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Posts Tagged ‘Shan State travel

Spirits, sky lords and single-speed bikes in Hsipaw

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The open fields just east of Nauk Gad village looked typical by northern Shan State standards. Nestled between a range of hills to the north and the narrow, sluggish Dokhtawaddy River to the south, the unremarkable tract of cultivated flatland was dotted with cone-shaped stacks of hay and, during my winter’s morning walk, shrouded in light mist.

But there was more to this landscape than met the eye. As I returned to the Mr Charles Riverside Lodge from my sunrise stroll, I was met at the gate by the man himself: Hsipaw’s original hotel and tourism entrepreneur, Mr Charles.

Keen to fill me in on local history, he explained that the name of Nauk Gad village, located just a few hundred meters down a dirt lane from the lodge, means “near the market” in Shan language. Indicating the open land spread out before us, he said, “Before the 1880s, these fields were the site of a big trading centre that brought merchants from Thailand, China and Laos. Farmers ploughing this area have found old opium weights and other items from those countries.”

The market lasted until 1888, he said, when an outbreak of smallpox devastated the area. Villagers interpreted this disaster as a warning from angry local spirits (nats): The merchants from afar were no longer welcome. The market was closed and the town of Hsipaw, originally located in the adjacent hills, was moved a few kilometers east to its present location.

More than a century later, Hsipaw has emerged as an increasingly popular stop along the Mandalay-Lashio Highway. Although the main road through town can get busy with through-traffic, the laidback vibe of the side streets and the surrounding countryside beckons travellers who are looking for an excuse to slow down and dwell in one place for a few days. As such, it’s ripe for exploration on foot or by bicycle.

A wide variety of such trips can be planned through local hotels, from half-day walks around town to overnight excursions to distant ethnic Palaung villages. During a recent visit to Hsipaw, my wife and I opted for a one-day walking tour of the Shan villages that dot the countryside just outside of town.

Shan trekking guide Joyin met us at the Riverside Lodge at 8am, and we started the day by walking through Nauk Gad, where we became acquainted with the local spirits – perhaps the same ones who had driven away the foreign merchants so many years ago.


Shan trekking guide Joyin (right) and a friend.


A Nauk Gaud resident demonstrates traditional Shan smoking methods. (Photo: Thandar Khine)


Nauk Gaud residents grill fish for breakfast. (Photo: Thandar Khine)

In the centre of the village was a watchtower-like shrine dedicated to Kyaut Won, who protects each populated settlement in the area. Directly underneath the tower was a lingam-like wooden phallus, beneath which was buried an urn of cooking oil.


Shrine to Kyaut Won.


Magical oil lies beneath the wooden wiener.

“The oil is changed every two or three years,” Joyin explained, “and the old oil is used as a healing balm rubbed on the skin to rid the body of evil spirits.” Just outside of Nauk Gad we visited a bigger shrine to Kyaut Mein, a more powerful nat who protects whole region. These shrines – there were several in the area, each located between but never within the Shan villages – feature statues of red and white horses, small pavilions with bedding for Grandmother and Grandfather Spirit, and plenty of offerings from families seeking various blessings for themselves and their children.


Shrine to Kyaut Mein.

Leaving the shrine behind, we walked through open countryside. For a short time we followed the tracks of the Mandalay-Lashio railroad line before climbing up to the main highway. On the other side of the road, we walked up another incline, passing a nunnery and Loi Mote Pagoda and Monastery on our way to a cluster of the hilltop tombs: the burial sites of several Shan saopha.


Walking along the Mandalay-Lashio railroad line.


Buddhist nuns return from their alms round.

During the time of the Burmese kings and for several decades beyond, these Shan “sky lords” (as the word saopha translates into English) were the hereditary rulers of the numerous fiefdoms into which Shan State was once divided. The largest of the three tombs in Hsipaw – featuring a domed ceiling supported by tall columns – was dedicated to fiery-tempered Sao Khe, who ruled the region in the early 20th century until his death in 1927.


The tomb of Sao Khe.

One of the smaller tombs on the hill was the burial site of Sao On Kya, the father of the last saopha of Hsipaw, Soa Kya Seng. The history of the saopha has particular resonance in Hsipaw because of the manner in which their rule came to an end: When the military took control of Burma in 1962, all of the saopha throughout Shan State were arrested. Most were released several years later – except for Soa Kya Seng, who was reportedly thrown into a bamboo cage after his arrest and executed by the Burmese army shortly afterward.

