…this post is a continuation from Shan state hill trekking (Part 1)…
Day Two: Thansant Village to Kaoncor, 25 km
The next morning we woke with the sun, and I retraced my steps from the previous evening to find a spot a few kilometers back in the direction we had come from to watch the sun rise over the village.
Smells are always strongest in the morning, and the clear, crisp mountain air only heightened my senses. On the walk out I could almost taste the heavy, sour scent of tea leaves drying, while the roosters were crowing, a faint motorbike din could be made out in the background amidst cows and horses with bells making their way out to the field. As I passed the villagers there was subdued morning chatter along the roadside, and birds were like crickets in the background, with the occasional song of something that probably sounded much more beautiful than its plumage deserved.
From my vantage point above the valley smoke was lifting from houses here and there, punctuated by a neigh or a whinny, as the morning light first patted the heads of the taller houses. It began by illuminating the monastery – with an effect that seemed less the coincidental – and then the larger houses, finally touching down into the dusty red roads and paths – giving the effect of a delayed crescendo of the morning. As the smell of dung began to overpower the tea I made my way back to the home stay. Along the way I passed villagers – both men and women – collecting water from the spring just down the hill. They were filling big yellow drums suspended over their shoulders or foreheads in woven baskets.
Naturally, all of my photos were washed out as I was shooting into the sun. But its the memories, not the photos, right?
I arrived back just in time for breakfast and a quick good-bye before we were on the trail again. As we left Neipai’s Palaung home village we covered two hours of thin mountainside paths before emerging in the Shan village of Manlwe, right in the backyard of a school. Neipai explained that this is where he attended classes every day for three or four years. Our morning walk – 11 km – was his daily commute. As if that weren’t impressive enough, his courses were taught in Shan – which is about as different to Palaung as English is to Finnish.
When Neipai hit his teens he had outgrown the Shan village school and donned the orange robes of the monastery and caught a bus for Mandalay, about six hours away. For the next few years he was a novice, or monk-in-training. He ate two meals a day, the last of which always fell before noon, and carried out his religious work while learning English and continuing his studies.
We skipped through the village and continued onward to Manlewe where we would pause for lunch. As the guys napped on the front porch I wandered around the village, not making it far before I stopped to watch a football match in the schoolyard. There were a couple of novices participating, under the watchful eye of the monks on the sidelines.
I chatted with a boy standing alongside the field who was keen to practise his English. I couldn’t tell if he was a student or a teacher, so I made use of a basic English phrase that I knew he would understand: “How old are you?”
His eyes lit up “I am twenty-two!”
The fountain of youth clearly lays in the Myanmar highlands, since, like Neipai, this guy didn’t look very far into his teens, at best. “Ah, you are a teacher here?”
“Yes, I am a teacher here.”
We continued our basic conversation and eventually shook hands before I left to find lunch.
Back at the house the guys were reading on the patio, so I popped into the kitchen. The cooking space made up about a third of the house – a sizeable room with several sinks, an open fire and bowls of dried goods. The windows seemed insufficient to fill the space with light and a smokey film covered the whole room.
Returning to the front room, I admired the family portraits up on the walls, an honest view of their family life. The images showed first days of school, graduations and marriages. Around the photos were smaller images of monks and even “The Lady,” Aung San Suu Kyi, whos party had just won a landmark election that made headlines around the world.
I noticed that none of the family members here had black ink on their pinkie fingers. The Myanmar election – the first free election in a generation – had taken place about two weeks earlier and in the cities almost everyone still had a stained finger, indicating they had voted. I asked Neipai if the people here voted. “Oh yes, one person in every family is allowed to vote. In my family it was my aunt.”
This statement was hard to interpret. The region is of course about as opposed to the current military government as it gets – why were they not allowed the one person, one vote of the rest of the country? Neipai seemed to think this one person per family arrangement was normal, so I didn’t push it.
Bellies full, we moved on. As we gained altitude the scenery gave way to giant bamboo and tea fields, with their little white buds and jasmine scent. Neipai explained that the next village – where we would spend the night – was poor. This was a bit hard for us to understand, because while the villages we had passed were tidy and happy, they were by no means “rich.”
