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Myanmar's forgotten Naga

  • Written by  Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent
  • Published in Cultures
A Konyak Naga woman makes a traditional bead necklace A Konyak Naga woman makes a traditional bead necklace
16 Sep
Former headhunters engaged in a decades-long struggle for independence, the Naga tribes live in remote mountains on the Indo-Myanmar border. Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent travels to Myanmar’s Naga Self-Administered Zone as part of a two-month expedition across the Naga Hills 

Naga map
Distance travelled: About 500 miles to and from Hkamti
Time taken: 12 days
Transportation: Foot and 125 cc local motorcycle
Start point: Hkamti, Myanmar
Team size: Four: Antonia, a Burmese guide and two local 'bike boys'

Essential item: My Therm-A-Rest Hyperion 32 UL sleeping bag and NeoAir UberLite mat, an ultra-light sleeping system ideal for the chilly nighttime temperatures of the hills.
Surprising moment: The Naga rebel commander taking such an interest in my sleeping gear. I went to sleep that night wondering if I was going to be held up at gunpoint… for my sleeping mat!

The rebel commander sits on a low stool beside the fire, his face framed by a khaki baseball cap. ‘There are 200 Burmese soldiers patrolling the border at the moment, checking the boundary markers and looking for insurgents,’ he says, fiddling with his walkie talkie. Above him, a rack of rifles glints in the firelight and an old headhunting basket gathers dust. ‘We’ve heard they’re coming here tomorrow. If they do, you’ll have to hide.’ In the background, the other men talk and smoke opium, the gurgle of their pipes mixing with the twilight clatter of insects.

I am speaking to the commander in a village high in the jungle-soaked mountains of Myanmar’s Naga Self-Administered Zone. Home to 120,000 Naga – a Tibeto-Burman people made up of more than 40 tribes – this forbidding land forms the jagged spine of the Indo-Myanmar border, its densely packed peaks piercing the skies between the Brahmaputra and Chindwin rivers. 

While much has been written about the Naga tribes in India, Myanmar’s Naga are barely known. Their villages, and the mountains they perch on, have remained a rare blank space on the map – ungoogleable, uncharted and far, far away from the pages of any guide book. Which is exactly why I want to go.

My journey into the hills begins with a two-day ferry ride up the Chindwin, the narrow wooden boat sputtering past thick jungle and stilted Shan villages. In Hkamti, an old Chinese trading post on the river’s northern reaches, I meet up with Juu, a licensed guide from Yangon. As Burmese law forbids foreigners from travelling without a guide here, or having their own motorbike, we hire two local ‘bike boys’, loading up their 125 cc motorbikes with supplies for the coming weeks. Squeezing between my rider – a garrulous young Naga called Man Htaung – a sack of cauliflower and a box of motorbike spares, I steel myself for a bone-juddering few weeks.

In Lahe, the first Naga settlement north of Hkamti, we face our first obstacle: immigration. Technically, as a foreigner, I can’t leave Lahe on the back of a motorbike. Nor can I travel beyond the two nearest villages. And if I do stay in one of those villages, it has to be at a government-approved house. The most interesting villages, high in the mountains on the Indian border, are off-limits to outsiders. But we are travelling by bike and have no intention of sticking to the rules. ‘Don’t worry, I know how to deal with immigration,’ winks Juu. As one of only a handful of Burmese guides who know the Naga Hills, I hope she is right. 

The following morning, we report to immigration on foot then pack up the bikes and speed out of town in a cloud of red dust. When I dare to look back half an hour later, Lahe has been swallowed by an ocean of emerald forest. All I can see is a crumpled quilt of mountains unfurling in all directions, the vivid green of the nearest bluffs smudging to a blue, supernal mist. 

Portrait of Naga man and childA Konyak Naga hunter wears a hat made of deer skin and boar’s tusks as well as a clouded leopard’s jawbone around his neck 

For two days, we zig-zag north towards the Indian border, bumping along narrow tracks whose surface has been gouged into peaks and ruts by the violence of the previous monsoon. Our first night is spent in a Naga village of the Lainung tribe, whose huts are folded into the seam of a valley between high walls of mountains. We’ve long passed the two villages foreigners are officially allowed to stay in, but the chief, an imposing octogenarian with blue lines tattooed down his chin, gives us permission to sleep in the simple wooden monastery. 

In the evening, around a fire in a smoke-filled hut, a hunter tells us he recently shot a bear, selling the bile to a trader in Lahe for the equivalent of £150. I’d heard similar stories over the border, where I’d met Naga who hunted bears and pangolins specifically for the Chinese market. North of here, the tracks become fainter, the mountains steeper, dense walls of jungle pressing in on all sides. Precipitous slopes plunge to shadowy valleys where I duck fronds of elephant grass and clouds of white butterflies. Often the slopes are so steep I slide off and jog behind the bike, conscious that if anything happens we are well and truly on our own. Lahe is the last place we had electricity, mobile phone signal, cars or shops. Out here there is nothing; just the odd shaggy village barnacled along the spine of a ridge.

Late one afternoon we reach a Naga village of the Konyak tribe, three miles from the Indian border. I spot it from a few miles away, that familiar sight of huts half sunk in a storm of palms and hillsides stripped by jhum – slash and burn – cultivation, like sheep half-shorn of their emerald fleece. A church steeple pokes above the trees, gilded by the last of the light.

On the edge of the village stands a stone inscribed with badly spelled English. It commemorates the 2,587 villagers who died of ‘unbearable plague and epidemic’ in the mid-1980s, at the same time as fighting between the Burmese Army and Naga rebels killed countless more. It is a sobering thought. Myanmar is full of rebel groups. The Naga are just one of the hundreds of ethnic minorities that live in the country, many of whom have been fighting for independence, or for more rights, for decades. Although the military junta that controlled the country from 1962 to 2011 is no longer officially in control, civil war is ongoing.

