My Burma days TREKKING around KENGTUNG

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Asia » Burma
April 10th 2011
Saved: August 24th 2014
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I’ll start letting you know what happened 4 hours after I left Kengtung:

My plane took off from Kengtung, very close to Tachelet at 2:45pm. At 6:45pm, already in Inle Lake area, while I was having dinner at Smiling Moon, chatting with Pepe and Silvia from Spain, I started to feel very strange. Seconds later, Pepe looked weird, we looked at each other and he shouted: “Earthquake”. The 3 of us run to the streets, from where we could see the lampshades swinging from side to side. The earth moving stopped but we stood there for a while, in panic, without knowing if that was it, or more would come. Calm restored and thinking positively, I suggested: “This was just a tiny earthquake and this is probably common here, as most people didn’t run outside”.
Back to the restaurant we went, but by now my appetite was gone by now.

I went to the internet and posted “a tiny earthquake happened”. In bed at around 10, I felt 2 smaller ones, and throughout the next day, I felt “funny” on and off, feeling the smaller after-shocks. When I asked around where the earthquake was, I was
Akha Woman with traditional silver headpieceAkha Woman with traditional silver headpieceAkha Woman with traditional silver headpiece

The larger balls on the side represent # of kids she has, except for first one given by her mom.
told it was “high up north” and no one seemed to know anything else. Then, I was told 47 people died. The next day, from facebook, I got news that it had been a 7.0 scale earthquake. Only 4 days later I found out the epicenter was actually in Tachelet, where my plane had a stop-over, and only 40 miles from where I was staying and trekking, just 4 hours before. What a close call!!! I called my guide to see if he was okay, and he announced that 3 members of his family died and 4 were injured and in the hospital.

To give you an idea of how isolated travelers are while in this country, even 4 days later I was still breaking the news about the quake to people who had not heard of it at all, although they were right here in Myanmar. On the 5th day, I saw a man with a local newspaper with pictures of the destruction. A woman told me: “government says 70 people died but BBC radio said 111.” 265 houses down, 11 monasteries and 9 government buildings. Very sad that this happened in a very poor area within a poor country.
(“Despite being one of the 50 poorest nations, Burma is last in per-capita aid” due to economic sanctions and also government’s restrictions which curb even efforts by well intentioned NGOs".)

Now, stories from before the quake:


Located close to the border of Thailand and Laos, and the capital of the Golden Triangle, Kengtung (Chen-dong) was my next destination after Yangon. Travelers are not permitted to reach it by road, (due to insurgencies, opium trading…) ”Not safe for tourists”, 2 Russians abducted years ago”, I was told, once already there!!! So, taking a plane there is the only option, and not a simple one. I was about to give up visiting the area, because the agencies kept telling me “impossible to go”, when finally an agent wrote: “found you tickets.”

Thus, due to the very difficult logistics and cost to reach this intriguing enclave of hill-tribes, very few tourists venture to the area. What I didn’t expect, however, was to be THE ONLY foreign tourist in town, literally. When I boarded the plane in Yangon, there were 5 foreigners, but they all deplaned at the first stop-over. During the next 2 stops, only locals came in and out of the plane, but I was certain that once in Kengtung, there would be others. Well, not a single one, fact confirmed by the immigration officer at my departure.

Once I landed on the small air strip and was glad to see my guide was at the miniscule airport to greet me. I took a shared tuk-tuk to the Law Ye Chain Hotel, where we planned my trekking for the next days, and he copied my passport to get the permit needed from ” the officials.” Every day we had to get a government permit before going to the mountains, and we have to be back at the check-point by 6:30pm.

My guide insisted on taking me on his motorcycle for a tour of the small city which has 48 monasteries. Monks wear both orange and maroon robes, the orange due to Thai influence.

Later, I couldn’t find any restaurant to have dinner, and as I set disillusioned over a cup of instant Chinese noodles at the hotel lobby, the hotel owner and his family were about to have their supper on a table nearby and sent me a bowl of their hot pot meal and some rice. The next day they insisted that I joined their table for dinner, with grandma and all, and by coincidence one of the plates had a Brazilian flag!! Can’t say their Chinese food was that good, although healthy, but I was in no position to be picky and I made the most of the experience and their generosity.

The permit office only opens at 8am. So, I met my guide everyday at 7am to head to the busy street market to buy medicine, dried fish, soap, and crackers to donate at the hill ethnic villages. Many villagers in traditional costumes shopped among the locals at the market, making it a very colorful event.

The trekking starts far from the town, so I hired a taxi (35,000 Kyats/day) to take us to the bottom of the mountains. We passed the security point to show my permit and were reminded that I must pass back to the security point by determined time.


We started the trek thru the beautiful landscape, dotted with this tree with lovely white flower which is eaten cooked. “2 leaves, share one heart”, Mr K told me as he described the leaves of the tree. We met several women plotting the land under the scorching hot sun, some all alone on the field, some in groups of 3 to 5. Mr K recognized them, asked about their lives and of any illness in their families. If any was sick, we dispensed medicine.


