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Return to Kyaukme

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Eight months after the conflict in Kyaukme township made international news, convincing visitors to return hasn’t been easy – but there are many reasons to visit this picturesque region of Shan State


Kyaukme township in northern Shan State has been a frequent presence in news headlines this year, and for all the wrong reasons.

Longstanding peace in the region was disrupted in February when fighting broke out between two previously allied ethnic armed groups: the Restoration Council for Shan State (RCSS), which had signed the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement in October 2015, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which had been excluded from the peace deal.

The fighting has continued throughout 2016, further complicated by frequent clashes between the Myanmar army and the TNLA. Allegations of rights violations have been made against all three sides, and thousands of refugees have fled to Kyaukme town to escape the war zone.

The conflict made international news in April when two German travelers and their local guide were wounded by shrapnel from an explosive device as they neared Kyaukme at the end of a three-day trek from Hsipaw – an incident that brought tourism to a virtual standstill in Kyaukme township.

The conflict has been an unfortunate turn of events for a town that my wife and I have visited a number of times over the past decade. We had always enjoyed the non-touristy atmosphere, the silent nights, the aimless walks around town in search of food and beer, and the long treks through the bewitchingly tranquil Shan countryside. Despite the reports of war, we decided to return during last month’s full moon of Thadingyut to see for ourselves whether tourists were justified in giving the town a wide berth.

On previous visits to Kyaukme, we had stayed at A Yone Oo guesthouse, which up until a few years ago was the only place in town licensed to accept foreigners. While not exactly cozy, A Yone Oo does offer the advantage of cheap rooms and a central location near Kyaukme’s main market.

This time we sprang for accommodation at Hotel Kawli, which opened in June 2015. The location isn’t great – a couple miles outside of town along the Mandalay-Lashio highway – but the US$45 rooms are big, bright and comfortable, with small balconies overlooking green hills and farmland. We were also enticed by the hotel’s facilities – specifically, by the prospect of going for a swim and getting a massage after a day of trekking.

Hotel staff arranged two Shan trekking guides, Kyaw Hlaing and Aik Dar, who showed up promptly at 8am just as my wife and I were finishing our breakfast of Shan noodles. We climbed onto the back of their motorcycles and headed west from Kyaukme, bumping along a rocky dirt track for a few miles until we picked up the narrow, roughly paved road that, had we followed it to the end, would have taken us all the way to Mogok in Mandalay Region.


After about 45 minutes of cruising past lush, monsoon-nourished paddy fields, we began climbing out of the Kyaukme valley, the road snaking its way higher and higher into the mountains. After another half-hour, high altitude pines started appearing in clusters among the deciduous trees, and each bend in the road revealed increasingly spectacular vistas of deep ravines and knife-edge ridgelines. We passed Shan, Palaung, Lisu and Gurkha villages, and finally stopped for a rest at a roadside shop for green tea and kao moon hodong – sticky rice and sugar wrapped in banana leaf.

We had hired Kyaw Hlaing and Aik Dar to take us on a half-day trek in an area unaffected by the region’s ongoing skirmishes. They assured us that the conflict zone was located to the north and east of Kyaukme, and that the road heading west toward Mogok was “safe and peaceful” enough to accommodate motorcycle tours and treks of up to three days in length.


“The German tourists [injured by the explosive] were on a three-day trek from Hsipaw [east of Kyaukme] to Kyaukme. But the incident happened closer to Kyaukme, so everyone thinks the whole area around our town is dangerous,” Kyaw Hlaing said. “Now tour companies in Yangon don’t send tourists to Kyaukme anymore. We tell them the place where we trek is safe, but they don’t believe us.”

But other, far less dire hazards lurk along the way. Shortly after departing the snack shop, Aik Dar, who was carrying my wife on his motorcycle, suffered a rear flat when he sped over a small rock that tumbled from the cliff bordering the road. While he set about repairing the blown tire, Kyaw Hlaing flagged down a passing Shan motorcyclist and recruited him to take my wife to the starting point of the trek.


