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A geography-based guide to selected books about Myanmar

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Katha in Sagaing Region, where George Orwell (Eric Blair) lived in 1926-7 and where he set his novel “Burmese Days” under the fictional name Kyauktada

Some of these books might inspire readers to travel to the destination depicted, while others might make you think twice before following the hellish path trod by others.

Southern Kachin State

American author Tim O’Brien once wrote that “a true war story is never moral … If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted … you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” Few will experience any sense of moral uplift from reading Brendan Koerner’s Now the Hell Will Start (2008), the harrowing but enthralling true story of Herman Perry, an African-American soldier assigned to help build the Ledo Road during World War II. Facing demoralizing, pestilential conditions in the jungles of Kachin State, and further unhinged by his epic-scale indulgence in opium and marijuana, Perry eventually snapped and shot dead a racist lieutenant, then fled into the wilderness where he found shelter in a Naga village. While Perry went native, even marrying the village chief’s daughter, the US Army launched its biggest manhunt of the war to bring the fugitive to justice. War is indeed hell. You can experience your own small bit of hell by trying to get an official travel permit for this difficult-to-access region.

Northern Kachin State

Well-known snake specialist Joe Slowinski has the unfortunate distinction of having died on September 11, 2001, and so news of his passing went largely unnoticed in the midst of events of greater global significance. Fortunately, writer Jamie James felt that Slowinski’s story was worth telling, which he does in fascinating detail in The Snake Charmer (2008). Slowinski met his end during an expedition north of Putao in Kachin State, the same territory explored by British plant hunter F. Kingdon-Ward in Burma’s Icy Mountains (1949). The description of Slowinski’s last 24 hours, in which he struggles to fight the effects of a venomous snake bite, will have readers gasping for breath. Of course this account should not stop anyone from trekking in the wild and beautiful Putao region – just be sure to decline if someone invites you to reach your hand into snake-filled bag.

Myeik Archipelago

Hear the word “pirate” and one thinks either of the Caribbean (thanks to the seemingly never-ending Disney/Johnny Depp movie franchise) or Somalia, where modern-day ship hijackers are doing their part to de-romanticize the concept of the loveable, heroic swashbuckler. But during the 15th century the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea were also hotbeds of pirate activity, with ship and cargo thieves often hiding out among the 800 islands of the Myeik Archipelago until they could escape from authorities. Siamese White (1936) by Maurice Collis brings this era back to life in a way that will prompt many readers to drop everything and book a boat trip in the islands. While you’re not likely to find any gold buried in sunken chests, the unspoiled sand, sea and sky will be treasure enough.

Inle Lake

Amy Tan earned her name as a writer through books that explore multi-generational family relationships, such as The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001). Her 2005 novel Saving Fish from Drowning, with its more adventure-oriented plotline and occasional attempts at humor, is somewhat less successful but it still makes for a decent casual read, especially for those interested in fictional depictions of modern-day Myanmar. The book tells the unlikely tale of a group of tourists who enter Myanmar from China, follow the Burma Road for awhile and end up at Inle Lake, where they are kidnapped by a group of ethnic guerrillas. Tan’s presentation is more whimsical than suspenseful, with the clueless tourists not even realizing they are being held hostage – they think the trek to the ethnic village is part of their package tour. In reality, of course, visitors to Inle have zero chance of being kidnapped, and the events in the novel are really no weirder than watching cats jump through hoops at the mid-lake Nga Phe Monastery.


British poet Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay” (1892) is by far the most famous piece of English-language writing, fictional or otherwise, to have been inspired by Myanmar. It’s been posted in hotel bars, used on the websites of tour companies and cited ad infinitum in travel stories about the country. Once you get past Kipling’s religious and cultural biases, and the fact that it’s not possible to look “eastward to the sea” from anywhere in Moulmein/Mawlamyine (but you can look westward to the wide Thanlwin River), it really is a nice little poem, successfully evoking a romantic image of colonial-era Myanmar. It’s also a reminder that Mawlamyine in Mon State is well worth a visit: a quiet, leafy town bisected by a ridgeline topped with numerous pagodas, including Kyaikthanlan Paya, thought to have inspired Kipling’s poem.


