Jebel Al–Lawz, meaning the almond mountain in Arabic, is one of the most famous mountains of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We camped at 28°36’33.0″N 35°15’51.4″E – which was about as far as the vehicles would take us – and hiked North-north-east up the wadi. Lots of birdlife – my favourite being the sunbirds – and wolf tracks easily spotted in the sandy areas. There must be a lot of water coming down here after significant rains; it looks like a river bed with large boulders washed down over the years. Spectacular.
It’s been a while since i took a holiday. In less than three weeks I’ll be setting off from Denmark (WA) to visit the folks in Byron Bay (NSW). I’m travelling ‘The Outback Way‘ aka Australia’s longest shortcut. Google maps tells me the journey is 5,556 km, not including any detours. I’ll be travelling unsealed outback roads (such as the Great Central Road), some dirt tracks, and probably a dry riverbed or two. There is plenty to see along the way, including the Olgas, King’s Canyon, Uluru, and numerous gorges and national parks.
The Landcruiser is in good shape and ready to go. I’m now busy sorting out camping gear, recovery gear, maps/apps, communications devices, and permits to access aboriginal land.
I’m not sure how long it’ll take, but i’m guessing it’ll be just under three weeks. And then I’ve got to drive back again.
Prem and Raj have a friend with a car, and they arranged a little tour for my last day in Myitkyina. The first stop was a temple approximately 30km from Myitkyina off the road that follows the Irrawaddy River (25.63733, 097.50020). The temple has a large world globe at its centre, which isn’t something i have seen before. The view from the temple is pretty good, and the dwellings that can be seen from this viewpoint are mostly inhabited by the villagers that were relocated here to make way for the Myitsone hydroelectric dam project. The Myitsone Dam is a a joint venture between the Myanmar government and Beijing-based China Power Investment Corporation. The Myitsone dam project was suspended in 2011 by President Thein Sein, due to concerns over safety (the area is prone to earthquakes), and environmental and social problems.
We were offered food at the temple. The food had been donated by people in the surrounding villages and was really delicious.
We then went to a really nice place at the river to have a beer and something more to eat (25.62730, 097.51328). This place is quite close to Myitsone – the scenic confluence of the Mayhka (N’Mai) and Malikha rivers which marks the start of the mighty Irrawaddy river – so could make a great place to stop on the way back from there. Bamboo platforms are built over a small beach, providing a great place to relax and enjoy the view.
Our final stop was at Jaw Bum (25.50467, 097.44555), which is lookout tower with views across Myitkina and the Irrawaddy. It’s a popular destination with locals at the weekend. Sadly, around a dozen monkeys are kept in cages in appalling conditions. It was really heartbreaking to see them kept like this. We then returned to the River View restaurant in Myitkyina for dinner and our final few beers, before i returned to the YMCA for my final sleep before starting my journey home.
The next day I checked out of the YMCA and caught a motorbike taxi to the Myitkyina airport (K2,000). The immigration desk could find no record of me entering Kachin State. I told them i had arrived by train and a different file was examined, but still no record could be found. I had arrived in Myitkyina at 5am, so it was quite possible there was an immigration desk at the train station but i had been too sleepy to spot it.
The immigration officer was very nice however, and offered me a cigarette before going to find the captain. The captain was also really charming and asked me a few questions on where i had been in Kachin State. Their main concern is that you have been areas off-limits to foreigners. I got out my map and showed him the route of my entire holiday, which resulted in him pointing out the area he was from and giving me some tips on places to visit in that region for my next holiday. in Myanmar. They filled in their records based on my account of my travels, and i was allowed into the departure lounge just in time to board the plane to Mandalay, where I would catch onward flights to Bangkok, then Kuala Lumpur, and then home to Western Australia. My holiday in Myanmar was fantastic and I cannot wait to return. In particular, i am keen to come back to Myitkyina to explore the regions further north. At time of writing, you cannot access these areas on a tourist visa, but Myanmar is opening up at such a rapid rate i feel it will not be long. So long Myanmar, thanks for everything! What a wonderful country, with even more wonderful people.
On the far side of the Irrawaddy River from Myitkyina are a line of villages called Makhanti (also called Makhundee). They are known as Makhanti 1-4. Prem and Raj kindly offered to take me on a village tour, so I rented a motorbike through the YMCA and we set off. I took the back seat of Prem’s bike, and Raj rode my rental, which we nicknamed ‘the Harley’ due to the noise it made due to a missing exhaust silencer.
