The Train Ride
A small mound of Burmese shrimp chips, smelly fish snacks, and beer cans wobbled precariously down the center of the isle in cadence with the dangerous back and forth lurching of our Burmese train carriage. The packaged food mound rolled over a dense crowd of old crones sitting limply on the floor, all their bodies moving together side-to-side against the adjacent seat cushions in a kind of sea-sick narrow-gauge train rave. The mound stopped beside Katlijn's bobbing sleeping head. Astonishingly, a smiling face popped out from behind the plastic baggies of red chili sauce and through the thick stench of dried prawn flakes.
Just as two scrawny arms emerged from the pile of dubious Burmese treats, the entire mound exploded.
Every crone in the train rave swiveled their heads in a single group motion at the former lump of smoked sea goodies, its shell of dodgy snack bags blown clear away revealing only its skeleton: a spindly Burmese kid with two thin outstretched arms holding the twisted remains of a couple of old plastic bottles- their entire contents had exploded forth on top of Katlijn.
Burmese snack sales-woman carrying her product at a train-stop near Hsipaw.
Katlijn, to her credit, resisted the temptation to heap racist expletives at the poor terrified Burmese kid and, in a remarkable feat of equanimity that even raised the eyebrows of our kindly old monk friend, smiled with all the grace and humility she could muster, untied her hefty backpack from the shelf, found a reasonably clean set of North Fakes, slowly rocked and swayed her way through the grinning, toothless, undulating crones, and locked herself into the ridiculously dark and tiny confine of the Burmese public train toilet facilities.
Katlijn later told me that as she crouched naked in the toilet room, swinging wildly against the slimy walls, washing off the stench of palm wine from her hair using the train's only semi-functioning bum-gun, she realized that this very moment was the ultimate low point in her world trip.
Off the Beaten Path
To drive us not just off the beaten path, but as far away from it as we could get. We wanted to be as far away from the beaten path (while still outside rifle range of the nearest insurgency and armed opium plantation) that we could possibly be. And this, we learned, was a place in Myanmar called Namhsan.
The Motorbike Ride
The road-not-taken turns out to be full of massive ruts and, on the back of a flimsy made-in-china motorbike, a thoroughly harrowing ass-numbing experience. It is a road so old and forgotten it hadn't been maintained since the age of empires, often causing us to cling to our underage drivers for fear of our lives as we skidded along the muddy potholes in the pouring rain. We stopped once to watch a local bus unloaded all its passengers before crossing a water-logged wooden bridge that sagged and groaned in imminent collapse. When it was our turn to cross the rotting colonial-era infrastructure, my driver clenched the accelerator inducing a sad painful wine from our flimsy hog, while yelling over his shoulder "too risky to cross with passengers !"
Ignoring his own advice, we slowly sputtered our way to the other side.
Though the old road from Hsipaw to Namsan is only 80 km long, it took us five hours and a two motorbike breakdowns to make it all the way up. We donated $1 to the nefarious regime for the privilege of spending a night at the only guesthouse in town.
Namsan itself is a charming village of wooden houses set atop a world of stunning forested hills accompanied by the soundtrack of distant cow bells. If not for its population of Palaung tea pickers and Chinese shop-keepers, Namsan might look like a centuries-old New World pioneer settlement, though the locals prefer to call it "The Switzerland of Myanmar". Out in the distance we gazed over a real no-man's land, apparently one of the least visited places on the planet. Somewhere out there, beyond those hills, grew nearly half the world's opium and the Burmese government waged a brutal, unknown, and ancient conflict against renegade Shan hill tribes still struggling for their independence.
Elderly Shwe (Golden) Palaung woman in traditional hand-woven tribal clothes typical of the region.
Children sorting tea leaves outside a factory. Most Palaung make their living from tea, though opium poppies are never far away.
Over the mechanical clatter of nineteenth century imperial tea machines, we brought this fear up with the town mayor and a gang of curious factory workers. They could instantly relate: even the locals avoided crossing that old bridge if at all possible and wanted nothing more than to help us find a way around it. The mayor proudly handed us a dusty old English-language encyclopedia volume (letters C-D) written more than seventy years ago- a bit of light reading material while they hammered out a plan. A huge raucous debate soon ensued all around us as everyone collaborated furiously trying to figure out what do with us. Katlijn and I thumbed sheepishly through the fusty encyclopedia, until finally they reached some sort of consensus. Taking great pride in his achievement, the mayor presented us a crumpled old Chinese Valentine. He opened up the heart-shaped card revealing a sophisticated drawing of boxes and lines labeled with that mysterious sequence of shapes and squiggles we had come to recognize as Burmese text.