Smile As They Bow (2008) by Nu Nu Yi is the first novel by a Myanmar writer to be translated into English and released by a major American publisher, and in 2007 it was shortlisted for the Man Asia Literary Prize. The brief novel is set in Taungbyone, just north of Mandalay, during the nat (spirit) festival held every year around the full moon of the lunar month of Wagaung (August). Nu Nu Yi follows the story of aging transvestite medium Daisy Bond and an unfolding love triangle involving his assistant and a young beggar girl, but the star of the book is the festival itself, famous for its loud and boisterous atmosphere. The author’s lively descriptions pull the reader straight into the center of the action. Travelers who find themselves in the Mandalay area in August will want to check out the festival, guaranteed to offer an over-the-top sensory experience unlike any other in Myanmar.


No Myanmar-bound backpacker’s travel kit would be complete without a copy of George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days, but how many visitors actually make their way up to Sagaing Region’s Katha, where the novel is set? The name of the town in the novel has been changed to Kyauktada and the story is fictional, but the place is real and visitors will still recognize many of the landmarks that were in place when Orwell (real name Eric Blair) was stationed in the town in the 1920s as part of the British colonial police force. The tennis court is still there, as is the old British Club, among others. Visitors to Katha will quickly discover that the way to these buildings isn’t exactly called out with flashing neon signs, but aimless wandering in an unfamiliar town is one of the real pleasures of independent travel. And if you get lost, locals will be happy to unintentionally misdirect you until you stumble upon the sites on your own.

Mon State (Mudon)

Michio Takeyama’s Harp of Burma (1946), as well as director Kon Ichikawa’s brilliant film adaptation The Burmese Harp (1956), focuses on a group of Japanese soldiers sent to Myanmar to fight during World War II, but it’s less about war and more about the effort to retain some sense of humanity under inhuman conditions. Most of the story takes place after the soldiers are captured by the British and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Mudon, Mon State, where they boost their morale by singing, and also try to solve the mystery of the disappearance of one of their compatriots. Captured Japanese soldiers might have been more concerned with getting home after the war than admiring the scenery, but the area around Mudon is a fascinating landscape of forests, rubber tree plantations and streams flowing to the sea from the mountains. The town is located about halfway between Mawlamyine and Thanbyuzayat, the latter being the location of the western terminus of the Death Railway immortalized in the film Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

Pyin Oo Lwin

In 1975 Paul Theroux published the book The Great Railway Bazaar, recounting his 25,000-mile journey by train from London to Southeast Asia, on to Japan, and back to London on the Trans-Siberian Express. Three decades later he repeated the trip and published his updated observations in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008). On both trips he visited Myanmar, the first time on a forbidden quest to ride across the Gokteik Viaduct in northern Shan State. Most interesting, however, is the comparison between Theroux’s overnight stay at Candacraig in Pyin Oo Lwin in the 1970s, and his return decades  later, by which time it had been renamed Thiri Myaing Hotel. The manager remembers every detail from the earlier visit, and tells Theroux that people still come from the US, Britain and Australia “holding your book, wanting to meet my father” – a vivid illustration of the power of good travel writing to get people out of their homes and exploring the world.

Eastern Shan State

Set in 1886, Daniel Mason’s novel The Piano Tuner (2002) tells the story of a Londoner named Edgar Drake who is hired to travel to Myanmar to repair the piano of a British army doctor stationed in eastern Shan State. The author’s evocative description of Drake’s journey through Myanmar – by ship to Yangon, up the Ayeyarwady River to Mandalay, eastward by horse through the mountains of Shan State to a village on the Salween River – has a dreamlike quality that combines historical realism with timeless romanticism. It’s the type of book that makes adventurous explorers yearn for the days before the invention of the package tour, when getting off the beaten track meant more than taking an air-conditioned bus down a slightly narrower road.

