Htam Sam Cave, Hopong

Overland from Taunggyi to Kyaing Tong

Ever since coming to Myanmar (then Burma) the first time in 1977, I’ve been dreaming about this trip. How many times have I been standing in Taunggyi or Kyaing Tong and longed for taking this road. For several decades it was virtually impossible to do it, as the road (NH 27) leads through territory that was controlled by insurgents and tribal armies for a long time. Even today fighting between rebel groups and government troops flares up occasionally. If that happens, the road will be closed immediately for tourists… Now, forty-two years later, my dream came true.

The permit situation is somewhat confusing. According to MTT (Myanmar Travel & Tours) we didn’t need one. On the other hand, when we reached the check post at the Salween River bridge they told us that without a permit we wouldn’t have been permitted to cross the river… So better bring one. It is important that all passengers are mentioned in the permit. If one doesn’t come along, just delete him or her. And bring plenty of passport copies and copies of your permit! Foreigners cannot do the trip without a licenced guide. It seems that we could have gone all the way from Heho to the Salween River without a permit. There were no checkpoints. As we’ve learnt, foreigners who don’t have a permit are free to stay wherever they want. I mean, as long as there is a guest house with a licence. At least that’s what we’ve been told. If you have a permit, however, you’ll have to stay in Namhsam. There’s a reasonable hotel in town that costs 40.000 Kyats. Including hot water! Quite a relief, as it tends to be cold at night.

The six of us (Tobias, Htet Htet, Klaus, Lucas, Andreas and myself) rented a comfortable Hyundai H 1 van from Yoma fleet. Tobias has a Burmese driving licence and drove all the way. The total distance between Heho and Kyaing Tong is about 480 km. From Heho to Namhsam it is around 160 km. Which means, you’ll have to do two thirds of the trip in one go. It is NOT allowed to overnight on the way. So make sure to start early from Namhsam on day 2.

Htam Sam Cave, HopongWe left Heho around 9.30 am and arrived in Namhsam around 4 pm. As we had plenty of time on the first day, we made quite a few stops. The first in Hopong after ca. 50 km. There is a famous cave by the name of Htam Sam Cave. Foreigners have to pay a whopping 20 (twenty) USD. That must be the highest entry fee in the country. So we asked our local guide to go inside and take some photos. Which she did.

Schöpfrad am Nang Pawn RiverWhen we crossed the Nampawn River we saw an ancient (?) scoop wheel that irrigated the paddy fields nearby. The way it looked, we guessed it must be standing there for a long, long time. After a few miles we reached the famous city of Pinlon, a.k.a. Panglong, where we had lunch (Shan noodles, quite alright). Then we paid a visit to the conference site of Burmese unity, as it is called. It was here, that Aung San and 23 signatories of various ethnic groups signed the Panglong agreement on 12. February 1947 (Union Day). I had expected a house but there was only an empty space with the usual obelisk and photographs of the signatories. Aung San of course in the centre. Seems it was signed in an open air ceremony… After climbing up to about 1.700 m over a mountain pass we reached Namhsam, where we stayed at the PINELAND 2 Hotel for the night.

Lahu-HochzeitWe left Namhsam at 6.30 a.m. Not far from the village Kho Lam we stopped at a small village of the Ta’Ang Palaung. The men wear remarkable trousers, resembling wide breeches. Not far from that village there is the beautiful Nawng Phar Lake, over and over covered with lotus flowers. Not to be missed! At milestone 331 (km, that is!) a deeply wooded, very dominant, steep mountain rises in the middle of rich paddy fields. A few km down the road we stopped at a Lahu wedding ceremony. The Lahu are Christians and we saw the two couples being blessed by a priest. The brides were 16, resp. 17 years old. The bridegrooms didn’t look much older. The friendly people invited us for lunch (plenty of pork!) but as we had a long trip ahead of us, we had to decline their invitation. We crossed the (quite impressive) Pang River, a tributary of the Salween River and not much later the Der mächtige Salweenmuddy waters of the Thanlwin itself greeted us from afar. At the bridge we had to report to the first check post during our trip. People were rather friendly but – as mentioned above – Ein Wasserfall am Wegesrandwithout a permit this would have been the end of the road for us. For many it may be a surprise, that the Salween River is longer than the famous Ayeyarwady River. However, its importance as a route of transport is negligible, as it runs mostly through mountainous, sparsely populated terrain. It is navigable only for around 200 km from its estuary near Mawlamyaing. Not far from the Salween we stopped at a rather romantic little waterfall. Remarkably, we didn’t find any plastic waste there. A rare sight in Myanmar. But – strangely – we found a pair of underpants that someone must have forgotten there… Before reaching Kyaing Tong we had to cross a mountain pass with altitude of nearly 2.000 meters before we climbed down into the Kyaing Tong basin.

