Exploration

FROM HERE TO THERE TRAVEL is a travel business set up by Antony Johnson to offer a personalised, accompanied service to small groups of dedicated travellers who want to experience the real thing, either with the person who designed the Itinerary, or on their own.

The relationship between the leader and his charges thus becomes incredibly close, and Antony revels in providing experiences which his clients simply could not find anywhere else, because he has, quite literally, travelled the world, and his preferred areas for his travel groups are South-East Asia, including Burma, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand;  South America, Central America, including Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico,  India,  several Eastern European countries, including Poland, Romania, Georgia, and Ukraine, and Turkey and Sicily.

A journey to this wide and sometimes wild section of the world needs a deal of planning all of which pays off a hundredfold if it is to be successful.  So, let us first consider some of the historical background.

The present day Burma – now called Myanmar but for the purpose of this narrative I shall use the old country and place names – is a very beautiful and lovely country to visit notwithstanding the political problems that have beset it for many years.  The people are charming, friendly, so willing to please and, in the main, devoutly Buddhist.  More recently, and thanks largely due to the influence exerted by Aung San Suu Kyl on the world’s leaders and downwards through the media, the country has opened up more freely to tourism with numbers of visitors rising from around 800,000 in 2010 to over 2.5million now.  But the Burma of today is a much smaller country than it was a couple of hundred years ago; then significant parts of present day India, including Assam and Manipur were Burmese.  So what happened? British-East-India-Company In those days, India particularly Eastern India was virtually controlled by the British East India Company with its headquarters in Leadenhall Street in the city of London.  It seems extraordinary nowadays that a commercial company could have had such control over a foreign country but it was so.  The BEIC had its own private army and had even secured, from the British Government, a total monopoly on all goods exported from India to Britain.  In the early part of the 19th century the BEIC, from it’s base in Calcutta, was becoming irritated with the Burmese on two counts: first they were showing active aggression westwards from Assam and Manipur and second, they were becoming far too pally with the French who had considerable interests in SE Asia.  The net result was the First Anglo-Burmese War of 1824-26 which ended in a decisive victory for the British but at huge cost and loss of life: 15,000 British and Indian troops were killed with an unknown number of Burmese casualties at a cost of £950milion in today’s terms which stretched  BEIC funds to the limit.  The treaty signed at Yandabo, a small village on the banks on the river Irrawaddy between Mandalay and Bagan, gave the British Assam, Manipur, Cachar,  Jaintia and Arakan plus Tenasserim, a separate state south east of Rangoon.  A fine of £1,000,000 was levied on the Burmese Government. The rumblings of war had started when the Burmese C in C,  Maha Bandula, on the lookout for any offensive possibilities, occupied an island off the coast of Chittagong and then sent a senior general up into Cachar and Jaintia, to the west of Manipur.  The British, also looking to expand their existing territories, retaliated but to begin with found it pretty hard going because Bandula himself had joined and reinforced his troops and was used to the terrain; for a while both Chittagong and Calcutta were threatened.   In a highly tactical manoeuvre  and not without high risk the British under General Archibald Campbell, launched a counter attack by swiftly moving a naval force of 10,000 men to attack and take Rangoon.  Bandula was then ordered by King Bagidaw to withdraw from all points on the western front and over the Arakan Hills, in order to confront the British coming up from Rangoon.  Although numerically superior, they were no match for the far better armed and equipped British force and were heavily defeated and retreated to Danubyu.  On April 1st 1825 a strong British artillery attack on Danubyu was successful and Bandula was killed.  In the meantime British forces under General Morrison attacked and defeated the Burmese in the Arakan Hills and an armistice was declared in September 1825.  Initially the Burmese would not accept the terms and threw a final last ditch desperate effort in the Battle of Prome (now Pye) against General Campbell who had the support of a flotilla of gun boats on the Irrawaddy and 4,000 troops.  It was a disaster for the Burmese with their last top general Maha Ne Myo being killed.  The war was over and the treaty signed further north upstream on the Irrawaddy at Yandabo.

The second Anglo-Burmese war was a much lower level affair from April to December 1852 and was confined to the area round Rangoon.  The excuse, for want of a better word, involved alleged discrepancies by the Burmese to the terms of the Treaty of Yandabo but there was also much political infighting between Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of India and the various military and naval commanders in Burma.  The main action took place when the port of Martaban was taken in early April and Rangoon a week later. It was considered inappropriate to pursue the attack to the then capital of Ava (close to Mandalay) so apart from the annexing of the state of Pegu, the war ended without a treaty having been signed although there was a serious disagreement between two Burmese factions which resulted in King Pagan being overthrown by his half-brother who became King Mindon.

Before discussing the third and final Anglo-Burmese war, it is necessary to bring into play the Indian Rebellion or Mutiny as it is better known, of 1857 again during the time when Lord Dalhousie was Governor General.  The BEIC army consisting of 50,000 British troops and 300,000 sepoys was divided into three centres Bombay, Madras and Bengal.  Much of the agitation arose because of the differing policies of the respective centres in recruiting various castes of sepoys.  The ‘caste’ system in India was much more stringent and defined than our ‘class’ system in England and there was resentment over differing castes having the same military authority.  Similar resentment was experienced between Muslims and Hindus of the same rank.  Matters came to a head in May 1857 when an Indian soldier attacked and wounded a British sergeant and an officer in Barrackpore, just north of Calcutta.  The soldier and another who had refused to arrest him were swiftly hung for treachery but the resulting mutiny spread very quickly and reached Delhi where the Mughal Emperor, Bahadur Shah, agreed reluctantly to lead the rebellion which extended into northern India and to which other notable Indian royal families joined.  After a bit of a slow start the British brought in reinforcements including regiments that had just concluded hostilities in the Crimea and between July and August, amid fierce fighting in Delhi, Kanpur, Lucknow and Gwalior the rebellion was quelled with Bahadur Shah being exiled to Rangoon where he died; thus ended the Maghul dynasty which had lasted for 400 years.  Of great significance, however, it also ended the right of the British East India Company to rule India.  Queen Victoria became Empress of India with the Viceroy ruling India for her as a member of the British Empire.

