Our starting point is Homalin, a quiet, medium-sized town on the banks of the Chindwin. There we board a boat that is wholly typical of the mixed cargo and passenger vessels chugging up and down the river. Only this time it does not need to carry its usual excess load of people, sacks of rice, barrels of oil, bicycles, motorbikes, plastic chairs and other sundry items. We are a group of about 10 people only, most of them volunteer dentists and workers headed for the remote Naga territory. Most of the space for supplies is occupied by heaps of school books, pencils and the like, to be transported to the few schools up north.
It takes one day to go upstream to the small town of Htamanthi where both we and the cargo are unloaded onto the loading-space of an old truck, whose side is emblazoned optimistically with the words “Road Star”. It has definitely seen better days, but we have little choice and, after all, this way we are travelling local-style! The road west into the mountains towards Layshi, the “capital” of Nagaland, leaves behind the safety of the asphalt half an hour into the trip, rather too soon for our liking and our bottoms. For six hours on a dirt road the truck then winds its way through endless bamboo groves and mountain forests.
Layshi sits on a plateau at an altitude of about 1,700m. As we arrive we are greeted by the clear, salubrious mountain air and by the sight of our little guest hut, made in the traditional style out of bamboo meshwork. Since the village’s generator is switched off in the early evenings, it is instead the soft glow of the moon and the twinkling stars which illuminate our path.
The nights can be bitterly cold, with temperatures reaching around freezing point; yet this can be overcome by a combination of our warm down sleeping bags and the careful placement of a brick, still glowing from the fire, by our feet.
Layshi is also the starting-point for hiking tours to the neighbouring villages, where we are received with a considerable degree of curiosity, and, especially from the children who quickly surround us, with a great deal of joy. We bring as presents exercise books and writing-materials to be distributed to the local schools; we also give out candles, batteries, vitamins and salt, the latter being a rare and vital commodity in the area. The children are very proud to go to school, even if it is one catering for several villages at once; curiously, this sense of pride is fostered in no small part by the bright blue UNICEF-sponsored school rucksacks which the organization hands out to each schoolchild.
Throughout our hikes we feel as though we are stuck in a time-warp from many centuries ago. The people live in simple bamboo huts, a material which for them is ubiquitous, sustainable and importantly free. The hut consists of one room with a fire in the centre, which is constantly kept alight given its importance in the day-to-day lives of the villagers; cooking, forging and heating are just some of crucial activities for which the fire is used. Although cows, pigs and chickens are often to be seen around the hut, only cats are allowed inside.
Ox-carts laden with mandarins, a local specialty, sometimes cross our path. These small, juicy fruits are very popular here and are usually served as a welcome snack together with tea when a family invites us in. If we are lucky (or unlucky, according to your taste!), the hosts hurry to prepare for us a delicious soup with fish heads in it; however, this token of respect and hospitality is only reciprocated once your bowl is clean, which for some is no mean feat…
The nimble women carry their enormous burdens, mostly baskets of firewood, with extreme grace. They congregate around the village wells to draw water, wash both the laundry and themselves and exchange news whilst doing so. The men use primitive tools to work the fields, or else they are busy forging or weaving baskets. We admire the local crafts and listen to the stories of an old warrior kitted out in full attire, complete with spear, who, in his youth, was still roaming the area as a headhunter. In the small village of Din Ga Lein Sampya, we meet the elder U Htun La, who is more than 80 years old, although just how much more he is not sure. He tells us about events during the occupation by the British and remembers the air raids by the Japanese, all the while smoking his cheroot cigar with relish. While he talks without pause, the entire village gathers, not to hear the stories for the umpteenth time, but rather to observe our reaction to them.
Village shaman Saw Kaw Htwar joins the group and answers our many questions about his life and work. He tells us it is not his job to ease the suffering of the people, but rather to explain to them how their physical ailments originate in their spiritual dissonance. However his work is not easy and his gift is also his burden; as had been foretold, he lost his eldest son shortly after his initiation as shaman.
