The Mountain Villages of Burma

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November 20th 2012
Published: December 21st 2012
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Cheeky Little FacesCheeky Little FacesCheeky Little Faces

The kids have just seen their photo on Celine's camera
Whilst Yangon was entirely unremarkable, Mandalay seemed to be screaming out to be noticed. The posher districts had gone neon crazy. Why have a small sign saying Shoe Repair when you can have a five-metre flashing neon sign declaring SHOE REPAIR!!! Even the banks had a piece of the action and were lit up like Vegas casinos. Our hotel district on the other hand was all grime and dust, filled with old buildings without any style or charm. However, this brought certain benefits, because at night this area exploded with street food stalls. But these weren't just any street food stalls. These were major operations, with entire kitchens brought onto the streets, and chairs and tables laid out on the pavements. The food was also predominantly Indian. There were enormous vats of biryani, huge pots of mutton curry and vast hot plates with breads sizzling on top. We stuffed our faces and paid little more than $3 for the pleasure.

After our recent difficulties booking accommodation, we decided to engage a local travel agency. Next week we were heading to the more heavily touristed areas, and we didn't want to be stranded and homeless. The lady called a few of
Street KitchenStreet KitchenStreet Kitchen

Dominating the pavement and producing amazing Indian food
our top choices in the Lonely Planet. Fully booked! She then went down the entire list and called each place in turn. All twenty five guesthouses were fully booked, and that was ten days in advance! This was not looking good. She then tried her own list, which unfortunately included government-affiliated places. But they were all booked up too. This was peak season, and tourist numbers were exploding through the roof. There was one sliver of hope - one place had said they might have space, and they would call back later. In the meantime we tried to book a river boat passage for the following week. The 140 capacity boat was already fully booked for the date we wanted. Damn. We managed to book on a different date luckily. Finally, our hotel of hope called back - they had room, but it would be $70 a night. Bloody hell, this was not budget travel. We had no option but to pay it.

We headed from Mandalay to the remote mountain town of Hsipaw. A five hour journey by shared taxi took us through stunning mountain scenery, and our driver did some cunning undertaking and overtaking of lorries that
Off to work Off to work Off to work

These baskets will be full of tea leaves by the end of the day
were struggling uphill. Some of the local men in Hsipaw had named themselves after their businesses, which I found hilarious. The man running the Chinese restaurant was called Mr Food, the guy running the milkshake stall was known as Mr Shake, and the chap who owned the bookshop was called Mr Book. We had also seen a plastic surgery place back in Mandalay called Mr Face.

Because we were close to China, most of the restaurant choices in town where Chinese influenced. As usual, I found some interesting items on the menus, such as pig's head salad, hot and sour pork colon, and "chicken person's nose BBQ". No thank you! One night we ate at a roadside stall, with tables and benches set out. We tried our first Mohinga, which is one of Burma's most famous dishes. It's a thick fishy broth with noodles sprinkled with crispy fried onions. It was damn tasty. When we asked the guy how much it was, we thought we'd misheard. For a huge bowl of delicious noodle soup, he was charging 200 Kyat. We had to ask him several times if this was correct. It was, and it was an unprecedented bargain at

Carrying tiffin boxes of food back to the monastery
the price of 14 pence!! (or 23 cents for you American readers). From that point forward he was known as Mr Noodle.

We were in Hsipaw for the trekking, and signed up to a three day hike with an English couple called Celine and John and a local guide called O-Maung. We would be visiting two ethnic groups, the Shan and the Palaung. Burma is a diverse melting pot of many different ethnic groups. In fact, there are 135 groups which the government recognise! Each have their own traditions, beliefs and values. But it's hard for many of them to maintain them, because modern life is pushing hard at the edges, and the government wants people to confirm to their oppressive standards. For example, the people known as The Chin have a long and proud history of facial tattooing for the women. When a girl reaches puberty, she will have a facial tattoo that starts at her nose and radiates outwards to cover her whole face. These are seen as a mark of beauty and womanhood, and young girls looked forward to their coming of age when they could receive the tattoo. But the government banned this practice in
Thumbs upThumbs upThumbs up

These kids wandered down the road carrying machetes, and played with us for a while
the 1960's, and now the last tattooed women are a small group of elderly ladies who were the last to carry this tradition.

Another example of enforced government change is over the ethnic group known as the The Moken. They are a clan of sea-gypsies, numbering about 3000. They live a nomadic lifestyle at sea, living in wooden boats and drifting around the southern oceans. When the boys come of age, they build their own boat and "move out." When a girl marries, she will leave her parent's boat and live on her husband's boat. It's an interesting and unique lifestyle, but the government is gradually forcing all of the Moken to relocate onto dry land.

