On the road in Kachin State, Myanmar

One of South East Asia's largest lakes, in a war-torn border state, is not the easiest to get to
Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital on the Ayeyarwady's west bank, means "near the big river". More than a few people asked what I was doing there.

Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital, is all dust devils and mobile phone shops. It’s small town that goes to bed early, and it’s easy to forget that you’re not at the edge of the known frontier, but on the threshold to China, Myanmar's largest trading partner. But all the signs are of a border town are there, if you're looking: heavy construction equipment, most of it in transit, too many young men with nothing to do in the middle of the day.

 

On my visit, the northwest road to Hpakant – where in a few months a pair of landslides at military-owned jade mines would claim nearly 150 lives – was closed. The river route south to Bhamao, Kachin’s second city, was also a no-go: the Kachin Independence Army was camped nearby, in the more recent development of a decades-long conflict. We were also warned to steer clear o local opium farms, where farmers broker an uneasy peace paying taxes to both military and rebels. Instead, we took a battered train south and west, to Hopin, then a pair of motorbikes over a mountain pass to Indawgyi Lake.

The largest inland body of water in Myanmar, and among the largest in Southeast Asia, Indawgyi still a fairly self-selecting tourist destination. There is little to be found in the way of amenities; there is a single hostel in town, where you pay what you’re told to (or sleep in the military barracks down the road). The lake was named one of Myanmar's few environmental reserves in 1999, and one hopes the designation means something for its protection. There are a few motorboats that will offer tours of the lake, and there are kayaks or bicycles for rent to explore a few villages nearby; residents may not be surprised to see tourists, but neither will run out to offer trinkets. For the most part, nature seems to be pursuing it’s own ends, and that's the real attraction. All of which is to say: go, now, before the tour buses do.