Moreh & Tamu: A tale of two towns

Published on November 14, 2007

By Lunminthang Haokip


November 15, 2007: Unless halted involuntarily by bandh-threat that regularly immobilizes the line-bus and Tata-Sumo services of beleaguered Manipur, India, Imphal’s Moreh parking at MG-road – Kangla-park junction, every morning from 7 to 8:30 a.m, has scores of Moreh-bound Tata Sumo-utility vehicles lined up for profit-making departure.


While drivers warm themselves up with sips of hot cups of tea, handy-men, street-smart as they are, vie with one another to get more passengers through glib of the gab and help-carry the bag. Some handy-men try to lure in more travelers by waxing eloquent about the newness of their vehicles or by cashing on the impatience of the purse-proud sojourner


Some Sumos start half-empty. But they need not worry. Every Moreh-bound carrier registers 90 to 100 percent occupancy before reaching Pallen, situated 45 kilometre from Imphal on Moreh route where a Manipur Police check-post compels commuters to get down to savour a plateful of fresh meal in their hot favourite Basant hotel.


Footloose and fancy-free, first-timers in the border-town trips grow curiouser as they commute closer to destination. If old-fashioned folks in the sixties hummed, “Zindagi mein ek baar jaana Singapore”, the consumerism-smitten domestic tourists of today’s collective chant seem to be, “Zindagi mein ek baar jaana Moreh”.


Passage To Phobia-Freed Area: The 31 kilometre up-hill drive between Pallen and Tengnoupal peak used to be every bus-driver’s nightmare for more ways than one. Occurrence of more untoward incidents were reported from this dreaded stretch than from any other route in the state in the past. But such fears are passé, now. Frequent Assam Rifles patrolling and deployment of Indian Reserve Battalion (IRB) as Road Opening Party (ROP), coupled with changed mind-set, no more makes the panicky commuter hide money inside his shocks or sit on the edge of his seat with a pounding heart.


The sense of security helps the pot-belied passenger doze off after demolishing a hillock of cooked rice in Pallen’s wayside eatery only to be awakened by another round of ego-humbling security-check at Tengnoupal post. High altitude Tengnoupal’s ooty-like weather chills you for a brief period of time and makes you wish you had put on warmer clothes. Otherwise, the highway is almost under control or dominated by armed forces. The only terrible sight one comes across today is that of the poor living conditions and pathetic undernourished children on the way.


Thai Products Better: Tachilake in Myanmar is the happening township in the Thai border from where consumer durables are transported to Namphalong or Tamu. A Chinese electric cooker may be priced at Rs.1600/- and a Thai one at Rs. 2200/-. But when it comes to durability, the proportion of gain far outweigh the difference in prices. A passable wooden sofa-set costs not less than Rs. 25,000/at Imphal. You’ll be surprised to discover that Rs 12,000/- only can fetch you a comfortable beautifully designed Thai Sofa set at Tamu.


Thai-made kitchen-items like cup-sets, spoon-sets, kettles, thermo-flasks, plates and bowls etc. are second to none in quality although they charge a little higher. The only thing that unnerves the visiting customer is the snooty attitude of the women vendors. You see someone buying something at a price after a long bargain session. When you want the same thing at the same price, the lordly lady at the counter would turn up her nose and curtly say, “Well, to come down at that rate, we have to begin haggling all over again”.


A Town of Shop-keepers: Wide streets, decent planning and a common-sense that is uncommon at Moreh make Tamu several times a more livable town than the former. Housing materials like cement, steel-rods, GCI-sheets used to beautify the fast growing town of Tamu are all Indian—phir bhi technique hai Myanmarese. Thousands of people ferried by Japanese-made Toyota Utility vehicles everyday on the 3 kilometre – long paved road between Moreh and Tamu is indicative of the volume of trade in transaction. Almost every residential house at Tamu excepting the church-activity centres , does some buying or selling.


Truck-loads of under-invoiced electronic and household goods come from Muse in China border to Tamu.  It’s all a part of China’s strategy to become an Asian economic super-power. The market is flooded with Chinese inverters, generators, ready-to wear garments and kitchen crockery. Nowhere else in Manipur can one buy a torch-light at Rs 40/-or an usable synthetic chapel at Rs. 80/-. But the tragedy is that one is extremely lucky if the torch-light can flash light for the next 40 days or the sandal bought  in summer’s peak endure through the next week.


Monetary manoeuvres: Namphalong market complex located on the fringe of Myanmarese side across the border is the venue of trade action. Small shops packed  with durable consumer items from China and Thailand do brisk business everyday except on a monthly off-day the Myanmarese observe religiously.  The half-wooden and half-concrete structures are a poor replica  of Bangkok’s National Stadium shopping complex.


