We awake, shivering. I try to clear my head as I remember where we are. Hsipaw, a large town in Northern Shan State, 200km from Mandalay. My dreams had entailed long winding roads at night, punctuated by hill fires and rolling lorries. The journey the evening before had a somewhat ethereal feel to it, climbing ever upwards, choked by smoke and lit up by crackling orange flames. Gleefully embracing the rare luxury of a hot shower, we scamper to breakfast, delighted to be rewarded with heady black coffee, thick honey pancakes, fresh fruit and yoghurt. Today we were going on a short trip into the Shan hills, and I was beginning to feel like I really was on holiday.
Our walk was a short one, and we roamed through the dusty town, eyes feasting on the day-to-day goings on. Startled by the sudden sound of rain, we looked up – our guide explained that it wasn’t rain drops pattering down, but instead tamarind pods being shaken out of the tree by a climber with clearly a great head for heights. Chubby women in bright longgyis swept up the shells whilst children stared at us.
Sweeping tamarind shells
We sauntered on, past shabby colonial style houses. I popped into a garage to buy water, but was gifted it instead by a slim youth who smiled at me and said hello. I tried out my newly acquired Shan greeting ‘myson ka’ and he grinned widely. We crossed a death-trap road with thundering lorries and hurtling trucks into the greenness of the Shan hills bedecked with banana trees and dusty red paths, winding our way through the countryside next to the railway line, past farmers in fields and shy buffalo relaxing in the water.
After a delicious lunch and a shockingly clean outhouse experience, we mooched on down to the river Duthawadi [wadi, like Irrawaddy, meaning ‘river’, dutha meaning I’ve forgotten], where we boarded a slim wooden boat akin to those at Inle, with the addition of innovative lift-up seats painted in gaudy peeling yellow paint. Merrily chugging down the sparkling river, we waved to youths bathing, and snapped photos of more chilled out buffalo languishing in the water. We reached the confluence between two rivers Nam-tu and Namma and stopped near a small waterfall. Eagerly scrambling up the rocks, we said hello to local picnickers and surveyed the rushing clear water as it worked its way downriver. ‘Can swim’ proclaimed our guide, and my companion and I looked at each other gleefully – the heat of the day was coming out in force and I’d been eyeing the buffalo with more jealousy than one should eye a large bovine creature. Grateful that I was wearing climalite easy-to-dry clothes I slid into the river, squelching into the muddy sand at the bottom. Finding a friendly rock, I crouched there, feeling the cool water wash away my cares and contemplated just how many river-borne diseases I might be picking up, feeling ease of mind when I saw just how clear the water was. It was one of those perfect moments, cool skin, gleaming sunshine sparkling off the water, feeling absolutely content.
Our boat trip
After a pleasant drying out session on the boat home, we returned to our hotel, and decided to head into Hsipaw town itself, a town with something of a Naungshwe vibe. My friend was on a souvenir hunt, and we found ourselves in a diverse shop which offered everything from terrifying porcelain Inuit dolls to gleaming longgyis. My eyes were distracted by a white-based longgyi with aquamarine and pink stripes. I have long since given up wearing longgyis, but the material still fascinates me and I have some kind of plan to make something out of the material at some point somehow. Ideas on a postcard.
Deeply exhausted by our brief shop-a-thon, my friend spies a café proclaiming amongst its wares the heady delights of deep-fried ice cream. We sit down at the plastic tables, staple of the Myanmar café, and a terrified waitress delivers two menus into our hands. My friend hands a wet-wipe round and I absent-mindedly clean my hands. My gaze falls onto the menu, a wedding photo album covering with a romantic waterfall. This is my fourth year of Asia now, and generally my hygiene standards have dropped to around the non-existent stage, including removing insects from food and then just continuing [except the one cockroach leg incident]. However, I find myself cleaning the menu. The wet-wipe comes away black. We still order. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Five minutes later we are presented with a triumphantly 80’s style ice-cream dessert, complete with multi-coloured hundreds and thousands. A brief debate ensues about the physics of deep fried ice-cream and and its non-melting properties, swiftly silenced when we actually eat it. It is donut amazingness wrapped around vanilla awesomeness reminding me once again why art always takes precedence over science for me. I can feel my cholesterol furring up in my arteries. I get stuck in.
Super healthy: deep fried ice cream.
‘Nope. I don’t ever plan on walking for ten hours, ever.’