It was a fine demonstration of the sort of spontaneous selflessness common throughout Myanmar, except the motorcyclist explained that he was unable to travel all the way to our destination – it was his girlfriend’s native village, and it just so happened that his parents would be visiting her home the following day to arrange the young couple’s marriage and dowry. If the motorcyclist passed her house beforehand, it would be bad luck for their relationship – as Kyaw Hlaing explained, the couple would “miss” each other and the engagement would be off. I image it would not have helped matters had the boy’s fiancée seen him flying through town with a strange woman sitting on the back of his motorcycle.

This local custom necessitated the minor inconvenience of Kyaw Hlaing depositing me at a small general store near the trek’s starting point, then doubling back a mile or so pick up my wife where the Shan motorcyclist had dropped her off at the edge of the village.

While I awaited Kyaw Hlaing’s return, the elderly owner of the store produced a small chess set and challenged me to a game. I smiled and politely declined, as I have been known to lose matches in fewer than 10 turns against even moderately competent opponents – and elderly men who keep chess boards within easy reach are usually better than moderately competent. My intuition was confirmed when Kyaw Hlaing told me the man was a chess master who had won tournaments around the country, earning the nickname U Palaung among his rivals.



My humiliation averted, we started walking. Kyaw Hlaing led my wife and me down a dirt path that descended steeply away from the paved road. After 20 minutes we turned left onto a narrower track that followed the contour of the hillside, with tea plantations above and below, and a dramatic view of the mountains and sky unfolding before us.


The tea plantations were cultivated by the Silver Palaung residents of the interconnected villages of Ban Lin and Naung Sin, our trekking destination for the day. Ban Lin was the quieter of the two, and few people were out and about as we walked through. We visited a home where five Palaung women were sitting and talking, and most were wearing traditional dress, including longyis whose colorful stripes represent the scales of the mother dragon from which all Palaung are believed to be descended. One woman with a big, toothy smile practiced the only English phrase she knew – “Be my guest” – as she served us soft drinks.



We ate lunch at a breezy hillside shop staffed by a cook young enough to be a contestant on Master Chef Junior. Upon our arrival, she set to work whipping up multiple servings of fried eggs with onions and chilies, pickled mustard leaves, sautéed pumpkin and mountain rice.



Naung Sin was only a 10-minute walk away, and the atmosphere was far more festive than Ban Lin. Most of the locals had gathered at the village monastery for an end-of-lent donation ceremony. When we arrived, a monk was delivering a sermon that was being broadcast over a loudspeaker at ear-damaging volume, which led to inevitable jokes about the repercussions of unplugging amplifiers or snipping speaker wires.


We quickly left the din of Naung Sin behind and climbed a steep track back to the paved road, where Aik Dar was waiting with our motorcycles. By this time the sun had reached its zenith, but the alpine air remained crisp and pleasant. We stood beside a road sign bidding us a friendly adieu from the “lush and green tea regions”, and watched isolated thunderstorms drift across the valley.


Before we departed, Kyaw Hlaing pointed to some nearby hills, which he said were occupied by RCSS troops living in jungle encampments. “This area is peaceful because the RCSS won’t let the TNLA come near, and they [the RCSS] let the Palaung live their lives,” Kyaw Hlaing said. “Nobody likes it when soldiers, whether they’re Shan or Palaung, come into their village.”

Indeed, the residents of Ban Lin we spoke with betrayed no sense of unease about the proximity of the RCSS encampments. As one of the Palaung women we had visited said, “We don’t see the soldiers near our homes. We’re happy they stay away.”

Perhaps under the gaze of RCSS sentries, we rode our motorcycles out of the mountains and down into the stifling valley, where visions of pool plunges and foot massages began dancing through my head.

But shortly after our arrival at Hotel Kawli, we learned that even as we were out walking through the idyllic countryside and sharing soft drinks with smiling Palaung women, fighting had occurred that morning between the Myanmar army and the TNLA in a remote highland area 50 kilometers north of Kyaukme.

