I knew two things about Manipur before crossing the border from Myanmar to India: the first was that it is known as the “jewelled land” and the second is that Lonely Planet calls it the Northeast’s most dangerous state. Two contradicting pieces of information that I figured I would soon learn which was more accurate.
I arrived at the border from Myanmar after 24 hours on the road and I jumped into a shared van heading to the capital, Imphal. Soon enough I was having an interesting conversation with the man next to me and the two guys in front about all sorts of things from politics, to comparing life in Manipur to Australia, to the weather. Even after they had got out, the driver proceeded to hand me an apple and offered to drop me at whichever hotel doorstep I wanted. I was already wondering where this so-called ‘danger’ was.
I stayed in Imphal for a couple of days and it really was a typical Indian city with bustling markets, maddening traffic and all sorts of street carts selling everything from SIM cards to bananas (one of which selling SIM cards helped me out with an Indian SIM despite so many official shops not wanting to sell me one).
The day I planned to leave the city I found the streets deserted, only to find out that there was a political strike across the entire Northeast region for 48 hours in opposition to the government’s Citizenship Bill proposed in parliament. Not one shop open, only a couple of rickshaws on the road and some kids playing on the sidewalk. I half expected a tumbleweed to roll past it was that quiet. Well, quiet for Indian standards anyway.
Of course, considering it was India there was always the possibility of going somewhere if you were willing to pay for it. At first a rickshaw driver offered to help, and I told him I wanted to go to Moirang. He ran around and asked some people for me and took me to a parking lot where there were two vans. He pointed at one and said, “Moreh,” and I jumped in. After five minutes I thought, ‘I don’t want Moreh (that was the border town I’d come from a few days before!), I want Moirang!’.
I got out and asked the driver, “Moirang, you know for the lake?”
“Yes, Loktak Lake!”
“No, no bus to Loktak Lake!”
Back to the drawing board.
My friend the rickshaw driver was still there, and I asked him about Moirang not Moreh and he shook his head, “No chance today.”
I didn’t want to spend the next couple of days stuck in a hotel room, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Inevitably, the rickshaw driver said he could take me, but it was going to cost me. I hesitated and then thought, ‘why not?’ and off we went for two hours along an empty, pot hole-filled road to Moirang. I then realised I actually wanted a village called Thanga which was another half an hour on the edge of the lake, so for an extra couple of hundred rupees he took me to Thanga. What a start to the day.
I was greeted by Mr Maipakchao, a man who seems ubiquitous when searching for any information on Loktak Lake on the internet. He is the founder and president of the local ecotourism board, a non-government organisation aimed at promoting sustainable livelihoods through tourism in the Loktak area. He has ran a homestay in his place for a number of years after a friend from Kolkata informed him of this type of accommodation where travellers can immerse themselves in the local culture and the family can gain some income; the benefits are reciprocal.
He was a lovely and knowledgeable man who was my host and guide for my few days at the lake. I stayed in his home where he has a couple of spare rooms for travellers and his wife cooked delicious local meals three times a day for me. My time began with a walk up to a sunset viewpoint behind his home which has a stunning view of the lake from above. Maipakchao accompanied me and was able to tell me a bit about the lake itself and the people that call the area home.
Loktak Lake is known as the only floating lake in the world. It’s considered ‘floating’ because of the unique masses of vegetation and weeds known as phumdis, which form naturally over time and of which the local fishermen guide into circular shapes in order to create fish catchment areas. Up to 3000 fishermen often live out on the lake in small huts that are built on top of the larger phumdis and almost all of the families living on or near the lake rely on it for their livelihood.
The next morning I went out on the lake with a young fisherman who paddled me around to soak in the everyday activity on the water. I saw a group of people forming the circular shapes with the natural phumdis. I visited one of the fisherman huts out on the water where many of them spend the night if they are fishing at odd hours. I was also able to see a woman using one of the traditional fishing techniques that only women use, which looked extremely difficult to do. It was such a peaceful morning and there was something beautiful in observing the everyday life of the local fishing community.
Finally, my boat guide took me to a floating homestay run by a local family, which was recently constructed and another one of Maipakchao’s initiatives. They served me tea whilst I was able to climb the tower they’d built for another view of the lake from above.
After lunch at Maipakchao’s home, he lent me his bicycle (with no gears and a very hard seat!) to go out to the Keibul Lamjao National Park, which is actually one massive floating phumdi made of reeds and which is home to the sangai deer. The deer are considered to be one of the biggest success stories in animal conservation in the world as they were once thought to be extinct and have slowly been nurtured back to increasing numbers, albeit only within the small 40 sq km park boundary. I was able to spot around six of the deer from a viewing platform the government have built inside the park and where rangers provide binoculars and help spot them for you.
In the evening, Maipakchao took me to another man’s home where a small museum has been set up by the man and his son. It was completely free and includes a few displays of old artefacts of the local community such as old fishing and hunting equipment, traditional clothing and skeletons of the many animal species that used to call the area home. They told me that many of the items were original but some have been made as replicas, completely as a voluntary project by the family. I gave them a small donation equivalent to AUD$2 and the son couldn’t have been more appreciative, but I was so impressed by the community’s initiative and creativity that I couldn’t not contribute something.
Of course, what certainly seemed more like a “jewelled land” has a darker side and Maipakchao informed me about the uncertain future of the lake. A hydropower project was constructed a few years back and has meant that the water levels of the lake remain high all year round rather than the natural ebb and flow depending on the season. This has meant that the phumdis are unable to sink and regrow as they are meant to and their thinning has greatly affected the ecosystem of the lake and the fish living beneath the surface. This endangerment was Maipakchao’s inspiration for creating the ecotourism board in an attempt to promote tourism as an alternative source of income so the community does not rely wholly on fishing, which may not be sustainable long term. His hope too is that with tourism will come greater awareness of the lake and its uncertain future which may in turn encourage the government to help preserve it.
I had such an amazing time with Mr Maipakchao and the Loktak community, learning about an interesting and beautiful part of the world that not many people get to visit. It’s such a pity that the state is still labelled as ‘dangerous’ in the guidebooks, a fact even Maipakchao had to laugh at. It has long been considered a haven for drug traffickers and guerrilla armies that have run across the border areas, which has discouraged many foreign tourists from visiting. However, despite it being politically active and at odds with the central government, I didn’t feel any personal danger while travelling in the state and now that the permit system has been relaxed, I found it quite easy to move around.
I also found the Manipuri people extremely welcoming and friendly. When I returned to Imphal after Loktak, I was a bit lost as to where to find the shared rickshaws that Maipakchao had told me about to get to my accommodation. A middle-aged couple noticed that I looked lost and personally took me out of their way to where the rickshaws left from and even spoke with the driver, so he knew exactly where to drop me. I was shown nothing but kindness by people and I hope that only more foreigners will consider visiting the state, especially the beautiful Loktak Lake, a truly unique place that cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.
Where I stayed
Mr Maipakchao’s Homestay in Thanga Village
His phone number is: +91 9856356993. It’s recommended to call in advance as he only has a couple of rooms and will be expecting you if you call, although he can also help with alternative arrangements if he’s full.
For my recommendations in Imphal see my post on crossing the Myanmar-India border.
How I got in
Although I took a private rickshaw, shared transport called ‘wingers’ to Moirang (for Loktak Lake) leave from near the women’s market on Bir Tikendrajit Rd in Imphal.
How I got out
I caught a bus from Imphal to Kohima, Nagaland at 9.30am, which took six hours and cost 500R. The bus counters are clustered around North AOC, on the India-Myanmar Rd, north of the old fort and have daily departures to Kohima, Shillong and Guwahati.