People of Myanmar – Part 1: Kachin Traditional Culture
One of the unique parts of traveling around Myanmar is seeing the diversity of the landscapes and sites as well as cultures. There are estimated to be more than 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar which are divided in to 8 main ethnic races each of which has its own traditions, clothes, food and often language. In part one of our series on the ethnic groups of Myanmar we discover the Kachin people.
The Kachin population is concentrated in the northeast of the country, in the state of the same name. At just over 1 million in population they are one of the smaller groups but have played an important historical role in Myanmar’s history.
Due to their geographic location near the border, the Kachin were frequently caught between the conflicts of the Burmese kings and the Chinese people in the early days. As they were comfortable with the mountainous terrain and forest tracks, each army tried to lure the Kachin to join them in the fight- almost always the army fighting in alliance with the Kachin was the victor. Later on they fought with the Allies during World Wars I & II and were key in the construction of the Lido (or Stillwell) road which connects India to China.
Unlike most of Myanmar, the Kachin are largely Christian. Driving through the Kachin state is surreal for many tourists as instead of seeing pagodas on every corner, churches dot the landscape and most houses display a white cross on the outside. Christianity was brought to the Kachin by missionaries starting in the 1830s. The Kachin were not easily convinced and so it was not until 1882 that the first Kachin was baptized and the missionaries began to settle in. It is said that in the early 1900s the Kachin were 100% literate and to this day they remain one of the highest ranked ethnic groups in terms of literacy.
Another unique aspect of the Kachin culture is their cuisine. Relying more on herbs and tomatoes rather than oil and fish paste, the Kachin food is lighter and with a more herbal taste than Burma food. Rice steamed with ginger, chopped chives and topped with diced chicken and coriander is the base for most meals. Steamed fish in banana leaves, caught fresh from one of the major rivers in the Kachin state, is a common dish. Cooked with ginger, peanuts, basil, coriander and other herbs it is both delicious and nutritious. Shredded meats mixed with ginger (again!), oil, chill and garlic are often served as salads to accompany the rice. Depending on the time of year, the Kachin state also has some of the best vegetables growing in their soil and cook these as a stir fry or diced in to a salad. As you can see, Kachin cuisine uses a lot of ginger. The ginger grows on river rocks and the water that flows over these rocks is said to be a key for promoting longevity and a healthy body. It is rumored that Queen Victoria ordered several bottles of water from this river when she heard about its healing properties! The Kachin even have their own rice wine- made from purple sticky rice, the strong drink is both sweet and sour and goes well with spicy food.
EXPERIENCING KACHIN TRADITIONAL CULTURE:
- Visiting- The best way to see Kachin culture is to travel to the Kachin state – an adventure in and of itself. The usual starting point is in Myitkyina, the capital of the Kachin state which can be accessed by a long, bumpy but scenic train journey from Mandalay or a flight. Overland travel is not currently permissible. Highlights include Myitsone, where the Maykha and Malikha rivers join to form the Irrawaddy River, and Indawgyi Lake, Myanmar’s largest natural lake. There are still a lot of Shan people in the Kachin state but you will still have the opportunity to meet with Kachin locals.
- Dining- There are a few Kachin restaurants in Yangon and Mandalay, so ask your tour guide or travel planner if you are interested. As well some of the larger local restaurants in Mandalay have a few Kachin items on the menu (try the Kachin-style mutton or chicken if you like spicy!)
- Festivals- The Manaw festival, held each January, is the most colourful time of year to visit. The week-long celebration includes dancing, music, traditional sports and lots of food. The biggest celebrations are in Myitkyina but you will find smaller celebrations in most other villages.