MYITKYINA, KACHIN STATE AND NORTHEASTERN MYANMAR

NORTHEASTERN MYANMAR

NORTHEASTERN MYANMAR is located in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, where Myanmar, China and India all come together. The area has lovely snowcapped peaks and dense forests but at this point in time there are few facilities for travelers. Myanmar's highest mountain, 5,861-meter Hkakabo Razi, is about 50 miles from the Myanmar town of Putao.

Northeastern Myanmar has been called “the most forbidding terrain on earth.” It is a mountainous, heavily-forested area that is still largely unspoiled and unknown. Few foreigners have ever been there. In the far northern reaches of this region live Tibetans that still use salt as a form of currency and animal usually associated with Tibet: the red panda, the takin (an animal with features of a goat, ox and antelope), blue sheep, black muntjac, a kind of barking deer previously thought to be endemic to China and stone marten.

In the late 1990s scientists discovered a new deer—about two feet tall and weighing less than 20 pounds—that was previously unknown to science. The deer was called the leaf muntjac and is so small that hunters carry it in a single leaf. It was discovered in the mountains north of Putao by Alan Rabinowitz from the Wildlife Conservation Society who met a hunter who had just killed one.

The Gaokigong Shan and Hengduan Shan ranges define the border between Myanmar and China. The area north of Putai is called the “icy mountains” by the tribes that live there. There are few roads. People get around on mountain trails that routinely precipitously climb and descend from 1,500-foot valleys to 10,000-foot passes. The weather and terrain often make travel slow going at best.

The people that live here are primarily agriculturalists and hunters, who use poison arrows, metal traps and snares for hunting and raise gayals (domestic versions of guars). They grow millet, corn and wheat for food and exchange rare wild plants, skins, horses and body parts of wild, often endangered animals for things they need, primarily salt and tea. Often they deal with Chinese traders who supply the Chinese medicine market in China.

Sought after items include musk deer glands, Himalayan black bear gall bladders, serow tongues (taken for headaches), goral legs (for joint ailments), skins of capped leaf monkeys and white-browed gibbons (for shoulder bags). To save these animals, the Myanmar government has provided villagers with salt so they don’t have to kill animals to obtain it.

Sub Tropical Forests in Northern Burma are still very wild places. It is is the northernmost range of animals found in India and Southeast Asia. Barking deer, sambar deer, elephants, tigers, leopards, jungle cocks (ancestors of chickens), sun bears, and insurgents are found here. Guar, musk deer and rhino that once lived here have largely disappeared. The area is largely unexplored and so little studied that scientist have little idea how many animals are here.

The best time of the year to visit the area is in the dry season from October to January when the temperatures are reasonably comfortable and there aren't any leaches. The best time to spot wildlife is early in the morning. Usually people hear rustling in the branches and catch glimpses of birds by rarely see large mammals.

The building of roads bridges over rivera that once had to be crossed on the backs of elephants is opening up the region but also speeding up development, deforestation and destruction of the habitat of many wild animals. In some areas development has brought gold miners, dynamite fishermen and hunters armed with guns rather than traditional crossbows.

Bhamo is major town on the Irrawaddy River and a major smuggling center only 50 miles from the Chinese border. It is in Shan-controlled territory. Travel in the area is sharply restricted. Travelers are told to stay near the main roads, which are heavily guarded by the Myanmar army and have numerous road blocks on them. Bhamo is reputed to be surrounded by ancient walls and a moat.

KACHIN AND KACHIN STATE

The Kachin are an ethic minority that lives in Myanmar near the border with China. There is also large numbers of them in China where they are known as the Jingpo and some in Assam, India where they are known as the Singhpo. In Myanmar, they live mostly the slopes of mountains between 1,200 meters and 1,900 meters in the Kachin State and to a lesser degree in the Shan state, regions filled with monsoon rain forests and dominated by mountains. In China the live almost exclusively in Yunnan on the slopes of mountains between 1,470 meters and 1,980 meters in the Dehong Dai and Kachin Autonomous Prefecture, a region filled with monsoon rain forests and dominated by the Gaoling Mountains and Daying and Ruili Rivers .

