We arrive in Lashio, gateway to North Shan province, after a short delay due to fog: the planes all do round robin-trips so one late start puts the whole day out of synch. Our bus takes us to Hsipaw, where we will begin our trek. It meanders alongside a big river for two hours, past groves of oranges, papaya and the odd pagoda; we stop and watch men extracting pebbles for building from the river using an ancient form of technology. It seems time has stood still.
The Riverside consists of a row of bungalow rooms, strung like a necklace along the river bank. The rooms have gingham curtains, a verandah, and a fridge full of cold beers! Simply furnished but with all mod cons. As dusk approaches we jump aboard the boat that ferries people into the main town as we need to buy gifts for the village. The famous Hsipaw market has a few bedraggled veg stalls still open – it normally operates between the hours of 3.30–6 am – but there is a good supermarket! While exploring we come across a dancing elephant, accompanied by banshee wailing and men carrying begging bowls. In fact, inside the elephant are two men, and we learn this is a common form of fundraising for the local monastery.
We leave the next morning as the mist is lying thick on the river – it’s to be the only cool part of the day. On the other side we meet Amaung, our Palaung guide and, as we later discover, the son of the village chief. We will be staying with his parents in the family home. A motor-bike has been laid on to rescue me when I get too tired by the trek – at this stage as we cut through fields with the mountains in the distance it’s hard to gauge how long that will take. On the outskirts of the town we explore a Shan noodle factory, great swathes of noodles drying in the sun. Again, like everything in Myanmar, all is made on ancient but effective machinery, employing lots of people and providing crèche facilities at the same time!
Once out of the town, we start to pass through villages, the path lined with hedges of yellow coreopsis-type flowers, each with a school, pagoda and small holdings – healthy-looking okra, aubergines, tomatoes and beans. In the fields there is a mix of paddy and corn, both of which are being harvested. As we ascend higher up, the rice is being replaced by groundnuts and pigeon peas/soya bean – dry season crops. Everywhere we see signs of forest clearance for charcoal and cultivation – the Shan grow maize to feed the voracious Chinese cattle market, destroying their land the while.
After a couple of hours or so I feel a bit weary (the trek is to last a good six) so reckon that I should conserve my energies. Moreover the path beings to ascend steeply over rocks and stones – there is some highway maintenance going on, exacerbating the problem. So I gingerly hop – on my one good leg – on the bike, get the bad leg over and cling on to the back support for dear life as the driver negotiates the bumps and we slip and slide between the ruts. I close my eyes and try not to think of what would happen if he missed his footing – he is steering using his feet as balancing agents! Wah!
20 minutes later we arrive at a village where I await the others for a rest and a tangerine. There are three other groups that we play catch up with along the trail; I am definitely holding the others back but I don’t think anyone is too bothered as it is boiling by now! In the first village, Hilary tries out her Polaroid, a genius idea as it gives the children something truly memorable, and is fun to boot. As we share the photos, one little horror, aged all of three years old, grabs my stick and runs away with it! With great difficulty we retrieve it; in true Myanmar-style no one scolds him; everyone looks on, smiling and laughing .
At the second stop, perched high up overlooking the valleys and where the signs of deforestation are clear to see, I am caught up by a fit-looking party. The tranquillity is shattered by an aggressive Israeli know-all, who gets off on the wrong foot by saying ‘Hello Louise’ and proceeds to lecture us about everything. I note that no one in his group gives him eye contact; they look very fed up. He is to dog us throughout the trip…even turning up at our house in the village.
Finally, after 6 hours, 700 metres of ascent and 16 kms (of which I probably managed ¾) we arrive in Pamkam village, me astride the bike. Amaung’s mother greets me warmly, strokes my leg with interest and gives me a welcome cuppa – of Burmese tea, home grown and smoked over their fire. As I wait I look around the house with interest. The entrance hall, up some steep steps, is where you leave shoes and doubles as a photo gallery. Here are pictures of family members receiving degrees or diplomas. Amaung was in fact a teacher before he became a guide, which explains his excellent English. His wife and children live in Hsipaw, but he maintains a house in the village. At the end of the hall is the family shrine – every home has one, as Burmese are a deeply spiritual people. The mixture of tradition and progress always fascinates.