Kyaing Tong is a laid-back city. However, I have to admit that since my first visit there in 2002 the city has made quite some progress. Now quite a few reasonable restaurants cater to the demands of foreigners and power cuts were not as frequent as back then. Our favourite was the Iron Cross. From the terrace we had a spectacular view over the lake! We stayed at the Amazing Kyaing Tong Hotel, formerly known as the Kyaing Tong New Hotel. Many travelers avoid it because it was built on the site of the former palace (haw) of the Shan Sawbwas of Kyaing Tong, demolished by the Burmese government in 1991. You’ll have to decide for yourself but I think it’s the best deal in the city. Even the breakfast is o.k. for the western palate (butter instead of the ubiquitous Mother’s Choice margarine!). The rooms were clean and quite alright (hot water, air condition and TV), even though some of our clients some time ago mentioned a feeling of forlornness, whenever they walked the hotel’s dark aisles at night. They said it reminded them of the Overlook Hotel in Oregon, US, where parts of the movie ‘The Shining’ were shot… When I looked at the swimming pool, teeming with happy children, I thought it may have been not a totally bad idea, to turn the palace gardens into a place, where kids can enjoy a swim. Formerly, these gardens were reserved for the Shan royalty. Even though. personally I’d have preferred to convert the palace into a boutique hotel.

Im Wat Jong Kham TempelPlanetenandachtsstätte im Wat Jong Kham. Rahu ganz rechts, dargestellt durch die Szene im Parilayaka ForestThe city is home to quite a few temples. Most of them built in Laotian style rather than in the Burmese. Among them, Wat Jong Kham is definitely the highlight. It houses quite a few beautiful Buddha statues and interesting gold leaf pictures on a lacquer base. They show various scenes from the Enlightened One’s life, jataka stories etc. I’ve noted an interesting detail in this region of Shan State: contrary to the rest of the country, the planetary posts don’t show the usual eight animals. Instead, the days are identified by different postures (mudra) of the Buddha.

Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take the road to Special Region 4 with its ‘capital’ Mongla, dubbed as Myanmar’s Las Vegas (Chinese customers only!). Even the two beautiful Loi Wa villages of Wan Nyat and Wan Seng with their picturesque Buddhist temples (wats) were not accessible. A pity! I remember there were some beautiful longhouses and the people went hunting withColonel Rubels Haus, Loi Mwe crossbows. And a lot of tea plantations up there. Better luck next time, hopefully. Instead, we went to Loi Mwe (dubbed ‘Misty Mountain’ by the British), situated about 30 km south of Kyaing Tong. The mountain road (definitely not for the faint-hearted) to the small hill station branches off from Highway No. 4 that leads to the border town of Tachileik. Spectacular rice terraces please the traveler’s eye. The big village boasts of an artificial lake, and pagoda on the hill and a Catholic church. There we met a priest who had just finished translating the New Testament into his native Akha language. The main attraction is probably Colonel Rubel’s residence, built exactly hundred years ago. Unfortunately, the red brick building is not open for visitors. From here, the colonel watched over this easternmost outpost of British India.

On the second day of our stay we visited several tribal villages in the vicinity of Kyaing Tong. Among the tribes, the Christian Lahu and the Buddhist Palaung had the nicest villages and their agriculture was quite progressed, compared to that of the other tribes. Further up in the hills, the Akha villages werEine freundliche Eng-Fraue more traditional, traces of animist worship can still be found there. The Eng (Ann) people occupy the highest places. There, agriculture is tiresome and yields are poor. They have kept their animist beliefs as well as their traditional dress. Their black teeth needs getting used to. On the other hand, we found them to be very funny characters. After a sweaty trek, the nearby hot springs offer welcome refreshment to weary travelers.

To sum it up: Don’t miss this trip. If you need help, let us know!

Photos: Klaus Scholpp and Lukas Messmer!

