Myanmar

Escaping the Crowds in Myanmar: Northern Chin State

Chin is Myanmar’s poorest and least developed state, a remote mountainous land that reaches the borders of India and Bangladesh. Sparsely populated and lacking in infrastructure, Chin is home to densely forested hills, mountains that soar above 10,000ft, vast valleys and raging rivers. The people that inhabit this wild land are friendly and curious to meet foreign faces, only a small number of which make it to this far flung corner of Myanmar.

In the past most Chin towns and villages were animist; today, however, Christianity is the predominant religion, evidenced by the multitude of churches that dot the landscape. On Sundays, the churches fill up and most restaurants and shops close; transport also ceases to run. Plan to travel on Saturday, or else stay where you are until Monday morning!

Church in Kalaymyo

Having already explored southern Chin state in 2017 (check out Isolated Chin State: A Different World), it was time for Ollie and I to delve into the northern realm and discover a part of Myanmar that few travellers take the time to explore.

As Myanmar continues to open up and more travellers visit year on year, it won’t be long before this wild corner of the country welcomes more visitors to its traditional villages and development in the name of tourism irrevocably changes the landscape. Visit now whilst authentic experiences are still yours to be had!

Best Time to Visit Chin State:

The best time to visit Chin state is from November to March. The rainy season runs from May to October and can make roads muddy/impassable. Landslides are also common at this time, drastically lengthening travel times, and mountains are often obscured by mist and cloud. Visiting in the cool, dry months will reward you with blues skies and sunshine, clear mountain vistas and solid roads/trails.

Where to Go in Northern Chin:

Kalaymyo – Tiddim – Rihkhawdar – (Tiddim) – Kalaymyo – Falam – Hakha

View over Falam

Kalaymyo (Kalay)

Kalaymyo is not technically in Chin state but in neighbouring Sagaing Division; it does, however, serve as the access point for northern Chin and you’ll likely spend at least one night here.

Kalaymyo lies in a valley, close to the confluence of three rivers, with the spectacular Chin Hills looming over. During WWII the town served as an important staging post in the battles against the Japanese. Today, it’s a quiet, off-beat place with most hotels, restaurants, banks, the bus station and airport all strung along Bogyoke Road, which runs all the way to the Chin state border.

Over half the population of Kalaymyo are Chin and it’s estimated that there are over 500 churches scattered across town, some no more than houses with a cross that cater to miniscule congregations. It’s fun to amble through the quiet backstreets, noticing the variety of such buildings that are so important to the local people.

Arriving in the early morning after a long night bus from Mandalay, we spent a day exploring Kalaymyo, taking in the local ways of life and stopping to chat with those eager to practice their English. As well as the prolific number of churches, there’s also a reasonably large pagoda complex where we ran into a wedding party and were subsequently invited to join them for lunch! Another point of interest is Kalaymyo’s vibrant market, where you can find all manner of produce and local delicacies to try – don’t miss the sticky rice in bamboo tubes!  

Buddhist Temple Complex in Kalaymyo

Where to Stay in Kalaymyo: Shin Hong Hotel

Just a short walk from the bus station, Shin Hong Hotel has clean, comfortable rooms that come with AC and hot water bathrooms. There’s WIFI and a buffet breakfast is included. We paid 40,000 kyats (about $25) for a double room. The helpful owner speaks good English and can arrange a mini-van pick-up to take you to your next destination in Chin state. 

Getting to/from Kalaymyo:

  • Kalaymyo has an airport with flights to Yangon and Mandalay.
  • There are daily buses to Yangon (22 hours) and Mandalay (12 hours). We left Mandalay at 4:30pm and were in Kalaymyo by around 4:30am. Expect to pay around 15,000 kyats/person to/from Mandalay.
  • Mini vans run from Mon-Sat to destinations in Chin state: Hakha (8 hours), Falam (4 hours), and Tiddim (4 hours). Most leave between 6am and 8am; for Falam and Tiddim expect to pay around 8,000 kyats/person.
  • Jeeps also head directly to Rihkhawdar (9 hours) Mon-Sat from an office a mile west of the bus station on Bogyoke Road. They leave, when full, between 6am and 9am.

Tiddim

As you leave behind the flat plains of Kalaymyo, the scenery changes, you begin to gain altitude and the air grows crisper. The winding road climbs into the Chin Hills and it feels as though you’re entering a whole new world.

Tiddim is a small, heavily Christian town strung out along a pretty ridge and surrounded by traditional Chin villages, some of which are still animist. It’s a delight to spend a day just walking around, exploring the surrounding area and stunning countryside. We hiked to nearby Siang Sawn village, one such animist settlement; many inhabitants here still wear Chin traditional costume. Aside from the main road into Tiddim, the smaller branch roads and those leading to villages are dirt tracks.

