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Putao: Myanmar’s treasure house of ethnic diversity

August 23, 2014 Destination ASEAN, Headline News No Comments Email Email

egtmedia59Nearly every traveler to Thailand knows the “Golden Triangle”, where Myanmar, Lao PDR and the Kingdom of Thailandborder together. Geographically, this is an area that widely reaches into the Shan State of Myanmar, includes the provinces of Northern Laos such as Luang Nam Tha and Phong Sali and also comprises the whole of Northern Thailand with Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai und Nan. This is the home of the hill tribes, which traditionally produced opium and practiced shifting cultivation.

Lesser well known is “The Triangle”, which marks the area, where Myanmar, China und India meet. Since some time now it is possible to travel to this border area in the uppermost Northern Myanmar, but important to do this is that you need to have a special permit. http://www.miceasiaexhibition.com/

In the middle of July, in the midst of the rainy season, I had the chance to travel to “The Triangle” to see, if also in this region the hill tribes produce opium, such as they use to do along the Chinese border in Myanmar’s Shan State. To follow media reports, the drug trade in Myanmar is still surging, while in Thailand und also Laos the production of opium was successfully eliminated.

To Putao it is only possible to travel by airplane, but in the office of Air Bagan in Chiang Mai it is not possible to directly buy a ticket to there, because it is necessary to have a permit for travel to Putao. Thus, I flew on July 13 first to Yangon (300US return) to apply a special permit for Putao via an old friend Mr. Rakwi Pung, a Rawang from Putao, who was once Managing Director of Snowland Travel & Tours and now retired being 70 years old.

After many days of waiting, I then received the special permit on July 20 via e-mail to be able to travel to Putao. As a tourist and in company of an American couple it was necessary to book a package tour with a licensed guide. The package tour swallowed 1859USD per person to include all flights and meals and cover 2 nights in a guesthouse in Putao as well as a 5 day trekking tour to the hill tribe villages, namely Lisu, who also live in Northern Thailand. The permit was issued by the Myanmar Government, namely by the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism in Nay Pyi Taw.

On July 22, we then flew with Air Bagan from Yangon via Mandalay and Myitkyina to Putao, what altogether lasted 4 hours. To Putao some 13 passengers were on board with us only as foreign tourists. At the airport in Putao we were well received by some immigration officials and had to give them 9 passport and visa copies each. After that our guide Ahyin, an English speaking Rawang from Myanmar Frontier Travel & Tours, drove us in a Pajero car to one of the guesthouses in Putao called “Htawan Razi”. In the same-named restaurant opposite the market we then had our dinner – Chinese style.

For planning the next days, we met in town with a so-called “Lisu Cultural Committee”, several old men, who invited us to their villages, where all were Christians. The Lisu possess a so-called bible script, which had been especially developed by an English missionary in China in the 1920’s. Most of the Christians of the Lisu here in Putao belong to the “Church ofChrist” and learn in special bible schools. The following Lisu villages were visited: Mulashidi, Muladi, Pamati, Mansakun, Sitilaw, Pangkhaing, und Dagushu Tsar. “Homestay” was organized and it was possible to learn more about, how intimate life was in a village. About opium, nobody seemed to know anything. A good Christian also does not drink alcohol.

I took enough time to explore Putao, which was called Hkamti Long (“Golden Place”) in the past. Commercial and social centre was the daily market, which is open from 6.00 o’clock in the morning to 17.00 o’clock in the evening. A small street heads north to Lisu villages and muddy tracks lead to the distant icy mountains, which only carry snow in the winter months. The main street to the east heads from the elevation, where Putao is located, down to the plain of the wet rice valley (Nam Tun) of the Buddhist Hkamti Tai farmers and to the airport and from there farther to the township of Machanbaw, a settlement, where mainly Jinghpaw people live. The street is asphalted and sometimes pebbled – only some 3m wide – and ends at a suspension bridge 14 miles on at the Malikha River, which separates Machanbaw from Putao. It is possible in the dry season to take a boat upriver towards Nam Khan and visit a large Rawang village, where the American missionary Robert Morse had lived several years in the 1950’s and started growing citrus trees there. To continue towards China is no more possible, but there is an active smuggle of mainly Mahogany trees from here into China.

At the airport splits another main road towards the south through the jungle to reach first Mulashidi, where you can still see the abandoned compound of the large Morse family clan, who lived here until 1965. Right at the Mula River there also was built the luxury Malikha Lodge, but which is closed now to renovate during the rainy season. The Myanmar Government is building now a solid stone bridge there, because the bad and muddy road leads via Sumprabum farther to Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. For that, vehicles need around 3 days so far.

Before you leave Putao, you can see on top of the elevation the impressive Roman Catholic St. Anthony Church, where the Jinghpaw priest “Peter” does the services every Sunday. He gave me a new printed book, telling about the 500 years old history of the Catholic Church in Myanmar (1514-2014).

From the market in the south direction you pass the offices of the airlines, which nowadays fly to Putao: Yangon Airways, Asian Wings Airways, Air Bagan, and Golden Myanmar Airlines. Together with the stately Myanma Airlines, they all regularly supply Putao with Myanmar Beer and other necessities from Myitkyina. But except only a few open guesthouses to cater to tourists, there is nothing else to find.

There also is a temporary office of the UNDP organization, where I could find some important and new data about Putao:

Putao Township is 2,105 square miles large und has some 82,806 inhabitants. Within the countryside 14 village wards are counted and altogether there are some 83 villages.