It is estimated that there are around one million Kachin in Myanmar. The term “Kachin” comes from the Jinghpaw word for “Red Earth” and refers to a region where two branches of the upper Irrawaddy come together and where powerful chiefs have traditionally been located. The Jinghpaw (Jingpo) are the main Kachin subgroup. Their dialect is the lingua franca for all other groups. Other groups include the Maru, Atsi, Lashi and Achang. Kachin have been described as the Scots of Myanmar.

The Kachin is also known as the Acha, Aji, Atsa, Chasham Dashan, Jinghpaw, Kang, Lachi, Lalang, Langshu, Langwo, Lashi, Maru, Shidong, Xiaoshan, Zaiwa. A 1990 census counted 119,000 of them in China. They live mostly in Dehong Dai and Kachin autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province. There is no good figure on their numbers in Myanmar but it estimated that there are more than a million of them there.

The Kachin tend to have fairer skin and broader features than the Burmese. The Kachin speak a Sino-Tibetan language and have their own written language. There are a number of dialects. Some linguists assert that the Kachin and Zaiwa dialects are different enough to qualify as different languages. Their written language is not used much anymore. Few people speak the native language in China anymore.

Kachin Groups and Kachin State: There are four main Kachin subgroups: 1) the Jingo (Jinghpaw in Myanmar); 2) Zaiwa; 3) Lachi; and 4) Langwo, with the Zaiwa and Kachin being the major two. The 1990 census counted around 70,000 Zaiwa in China. According to Myanmar government the original name of the race known as Kachin is Jinghpaw. Jinghpaw is the racial name for the tribes known as the Hkahkus, Gauris, Lashis, Marus, Atsis and Nungs as well as for the Jinghpaw proper. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

According to the Kachin National Organization there are six different Kachin sub-groups—each with their colorful dress and dialect. According to Myanmar government Kachin are comprised of 12 different ethnic groups: (1) Kachin, (2) Taron, (3) Dalaung, (4) Jinghpaw, (5) Guari, (6) Hkahku, (7) Duleng, (8) Maru (Lawgore), (9) Rawang, (10) Lashi (La Chid), (11) Atsi, (12) Lisu.

Most Kachin live in Kachin State. Some Shan, Burmans, Chin and Naga also live there. In 1983 the population of Kachin State was 933, 800 and in 1996 it was 1.2 million. According to the Myanmar government 57.8 per cent of the Kachin State's population are Buddhists and 36.4 are Christians but Kachin groups and human rights groups say the percentage of Christians is much higher. There are also some Muslims and Hindus. The Burmese language is widely spoken and Kachin languages such as Jainphaw , Rawan and Lisu are also spoken. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

The Kachin State lies in northern Burma with snow-capped mountains in the far north. It is also where the confluence of the Maykha and Malikha Rivers gives rise to the mighty Irrawaddy River. Kachin State borders China in the east and the northeast, India on the west, Sagaing Division of Myanmar to the west and Shan State of Myanmar on the south. Many of the Myanmar ‘s vast natural resources are located in its ethnic nationality regions, particularly in Kachin State.

Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post, “Known as the “Land of Blue and Gold,” Kachin has mountain jungles and river valleys that abound with minerals, jade and timber. Kachin state also has massive hydropower projects that stand to benefit energy-starved China, which has invested billions in the region, at the expense of ethnic Kachin natives.” [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, June 29, 2012]

MYITKYINA

MYITKYINA (487 miles north of Mandalay and 24 hour train ride from Mandalay) is the main town in the Kachin State, an area of Myanmar that was opened to tourists in the mid-1990s after the Myanmar government and Kachin rebels signed a peace treaty. The train ride to Mytitkyina is lovely but long. Not many tourist make the trip and the several that do stay at the city's main hotel which are situated above the train station. Most of the Kachin people in Myitkyina dress in Western clothes.

There isn't much to see and do in Myitkyina except visit a few temples and walk around and experience everyday life. The town is located on the upper reaches of the Irawaddy River but tourist aren't allowed to travel on the river or even cross to the other side.

There are beautiful mountains in the area with Kachin villages, forests, elephants, but again tourists are allowed to go there because holdout Kachin insurgents are still active in some places. It is now possible to travel on the Ledo Road from Lweje to Bhamo.

