Vol. 2


April - June 2003

Home | Contents | Message of Felicitation from H.E Brig.Gen.Thein Zaw,Minister for Hotels & Tourism
Happy New Year to Our Readers | Pinya | Braving The Rapids | Is it a Hinmyo ? | Kayin Clothing
Bogyoke Market - Yangon's Oriental Bazaar | A Wonder World: Monywa Thanboddhay
Bringing In The New Year | Tender is the Night| Events Calendar



By Hpone Thant

Checking out wild animal spoor.

"Sir, I think a hinmyo approached our camp last night" the leader of our team of forest rangers excitedly said to me, poking his head into my tent. "Say again?" I groggily replied, as the cobwebs had not been cleared from my brains completely, to be so notified at the crack of dawn. Hinmyo is the traditional name in Myanmar given to tigers by all the folks living in the jungle. The village people believe that if you call a tiger a tiger the guardian Nats would not like it and in many places snakes are called, "Long Creatures" Maybe it is just superstition but who knows the mysterious ways of the jungle!

The United Kingdom based Scientific Exploration Society (S.E.S) was mounting a comprehensive survey in the Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park with a view to present suggestions to the relevant authorities on upgrading it to international standards. In collaboration with the Forest Department under the Ministry of Forestry, S.E.S had gathered a varied group of resource persons and nature lovers divided into small groups to explore the Park and each group was delegated a specific objective. The Expedition members were formed in companies: Group Alpha, Baker, Charlie and Delta etc.

Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park is one of the most famous of destinations for nature lovers as well as for Buddhist pilgrims. The Park is in Yinmabin Township of the Sagaing Division and is a well forested area, situated to the west of the Lower Chindwin and Myittha valleys and comprises the Patolon and Taungdwin Reserves Forests.

The total area of the Park is 620.32 sq miles. The Park consists of the Patalon and Taungdwin River Valleys and these valleys are separated from each other by north to south running ridges. These ridges have many steep escarpments. The elevation of the Park varies from 670 feet to 4265 feet with an average of 3000 feet. The highest point is the Hlaingma Mountain at 4265 feet. The Park is drained by a number of tributaries of the Potalon River, notably the Petpa and Taungdwin creeks. The Potalon River empties into the Chindwin River which itself is the main tributary of the Ayeyarwady River.

Elephants are the only means
of transport inside the Park.

Major rainfall occurs between May and October and is heaviest in August and September. The Western Chin Hills greatly influences the rainfall and the annual rainfall is around 1500mm. Even in some dry years the rainfall is reduced to around 750mm. The temperature in the Park varies from 10°C with the highest recorded at 41°C. The humidity averages around 72%.

The Park is accessible by road only. One way is to cross the Chindwin River at Monywa by ferry or cross the Chindwin by the Sinbyushin Bridge at Chaung Oo. The best time to visit the Park is from late January to before the Myanmar New Year in April. Come early and you cannot cross the Chaung Ma Gyi Creek which has not subsided or come late and get trapped by the monsoon. Even the monks at the monastery depart for Kabaing at the edge of the Park during the rains.

A Group of scientists at Alaung Daw
Kathapa ready to begin thir survey.

The Buddhist pilgrims usually visit the Park to pay homage to one of the disciples of Lord Buddha, Shin Maha Kathapa, whose sarcophagus is said to be lying inside the cave in the Park and hence it is the origin of the Park's name. Also, on the Full moon Day of Tabodwe (February), the presiding monk of nearby Pho Win Taung Monastery organizes an annual ceremony to prepare Hta ma ne or cooked glutinous rice offering to the monks and pilgrims visiting the holy place.

The cave where this holy relic is said to be buried, is about 45 minutes' walk from the Log Cabin Camp along a narrow bridle path, or an elephant can take you there in just about 20 minutes. A steep ladder takes you down into the main cave, dark and damp. There you will find an entrance to another smaller cave where the body of Kathapa is said to be. But the cave is blocked with a boulder and many pilgrims sit in front to worship. They place gold leaves on this boulder. Legends say that inside the cave and beside the sarcophagus, are stacked so many offerings of gold and gems that once upon a time a man went in and was so overcome with temptation that he could not find the way back out of the cave. Curiously, an attendant will point out the shape of a small footprint way out on a narrow ledge overlooking the gorge."There was a young boy who accompanied this person into the cave but being a child he was not overcome with greed when he saw the riches. So he was able to escape through a narrow opening and here you see his footprints" the attendant explained. Well, the small indentation in the rock is similar to a child's feet and maybe the story is true! And since that time the cave has been blocked.

But for the nature-lovers, it is the rich bio-diversity that draws them to the Park. The Park possesses wildlife such as tsaings (Bos banteng), gaurs (Bos gaurus), sambar (Cervus unicolor), wild elephants, black bears, porcupines plus troops of monkeys etc. Birdlife is also varied with hornbills, woodpeckers, laughing thrushes, babblers, orioles, parakeets, barbets etc. Reptiles are also numerous. It is not uncommon to find bears up on the trees hunting for honey. Leopards are plentiful in the Park. Once, by chance, together with a Japanese photographer we had caught on film a family of leopards feasting on a kill. But that's another story!

