There is only one place in the whole of South East Asia, where one can see snow-capped mountains and, if you fancy, actually go and climb them. That region also has the undisputed tallest mountain in South East Asia, named Khaka Bo Razi, at the eastern front of the Himalayan mountain range, standing majestically tall at 19,296 ft. To experience all these, you have to travel to Putao (pronounced ‘Pu-ta-oh’), the northern most town in Myanmar, situated within Kachin State.
Even if you are not adventurous enough to undertake some arduous mountain climbing or rafting in the famous Malikha River, there are still aplenty to do in this unique town. If one is visiting Putao for the first time, a 4D3N trip would be sufficient to cover major sites, activities and a bit of trekking.
Flight to Putao
The trip started with booking our flights from Yangon. Three airlines, Golden Myanmar, Myanmar National Airways and Yangon Airways, fly to Putao, all with stopovers in either Mandalay or Myit-kyi-na (capital of Kachin State), or both. The flights are not everyday, so it would be wise to book the return tickets in advance too. The flight that we took, Golden Myanmar, e.g., only has flights from Monday to Thursday. For locals it costs 290,000 Kyats per person for a return ticket. For foreigners, the fare is around $300. Do not expect the flight food to be fantastic. There are no other classes, except economy on all flights. All Myanmar domestic flights are infamous for not being on time and our flight to Putao was of no exception. Our flight was delayed for an hour for departure, both on outbound and return trips. Other than flight route, there is not much of a practical alternative, as the road from Myit-kyi-na to Putao is really not much of a road and the river route is also treacherous in many parts. Accommodation Being a place less travelled, accommodation choices are limited in Putao. The first one is the high end Malikha Lodge, owned by Myanmar tycoon Tayza and his Htoo Group. This hotel only has bungalows as accommodation. The hotel compound is well maintained with stunning views of the famous Malashidi River and some snow-covered mountains. Each bungalow suit is self-contained with a living room, bath tub, viewing area and a small garden. The other two hotels are Putao Hotel and Putao Trekking House. Both offer decent accommodation, equivalent of a typical three star hotel. Electricity supply is limited, as Putao does not have an electricity supply. The hotels use generators; the supply hours are limited to a couple of hours in the morning and another four hours or so in the evening. This can be particularly troublesome in winter months, as the heater cannot be turned on for the whole night. Temperatures can drop as low as the freezing point in the winter.
Day 1 Our flight that left RGN (Yangon Airport) at 11:00 landed in PBU (Putao Airport) at about 16:00. Along the route, we first landed in Mandalay where some of the passengers alighted and the plane was refueled. The transit lasted for about half hour. The second transit point is in Myit-kyi-na but the transit time was a brief fifteen minutes.
We were treated snacks and drinks three times, but all tasted awful. I strongly suggest packing your own lunch or not eating on the plane at all. Putao airport was a single storey building. The airport tower has only the height of a two-storey house. As usual, once everyone gets out of the terminal, they started to switch on the mobile phones. In Putao, only Ooredoo lines has 3G service i.e., both calls and Internet. MPT service has no 3G, only calls. Telenor has no service at all in Putao.
The personnel from Putao Hotel picked us up. We headed strait to the hotel. For most parts of the day, Putao is covered in fog and mist, especially during cold season. Along the way, we observed the houses and other Putao building structures; architecture resembled those of the buildings and houses built during post independence era, around 1950s. Since hard wood is abundant around Putao, most of the houses are built with that. Reinforced concrete buildings are rare, as bricks are not locally made and expensive. Instead, they use beautiful pebbles, large and small, nicely arranged between cement to build walls and even houses.
Since it was getting dark and we were all tired from the ups and downs of flight, we decided to take a rest at hotel for the night. Being our first time in Putao and Kachin State, we decided to be adventurous for our dinner. The hotel food menu had some variety, so we decided to try mainly Kachin foods. Just a small word of caution; Kachin food is extremely spicy, even for a spicy food lover like myself. The temperature at night was around 5°C. It was the last week of the year.
