Follow petcha on Twitter
Amazon Associate

If you see books or music or tools on this site that you would like to buy through Amazon, click here and thus i have seen will get a small percentage of the purchase price of the item. Thank you. 

The Elements of Typographic Style

Patagonia Synchilla Snap-T Pullover

Minding the Earth, Mending the Word: Zen and the Art of Planetary Crisis

North Face Base Camp Duffel (Medium)




Mostly unedited entries from a journal I kept during the Hukaung Valley Rattan Survey (see Hukaung Valley Rattan Survey and HKV Rattan Survey.pdf). [NOTE: To read chronologically, start at the bottom with the January 04, 2005 post.]


January 14, 2005

Shimbweyeng Guest House, 4:00 PM

Two firsts today.  We did our first transect plots, and I took a freezing cold splash bath out of the tank behind my room. Also shaved. Feel like a new person, and very much at home in my corner room which has now taken on a bit of my personality with all of my stuff strewn around.

The day started with a delicious bowl of noodles from the restaurant down the street. As we were leaving the restaurant, the young woman who so kindly and efficiently waited on us came running out and told Saw Lwin that the American had forgotten something on the table. On inquiring what it was, she held up my used Twining's English Breakfast tea bag.

We then walked down to where the gold mining was taking place (see Hukaung Gold Mines).  What a disaster. The whole area, around 10 or 15 hectares, was completely denuded with huge craters that they were washing and then sifting to separate out the flakes of gold. The holes were maybe 20 meters deep. When they finished working one area, they moved to another where they cut down all of the trees and washed away all of the soil. Myint Maung says that they are supposed to reforest the area before they leave, but in practice that never happens. It should be noted that the whole mining operation is inside the Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve. The only redeeming feature was the new species of Calamus (Calamus hukaungensis Henderson) that Andrew spotted along the edge of the forest.  Near the gold mining operation was an old airstrip built by the Allies during World War II.  It was still in operation.

After pressing the mornings collections, we walked about half a mile down the road and entered the forest to start our transect. After explaining the concept of what we were trying to do and showing everyone how to use a compass, we started our first plot in a forest loaded with palms. Not only was the forest loaded with palms, it was also loaded with the rusting carcasses of jeeps, oil cans, metal sheets, and other assorted miscellanea of Ledo Road vintage.

I am sitting by the front door of the guesthouse writing this by the last daylight. Rather than eating out tonight, our cooks are preparing dinner here. It will certainly be more convenient, but I will miss the evening stroll to the restaurant and the opportunity to observe village nightlife. The cooks prepared us a wonderful lunch today, each member of the crew with his own Tupperware container (see Picnic at Transect 3) with four compartments: 2/4 with white rice, 1/4 with an omelet type thing, and 1/4 with tofu smothered in painfully hot chili sauce. It was delicious.

Fieldwork in Myanmar is one of the best kept secrets in tropical ecology.  Andrew and I are collecting rattans in sweaters. There are no bugs. No blazing sun, and, to date, no rain (I shouldn't say this...). And, most importantly, forests filled with rattan and wonderful local collaborators.



January 13, 2005

Tanai Guesthouse, 9:00 AM

Have finished breakfast, a delicious roti canai with chickpeas, and we are now loading up the truck for the trip to Shimbweyeng.  Battered, blue Toyota pick-up with the back modified with seats for sixteen people and room for luggage underneath. Huge knobby tires, roof rack, a spare tire on each side, protective grill and armor plates on the front.  The classic monster truck. We will all cram into this vehicle with our luggage and travel northward for about four hours, stopping occasionally when we see rattans to collect.

Went to the market (see Shopping for Supplies) early this morning with Saw Lwin so he could buy some socks. The image of indigenous Kachin women in ethinc dress sitting behind a cloth laid out with fresh chilis, long beans, onions, and leafy vegetables in the morning fog was enchanting. A young, shaved-head monk in safron robes walks slowly down the street hitting a chime. He is followed by his fellow monks with their begging bowls out looking for breakfast. The fog is slowly lifting as the sun moves higher in the sky.