With so many ethnic groups packed into one country, Burma was never going to have things easy. Throughout Burmese history there has been turmoil, rebellion and unrest from various groups, aimed at whoever was ruling the country at the time. The British spent decades trying to keep control, with limited success. And the current military government have been engaged in armed conflict for decades with ethnic guerrilla groups and private armies. In fact, there are still large parts of Burma which are not strictly under the control of the Burmese government. Some ethnic groups want their independence, to form their own country. For example, the Chin want to break away from Burma to form (don't laugh now) a country called Chinland. Whereas other groups simply refuse to submit to government rule. An example of this is The Wa. Historically, The Wa were a tough tribal people who lived in fortified villages. They were headhunters and opium traders, and you did not mess with them. The British tried to pacify them and failed. They had a practice of decorating their opium fields with the severed heads of their enemies on spikes. This practice was only recently stopped in the 1970's. They are still heavily into opium growing, and have diversified into methamphetamine production. They control several border areas of Burma which act as a drug trading corridors into neighbouring countries. So how can the Burmese government tolerate this naughty behaviour? Because The Wa have a 30,000 strong army, known as the United Wa State Army. So instead of getting their asses kicked, the government sorted out a ceasefire agreement, and The Wa are allowed special autonomy over their area.

Due to ongoing
Riding with the localsRiding with the localsRiding with the locals

We provided the day's entertainment by climbing aboard their truck and falling inside
armed conflicts with government forces, or fighting between ethnic groups, the areas of Burma which we were allowed to visit were limited. One of the reasons being safety. The other being the government not wanting outsiders to see what was going on in certain parts. This was another factor which made travel hard in a Burma, because the situation constantly changes. For example, we had wanted to visit two cities called Sittwe and Mrauk-U, but as of last week that area was off-limits due to a conflict breaking out. Some areas are "restricted" instead of being forbidden outright. You have to apply for special permits to reach those areas, because they are on the edge of conflict zones. We met a guy from Zimbabwe who applied for a permit and visited a restricted area. He saw young boys in military uniforms on stretchers, with gunshot wounds, being loaded onto boats.

The area we were hiking into was conflict free. The first day was the hardest because it was up up up! With the intense heat my Lobster Cheeks were out. At one point we were passed by a local farm truck, laden with about a dozen people. Zena and
Thank you for liftThank you for liftThank you for lift

After dropping off Zena and I, our farm truck trundles off into the distance
I cheekily climbed aboard, amidst much laughter from the kids on board who thought it was hilarious. We got a lift to the next village and spared ourselves a particularly fierce hill. We passed through various villages and settlements, and it was a great opportunity to view local life. Women washing clothes in streams, people carrying bags of freshly picked tea, dogs were chasing each other along dirt tracks. Two guys were washing their motorbikes in a stream, and when they finished they turned their attention to a nearby water buffalo and washed that as well.

We arrived in the village of Pankam late afternoon, and were welcomed into O-Maung's own house with his wife and two small kids. His wife cooked us a delicious meal consisting of three dishes, in a tiny kitchen over a single wood fire. We learnt that O-Maung was actually the Head Person of his village! What a privilege to have him as a guide and to be welcomed into his home. He was only in his early thirties, and I asked him how he came by this role. Apparently you don't put yourself forward, but are chosen by the village. Every two years,
Local Car WashLocal Car WashLocal Car Wash

And bike wash, buffalo wash, clothes wash....
several worthy people are nominated and the villagers takes a vote. The winning candidate then has a two-year term as Head Person. His duties include resolving disputes, dealing with wrong-doers and looking after village infrastructure. This was O-Maung's third term as Head Person, and in that time he'd got a grant from the government to build a school, and had managed to contact the UNICEF who built a well in the village. I asked him about how he dealt with crime in the village. He said there was virtually no crime, but on the rare occasion it happens, the perpetrator is made to wear a sign around his neck with his crime written on it in large letters. For the next few days he has to wander the village in shame, with the sign around his neck, shouting out to people that they should not commit this crime.