It was hard to unwind when we knew that people might be getting shot or bombed a shorter distance away than we had travelled by motorcycle to go trekking.

This story was originally published in the November 25-December 1 issue of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.


No sweat: Hot-weather hiking in Kyaukme

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The view from the monastery in Nwe Sa village, Shan State.

It was mid-April, the hottest time of the year in Myanmar, and our trekking guide Sein Tun wasn’t drinking any water. While my wife Thandar Khine and I each dispatched several 1-liter bottles of life-sustaining H2O throughout the course of our single-day, 23-kilometer (14-mile) walk through the hills of northern Shan State, Sein Tun subsisted on small sips of hot green tea served at the monasteries and village houses we visited along the way.

When I asked about this strange (and to my mind potentially dangerous) approach to hydration, Sein Tun pointed to the perspiration-drenched T-shirt that was clinging to my torso.

“When you drink, you sweat,” he said. Pinching his own shirt between his thumb and forefinger, he added, “See? Very dry.”

I had always assumed that sweating on a hot day was a good thing, part of the body’s natural cooling system aimed at preventing such inconveniences as death by heat stroke. All the same, I wasn’t about to lecture Sein Tun on Western water-ingestion customs, however scientifically sound: He had been a trekking guide for 10 years, and his green-tea system seemed to be working just fine for him.

Sein Tun met us at our hotel in the town of Kyaukme at 7am, and we walked a few blocks through the already wide-awake town to board a dilapidated Chinese bus that was jam-packed with Shan and Palaung locals.

“It’s not usually this crowded, but there are only two buses that drive this route and the other one crashed last week,” Sein Tun informed us less-than-reassuringly as we rattled away from the stop.

The bus managed to hold itself together, and after 20 minutes our trekking trio disembarked from the wreck-on-wheels along a quiet stretch of road between villages. Sein Tun led us to the start of a trail that we never would have found without his help. We shouldered our packs, stepped off the pavement and plunged into the countryside.

Our walk began with a 6.5km stretch to the Palaung village of Nwe Sa, most of it uphill, some of it hellishly so. Knowing we had a long day ahead, we walked slowly and (Sein Tun excepted) drank plenty of water.


Sparse forestland in Palaung territory.

The first couple of kilometers consisted of shade-free farmland worked by the Shan, but then we entered Palaung territory where villagers grew black tea in the spaces between tall, leafy trees. As we gained elevation, we enjoyed decent views across a cultivated valley backed by a haze-obscured range of hills in the distance. Irrigation kept the rice growing for the summer harvest, aided by early rains that Sein Tun said had come the previous week.


Sein Tun and Thandar Khine at the entrance to Nwe Sa village.

Our first stop in Nwe Sa was a monastery with a dozen monks in residence. We sat with the head monk eating bananas and green tea, while demons and tortured souls peered at us from the paintings of Buddhist hell that had been hung high on the walls around the perimeter of the main hall.


Hillside monastery in Nwe Sa.


Hell awaits.

We then explored the neat, well-tended town of about 100 houses and 600 residents, where tea cultivation was the main industry. Nearly everyone was out working in the fields, but there were a few kids and elderly residents around. For the best view, we climbed a hill that had been consecrated as the site for a yet-to-be-built pagoda. An adjacent, slightly lower hill was home to a nat (spirit) shrine where offerings were made to ensure a fruitful harvest.


Nat shrine in Nwe Sa.

We ended our tour at a wooden house raised off the ground on stilts in the traditional Palaung style. The longhouses for which the Palaung were once famous – large enough for 10 or more families – are now rarely seen, but the smaller varieties seen today are usually spacious enough to accommodate an extended family or two.

The house where we stopped was inhabited by a passel of curious but well-behaved children, presided over by their mother who prepared noodles for lunch. We rested there for quite a long time – long enough that our host brought out blankets and pillows so we could nap if we so desired. We politely declined over fears that we might fall into a deep, dreamless sleep from which we would not awaken until the next day.


