Our journey up the Chindwin River…and into the heart of headhunters.

Nagaland stretches from India right into the hills of northwestern Myanmar. Once off limits without an expensive permit, it’s only recently opened up to independent travellers – making it a pretty tempting destination.

In colonial times, the Naga were feared as bloodthirsty savages and rumours of their headhunting traditions have followed them into the more recent past. With these warrior-like associations in mind, I didn’t know what to expect from a journey into Nagaland.

But I was excited to find out.

We combined our explorations with a journey along the Chindwin River – off most tourists’ radar thanks to its omission from guidebooks and extremely alluring as a consequence.

We began in the laid-back town of Homalin, where bamboo houseboats float lazily down the river, dusty teashops line the front and a very random sculpture park provides an alternative source of entertainment.

Apparently though, we were the main attraction. People flocked over to ask where we were from, where we were going and whether they could take a photo. They’d finish by proudly showing us photos of “the other foreigner” who had also come to town…the previous year.

We began our journey upriver the following morning.

After squeezing onto narrow wooden benches below deck for a few hours, we sought out the only available space above – a small square beside the toilet. Cosy.

Still, like the following stages of our Chindwin trip, every part felt like an adventure – from dodging the basket-swinging food sellers to pitching in and pushing the boat free when we got stuck on a sandbank for the umpteenth time!

With the sun on our faces and the spray of the river on our feet (at least I hope it was that and not toilet spray), it was a really memorable journey.

Next stop was charming Tamanthi.

This village only sees a handful of tourists when the Homalin – Khamti boat stops off for lunch. Apparently, no one actually stays there – so people were pretty bemused by our presence, and thoroughly tickled when we began speaking Burmese!

Clearly, there’s not a lot to do in Tamanthi so distractions are welcome.

After we’d taken enough pictures of that little boy to please the giggling ladies surrounding him, a friendly local sussed out some digs on our behalf. We had wooden slats to lie on and a freezing bucket shower over a “squatter” outside (to be serenaded by raucous pigs in the adjacent pen) – but it was clean, the mama who ran the show was a hoot and at less than $3 a night, we weren’t complaining!

Our timing in Tamanthi was spot-on, too – we’d arrived on the day of its Naga New Year festival.

And so that evening, we strolled into the Naga area of New Tamanthi village – welcomed by an army of children who were apparently so blown away by our appearance that they couldn’t even smile – just stared at us with huge, stunned eyes. With their silent company, we made our way to the “town hall”, where final adjustments were being made for the evening’s festivities.

Almost immediately, someone appeared with big mugs of “Naga beer”. Over the next few hours, we would become extremely accustomed to this potent palm wine – as we couldn’t get to the halfway point without some generous soul materialising with a top-up. Ouch.

As the only foreigners there, we were treated as honoured guests.

We were given seats by the fire, presented with parcels of sticky rice and of course, several top-ups of palm wine. But it was only when they offered Andy a boar tooth headdress to try on that we knew we’d made the inner circle!

Hmm, tight fit. I guess the Naga have small heads…

The performance itself is something that I’ll never forget. We watched in awe as a long line of men, resplendent in full Naga costume, began chanting around the fire – following a hopping dance that told the story of the tribe’s creation, and which would go on for several hours.

Later, the Naga women joined the circle, their shining eyes reflecting the dancing firelight. Their elaborate headscarves, graceful movements and melancholy harmonies became more and more mesmerising as the celebrations continued.

This event was a much smaller version of the official Naga New Year festival, which alternates between Layshe and Lahe every year and is supposedly an epic affair of dancing, chanting and all-round revelry. Unfortunately we’d missed the boat (pun intended) for that occasion but, as it turned out, we were pretty happy with our intimate version!

Still, we were keen to press on and find the real Nagaland – up in the hills.

And so it was with great expectations that we arrived in the mountain town of Layshe the following night. Our pick-up from Tamanthi should’ve only taken 4 hours but with a mid-way stop for the driver to drink some whiskey (!!) and then a breakdown shortly after – probably on account of said whiskey – we didn’t arrive until after dark. We were deposited at a small guesthouse, where our sudden appearance caused a lot of confusion.

As no one had ever visited the town without a guide before, they clearly had no idea what to do with us.

After 10 minutes of sitting and smiling at the harassed-looking owners, I was handed a phone and told to speak. At the other end was Athong, a local guy with perfect English who took it upon himself to visit the various authorities in Layshe (including immigration, the police and the government association’s office), bringing copies of our passports to each of them until we were finally permitted to stay for 2 nights. Only then would the guesthouse grant us a room. Exhausted after a long day’s travelling (especially after the previous night’s celebrations), we were very grateful to get the all-clear!

The next morning, we rose to a beautiful sunrise over the hills.

After breakfasting on sweet tea and mohinga (a Burmese breakfast staple, like a fish and egg noodle soup), we set off into the freezing mountain air. We’d intended on only walking an hour or so to a nearby village but of course, managed to get lost and actually ended up just 6 miles short of the Indian border instead. Whoops.

Still, they were pretty nice surroundings in which to lose ourselves…

And luckily, just before we melted in the mid-day heat, the most scenic school in the world appeared before us…

We staggered down and were presented with green tea, sweet coffee and a pile of biscuits by 2 smiley teachers. Our Burmese phrases ran out fairly quickly so we sat there grinning back for a few minutes – then, deciding we’d better make the most of our caffeine-induced energy, set off for the long walk back.

We got a good send-off from these kids, too.

That evening, we got another dose of Naga hospitality when a shy young guy called Reuben invited us for dinner at his home. He only had a few words of English but seemed determined to present us to the various members of his family – all of them focused on the task of stuffing us with food.

Such instances occurred throughout our time in Nagaland.

Every time we waited for a boat or a pick-up, someone would appear to present us with gifts – ranging from packs of sunflower seeds to cans of beer (at 8am. Hmm.) If we stopped for tea during these journeys, our fellow passengers would insist on paying. It was like everyone’s mission was to ensure that we were fed and watered, all the time, at their expense.

Even though such acts of kindness have become commonplace during my time in Myanmar, the warmth of Naga people in particular blew me away. Some may hold onto those “savage and dangerous” theories but the people I encountered couldn’t have been more welcoming.

In fact, although I’ve loved a lot of places in Myanmar, it was in this “wild” and “inhospitable” territory that I felt most at home.

That’s why I’m so glad to have found Nagaland.

PS: Thanks once again to Andy Barker for many of the photos in this post. Naga beer does not a steady photo maketh. 🙂

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