Myitkyina (Mit-chee-NAH) has a lively market spreads out over three blacks. You can see river fish, meats and vegetables on sale next to tiger traps, opium pipes and displays of lizards, insects and animal parts used to make medicine. On the hills around the city are pagodas with white brick walls and gilded roofs. It is in Kachin controlled territory.

Myitkyina has traditionally been a major trading center for jade and opium. The are huge deposits of translucent jadite northwest of the city near Hpakan. The mines are worked by thousands of workers. Opium comes from the lands to the southeast controlled by the Shan and the Wa. The opium trade is now is much less visible than it used to be. Much of Kachin remains off limits to tourists.

Myitkyina is the capital of Kachin State. Centrally located in Kachin State, it is the northernmost railway terminal, 919 miles from Yangon and 487 miles from Mandalay. Visitors can tour the Myit Sone, the confluence of Maikha and Malikha Streams. The Irrawaddy, the most useful river in Myanmar, formally begins at this confluence, which is sacred to the Kachin, and flows 1325 miles to the mouth of the river.

Myitkyina can be reached by road, rail, river and air. The overland trade route to India and China and World War II supply line to China along the Ledo Road passed through Myitkyina. For mountaineering enthusiasts, expeditions to Mount Khaka Bo Razi and Mount Gam Lan Razi can be organized. At the edge of the town, by the banks of the Irrawaddy, gold-painting and mining goes on day and night.

Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post, “Historically a hub for border trade with China, Myitkyina, a city of roughly 150,000 people, has not experienced the economic growth seen in many of Myanmar's lowland cities. Infrastructure is shoddy, and there are rolling blackouts and perennially high unemployment. Local religious leaders say the bleak social and economic climate has led to a sharp rise in hard-drug use and depression among Kachin youth. "Conditions today are hopeless" for the Kachin, said one shopkeeper, 28, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared trouble with state authorities. He earned an engineering degree two years ago but has found no work in his field. "Our people have so many grievances against the Burmese," he said. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, July 14, 2012]

Inndawgyi Shwe Myinzu Pagoda (1,500 feet from the west bank of Indawgyi in Mohnyin Township, Kachin State) lies on the sandbank named Linlon. It is said an abbot monk named Sayadaw U Nyi Hsu of Taung Thonlone in Indawgyi, set out from Hpa Nan Mon areas with disciples endowed with sila, samadhi, metta and Kammathana, conveying the three stones. When they got to the site of the pagoda the abbot set his staff on the sandbank and strengthened its position with the three stones. As instructed by U Nyi Hsu, Sayadaw U Thawbita laid the foundation of the pagoda. Then, five relics were obtained from the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon and carried on the boat in a gold casket to be enshrined there on the platform. The pagoda was completed on the 6th waxing moon day of Kason. The height was over 15 feet. Further renovations brought the height to 50 feet with a base about 39 feet 10 inches. The pagoda was built with different terraces each adorned with stone statues. There are also 152 satellite pagodas.

Myit-son (25 miles to the north of Myitkyina) is one of Myanmar's most beautiful and important natural beauty spots. It is where Maykha and Malikha rivers meet to form the Irrawaddy.

Laiza (on the Chinese border) is former boomtown, according to to the Washington Post, that has experienced an exodus of Chinese businessmen who once filled its casinos and tax coffers. Hotels rooms are empty and entire shopping blocks shuttered, the local markets are now frequented mostly by displaced civilians from the half-dozen camps that have swelled in and around the city with the advance of Burmese forces. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, June 29, 2012]

Shingbwiyang (180 miles north of Myitkyina) at mile 109 of the Ledo Road is where Stilwell set up a forward base in Burma. Today it is a shanty settlement of 30,000 people, many of them here to sluice mine rich gold deposits in the area. Elephants can be seen on the roads, dragging logs and roof beams. Shingbwiyang is pronounced Shin-bwe-Yang.

