How to cross from Myanmar to India overland (at Tamu – Moreh)
It’s a common travellers dream to search for an overland way to India, to imagine from our sofa at home or our chair in an office the historical routes and the long trotted ways that could carry us to the subcontinent. We read books and accounts or even blogs written years ago, and we plan travels without counting on borders, hoping that they will magically open when we arrive to them and shout “Sesamo” with a strong voice. And most of the times it does not happen like that, many doors are closed for the overland traveller, many paths forbidden and even more restricted. But sometimes, the lucky ones arrive to the right place at the right time, when the gate opens to the sound of a magic word which lies buried underneath piles of paperwork and bureaucracy.
This post is the way to the magic words, or better said the paperworks that open your way to India through Myanmar. What we thought was not possible the day we started the travel, is now an open route getting increasingly popular amongst hitchhikers and cyclists. We are writing it in response to the many emails and questions we are receiving in the last couple of weeks, since we crossed ourselves, from those who also search for an overland way to India. It is going to be a boring one – no stories, no pictures, no charm. But for the hitchikers and or cyclists on their overland mission to somwehere, we hope it will be a useful one. For those on vehicles different regulations apply, and as far as we know theystill need a group and a guide, but we won’t advice on that.
But first of all is worth mentioning that, if you are the lucky holder of two passports and of some extra courage you can still reach India via Pakistan, following the old hippy route. A German travelling couple made it and has a nice video showing the way through the wastes of Baluchistan. Also, if for some reason you have found yourself in a possession of a spare thousand dollars you may be able to cross Tibet with a tour guide and then get into Nepal and on to India. But if you are (un)lucky enough to not have any of those, you may as well enjoy the way through Central Asia across China and via South East Asia, circling around the subcontinent before reaching it. The way from Bulgaria to India took us 17 months, but as we all know it’s the road that matters and not the destination.
1. Getting a Myanmar visa
Obtaining a visa for Myanmar is pretty simple nowadays, you can do it in person or online.
(a) Embassy of Myanmar in Thailand.
Address: 132, Sathorn Nua Road, 10500 Bangkok. Map. How to get there? Take BTS to Sathorn station, walk 5-10 minutes to the Embassy. Timetable: visa application 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. / visa collection: 3.30 p.m.
Documents: Visa form, copy of passport and of Thai visa and 2 passport photographs with white background (everything can be obtained at the Embassy itself)
Process: Fill in the form (at least partly), queue to get a number, wait for your number to be called, hand in documents and visa fee. Wait as many days as requested. Go to pick your visa (arrive early to avoid a very long queue)
Cost: The cheapest option is 3 working days processing for 27 $.
(b) Online visa
Process: Fill in the online visa form – confirm and pay – get approval letter within 3 days – get your visa stamped at the border.
2. Getting an Indian visa in Yangon
There are many orthodox ways to get an Indian visa in your home country or wherever you are at the moment, but probably most of them present two problems for overlanders: firstly that they require return flight tickets and hotel bookings (ok, that is maybe solvable with some photoshop or booking.com) but secondly, and probably most important, since the Indian visa starts running from the day of applying, the earlier you apply the less time you will have to roam around once there. For these reasons, the best and simplest option we found was to apply in Myanmar. Here we tell you how:
Fill in the online application (in the official Indian visa application web)
(a) Indian reference can be any hotel you pick from your Lonely Planet 🙂
(b) Port of entry should be any city with an airport. Do not mention you plan to cross by land, we have heard of people being rejected for it.
(c) If you have previously been to India, but do not know you previous visa number, just enter 00000 and an aproximate date of issue. We had no problems with that.
(d) Upload a photo with white background that is as recent as possible. You will need to provide 2 passport photos and they should look similar or equal.
Present your application
Address: 545 Merchant St, Yangon. Map. How to get there: walk down the park from Sule Pagoda, turn left on Merchant St. and walk 5 minutes until you see the Embassy (white building).
print the form double side. B/w is fine.
