The twin towns of Moreh and Tamu

The twin towns of Moreh and Tamu

Despite the international border between them, the bazaar towns of Moreh in Manipur and Tamu in Myanmar have historically been connected by the umbilical cord of commerce, both legal and illegal

Abhijit Gupta
November 26 , 2015
11 Min Read

It was exactly noon. For my left foot, that is. As far as my right foot was concerned, it was one in the afternoon. With one foot in the past and one foot in the future, I stood in a tiny immigration booth on the Indo-Myanmar border.

A bored-looking customs official laboriously filled in a chitty. What was my father’s name? How old was I? Was I male or female, he asked in all seriousness. Mumbling the appropriate responses, I handed over a ten-rupee note, as well as my Indian voter identification card. In return I got the chitty, entitling me to visit Myanmar for one day. But I would have to positively return by 4:30, the customs official told me sternly. It was only when I stepped out of the booth and stood with both feet on Myanmarese soil that I realised I had forgotten to ask him whether it would be 4:30 by Indian or Myanmarese time.

The day before, I had taken a flight from Kolkata to Imphal, and then journeyed the following morning for four bumpy hours to the south-eastern corner of Manipur, with two unfamiliar names jingling like coins in my pocket: Moreh and Tamu. Separated by five kilometres and an international border, both towns have historically been connected by the umbilical cord of commerce, both legal and illegal. In recent years however, the two siblings have fared rather differently. Once a flourishing centre of cross-border trade, Moreh has been relegated to a one-horse town, a staging post for travellers bound for the bustling bazaars of Tamu.

And what bazaars! As you step out of the immigration kiosk—officially located at Gate no. 2—the market square of Namphalong town unrolls in front of your eyes like a gaudy carpet. In fact, many of the Burmese, Nepalese and Tamil shopkeepers are selling precisely that—carpets. There are the usual pavement stalls selling everything from football jerseys to plastic forks while the odd peripatetic salesman hawks his wares with the panache of a Sẽnor Oliveira de Figueira of Tintin comics fame. The permanent stalls do a very decent line in footwear as well as electronic goods of all possible descriptions. I am almost tempted by a set of wineglasses selling at the incredible price of Rs 550 for a dozen but decide it would be too much trouble to carry it back. Wimp!

Outside, the sun beats down (though it is January) and the gaudy advertisement boards in praise of Tiger Beer seem more tempting than ever. But it would not do to be lulled into a lotos-like sleep by the afternoon haze of Namphalong town. I make my way to a garage of sorts and mount, via a footstool, a motorized van which will take me to Tamu. There are also horse-drawn buggies whose proprietors assert confidently that three quarters of an hour will take me to my destination. Too long, I decide. Within a few minutes, our conveyance is rattling along the dirt track from Namphalong. Myanmar, here I come.

One of the first things that I see in Myanmar is a cricket match. Cheered on by a hundred-strong crowd, one team takes on another on a school ground. Is there no end to cricket’s expansionist zeal, I wonder. Soon the dirt track widens to become a proper road, government signposts bid you welcome to Myanmar and check-post officials stamp your chitty in a businesslike manner. Residences and shops begin to appear; small children half-heartedly try to flag our conveyance down and ask for money. It appears to be some sort of local festival. My attempts to elicit further information founder on the language barrier.

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Tamu is nothing like Moreh. It is a prosperous suburban town, basking in the warmth of a middle-class well being. The road to the market is lined with restaurants, furniture shops and even the odd jeweller’s. An attempt to buy strawberry wine at a grocery store comes a cropper but the storekeeper proffers a plastic bottle of suspiciously non-alcoholic looking damson wine, which I decline. There is surprisingly little street activity, almost as if the whole town is engaged in taking an afternoon siesta. But I realised my mistake as soon as I stepped into the market complex. The townspeople were not sleeping…they were all at the market.

At first sight, the market at Tamu does not look very different from your average Manipuri market. It is certainly much smaller than the famed Ima Bazaar (mothers’ market) in Imphal, where more than 3,000 women have stalls. But while the Imphal bazaar mainly deals in groceries and locally produced textiles, its Tamu counterpart is awash with ‘foreign’ goods, especially sourced from China and Thailand. Most buyers tend to go for the unbelievably cheap shoes and clothes but the market for white goods is also growing.

But the chief USP of the Tamu market is the ease with which you can cart back loads of dutiable stuff across the border without paying a paisa. According to an Indo-Myanmar trade agreement signed in April 1995, 22 items were allowed as exchangeable goods across the border. But the number of items that are bagged past gate no. 2 every evening far exceeds this modest quota. They eventually find their way to the various markets in Imphal where they are sold at unbeatable prices. For instance, you would find it impossible to pay more than Rs 200 for a pair of shoes in Imphal, however hard you tried. The other kind of commodity that sneaks its way back and forth across the border is opium and its derivatives. Heroin and opiate trafficking is a veritable cottage industry on both sides of the border, and a narcotics control training course was recently held at Moreh under the joint auspices of India and Myanmar.

None of this will be evident to the tourist, who trudges back into Moreh as the light fades over Namphalong market. Moreh (which, for the record, is situated in Chandel district) is exactly two streets long, set at right angles to each other. Almost every third shop is a restaurant or a hotel promising the usual ‘fooding and lodging’, many of them run by the fairly sizable Tamil community which can be found in both Moreh and Tamu. Where did they come from? Again, language proves to be the stumbling block but I manage to gather that many of their forebears set up businesses in Rangoon in the early years of the 20th century, from where they were dispersed in a generally eastern direction.