This story is told in detail in the 1994 book Twilight over Burma, written by Soa Kya Seng’s Austrian wife Inge Sargent. They had met as students in Colorado in the United States, and in 1954 she had returned with him to Hsipaw, where Shan astrologers gave her the name Thusandi. Following Soa Kya Seng’s arrest and execution, she fled the country with the couple’s two daughters.

Photographs of Soa Kya Seng, Thusandi and their daughters can be seen in hotels and restaurants throughout Hsipaw. My wife spent a long time studying one such family portrait and finally said, “I like history, but sometimes it’s too depressing.”

The ubiquity of these photos around town is testament to the hard feelings still harboured by many Shan over the saopha’s abduction and murder. It was just one of the countless atrocities committed over the decades by the Burmese army (Tatmadaw), which had been created in the 1940s as the patriotic, much-beloved brainchild of Burmese independence leader Bogyoke Aung San but later, under generals Ne Win and Than Shwe, degenerated into the scourge of its own citizens. To this day the army refuses to admit that it played a role in Soa Kya Seng’s arrest, much less his execution.

Despite the government’s intransigence in this regard, small steps toward political liberalization have been made in Myanmar since the 2010 national election. One of the byproducts of this modest relaxation has been the opening of the once-forbidden residence of the last saopha to tourists. The mansion is located just north of downtown Hsipaw, and my wife and I rode there on rented bicycles the day after our trek through the Shan villages. We were met at the door by the property’s caretaker Fern, the wife of Soa Kya Seng’s nephew. She recommended that we walk toward the river to see the wooden prayer house – an attractive and atmospheric two-storey structure that is now collapsing under age and neglect – and then return to the living room to hear her abridged version of the last saopha’s tragic story.


The prayer house at the last saopha’s mansion.


The author at the prayer house. (Photo: Thandar Khine)


The last saopha’s mansion.


Fern (left) tells the story of the last saopha to visitors.

This depressing history aside, not all is dark in present-day Hsipaw, as we found out during our explorations. There is also plenty of beauty to be seen amid the reminders of Myanmar’s bleak past: Our trek through the Shan villages, for example, included a visit to the 30-meter-high Nam Tuk Waterfall, which cascades in braids of water down a sheer cliff face and into a deep pool that would have tempted us to swim had the morning not been so cool.


On the way to Nam Tuk Waterfall.


Nam Tuk Waterfall.


Nam Tuk Waterfall.

During our bike ride the following day, we pedaled north out of the centre of town on Namtu Road, which in the morning was busy with motorcycles and thick with wood smoke. We struggled up a short hill on our heavy, single-speed clunkers, and turned left at a huge tamarind tree. The narrow lane led to Sao Pu Sao Nain nat shrine, which boasted the usual array of red and white horses, tigers with bananas stuffed into their mouths, and other mysterious figures from the spirit world. Just past this was Little Bagan, a scenic area of traditional wooden houses and old brick pagodas. The most striking was Eissa Paya, recognizable by the big tree growing straight out of the top. Not far away were Mandalaya Monastery and Maha Nanda Katha, home to a 150-year-old bamboo Buddha.


Sao Pu Sao Nain nat shrine.


Eissa Paya.


Kids playing near Eissa Paya.


The bamboo Buddha at Maha Nanda Katha.

After our visit to the saopha’s mansion, we cruised the town’s back streets, stopping at a small workshop where a man sat out front making sandals from old car tyres. His very friendly and very talkative wife pulled us inside the house, showed us her photo albums and complained that her husband continued making shoes despite the fact that few were actually sold. We bought two pair (2,500 kyats each), despite thinking that we would never actually wear them, before finally extracting ourselves from the house.


Making rubber sandals.


The finished products.

After lunch at a BBQ shop on Namtu Road, we cycled a few kilometers west of town on the main highway to visit Bawgyo Pagoda. This eye-catching shrine – which glows with gold on the outside and glitters with mirrored mosaics on the inside – houses four Buddha images that, according to legend, were carved out of wood given to the Bagan King Narapathisithu (1174-1211AD) by the King of the Celestials.

