Everything that ain't India



The town of Mawlaik was once a centre of administration for the British government. Set on a hill, it is a pretty spot with old colonial style buildings and pretty houses. Offices as well as the guesthouse once called the ‘Dak Bungalow’ are still preserved and used. The cool weather must have been reminiscent of English springtime, and although undiscovered by the general public, it is a wonderful spot to get away from everything stressful. It was also a trading post for the colonial era enterprise the Bombay Burmah Company that dealt in teak, abundantly found in the area. It is said that timber elephants of this region to this day only understands commands spoken in English.

In the very strange township of Mawlaik nothing was left to chance. Ten empty rickshaws waited in a line, then loaded and took off, in tandem, down the road along the foreshore. The circus was in town. Before long we were at the markets and ten rickshaws in a line came to a communal stop before the forced march up one side of the market and down the other. The secret police followed on their motorbikes. Two up front, two at the rear.

Mawleik is a blur. The hospital, where we visited like a herd of confused cows, isn’t.

Here’s the AIDS ward.

After our interminable visit to the hospital, we were driven back to the boat, trailed all the way by the not-very-secret service. Their efforts to stay secret were so lubicrous, such a parade of errors that it was like being guarded by the Keystone Cops. We had an hour to kill. I grabbed a startled rickshaw driver and headed off in one direction, so did my travel agent friend – in the other direction. Another couple followed suit. Confusion in the ranks. Motor bikes scattered, mobile phones glued to their drivers’ ears. Stazi zoomed across the countryside looking for a foreigner.

A lot of the fun was taken out of it when I realised that my rickshaw driver was plainly terrified. This wasn’t hide”n-seek. I’d bullied and bribed him into a no-win situation. Here he is, trying to smile…

I learnt a lot in Mawlaik, none of it very nice.

We snuk into Yuma, slid silently into the archorage without alerting a soul. We were off the boat and up on the bank before the headman was discovered and brought to see the great excitement. There is a protocol. In the meantime, Dog set off into the village ahead of the group. I was the first white man to walk  those paths in a year. Now, this was special…


The hooter sounded. The sun was going down. I guess if you live in a tiny Burmese village, a ship’s horn at three hundred paes is a pretty loud noise. Children came out to see. One, two, ten, twenty, thirty… children appeared and, in a flood, careered down the hill towards the boat. We snuk in but we left very loudly,

Something strange was going on in the model village of Auk Taing . All the people had run away.


Except this lad in a splendid hat. He was very brave.

By the time we got to Thaungdut, we were rock stars. As the group wandered up towards the temple, they were surrounded by a horde of locals. Nobody was selling, nobody wanted money – they just wanted to look. Dog hung back, letting the stampede move on ahead. Dust hung in the twilight, as if a herd of cattle had just passed.

My camera was becoming an impediment. Too many requests for pictures, too much attention. I put it away and plodded on. The crowd was well established up ahead. I was attracting a second wave of stragglers, all anxious for a chat. It was thick and bloody hot. At the top of the hill was a pagoda complex surrounded by people. The group divided into those who would wait outside and me. I dragged Becky in with me, shoes off, across dirt and grass along a pathway to a large assembly room, then over and up a set of steps into another temple. In the middle of the room was the coffin.

We knelt down about a meter away from the dead monk’s head. The coffin was covered in flowers and closed, I was relieved to note. Becky would clearly have rather been anywhere else in the world than kneeling in front of a dead monk. I was more relaxed. All around us were people praying, quite happy, it seemed, to have esteemed strangers in their midst. It must have been seen to be a mark of respect, and respectful I tried to be.

On my way out the chief monk came over and touched me on the shoulder.

 ‘You – you come back.’

I was delighted.

‘Eight o’clock. Festival.’


I headed off early after dinner, just me and a young guide who spoke as much English as I Burmese. We walked up into the landing zone, then right down the main street, left along the street of retreating tourists, along past the big tree and the balloons and began our trek up the hill. That’s when the storm began.

It was instantaneous and mighty. The rain came and with it a flood of people running down the hill. I was trudging up, slowly at first, then sprinting, the only one, save my guide who thought I was mad, heading up instead of down. For a moment I thought I was doing the wrong thing. Clearly I was. By the top of the hill I was drenched. We jumped sideways into a roadside drinking stall covered with tarpaulins, full of local youths smoking cigarettes and drinking. The rain kept on coming.

The festival was cancelled due to act of God. Clearly the dead monk had been a mighty man.

So, it appeared, was his replacement.


I’d had my Chindwin adventure. Drenched and crazy, nearly dead in the rain, half-running, half-carried, Dogster arrived back on the boat, stood smiling in a puddle on the deck.


I looked out and saw a range of cloudy mountains and knew that just over .those peaks, across an impenetrable border, was India. I decided then and there to go. Here was my opportunity.

First I had to get there. It wasn’t as if I could just pop over the border. So near and yet so far. Politics had created a very definite no-go zone. It wasn’t like that in WWII. The British forces used Imphal as a staging point for their excursions into Burma during the ** Campaign. They had done it, albeit in reverse – why couldn’t I?

Nope, I’d have to go back downstream to Kalewa, drive three hours to Kalemo, charter a flight to Mandalay, then catch a commercial flight to Yangon, change planes, fly to Bangkok – then turn round and fly three hours to Kolkata to catch another flight east to Imphal, precisely fifty kiloneters from where I’d started.

Then, when you get there, you discover that foreigners are not allowed to stay overnight. I don’t know why. There is some strange stuff they don’t want me to see. Foreigners aren’t encouraged to travel on the roads without police protection in pretty much every direction other than ‘out’. Later.


Of Homalin, I remember virtually nothing. What is there, is hardly the point. That it was there and I was there was enough. We were both a long way from anywhere, about as close to India as you can get without falling in. It’s the journey, not the destination.