Sunday, April 29, 2018

Discovering Northwest Myanmar 7: Rihkawdar to Kalaymyo

I could’ve spent more time up there in Chin State. I mean, I really liked it there. The people, the towns, and most of all, the weather were wonderful. Remember, April is the hottest month of the year in Myanmar, and down in the valleys, the 100-degree, 60% humildity days were sweltering. The clean, crisp air of Chin was quite a relief. 
Sunrise in Chin State
As a place to ride a motorcycle, providing you have an enduro-bike with a good suspension, Chin State had been like a dream. The mountain vistas mesmerized me and the roads were in decent condition. The dream soured a bit on the road from Rihkandar to Tedim. On a lesser bike, it would have been a nightmare. 
Fortunately, the CRF250 I’d rented from handled to rocky, bumpy roads without much trouble. After Tedim, the road to Kalaymyo was quite smooth. 
In Tedim, everyone was going to church. Well, not everyone.
Down from the hills into a valley, the heat was back. However, instant relief was available in the form of Thingyan, the water festival.  Just outside my hotel door, a stage had been set up.
They let me run the hose for a bit.
Hoses busily sprayed truckload after truckload of people out celebrating. A few dozen local youth danced up a storm in front of loudspeakers. I joined in, recording it with my waterproof camera.  When the organizers noticed me, they asked if I would like to record a traditional Thingyan dance. Of course! I’m  sure the dance was planned for later, but they moved it up just for me.

This first video shows the trip out of Chin to Kalymyo.

The second video is just the Thingyan dance and the goings on around it.  

Friday, April 27, 2018

Discovering Northwest Myanmar 6: Falam to Rih Lake

On the road in Chin State

After showing me the facilities, such as they were at the rather spartan Holy Guesthouse in Falam, the hotelier lady, who was hilarious even though she had not a word of English, gave me a second key. This one was just for me. Other guests didn’t get this key. Why not? What’s behind the locked door? You’ll see in the video. 

On my trip from Falam to Rih Lake, I was going through the heart of Chin state, so I was expecting yet more spectacular mountain vistas and lots of interesting stuff along the way. One thing I didn’t know was exactly the route I’d be taking. Zach at had told me that there was a road connecting Falam and Rih. He’d had previous clients who’d traveled on it and had said it was pretty good. But it’s not on any map, neither printed or online. I knew it was there. The day before, I’d seen where it split off from the Falam-Hakha road. 

Which way do I go?
Consequently, at several points along the way, I came to forks in the road and I couldn’t rely on my trusty friend Google Maps to help me. There were signs, but entirely in the Myanmar alphabet. Even though I’ve been here 4 years now, I still only have a limited ability to read the local language. It proved to be enough. I knew the letter “R”. One road went to a place beginning with “R” and the other did not. “Rih Lake” begins with “R”… Must be that way. 

The famous heart-shaped lake. Looked more like a lima bean.
Or a big swimming pool.
When I finally got to Rih Lake, it was kinda anti-climactic. Sure, it was pretty to look at, but the only vantage point was packed full of people. It was a holiday, and there were lots of local tourists there playing music very loudly. It wasn’t as peaceful as has been promoted. Oh well. 
Interesting thing about Chin houses: they've got open fire pits inside the home. It's
how they keep warm. There's a chimney in the ceiling.
Bridges? Border crossings? Bah! We need them not.
Actually, I was more excited about visiting the border town of Rihkawthar, and I was fortunate to find lodgings there. The most exciting part of the day was trying to walk over the bridge into India. 

As I mentioned, it was the second day of the Thingyan Water Festival, and whereas most of the town is Christian (Thingyan is a Buddhist holiday), there was one area, set up right next to the bridge to India, where the furious water throwing was going on. Pretty much everybody who was crossing the bridge one way or the other got doused.  Welcome to Myanmar! SPLASH! 

No one is safe. Not even old men on motorbikes. 