These statues are displayed only once a year during the week-long Bawgyo Pagoda Festival, held around the full moon of the lunar month of Tabaung (March). During this time, thousands of pilgrims gather to pay homage to the Buddha images, and the area surrounding the pagoda is thronged with market stalls run by Shan and Palaung vendors. But all was quiet during our visit to the pagoda, which is just the way we like it: just a handful of visitors offered flowers to the pagoda as small bells chimed in the breeze and the afternoon sunlight magnified the lustre of the golden stupa.


Bawgyo Pagoda.

With daylight growing short, we cycled back into town, crossed the Dokhtawaddy River on the highway bridge and climbed the paved, forest-flanked road up to Thein Daung Pagoda, our last stop of the day. Our bikes did not provide the best means of ascending the steep incline, forcing us to dismount and push most of the way up.

Also known as Sunset Hill, the peak often attracts significant numbers of late-day, westward-gazing backpackers. But when he reached the top we saw that we had the place virtually to ourselves – again, just the way we like it. We enjoyed the silence as we took in the view of the countryside, which was pink-hued in the waning light of the day. Then we climbed aboard our hefty bicycles and coasted back down into town, the shrieks of our overheated brakes echoing through the darkening forest like a host of angry spirits.


Cooling off in Shan State.




Last day out in Kengtung

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Our last “trek” in Kengtung did not involve much trekking: Just a 30-minute car ride outside of town and a couple of short walks to ethnic Akhu and Enn villages, plus a visit to a hilltop pagoda with an amazing view. Many photos below:


Wan Sai Akhu village.


Wan Sai Akhu Baptist Church.


The Akhu mafia threatens us with incessant finger-wagging if we continue taking photos without buying bamboo pipes and necklaces.




An Akhu woman prepares to pity the fool who refuses to buy a pipe.


Pipe purchased (from the least pushy woman in the village), peace restored.


Kaba Aye Pagoda.


Inside Kaba Aye Pagoda.


Sexism on display in the pagoda precinct.


The view from Kaba Aye Pagoda.


Ethnic Enn weaver.


Enn woman with betel-blackened lips.


Basket weaving.


An Enn woman prepares lunch.


Mustard soup, fresh-off-the-rock lichen soup, and mountain rice — just like mom used to make.


An Enn man pours tea for his guests.


Loi Monastery, shaped like a royal karaweik barge.


Images from an Akha village trek: Part 1

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Akha village 07

Kengtung in eastern Shan State is pleasant enough, but the best reason to travel there is get out of town to explore the ethnic minority villages in the surrounding mountains.

The day before the Akha New Year Festival – covered in my previous post – I went trekking to the Akha village of Hokyin. The starting point for the 10.8km (6.7-mile) walk was located about 45 minutes by car from Kengtung along the road to Tachileik at the Thai border.

Hokyin actually consists of a group of four closely clustered villages, all ethnic Akha but each practicing a different religion, as follows:

Hokyin village #1: Christian

Hokyin village #2: Animist

Hokyin village #3: Christian

Hokyin village #4: Divided into two, with Buddhists on one side and animists on the other.

Despite these differences in faith, strong elements of animism – especially protective signs to ward off bad luck and evil spirits – can still be seen in all of the villages.

The trek – done in cool, sunny December weather – consisted of a steady climb up into the hills where the village cluster was located, followed by a long descent to our pickup point. Our route – which can be seen here – took us through the villages in reverse order, starting with #4 and ending with #1.

Photos below, with more to come tomorrow.

Akha village 01

Tea plantation along the walk up to Hokyin village #4.

Akha village 02

Akha girls on their way to collect firewood from the forest.

Akha village 03

Pagoda on the Buddhist end of Hokyin village #4.

Akha village 04

Dried honeycomb nailed above a doorway to protect the household against bad luck.

Akha village 05

Akha woman carrying firewood.

Akha village 08

Another wood carrier.

Akha village 06

Although I prefer photographing people when they’re not staring into the camera, this woman posed so I could get a good look at her traditional ethnic bling.

Akha village 09

Akha woman making a beaded hat.

Akha village 10

While the women carry firewood, the men water their plants.

Akha village 11

Caged bird.

Akha village 12

Akha house.