Shimbweyeng restaurant, 1:23 PM (N26˚41', E96˚12')

I am sitting in a rather noisy restaurant in Shimbweyeng after 7 grueling hours on what is left of the Ledo Road. Our truck performed nobly. We were able to maintain a velocity of about 15 miles/hour in between getting stuck, getting unstuck, stopping to put the hubs in 4-wheel drive, struggling to get the clutch to work so that the driver could use second gear, or everybody piling out to collect a palm that Andrew spotted along the side of the road. I started the journey in the front seat between Andrew and the driver, but after about three hours of moving my cramped leg every time the driver needed to shift gears (which was a lot), I climbed into the back with everybody else.  I stood up looking over the cab of the truck for the rest of the trip with the wind blowing in my face and checking out the beautiful scenery or either side of the road for spiny, climbing palms. For most of the journey the road was winding through closed forest that came up right next to the road.  Five hours of forest.

The most exciting parts were when we had to cross the rivers (see Hukaung Valley Rattan Survey). The original Ledo Road had bridges, but most of them rusted out years ago. In one spectacular crossing, we all had to stand in the back because the water was about four feet deep. The had rigged a special tube on the exhaust to keep it out of the water so that the motor would keep running.  I was hoping that the water wouldn't enter the back of the truck where the baggage was because my bag was on the bottom. [NOTE: It didn't - too much]. The last couple of hours of the trip we were driving through the foothills of the Himalayas. Closed forest on either side of the road and mist-covered forest up ahead.  We tried to avoid stopping the driver to make collections, but we did manage to grab to new species of Calamus, both of them new records for Myanmar.  As always, we arrived late to the village and after checking in to the little guest house, we were again pressing plants by flashlight.

Shimbweyeng didn't have a guest house or a restaurant the first time Alan Rabinowitz came through here. In 2000, gold was discoved in the nearby hills (see Hukaung Gold Mines), and the village has been experiencing a boom. It still, however, has the feel of a small, remote village. Wooden houses with palm thatch roofs, lots of little kids, chickens, and goats running around, smiling Naga men in longyis and interesting hats (stocking hats, fedoras, Operation Desert Storm camouflage, and even the occasional NY Yankees baseball cap) and slender, slow-walking women with perfect posture and huge rattan baskets of firewood on their backs.

I think the plan is to spend a couple of days here. Use the guesthouse as a base camp and run transects and make collections first to the south and later northward in the mountains. I have a corner room in the back of the guesthouse with two windows, a table, and a huge bed with kapok mattress and mosquito net. It's only a short walk to the outhouse. 

I should mention that we are now a team of sixteen.  In addition to the original core group of seven, we have now contracted a cook, kitchen staff, and several field assistants.


January 12, 2005

Tanai Guesthouse, 6:57 AM

Am out on the front porch sitting on the steps. Have added another layer of shirts to fend off the morning chill. Tanai has long been awake. A loudspeaker from the local temple is broadcasting chants, one of the stores is playing Burmese pop music as a counterpoint to the chants, and the roar of a badly tuned tractor engine provides the final notes to the morning symphony.

A little boy in longyi, worn sweatshirt, and green stocking cap with tassles has taken an interest in what I am doing and is making shy, furtive glances my way. The ladies with baskets continue to stream down the road on their way to the market.  A lot of people are milling around, rubbing their hands together, slapping their sides, and trying to warm up. Many of them are in flip-flops. There are a lot of World War II vintage trucks here.

Restaurant in Tanai, 9:26 AM

We have just finished breakfast and are chatting with some colleagues from the University of Myitkyina Botany Department who are here with a crew from Myanmar 3 TV to film the Naga festival on the 15th in Shimbweyeng.  The Naga are the people who make the fantastic suspension bridges out of rattan. A lot of the breakfast conversation is focused on rattan, and we learn that rattan is used to make elephant bridles and to ward off evil spirits.

Breakfast was a diverse assortment of food with tea or instant coffee.  There was black sticky rice with curried peas, fried tofu, a shredded beef and onion salad, fried fish, and little fried balls of mashed beans. Myint Maung has gone to make a telephone call [NOTE: They have a satellite phone facility here and in Shimbweyeng, but you can only make calls inside of Myanmar], and we are waiting for him to return before we go to the market.

