Kachin State — Myanmar’s Christian North

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

Confluence of the N’mai and Mali rivers. Both originate as small streams on the Tibetan Plateau, and draw their waters from Himalayan-range glaciers. My tuktuk driver explained that N’mai is coming from China and Mali from India. Its not entirely clear wether the source of both rivers are in Burmese side or not. Judging the maps, some small streams indeed seem to come across the borders. The confluence is the origin of Irrawaddy River, Myanmars main waterway that flows through the country, all the way to Bay of Bengal.


June 2015

Train to Myitkyina. We leave squeaking and shaking from Mandalay station into the night. Watching out into darkness, communities are living by the faintly lit streets. Phone and TV screens are glowing back from there. Next morning we should be well on the way to north and after 24hrs should arrive to Myitkyina, Kachin state of Myanmar.

Train traveling.


Morning. Last night went without a sleep, not even the lightest dozing, ride is just too jumpy. Locals didn’t seem to mind much and kept sleeping. Outside our wagon, day is slowly opening. Clouds are looming low, and fields are wet. All the windows are open, sudden shower could wash us all inside. Farmers with their oxen are already plowing the paddies. “Iron-buffaloes” that are a norm in neighbouring Thailand, can be seen also occasionally. Change is coming also in remote parts of Myanmar. On railroads no such luck, were are using same tracks built by British for their locomotives 100+ years ago. Burmese trains defy the laws of gravity, to be put mildly.

Ages old scenes meet today in north Myanmar.

Myitkyina. Wide Irrawaddy is quiet. Night is coming and different shades over blue are descending over it. Due to the military restrictions, there is no traffic in the river. Water is plenty and level high, it would be easy to sail to Bhamo in south. Christian churches are everywhere, outnumbering the Buddhist temples in the city. A work of European missionaries in 19th century, who converted the local animist population to followers of Christ. Still, when looking the statistics, Buddhism is dominant religion also in Kachin state like in the rest of Myanmar.

Street market in Myitkyina.

Bhamo-Katha river boat.

Two pranksters in Myitkyina.

View from U-Bein bridge Mandalay, April 2013 & June 2015.


Mandalay and Shan Minority Region of Myanmar

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.


Mandalay and Shan minority region: Land, and people from many ethnic groups are beautiful. Although world changes fast, here too, it was still possible to find places little affected by modern times.


April 2013 & June 2015

Woke up in bus around 6am while approaching Mandalay, landscape outside looked drier than past days in Yangon. Highway bus station is well outside the city, even beyond airport. I was only tourist on bus, conveniently, maybe not coincidentally, there was older gentleman with a signboard offering scooter rides to center. Still sleep in my eyes walking outside the bus, took his offer, and about 40 mins later checked in to my room in downtown.


U Bien Bridge, Mandalay.


Before arriving, I associated the name Mandalay to a romantic gone world. World from sepia coloured photographs, noblemen posing with their hunting trophies. Kipling’s world connected with ocean steamers and telegrams, not emails and budget airlines. Mandalay suffered badly during WW2. Wooden imperial city in the center was completely destroyed. But city still has interesting sights worth visiting: Mandalay Hill, Mahamuni Paya Temple, U Bien Bridge being among them. City is second largest in Myanmar, street life offers plenty to see.


Few locals understand English at all, older generations being better speakers than younger. Reason is that after military coup of 1962, English education was stopped in Myanmar. Country never joined the Commonwealth either, like other dominions of former British Empire. Myanmar has its own timezone… Burmese like do things their own way. @ Mandalay


I tried to continue to Hsipaw this morning by train. State controlled railways are notoriously badly managed. Wake up at 3am, walk to station for 4am train. Waited until 9am for nothing, then had enough and hitched a truck to Pyin Oo Lwin which is about 1/3 of the way between Mandalay to Hsipaw. Hilly views were brown and barren.


Friendly smiles in Shan state.


Pyin Oo Lwin used to be hill station of British Burma, and it was formerly known as Maymyo. Many colonial-era buildings are still standing. Besides its colonial heritage, town has waterfalls to explore and botanical garden. George Orwell served in Mandalay and Maymyo as a policeman in 1920’s. Here’s description by the master himself, doing this same trip (quote from the Homage to Catalonia):

FROM Mandalay, in Upper Burma, you can travel by train to Maymyo, the principal hill-station of the province, on the edge of the Shan plateau. It is rather a queer experience. You start off in the typical atmosphere of an eastern city–the scorching sunlight, the dusty palms, the smells of fish and spices and garlic, the squashy tropical fruits, the swarming dark-faced human beings–and because you are so used to it you carry this atmosphere intact, so to speak, in your railway carriage. Mentally you are still in Mandalay when the train stops at Maymyo, four thousand feet above sea–level. But in stepping out of the carriage you step into a different hemisphere. Suddenly you are breathing cool sweet air that might be that of England, and all round you are green grass, bracken, fir-trees, and hill–women with pink cheeks selling baskets of strawberries.

@ Pyin Oo Lwin


Long railway bridge over a deep valley.

Yesterdays train was late “only” 3-4 hours. After checking tickets and done their duties, conductors promptly started drinking for the rest of the way. Kind of telling what is the state of government controlled company. Didn’t even know that its physically possible for heavy train to jump and tilt so much without falling! But views were great and am glad I chose the train not easier bus. Burmese life in the stations and in train was worth many pictures. Train arrived to Hsipaw on sunset, had simple dinner and went bed early. Town is little bigger than in Pyin was. @ Hsipaw


Morning walk to hot spring outside the town. Winds were cool, farmers with their water buffaloes working on rice paddies, scene not much changed over the centuries.