One night S.E.S's Chairman Col John Blashford-Snell (J.B.S), a retired colonel from the British Royal Engineers, announced "Tomorrow Group Charlie will head for Kuzaik at sunup, so please be ready to start in time". Kuzaik is situated about five days’ march, in the northeastern direction from the base camp. The group that was to go with J.B.S comprised of a medical doctor, an elephant management expert, an ornithologists, a zoologist plus two pack elephants and their oozies (handlers) and some forest rangers.

By dawn of the next day the Log Cabin Camp that was our base was a busy hive. The different groups that were to leave camp on their assigned tasks were already up and about. Baggage had to be carefully divided and loaded onto the pack animals: rice, oil, pots and pans as well as enough potable water for all the participants as the round trip would take about 5 to 6 days. Meals were to be cooked at rest stops. All the members of the group were to walk, except in emergencies. That was the strict rule.

 Tigers are extremely rare now
in the country.

J.B.S led Group Charlie as we marched out of camp, followed by the elephants. Along the way, vegetation studies were carried out to determine the forest type. Habitat, animal and birdlife were also carefully recorded.

This area west of the Chindwin River was the scene of many pitched battles between the Japanese and the Allied Forces during World War II. Another objective of the expedition was to hunt for the remains of Allied pilots and to send the remains to be buried properly at the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Yangon and any news about Allied warplane wrecks were eagerly sought.

Other groups in the expedition had their own routes mapped out and they too set out on their assigned objectives. Some were to study the feasibility of introducing solar cookers to the families of the elephant handlers and also to assist in elephant management practices. Another group provided basic healthcare to the villagers and also gave talks on elementary hygiene and sanitation.

One memorable moment was opening a bird watching tower on the banks of the Potalon River. David Shepard Conservation Foundation (DSCF) and other sponsors from the United Kingdom had donated funds for the construction of the bird-watching tower as well as to supply camping gear and carpentry tools for the rangers at Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park. A master carpenter from U.K was with the expedition and he led the locals as well as the expedition members in constructing this tower, and it was a proud moment when the David Shepard Tower was officially opened.

Our Group Charlie was kept busy during the day. J.B.S was the typical British Army type, keeping everyone on their toes when not at parade rest! Lunch stops were under the shade of towering trees and beside bubbling brooks reminding us of the poem "The Brook" from our school days.

But the evenings were fun. When camp was pitched for the night, usually beside a running stream, the accompanying rangers and oozies doubled as cooks also. Most nights the meal was rice cooked in bamboo stems, what is known as hke tan chi tauk with stir-fried fresh vegetables. Rice is put into a short hollow bamboo stem with a little water, then the top was plugged with dried leaves or straws and the bamboo placed next to the fire. When enough time has passed the scorched bamboo was peeled back to expose the fragrant rice, ready to eat. If the rangers were lucky enough to have bagged a jungle fowl or caught a fish it gave some variety but normally it was canned sardines or chicken sausages. Sections of bamboos made good drinking cups. A bonfire was kept burning in the centre to provide warmth and light. Even before the night sky fills up with twinkling stars everybody was fast asleep, tired out from the day's exertions.


At the opening ceremony of
David Shepard Tower.

After four days' march the group was near exhaustion. That was when the men on sentry felt the presence of the tiger and the story of the close encounter with the hinmyo was born. Tired and heavy with food everyone had fallen asleep as soon their heads touch the ground except for our trusty rangers who stood sentry duty around our campsite. A bird known as nget hku has a symbiotic relation with the tiger, and is known to accompany it on the hunt. This bird scouts ahead and warns the tiger of any lurking dangers and also acts as a scavenger of what is left over from the kill. The rangers heard the cry of this bird in the night and had deduced that there could be a tiger on the hunt.

The group carefully searched the surroundings. Someone called out excitedly, " Come here, there are some tracks here. Looks like a big cat". And sure enough, among the many signs of small animals we saw that there were also some footprints of a large cat on the soft sand near the stream. Presumably a large cat had come down to drink near our camp but seeing the bonfire had vanished again into the forest.

Most say there are no tigers in the Alaung Daw Kathapa National Park and that it would be a very rare and exceptional chance to meet one on a hunt. But whatever it is there was an animal with catlike paws that approached our camp in the night and it certainly gave our group a very exciting camp-fire story that would be retold time and again.

Hpone Thant was a member of the Expedition and is also a regular contributor of articles on the culture and traditions and wildlife of the country to various magazines.
He can be reached at: harry@swiftwinds.com.mm

Vol. 2


April - June 2003

PINYA : A Short Period of History PINYA : A Short Period of History Kayin Clothing