Before crossing the river we quickly checked in on the progress of construction at Raj’s house site, and then visited to Raj’s father-in-law. His father-in-law has a large property and grows plenty of crops. After knocking down a couple of young coconuts and drinking the water we set off to catch the boat across the river.
We planned to cross the river and drive north, through the villages, and then return via the Myitkyina Bridge. The boat crossing would be difficult to find if you don’t know where it is. The boat leaves from here (25.36091, 097.36115) and drops you off at the other site here (25.35067, 097.35965). Boats run approximately every 45 minutes. You can take motorbikes; you just park them on the shore and they are driven onto the boat for you. Our boat had around ten passengers, eight motorbikes, and one cow.
Prem and Raj are both grew up in Makhanti and have many relatives there. First we visited the house of Raj’s parents, before moving on to visit various other relatives.
At the house of Prem’s parents, i took the opportunity to photograph Prem’s grandmother. Although 92 years old and now blind, she was in really good health and high spirits. [Prem – if you are reading this you can download a high resolution copy of this photograph here]
Driving south-east around the river bend, we stopped at a very old Hindu temple which, although i didn’t photograph, is well worth visiting. It can be found here: 25.32849, 097.38342
Moving further along the bank of the Irrawaddy, we entered Katcho village, where we ate at a small restaurant (25.32832, 097.40062) famous for it’s pork noodle dishes. It was not long after that our progress was stopped by the most fantastic parade. A huge procession of villagers were moving down the road carrying young boys who were about to start their training at the Buddhist monastery. Shinbyu, the Burmese term for the novitiation ceremony, is a very important step in a child’s life so celebrations are very lavish, and the young boys are carried to reflect the importance of the occasion. As the procession passed, I was greeted by a multitude of smiles and waves. As we made our way back to Myitkyina, i knew that today had been an incredibly special part of my holiday.
Before writing about my final two days in Myitkyina, I need introduce you to a couple of people. But first, I’ll describe where and how we met.
The River View restaurant/beer bar is the best place to eat and drink in Myitkyina. As well as great food and beer, the location allows you to look across the mighty Irrawaddy. In the early evening, you can watch kingfishers hunting over the water close to shore. As darkness falls and more people arrive, the atmosphere can get very lively.
It was early evening and i was sitting at a table overlooking the river and waiting for my beer to arrive. I had a feeling it had been forgotten, and asked the waiter if he could check on my order. The waiter was having a little trouble understanding me, and the two gentlemen at the next table asked if they could help with translation.
With the confusion now resolved, the two gentlemen asked where i was from. They had heard me call the waiter ‘mate’, so thought i might be Australian. But then they thought my accent was probably British. After explaining my links to both Australia and England, I was invited to join them.
Prem and Raj are originally from Myitkyina, but now live in Bangkok. They went to Bangkok around 13 years ago to look for work due to the limited opportunities at home. They are now employed as tailors in one of the tourist areas and were returning to see their families, and to start off the construction of two houses. These houses would be finished for when they were ready to return to Mytikyina permanently with their families.
I have to say that these guys are absolutely brilliant. We had a great evening, and enjoyed various local dishes and probably a few too many beers. I was absolutely blown away by their hospitality. They told me that they would be a little busy the next day, checking on the progress of construction at their house sites. However, as the night came to a close and i prepared to wobble home, they decided they could settle their matters in the morning, and take me on a tour of the villages across the river. Of course, this would be extremely enjoyable and interesting for me, and so I accepted their kind invitation. As we would mention many time over the next couple of days, if it was not for the confusion over my missing beer they may never have started conversation with me. I’ll be forever grateful for that missing beer, and also to Prem and Raj who really went out of their way to make sure my final days in Myanmar were so much fun. These are great guys, and now good friends.
I rented a bicycle from the YMCA so i could get around a little faster. Approximately 15 minutes north is the impressive Hsu Taung Pye Zedidaw (or Sutaung Pyi Pagoda complex). This area is right next to the river and includes a golden pagoda, and a huge standing and reclining Buddhas adjacent to it.
Donations are asked for to see the pagoda. It’s not compulsory, but i like to give a little. Around K200 is enough, and it gives you the chance to photograph the man collecting 😉
It was interesting to see how many young people were hanging out there, and they would nip in for a quick worship before taking photos on their phones and heading on their way.
Behind the complex, overlooking the river, is a restaurant where local students hang out. If you are visiting this area it’s a great place to stop for something to eat and drink.
