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A fisherman stands on a traditional canoe with a net in Burma.
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updated 4/2/2007 3:22:21 PM ET 2007-04-02T19:22:21

Forward! Forward! Forward!" screams Babu Lama, our Nepalese guide, over the roar of the Nam Lang River, as we paddle desperately to avoid banging our 16-foot inflatable raft into a sheer rock wall. But the white water wins, dragging us along it. Up ahead, a jagged outcropping at face-level threatens to connect with Australian businessman Bill Clough. At the last minute he bends backward like a limbo dancer, and the rock slices by, inches from his nose. "I haven't had so much fun since a hog ate my kid brother," he quips.

We are midway through a three-day trek--one of hiking and two of white-water rafting--in northern Burma (called Myanmar by the thugs running it at the moment). The six of us, plus three guides, are the first to attempt commercial rafting on this river running through the heart of one of Asia's most remote and pristine wildernesses. "This is the most intact forest in the entire Indo-Pacific region, with many parts that are completely unexplored," says the Wildlife Conservation Society's Alan Rabinowitz, one of the handful of Westerners who have traveled in this area in the last century. Detailed maps of the area are almost nonexistent.

Our expedition is part of an audacious scheme by British entrepreneur Brett Melzer, 38, to open up the area to adventure travel and eco-tourism. Later this year he will open Malikha Lodge, which he means to be a five-star retreat, in the village of Mulashidi, a few miles from Putao, the northernmost Burmese city with an airport.

The area is officially known as Kachin State, a wedge of land about the size of Maine jutting between China and India. Here the Himalayan foothills meet the forests of Indochina, making for incredible biodiversity. It is home to wild elephants, the world's largest Asian tiger reserve and such endangered fauna as the clouded leopard, blue sheep and red panda. Some flora dates back to the Miocene epoch of 5 million B.C. A few locals still claim there are yeti (giants) in the hills and burin in the rivers, those being 165-foot water snakes. "It's an ecological gold mine," says Rabinowitz, who discovered the leaf deer, the world's most genetically primitive deer, in the area in 1996. Thanks to his efforts, chunks of land (collectively the size of Belgium) have been declared national parks. Here is home to such indigenous peoples as the Kachin, Lisu, Rawang, Naga, and the Taron, the world's only Mongoloid Asian pygmies, whose few remaining members live deep in the hills.

The area was largely unexplored by the British during their colonial period, left literally off their maps as an "unadministered area." In World War II it was part of the "hump" over which Claire Chennault and his Flying Tigers flew on trips into China. The Japanese, during their occupation of Burma, largely ignored it.

After the country won independence in 1948, guerrilla wars kept the north off-limits. A cease-fire in the early 1990s brought peace but little development. More recently, however, the area has been threatened by illegal logging spreading from the Chinese border and by new mining operations, legal and otherwise. Melzer is working with the government on conservation measures.

Promoting tourism in a dictatorship is a controversial matter. Tourist dollars underwrite the regime (among other ways, via the $30 combined entry and departure tax). Says Tony Wheeler, who publishes the Lonely Planet travel guides, "Some of the money you spend does find its way into the pockets of the military. The pro is that most of the money you spend finds its way into the pockets of local people, and the military are less likely to misbehave when there are tourists watching."

Melzer, married to a Burmese woman and owner of other tourist businesses in the country, makes no apologies: "I believe the right sort of tourism creates opportunities for the community and awareness of the need for conservation." His lodge is a labor of love, on which he has spent $1.2 million over four years. His next challenge will be to persuade travelers to overlook the government's offenses and make the long trip up to his lodge. Even now Melzer has to get special permits for his guests, as access to the state is limited by the government.

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Fisherman in Burma
Malikha Lodge's luxury does not disappoint. Spread over 16 acres, a main lodge, ten bungalows and a spa are tucked away amid bamboo and woods on a bluff overlooking the Nam Lang River. Designed by Denniston, a Malaysian firm that has built many hotels for Amanresorts, the main lodge has walls draped with Jim Thompson silks, and the bungalows feature 400-gallon teak hot tubs. A Swiss chef who studied at a Michelin -starred restaurant cooks the meals, and the head of the spa used to massage the likes of Nicole Kidman and Cate Blanchett. For every guest there are four staff. Two elephants are available for jungle treks. For all this (meals and treks included), Melzer plans to charge a couple $2,700 for a three-night stay.

Arriving one afternoon from Yangon (formerly Rangoon), we depart the next day at 6:30 a.m. in a chilly fog. With few roads in the area, our journey begins with a 10-mile hike through the jungle to a camp by the Nam Lang. This is the start of a 623-foot descent back to the lodge over 37 miles of water. As we head off, we pass hut villages and a logging elephant on his morning commute to work. Children smile and yell, "Hello, hello!" as we pass.

The hike is tough. The path is often no more than a foot-wide muddy track through dense growth, climbing steeply down and up ravines to ford mountain streams. Thankfully, the chilly air and a light rain keep insects away, but they make the trail a slippery mess. We cross paths with a Rawang hunter who shows us his homemade crossbow and quiver of poison-tipped bamboo arrows. Eight hours later we stagger into camp, welcomed by a table laden with brie and crackers, beef stew and a bottle of whiskey (which soon disappears). Buckets of water heated over the fire make for jungle showers. We bed down in sleeping bags in tents.

We head off the next morning by raft, after some safety instructions. The lodge provides a wet suit, safety helmet, life jacket and raincoat, all very necessary. Our head guide is Australian Pat O'Keefe, a rafting veteran with a dozen years' experience on Asia's wildest rivers.

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Lush scenery along the river.
The scenery is breathtaking, from wide flats of almost-still black water to churning white water or misty ravines of fast-flowing water, hemmed in by sheer black stone walls topped by dense jungle. We are taunted by Hoolock gibbons, a rare species found only here and in northern India. But wildlife is somewhat scarce, as the jungle near the river has been overhunted. Larger mammals know to stay up in the hills or deep in the jungle.

After a night camping on a wide, sandy bend in the river, we set off at 9:30 a.m. in a drizzle. Midmorning we stop at a gold-mining camp perched along a rocky outcropping, where maybe 30 men jump into the icy water with suction hoses to suck out gold-laden debris from the river bottom. The boss of the group proudly shows us yesterday's harvest, flakes worth maybe $300 on the world market. They won't get even that much for it from the buyers.

As we get closer to the lodge, we begin to see more people--fishermen, for example--and evidence of people. There's erosion from where a logger felled a tree and and floated it downriver. Still, it's a welcome sight to see the Malikha Lodge's massive thatched roof peeking through the bamboo, and to know that a hot tub is waiting.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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