier with India. We are keen to get out of Yangon beyond the tropics of the lowlying delta but there are interesting things to see in this old colonial era town. It would be fair to say that Yangon hasn’t aged well under the thumb of successive military rulers. The once grand municipal buildings and well tended tenement blocks are decaying like a face full of bad teeth after decades of mistreatment and lack of maintenance. Now all of the municipal and goverment buildings constructed during the colonial era are empty and shuttered. They have been abandoned by Government ministries for the newly constructed Capital of capital of myanmar Naypyidaw about 400km up country. The camp followers have gone too, press ganged by the thousands into dormitory lodgings in the Capital while their families stay behind in Yangon. The foreign diplomatic missions to Myanmar are also staying down in Yangon. Initially this was an easy choice because the Military Junta refused to allow them to relocate to Naypyidaw. This would have suited the Australians particularly well since they have the prime spot on the strand right next to the swanky Strand Hotel. I reckon that they aren’t going up to the new Capital any time soon.
Our short stay in Yangon included an evening visit to the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda. We went to perambulate around the great golden stupa with locals and other travellers out to taste the religious energy of this great monument. It was a timely reminder that although Myanmar may advocate religious harmony there is a deep vein of radical Buddhist nationalism at play within the new political landscape. No one knows how all this new found political freedom is going to pan out and the big question is whether the Military will deliver on its promise to abide by the popular choice. Well that would be a fine thing if it happens but we won’t be here to see it. Tomorrow we are off up country to Bagan where upwards of 10,000 pagodas are sprinkled amongst the Tamarind fields of the Bagan Archaeological Site....read less