The third Anglo- Burmese war was also short-lived, taking place in 1885 but with some localised fighting spreading as long as 1887.   The main causes of this war were twofold: one being the result of a succession crisis in the Burmese royal family and the second being the interference of our old antagonists, the French.  French involvement in Indochina wars in the 1880s had brought them to the Burmese borders and a Burmese delegation was sent to France for negotiations with the French Foreign Minister, Jules Ferry.  At the same time a boundary dispute arose on the Indian/Burmese border but when the French consul opened an office and actually moved into Mandalay to establish a French bank and concessions to build a railway and other important construction projects, this was too much.  Immediate intense diplomatic pressure ensured that the French consul, M. Hass, was sent packing but with the threat of the Burmese delegation in Paris and a case in the Burmese courts against a British company, an ultimatum was declared to Burma that a new British resident in Mandalay would be appointed to control Burmese foreign and commercial affairs.  This would, de facto, end Burmese independence and in early November the ultimatum was refused.  While all this was going on, the Burmese had problems of their own in that King Thibaw who King-Thibawhad succeeded his father King Mindon, referred to above, on his death in 1878, was a corrupt and weak individual completely under the control of his evil and ruthless wife, Queen Supayalat.  She was the daughter of King Mindon’s widow and therefore a half sister to Thibaw to whom she was married.  In order to secure Thibaw’s succession to the throne, she caused to be murdered 80 to 100 relatives who might have had any claims to the throne, by such methods as having children seized and dashed against a wall until they were dead.  Others were buried or burnt alive and killed by other inhumane methods.  She was, apparently, very beautiful and petite with piercing steely eyes, the she-devil incarnate.

Within a few days of receiving King Thibaw’s refusal of the ultimatum, the British combined military and naval force of 3,000 British troops and 6,000 sepoys assembled at Thayetmyo, the then northern border of British occupied Burma about 275 miles north of Rangoon and on the river Irrawaddy.  They used ships and barges belonging to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (a Scottish company later, in the 1920s and 1930s, to become the largest privately owned shipping company in the world) to proceed upstream encountering some resistance at Minhla which was successfully put down and a few other places before completely surprising the King’s forces by the speed of their advance.  Some historians have advanced the theory that the defence was very half hearted on the instruction of Thibaw’s defence minister who was anxious for the King to be deposed and sent into exile.  Be that as it may, that is what happened.  Britain then completed the entire annexation of the country and King Thibaw was the last king of Burma.

Traditionally and culturally Burma was governed from the central areas, Amarapura, Ava, Sagaing and Mandalay with the Irrawaddy being the trading and communication lifeline.  Rangoon was considered inferior socially and morally; the intermarriage between mixed races saw to that.  But as the world changed so did Rangoon.  The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 was a contributory factor; 102 miles long and taking 10 years to construct, it shortened the distance between, say, England to South East Asia by 4,300 miles.  The importance of places like Penang and Rangoon grew so that they became ‘hubs’. The Industrial Revolution was well under way.  Commerce and trade was increasing and people were travelling more.  It was also the Victorian era; there was money around.  In Rangoon and other places it was the Shwedagon-Pagodastart of their golden time.  There had always been impressive Burmese buildings in Rangoon, none more so than the Shwedagon Pagoda, the first to be built on the site being in the 6th century BC, but now Victorian architecture was beginning to be seen, a good example of this being the opulent and state of the art Strand Hotel built in 1895 complete with ornamental Strand-Hotelgardens stretching down to the water’s edge and the dockyard conveniently located about a mile away to the right.  In 1885 Rangoon became the capital of Burma and with increasing population was known as the Garden City of the East with infrastructure including services, hospitals and a university being comparable with London at the time.  Clubs sprang up, segregated for whites in the upper echelons and colonial style life was rife with heroes and villains playing their parts.

 

Let us now by pass Burma in peacetime and move on to the outbreak of the second world war and the invasion of Burma by the Japanese in 1942.  At that time we (the British) had two defence forces in Burma, one in Shan State to the east of Mandalay and the other, under General Wavell, in the Rangoon area where any attack was considered most likely to come from.  This proved to be correct but from an unexpected source: in mid December 1941 Japan signed an alliance with Thailand thus opening up the southern Burma/Thai border to attack.  This the Japanese did in mid January 1942 via Kawkareik forcing the British back to Moulmein then Pegu and eventually after bitter fighting, across the Sittang river and to Rangoon which finally fell in early March.  At this time there was a series of changes in command with Wavell being called back to India and General Alexander replacing him in southern Burma. The fighting continued but by the beginning of May and after having evacuated Prome and Magwe, Alexander ordered the retreat into India which was made under intolerable conditions during the monsoon, a distance of 1,000 miles from Rangoon.

