Up the swanee and up the mountain
Feb 19, 2015
|The south part of Inle lake was closed to visitors for many years due to local militia activity but a few longtail boats now make the five our trip into the busy north end of the lake. The misty banks begin to close into a narrow channel after a while, clogged with water hyacinth and reed beds where an occasional fisherman busies himself with wicker pots and thrown fishing nets. The journey is broken occasionally to view a pottery or an illegal distillery knocking out 40 and 60 percent proof liquor from crude pipes and pots which fair take your breath away. Until quite recently the Khauk pagoda complex lay undiscovered deep in closed Pa'O tribe country, dating back to 1765 and built in honour of the Burmese king's return from conquering Ayuthaya in Thailand in Burma's golden period. They are in poor state of repair, a forest of pointed stupas built with crumbling brick and housing an occasional Buddha image.
The upper end of Inle Lake is now swamped with noisy motor boats and no longer represents the experience of earlier years before the country opened up. The visitors number in the thousands now while in Loikaw and Kengtung, there were never more than 25 Europeans.
However peace was restored when we took an hour's flight to the most eastern part of Myanmar within the Golden triangle. This bulge of land separates Northern Thailand, South Western China and North Western Laos and includes one of the most diverse ethnic hill tribe people in the country.
The capital Kengtung or Kyaing Tong is a sleepy little town which once hosted Chinese traders and a few British officials, pilgrims and missionaries of which more later.
The landscape is made up of waves of mountains interspersed with terraced rice fields, home to an eclectic blend of cultures: Shan and Burmese in the lower parts and Lahu, Akha and Ann higher up, reachable only by trekking on foot up steep jungle paths.
We started at the lowest level where The Shan people were running a huge unofficial distillery hidden away under tall bamboo trees for export to China in strong plastic containers for bottling abroad. All very industrious but the pace was slower as we trekked upwards to the Lahu village where women were peacefully sewing brightly-coloured garments in traditional patterns while the men were out in the fields. The most striking building in the village was the Baptist church complete with church tower, a sign of missionary work in times gone by. Hospitality, in the form of green tea and a chat, was common, usually offered by ancient old men too old and decrepit to work in the fields and lonely as children had often moved away looking for a better and easier life.
As the heat grew more intense, and the path steeper! It was onwards and upwards to the Akha village, this time staunch Catholics with a curious (to us) custom: married couples lived together in the same residence, usually a spacious wooden structure with a large verandah and slated roof, but each having their own bedroom, his an hers. Now, anticipating the next question, I am pleased to confirm that the solution was to provide a separate shack, a love shack so to speak, out the back where the couple would retire to ensure the future of the family. This was from day one, not just when the snoring got too bad.
And after a final push we reached the Ann hilltribe community at about 1800 feet, whose village of course had the finest views over the surrounding mountain ranges. Clearly the missionaries did not make it this far because this is Animist country run by the sheman who showed us around his top-of-the-range abode. His position requires extra living space to house a large drum used for calling the flock to discuss community matters, and we were strongly advised not to inadvertently beat it for fear of demands for the equivalent of two large pigs and much additional cash to appease the spirits and the villagers. The boss was one of the few tribespeople we came across wearing reading-glasses, a sign of wealth and authority as he sat on the verandah with the best view in town knocking out tin bracelets from strips of broken cooking pots. Additional space was also needed to house an internal hearth for large-scale cooking sessions despite the obvious fire risk as smoke rose and blackened the roof matting above. The one big difference between Ann and other tribes is that they do not subscribe to educating their children for fear of losing them to the outside world, a common problem for all other tribes: the attraction of the big smoke and bright lights for the young, who otherwise get paid a dollar or tow to drag heavy wooden planks down to the valley
Our final day was spent travelling up to over 6,000 feet above sea level into the eastern mountains, the site of a small and remote British hill station called Loimwe,now a military base. Many of the old colonial houses have fallen down through neglect though a few chimney stacks stand, peaking out of the thick vegetation. However two complete buildings have been preserved, including the house built in 1918 for a colonel Rubel, according to a sign.Built in red brick in the Surrey hills style of the time, rooms were huge, all bedrooms has bathrooms and the house was as cool as if air con was installed, but no doubt log fires were needed at night as all rooms had fireplaces. It is difficult to imagine how remote life must have seemed in this outpost of empire all this years ago, with few comforts of life or social opportunities.
A fitting end to an absorbing trip as we returned to the buzz of Yangon and the noisy celebration of Chinese NewYear and endless lion dance processions.