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Burma’s Rivers & Roads Less Travelled - Part 1

In this first of a two part series, Andy W Langton, puts pen to paper and takes us on a visit to Burma’s Rivers & Roads Less Travelled.


I had spent the previous month in the remote hills of Northern Thailand photographing the indigenous tribes, many of whom had fled Burma over the last 30 years to avoid persecution, resettlement and civil war to forge a new life.


Initially, I was hoping to cross the border at Mae Sai into Burma’s Shan State but no such luck. Whilst access to this amazing country is rapidly opening-up, the crossing north of Chiang Rai was still closed to foreigners. Instead of a few miles into Burma I chose to take a 450mile bus ride to Bangkok and a 600mile flight to Mandalay. From Mandalay, we were to be picked up by our contact and driven overnight to Lashio, the largest of the towns in northern Shan State.


For the first week of the trip, I would be taking along Jonas, a 22year old German gap year student from Kiel on Germany’s Baltic coast. He had been working with IMPECT, (Inter Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand), as a teacher for the previous 9 months and had accompanied me on most of the field trips over my time in the Thai highlands.


I got the distinct feeling that the relationship between China and the Burma’s military junta was beginning to wane. I could see that China’s exploitation was on a huge scale, with little of the benefits filtering down to the general population.

Bordering China, Shan State carried the bulk of the trade between the two countries and if Burma was a lush garden of rich pickings, China’s presence akin to a plague of locust, consuming everything that lay before them.


Bumper to bumper trucks and lorries made their way up the steep mountain pass to reach the Shan plateau, making our progress very slow. Upon reaching the top around 2am, headlights from the hundreds of vehicles created a giant illuminated serpent upon which Burma’s food produce and considerable natural resources would exit the country.


Arriving in Lashio we spent the first night and the following day with our contacts. With no food and little water to drink or wash, their situation was a day-to-day challenge. When staying with them began to attract attention, we decided to stay the second night in a nearby hotel catering for Chinese businessmen to minimize the chance of getting picked up.

Whilst in Lashio, we were to visit nearby villages, a visit to Nam Kyan monastery orphanage was to have the greatest impact on me.


Founded and run by head monk U Sasana, this was one of two centers established to provide education, and in the case of Nam Kyan, a home for Burma’s less fortunate children.


The first thing that struck me was how happy the children were. With no immediate family and few material possessions, the children relied on the monastery for all things. Food would come from alms collected from nearby villages and local women would prepare food in the kitchen attached to the schoolhouse. From private overseas donations, work had already started on a larger, better equipment schoolhouse with the stone for the foundations coming from the nearby quarry.


An hour’s journey away and we had arrived at U Sasana’s second project, a newly constructed timber built schoolhouse that provided education to children from the surrounding villages. Under the shade of a Banyan tree in the school yard, U Sasana sat and reluctantly agreed to have his photograph taken before I joined a group of young Monks in the field at the back of the monastery.


From Lashio we were to take the early bus, which left a few hours before dawn, heading to the higher hills and more remote villages and monasteries. The steep and twisting mountain roads left little margin for error, eventually reaching Namshan and its single guesthouse as a thick mist of low cloud descended to accompany the torrential rain.


Reminding me of the Himalayan town of Darjeeling, the narrow single high street of timber houses ran for about ¼ mile until it abruptly stopped. A devastating fire the year before had destroyed a large section of the upper high street as strong winds fanned the flames that tore through the tinder dry houses. An appeal had been made throughout Shan state and enough money collected from other villages to rebuild, this time in brick and concrete. Towards the highest section of the town, Namshan monastery appeared out of the mist as we made our way up the hill.


As a reminder that we were in country in the grip of civil war, an open truck loaded with Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) soldiers drove past belching diesel fumes. As the truck mounted machine gun was swung in my direction it sent a clear message that they were in control of this particular place and taking a photograph wasn’t the best decision. There’s a time and a place for pointing a camera, this wasn’t one. To the North in Kachin State, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) where in the midst of savage fighting with government troops. Rarely if ever reported to the outside world a chance meeting with a British conflict photographer a few days earlier had given me an insight into what was going on. His beaten up Nikon and the look you get when you’ve been in a war zone for a year said as much as his grim accounts.


Towards the highest section of the town, Namshan monastery appeared out of the mist. Probably due to the rain, which was now bouncing off the ground, the monastery appeared to be deserted. Eventually we located the Abbot and asked if we could take a look around, Jonas stayed and joined the Abbot for tea whilst I continued to have a look around. A large dormitory was located at the far end of the courtyard, I knocked on the door and waited.