This village was a vast contrast to other villages I had seen in Asia. The houses were made of wood, weaved panels and corrugated iron, but were all in excellent repair. The village was spotlessly clean with not a single piece of litter anywhere. Each home had fences, hedgerow, gardens, shruberries
Hot but happyHot but happyHot but happy

After climbing a steep hill
and trees. Everyone clearly took great pride in their properties. It was a contender for "Burmese Village of the Year 2012". During our three days, every village had been cooking with wood. In fact, 90% of Burma's population relies on firewood for cooking. Each household will use a staggering three tons of firewood per year! That makes for a serious deforestation problem. I asked O-Maung for his thoughts on this. He told me that in his village, they plant a tree for every one that is chopped down. They plant a particular type of tree that grows fast, and in two years it is large enough to be used as firewood. I wasn't convinced that this was enough to meet all the villages demands, but at least they were trying to be sustainable. In other parts of Burma, deforestation is happening at a frightening rate.

During the evening, several other families came over for dinner. They had a young child about 18 months old, and he started crying. Whilst feeding him, they were taking chillies out of the food. But they missed one!! So the poor little kid was red-faced and bawling his eyes out with real tears pouring
Our kind hostsOur kind hostsOur kind hosts

O-Maung and his lovely family
down his face, bless him. A cup of water and some reassuring words eventually calmed him down.

The next morning as were putting on our hiking shoes, i heard Celine say "I've got a spoon in my shoe." That's odd, I thought. Why would someone be hiding cutlery in our footwear? But what she actually said was "there's a stone in my shoe." Only it didn't turn out to be a stone. Or a spoon. She removed her foot to discover a scorpion in there! A real live scorpion, compete with stingy tail. After a brief shriek, the scorpion was banged out of the shoe and we all started frantically searching our own shoes for stingy beasties. I was about to write that I don't like scorpions. But that would be pretty obvious. I mean, who does? It's the same with dentists. Whenever a trip to the dentist is mentioned in conversation , there is always someone who pipes up with the obvious and useless comment "I hate going to the dentists." Of course you do! No-one chooses to go because they like it!! So there we have it. Scorpions and dentists. The two of the least liked things

Found in Celine's shoe
on the planet. But you´ll only find one of them in your shoes.

Our second day of hiking took us into the villages of the Shan people. Different customs, and a different language. Whereas the Palaung villages we visited yesterday were frequented by many tourists on day hikes, these Shan villages were relatively unaccustomed to Western visitors. According to O-Maung, they only had ten groups of visitors in the past year. So we were a curiosity. We reached the main area of one village and were nearly swept over by a tidal wave of kids who came running to see us. We took photos of them and showed them the pictures. They surrounded us and jumped around in glee with the happiest smiles on their faces, each kid jostling and pushing to get to the front.

When we reached our final village where we would rest our heads, we noticed that the houses were much larger and made of brick. In fact, the whole village had houses of a higher standard, yet were further away from civilisation. This area was not even accessible by vehicles, yet there was clearly more money here. O-Maung revealed that all the families
Climbing Higher and HigherClimbing Higher and HigherClimbing Higher and Higher

Sweeping mountain views made the steep climbs worthwhile
in this area used to be opium farmers, which was big business. The family we stayed with had a young baby, and I asked what he was called. O-Maung had to translate because no-one in the house spoke English. The baby had no name yet. He was due to be named by the monks at the weekend. This was a fascinating revelation, that parents don't choose the name for their own child. Apparently, the day of the week will determine what letter your name will begin with, and then the monks will choose the actual name. In addition, I learnt that the "O" at the start of O-Maung´s name is a title which incicates his age. When he becomes older, he will become U-Maung.

Spending time in the villages and observing their lives was very humbling. They were leading simple lives without any of the trappings of the modern world. They washed their clothes by hand, they grew their own fruit and vegetables, and they went to bed by 10pm. They had no electric appliances, gadgets or computers. Money and material possesions meant nothing. It was all about family, working hard and helping your community. They had so little
Laundry DayLaundry DayLaundry Day

The time-honoured practice of washing clothes in the river
and yet were amongst the happiest people I have ever seen. Makes you think doesn´t it?

Additional photos below
Photos: 29, Displayed: 29



Aren't they cute? There were another three wandering around nearby.
Impressive Bamboo Weaving Impressive Bamboo Weaving
Impressive Bamboo Weaving

A typical house in Pankam village
Brother and SisterBrother and Sister
Brother and Sister

Sitting back and watching village life
Albino BuffaloAlbino Buffalo
Albino Buffalo

You don't see many of these. Maybe it's just a normal buffalo that's been to the hairdresser for a bleach
Cooking up a stormCooking up a storm
Cooking up a storm

This is the entire kitchen! O-Maung's wife cooked fabulous feasts in such a limited space
The English CountrysideThe English Countryside
The English Countryside

The start of our walk on Day 1. Could easily be a riverside walk in England
Flippin' Huge TreeFlippin' Huge Tree
Flippin' Huge Tree

Look at Zena underneath for scale

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