The Book

Inside Pa-O Territory - Visiting Kak Ku and Indein

Kak Ku was still on my mind when I returned to Lake Inle a year later. But who could help me to get to the off-limits area? It would have to be someone who was not intimidated by the Burmese police and Military Intelligence and who at the same time would be acceptable to the Pa-O, especially to the Pa-O National Army that controlled the Kak Ku area. The most suitable guide would be a Pa-O. Needing a go-between to contact such a person, I thought of a young, English-speaking boatman, an Intha who last year had taken me to various places around the lake and with whom I had some frank discussions about Myanmar's political and social problems. Here was a person I felt I could trust.

When I asked him for assistance, he agreed immediately and seemed confident that arrangements could be made both for a visit to Kak Ku and a boat trip to Indein, the two most important historical and religious sites in the forbidden Pa-O territory. Within a day he had found a local Pa-O (the owner of a small retail store on Nyaungsshwe's main street) who was willing to be my guide to Kak Ku, if I could compensate him adequately in advance for the risks he would be taking. We would be accompanied by his cousin, who was to drive ahead of us on a motorcycle in order to warn us of any impending danger, such as an army patrol. In addition, he made it clear that any contact between the two of us should be avoided until the moment of departure, which was set for two days later at 4:30 in the morning. I sent him a hundred dollars through our intermediary.

That plan settled, I now turned my attention to the Indein boat trip, for which the Intha boatman would take responsibility. He would find out whether the water level of the Nam Pilu River or one of its tributaries that flow down from the western mountain range to Lake Inle was still high enough to make a boat trip from Ywama, on the western shore, upstream to Indein's historical complex of monastery, temple, and a few hundred old stupas. Because Indein was a less sensitive and contested place than the area around Kak Ku, it might be possible to arrange this trip by direct contact with the Pa-O organization that owned and managed the Golden Island Cottages in the middle of the lake. The boatman would go out to the hotel and get the tribe's approval.

A SECRET JOURNEY TO KAK KU

On the appointed day I arose at 4:00 A.M., had a little cold breakfast that the hotel staff had prepared for me the evening before, and at 4:30 a dilapidated Toyota Corolla hatchback drove up to the main gate and out climbed my Pa-O guide, a man in his early forties who spoke only a few words of English, but just enough to communicate. A burly fellow with a hoarse voice, he wore a dark longyi, a black leather jacket over a white shirt, and sandals. His name was Khun Maung Thar. I would find him to be kind, genial, and a helpful travel companion and effective coconspirator. He had brought along a cousin who would ride in the car with us only as far as Taunggyi, where he had some business to conduct. I did not object to his "free" ride because I had experienced similar situations before. Whenever I hired a cab or rented a car or a boat for a day, the driver or boatman almost always brought along a "cousin," who was probably just a neighbor or a friend who wanted a free ride.

We met little traffic on the road from the lake to the railway town of Shwenyang, where we turned east on Highway No. 4, the main east-west route in southern Shan State, which connects Thazi with Taunggyi and ultimately with Kyaing Tong (Kentung). The traffic we did encounter in those early morning hours was mainly large, overloaded trucks that strained through the curves on the steepening road that would take us from the three-thousand-foot level (nine hundred meters) of the lake district to the forty-six-hundred-foot altitude (fourteen hundred meters) of Taunggyi. I felt relief at not being behind the wheel because some vehicles, especially those that showed no lights, or only one light, were invisible until the very last moment. And the ones that did show their lights usually did not dim them for oncoming traffic. I should point out, though, that on the whole Burmese drivers are among the most considerate anywhere. For example, on narrow roads, such as the one we were on, oncoming trucks pull over, slow down, or even stop in order to let another vehicle pass; however, when it is nighttime, sometimes the way drivers of slow-moving vehicles communicate they are going to let someone pass is a little unnerving: they stop and turn off all their lights!


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