From the Bay of Bengal to the Shan Plateau

Novices at Ngwesaung Beach

In early May 2019 we (Tobias and Htet Htet, Martin and his wife Bee plus Ei Ei and myself) rented a comfortable car and set out on a 14-day tour of Myanmar. As Ei Ei and I had been to Ngewsaung beach several times, we joined them in Pathein. We liked the capital of the delta as it has kept a lot of old Burma flavor. Although a big shopping center has opened recently. Much to our surprise (and joy!) we found genuine HARIBO jelly bears there. Hard to find even in Yangon! We grabbed our chance to restock on our provisions! We stayed at the newly opened ‚The First Hotel‘, conveniently located at the city’s ‘Corniche’ – if it can be called that…

It takes only one hour from Ngwesaung beach to Pathein. Our friends stayed at the Shwe Hintha Hotel – simple but good, located directly at the beautiful beach. We headed north over the southernmost part of the old Pathein-Monywa Highway. The highway connects the delta with Monywa, the main town of the Chindwin Valley (Sagaing Region). It runs on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River. The Burmese government built it in the 1950s to circumvent the rebel-held areas on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady. A few miles south of the village Alezu we left the highway and turned west.

We crossed the Arakan Mountain Range (Rakhine Yoma), which separates the state of the same name from the rest of the country. The mountain range follows the foothills of the eastern Himalayas (Chin Hills) and runs in north-south direction forming an arc. It is sparsely populated and the roads linking Arakan to the ‘rest of the country’ are rather bad. The narrow strip of land between the mountains and the Bay of Bengal, however, is one of the most densely populated areas of Myanmar. The height of this mountain range decreases to the south, until it seems to disappear in the Bay of Bengal near Cape Negrais. Which is a wrong conclusion: It continues south over the Andaman and Nicobar Islands all the way to Sumatra.

Arakan (Rakhine) State has been in the headlines of the international press for a considerable time. The conflict between the native Buddhist Tibeto-Burman Arakanese and Bengali immigrants (who call themselves Rohingya) dates back to British colonial times. In 2018 it culminated in the expulsion of several hundred thousand Muslims to Bangladesh. In addition, there has been a conflict for some time between the ethnic Arakanese Arakan Army (which seeks independence) and Burmese government forces. This conflict has led to several skirmishes with fatalities on both sides. The population – as happens all too often in Myanmar’s ongoing civil wars – got caught in the crossfire. As these events take place predominantly in the north of Arakan, it didn’t affect our trip.

There’s a check post at the border between Ayeyarwady Region and Arakan State. Immigration authorities had a look at our passports and our names were recorded in a voluminous book. Foreigners seem to be quite rare up there. An hour later we reached the town of Gwa, romantically located on the Bay of Bengal. From there it is still about an hour north to the town of Kanthaya. A bad road leads to the sea and finally our destination: the Arakan Nature Lodge!

The beach at Arakan Nature Lodge

It is operated by a male nurse from Switzerland named Ueli, who’s been living in Myanmar for quite a while. As he told us, he had worked for an NGO in Sandoway. Then he got the offer to take over this resort and he accepted it. The Arakan Nature Lodge consists of several fairly comfortable single-storey bungalows and some two-storey buildings, each one containing two rooms. Some of the bungalows are right on the beach, the rest in the second row.

We found the prices comparatively high (over 100 $). It should be noted, however, that all meals are included (full board). The food (a bit on the vegetarian side) tasted good, although the servings tended to be a bit small sometimes. Ueli and his team go to great lengths to pamper their guests. Solar powered electricity is available from 6 in the evening until 7 in the morning. There is no air conditioning or fans, which was O.K. for us (in the hot season!) as there was always a cool breeze from the sea. However, it tended to get a little unpleasant in the afternoon.

The toilets are not equipped with water flushing. After use, a mixture of rice husks and whatnot is sprinkled in the toilet bowl. The result was satisfactory as no bad odour came from the toilet. The guests were mostly expatriates based in Myanmar. At the time of our stay there were several couples with children visiting. The highlight – as can be expected – was the beach. It was exceptionally beautiful and practically deserted. Now and then we saw a few fishermen at the waterside.