There is also a smattering of Sikhs in Moreh, with their local gurdwara. At seven in the evening, the gurdwara—dimly resonating with bhajans—seemed to be the only happening place in Moreh. Like any high-altitude town, Moreh dines early and the eateries do not offer much variety in their daily menu. For outsiders, the taste of lai pata—a spinach-like vegetable—will be a novelty, as will be the fried shrimp which is sold as street food. But make sure they are fried in front of you: otherwise you might end up munching half a dozen extremely cold fried shrimp. Tea is more often than not made from condensed milk out of a tin.

Morning sees Moreh explode back into life, with the parking lot near gate no. 2 humming with activity. This is where one buys tickets for a seat on a Tata Sumo taxi leaving for Imphal. It is a four-hour, 110-km journey, with frequent stops at army checkpoints and a tiffin halt at Palel. En route, names like Khudengthabi, Tengnoupal and Khongjom float like early morning mist across your eyes. You lean out of your vehicle, hoping to see little children going to school or the odd woodcutter trudging under his load. You know these are stereotypes, yet you still expect to see them.

Instead, you see the army. All along the road from Imphal to Moreh and back, I saw hundreds of members of the armed forces, grim-faced in their olive and camouflage, walking, patrolling or crouching behind a bush or a stone, their weapons pointed at some invisible adversary. On one occasion, we were stopped at a bend and ordered to reverse for about half a kilometre. Minutes later, we heard gunfire shattering the silence of the hills. We scampered back into our cars, and fled back even further, waiting for the all-clear. It came about a quarter of an hour later, and the caravan of Sumos continued its way towards Moreh, as if nothing had happened. The next morning’s newspaper carried several reports about killings, ambushes and abductions. For a while I tried to figure out which one we might have almost stumbled into, then gave up.

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But I did figure out how I felt about a beautiful land and its people, living under the daily shadow of the gun, watched by the silent sentinels who stood on every street, every shop-front, and every public place. And I knew I would never feel at ease till the laughter of children is the only sound I can hear on the long road from Imphal.

The information

Getting there
By air: Imphal is well-connected with major cities like Kolkata, New Delhi, Guwahati and Dimapur. Air India, Jet Airways and Indigo fly daily, starting from approximately Rs 4,500 one way from Delhi, either via Guwahati or Kolkata.
By rail: The nearest railhead is Dimapur, 215km away. Both the Guwahati Rajdhani and Brahmaputra Mail connect Delhi with Dimapur. Buses ply regularly between Dimapur and Imphal (9 hours).
By road: Taxis and bus leave Imphal for Moreh from the 'Moreh Parking' next to Kangla Park. All taxis leave by 10 in the morning so be there early to get a seat. One can also take a bus but be prepared to spend the entire day on the road.

Staying there
There are quite a few cheap hotels in Moreh but do not expect any mod cons. The slightly better hotels such as Hotel Nilaraj and Hotel Shiv Shankar

Visiting Tamu
Moreh lies 110km southeast of Imphal, in Manipur’s Chandel district. In order to get into Myanmar, you will need a day pass. You have to provide some sort of ID—passport / ration card / voter id—which will be retained till you return and hand back the receipt. The receipt may have to be produced in Myanmar on demand, so don’t lose it. Also, don’t forget to sign the register at the Indian immigration booth while leaving and re-entering Indian soil. The border is open at 7am, so the earlier you go, the more time you can spend in Myanmar. The curfew for returning is 4:30—there can be heavy fines if you don’t return on time. There are shuttle which ply from Namphalong to Tamu.

Getting there
By air: Imphal is well-connected with major cities like Kolkata, New Delhi, Guwahati and Dimapur. Air India, Jet Airways and Indigo fly daily, starting from approximately Rs 4,500 one way from Delhi, either via Guwahati or Kolkata.
By rail: The nearest railhead is Dimapur, 215km away. Both the Guwahati Rajdhani and Brahmaputra Mail connect Delhi with Dimapur. Buses ply regularly between Dimapur and Imphal (9 hours).
By road: Taxis and bus leave Imphal for Moreh from the 'Moreh Parking' next to Kangla Park. All taxis leave by 10 in the morning so be there early to get a seat. One can also take a bus but be prepared to spend the entire day on the road.

Staying there
There are quite a few cheap hotels in Moreh but do not expect any mod cons. The slightly better hotels--such as Hotel Nilaraj and Hotel Shiv Shankar

Visiting Tamu
Moreh lies 110km southeast of Imphal, in Manipur’s Chandel district. In order to get into Myanmar, you will need a day pass. You have to provide some sort of ID—passport / ration card / voter id—which will be retained till you return and hand back the receipt. The receipt may have to be produced in Myanmar on demand, so don’t lose it. Also, don’t forget to sign the register at the Indian immigration booth while leaving and re-entering Indian soil. The border is open at 7: so the earlier you go, the more time you can spend in Myanmar. The curfew for returning is 4:30—there can be heavy fines if you don’t return on time. The shuttle from Namphalong to Tamu is Rs 10 one way.


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