Akha ring in New Year with Kengtung festival

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Helmets are mandatory for anyone riding a motorcycle in Kengtung in eastern Shan State, but traffic police were willing to make an exception for the ethnic Akha women who sported traditional metallic headgear as they streamed into the town’s football stadium on December 28.

They had traveled from outlying villages to attend the 2015 Akha New Year Festival, which celebrated the arrival of the Year of Sheep on the Akha calendar.

Shan State Chief Minister Sao Aung Myat was on hand in the morning to cut the tinsel, release the balloons and deliver the standard government lecture about unity among Myanmar’s ethnic groups.

The festivities then ground to a virtual standstill during the heat of day, but when night fell the stadium was crammed with vendors selling sticky rice and grilled meat, children going loco in the dragon-shaped bounce house, and young men laying down wads of cash in fruitless efforts to master tricky ring-toss and darts games.

On the main stage, pop music blared as women in Akha dress performed dances whose movements borrowed heavily from Kachin, Kayin and other ethnic styles.

Far more interesting was the secondary stage, which featured eerily beautiful traditional Akha singing.

Near this stage, a group of dancers circulated around a flagpole, around which a wooden pathway that had been laid on the ground. As they moved, many of them rhythmically clacked bamboo sticks on the wood, while others rang gongs.

While many Akha attended the celebration in Kengtung, many others stayed away because of the expense of traveling to the city.

“If they don’t have relatives they can stay with while in Kengtung, most of them can’t afford to come to the festival,” said Shan tour guide Matt. He explained that the villages compensated by holding their own individual New Year festivals around January 2 and 3.

The Akha are the second-biggest ethnic group in the Kengtung area, accounting for about 10 percent of the regional population. The biggest group, the Shan, constitute 80 percent of the population.











Christmas in Kapna video

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A couple of weeks ago I posted a story on this blog titled “Kachin villagers commemorate the reason for the season”, in which I wrote about my Christmas trip to remote regions of northern Shan State. 

I didn’t spend too much time shooting video in Kapna, but I did manage to capture a few minutes of footage. A two-minute video, which includes a bit of Kachin-language choir singing, as well as some traditional Kachin music, can be seen here on Youtube.



Written by latefornowhere

February 5, 2014 at 4:17 am

Kachin villagers commemorate the reason for the season

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The road to Kapna in northern Shan State. The creek is the
international boundary, with Myanmar on the left and China on the right.

Up until 100 years ago, the Kachin residents of the northern Shan State village of Kapna were resolutely animist in their beliefs. Several visits by Christian missionaries had failed to dissuade them from making offerings to the spirits in the way their ancestors had done for generations.

According to village lore, that all changed when a Kapna resident who suffered cataracts was instantly healed after he stopped honoring spirits and started praying to the Christian god. He converted and was followed not long after by another villager.

The third convert, a man named Hkam Leng, was the cousin of the second villager. Hkam Leng was also the duwa (headman) of Kapna and the surrounding region, a title he had been granted by the regional sabwa, or ethnic Shan ruler.


Duwa Hkam Leng (left) and Dujan Nang Ja

Following Duwa Hkam Leng’s conversion, everyone else in the village abandoned animism and followed his lead into the Christian faith. Despite the mass conversions, for decades there was no church or pastor in Kapna – only a bamboo hut where villagers gathered to study the Bible.  

Duwa Hkam Leng and his wife Dujan Nang Ja were the grandparents of my mother-in-law, Nang Hseng, who was born in Kapna on July 4, 1943. Years later, Nang Hseng moved to Yangon, where she married an ethnic Rakhine actor and film director named Aung Lwin.

In early 1967 Nang Hseng and Aung Lwin travelled from Yangon to Kapna for a visit. At that time, Nang Hseng told me, inhabitants of this wild, remote region near the China border would think nothing of killing a non-Kachin man for the cultural crime of marrying a Kachin woman.

In fact, her father asked Aung Lwin not to come to Kapna, but the family’s high standing in the community – as the descendents of the earliest Christian converts – overcame any impulse toward blood-lust, and murder was averted.

Violence arrived in a different form a few months after their visit, when Chinese and Burmese communists destroyed Kapna and other villages in the area. This was revenge for Myanmar leader Ne Win’s attempt to drive the communists into China from the border regions and divert Shan State’s rice southward to overcome food shortages in Yangon.

