Return to Naga Head Hunter's Territory

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I have flown a lot on Airbus. As for AirTruck, only twice - the first time was four years ago and now again. It is something I wasn't quite looking forward to, except the destination where this truck is taking me, to the once-a- year Naga Festival along the Myanmar border with India. These AirTrucks are more cool and definitely more bouncy than Air Jordans, the Nike shoes bearing Michael Jordan's name. It is called AirTruck because the passengers sit on top, enjoying the cool air from above. And in this case in the winter of the Naga hills, it's cold air. As for bouncy, it is an understatement for lack of a better word.
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Covering myself with a hat, neck cloth and face-veil to shield the sun and the dust, I resembled some kind of an insurgent or terrorist. Insurgents there are indeed in these hills, extending into the at- times turbulent territories of Nagaland on the Indian side of the border. On the Myanmar side however, things have settled down quite a bit. The many military sentries four years ago are no longer in sight, or at least not as blatantly visible as before.
My small CERS team of four is guests of my long-time friend U Ohn Maung who became Minister of Hotels & Tourism last year. Otherwise we would have to pay a rather exorbitant price to the one travel agency which, as the only tour operator, monopolizes this annual event. In return, we will produce a trailer film for the ministry to promote this colorful festival of the Naga hill tribe, until quite recently best known for their head hunting practice.
The five-hour ride, much of which on low-gear four- wheel drive, negotiated up and down many slopes with extreme gradient. Unlike four years ago when the entire route was dirt and mud, this year the most difficult parts have been "paved", allowing for better traction. Even the temporary "hostel" where we stayed above a restaurant overlooking the biggest crossroad of Lahe town, has been upgraded.
Rather than sleeping on the floor with a straw mat, there are beds now, though squeaky - they came borrowed from some homes. On the wall hung a complimentary calendar with full-color photos from 2014, printed by the People's Republic of Nagaland. Full-color photos depict the army forces and leaders of independence movement of the Naga on the Indian side of the border.
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With the new civilian government in place, army presence was kept to a minimum, whereas police force must have been expanded. The once-prevalent automatic machine guns carried by soldiers can hardly be seen. Perhaps Myanmar has really turned a corner. On January 13, Naga tribes began to arrive, village by village. We took the day to visit three nearby villages. Nearby easily means an hour or so of tough-terrain driving.

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Things remained much the same as four years ago and these villages still look primitive and dilapidated. Modern changes to Myanmar cities like Yangon and Mandalay are not reflected here at all, perhaps with the exception of young men with mobile phones. There are obviously no mobile services reaching far out to such locales. But that does not stop young folks from using the device as a camera to share photos and music of choice.
All that backwardness however may be about to change, with the arrival by Army helicopter of two loads of advance party to the festival ground. This was followed by a white helicopter with the Myanmar tri-color flag on it. The President of Myanmar was making a special appearance at the festival. He stayed for two full days throughout the festival, including meetings with local leaders. To come this far despite his busy schedule is a major commitment of time, perhaps reflecting on the importance he would accord this distant land with only 120,000 or so Naga people.
Over an official lunch during the height of the festival, we had the chance to meet and chat briefly. He was surprised that I was instrumental in reintroducing the Burmese Cats to Myanmar. Just two months ago, he visited our Burmese Cat Sanctuary at Inle Lake. He told me that he held his favorite cat for over half an hour during the visit, and said he was a cat lover. I asked if he would like to have a Burmese and he replied that unless he could care for the cat himself, he would prefer not to have one at this time. But he could wait.
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The festival was attended by 31 foreign guests four years ago and this year we had 48 in total, still a relatively small number considering this is the only time in the entire year that the place is open to outside visitors and then but for three days. I counted two dozen at most, as the others were special guests from Yangon or Mandalay.
While the festival is organized by the government to demonstrate solidarity, the Naga tribes from far-out villages had to walk for long distance to attend, some for up to two days. This year there are fewer tribes than four years ago and the number from each tribe seems to have diminished. Some new activities had been added besides the more spectacular ritual dances and chanting. Sports events like volley ball, rattan caneball, tug-of- war, to even a 21Km marathon through a hill circuit of up and down dirt tracks.
The marathon began at 6am in darkness. Soon after sunrise, the champion ran pass the finish line. His time was one hour forty-three minutes. The First and Second Runners-up soon turned up, perhaps five minutes or so apart. Both of them had canvas shoes on, yet losing to the Champion who ran on flip-flops. Each winner was given a tube of Colgate toothpaste, and the Champion had a small cash prize of 10,000 Kyats, equivalent to about US Eight Dollar. While the organizer claimed that 59 runners participated, we saw few passing the finish line. Perhaps some may simply ran home.
As in previous year, the official announcement by the emcee was done strictly in Burmese language followed by brief English translation. Few if any of the Naga tribes attending would understand even Burmese. Only sign of support and integration was the President wearing a Naga hat and vest. It would be more proper if in future Naga language could also be used for the event.
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Furthermore, the pop music by a live band on stage obliterated the traditional wild chants of the Naga warriors. No wonder only two groups cared to play on their traditional long drum, relegated to an obscure corner of the fair ground. In the past, almost all groups spent time in unison beating of the drum, something unique to Naga culture and related to battle calls and return of a triumphant head-hunting expedition. Such an eclipse of the Naga culture was disheartening. It seems strange to me that preserving pseudo-Burmese architecture with colonial overtone got so much attention in Yangon whereas the disappearing of living indigenous culture receive little notice or support.
Several Myanmar television channels were on hand to record the festival, more so focusing on the President’s every movement. Not only were they filming on the ground, there were at least four drones at different times above us. This turned out to be a major distraction throughout the ceremonies and performances, with the Naga heads all turning to the sky.
In between all the performances and festivities, we managed to collect a small number of Naga artefacts. Among them is a warrior hat with boar tusks and a Hornbill feather, a Naga sword, a bamboo liquor container with stylized motif of a person with two spears, various hand-woven textiles in the form of blankets or plaited cloth, and necklaces with images and animal skulls. Some pieces were acquired after long rounds of negotiation and persuasion. But the most prized piece is a hand-woven basket decorated with the head of a Wreathed Hornbill. The entire collection would soon be put on display on the upper deck of the HM Explorer, our research vessel, complementing a special library of books on Myanmar.
As the festival came to a close, the AirTruck horn was blowing, urging us to again ride back to Khamti town by the Chindwin River, from where we would fly back to Mandalay. My body was aching a bit from the hike to villages as well as from the hard bed I slept on. I had not had a bath for only four days and my beard was growing thicker. I pushed myself out of bed at 4:30 as the truck was to leave at 5am in darkness. But my butt was dragging. No doubt its memory was still fresh with apprehension from the bouncy ride of just four days ago.
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