Tanai Guesthouse, 6:00 PM

I like the way that everything unfolds from the front porch of the guesthouse.  It's dusk and there is a thin band of color on the horizon; the moon is a perfect sliver. The trip to the market this morning was wonderful (see Shopping for Supplies).  Buying all of the supplies made me appreciate what an expedition this really is. It also made me appreciate how important markets are, any markets, but especially remote, small town markets. I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the market chains that brought sheets of plastic made in Korea, Chinese cigarettes, and palm oil from Indonesia to this small corner of northwestern Burma. You could buy almost anything in this market.  There was a meat section, a vegetable section, a dry goods section, a hardware section, a salt fish section, a flower section, a tool section, etc.  Like an open air WalMart.

After lunch we went to the forest around Tanai in a "tolagyi", one of those funny, Chinese tractor/trucks that is essentially an exposed tractor motor, a seat and steering wheel for the driver, and a pick-up bed in back (see Tolagyi Tour of Tanai). It is very bumpy and has a top speed of maybe 10 or 15 miles per hour. We collected two new species of rattan (I'll skip the details). On the ride back, we stopped at a house to buy some tangerines.  A young boy scampered out with a basket, climbed the tree,  and proceeded to fill it up with the biggest, most delicious tangerines that you can imagine. We bounced back to the guesthouse as the sun was setting over the Tanai (see Tanai), joking, and eating, and spitting out tangerine seeds. Plants were pressed again by flashlight on the porch.  The work went much faster now that everyone understands what is involved.

Tomorrow we head north to Shimbweyeng in four-wheel drive trucks with all our food and camping gear for a four week survey of local rattans.


January 11, 2005

Unnamed Guesthouse in Tanai, 6:03 PM (N25˚59', E96˚41')

We left Myitkyina about 9:30 AM in two old white Toyota stationwagons. Both vehicles had bald tires and a tape player. We checked out of the Aye Chan Tha Inn and paid our bill - $40 for Andrew and I and 40,000 kyat for the three other rooms. Essentially the same price, one foreigner room = three local rooms. Andrew has started measuring how much money he doles out in inches of bills. Much easier to keep track of.

Andrew, Saw Lwin, and I were in one car, and the rest of the team crammed into the other.  The journey started out on  a black-top, two-lane highway, and quickly degenerated to one lane, black-top road.  After about two hours we lost the pavement, and for the rest of the trip we were on dirt roads of varying degrees of bumpiness and slipperiness. The day was glorious.  Blue skies and temperatures in the 50's.

We stopped for lunch at about 12:30 in a town called Dumbang.  Burmese curries and a lot of dishes made from animal intestines.  I stuck with white rice and the occasional steamed vegetable. Throughout the whole meal the TV was blaring a Burmese sitcom of screaming kids, gongs, and cymbals, interspersed with Burmese dancing. I can't convey in words how loud the TV was.  Apparently Dumbang has reliable electricity 24 hours a day because a small hydroelectric generator was installed in the river. Loud TV all day long.

Shortly after lunch we entered a wildlife corridor in the Hukaung Reserve and the road started passing through several tracts of really nice forest. Andrew spotted a rattan and we stopped the car, grabbed a collection bag, and plunged into the forest. The forest was loaded with palms. [NOTE:  I resolve not to bore you with the tedious details of all the palms we collect, but if you will allow me this one time] We saw a beautiful Calamus guruba ("kyein ni", or red cane) with flowers, a Wellichia, and a very interesting Pinanga that Andrew has never seen before. We kept stopping the car, and although the drivers were very patient, it was clear that they wanted to get going so that we would arrive to Tanai before it got dark. We did arrive before dark, but just barely, and we were forced to press all of the stuff that we had collected by flashlight.

To paint the scene, most of the house in Tanai are made of plaited bamboo, on stilts, with either zinc or thatch roofs.  Most of the valley visible from the road is in rice fields, and there is a steady stream of bicyclists, and motorcyclists, and people with rice baskets walking along the road.  Most of the women have thanaka paste on their faces and some brightly colored cloth wrapped around their head.  Jewelry is a common fashion accent, as is the skirt with pants ensemble. Because of the cold in the evening, most of the men have on some sort of puffy coat - military surplus is quite common - and a wool cap. Everybody has those wonderful high cheekbones and is invariably smiling.

