I spent two weeks in Myanmar in July, following a couple of months of research and getting vaccinated in Japan. Armed with a backpack of necessities for the monsoon season and my eVisa, I took a direct flight from Tokyo to Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, located near the Irrawaddy delta. I only had a brief glimpse of the city with its street food tents and mobile phone shops, before flying the next morning to Myitkyina in the north of the country. I had left Burma and arrived in the Kachin State.
A note about the name of the country: both of the English terms Burma and Myanmar come from the Burmese language. When the government changed the name from the Union of Burma to the Union of Myanmar in 1989, many people didn’t recognize the legitimacy of the government to do so, and continued to refer to it as Burma. While I was in the country I noticed most people called it Myanmar, and that coupled with the fact that not everyone in the country is or speaks Burmese, gave me the impression that the name Myanmar is more inclusive of all the ethnic minorities as well as the Burmese majority. I may use Myanmar to refer to the entire country and I may use Burma when I refer to areas where Burmese culture is the strongest.
The Kachin people are a minority ethnic group in Myanmar, although they make up the majority in Kachin State, mainly in the rural areas. Compared to Japan, where the population is very homogeneous, individual and group differences were much more noticeable. It was easy to spot people who were of Indian, Nepalese or Chinese descent, but even though I couldn’t tell who was from what group in Myanmar, it was really interesting to see all these strong ethnic identities in such a rural place. In Myitkyina I saw a Hindu temple, a mosque and a Buddhist temple, but Kachins are mainly Christian, so there were far more churches than pagodas. I attended a Kachin Mass, given through the Kachin language, alongside ladies with beautiful lace veils and statues of Jesus and Mary illuminated by LED halos. Every morning I would wake up to the sound of Kachin hymns sung by the neighbouring catechists-in-training.
I was visiting my relative, Sr Mary Dillon, a Columban nun who has been working in Myitkyina since 2002. I stayed with her for a week, seeing and experiencing places and ways of life far from what I’ve known. I’ll write two posts about my time in the north, first about the Kachin culture and second about the difficulties that are faced there.
For most of my week in Myitkyina we had typical rainy season weather, it rained heavily in the morning and sometimes in the afternoon, but we did have some sunny spells. It was a lot cooler and less humid than Japan, which surprised me. Sr Mary has a real affinity for the Kachin people and culture, and she took me to some famous sights and local places.
We visited the Manau poles in Myitkyina where the Manau dance festival to celebrate Kachin State Day is held on January 11. Participants dressed in traditional Kachin costumes dance around the poles to a drum beat. The festival was held annually from 1994 – 2011 during the ceasefire between the Burmese army and the KIA (Kachin Independence Army). This year it was held again to some controversy because of the ongoing conflict between the two armies and the displacement of many Kachin people from their homes into refugee camps since 2011. This dance is part of the animist tradition of the Kachins, but all over Myanmar you can find animism living alongside other religions, such as in nat (spirit) houses.
One day we went north of Myitkyina to visit the confluence of the N’mai and Mali rivers which forms the Irrawaddy river that runs from north to south in the country. It’s an important, if not very beautiful, spot, and although it was the low season, we saw quite a few other local sightseers. The nat house and pagoda above are dedicated to it, and there is a plaque explaining its importance for the Kachin people. Nowhere is safe or sacred from controversy however, as at a site near the confluence, construction on a Chinese-funded dam has been halted since 2011. Communities of local farmers and fishermen have already been relocated from their villages to prepare for the flooding the dam will cause, just so the government of a country with regular power-cuts can export energy to China in return for political support.
I went along with Mary on her errands and I loved traffic watching. Fortunately Mary was a slow and safe driver because many of the other drivers weren’t. Most of the traffic was made up of trucks of various motors and sizes, and motorbikes. It was common to see passengers hanging off the back of full trucks or a five-person family on a motorcycle. I saw many young couples on the road, with the girl elegantly perched side-saddle on the back of the motorbike. In the picture below, the guy in the middle was serenading his friends on the guitar. And in the photo underneath, you can see a typical petrol station – a little wooden table with petrol decanted into empty whisky bottles.
I was very glad to have someone to show me around in terms of eating and drinking, and my first refreshment stop in Myitkyina was ‘Fuji’, a juice-shop/restaurant run by Chinese protestants, which was to become a regular pit-stop during my stay. I loved the yoghurt drink so much that once I drank two in one sitting.
I savoured the deliciously cheap fruit (coming from Japan where it’s so expensive), and I tried rambutan for the first time. I was very happy to have people to order for me and just enjoy what showed up at the table – rice wrapped in banana leaves, grilled whole fish, spicy salads, and Kachin rice wine (nothing like Japanese sake).
I was fascinated by the style and fashion in Myanmar. Of course people wore western clothes too, but I was surprised that the majority of people I saw wore longyi, a cylindrical sarong that men wear tied at the front in a knot and women wear wrapped around to the side. Different ethnic groups have different patterns or variants in how it’s worn. A typical outfit for a Burmese man would be a chequered longyi in a dark colour, worn with a collarless white shirt. For a Burmese woman, you can see longyis being paired with a separate blouse, or a tailored outfit of a longyi and matching top, usually fastened to the side, Chinese-style. Plus the obligatory flip-flops. Pictured above is the traditional make-up called thanaka, made from ground bark, which is applied to the face as a yellow paste. As well as being a cosmetic, it is supposed to act as a sunblock.
Mary had taken me to the market to look at the longyis and Kachin goods. I really like the Kachin designs, they are so colourful and striking, they remind me of Aztec patterns. I bought a purple longyi as a rectangular piece of material, and we brought it to a seamstress to be sewn into a tube and have a black waistband attached.
Another day we went out to a centre for local youth where a fellow sister of Mary’s was working. Beside the centre was a workshop where longyi with Kachin designs were being woven. I was amazed when I saw how they were decorated because although the design looked embroidered, it’s actually woven in as the longyi is being made. Over the workshop there was a storehouse with finished longyi. I couldn’t help myself and bought two more because what better souvenir than these beautiful textiles from a local business. Just like Sr Mary, I have a big appreciation for the Kachin now.