After we trekked for about an hour, we reached an animist village, which is “life primitive”. There were several scattered spirit symbols around the grounds of old stilt huts. The dogs barked announcing strangers were coming. Teen age girls wearing the traditional black tunics and metal armlets and many kids gathered around us. They just stared at me. More kept on coming, many with babies cared on slings and breastfeeding. Finally, 2 women came, wearing the black long skirts, black shirts and head scarves with a roll of small shells. They announced that all the men were away hunting for 3 days, except for the Shaman, and that the women were taking part in a ceremony: 4 women from a nearby tribe have come with a bamboo tray of vegetables and sauces as offerings to be shared with all, going from house to house, since the Shaman’s wife had died 2 weeks earlier. We were invited to join them.

As I walked into the dark wood stilt house, several women in traditional costumes and many kids set on the floor, around a small round table with the round tray of offerings. They invited me to seat with them by the food but I respectfully declined, preferring to seat just outside the circle, like many kids and some other women did. I didn’t want to interfere with their ceremony and traditions, but merely observe it. An elder approached me with a head scarf, like theirs, and rolled it around my head. Next they put bracelets on my arms and hang a pair of typical earrings on my ears. They all had a good time, giggling as they looked at this weird looking white woman.

Most of the women had VERY black teeth, stained every 2 weeks with the remains from the oven cooked branches of a certain tree. The chief’s wife, who was affectionately caring for her grandson, showed me how she blackens her teeth. A small brick oven is put on top of the fire, with the small pieces of branches. The result of the whole process is a pitch black smile, which they all seem proud to wear.
The reasons for the tradition:
-Sign that the woman is engaged or married;
-For beauty (Beauty is relative, right?);
-To protect the teeth.

The same wood smoke is used to preserve baskets, so I guess it does have a “protective” effect of some sort. In a land without fluoridated water or tooth brushing, why not? If it works, it's worth.

Next we went to the Shaman’s house where we sat for quite a while, chatting and eating. That’s when I found out about a second reason for the ladies’ visit to the village: One of them is a widow and came to meet the Shaman, who is a brand new widower. He shared, with a shy yet big smile, which showed all his blacken teeth, that he was embarrassed to meet her today because his face was swollen after having been stung by a bee. Both newly single elders seem to be interested on becoming a couple! How easy and quick is that? No need for long period of mourning or online dating. After a couple of weeks, ready for engagement!!!!

I asked about their funeral tradition :
After the death, it takes 1 to 2 days for the burial to take place, according to the Shaman’s decision. The body is placed on top of bamboo logs and then wrapped with bamboo strings, attaching it to the logs. The body is carried by the men to a burial site while the women stay indoors, with the doors and windows closed. One woman, the chief’s wife, who I met, does the crying.

There are several sacrifice huts for the ancestor at the entrance of the tribe, one per family. There are about 12 families in this village.

During lunch, at the terrace of the Shaman’s house, he brought an opium plant, which they eat raw with a strong chili sauce. I tried a tiny piece of a leaf: grassy and a little bitter tasting. No thank you very much. I passed.

The Shaman decides everything, from babies’ names to wedding and funeral dates. He conducts the biggest festivities during the November’s full moon, when the fertility ceremony happens. An unmarried couple is chosen by him to demonstrate how to make
Smiles or different colors...Smiles or different colors...Smiles or different colors...

but all smiles, and shared with the same meaning.
love, in front of everybody, to illustrate to all how they can give continuity to their community. Procreation is extremely important for this people. If a woman doesn’t give birth by the 3rd year of marriage, on the fertility ceremony night she sleeps under the fertility altar inside the fertility hut, in the hopes to get impregnated. If it doesn’t happen, the husband can take another wife.

(Animist people around the area sacrifice twins or babies born with birth defect, since they believe the spirit made it happen.” Twins are for animals, not people.” The babies are than sacrificed on top of 2 banana leaves, having ashes and then rice husk placed in their mouths for suffocation. The parents have to live in the forest for a month and when they come back, they must sacrifice an animal at the entrance of the village, and another in the middle of it. (Nowadays, babies are rescued by neighboring village people and taken to the orphanage in Kengtung, before they can be killed).

Time to resume our trekking came, and it wasn't long before we reached another ANN village, but it was VERY distinct from than the previous one. This
In hut of the Ann peopleIn hut of the Ann peopleIn hut of the Ann people

I was warmly welcomed, despite the language barrier and distinct culture.
group has only one chief, who is from the WA tribe (thus called a Wa Baptist village, but its people is truly Ann). They have been converted from animism to Christianity (Baptist). They are more educated and have better hygiene standards (the guide’s NGO has constructed an outdoor bathroom for each stilt home with the help from foreigners ($100 each bathroom).

We set on a porch with a young mother with sad eyes, her baby and another teen. They have both been sick, so we gave them some medicine and extra food to the one breastfeeding her tiny baby.
Early afternoon, on the trek again for about an hour, we passed through a pond where kids were playing and bathing. They waved and came out running, naked, as Mr. K shouted we had some crackers for them. An Eng woman attended to a small terrace garden set nearby and another came along caring a lost puppy.

