.. at the time of writing .. March/April 2014.
Falam is in Chin State. It’s 5820 feet above sea level which puts it a mile closer to heaven but which in no way explains the number of Christians living here. That’s down to the American missionaries (Judson and Carson in particular I think) who rolled over the home-grown animists back in the 19th century.
The 15,000 people living here are united in their love of Jesus but divided into thirty-seven different denominations of Christian, Baptists mainly, each with its own church, maybe more than one. In so far as it matters, everyone here is a Christian – there are just a few hundred Buddhist outriders, exactly sixty-seven Gurkha Hindus (the last trace of the British Army’s one-time presence) and a rumoured, but unfound, ‘three or five’ Muslims. They say no atheists. But then they say there are no gays too – and and I’m pretty sure they’re wrong about that.
Top Tip – There is no beer station in Falam but there is wine. Made from grapes! It’s a bit on the sweet side but you soon get used to that. Moses sells it in beer bottles for 2000 Kyat a pop from his shop beneath Holy Guesthouse a couple of doors up from a grubby tea shop.
Places to Stay – there are two options.
1. Moon Guesthouse is the cheaper at 8,000 Kyat but it’s pretty tatty and not very clean. It needs to pull its socks up. It’s east of the town centre; take the first – proper – left going down towards the market and it’s then on your left set back.
2. Holy Guesthouse is clean and friendly and worth the extra that make a it 10,000 Kyat. Right now there is a bit of noise in the daytime as a KBZ bank is being built behind it. Holy is above and behind a row of shops that have Elias written across the top. The entrance is just around the corner. The balcony overlooking the Falam Baptist Church (the biggest Jesus show in town) is a great spot for star-gazing and for waiting for and watching the sunrise.
Places to Eat – as well as small tea shops and cafés dotted about, not all of them grubby, there are a couple of full-size restaurants.
1. Sho Sho Lay opens early for breakfast. The earlier you get there the better as some things run out including the excellent Keema Palata which will more than fill you up for the time of day. They also serve pretty good and cheap Kau Swe and Shan Kau Swe for breakfast. Their tea is excellent. Lunch from 10.30am and dinner until 9pm is Burmese style. I didn’t try it but it looked good and was well recommended. They also sell the wine. It’s the place to get take-away if you’re wanting to get lunch for later.
2. There is an unmarked, maybe named but I did not get it, Chinese style restaurant that has good food at fair prices in a side alley which is the – very – first left off the road going down to the market from the Falam Baptist Church. It’s open from 6am for breakfast (not sure what’s on offer at this time), closing after dinner at 8 or 9pm. It has a balcony with a nice enough view – especially of the town’s – well-used – tennis court.
Buses to Kalay
It’s a great road between Kalay and Falam (five or six hours). I wrote just a bit about it here. LINK. Big buses leave from about 8am and minibuses from about 10am or once they arrive from Hakha. There are a couple of well-marked ticket sellers on the street near to Holy Guesthouse. Prices seem to range up to 7,000 Kyat depending on type of bus. Later on this trip we passed (between Hakha and Gangaw) minibuses heading up hill marked as doing a Mandalay – Hakha – Kalay route. (Maybe these are the same buses and they overnight in Hakha?)
Buses to Hakha
Heading onwards – and upwards – to Hakha is relatively easy going, most of the hard climbing having already been done. Buses (3,000 Kyat), coming up from Kalay, are said to arrive and leave at 11am but it’s likely to be after 12, maybe closer to 1pm. The road condition is pretty poor and the 44 mile journey takes three to four hours passing through and stopping in some very interesting small villages. I skipped the tea stop snacks and chat to walk ahead for a mile or so. It’s really pretty, peaceful countryside with long views, all best appreciated from outside the bus. I wrote a bit about Hakha (and Immigration issues there) here. LINK.
Meeting local people.