Pillow lava

A beach like this one can actually be found in catalogues only. It is ideal for swimming, even for children. It takes a while before one reaches deep water. At the northern end of the beach we found very interesting, bizarre rock formations (pillow lava, see above). We did not dive or snorkel there. However, what we saw from above was impressive! The resort provides masks, fins and several watersports equipment for free. The journey to the beach is – not surprising in such a remote location – a bit difficult. It takes about eight hours by car from Yangon. A less strenuous journey goes via Ngapali/Sandoway, which is easily accessible by plane from Yangon. From the small airport it takes about three hours by car to the resort. There are quite a few pristine beaches on the way. In Kanthaya itself we saw a few guest houses and hotels that were catering for locals.

Our next stop was aforesaid Ngapali. There is a lot of hectic bustle going on there. It reminded me a bit of Kuta Beach (Bali) in the 70s. With one exception: there’s no night life in Ngapali, of course! We stayed at the Yoma Cherry Lodge, a nice resort north of the main beach. Unfortunately, the bay is also used by many fishermen as anchorage. So it often stinks of diesel, and the fishermen go about their work. The beach is therefore not very attractive. With the car it takes only a few minutes to the main beach, which is ideally suited for swimming. Our ranking of the beaches we’ve visited would be as follows: Arakan Nature Lodge would come in first, followed by Ngwesaung and Ngapali.

After three days in Ngapali, we hit the road to Pyay, located on the eastern slope of the Rakhine Yoma. The road headed north to Taungok. From there, the main route leads east over the Rakhine Yoma to Pyay. The mountain range here is higher than further south. The border between the Rakhine State and the Bago region runs along the crest of the ridge (about 1,300 m high). At the border the usual check and then we went to Pyay (Prome). We arrived there in the evening. To my astonishment, the mountain range was rather dry, the vegetation largely withered. Although it is located so close to the sea. And my astonishment became even greater when the next mountain, the Bago Yoma, was already considerably greener – although much further away from the sea. And to make the picture perfect, the farther eastern Shan Mountains were the greenest! This is likely to change fundamentally with the onset of the monsoon.

Bespectacled Buddha

Pyay, formerly known as Prome, is a fairly large town on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady River. A huge bridge connects it with the west bank. Besides the usual pagodas the city doesn’t have a lot to offer. We stayed at the Lucky Dragon Hotel, totally o.k.! However, it is likely that the newly opened Pyay Garden Hotel will be the city’s No. 1 soon. If you enjoy the good old Burmese socialist style, might be comfortable at the Mingala Garden Resort. The sights of the city are a little bit out of town. On the one hand there is the spectacled Buddha in Shwedaung. It It has become an important pilgrimage center! A Briton, whose wife suffered from an eye disease and was cured here, donated the glasses in the 1920’s. There have been several attempts to take off the glasses. They all ended in disasters of various kind. Finally, they just let it be. It takes nine monks to clean the glasses every fortnight!

Bu Hpaya

Certainly more interesting is Sri Kshetra. The Burmese call it Tharekittaya. It is the last of the great cities of the mysterious Pyu people. They played an important role in the country’s early history. The big city was overwhelmed by enemies in the 9th century A.D. and its inhabitants were dispersed in all directions of the compass. The ruins cover a large area. They are considerably older than the buildings in Bagan. A small museum tells the story of the city. The Pyu ‚invented‘ the so called gourd stupa (Bu Hpaya), so called, because it resembles a gourd. In addition to the big stupas Hpayagyi and Bawbawgyi especially the Laymyethna-Tempel with its four entrances (the model for all later temples of this kind) deserves attention. The ruins convey a serene impression and one can easily spend a day here. Quite contrary to Bagan, you’ll hardly find any visitors there.

Bago Yoma Eco Resort

After visiting Sri Kshetra we headed east to the Bago Yoma (Bago mountain range). It extends from Mt. Popa (near Bagan) in the north over several hundred km down to the south and ends in Yangon. Theingottara hill, on which the Shwedagon pagoda stands, is the last spur of the mountain range. It is not particularly high but an important center of forestry. Most of Myanmar’s teak logs originate here. You can still see elephants at work there. It is possible to visit the camps by appointment. Unlike other camps (like Poe Khyar Camp) this is the real thing! We stayed at Bago Yoma Eco Resort, which is located on the western slope of the mountain range. It was tastefully decorated and we stayed in comfortable beautiful bungalows. We even had aircondition at night! From there, one can mak trips to the Bago Yoma. Wild elephants and even tigers roam the forest. At least I read in the New Light of Myanmar that poachers had shot a tiger there and were severely punished. We left the lodge after lunch and reached Toungoo in the late afternoon.