Trekking for the timid in Putao

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Putao trek.09

The Malikha River in northern Kachin State

Myanmar’s far northern Kachin State is one of those places whose reputation for wildness has achieved near-mythical status, a far-flung, unspoiled Shangri-La that would seem more at home in the pages of a Tintin comic than in the real world.

It was here, in the foothills of the Himalayas, that British botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward embarked on 10 epically grueling expeditions from 1914 to 1956, during which he cataloged dozens of unknown orchids and other plant species. In the 1990s, American biologist Alan Rabinowitz, dubbed the “Indiana Jones of wildlife conservation” by Time magazine, followed local rumors to a mountain village and found the last 12 surviving Taron, a race of four-foot-tall pygmies who had mysteriously decided to stop propagating, and will themselves into extinction. He wrote about them in his book Beyond the Last Village (2001).

And Joe Slowinski, one of the foremost snake specialists in the United States, met his demise at the village of Rat Baw, the victim of the bite of a many-banded krait. He had the double misfortune of dying on September 11, 2001, a day when newspapers had bigger events to report than the passing of an American herpetologist.

Flatland trekking in the Putao region

Flatland trekking in the Putao region

Now a new type of adventurer is descending upon the far north, the sort who comes not to make scientific discoveries but to spend a holiday trekking in the proximity of the eastern Himalayas, which separate Myanmar from India to the northwest, and from China to the northeast. The name “Myanmar” does not usually evoke images of snow-capped mountains, but they’re here in abundance, including 19,295-foot Hkakabo Razi, the highest peak in Southeast Asia, conquered for the first time in 1996 by Japanese mountaineer Takashi Ozaki and U Nama Johnson from Myanmar.

Characterized by Kingdon-Ward as one of the “richest regions” for flora and fauna in the world, the mountains of northern Myanmar are home to a dazzling array of rare orchids and flowering rhododendron, as well as strange animals like the takin, which the botanist described as “half-goat, half buffalo”.

Villagers wash vegetables in a stream near Kaung Mu Lon village

Villagers wash vegetables near Taram Dam

Most visitors these days never reach the high peaks, which require at least a week of expedition-grade trekking to penetrate. Shorter visits are generally limited to the broad valley south of the mountain range, whose main settlement is Putao at 1500 feet above sea level. The town, located 50 miles south of where the high mountains begin, is the gateway to the region, its rudimentary airport served by three turbo-prop flights a week. Despite its gateway status, even Putao would be considered “out there” by many travelers – electricity is sparse, telephones landlines are rare, and mobile service is spotty to nonexistent. The single “stoplight” in town is a simply sign on which green, yellow and red circles have been painted.

There is plenty to keep adventurous travelers occupied in the Putao valley, which is home to the Lisu, Rawang and Kachin hill tribes that migrated from the Tibetan Plateau more than 400 years ago, as well as the original Hkamti Shan inhabitants who had settled in the area long before. Fishermen still prowl the snow-fed rivers with small spears, and hunters stalk animals using crossbows and poisoned arrows.

One trek through this lowland area took me from the Khamti Shan village of Kaung Mu Lon to the town of Machanbaw over the course of two days, a total distance of about 17 miles. Besides myself (an American), our multi-ethnic group consisted of two Bamar friends from Yangon, a Bamar chef, two local porters (one Rawang and one Khamti Shan), and Thomas, our Karen guide.

With snow-capped Himalayan peaks visible far to the north, the highest point we achieved during our walk was 1630 feet above sea level, which we reached at the very beginning via a short, steep scramble to the top of forested Noi Zaw Hill. From the small pagoda at the top, we enjoyed a commanding view of the crystal-clear Malikha River (which flows south to meet the Namkhan River near Myitkyina, both joining forces to form the Ayeyarwady River), as well as beautiful Kaung Mu Lon. The town’s main pagoda, at the foot of the hill, is said to be 2000 years old at its core, but in the year 2000 a new pagoda was built over top so the ancient structure is no longer visible.

