When I ask about head-hunting, Ah Naung laughs.
"Oh no," he says. "Not in Namlip anymore. In other Naga villages, I don't know, but not here!"
Ah Naung explains that Namlip, like much of this area, is now mostly Christian. He became a Baptist in 1961 and is now the village's minister. "I don't know what the outside world thinks of us, but because of our isolation, outsiders' impressions and ideas—perhaps left over from the war—have probably been overtaken by the reality of today."
True to Ah Naung's statement, the northern Myanmar of today—all of contemporary Myanmar, in fact—is far different from the reality confronting Stilwell's troops when they invaded from India in October 1943. But although there are no known headhunters today, Myanmar isn't exactly a friendlier place, as anyone who has opposed the militaristic government can attest. And because the country's leaders have until recently pursued an isolationist policy, there is also no longer a passable road to India in this part of the country.
Working my way south down the road, I pass through the town of Shingbwiyang (pronounced Shin-bwe-YANG) at mile 109 along the road from Ledo. In 1943 Shingbwiyang, Stilwell's forward base in Burma, was a village with a few hundred inhabitants. What I see today is a shanty settlement of some 30,000 people, most of whom have come to sluice-mine the rich gold deposits recently discovered nearby.
From Shingbwiyang the road heads south, negotiating the flat Hukawng and Mogaung Valleys along an efficient track as straight as a taut string. On either side hulking mountain ranges hem in rice fields, which in November stand golden and ready for harvest. Elephants drag logs and roof beams up and down the road's patchy gravel, and water buffalo wallow in the mud of roadside ditches, their swept-back horns and rounded brown bodies looking like something bolted together in Detroit.
Like me, the southbound traffic in World War II was headed for the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River port of Myitkyina (Mit-chee-NAH) 180 miles (290 kilometers) south of Shingbwiyang. At Myit-kyina, from May to August 1944, Chinese and U.S. forces under Stilwell engaged 3,500 Japanese defenders. Before the siege was over, 790 Japanese were killed and 1,180 wounded, while the Allies suffered 1,244 dead with 4,139 wounded.
Today Myitkyina is a busy port overlooking the glassy, broad Ayeyarwady. The city has a raucous market where fish, meats, leg-hold traps for tigers, fruits, teas, vegetables, fishing nets, and piles of red, green, and orange spices sprawl over three blocks. Scattered across town—and on the forested mountainsides overlooking the city—sit dozens of exquisitely crafted pagodas, their white-painted brick walls and bulbous gilded roofs glittering in the sun. Thanks to a 1994 ceasefire by the Kachin people, who warred for years for local self-rule, tourism reopened a few years ago in Myitkyina, though most of the outlying countryside is still off-limits to visitors.
It's easy to understand why outsiders are drawn here. The Kachin, who love to eat and dance and celebrate, are friendly and accommodating people—provided you don't cross them. During World War II their ambush skills and ferocity (they cut the ears from Japanese dead as trophies) assured that the Kachin lands of the north remained the country's only unoccupied region. As my Kachin friend, former jungle fighter turned leader Ah-Gu-Di, says, "We Kachin love progress. We love visitors. I welcome the world to visit Myitkyina. Just don't bring an occupying army, or we'll be forced to defend ourselves."
Myitkyina is also the focal point for two of Myanmar's greatest cash generators: jade and opium. Near Hpakan, northwest of the city, huge deposits of translucent green jadeite—one of the world's rarest gemstones—are excavated by thousands of workers. Even more valuable are the riches southeast of Myitkyina, in the lands of the Shan and Wa peoples, who cultivate Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy.
Yet on this visit to Myitkyina, I rarely see the purple-black squares or white balls of opium I witnessed on previous trips. When I ask a government official about the change, he says that Myanmar has embarked on a program to stamp out opium. According to the government, 8,500 pounds (3,900 kilograms) of opium and 645 pounds (293 kilograms) of heroin were destroyed in 2002. Indeed, two days later I watch on TV as officials burn hundreds of pounds of opium and heroin set out on tables for public display.