I am sitting in the main family room, where there is a divan bed in one corner, cushions on the floor in another, shelves on one wall for plates and cups, a cupboard on another and plastic chairs and rice sacks for guest seating. One half is dominated by a fire, burning on the floor, always with either a kettle or a pot on the boil and it is where the extended family and friends congregate each afternoon and evening for a chat and a meal, and endless cups of tea. Amaung’s father is sitting there stoking it and tending the tea. The balcony at the rear of the house serves as a pot pantry and washing up area – washing up is done with home grown loofahs and leaves, dirty water slung out the back. It is the family cat, however, who gets pride of place and his own special cushion by the fire.
The others trickle in gradually and lunch is served – tea leaf salad, radish and cabbage salads, cauliflower and chicken, rice, green gourd, pumpkin, taro, soya bean balls, soya crisps…all absolutely delicious and completely fresh, straight from the garden. Meals are all accompanied by a clear, delicately-flavoured broth which you either drink out of cups or ladle on the rice. And lashings of tea, naturally.
After a brief rest, a loo stop – a smart little shack down the garden containing two long-drops, clean and not too malodorous – we have a wander round the village where the polaroid works over-time! Everywhere we go we are greeted by warm smiles, shy children, nosy old ladies and babies. The Palaung people are Mon-Khmer and came originally from the Laos/Cambodian mountain regions. They are different from Shan, who are Thai in origin. There are only 400 Palaung villages left, whose livelihood is mainly derived from tea-growing.
In Pamkam village there are approximately 700 souls and 106 families. Life here has really not changed for three centuries, even with the impact of mobile phones and the local school. The birth of the homestay has been beneficial to the village as part of the money goes to the community – in Pamkam the school desks were funded by visitors. Interestingly, old customs and ways are still held in esteem; for instance, women over 50 must wear traditional dress. Mama had great fun dressing both Ghi Ghi and me in the full kit. It looked much better on Ghi Ghi than me!
After another delicious meal, we give our gifts: bouncy balls, tractors, novelty toothbrushes, biscuits, sweets, and a garish soft towel which Amaung’s maiden Auntie won’t be parted from – she presses it to her cheek, softly murmuring ‘Aaah’. More polariods of the family. Then we treat ourselves by doling out Trevor’s rum, manfully carried in a plastic water bottle, sipping it from teacups. Papa is not allowed any, as apparently he tends to go on benders – the local hooch is very strong.
In the mountains it’s early to bed – 9pm – and early to rise – 4.30/5am. The dormitory is in an old produce store, reached by climbing some treacherous steps with a black void to the ground floor on one side and a post to grab on to the other! Clean mattresses and quilts are spread out over the floor and as we snuggle down for the night we only hope that we don’t need the loo! Soon the sound of communal snoring wafts gently through the air.
Another early start, and a traditional breakfast of fried rice and eggs before we set off for the descent. We meet the kids going to school, faces freshly-applied with thanaka – the cosmetic paint made from the bark of a tree that protects the skin from the sun and is considered to have antiseptic properties as well. We pass by the school and see the young monks and boys playing soccer before we start going down a steep path, shaded by bamboos and sandwiched between fields of rice and maize. Daredevil young bucks on bikes toot at us as they race down the mountain; my valiant knight and steed is not far behind, though I only use him twice, and then it was a savage journey with long grass and bamboos whipping my face and arms.
After about 4 hours, we are relieved to see the bus waiting for us where the road begins again, as the day is hotting up. It whisks us back to the serenity of the Riverside and cold beers. But what an experience! All in all my leg has done remarkably well (but I am to feel stiff for several days after, though not alone in this!)
We all agree that this is the highlight of our trip; we feel hopeful that the Palaung, led by clever men like Amaung, realise the value of their culture and won’t sell out to mass tourism, although I dread the days when official ‘rest-houses’ dot the pathways of tiny Pamkam. Here, shops selling tourist tat are yet to arrive, rudeness and cheekiness simply would not be tolerated (and we only met it once on our whole trip), though my guess is this will begin to change as mass tourism grows.
Although they have little, and it can take several hours to get a woman with a difficult labour to a doctor in Hsipaw (carried by a team of runners), the day they build that big road will be a sad one as it will accelerate deforestation and urban poverty, while bringing in the unwelcome influence of tourists, not all of whom will be sympathetic. The challenge for the Palaung will be to get the best of both worlds.
The next instalment will take us on the Road to Mandalay…