As the double doors opened, a group of novice monks came to see who the stranger was. Inside, single beds lined the long narrow dormitory and all eyes were immediately on me, the whole place then errupted in excitement. Taking a packet of boiled sweets out of my bag brought from Singapore there was soon a mad scramble.


In the doorway, umbrellas stood in a large earthenware pot. By now the monsoon rain was so heavy that torrents poured off the roofs and through the gaps between the buildings. Gesturing for them to come outside they eventually ventured out and the courtyard became a waterpark in the torrential rain.


With the boys heading back inside to change into dry robes I joined Jonas and the Abbot for some tea. As with monk U Sasana, the Abbots English was flawless and we chatted about everything from Premier league football to Aung San Suu Kyi.


We had been told that further up the valley, beyond some truly enormous Banyan tree’s, stood Zetonhone monastery. Our arrival would correspond with the new moon on the 16th and herald the start of Kason Nyaung Ye Thun, Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and passing to Nirvana.


Arriving unannounced, we were immediately greeted as special guests and made to feel at home whilst daily life continued as normal. The monks continued with building improvements, novice monks had their lessons with meditation and prayers throughout the day. During recreational time, novice monks played football and Chin Lone (kick volleyball), whilst the older monks walked around the hillside tea gardens that surrounded the monastery on all sides. After the communal dinner we climbed the hill overlooking the monastery and watched a fiery red sun go down, silhouetting the Stupas to make a perfect sunset.


Our return journey to Lashio, although downhill all the way, was a much more uncomfortable experience. The bus we had paid for never arrived which meant a 7hr journey in a cattle truck with 50 others which was the more common mode of transport.


With no perceptible suspension and poor brakes, the journey did have its moments of excitement. After about 4 hours we eventually stopped for a welcome break. By this time, I was having difficulty in bending my back and as we walked around the front of the truck Jonas dropped his wallet. Bending down to pick it up, I used the open cab of the truck as a support as a gust of wind slammed the door on the back of my hand. Thrusting the wallet at Jonas, I continued walking telling him I was going to the roadside bathroom, a few steps later I passed out.


Flat on my back on the mountain road, traffic drove around the star shaped foreigner. Jonas had seen me and assumed I was stretching out my back and went off to get some noodles for breakfast. Sometime later I began to hear birdsong and could see blurred figures looking down at me ‘Sir, truck leaving’.  Struggling to my feet I headed back and met Jonas who still hadn’t realised I wasn’t stretching out my back, or taking a roadside nap.


Picking up some of the luggage we had left at the Lashio safe house we boarded the overnight bus to Rangoon, a more comfortable 13hour journey lay ahead. Jonas was to catch his flight back to Bangkok and I was heading off to Sittwe on Burma’s west coast for the next stage of my journey along Burma’s Rivers & Roads Less Traveled. 

Burma’s Rivers & Roads Less Travelled - Part 2 

In this second of a two part series, Andy W Langton, puts pen to paper and takes us on a visit to Burma’s Rivers & Roads Less Travelled.


Situated 50 miles south of Bangladesh, Sittwe lies on Burma’s west coast, flanked by the Bay of Bengal. Making world news for the violence and unrest between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslim Rohingya, the situation had led to the displacement of some 140,000 Rohingya. At time of writing Sittwe had 80 refugee camps run by the world’s humanitarian organisations.


Seated next to me on the flight from Rangoon were UNHCR and Médecins Sans Frontières volunteers. Preparing for landing in our twin-engine turbo prop my first sight of Sittwe was Lokananda Paya, the golden pagoda that appeared like a beacon to guide us onto the airfield originally built by the British in 1920.


Despite the unfolding crisis, Sittwe was to be a brief stop-off to enable me to continue my onward journey north to the ancient city of Mrauk u and further still into Burma’s Chin State.


Relatively unheard of, Sittwe made the news back in June 1937 when Amelia Earhart used Sittwe airfield as a stopping off point on her ill-fated circumnavigation of the globe. 3 weeks after her stop off, Earhart and Noonan where lost somewhere over the Pacific. Apart from its strategic importance during World War 2 Sittwe had melted into obscurity until the ethnic unrest put it back on the map.


Ahead was the threat of shipwreck, venomous snakes and swarms of mosquitos but my outward journey would be considerably less perilous.


