Travel Sector Updates

JOURNEY TO THE NORTHWEST: UPCOUNTRY ROAD TRIP CAR RALLY IN SAGAING REGION DAY - 3

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Photo - Aung Phay Kyi Soe

With an aim to promote and advertise the tourism industry and explore new destinations in Sagaing Region, a seven-night, eight-day road trip of a 12-car rally commenced on January 20 in Sagaing, upcountry in Myanmar jointly organized by Sagaing Region Government and Myanmar Heritage Trail Tourism Rally(MHTTR). My Magical Myanmar’s senior writer Aung Phay Kyi Soe was with the rally team and is covering the road trip.

Day-3


A city of famous authors, a death-defying mountain drive and the best traditional pork curry –  all on the third day of our road trip through Kadu and Kanan Regions  

The city was wearing a thick fog blanket while the sun was nowhere to be seen.

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It was around 6 o’clock in the morning, I enjoyed the view of the city from the top floor of Sein Hotel in Katha after breakfast. In the streets and alleys of the city, people are donating alms to the monks pacing slowly and gently in a queue. For the residents, this is a view to they are always happy to see. There sit handsome colonial era buildings—still in use as government offices. And there runs the Ayeyarwady River in whose river bed—people believe—lay over 200 ships including those of the Irrawaddy Flotilla blown up in 1942.

Visitors to Katha always try to pay visit to the places described in George Orwell’s famous novel ‘Burmese Days’. Moreover, Katha is a city where famous Burmese writers settled—namely Shwe U Daung and Thawdar Swe.            

George Orwell’s house is the most famous. He lived in that house when he served as an officer of the British Imperial Police Force. His house is now a lodging of local police chief. 
 Our road trip group left Sein Hotel at 8:15am and stopped near Katha jetty where we took group photos. Then we headed to Orwell’s house. Until 2013, people including international media outlets mistook the town inspector’s house as Orwell’s. The light on Orwell’s real house shined only when checked with old town map in colonial era, Ko Nyo Ko Naing, the local writer who studied colonial buildings and history, told us in detail.            
Almost 90 percent of tourists visit Orwell’s house and continue their journey to Natpauk elephant camp, he added. It is said to have asked for help from Yangon Heritage Trust, a Yangon based organization led by U Thant Myint Oo, grandson of late UN general secretary U Thant, to conserve the house as a historical heritage. 
‘‘These houses around Katha were built in 1886,’’ Ko Nyo Ko Naing added. At 10 o’clock, we left for Natpauk elephant camp, 10 miles from Katha. Around three miles from the entrance elephants had soiled the road. When we arrived at the camp, we walked around sight-seeing.            

Natpauk elephant camped was established around 2000, but gained popularity only in 2009. When foreign visitors who come up along the Ayeyarwaddy River from Mandalay to Bamaw to visit Katha they and sometimes extended their trip to the elephant camp. The camp is situated in Phatsou preserved forest in Indaw Township, Sagaing Region. It has 19 elephant calfs.
 ‘‘This camp is one of the elephant conservation-based tourism sites. We want tourism in Katha and Indaw. Our goal of establishing this camp includes raising awareness among local people,’’ Dr. Htoo Htoo Aung, who leads the camp, told My Magical Myanmar.            

Visitors to the camp can have fun riding on the elephant’s back and enjoy the scenery as well as feeding the elephants, washing them or watching them paying homage or playing with logs. 
The entrance fee is K1,000 for Myanmar citizens and K20,000 for foreigners while the riding fee for a short trip is K3,000 for the locals and K20,000 for foreigners. The riding fee for a long ride is the same for both local and foreign visitors—K50,000.            

The camp received up to 1,733 visitors as of December 31, 2017 generating up to K7,007,000. Among 1,733 visitors, 275 were foreign visitors most of them were from Europe or the U.S. However, the revenue from visitors has not reached the record of K16 million seen in the 2015-2016 fiscal year. It may be because of the restrictions on foreigners visiting Katha and Banmauk.
‘‘Number of foreign visits to our area depends on the stability of the region. Even though this camp is in Katha District, number of foreigners to us would drop when there is fighting or tension around Myitkyina, Kachin State,’’ Dr. Htoo Htoo Aung explained.            

The camp has 128 elephants in total giving birth to five or seven cubs yearly, he added. It is one of the 21 Elephant Conservation Based Tourism sites across the country and stands as the 7th largest, he said. 
Members of our group fed the elephants and took photos. Some went for a short ride. Everyone felt fresh because of the connection to nature.  

