Ask whoever, wherever and they will tend to tell you that you can only get up (and for sure it’s ‘up’) to Nagaland with a guide and on a tour to the Naga festival that’s held each January.
The truth turned out, as is often the case, to be different. We were able to get there without a guide in November.
While it was not without a little ‘local difficulty’, it was also pretty easy and definitely worth the effort.
No-one in Hkamti (we flew from Mandalay) gave us any encouragement to head towards Nagaland.
The woman from whom we rented a (very expensive, 15,000 Kyat a day) motorcycle said that we should not go too far out of town.
The manager of Oasis guesthouse told us not to visit the villages and to be sure to be back to sleep at the guesthouse because the police would be checking.
But on the day we arrived we had crossed the river (by small boat) to the village of Sin Day where a shopkeeper had told us that ‘buses’ (all day) and motorcycle taxis (3 or 4 hours, 30,000 or 50,0000 Kyat) make the trip up to Lahe, fifty-three miles away.
He also said the road is very bad. It is.
We get an early start and to begin with the road looks promising but a few kilometres beyond the village it starts to climb, becoming bad in places and then very bad. This is mainly because like almost all roads in Myanmar it’s under destruction-construction.
Where it was good it’s still good enough but where it was bad before work started it’s either still bad or awful. Between stretches of broken tarmac and loose gravel expect a bit of wet mud and a lot of soft, sandy dust, often on very steep inclines.
This is a good bit of the road. It’s not for the inexperienced biker, we nearly came a cropper and we only just made it into Nagaland. We didn’t see any sign of a ‘bus’.
The road is hilly, shady, chilly and often very beautiful as it winds up and around through the trees, only occasionally allowing glimpses beyond the next bend. After just 12 miles of bumping along we wonder if we have seen enough, if this is all there is to see but we meet two road workers who tell us that the view gets better once you reach 18 miles so we decide to go that far.
At 17 miles there is the small village of Ta Ke Ta where we stop for a coffee provided by a young couple and their big, healthy looking baby. There is a small monastery across the road, classroom sounds coming from within. A youngish monk appears for a chat. He tells us that the village has a population of “forty plus one monk and one teacher equals forty-two ” and he invites us for an early lunch of forest pig and pickled onion salad. He says it’s 12 miles to Nagaland.
The view at 18 miles is as good as promised. We have crossed onto the other side of the hill and can see across the valley, where the road cuts precipitously upwards, to higher valleys and peaks beyond this one in three directions, and down below a river.
The road down to the river is very dusty and feels quite unsafe at times but before too long we round a final bend and see a substantial bridge across which is Nagaland, as least as currently defined. Before and during the British period everything to the west of the Chindwin was considered Naga and many locals still see things that way.
This is Nan Sa Lein.
We’ve seen little traffic along the way, just a few trucks and the odd motorcycle but while we spend time at the bridge half a dozen bikes and a couple more trucks come by in each direction.
We talk with Thomas a Christian Naga who is riding to Hkamti from his village one day further west than Lahe, “near Indian side”. He says the road will get much worse now and higher up there are many dogs.
We try the road for the first kilometre or so but it’s very steep, just dust, not safe and there is no point continuing unless we’re prepared to go all the way to Lahe today and to endure the same road in reverse tomorrow.
We turn around, stop again at the bridge for tea and a chat with the resting road workers and a policeman and his wife and take a paddle in the very cold river before heading back to Hkamti.
Along the way we met a very chatty guy from Mytkina, a second Aung Min Thu, and dropped back down into Sin Day in golden late afternoon light.
On the bike ferry back across to Hkamti the young man straddling the bike next to me reached into his pocket, pulled out and handed to me a warm can of 6.5% Andaman Red beer.
“Present” he said.
We’d been to Nagaland. Sort of. Cheers to that.
I sat on the roof of the boat most of the way from Hakmti to Ta Man Thee. Women are not allowed to sit up there but cops are and the ones I was with were heading for Lay Shee in Nagaland. They said they would be taking a bus from Ta Man Thee.
Sure enough, when we arrived in the afternoon, later than expected after a breakdown that required the removal and repair of the boat’s propeller shaft, three white Mohindra Indian jeep-pick-ups were waiting for people getting off the boat wanting to go up to Lay Shee, whilst other people including the DKNY-capped ‘Chairman of the Naga’ were waiting for the boat having come down from Lay Shee earlier in the day.
The Chairman encouraged us to visit Nagaland and said that we would be welcome there. The next morning we met the jeeps when they arrived to wait for the boat and arranged for a ride (10,000 Kyat) with driver Doner and his bible-school English-speaking number two, eighteen year-old Reinverse (real names).
The boat from Hkamti arrived on time and after a bit of hanging around while a good lunch was enjoyed by those making the onward journey with us, the jeep set off for Lay Shee at 1.30pm. The road, while also under construction and bad in parts, is much better than the one to Lahe, pretty to look at, and the jeep makes reasonably easy work of it, even in the steepest sections.