I had two options to enter Rakhine State, by aircraft from Rangoon or take the 20 hour ferry journey from Ngapali. At this time of year, monsoon gales and cyclones are frequent so the air option seemed to be the most sensible. As my return journey from Mrauk u would later prove, using the waterways of Burma can be unpredictable.


It took the man pedaling the trishaw 15 minutes to get me to the guesthouse from the airport. Choice was limited so I checked in. I’ve stayed in worse places but the last bed linen change must have been when the British built the airfield. At $6 USD per night I suddenly felt like I’d been grossly overcharged.


An evening military curfew was in force following the ethnic cleansing outrages, so it was early to bed. I had wondered why there were so many freshly smoldering remains of buildings (allegedly with the occupants still inside). With a t-shirt acting as a pillow case (a trick I learnt in India) I lay under the filthy mosquito net, failing to see the numerous holes through the gloom of the 40 watt light bulb, I would pay the price for my lack of attention throughout that long night.


Wanting to catch the dawn fish market I headed out at 5am and made the short walk along the Strand, proof that the British had a sense of humour. Halfway along the road, I passed a man in his late fifties out for a morning stroll and heading my way, he smiled and I said good morning. To my shock I got a ‘good morning’ back in perfect English. This was to be a truly fortunate encounter and one which would allow me to continue my journey to Mrauk u and beyond.


Diamond, as he preferred to be called, had spent 8 years in prison as a political dissident, finally being released in 1998. After his release and after a period of house arrest his freedom of movement was then extended to Rakhine State, although travel to the rest of Burma was strictly forbidden. Failure to comply would have invoked another lengthy prison sentence. In the spring of 2012 he was permitted to travel within Burma for the first time in 22 years.


After a guided tour of fish market and notable buildings that remained standing after the savage fighting between British and Japanese forces, we had morning tea and fried rice.

Well educated and articulate, Diamond was a senior member with the Rakhine political movement, campaigning for the rights of Rakhine people and clearly a man of some standing. He never openly talked about the civil unrest and burning of Rohingya Muslim homes and businesses. These events became the catalyst for the Rohingya expulsions from Sittwe and the surrounding area which resulted in the refugee camps being established.


As the weekly ferry to Mrauk u was the following morning I had the day to explore. We agreed to meet again that evening at his local bar for a drink, more like a US 1930’s prohibition speak-easy and the beer was good.


Sitting on plastic chairs around a small round table were his political colleagues, unlikely characters, a friendly rice trader and a steely eyed heavily built man in his late forties. He was, and remained, an officer in the military police. As a staunch advocate of the Rakhine people this man, whilst skillfully maintaining his government position, had helped Diamond during his incarceration; the two were clearly great friends. He viewed me with great suspicion, never once making eye contact throughout the whole evening.


By 8 o’clock we were heading back, the streets and roads had already emptied and it was to be another early start so I was glad of the early night. Sensibly using the mosquito net brought from Singapore I would get a reasonable night’s sleep, the drumming rain on the corrugated steel roof also did its job and I was soon off to sleep.


At dawn, Diamond was already waiting for me downstairs and we took a rickshaw down to the jetty where we again had tea and rice roadside breakfast.


At the ramshackle timber jetty I made an attempt to buy a ticket, ending in failure and the threat of arrest. Strictly speaking, Sittwe was off limits to non NGO foreigners and to travel further into Rakhine State was, at that time, out of the question. Diamond knew this would happen. Trying a second time a heated ‘discussion’ ensued with Diamond. After a few minutes I was asked for my passport and $5 USD. I had my ferry ticket.


To board the grossly overloaded government ferry I wobbled along a steep and very narrow teak plank with an alarming bend. Clutching a large bag and my camera equipment I must have made a comical sight. Having successfully avoided an early morning dip in the open sewer, I waved goodbye to Diamond for the last time and was absorbed into the seething mass of humanity and livestock.


Steaming away from the jetty and out of the narrow Sakrokeya creek we headed out into the early morning sun and out into the wide delta of the Kaladan river, unaffected by dams and hydroelectric schemes, it holds the accolade of being the world’s 5th longest uninterrupted river.