Man Htaung grew up here, so we stay with his cousin, the pastor, a quiet, melancholy man who lost nine of his ten children to diarrhoea and ‘fever’. The hut is dark and thick with cobwebs; I sleep on a wooden platform beneath rows of smoke-blackened animal skulls. When I blow up my Therm-A-Rest and wriggle into my sleeping bag, the pastor looks on in amazement – never before has such luxury been seen in these parts.

Portrait 2The Angh, or king, of a Naga village home to the Konyak tribe

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The next morning I have an audience with the Angh, or king, in a large hut decorated with buffalo skulls, carved tigers and an Indian church calendar. An impish man with a Confucian face and a wispy beard, the Angh is formally dressed in a red embroidered waistcoat, a bear-fur hat and a pair of navy Calvin Klein shorts. Around his neck hangs the row of small bronze heads traditionally worn by Konyak headhunters. He greets me from his wooden throne beside the fi re, waving his hands to shush the huddle of grimy, opium-addled men who squat around the hearth.

I ask him about life on the border. ‘We knew nothing about the border until 1971, when the army came and put markers in the ground,’ he says. ‘But we are all Naga! Th e border means nothing!’ Th e villagers use Indian rupees, buy rice from a Konyak village across the border and send their children to study in India.

Even their religion is imported, brought here by Indian missionaries in the mid-1980s. ‘Th at was when we stopped headhunting and buried the village skull collection,’ says the Angh. Now the Konyak, a tribe once famed for its fi ghting prowess and arresting tattoos, are all Baptist, and men who sang lusty war songs sing ‘Praise the Lord!’ instead.

From here, the big question is whether we can go any further. Th e next villages border confl ict-riven Kachin state and are strictly off -limits to outsiders. ‘To get there we have to pass a Burmese Army post,’ says Juu, as we eat rice around the pastor’s fi re that evening. ‘If they catch us we’ll be in serious trouble.’ Whether that means a slap on the hand, prison or deportation, she isn’t clear. It is at this point that Man Htaung suggests we go and talk to his uncle, the local commander of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN-K), one of the main Naga rebel groups. Ten minutes later, we are sitting in his hut.

Myanmar's forgotten NagaCrossing one of the many rivers in the region

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Tales of the most recent insurgency have stalked my journey across the Naga Hills. Th e NSCN-K operates on both sides of the border and is said to have attacked an Indian Army post a few weeks ago. I know that many of their camps are hidden in this remote corner of Myanmar. There are so many things I want to ask the thin, intelligent-looking man opposite me, but instead I sit quietly while he and Man Htaung catch up on family matters.

After a while, their conversation becomes animated, the uncle eying me with interest. ‘What’s he saying? Does he think it’s okay to go on?’ I ask.

Man Htaung laughs. ‘No! I tell him about that blow- up thing you sleep on. He’s very interested. He says it would be good for his soldiers.’

My Therm-A-Rest aside, the commander goes on to tell us about the 200-strong Burmese army patrol. Yes we can go on, but we have to avoid the army. He doesn’t want to discuss the NSCN-K, but Man Htaung later tells me they are funded by the Chinese, and that his uncle is busy recruiting new cadres. ‘We want unity for the Naga,’ says Man Htaung, ‘we don’t want any borders.’

It is a heart-thudding ride north-east from here along the ridge of the Indian divide. We struggle up steep slopes and slide down to clattering rivers, the boys inching the wheels across slippery logs. Above us, mighty trees trail bearded creepers and bulbuls dart through the green. The only other people we see are two men walking barefoot to their fields, guns slung over bony shoulders – gaping as they spot my white skin. At the army post, a big yellow concrete building on a bluff , we race through the jungle on a hidden track, heads down, lashed by foliage. That night, we stay in a village that reeks of poverty and hardship. The dogs are starving. The children are fi lthy and bloated with malnutrition. Most of the young men have gone to work in jade mines near Hkamti. The chief, a kindly man with a thatch of grey hair, says the ground is too rocky to grow rice and they often experience food shortages. ‘We hunt and sell our opium to survive,’ he shrugs. Myanmar is the world’s second-largest opium-poppy grower, a sector fuelled by poverty and lack of development.

PoundingNaga women crush maize with heavy pestles

‘Th e Naga were lucky – other ethnic groups, like the Karen, were massacred by the Junta,’ Juu tells me later. ‘But the Naga had no gold or rubies. They were left to live like animals, with no help, but they were lucky.’

Walking around the village the next morning, trailed by a wake of ragged children, it’s hard to view these people as lucky. A group of hungry children try to dig a rat out from under a hut. Others, some no more than three years old, queue at a borehole, waiting to fi ll up old jerry cans with water. From every hut comes the rhythmic pounding of maize, the women hissing with eff ort every time they bring the heavy mortar down. A tiny, bent old woman asks us for medicine for a sprained wrist and when Juu finishes bandaging it, the woman presents her with an egg, the ultimate sign of respect. It is the last village we stay in, and the place I think about most.

Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent is a travel writer and broadcaster who specialises in solo journeys through remote regions. Her Naga expedition was funded by the Neville Shulman Challenge Award. To fi nd out more visit www.theitinerant.co.uk, @AntsBK. 

Subscribe to Geographical today for just £38 a year. Our monthly print magazine is packed full of cutting-edge stories and stunning photography, perfect for anyone fascinated by the world, its landscapes, people and cultures. From climate change and the environment, to scientific developments and global health, we cover a huge range of topics that span the globe. Plus, every issue includes book recommendations, infographics, maps and more!

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