March 2019: As part of a larger 10-day trip that involved visiting Afghanistan, I also visited Myanmar for 4 days, a country that couldn’t be any different on the cultural spectrum.  This was my 3rd visit to Myanmar, one of my favorite countries in the world. Tragically, much of Myanmar is in conflict and the country is governed by a totalitarian military regime with one of the worst human rights records on Earth. But the kindness and diversity of the people, its wild and undeveloped natural landscapes largely devoid of tourism are fascinating and breathtaking and the country is one of those few places left on the planet where you can still discover the undiscovered. One area of Myanmar that is wild and vastly unknown, is the Hukawng Valley, the world’s largest tiger reserve also known as the Valley of Death in World War II because of the difficult jungle conditions the British and Japanese fought in.  I was previously given a permit only to have it revoked. I continuously sent follow-up emails to a fixer in Myanmar with connections to the government and since my previous visit the military government has been at war, even using chemical warfare against the indigenous Kachin tribes that live in the region and the Hukawng Valley is completely off limits to foreigners.  I did find out that a new region in Myanmar, although not the Hukawng, but close and harboring the same forests, tigers and tribes had just opened up and the possibility of tourism to the region existed. The region was near Homalin in the Htamanthi Reserve. Htamanthi Reserve is a vast rainforest reserve in the Himalayan foothills where many of the world’s rarest wildlife can still be found such as gibbons, tigers, sun bears, elephant, etc. Little to no information regarding the reserve is available and I was told that other than scientists, no tourists have ever visited the reserve or even this region of Myanmar. I applied for the permits in advance and crossed my fingers that the government would issue them and not revoke them this time.

 

About the Htamanthi Reserve

Htamanthi Reserve is a vast network of forests located along the Chindwin River in northern Myanmar near the Indian border that protects elephants, tigers, bears, clouded leopards, gibbons and many more rare and endangered southeast Asian wildlife.  The Chindwin is the largest river in the region and flows from the Himalayas into the Irrawaddy River and eventually into the Indian ocean.  The region has been historically closed off to foreigners until just prior to my trip because of a new truce between the Myanmar military and Naga, an animistic warrior tribe of ex-headhunters.

To reach the reserve and the north Chindwin River region, I had to apply for a permit through multiple Myanmar government agencies before the trip and I was required to be accompanied by a government guide and ranger. To reach the reserve we had to fly from Mandalay via a domestic prop plane on a 2-hour flight to Homilin, a day long drive to a village where the ranger station for Htamanthi Reserve is located and then another few hours up the Chindwin River by boat to the reserve.
 

 

Location of Thamanthi Reserve

Arriving in Mandalay 

My friend Jimmie and I flew to Mandalay via a brief stop in Kunming, China arriving at 2am in the morning. We were able to catch a few hours of sleep in our guesthouse in the outskirts of Mandalay and then I woke up early to walk around and see some Mandalay in the quiet rural neighborhood where we stayed near the domestic airport. Walking around Mandalay, I realized quickly that Myanmar had changed very little over the years. Yes, there were more cell phones than before but other than that development that is sweeping across other countries in the region seemed to have largely forgotten Myanmar.

 

Old fashioned passenger train going very slowly passed me

Passenger train

Passenger train

Homalin and the Northern Mountain Villages

Immediately upon arriving in Homalin, we were intercepted by police at the airport and our permits and passports were checked. Jimmie and I were alone without our guide at this point to explain our situation since our guide was delayed. The police were perplexed by us and we were detained until our guide arrived to vouch for our trip.

From Homalin, we hired a taxi truck to take us to the village where the Thamanthi ranger station was located. The road ended on the other side of the Chindwin River, and we had to leave our vehicle and take a passenger boat across since there were no bridges. We drove approx. 6 hours along a poor dirt road that followed the Chindwin River.

We stayed in a ranger station in a small village that lacked electricity with the exception of a few hours every night when a village diesel generator turned on.

The village like others in the area were very traditional. The houses were made entirely of thatch and bamboo and Buddhist temples were ubiquitous in every village. This part of Myanmar has numerous indigenous tribes and every village consisted of one distinct tribe or was separated into sections that belonged to a distinct tribe. My favorite thing to do especially in the early cool mornings, was to walk through the village and photograph the rural lifestyles of the people. This part of Myanmar is easily one of those places in the world where you feel a special kind of privilege for visiting because to find such a unique place as isolated as it is getting to be much harder these days.