LEDO ROAD

What is called the Burma Road was actually two roads: 1) the roughly 600-mile-long Burma Road, built in 1937 and 1938 between Lashio, Burma and Kunming, China under Chiang kai-shek to bring supplies through a backdoor of China after the Japanese invaded China; 2) and the roughly 500-mile-long Ledo Road. The roads cost 1,133 American lives, roughly a man a mile.[Source: Donovan Webster, National Geographic, November 2003]

The straight line distance from Ledo to Kunming is about 460 miles. The Burma and Ledo Roads, built through some of the world’s most difficult terrain in India, Burma and China, covered more than twice that distance and hooked southward to avoid the Himalayas. The idea was ultimately to use the roads for an invasion of China and from China an invasion of Japan. Churchill called the entire project “an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished, until the need for it had passed.” The project was not completed until just six months before the war ended.

The Ledo Road was built between 1942 and 1945 between Ledo in India and the Burma Road. U.S. Gen. Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, the abrasive commander of Allied troops in the region, insisted the project would work.. Gen. Lewis Pick was the chief engineer of the Ledo Road. Known to some as “Pick’s Pike,” he told his engineers in 1943: “The road is going to be built---mud, rain, and malaria be damned!” It is sometimes called the Stilwell Road.[Source: Los Angeles Times, December 30, 2008]

The U.S. spent almost $149 million to build the Ledo Road at the request of Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. It took a little over two years to build. It was roughly 500 miles long and opened up a new supply route, as well as an oil pipeline, from India to China. Military strategist felt the road was necessary to supply China in the war. More than 28,000 Americans and 35,000 Asian workers participated in the project. Not long after the thankless job was done, two atomic blasts finished the war with Japan, and a hard-won passage that soldiers called "the Big Snake" was abandoned to the rain forest.

Construction of the Ledo Road began in 1942. The first true bridge was built over the Khtang Nall in northeastern India In October 1943, American-trained Chinese divisions entered Burma from Assam, India and drove down the Japanese road from the Hukawag Valley in northern Burma. In February 1945, Gen. Pick led a convoy into Kunming.

In 15 months construction battalions moved 13.5 million cubic yards of earth to cut the roadbed. the New York Times correspondent Tillman Durbin said there was enough dirt to build a 10-foot-high, three-foot-think wall between New York City and San Francisco.

Following the Ledo Road is very difficult. As it approaches the border of India the Ledo Road goes from pavement to gravel to mud to a foot path through the jungle. Villages here have only seen a handful of white men since World War II. The border between India and Myanmar is often closed, in part because of a problem with insurgents along the border. About half the length of the Burma and Ledo Roads is off limits to foreigners.

PUTAO

PUTAO (northernmost Myanmar) is a the largest town in northeastern Myanmar. Myanmar's and Southeast Asia’s highest mountain, 5,861-meter-high (19,320 foot-high) Hkakabo Razi, is about 50 miles from Putao. In the markets you can see body parts of a wide variety of wild animals. Many people who live here have never seen a white perosn. The road between Myitkyina and Putao is lovely and very rough. It takes two days to make the journey by bus, if there are no major breakdowns and the roads are passable. Putao can also be reached by plane.

Putao is located near snow-peaked mountains and the weather is cold around the year. The town itself is a small district capital with around 10,000 people. There are many different ethnic minority tribes in the area. Flowing streams and rivulets, straw-roofed houses and fences of pebbles and creek stones provide a pleasant, pastoral contrast to the scenes and sights of modern cities. Suspension bridges made of wood, ropes and vines are the typical river crossing in this region. People of the Rawan, Lisu, Khamti-Shan, Jingphaw and Kachin are represented in the region.

This Putao is famous for its nature and unique flora. There are many various kinds of orchids. Even super rare black orchids can be found in this area. And for fauna one of the rarest animal species takin as well as red panda, black bears, black deer, monkeys, boars, mountain goats are seen in this region. Various kinds of butterflies can be seen in this area, especially in January. The Butterflies include rare and endangered species such as the Kaiser, Apollo, Bhutan, and Glory. Among the flora are different kinds of rhododendrons, maple trees and various kinds of bamboos. The months of January and April are the best times to see butterflies, flowers and orchids in the icy forest.

