Chin State: The Road to Tedim

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Tedim, the largest town in Chin State, sits roughly 2,000 meters up in the sublime Letha Taung mountains and is as beautiful as it is remote. Its devout Christian community, unusually reserved residents and peaceful atmosphere ensure an engaging experience for those determined – or, in our case, foolish – enough to venture there; visitors may even forget they’re in Myanmar. Tedim is best accessed from Kalay in Sagaing Region via a winding mountain road that will take your breath away in more ways than one. It’s certainly worth visiting; the only question is when.

Kalay to Tedim

Almost every tourist comes to Tedim from Kalay (also known as Kalaymyo – “myo” means ‘town’ or ‘city’), near the Chin border. Buses to Tedim leave between 6-7.30am and arrive around 11am. Tickets cost 8,000 kyats and should be booked a day in advance.
Relentless rain was forecast for Tedim, but we headed for the looming misty mountains anyway. As we passed out of Kalay, pagodas gradually gave way to churches. Twenty minutes in, the bus stopped by a pair of Christian grave stones on the roadside. “Amen,” and the journey continued: higher into the mountains, the views getting better every minute. Christian rock played over the stereo – “Jesus! Jesus! Come on and save us!” – and the 10-month-old baby in front of us was changed into a cute woolly hat, jumper and trousers.

Halfway up, things started to go downhill (metaphorically, of course). The road became bumpy and narrowed; tarmac was replaced by sludgy mud. We were regularly thrown from our seats and I could hardly bare to look at the 12 inches of earth protecting us from the precipice.

“Asin-pyi-la?” asked the mother of the baby.
“Asin-ma-pyi-bu,” I answered. “I’m scared.”

The lady shrieked with laughter, but my fear was not unfounded. As we ripped round corners and through thick mud, the mini bus wobbled, bounced and tilted. The further we went the more limited our conversation topics became. Eventually, they boiled down to just two: mountains and dying.

Then the inevitable happened: stuck in the mud, right beside the cliff edge. The driver revved the engine, wheels span and the bus bounced horribly, but we went nowhere. The second attempt brought more of the same, but again no luck. The driver reversed once more to give it a third try. This time it was full throttle: the wheels slipped, mud splattered every window, and the bus struggled over toward the edge – somehow it had pulled through. Everyone exhaled heavily, and we gave the driver a relieved round of applause. The road began to improve, cue for the music to come back on. Finally, we could relax. Jesus had returned: we were saved, though we would have to make the same journey, but downhill, in two days’ time.

Tedim

It turned out that we had been right to distrust the weather forecast: blue skies were common, showers only occasional, and the temperature was easily above 16 degrees Celsius. We stayed in Ciimnuai Guesthouse, which sits beside the clock tower and is run by a welcoming family. For 10,000 kyats each, we got clean beds and use of the shared bathroom; rumor has it that the owners can even secure their guests hot water. A tasteful wooden common room with superb mountain views tops everything off nicely.

The name “Tedim” describes a mountain pool: “te” means “bright” or “shine” and “dim” means “twinkling” or “sparkling” in Tedim (also known as Zomi, Zou or Chin), a Kukish language which uses the Latin alphabet. Tedim town is essentially a single main street with smaller ones branching off it. The houses are largely colorful, the roads hardly stained with betel (we only saw a few people chewing) and the Christian locals far shyer than Buddhist Burmans; it’s the only place in Myanmar where my smiles and Mingalabar-s have been regularly returned with cold stares. When we learnt the Tedim greeting – “Dam maw” – they warmed to us a little but not considerably.

Perhaps the reason for their reticence was their religion (at least, we couldn’t come up with any other explanation). The residents’ faith was palpable; churches were ubiquitous – Baptist, Evangelist, Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist and other denominations. Children praised god loudly every morning from 5-7am and every evening from 7pm onwards. Believers invited us into their local churches, and one guy even asked if we would come to his home to pray for him and his family.

 

Another monotheistic religion, Pau Cin Hau, also has its home in Tedim. Founded eponymously in the early 20th century, its followers worship a god called Paisan and live in various parts of north-western Myanmar. The nearby Siangsawn Model Village, a community built in 2006, houses a mirrored showpiece structure, whose infinitely reflecting images supposedly represent what Pau Cin Hau sees from the heavens.

A teacher carrying a live chicken in a plastic bag invited us into a different village, one a little north of Tedim. Naturally, we followed. An old lady with terrible teeth led us round, and a sweet family treated us to a rice soup containing animal innards, a hot cup of milk and a local alcoholic beverage made from sweetcorn. At the end, one of the guys tried to give me a 1,000 kyats – Burmese hospitality at its most benevolent – but I couldn’t take half a day’s wages from him.

Afterward, we headed to the teacher’s school, where we were told that the children had never seen foreigners before. When we arrived, the kids were working on the school grounds – slicing grass with machetes, moving stones, playing football, the usual – a ritual they repeat every Friday. At first they ran away from us, terrified by these oddly dressed, white giants, but with some juggling and funny voices they soon found their laughs – a few even dared to shake our hands. Visiting this village was an enriching experience, and we were stunned at how much more open its residents were than Tedim’s.

Back to Kalay…

Buses to Kalay also leave between 6-7.30am, but the downhill journey only costs 7,000 kyats. No buses on the Sabbath; make sure to book in advance.

It rained heavily the night before we were due to leave, and the morning was misty. Dreading what the road would be like, we got in the mini bus and set off. Five minutes in, first incident: a bus ahead of us had got stuck in the mud. It took our driver six attempts to pass the same bog, and then he tried with the other bus. No luck.

We rounded the next corner and pulled up to collect more passengers, when one of the young Burmese guys sitting in front of us suddenly clambered out the window and ran off down the road. What had happened? At first I thought nothing – at least, that’s the impression the traffic cop calmly smoking a cheroot gave me – but my eyes were not deceiving me. A truck carrying boxes of soft drinks had capsized.

We drove over and got out to have a look. Fortunately, it hadn’t fallen over the edge and no one had been hurt. In fact, it was all fun and games for the locals – though it was over an hour before a digger arrived to clear the road and upright the truck.

 

It’s often just a fine line that divides humor and tragedy; on this occasion, that line was the narrow strip of mud separating the overturned truck from the precipice. We made it down with a few more close calls, but it wasn’t a journey we ever plan to repeat. My advice: go to Tedim, a beautiful and fascinating unique town in Myanmar – but, unless you wish to dance with death, don’t risk it in the rainy season.

Photography by James Fable.

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