Crown of Myanmar
By Khin Ma Lay
Photos: Sonny Nyein
In the northern tip of Myanmar, set on a hilltop near the Himalayas is a pretty and peaceful town 420m above sea level, Putao. Surrounded by wilderness and ringed in the far distance by ice-capped peaks of the Himalayas, it is as far away from urban sophistication as one can imagine. Putao once known as Fort Hertz, a military outpost, is the largest town of this northern tip, although there are still many kilometres of mountain ranges and jungle beyond, right up to the pointed crown of the country. Villages are scattered on these mountain-sides.
The area is unique in the diversity of flora and fauna. According to scientists who had studied the region, it is one of the most biological diverse regions in Indochina, a transition zone where tropical lowland Indo-Malayan species t overlap with the upland
Sino-Himalayan species. Mount Hkakabo Razi (nearly 5881 m) and Mount Phungan
(over 3500 m) are snow-capped peaks rarely conquered by men, and which fascinates
climbers from all around the world. White water rafting is another test this area offers to
the adventu rers of the modern age. (Note: see EM Vol.3 No.1 for a detailed account.)
The Mount Hkakabo Razi National Park was established in 1998 with the help of the Wildlife Conservation Society based at the Bronx Zoo. It covers an area of 1,472 sq. miles.
The neat bungalows in Putao contained inside walls made of flat, river stones stacked to half a man's height.
Flowering vines creep along the hollows of the wall, the colourful flowers waving in the breeze. Housewives picking at rice grains or sewing on the front veranda gaze out to smile at pedestrians. Children play by the road, waving enthusiastically at every vehicle rolling pass them.
A short bridge crosses the upper reaches of the Mali Kha where women come to do their laundry and bathe in the warm sun of late mornings. The icy, crystal clear waters of this beautiful
river would eventually mingle with another riverfurther West to form the Ayeyarwaddy.
The Khamti Shan, Lisu and Rawang nationalities who live in the area still uphold the traditional way of life of their ancestors. They are beautiful people with clean cut features and clear complexions, their gazes steady but
friendly. All day long they cross the bridge into Putao from their villages in the far valleys. The morning market is the most crowded time for this sleepy town. Meat, fowl and fresh vegetables and luscious fruits in season are sold there, together with herbs and roots collected from the forests. The abundance offish caught from the icy streams are favourite buys of the
Lisu and the Rawang belong to the Kachin race, although they have vastly
different costumes and customs. The Lisu girls around Putao wear long
gathered skirts in pale blue stripes panelled with white, and
long-sleeved white or pale blue blouses under a short-sleeved coat of
black. Over one shoulder and across the front they wear a string of
beads decorated with seashells grinded on river stones into smooth
discs. Their close-fitting caps are also decorated with beads.
The men wear a simple loose jacket over jark trousers, belted with a
wide, embroidered cloth. The only flamboyant touch is a touch of colour
in their turbans. The men are proud of their swords or crossbows, marks
of their prowess as hunters.
The Rawang men, especially the chieftains, wear woven hats of cane,
flaring upwards. The front and sides of the hats are adorned with tusks
of the wild boar. They wear thick coats of turfed cotton in colourful
patterns. The women's longyis (sarongs) are in thick horizontal stripes
of black, red and white. Their pointed turbans are in white cotton. The
Rawang women wear coils of black-lacquered cane around their waists.
The Khamti Shan, who are a member of the extended Shan race, also live in this region. Their costume, however, is very different from that of the Shan who live in the Shan state, further Southeast of Putao. The women wear white long-sleeved and short-waisted jackets in the same design as was worn by most women of the country forty years ago. Their longyis are of plain black, over which they wear a short, fringed wrap, red in colour. Long strands fall at intervals from it, reaching to the bottom edge of their longyis.
Putao stands with the snowy mountains around it, which to the people must look as glorious as the abode of gods. The ice-capped mountains, purity of the air, and the clearness of the river's waters and the simple and sincere
nature of the people make Putao truly a unique place.