The elderly and the young in Nwe Sa.


Our lunchtime host in Nwe Sa.

Indeed, the loop we were hiking is more sensibly done over the course of two days, with the added bonus of spending the night in a Palaung village. But we had asked for a single-day trek that was physically challenging, so around 12:30pm we stepped back into the blazing sun and continued on our way.


Harvesting summer paddy.

We headed downhill and into open farmland and, throughout the afternoon, dropped by a series of houses to rest, eat snacks and of course drink hot tea. We walked across a picturesque valley where golden summer paddy was being harvested, and then climbed up into a forest of young teak trees. We stopped at a small monastery where an 85-year-old monk lived alone. Religious and astrological tattoos decorated his arms, shoulders and shaven head. His sole companions were a trio of kittens that slept in a plastic bucket next to his bed.


A solitary life.

From the monastery we walked down a long flight of stone stairs to a pond that Sein Tun said blossomed with lotus flowers during the wet season. In April it was barely more than a mud pit, but the scene still managed to retain an aura of Edenic tranquility compliments of a stately banyan tree that shaded a pond-side shrine installed with a Chinese-style laughing Buddha.


The stone stairway down to the pond.

We took another long rest here before the final push back to Kyaukme, which we all reached alive and well despite our contrasting approaches to liquid replenishment.

The next day my wife and I hopped on local transport to Hsipaw, located 35km northeast of Kyaukme. The town is another good starting point for treks to Palaung villages, but with our feet still aching from the previous day, we opted for an activity that promised greater opportunities for staying cool: a boat ride on the Dokhtawaddy River.

We met our boatman at the river on the eastern edge of town and embarked on an hour-long ride in his long-tail boat. There was plenty to see as we chugged our way upriver, including flying and floating waterfowl, a few villages and a cliff-side monastery overlooking the water. The trip was relaxing but not entirely effort-free: The passengers had to contribute a bit of casual bailing to ensure that the porous craft did not flounder and sink to the bottom of the river.


Bailing water from the leaky boat.

Our destination was the confluence of the river and a secondary stream, a turbulent juncture where water rushed among big rocks worn smooth by erosion. There were several calm pools that were deep enough for safe jumping, even during the dry season. We spent several hours there, diving, swimming, floating and sunning ourselves on the rocks.


Docked near the confluence.


Our swimming hole.

When we wanted to explore further, we stopped struggling against the current and let it carry us to the other side of the river. We then walked upstream along the rocky bank and jumped into the water, allowing the flow to take us back to the confluence, where our pilot waited with his leaky boat for the return trip to Hsipaw.


A boatload of locals arrives at the confluence.

Written by latefornowhere

November 20, 2014 at 9:00 am

Along the Burma Road to the China border

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Christmas holiday in northern Shan State: Day 2


Driving on the old Burma Road between Lashio and Muse.

Until recently, foreigners were not allowed to travel past the town of Lashio on the Mandalay-Muse Road without a special permit. But in early 2013, Myanmar’s Ministry of Home Affairs released a list of previously forbidden destinations around the country where foreigners are now allowed to go, including Muse Township along the border with China.

I was keen to explore this border area but also knew from previous experience that in Myanmar, the reality on the ground does not always match the “official” word from the capital Naypyidaw: Local authorities in northern Shan State might not be aware of the ministry’s new decree and might still be stopping foreigners from traveling past Lashio.

To help defuse any confusion, I brought along a Myanmar-language printout of the ministry’s list of newly opened areas, as well as multiple photocopies of my passport and visa to satisfy immigration officials. As a last resort, I had loaded my mountain bike into the back of our pickup truck: If I was stopped, my family – all Myanmar nationals – could keep going, and I could spend three or four days cycling around Kyaukme or Lashio until they returned – not the worst way to pass my holiday.