 

Village life

Early Morning Buddhist Pagoda in Village

Buddhist Pagoda in Village

Villager crafting a new Buddhist pagoda

Chindwin River Village Boats

Chindwin River Village House

Villagers carrying bamboo rugs

Old Chinese machinery 

Shan Tribe lady sweeping the dirt streets early in the morning. 

More Issues with Permits

No one ever said traveling into new regions of Myanmar was easy. I learned from years of frustration that permits to visit the country’s most intriguing places can be impossible to obtain and if given they can be revoked at a moment’s notice. In this case, we had the necessary permits from the security dept, forestry dept and regional office but our government guide wanted to double check with a military commander for the region who informed us that he was not notified and that we do not have authority to sleep-in the reserve. Our plan was to stay two nights camping in the reserve in an area known to have sun bears and tigers. The general was adamant that we could not sleep in the reserve or even enter the reserve. I was beyond frustrated by this, and I had to step away from dinner upon hearing this news to avoid allowing the rangers and guides to see my anger. Then all I could do was find a way to salvage what I could of the trip. So, we decided to do day trips to the reserve and hike inside of it but return by nightfall. Since there was no one in the reserve to prevent us from entering, we did so anyways. But we didn’t push our luck by sleeping there since getting locked up in Myanmar was not high on my list of things to do but I do admit I pushed the idea of defying the general and sleeping in the reserve pretty hard but our government guide, who genuinely was also disappointed, was too afraid to take the risk.

Thamanthi Reserve

Early in the morning we arranged a small motorboat to travel up the Chindwin River a few hours and then to a village from where we would hike through the jungle into the reserve. We planned to hike 10 plus hours in total to visit as much of the reserve as we could that day. In this part of Myanmar roads are infrequent and in poor condition and the river is the lifeblood and main transportation artery connecting remote villages and it was a lot of fun watching people traveling on various types of river boats in the morning as we made our way upriver.

Our boat we traveled up the Chindwin River in

Passenger and cargo river boats 

Village woman traveling across the river

Traveling Buddhist monks are a common sight and so are people hanging off the side of boats

Riverside gardens used only during the dry season while river levels are low are protected by bamboo fences

Traveling monk

There are a few entrances to the reserve and one of them is via walking. We started our hike at this idyllic village with all thatched houses and bamboo fences where everyone lives from farming and animal husbandry. The villagers not accustomed to foreigners were very curious, smiling and children playful holding our hands. I shared some Polaroid camera photos with the kids.

Village where we started our hike into the reserve

No roads just walking paths in the village. Villagers also use motorbikes

Typical house

From the village we crossed some agricultural fields which became mixed the further out from the village we went until the jungle eventually took over. Villagers were obedient about observing the demarcated lines of protected lands of the reserve. But poachers weren’t and villagers would tell us that armed poachers are foreign and come in search of tigers and elephant tusks as well as rare valuable timber. We also discovered that a tiger was recently seen in the forest roaming around the edges of the village so we knew we had company which would likely see us before we ever saw it. The reserve is thought to be the home to a healthy population of tigers that have access to vast unbroken tracts of forest across the northwest of Myanmar as I verified on Google Earth. Poaching is the biggest threat to the wildlife.

Jimmie on the trail into the reserve with huge ferns and forest all around us

Jimmie on the trail into the reserve with huge ferns and forest all around us

Jimmie on the trail into the reserve with huge ferns and forest all around us

Into the forest

Forest waterfall we swam in to cool off

We hiked for hours passed the signpost declaring the entrance of the reserve on a small foot trail. Villagers we learned also use the forest for sustainable practices such as harvesting plants, seeds and fruits for medicinal purposes. The rolling forested hills were amazing, and I really wish we could have camped in it. it was a dark and ominous place, and you could feel the weight of hundreds of unseen eyes bearing down on you. We could hear noises and branches breaking but when we turned around nothing. We didn’t see a tiger, but we did see tracks of a wild cat much larger than a domesticated cat and we saw gibbons soaring through the trees to high and fast for me to photograph. Gibbons are an ape and one of the most beautiful and a favorite of mine. We also saw a lot of interesting insects, butterflies and a huge almost thumb sized wasp that our forest guide warned us about. Evidently one bite could lead to death from eventual kidney damage a couple of years afterwards. We hiked as far as we could before we had to turn around to avoid getting stuck in the reserve at night. Then we returned the same we arrived by foot and boat to the ranger station where we stayed for the night.

