Slowly the early morning mist lifted and the sun started to climb up into the sky. As it did it bathed the temples in the plain beneath us in early morning light, lighting up the beauty. It was a wonderful scene and as the sun rose behind the hills so did 17 balloons to give the place an even more magical setting. We sat on top of our own small stupa with a few others for over an hour enjoying the view.
Mind you it was a relief we had not listened to our guide the evening before whilst watching an equally magnificent sunset over the temples. Initially he had said to get to the temples in time for sunrise we would have to be up at 4.30am. As we pondered how undesirable this would be it occurred to me that at this time of the year as sunset was at 5.30pm there was no way sunrise could be so early so we settled on been picked up at 6am which meant we arrived at the perfect time.
Not thoughthat we would have had any problem getting up at 4.30am. As we were sleeping in the truck we could hear people walking by outside and a van going past playing music. We thought there must be a festival nearby but no we were told it is a tradition in the winter for people in Myanmar to go for an early morning walk for good health. The van playing music was to encourage people to get out and walk. I think if this happened in England someone would string the van driver up.
Leaving Mandalay a few days before, we had soon entered the central plains of Myanmar. It was here that the temples of Bagan were located by the Irawaddy River. From the 11th to the 13th century there was a mass of temple building with over 2,000 been built. Over the years they have fallen into ruin and been damaged by earthquakes and restored (some of it controversially) but Bagan remains the cultural heart and pride of Myanmar. In fact there had been a major earthquake as recently as this August which had caused a lot of damage and we saw volunteers eagerly making repairs.
We spent a wonderful day exploring the major temples. But the best way to appreciate them was sat atop one of the stupas and to be able to admire just how many there were.
Whilst in Bagan, we heard the bad news that 4 policeman had been killed in an attack by insurgents in the state of Manipur in India on the road we would be driving in a few days time. We were worried that because of an escalation in the troubles in this state the border with Myanmar might close or that we might not be able to proceed into India. This would be a bit of a problem as we could not stay in Myanmar, we could not go back to Thailand as we did not have a permit, so India was our only way out. What with the currency problems (India recently abolished its highest value bank notes and placed restrictions on withdrawing cash from ATMs) in India this was one more thing to worry about.
From Bagan we headed to Monwa where we visited another massive Buddha. This one was more than 30 stories high.
Here we also met up with another Burma Senses group doing the trip through Myanmar in the opposite direction. They were a group of 6 motorcyclists and one backpacker and we had a very enjoyable lunch with them. It was also great to talk to them about India and they were able to lay some of our worries to rest as they had travelled through the troubled state of Manipur only a few day before. They also said it was getting easier to get rupees in India although not in Manipur.
With these problems in mind we ensured we were fully stocked with food and fuel before heading into India.
Our last few days in Myanmar were spent on long driving days on bad roads with landslides heading over the mountains. On reaching the border it was sad to say goodbye to our guides and driver who had been great throughout our trip. They ensured we had a painless exit from Myanmar (you need a special permission to use the border with India) and took us to the gate post into India and with that we were into the chaos of India.
Even getting in was a bit chaotic. First we had to find immigration which was a mile down the road in the middle of town. Then we needed to find customs but this was back out of town the way we had come. As we were looking confused, the kind immigration officer jumped into the truck with us to take us there. From looking in the various books that were meticulously filled in with all our details it’s clear we were the first foreigners to cross this border since the motorcyclists we had met a few days before.
I then thought I would try and see if I could exchange my Burmese Kyat for some Indian rupees. Much to my surprise I was taken to a money changer who exchanged them at a decent rate and into small notes too. Result.
Now we just had the 110km drive up and over the mountains to the state capital of Impahl to complete. This was the road on which the insurgent attack had taken place. Fortunately our trip along it whilst slow was uneventful other than the mandatory stops at the army checkpoints along the way. In fact if the road hadn’t been so twisty I could have enjoyed the wonderful views as we crossed.
Before we left the border Gilly had insisted we put large signs on the truck saying “Tourist”. There was an economic embargo in the state and trucks were not been allowed in. Gilly didn’t want us to be mistaken for a goods truck. I had initially rubbished the idea but grudgingly had to admit it was a good idea when I saw that all the other vehicles on the road had signs saying what they were.
Pulling into Impahl we now needed to find somewhere to stay. With the troubles, we were keen to find somewhere safe and found a large hotel where we could park the truck. However we needed to take a room. Now how to pay. I didn’t have enough rupees. I couldn’t pay by credit card as all the mobile data systems had been shut down in the city due to the troubles so the terminal wouldn’t connect and the hotel didn’t take dollars. We were also informed that, as had happened the previous night, most of the city was likely to be under curfew that evening. However they did know someone who would change dollars but as it was getting dark I did not fancy getting in the truck and driving down side streets looking for this person. This is where the reception clerk came to the rescue. He fetched his motorbike and within minutes I was whisked off on the back of his bike into the darkness of a city about to go under curfew to change a few dollars. What a start to India.
Reading the local newspapers that night we learnt that there had been more problems in the state with vehicles been torched along the highways. We now had to make a decision should we stay or should we go. We had also seen that all the ATMs in town had long long queues so money was also going to be a problem. We decided to sleep on it.
The next morning the newspapers made further grim reading. There had been more vehicles torched on what seemed like every road out of the city. Still we decided to go. We felt it was only going to get worse and the quicker we were out of the state the better.
The drive out of the state was pretty straightforward. We were only asked to slow once by a group of guys standing in the middle of the road but once they realised we were tourists (Gilly’s sign doing its job) we were enthusiastically waved through with big smiles and lots of waving. As we approached the state border we did see one truck still smouldering and then bizarrely what looked like the whole town out with picks and hoes clearing the vegetation on the side of the road.
We were relieved to enter the state of Nagaland and the hilltop town of Kohima. Mind you our reward was an almighty traffic jam that meant it took us 2 hours to get through the town, a distance of only 3kms. It was so slow Gilly even managed to pop into the back to make lunch whilst I edged us very slowly through town. From there it was another twisty drive out of the hills to Dimapur. As it was getting dark when we entered the town we were keen to find somewhere to stay. Unfortunately none of the hotels had suitable parking so we headed out of town. I hate driving in the dark but here it was even worse as there were bikes, rickshaws and people in the road and no lights or street lighting. Shortly after leaving town we came to a large fuel station. As we knew trucks regularly park up in them we headed in to be met by a lovely friendly Sikh gentleman. Of course we could stay. Whilst it may not have been the most glamorous location we were relieved to be settled somewhere safe and relatively quiet and in the comfort of our own truck.
We can now look forward to the rest of India. Let’s just hope it’s not as exciting as the first two days!