Visit to “Shan Palace” is still worth mentioning. Like other Burmese minorities in British colonial Burma, Shan’s had semi-autonomous status. After independence (1947), and especially after military coup (1962), ethnic tensions escalated dramatically when largest group of Bamar’s took the reigns of the state.

Compared to common perception of “royals”, Shan’s royals were more like feudal lords. Each fief had his area ranging from biggest 12,400 (Kengtung) to miniscule 14 square miles (Namtok).

Before coup of -62, Shan’s royals were living in Hsipaw. Nowadays their original palace does not exist anymore, it was burned down by the military. “Palace” that remains today is British colonial-era mansion built in 1920’s. Current owners are relatives of former royals, and are already well in their sixties. Much of their life has been a struggle with the whims of military leaders. During my visit, one wing of the decaying mansion was open for travelers. Sympathetic owners had fascinating story to tell about the family and Shan history. The place has old photographs and other memorabilia from long gone era… @ Hsipaw

Myanmar Travel Practicalities

For traveler planning to go Myanmar and studying things beforehand on Internet, certain things always come up. Because country is developing so fast, so will be information about it outdated fast. Regarding accommodation and transportation prices and availability, high and low season differs a considerably.

Update 2016: On land border crossing from Thailand is now open for e-Visa holders in three places. North: Mae Sai-Tachileik, central: Mae Sot-Myawaddy and south: Ranong-Kawthaung (earlier it was required to fly). Link.

Summer 2015: Am just back from my second trip to Myanmar. Its over two years since my previous trip, from which the details were listed bellow. Here’s some differences spotted this time.

— Accommodation: to my feeling had remained mostly the same (only exception being Bagan, where new hotels and guesthouses have risen). My previous and this trip were both on low season and no guesthouse was never fully booked when walking in. I paid generally 10-15 USD for one night in non-ac, fan, shared bathroom option.
— Money: Dollar dependency is disappearing. People seem to start trusting their own currency, and wasn’t at any time situation where Kyat would have been totally rejected. Dollars can still be used, and often prices are quoted in USD. But multiply the amount by thousand (or 1100 to be exact) and you got your price in Kyat’s. If using Dollars, better still have brand new ‘big head’ ones (July 2016, only new Dollar bills accepted). New ATM’s of Burmese banks that accept MasterCard and Visa are more common, not just in bigger cities.
— Transport: roads and busses are improving as well, but only just. Smaller roads are in bad shape still. Rail transport is still same, trains are late for hours, and when desperately trying to catch the schedule, going old tracks can be gravity defying experience! Flight connections to and from Myanmar have increased a lot, Yangon and Mandalay being most easily accessible from direct flights outside the country. At the time I studied options, direct flight Chiangmai (Thailand) to Mandalay wasn’t available, but no doubt that won’t take long anymore. Mandalay – Bangkok is there, likewise Chiangmai – Yangon.
— Internet and calls: street landline telephone booths seem mostly vanished, and smartphones are glowing at faces of young and old. Liberalisation of the telecom industry was in the news back in 2013 has gone forward on full force, and teenagers are taking selfies just like in Thailand and everywhere. Brand new neon signs of Samsung, Oppo, Huawei are shining everywhere, in small towns that barely have any street lights. 3G prepaid cards are widely available for tourists as well. Often guesthouses have least some kind of WiFi available as well, although exceptions were and when working, very slowly.
— Military restrictions: Unlike two years ago Mrauk U and Sittwe (north west Myanmar near Bangladesh border), was now open for tourists. Met a couple who had done the arduous bus journey there and back. North east corner near in Kachin state challenging to travel, now for several years. Popular Irrawaddy boat trip Myitkyina – Bhamo – Katha – Mandalay is still not possible. River boat to Mandalay can be done from Bhamo, but one can access it by boat or fly in. Road access requires special permits, usually out of reach from tourists.

Spring 2013:

— WiFi and Internet access. Generally hard to find and when available, snail speed. Power breaks interrupt net access often, so even if cafe advertise Free WiFi, check does it work before buying your drink. Power breaks can also damage electronics, so careful not to leave your device charging too long periods.
— ATM’s. Yangon and Mandalay are no problem anymore, especially former. Yangon Airport and many city shopping malls have Visa/Mastercard compatible ATM’s.
— US Dollars. Only brand new (no wrinkles), “big head” notes are accepted. Train tickets, hotels are usually paid with Dollars. Bus tickets, meals and other things with local money Kyat. Street money changers in Yangon offer lucrative rates, but tourist should be careful and count money carefully. Their hands are fast. Banks and official money exchange booths gave also good rates, and are safe.
— Accommodation was no problem. Prices for A/C-dorm, or single room with a fan and shared bathroom, were generally 7-12 Dollars. Higher than Thailand, but not astronomical like some high season traveler stories know to tell. Rooms were also always available.

Public telephone booth for local calls. Liberalizing the mobile phones from state control had begun, so these booths are probably disappearing sight. When I arrived to Yangon Airport, none of my sim cards (from Europe, Thailand) connect to Myanmar mobile operator.

For traveler on budget (money is not used to pave the way), Myanmar can be rough experience. Roads are generally in poor condition (except new highway between Yangon and Mandalay/Bagan), so night busses are no sleeper busses. Seats are for small Burmese, large/tall Western person must fit in or cry and fit it. State controlled railway prices are double to busses and tracks are even worse condition than roads. Burmese are very friendly and helpful, but speak little to no English. Found personally their accent hard to follow, even basic words had often to be repeated few times.