Siang Sawn Village

It’s possible to hire a car in Tiddim to take you to Kennedy Peak, the second highest mountain in Chin state (8868ft). A rough road leads to the summit from Sozang village, about 15 miles from Tiddim on the road back to Kalaymyo. Unfortunately, although views at the top are reportedly amazing, there’s now a TV tower up there. There are currently no known hiking routes to Kennedy Peak from Tiddim, though this could well change in the next couple of years as tourism in the area increases.

Where to Stay in Tiddim: Ciimnuai Guest House 

To the side of the central clock tower, Ciimnuai Guest House is the best place to stay in Tiddim. Peter, the helpful son of the owners, speaks English and can help with onward transport to Rihkhawdar. He can also arrange transport to Kennedy Peak. Rooms here are simple but clean with shared bathrooms and hot water is possible by request. Views from the backside terrace are amazing, overlooking a wide valley that includes Kennedy Peak. Room rates don’t include breakfast.

Ciimnuai Guest House, Tiddim

Getting to/from Tiddim:

  • Mini vans run from Mon-Sat from/to Kalaymyo (4 hours, 8,000 kyats/person)
  • Jeeps run from Mon-Sat to Rihkhawdar (for Rih Lake), passing through Tiddim from Kalaymyo (4 hours, 8,000 kyats/person). Reserve a seat the day before at a stall at the junction of the main road and the road to Rihkhawdar; Peter can help you!

Rihkhawdar

Lying on the Myanmar-India border, Rihkhawdar is a small but hectic border town that is surrounded by some gorgeous countryside and forested hills. It’s also the access point for mystical Rih Lake. A 100yd-long bridge separates Rihkhawdar from Mizoram state in India; if you have an Indian visa already in your passport this crossing is now open to both Myanmar and foreign travellers. The other Myanmar-India border, from Tamu to Moreh in India’s Manipur state, is also now open.

Even if you’re not crossing into India, it’s still worth making the journey here from Tiddim to visit the small but idyllic Rih Lake. This heart-shaped lake has huge spiritual significance to the Mizo people, who live on both sides of the border; to them its waters serve as the traditional pathway for the dead to reach their final resting place. The animist version of heaven, known as Piairal, has nowadays blended with the Christian concept of heaven, allowing the lake’s mystical status to continue.

It’s a pleasant 3.5km walk to Rih Lake from Rihkhawdar; otherwise it’s possible to hire a motorbike taxi for 5,000 kyats return. On the way there are sweeping views over to India, encompassing rice fields, forest and the river that divides the two countries. Most days it’s a peaceful spot, though locals from Rihkhawdar come to swim, hang out and enjoy a drink on weekends.

After spending some time by the shore, climb the small hillock (accessed via a footpath back towards Rihkhawdar) and take in the view over the lake; from this higher vantage point you’ll be able to see its famous heart shape. Linger a little longer in Rihkhawdar to explore the dusty backlanes, noticing the prominent churches and traditional wooden homes; locals are friendly and are sure to greet you warmly.

View over Rih Lake

Where to Stay in Rihkhawdar: Rih Shwe Pyi Guest House  

Rih Shwe Pyi Guest House is the best, perhaps only, place to stay in Rihkhawdar; rooms, however, are some of the cleanest and most comfortable in all of Chin state. Room rates vary depending on floor; the cheapest (15,000 kyats) lie below ground and share very basic bathroom facilities.

We paid 25,000 kyats for a room on the floor above; it was light and airy and had a private bathroom, though with cold water only. The most expensive are 35,000 kyats and offer the most expansive views from the outside terrace. Breakfast is not included with any of the rooms. Staff speak basic English and are friendly enough.

Getting to/from Rihkhawdar:

  • Jeeps run from Mon-Sat 7am-9am to Kalaymyo (9 hours, 15,000 kyats/person), passing through Tiddim on route (4 hours, 8,000 kyats/person).
  • We managed to hitch an afternoon ride on a truck back to Tiddim, which was transporting cargo from India. This meant we only had to stay one night in Rihkhawdar.

Don’t forget to take out travel insurance! We recommend WORLD NOMADS, a leading company used by backpackers worldwide. Check out our TRAVEL INSURANCE page to find out more!

Falam

Surrounded by endless peaks and countryside wholly untouched by tourism, Falam has a spectacular hilltop location with traditional wooden homes rising up and down the hillsides. The town was the British headquarters in the Chin Hills during colonial rule and remained the capital of Chin state until 1965.

View over Falam

We recommend spending at least two nights in Falam; spend your days exploring the mellow streets and taking in the vistas from various viewpoints. Predominately Christian, Falam is home to many churches, the largest of which is the Baptist Church. Despite it only dating back to 1983, this church is likely the largest in all of Chin state; it lies in the town centre near KBZ bank. Come Sunday it’s packed out and the sound of hymns can be heard for miles around.

