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Our favourite place in Kachin is Indawgyi Lake. It is Myanmar’s largest lake and has been designated a ‘wetland of international importance’ by the Switzerland-based Ramsar Secretariat.
It is said that one of Myanmar’s four remaining dragons still dwells at Indawgyi Lake … The story goes that where the lake now lies there was once a vice-ridden town called See Khan. As punishment for the sins of the town, the resident dragon descended one day and flooded the valley.
Today, the placid surface of the lake shows no sign of its turbulent genesis. Only a couple of guesthouses sit on its banks, very few motorized boats cleave a passage through the water, and even the fishermen, on their silent sampans, appear to retreat from the water by mid-morning.
When Sampan Travel last visited we rented a couple of kayaks and paddled our way from village to village: Mamon Kaing, Hepa, Hepu … At each, a small collection of beaming novice monks would greet us and through a herd of disinterested cattle we would be escorted up into the village for tea.
More adventurous visitors to Indawgyi might deign to rise early and make their way north to the village of Ton San Kha to commence hiking in search of gibbons. Others may wish to rent a bamboo bicycle and circumnavigate the lake, stopping off for fresh coconut at Lwemun and visiting the weavers at Maing Naung.
Indawgyi is peaceful, but it also has a rugged border town-esque character. Trucks trawl up the Lonton road towards the murky mines of Hpakant, and a couple of army checkpoints are peppered along the western road preventing nonplussed visitors venturing too far in the wrong direction.
Indawgyi’s greatest charm is that it is not Inle, but like its smaller sister to the south, unsustainable mining practices are threatening to pollute the lake, and what is now clean and good may well be besmirched if care isn’t taken. This is where responsible tourism can help by displaying the virtue in preserving the environment and contributing to the sustainable development of the communities and local industries.
When Sampan went kayaking, out in the middle of the lake we took a break from paddling and, as instructed, tilted our heads right back to look into the reflection of the clouds in the lake to see if we could spot the silhouette of Indawgyi’s dragon
We could not. We could only hear a light rumble like thunder. Trucks coming down from Hpakant? Or the second reckoning of See Khan … ?
Myitkyina is the capital of Kachin State. What Myitkyina city lacks in architectural sites it makes up for in welcoming locals and a diverse smattering of ethnicity, including Kachin, Lisu, Burmese and Chinese. Sleepy at the best of times, this largely Christian town is particularly tranquil when the churches fill up with the devout on Sunday mornings.
You will bump into few other tourists in Myitkyina, although there is a small expat community made up of missionaries and NGO workers. When in Myitkyina, it is worth trotting down to the produce market at dawn to see a flotilla of canoes gliding up the golden river with fresh vegetables.
One should also visit the Hsu Taung Pye Zedi Daw Pagoda, funded by a Japanese soldier who served in Myitkyina against the Allied Forces in WWII, commemorating his 3, 400 comrades who died in Myanmar.
In mid-January is the Manao Festival, where the six Kachin tribes come together in the National Kachin Manao Field to feast and dance around Native American-style totem poles. Held just before February is the Lisu New Year, where the Lisu congregate in their traditional dress and embark upon heady activities such as scaling knife towers barefoot.
The story of “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in Burma – a cantankerous, short-tempered and distrustful American general – is one not regularly told.
But it is a story worth telling, especially for those visiting Myitkyina. It was here that American, Chinese and Kachin troops, under the direction of Vinegar Joe, fought to open up the route that ran from Ledo in India to Kunming in China, so to allow American support to reach the Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek.
Along with the Chinese X Force and the Northern Kachin Levies, Stilwell commanded the battle-hardened and blooded “Merill’s Marauders” – a screwball collection of soldiers, many of who had been recruited from army jails and psychiatric units. After severing the Japanese communication lines in the Hukawng Valley, it was the Marauders who were tasked by Stilwell to lay siege to the town of Myitkyina.
Those travelling to Myitkyina today will likely fly into the city on the airstrip where Stilwell commenced his attack at 10AM, May 17th 1944. The Marauders took the airstrip by 3:30PM and across the airwaves it was prematurely announced that Vinegar Joe had vanquished the Japanese.
In actual fact, a long battle of attrition had begun. The Marauders were suffering from jungle-sores, foot rot and dysentery, so severely that some had taken to cutting out the seats of the trousers so that they would not be slowed down in battle.
As the siege drew on, Stilwell came to be regarded by his own men as cold-hearted, without a drop of human kindness. The historian Louis Allen notes that one of Stilwell’s men, almost considered shooting him – “I had him in my rifle sights. I coulda squeezed off and no one would’ve known it wasn’t a Jap that got the son of a bitch.”
However Stilwell held firm and eventually, on August 1st, the Japanese General Mitzukami ordered the official retreat from the city.
Around this time, the China-Burma-India theatre newspaper made this assessment of the acerbic American general:
“Someday when the war is only a filthy memory, the whole story of Stilwell in Asia will be told, the epic of an unpretentious man who went forth sword in hand and slew the dragon of adversity in their dens.”
To Kachin and Myanmar’s largest lake. Kayaking, gibbons, a grim mythology of dragons.
Dr Robert Lyman leads us through the Burma Campaign of the Second World War, following the footsteps of General Bill Slim’s “Forgotten Army”.