Kawn Moo Lon Golden Sambur King Pagoda (10 miles east of Putao) is situated in Kham Ti Lung area 12 miles from Machambaw, on east bank of Malikha River. It was one of 84,000 pagodas built by Thiri Dhamma Thawka the great king, enshrining three relics under the tutelage of Thatitha Arahantha, at the place of demise of the king of sambur that was the embryo-Buddha left on Hinthagon (Ngun Pik) Hill many existences ago. In the east entrance are an image of Kakusana Buddha, Matali nat and Manuthiha, in the north an image of Gonaguna Buddha, king of nats, and king of wuns, in the west an image of Kassapha Buddha, Wathondaray guardian of the earth, and figure of a lion, in the south an image of Gautama Buddha, a figure of an ogre and a king of tigers. In the south-east are a satellite pagoda and an image of Arimetreya.

Visiting Putao: On his journey to Putao organize a trip to the village of Rat Baw, about thirty miles from the Chinese border, Jamie James wrote in Natural History magazine: “Our flight north was slightly terrifying, aboard an ancient commuter plane that looked ready for the scrap heap. When we skittered to a landing in Putao, I found myself in the middle of a broad plain encircled by distant blue mountains, the southeastern edge of the Himalayas. Concealed by the closer peaks, to my north lay Hkakabo Razi, at 19,294 feet. At the only decent restaurant in Putao, I met with Yosep Kokae, an experienced guide.

My rush to get to Rat Baw and back before my permit expired was soon revealed to be pointless. In Putao I learned that my flight to Yangon had been cancelled indefinitely. So I was stranded there with a trio of British birdwatchers, staying in an unheated guesthouse next door to a karaoke club that catered to very drunk loggers. The birders told me that they had sighted the Burmese bushlark, hooded treepie, white-browed nuthatch, white-throated babbler, and several species of bulbul. They held out little hope for the pink-headed duck, Rhodonessa caryophyllacea, a legendary waterfowl with a head as pink as bubble gum. It is almost certainly extinct; the last reported sighting was in 1966.

A week later, an airlift was organized for us, serendipitously scheduled for the morning after Putao's annual festival. This country fair consisted mainly of dart-throwing gambling games, booths selling beer and fried snacks, and karaoke. The chief attraction was a performance by an inept rock band, Claptonian noodling laid over a thumping pop rhythm of bass and drums. Yosep Kokae was there with his wife; Khun Kyaw and his compadres were flirting with the girls, boasting about their adventure. Perhaps 500 people milled about watching the show. Outside Burma it might have been accounted a pretty poor festival, but after my trip to Rat Baw it seemed like a jubilant saturnalia. [Source: Jamie James, Natural History magazine, June 2008]

TRAVELING BY MOTORCYCLE FROM PUTAO

Jamie James wrote in Natural History magazine, “The area I wanted to visit had been a site of active resistance by guerilla groups until the mid-1990s, and the presence of foreigners there is restricted. I had only managed to obtain a ten-day pass to Putao and environs. A guide was also assigned to accompany me—a tall, serious, bespectacled man of twenty-seven named Lynn Htut Oo, who continually reminded me of the importance of giving him a big tip. With the aid of my government guide, I immediately set about organizing an expedition to Rat Baw. The village lies in a rugged area that is home to hill tribes that came from around Tibet hundreds of years ago. Known collectively to outsiders as the Kachin, they call themselves by the names of their tribal groups, among them the Jingpaw, Rawang, and Lisu. [Source: Jamie James, Natural History magazine, June 2008]

“The forests in the valleys around Rat Baw “partake of the character of tropical rain forest.” So wrote the botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward, who traveled to Burma ten times from 1914 to 1956, bringing back showy species that became staples of English gardens. At the only decent restaurant in Putao...Then the restaurant's owner, a tall, dignified Kachin woman, told me that her son and his friends might be willing to take me to Rat Baw on their motorcycles. Her son, Khun Kyaw, a strapping, self-confident twenty-two-year-old, recruited two friends, making a party of six with me, my government guide, and Yosep Kokae. It wasn't ideal, roaring through the wilderness on cheap Chinese motorbikes, but I had no alternative. Just as we were about to depart, the local constabulary decided that we must have another official minder on the expedition, so we were assigned a timid twenty-year-old policeman, whom Khun Kyaw and the others treated with open contempt.

