“What are you thinking for the next 10 days?”
” Google Putao and see what you find.”
I knew that is where he would want to go even before his text came through. How did I know? We don’t know each other, and yet here we are, rendezvousing in Myanmar. The only measure of you are not an ax-murder is a few overlapping Facebook friends, a couple of hours spent in person, and sharing the same adventure resume highlights of The Mongol Rally and The Rickshaw Run. That was all I had to go on before I committed to spending 10 days with him in a not well-traveled country that is a semi-military dictatorship disguised as a democracy in transition
As it turns out, he is the perfect travel companion.
Putao, the most northern town in a seldom-visited state of Kachin is the spot on the map that drew our eye. It is as far north as we could go. It had an outbreak of civil war as recent as 2011, and the temporary peace between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar government, is well, temporary. Very few foreigners visit Kachin or Putao.
Let’s go somewhere far from the beaten track. Let’s honor the explorer within.
Do we need permits? There’s little information to be found online and everything contradicts one another. There are only two hotels in town and it never even occurred to us that they might be closed for the season. Or maybe we are just well-traveled / hubris enough to think that we will talk someone into housing us. What is there to do once we get there? We don’t have enough time to trek plus the season is over. Well…we would explore of course.
A tiny airstrip with a shabby building serves as the airport in Putao. The airport is tiny; the ground crew gives a pilot a thumbs-up to signal clear for take off. You have to exit the airport gates to find a wooden shack just beyond for immigration and airline counters. The man at immigration asks us if we have permission to be there, we mumble something that kind of sound like a yes and he sends a guy off with our passports to make 9 copies each. Yes, 9 copies are needed.
We hop on the back of a motorbike-pick-up-truck hybrid and head for the only hotel that could possibly be within our budget. What do you know; they are closed for the season. A little bit of fast talking and a lot of sweet smiles, his not mine, we manage to convince the owner to re-hang the mosquito nets, lay the mattress down and let us stay.
Everyone wants to know if we have permits to be in this part of Kachin state and everyone tells us something different. Some say we need permits to be in Putao, some say we only need permits if we leave Putao for a different township, others say we could just go to the immigration office and apply for a permit. The story changes every hour with every person.
So…we did what good explorers do….we ignored all the rules.
We rented a motorbike and each day, we would pick a direction and ride until we ran out of roads. We were the only foreigners in town and we saw a part of Myanmar that very few travelers have seen. We had no agenda and the only expectation is to taste the psychosphere of this place.
There are limited food choices. There are two restaurants on opposite corners of each other. Our hotel owner recommended the restaurant on the first corner and then in a very serious voice told us that we should not go to the other restaurant, absolutely not at all. There is a little noodle shop on the far side of town that is open until they run out of customers, which is pretty early on, and a few more noodle-stands inside the market which closes sometime after lunch. This means the only places for dinner are the two restaurants. It doesn’t matter what time of the day we pass the restaurant on the far corner, there is never anyone there. However, there is always someone eating at the restaurant the hotel owner recommended. We contemplate eating at the other place just to see…could it really be that bad? Except the complete lack of patronage by anyone in this tiny town, made us hesitate. Then I started to wonder if there is some deep family feud going on between the two and the whole town is in on it? It doesn’t seem to make sense in a town of few thousand (if that) and only two restaurants, one would be full every night and the other one, just across the street, would not see a soul. We ate a lot of our meals at the corner restaurant including one of the least palette-able / strange meal I’ve ever had.
At dusk, a table and a glass case is set out in front of the good restaurant. There are varieties of meat skewers you can choose from (they run out quickly) and bowls of noodles with vegetables are being tossed to order. I like to fancy myself a connoisseur of noodles, being Asian and having traveled extensively, but this is perhaps the strangest! There are at least four different kinds of noodles, a few I’ve never seen before, varying in texture and shape, tossed in a semi-gelatinous gray sauce (most likely made from corn starch) and a bunch of blanched vegetables. If I have not seen the ladies make the noodles to order, I would assume this is someone’s leftover, combined and reinvented as a new dish. Nope. The ladies are mixed each bowl of noodles to order and it is rather popular. The locals line up to order it. The multitude of textures and the slight slimy quality of the sauce made this dish a one-time only event for us.
On a particular day, as we ride as far as we could, we pass by Malikha Lodge, the other hotel found online for Putao. It is an all-inclusive 5-star hotel with a view of Namlaung River. We are curious of the rates and the amenities so we convinced the manager to open up the property (closed for the season) and show us around by pretending to be adventure tour operators who is here researching options for future tours.
The manager talked to us for hours.