No power pylons disturb the wonderful panoramic views overlooking dense forests, valleys and rice terraces and towards Mount Saramati, which towers 4000m over the landscape. Its summit is hidden, swathed in clouds most of the time, but it is revered as a spiritual and sacred site by the local people.
Meanwhile the preparations for the New Year celebration in Layshi are in full swing. As night falls, a group of young men inaugurate the opening ceremony by rhythmically beating a thick, hollow tree trunk with their heavy wooden drumsticks. We are declared guests of honour and are seated next to the monks and the military brass on a dais overlooking the grounds. After the welcoming speeches, the dancing begins.
Five Naga tribes have travelled far to participate. The first to dance are the women of the Para-Naga, then the Kutki-Naga follow, who are famed for their craftsmanship. Next come the women of the Tan-Gon-Naga, who rank amongst the most sophisticated of all Naga tribes. As a highlight, the Long-Buri Naga, as the only male outfit present, round off proceedings. They are said to be wild and courageous warriors. With fierce war cries they brandish their spears and dance around the fire as they are warmly applauded by the spectators, who spur the dancers on, shouting encouragement at the top of their voices. We are mesmerised by the heady combination of the drums, the singing and the variety of brightly coloured costumes. The men wear with pride the headdresses of their forefathers, the women and girls are festooned with rows of traditional necklaces and bracelets. We are so captivated by the magical, electric atmosphere that we pluck up the courage to sip from our bamboo cups filled with Kaung Yee, a fermented beer of whitish colour made from either corn or rice. This New Year’s drink comes with food for the occasion, namely the customary “Black Bull Snack”, of dried strips of meat, which have been seasoned in very hot chili. After the dance of the last Ma-Kuri tribe we are dragged down from the dais and towards the dancing; amidst the laughter and support of the locals, we do our best to perform more or less gracefully and in tune with the weird and wonderful music.
After taking part in the opening ceremony in Layshi, our trusty “Road Star” picks us up again the next morning and takes us along our route; it goes a bit faster this time, downhill and more forgiving than last time – we have also since been relieved of our considerable school supplies. A few stops punctuate our journey, one of them a military checkpoint. It is easy to spot, since it looks like a small fortress made of bamboo. The tips of the fences are sharpened and pointed, with a second bamboo barricade encircling the first. There would be no way to break through, but luckily we don’t plan on doing so anyway and the policemen, perhaps sensing our peaceful intentions, are very polite and smile as they let us take a photo of them.
We board our cargo ship again in Htamanthi. As is so often the case here, a thick early-morning fog forms a blanket over the water, muffling voices and thankfully also the incessant rattling of the Chinese outboard engines. Every now and then the silhouette of another vessel appears from out of the impenetrable grey. Most are bound for a market somewhere along the river, loaded with people, vegetable, fruits and flowers. On board it is cold and wet, until finally the sun breaks through, at which point our captain starts the motor and joins the flow of the river.
We are borne along the Chindwin for the next five days with our view reaching only as far as the next river bend. For the time being no one has our final destination Monywa in mind, but then why should we? As the old adage goes, it is the journey and not the destination which counts, and this could hardly be truer in the case of the richly varied scenes and landscapes that play out every day before our eyes, not only on the banks of the river, but on the river itself.
As for our captain, he doesn´t take his eyes off the river for a single moment. The Chindwin is difficult to navigate, especially towards the end of the dry season when countless sandbanks lurk hidden beneath the surface, changing size and location every day. It therefore requires two crew members to sit on either side of the prow and with the help of long wooden poles painted with red and white markings, they probe the depth of the water and signal accordingly to the captain. Nevertheless there are places where many vessels inevitably get stuck. Without hesitation, the crew jumps into the water and tries to coax the boat free, sometimes resorting to brute force. This task is all the more difficult for the huge teak floats, whose weight alone can make getting stuck a real problem, even if their relatively shallow hulls mercifully reduce the risk of this happening.