One of the nice things about Myitkyina is its compactness. You can walk a lot of places, and see even more with the help of a bicyle. There are plenty of motorbike taxis if you prefer to be taken places.
The wet market is where fresh produce is sold in the early morning. It’s split into separate areas, and there is plenty of sighs and smells. Some of the produce comes in by small boat, and if you walk through to the back of the market you can watch boats crossing the calm waters of the Irrawaddy.
I find it very difficult to take photographs of people in markets. I’m always aware they are busy selling their produce, and probably don’t want a lens pointed in their face. In Kengtung I hadn’t taken any market photos at all, which was a shame as it’s the most interesting market I’ve ever been to due to the many different ethnic groups there. I wondered if i was thinking about it too much, so decided this was the time to give it a go.
Inside the market is very dark, so photography is tricky. I cranked up the ISO to 1600, and then to 2000. I probably should have pushed it higher, although my wide aperture lens helped to keep adequate shutters speeds. With the odd exception where i could grab a sneaky shot, i asked if i could photograph. One lady was obviously too shy, but other than that i was given the green light. Most people just carried on working, without interacting with the camera. I noticed that they would be a little uncomfortable if you took too many photos, so if i didn’t get the shot within a couple of frames i would stop shooting and thank them.
I’m not sure if i’ve described this earlier, but the ladies in Myanmar use a traditional cosmetic named Thanakha, which is to protect their skin and for beauty purpose. Thanakha is made from roots and timber of the Thanakha tree, and is worn by most women and some children. Even though it was very dark in the market, the ladies still tended to wear a good covering of Thanakha, as can be seen in the photos.
The plan was to have look around Myitkyina, and then spend a few days taking boats down the Irrawaddy River back to Mandalay. I needed to return to Mandalay to catch the first of my flights home. However, I felt time was not on my side and, considering i’ve had some pretty special river journeys previously, I decided to spend my last few days of holiday in Myitkyina to relax.
Myitkyina is as far north as a foreigner is allowed in Myanmar without obtaining special permits. It is the capital city of Kachin State, and the northernmost river port in Myanmar. Myitkyina actually means “near the big river” in Burmese, and the Irradaddy runs very close to the centre of town. Myitkyina is definitely a place to go to experience Myanmar’s multiculturalism including a mix of Kachin, Shan, Bamar peoples, and some Chinese and Indians. Even though it doesn’t have a wealth of sights, i’m sure there would be enough to keep me happy.
With the exception of an occasional NGO worker, you don’t see many foreigners in town. You feel rather special as you wander the markets and eat at the restaurants overlooking the river. My first day was spend doing only that, as i recovered from the 24 hour train journey that brought me into town early that morning. The photos below show the Hindu temple, and the street market.
I took a couple of beers at the fantastic ‘River View’ restaurant and beer bar and decided i would get some early morning photographs in the covered market the next day.
For a budget traveller who is not fussy then the YMCA is a good choice, but it’s certainly not for everyone. I arrived before dawn and had no booking, but someone was kind enough to let me check in.
- The rooms are clean enough
- You can rent a bicycle from them
- The staff are lovely
- They can arrange motorbike hire (very expensive at K40,000 per day)
- It’s cheap!
I took a US$10 room with shared bathroom. Note that the YMCA does not have hot water bathrooms, but toilets are western style.
As well as providing simple but affordable rooms for travellers, the YMCA plays an active role in community development. Myitkyina’s YMCA provides the chance to meet everyday people working to make communities stronger. When you stay there, you can smile as your money spent goes towards furthering a worthy cause.
The YMCA also has tourist information on what areas are accessible – see below – and also provide a map, which is handy to find your way around town on the first day – click the thumbnail for the large version.
This journey definitely deserves a post to itself. The previous evening had been spent drinking with river-workers in a local bar, so i was feeling a touch groggy as I made my way to the train station to take the 05:15am train from Mandalay to Myitkyina. I’d bought my ticket the previous day and already scoped out where the train left from, so i was able to board half-asleep. I was questioning my decision to travel third class for a journey that is scheduled for 24 hours but is known to frequently take longer.
The train set off promptly, and I made myself as comfortable as I could on the hard plastic bench to enjoy the ride out of Mandalay as daylight approached. I had the bench seat and the one opposite to myself, so I could stretch out and watch the passing rural scenes through the window. The window itself is wide open, i.e. the glass is raised up, which I was thankful for as third class does not have fans to move the air around inside the carriage.
