It wasn’t difficult to pack for a 2D1N trek. Our guide Jo Yin had already given us a rough idea of what to expect. Even though I’m not obsessed with cleanliness, staying in a tropical hilltribe village does pose a bit of a challenge for someone who is more into alpine treks than jungle treks. I love pine trees and alpine meadows, snow-capped peaks and rocky trails. I don’t like the heat, the humidity, the rain and the mud that remind me of NS days.
Still, hilltribe treks in Myanmar are probably the last authentic hilltribe treks on the planet. The trekker feels more like a guest than a customer. These are not hotels. They are real houses where people still live. While food is prepared and served, life goes on in the village. It’s an opportunity not to be missed. Given a choice, I would definitely choose to trek in the coldest season as some of the smells wafting from certain quarters of these houses would be more bearable.
By 09:00, the car was waiting and we were ready to move out. We drove out of town and heading in the direction Lashio, we were soon back on the road which brought me to Hsipaw. About half an hour into the ride, we made a right turn towards the mountains, passing a temple. Miho and Clement expressed interest and Jo Yin promised to bring us there on the way back. The road started getting bumpy here, slowly turning into a mud track meandering through browning cornfields.
About an hour from Hsipaw, we had climbed to a Shan village surrounded by cornfields and sparsely vegetated hills. We had some snacks and coffee at the local convenience store. I was surprised by the variety of goods here. They even had luxuries like candy and potato chips. Such things were hard to come by even in the towns 15 years ago.
It’s time to start trotting. The mud track narrowed down to a footpath, but the gradient was mostly flat. For those first couple of hours, it seemed like a walk in the park, an easy stroll through the cornfields which soon gave way to rice fields. Jo Yin showed us a special kind of black-husked glutinous rice. However, this is not pulut hitam for only the husk is black. Once you peel it back, you’ll find a very fragrant white grain. And it was a very familiar fragrance of puer tea. I realised where nuo mi xiang got its unique fragrance from.
But this is hilltribe territory. There are commercial interests and the people do sell their produce to the towns and cities, but productivity goes in tandem more with needs than with targets and ambition. The only plants that really dominated the scene were the wild sunflowers. Evidence of cultivation and exploitation is muted. A few stream crossings later, we came to a beautiful waterfall. It was not particularly impressive in terms of size, but it was beautiful, a gushing, sparkling gem in the middle of the luxuriant jungle.
The trek began to get serious. There were no slopes as steep as stairs, but days was starting to get warm and fatigue did set in. We came to a Palaung village, one of the biggest in the area and visited a school here. The children, in their white and green uniforms, were delighted to see us. It was their recess time. They gathered around us out of pure fascination and curiosity. In spite of the language barrier, we shared a joyous moment exchanging smiles and laughter.
Recess was soon over. The children returned to their very spacious classroom, zealously reciting the multiplication tables. I knew that because I had learned the numbers in Burmese. There was a rather unfamiliar kind of energy within this school compound. The facilities are rudimentary in comparison to ours. The students here may not score very well in PISA tests, but the pure joy of learning was so palpable.
Leaving the school, we came to our lunch stop. Happily, it was not Burmese cuisine that we were served. It was something far simpler and tastier. The rice wasn’t premium, but fresh vegetables and eggs with simple, unpretentious condiments never tasted so good. After lunch, I went outside to play with the kids. None of the them had any mobile phone or electronic games. Because of that, they were so happy to have someone to play with.
The walk was a lot more pleasant after a good meal and some serious rehydration. This was Palaung country – Jo Yin’s backyard. The Palaung people occupy parts of Shan state Myanmar, Yunnan China and Northern Thailand. In China, they are known as the De Ang 德昂族 people. The video below is a piece of Chinese propaganda on how the CCP has helped the De Ang people in Yunnan with promoting hilltribe tourism. Take it with a huge lump of salt.
It was only in the last 20 years that Palaung people started appearing in Northern Thailand. They were a huge attraction as they were new and less established than the other tribes like the Karen, Hmong and Shan. Back then, there were no Palaung guides in Thailand. Trekkers there also had a whole load of misinformation from their Thai guides who were themselves quite clueless about where the Palaung people came from. Those in Northern Thailand came from Shan state in Myanmar, the top reason being to escape war or forced conscription by the insurgent army. Jo Yin has a somewhat unusual family history. His grandfather was Chinese. They have been disowned by the tribe. Luckily people are more open-minded these days.
The trail climbed higher and higher until we reached an exposed ridge. There was a white stupa here overlooking distant mountains laced with white clouds and plunging valleys, many of which were still relatively untouched by man. Next to the stupa was a bamboo shelter, complete with mat and wooden pillow for those who wish to take a breather.
We descended from the ridge, entering the forest again. It was an hours’ walk to the village below. Called Bangkup, that would be our night stop. Our temporary abode was a wooden house on stilts. Mattresses, blankets and mosquito nets were provided. Tea and biscuits were served. We sat on plastic chairs in the courtyard and as we rested out our tired feet, one of the family’s buffaloes sauntered in.