Wild cat tracks

Mushrooms

Waterfall we swam in

Butterflies

Naga Village

The next morning, we had the option of returning to the reserve, but it was just too much of a hassle to get there and back unless you are camping there so I asked to visit some of the nearby villages. I heard there was a Naga village so we hired a motorbike taxi and set off on some dirt roads to the village and walked around asking the Naga people if we could visit them and see their home and learn about their culture. Normally this would be very intrusive and awkward, but most people were excited to invite us in and were very curious about us especially since for some we were the first or some of the first foreigners they have seen. Nagas are a fascinating tribe of animistic people who were feared for their warrior ways. The Naga would raid other tribes and take heads as trophies. They had a close connection with the natural environment and wore animal tooth necklaces and other ornate coverings in their traditional dress. Of course, with the arrival of modern life and Christianity many of them have abandoned their customs and are blending in with the cultures around them. However there still are plenty of unique cultural attributes and a strong sense of cultural pride among the Naga. The Naga are well respected as warriors even by the Myanmar military who only allow foreigners to enter this region now because of a truce in fighting between them and the Naga.

Naga House

Nagas are known for basket weaving and inside the house of this family we visited they showed us a giant basket they made

Naga woman wearing bark extract for makeup and sun protection in a Naga house

Naga man proudly showing me his traditional clothes and necklace

naga woman and the public health posters given to villagers from the government hanging up on the wall in their house as decorations. 

house of Naga Shaman who seemed to want to avoid me, so I left him alone. The giant structure is used for ceremonies.

It was fascinating to visit the Naga and the old man reminisced fondly of the days he fought the Burmese army along the border of India. He said even though there is a truce he doesn’t like them or trust them and that he was proud of his fighting days and showed me some of his clubs, arrows and axes used for hunting and warfare. He proudly claimed these are Naga lands and belong to his people.

 

Traveling Down the Chindwin River

We spent the rest of the day traveling via our own hired slow boat down the Chindwin River. The goal was to stop whenever we saw something interesting, and we stopped often. The river was wild and beautiful with its rolling forested hills. There was little development along its banks and every scene was out of a national Geographic magazine. We saw bamboo being harvested and made into boats entirely crafted of bamboo to carry bamboo poles down the river all the way to Yangon to be used in the construction industry. When we saw a family on a bamboo boat we asked if we could board it and we pulled up alongside to visit the family for an hour. Their journey would take weeks to get to Yangon.

 

Our boat we traveled down the Chindwin River in

Bamboo harvested along river bank from forest

bamboo prepared to be sent floatinf down the Chindwin River

Family traveling in bamboo raft transporting bamboo to yangon to sell

Family living on a bamboo raft

Family living on a bamboo raft

Family living on a bamboo raft

Myanmar is a poor country with many landless people, but you would think they weren’t happy because they are always all smiling. In the dry season the Chindwin River is low, and many landless people take advantage of the exposed riverbanks and the rich nutrients along them to plant temporary gardens until the waters rise in rainy season and wipe them all out. We stopped to visit some of the temporary settlements and visit the families.

 

A family living on the river bank with a huge pig

Farming family living temporarily on the river bank during dry season

This little girl was proud of her fish she caught

Although illegal, goldmining on the river is performed and we saw this small operation panning for gold and using mercury, a toxic substance that binds to gold but also pollutes the water harming the ecosystem and people. The gold miners had an arrogant cowboy swagger to them and were proud to look manly and pose for a photo.

 

Gold panning

Cavalier illegal god miner on the Chindwin River having a smoke 

Riverboat with a spotter on the front with a long stick that inspects for shallow sand banks that the boat could get stuck on 

In the late afternoon we arrived in the city of Himilin, where we stayed in a non-descript guesthouse for the night with air conditioning. The town had electricity, so we were also able to get cold beers and some decent food. Our guide, Saw overindulged in alcohol like he did every night and we had to carry him back to his hotel room.

 

restaraunt server bringing us our beer

Massage/haircutting parlor I went to in a bamboo house on the main street where I had the weirdest massage/haircut of my life. It was cheap and well worth the experience. I was massaged by a group of people including one Buddhist monk, and two ladies while one of the ladies told me about her brother, who she proudly said was in the Myanmar military, in the photos posted on the wall. She also had photos of their daughter dressed in a uniform of the Myanmar military. The people in the parlor where so excited to have a foreigner as a client that more people came to visit and giggle as I had my back, shoulders and head massaged. The whole experience was great and every time I walked by the massage parlor afterwards and I did often since the town is so small, the ladies would wave and smile at me. 

The next morning, we flew back to Mandalay via the small turbo prop plane where we had a tight connection to Bangkok, Thailand for a one-night layover before our onward flight to Afghanistan via India.

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