The Chinese-style mansion that belonged to Duwa Hkam Leng and Dujan Nang Ja was destroyed in the attack. It was described to me as a magnificent structure with a vast, open courtyard in the center into which horses could be ridden through majestic sliding wood doors. The tall wood posts that supported the house survived the razing, but they were filched by the communists and used to build a new headquarters in another village.

Duwa Hkam Leng and his family fled to Muse, 20 kilometers (12 miles) west. The original village site is now deserted – nothing is left except the villagers’ walnut trees, which locals harvest to this day.

The communists are long gone, and Kapna was eventually re-established at a new site: It’s now on the other side of the mountain from the original village, and only a few steps from the China border.


Kapna resident and her child

This past Christmas, the residents of Kapna – now a mix of Kachin, Lisu, Shan and Chinese – held a four-day festival to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the region’s abandonment of animism in favour of Christianity. Honorees Duwa Hkam Leng and Dujan Nang Ja are now interred at a twin mausoleum in the jungle, just uphill from the new Kapna.

Nang Hseng invited me to attend the festival with her family. She assured me that the village was a bit tamer than in the past, and therefore I need not fret about possibly being murdered for having married into a Kachin family.  


Kachin women in traditional dress sing outside a church in Kapna on Christmas Eve.

What was more worrying was the security situation. Kapna lies in an area where the Myanmar army (Tatmadaw) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) are both active. The pastor who organised the festival had asked the Tatmadaw soldiers to stay away, or at least to take off their uniforms if they entered the village during the celebrations. They seemed to comply – I didn’t see anyone in military garb – but I was told that plainclothes soldiers were lurking around in the forest, watching.

Where the original Kapna had no church, the new village boasts two. During the anniversary celebrations the bigger one was the site of numerous Kachin-language sermons and plenty of hymn and carol singing.


A Kachin pastor delivers a sermon in Kapna.

At night, with mountain temperatures dropping to near freezing, villagers performed traditional dances on an outdoor stage. Before sleep we gathered around a campfire to grill homemade sticky rice patties.

On Christmas Eve morning I walked with Nang Hseng and the rest of the family to the tomb of Duwa Hkam Leng and Dujan Nang Ja, a 20-minute uphill hike through murky forest and across lush, sun-drenched meadows. We brought along a machete to cut brush from the burial site, and a few family members set to work prying caked dirt from the mausoleum after we’d arrived. This was quickly stopped by a villager who informed us that the accumulation of soil on the gravesite was a “blessing” – perhaps a remnant of the region’s age-old animist beliefs.


At the tomb of Duwa Hkam Leng and Dujan Nang Ja on Christmas Eve


Family photo of the funeral of Dujan Nang Ja

Heads were bowed, Kachin-language prayers were recited, photographs were taken. Then we walked back down to Kapna, where villagers were preparing to celebrate Christmas the Kachin way: with singing, dancing and healthy, home-cooked food.

Growing up in the northeastern United States, I had always marked Christmas by exchanging gifts, hanging ornaments on a fake pine tree and watching A Charlie Brown Christmas. I did none of these things in Kapna, but rarely have I felt so in touch with the genuine spirit of the season.


Fresh food delivered the Kachin way


Shan noodles around the campfire on Christmas Day



Written by latefornowhere

January 20, 2014 at 8:56 am

A story of unrequited love in Shan State

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Christmas holiday in northern Shan State: Day 3

On a cold December morning in northern Shan State, I drove west out of the border town of Muse in a Ford pickup truck along with my wife Pauksi, her mother Nang Hseng and a few relatives from the Kachin side of the family.

We were heading for Namkham, about 30 kilometres (18 miles) away. The rough and narrow road followed the south bank of the Shweli River, which forms a porous boundary with China. Myanmar’s northern neighbor would have been visible a mere 200 meters to our right had it not been for the murky fog drifting from the water.

Pic 1

Departing Muse for Namkham on a cold, misty morning in December

Until last year, Namkham was closed to foreigners, and even now security remains sketchy. A few months before our visit, fighting in Namkham township between the Myanmar Army (Tatmadaw) and the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S) armed ethnic group had killed at least nine government soldiers.

According to a May 9 report on the Irrawaddy website, the skirmish prompted about 1000 villagers to flee from the mountains and take refuge in Namkham town, while others displaced by the fighting sought shelter in Ruili on the Chinese side of the border.

