A Guide to Tourism Destinations and Beyond

Vol.3  No.4   
July-September 2004

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Orchid Hunter In 
Northern Myanmar
By: Kyaw Nyunt
Photos: Kyaw Nyunt

Babaw Bridge Myanmar was termed by the renowned British naturalist Frank Kingdon-Ward as the "Plant Hunters' Paradise" for there are many exotic species of plants that are new and yet still remaining to be discovered in the country. But my interest is in orchids. This interest started in my childhood when father took me on school holidays away from the suffocating atmosphere of cosmopolitan Yangon to the cool hills of Southern Shan State. Motoring up towards Kalaw and Taunggyi I saw and was captivated by these delicate flowers hanging or clustered on the trees by the road. After i graduated I joined the government's State Timber Enterprise and later became the Manager of the newly established Myanmar Orchid Nursery at Mingaladon, under the then Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. My dream had finally been realized and I was able to concentrate and also actively pursue my hobby in orchid surveys, collection of Myanmar species and breeding of both native and hybrid species. In this capacity as Manager of the orchid nursery I was able to travel extensively all over the country in my search for native Myanmar species. However, it was still not possible for me to travel to the northernmost regions of the country around Putao for various reasons outside my control.

Rawan Ladies The first opportunity to get up to Putao was presented to me in 1998 but by then I was no longer in government service. I was invited to join a team of foresters and other scientist headed by the Myanmar Office of the Wildlife Conservation Society on a study of fauna and flora of Northern Myanmar, especially around Naungmung Township. This trip had been the first of many to this area because this mountainous region with its primeval forest had captured my heart and whenever possible I would try to get back there.

Geographical and Climatic Conditions of Northern Myanmar

Route Map Northern Myanmar is a mountainous region. The mountain ranges are extensions of the Himalayan Range and Tibetan Plateau. The mountains are high, the valleys are deep and many peaks are above 3300 metres. In the ancient Sanskrit language Himalayas means the "abode of snow". This aptly describes the many peaks here. The snowline is usually around 3500 metres and many peaks are covered in perpetual ice and snow. A native of Putao once said that when the mountains are covered with snow they look like huge white cotton rugs but in spring they are like multi-coloured carpets covered with wild mountain flowers. The highest mountain in SE Asia mainland is also located here. It is Mt. Hkakaborazi at the height of 5881 metres. The headwaters of the mighty Ayeyarwady River also have their origins here. The N'maika and the Malihka Rivers, the two main tributaries of the Ayeyarwady River, all have their sources here as well as other numerous smaller streams and rivers.
The northern regions of Myanmar are influenced by both the SW monsoon and the NE monsoon weather systems originating in the Bay of Bengal and the South China Sea. In the summer months of April and May there are scarcely any rains. During the winter months of November, December and January it is also more or less dry. The heavy rains fall during the months of June, July and August when the SW monsoon is strong in the Bay of Bengal. During 2003 the Meteorology Department had logged 165.5 days of rain with the heaviest during August. 

The Tropic of Cancer runs through Myanmar at a point between the towns of Katha and Tagaung and consequently the parts north of this meridian fall in the temperate zone. Needless to say the northern part of Myanmar enjoys a cooler climate compared to the other parts of the country. According to available data for the year 2003 the average highest temperature was recorded as 250 C during the period from May to August. The lowest temperature was near freezing during January.

Looking for the Dainty Flowers.

This was to be a round trip. Starting from Putao we were to go overland. With the exception of some stretches between Putao and Machanbaw and Kaunghmulon to Putao, where there are motorable roads, we shall have to walk the whole way.
Putao, situated in the Hkamtilon Plain, used to be called Fort Hertz in honour of Capt. Hertz, the British District Commissioner who was stationed there. Now it has reverted back to its native name. It is also the northernmost air terminal. We flew into Putao on December 27, 2003 and immediately had to start organizing the trip with the local authorities.

Otochilus fuscus Dendrobium sulcatum Cymbidium ensifolums Dendrobium griffithianum

After completing all arrangements and stocking up on supplies we started our journey on December 27, 2003. We must pass through Machanbaw, Ahtanga, Ahlanga, Uringa, Babaw, Ratbaw before reaching Naungmung and on the way back pass through Masa, Namti and Namsabum. We would also pass through many local tribal villages of Lisu, Rawang, Kachin and Jingpaw races. Each village is a unique blend of traditions and Christianity because here many of the people are Christians but they still lovingly retain many of their ancient traditions. 

