A Visit to the Tea Capital

By Yan Pai 26 November 2013

NAMHSAN, Shan State — I had always wanted to visit Namhsan, the ancient “tea capital” of Shan State, and earlier this year, I finally got my chance.

In late July, some friends and I set out from Mandalay on a four-hour ride by public bus to Kyaukme, a major trading center for tea since before British colonial times, located on the Mandalay-Lashio road.

After spending the night in Kyaukme, we resumed our journey early the next morning in a hired car. When we left at 5:30, the town was still asleep, except for a few people on motorcycles bringing fresh produce to the nearest market. The air was chilly and the surrounding mountain ranges were pitch-dark under the fog.

Our next stop was Hsipaw, about 35 km away. We reached it at around 7 am, with the weather still cool and breezy. As the local market started to open, we grabbed some Shan noodles and tea and noticed another early visitor, a foreign woman wearing a Shan bag slung across her shoulders.

After a quick breakfast, we set off again, leaving the Mandalay-Lashio road to head north for Namhsan. On the way, we passed Infantry Battalion No. 23, which was stationed just outside of Hsipaw—a reminder that despite a recent ceasefire between the government army and Shan rebels, this area was still not entirely peaceful.

On both sides of the Hsipaw-Namhsan road, cornfields stretched far into the distance. We were told that this was “CP corn,” a lucrative crop named after Charoen Pokphand, a major Thai agribusiness company.

After about 29 km, we came to the Panglong junction. From this point onwards, the road became narrow and rough, covered with stones and potholes. Clinging to mountain ridges, and sometimes perched precariously over ravines, the road was flanked by dense bamboo and coniferous forest. We also saw natural springs running down the mountainsides.

As we approached Lilu, a village at the entrance of Namhsan Township, I saw a small truck coming from the opposite direction, full of foreign tourists. But as we continued the steady 35-km climb from Lilu to the town of Namhsan, along a narrow road that was partially blocked in places because of landslides, there were few travelers to be seen.

In fact, the higher we went, the harder it was to see anything. The fog grew so thick that it felt like we were driving through the clouds.

Looking back, however, we could catch a glimpse of the famed tea plantations that we had come so far to see. Dressed in raincoats, people from the surrounding Palaung villages were collecting the tea leaves that were the main source of income in this remote area.

Despite the feeling that we had somehow risen above the cares of the world below, I knew that this was no Shan Shangri-La. In recent years, the local tea industry has been hard hit by concerns about the safety of pickled tea leaves, a Myanmar staple, because of reports about the use of illegal dyes. This—and the fact that armed groups had been coming into Palaung areas to collect taxes and recruit soldiers—put pressure on many to leave for China in search of work in the tea plantations there.

Still, as we approached the huge fig tree that stood at the entrance to the village of Sakhantha, shrouded in a beautiful mist, we couldn’t help but feel that we had entered another world.
Right after Sakhantha, we met two more foreigners, this time riding on motorbikes, wearing raincoats and smiles. They had travelled to Namhsan on their own even though it was temporarily off limits due to recent clashes.

Locals told me that some foreigners said this area reminded them of Switzerland, for its mountains and cool, clean air. Unfortunately, however, efforts to develop the local tourism industry have been slow to take off, largely due to the reluctance of the authorities to issue licenses for tourist accommodation.
Finally, after a long, winding journey, we reached our destination: Namhsan, nestled high in the Shan Hills, 1,625 meters (5,332 feet) above sea level.

Although it was once the capital of the Palaung sub-state of Tawngpeng, today Namhsan is little more than a large village, with one main street of mostly one- and two-story wooden buildings. Clean and quiet, with little traffic, it has a handful of teashops and a few other small businesses, some run by Chinese.

The people of Namhsan are mainly from the Ka-tur (Samlong) sub-branch of the Palaung, but there are also residents belonging to Kayin, Lisu and Shan ethnic tribal groups, as well as ethnic Indians and Chinese. While some inhabitants still wear traditional costumes, most dress in jeans and modern clothing these days.

The Palaungs here are often referred to as the Shwe, or Golden, Palaung because of the color of the belts they traditionally wore. In the Shwe language (which is distinct from other Paluang languages), Namhsan means “trembling water,” which is believed to be a reference to the fact that the town lies in a marshy area that regularly floods during heavy rains.

In the early part of the 20th century, Namhsan prospered not only as a tea-growing area, but also as the center of the local silver-mining industry. These days, however, the local economy relies almost entirely on its production of high-quality green tea and pickled tea leaves. Besides traditional home-based tea businesses, the town has two factories for black tea production—one belonging to the government army, and the other privately owned—and one private factory for green tea production.

The tea is harvested from April to November, but the best quality leaves are those collected between late March and mid-April. Yields are significantly lower than in tea-producing areas of Sri Lanka and India, and have been declining year by year.

Although tea will likely always be the mainstay of Namhsan, my brief visit made me realize that this area also has real potential as a tourist destination—as the steady trickle of foreign visitors who have already discovered it attests. For my part, I felt well-rewarded by my decision to explore this little known corner of Myanmar.