By Nathaniel Brunt
The sun falls and casts a burning glow across the landscape as my plane descends into a small town in eastern Burma. I’m traveling to Shan State, the largest territory in the country, a wild, scenic place of mountains, jungle and rivers. It is one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the world, a region of fragmentation that largely lacks centralized control and where, for decades, Shan princes known as sabwas, drug warlords and ethnic insurgent groups have each controlled fiefdoms tucked away in valleys or atop the hills.
I travel through this strange, alluring place on mountain roads, down rivers and through small towns with names I can’t remember. Past Ox carts with wide-eyed drivers drifting in and out of the fog, wild dogs that roam dangerously in packs at night and strange handmade vehicles of welded metal that spit plumes of dark acrid smoke from their bellies.
The scenes feel anachronistic, out of a distant past. But in the towns there are whispers of change. Motorcycles roar by horse drawn carriages and share roads with huge, overflowing trucks laden with grain. The sounds of the old lakeside markets are drowned out by the helicopter-like drone of uncovered boat engines, and in the town fluorescent lit rooms in modern concrete structures contain relics of the past.