With its close proximity to the Bay of Bengal, monsoon gales and cyclones regularly slam into this stretch of coastline. With storm clouds gathering, the sun disappeared and the wind began to pick up. As visibility dropped, a lightning strike on a nearby monastery heralded the rain which began to sweep across the open deck. I began to regret the decision to find a space on the top deck. Packed in like sardines, we all huddled together amongst the produce and livestock and prepared to sit it out in the incessant rain for the next 7 hours.


As the hours passed the river narrowed, the wind dropped and the rain petered to a steady drizzle. Making slow progress we snaked up river. Grazing oxen and fisherman dotted the banks of the flood meadows making it an impossible to date scene. I couldn’t help but think that things had remained unchanged since the Spanish and Portuguese traders navigated the same stretch of river in the 1600’s, describing Mrauk u (pronounced mm-raw-oo) as an equivalent of Venice. Similar to the Venetians, King Minbin in the 15th century had amassed a naval fleet that dominated the waters around the Indian Subcontinent with a fleet approaching 1000 ships.


With expectations rising I began to see the stupas and temples rising out of the highest of the low hills in the far distance. I had an overwhelming lost civilization feeling as we chugged up the final approaches into a sleepy backwater. It was hard to believe that a city had been built at the end of such an insignificant waterway.


After negotiating another impossible timber plank I had finally arrived in Mrauk u. Taking a rickshaw into town I passed narrow creeks and canals, the stupas and temples in a various state of repair hinted at a greater and glorious past. All that remained of King Minbin’s palace were the outer walls. His relocation there from Launggret around 1430 to escape an invasion of poisonous snakes seemed to me, ill advised. As I was to find out, moving around after dark without a torch was reckless, especially as the relentless monsoon rain made them difficult to spot.


Pedaling his rickshaw between guesthouses he eventually found somewhere to stay. The owner, a kindly man spoke enough English to allow a degree of communication. The room was clean and comfortable, it even had its own bathroom, luxury by Sittwe standards. Sufficiently impressed I paid the $80 for the next 10 days.


As sunset approached I decided to climb the highest hill to gain some perspective of the city which was largely overgrown. On a steep muddy slope through thick vegetation I eventually reached the pagoda which afforded a 360° view of the surrounding area. Behind me, Aungdat creek jetty and in front to the north, dozens of temples and payas rising out of the low cloud and mist, I had found my lost civilisation. To my right, much larger temples began to appear out of the canopy of trees. My sense of direction is notoriously poor but I now had a good mental image of my surroundings from which I could explore.


The visit had been planned to coincide with the Shithoung Pagoda Festival, an annual week-long event involving boat racing, wrestling and football tournaments. Bringing together people from the surrounding area it was the most eagerly awaited event of the year.


Over the days that followed I would become a familiar face, mostly as an object of curiosity. Few visitors have made it to Mrauk u, with tight restrictions on foreigners, especially over the last 4 years, the few had become a trickle. With limited access to the outside world, including no Internet, a wider view on the world was restricted to state run television and newspapers.


Before leaving Sittwe, Diamond had talked about an artist who had a studio and gallery amongst the northern temple complex. It didn’t take much of a search. Between the temples and the adjacent wrestling arena a gate and a simple sign announcing that I had indeed arrived at the L’amitie (friendship) gallery.


It was a simple bamboo hut set amongst ancient temples and grazing goats. Introducing myself I was greeted with a broad smile. We hit it off immediately. When Shwe Maung Thar told me he had exhibited in Austria and Australia I couldn’t believe it, his oil pastel work was certainly good but how could this be achieved, and, he said, “I have an exhibition this November in Berlin!”


It turned out the Australian Ambassador to Burma had sponsored Mr Shwe to bring his work to Canberra in 2005 and 2007. From this, came visitors to his humble gallery and yet another exhibition in Vienna and a chance of a lifetime trip to Austria, Germany and a gallery tour of Paris to study the Impressionists he so admires. Visitors, captivated by his paintings and one man’s ability to take his art to the wider world had donated all his art materials and collection of books, a truly inspirational character.


Mrauk u wasn’t a large place, some of the further flung temples required a rickshaw but walking around was the best option as the roads were generally in a terrible state of repair or just muddy dirt tracks.


The wrestling tournaments took place in a natural amphitheater. The arena was surrounded by three of the most spectacular temples, Andaw, Shittaung and Dukkanthein Payas. The opening ceremony brought together Rakhine and Chin people in their traditional dress, a long procession first paying homage at Shittaung Paya before making their way down the grassy slope to the arena.