For the best views, head up to Yanpaymanpay Paya, a small temple with a shimmering golden stupa and a sitting Buddha surrounded by five disciples. Looming over Falam from almost the highest point around, this is the best spot to be for sunrise or sunset; the panoramic views from here stretch to a distant horizon. To get here, take the road past KBZ bank and Holy Guest House and keep walking uphill; it’s a steep 20-minute walk from town. 

Hiking around Falam

Where to Stay in Falam: Holy Guest House

We stayed in Holy Guest House, opposite the Baptist church, which is not necessarily the best place in Falam. We paid 15,000 kyats for an extremely basic twin-bed room with a shared shower and toilet; the owner tried to charge us 15,000 kyats per person, even though we had initially been quoted per room. It was clean enough though very small and with ultra-thin walls. The other places in town didn’t look much better from the outside.   

Getting to/from Falam:

  • From Rihkhawdar/Tiddim you’ll need to backtrack to Kalaymyo. Mini vans run from Mon-Sat to Falam (4 hours, 8,000 kyats/person).
  • There is a daily bus (Mon-Sat) from Falam to Hakha (1pm, 3,000 kyats/person) as well as a mini-van (3pm, 8,000 kyats/person). They leave from the bus ticket offices in the town centre, close to the Baptist church. Book a seat one day before.

Hakha

The sprawling capital of Chin state, Hakha sits precariously along a series of hillsides that are prone to landslides in the rainy season. Dominated by its many churches, the city is surrounded by more spectacular countryside and traditional villages, where life continues as it has for generations. Very few foreign travellers make it to this remote corner of Myanmar, so you’re guaranteed more than a few stares! Locals are very friendly, though most speak little or no English.

As well as meandering around Hakha at your own pace, be sure to head up to the Viewing Platform, which offers unparalleled vistas over town and the surrounding hills and valleys. There’s a small viewing tower (not open when we visited) and a huge ‘LOVE’ sign that locals love to pose with.

View over Hakha

Continue along the ridge to visit first a small golden pagoda and then, atop a neighbouring hillock, a large Buddhist monastery complex, complete with a large shrine room and a pagoda-topped globe that’s surrounded by many small Buddha statues. The complex also houses another golden pagoda, from where you can gaze down upon Hakha from a different perspective.

While wandering around town, you’ll likely come across Hakha Baptist Church, notable for its stone steeple and red roof. It’s the most historic of Hakha’s many churches, dating back to 1908; it was, however, extensively rebuilt in the early 1960’s. You’ll find it just downhill from the football stadium. In the nearby compound of the Hakha Baptist Association, there is supposedly the Missionaries Museum, housed inside a grey 1907 bungalow. It wasn’t open when we were in town though. 

Where to Stay in Hakha: Rung Guest House

Easily the best place in town, Rung Guest House is basic but comfortable. The more expensive rooms come with private bathrooms, Western toilets and TV’s; we found them cold and damp though.

Instead, we opted for one of the cheaper rooms (15,000 kyats), which are a lot more basic (mattress on the floor, no other furniture) but are warmer and receive some sunlight. It’s possible to get a hot bucket of water for showering but bear in mind you may have a long wait! As is the norm in Chin state, breakfast isn’t included and staff speak minimal English.

Getting to/from Hakha:

  • There is a daily bus (Mon-Sat) from Falam to Hakha (1pm, 3,000 kyats/person) as well as a mini-van (3pm, 8,000 kyats/person).
  • Daily (Mon-Sat) buses (10 hours, 8,000 kyats/person) and mini-vans (8 hours, 15,000 kyats/person) run to/from Kalaymyo via Falam (4 hours, 8,000 kyats/person).
  • There are also buses to Yangon (18 hours, 35,000 kyats/person) and Mandalay (14 hours, 15,000 kyats/person), which leave at around 4pm from the road behind the football stadium. Book a seat one day before.

Important Information:

  • Expect basic accommodation in Chin state without WIFI or breakfast. Power can also be erratic.
  • There is absolutely NO transport on Sundays, to or from anywhere in Chin state. Plan ahead!
  • Food options are extremely limited; prepare to eat a lot of fried rice or noodles!
  • Bring enough Kyats! There is a CB Bank in Hakha and a KBZ in Falam, which can change money. Although they have ATM’s, don’t rely on them. Bring plenty of cash (in local currency) with you.
  • Travel to Chin state from November to March when skies are clear and the weather is dry. Bring warm clothes as mornings and evenings can get chilly.
  • Avoid rainy season (May to October) when roads can be muddy and impassable and views non-existent.
  • Allow plenty of time in your schedule; delays can occur and you may get ‘trapped’ somewhere on a Sunday!

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Are you looking for more off-the-beaten track Myanmar? Check out these posts:

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