I always remember the stories my granddad used to tell me as a kid, of his time during the two world wars. WWII was a trying time for him, serving as an officer in the Royal Navy, and being sent all around the world to fight. Burma was one place he went to, during the Japanese occupation, and he had many tales to tell of the time he spent there.
Many years later, as an officer myself – albeit with the British Army, instead of the Royal Navy, an issue he would always complain about – I had the chance to visit the country for myself, and spend some time there, in Chin State, close to the Indian border, and in Shan State, on the opposite side, next to China.
The sad part of it all is that we never got to go sightseeing, since we were there as military advisers and protective services to UN officials. We did get to travel to several different places, but always under escort, and under guard, which meant we were more focused on the Burmese military than the beautiful countryside.
Rih Dil was one place we came near to, as there were issues with suspected communist party members crossing back into Chin State from India, but were not able to see it.
“Rih Lake is the largest lake in Mizoram, but it is in Burma,” is a common saying of the Mizo people. In the far east of Myanmar, almost on the border with India, lies the heart-shaped lake that is known as Rih Dil. It lies just two kilometers from the Harhva River, which is the natural boundary between Myanmar and Mizoram in India. The Mizo people lay claim to the lake as one of their most sacred sites, despite it actually being in Myanmar, within the village boundaries of Rihkhawdar.
This beautiful, heart-shaped lake is around 100km from the nearest major town in Myanmar, Falam, but only 24km from Champhai, in Mizoram, and while it may be well off the beaten track for most travelers, the village itself is an establishment of adventures that is designed to lure visitors to explore this mysterious, haunted lake.
The lake is around a mile long and half a mile wide, and is described as “heart-shaped”, though it looks more like a kidney bean when viewed from above. While it has not yet been properly measured, the bed of the lake is supposedly deeper in the southern end, and it has a peculiar characteristic of becoming suddenly deep just a few meters off the shoreline.
The Legend of Rihi
Legend has it that the lake was the passage for the spirits of the dead between this life and the mythical abode of Mitthi Khua. Many still believe that it is the last home of the spirits, who reside still in the lake for eternity. Many myths exist about the lake, which have been the inspiration for generations of Mizo writers and composers, and perhaps the most common is the legend of Rihi. As a girl, Rihi had a cruel stepmother who wanted to get rid of the girl and her sister. When their father took her sister deep into the woods and killed her, Rihi followed and found her dead. Inconsolable, she was found by the Mizo spirit Lasi, who told her of a tree nearby which could give life when one of its leaves were eaten. Rihi fed her sister a leaf, and brought her back from the dead. But to quench her sister’s thirst, she also ate a leaf and transformed into a pool of water, so her sister could drink. Many years later, she was forced to turn into a white mithun (a large sacred bovine) and wander the land looking for a permanent home. After long journeys, she came to a river, but the spirit of the river threatened to suck her dry, so she fled from Champhai to the valley near Rihkhawdar Village, where she settled in her favorite form – that of a lake.
This small lake still has huge spiritual significance to the Mizo people, who inhabit land on both sides of the Myanmar-India border. The Mizo believe that the lake is the passageway to their afterlife, and the lake certainly does have a very tranquil and peaceful setting. The waters are of a deep blue color, and rice paddies in the valley, with heavily forested hills either side, surround the lake.
The local Chin people also believed that the lake was of spiritual significance, and that the afterlife was divided in two. While all dead went through the lake to Mitthi Khua, the village of the dead, only a few passed on to Pialral, or heaven. While those who have earned the title “Thangchuah” – through their piousness, sacrifice of animals, and giving to the community – could go on from Mitthi Khua to Pialral, and live in paradise, those who were not permitted into Pialral must stay in Mitthi Khua, the dead man’s village, where there is only hardship and toil.
While the Mizo people may have been converted to Christianity long ago, Rih Dil still retains its place in their ancient animist traditions, and has even been incorporated into their modern Christian beliefs. In the ancient religion, Rih Dil was classed as the gateway to the ancient Mizo version of heaven, known as Pialral, through which all souls must pass on their way to the eternal home. This concept of Pialral has been blended with Christianity to become the Christian idea of Paradise, which has allowed the lake’s mythical status to remain intact. The spiritual aura of the lake is enhanced by its remote location, and it is still a major pilgrimage site for the Mizo people, from both Myanmar and India. It is also a favored hang-out for the local villagers, who often spend weekends camping at the lakeside, and swimming in its deep, blue waters. Weekends can see the lake being busy, except in the monsoon season, so if you want a peaceful time there, the best time to visit is during the weekdays, when you will have it almost to yourself.
