North of Chin State is simply too far to go with 28-day tourist visa when there is so much see elsewhere. Although there are several border crossings to India, none of them are official checkpoints and foreigners are not allowed to enter India.
To go to Tedim and Rih lake in the Northwestern Chin State, you need to allocate at least a week. It’s stunningly beautiful, but the roads are bad, it takes some skills to wind your way up and down the valleys. The drivers were amazing, although I wouldn’t dare to take any of these buses in the rainy season. Even in December, roads kept in shade were muddy and hard to drive through.
Tedim at Christmas
I was lucky to have a friend from Tedim. So when he went home for Christmas I decided to join him. I am glad he said I could, although it did create a bit tense atmosphere at some point (guy bringing a girl home is not so typical in Myanmar unless they are in a serious relationship). We buckled up for a 20h bus drive to Kaley from which we took a mini-bus to Tedim (4+ hours). When we arrived, his family was waiting for us.
Unsurprisingly, I was the only foreigner in Tedim around Christmas and I felt it. While in other parts of Myanmar I received curious looks, smile and some Mingelapar, Tedim was different. I found people here more reserved and while they look at me, it sometimes felt very intimidating. It took some time for them to warm up towards me. When they saw me walking the streets with the locals, smiling, they started to return my smile without looking scared. My Burmese skills were useless here as people spoke to me in English, which is unusual for Myanmar.
Further North: Tonzang small, but cute
We took a motorbike up to Tonzang – the Northernmost township of Chin State. The road turned into gravel and stones after a few kilometres and driving 51 km took us 3 hours.Windy and quite empty road – it was a day before Christmas Day – brought us to Tonzang town and we continue further to the, somehow famous, bridge at Nakzang. The original bridge was taken by flooding in 2015 and the locals used simple diesel-powered cabin to get to the other side. Now they proudly showed us the new bridge and asked us questions curiously, while they were chopping up a pig for Christmas feast.
Tedim region is really quiet on Sundays and religious holidays. Buses don’t run, people go to church, cook in the communities and spend time with their families. When we were driving around the villages, we barely saw anyone on streets. European missionaries replaced the animist religion a while ago and converted the indigenous communities to christianity. As a result of the conversion, many of the artefacts and traditional practices have been lost and purposefully destroyed. I felt there was no real culture at places we visited. There are denominations, I’ve never heard of, some practiced only by one or two families. Churches replace Burma-typical pagodas and one of the first question I heard was ‘Are you Christian?’. I got used to hearing a sad ‘Awww’ after my reply that I don’t have a religion.
Towards India: shitty road to Rih, a heart-shaped lake
By now I thought I’ve seen bad roads, but that was before I went to Rih at the Indian border. It’s a place where time goes backwards an hour as they live in the Indian timezone. There is Indian mobile network coverage and electricity comes from across the border. I was told that at this time of the year the road is good. Well, it wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t good either, I don’t want to know how they manage when it rains. Curves after curves, we slowly climbed up & down the three mountains to reach Rihkawdar, the village where I could cross to India. Unofficially, as it is not the official checkpoint. I think people who would come all the way here should be allowed to continue to India – it’s a sign of their strength, stubbornness and resilience.
All the way, dust was streaming through the bus window and I was nonchalantly closing it every time the driver in front of me spit out his betel saliva. I caught occasional sight of cherry trees in the deep valleys while listening Westlife songs. Mountains here are massive, they are spreading over a huge stretch of land. I think hills in Mindat are more dramatic as they steeply rise from the deep valleys, whereas mountains in the North are more like a carpet of peaky hills.
A small, dusty, unassuming town with one guesthouse, whose the owner is friends with the military, which shouldn’t be that surprising. It takes around 15 minutes to get to Rih, the heart-shaped lake. The lake was pretty, but the hype is bigger than it deserves for such an effort to reach it. Even though this place is so close to India, the only restaurant at the lake served Burmese food. Indians only come here to take pictures and spend time with their girlfriends.
I was frustrated by the illogical pricing mechanism for bus tickets. While it costs 8000 to go from Tedim to Rih, it will cost 15000 to get back. It’s because less traffic on the way back, the locals told me. Negotiating doesn’t work and if I didn’t want to stay stuck in Rih, I had no choice but to go with the flow. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the buses don’t arrive on time in Chin State – I had waited 2 hours in Tedim when my bus finally showed up. I’ve learnt being patient here already.
Alone in the crowd
Back in Tedim, I visited my friend’s family again, bought some coffee they make and spent my afternoon napping alone at the Praying Mountain. Throughout my trip I had felt alone despite the hospitality of people I’ve met. It might have been because I was an alien among these tight Chin communities or just because it was Christmas. I went out of my comfort zone every day I was there. Despite feeling in a spotlight all the time, I did enjoy moments of exploring Tedim early in the morning or with my friend’s mum, who was trying her best for me to fit in, for which I was very grateful.
Getting to Tedim
I do recommend to visit Tedim, if you have time to spare and are ready for a culture shock. Take a bus to Kaley(myo) in Sagaing -> Tat Lit (တက် လစ်း) Express from Yangon leaves at 3 pm everyday, arrives to Kaley next day before lunch. You can get tickets to Tedim at Kaley bus station for 7000 MMK at Chin Taung Tan (ချင်း တောင် တန်း) bus company.