3/18/2011 | India , Manipur

Moreh: A few hours in Burma

When I headed to the border town of Moreh, with Deepak, Robin, and Sarah I didn’t expect that I find myself facing down rifle brandishing member of the Burmese Junta.  But I guess that is one of the great things about travel you never know what new experiences a new day will bring.

Moreh is a village on the Burmese-Manipur border along the historic Burma rode from Imphal to Mandalay.  Just across the border on the Burmese side is a large market where Indians pick up cheap Chinese and Thai goods.  In addition to Chinese plastic chairs and Thai tee-shirts, more nefarious items such as arms and Burmese opium are also rumored to pass through this tiny town.  Until our visit to Moreh we had encountered very little in the way of check points and hassles with the Indian police and Army.  Somewhat surprising given the sate’s reputation for insurgency and that it was essentially of limits to foreigners a few months ago.  However, the way to Moreh more than made up for the lack of checkpoints elsewhere, we encountered several checkpoints, including a prolonged but cordial encounter with the police just before leaving the Imphal valley.  We asserted forcefully but politely that we were allowed to visit the village telling police that both the Assam Rifles Army and the Minister of Tourism had told us it was, “no problem” (they hadn’t but acting like you have the right to be somewhere is half the battle) and even though I wasn’t completely sure we were allowed to the border I acted as if we had be assured that it was perfectly within our right.   They double checked with the powers that be back in Imphal while we sipped tea wondering if we would be allowed to continue.  We were eventually allowed to pass and several checks later we found ourselves in the dusty little strip of hotels and shops that is Moreh.

I’ve seen Indians managed to pack a lot in to their vehicles, both people and goods, but the Sumos (Indian SUV/Jeeps) leaving Moreh take the prize for the most overloaded vehicles I’ve seen.  Men precariously balanced themselves on ladders as they stacked columns of goods on to the vehicle’s roof reaching heights of three times the vehicle in some cases.  We had barely been in town long enough to ogle at these overloaded vehicles when we attracted the attention of the Indian Intelligence Police (the Indian equivalent of the FBI/CIA from what I was told).  A plain clothed man who approached our friend Deepak and proceeded to take down ours as well as Deepak’s identity information.  A routine we were becoming familiar with.

Crossing the actual border into Burma (Myanmar) was fairly uneventful in comparison as we walked past the immigration post with little more than a nod from the officer.  It was getting back that would be a little more adventuresome. The sprawling market just across the border was very much a Burmese one.  Seeing the smiling faces smeared decoratively in sandalwood paste made me nostalgic as I remembered fondly my trip to Burma back in 2002.

We all had different interest in the market Robin was on a tee-shirt shopping mission on a quest for the prefect Thai-made tee-shirt, Deepak and Sarah wondered a bit and people watched while I was busy photographing the scene.  I was on my way back to meet up with the others, I had paused briefly, aiming my camera at a cute looking Burmese kid, when a passing man gave me a dirty look and spitting out the words, “No photo” with clear distain for the words’ intended audience, myself.  Thinking maybe he was related to the kid I put down my camera, flashed a smile, and said “No problem.”  The smile was not returned, nor did man’s demeanor become more congenial in any detectable way.  I was somewhat puzzled as it was the only unfriendly encounter I had on the Burmese side of the border.  Everyone had been happy to be photographed, and was very amused to see a foreigner visiting the market.  A few minutes later, as I sat with Sarah and Deepak waiting for Robin to finish his tee-shirt quest, the man re-emerged in full combat fatigues holding a rifle.  “No photo” he barked at me again, and pointed like he wanted me to accompany him back in the direction of Burma.  At this point I decided it was in my best interest to get back to Indian as soon as possible.  The mad-dog look in his eyes was not re-assuring.  His eyes told me he was a true believer, raised on the propaganda of the Burmese Junta with an intense hatred and distrust for foreigners like myself.  “No problem, No photo, I go now, back to Indian” I said making a gesture towards the Indian border.  He pointed again in the opposite direction and then cocked his rifle, holding the weapon diagonally across his body.  At this point visions of becoming Burmese equivalent of the American hikers who had inadvertently crossed in to Iran and found themselves charged with spying, flashed through my head.  I was in the country essentially illegally with no Burmese visa or written permission, things could go very badly for me if I accompanied this man wherever it was that he was anxious to take me.  I made eye contact with the Burmese official manning the border post.  I said, “Need to go back to Imphal now, sumo leaving” as I walked towards the post ignoring the armed man, but still feeling his presence upon me.  “Photography is not allowed on the Myanmar side” the border official said in a much more polite manner as if to inform me rather than an order.  “Yes, No Photo, No problem” I replied as I quickly passed the post and returned to the safety of India, breathing a small sigh of relief.  Of course I had been taking photos for the previous two hours, and I was glad they had been kind enough (even if inadvertently so) to wait until I had plenty of shots before attempting to enforce the rule.

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