Two women with baskets just walked up to the Guesthouse where I am sitting on the front porch writing. Their baskets are loosely woven from bamboo and are big enough to hold several small children. They are barefoot, and have tied their shoes to the back of their baskets to keep them out of the mud.  It is starting to get dark.


January 10, 2005

Aye Chan Tha Inn, Restaurant, Myitkyina, 7:24 AM

Happy anniversary to Kachin State.  At night they turn the electricity off in the hotel, and trying to get to the bathroom is a real struggle if you have forgotten to unpack your flashlight. Came down for breakfast at about 6:00 AM and had a bit of a communication problem with the young man in the restaurant. Finally, in frustration he ran off and came back with an English phrasebook called "English for Hotel". I pointed to the "I would like eggs and toast" line. I had to be careful where I pointed, however, because the line above it said "I would like a dry martini".

The hotel is on a rather busy street in Myitkyina. Unpaved, but still filled with bicycles, scooters, pedestrians, and cars.  Across the street is a restaurant run by the same man who owns the hotel.  All of the food is cooked across the street, and the waiters then have to dodge the traffic, plates in hand, to bring it back to the tables in the hotel.  It was also sprinkling rain early this morning so they also had to jump over puddles and dodge the splashes from the passing cars.  In spite of these difficulties, the breakfast was quite good and served with a smile. Each slice of toast was about two inches thick and the tea was mixed with sweetened condensed milk.


1:20 PM

Back in the room for a brief rest after lunch. This morning we visited Four Red Stars Co., Ltd., the largest rattan business in Myitkyina and learned, among other things, that: 1) there are about eight commercial species of rattan in Kachin State, 2) that two species account for the great majority of the trade, and 3) that one of the species, Mok Su Ma, clings to the host tree by means of adventitious roots from the stem.  No other species of rattan does this. Andrew says it's impossible, but he's excited to get to Shimbweyang to find out.

We now have a good starting list of rattans to look for and collect in the field. We expanded this list at our next visit, the Khin Soe Trading Co. The owner is a Shan women, very hard working, who owns trucks and is a major exporter of rattan to China. She is also a devout Buddhist and feels that her success is the result of her deeds in past lives.  She recently donated two million kyat to a local monastery so they could renovate their pagoda. In response, the monastery now lets her use the several acres of land around the pagoda as a rattan storage and drying area. She also installed a metal trough for treating the rattan cane with diesel (to preserve it) or caustic soda and sulfur (to bleach it). We saw some Mok So Ma cane in her drying fields, she confirmed that it grips the trunk of the tree with roots, and it is, indeed, a rattan.

We made a brief visit to the Director of the Kachin State Forest Department.  Very useful and we got to make photocopies of two 40 year-old books about Burmese rattans written by H.G. Hundley for the Forest Department. The works contain lists of local names of rattan and good information about the distribution of each species.

We then stopped by the Secretary of Kachin State's house to pay a courtesy call.  In his garden he had several beautiful examples of Paphiopedalum wardii, the rare Burmese black orchid. The Secretary is part of the Northern Command, and he is, essentially, the No. 3 man in the state. He was a gracious, laughing, and somewhat disheveled little guy in a rumpled longyi and flip-flops. I liked him immediately. We sat around his living room and talked about the old days and the original tiger surveys. We gave him a Hukaung Rattan Survey t-shirt.

Next we visited the Central Market to buy alcohol (for wet processing the plant specimens), field boots for those who needed them, batteries, and other miscellaneous items. The market was packed with Chinese army shirts, plastic tarps, transistor radios, whistles, and fake samurai swords.  Each post was staffed by either a young woman with thanaka paste smeared on her face or an older man with no teeth and a stocking cap pulled down on his head. Everyone in longyis, even those on bicycles.

7:30 PM

I am at the Manau festival finishing a delicious dinner of barbecue chicken and fried noodles.  They just had a fantastic fireworks display, and the place is swarming with indigenous Kachin in their traditional dress.  Tomorrow we head off to Tanai in the Hukaung Valley.