As the sun set we arrived in Kaoncor. The nearest water source was nearly an hour away, and Neipai kindly cautioned us to use water sparingly.
And indeed, like walking into a old-timey Western town with flapping saloon doors, the village had an expired feel to it. It wasn’t quite as clean as the previous villages, the ribs were more clearly visible on the horses and there was a heavy, whispering feel to our arrival.
We entered our home stay, which was also the main trading post for the local tea collective. As we peeled off our socks and shoes lines of young children filed in with large bags of tea suspended over their backs by a strap that loops over the forehead. Each giant woven bag was weighed, emptied and exchanged for a handful of kyat.
Before dinner we noticed a small man with a big gun sitting in the corner, watching us and chain smoking. We turned to Neipai for an explanation.
It turned out that despite Neipai’s efforts to follow the local fighting through the grapevine while we walked, we had unintentionally ended up in the same village as the armed military portion of the Palaung ethic group. A couple of dozen soldiers were billeted in the houses around town, and this man had ended up in the same place as us.
With Neipai translating we had a limited conversation with the man, who was about thirty and committed to the army for life. Early in the conversation he told us not to be afraid of him, and that their army had no interest in people like us – which did put us as ease to some degree. We bought him a beer and asked about the latest skirmishes with the national army over the resource-rich area, which is being systematically denied the right to self-government.
Eventually (and unprompted) he asked us the question we were too afraid to try: do we want a photo together? We all looked at each other: yes. YES. Yes we want a photo! Best souvenir of the trek!
At some point mid-beer the soldier’s commander came in, gave the circle of white people around his man a quick once-over and – clearly angry – grabbed him by the ear and dragged him out. Neipai disappeared shortly after, leaving us a bit nervous and unclear on what had just happened.
Luckily a round of whiskey and some more cards put our minds at ease, and like the night before we all passed out well before ten. And we weren’t kidnapped in our sleep, which was also a plus.
Before bed Julien decided he would under no circumstance be the smelly Frenchman, and had us run interference while he took three bottles of water outside and had a discreet shower. The rest of us were resigned to another day of existing in our own filth, working on national stereotypes for the US, the Netherlands and Switzerland. At least we changed our shirts daily.
Day Three: Kaoncor to Holt Mor, 28 km
The next morning we readied for our final descent out of the mountains, back through Shan country and finally to a roadside cafe where we would be collected and returned to Hsipaw.
Before we left Oskar asked if he could buy some tea from the tea collective, but clearly this was a novel idea as there is no consumer market for tea in a land surrounded by it. Eventually he was presented with about a kilo of tea leaves for 1.000 kyat (about $0.80), and was given instructions how to do the final roasting of the leaves upon his return to Sweden. This became a bit problematic when Oskar explained that he didn’t have an open fire in his apartment and the family couldn’t understand how this was possible. How did he make food? After a lot of questions some sort of common-ground instructions were conveyed and we departed.
Neipai had never taken this way out, so he hired a local to show us all the way. We were actually quite lucky he joined us at all on the final day – up until this point we had apparently been hiking at such an unprecedented pace that his knees began to give out. We weren’t sure if this was really us, or more a lack of experience on his side on this route (which, it turns out, was largely a make it up as he went along thing). Either way, he was hurting but clearly needed to finish the hike with us for the sake of his job.
We stopped for Shan noodles in Ohn mn, where we continued to impress Neipai with our appetites by consuming thirteen bowls of noodles among the five of us. Day three covered 28 km, bringing our three-day total up to just shy of 80 km. That’s a lot of noodle-calories!
Back at the guesthouse we all immediately peeled off our clothing and deposited it at the front desk of Lily’s for washing. We each counted up our items and filled out a little sheet indicating what we had and how much it would cost. In a final Orwellian throwback, we pondered if anyone actually deposited a safari suit for washing. At 3.000 kyat it seemed like as good a place as any to have one’s colonial era outfits laundered.
Where in the world is Allison? Up in the hills by Hsipaw in Myanmar (Burma)
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Two years on, I finally wrote down some of my thoughts on our trip. In Dutch though, so use Google Translate if you’re not proficient 🙂