A guide to visiting Kachin State

This northernmost state in Myanmar is slowly opened to foreigners. The week-long trip down the Ayeyarwaddy River from the town of Bhamo is becoming popular. There is a government ferry and several luxury craft that operate on this relatively remote stretch of river.

The area is home to colorful tribal groups, breathtaking Indawgyi Lake and snow-capped mountain ranges in the far north around the town of Putao, near to the border with India.

Top things to do

Putao is the northernmost town in Kachin and is only accessible by air for part of the year. It has a mainly ethnic Kachin and Lisu population while the area around the town is famous for the variety of birds and orchids you can see.

There are some serious trekking, white water rafting and adventure skiing opportunities in the surrounding mountains but it is only for the truly adventurous. The Himalayan peak of Hkakabo Razi, southeast Asia’s tallest mountain (5,881 meters) is in this region.

Myitkyina is the capital of Kachin State and lies on the western bank of Ayeyarwaddy River. The airport has flights to Yangon usually via Mandalay and foreigners must report to the immigration office. It is also the northern most railway terminal in Myanmar.

The town doesn’t have any great attraction but those reaching here can easily spend a day or so looking around and there are some quite good hotels and nice restaurants along the river amongst other things. The overland trade route to India and China and World War II supply line to China along the Ledo Road pass through Myitkyina.

In a stone building near the large food market, you can find all kinds of household goods, including the famous Kachin bags, which are often decorated with silver. A little way from the city center is the great Manau Square, where in January the Kachin celebrate their National Day with a lavish festival involving traditional costumes, music and animal sacrifices. In the middle of this square are the Manau posts, which are painted with brightly colored animals and decorations.

The newly constructed Shree Ram Janaki Temple is worth a visit as is Kachin State Cultural Museum, where you can see displays of traditional costumes, and learn about the culture of the Kachin. It is possible to rent a motorbike and explore the town on your own. This also allows you to visit Myitsome where the Ayeyarwaddy River starts, Waingmaw across the river, the Ayeyarwaddy Bridge, and the Praying Mountain.

One appalling statistic about Myitkyina is the level of heroin addiction. Needles litter the roadside. In Myitkyina University’s restrooms, there are metal biohazard boxes fixed to the wall where students deposit bloody needles after dosing on the toilet. Signs tacked inside Myitkyina’s internet cafes warn patrons not to smoke, eat or shoot up.

Indawgyi Lake, the largest body of fresh water in Myanmar at around 24 km long and 12 km wide, is sustained by a dozen streams. It is an ASEAN Heritage site and has recently been included in the tentative list as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Gold is mined in the surrounding hills, and unfortunately, the extensive teak forests are being devastated by logging and mining.

In the semi-evergreen forests around the lake live wild elephants, leopards, bears, sambar deer, serow, gaur, wild boar and more mammals but these are under threat from human activity both legal and illegal.

The lake with its wetland is also one of Myanmar’s important bird areas. During January Greylag Geese, Oriental Darter and Purple Swamphen are prominent. The lake is a major stop for migratory birds from Siberia and attracts thousands of them from December to March.

Clusters of picturesque wooden stilted houses in Shan villages dot the lake shore. Perhaps the most picturesque village is Lwemun on a hillside up the western shore where there are two monasteries, a spirit shrine and a shrine which tells the story of Indawgyi Lake. On the east shore, you find Hepa, where some houses are built on stilts above the lake.

Indaw Ma Har Guesthouse in Lone Ton Village is the only guesthouse available to foreigners (around 7000 kyats per night). This has electricity’ in the evening for two to three hours. Nearby you find a few noodle shops.

You can see the dazzling white and gilt Shwe Myitzu Pagoda on an island in the lake. It has a central golden stupa surrounded by scores of smaller white stupas. Access is via a narrow causeway. You can go to Hopin by train or road from Myitkyina (about 80 km) then go by road to Lon Ton on the lake (about 30 km). Hopin has a hotel and several restaurants but limited electricity.

Bhamo is downriver from Myitkyina and is a mere 65 km from the border of China’s Yunnan Province. It is one of the border cities that is benefiting greatly from trade with China. Bhamo, or Sampanago, as it used to be known, was also once the capital of the long extinct Shan Kingdom.

The old city wall and collapsed pagoda ruins can still be seen about 4 km outside of the modern site, and these have been dated to the 5th century. At the moment, you can have this pretty much all to yourself.

Bhamo is a beautiful old trading port that’s often overlooked by travelers searching for more famous destinations. It’s accessible by road and by boat from Mandalay and you will find a mixture of exotic scenery, along the way.

You are likely to see many of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities as you pass through and again in the markets in Bhamo where they buy and sell local products and goods from China. There’s also the opportunity’ to take an elephant ride out at one of the logging camps.

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