The scenery is generally rural scenes that probably haven’t changed in centuries. Farm labour is mostly carried out without modern machinery, with oxen pulling wooden ploughs and carts.
Food vendors walk through the aisles – and also outside near to stations – selling a variety of meals, snacks, and drinks. You certainly do not need to pack food for this journey.
We’d been travelling a few hours when the train stopped at a town with a very full platform. New passengers rushed into the carriages, and sacks of rice and baskets of vegetables were passed through the open windows to be stored under seats, between seats, and in the aisle. Suddenly the carriage was not sleepy, but full with chatter and laughter. I received a lot of smiles and nods, and food was offered to me as the train set off once again. You can never say the people of Myanmar do not make you feel welcome.
I looked at my GPS occasionally to see where we were, and noticed the train’s speed ranged from approximately 35kph to around 50kph. We appeared to be making good progress. When approaching the higher speeds, the carriages would start to sway violently from side to side, requiring the driver to slow down again. It’s also the bumpiest train journey I’ve ever been on, and there were times when passengers were momentarily airborne, before returning to their seats with a bump. The two children sat nearby had a great time, and thought it very funny to be sliding and jumping around with the movement of the carriage.
To relieve the boredom I gave my compact camera to the children to take photos. They loved this and we had a lot of fun as they photographed me and each other. The parents were really happy to see their kids having fun with the foreigner, and filmed us for a while on their smartphone. After this, the children lost a lot of their shyness, and sat next to me occasionally to peer out of the window.
Rubbish generated on the train is disposed of by throwing it out of the window. The lady opposite helpfully explained this to me, stating that I do not need to keep rubbish under my seat, but simply throw it outside. It’s quite bizarre to watch adults teaching their children to through plastic bags into the environment. The sides of the tracks are littered with various plastic and polythene receptacles, which increases in density with proximity to stations.
At stations we would often wait for a train coming the other way, and end up ‘parked’ alongside. It gave good opportunity to look and smile at the people on-board.
As the journey progressed, the trips to the toilet – which is just a hole in the floor – were faced with greater reluctance. With the rocking carriage, it was quite difficult to use with accuracy, and the odours were getting rather unbearable. The fact there was no running water did not help matters. I was very glad my seat was exactly in the middle of the carriage, and only infrequently did the odour reach me there.
As darkness fell, so did the temperatures. I opened my bag to retrieve clothes to stay warm. The family who I sat with were very organised, and set out sleeping mats with blankets for their children. I was getting aches and pains from the cramped sitting position and the hard plastic seat. I knew that the cold temperatures and bouncing train were not going to help me get to sleep. We pulled into Nebo in darkness (many towns have no electricity other than generators and so lighting is very limited). I wondered if there would be any food vendors. I needn’t have worried as dozens of women, balancing plates filled with food and lamps or candles, looked for sales through the carriage windows.
It was very chilly indeed when the train pulled into Myitkyina at around 5am. Remarkably, the train was not late. I wandered out of the station in darkness to find my GPS did not have the street map for Myitkyina loaded. A motorbike taxi driver asked me if I wanted to go to the YMCA and quoted K1000 as the fare. I knew the YMCA had cheap rooms so jumped on. The ride lasted around 1 minute, as it turns out the YMCA is just a around the corner.
Would I recommend taking the train from Mandalay to Myitkyina? Well, there are other options available including bus (foreigners are now permitted), boat, and airplane. The bus journey may be a little quicker, but will surely be less enjoyable than a crazy train-ride. The boat journey is much better to do on the return, when you travel with the current, and flying is convenient but you will have no great memories. If you can take a little sleep deprivation and use an unpleasant smelling toilet then I really recommend travelling third class on the overnight train.
A couple of tips for your journey:
- Buy the train ticket before your day of travel. You can then brave the early morning knowing your seat is secure and don’t risk delays at the ticket office.
- Consider taking a cushion if travelling third class, as you will suffer many hours on a hard bench seat (second and first class seats are more comfortable)
- Take a blanket or warm clothing for the night-time
- Look around for an immigration desk when you arrive at the Myitkyina train station. If there is one, I missed it, which led to a small problem when leaving Myitkyina a few days later, which i will detail in a later post.
- Book your accommodation beforehand, and consider asking if you can check in early. I was lucky that someone at the YMCA let me in and gave me a room in the early hours of the morning.