In the north the Burma Corps under General (later Field Marshall Viscount) William Slim fared little better and were forced to retreat from Shan State towards India reaching Imphal in May 1942. In April the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company committed what was described as an Act of Denial; they scuppered all their ships plying on the river in order to stop the Japanese commandeering them and using them to transport their own troops. Also the British retreating forces blew up the 3 centre spans of 10 of the Ava Bridge over the river.  This bridge, the only one spanning the Irrawaddy, was constructed by British engineers in 1934 and not repaired until 1954.

Now enter the Chindits formed by the controversial Brigadier Orde Wingate who having observed that the Japanese were far more successful than the Allies at jungle warfare in terrain previously regarded as impenetrable, bent the ear of others including Winston Churchill to train a retaliatory force.  Training took place in Jhansi in the summer of 1942 with men enlisted half from British troops with the other half from Gurkhas and Burmese.  Many changes in plan were made along the way but in February 1943 Wavell, now army Commander in Chief in India, ordered the first Chindit offensive into Burma.  In July of that year Wavell was appointed Viceroy of India with the title of Earl Wavell his successor as C-in-C being General Sir Claude Auchinleck under the supreme commander of all forces Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, subsequently the last Viceroy of India who oversaw the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

Although they inflicted a series of disruptions and lines of communication cuts on the Japanese, the Chindits suffered a high number of casualties and by the end of 3 months most of the survivors were back in India.  Learning from this operation Wingate laid plans for a reformed Chindit operation but it was not until February 1944 that General William Slim, by now Commander of the 14th Army, ordered Wingate and the Chindits into Burma with the objective of helping US General Joe Stilwell in the area of Myitkyina and to inflict as much damage as possible on the Japanese.  Three centres were chosen with codenames of Piccadilly, Broadway and Chowinghee and it was here that some of the most ferocious close hand to hand fighting of the war took place.  Among the Chindit officers on the ground was Col. John Masters, later a well known novelist on mainly Indian themes. Orde Wingate was killed in an air crash near Imphal on 24th April 1944 and his successor, Brigadier Lentaigne, appointed Masters commander of 111 Brigade operating at another centre codenamed Blackpool.  John  Masters wrote a telling and vivid account of the fighting called The Road Past Mandalay. General Sir Michael Rose, the former United Nations commander in Bosnia, is John Masters’ stepson.  By the end of July the Chindits were withdrawn having lost 1,500 killed over 2,400 wounded most of the survivors being exhausted, starving and wracked with disease.

Let us now concentrate on the Central Front but first, to the north the town and airfield of Myitkyina had been captured from the Japanese, the first major success of the campaign.  To the centre, at Imphal, intelligence had suggested that a strong Japanese offensive was being planned.  The Japanese plan was to advance across the river Chindwin into India at Tamu to split the Allied troops between Kohima and Imphal before advancing further by taking Imphal and then the railhead town of Dimapur.  Slim ordered his forward troops to withdraw to Imphal which they succeeded in so doing but even so the town was cut off and besieged by the Japanese 15th Division.  The Japanese 31st Division consisting of 20,000 men under the command of General Kotoku Sato advancing from Tamu, instead of pressing on to Dimapur decided to attack and capture the hill town and garrison of Kohima.  The battle started on 4th April and lasted, in 3 phases, until 22nd June.  Some of the very fiercest hand to hand fighting in the first phase from 3rd to 16th April was on and around Garrison Hill, a very small area onThe-Tennis-Court a hillside facing north to south on which was located the Deputy Commissioner, Charles Pawsey’s, bungalow, garden and tennis court and a Clubhouse.  Hence the name given to the battle of, ‘Battle of the Tennis Court’.  The opposing armies were dug in so close that they were within grenade throwing distance and much of the area was taken and retaken more than once.  While this first phase was going on the 5th Indian Division had scored a victory in Arakan and Slim succeeded in moving the entire Division lock stock and barrel by air in 11 days.  Two brigades were sent to Imphal and one to Dimapur from where a detachment was diverted to Kohima where it arrived on 18th April.  The second phase of the battle from 18th April to 13th May saw continued heavy fighting at the end of which the Japanese had been driven off Kohima Ridge.  The third phase from 16th May to 22nd June consisted of the retreating Japanese being pursued along the Kohima – Imphal road, their ultimate defeat and the siege of Imphal being relieved.

There is no doubt that this huge defeat of the Japanese marked the turning point of the war in South East Asia.  The Japanese lost 55,000 casualties, killed, wounded or dead of disease or malnutrition.  Allied casualties were 17,500. The Japanese had succeeded in crossing the high mountain range – the southern extension of the Himalayas – with sheer sided mountains covered in heavy jungle interspersed with narrow and deep ravines with fast flowing rivers.  Had they achieved their goal of reaching Dimapur the world would be very different to what it is today.

The last phase of the Burma Campaign began in late 1944, the monsoon season having lasted longer than normal.  The Allies pursued the retreating Japanese from all fronts: the north with the combined American and Chinese forces capturing Bhamo in mid December, in the south with Akyab (now Sittwe) being taken at the end of December with further advances across the Myebon peninsula and the Arakan coast.  To the centre Slim’s 14th Army made the main thrust crossing the Chindwin and into the Shwebo Plain.  The important town of Meiktila was taken on 4th March with very heavy Japanese casualties after which it was full steam ahead for Mandalay, the Japanese mainRoyal-Palace stronghold and a town, at that time with a civilian population of 30,000.  After heavy fighting the main parts of the town were taken except for Mandalay Hill and the old Royal Palace site, renamed Fort Dufferin.  Both finally succumbed by the middle of March but all the palace compound buildings were razed to the ground during the battle; on the hill which fell to the Prince of Wales’ 4th Gurkha Rifles during night assaults on the 8th and 9th March, the Japanese had constructed a maze of tunnels in which they hid but were flushed out by rolling 40 gallon fuel drums into the mouths of the tunnels and firing tracer bullets after them.

