National Geographic : 1922 Mar
AMONG THE HILL TRIBES OF BURMA-AN ETHNOLOGICAL THICKET BY SIR GEORGE SCOTT, K. C. I. E. FORMERLY BRITISH COMMISSIONER, ANGLO-SIAMESE AND BURMA-CHINA BOUNDARY COMMISSIONS, AND SUPERINTENDENT AND POLITICAL OFFICER, SOUTHERN SHAN STATES With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author ABOUT half-way up the railway from Rangoon to Mandalay, roughly in the nineteenth parallel of north latitude, one gets the first glimpse of the range of hills which wall in the plain of Burma on the east. Toungoo, which the purists will tell you should be written Taung-ngu (that is, the Spur of the Hill), is the station on the time-table where the hill line begins to be noticeable. It is the edge of the Shan plateau (see map, page 242). Geologists call it a plateau, but the average man would call it a Brobding nagian nutmeg-grater or a stupendous plowed field. The spurs which the east end of the Himalayas throw out, fade into the plain here like the edge of a beam from a search-light, and continue to do so far away to the east, across Siam, Tongking, and China. From the train the hills do not look very formidable, but they are heavily covered with jungle, there is practically only one road from the west into the Karen country, and it is only those who are accustomed to hill roads on the bor ders of China who would call it a road. Others might call it a variety of things, none complimentary. But it is this inaccessibility which has preserved through the centuries a collec tion of tribes such as is to be found no where else on the earth, at any rate in so circumscribed an area. The Karen Hills do not measure much over sixty or seventy miles from north to south, and average, perhaps, thirty miles wide, but they have several score differ ent clans and tribes and all these look upon their neighbors with the same sus picion and animosity as the pariah dogs of one quarter of an oriental city have for those of any other quarter. To get to these Karen Hills it would be very unwise to make straight for them from Toungoo, or any other point on the railway. There is indeed quite a creditable path to the headquarters of the American Baptist Mission to the Karens. But unfortunately this is hardly beyond the foothills, and the really inter esting tribes are beyond. THE OPIUM TRADERS TRAVEL DEVIOUS PATHS These Karen tribes do not grow opium. This may or may not be counted to their credit, but at any rate it is unfortunate from the point of view of communica tions. Farther north, where the popula tion is Shan, with an intervening zone of hybrid races, which are like nothing so much as a dish-clout that takes up parti cles of everything it touches, there are what are called opium paths. These are not authorized, since the opium taken over them is all smuggled. For this reason the paths, so far from taking comfortable lines, follow the most undesirable, and are kept as secret as possible. Therefore they are not so much like tracks as like rudimentary staircases which have been damaged by many earthquake shocks. Progression over these paths is of the kind that Prince Henri d'Orleans wrote of when he was passing far north from China toward Assam, across the upper stretches of the Mekong and the Salwin. There he said: "We did not walk; we did not climb; it was gymnastique." That sort of thing may be good for the liver, but it does not commend itself to students of ethnology or mere pleasure trippers. Even such opium paths do not exist on the western slopes of the Karen Hills. The tribesmen had no wish to come down to the plains, and the Bur mese, the former rulers of the country, found it much easier to come from the north. It will not be possible to reach them by aeroplane until ascent and descent are so far improved that aircraft can land or rise from a croquet lawn or a back garden.