AN AKHA VILLAGE with 6 chiefs was our next destination.

First we encountered a woman busy making a roof from palm leaves while attending to one of her many children. She wore a stunning headpiece made of silver and filled with meaningful pieces attached to it, representing her current status (married), number of children, wealth, etc. After chatting for a while, we headed to a hut where we stayed for a bit, escaping from the castigating sun and making conversation with 3 women and 3 boys. They were all very friendly and inviting.

Going back to the trek, now with the heat beating very hard on us, we encounter 3 young men, not from this area, on 3 motorcycles, packed beyond capacity with bags of tamarind, a fruit very common around Burma. Mr K made small talk with them, got me a couple of tamarinds and later explained to me their intention. They buy the harvest of tamarind trees, to be used in “cutting” opium, since both look alike. That intimidated me a little, to know that people involved on the opium trade was just around me… but they left and we kept on trekking, meeting kids and women caring wood in huge baskets on their backs.

At the next village, we encountered a group of women, each with a baby breastfeeding. Some other small children were right by them. Large families and starting to procreate early is the norm here, and a very common question is: “How many have you?” 7 and 9 are common answers, referring to the # of kids. We distributed medicine to all, but more to the ill ones, crackers for the children and dried fish for all.

A SHAN VILLAGE Was reached at the end of the day:

This ethnic group is better off. They’re the largest minority group in Burma. This village make rice wine at a very basic factory by a stream, and are good gardeners, planting in rice terraces. They employ other minorities to do the work on the land while they are very busy making the strong booze.

We arrived back to the car shortly after, ending our first day of trekking, and drove to the “police check point” right on time.

Back in town, a shower to get off all the dust, and as I was heading out of the hotel praying for an internet connection, the owners called me and insisted that I had dinner at their table. And so I went.
At night, the power went off, and I had to put my flashlights to good use. Power shortage is VERY common all over the country.

The next day promised to be a much more intense trekking day to very remote villages. Since the internet wasn't working, anyways, to bed I went... with power failure.

Till next blog from the hills Myanmar.

Additional photos below
Photos: 44, Displayed: 32

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At Ann TribeAt Ann Tribe
At Ann Tribe

Food brought in by village neighbors because a woman died 2 weeks before.
Ceremony at Ann Hut .Ceremony at Ann Hut .
Ceremony at Ann Hut .

The light is from the flash.
Ceremony at Ann HutCeremony at Ann Hut
Ceremony at Ann Hut

In the dark one-room home, the women shared the vegetables brought by women from nearby village.
Lunch including...Lunch including...
Lunch including...

coca leaves with chili sauce, which I did't eat.

Comments only available on published blogs

11th April 2011

You have a very nice writing style
Lovely photos....I love this blog.
11th April 2011

Glad you enjoy the blog. Keep an eye on upcoming entries... I'm working on some others from Myanmar. "Tchau" for now.
11th April 2011

very interesting
I like the pictures and your comments. This place is now in my list. Thank you for sharing. Love from Argentina. Graciela.
11th April 2011

Interesting stories!
I love your trek to these remote areas, particularly your account of local culture. Travel is always more interesting that way. :)
11th April 2011
Akha Woman with traditional silver headpiece

wow that is a lot of children ;-)
11th April 2011

hey girls...
Hana and Graciela. So nice to know you have "been blog-traveling" with me. I have much more to report on my Burmese days. Keep tuned up... Take care, Patricia
15th April 2011

Again a really interesting blog and photos, such an interesting country
19th April 2011
Akha Woman with traditional silver headpiece

Fantastic Photo!
Hi. I love this shot. Anything that captures such an expressive face is #1 to me! Cheers and happy travels.
20th April 2011

Sharing both ways
Capturing expressions, feeling and experiences and sharing with other is part of the joy of travelling. Getting such a nice feedback is an added perk. Thanks, Andrea.
28th February 2013

confused about how many days you did all this traveling
Dear Bogger- A little confused by your blog since I only see a heading that says Day 1, where are the other days description of travels. Natan
2nd March 2013

day 2...
you click at bottom or top of blog page on the "next Entry"
3rd March 2013

Thanks for your entry. I am about to head off for a journey to Burma including Kengtung. I was in the hills of northern Thailand in the mid 1980's and this seems to be very similar. Would it be possible to get the name of the guide you used? Beautiful entry and beautiful photos.
4th March 2013

Mr Paul
Mary "Mr Paul" was my guide. I have lost contact with him since he, like most people in Burma, change emails constantly. One of the main hotels may know how to get a hold of him. Good luck and let me know how it turns out, ok?
20th May 2013

Thanks for sharing this wonderful blog!!! I like your writing style.
Check out this Burma [url=]Blog[/url] [url=]Blog My Trip[/url] [edited: 2013 May 20 14:46 - BlogMyTrip:265427 ]

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