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Sadie Whitelocks Naga story

It suddenly dawned on me, after spending a couple of days cruising up the Chindwin River through the heart of Burma, that we hadn’t seen a single westerner. Even when our group docked up on the muddy banks to visit tiny local communities, we were the only outsiders to be seen.

Pandaw’s very intriguing-sounding Voyage to Nagaland promises a real taste of adventure - and it certainly delivers. From the get go, I felt as though I was well off the beaten track with wavering Wi-Fi signal and the chugging of the boat engine being the only mechanical noise sounding among the birdsong or rain showers.

My journey through one of Burma’s most remote regions started in the bustling city of Yangon. The throbbing metropolis, which was formerly the capital and known as Rangoon, is home to some of the worst traffic along with a spread of the world’s most revered temples, including the shimmering gold and diamond-encrusted 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda.

On the first day of our Pandaw expedition, we met with our trip leader Ronald at the enormous 484-room Sule Shangri-La hotel in the heart of Yangon, before getting on a bus to the airport to catch a 1 hour 45-minute flight up to the town of Kalay. Once landed, we took another bus ride through the lush, rain-drenched countryside to board our boat at Kalewa. I felt as though I’d stepped into a scene from an Agatha Christie novel as I explored the luxury Pandaw vessel, with polished wooden decks complemented by brass fixtures and lazy palms wafting in the humid breeze. There wasn’t another passenger boat to be seen, and a small rafter of colourful fishing boats bobbed along nearby. The reason the Chindwin River is so quiet, is the fact that the water is very shallow. But luckily, Pandaw’s specially-designed boat - which has a flat bottom and a draft of just 2.5 feet - can navigate the treacherous waterway without getting grounded on the brown clay banks.

The aim of our seven-night trip was to get to Nagaland - a northerly region of Burma bordering India - which is home to more than 16 tribes with some once famed for their headhunting activities. Ronald kindly informed us that the last head was hunted in 1983 which put our minds at rest but somewhat heightened my sense of intrigue. We all couldn’t wait to get to our destination but the stops along the way proved to be equally as magical.

One of my favourite days on land was at the small town of Khamti, where we explored a chaotically colourful food market and trekked to a hilltop monastery blessed with wonderful views. In the foreground palm trees injected a touch of tropical, with the endless rice fields giving way to the mountains afar. In this town, I purchased a longhi – a traditional long skirt worn by both men and women – while Ronald got a big bag of traditional deep-fried breaded treats for us all to enjoy back on board.

A Cruise up the Chindwin River 1

Another memorable visit during the trip occurred a little earlier, when we stopped at the charming village of Yuwa. Like many of the communities we visited, it centred around a school and dusty mud-paved main street with a run of wooden houses perched high on stilts. As we explored the village, I ventured up one path which led me to the start of a rich carpeting of rice plants. In amongst the tapestry of rippling green, puddles from the afternoon rain glistening in the golden sun with birds swooping, silhouetted against the cotton wool-puffed sky. As I made my way back to find the group, I spotted a villager feeding her two rather large pigs with their noses firmly fixed to the bottom of their silver food bowls. All of a sudden, a gaggle of young children came to walk alongside me with a couple of little ones holding my hand and looking at my blonde hair and silver jewellery with a look of wonder. I complimented one of the little girls on her nail polish – her hands and feet appeared to be much more manicured than mine! The string of communities along the Chindwin – some of which don’t even have names - get supplies shipped in by delivery boats and there is also a waterbus taking passengers to neighbouring towns. So, things like nail polish appeared to be on the radar in these villages, despite their apparent isolation. Some of the traditional huts were even decked out with solar panels and satellite dishes seemed to be on trend. When I reached the end of Yuwa town with my new friends, we stopped to watch a group of apes on the other side of the river bank, monkeying around in the evening sun. From there, we bode a fond farewell to the community and continued our journey upstream.

While agriculture is the main source of income in this rural stretch of Burma, the land is also rich in minerals. In between the lengths of land used for rice farming, we spotted the occasional gold mine and in one village we visited, amber was being extracted from the woodlands. It was fascinating sitting with locals as they showed us some of their prize specimens with prehistoric bugs frozen inside the chunks of caramel-coloured rock. Many of the men and women proudly wore large beads of polished amber around their necks and gold also proved to be a popular accessory throughout the area, with the vibrant shade of yellow metal difficult to miss.

By day six - after some talk of not being able to make Nagaland due to low waters - we eventually got there, mooring up at the remote town of Khamti. Everyone was excited to get on shore and we set out early to make the most of our day. After driving around in little buggies to see some of the sites – including a school, the local police station and a town hall - we stopped at a Naga museum and cultural centre. Two Naga elders came to meet us at the A-frame timber building, dressed in traditional attire. The two wise-looking men looked magnificent in headdresses fashioned out of tiger’s teeth, wild boar tusks, feathers and tufts of hair. They also wore waistcoats with tapestries forming images of animals, weapons and human skulls – a reminder of times gone by. Ronald explained that all of the Naga tribes have their own dialects and they often can’t understand each other. Many of the tribes used to be involved in bitter disputes but over time, they have worked through their differences to fight for common causes. One of the Naga elders informed us that one of the best times of year to visit Nagaland is at New Year, when all of the tribes get together to celebrate their traditions at an annual extravaganza. There are also numerous other festivals throughout the year, with many events taking place just over the border in India.

A Cruise up the Chindwin River 2

After our visit to the Naga museum, we went to a small eatery next door, where we were served some traditional dishes from the area along with some pretty drinkable rice wine. The sweet home-made liquor was needed, as the culinary treats –which included some crunchy chicken feet – came served with a generous douse of spicy sauce!

That final night we docked in Homalin – a growing town which was occupied by the Japanese during World War II - before taking a flight from the local airport back to Yangon.

The whirlwind voyage to Nagaland had provided us all with a fascinating glimpse into life around this remote area of Myanmar. It felt like we’d packed a lot into a week but I also felt well-rested, with a well-balanced itinerary allowing for ample time to sit back and admire the floating views.

Landing back into the chaos of Yangon, I yearned for the pleasant peace of the Pandaw boat and the friendly embrace of the people along the Chindwin. Nagaland is a spot on the map I feel privileged to have explored.

Sadie Whitelocks is a travel writer and photographer with the Daily Mail.

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River Cruise itinerary for A Voyage to Nagaland

A Voyage to Nagaland

Homalin - Kalewa

Save up to 10% and No Single Supplement on selected dates

7 nights

from US$3307.50
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River Cruise itinerary for A Voyage to Nagaland

Comments

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Patsy Evans posted in Apr 2018

I did Pandaw tour Homalin down the Chindwin River in September last and Ronald was our guide - he was absolutely fantastic and I hope I am on another trip with him as our guide.

 

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