Thandaungkyi

Toungoo is the nucleus of the second Burmese empire (16. – 18. Century A.D.). Later, the kings moved the capital to Bago (Pegu) and then to Ava (Inwa). The huge palace is a reminder of past greatness. We stayed in Myanmar Ahla (Myanmar Beauty Hotel). A hotel that has seen better times! Soon a large new building will be opened next door. Obviously, the owners count on a strong increase in tourism. Even in this remote area. Let’s hope so, by goodness! We used Toungoo as base for an excursion to Thaundaungkyi. After leaving the dusty plain, we reached a beautiful green mountian world. As mentioned above, the greenest of them all!

We had to pass the border to Karen state (no check post!). There are many Christians living in that state and Thandaungkyi is an important pilgrim center for them. On a mountaintop rises the ‘biggest Christian cross of Myanmar’. It is made of steel and due to its good lighting it is also visible at night. Up there we met a lot of nice people! We returned to Toungoo and there we parted ways: Tobias, Htet Htet, Martin and Bee drove to Yangon. Ei Ei and me continued to Bagan and then on to Mogok (see previous blog entry: “RUBY LAND – A trip to Mogok“).

Axel Bruns

A TRIP TO MYANMAR’S DEEP SOUTH

We traveled overland all the way from Yangon to Myeik, previously known as Mergui. The first leg (Yangon – Ye) by public bus. It took around 11 hours. There isn’t much to see in Ye, as it is a sleepy little town. We had arranged decent accommodation at Star Light Guest House. The owners, a US-American and his Burmese wife, have recently opened a resort nearby. We were told it was the best place in town to stay. We enjoyed the Sasana 2500 temple, situated in a lake. It had a unique collection of the sixteen dreams of king Pasenadi of Koshala. They are still today a very important guide line for Buddhist believers. The king, who was a personal friend of Gautama Buddha, had sixteen strange dreams and frightening dreams that he could not explain.

So he asked the Buddha for help in interpreting those dreams for him which he did. Dream no. 6 took our attention and we found it amusing. It was illustrated on a painting mural depicting both the Kings dream and alongside it the Buddha’s interpretation. The king dreamt of a mangy, scabby dog (some say a wolf or a jackal) seen peeing into a bowl made of pure gold (left picture), while the villagers are standing by looking on and encouraging it. The Buddha’s interpretation according to scriptures was to reassure the King that these prophesies would only come to pass in the future and not during the king’s life. This he said would be when the time reaches 2500 Sasana years or circa 1957. The scriptures of the Buddha’s interpretations said that ” … when rulers would be dishonest ,avaricious and evil , the good people will not be respected or praised anymore thus reducing reputations. So they have to make friends with bad people i.e. foreigners for the sake of their reputation”.

A very modern interpretation/explanation can be found on the right side of this mural. A shy young girl and a European boyfriend with long hair and a stunning lilac suit are sitting on a sofa. He holds his hand around her shoulder in a possessive posture. Definitely not the type of man a decent Burmese family would dream of as a son-in-law. Anyway, we liked and could easily identify with him and his situation. Father and mother are sitting on their sofa, with the father seen unpacking a present presumably from the young man. He and his wife don’t seem to be happy or amused, judging by their facial expression. So, what’s the moral of the story? The dog/wolf represents the foreigner suitor as you can see by the colour of his hair and his face. Most probably, the girl’s parents are poor and have to give their daughter’s hand to a ‘good for nothing’ foreigner who will spoil their daughter, without doubt. And the moral of this story? When the good Burmese parents have to give their daughters to foreigners in marriage that brings great shame on them. This Burmese relatively modern thinking in comparison to the times of the Buddha probably has its roots under the British Colonial rule when two wars were fought defeating the Burmese Kingdoms and colonizing her peoples for over 100 years. This has greatly affected their psyche and jaundiced view of foreigners to this day. The Burmese road to socialism is their answer reasserting their National identity as Burmese and anti-foreigner. The upper classes in Buddhist Thai Society in Thailand or in Buddhist Myanmar Society until relatively recently did not want or approve of their daughters marrying and being corrupted by foreigners either. Shame on me and our American host!