The race was then on for Rangoon.  For all logistical reasons it was necessary for victory to be accomplished before the onset of the monsoon.  This was not easy and was no push over; the Japanese defended ferociously and in many cases to the last man at several points along the way but eventually the city was evacuated by the end of April and the Burma campaign was won.

I first visited Burma in the mid nineties and fell in love with this lovely country and its charming and so friendly people, so much that I have been back a number of times since.  This latest trip, after a gap of quite a few years, showed up a number of changes only a few of which are to any detriment to the country and which are counterbalanced by the improvement in prosperity generally. Rangoon, for instance, since the lifting of restrictions of imports and the easing of many freedom controls, is a thoroughly cosmopolitan city in which the infrastructure has not kept pace with commercial expansion resulting in major traffic congestion. But the old Victorian architecture and lifestyle can still be found and the truly magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda complex is more than worth coming to Rangoon even if one saw nothing else.  The original pagoda on the same site was erected around 250BC but huge alterations were made in the 14th century and again in the 18th century.  It is a monumentally impressive building in every way clad in 60 tons of gold leaf with the pinnacle stretching upwards 326 feet to a point on which a 76 carat diamond is placed.  There are now several good hotels, my personal favourite being the rather inappropriately named The Governor’s Residence situated in a quiet area in the diplomatic quarter.

It is now possible to fly into Burma from Bangkok directly to Mandalay and as this narrative has a WW2 slant, we will skip the quite amazing stupas, temples and pagodas of Bagan and move directly to Mandalay, the very name of which brings back Kipling’s poem:

On the Road to Mandalay,

    Where the old flotilla lay….

The ‘old flotilla’ being a reference to the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company discussed earlier.  Kipling, it is alleged, never actually went to Mandalay but don’t let’s worry about that. In the days when the capital city of the country changed frequently at the whim of the King, Mandalay was only the capital of Burma for 28 years from 1857 to 1885 when the last King, Thibaw, was exiled and the capital moved to Rangoon but the importance of the city from commercial and historical points of view remains.  The majestic River Irrawaddy, still the transport lifeline of the country, flows alongside the city with ships landing and taking on board goods of all descriptions as well as passengers, local and tourist, at the quayside in the heart of the city. Curiously the standard of hotel accommodation in Mandalay has never, in the past, been very good but this is one of the changes to the good that has taken place in the last couple of years or so.  On this trip we stayed in a new and good hotel called the Rupar Mandalar; not large only about 30 big, comfortable and airy rooms, lovely big swimming pool and pleasant semi open air eating areas.  Food not brilliant but perfectly adequate with friendly and helpful staff.  The centre of Mandalay is dominated by the old Royal Palace site square, each side being 2,500 yards long surrounded by a high wall on the outside of which is a deep moat, 40 yards across, dug round the whole complex.  The site housed the entire royal family plus entourage of hundreds and the heads of government with their staff, domestic as well as clerical.  The hierarchy was very strictly observed with access to designated buildings and areas clearly defined as one went up the ladder to the King.  Even his Queens’ apartments were in order of the king’s preference at any given time.  In many ways a comparison can be drawn with the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the home of the Sultans for 400 years of the Ottoman Empire.  As has been already described the whole site was completely destroyed during the Japanese occupation in WW2 but recently some of the more important buildings on the site have been rebuilt as copies of the originals, which does bring back a good idea of how it must have been.

Now really a suburb of Mandalay, the town of Amarapura also served for a period before Mandalay as the capital.  More rural with a strong Kaung-Mu-Taw-Pagodacottage industry of pottery, it is also the site of a magnificent pagoda called Kaung Mu Taw built in 1636 and significant for its huge humpty dumpty shape entrance bowl and dome with a 24 foot huge Buddha statue carved out of solid white marble .  Well worth a visit particularly if on the way to Ava (yet another former capital) and from where the famous Ava Bridge crosses the Irrawaddy.  For a very long time this was the only bridge over the river which took foot, motor and rail traffic.  This was the bridge described earlier which was blown up by the Allies in WW2 and not repaired until 1954.  Nowadays there is a more modern bridge only a few hundred yards along the river.  Crossing the bridge leads to Sagaing Hill, one of the two conical hills looking down on Mandalay – the other being Mandalay Hill of which more later.

Sagaing Hill has strong religious significance with many stupas and pagodas dotted all over the hillside, the central one being Soon U Ponya Shin with a covered staircase running 240 yards up the hill.  It is all very beautiful.  Totally different is the Bagaya Monastery approached on a long tail ferry for 5 minutes to an island and then by pony and trap for a good 25 minutes to a mysterious and secluded monastery, not all that old being built in 1826 entirely of teak; huge solid circular teak columns rise to the roof with one main room or hall with several smaller anterooms leading off.  It’s all rather dark and forbidding and not the sort of place one may want to spend the night.

