Breaking Burma Day 94: Trekking Through Shan State

I woke up at the early hour of five o’clock and met Julia, one of the Germans from last night for the walk to the market. Some people were on the street but otherwise it was quite dead. Even with a map I could not seem to find the market and hated the fact that my to wake up so early would be wasted. Shortly after, I found the market at the first sign of legitimate life. Villagers young and old were selling their vegetables, fruits, and meats spanned out on mats that either sat on the ground or their own handmade half meter high wooden tables. As expected we were the only white people in sight but no one seemed to mind. I regretted not bringing my money with me since the strawberries appeared a lively deep red. The market ran the length of one street and even ventured back into a covered section so many items needed to be sold. We walked up and down the street a few times so that I could take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the early morning hustle and bustle occurring before me. The most memorable part of the market was easily the precariously balancing motorcycles and tuk-tuks which were carrying a wide variety of goods that were ready to be sold. The small bags of goods hung from every last hook available to the point you could not recognize it as a motorbike. Once back at Mr. Charles Guesthouse, I fueled up on a buffet breakfast, a rare find in quality and quantity compared to the toast, butter, and boiled egg that seems regular. We began the trek as a group of seven including our 22 year old guide called Tun Tun. The group was composed of a 42 year old Norwegian who has been traveling for over a couple of years, a 57 year old Italian woman traveling solo in Myanmar (I got to practice some of my novice Italian with her while I tried to be patient with her as her English was limited), an oddly hilarious 24 year old German guy named Max, a 25 year old Australian couple Adam and Kate who are doing a sort of round the world trip, and yours truly. Our first stop of the trek was a visit to a Shan noodle factory to see the machines they use to create the noodles that go into the famous soup, many of which hanged outside to dry. From there, the trek truly began as we passed Shan villages and their people culling their crops. We learned the Shan word for hello as ‘my-son-ka’. Most of the fields were filled with soya beans but eventually led to many tea leaf plants that dotted the hillside. The trek was oppressively hot but expected. However, most disappointedly the views were less than stellar as much of the ground lay barren or a pale green. Besides not being the main season it also happened to be the burning period so much of the land was covered in ash so that the land could be turned over for the next season’s crops. Besides the occasional villager on the path, we ran across several buffaloes, the work horses of the villages. In the first village that we stopped for a test break we watched a girl under the age of ten riding a buffalo while waving in our direction with the biggest smile like an over proud cowgirl. The two initial villages on our path did not have enough resources on their own so they work together and share a monastery and school to which each village commutes to. In one building I heard a series of chants coming from one open window. As I drew closer, the children must have noticed and swung open the main door and the other windows. Besides being curious to see me and the other white people with me, they seemed to want us to watch and observe what they were doing. I peek into the window and saw kids happily chanting their prayers and multiplication tables in a small unified circle. After more sweat stains, we reached the site of our home stay, Palaung village home to 600 people. The family that would be catering to us (most notably, a young mother with an energetic one year old child and a grandma that smoked thick banana leaf wrapped cigarettes like a boss) welcomed us inside for our lunch. Here we could no longer greet them in the Shan language since it was Palaung. Many different sects of tribes speak different languages so in the Shan state you may have four or so different whole different languages being spoken. Besides Max feeling ill, everyone else arrived fine and enjoyed a delicious meal (vegetarian, as is the way of the village) composed of a surprisingly tasty cabbage salad and a deep green soup made from banyan leaf (not many times in life can one say they have eaten a leaf in an actual meal). Since it was too hot to do much, we napped for the time being while Max hurled out the window. As the sun began to set, we were led on a tour of the village by our guide Tun Tun. For the most part, Tun Tun spoke very good English and helped bridge the gap in our understanding of Shan state villages and Myanmar as a whole. We first saw the one and only mill and boiler in the village used for green tea, the main crop produced by the village and sold in Hsipaw. Besides selling their goods (mainly done by the men as the women are the primary workers in the fields), they don’t leave the village and according to Tun Tun are quite content with that, not willing to leave their lives for even the small-sized city life of Hsipaw. At the village monastery (a necessity for any village, including at least one pagoda and a school; to think about it for all the money and dedication they point into building their pagodas, they provide little else as far as social services to in terms of quality hospitals and schools), Tun Tun explained some things I had being dying to know. Apparently in Buddhism, a male most be a monk twice in his life, for five days of meditation at a monastery at least. The two periods involve before and after the age of twenty. When I saw young monks sometimes as young as five years old, I wondered how they or their parents could make such a commitment. Theoretically, they do not have to participate but they are striving to receive merit for their family and themselves because that is big part of Buddhist life, to gain merit through their deeds. Females are not required to enter a monastery and do not get nearly the same respect as nuns. As with many other situations involving the Buddhist religion, only males could step a platform higher towards the Buddha shrine. We took pictures of locals living their lives as well as with them. One home had a rambunctious collection of kids with a few of them looking like twins with their turned back hats. One kid for me stood out from the rest as he didn’t run around with spastic energy but just looked up at me wide-eyed, curiously with a slight twinkle. This seemingly runt of the group stood patiently with his hands in front of himself, a true novelty. They always wanted to see their pictures after we took them. On the way, I saw and felt real cotton on a tree, just as soft as at home. Several buffaloes churned up dirt as they galloped, or whatever they do, down the street in front of us while herded from behind by the farmer. With the sun just about set, we sat halfway up a hill to see the whole village in one wide panorama. The school stood up and off to the right but is closed during their ‘summer vacation’. Apparently, these kids only stay through primary school to the age of eleven years old from which they then work for their families. Once back at our home stay, some of us took a bucket shower, which I passed on, before we rejoined for dinner (ate yellow lentil tofu for the first time, a Burmese specialty), conversation, and more pictures of the family. We learned a little bit more about Myanmar and the start of other conversations about Buddhism from Tun Tun. The whole group was quite open and curious to these topics so at no point did things get awkward or sensitive. For the night, I laid in a mostly comfortable spot on the floor of the second level that represented my bed with plenty of blankets for a cool night.

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