We arrived at Bangkap just in time to watch the village’s tea processing. This is an actual tea processing in the village and not one that is staged for tourists. A short walk brought us to the village’s tea processing plant. There were four main stations at the plant. The first was the tea collection station where each family’s harvest is placed in line for the processing. The next station is the steaming station. The leaves are placed in a basket over a pot of boiling water to be steamed. After that, the leaves placed into a manual crusher. Anyone can join in, including tourists. The steamed leaves are poured into a funnel in the middle. The crusher is suspended by ropes with only a tiny gap between it and the board below. The device is then rocked by the crushing team. Leaves fall through the funnel, get nominally crushed by the device and swept out from the edge. It was fun to watch as the workers all seemed to be enjoying themselves.
The crushed tea leaves are then placed into vats. For green tea, the leaves are dried the next day. For black tea, the leaves are left to ferment for at least three days before they are dried.
After the eye-opening experience at the tea processing plant, we returned to the house for dinner. We had the same delicious fresh vegetables and this time, even chicken. Yes, it’s free range. By then, it was pretty much pitch dark outside. It was challenge to take a bath in the outdoor bathroom, no so much because the water was cold, but seeing what you’re doing and not getting your fresh clothes wet. The only way to tell people who are approaching that the bathroom is occupied in the daytime, is to sing as you bathe. With the benefit of torch illumination at night, bathroom singing is not necessary.
After our shower, we sat around a fire at the courtyard and to our surprise, beer was served. Unfortunately, it was Chinese beer with the usual 2% alcohol. Chatting by a fire brings people closer together. I got to know Clement (pronounced cleemon) and Miho better. Even on the previous night when we were discussing the trek, the couple struck me as being very articulate and street smart people. How did they meet? Well, they met while they were both backpacking in Thailand. She was an office lady from Okinawa. He was a mover in France. I was not at all surprised. While backpacking throughout Asia, I came across quite a number of European construction workers who were even more articulate and knowledgeable than some of my peers. What’s more, they exude confidence and charisma.
It often boggles the mind when I see Bangladeshi workers in Singapore having little trouble getting romantically involved (with a mind-blowing sex life to boot) while so many of our men, both young and old, are lonely and involuntarily celibate. What is it about Singaporean men that makes them so terribly unattractive to our local girls? Would someone with a job like Clement’s ever get lucky in Singapore?
Sleep came easily, thanks to the great daytime workout, but sunrise the next morning was marred by rain. We had breakfast and Miho had a go at traditionally prepared thanaka. We packed our stuff and thankfully, the rain stopped. We bade everyone at the house farewell and visited the village temple. It was clean and beautifully adorned with murals depicting the life of Sakyamuni. As we were about to leave the village, an elderly villager stopped us and insisted that we had a cup of tea at his home.
The tea was mediocre, but the old man’s hospitality touched our hearts. He was so eager to tell us stories of his younger days. If only I had the time, I would have sat there all day with Jo Yin translating for me. We were soon on our way, passing numerous tea plantations. The plants were so sparsely planted with grasses and shrubs in between that you would need to look quite closely to tell that it’s a plantation. Herds of buffaloes wandered freely among the tea trees.
Soon, we came to a sentry post guarded by a soldier. Jo Yin warned us not to take any pictures. This was Shan army controlled territory. At the sentry post, we were asked to enter our name, nationality and age. I still have no idea why they wanted our age. Once past the sentry, we came to another large Palaung village. As expected, Jo Yin brought us to the local convenience store. Coffee and snacks were served.
Leaving the village, we encircled the mountains on trails running along the hillsides. Brilliant wild sunflowers burst out on the former poppy fields. Then, the skies which have been threatening us with rain since we left the convenience store decided to make good on the promise. It didn’t actually pour at first, but I was glad I had my trusty brolly. A group of three soldiers suddenly came up from behind us. We were surprised how silent they were. They just smiled and continued patrolling the area. Their uniforms were smart and new. They wore sneakers but were armed with 56式自动步枪 (Chinese AK 47) and 81式自动步枪 .
At our rest stop at a village with a temple that was somewhat out of place deep in the mountains, the rain grew heavier. We decided to seek shelter here and enjoy the company of friendly and mischievous children. As rain was not in season then, it didn’t take more than an hour before it stopped. We walked down a path on a relatively exposed ridge and descended to another sentry post. We exited the Shan army controlled area.
We soon came across a wide mud track which obviously catered to vehicular traffic. The track descended until the familiar corn fields came into view. We were back in the Shan village, but it was still quite a walk before we reached the convenience store. We were a little late because of the rain. Our driver had been waiting for us. This time, lunch was served and thankfully, it was also done “mountain style” and not Shan or Burmese style.
On the way out, Jo Yin pointed out a cave in the distance. Apparently, a hermit was living there. He’s an ex-convict and he decided to live outside the village, alone in his cave after he was released from prison.
We visited a distillery but the very “traditional” equipment didn’t make the bottled product look very appetising. As promised, Jo Yin brought us to the temple we passed the day before. The stupa at the centre is believed to be more than 2,000 years old. Over the years, successive layers have been built over it. Today, the temple is an ornate structure decorated with thousands of pieces of mirrors.
To make our trip even more worthwhile, Jo Yin exceeded our expectations by bringing us to a waterfall. Unlike the waterfall in the jungle, this one was partly artificial, fashioned to provide photo opportunities for couples getting married. Nevertheless, it was still worth a visit as it provided a window to some local habits and behaviour.
It was dusk when we arrived at Lily Guesthouse. We thanked Jo Yin for the excellent work and went our separate ways. I showered, then headed off to Mr Food for dinner and a nice, cold beer.