In the dry season between October and May, with the rains stopping and water level subsequently receding, huge sandbanks also start to appear on the riversides, only to be quickly converted into temporary settlements by the ever-resourceful river-dwelling villagers. The building materials of wood, palm trees and bamboo can be found everywhere and building a simple family home is a matter of hours only. Having colonized these extensive networks of sandbanks with their families, they dry their freshly-cut bamboo by the river and work them into canes, mats and baskets, which are handed over to the passing boats, to be sold at the next market town. The ground here is also especially fertile thanks to the alluvial deposits that have accrued here since the last dry season; unsurprisingly these areas are used to grow plenty of vegetables, of which any excess is also sold at market.
Pleasantly tired, we crawl gratefully into our sleeping bags each night. As for the scheduled morning wash, naturally this takes place in the open, under the shower located at the stern of the boat, in the scant privacy of one’s longyi. The river water is pumped through the showerhead and for those who want hot water, a thermos flask is strongly recommended. This morning routine attracts many curious glances from other boats and from the riverside itself, since watching a Westerner showering on a boat along the Chindwin is hardly a common sight for them!
We have everything we could want. Over the next few days we continue to make frequent visits to isolated villages, where we are invited for tea and to see the local pagoda or school, all of which allows us to gain an insight into the lives of the villagers. For them, however, comfort is an alien concept and their daily routine is rigorous; yet despite this there is no evidence of malnourishment and the people go about their work with a seemingly permanent smile on their faces. Water is fetched in buckets from the village well or from the river. There are no roads, so ox-carts are the vehicle of choice for both transportation and work; laundry, along with the villagers themselves, is washed in the river.
Like the reclaimed sandbanks, the river itself is a constant hive of activity. Rafts lashed to each other are loaded with bamboo, teak and other trade goods before drifting downstream to their respective destinations of factories and warehouses. Entire families make these gigantic flotillas their homes; wood however, is not the only natural resource to be used; indeed one or two gold mines have cropped up along the riverbank. A battery of densely-packed boats pump the river water through long plastic tubes over a wooden structure and onto the underlying mats that catch the particles. These mats are then washed out into basins made of tarp, around which the women squat and using wooden trays they separate the desired gold particles from the sand through some very skilful panning. The Chindwin, although only a river, conditions and supports the livelihoods under a multitude of guises of the local inhabitants, who are utterly at its mercy. The river is undoubtedly the lifeblood of the region.
The local culture remains thankfully untouched by modern influences, which is so often the bane of other south-east Asian nations. One explanation for this lies in the sheer remoteness of the region, which makes it very difficult for other people in the country, let alone foreigner to travel here. In one of the villages we had visited, we were the first Westerners to be seen there for 15 years, in another the first altogether! The look in their eyes as they received us, a mixture of curiosity and joy at these strange and novel people, simply cannot be captured on camera; the moments we spent with them count amongst our most precious memories in Myanmar.
Life here is very much in harmony with nature; such an impression could sound trite coming from a Western perspective used to a more frantic and less authentic existence, but the Myanmarese way of life is truly endowed with a sense of equilibrium, stability and permanence, whether this lies in the changing seasons and the subsequently changing lifestyles, in the close-knit and mutually dependent family structures, in the character of people themselves and their proud defiance of adversity, be it natural or political, or in the enlightened tenets of the Theravada Buddhism practiced by the overwhelming majority. Indeed throughout our journey, we seem to be constantly accompanied by house shrines, temples and monasteries; even the smallest shrine in the corner of a family’s hut is of great importance. It is the Ba Ti Thaung Pagoda (Standing Buddha Pagoda) and the Than Buddhas Pagoda (Pagoda of 1000 Buddhas) which come at the end of our tour in Monywa, the sheer size and impressive scale of these temple complexes serve as a reminder that we are back in civilization; our Chindwin paradise now lies far behind us and we find ourselves once more on the well-trodden tourist path. It matters little though; the paradise has won us over and now we can see clearly how a tributary river like the Chindwin can be the main attraction of a wonderful trip…we’ll be back!