Putao borders are near India in the west and reaches near towards Tibet in the north and Yunnan in the east. Actually, the town is located some 500m high and has a subtropical climate, a little bit comparable with Mae Hong Son in Thailand. The distance south towards Myitkyina is 218 miles, but Myitkyina is normally only reachable in the dry season.

There is wet rice in the plain and dry rice in the mountains. Citrus trees and vegetables in the house gardens are very popular. Pigs, chicken, goats, cattle, water buffaloes and transport horses abound. The villagers look and gather herbal medicine plants, washing gold in the rivers, hunt in the forests and produce charcoal for their homes. Bartering is common. Electricity is on only 5 hours in the evenings per day. The ethnic composition is: 8,69% Jinghpaw, 31,91% Rawang, 50,79% Lisu and 7,17% Hkamti Tai (Shan). Burmese here are only 0,78%, mainly police and military.

The ethnic diversity is obvious, but as mainly all the hill tribes are Christians and dress in common Burmese cloths, there is not much local color in Putao. Only during festival times, the several hill tribes wear their costumes. Also, most of the villages are mixed and stick together by marriage contacts. I was told that most of the villagers took the Christian religion – except the Buddhist Hkamti Tai – when there was a deadly and devastating earthquake in nearby Assam/India in the year of 1950.

Health problems arise in the form of malaria und respiratory diseases. There is 1 Public Hospital,  but in the same time 77 Primary Schools, 4 Middle Schools, 2 State High Schools and 1 Public Library. Also, there is a prison with circa 40 inmates at the moment (Lisu und Rawang).

Finally, it is interesting to note that in the western neighboring area of Putao in the direction to India there are valuable amber mines, which are already used and worked economically.

Putao is indeed a kind of Shangri-La in Myanmar, which is crowned by a chain of mountains, of whom Hkakabo Razi with 5,889m seems the highest one – at the border to Tibet in China. Interesting to note is that there are nearly no Indians or Chinese in Putao. The old British bastion called “Fort Hertz” is seen lonely, burnt out and abandoned on a small hill overlooking the broad valley of the Hkamti Tai in the north of Putao. Nearby is also a worth seeing museum exhibiting the local flora and fauna of the Khakabo Razi National Park, which is already an ASEAN heritage site. It is sponsored by the Ministry of Environmental Conservation & Forestry. Another “cultural museum” about the Rawang people is in the making.

Khakabo Razi National Park is located in Naungmung, the northernmost township in Kachin State in Myanmar, and was established in 1996 for eco-tourism activities and has the following to offer:

Forests include evergreen trees, hill pines, and are moist upper mixed deciduous forests. In addition to rare species such as takin, musk deer, blue sheep, and black barking deer, there are a lot of insects and butterflies. Climbing snow-capped mountains and studying the environmental impact at the origin of the mighty Ayeyarwady River system is best. The “black orchid” is a botanical wonder. Last but not least, the culture and living of the local tribes, such as the Rawang, Lisu and other Myanmar-Tibetan tribes, makes Putao an important entry gate into one of the last paradises on earth.

On July 29, we had to leave Putao by plane back to Myitkyina, where we visited the 45km far distant confluence of the Malikha and N’Maikha Rivers – in Myitsone, where the Ayeyarwady River starts and the Chinese still plan to construct a large dam. Also here, there are the different villages of the Kachin tribes, which one can see and study in the Kachin StateCultural Museum. The Kachin have been mainly converted since hundred years by the Baptist Church and the following 6 tribes are actually Kachin: Jinghpaw, Law Waw, Rawang, Lachik, Zai Wa, and Lisu. The Lisu immigrated from Yunnan Nujiang in Western China and settled down in Myanmar as the last ones. In Myitkyina, there is also the central headquarters of the new Lisu National Development Party – showing a crossbow on the party flag.

Lisu villages can then be seen in Waingmaw, a township opposite Myitkyina on the eastern side of the Ayeyarwady River. The small town is also an active trading ground for goods, which reach Myanmar from across the border in China. An alleged very good road leads from here towards the Chinese border and then over a pass to Tengchong in Yunnan, where jade from Hpakant will be delivered and worked on.

After a two-year stop because of the rebel activities of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the annual festival of the “Manao” in Myitkyina will now be revived again, where all the Kachin tribes will meet within a cultural park. This will happen on January 10, 2015. Thus, there will be a reason to come back to Myitkyina and travel within the pacified Kachin Stateagain.

Besides the airport in the western part of Myitkyina, it is possible to travel by train from Yangon via Mandalay to the town or take a new highway directly from Mandalay in the south. Furthermore, you can take the government boat from Mandalay to Bhamo on the Ayeyarwady River – some 4 days – and then board a bus from Bhamo to Myitkyina in order to cross the bridge in the north of the town. This all proves that Kachin State has a great potential in the future for welcoming the surging tourist arrivals in Myanmar.

After 3 nights at the New Light Hotel in Myitkyina (included in the package) I flew back on August 1 via Mandalay back toYangon and on Sunday finally back to Chiang Mai.

In the upcoming tourist season (Oktober-April), Asian Wings Airways plans to fly directly from Chiang Mai to Mandalay and return. This makes a stay in Yangon not necessary and brings traveling to Kachin State even nearer than until now. The necessary tourist visa for Myanmar (28 days) you can get with the help of a travel agency in Chiang Mai (Nam Khong) for 2,500Baht, what normally takes 4-5 days time.

Written by : Reinhard Hohler

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