“It was a cool, misty morning when we set off, seven men on six bikes, laden with bottled water and freshly killed chickens. On the outskirts of town we passed several Protestant churches, simple bamboo structures with wooden crosses surmounting their flimsy entrance gates. Burma is overwhelmingly Buddhist, but most of the people around here follow Christianity. The earliest known missionary to the Kachin was Eugenio Kincaid, a Baptist preacher from Wethersfield, Connecticut, who paddled a small boat loaded with bibles and religious tracts some 400 miles up the Irrawaddy from Mandalay in 1837.

“A few miles out of town, we crossed a fine iron suspension bridge spanning a northern tributary of the Irrawaddy. Elephants were stacking freshly felled trees on the riverbank, awaiting a barge from Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, to collect them. It was the last evidence of logging activity I would see on the trip. A good paved road led to the village of Machanbaw, the last outpost of relative civilization; after that, the trail became narrow and overgrown, climbing steadily to an elevation of 2,000 feet. Although it lies north of the Tropic of Cancer, the forest here has a distinctly subtropical character, with towering dipterocarps, Chinese coffin trees, flowering magnolias, fragrant screw pines, and many fruit trees, including rambutan, mangosteen, and banana, all wrapped in thick ropes of lianas and other climbers. The British botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward described the terrain in his account of a collecting expedition in 1953: “Here the forest is richer and denser—not only does frost never enter into these deep sheltered valleys, but throughout the winter they are steeped in mist till nearly midday, and so partake of the character of tropical rain forest.”

“Kingdon-Ward was the hardest-working and most productive of the foreign scientists...in the region. In ten epic journeys to Burma from 1914 to 1956, he collected dozens of plant species new to science, and brought back hundreds of varieties of begonias, poppies, rhododendrons, and other showy flowering plants, which became staples of English gardens. His vivid, often witty journals of those expeditions were popular reading for British Sunday gardeners.

“We made our first camp at a village called Htanga. It was wretchedly poor, malaria was rampant, and the people were obviously not getting enough to eat. Yet the inhabitants were wonderfully hospitable, giving us the best house in town, a rickety bamboo structure on stilts with a thatched roof. For dinner, Yosep Kokae made “bachelor's chicken,” a mild, savory curry served with tiny fried potatoes, the size of garbanzo beans, which had a delicious, nutty flavor. Later, a few children sneaked up to see us. They were fascinated by my battery-powered lantern; one little boy blew on the light bulb as if it were a flame or ember, trying to make it glow more brightly.

“We awoke to a misty morning. Yosep Kokae was already busy cooking fried rice with chilies. Breakfast began with pomelo, the fruit of Citrus maxima. One of the volleyball-size fruits—the largest of the citrus fruits—fed us all. Its mild grapefruit tang was sharpened with a dash of salt. My bowl had a fried egg on top, the only one, laid overnight by the hen that lived on the back porch. One of the bikes wouldn't start, so we abandoned it there, along with our useless police escort.

“After we had been an hour on the road, our surroundings took on a wilder aspect, so I told the guys to break for a few hours. I went ahead on foot and was soon surrounded by dense forest. I saw a hornbill swoop overhead, a reliable harbinger of wilderness; farther along I heard a pair of gibbons serenading each other. The most thriving forms of wildlife I observed, however, were the leeches. The morning mist gave them a congenial environment in low-hanging foliage. Kingdon-Ward wrote after an expedition to Putao District in 1937, “It was rather horrible to see the hordes of famished leeches advancing immediately one entered the jungle. It is almost indecent how they smell their victim and sway their way towards him, the foliage shivering to their regular movements.”

“By midday the weather had cleared, and the landscape displayed an exquisite, rugged beauty—high rock cliffs with waterfalls plunging a hundred feet or more, soaring trees, ferns with fronds five to ten feet long, stands of many varieties of bamboo, and treelike rhododendrons. I passed some boys catching tiny fish in a creek with conical, thorn-lined traps. Where a tree had fallen across the trail, I sat to wait for my escort. In a shady recess by a small creek I found a black orchid—a rare flower, but not as beautiful as its name.