The village making traditional instruments
           
Later that morning we continued our trip to Latpangone Village in Indaw Township. What makes the village interesting? They make traditional drums. At 11:30, we arrived at Sayar Pwe’s village—Latpangon. Villagers greeted us holding small flags and that amazed and surprised us. 
Sayar Pwe is gone. But U Kyaw Nyunt, his son, kept the traditional instrument-making business running. The business started out in 1971 and they make various kinds of traditional drums such as Sidawgyi, Shan Osi, Doepat and Shan Myaw. Drums by Sayar Pwe’s company are very popular in upper Myanmar because of their unique quality. ‘‘We make every kind of Myanmar traditional instrument. The business was passed down from Dad and I will pass it on to my three sons,’’ U Kyaw Nyunt said.            

He sells the instruments to the markets such as Monywa, Upper Myanmar, Moe Kaung, Moe Nyin and Bamaw and has the highest sales during the Burmese lunar months of Tabaung and Tagu—roughly the months of March and April. Some foreign visitors who love Myanmar instruments also pay visits to the village.
           

He uses wood from Gmelina Arborea, rain trees and mango trees and the skin of a cow or buffalo to make the traditional drum. The price varies depending on the size—from K2,000 to K 1,000,000.
 There sit the traditional drums, three feet in height and two feet in radius, at the entrance of U Kyaw Nyunt’s establishment. At the edge of the surface of the drums reads the sign ‘Saya Pwe-Indaw’ in white paint. On its body reads the sign ‘to send to Min Daing Bin, birth place of U Kaung, Kin Won Mayor’’ along with the time it takes to make the ‘Sidawgyi’ drum and price: 90 days and K650,000.            

When entering further, small replica of drums in the Myanmar traditional orchestra are displayed as well as the time it took to make it and its price. Our groups bought souvenirs and U Kyaw Nyunt also gifted one small replica of an Ozi drum per vehicle. 
We visited U Kyaw Nyunt’s workshop and took photos. He explained to us how the drums are made. First they take a log relevant to the size of the drum. Then they make a hole through the log after smoothening the outsides. Then the sides of these hollow logs are fitted with buffalo or cow skin. At 12 o’clock, we left Latpangone for our next village.  

Pork Stew – everyone’s favorite
We stopped at a place by Indawlay Lake near the Katha-Bamaw road for lunch. We ate our lunch enjoying the fresh air blowing across the lake. On the table various kinds of curry were prepared. Among them, the pork stew with generous helpings of meat was the most popular. It was cooked so well and tasted so good causing an even stronger appetite. It was a perfectly matched with tomato-ngapi curry—ngapi is a pungent paste made of either fish or shrimp. The dessert of orange, plum and ma-yway, puffed rice with palm sugar were served after lunch. Indawgyi Lake is the third biggest lake in Myanmar. It covers a huge area of 37,822 acres between the reserved forests of Auktaw, Phatsoup, Kaloneni and Taunglaytan and Gahe and Nantdayan public forests.            

There are many valuable trees such as teak, rosewood and other timber yielding trees growing in the forest around the lake which is rich in fish species such as sturgeon, carp, feather back, catfish, golden pike conger, short headed catfish, sheatfish, tilapia fish and other species.
Our fleet of cars left for Banmauk arriving at the city at 2pm. Locals were greeting us again waving flags. It took around 20 minutes to reach the community-based tourism area in Zalone Mountain, over 5 miles away from the city. We were greeted by local people again and checked our vehicles in preparation to drive up the mountain.            

To the top and back
         
It is exactly nine miles from the CBT site at the base to the mountain top. The road to the top was built by local people is quite steep. It was quite dangerous as they are soil roads and more importantly, they were wet. Anyone who has the experience of driving up steep mountain roads like this with crumbling ledges and blind curves would know how dangerous it would be. 
The authorities at the CBT, therefore, don’t allow any vehicles to drive up the mountain in their own cars. But they can drive up with prearranged vehicles such as Hilux, Volvo and Chevrolet provided by the authorities. For driving up this mountain, the engine power of the four wheel vehicles must be at least 2.8 or 3 CC.            

‘‘You need to know every turn and every slope to drive up the mountain. It doesn’t matter how good your vehicle is. The outsider wouldn’t know the sudden turns. Only those who are used to driving up the mountain will know,’’ U Sein Kyaw Oo, manager of Zalone Mountain CBT said.
We started driving up the mountain around 2pm. Out of our twelve vehicles, three vehicles had female drivers and one of them opted to have a local experienced driver take the vehicle to the top. The vehicles climbed up the mountain keeping a distance of around 50 feet between each in case of rolling back as the roads were so steep. Vehicles would take on particularly steep sections of the road one-by-one and wait for the others at the other side.            

In our group, one vehicle did roll backwards but thanks to the distance kept between vehicles nothing happened.
It felt like we were defying death, climbing up the steep slopes. Had something happened when climbing or driving, I was afraid to imagine what would happen. It was exciting to look for the pagoda while rolling up and down the slopes and taking on death-defying hairpin turns but our driver U Htin Lin Aung was as calm as if he was driving on perfectly flat land. His calmness and skills rested our worrying souls.            

