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"I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."
- Robert Louis Stevenson

Indo-Myanmar Border Crossing

Myanmar Border Crossing Permit

Many people are under the impression that is impossible for foreigners to cross from India into Myanmar, and for many years this was true. The only border crossing is through Manipur, which is the state directly south of Nagaland. Manipur’s recent history is full of violence against the Indian Army. As is the case with the majority of states in the Northeast, there is a large amount of support and hope for becoming an autonomous region. It wasn’t until 2012 that Manipur was open to foreign travelers.

On the Myanmar side, one must obtain a special permit to cross the border in either direction. To my knowledge the permit was previously only obtainable for someone currently inside Myanmar. This is why the majority of travelers move from Myanmar to India and not the other direction. As a result of the booming tourism within Myanmar, a few travel agencies have (only within the past year or so) made it easier to get the permit while outside the country.

Here’s what I had to do to get the permit:

1.     While in Kathmandu, I got my Myanmar visa. I did not want to deal with getting it in India.
2.     I emailed the travel agency a copy of my passport, India visa, Myanmar Visa, and “itinerary.”
3.     Upon confirmation from the travel agency, I had to pick a specific date to cross the border, as the permit is only valid for a single day.
4.     The permit cost $100.
5.     I was told the permit would be faxed to me before the crossing date, and promised that a member from the agency would be waiting to collect me from the border.
6.     Pray to the travel gods.

Manipur

Manipur barely gets half a page in a Lonely Planet guidebook. It is considered a transit state between Myanmar and India. I did not know anything about Manipur and if it wasn’t on the way to Myanmar I would never have visited.

Upon arriving in Imphal, the capital of Manipur, I met my couchsurfing host, Milan, and his colleagues. I was instantly greeted with smiles, warm vibes, and smoke. Milan is part of the Universal Friendship Organization, which has branches throughout the state. The U.F.O.’s goal is to promote and support peace in the area. While they spread peace or “wait” for it to come around they are slowly turning their branch into a guesthouse, greenhouse, and community center. As a visitor I also got to plant a tree that I hope to return and see again many years from now.

The Universal Friendship Organization.

Constructing the greenhouse.

 Many relaxing breaks are taken by members of U.F.O. while waiting for peace.

Many relaxing breaks are taken by members of U.F.O. while waiting for peace.

The one famed area within Manipur is the beautiful Loktak Lake. For most travelers within Manipur, Loktak Lake is the only point of interest. While I had wonderful outing to the lake, the highlight of my time within Manipur has to be attributed to Milan. I received a gushing flow of information about Manipuri culture and history. The majority of Manipuri people are a part of the Meitei tribe, but there are at least 32 other distinct tribal groups, each with their own language and tribal dress that often differs so completely that it is hard to believe they are neighbors. Each tribe has their traditional dance and songs. Manipur is also well known for its martial arts and sports. The great sport of Polo was invented in Manipur and I even saw the field on which it was first played on.

 Loktak Lake

Loktak Lake

 A woman fishing by controlling the net between her legs and balancing on the edge of the boat the on the lake.

A woman fishing by controlling the net between her legs and balancing on the edge of the boat the on the lake.

As I wasn’t aware of the cultural diversity of Manipur I only had two days before I was supposed to cross to Myanmar. My time was short, but spending it with Milan, members of U.F.O., and a group of villagers who were spending a week at the branch to practice meditation was a wonderful experience. For those heading to the Northeast or crossing between Indian and Myanmar I highly recommend saving more time to explore Manipur and experience its varied cultural offerings.

 Members of U.F.O. and a group of women from a nearby town visiting for a week long meditation retreat.

Members of U.F.O. and a group of women from a nearby town visiting for a week long meditation retreat.

Getting to the Border

The Indian border town is called Moreh and takes about three hours to reach from Imphal if you don’t run into any problems. From what I learned online and from a friend who had recently crossed the border in the other direction, I knew that horrific traffic at military checkpoints or road bans could make covering the distance turn into a long affair. In the case of a road ban, you could be stuck in either Moreh or Imphal for days until the road opened.

When I arrived in Imphal I checked with my host Milan if there would be any road bans in effect when I needed to travel, and learned to my relief that I was in the clear. Unfortunately, my luck didn’t last long as the night before my departure we received word that a 48-hour road ban was actually in effect. This news was concerning. I needed to cross the border on a specific date and did not know what would happen if I didn’t make it in time.

Waking up the next day, I didn’t know what to do. Milan suggested we check out the areas where vans usually park and pick up passengers before heading to Moreh. What a wonderful suggestion! There was one van on the street willing to take people, but as I was the only passenger I would have to pay over $40 for the ride. A small price to pay to make sure you don’t mess up a border crossing, but being in money conscious backpacker mode for the past seven months, I wanted to see if there were any other options.

Turns out there were not any other options. Milan was amazed I was even able to get a ride during a day the roads were blocked so I just considered myself lucky. I was curious to see if we would have any trouble with whoever was enforcing the ban (it wasn’t the police).

On our way out of Imphal we picked up three other passengers cutting my cost down significantly. Two women we picked up had large boxes of medicine and toiletries they were delivering to Moreh. During our drive all the towns we passed through seemed empty. At one point our driver stopped and walked ahead 500 meters to talk with a group of men on the side of the road. When he returned we all got back in the car and drove past without any problems. I think that since I was a foreigner and the women were delivering medicine we were allowed through without any problems. Beside this stop, I did not see anything else related to the road ban.

On our way to Moreh we passed through two military checkpoints. At each checkpoint our vehicle was taken apart. The front seats were taken out, the side panels were popped off, and dogs were brought to sniff the whole vehicle. The women had to open every box and make a list of the amount and name of every medicine.

On the road we passed several groups of Indian soldiers walking single file or in pairs, armed with an assortment of weapons ranging from sniper rifles to RPGs. As a traveler I generally feel safe even in dangerous areas. However, standing around idly at checkpoints or following behind army convoys makes me feel as though I am placing myself in the line of fire.

After four hours on the road I safely arrived in Moreh. After wandering around searching for the Indian immigration at the border I got my visa stamped, shouldered my bag, and walked the 1km to the Myanmar border crossing. I immediately noticed the more relaxed atmosphere on the other side. The border guards may have been in uniform, but the flip-flops they wore made you feel at ease. As I handed my passport over I was greeted with a smile and asked, “permit?”

 The Friendship Bridge between India and Myanmar.

The Friendship Bridge between India and Myanmar.

I didn’t have the permit. I had never actually received an email or fax, but as I was told someone would be waiting to collect me at the border, I hoped he would have it. I replied, “7 Diamonds (the travel agency),” and received a blank stare and was asked for the permit again. I repeated the words “7 Diamonds” several more times until I received a nod and watched the office make a phone call. I was then brought up to a waiting room while an official took my passport, filled out some paperwork and left sitting idly wondering what was going on.

After waiting half an hour without a clue, my savior arrived smiling on the back of a semi-automatic scooter in a blue longyi. He showed my permit to the border police and waved me onto the back of his scooter, and off we were to the town of Tamu.

It was immediately clear that I wasn’t in India anymore. Almost everyone I made eye contact with smiled or waved. The open friendliness was incredibly refreshing. I was dropped off at a bus ticket stand and got a ticket for the overnight ride to Mandalay.

As smiles were flowing all around, I quickly became friends with a man sitting near the bus stand. For the next two hours I was taken on a tour around the small town of Tamu, introduced to Burmese beer, and taught my first Burmese words. Mingalaba! I was happy and feeling welcomed in Myanmar.

*If you have any questions about the border crossing or would like more information about getting the permit, feel free to contact me.