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.
Fruit wine in the market, Loimwe
Paddy terraces on the way to Loimwe, eastern Shan
Blue Lake, near Ywangan
With PHECAD CSO, Pwe Hla
Cause and effect tree, logical framework
Shwe Thibaw, strategic planning, north Shan
Pindiya on high
Dog on a motorbik, Kyauk Me
Storm approaching, Kyauk Me
View of the Secretariat, Yangon
Cock, Pwe Hla
Ox and xart, near Ywangan