Hunched against the driving rain he controls the motorbike with one hand and the other holds an umbrella. On the back I’m shaded from the monsoon to some extent, but I’m more concerned about the darkness, potholes and occasional other vehicle. The sanctuary of the hotel can’t come soon enough. My frustration at the power cuts during the previous visit, from 11pm to 4am every night, has gone now the rains have come in force. The majority of Kengtong’s power is hydroelectric.
Tachileik is also known as the City of the Golden Triangle. It’s on the border with Thailand, separated from the country’s northern-most town, Mae Sai, by a stream. The area is infamous for its opium trade and has grown fairly rich in the process. None the less, the contrast between Myanmar and Thailand is evident from a viewpoint behind the city: from up here at night, Tachiliek’s few, pale lights are insignificant next to the golden glow from its more industrious neighbour. Early the next morning I’m woken by voices in the corridor. This happens several times. My colleagues tell me later these were women, arriving at a call, trying to find the right rooms of their customers.
Since my first visit to Kengtong I’ve grown fond of eating Gwaa Po. These are caterpillars that live in bamboo, deep fried with salt, pepper, and chili flakes. They taste like pork-scratchings.
In Taunggyi we squeeze into a Toyota sports car owned by a friend. The capital of Shan State, literally meaning ‘big mountain’, sits atop a 1500 metre peak. After drinking sticky rice wine cross-legged in a shack somewhere on the edge of town, we drive still higher to one of the pagodas that stand like sentries over the town. Against a backdrop of the lights of Taunggyi, twinkling like a blanket of stars, he shows us photos where he’s with a man from a group I can’t recall, posing with machine guns and a bazooka.
The bustling night market in Lashio, capital of northern Shan, sells all manner of fruit, electronics, and cheap Chinese clothes from a labyrinth of tarpaulin clad stalls. The atmosphere is enhanced by the smell from the bubbling pots of soup and barbecued meats. Then the city shuts down by 9pm and quickly the streets are deserted. I’m told there is a history of gang and culturally based violence here. People are also afraid that the nearby conflict in Kokkine will spread.
Father Stephen runs a mission that carries out various community-based projects. The Catholic compound sits on a hill overlooking Kengtong. From here the sheer beauty of the place is evident in the traditional houses that fan out from around a lake in the centre of town, the plains of paddy and the mountains shrouded in cloud that encircle them. At lunch he brings out a plastic bottle holding a pure, distilled rice liquor. It is very smooth and tastes a lot like a very good grappa. I decline a second glass as I fear for the quality of our afternoon coaching session. As with our first visit here, the conversation turns to local issues. Of major concern is human trafficking, whereby women are sold as brides and go abroad and child disappear – rumoured, so they say, to be used as drug mules and even for organ transplants.
I hate the flights we must take between the regional capitals but they’re necessary: A 16 hour slog by road is reduced to an hour’s hop by plane. Yet my lingering fear of flying is now increasing in tandem with the amount that I take. The ATR prop planes fly at around 16,000 feet. During the monsoon they curve around angry cloud banks in the way a Seacat skirts big waves in choppy water. From time to time the cloud cover breaks revealing the Shan mountains below.
Recently during a workshop in northern Shan State I was given a Shan name: Sai Sir Han, meaning ‘brave tiger’. I’m not sure how teaching project cycle management and strategic planning warrants this title, but it’s an honour all the same.
Heho airport serves southern Shan. The journey from here to Pindiya, in the Danu Self-Administered Zone, is one of the most beautiful I’ve experienced. Through rolling hills and fields worked by locals in traditional manner, past small villages where the main mode of transport is ox and trailer. Pindiya itself sits at the base of a hill range that turns into a high plateau covered in tea plantations. We hire bikes and cycle around the lake in town, surrounded by golden stupas and a small market where the taxis are still horse and cart. Two of our partners are based here and it’s a real treat to visit. They are working on gender empowerment and livelihood development projects.
The small village in the Pa’O Self-Administered Zone is neat and quiet, arranged in a grid formation, comprising of traditional Pa’O bamboo houses on stilts. The men are all away in the fields, whereas the women sit in the shade of trees preparing vegetables for market. The Pa’O tell the story that they are derived from a prince and a she dragon. They have their own language and their own distinct cultural identity, like many other ethnic groups here. We continue further into the zone, to Kekku pagoda complex. Around 2500 spires dating back many centuries rise clustered together in the shimmering heat.
Martyr’s Day is one of the most popular and respected in Myanmar. It’s become a symbol of struggle against oppression and offers a chance to remember hero General Aung San among others, assassinated soon after independence when the country was riding a wave of optimism for the future. One wonders how different the modern history of the country would have been if this event had never happened.
The grand secretariat is open house on this day, the place where the assassination took place. Wondering the many corridors, vast halls, and ornate iron staircases of this enormous monument to colonialism, the sheer scale is breath taking. Now it is slowly being reclaimed by nature in most places; by the foliage fed by the annual monsoon and the birds, bats and dogs that inhabit its solitude.
We drive an old Highlux into the mountains around Kengtong. 20 miles, always going up. Terraces of rice paddies rise in perfect perpendiculars, following the contours of the slopes. We pass small villages of Lahu and Akhaa ethnic groups and reach the top. Century old redbrick cottages with symmetrical chimneys look out across the valley. Sometimes villagers unearth a hoard of gold and precious stones, hurriedly buried by the departing colonialists who couldn’t bear its burden.
