Tribal encounters!

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Apr 30, 2011

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Where I stayed
Golden Lily guesthouse

Flag of Myanmar  ,
Monday, November 1, 2010

We are enjoying a couple of days rest in the cool hill town of Kalaw after three brilliant days of trekking. Our guide met us at the guesthouse in Nyaungshwe and we took a boat across Inle Lake to a small village located at the end of a very narrow reed-lined channel. From here we walked through shady bamboo groves before climbing steeply through a tree-filled limestone gorge. Hundreds of colourful dragonflies and butterflies darted about and we saw a huge flying beetle that was metallic green. We walked accompanied by the sound of birdsong and the ear-piercing whine of cicadas. Less pleasant were the vicious mosquitoes although these disappeared when we reached the top. We continued along paths lined with flowers and across fields planted with rice or vegetables or left fallow with deep red soil. The sky was clear blue and we were pretty hot and sticky by the time we stopped for lunch in a village of the Pa-O tribe where we sat inside one of the villager’s houses. The Pa-O are the people that we had seen in the monastery on Inle Lake the day before who wear a wrapped cloth on their heads as part of their traditional clothing.

In the afternoon we continued for a few more hours through countryside that was often reminiscent of England until we reached a Buddhist monastery, our home for the night. Our very giggly and eager to please guide prepared us a veggie feast for dinner before getting a tad tipsy on whisky! We slept (or tried to) on cushions and blankets on the monastery floor. Despite only a few hours sleep, it was a great experience waking up at 5am to the sound of the young novice monks chanting a few metres away!

Like the previous day, there were no clouds and it was already getting hot by the time we set off at 8am. We were very lucky because it is the tail end of the monsoon and only a week ago people had been trekking through rain and mud. Our trek continued through more beautiful countryside of patchwork fields filled with rice, maize, cabbages and cauliflower. All farming is done by hand and we saw rows of women picking rice and men ploughing fields with water buffaloes. Unfortunately not much agriculture in Myanmar is organic anymore and GM crops are becoming popular as farmers see this as the ‘modern’ way forward but have no knowledge of the controversies surrounding GM.  Lunch was again served on the bamboo floor of a house belonging to a very hospitable Pa-O family. As always it was accompanied by lots of refreshing green tea. With bellies full we carried on a short distance to reach a road where we waited for a pick-up or bus to pass through. While we waited we drank more green tea and had a go at some betel nut chewing. The nut is mixed with lime and a few spices and wrapped in a betel leaf. This is chewed for about 15 minutes, turning your teeth red and causing an excess of saliva production which has to be relieved by spitting large red gobs onto the floor! The result is a subtle but pleasant buzz, a bit like a strong cup of coffee.

After waiting for about an hour, a seriously overloaded local bus stopped for us. I squeezed inside after some people made room for me and Tom clambered onto the roof along with about 10 other people! After about 45 minutes, we got off at a junction and hitched a ride with a small pick-up which took us the rest of the way to Kalaw.

Kalaw was founded by the British as a hill station for civil servants wanting to escape from the heat of the lowlands. It is surrounded on all sides by pine-clad green hills and would be peaceful if it wasn’t for the constant chanting of monks in the monastery played over a loud-speaker so the whole town can hear it. Atmospheric during the day, it becomes a bit annoying at two in the morning! Luckily the chanting stopped during our third day here.

We are staying at Golden Lilly Guesthouse, run by the friendly Singhs, a third generation Sikh family whose grandfather came here from India to help build the railroad. Robin Singh works as a trekking guide so we thought we would take advantage and do a day trek to explore the surrounding countryside and visit some tribal villages. We set off at 8am and straight away Robin started telling us all sorts about the local area, its various hill tribes, agriculture and medicinal plants. He is a fountain of knowledge and spoke excellent English which made the trek very enjoyable. We climbed out of the village, passing a remnant area of sub-tropical forest, only protected today because it surrounds an important reservoir. Most of the trees in this area were felled in the seventies. Today what little remains are being cleared through slash and burn shifting agriculture. It is sad to think that there were tigers and bears roaming about not so long ago. For the local hill tribes, shifting agriculture is the only way they know to survive. They get very little from a government who spends more than 70% of its budget on defence.

We stopped at the Hill Top Restaurant, where we had delicious curry and chapatis, before descending to a village of the Palaung people, a Buddhist/animist tribe. Robin knows many of the villagers and we were invited into the house of a lovely family who plied us with green tea, oranges and bananas. Robin’s excellent English meant that we were able to communicate with the villagers and ask them lots of questions. Not many years ago they used to grow opium poppies but today grow tea. Myanmar is still the world’s second largest opium producer after Afghanistan but today it is grown more discreetly and is controlled by powerful drug-lords. The government doesn’t openly approve of it but turns a blind eye especially as many top ranking officials probably have links to the trade. For the villagers, tea growing is still very labour intensive so it is usual for women to have ten or more children to help in the fields. This also means that not all children go to school. Fortunately recent development projects, including in education and health, run by the UN and NGOs have helped raise the standard of living of some of the tribal peoples in this area.

We also learned that the head of the family used to hunt tigers and bears. I asked him what he thought about the fact that there are no large animals in the area anymore. His response that he did not care was disappointing but I suppose expected. We are from different worlds and his outlook is probably a million miles from mine.

Tonight we are braving the 12 hour bus back to Yangon (apparently it is a better bus than on the previous hellish journey) from where we will be flying back to Bangkok. We have one night there before flying on to Hanoi, Vietnam.

Of all the countries we are visiting this year, Burma (Myanmar) was one of my ‘most want to see’ places. I had high expectations and can say that these have been easily surpassed. Despite being ruled by a military dictatorship, this is a wonderful country filled with the loveliest, friendliest people I have ever met. Some argue that by coming here, you are implicitly supporting the government. I think that by coming here you are providing a two-way exchange between locals and the outside world. The vast majority of locals want tourists to visit their country. Not only can tourism increase their incomes, in particular independent travel as opposed to organised tour groups, it also lets them know that there are people in the world who are interested in their country which must give them hope for the future. In a couple of days, Myanmar will be holding an election. More than likely this is just a sham but perhaps it points towards a brighter tomorrow.

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