Since departing Yangon the previous day we had met up with more relatives in Kyaukme, and we left town at 7:30am in two cars: me, my wife Pauksi and Maung Maung Lwin in the Ford pickup, followed by a Toyota Belta sedan carrying Pauksi’s mother Nang Hseng, brother Tha Tun Wai, aunt Daw Thein Htwe and family friend Zaw Oo. Still others traveled to Muse by bus, to avoid the frigid ordeal of riding in the back of the pickup: Pauksi’s sister Naychi, my stepdaughter Nang Nuu Mai and Pauksi’s uncle L Zaw Maw from Taunggyi.

We started with Maung Maung Lwin driving the pickup, first in sunshine, and then through a valley of cold, dense fog. We stopped just past the town of Thibaw for a quick breakfast of Shan noodles, and again in sunny Lashio for a mid-morning meal.


Shan noodles: The best breakfast anywhere in the world.

I took over driving when we left Lashio, and the “moment of truth” passed anticlimactically as the old foreigner-impeding checkpoint outside of town had indeed been dismantled, as per the ministry’s orders. We sailed calmly into far northern Shan State, and suddenly I was in a region of Myanmar few Westerners have visited since the British colonial era.

We were now on a legendary stretch of highway, following what had once been the Burma Road, which played a strategically important role just before and during World War II. The 717-mile (1,154 km) road, extending from Lashio to Kunming in southwestern China, was built in the late 1930s and used by the British to send supplies – consumer goods, military materials, parts and gasoline – to China, which was suffering under a war of aggression and naval blockades launched by Japan.

An excerpt from the Pacific War Online Encyclopedia describes some of the hazards of the Burma Road: “At its prewar peak, about 10,000 tons of supplies per month came through the road. However, the road had many limitations that made it a serious bottleneck. It was not an all-weather road, limiting its usefulness during the monsoon. It passed through areas in which malaria was endemic. Its status as the last link between China and the outside world made it a focus of intrigue and corruption.”


A treacherous section of the Burma Road in 1939 or 1940.
Photo: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The two-lane road is now a paved, “all-weather” thoroughfare, but still poses challenges. There were flat, fast stretches through agricultural land, and tricky sections that hair-pinned up and down steep, forested mountains. There were plenty of dusty construction zones, and we were constantly forced to pull into the oncoming traffic lane to accelerate past trundling, road-hogging trucks carrying Myanmar-grown watermelons to China. But the mountain scenery was green and gorgeous, and the brisk air made for pleasant travel.


A quiet section of the Burma Road in December 2013.

We reached Kutkai – the halfway point between Lashio and Muse – around noon; it looked more like a grimy bus depot than a proper town. We had an early afternoon break in Nampaka, where we ate lunch at another Shan restaurant, and we finally reached Muse and the China border around 3:30pm.


Lunch in Nampaka

Some members of our group stayed at Shwe Yar Su Hotel – overpriced at $50 a night but boasting friendly staff, clean and decent-sized rooms, and free wi-fi (but the China-sourced internet connection meant Facebook was censored) – while others stayed at the nearby Kachin Baptist Church. We spent the evening checking out the unappealing array of shoddy Chinese goods at the town’s night market, had barbecued fish and beer for dinner, and then walked back to the hotel through the cold, commerce-hectic streets of Muse.


Roadside scenery: A cemetery along the way between Lashio and Muse.

Written by latefornowhere

January 4, 2014 at 8:11 am

Winter Solstice on Myanmar’s Death Highway

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Christmas holiday in northern Shan State: Day 1


Left to right: Naychi, Nang Nuu Mai and Pauksi bundled up for the chilly trip from Pyin Oo Lwin to Kyaukme in Shan State.

The “expressway” that stretches for 366 miles from Yangon to Mandalay opened only a few years ago, and it didn’t take long for the poorly engineered road to earn the nickname “Death Highway”.

The hazards are abundant: lanes that end abruptly at concrete barriers; poor lighting and inadequate warning signs; sharp curves that aren’t properly cambered; and rough concrete and puncture-inducing bumps, to name a few.