Mahamuni-Buddah

In terms of ‘must sees’ in central Mandalay, the Mahamuni Pagoda stands out.  Built by King Bodawpaya in 1784 it houses the giant Mahamuni Buddha image allegedly looted from Arakan and brought to Mandalay – an incredible feat in itself.  It has huge religious importance and, even now, the image’s face is washed and teeth cleaned at 4.30 a.m. every day.  Parts of the body are somewhat distorted by the faithful applying layer upon layer of gold leaf.  Speaking of which, an employment for strong young men at a nearby establishment is to stand for ½ hour shifts with a large hammer beating small particles of gold into wafer thin gold leaf approximately 2 inches square.  Not far away is the aforementioned old Royal Palace site and, now that it has been partially restored, should definitely be visited to give an idea of the splendour and indeed isolation enjoyed by the Court.

 

Shenandaw-Monastery

 

 

 

 

Nearby, too, is the beautifully carved wooden Shwenandaw Monastery now occupying its third location having been completely dismantled first from Amarapura to the Royal Palace in Mandalay and thence to its present location in 1880.  It is where King Mindon died which is maybe why his successor, King Thibaw, move it to where it is now.

Mingun

 

 

 

 

 

 

For something entirely different and for which a full half day should be allowed, take a long tail boat for about one hour up river to Mingun.  Here King Bodawpaya, he who built the Mahamuni pagoda, set about constructing what would have been the largest buildings in the world at that time.  He must have been more than a little mad, very full of his own importance or both for the Mingun Pagoda, as it was named, was never, after the deaths of three architects, countless construction workers and he himself over a period of 25 years from 1790, completed.  By tradition, when a Burmese King died, any work in progress started in his lifetime but not finished was never completed so, at Mingun this vast pile of bricks lies.  It is however quite awe inspiring not helped, it has to be said, by the effects of a gigantic earthquake in 1838 which rent the building asunder.  It is quite possible, although not recommended by the guides, to climb to the top from where the most fabulous view of the river and surrounding countryside is obtained.

Very close by and mounted on a block is the largest unflawed bell in the world, 14 times bigger than the bell of St Paul’s and weighing 90 tons.  Finally, in Mandalay, to Mandalay Hill described previously.  Guarded by two enormous sculptured lions at the entrance, it is easy to Mandalay-monument-1get to by a steep road with the last section being completed by means of an escalator and lift; the views from the summit are stupendous.  However the actual summit has been, in my view, spoiled by garish and tourist orientated buildings together with plaques naming individual financial donors to the site.  There is also a rather inconspicuous plaque memorising the capture of the hill by the Gurkhas in March 1944.  Having said all that Mandalay Hill does have enormous religious significance going back many hundreds of years and is not to missed.

We’ll now leave Mandalay and proceed on the next leg of the journey, a short flight north west to Kalaymyo, a rather scruffy town with little to recommend it other than it has a small airport.  A night in a guest house commensurate with the surroundings was also unremarkable but we left at 8 o’clock the next morning in two, four by fours with the spirit of adventure in our minds for this was unknown country and very much off the tourist trail.  We headed northwards through, to begin with, rather poor and quite flat countryside and through drab villages but as time went on we started to climb passing over the first of what ran into hundreds of old army bailey bridges over dried up water courses.  The land became gradually greener and more lush and the villages more prosperous and affluent. The bridges took on a more important role spanning deeper clefts, a few of which actually had water flowing at the bottom.  Much vegetable, fruit – mango, paw-paw and bananas – arable crops and, of course, rice cultivation became evident with correspondingly more modern agricultural machinery.  We were in the foothills of the Arakan Hills which merge with the Naga Hills further north and have a high point of around 10,000 feet. All the time we were getting closer and closer to the Indian border, crossing the Chindwin River and arriving at the border town of Tamu after about 3 hours driving.  The border crossing from Tamu (Burma) to Moreh (India) is a legitimate but laborious process; it has been open for a number of years but is more used by locals than overseas visitors.  Permits have to be obtained and a multitude of forms asking the same details have to be completed, given to various officials and copied by hand into exercise books before passports are examined and the process repeated in front of another official. In all it took about 2½ hours coupled with the vehicles not being allowed one inch into India until the corresponding Indian vehicles had arrived and the manual transfer of luggage made.  An interesting little interlude at a roadside café where we stopped for lunch in Moreh: we asked for a bottle of beer and some lemonade.  Both appeared but it wasn’t until we were well stuck into both of them that we noticed that the beer was 12½% proof and the ‘lemonade’ 33% !

On the Indian side coming down from the Arakan Hills the terrain was very different. The road hugged the contours of steep hills covered by an abundance of trees and deep jungle before levelling down onto a wide plain  There were also several pretty serious check points manned by armed guards with much scanning of documents, checking the interior of the cars and more forms to be completed.    Four hours after leaving the border we arrived in Imphal with a population of around ¼ million and the capital of the state of Manipur.  If it wasn’t for the military and historical significance for us (British), I wouldn’t suggest a special visit to Imphal but because of that significance there is much to see General-Slim-bungalow-1for a couple of days.  Close to the town centre lies the Kangla Fort or Palace, once the home of the ancient kings of Manipur but developed into a strong fortress to repel frequent attacks from the Burmese who, at various times annexed Manipur into Burma.  In more recent times this very large complex was the HQ of the Assam Rifles and in 1944 it became General Slim’s HQ, his residence inside the Fort still being called Slim Cottage.

Commonwealth-War-Graves-1Not far away is the Commonwealth War Graves cemetery, as everywhere beautifully maintained and cared for.  Here laid out in military precision are named headstones of 1,600 soldiers and airmen who lost their lives in the battle and siege of Imphal in 1944 from the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, India, West Africa and Burma.  Manipur, particularly Imphal, is known to be where polo was introduced to Europe, mainly Britain, and the world’s oldest still operating polo ground is very near the Kangla Fort.  Manipur is a ‘dry’ state but with a flourishing black market proving that supplies are readily available; accommodation in Imphal is moderate but there are a couple of hotels that are best described as adequate.

