Most of northern Myanmar is closed to foreigners, largely due to the history of conflict between the army and ethnic militias in Kachin State. It most recently flared up in 2011 and the army has been accused, with good evidence, of atrocities including the torture and extra-judicial killing of civilians.
For tourists, this has meant some additional travel restrictions (such as blocking land or water routes to Myitkyina). Those parts of the north that can be visited, however, are safe and offer some of the country’s best opportunities to spend time with local people. One way to do this is to take a boat trip on the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River north of Mandalay around Katha and Bhamo, where long journey times and a scarcity of foreigners make it easy to get a sense of provincial life. Heading northeast from Mandalay instead, towards the Chinese border, treks from towns such as Hsipaw into the forested interior offer up the opportunity to stay in ethnic minority homes in traditional mountain villages.
The stretch of the Ayeyarwady River (aka Irrawaddy River) north of Mandalay is much less frequently explored by foreigners than the route to Bagan. Although the scenery is no more spectacular than on the Bagan run, other than in the brief “second defile” (a narrowing of the river) between Bhamo and Katha, it’s more rewarding for the scope it offers for interacting with local people. The route can also provide access to rarely visited villages: in addition to places listed in the Northern Myanmar section, boats typically stop at Shwegu (between Bhamo and Katha) and Kyaukmyaung (between Katha and Mandalay), both of which have simple guesthouses.
The government has closed the river north of Bhamo to foreigners. Since you also aren’t allowed to get to Bhamo by road, the easiest way to do the whole available route is to fly into Bhamo then take the boat south; the cheapest is to take a train to Katha (via Naba), travel upriver to Bhamo by boat, and then take the boat south again. Upriver travel is, of course, slower than downriver and all travel times depend on the season, particularly on long journeys that run overnight.
The busy town of Bhamo has long profited from its position close to a Chinese border crossing (closed to foreigners). There isn’t much to see in the town other than the market and waterfront, plus a few old teak buildings, but the surrounding area is worth exploring.
The most rewarding destination is Tain Pha Hill, which is home to a Buddhist complex that includes a hilltop stupa and two meditation halls. It has good views but really a visit is all about the journey there: it’s an hour’s ride by bicycle and if you’re travelling by bike between December and June/July, you’ll cross the impressive 470m-long bamboo bridge from Wa Thatar village. Each year the bridge is destroyed by monsoon flooding, and rebuilt by two hundred villagers.
Eric Blair (1903–50), who would later find fame under his pen name George Orwell, arrived in Burma in November 1922 as a youthful member of the Imperial Police. Sent first to Maymyo (now Pyin Oo Lwin), he spent time in the Ayeyarwady delta and Moulmein (now Mawlamyine, the home town of his maternal grandmother) before being posted to Katha.
Orwell’s experiences in Burma convinced him of the wrongs of imperialism, and he gained a reputation as an outsider more interested in spending time with the Burmese than in more “pukka” (appropriate) pursuits for a British officer. In this he resembled Flory, the protagonist of his first novel Burmese Days (1934), which was set in a thinly disguised Katha. Orwell also wrote about Burma in his essays A Hanging (1931) and Shooting an Elephant (1936).
There’s a long-standing joke that Orwell wrote three books about Burma, including his denunciations of totalitarianism Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Unlike the anti-imperialist Burmese Days, both novels were, until recently, banned by the regime.
An engagingly low-key place to hang around for a day or two, the small riverside town of Katha was the model for Kyauktada in George Orwell’s novel Burmese Days. Although Orwell modified the plan of the town a little, it’s possible to seek out several of the colonial buildings that played a part either in the novel or in Orwell’s life in the town.
At the southern end of the town centre is the British-era jail, which is still in use. North of the centre, on the east side of 5th Street, is the former British Club, which was central to Burmese Days. It now functions as an association office and is closed to the public, but the Tennis Club beside it is still active. Further north on 5th Street is the District Commissioner’s House, a large brick and wood building, and close by is the red half-timbered Police Commissioner’s House where Orwell lived, which is still used by the police today.