On the way to the Blue Lake the road turns to a dirt track and descends into an arable plateau. It is a stunning panorama beneath moody monsoon skies, reaching to the distant hills and punctuated by a lone man on an ox-drawn cart. Further on the road is barely passable for a car and we stop. After a short walk through dense foliage we reach the lake: vivid and crystal clear blue, like something out of Tolkeinian fantasy.
All are snapshots of a different world.
We returned to Mon State and spent a few days exploring the magical region. Mawlemyine was as beautiful as I remember it, sitting on the banks of the Gyaing river and turning red-gold as the sun set to the cries of a million seagulls on the Strand.
We met my colleagues, running a project in Mon to raise awareness of rule of law issues and systems and to increase cooperation between state and civil society, who took us on a tour of local landmarks. We were taken to the world’s biggest reclining Buddha at Win Sein Taw Ya, the breathless and peaceful Hindu temple on the rock standing next to Kyain Ta Loan near Mudon, the ancient gong given by the last Queen of Mon, Shin Saw Pu, in Kyaikmaraw, and to Gaung Se Kyun island via a rickety boat ride, a site of Buddhist meditation.
The minibus from Dawei to the border crossing at Htee Khee carried a monk, two local ladies, a German tourist, boxes of dried fish, milk powder and a container of mangoes, along with my wife and me. Extracting information about our passage to Kanchanaburi in Thailand had been hard work.
As we set off along the dusty tracks out of Myanmar’s southern capital and into the jungle, we had no idea how long the journey would take, or indeed if we would even be able to cross into Thailand. The border at Htee Khee is in constant flux, reflecting the political situation in Myanmar and the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the many separatist groups that operate mainly in the impenetrable border regions of the country. There was also the possibility that the Thai side would be closed, as it had been recently when all land borders shut temporarily as the military overthrew the government.
What I did know is that we would pass through territory controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU) and its military wing the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), a long established and well organized group that had been fighting the government since 1949. I also knew that tensions between the two had been flaring up of late. So as we trundled along bumpy tracks of sand and rock, deep into the mountainous jungle and past infrequent settlements of traditional bamboo shacks on stilts, there was the real possibility we’d be returning this way at some stage later on.
I put my anxieties to one side and pondered the unspoiled beauty of rural Myanmar and how I had come to be here. Just a few days before I had set off with my local colleagues on an 18-hour bus journey from Yangon to Dawei, the capital of Tanintharyi, Myanmar’s southernmost state that occupies a vertical strip of land between the Andaman Sea to the west and Thailand to the east. We were on our way to a team building retreat at Maungmakan beach. The journey had been incredible: from Mawlemyine the Yangon-Dawei highway deteriorated to a single lane track of intermittent tarmac, potholes and sand. The mountainous region on the Mon-Tanintharyi border presented the most perilous road I’d ever experienced; a white knuckle ride along hairpin bends that hugged the contours of the range, inching past patches that had collapsed down sheer cliffs – often at the hairpin apex – at frequent intervals. By far the best ways to reach Dawei are by plane or boat.
And now we were winding through mountainous terrain on a sandy track again, following the course of a wide and turbulent river. After several hours we passed into KNU territory. From here on the few settlements and checkpoints flew the Karen national flag and proudly displayed their mascot of two buffalo horns, polished, inscribed, and joined together at their bases. Only once did I get an inkling of the ongoing conflict as we were passed by a Toyota Hilux filled with armed men in what I presumed to be KNLA military uniforms.
We reached Htee Khee 8 hours after leaving Maunmakan. It was a tiny place of bamboo shacks, nestled in the craggy, foliage covered hills, whose only purpose appeared to be servicing the border crossing. Billboards showing expansion plans for economic zones, hotels, business and improved infrastructure hinted at Myanmar’s ambition for the region, but their tired and worn appearance suggested slow progress and, for now at least, Htee Khee remains a frontier settlement lost in time.
Crossing into Thailand passed without incident. We’d been taken to a port-a-cabin that served as the emigration office, had our passports stamped, and been driven across the kilometer or so of no man’s land that lay between the two gates. We were greeted by burly Thais in smart military uniforms, all wearing sunglasses and carrying arms. Ahead a man changed his Myanmar number plates for Thai equivalents. Was that legal? No one seemed bothered. Through immigration and onto the broad, smooth expressway that took us the 65 kms to Kanchanaburi, famous as the location for the ‘death railway’ bridge across the River Kwai.
In the comfortable and developed surroundings of our guesthouse and Kanchanaburi later that evening, it was hard to comprehend that Htee Khee was just over an hour away by road. So close, yet a different world.
Last week I accompanied colleagues from Loka Ahlinn on a field visit to the Ayeyarwaddy Delta region in southwest Myanmar. Loka Ahlinn has been working with farmers in the area for a number of years since providing relief and livelihood support in the wake of Cyclone Nargis in 2008.
From the port town of Bogalay we took a traditional boat deep into the delta, through mighty waterways and thin channels with banks bursting with tropical foliage. We visited several villages where farmers receive training on producing a bigger rice paddy yield and are soon to be part of a project to create collectives that lobby for increased rights.