The lodge is rarely occupied but the staff obsessively cleans it every day. There is also an unlisted and unlicensed sister property 15 minutes away across the river, it is just as lovely and clean. There is an air of faded British colonial beauty in the way these properties are always ready, patiently waiting for the master to return, but eerily empty. These rooms are poised and eager; ready for the moment when there is true democracy in the country, when The Lady is elected, and everyone flood to this most northern outpost, to see only Christian state in a country of Buddhists.
The manager, Mr Aung, took us to lunch at a near by noodle shop. A simple shop by the roadside serving tea and noodles. Photos of Aung San Suu Kyi hang on the walls next to faded wedding photos, just above the shelve full of beer and Coke. Aki, the handsome young guy who’s been accompanying Mr Aung on our importune tour sits politely and quietly while we eat.
“Are you not hungry?” I ask Aki.
“No, I already ate with my mother.”
“Your English is excellent, where did you learn English?”
A shy smile, “I studied in Chennai for two years.”
“How old are you?”
“I am 19.”
“So you were pretty young when you were in Chennai.”
“Yes. I was 14 years old. I hiked over the mountains into India.”
I chew on that thought for a minute, “You hiked across the lower Himalayas into Arunachal Pradesh India?”
“Yes. I have family there.”
“How long did it take?”
“7 days. Then I took a train for 3 days and 2 nights to get to Chennai.”
“Why did you come back to Putao?”
“I came back to take care of my mother.”
Tarmac roads turn into well-packed dirt roads turns into narrow lanes filled with rocks. Flat plains dotted with an occasional Stupas interrupted by the not so distant mountains. There would be a sign, every 3-5 buildings, proclaiming the wooden shack on stilts to be a church of Jesus Christ. All the houses are built on stilts, either wood or thatch, and all the tiny shops sells the same things…not much. Faded Merry Christmas and Happy New Year banners adorn most of the shops. Gasoline is sold by the liter in empty whisky bottles from the side of the road. Traveling with a tall white man in these parts of the world is a little bit like traveling with your own alien friend. The children stare, hard. We are a rare sight, especially on these back roads on a motorbike.
We ride until we run out of roads, then we turn back, towards Putao for cold beer and instant coffee at the tea shop.
The first afternoon at the teashop, he grabs a beer out of the fridge and I order a coffee. The girl gestures for me to follow her into the kitchen and showed me 5-6 different brands of 3-1 instant coffee. Some lists artificial creamer as the first ingredient, to give you a latte like mixture, whiles another has coco powder to simulate café mocha. Three-in-one instant coffee is the work of the devil. It vaguely resembles coffee, except without the pleasure and always leave you wanting more. When you are an addict, something is better than nothing; I pick one that seems the least evil. Minutes later I was served a glass of hot water with the packet of instant coffee on top. This is a do-it-yourself coffee service.
Everyone looks into the teashop as they pass by; a curios glance of who is there and what kind of gossip they might have? There is always a look of surprise when they see us in the teashop. Wait, what are these foreigners doing at the teashop?! On Sunday nights, the shop stays open late and everyone gathers to watch Korean soap opera.
Back at the Putao airport, we pass through the metal detector, circa 1974 made in New Jersey, and not plugged in. The departure lounge opens right onto the runway and three small boys runs from their seats into the airfield all the way to the white line marking the edge of the runway. They make up random rules; such as don’t step on the crack in the asphalt and they play on the edge of the runway. Someone plays music on their cell phone.
“What do you think would happen if I started playing music on my cell phone too?” I turn to him and wondered aloud.
I’m sure you can guess what I did next.
Maybe because my phone is a little louder, or maybe because I am a foreigner, but the locals stopped their music and listened. We listened to music on my iPhone, sang along and danced (more like wiggled) a little in our seats. When our music came to a stop, the guy behind us turned on his cell phone and played his music. There is a mutual alternating system in place for playing music on cell phone in public places…little did I know.
“Only if I had Billy Jean on my phone. I bet you we can get the entire lounge to sing along. This is how we would do it — we would start singing ourselves, dance a little in our seats, cause enough distraction so the people are paying attention to us, then one of us would look behind and catch someone’s eye. We would smile and give them a little nod to sing along with us. They would sing along quietly, because it’s Michael Jackson and everyone knows Michael Jackson. We would catch another person’s eye, smile, and they would start to hum along too. Then just before we get to the chorus, ‘Billy Jean is not my lover,’ we would stand up and we would rally the entire departure lounge to singing along!”
He laughs. “Too bad you don’t have Billy Jean on your phone. Do you have anything else that would work?”
“No. There isn’t anything as popular and as global as Michael Jackson.”
“You know what is my favorite thing about you? I don’t need to talk you into something like this. You would just do it, to see if we could!”
He smiles back at me. “It would be a good story.”
“Yes. It would.”
For a brief few days, we were explorers. We traveled as far as we could, embraced the nuance of a far away town and tasted its insides. We drove until we ran out of roads.