We were, however, very lucky to witness a special performance by the Centre for Youth and Cultural Activities (CYCA) of traditional dance, martial arts, drumming and highly specialised juggling performed in a local theatre.  It was with some scepticism that we went but as the performance was arranged specifically for us there was no alternative.  It turned out to be quite brilliant, very special indeed and world class performed by very talented and physically fit young men and women.  The incredibly realistic martial arts section featured 2 young men stripped to the waist with absolutely no protection at all, fighting, as it were to the death with machete type swords in a theatrically lit sequence so realistic that sparks could be seen flashing from the swords as they clashed.  It was good enough for the Cirque du Soleil.

Martial-Arts

About an hour’s drive south of Imphal is the huge Lake Loktak with a surface area of over 100 square miles fed by many rivers including the Barak.  It is frequented by many species of migratory birds and the shores are inhabited by a wide variety of animals including sambhars and Indian python.  Fishing is a major occupation and source of food yielding 1,500 tons of fish per year. Many fishermen live on floating islands of reeds, coming on shore every 2 days or so to sell their catch.  We took a boat to see some of these islands and the fisher families’ way of life.  On the western shore of the lake is the town of Moirang which, during WW2, was the HQ of Subhas Chandra Bose, head of the Indian National Army which fought alongside the Japanese.  Villain he may be to us but to many Indians he was a hero and is still revered in some parts to this day.

The next part of our journey was the drive from Imphal to Kohima along the same road in reverse fought along by Commonwealth troops after Kohimahaving defended Kohima and on the way to relieve Imphal in 1944. This was a fascinating section of the trip climbing all the way – Imphal is about 2,500 feet and Kohima double that – and from some old photographs seen, the road is not too much different now from what it was then, twisting and turning up firstly through jungle gradually changing to thickly forested pine trees and it soon became clear how vital it was to keep and hold this road.  The journey took about 3½ to 4 hours.  We were now in Nagaland proper and Kohima is the capital of Nagaland. Like pretty well all towns in the region, Kohima is built on the side of a series of steep hills.  Nothing is on the flat in Nagaland.  Nagaland is officially an Indian State but the Nagas are a fiercely independent nation consisting of 16 separate tribes which, until comparative recently, regarded each other with extreme hostility except when other countries tried to interfere with them as a nation.   There are Nagas everywhere, in large numbers in Burma and India but also in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and so on.  After the partition of India in 1947 and following abortive negotiations, Nehru sent an Indian Army of 100,000 strong into Nagaland to quell the locals at all costs. There followed years of intense persecution of the Nagas with unspeakable torture, rape and pillage to the people performed by Indian soldiers and particularly the Assam Rifles so vividly described by Jonathan Glancey in his book, Nagaland.   Now, on the surface anyway, all seems calm and we were treated with nothing other than friendliness by the locals but there are undercurrents which sometimes do overboil and create periods of uncertainty.  It is advisable to make enquiries from reliable sources before committing to going to the more remote places.  Because of its topography, Kohima has not adapted well to modern transport; traffic jams are the norm most of the working day but it is a most appealing place to visit for those with an active imagination.  Accommodation, it has to be said, is not great and we rejected the first hotel where we had been booked but our local guide took us to another, more modern and quite acceptable hotel.  It turned out that the first one was government owned so, perhaps, no wonder!

The main reason for our visit to Kohima was to go to the main WW2 battle area and to the War Graves Cemetery.  What I did not realise was that they were in one and the same place and a pretty small one at that.  It is almost unbelievable that much of the action described earlier in this piece could have taken place for so long in such a contained area.  What is more, the headstones of so many that fell in this tumultuous battle are within a stone’s throw of where they died, on this sloping hill; one thousand, four hundred and twenty of them.

Kohima-War-Greaves-&-The-Tennis-Court-Memorial The whole area has been beautifully landscaped – we were lucky enough to meet the Naga head gardener who kindly and proudly took us to many of the marked headstones including that of L/Cpl John Harman VC (posthumous) who singlehandedly took out two separate Japanese machine gun posts killing all the occupants before being mortally wounded as he made his way back.  The tennis court is still there, the court being marked out with raised white lines.  The simple granite memorial with its famous inscription, WHEN YOU GO HOME TELL THEM OF US AND SAY FOR YOUR TOMORROW WE GAVE OUR TODAY is at the bottom of the hill.  Of all the poignant War Cemeteries seen in different parts of the world, the memory of this one will never leave me.

Kohima is, as mentioned, the capital of Nagaland and it is also the home of one the largest tribes, the Angami.  Traditionally warriors they were one of the earlier tribes to adopt Christianity in large numbers in the late 19th century. Now, approximately 98% of the 200,000 Angamis are Christian and are probably among the most cultured and forward thinking of the tribes.  Close to Kohima is a specially constructed Naga Village showing examples of the differing house construction, lifestyle, agricultural products, traditional dress and social activities of the tribes.  It’s all a bit contrived but, if venturing no further, is interesting to see.  Of great interest, however, is a very well laid out and informative WW2 Museum next door.  Mainly pictorial, it graphically shows a day to day summary of the battle of Kohima with detailed quotations from military commanders of both sides- the Allies and the Japanese – and should definitely be visited.