Rih Dil is difficult t get to due to its remote location on the western edge of Myanmar. In Myanmar, visitors can get a bus from Yangon to Monywa, in Sagaing Division. However, from there it is all smaller transports, due to the road conditions. That part of Myanmar is not yet fully equipped to handle a major influx of tourists, and may of the roads in the north and north-west are still gravel tracks. From Monywa, you can get a mini-bus to the village of Rihkhawdar, and then a 15-minute motorcycle taxi ride to the lake.
Getting there from the India side is much easier, as the roads to Champhai are much better, and there is a border crossing nearby, that is often used for pilgrims to the lake. The 22km trip from Champhai to Rihkhawdar can be made on a small, local bus, which travels right up to the lakeside. The fee to cross the border is around Rs. 10 per person, although the checkpoint will require foreign nationals to have a visa for Myanmar before allowing them entry.
Chin state has been largely unexplored by foreigners until recently, due to heavy restrictions on foreign travel around the northern and western areas of the country. Since Burma gained its independence from British rule in 1948, the closed-door policy of General Ne Win, combined with the Myanmar Socialism completely closed all interactions with foreign travelers for more than half a century. Chin state was a forbidden zone by the military government from 1998 until 2015, with the exception of religious leaders, international charity organizations, and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) workers. The new government has now opened up tourism to Chin State to promote visitors to this beautiful region and allow an influx of foreign currency into the country.
As spectacular as the lake is, the journey to get there, through the little-known mountains, villages, and valleys of Chin State is just as unforgettable. Only a handful of travelers visit the lake each year, so it is still quite an undiscovered and unspoiled area of natural beauty. The locals have started to carve out a small living from what little tourism already exists, and you are guaranteed attention from these friendly villagers. There is still little in the way of comfort and tourist facilities – although there is a new restaurant for visitors, called the Rih Lake Restaurant – so you can still revel in being way off the beaten track.
If you have a valid passport with at least 6 months remaining, you should have no problem getting a visa to enter Myanmar. While you will be required to obtain your visa before leaving your country of origin – there is no visa-on-arrival for Myanmar – there is also no requirement to provide onward travel details or tickets in order to enter the country. Typical, single-entry visas last for 28 days, although certain countries, such as the United Kingdom, have a visa-free allowance for up to 21 days.
Citizens of certain listed countries can apply online for tourist e-visas through the Myanmar Ministry of Immigration and Population website, and the cost of the 28-day tourist visa is around US$50. The e-visa is then sent by email, and you can just print it and show it to the passport officials on arrival at one of the permitted airports (Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw international airports) or at one of the three Thailand-Myanmar land border crossing points: Tachileik, Myawadi, and Kawthoung.
For majority of visitors, clearing customs in Myanmar should not be a problem, although there are certain restrictions you need to be aware of in order to guarantee unhindered passage. Any foreign currency in excess of US$2,000 must be declared upon entry, and while cameras, video equipment, cellphones, laptops, and other electronics are permitted, there is a ban on antiques, pornographic materials and any form of drugs without proof of prescription, including narcotics. Myanmar does not allow the use of medical marijuana, so American nationals with medically prescribed cannabis should not bring it with them.
Best Time to Visit
The south-west monsoon season starts in around mid-May, and peaks from July to September. Rain can often make the roads impassable, which makes this period the low season for Myanmar holidays.
The high season for travel to Myanmar is normally from December to February, when there is very little rain, and the country is not too hot. It is recommended to book well in advance, especially for city visits, as these can be busy periods in Myanmar’s up and coming tourist industry.
The shoulder seasons are normally from October to November, and March to Mid May. The weather in October and November is drier than the low season months. It is getting cooler and is an ideal time for travel to the country, especially if you are going backpacking or hiking. From March to May it is very hot and dry, and temperatures can reach as high as 40 degrees centigrade. Areas around Bagan and Mandalay are often hotter, while the hill towns of Shan State are higher up, and quite a lot cooler than at sea level. The Burmese New Year festival, “Thingyan”, falls around mid-April, and transport and accommodation is normally booked solid at this time of year.
(Video courtesy of Milestone Pictures)
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