Myanmar is presently undergoing political changes – as far as concerns the relationship between its government and external powers. Travellers and diplomats are surprised by an unprecedented degree of opening, and many people in Myanmar are experiencing more civic liberties than before and feel an air of better opportunities. Reports from those parts of the country that are barely accessible by tourists, however, consistently tell a different story. “No change” is the most common answer I get when I ask ethnic people about the situation in their parts of the country.
While I would find it difficult or even impossible to travel there from the central parts of Myanmar, I almost managed to set foot in Myanmar’s Chin State from the outside. This is one of the poorest regions of the country. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Chin people alone have emigrated to neighbouring India where they, still fighting economic hardship, can at least secure one meal per day for their families. Many more live in Malaysia or simply migrated to other parts of the country.
Going to the Indian border town of Zokhawthar is an adventure in its own right. On the muddy roads along the endless chains of mountains that were soaked with rain, our all-terrain taxi sometimes slid scarily close to the edge when it was avoiding oncoming vehicles. Every now and then, the driver would stick his head out of the window and look up to see if the huge bales of cargo were still on the roof.
It took us 7 hours to make the 190 km trip to Champhai. This town features quiet streets and neat houses. On Sundays, the shops are closed and churches apparently try to trump each other with vociferous chanting. People are very friendly. There is not much more to tell about the short time I spent there.
A further 15 kilometres past Champhai, or one hour of cruising around tremendous potholes in torrential rain, and we reached the border town of Zokhawthar. The weather cleared up just in time to present the view of Myanmar’s woody hills beyond a small, muddy river. As it is so often at political borders, it was impossible to see any difference between both sides. Even the buildings looked more or less the same here and there.
I knew that without a visa a foreigner is not allowed to enter either of these countries and that Chin State in particular is not among those places to which the government tries to lure foreign visitors. This region, marked by its people’s strong adherence to Christianity and a distinct perseverance of their own cultural traditions, is usually presented as a relatively blank area on tourist maps, and even many people of Myanmar have only little in-depth knowledge about it.
While Chin people and Mizos just need to walk across a bridge to enter the neighbouring country, for me there was no way to get into Myanmar. But since I had already come a long way, I wanted at least to stand right at the border, as far as I was allowed to go.
This task was surprisingly easy on the Indian side. Some uniformed officials in a literally laid-back condition smiled through the open window of their shack and encouraged me to walk to the end of the bridge. Nobody made a move to follow or even watch me. So I went along and set my feet on the bridge.
Both of its ends were marked with signs across the passage. The arc above the Indian side invited me to visit again while I passed through it. On the opposite end I spotted a signboard in green with golden letters, announcing the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar”. To my big surprise, the presence of a Western foreigner did not trigger any Burmese officials hastily running towards me to prevent me from entering. I had to wait probably a minute with my toes right at the last plank of the bridge until one of the two men in uniform finally decided to leave their shack and approach me.
One good reason for his shyness might have been his English skills, which just sufficed to repeat the known fact that I need a visa and to travel by plane and that I would have to come from a different direction. I understood: No entry through the stage door. So I expressed my thanks for this information, waved good-bye and turned around, back to where I came from.
The first thing I saw on my way back was “Welcome to India” written on the backside of the arc. The same people, the same mountains, but still so very different.