We arrive in Hakha on a Friday evening. It’s the capital of Chin state, somewhere above 6000ft, about three hours up the road from, maybe five times the size of, and, at first impression (there seem to be an awful lot of drunk men on the street early doors, even for a Saturday) not as lovely as lovely Falam where we had such a great time – Praise The Lord!
But first impressions can be mis-leading so I resist the temptation to move on too soon maybe by catching Saturday’s lunchtime bus out of town. Which means staying until Monday as there are no buses on the Sabbath in Chin state. I’m fine with that. It will give the place some time to grow on me.
Maybe I’ll go to church. There are plenty to choose from.
Unfortunately by Saturday afternoon the local Immigration officer (who reminds me of someone Jim likes to talk about) is not fine with me staying in Hakha until Monday. He’s not fine that I stayed in Hakha last night and he’s giving the owner of my Guesthouse a very hard time about it. His problem is that my 28 day visa ran out 35 days ago.
I’m overstaying – as I’ve done before. There is so much to see in Myanmar, much more that you are now allowed to see, that 28 days is nowhere near enough and paying $3 a day for the now officially-sanctioned privilege of overstaying is much cheaper than bouncing back and forth to Bangkok for a new visa.
But the official sanction seems not to have reached up as high as Hakha and I spend a small part of the afternoon in the Immigration office. Not that long because my new non-friend throws me out of his office when I object to his moving of the goalposts.
“Tourists are not allowed in Chin State.” Yes they are; since November at least. “Overstaying is not allowed in Chin State.” There was no problem at the Immigration office in Falam, also in Chin State. “Overstaying is not allowed in Hakha.” Oh well, if YOU say so.
He insisted on it to the guesthouse owner who told me that he could not allow me to stay even one more night let alone the two before there is a bus to leave on. He seems genuinely upset about it and I’m conscious of not wanting to make any more trouble for him.
But I will need a place to stay. It’s cold at night here; a bit too cold for camping (not an option anyway as I left my tent in Mandalay for that very reason). The prospect of sleeping on the street does not appeal much but I don’t think it will come to that.
This is Chin State. The Lord will provide. Or so they say. Failing that, the Buddha (there is a monastery on the hill). But more likely the Police.
It says “May I Help You?” outside every police station in Myanmar. Let’s see about that.
Inspired by my experience in Myawaddy last year when I learnt from inter-government-departmental rivalry working to my advantage I head up the hill past the near-abandoned, near derelict stadium that was built for the last National Student Games that were held here in 1998 (and never again anywhere since).
Inside the police station I explain my small problem to the plain-clothed duty officer who listens sympathetically and then calls the Immigration office.
He’s on the line for a good ten minutes saying not much more than “Yes .. Yes .. Yes”. He puts the phone down gently and tells me that I will have to go back to Falam by motorcycle. Three hours on a bad mountain road, when it’s already after 5pm, on the back of a motorbike with my rucksack on my back? Sorry mate, nothing doing.
He’s already woken a more senior officer who was sleeping in the next room. Rubbing his eyes he makes a couple of calls and I’m told to wait a while.
Only now I notice that through the side door I can see the wire and wooden cage that is the cells. Four young men have their faces up against the wire looking at me. I ask if I can sleep in there maybe which draws laughter from a small group of other people sitting quietly on two rows of chairs in the main room.
Ice broken, a uniformed officer amongst them wants to know where I have been in Myanmar. Have I been to Mitkyina, his home town? Sure, I’ve been to Myitsone too. That’s north of Mitkyina where two small rivers meet at ‘the confluence’ to form the source of the Ayerwaddy Myanmar’s great-great river that runs the length of the country watering the farmlands, feeding the people. Without religious overtones it’s a ‘sacred’ place. Having been there never fails to impress (even if I did not know at the time – 2002 – to pick up a pebble as proof).
Where else then? Slowly I start my – long – list of places visited and people start asking about their own home towns, smiling when I have been there, laughing at many of the other places I’ve been, out of the way places they never imagine going themselves. So many places that this simply lucky in time and place of birth tourist, luxuriating in relative wealth and freedom gets to visit but that most Myanmar people will never have the freedom, the money or time to get to themselves. I’m reminded – again – of Jarvis Cocker.*
The first cop is from Mandalay. His boss from Yangon. They are not hicks from Hakha. This is good news.
Ten minutes later I’m taken outside and into another building where two even more senior officers have become involved. One calls the Immigration guy again and comes back with the same story about taking a motorbike to Falam.
The second asks me for my story one more time. I explain that I’ve overstayed before, friends have overstayed recently, it’s not been a problem (except in Shwegu for Rebecca) but it is a problem in Hakha. Were there a bus today or tomorrow I would be happy to take it, to make this problem go away, but since there is not, I cannot.
“There is a bus at 1pm on Monday”, he says.
“Yes. I have already bought a ticket for it.”
That does the trick. One more quick and more emphatically one-sided call is made to Immigration and swiftly a handshake is offered with the first words of all this spoken in English, “OK. You stay guesthouse.”
And with that me and my two new friends from Hakha Police (call 070-21029 should you need them) are on motorbikes and off down the hill to the guesthouse where the owner, my room key in his hand, is all smiles again, “Police no problem. Immigration no problem. Me no problem. You no problem.”
Time for a beer. If there is any left.
A Woof Guide to Hakha may follow.
* ” ’cause everybody hates a tourist. Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh.” Common People. Pulp. Worth remembering on a daily basis.
It cost me a lot of money to fly out to Yangon to take a two week SOAS inspired Burmese language course last May. On days like this, despite my ability still being pretty limited, it pays for itself handsomely. Thanks again John, Justin and Nance. Click here to find out about that course. And here for free learning material.