Touphema-village-hut

 

 

 

 

Kohima is probably the last post for most visitors to Nagaland but is very far from the end of the story.  Our next stop was the charming hilltop village of Touphema.  The road en route became rougher, the villages farther apart and more isolated and the scenery even more dramatic.  Important villages, of which Touphema is one, were built and fortified by stockades on hilltops as good lookout points to spot any potential enemy and to defend the village in the event of an attack.  Our accommodation in a guest house consisted of separate wooden chalet type structures, pretty basic but with a bed, table and chair, loo, basin and shower of sorts.  Hot water and electricity a bit spasmodic but everyone friendly and eager to please.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Touphema-village-hut2

 

In the evening a team of ladies from the village, traditionally dressed in brightly coloured heavy skirts and shawls, gave a demonstration of spinning cotton onto a spindle from a fleece while happily chanting songs as they did so sitting in a circle in candlelight with further flickering light coming from a log fire.  They were accompanied by a vertically held single string instrument played by one of the team. They were so cheerful and encouraged us to pose with them for photographs at the end of their performance.  This was followed by a dinner of rice, chicken, vegetables and a selection of ginger, garlic and chilli spices.

 

 

 

 

 

ItGroup-at-Touphema was just warm enough, early the next morning, to watch the sun come up over the mountain and to have breakfast outside but under a wooden shelter looking at the near 360 degree view. The varying hues from dark blue to different reds and pinks to milky white and then progressively turning darker again caused by the ever changing angle of the sun onto the mountain sides was wonderful to watch during the long car journeys across seemingly never ending ranges of mountains. The day after leaving Touphema was one of them.

Road-from-Touphema

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bridge-on-the-road-from-Touphema

With no warning the tarmac on the road, patchy at the best of times, abruptly ceased altogether and from then on it was gravel or just rough hardcore often with deep ruts.  The road, such as it was, wound round spurs and clung to hillsides like an elastic band struggling to hold in the contents of a parcel.  Often it was possible to see a long way ahead this white chalklike line carved into the hillside and stretching into the distance until it vanished into the unknown. Frequently the drop, only a foot or so from the wheels of the car, was sheer for hundreds, if not thousands of feet down.  All the time the views of the mountains were staggering and constantly changing.  Occasionally people were seen and small remote villages passed; traffic was minimal but there was the odd bus crammed to overflowing and on journeys lasting 24 hours or more from Mon to Dimapur or Kohima.  The worst, however, was the even more occasional large truck.  I don’t know what it is about truck drivers but they do remind me of the James Bond villain, Odd Job.  What I do know, and luckily our drivers seemed to agree, is that you don’t argue with them and seek any form of refuge in which to hide.

During the time we spent in Nagaland, we either passed through or spent time in various locations.  Included in these was Wokha, a large town of 80,000 inhabitants and centre of the Lotha tribe. There are two widely differing theories about the origins of the Lothas – one, that they came from eastern China via Malaysia and the other that they came south from Manchuria and the Himalayas – so take your pick!  Two other items of interest about Wokha: first, in 1876 the British occupied the town and established it as the divisional HQ of the Naga Hills and, second, it is the equivalent of Lord’s in NE Indian cricket.  Indeed, when having stopped for lunch at a roadside shack close to Wokha, an impromptu game of cricket was taking place on what must have been the only piece of flat land for many miles around.

Mokokchung is another important local town in quite a green and lush area inhabited largely by the Ao tribe. Christianity mushroomed out from Mokokchung under various banners and there are many churches in this area including a large Baptist congregation.  The small village of Langmean is interesting in that it is well into the very large area of Nagaland occupied by the Konyak tribe, probably the most warlike of them all, men with tattooed faces and wearing fiercesome headdresses; they were the last tribe to stop head hunting and the morung (longhouse) in Langmean contains a serious display of human skulls.  But they are also very skilled craftsmen in such as wood carving and basket weaving.  In Konyak country, the law, although officially under Indian administration, is interpreted by the local Angh or ‘Chief’.

 

 

Village-MorungKonyak-Warrior

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is a hereditary system in each locality and the word is that you don’t mess around with an Angh!  His is always the largest and most important house in the village.  In Longwa, a village in the north on the border with Burma which, sadly, we did not get to, the Angh reportedly has 60 wives and his house is half in Nagaland and half in Burma of which he is very proud.  As will have been gathered, although ‘as the crow flies’ distances between centres in Nagaland are not great, it takes an inordinate amount of time because of the mountainous terrain.  Italian construction engineers and designers would have a field day designing valley spanning bridges and carving holes for tunnels through mountains but let’s hope they never get there.

The last port of call in Nagaland on this trip was to the town of Mon, the most northern and according to national statistics, among the most backward in the whole of India having a literacy rate of only 56%.  No wonder, therefore, that our last night’s accommodation was in this bracket.  Arriving after dark outside a dingy building we climbed two flights of stairs open to the elements and entered a poorly lit room from which we were led along a corridor to a short row of sparsely furnished rooms.  Each room had a ‘bathroom’ area with a loo, basin and antiquated shower.  The tell tale sign, however, was two plastic buckets of water on the floor: no water came out of the taps in the basin or the shower.  It appeared that this was not a new malfunction since if water had materialised from the taps it would have flowed down through the plug hole, down the drain leading from the basin and ………… straight onto the floor.  The drainpipe ended a few inches above the floor where all plumbing ceased.  Soon after this discovery the lights went out.  We left very early the next morning for the 6 hour journey to Dibrugarh airport during which, having come down off the Naga Hills onto the Assam plain, we passed through enormous tea plantations stretching as far as the eye could see on both sides of the road.

