I have known KB Singh since my days in Loyola College, Chennai from 1975. Even though we were pursuing, or sought to pursue, different disciplines we were good friends in the hostel. And those days having a friend from the North-East was like having an overseas friend! Yes, I was enveloped in that mindset where all from the North-East were grouped together. It was not until I travelled across the country and spend over a month in the seven sisters in 2010-11 did I understand the diversity and richness of the people and land in the North-East. And in making me understand this KB Singh was an essential link. I have always turned to him for support and guidance during my trips through Manipur. Last year I was in Manipur twice while on the way out of India and back in during the Singapore expedition. I also have a few very good friends in priests in Kohima and Imphal, Fr Johnny and Fr Joseph respectively, They have hosted me on a few occasions in their residences. I could have tapped their hospitality yet again. But something inside me suggested that I should look for hotel accommodation. KB Singh suggested the Hotel Classic Grande. And the events of the last evening proved that it is prudent to listen to the inner voices. Had I tied up to stay in the priests’ residence in Imphal Fr Joseph would have had a tough night with me coming into Imphal at 2.30 am! Therefore, I believe that everything happens for the best and it will, if you believe completely in that.
The hotel was an excellent choice to rest and recuperate, but I had had very little time for that; I was in and out of it in 5 hours. But the fact was that I was rested and had a full breakfast of fruit cuts, uttapam, poha and potato wedges. KB Singh joined me over a cup of tea and politics and business dominated the short meeting. I was sad to learn from him that a common friend, Budh, was unwell and is suffering from a terminal illness. My prayers for him.
KB Singh piloted me out of the city and on to the highway from where I set my sights on Moreh, the border town. People were going about their business as usual and I wondered how they could still smile when the going was so tough in that state. Take the three day bandh that completely upset the economy. It was against the legislation to introduce Inner Line Permit for Manipur. As usual it ranged the Hill people against those in the Valley. Those in the Valley are for it while the Hill people are against it. A faceoff between the Nagas and the Meities. The people in the Valley feel the need for regulation so that demographically and, consequently, politically they don’t get swamped. All the time one issue or the other serves to polarize the two sides more and more.
After the Pallel Gate, about 30 km out of Imphal, the hill section begins. The road is narrow and broken in sme places, but it was most of the way in decent condition. There are three major check points manned by the Assam Rifles as one nears the border. I had short stops at two of them. The checking is quite vigorous when one drives from Moreh to Imphal as contraband and prohibited items are high on the radar. I reached the Land Customs Stationat 10,30 am and had to wait just a while before the young Customs official explained politely that the Immigration had to be done in a makeshift office in the town. That is when I met Petrina. A Malaysian national, she has been hitchhiking from Sweden over the past year. During the entire journey she has paid for her accommodation only once and was gifted clothing and shoes by people who she met on her journey. She said that she didn’t mind scrounging in the trash cans for food! And she believed in solo travel because she wanted to experience the world the way she wanted to, and in her I found a kindred soul!
We went across to the temporary shelter that served as the Immigration office and had to wait some time for the officer to arrive. But the work was done very fast once we filled up our forms. It was back to the Customs office yet again, where the declaration of goods was given and the Carnet was stamped. I offered to give Petrina a ride to the Immigration office on the Myanmar side. She was really pleasant company with a wealth of interesting stories and anecdotes. I urged her to pen her experiences that would be invaluable to those who would want to attempt something as interesting. And the fact that she has done it as a single woman, it’s unique. She said that the country she enjoyed the most was Iran, where she felt the most safe too.
As I crossed the Friendship Bridge I found three people waiting for me. The welcome party consisted of Htoo Htet Aung, the guide, Ms. Hnin Thita, the representative of the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism and Ms. Pyae from the Silver Hills tour agency. We had to spend nearly an hour in the Immigration Office. Petrina joined three others who were requesting entry into Myanmar. Two of them were young cyclists who had come in from Germany and a young girl from Italy. They have been stuck in No Man’s Land for over 48 hours since their tour agency had not secured the Security Clearance for them, or so is what I understood from the conversation. Silver Hills had covered all the bases for me and my passport was stamped after some discussions. The next halt was in the Customs station. The trio had already visited the office the previous day and presented all the papers. The Carnet was stamped and the temporary registration of the car was also handed over to the guide. The car was inspected to verify the chassis number. Before we left the Customs office I corrected the watch to Myanmar time which was an hour ahead of IST.
Htoo led us to the Water World restaurant for lunch and I was famished. Rice, sweet pork, pork in cashew nuts and water cress with mushrooms was the food ordered. Large portions all of them. In good time all was done. The Chinese preparations were extremely tasty and I topped it with apple and green tea. The humungous portions cost just $14 or less than Rs 1000!
The drive to Kale took just about two hours. I was extremely cautious since I was driving on the right side of the road. The many steel bridges had to be negotiated carefully since bolts had come off in many places. A wooden bridge where the sections were being replaced proved a tough one to negotiate. And for another there was a diversion that took us across a low portion of a river. It rained heavily too and Htoo showed me places where the bridges had got washed away and vestiges of the destruction could still be seen.
We checked into the Taung Za Lat Hotel by 6 pm and I went in search of the ever elusive Wifi connection to upload the blogs. It was on and then off again. It was quite frustrating but I did get some of my work done, though not all. Dinner at 7.30 consisted of rice, spicy chicken, diced chicken with capsicum and cabbage and water cress. The preparations were once again Chinese and very tasty. I had a Hill Plantain to round up the meal. Over the meal we decided on taking the longer route to Monywa since the alternative, I judged, would be harsh on the car. Breakfast would be at 7 am and we would depart for Monywa after that.