You will not have much choice about it. For now at least your presence in Falam is a novelty. Just a trickle of tourists has passed through this first open season and beyond the missionaries, ‘aid organisations’ (I met a UN-marshalled group of donor nations visiting primary healthcare projects) and ‘teachers’ doing their bit for Jesus without mentioning Jesus (it’s a US funding condition, damn that separation of church and state thing) foreign visitors have not been here in any number for a while, if ever. Lots of local people will want to chat and many have excellent English.*
If you want to engage a bit more then you could seek out Gavin, Tasia or Lee who are (see above) teaching English and other classes around town, including at CISS which is about a 15 minute walk from the town centre (going towards Kalay). Joining any one of these classes is a great way to meet local people of all ages and, hopefully, to help them with their learning of the English language and their development of a wider world view through meeting people from all its four corners. Ask for these good and fun people at Sho Sho Lay restaurant; it’s very close to where they are living. CISS is on facebook. Click here.
A Great Walk – this is a day out, not a short walk. Take plenty of water and snacks at least.
Head down past the market and keep on heading downhill until you reach the Agape Orphanage. Take the steps steeply down to the right and then follow the narrow road down (it’s all down for now) for some way (there are a few obvious shortcuts but try not to lose sight of the road) until you reach a large school with a large flat piece of land out front.
At the far side of this piece of flat land there is a path climbing a small hill. Following this path for just a few minutes will take you to a great view point marked with a ‘Welcome to the Holy Land’ sign. It’s a first-class sunbathing/burning spot.
From here head back towards the school, or drop down the side of the hill to rejoin the path leading around to the left of the Holy Land hill which crosses flat land where there has been some stone cutting before dropping down – again – into the welcome shade of the trees.
After a short while you pass a small cemetery which is a good place to rest in peace before following the winding path further down the hill. There are a number of small paths that lead off but stick to the main path and you cannot go wrong. Way down below the houses of a small village come into view. That’s where you are heading and will arrive in half an hour or so.
The village is called Chon The. It’s home to maybe 150 people and four churches, three types of Baptist and one Roman Catholic that has a congregation of two and not a chair between them. It’s a lovely spot for a lunch stop (you did remember to bring lunch?).
Going back up the hill to Falam is going to take a bit longer because, unless you go back the way you came, you are going the longer way around. Take the pretty flat – but falling at first and then rising again – path that swings to the north to sidle around to the next hill where two paths – actually the same path – are easily seen from Chon The.
You have two options follow this one path down to a second village and then turn back as the path climbs back – but above – the way you just went (about twenty minutes each way I was later told) or (as we did, acting on well-intentioned but ill-informed advice) take a small path that zig zags between and connects the two parts of the path. It starts about 200 metres beyond a small bridge. It’s not so easy to spot but it’s the only path that leads up that way so it’s not so hard to spot.
Initially it’s an OKish path which is easy enough to follow most of the way up (at the time of writing it was covered in dead leaves so it was very noisy walking) but higher up its harder to follow and easier to lose especially when covered in long, flat-lying, dry grass. The last 30 metres or so are very tricky walking-scrambling-climbing that is ‘not suitable for the elderly or pregnant’. We only just made it up and we have ‘youth’ on our side. In hindsight I can’t recommend taking this shortcut unless this kind of path is what you are looking for; much better to do the longer walk on the easy path and switchback in the second village, though if the hillside has been burned off by now the shortcut maybe easier to find and follow.
However you end up on it, the decent path heading back up towards Falam is very pretty, has great views across to and over where you have already walked and passes through lovely vegetable gardens and a tiny cluster of eight houses before rising into Falam, emerging right by the two Hindu temples where those sixty-seven Gurkhas worship (Tuesday, 7pm). They are well worth a short visit.
This walk, going via the shortcut, took us 7 hours starting out at 10am. We spent two hours in Chon The and stopped and were stopped many times along the way. It would not take much longer to go the long way around. Either way I think it’s best enjoyed as a full day out.
* It’s the winner language outside South America (and Russia maybe?) You can use it to get by almost everywhere, even in small parts of France. Almost everywhere people seek to learn it. Some still talk up the importance of learning Mandarin or Cantonese but I think – but what do I know? – that unless you are going to China there is not much point in learning either; almost all the Chinese you will ever meet outside China will speak English. I read somewhere that sometime soon there will be more Chinese people who speak – a sort of – English as a second language than there are native English speakers. In the world. Game over. Sorry if that bothers you Monsieur.