Palaung factory workers drying tea leaves over a thatched bamboo table.
After a lot of hand waving, shouting, and charades, we gathered that they had, in fact, drawn us a map of the region describing a network of tiny backwater villages, monasteries, and shrines that would lead us back to civilization. Every time we walked into a new box on the map, we were to turn the card over and show the nearest crone the squiggles written on the back. Sandy explained that those squiggles roughly translated as "take me to your leader."
Everyone insisted that if a stranger walks into a Palaung tribal village, the locals would not only be delighted, they would feed us, give us a bed to sleep on, and point us to the next box on our map. It was more than just hospitality: it was a cultural and religious obligation. The Buddhist monks and villagers had to help us, there was no need to bring food or water for the journey. Thus, we were faced with the following challenge:
Could a couple of dumb white backpackers with no knowledge of the local language or culture survive the three day journey back to civilization, bypassing entirely the road-not-taken, with nothing more than plain old Burmese hospitality and a map scribbled on the back of a tatty piece of Asian Kitsch ?
Couch-potato monks. Our host, Ken, laughs while sipping tea from his mug.
All the town's children gathered in the monastery for the evening cinema.
Ken handed us a binder containing the monastery's DVD collection and urged us to select a movie for the whole village to watch. Everyone smiled at us eagerly as Katlijn opened to the selection on the first page,
Everyone kept waiting for a decision. Some of the kids were getting impatient and began tugging on my arm hair.
Our awkward situation grew dire.
"Wicker Man","Hell Raiser","Jack the Ripper"...
"Just what kind of monks are you !?" I cried out in exasperation, flipping frantically through Ken's macabre collection. Finally, there it was on the last page: the DVD cover for "Narnia". By some miracle, C.S. Lewis had come to our rescue. Katlijn jumped up enthusiastically and announced our selection.
Ken ran off to find the DVD and hit the play button. "It's a good one for children," began Katlijn hopefully to a room full of tribal people who nodded eagerly back to her in non-comprehension.
While the villagers and their children watched the movie with all the seriousness and intensity of discerning film critics, I thought I heard a few groans emanating from the general vicinity of the monks' section when the Disney logo came up. A couple of monks left the room after only a few minutes, and I think I caught one rolling his eyes at us. I guess you just can't please everyone.
The generator cut out halfway through the film and the villagers filed back home. Ken showed us to the meditation hall where he had set us up on the floor with some cozy mats, candles, and blankets. Since I was sleeping in the room anyway, I asked if I could join their morning meditation.
"Not so many monks here meditate in the early morning," he explained. Somehow, I wasn't surprised.
Katlijn sitting on our beds in the meditation hall. We had the whole room to ourselves that night.
Katlijn and I prepared our beds while a group of monks tip-toed mischievously back out to the television room with an old car battery. I blew out the candle. As I closed me eyes and fell into sleep after a long day, I could hear the soundtrack of James Bond drifting in from the room next door.
The Tea Pickers
To Ken's credit, he actually did get up to meditate the next morning, though I had the sneaking suspicion that this was for my benefit only. With characteristic devotion, he prepared us our noodles for breakfast and took it upon himself to guide us to the next box on our map. Ken was very eager to connect with us, but after several hours of repetitive conversation, we were forced to come to the conclusion that he really hadn't the foggiest clue what we were saying. Though we liked Ken a lot, and I am certain he would have dutifully followed us all the way back to civilization, we finally had to ask him to leave so we could continue peacefully on our own.
Motorcycles laden with plastic bags full of fresh fruits and vegetables make the tough journey each morning to sell goods to these remote villages. Katlijn haggles over the price with Ken's help, while a group of local children watch her curiously.
A nat shrine. A nat is a kind of spirit still worshiped in many parts of Myanmar. It is a link to the pre-Buddhism era when forms of animism were the dominant religions. The red and white cloths seen hanging on the shrine are the traditional nat colours of protection.
