Onto Myitkyina! I arrived at around 7:00 and found my way over to the YMCA guesthouse, which doesn’t have any affiliation with the YMCA’s we have in the states, but it’s where all the tourists seem to stay in Myitkyina. I was told there was one room left, but when I was shown to the room it turned out that it was occupied. Hmm. That was a bit of a letdown, so I hit the streets again to find a new foreigner friendly hotel. It took much longer than one might have thought, but luckily it was decent, as I was going to take the room regardless of price or quality.
After talking to some other travellers I learned that the Manao festival was indeed cancelled this year, as all the ethnic groups weren’t exactly getting along too well. In fact it had been cancelled for the last 3 years! But for some reason procuring reasonable information like this from the internet beforehand was almost impossible. I decided to go the park where they used to have to festival and found a group of Kachin’s waving their flag and another group sitting in a circle eating and drinking. They saw me walking through and invited me to sit and eat with them. They told me all about how Kachins’ are systematically discriminated against by the government and encouraged me to eat and drink as much palm wine as I could handle. Eventually the music started playing and all the women got up and performed their traditional Kachin dancing, which was cool to see, the remnants of the Manao festival.
When I went to YMCA later that night to meet some other people I learned that there was actually a government organized Manao festival as well. Basically it was a mock festival, so that the government could say to the rest of the country that there was indeed a Manao festival this year, and that everything is all rainbows and unicorns here in the Kachin state. Apparently they had a couple generals there to stand around and smile as if the corners of their mouths were stapled while a few dance numbers carried on, and that was THE manao festival. “Yep, the festival is still on, nothing to worry about here! We’re not killing Kachins in civil wars or anything like that!!” Myanmar is an interesting country.
Traveling in the Kachin State is particularly difficult because the state has been ravaged by wars between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese government. There have been cease-fires for the last few years, but the majority of places in the state are completely off limits due to the past fighting. In Myitkyina foreigners are allowed everywhere in the city itself, but most locations outside the city are strictly off limits. Although unlike most places in Myanmar I was able to rent a motorbike (for a hefty price) and went across the river to the one of the nearby cities that they allow foreigners to go to after a good grilling from the checkpoint guys. The signs of war were slightly visible along the road, with a couple of burned out and abandoned buildings. Many of the schools I past advertised that they were ‘drug free’ which would seem to go without saying, but apparently there is a large heroine problem among the Kachin youth. It was kind of a sobering ride. Even though the country is trying to open itself up to the rest of world, it still has many problems to work out. Currently things much worse in the western Rakhine state, where Bengali Muslims refugees, known as the Rohingya, constantly battle the government backed Buddhist locals.
So without the real Manao festival going on I decided I would fly back to Mandalay. When I went to book a flight I found out that everything was booked for the next few days, so I would have to wait a bit. I had also heard from a German guy I met that the river route down to Mandalay had just opened up again, after being closed to foreigners for the last two years, so I jumped at the chance to take that route. That’s the thing about Myanmar, things are always opening and closing at the governments’ whim, making even the most current guidebooks almost obsolete. A Lonely Planet from a few years ago would be basically worthless in Myanmar because things change so fast here.
It would be four days by boat down the expansive Irrawaddy river to get to Mandalay, but that seemed like a much better option than sitting around waiting for a flight in Myitkyina. After two days of hanging around not doing a lot, I caught the boat heading back down south. To be honest the scenery along the river is nothing to write home about. The river is extremely wide and muddy, flanked by large sand deposits, with forests beyond that. Along the river itself there really isn’t that much to see. Everyone once in a while you pass some small riverside encampments where they have machines to filter the water and rocks for gold. It’s relaxing I guess.
After about 7 hours we finally reached our first destination, the village of Sinbo. It’s kind of ugly from a distance, as the shore is lined with big ugly ships, but the town itself is actually quite lovely. We threw our stuff down at the one guesthouse in town and then set off to explore the village. It’s one of those places, like many in Myanmar that feels like it has probably changed very little in the last century. Sinbo is characterized by dirt roads, very few motorbikes, farmers in the fields, livestock everywhere, and of course friendly, curious people. I walked around and took some nice photos before the sun went down. We all reconvened at the guesthouse and had lots of good Burmese food and not so good whisky, although the party ended a bit early as the electricity was shut off around 10:00.
The next day we boarded a new boat around 10 am, en route to Bhamo, a much larger port city. Once again the scenery was fairly mundane, similar to the previous day, and most of us were pretty content to lie down and nurse our hangovers for most of the morning. Another VERY relaxing day. More so than any other country I’ve been to, the transportation is just as much a part of the travel experience as the actual tourist sights. We arrived in Bhamo sometime in the late afternoon and found our way to the hotel that all the foreigners stay at, as they have an excellent English speaking staff. In Myanmar it’s common for tourists to all stay at only a handful of distinct hotels and guesthouse. First, only a few hotels have a license to house foreigners, and after only a few of those will have a decent English speaking staff, so they’re invariably popular.
I ended up staying in Bhamo for 3 three nights, which is more than anyone ever stays in Bhamo. I was told I could catch a flight back to Mandalay, which would save me two days of fairly boring boat travel. I made my ‘reservation’ with the hotel, which they made it sound like it was a sure thing that this flight would be going, but less than 24 hours before the supposed takeoff I was told by the hotel staff that the flight was cancelled. So that was irritating to say the least. Chalk it up to one of the hazards of Burmese travel I guess. So instead of saving a day and a half of travel it cost me an extra day. But to be fair I really did enjoy walking around Bhamo. There were no places to rent motorbikes or even bicycles (people here don’t like making easy money I guess), but a few kilometres outside of town is a really cool bamboo bridge that is over 500 meters long, as well as some nice pagodas. I can’t picture any structure in my head that is more authentically Burmese than a bamboo bridge. Almost anywhere else in the world they would have built a modern bridge consisting of concrete/asphalt/whatever but here in Myanmar people still cross this shaky (albeit strong) structure every day, walking their motorbikes or carrying goods for the market. Once again it makes you wonder what decade it is. And of course it makes for excellent photography opportunities as well. Bamboo bridge + monks crossing + sun rising = good photos!
After a couple days of sightseeing and stomach problems I was back on the boat again. I met up again with a Dutch couple that had stayed the night at a different riverside village. In the late afternoon we arrived in Katha, the same village I had visited via train about a week earlier. All of us were pretty tired of this boat trip so we decided to make our way to train station and get back to Mandalay by railway ASAP. We took the bumpy hour+ trip to the train station from Katha only to find that a train wouldn’t be coming for another 6 hours! Also there were no upper class seats left. Or middle class seats. Only ordinary class. For 13 hours, on an overnight train, on hard wooden benches, squeezed in between Burmans. Shiiiit…
Well at this juncture we didn’t have too many options. Me and Dutch guy made what seemed like the most obvious decision, to buy lots of whisky and get drunk. We managed to catch the train at about 11 pm and find some open seats. We made lots of friends by offering the rest of our whisky bottl to the men around me, who downed it astonishing quickly. I slept for the rest of the night on my sleeping pad on the dirty floor in between the benches, and actually got a somewhat decent nights rest, which I attribute to the booze and my lack of shame. Around noon the next day we got off in Mandalay and found our way to our respective hotels to get actual sleep on a real bed. After spending the whole next day looking for an Apple laptop adapter (which apparently don’t exist in Mandalay) because mine was broken, it was on to the next destination, the fabled Inle Lake!