The lousy engineering has been attributed, in part, to poor funding and the short time-frame given to complete the project. According to an article on the Irrawaddy website, “The former military regime prioritized rapid development of a new highway between Burma’s major cities after it began its secret construction of a new capital.” The new capital referred to is Naypyidaw, which became the country’s official administrative center in 2005.

The highway quickly racked up some of the highest accident rates in the country. From January to November 2013, for example, there were 219 car accidents that caused 100 deaths and 546 injuries, according to highway police records. Drivers tend to blame these incidents on the deficient engineering, while the government likes to point the finger at poor vehicle-operating skills and lack of safety awareness among Myanmar drivers. The truth, of course, is a combination of these and other factors.

In early 2011, my wife’s sister Naychi was involved in an accident on the highway: Working as an interpreter for visiting Japanese businessmen, she was traveling from Yangon to Naypyidaw in the back seat of an SUV that hit a concrete barrier and overturned. She survived with minor head and neck injuries, but the crash killed two fellow passengers – one Japanese and one Myanmar – who were sitting next to her.

I drove on the highway for the first time this past December 21, the shortest day of the year. I was traveling with my wife Pauksi and stepdaughter Nang Nuu Mai, and we were heading to northern Shan State to meet other family members for the Christmas holiday. It was also the first long road trip with our recently purchased 2013 Ford Ranger pickup truck.

We left at 4am, knowing we had about 10 hours of driving ahead of us: 352 miles on the Death Highway, then another 100 miles up to Kyaukme on the Shan Plateau along the much slower Mandalay-Lashio Road.

Nighttime driving in Myanmar can be frustrating and dangerous: An overwhelming percentage of vehicle operators here lack even the most basic familiarity with driving etiquette, and nearly everyone cruises around at all times with their high beams ablaze. This makes it difficult to see the road very well, even if you join the fun and blast everyone else with your own high beams.

But once the sun came up, I didn’t find driving the so-called Death Highway to be all that terrible. Yes, there were the poorly placed concrete barriers, and the too-sharp curves, and the stray dogs trotting down the middle of the road, and the bullock cart crossings, and the slow-moving motor scooters, and the overloaded jalopies with bald tires, and the SUV drivers at the rest stop guzzling beer at 10:30am – but for the most part I was able to cruise along at the posted speed limit of 100kph (60mph) without relying on my stunt-driving skills to keep the rubber side down.

The main hazard was boredom: the sleep-inducing sameness of the slightly hilly, scrub-land terrain, and the fact that there are only two proper rest stops along the entire length of the highway.

But those haters who declare that the Myanmar government does not care about the safety of drivers need only contemplate some of the useful, philosophically astute signs that officials have thoughtfully posted along the highway. Examples include:

“Life Is a Journey, Complete It”

“Drive With Care, Make Accidents Rare”

“If You Drink Don’t Drive, If You Drive Don’t Drink”

Any my favorite, which, in its utter irrelevance to highway driving, seems to have been swiped from the pages of an in-flight travel magazine:

“Your Safety Our Responsibility, Your Comfort Our Reward”

With the help of these signs and my expert driving skills, we made it to Mandalay without padding the highway’s accident statistics.

Back on Myanmar’s “normal” surface roads, we ascended to the Shan Plateau from the central lowlands. About an hour from Mandalay we stopped at the old British hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin to pick up Naychi and her husband Maung Maung Lwin, who would be accompanying us on the rest of the trip. They had recently moved to Pyin Oo Lwin to set up a Japanese-style café, due to open later this year.

The December air was already cold in Pyin Oo Lwin – located 3510 feet above sea level – a precursor to the frigid weather we would encounter farther north. Maung Maung Lwin drove the final 90-minute stretch to Kyaukme, while Pauksi, Naychi and Nang Nuu Mai bundled up and volunteered to ride in the truck bed. After more than eight hours of driving, I was able to enjoy the comfort of the passenger seat for the last stretch of the day’s journey.