A two hour flight from Dibrugarh took us over Bangladesh to Calcutta and the luxury of the Taj Bengal hotel where the first priorities were a bath and a strong drink (not necessarily in that order).  In terms of age, Calcutta like other major Indian centres of trade such as Bombay and Madras, is not that old having risen to prominence during the trade expansionist age of the 18th century in which we competed with the French, Dutch and Portuguese.  An early piece of India resistance to the foreign trade invaders resulted, in 1756, to the imprisonment of a group of British in a tiny dungeon in which many suffocated to death.  The dungeon became universally known as ‘The Black Hole of Calcutta’.  The following year Robert Clive arrived with a strong British force and won the Battle of Plassey after which British dominance presided.  Calcutta became one of the major headquarters of the British East India Company and Calcutta became capital of India until 1911 when it was transferred to Delhi.

The BEIC lost control in the late 1850s as has been described earlier but the start of the decline of Calcutta as an important trading post came with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 which is opposite to the effect it had on Rangoon and Penang.  The city remains the capital of West Bengal and, with a population of over 5 million, is the oldest operating port in India and the cultural, commercial and educational centre of eastern India. The older sections of Calcutta are really fascinating, the crowds of people jostling, hurrying, carrying or Howrah-Bridgepushing goods or all sorts and constantly talking or gesticulating to each other adds rather than detracts to the scene. In a couple of days we visited many memorable sites, the Hooghli river, a tributary of the Ganges, for one with the enormous single span Howrah Bridge only constructed in 1943 to provide quicker access for Allied troops to reach the Burmese front.  Then the cluster of old administrative buildings around Dalhousie Square (now named BBD Bagh), the high court with many berobed lawyers scurrying about, the GPO, an St-Johns-Church-Calcuttaimposing building on the alleged site of the Black Hole, the very lovely St John’s Church to where the memorial to the victims of the Black Hole has been moved, Government House and the Writers Building so called because it used to be one of the main BEIC offices and where all the correspondence, orders and instructions and work in progress was written in longhand by clerks, known as ‘writers’.

Not far away is the flower market, a mad confusion of narrow alleyways crammed with porters carrying huge baskets of flowers on their heads and leading to a small open air section of stalls absolutely packed high with flowers of all sorts and descriptions, very many of them made into garlands given to guests on arrival at the very best hotels.

 

Flower-Market-Calcutta

 

We went past but sadly not into the famous Eden Gardens cricket ground capable seating 100,000 excited fans – as long as India are winning.  The Victoria Memorial, at the southern end of the huge Maidan Park, is a monumental white marble building set in its own formal gardens and more like a palace than a memorial.

Queen-Victoria-Memorial On the entrance side a statue of Queen Victoria on a pedestal surrounded by ornamental friezes looks out onto the Maidan while at the rear a rather smaller statue of Lord Curzon keeps watch from behind. On the way through Maidan Park on the way to the Memorial on a Saturday morning, we saw no less than 5 cricket matches taking place with all the players immaculately dressed in their whites and umpires wearing regulation trousers, white coats and straw hats. Lovely scene.

Opposite the Victoria Memorial and much older is Calcutta Racecourse where races have been run under the auspices of the Royal Calcutta Turf Club since 1809.  Many of India’s top races are run on this wonderful racecourse.

Calcutta is an excellent destination to either start or end a visit to eastern India being a great mixture of the new and old.  India, as a country, has such an infinite variety of climate, resources, historical and architectural culture, unbelievable changes of scenery, wildlife and ranges of activities that it is a mistake to attempt too much at any one time.  Distances and methods of transport are other consideration as evidenced in Nagaland.  But one other slight word of warning: India – not Burma – is rife with bureaucracy.  To obtain a visa with new regulations recently enforced is a nightmare: perfectly possible but so time consuming and expensive.  Beware also of cowboys on the ground.  There are some truly excellent, responsible and thoroughly efficient ground agents but regrettably the opposite is also very true so it is as well to check and double check beforehand.  The baddies will lie over anything and everything while the goodies will bend over backwards to help and to provide the service for which they are being paid.  Having made many trips with clients to India over the years I have had experience of both and ……. ‘I’ve got a little list’ (W.S.Gilbert: The Mikado).

Antony Johnson

Antony Johnson
Coltleigh Farm, Mapperton, Beaminster Dorset DT8 3NR

Telephone: 01308 862630

Email: antony@fhtt.co.uk

 

 

FROM HERE TO THERE TRAVEL is a travel business set up by Antony Johnson to offer a personalised, accompanied service to small groups of dedicated travellers who want to experience the real thing, either with the person who designed the Itinerary, or on their own.

The relationship between the leader and his charges thus becomes incredibly close, and Antony revels in providing experiences which his clients simply could not find anywhere else, because he has, quite literally, travelled the world, and his preferred areas for his travel groups are South-East Asia, including Burma, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand;  South America, Central America, including Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico,  India,  several Eastern European countries, including Poland, Romania, Georgia, and Ukraine, and Turkey and Sicily.

He also takes groups to Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe in Southern  Africa, and to the Eastern Caribbean.

He has written several excellent articles for the Vintage Magazine, including  ‘Peregrinations in Peru’, ‘Turkey, Istanbul and the East’, and his most recent article is on Patagonia.

 

 

 
Sunday, May 3rd, 2015