We rented a car from Ye to Dawei in order to see the famous Dawei Special Economic Zone now known simply as ‘SEZ’. Believe it or not: this we are told is going to be one of the most important deep water port projects in South East Asia! At least that’s the master plan. A coal-fired power station (Tanintharyi has large coal deposits) and a bustling harbour that some think may threaten Singapore’s dominance in the future. This we thought was wishful thinking by the Government. What we saw, however, was a beautiful beach at Yaw Min Gyi /Nabulay, (see photo), some excavators silently rusting away in the sun and some houses. In one of them the great designs of the Myanmar government and her Thai partners were on display. Let’s hope it’s going to stay that way, as it would be the end for the beautiful beaches near Dawei. The whole coast is dotted with beautiful beaches. At the time being ‘Paradise Resort’ (definitely no luxury resort!) seems to be the only one where guests can stay. Even though it’s a long way from Dawei. We stayed at the Hotel Dawei, which is surprisingly exclusive – if not posh! Nice swimming pool but breakfast could be better …

Myeik

From Dawei we took a share taxi to Myeik where our friend Kyawt Kyawt was waiting for us. She was born in Myeik and now runs a travel agency there. She booked a nice room at the Green Eye Hotel which offered spectacular views over the harbour and Pahtaw Pahtet island with the big reclining Buddha, and of the old town, too. It had a nice roof terrace where we had our breakfast – which needs improvement … As at all coastal towns good seafood was available at the night market and at Mergui de Kitchen, located in an old colonial building, where we enjoyed dinner.

The city of Myeik (formerly known as Mergui) is the most populous in Tanintharyi province. A few miles to the north there is the port dockyard where wooden ships are overhauled and built with traditional methods (see photo). Definitely worth seeing! Myeik is a kind of melting pot of different nationalities. For centuries, people from all over Asia have come here to trade and to make business. Quite a number of early Chinese Immigrants (called ‘Baba’) are living in the city. They like the Baba Chinese of Malacca ( sometimes called Paranakan Chinese ) can date their origins to around the 6th Century or thereabouts. We saw Chinese dragon dances in the streets during our stay. There are even some Malays (called ‘Pashu’ in Burmese) living in the city who have managed to preserve their Islamic culture.

Despite destructive fires in the not too distant past Myeik still has a lot of beautiful colonial architecture to offer (see photo on the right) especially in the area of Palae Road. Those houses are more than one hundred years old and one can only hope that the city fathers of Myeik will try to preserve them for future generations. We found beautiful Chinese shop houses which would not seem out of place in a now well restored Singapore environment. There was even a well-preserved public fountain. Surely, a walk in the past!

When going to Myeik, don’t forget to read Maurice Collis’ ‘Siamese White’, the story of a British freebooter who served as harbour master there for the Siamese king in the 2nd half of the 17. Century A.D. – which didn’t bar him from preying on the shipping in the Bay of Bengal. After a tumultuous life he finally made his dream come true and retired to England, in order to lead the life of a gentleman – which he had never been! However, he didn’t have a lot of time to enjoy the fruits of his misdoings, as he died in his first year in England … Probably too cold for him after all his years in the East.

A trip up the Tanintharyi River

The Tanintharyi River runs from the Bilauktaung Range (that separates Myanmar from Thailand) all the way to Myeik, the biggest city in Tanintharyi Region (formerly: Province). The region is named after the city of the same name. From Myeik it is about two hours by car to Tanintharyi. However, we took the regular river ferry from Myeik to the village of Pa Wa, located about three hours upstream on the East bank of the river. The ferry has a capacity of well over 100 passengers who sit on wooden benches. From Pa Wa we crossed the river to the village of Maw Ton in a very small boat. In Maw Ton the Myeik – Tanintharyi main trunk road touches the river. From there it’s only a short ride to the city of Tanintharyi (see photo of jetty below). Adventurous travellers can carry on all the way to Kawthaung, Myanmar’s southernmost city. The road from Myeik to Tanintharyi is fairly good, and we were told by our driver that the road further south from Tanintharyi to Kawthaung and the Thai border town of Ranong was OK, too! To get to Ranong you have to cross the River which forms the border between Myanmar and Thailand.

