HO-PONG TOWNSHIP — Mae Nae mountain, or Indigo mountain in English, is named after the predominantly Pa-O ethnic villagers that inhabit its slopes. Their traditional dress consists of indigo-colored trousers and shirt, topped with a bright colored turban, often red or orange.
The area in the Pa-O Self-Administered Zone is located south of Lashio and some 40 miles north of Ho-Pong Township. The gentle rolling hills in the remote area in central Shan State give way to lush valleys dotted with Pa-O villages, as well as ethnic Danu, Lisu and Shan settlements.
Once an area of ethnic conflict and extensive opium cultivation, the verdant Mae Nae mountain and its surroundings are much quieter these days.
“This area was unsafe before the PNO and the government had a ceasefire agreement, and many opium farms boomed in this area. But now almost all are destroyed and residents moved to cultivate other crops,” said Moe Si Thu, a liaison officer of Pa-O National Organization (PNO) chairman Khun San Lwin, who administers the zone.
The PNO signed a ceasefire agreement with Burma’s then-military government in 1991 and were granted limited power to administer a zone in the heart of Shan State, which is home to some 400,000 Pa-O, as well as other ethnic minority groups. The PNO renewed their ceasefire with Naypyidaw in 2012, and is allowed to keep several hundred armed fighters under its command.
Mae Nae mountain is surrounded by fertile valleys where farmers grow mostly cheroot leaf, along with avocado, onion, sesame and other crops.
Ensconced by farms and patches of mountainside pine forest, the 100-year-old Nant Hoke Monastery is the spiritual center for the Buddhist Pa-O and Palaung in the region.
Located in Kyauk Chayar village, the 200-feet wooden space is supported by 125 wooden pillars, and inside monks and villagers come to worship at the feet of large, old wooden Buddha statues covered with gold leaf.
The PNO’s Mae Nae area administrator Khun Aung Kyaw, who like other PNO members carries a weapon on his hip, said he hoped that the area’s scenic beauty and the presence of the beautiful old monastery could soon begin to attract foreign tourists.
“This old monastery has one of the only monastery schools in this region, it’s very old and it’s interesting to learn how this region developed its own culture,” he said, adding that around 3,000 people lived in his area.
Moe Si Thu said, “The Pa-O region chairman U Khun San Lwin expects to develop this region for tourism, he wants to promote this region as a tourist destination next year. That’s why he is trying to construct roads through the Mae Nae range.”
These days the area remains difficult to reach and a recent trip to Mae Nae range on the Taunggyi-Tachileik road through central Shan State revealed a poor road network, with bumpy and winding roads. Armed PNO troops could be seen patrolling along the road.
Any foreign visitors to the area would also have to seek travel permission from the Pa-O Self-Administered zone head office.
Khun Aung Kyaw believes, however, that such restrictions and the presence of PNO soldiers should not prevent any foreign tourist from visiting—rather he thinks that a lack of tourist facilities will deter overseas travelers from coming to Mae Nae.
“We know that we need to build up hotels, guest houses and public toilets in this region when visitors come. So I hope that will be improved soon,” he said.