A Khamti Shan woman in Kaung Mu Lon, with the village's namesake pagoda in the background

A Khamti Shan woman in Kaung Mu Lon, with the village’s namesake pagoda in the background

We started walking from Kaung Mu Lon shortly before noon, crossing a small stream and entering the Rawang village of Taram Dam 1. With a population of 200, the village did not take long to pass through, but a few steps later we were in another village, known as Taram Dam 2. This was the pattern for the first day, which seemed like a walk through a never-ending settlement of wooden houses, bamboo fences, stone walls, gardens and agricultural land: One village merged into the next, sometimes separated by streams or rivers, but other times the boundary was so subtle that we had to rely on Thomas to tell us when we had crossed the invisible line between towns.

That’s not to say that the villages were all the same. For starters, the Kachin, Lisu and Rawang, who make up about 70 percent of the population of the Putao valley, are mostly Christians, and their villages are unusual in Myanmar for their lack of pagodas and monasteries. Christianity was established in far northern Myanmar in the 1950s by American missionary Robert Morse (who also translated the Bible into Rawang language), and Baptist and Catholic churches abound in the region.

Meanwhile the Khamti Shan, the valley’s original settlers, tend toward Buddhism. In addition to being home to pagodas and monasteries, Khamti Shan villages are like huge gardens due to the ethnic group’s status as the main vegetable growers in the region. It is typical for each house, built on raised floors with thatched roofs, to be surrounded by a lush array of edible plants, including celery, cabbage, potatoes, and white and yellow mustard. As elsewhere in Myanmar, mustard is used in the Putao area not only as a food ingredient but also for making plant oil, which is thought to have medicinal value: It is spread on the belly to relieve stomach pain, for daily use as well as for women who have recently given birth. Uniquely for the Putao region, mustard oil is also used for cooking in the same way that palm, peanut, sunflower and other edible plant oils are used elsewhere.

Khamti Shan women wear traditional dress at their home in Kaung Mu Lon

Khamti Shan women wear traditional dress at their home in Kaung Mu Lon

It’s said among locals that Buddhist taboos against harming animals have also helped turn the Khamti Shan villages into refuges for wild birds, which seem to understand that in Buddhist villages they are less likely to be shot out of the sky with a traditional slingshot or crossbow than in non-Buddhist villages. Khamti Shan villages do seem to be alive with birdsong from dawn to dusk, but I wondered if they might simply be feasting on the garden produce rather than hiding from hunters.

One advantage of our walk through the never-ending village sprawl on the first day was getting the chance to meet the locals. In Kaung Mu Lon we were invited into a house to share tea with a Khamti Shan woman and her daughter. Later in the day we met a group of Rawang four adults and three children – who were on the last leg of a 10-day journey starting from their village near the Chinese border. They had walked 114 miles, carrying their infants and personal belongings across high mountains and through dense jungle, to visit their parents.

We also met the pastor of a church in Kan Jo Lisu village, and a few minutes later a Buddhist man who was repairing his bamboo fence gave us California oranges from the tree in his front yard. (Robert Morse is credited with introducing citrus fruit to the Putao valley, after he noticed that the residents were suffering from vitamin C deficiencies.) We also stopped to talk to men who were panning for gold in the river near Nam Khan 2, which was our stopping point for the day.

A Rawang woman picks fruit in

A Rawang woman picks fruit in Nam Khan 2 village

We spent the night in a small lodge owned by a Rawang family. Our reward for a day of walking was a candlelight dinner (from lack of electricity, not for romance) featuring vegetable tempura, bean soup, brown rice, sweet and sour pork, Rawang-style chicken, long-bean salad, seaweed salad, and cake for desert, all washed down with Myanmar-made Red Mountain Estate wine. Afterward we sat with our hosts around an indoor fireplace talking about nature, animals and, inevitably, ghosts.

The lodge did have a bit of a haunted house feel, its dark and creaky wooden interior illuminated by flickering candles and eerie light from the nearly full moon. In the early morning hours I was jarred from sleep by the sort of horrendous cacophony that I thought could only originate from a host of demons issuing forth from the darkest pits of hell. It took me a few frantic seconds to realize that the din was nothing more than the enthusiastic snoring of one of my Bamar travel companions in the next room.