Tanintharyi city

Hardly anyone who comes to this city today would believe that it was once a very busy trade center on the overland route from Myeik to Siam (Thailand). Before the era of steam navigation, sailing ships tried to avoid the long and dangerous route around the tip of the Malay Peninsula where the city of Singapore was founded later. Notorious Pirates in the Straits of Malacca, treacherous waters and dangerous storms had caused traders and sailors long ago to think about an alternative safer route for their trade with the Kingdom of Siam. And thus they forged the overland route from Myeik across the mountains to Siam. The ships sailed up the Tanintharyi River and from there the goods were transported by elephant and horse caravans to the Siamese side. The British author Maurice Collis has described the journey in his book ‘Siamese White’ (see above). It is also mentioned in Axel Aylwen’s trilogy ‘The Falcon of Siam’, the life story of Constantine Phaulkon, a Greek adventurer who served as a minister under the Siamese king Narai. Today, Tanintharyi (formerly called Tenasserim) is a sleepy place with nice wooden houses and a colourful market. The once busy jetty doesn’t seem to be much frequented these days. A hotel at the edge of town offers decent accommodation.

Myeik Archipelago by speedboat

In Myeik we booked a trip with Aqua Wings, based at the jetty. The tour included: swimming at Smart Island, a waterfall on another island, a visit to a Moken (sea gypsies) village and a snorkeling tour, price 80 $ (foreigners). It takes more than one hour through mangrove forest until you see the first stretches of blue water. Our first stop was Smart Island which looked quite alright from a distance. However, when we disembarked (there were only three foreigners on the boat, the rest being Burmese) we saw that the beach was heavily polluted with all kinds of plastic, bottles, cans etc. We walked across the island to another ‘nicer’ beach that looked even worse. There were a handful of ‘wardens’ living on the island but it seemed to me that they had better things to do than cleaning the beach and make it suitable for people who wanted to take a swim. The visit to a Moken village was somewhat depressing (we met only children and old people) and the waterfall must rank among the smallest in SE-Asia. The snorkeling trip, however, was something not to be missed! Not that we saw a lot of fish or corals. Even though, there must be some of the latter as the boat man gave one he had freshly broken off to a passenger he seemed to like. The real fun was to watch the Burmese passengers snorkeling and enjoying themselves. Most of them wore a life vest and floated on a life-buoy and looked into the deep blue clear sea. Altogether, definitely not worth the money!

From Myeik there is at least one flight per day to Yangon. So we took the plane back and saved a lot of time.

ruby_land_1

RUBY LAND – A trip to Mogok

The gem city of Mogok has about 150,000 inhabitants. Her residents are a colorful mix of ethnic Burmese (Bamar), Shan, Lisu, Palaung, Kachin and Karen. As in other hill stations in Myanmar, numerous Indians and Gurkhas (Nepali) have settled there over the years. There are many ethnic Chinese, too. The city was founded about 800 years ago. Rubies were mined in the area since the Bronze Age. The city was considerably more attractive than we expected. There is still a lot of wooden architecture left to be admired which needs to be preserved for future generations. In the center of the city is Mogok Lake. It can be circled at a leisurely pace in half an hour. Mogok is located in the Shan Highlands northeast of the region’s capital Mandalay. It is a part of the old Mandalay Division (recently renamed: region) since the country gained independence in 1948. The same is true for the former British Hill Station Maymyo (now Pyin Oo Lwin). The reasons are evident: The Burmese want to be prepared for all eventualities and are determined to keep control of these two important regions – come what may …

Mogok is located in a large valley which is famous for its gems, mainly rubies but also importantly sapphires. The colour of her best rubies resemble that of pigeon blood. They are considered by gemologists to be of prime quality. Sapphires from Mogok enjoy a similar reputation. For the trip to Mogok, foreign tourists need a permit. We will gladly arrange that for you. The city may be visited only as part of a package tour. You are required to take a local guide along. From Mandalay to Mogok it takes about 6 hours.

Below is our latest report of our trip in April 2019.

We left Mandalay at 11.30 am and after 86 km (2 pm) stopped in the village of Let Pan Hla for a lunch stop in the rather good Panngabar restaurant. From there it is not far to check post in Wa Phyu Taung, where the road branches out: The eastern one leads to Mogok, the northern one into the Ayeyarwady Valley. Both these roads lead to the Chinese border. Your documents will be checked there and two hours later you’ll reach Kyatpyin, the gateway to Ruby Land. There is another road to Mogok, too, from Pyin Oo Lwin. But that route is closed to foreigners. From the entrance gate it is still half an hour to Mogok. However, we made a short detour to the Kyat Pin Kyauk That Pagoda (see photo), which is spectacularly located between huge granite boulders, similar to the Golden Rock with its interesting wool sack weathering. From there you have a nice view over the surrounding countryside. We reached Mogok in the early evening and went straight to our accommodation, the Mogok Hill Hotel. It is one of the few that is allowed to cater to foreigners. Certainly not spectacular, but adequate for the location. There is another hotel, the Golden Butterfly. Online reviews are not very positive. The hotel is so far from downtown that you need your own transport to get around – which can be a problem.

