By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
Rudyard Kipling, Mandalay, 1892
For more than a century the Road to Mandalay has evoked longing, nostalgia and the exotic East for artists ranging from Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell to Frank Sinatra and Robbie Williams.
Now travellers from India will be able to share their passion for Burma’s beauty when its eastern border is opened to a new bus route from Imphal to Mandalay, the former capital and gateway to the country’s tribal north.
A new highway is expected to be completed by October, when travellers will be able to board a bus from Imphal in India’s Manipur state to Mandalay more than 14 hours away for around £20.
The Indian and Burmese governments believe the road will dramatically increase trade between the two remote regions either side of the border at Moreh, and pave the way for greater investment as Burma continues its emergence from decades of isolation under military rule.
The route will open new travel possibilities not only for lovers of Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads and Orwell’s Burmese Days, but also for the descendants of those who fought along it in one of the fiercest battles of the Second World War. It was at Imphal and nearby Kohima that British, Indian, Burmese and Nepali soldiers finally stopped the Japanese advance in heroic hand to hand combat.
More recently it has been one of the world’s busiest drug trafficking routes in the transportation of heroin and amphetamines through Asia to Europe.
Traders on the eastern side of the border have also dispatched Burmese teak to India while buying Indian pressure cookers, bicycles and cheap medicines.
Officials from both countries believe the slim volumes of legitimate trade will increase dramatically when the road opens in October and again later when it opens to freight traffic.
Indian officials confirmed they had reached agreement with the Burmese counterparts on the new route in a meeting in the capital Nay Pyi Taw earlier this month.
Discussions began under the previous prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, but a deal eluded his officials. His successor, Narendra Modi, is determined to raise India’s profile and improve its political and trading relationships with its immediate neighbours, particular those in South-East Asia.
The new road is one of a number of planned strategic highways to connect India with Kunming in China and Singapore via Thailand and Malaysia. China earlier reached agreement to reopen the Stilwell Road built during the Second World War to supply arms from British India to Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Chinese forces.
The Indian government said the agreement was made after its officials briefed their Burmese colleagues on a number of road projects it had undertaken in the country, including 70 bridges on the Tamu-Kalay-Kalewa Friendship Highway – part of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway.
Sonny Nyunt Thein of the Burmese government-linked think tank Egress said he welcomed the development because those living close to the border desperately needed the economic benefits it would bring. “There is no public transport there and to be honest trade is definitely needed”.
Burmese historian Thant Myint-U, who is also an adviser to the country’s president Thein Sein, said despite the evocative place ‘Road to Mandalay’ commands in literary memory, there has never been a proper road between India and Burma.
“The amazing thing is that even though Burma and India were both part of the British Indian Empire, there was no proper road, no rail link, and pretty much no overland route connecting the two during the entire period of colonial rule…The overland route became reality only in 1945 when the Ledo road was finally finished. This bus route is part of a much bigger historic turn that is taking place, a weaving together of the India, Burma, and China borderlands, and the creation of Burma as an Asian crossroads for the first time in history”, he said.