The town itself is not exactly a busling metropolis. Internet and phones don’t work here, making it an attractive place to be if you want to disconnect for a while.
The modest central market offers excellent hole in the wall restaurants that serve up noodle soup at K500 a pop. This makes an ideal spot to people watch as Lisu and Rawang strut past in their colourful comfy clothing. Members of these ethnic groups form the majority of the population here, with the Bamar minority mostly working in the civil service.
Putao feels like a world away from the rest of Myanmar and unfortunately at times, when the authorities continue to be stuck in some of their old-junta ways, a couple of decades away. The nine government offices are all rather interested in those who visit the area and you’ll need permits to visit other villages in the valley.
Though it is possible to sneak out on the back of motorbike, permission is an absolute must if you want to enjoy a hike into the mountains, Putao’s real star attraction.
For now, the government has dreamed up other ways of boosting Putao’s economy. In 2014 the runway of Putao airport was extended so that in the future, it might welcome jet planes. That said; the ramshackle terminal building continues to resembles a cow shed. Redevelopment of road travel to Putao will rely on the signing of the nationwide peace accord. The existing road that links Myitkyina and Putao was severely damaged during battles between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army.
The Ministry of Hotel and Tourism’s Master Plan designates this area as a ‘hotel zone’ and the prospect of tourists flocking to Northern Kachin State has led to widespread alleged land grabs and an explosion in land prices.
Whether the days of the upscale eco-tourist finding themselves in Putao are upon us remains to be seen. For now; lodging is limited, prices are high and Putao is hard to reach.
But for those seeking an escape from modern life to indulge in Myanmar’s prime natural beauty, Putao is definitely worth the long flight and any discomfort.
How to get there
Air Bagan and Golden Myanmar Airlines both fly to Putao several times a week. All flights from Yangon stop in Mandalay and Myitkyina.
Where to stay?
There are four hotels and guesthouses in Putao. While Tay Za’s posh Malikha Lodge is hardly affordable, Putao Trekking House offers pleasant rooms at about US $100 a night. Kham Su Ko and Ice Mountain Guesthouse both offer clean, simple rooms available at K40,000.
This Article first appeared in the January 15, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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