Waking up in Imphal, I was treated to a tasty cake in bed accompanied by some wonderful video messages from friends (collected by Emilie, just how does she have the time?), all in all making a fantastic start to what looked set to be my most adventurous birthday adventure ever (from what I can remember through the dim haze of all these years in any case) – trying to cross the border from India into Myanmar.
Our plans of an early start for this escapade were rather thwarted by the discovery of a rear wheel puncture as we went to load up the bike. Once again the kindness of strangers saved the day with the Royal Riders turning up and swiftly doing the needful, as they like to say in India, to put us back on the road. This was an ominous reminder that the easy fixes we’ve got used to in India, Nepal and Bhutan, where Enfields are ubiquitous, mechanics ten a rupee, and spare parts available in every small town, would soon be behind us. In Myanmar, small Chinese scooters rule and we knew we’d be high and dry were anything to break down there.
We rode out of town with a glorious accompanying escort of Bullets, rumbling our way towards the city limits. Along the way we discovered that it was not only a celebratory day for me but also for, bless them, the cows of India. Yes, Holy Cow Day was upon us and we passed several bovines gaily adorned with garlands of flowers as they munched their way along the streets of Imphal.
On the outskirts of town we pulled up at the side of the highway to say goodbye to our escorts and then turned onto the road to Moreh, another somewhat dodgy thoroughfare due to the illicit traffic, bandits, and strikes which plague the area. A sign warned us not to pay any money to anyone in uniform or “underground groups” who requested it, though how persuasive a reference to this missive would be in the event of an extortion attempt we weren’t quite sure.
As we wove up into the hills again the passing army trucks became more frequent along with military checkposts where we applied our standard, slow down / smile / don’t stop tactic with reasonable success. After an hour or so we rounded a bend and were granted a glorious panorama eastwards, looking down to see the plains of Myanmar stretched out before us. The next army roadblock was not so easy though, here we were stopped and our papers checked, then informed we would not be allowed to cross the upcoming border. We finally managed to convince the soldiers we had a special permission to do so – which we in fact we did, obtained after quite some lobbying with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nay Pyi Taw, but in practice just a creased, photocopied letter which we weren’t quite convinced was utterly convincing. The truth was we’d had to prepare for the fact that they’d simply turn us back at the border and we’d be obliged to finish the bike ride there and then before heading back to Calcutta and catching a flight home.
Rather than a bustling border town, buzzing with trucks and trade, Moreh turned out to be a small outpost of dusty streets and rickety shops. Stopped as we entered the town, we were again told it would be impossible to cross the border and instructed to go and report to the police station. And so it was that we found ourselves sipping tea with a rather affable member of the local constabulary who’d just taken up his position and, after a little consideration, agreed to send a couple of his men to the border gate to check with the Burmese whether there really was any chance of us being allowed in. In the meantime, we sat in his office and innocently asked a few questions about the border to which he responded with remarkable candidness – relations are difficult due to the language barrier, official trade is limited but smuggling is rife, the border fence is coming along nicely but the frontier remains extremely porous, and, rather annoyingly, the Burmese Government seems prone to sheltering and taxing a number of Manipuri militant groups who use their newfound home as a launch pad for cross-border attacks.
After an hour or so this fascinating exposé was interrupted by the return of the scoping party – yes, the Burmese had given the OK. A quick stamp of our passports and a sad farewell to Incredible India and we mounted the bike, hearts racing at getting so close to the final obstacle in our journey, and followed a local policeman on his scooter along the road towards the frontier. We were pulled up at the Indian Customs post on the way where a stern looking gentleman started questioning our escorts. What we feared was a spanner in the works turned out to instead be an insistence by the mustachioed official that he be photographed with us before we were allowed to pass, a request with which we of course quickly complied.
Continuing along the single track road, our guides suddenly waved at us to pull over to the other side as we were now crossing the halfway point of No-Man’s Land and so needed to switch to Myanmar Rules – drive on the right. The border itself was suitably atmospheric, an old iron bridge spanning a river with an olive-clad Burmese soldier pacing slowly up and down on the other side, rifle slung over his shoulder. We rattled across to find a smiling immigration officer standing waiting for us, immaculately turned out in an all-white uniform. His stern expression broke into a broad smile as we pulled up, “Mingalabar!”
It turned out that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nay Pyi Taw had been exceedingly efficient in letting local officials know of our arrival and the chaps at the border had apparently been waiting for us for some days. Being the first foreigners, as far as we know, to cross the border here independently and then proceed unescorted through the country, we were privileged to receive the most dedicated and personalised immigration processing either of us have ever experienced. The only other people coming in it seems are Indian traders who may not leave the border town of Tamu nor stay overnight. So we sat alone in the immigration office as a steady stream of forms were filled in with meticulous attention to detail. This did mean though that the contradiction between Nay Pyi Taw’s letter granting permission for one foreigner and a motorcycle to cross and our own rather indisputable duality did not slip by unnoticed. But appeals to common sense / romantic inseparability / the fact we’d already been stamped out of India and so could end up stateless thankfully won the day. With the formalities finally completed we were informed we’d be escorted to our hotel by the police, a most convenient service that I’d heartily recommend be adopted at Heathrow.
The last major hurdle crossed, we settled down in a small bar in peaceful Tamu for a celebratory birthday beer, very happy to be home and with the dream of actually Riding to Rangoon finally seeming like it might actually become reality!