Monday, July 11, 2005

Deep into the Shan State

Today we traveled from Mengla to Kengtung (also known as Kiang Tong, and Chiang Tong). I have found that the Burmese here pronounce K and ‘Ch”. Thus the currency of Khiat is pronounced Chiat. I also learned a few more things about the Shan Special District No. 4. It is an autonomous region that has its own laws and military. The laws include legalized gaming and prostitution, which are illegal in the rest of Myanmar. People from Myanmar (including the rest of the Shan State, may freely enter Special District No. 4, but resident of the Special District need a pass to enter the rest of Myanmar.

We passed several checkpoints today, but only stopped at one – the checkpoint to enter the Rangoon-controlled section of Myanmar (after leaving the Special District). All cars stop here and we were told several times not to take photos of soldiers or checkpoints. Still, some people apparently forgot and took a few shots. They were not caught and they still have their cameras.

We passed a couple more checkpoints after that, but were not stopped at any of them. At one the two soldiers manning the post were taking an outside bath in their underwear while their clothes hang on a line drying in the sun. Two of our photo stops involved hiking up hills to temples overlooking villages and rice paddy filled valleys below. Bamboo waterwheels that moved water from the rivers to the fields and the tethered water buffalo were two favorite photos opps.

Eventually we rose up from the valleys and into a high mountainous region with very few villages, people and other traffic on the road. A few small rice paddies could be seen here and there, but limited other signs of cultivation. Some hills seemed to have been cleared for grazing. The only sign of civilization along the road were cow pies that were scattered everywhere. It seemed that this road saw many more cows in a day than vehicles. We passed a bus, a few motorcycles, and a couple of trucks over the course of a over an hour as we made our way up and over the mountains.

We stopped at one Akka hill tribe village near the mountain pass, which afforded us spectacular views of the distant peaks. The people seemed quite poor, though there were friendly and willing to pose for photos. None asked for money in return. In fact, I have yet to see any beggars at all in Myanmar. If they do get more tourists (especially photo-crazy tourists like those of us on this trip), I bet that they will some day start asking for payment in return for posing – as has happened in most other ethnic tourism places in the world!

Finally we descended from the mountains and into a large alluvial valley in which Kengtung lay. Kengtung is a very nice city – very walkable and not at all crowded nor noisy for being the main city of the Shan State. It maintains a British colonial (it was a regional administrative center) character in it houses, many of which are clearly newer than 1948 (?) when Burma gained its independence from Britain.

Our hotel is on the site of the former Shan King’s residence, adjacent to a large pagoda complex that forms the cultural center of the city. It is supposed to be the nicest hotel in town, but only has electricity in the morning and evening (7:30-10:30), which it gets from gas-powered generators. All of the buildings in this part of town seem to use on-site generators for their electricity. (This may be true for the entire city!) It has a very laid-back and mellow pace to it – much unlike Mengla and much of China to the north.

After lunch and a short rest at the hotel we were taken to the city lake (just behind the hotel) and to the Standing Buddha (on a site where a Christian church once stood, but when it was demolished for another building some Bhuddist scriptures were found and so this Buddha complex was built there). We also went to see a giant 600 foot tree that stands on the top of a hill and stands out prominently in the Kengtung landscape and skyline. While walking up the hill we passed through a military compound and were told not take any photos of the soldiers and compound.


I have been a bit troubled by the zeal with which our group (including myself) impose themselves into our various stops to take photos of the local people. The local people who we have encountered have mostly been very obliging and willing to have their photos take. The kids, in particular, have been adorable and make for some great photos. However, I can’t help but wonder if this willingness comes more from a lack of sophistication in their experience of the tourism phenomenon, and a lack of understanding of tourist motives. Perhaps each photo take will lead them toward greater sophistication and understanding – and toward the more jaded attitude that many ethnic people feel towards tourists.

Ultimately, though, one could argue that it should be their choice to be photographed or not, and our prerogative to at least ask them – something that I am less confident in doing than some others. Still, 30 camera crazy tourists descending on a relatively impoverished village make for interesting dynamics that really makes me wonder.

Speaking of photos – I took and kept some 330 photos and video clips yesterday, and took some 400 photos today, though I have not fully reviewed them to delete the ones that are duplicates or did not turn out well. Once I get to a computer that has a good Internet connections, I upload a few of the best of these to this blog.

Photo: Bathtime for a water buffalo in Myanmar (below)


Post a Comment

<< Home