|At Heho airport, one of the gateways into the Shan States, some things never change: only ethnic Burmese are allowed into the airport while Shan guides have to wait across the road to receive their charges. Almost all are making the hour's trip across to busy Inle Lake, but we are heading six hours further south through and out of the Shan States into the small state of Kayah, mainly populated by tribespeople like the Pa'O and the Paduang, and closed to foreigners till recently because of civil war. Much of the state is still off limits, including areas still growing poppies with the connivance of the government, perhaps because the state still maintains its own unofficial army.
The road is not geared for four-wheel traffic: a central strip wide enough for a small car is paved with side strips of compacted earth on each side forcing hairy manoeuvres with oncoming vehicles, usually mopeds but occasionally huge smoke-emitting trucks of the very occasional public bus. Loikaw to Yangon runs twice a week.
Road building and repairs are underway on every stretch of road with large piles of rocks every few feet. We witnessed only about 30 square feet of actual tarmacked road since there is almost no mechanisation involved. All heavy work is done by hand, male and female. Hard labour indeed. The only tractors we saw, three of them, we're being put to use on a government agricultural project.
But it is an endlessly fascinating landscape: often dark red soil, fields of garlic or cauliflower, pear trees or rice paddies often being burned off after the harvest, golden stupas atop limestone hills, frenetic villages of moped repair shops and tribal ladies in standard Pa'O orange headdress selling the greenest and freshest vegetables you can imagine. Foreigners are there none. The infrastructure, (lack of good roads, hotels restaurants etc) would not support them. Eventually we cross from relatively prosperous Shan States into Kayah and immediately brick built house are replaced by teak thatched dwellings on stilts with rush matting walls. We hand over our travel permit signed by the Ministry of Immigration to enter the town of Loikaw, our base for a few days. Rather surprisingly there are signs of Christianity everywhere: crosses on the side of homes, Catholic Churches and church and even a few catholic nuns in grey habits. On the other hand there seemed to be quite a number of motorcyclists wearing what looked like WWII German helmets, one even had a swastika label on it. While the Burmese remain staunchly Buddhist, many tribespeople all over Myanmar migrated from animism (still practised too) to Christianity and indeed forty percent of the town's population is today Christian.
Our time here was divided between the magical sites within the town and visiting some of the remote hill tribe people in the forested countryside, only reachable by barely passable tracks to hillside hamlets. The most famous are the Paduang tribe,whose women and young girls wear the heavy brass rings around their necks, arms and legs, extending their necks to look like dragons they supposed their ancestors to be when loving in Persia. It gives a woman so attired a unique facial shape and is worn day and night. More than 200 Paduang women have slipped over the border into My Hong Son in Thailand during the civil wars. They are much more commercialised over there, used to foreigners with cameras and consequently rather surly, not the case in Kayah where exposure has been very limited.
In town the major site is the dramatic Broken Mountain pagoda, a group of stupas balanced on a soaring rock formation rising high above the town with gold domed peaks linked by metal walkways opening up magical views of the town below, outlying fields and a ring of mountain ranges. We looked down on the Buddhist convent we had visited that afternoon, housing about ninety shy young novices aged between 5 and 13, shaved heads and pink attire and very giggly! Occasionally bold enough to say 'how are you' or 'my name is'. There were probably no more than a dozen foreigners in town, a very different experience from the now very crowded Schwedagon pagoda in Yangon.
If they ever manage to get serviceable roads finished without any mechanisation and the area is opened up like the Inle Lake area is today, this quiet authentically Burmese backwater will lose its current charm and openness to foreigners.
Tomorrow we take to the waterways from a Japanese sponsored lake through a lengthy canal into the southern end of lake Inle and the tourist mainstream.