The hillside village trek is the reason why we came to Hsipaw. It is one of the most northern towns that a tourist can reach without government guides, special permits, and a lot of spare time and money. We had hoped it would be a bit cooler than other parts of Myanmar, but it seemed to just get hotter the longer we were in the country, no matter where we went.
We stayed in the only hotel in town that is licensed to house foreigners, Mr. Charles Guest House. We signed up for the only tour they offered, with the only guide on staff, JoJo, who appeared to be somewhere between 60 and 100 years old. I was apprehensive, to say the least. The fact that we couldn’t comparison shop or choose our own guide was bad enough, but the fact that our guide looked like he might not make it past the first hill made me wonder how much fun the trip would be. (NOTE: there were other hikers leaving our hotel with other guides, so we must have just had limited options because we signed up so late in the evening the night before).
Fun-time with noodles! We watched a local man at the noodle factory on our way out of town.
Traffic on the path
All concerns were laid to rest within minutes of starting our hike. We were joined by a pair of travelers, Lena from Germany, and Pavel, from New Zealand via the check Republic (although he learned English in Scotland, making for some hilarious misunderstandings over his unique accent). They were traveling together, but seemed to have only met days before. We couldn’t quite peg whether they were just travel buddies or more cozy than that, but figured that we really didn’t care. Lena was a little off my wavelength; she was a pretty blonde 20-year old who had just come from India and was equipped with wide-eyed enthusiasm and about half a wardrobe. I was shocked by her lack of awareness in terms cultural sensitivity and propriety, especially since she liked to talk about learning new cultures and treading lightly. But I guess I’m just getting a little less charitable as I get older. R identified with her idealism and reminded me that we were all 20 once. The difference is that he used to wear hemp overalls and I’ve always thought that hippies needed a big dose of reality. Despite our differences, our little group got along just fine and JoJo turned out to be the absolute MAN!
JoJo, looking dapper the day after our hike.
R chats (under the portable shade of an umbrella) with our young, under-dressed companion
Laundry day at the monastery we passed along the way
They’re still warming up to us…
We didn’t find out most of this until later, but JoJo’s wife is half British, half Burmese and speaks English fluently. Jojo learned English as a younger man and the pair of them taught their children English as well (a rarity in Myanmar outside the tourism industry). He was funny, irreverent, and well versed in village life, modern Burmese culture, and kept up with Western ideas and customs. He was informative, but always tailored his spiels to our questions and interests. We felt totally comfortable asking him how to behave appropriately and he would constantly come up with scraps of information to explain or enhance a meeting or view or just generally give us a sense of place. We couldn’t have asked for a better guide and he was a riot of fun, too. On our way out of town, he stopped so that we could stock up on water- very necessary in that kind of heat- but he, himself, picked up 2 liters of what he called ‘medicine’, but we discovered was rice liquor as he plied us with drink after drink later that night.
‘My other car’s a horse’
View from the top: fields waiting for the rain
Village along the way; tea leaves out to dry- quick work in this heat
The hike was longer and more challenging than I had expected, but I think that the difficulty lay mostly in the incredible heat. We frequently passed villagers on their way to and from Hsipaw to the various hillside towns and we took plenty of breaks in the shade to rest. JoJo was 100% up to the task, but was aware of our limitations. I was definitely ready to call it a day by the time we arrived at the village of Pankam, especially after an out-of-nowhere rain storm soaked us all to the bones.
One of the lovely local ladies, smiling for the camera
Posing for the photos
Everyone’s a critic; Pavel shows his subject his portrait
Cross-section of a banana tree
Woman in traditional clothing piles up tea leaves to sort and dry
City view. The tower in the distance is a monastic cell for multiple day meditation sessions.
We stayed with the village chief, who can’t be much older than we are (early thirties) and his wife and two children. They regularly host backpackers coming through with guides and the chief even works as a guide for Mr. Charles Guest House when he is not busy tending to his crops, proving village chiefs are just like us! This whole set-up is listed in the Lonely Planet guide and we were a little nervous that it was going to be just another check on the tourist list, but we found that O Maung (the chief) and his family were gracious, fun-loving and fantastic cooks. We never got the sense that we were just the latest visitors on the conveyor belt and they were completely willing to answer our questions (in English!), something that we would not be able to find in a more remote village.
O Maung and his wife, whose name I didn’t get, but whose cooking was fabulous!
There was no running water, although a UN team had come to the village to build a well several years before, so there was at least a steady source of clean water. There was also no electricity, which lead to an atmospheric dinner by candlelight. O Maung’s wife set out a solar panel once the sky cleared up, which the family used to run simple lights, although they didn’t have them on during our stay, which was fine with us. R and I started to wonder about the practicability of powering a house on solar panels. We have heard of eco-minded homeowners in the US paying tens of thousands of dollars to trick out their roofs with solar paneling, but there was no way these villagers were paying any kind of premium for the panels. We were half-way tempted to pick up a few for ourselves in the market as we passed through Yangon, but we sobered up and realized that we as of yet have no home to power.
Our arrival happily coincided with the new moon, which is one of two days these villagers take off from working their fields each month (the other being the full moon). There is a religious significance to the moon phases and all villagers (except the handful of Christians) head to the Buddhist temple in the early morning for prayers. The chief’s house just so happened to be right next door to the temple, so we woke to hear sounds of old women making their way in ones and two to the temple, loaded down with baskets of offerings. R got up super early to take photos (we were assured over and over that this was okay, even though we were both kind of uneasy about photographing what seemed like such an intimate ceremony. The chief put our fears to rest by saying that most villagers considered it ‘good luck’ to be photographed by visitors. Whether or not that is strictly true, we were greeted with nothing but smiles and waves and never felt like we were intruding, especially when the kids arrived in packs and practically smothered R and his camera with their photogenic antics.) I had a harder time getting up after the late-night karaoke session at the neighbor’s house (we just watched), but at least I beat JoJo getting up- he had so much ‘medicine’ the night before that it practically cured his ability to walk straight.
A Buddhist nun prays at the temple next door
Early morning prayers
Local women with their offerings
View of the small temple in candlelight
A moment of prayer
Still learning their lines
The head monk prays behind a handheld screen; even though there is no electricity in town, the villagers find a way to light up the neon halo for ceremonies
If the whole monk thing doesn’t work out, he’s got backup skills
We spent a good chunk of the morning taking photos and visiting with villagers as they passed by on their way to and from the temple. We were all totally bowled over by the hospitality of the whole town. I hope that the villagers are all sharing in the profit of these tours, since we were never once asked for extra money or pressured to buy souvenirs (there was no such opportunity in town, even if we had wanted to!). R and I opted to split off from JoJo and the Europeans when they headed to the waterfall, since we had already visited the day before and we were looking forward to a shower and doing some laundry (by hand, naturally). Pavel and Lena caught up with us later that night to tell us that a group of Chinese tourists had visited the waterfall the day before and one of their party had drowned. It was surreal, since the water seemed shallow enough to push off the bottom, but it was so murky with mud that it is impossible to see more than an inch below the surface. It was sobering news and a reminder to watch out for ourselves in a country that is still learning how to host tourism.
R, surrounded by village kids
The cutest girl in town, wearing thanaka bark for sun protection
If you keep making that face it’ll get stuck that way!