We stop in a village briefly before making the final ascent to the pass from where we can see up and across the valley to Lay Shee which is at 4,200ft (1290m). It’s an hour before sunset which gives us enough time to drop way down again before climbing high up again, reaching Lay Shee about an hour before dark.
There is a very basic guesthouse but we cannot procure rooms until the owner has the all-clear from immigration. This is not hard to get, once Mr Immigration is roused from his home and returns to his office.
He wants two copies of our passports, one for him and one for the police (which means we have no more as the Hkamti guesthouse needed eight!).
He says it’s fine for us to be in Lay Shee but that we must not go to “the villages”. He hopes to keep our passports as insurance that we will not but accepts a polite ‘er, no’ with good grace and a gappy smile.
The 5,000 Kyat rooms at the guesthouse are very basic indeed. A single bed in a wooden box. A blanket on a woven mat. No mattress. The electricity goes off at 8.45pm. And in the night, in November, it gets pretty cold.
There are a couple of places to eat in the evening, one is directly across from the guesthouse, the other a little down the hill.
The next morning after a very good breakfast at the small tea house fifty metres up the hill on the left (great pokura, no Irn Bru) we set off to explore the hills above the town – and to get a little lost at one point – easily getting up to over 5,500ft (1700m) for some great views of Lay Shee and the neighbouring valleys.
Lay Shee is Nagaland for real. It’s a small town, often in cloud, high up above the countryside it serves. Villages lie at a distance from the town and from each other. Everywhere else seems to be a very long way away, even India which is not really so far away along the road that twists off into the distance.
In town it feels distinctly different from lowland Myanmar, as Chin State does. Like Chin it’s very Christian, though less visibly than in Falam and there is no obvious church. But there is no sign of Buddhism except for a couple of small hilltop pagoda at a distance. It’s pretty clearly pretty poor and, apart from at the time of the Naga festival, not much visited.
Festival time is also the only time you can expect to find people wearing traditional Naga clothes and headdresses. If that’s what you’re looking for, or if you imagine you will find the locals to be a bunch of savage head-hunters, then you are going to be disappointed.
We meet up with some people from Yangon that we met in the guesthouse. They are working on a UNDP pilot project educating Naga villagers about climate change and the importance of trees in preventing it. The idea is that in the future they might even get into carbon trading, but that’s a story for another day.
And then the little local difficulty.
Whilst eating that evening we were told that ‘the Myanmar police’ wanted our passports. We did not give them to the first man sent to get them from us.
The second, after lights-out, was our friend Reinverse with whom we went from the guesthouse into the street, in the dark, to meet them; five young men in blue tracksuits, one of them carrying a machine gun, all of them smelling of plenty of alcohol. None of them having my passport.
We retired swiftly to the guesthouse and stayed put. The manager came with a third request but seemed to accept that in the absence of uniforms and in the presence of guns and alcohol we were not going to hand over our passports, not when we had already provided Mr Immigration with a copy ‘for the police’.
It took a while to get to sleep but that was the last we heard of it that night and early in the morning we left as planned on the 6.30am jeep back down to Ta Man Thee.
We paid 8,000 Kyat on the way down (we could see that that’s what the locals were paying) and arrived in time for a second breakfast, super-discreetly paid for by our new friends from Yangon, and to catch a boat onwards to Homalin.
Brilliant side trip.
Woof Guide : Not getting to Lahe.
We got a bike, after asking around at the pretty good tea shop opposite the Chindwin boat ticket sales office on ‘the strand’, from Tun Ya Da Nar guesthouse. 15,000 Kyat for the day, with rubbish helmets. Petrol is super expensive en route; fill up before you leave, maybe carry a spare bottle.
Head north from downtown and all roads pretty much lead to the northern shore of the river. A bike-carrying ferry runs from down on the beach over to the Sin Day ‘jetty’. It’s 500 Kyat per person and 500 Kyat for the bike.
It took us three and a half hours of riding to reach the bridge and two and a half to come back. We used at least five litres of petrol.
We met no official interested in the journey we were attempting to make or in stopping us trying to make it.
Woof Guide : Getting to Lay Shee.
The jeeps leave Ta Man Thee once the boat from Hkamti has arrived so if there is room you could get up to Lay Shee on the same day and without staying in Ta Man Thee, though that would be a pity as it’s a lovely village and the one guesthouse is pretty good for a basic place. The restaurants at the jetty serve great food.
It seems locals pay 8,000 Kyat each way for an inside seat. If you can put your bag inside another bag you won’t regret it as the road is very dusty.
The jeep will drop you at the guesthouse in Lay Shee. Immigration is a little up hill, take the first turning on the right. It’s on the right. Have plenty of copies of your passport and visa.
The Lay Shee guesthouse will find you a seat in a jeep heading back down to Ta Man Thee so long as you let them know you want one.
We could not find anyone to rent us a motorcycle in Ta Man Thee or Lay Shee.