Exile in Remote Putao
The beautiful remoteness of Putao has a prominent foothold on the Burmese imagination – remote, inaccessible and ringed by snow-capped Himalayan mountains. Truly off the beaten trek, Putao was one of the British Empire’s most remote outposts and due to its isolation, was never conquered by the Japanese during the World War.
Today, the Kachin state attracts adventurers, lured to the place by tales of rare species of orchids, the discovery of new breeds of snakes and the presence of the clouded leopard and the rare thakin. This Kachin state is also home to the world’s only Mongoloid pygmies.
The Burmese Himalayas – possibly the least visited and commercialized stretch of the Himalayas combines the lush tropical forests of Myanmar with the cool climates and mountain-scapes of the Himalayas.
Even for geographically diverse Myanmar, Putao is unexpected; a 4 hour flight from humid, hot Yangon. It is a veritable paradise on earth – cool streams, bucolic landscapes, unjaded village children whose entertainment for the day includes following the very rare tourists on their jeeps, with enthusiastic hellos and goodbyes.
There’s a lot of anticipation building up when one contemplates a trip to Putao. The legendary remoteness, the requirement for a separate visa (above and on top of the visa entry requirement to Myanmar), the insistence on all travelers purchasing travel insurance (with medical evacuation facilities) and your signing a waiver releasing the authorities from any liability should anything occur (with a clause stipulating that you understand that ‘Putao is very remote and medical evacuation facilities might not always be available’).
Once you’re in Yangon, news that you’re headed for Putao is invariably met with a mixture of admiration and envy and a unanimous take on how beautiful Putao is. The bad news is, flights to Putao are erratic and highly unreliable. Bad weather aside, flights within Myanmar are demand-driven and few, if any, visitors travel to Putao. At the Governor’s Residence Hotel in Yangon (the staging ground of choice for many an adventurous trip around Myanmar), I’d heard of many a disappointed traveler who’d never made it to Putao.
The airline with which I was to fly to Putao had ‘confirmed’ the flights but refused to issue the tickets till a later date. I was in Taungyyi for the spectacular, annual balloon festival on that day and my local partner had received a call informing me to the effect that the flight to Putao on my intended dates of travel had been cancelled. A possible alternative would have been to take a much less reliable airline with a worrying safety record which, as the local saying goes ‘you’d need to pack an umbrella inside when it rains’.
The disappointment of not getting to Putao after the months of planning being almost unacceptable, I asked my local partner if, ‘ even if I were to risk my life by taking the less reliable airline to Putao, would I be sure of getting back in Yangon in time for my next trip to Bhutan?’ The answer was ‘no’ and in any case, the less reliable airline wasn’t flying to Putao on those dates either.
We received a call again a few days later – the flight to Putao was going to happen after all!
Flying from Yangon, the flight transited through Myitkyina and Mandalay. The leg from Mandalay to Putao quickly became like a convivial, small social set. The other travelers compared notes about other off-the-beaten trek destinations in Myanmar, excitedly anticipating Putao.
As with the rest of Myanmar, no photos of the airport and its surroundings are to be taken on arrival. your safari-style jeep transfer awaits to connect you to the resort, where a light lunch awaits.
Malikha Lodge, designed by Jean Michel Gathy of Aman Resorts’ fame, is simply breathtaking. The location of the resort could not be more unlikely for one does not expect to find such a luxury and urbanity in this remoteness.
Discreetly located in the main ‘town’ of Putao, with no obvious sign of its whereabouts, the architecture and design of the lodge facilitates indigenous materials and frames its inspired natural surroundings admirably. The outdoor terrace, available as a breakfast area when the weather permits, perfectly frames the Malikha river running through. From the individual bungalows – each large, luxuriant and unparalleled in privacy, is a private walkway to a stunning view of paddy fields below.
You’ve finally reached remote isolation, free to enjoy the natural beauty of Putao and its surrounding! Other than trekking to nearby villages, there are plenty of activities to help you enjoy the serene landscape of Putao. Raft along the Nam Lang and Malikha river, ending with a picnic lunch on an isolated beach trip. You can also opt for an elephant ride through the village or simply enjoy your own luxurious private space in the stillness of your bungalow.