Naungmung, is the northernmost town in Myanmar situated beside the Nam Tisang stream. The altitude of the town is 631 metres above sea level. We reached Naungmung on January 2nd, 2004 after covering approximately 225 kilometres from Putao. Naungmung is the starting point for many expeditions to the Hkakaborazi National Park and also to the Mt. Hkakaborazi, which at 5881 metres is the tallest and snow-covered mountain in S.E Asia. Another is Gamlan Razi at 5806 metres. Hkakaborazi is 12 days and Mt. Gamlan Razi is 10 days walking distance from Naungmung. On the way to Naungmung we were able to study and collect many orchids species such as Dendrobiums, Erias, Pholidota chinensis, Otochilus fuscus and Cymbidium eburneums. Uringa Camp is located between Ahtanga Camp and Babaw village at the altitude of approximately 691 metres and surrounded by primeval forests and high ridges. Next morning, going up the ridges to the west of the camp up to the elevation of 1253 metres we found Arachnis labrosas, Dendrobium griffithi-anums, Dendrobium sulcatums, Dendrobium chrysanteums, Cymbidium ensifolums and many Nephelaphyllum species.

   Calanthe masuca Pholidota chinensis Arachnis labrosas   

One notable episode occurred on the way back however. One of our point trekkers reported that a family of wild boars is seen foraging ahead and that we need to take necessary precautions. Wild boars are dangerous creatures. They have no fear and will attack without any provocation or warning. All of us quickly climbed up the nearest trees but it was difficult for me to be nimble like the younger generation. Anyhow with the assistance of my colleagues I was finally up a tree and had to wait patiently for the boars to pass beneath.

Dendrobium griffithianum in the habitat However, the climax of our collection trip was on January 5th, 2004, a day after our Independence Day. We were hoping to find the natural habitat of the Paphiopedilum wardii or the Slipper orchid as it is commonly known. It was the name given to honour the British naturalist Frank Kingdon-Ward who discovered this flower on one of his expeditions in the north of Myanmar.We were sure we could find that around Masa. Leaving Naungmung early in the morning of January 4, 2004 we reached Masa around 1400hrs in the afternoon. The GPS reading showed it to be at 1055 metres above sea level. We had walked approximately 15 kilometres that day.

Paphiopedilum wardii, bloom in the habitat Leaving the Masa Camp early in the morning of January 5, 2004 we started climbing up the nearby ridge towards Namti Camp. Passing the 1600 metres mark we saw some Bulbophyllum species. Reaching the altitude of 1766 metres some indicator plants of Nephelaphyllum and Mischubulbum species were seen. This excited us for we are now sure Paphiopedilum wardii species would be around. And we were not disappointed. We found clusters of these plants in scattered patches; 3-5 plants in each patch. Some of the plants were in flowers but some had not yet given bud. Old seed pods which had already dispersed their seeds were also seen. We also discovered many in bloom and some even with different leaf patterns. We noticed that the upper leaf surface has different colour patterns according to the light conditions they receive. However, although I searched for probable variations in the colour and shape of the flowers I did not discover any.

 From Namti onwards it was back to Putao, crossing over the Babulon Ridge ( the native name is Lan Gha Bum) towering above us at 2050 metres but our path skirted the peak from 1945 metres only. On the way, midway between Namti Camp and Nasabum village, we could clearly see the snow covered peaks on the western side of the Putao plain as well as the meandering Malihka River in the distance. Namsabum village was reached on January 6, 2004. Our path lay across some abandoned taungya or slash and burn plots. But in these plots were some big trees still standing. Obviously these trees were left alone because they were too huge. Our good fortune was that there were many Dendrobium cane types hanging on the trunks. Calanthe masuca and Phaius tankervilliae were also found in the swampy areas beside the road.

January 8, 2004 dawned and we knew we should get to Putao today. Namsabum is just 15 kilometres from Putao, our starting point. The ancient Kaung Hmu Lon Pagoda stood on the bank of the Malihka River as a beacon to guide us back. Tired legs were rejuvenated at the sight but we were fortunate to get a WWII era Jeep to take us back to Putao. From December 27, 2003 to January 8, 2004 our journey had taken us a total of approximately 185 kilometres in a matter of 13 days in a wide arc. Much of our journey has been difficult and exhausting. Some portions were even dangerous. But our exhaustions and hardships were washed away by pure joy and a sense of achievement in discovering the natural habitat of the Slipper Orchid or Paphiopedilum wardii at the flowering period and also see many of our indigenous orchid species in nature. 

Dendrobium griffithianum in the habitat Paphiopedilum wardii Flower