The terrace of the Mogok Hill Hotel offers a great view of the city and the temples in the south beyond the lake: The Phaung Daw Oo and the (Ruby) Pagoda (Sunset Pagoda) stand out from the rest. Especially at night, when these temples are brightly illuminated. At sunset and sunrise they look like a picture from a fairy tale. On closer inspection, however, you’ll find out that not all that glitters is gold!

The raison d’être for a visit to Mogok is primarily its gemstones mining and markets.
There are two gemstone markets: one that takes place in the morning and another one in the afternoon. The ‘real’ big deals are done on the latter, while the former one is only for small lower quality gemstones. At least that’s what we’ve been told. Among the traders in the more colourful morning market were many Indians, Nepali and Lisu. Including quite a few pretty girls who are happy to be photographed, as can be seen in this photo. If you like, you can buy some nice stones for small change. However, be aware that there are significant differences in quality – to put it nicely. You can buy a whole handful of real rubies for ten dollars! But it’s fun! If you are not interested in stones, you can take a tour around the lake. Ruby trading although done openly at local wayside stalls still has its ‘trade secrets’ namely the price paid for important stones. When traders both sellers and buyers are negotiating strongly their ‘final’ offers for good quality rubies it can be done confidentially by the buyer inserting his hand up the baggy sleeve of the seller to signal his acceptance of the deal. Onlookers are none the wiser as to the price paid even as they can see the rubies for sale on the scales.

The highlight of our visit took place in the afternoon: a visit to a ruby mine! The excavation of rubies is rather gruelling and dangerous! Some mine shafts reach down to 300 meters below the surface. Safety precautions for the workers – if any – are almost non-existent. Serious accidents and even deaths occur almost daily. The quarried rock (calcite) is loaded into trolleys. These are pulled up by means of a primitive diesel powered winch. The pieces of rocks are dumped into large stone crushers to break them down. The crushed material ends up in primitive washing plants and is then sluiced into hovels where many diligent hands and sharp eyes are used to search the fist-sized stones for rubies. And usually, they are very successful! Even though the chances of finding a ruby like the famous Sunrise Ruby (more than 25 carat!) is rather slim. See photo of this Sunrise Ruby. This world famous gem fetched nearly 30 million US dollars when it was auctioned. The whole business is supervised strictly by the Myanmar Government Controllers. However, as the owner of a mine confided to us, about half of the really valuable stones are moved out of the mines without the authorities knowing. i.e. being illegally smuggled out. If a particularly beautiful ruby turns up, the owner of the mine informs his best (usually Chinese) customers. Understandably, those deals are done with the utmost discretion and confidentiality.

Nonetheless, by selling gems (rubies and sapphires) at the annual gemstone auction in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw, the government is still making millions of dollars. A very important source of income for the government coffers. And, of course, for those in charge … In the afternoon we paid a visit to the ‘professional market’. It was less interesting than the morning market – at least for amateurs like us. We enjoyed the sunset at Ruby Pagoda and then continued to Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. From a culinary point of view, Mogok certainly is not our favourite destination in Myanmar. We had dinner at the Agaung Kyaik restaurant. It was tasty and inexpensive. You can also eat well on the night market in front of it. After another visit to the morning market, we hit the road back to Mandalay.

Azure Sky offers this tour as follows:

Duration: three days, two nights. Pick up from your hotel in Mandalay on the first day, visit the valley of Mogok including gem markets and Kyat Pin pagoda. Arrive back in Mandalay in the evening of the third day.

Transport: in air-conditioned car

Guide services: English-speaking guide throughout

Overnights: two, at Mogok Hill Hotel, deluxe room

Meal plan: breakfast only

Permit: included in the price. Will be arranged by us. Please let us have your passport scan two weeks before the tour (latest!)

Prices: single paying guest = 717 USD, double paying guests = 386 USD p.p.