‘‘I drove very carefully because if my car rolled back, something unimaginable would happen but I believed in myself and I made it!’’ Ma Su Mon, one of the female drivers, told My Magical Myanmar.
She is an experienced driver who participated four times in road trips organized by Myanmar Tourism Promotion. We made it to Tebinbyant—a flat area to stop at—around 2.50pm and waited for the rest to catch up while checking the cars. We took the time to appreciate the breath-taking scenery too—above us Zalone Taung Pagoda stood on the top of the mountain.  We continued our climb to the pagoda at the peak.            

We reached at the pagoda around 3.15pm and climbed the pagoda on foot. It is said that Lord Gottama Buddha prophesied that Maitreya Buddha would reveal the noble truth there.
Zalone Mountain colored in black sits at 3,090 feet above the sea level. The smooth rock mountain lay distinctly jutting above the wild surrounds. A concrete staircase is built from the base to the top and a steel railing is installed on both sides. The stair case gets narrower and narrower as it approaches the top.            

There is a narrow place between the two big rocks—so narrow that pilgrims to the pagoda and from the pagoda must take turns to pass through it. The platform of the pagoda is only 20 feet wide on the mountain ledge so caution is advised.
Around 4.15pm, we climbed down to Tebinbyant to enjoy the scenery—the gilded pagoda with a backdrop of a beautiful sunset. The drivers watered down the tires of the vehicles to bring down the temperature after that. We left for the CBT site at the base around 5pm.            

The organizers ushered us to the traditional Kadu huts. Mobile phone signals dropped for some time although MPT was almost always reliable. As the dark grew so did the cold. It was too cold to take showers – around 5 to 10
°C.  Local people made fires here and there for us strangers to warm ourselves. Thankfully, the huts on the CBT site have electricity and a modern toilet.
At the request from the monk named Ve. Kettisara, the group opened the traditional Kadu showroom where Kadu traditional costumes, household properties, palm leaves once used as writing paper, trays used for panning gold, kitchen utensils, daung lang — a big circular tray on a stand — and other items were displayed.

Dinner is served – traditional Kadu curry

Then we arrived at the place where we would be served dinner. Tables for dinner were well prepared and what was interesting were the seats – they are cut logs at the height of chairs. Behind the tables and chairs gathered local people to perform traditional Kadu and Shanni dances. Organizers made a big wood fire to warm us. The stage was a leveled hillock covered with tarpaulin. Traditional dancers started dancing and singing as soon as we began our dinner. They had been preparing for this performance for about a month.            

Let me introduce Kadu traditional cuisines to you. Rice is placed on teak leaves in bamboo trays which are a bit bigger than normal plates. On the rice they placed two fried fish, a piece of fried chicken, pounded roselle buds and radish bud curry. Moss soup, pickled fish, tomato-ngapi curry, chicken and snail soup, chicken curry and lettuce were served on the table. It was a feast!
We ate a lot, maybe because we had had a very long day or maybe because the food was so good—but I am sure because of both. It was a very delicious combination to pour moss soup on sticky rice and have it with pounded-roselle buds and fried fish. After finishing up dinner and enjoying traditional performances, the group donated K4 million for the event, K500,000 for Shan traditional dancers and another K500,000 for Kadu traditional dancers through U Kettisara. Then we rested at the Kadu traditional huts. It was so cold that everyone—even those who love the cold—had to use sleeping bags.            

If you want to visit Zalone Mountain, there are two bus lines, Aung Naing Thu and Aung Yadanar, with offices located between 87th and 23rd Street in Mandalay. They leave Mandalay at 4pm daily arriving in Banmauk at 5 or 6am. Bus tickets are K12,000. Another option is to take a mini-van which costs K13,000 per ticket and they leave at 7am arriving at 5 or 6 pm.
           

There is no connecting bus from Banmauk to the Zalone CBT site bBut as cars for climbing Zalone Mountain always go back to Banmauk, you can ask for a lift to the CBT at Kayuak Taing square. Another option is to hire motorcycle taxi which costs K5,000. The bus fee for climbing the mountain is K6,000 per round trip. There are hotels and motels in Banmauk with prices ranging from K5,000 to K20,000.

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Aung Phay Kyi Soe is a Journalist who worked as Culture, Tourism, Environment and Health Reporter for five years at The Messenger, The Trade Times,DEMOCRACY Today, The Voice and Mawkun In-Depth and Investigative Magazine. He won the Best Feature Award for Climate Change Reporting supported by UN-Habitat and organized by Myanmar Journalism Institute.

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