Over the next week and through almost continuous monsoon rains, a series of knock out rounds each day would determine who would compete the following day. With each day the crowds grew larger and the competitors became stronger and more skillful. Always out to entertain, the competition was always good natured and sportsmanlike but no quarter was ever given, this was a serious business.


Back towards the ruins of King Minbin’s palace was Mrauk u football ground. Villagers from the surrounding area had formed teams, most of them playing barefoot. From 7.45am to 9.30am each day, and again in the late afternoon, knock out matches determined who would progress in the competition.


With crowds of 2-3,000 arriving for each match, including hundreds of monks, every available vantage point was taken to get the best view of the action, including King Minbin’s palace walls.


Towards the ferry jetty, boat racing began each day around noon. Spectators lined the river banks whilst others would watch from the flotilla of small boats that would magically part and move to each bank as the next race was about to start.


Paddling like their lives depended on it, each boat, made from a hollowed out Teak trunk, held a crew of up to 40.


As the afternoon wore on, the beer and locally brewed spirit would add to the party atmosphere. Reminiscent of Thailand’s Songkran, water fights between the boats would break out after each race, including anyone on the shore who was close enough. By late afternoon the alcohol intake had reached a peak and it became a risky place for the visitor with an expensive camera.


With only a few days remaining before my return to Sittwe the weather looked like it was going to briefly improve ahead of a powerful cyclone which was forecast to make a direct hit in 3 0r 4 days. Taking the weather window a boat and skipper was organized and we set off up river and into Chin State. With much of the inspiration for Shwe Maung Thar paintings coming from the Lemro River, he was keen to show me his favourite places. Wanting to also include some of the Chin villages I also had the opportunity to meet the fabled tattooed ladies of the Chin.


With no road infrastructure, the Lemro River acts as the only means to transport goods around Chin State and into Rakhine State. Giant rafts of bamboo deftly controlled by a couple of men periodically drifted past on the monsoon flood waters. With a hydroelectric dam project currently underway, the riverside communities are facing an uncertain future.


The anticipated arrival of the cyclone similar to Cyclone Mahasen, which 2 weeks earlier had forced the evacuation of 1 million and killed 14 in nearby Bangladesh, thankfully (for me) veered north, again threatening Bangladesh. The ferry to Sittwe was to leave on time and Mr Shwe saw me off at the jetty, passing me a pastel sketch of a Lemro river scene as a parting gift.


The wind was strong on departure, but by the time we had reached open water the wind had increased to gale force. Akin to the outward journey, the ferry was again grossly overloaded and difficult to control. Fortunately, I had managed this time to pay an addition $2 and squeeze into a cabin out of the weather.


A scheduled stop at a village to offload cargo and passengers would be remembered. Due to lack of land, the village had extended out into the river on stilts. The docking jetty extended in front of the village and had dozens of people waiting to help unload and board the ferry. Not wanting to lose their place, the people on the jetty stood and watched as the inertia of the overloaded vessel, pushed on by the wind, smashed in slow motion through the jetty and into a large fishing boat. Without loss of momentum it continued on into the stilted village, the sound of splintering bamboo and crumpling corrugated steel roofing below made my hair stand on end as the townspeople scrambled out of its path.


The ferry eventually stopped and by some miracle no one had been injured or killed, but it had wedged itself into the village. Some hours later, efforts to release the ferry succeeded, causing more damage in the process to the already battered village but we were free and able to continue the journey.


An hour later the wind had reached gale force and we struck a sand bar and began to take in water. The main engine failed and using an underpowered backup engine we dropped anchor to slow the drift to shore. After a frantic effort to plug the breach and restore main engine power we again began steaming back to Sittwe.


After 13 hours we reached the jetty at Sittwe and disembarked just as it was going dark.


The high winds had caused the cancellation of the two flights that day and all the hotels and guesthouses were fully booked, including my favorite hotel who had chosen to let go of the room when I didn’t show up that afternoon. It was pouring with rain, I was soaked to the skin and had nowhere to stay.


In desperation, I went to Diamond’s house but was told by his neighbor that he had left for Rangoon to visit his wife who had been admitted to hospital. As a last resort, I went to the most expensive hotel in town and asked if they could help. Upon being refused, the hotel owner who had overheard my pleading in the lobby, asked me back inside. A tiny laundry room was cleared, a mattress put down and made up with crisp white bed linen. After a hot shower in the staff bathroom I had a grateful sleep and later that morning took my flight back to Rangoon.

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