 Enjoy the video.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Discovering Northwest Myanmar 5: Hakha to Falam

In Part 5, we continue our adventures through Chin State. Just a few years back, It would have quite remarkable that I was even up there. Like much of Myanmar, Chin had been closed to foreign tourists for decades. The few that did make it up there were invariably accompanied by gov’t approved tour guides on gov’t run travel packages. This little state, landlocked between India and Myanmar hasn’t had many tourists until recently. 

They like to paint their houses in vivid colors
Some facts about Chin State: At about 15,000 square miles, it’s roughly the size of Switzerland. About 2/3rd the size of West Virginia and one and half times bigger than Vermont. Whereas 8 million people live in Switzerland and 2 million reside in West Virginia, the population of Chin is a bit shy of 500,000. And like these other places, it’s all mountainous. I can’t say that I saw a single bit of horizontal land in the whole state that people hadn’t made that way. 

Being so sparsely populated, there are only a few real towns in the state. In this episode, I travel between two of them which aren’t very far apart: Hakka (the new capital) and Falam (the old capital).

Again, I was taken in by the amazing mountain views I got to see and noticed a few things. Chin burial customs involve roads. At almost every major turn in the road, at almost every spot where you could look out and see spectacular vistas of expansive mountains and valleys, there were graves.
Not graveyards, just graves. Two or three, up to eight perhaps if it was remarkably beautiful spot. And of course, memorials to the dead. Structures to preserve them from the elements. It was kind of odd that at every point when I wanted to stop and take a picture of the remarkable landscape, that I was doing so alongside someone’s dead uncle, but I’m not superstitious in that regard. If there’s life-after-death, ghosts, that sort of thing, I’d think any human soul would appreciate what I was doing, and wouldn’t be offended if I needed to go pee on the periphery of their gravesite. 
Breakfast in Hakha
I got to Falam, a very religious town which I’ve heard recently tried to ban alcohol sales within the town limits.
Having a nose for these sorts of things, I found that this ban would involve shutting down one shop, because it seemed there was only one place in town to get a beer. 

Enjoy the video 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Discovering Northwest Myanmar 4: Gangaw to Hakha

Leaving one of the few guesthouses
Sunrise in Gangaw
in Gangaw, I was ready from some real mountain roads. Long, straight, smooth roads with gorgeous scenery around have their place. They can be enjoyable. But what every motorcycle tourist likes are windy roads – roads where you lean into your turn and accelerate out of it. Not to mention that the topographical attractions of mountains are nicer to look at. 

After a ways of brown, scrubby hills, the road definitely turned up an incline. Finally heading into Chin State. Chin is one of the smallest and least populous areas of the country of Myanmar. Their people are known for being strongly Christian, excellent hunters and a bit outside of more mainstream Burmese existence. 

Hakha... that way.
I’d been there before. On my last long motorbike tour, I visited Kampletlet an Mindat in southern Chin, but got turned back on my little scooter by the road conditions. Not this time. 

Eventually, I found myself at thousands of feet of elevation, riding down some gorgeous roads. As I’m a bit afraid of heights, what was somewhat disconcerting was the mile after mile of driving along roads where on one side, there’s a wall of rock, and on the other, there’s no guardrail and a steep drop of hundreds and hundreds of feet. 

Rolling into beautiful, Hakha, I was impressed by the view overlooking the city.  Hakha may not be around much longer in its current form.
There are plans to move the entire city due to constant danger of landslides during the rainy season. Just a few years ago, one third of the town was wiped away due to massive landslides. All the roads were blocked and Hakha was cut off. It’s hard to see signs of that damage today, but I’m no expert at spotting it.

Hakha has an “Old-West” feel to it. The buildings are all made of wood and strung together haphazardly.
The people are nice though. I didn’t have a meal in Hakha without at least one person sitting down next to me, asking me to join them

Enjoy the video.

Technical note: the problem with the 4:3 video format cropped up again. This time, I figured out what caused it, so this will be the last we'll see of it.  Note also there's "bonus material" at the end of the musical part. Continuing the bluegrass music theme.

Sampling some Chin Wine.


I thought I was going to retire there. I was the senior staff member. I'd been there longer than anyone. It. Is. Not. Fair.  But on the ...