Our actual day began with a nice hearty breakfast, comprising mainly of local dishes. We had ordered the items that we preferred the previous night. Putao has three main fruits produce; grape fruits, oranges and tangerines (locally known as king of fruits). Their grape fruit juice at breakfast time was especially nice, since it provided you with sufficient vitamin C for the day, helping you to withstand cold and wake up. From the hotel, we can see the first wave of mountains surrounding Putao region. We can see Shangaung Mountain (6400 ft) quite clearly from the hotel. To go trekking to most snow capped mountains, we have to pass by that mountain first.
We hired a local guide (Mr. Moe Hein), a trained mountaineer, for the rest of the trip. In day 2, we were planning to visit the most famous pagoda in Putao, do some sightseeing and go rafting down the famous Malikha River.
From the hotel, we headed to Airport morning market, to buy some more clothing and mackintoshes we might need for the river rafting later in the day. The products there are almost all from China. The sellers there are mainly from Lisu ethnic tribe.
After the market visit, we headed to the town of Ma Chan Baw. Putao town itself is at the center of Putao Plains. It is like being at the center of a bicycle wheel. The nearby towns and villages are at the end of each spokes of the wheel. The road trip to Ma Chan Baw lasted about half hour. The sky was still foggy and misty to see anything far away.
The famous pagoda of Putao, Kau Mu Lon, is in the town of Ma Chan Baw. The pagoda was built by the late Burmese King Ar Thaw Ka Raza. He was the same King who built the famous Shwe See Gone Pagoda in the ancient city of Bagan and the world renowned Shwe Da Gone Pagoda in Yangon. Legend has it that, if you managed to pray at all the three Pagodas in the same month, whatever you wish may come true. At the Ma Chan Baw entrance, we needed to cross a bridge over the Malikha River. The river waters were so pristine that we can see the bottom of the river from the top of the bridge. The Kau Mu Lon Pagoda was situated just next to the river.
Thereafter, we visited some fruits farms, where we could simply pluck any of the fruit we like and ate it fresh right there. We headed to Ma Chan Baw market for lunch and ate the local noodles. The weather was getting quite chilly by then and we all decided to buy caps and gloves at the market. The items were all very reasonably priced.
With our stomachs filled up, we headed towards the last leg of our Day 2, the much anticipated Malikha River rafting. You could select the duration of the rafting you wanted to do. We decided to do rafting for two hours. We headed to the drop off point, where the local boatmen await. Our driver and guide followed us in a separated motorized sampan and five of us with two boatmen were in a dinghy that fit in about eight people, ready for rafting.
The rafting difficulty can be rated as easy to medium. We only encountered three rapids along the river. You will definitely get soaked in all the rapids. Along the river, we came across many bird species that we have not seen before, experienced serenity of unspoiled nature and team spirit that came from synchronized rowing of the dinghy. It would be advisable to bring along, if not buy, a bottle of whisky or cognac, as it will definitely warm you up against the winter chill and the wetness. Surprisingly, at these near freezing temperatures, we could see local kids and fishermen, in skimpy clothing, some even taking bath in the river.
The end point of the rafting was the fairy island (an actual island in the river) about five miles down the river from our starting point. We had lunch, packed by the hotel, on the island. After lunch, we returned to our starting point on motorized sampans. Some of us were actually shaking from a combination of cold and wetness. The rafting was actually a good physical exercise in teamwork for city dwellers like ourselves. The rafting itself cost us five laks, but it was the money well spent.
We changed our wet clothes in a shop house near the start point and headed back to the hotel. Along the way back, as the sun began to set, the skies became clear of clouds and mist and we began to see the real beauty of Putao
Super majestic snow capped mountains appeared out of nowhere, surrounding the Plains in almost every direction that we look. We took many photos and had this proud and nationalistic feeling of having these picturesque places in Myanmar. We also stopped at the plains where the cows graze, as our guide suggested; it seemed to be the best place for photo taking, against the backdrop of the mountains. We got wiser on the second day with regards to dinner choices. We decided not to order anything spicy. There was one dish that we ordered almost everyday, scrambled eggs with onions, which was actually a favorite of everyone