“At dusk, just as a light rain began to fall, we reached Rat Baw, tucked into a valley between two high ridges that vanished into swirling clouds. Home to forty-eight families, the village has a rustic, Tolkienesque charm: bamboo fences crisscross the gentle hillside, ruling off neat vegetable patches; the low roofs of the houses, thatched with fan-palm leaves, blend imperceptibly with the surrounding secondary forest. A dirt path curves back toward the river, leading to the schoolhouse, a solid frame building with a tin roof. It was here Joe Slowinski died.” Slowinski was herpetologist who died from the bite of rare snake. See Animals.

“We pitched our tents in the main classroom. After dinner the schoolmaster, Joseph Tawng Wa, invited me to his house behind the school, just as he had Slowinski in 2001. His house was almost in ruins, with gaping holes in the floor and roof. Wild spearmint grew all around, covering the mild funk of cow dung. A grave, placid man with two gold incisors, Wa wore a Norwegian ski sweater against the damp cold. He had lost three of his five children to malaria. He opened a bottle of homemade rum and we talked about our lives. He told me he loved America, and showed me a laminated portrait of Bill Clinton he carried in his wallet.

Recalling the death of Slowinski, Wa said, “We were so sad, sir. The lady teachers all wept. The men teachers were also very sad.” He was upset that Slowinski had refused to take mashaw-tsi, the local herbal cure for snakebite. He claimed that no one in Rat Baw ever died of snakebites, thanks to the plant's miraculous curative power. Kingdon-Ward was the first to identify the herbal remedy as a species of the genus Euonymus. At that time a Kachin elder controlled the market for the precious herb. “This cheerful old rogue,” wrote Kingdon-Ward, “claimed a monopoly not only in purveying mashaw-tsi—at a price—to the public, but even in the occurrence of the plant, which he maintained grew only in the jungle near his village.” (Later in Putao, I bought a sprig in the market for a few cents.) In the morning, Wa told me, “You are very fortunate to find me here.” After six years as schoolmaster in Rat Baw, he had been offered a new job, and was leaving for good just four days later.

HUKAWNG VALLEY WILDLIFE SANCTUARY

HUKAWNG VALLEY WILDLIFE SANCTUARY (near India in northwest Myanmar) is one of the remotest places in Myanmar and home to some the last large concentrations of wild life in Southeast Asia. Located between the Samgpang and Kumon mountains, it is has hardly any people living in and is virtually void of roads and villages. Much of the travel in the area is done on foot or by boat on the Tanai and Turung Rivers. Tanai is the largest town near the valley.

Among the animals found here are tigers, clouded leopard, golden cat, Asiatic black bear, elephants, macaques, gibbons, great hornbills, green peafowl, barking deer, samar deer, and dhole. A survey of animals in the early 2000s estimated that “probably fewer than a hundred tigers remain in the valley.” The three ethnic groups that dominate the region are the Kachin who live in the lowlands and the Naga and Lisu who live in the highlands. For a long time the areas was controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

Hukawang Valley Wildlife Sanctuary was established in April 2001. It covers about 2,500 square miles. Hunting is banned but goes on anyway. There are plans to add 5,500 square miles to the sanctuary, tripling it size, making it the largest tiger refuge in the world. In this area tiger hunting would be banned but the hunting of other animals for food would be allowed in “exclusion zones.”

Animals such as tigers and leopard are hunted to supply body parts for the Chinese medicine market. Hunters are paid $8 for a bear foot which can be sold for hundreds and even thousands of dollars at restaurants in China. The major focus of conservation is not to get people to stop hunting for food but to get them stop hunting for profit. Hunters are encouraged not only to stop hunting tigers but also to stop hunting tiger prey such as sambar deer and wild boar, many of which have been killed to supply meat that feed an influx of gold miners to the area.

The Hukawang Valley is sometimes called the Valley of Death after the number of Allied soldiers that died here during the building of the Ledo Road in World War II. After the war much of the road was quickly reclaimed by jungle .Even though the KIA signed a peace treaty with the Myanmar government in 1994 the group refused to give up its arms and retained bases in the jungles in the valley. An effort is being made to convince local tribal people and miners to raise livestock so they rely less on wild game for meat. [Source: Alan Rabinowitz, National Geographic, April 2004]

Hkababo National Park (east of the town of Tahawdam) is located where Myanmar, China and India all come together.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Myanmar Travel Information, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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