My friends are trying to coax me into trekking in Hsipaw, Shan State for a second day. Thing is, whilst I like the views, there’s something about walking that just seems….slow. One foot in front of the other. I’m sure more patient and spiritual people than me can find a meditative experience in it, but for me it just seems slower and less efficient than running and snail-like compared to cycling, and lacking the pumping Latin music of a Zumba class. Plus I am fundamentally quite lazy and had been envisaging a nice relaxing day curled up in a chair with a good book and my diary. I clearly need to get more in touch with my inner zen. As it is, as we fall asleep in our exhaustion, I announce in no uncertain terms that there is no way I’m going on an all day trek.
The next day, I go on an all day trek. In my defence, it was bloody cold and I was feeling somewhat overfed after my feast the night before of a Shan set dinner, including the ubiquitous and delicious Shan Khao Swe; a moreish noodle blend of ginger, garlic, coriander, tomatoes, peanut oil and Shan spices with deep-fried yellow tofu gleefully sinking into the juices. This was accompanied by fried crackers made from yellow split peas and a chickpea flour called besan. Fluffy white rice in a heart shape and finishing up with Shan sweets- not a million miles away from a rice crispie cake. Followed by a single puff on a cheroot that was enough to convince me to never bother again. Perhaps an all-day trek might help me to not turn into Mrs Fatty Mc Fat.
Shan Khao Swe: delicious!
Our trek takes us up to the vertical hills of Shan state into the heady heights of the tea plantations. We are suddenly startled by a loud explosion from behind the hills. It is, according to our guide, from the conflict in the north. Unsettled, we crunch our way up dusty red roads, waving to small children playing on makeshift swings. The fields are burning and smoke lies heavy in the air, obscuring the views and infiltrating our lungs. I nearly keel over coming up the top of the hill. In my mind I attribute it to heart condition + smoke + altitude, but I suspect it’s just because I’m not very fit. I pretend to be little miss intrepid photographer just so I can catch a breather from my inexhaustible companions. At the top (summit?) I am revived by cashew nuts and the best lahpetoke I’ve had since I’ve arrived. We continue up, winding our way up hills that motorbikes laden with longgyi-d girls struggle to climb, the bikes farting out black clouds from the exhausts, causing me to re-analyse the appropriacy of the word exhaust.
‘Nooooo!’ at my wailing, my friends turn round, assuming probably that I’ve been bitten by a snake or some other deathly disaster has befallen me. It has. My beloved flip-flop, my main mode of footwear in Asian life, has given up the ghost in a categorically non-repairable-on-mountain manner. Sad face. Later that evening, after some unsatisfactory ‘fixing’ with a hair band, I ask the hotel reception if they have a pin that I can shove through it, given that I have a blister the size of Myanmar on my heel which is making me a little grumpy towards my running trainers: four years of flip-flops and nary a red mark, one hour of running trainers and my feet are howling. The fabulous hotel staff take well to the challenge. Ten minutes later, my misbehaving flip-flop is returned to me by the intrepid (and sexy) hotel waiter, mended. One week later, it’s still going strong. Genius.
Flip-flop fixing for free
Sweaty and grudgingly bedecked in my trainers, we finally arrive in a Palaung village. The Palaung are an ethnic group found in Shan state, Yunnan province in China, and in Northern Thailand. They are blighted by opium problems and in some villages they are over 30 minutes by motorbike from a source of fresh water. We are instructed to sit down in the most relaxing chairs ever, angled so that you are practically horizontal and sprawled out in a somewhat ungainly but deeply satisfying way. Our eyes begin to close as our body temperature lowers and I listen to the rich sound of nothingness- even the birds are feeling too lazy and too hot to bother. A sense of deep contentedness envelops me, and I am close to drifting off. Close, that is, until my left boob is suddenly groped. My eyes open to see I am face-to-face with a grinning Palaung young girl of perhaps seven years old. She is not removing her hand. She squeezes. My sense of propriety wakes me fully and I remove her hand. She tries to relieve me of my necklace, a ring from my Grandmother. I again remove her hand. Unperturbed, she moves round to my other two friends and gives them both a good boob squeeze too. Our rest shattered, we watch as she whirls round causing havoc, drinking our water, pouring us tea which she then thrusts at us with little awareness of the impact of gravity, stealing my friend’s camera and taking elbow and leg shots and some interestingly-composed selfies. Finally the teacher in us all emerges, and we start asserting ourselves a little. She laughs gleefully, runs around a bit more, squeezing a little more inappropriate flesh and finally legs it for lunch. It seems that just when my hormones send a ‘how about procreating’ message, I get a timely reminder of why I have chosen thus far to remain non-mothery.