In the same manner, Thai shop-keepers speak heavily accented , broken and mother-tongue-pulling English like “cannot” with a Thai-twang when they refuse the excessive bargaining from foreign buyers, awkwardly decked-up lady-traders of Namphalong express the same sentiment by saying “jataleh” in their own “cockneyed” Manipuri.


Shrewd as Shylock, these calculating calculator-wielding greedy hunters of the Rupee will make your hackles rise before you successfully haggle a ten-rupee reduction. The feeling of gain is easily set off-balance by the bruise of  your ego. However, you forget uncouth behaviours and native cunning when you get some reasonably good things at dirt-cheap rates. Tamu may be the only place the Rupee can flex its muscles against the norms of international exchange rates. The gullible traveler needs to be on the guard. There are hawks in the form of Taxi-handymen who will convert the benefit of doubt in exchange-rates to a looting profit.


Morbid Movements Of  Moreh:  Gone are the days when the the border town was synonymous with money. Once upon a time, the crime-infested township was the El-Dorado of Manipur where the rich and the  wannabe rich rubbed shoulders filthy-ed by easy-gotten gambling lucre. Now, Moreh is a mere shadow of its flourishing past. A reticent resident commented, “Moreh is like the mother-cow that everybody milks but forgets to feed”.


Barring the imposing recently inaugurated Yatri-Niwas near the ADC’s office, the partly functional shopping complex and the awe-inspiring 50-bedded hospital, the only small-town in Manipur’s hill areas that comes under Municipal Act, is yet to get its urban act together. The wards are overcrowded with folks who can’t give up rural habits in semi-urban settlements. Unplanned growth of  wooden houses in scorching tropical environs makes the entire town a potential victim of arson.


For a busy tourist destination, Moreh doesn’t have a single park where visitors can chill out and take a snapshot to show to home folks. All that one can see on the street are lungi-clad, chain-smoking, weather-beaten people moving to and fro to buy or sell something for a living. Business rules are changed today. Traders come and go back pocketing a large chunk of the profit. The poor localites  are left with the crumbs of loading and unloading goods when they don’t sell charcoal. Seekers of manual work return home with  an overload of woes. Recently, the main roads had been lit up. Nights had some life ever since when the frequently troubled town was not curfew-imposed.


Tamu Entry Formalities: There’s a natural urge for every Moreh-visitor to enter Tamu, it’s Myanmarese counterpart. At the border, two check-points regulate entry to and exit from the twin towns. Like the twin-bed sale ad  that  claimed  “One hardly used”, between the two gates, Gate no.1 is hardly used. Whereas entry into India does not pose much of a problem; official restrictions welcome any tourist crossing the international boundary for a shopping spree beyond the free-zone of Namphalong market. Uniformed immigration officials make you pay Rs.10/- per person after checking your I-card and keeping it in their custody till you return  and hand over the entry-pass they write your particulars in and issue.


Forgetful folks who left their I-cards need not worry. Any semblance of an I-card with the rubber stamp of  any social, religious, political or administrative authority that you can conveniently get done at your port of call itself will serve the purpose. Sometimes, when the official’s mood is upbeat, they allow a spouse and a bunch of tailing kids  to secure entry on the strength of the head-of-family’s I-card. Of course, no visitor can stay in Myanmarese soil after 5 pm Myanmar Standard Time which means 4 pm Indian Standard Time. And if you happen to fail to deliver the I-card you deposited earlier while coming back, you better get a new one issued. Claiming the same on the morrow will charge you a hefty 300 rupees.


Tamu Town: Boulevards sandwiched by painted two-storey buildings on both sides make Tamu town visually appealing to the onlooker. What the casual visitor does not know is the fact that a lot of crude and rude town planning went into the transformation of the erstwhile dusty and shabby Tamu town into a well-planned modern township that we adore today. Myanmarese military government had a way of doing things. The plot-holders  on the road-front were given a time-frame to build up pucca structures. The poorer ones failed to fulfil the Authority’s expectations.


So that the defaulters may not decrease the prestige percentage of the whole town with their ugly wooden houses, they were ordered  to move out of prime plots and make do with the back-lane residential areas. This is something one cannot imagine to happen in a democratic country. However, if you venture to go for a taxi-ride around the back-lanes, you will most probably come back with a backache. Despite neighbourly sops from big brother India, Tamu is yet to have paved lanes outside the main street leading to the market to join the BRTF-constructed 90 kilometre Tamu—Kalemyo highway that is almost as smooth as a fair lady’s cheek.


Untapped Resources: The world may dub Myanmar as a third-world country. But, when it comes to natural resources, Myanmar has few equals. The soil itself is first rate. It does not need repeated ploughing. Rice growers walk and stamp on the surface of the wet fields, plant rice and get bumper harvests. Manure is not required. The quality of rice they grow is in hot demand world-wide. In the Kabaw valley which includes Tamu district, one comes across vast stretches of teak and khanggara (cut as timber) growth in fields where rice is not grown. Teak used to fetch a lot of foreign exchange for the resource laden country earlier when cross-border trade with India was booming.


