Traffic jams are common in Myitkyina. Held up are usually goats, a market vendor carrying a basket of flip-flops on her head, a motorcyclist, perhaps a cow, and causing the standstill, a dog chowing down on its backside. Once the dog is sated, a local tells me, it retreats to a bush and life trundles on once more in the Kachin State capital.
The closest I came to such an obstruction during my two-night stay was walloping into a big ol’ billy on a rusted Chinese motorbike. But there is more to Myitkyina than crashing into livestock. Bucolic trails winding through ethnic villages in the countryside make for wonderful bike rides. Between the rolling hills is an urban diversity meshing happily in a big village setting. All the while, the yawning Ayeyarwady River lulls past stilted cafes on the beginning of its journey more than 2,000 kilometers south to the Andaman Sea.
Myitkyina, which means “by the big river” in Burmese, is not an obvious getaway. Media coverage of Kachin State rightly focuses on the thousands forced to flee their homes because of conflict between the Myanmar Army and Kachin rebels, whereas Myitkyina is relatively safe, a refuge for some who are escaping the violence in the mountains. Perhaps deterring visitors more is its remoteness: the train from Mandalay takes roughly 24 hours and bussing it from Yangon takes at least two nights. Domestic airline Air Mandalay cuts this time to a mere one and a half hours from Yangon. It is also comfortable and you get coffee and pastries en route.
After taking a morning flight, my friend and I headed downtown—about 20 minutes from the airport—where worshippers in a local mosque allowed us to climb the minaret. From this vantage point we scanned the central market, the monasteries, a church, a Hindu temple, and a garish new hotel. In the evening, as the sun slid beneath the lush riverbanks opposite the town, teenagers laid down a speaker on the promenade and body-popped to a remix of Kiesza’s Hideaway.
A stroll away was a young man strumming a guitar and locals practicing a traditional dance underneath a big tree, while somewhere else downtown, we were told, Sikhs were handing out free food. Instead we opted for the butter chicken at Namaste, an Indian restaurant nearby Hotel Madira. Settling into one of their spacious rooms, we plotted our plan for the following day.
After the hotel’s breakfast buffet of Myanmar traditional fare, we rented a motorbike from a local and visited Kiss Me, a riverside café proudly decorated with photos of Kachin State’s notorious jade mines. Like most places in Myitkyina, it is not hard to imagine some military intrigue brewing beneath the surface. One hundred meters from the café is a reclining Buddha donated by Japan in 2001 to mark the soldiers lost by both countries here during the Second World War. A plaque in both English and Japanese laments the conditions endured by the Japanese soldiers who faced Allied forces in Myitkyina. “A battle fought between human hands against steel clad warship,” read the plaque.
Exactly 74 years ago Myitkyina was “consumed by combat and artillery fire,” said a medic quoted in Donovan Webster’s The Burma Road who was at the two-month Allied siege. Chinese and American troops moved in on the town, as the Japanese’s desperate yet valiant defense culminated on August 1, 1944 with the suicide of Myitkyina’s commander Major General Mizukami, who ensured his uniformed corpse would face northeast toward Japan.
Lately one of the biggest outside influences on the town is Chinese investment. Amid an influx of developments, including golf courses, hotels, a cinema, and trendy bars, Myitkyina is slowly resembling more of a modern hub than the low-rise village of timber houses that the guide books paint it as. But one constant is the proud Kachin identity, symbolized by 12 large posts decorated with patterns and emblems in Myitkyina Park. This structure is called manau shadung and is the centerpiece of an annual Kachin festival that has animist roots but is still celebrated by the mostly Christian Kachin population.
Conveniently, it is on the way to Myitsone (or ‘Confluence’ in Burmese), about 45 kilometers north of Myitkyina, where the Mayhka (N’Mai) and Malikha rivers meet to create the Ayeyarwady River. Prepare for a rough stretch of road before the confluence, which has a few eateries and a pagoda on the bank. The languid vibe and pleasant scenery may not be enough to justify a visit, but the fact that it is the start point of such an iconic river makes it worthwhile, as does the journey there.
Underneath the misty mountains clad with forest are bamboo pylons and a few abandoned mines, some of which have been turned into cafes. It was near one that I crashed into the goat. Stop at Jaw Bum, a tower built in 1977 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Kachin Baptist Church. It commands a sweeping view of the region, but the caged macaques and toucan—the Kachin national symbol—by the entrance make for a depressing sight.
We spent the rest of the evening sampling local chicken curries and salsa at Jingpaw Thu (Jingpaw is the Kachin language), which offers the best of Kachin’s renowned and fiery cuisine. On the final evening we happily sipped beer at new fancy cocktail joint Ledo Bar, in no rush to return to Yangon: the friendliness of Myitkyina, and the sheer amount left to explore, meant we were sure to be visiting again soon.
Getting there: Air Mandalay flies from Yangon to Myitkyina and back every morning for 113,000 kyats (about US$77) for locals and $128 for foreigners. From Myitkyina, take a taxi to the lake for about 90,000 kyats. Alternatively, take a train from Myitkyina to Hopin and then take a taxi or motorbike the rest of the way.
Staying: Hotel Madira is one of the most comfortable properties in the city, with large rooms, helpful staff and a good breakfast buffet. Visit hotelmadira.com.