Palaung Woman, cheroot-smoking and with a great sense of humour
We wander further around the village as the heat of the middle of the day begins to ease. Our route takes us near some novices in the monastery. We are astonished to see them smoking, with detritus of cigarettes, toy guns and sweet wrappers collected outside the window. The senior monk inside, it transpires, is blind. An innovative novice has crafted his pen into a cigarette holder. I suspect there is little dhamma-absorbing going on. Round the corner we are confronted with another gang of achingly cool young boys, in charge of coaxing doe-eyed buffalo to the fields. One atop the buffalo seems to have some control over his animal whilst a younger boy makes hip-hop movements and doffs a red baseball cap in a unique too-cool-for-school manner. I suggest my baseball-cap wearing pal emulates the style and am rewarded with a withering look.
We are beginning to feel the length and heat of the day now, and my mind is having some problems trying to remember to stay positive and not think along the lines of ‘should’ve stayed at home with me book’, but truth be told I wouldn’t have missed this for the world: a day of aching legs for a lifetime of memories. And more are just around the corner: we wind our way down the hills and meet women at the tea plantations, diligently picking leaves under wide conical hats. At one place a woman encourages us to help, and shows us how to pick two leaves from each stem, leaving the third on the branch to encourage regrowth. She clasps my hand at one point, stroking it and marvelling at how it is soft. I guess a lifetime of lesson planning on a laptop doesn’t have quite the same hand-impact as a lifetime out in scorching sun picking and twisting off tea leaves for hours at a time. One of the aspects of this trek that has really struck me is that it would be easy as a casual tourist to view this as a seemingly idyllic way of living, which I know to be desperately difficult and back-breakingly tiring, with short days guided by no electricity and infrequent access to water. Hours later (‘nearly there’ says our guide repeatedly) we are finally greeted by the blessed view of our rumbling tuk-tuk. Near-hysterical with relief and tiredness, we pile in, too exhausted to whoop. That night we eat everything fried off the menu and fall asleep instantly.
The final morning after our sumptuous breakfast of more Khao Swe, we are keen to see the Shan Palace and Little Bagan, and so organise a final gleaming red tuk-tuk. The Shan Palace is a key landmark in Hsipaw, home of the Sawbwas, now cared for by Mr Donald [alas, Prince Donald doesn’t quite have the appropriate Disney ring to it], a jovial character whom my colleagues in other ECs have dined with. Woefully, it was not to be. The palace opened at 3pm, so we had to be content with squinting through the gate to be greeted with three trees completely obscuring our view. Not to be dismayed, however, we continued on to ‘Little Bagan’, an area with a sprinkling of ancient pagodas, overgrown and romantic, and one incredibly gaudy (one would not want to say tasteless) white temple bedecked in lime green with grinning guardian lions and griffins and bizarre three-headed animals.
Little Bagan, Hsipaw
Finally, we are set to end our journey from Lashio, the largest town in northern Shan state and possessing an airport, around 2-3 hours from Hsipaw. We pile into a taxi festooned with a Buddha image and some jasmine hanging off the mirror. I send a swift prayer up to the God I am yet to be convinced about as we career around the corners. Our driver has a predilection for wild over-taking, and is particularly fond of over-taking on blind spots, corners and whilst going up hill. We sit, arms braced for impact at any moment. My mind flickers to my Saint Christopher necklace, patron saint of travellers, hanging futilely on a hook at home. A particularly inspired moment sees the driver pulling out in front of a massive lorry bearing wares from China. The resourceful lorry driver pulls off the road to avoid impact. Our driver looks a little sheepish for two minutes or so until the next blind corner. I contemplate the best body position for impact, and eventually decide it is one of those journeys best dealt with my closing your eyes and pretending you’re on a high adrenalin fairground ride. At last, we arrive physically intact although mentally taxed, in Lashio and brace ourselves for another bouncy journey, this time by plane.
Hsipaw has been a real treasure for me: at times, I find life in this country difficult, but this brief weekend has functioned to remind me of the real beauty here, and the joy of just being out in nature with great companions. It is an important life lesson, and I vow to do more adventuring and less ruminating whilst I have the privilege and the honour of living in this exhilarating fascinating country. I chose this career so I could travel, see the world, meet new people and connect globally: sometimes I forget that in the machinations of my day-to-day, and I feel humbled by this brief but potent reminder.