At present, following a Supreme Court ban on transport of teak-wood via North-Eastern states in India, the Myanmarese economy in general and that of Tamu in particular is weakened a great deal. Cut logs of teak-wood are not wasted altogether though. Carpenters carve out furniture and ready-made doors and windows out of them. Moreh traders buy up cut teak and finished furniture that comes in various forms and shapes from the other side of the border.


The endless stream of buses and lorries that do business between Imphal and Moreh further transport the wooden products to bigger markets. Burma teak is world no.1. Yet, due to the slump in the market, and as supply exceeds demand, as potatoes do in Punjab market, high quality teak-wood, at Tamu, is being used as fencing and pig-sty materials. A case of reverse value-addition, what?


Commercial Activities: A large chunk of Indian bicycles find their ultimate destination in Myanmar. Mandalay, the second city, is flooded with Hero cycles from India. Everywhere in greater Tamu, one can see womenfolk wrapping up their lungis and riding cycles meant for gents. The two-wheel-wonder is used to serve all kinds of purposes that the makers themselves could never have imagined of. Weird items like pigs, piglets, paddy, parcels of garments etc., are tied onto every visible part of the bicycle pedaled with raw energy by tanakha (local face lotion) – smeared and lungi-clad ladies who earn the family bread in carrying goods between the twin border towns.


Except for a variety of sweetened polythene-packed edibles which Indian school children cannot do without, and a few other items like  fish-cans, garments, flower-pots and artifacts, Myanmar does not produce much. All that its trading citizenry do is do business in consumer durables manufactured abundantly by China and Thailand.


Sticky Rice That Ticks: A crowd gathers without invitation every morning at Moreh’s Ward no.1 market. Another mini-mob swells up at the mix-crowded former Moreh parking. They are not clamouring to watch a street-show but rushing to buy a handful of and relish in the hot-favourite steamed sticky rice brought from the neighbouring country.


Every tourist visiting Moreh should make to the early morning scene. Church-folks usually go for a fast on Sundays in the morning. But there is no hesitation in breaking  the fast en masse at the sight of the irresistible palate-pleasing item that makes a mockery of Sunday fasting. The sticky rice that sells like the proverbial hot cakes comes in different colours and packages.


Some like the off-white stuff and others the black one. Another exotic item on sale that visiting guests love to take home to surprise their children with  is called “Pongden”. The delicacy has an aromatic natural flavour. Bamboo pipes are cut at a length of one foot or so and are filled with the right quantity of water and sticky rice.


The raw bamboo-pipes, stuffed to the brim, are heated in fire till the contents are well-cooked. That is Pongden, served fresh for you. You taste it and wonder how rice could smell so good. If your budget failed you and couldn’t buy the dress-items your kids placed order as ‘musts’, you better take Pongden home to ensure that your children smile from ear to ear.


Spiritual Perceptions: Budhist Stupas and monasteries adorn a good part of Tamu. They do their own thing on the “middle path” without giving cause for disturbance to others. Elsewhere, one comes across church-buildings of different shapes and sizes with as many denominational hoardings displayed prominently at the gates. Credit must to go to the tolerant military administration for giving so much space and liberty to Christians.


Despite political upheavals and ideological clashes that made international headlines in post-Independence Burma, the spirit of Adoniram Judson, the Baptist missionary who translated the Holy Bible in Burmese, surprisingly is very much alive today. Having had many fellowships together with Tamu churches, I must admit that I had not experienced such a high-decibel singing and worship this side of the international boundary. Tamu choirs, for sure, can teach a lesson or two to enliven the dull singing in our worship.


Language No Bar: The Pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, Tamu candidly admitted that he speaks Myanmarese more fluently than Thadou, his mother tongue. Tamu has got its own share of linguistic divide. Tangkhuls and Moyons migrated there in the previous centuries from Manipur. Second generation Nagas feel more at home speaking Myanmarese. Settlers from Chin state like Teddim-Chins, Paites, Falam, Kharkhas etc. maintain their linguistic uniqueness even in religious grouping. Kukis are known as Thadous there. However, in the midst of man-made mental barriers, the Spirit works.


There are several churches where different tribes worship together in perfect harmony with the national language as the lingua- franca. I think God allows certain languages to be spoken in common so as to undo the curse of the tower of Babel. The reluctance to learn other widely understood languages is the end-result of a pride-bedeviled ethno-centric bent of mind  that impedes the pace of Gospel-spread.  Tamu believers have no such hang-up. This accommodating attitude singularly accounts for the tangible and palpable sense of oneness in the prospering township.


The author is Additional Deputy Commissioner under the government of Manipur, a Northeast state in India.