January 4, 2014
Mawlaik is a close-knit village 10,000 strong in the township of Mawlaik which has only 100,000 inhabitants. It was the center for British teak logging in the 20th century.
Given the bridge to Mawlaik from Kalewa was severed by monsoon rains and earthquakes and the road to Homalin is almost a two day ride away, most people reach Mawlaik by boat.
When traveling to remote areas, it helps to visualize the arrival point. Mawlaik is located at the top of a steep sandstone bank. I was happy to pay $0.50 to have a porter haul my bag up that hill.
During the monsoon, the Chindwin River swells, flooding launching areas that are inaccessible during the dry season.
At one time they had established docking facilities, but the banks were continually eroded away by monsoon rains and the locals dredged sand for construction. The slope became inaccessible.
- Mawlaik is a village that works together. At the top of the eroded bank the road had crumbled. So a new road had to be built. The women worked side-by-side with the men, laying the gravel bedding while the men used a portable cement mixer to prepare the concrete, and then leveled the grade. All of this was completed by hand.
Next to the construction site was a permanent water station, much like our drinking fountains. These water posts, maintained by the locals, are found throughout Myanmar. This simple act of generosity exemplifies the kind of people you find in Myanmar.
- So how does one get to know a small village like Mawlaik? A good place to start is at the local tea house.
Meat is scarce along the river. But soups are offered morning, noon and night. Personally, I did not like their traditional morning fish soup, but don’t miss their fried tofu paddies.
Most of their food is fried in oil, which can be a fire risk.
There is plenty of bottled water or tea for when you’re thirsty. Unfortunately, most women don’t drink beer. So I got a few questioning looks when I ignored that custom. Other than administrative buildings, there are no restaurants or other reminders to show travelers this town had been under British rule.
- After the British left, the people continued to work in the teak industry. They implemented many of the British forestry practices.
- Locals work in the lumber mill across the river. They drive the river rafts that transport logs weighing up to 300 tonnes downstream.
Some grade the lumber before sending it to market. Others represent the government, and ensure that the logs traveling down the river are permitted and not stolen.
- In addition to teak logging, villagers from neighboring settlements work the land and bring their goods to the local market in Mawlaik.
- Bamboo, gold, natural gas, tea and betel nut are other local cash crops.
A woman I met on the boat, sold enough betel nuts to villages along the Chindwin, to support her entire family, and she put her two children through higher education. I couldn’t understand a word she said in Burmese. But what ever it was, she talked non-stop for three hours straight. I think it was the betel nut talking for her.
- Needless to say, betel nut is the preferred stimulant in Myanmar as opposed to cigarettes. It stains the teeth red; vampire red. But no one seems to notice.
In each village, the locals support the Buddhist monks. Every morning, the monks walk from house to house with their eating utensils in hand, knowing locals will fill their bowls. Some monks push carts throughout town, collecting from restaurants and businesses, to feed those that cannot go out on their own.
Life is simple in Mawlaik. Homes are usually made of wood with open-air windows. Most walk or ride bicycles.
- There are a few guesthouses for travelers, usually filled with geologists exploring the land for oil and minerals.
- The guest house where I stayed was across the street from the police station. I found I was treated kindly if I reported my presence upon arrival.
- Once it was know an English speaking tourist had arrived, the locals sent me to U Thant Zin, a 75 year old elder.
- Education is mandatory in Myanmar to the age of nine. Yet there is so much more to learn. U Thant Zin has taken it upon himself to teach English. He is also the local historian, passing down tales from the past to his students.
- One of his stories includes the 1944 Battle at Imphal. The Japanese stormed Mawlaik after crossing the Chindwin. Then they marched through the mountains bordering India and Burma to Imphal, the China-Burma-India (CBI) headquarters for the British during WWII. The Japansese lost at Imphal and had to retreat. The Japanese who were injured or sick with malaria and typhus were abandoned in Mawlaik. Those men committed suicide in the local Forestry office. U Thant Zin joked that given the shortage of balls after the war, the Japanese heads were later used by the children as futballs (soccer).
With all the unexplored wilderness and resources Myanmar has to offer, there’s no doubt that the villages along the Chindwin will host more and more tourists in the future.
- When they arrive, U Thant Zin’s students will be there to carry on his tradition.
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