I really should listen to my own advice.
A while back, I wrote a blurb about how travelling is a workout, and that you really should physically train before heading out on what inevitably turns out to be an exhilarating – but often exhausting – foreign adventure. But since I am living in the land of denial about my own age, I believed I would be fine to do a 15km hike in Myanmar’s Shan State to visit one of their remote hill tribes (even though I hadn’t set foot in hiking boots for over a year)… a hike that turned out to be a 6-hour-long uphill climb. In the heat.
Hiking to Meet the Palaung Hill Tribe
I had good reason for pushing our limits with this trek, but the reason had less to do with outdoor adventure than with culture. Let me explain: Myanmar is home to 135 ethnic groups or so, and visiting one of the hill tribes in Shan State was high on the list when it came to planning our itinerary in Myanmar. Since these ethnic groups still retain their own language and unique traditions we were keen to visit one of them so that we could experience some of their culture for ourselves.
Hiking was one of the only ways we would be able to get to some of these villages, so we planned on a visit to a Palaung village near Hsipaw, where we would meet and stay with one of the local families. Since this isn’t a part of Myanmar that many people outside of backpackers visit, we were expecting the kind of local flavour that you only get when a country is new to tourism, and everything is a little off the beaten path.
Hiking Off the Beaten Path
We certainly got what we expected in terms of authenticity. And the path we took to get to the village was decidedly un-beaten. The only challenge was that Henk had decided to take his entire photographic arsenal (all 30 pounds or so of it!), and this was the height of summer’s dry (and hot season), making hauling that pack in 30-degree heat more of a challenge than he anticipated. Even my lightweight backpack that was stuffed with essential supplies began to feel like many month’s supply of gear, not just one night’s, especially as the gradual slope of our path got steeper and our stamina waned at around the 5-hour mark.
Fortunately, Toe Toe, our 29-year old guide, volunteered to shoulder some of the weight, and we wisely agreed to let him. Needless to say, our legs were pretty much done by the time we got to the hilltop village. (Henk still insists he would have been ‘fine’ carrying it – but his excuse is, why be a martyr if someone offers to help!)
The climb was worth every drop of sweat, though – and the self-imposed constipation that followed (more on that later).
Meeting the Palaung Locals of Pankam
Myanmar is home to many hill tribes, many of which have their own language. Since our Mandalay-based guide Toe Toe didn’t speak the local Palaung language, our escort for the hike was Rona, a 19 year-old who grew up in the tiny village of Pankam, (population about 500 people, 9 oxen, 6 water buffalo and several very loud, very early-rising roosters).
It turned out we would be spending the night at Rona’s grandmother’s house – making this homestay feel a little more personal than just bunking in with a family who had no connection to any of us. In fact, when we arrived, half of the family was at Grandma’s house visiting, so we got to meet several of Rona’s extended family, including baby “Diamond Star”, who seemed to be as taken with me as everyone else was with her.
Since we really didn’t know what to expect in terms of our accommodation, we were pleasantly surprised to find a large stilted house with several mattresses and blankets laid out and waiting for us in the main room, along with a late lunch of some very tasty food.
Kudos to Rona’s ‘aunt’ (a Mynamar term for female extended family members), who is all of 23, and lives with Grandma to help run the household. I have nothing but respect for anyone who can cook as well as she did on what is essentially an indoor campfire. And with the only electrical light out in the main room of the house, not the kitchen, she does half of her prep in the dark, since the sun sets early at 6:30 pm. Still, out came delicious soup, veggies, meat dishes and of course, plenty of rice. It certainly makes you realize the kind of comforts we take for granted.
Bridging the Communication Gap
We soon learned we had to add more vocabulary to our already- limited cheat sheet of Myanmar expressions, since the Palaung language is completely different than the regional Shan dialect, which is different again from Burmese. I quickly adopted the local expression for thank you (“rock mai”), so that we could express our appreciation to our hostesses for the hospitality. In fact, at one point, when I asked Henk to do me a favour and offered up a ‘rock mai’ in gratitude, Grandma burst out laughing, thoroughly delighted that her foreign visitors were speaking Palaung to each other!
To Poop or Not to Poop
And speaking of laughing matters…remember that voluntary constipation I mentioned? Well, one look at the facilities (and a rather intimidating resident spider) and there was just no way anything ‘significant’ was going to happen that night. I’m not a princess, and am no stranger to pit toilets – and don’t get me wrong, the little outhouse with its ground-level ceramic squat chute was clean enough – but I guess the reality is, with my ‘grownup knees’, I just need a seat if I’m going to be doing anything more than a piddle. So peeing would just have to do until we got back to more modern facilities (or unless powerful forces came into play – which fortunately did not happen.)
Old Meets New in the Village of Pankam
There was an unmistakable juxtaposition of old and new in Pankam. Up until 5 years ago, the village didn’t have a proper school with walls or a roof, and rainy season meant dozens of interrupted school days which sounds like a good thing for most kids, until Rona told us he only completed grade 3 and regrets not having finished his schooling. Lucikly, a new school has been built recently, ensuring weather won’t be a factor when it comes to schooling.
There’s also a new well that has been built for the village, along with other improvements: thatch roofs are being replaced by steel ones, which now also support solar panels. The solar panels were actually given to each household by the government in order to provide at least some power to the families, most of which are completely off-grid like many hill tribes in the country.
Technology Can Be a Double-Edged Sword
With so many ways to use that limited solar power in such a remote village, you would think the priority might be things like a light for the kitchen..or a kettle to boil water for tea? Nope…apparently the priority is television, which more and more villagers are tuning into nightly. Even young Rona lamented the fact that now, instead of visiting each other in the evenings, villagers spend the hours after dinner glued to a TV set, watching Thai programming that they don’t really understand, instead of socializing like the ‘old days’ that he remembers (at the ripe old age of 19!).
Phones are ubiquitous, too, with cellular service more widespread and far-reaching than electricity, and the younger generation of Pankaw seems as tethered to their smartphones as any city dweller, and just as keen on sharing selfies and phone pics as every other 20-something.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Progress has many faces, so I’m not the one to judge.
A Homestay Away From Home
One of the best things about these kind of homestays is the opportunity to share a home (and a laugh) with people who live a simpler way of life than we do. Despite the language and culture gap between us, we did just that and found ways to communicate and connect with each other.
And one of the best ways to do that was to start by walking a mile in their shoes.
Even if it was more like ten miles. And all uphill.
TIP: If you’re thinking of visiting one of the hill tribes, or just doing some trekking near Hsipaw, time your visit for November or December, when the rainy season is over, and everything is lush and green. We were there in March when the farmers do a lot of slashing and burning, so what wasn’t brown was black. And did I mention? It was really hot! The upside: not many mosquitoes!