The next line on our map turned out to be a steep up-hill ascent winding through the hills of scattered tribal villages. Groups of tea pickers lined the roads smiling, waving, and occasionally inviting us up to come join them in their work. After a long hike, we arrived at a village called "Kon Haut" and collapsed in front of an old wooden table at a long forgotten tea house. Within moments, a young teenage boy came running out to us.
The young boy introduced himself as "Anderson" and spoke excellent English. Anderson's soft voice and gentle mannerism instantly qualified him as our favorite Burmese person. He insisted on being our guide to his small village and offered us room and board at his wooden house on stilts. As with all the tribal people we met in this part of Myanmar, he and his family adamantly refused any monetary compensation.
View of Anderson's home-town of Kon Haut where we spent the night.
Anderson's tiny self-contained village was a gorgeous collection of ancient wooden houses perched on top of a high hill offering a spectacular vista of the surrounding forests and tea plantations. Like all the other villages in the area, every resident grew and picked tea for a living. The Palaung people have been doing this for many centuries, forever as far as the people here knew. Anderson's family owns five small plantations located in disparate parts of the forest. During picking season, they get up at four each morning, hike several hours to their plantation, pick tea until the late afternoon, and walk back before dinner time. All this plucking resulted in some truly spectacular finger callouses, which Anderson and his friends enthusiastically showed us with immense satisfaction.
Tools of the tea-picking trade: a woven basket, a walking stick, and a sun-hat.
A day's picking will yield about two large sacks of green tea leaves worth a couple of US dollars. This is enough money for Anderson's family to live comfortably. Anderson can be seen here handing off his day's picking to a cheroot-smoking business man to be weighed.
Palaung woman sitting on her floor weaving a traditional dress beside a pile of freshly picked tea leaves.
Anderson introduced us to his friends at the village monastery- a gorgeous two-century-old wooden structure filled with colorful Palaung tribal decorations. Buddhist monasteries, it turns out, serve as the local teenage hangout where young layabouts partake in some serious loafing with the novice monks. We felt very hip chilling with the cool tribal kids, though the boys insisted Katlijn sit on the floor below the men as part of the local Buddhist tradition. The monastery had only three senior monks, three novice monks, and two nuns living next door. The nuns do all the cleaning, cooking, and maintenance for the monastery. It remains unclear to us what monks actually do.
The palaung people decorate the roofs of their village monasteries with colourful adornments.
By the late afternoon, we felt we were starting to get the hang of Palaung village life. After hiking out to the cement bunker, I managed to clean myself with only minimal ridicule. Katlijn might have fared pretty well herself, had she not wore her longyi upside-down. Anderson's family meal of rice, potatoes, and dried chili-prawns was beginning to taste downright homey, and (I dare say) I believe I even started developing a vague appreciation for that insufferable tea salad. Sipping daintily on freshly picked tea, we idly watched the villagers file out to the monastery while chatting casually with our hosts over what lurid film they might be showing at the cinema tonight. Somehow, this forgotten Palaung backwater was starting to feel like home.
Andrew sporting a green longyi at the village shower, while a couple of local children watch in fascination at his impeccable technique. Notice how this six-year old girl is considered responsible enough to care for her infant brother without the parents around. This is typical of the tribal communities in the region, where young children are trusted and involved in caring for their younger siblings.
Katlijn hanging out at our friend's place while his mother prepares dinner. It is unclear if the birds they are holding are pets or appetizers.
Andrew eating at the family dinner table with Anderson.
We retired back inside Anderson's house where he prepared our beds on the floor, just beside the rest of his family who also slept on the floor together with us. In the corner of the room were all of Anderson's possessions: a tiny wooden desk which he barely fit into and a small shelf of old worn-out English language texts that he had collected over the years. As Katlijn and I drifted off to sleep, I watched Anderson's gentle silhouette flickering in the dying candle-light, hunched over his little desk quietly studying a crumbling English book.
Back to Civilization
Early the next morning, we awoke to the sublimely soothing chanting of Anderson's mother lighting a candle in the family's Buddhist shrine. One of Anderson's friends picked us up, a tough-looking but exceptionally sweet teenager calling himself "Jackson". Katlijn and I piled on the back of his bike and waved goodbye to our good friend Anderson before roaring off motor-cross style to the next box on our card.