The temperature that night dropped to 3 degrees Celsius, but there were plenty of blankets to keep us warm. In the morning the village was shrouded in thick, wet mist rolling off the nearby river. I took a solo walk around the town while everyone was still sleeping. The only sound was the dripping of water from trees and rooftops, and the only creatures stirring were a few cows loitering on the dirt road that ran past our lodge. The tranquility was shattered when ear-splitting Myanmar rock music erupted from a stereo in one of the village households, a 6:45am alarm that I imagine few neighbors could have slept through.

Misty morning in Nam Khan 2

Misty morning in Nam Khan 2

We ate a breakfast of noodles, fried beef, toast and coffee, thanked our gracious hosts, and started walking through the fog at 8:30am. The village had come alive since my morning excursion. We talked to a woman who was pounding rice flour using a foot-powered mallet, then photographed two young men on motorcycles who were carrying a big fish they had pulled from the river.

We followed a stone-paved road out of the village, and the trek quickly took on a different character from the previous day. Whereas on day one we had seen one village blend into the next, now there were wide open rice fields where horses roamed free, forestland where birds sang in the trees, and clear streams trickling over rocks and through meadows. We barely saw anyone else as we walked through the mist.

The sun broke through around 10am and the temperature immediately rose, but as with the day before, it never became too hot for comfort. We passed through the Kachin village of Inwayn Baw, from which we had a view of Ma Ket Mong village across the Malikha River. Our path followed the bank above the river, and looking down we could see groups of men searching for gold using concave wooden trays to sift through the silt. We entered another forest, then passed through the Kachin village of In Bu Baw, and then found ourselves surrounded by trees yet again.

Not long after noon we reached the big town of Machanbaw, home to Rawang, Kachin and Khamti Shan, as well as to Bamar civil servants from around the country. The town was the site of northernmost Myanmar’s original British colonial administration starting in 1913, before Fort Hertz was established in Putao in 1925. The far north had been considered a “punishment station” by the British, a place to send officers who had been banished from Yangon for disciplinary reasons.

The pool table in the old British Club in Machanbaw

The pool table in the old British Club in Machanbaw

Remnants of the colonial era are still visible around Machanbaw. Many of the old officer’s houses still stand in the middle of town, as does the moldering British Club. This sprawling building is now abandoned, and daylight streams through broken windows and cracked walls. The place is mostly empty, with the odd exception of an old pool table that still stands in one room. In better condition is the two-story British Commission House, which is now the Guba Guesthouse. Set on a wide lawn on the outskirts of town and overlooking the Malikha River, it has the feel of a well-tended rustic cabin. It is also said to be haunted by the restless spirit of a woman with dark hair reaching down to her waist.

We ended our small adventure by climbing the second hill of the trek, this one not as high as Noi Zaw but leading to a legendary site just outside of Machanbaw: a rock outcropping that looks like a petrified dragon. According to local lore, the dragon was once alive, prowling the area and feeding on people until one day it crossed the line by eating a pregnant woman. For this transgression the gods punished the creature by turning it to stone.

There’s a shrine near the head of the dragon with a small golden pagoda, and evidence of offerings for good fortune can be seen on the outcropping: candle wax on the dragon’s head, and broken egg shells and dried yolk around the dragon’s eye. Students also chip off bits of the rock, or “dragon scales,” before exams for good luck. Locals claim that if you visit at night, you can sometimes see the dragon quivering in its sleep.

The eye of the stone dragon

The eye of the stone dragon

We hadn’t brought any eggs or candles to make our own sacrifices, and I wasn’t too keen on furthering the destruction of a landmark, natural or otherwise, by chipping off pieces of the rock. We took photographs and, letting sleeping dragons lie, walked back down the hill to finish our trek.

This story was published in slightly different form in The Myanmar Times Travel Supplement 2013.