Published: September 2nd 2008March 6th 2008
To Burma's Far North
In 2007 we had finally been prompted to visit Sri Lanka
by the fact that good friends Yves and Ashleigh Ogier were running a boutique hotel in Kandy, The Kandy House
. Since then they had moved to Burma to run another small hotel, this time in the far north of the country near Putao, the northernmost town (10,000 inhabitants) in Kachin State and only some 100km and 150km respectively from the Indian and Chinese borders. This was really in the middle of nowhere, and far from the usual tourist trail, so we thought it was a good opportunity to check out an area there was otherwise very little likelihood of us ever visiting.
We took a very early non-stop Silk Air flight from Singapore to Yangon
where we were pleased to disembark into a brand new airport - a huge improvement from our arrival in 2002. We found the Traders Hotel
representative and they had a driver take us to the hotel, superbly situated in the heart of town at the junction of Sule Pagoda and Bogoke Aung San Roads. We’d been upgraded to the Traders Club executive floor and had a
dual aspect room looking west towards Scott Market and north to the Shwedagon Pagoda. After some breakfast and several cups of coffee, Kyat Kyat Aung from the head office of Balloons Over Bagan
came by to give us our tickets for the next day, and our travel permits (10 copies each!) allowing us to visit Kachin State.
We had lunch and a nap in our rather pleasant room before heading off late afternoon to the Shwedagon
. This was our third visit to this amazing place and we spent a delightful, leisurely few hours in the late afternoon sunlight people-watching and taking photographs. There can be no such beautiful, vast, laid-back temple in the whole world as this one. Even after three visits I am at a loss for words as to how it affects one.
Back at Traders we had a drink in the lobby bar followed by a coffee shop dinner and an early night.
I wandered out of the hotel at 6am the next day to stroll around and watch the city come to life. Early street traders were already starting to lay out their wares on the pavement or on makeshift tables, but
I made my way first to the jetties of the Yangon River where I spent a fascinating hour watching the waterside life so central to this city.
A non-stop procession of small boats pulls up to the steps bringing commuters and street-traders from towns and villages on the other side of the river. And hundreds of large river transporters sit at dock laden with vegetables, sacks of rice, coconuts and cement, massive heads of bananas, squawking ducks and chickens in large rattan baskets, huge cans of cooking oil, boxes of electronics, and everything else that a large Asian city might have need of. These transporters tie up at floating jetties connected to the riverbank by narrow covered walkways that are a-buzz with files of men, women and boys carrying all these goods on their backs, shoulders or heads. Not a single forklift or trolley is to be seen; every single item is moved by hand. A wooden token system of accounting is used for this labour with, I assume, each token redeemed for payment once the labourers’ work is done for the day. All the goods are loaded into cars, pickups and small trucks at the dockside, or carried
off directly to the nearby markets of China Town.
Since it was already seven-thirty I also headed off to China Town, by now busy with street vendors, pavement cafes, early customers, people on their way to work or school, and monks collecting alms. We had a plane to catch so I reluctantly dragged myself away and back at the hotel we packed, ate breakfast at the Executive Club, and left for the airport.
Our flight was one of Air Bagan’s ATR-42 turbo props
that left just before noon, bound for Putao - some 1,250 kilometres to the north - via Myitkyina
, Kachin State’s capital. We departed from what had in 2002 been the only terminal and which is now dedicated to domestic flights.
Shortly after three we bounced along the small Putao airstrip where Ashleigh and some of the staff met us and whisked us off in their monster Mitsubishi 4WD Diesel to Malikha Lodge
about twenty minutes drive away on the edge of Mulashide village, with a stop on the way for a view across the Malikha/Nam Lang valley. At the Lodge we were shown into a stunning communal building with a massive
balcony hanging off the bank of the Nam Lang River which (at this time of year) flows gently by about thirty metres below. Looking straight up the river to the west through strands of bamboo grove and forest your eyes are lead to the hills beyond and, ultimately, to the snow-capped peaks of the Khamtis Mountains on the border with Assam. It was without a doubt one of the most stunningly located hotel we’ve ever seen - an amazing sight.
Yves and Ruby Rose (number two daughter, aged six) joined us and we sat and chatted for a while before being shown to our villa (one of just ten), also perched high up above the river, for a shower and a massage before dressing for dinner. We took along all the goodies we had brought from Singapore and it was like Christmas for Ashleigh and Yves, neither of whom had even been to Yangon - let alone outside the country - for the past six months. Particularly loved was a copy of the photo-book of our trip around Sri Lanka a year ago when we had visited the Ogiers at The Kandy House.
We ate an excellent dinner
and drank far too much wine. Executive Chef Ingemar from Iceland and his assistant and friend Rolf from Denmark joined us for coffee and we had an interesting chat about life a million miles from anywhere!
Lisa and I slept until nine despite the plan to leave the lodge at nine-thirty. After rousing ourselves with coffee and a light breakfast, we drove about half an hour or so to start our planned hike. Asleigh and Yves were able to join us, and Jason and Orang, a couple of the activity staff from Malikha Lodge who would act as guides and porters, also accompanied us.
The villages here go on and on, and on - one linked to the next. Laid out on a grid pattern, wide grassy avenues front all the simple wooden houses, each of which is allocated a sizeable plot on which to grow vegetables and fruits and keep a pig or two and a few chickens. For a whole hour and a half we walked through what seemed like a non-stop village.
The main local tribes are, we were told, Lisu
; only the Shan are largely Buddhist, the rest predominantly Christian
- in this part of Kachin State at least. There are certainly many different denominational churches peppering the villages.
The inhabitants seem very relaxed, welcoming and friendly, and certainly very photogenic. One villager proudly showed us his fine hardwood crossbow and bamboo-made bolts. He set up a grapefruit on a tree and illustrated his prowess, and then handed the bow to me. I managed to hit the grapefruit absolutely dead centre; largely by luck of course, and a cause for much hilarity all round!
Shortly afterwards we met a very old man (late 80’s or early 90’s) walking very upright along the avenue. Above his sarong he was wearing a green military shirt dripping with old medals. It transpired that he had joined Aung San’s
army fighting with the Japanese against the British in the early 1940’s. Later, in 1943 when Aung San decided it would be smart to switch sides, he fought with the British against the Japanese. It would have been fascinating to be able to sit down with him and spend hours getting all his stories from those times.
After walking across a flat, empty, dusty stretch of plain we hit another village
(called Zi Ong, I believe) bordered by a dammed stream full of happy-looking ducks. Here we drank a couple of beers and ate the picnic lunch that Jason and Orang had carried in their backpacks, sitting on the banks of the stream in the shade of a large clump of bamboo. If you squinted, it could have been a scene out of fifteenth century middle England; a pig snuffled in the grass, the ducks sat on the dam and preened themselves, and chickens and cockerels came down from the village to forage for food among the rock-pools. Across the damned pond sat an isolated, thatched village house surrounded by trees. It was absolutely idyllic, and Constable might well have painted it!
After lunch we walked another couple of hours to the outskirts of Machambaw village on the banks of the Malikha River where the jeep picked us up for the forty-five minute drive back to the Lodge. Tired and dusty, we revived ourselves with a hot drink and a shower (actually a sumptuous bath for Lisa) in our fire-warmed lodge. By the time we were ready for an early dinner it had started to rain, and the temperature had
dropped precipitously. We were in bed before ten, and asleep soon after, wondering what weather the next morning would bring. Next ➤ ➤
There are more photos below