Bring a copy of your passport and of your Myanmar visa
Bring 2 square passport photos 2×2 cm. They make them in a little photocopy shop near the Embassy, but it only opens at 10 a.m., so make sure to get them the day before.
Bring the fees in new USD notes with no marks or bends. In addition to your fee (40 USD for most Europeans) you need an extra 20 USD (the cost of a fax they supposedly send to the Embassy in your home country) and further 2 USD for admin costs. It is good to have change to avoid waiting a couple of hours.
NOTE: no flight tickets or proof of hotel reservation were requested at the time when we applied, even if the website says so. Nobody applying that day had any bookings.
1. Arrive to the Embassy as early as possible and write your name in a list that will either be laying on the bush by the security guy or in the hands of one travel agent on the other side of the pavement. The consulate service opens at 9 a.m. We were there at 8 a.m. and were already number 25, but we heard sometimes it is busier and that they only process 100 applications per day, so some people had to try several times.
2. When your turn comes, hand in your application and pay the fees (we were asked to wait for an hour because they had no change, but in the end they took it)
3. Come back 72 hours later to collect your visa.
Cost: obtainign an Indian visa in Yangon costs 62 USD for most European people (40 USD visa fee + 22 admin costs as explained above). For certain nationalities, like British, it is more expensive, check before you go.
3. Border permit
In addition to your visas you will need, at least at the moment of writing, one more document: a permit from the Myanmar Ministry of foreign affairs to cross that border. You have several ways to get it, and we know of 3: through the official MTS office (check here for details on how to get it in Yangon or Mandalay, 100 USD), through the agency 7 Diamonds in Yangon (100 USD) or, our option, through the agency Exotic Myanmar Tours in Yangon (50 USD), which we are gonna tell you about:
Address: With Exotic Myanmar Tours you can apply by email (email@example.com) or in person at their office in Yangon (# 255, Room No.1504, 15th Floor, Olympic Tower, Bo Aung Kyaw Street, Kyauktada Tsp, Yangon) – within walking distance from the Indian Embassy and from Sule Pagoda.
Documents: a copy of your passport and Myanmar visa. A 20 days itinerary across Myanmar from Yangon to the border. You can write it by hand in a piece of paper, nothing fancier.
Process: hand in your documents, pay the fee, wait 15-20 days (that’s officially, but in reality ours took just 11 days), receive a jpg copy by email and print it (b/w is fine),
Cost: 50$ (as far as we know it is 100$ to obtain it through other agencies)
NOTE: Our border permit mentioned our nationalities but not our names or passports, we found it weird and tried to ask the agency if it was normal. They never replied, but in the end had no issues at the border.
NOTE 2: Do you really need a permit? It looks like yes, at the moment you do. We were asked for the permit at the border, and heard of someone who had been turned back for not having it. It may change though, so check LP throrn tree for the latest travellers comments.
4. Crossing the border and other details
The only border open for foreigners betwen Myanmar and India is at Tamu – Moreh, in the North West state of Saigon. The border is open daily. There are several passport checkpoints along the way and we were taken by our driver to a hotel where they photocopied our passports and visas and called the border to confirm we were going. Just in case, carry your own photocopies together with the border permit.
You can cross the border on foot, walk across the little friendship bridge, and head to the Indian immigration and customs office, a large white building on yoru left side, to get your entry stamp and be welcomed into India.
The town of Moreh is pretty normal and did not look in the daylight as bandit-full as some people told us it would be, but in any case it’s better to cross and sleep in Tamu to get a better price (around 100 rupees per person) in a nice place like Sangai guesthouse.
Changing money in Tamu might be difficult. The State Bank of India does not offer exchange services, neither accepts visa cards in their ATM. The only option seems to be exchanging money (at a pretty bad rate) in the local market back on the Myanmar side, that you can access without any additional visa through a second border crossing called “Gate nº 2”. If you have a chance to exchange rupees at a good rate in advance, do so just to save yourself some trouble.