An atmosphere of calm prevailed when we passed through the area last month, and we encountered no checkpoints on our way to visit one of the few Kachin households in Shan-majority Namkham – the family of Nang Hseng’s 86-year-old aunt, Lathaw Ja Hkawn.

Pic 2

Pauksi and Lathaw Ja Hkawn

Upon our arrival, Lathaw Ja Hkawn’s family sat us down at an outdoor table for a tasty breakfast of Shan noodles, fried tofu and instant coffee. For dessert, they plied us with homemade ice cream – one of the family’s small business ventures – which was delicious but did nothing to stop us shivering in the frosty winter air.

After breakfast, some of us walked to the chaotic town market. My wife bought some blankets, but a relative who had come with us from Muse was victimized by a pickpocket, who filched K60,000 (about US$58) and her national ID card straight out of her purse. She didn’t notice anything until she tried to buy a sweater and found her money gone.

Pic 4

Posing with Lathaw Ja Hkawn’s family

Our last stop in Namhkam was the hilltop site of a hospital established in the 1920s by a legendary American doctor, Gordon Seagrave. Born in Yangon, Seagrave was the son of Baptist missionaries, and his first language was Kayin. He moved to the United States at an early age and later earned a medical degree at Johns Hopkins University before returning to Myanmar in 1922 to set up his hospital in Namhkam.

In his uneven but entertaining book Burma Surgeon (1943), Seagrave describes how he built the hospital and the adjoining buildings using stones hauled from the Shweli River, and how he trained ethnic Shan, Kachin and Karen women to be skilled nurses.

Pic 5

Stone buildings at the Seagrave hospital compound, now a government-run infirmary

When the Japanese invaded Myanmar in 1942, the doctor joined the US Army Medical Corps to contribute to the Allied cause. In May of that year, facing imminent defeat at the hands of the Japanese, US General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell famously declined to fly out of Myanmar on the last available military cargo plane. Instead, he led more than 100 of his staff on a 230-kilometre trek to safety in India via the rugged, malarial Chin and Naga hills.

Seagrave and his nurses walked out with Stilwell to render medical assistance during the march. They returned to Namkham in 1944, following the Japanese retreat, to re-establish the medical buildings and residences that had been bombed out during the war.

Pic 6

Roster dating back to the early years of Gordon Seagrave’s hospital

Seagrave carried on his practice in Shan State until he died, aged 68, at his own hospital on March 28, 1965. His nurses, active and retired, collected donations to build a monument to the doctor at the nearby church where he was buried.

I had read Burma Surgeon earlier in 2013, unaware that I would be visiting the town in December. The hospital is still there and now operates as a rather decrepit government infirmary – the local staff had treated the casualties brought in during last May’s fighting between the Tatmadaw and the SSA-S.

Until we visited Namkham, I was unaware that my wife’s family had any connection with the hospital. As we looked at the buildings, Nang Hseng, a native of the region, commented that she had had her tonsils removed there when she was 11 or 12.

Then she told another story that was much more interesting: During the postwar period, one of her cousins had served at the hospital as a Seagrave-trained Kachin nurse.

Not only that, but the eldest of the doctor’s three sons, Weston, had bought an engagement ring and proposed marriage to this cousin, who declined on the grounds that she was already locked into an arranged relationship and destined to marry a local Kachin man.

Weston, who had been born in Namkham, carried the ring in his pocket in the hopes that she would change her mind, but he eventually gave up and moved to the United States. It was only after Weston’s departure that the nurse realized the enormity of her feelings for him, and to this day she speaks openly about her regret at passing up his marriage proposal.

We didn’t meet the cousin, who now suffers from poor health, but Nang Hseng showed me a curious family memento: a photograph that Weston had given to the object of his affection. Oddly, Weston had snipped off the left edge, cropping out a person who had been in the photo with him (his left arm is still visible).

What remains is the image of a smiling, clean-cut American man sitting on a concrete wall in northern Shan State – a place he would soon leave with a broken heart.

Gray Scale

Weston Seagrave in Shan State

This story was originally published in the January 13-19 2014 edition of The Myanmar Times.

Written by latefornowhere

January 13, 2014 at 10:05 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