Extra: Hitchhiking and travelling in Myanmar
On the road
A “highway” crosses the country from Yangon to Mandalay, a thin two way road without safety lane, but pretty well asphalted. We had no problems hitchhiking (mainly crowded pick-ups and trucks), there are many villages along the way, which makes traveling slow but also easy in terms of finding food and water.
Further on to Tamu there is an even thinner but paved road. From Bagan there is also an alternative route for part of the journey, going through Pakoku and Pauk; it is a small road with beautiful scenery, scattered villages, and so very little traffic that we thought we could get stuck there forever, but were fially lucky to be picked up by a representative of the Ministry of Construction in charge of supervising all the bridges under construction all along the way to where the small road meets the main road from Mandalay. If you are on a bike, this is a beautiful road to travel, if you are hitchhiking it is just as pretty as it is slow, so count on some extra days.
To hitchhike, people may not understand what your thumb up means, but your palm down works well. Some pick-ups are actually local taxis, but many others are just families or workers travelling in between towns and villages, just tell the driver in advance that you can’t pay money to avoid misunderstandings. Peope travel squeezed in the backs of trucks, on car roofs or hanging by the door of a bus, so you may also find yourself comfortably seating over sacks of beans or not so cozzily riding on beer barrels or water bottles for hours. Myanmar is one of these places where the notion of transport expands.
Food and drinks
Myanmar is a vegetarians paradise. In local restaurants you can get noodles breakfast for 500 Kyat (0.50 USD) and a full meal with rice and a variety of dishes for 1000 Kyat (1 USD). In the markets we found avocados for less than we could dream (1 avocado costs in between 200 and 700 Kyat), tasty papaya, bananas of all colours, all sorts of snacks and sweet breads.
Water is basically free, there are large bottles of purified water in every restaurant, shop and corner. If you doubt its quality you may filter it yourself or buy bottled water, 1liter for 300 Kyat (0.30 $).
One of the nicest beers in Myanmar is called just like that, and it could rival Lao Beer in quality and flavour. For 800 Kyat (0.8 $) you can enjoy a cold one. If you crave for harder alcohol whisky is inexpensive too. The rest of time, enjoy green tea, we forgot to say that it comes free with your meal.
Sleeping on a budget will probably be your biggest nightmare, at least a few of the nights. There are two types of hostels: the ones for locals for locals cost 2000 – 4000 Kyat (2-4 $), and the ones for foreigners at least10.000 – 20.000 Kyat (10-20 $) for a double room. Foreigners are officially not allowed to stay in the local guesthouses, and you will always be directed to the most expensive ones, but if it’s late and dark and you are not near one, you may be accepted to stay for a night, provided that they do not register you.
Locals are supposedly not allowed to take you home and they know it well, and camping is forbidden, so sleeping in people’s gardens is not an easy task, and near villages you need to hide well in the dark if you want to set your tent. We managed to sleep outside just a couple of times. The police usually would not let you camp if they see you, and they may also kick you out of any place they consider unsafe for you, like bus or train stations – some travellers told us they ended up comfortably sleeping in police stations, and for us they arranged once a free mattress in a corner of a roadside hotel that had previously asked us for 40 $ a night. Note on safety: we have just received news that a Spanish cyclist was attacked and robbed nearby Bagan, although we are not alarmists that think one incident needs to be extended to a whole nation, it is a reminder that we need to take care on the road, follow safety common sense and, when in doubt, avoid excessive risks. It may also make camping even more difficult in Myanmar, although that’s just speculation.
But not everything is dark and difficult, when you walk at night to the edge of town or through a black road to any small monastery or dhamma school, and the monks welcome you with a smile into a corner of a hall or into an empty room or a bamboo hut – having a mosquito net or some coil is useful, since these sort of predators abound; leaving a donation, in kind or monetary, according to your means, is appropriate in a place where everything works on the basis of givut with the monks and novices, learning about dhamma, local culture or beliefs.
If you have a sarong at had you can basically shower anywhere. Happily pour some bowls of fresh water over you whenever the heat and dust becomes too much. There are water basins in monasteries, petrol stations and even shops, just that they are often outdoors and in visible places.