Trekking off the Beaten Path in Shan State

Many travelers have set out aspiring to head ‘off the beaten track.’ Although a wonderful concept in theory, as the world becomes increasingly globalized and tourism continues to boom, it is becoming extremely difficult to truly accomplish this without exorbitant amounts of money and time. This Christmas, my girlfriend Jaime, myself, and our two good friends aspired to truly find out what it meant to get off the beaten track, and experience people and culture that have not been tarnished by western hands. To do this, we would have to delve far into the Burmese countryside.

After a few too many beers than is safe for a long distance bus with no bathroom on board, we boarded the overnighter from Yangon to Kalaw. I had heard that the temperature would be cooler in “Myanmar’s Himalaya,” but didn’t fully appreciate it until jokingly being asked by a German traveler if I enjoyed the fridge. I groggily stepped off the bus into an air temperature that would be described as frigid on the best of days. This was supposed to be Southeast Asia! Little did I realize that this would be the first of many surprises to come. At around 4am our rickety bus finally mustered enough horsepower to make the final climb into Kalaw, and we stepped off the bus to meet a shivering man named So-So, our guide for the trek we were about to undertake. With a demure stature barely surpassing 5’ and 100lbs on a generous day, I felt slightly apprehensive about his ability to navigate us through the days to come unscathed.

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After warming up over a few cups of instant coffee and a lukewarm shower, we set out around 9AM. I had inquired with So-So about the difficulty of the trek, and with a nonchalant shrug and an indifferent, “Not too bad,” that would come to define this man’s character over the next few days I loaded my bag with gear, planning to be prepared for any photographic opportunity that might arise. Unfortunately, I didn’t take into consideration any sort of weight issues, a mistake that would come back to haunt me as time went by. After leaving Kalaw, the landscape changed as quickly as the temperature. As the sun rose higher in the sky we found ourselves immersed in cascading hills rolling with dense pine forests, reminiscent of hiking back in Canada. After a few hours of this terrain the hills opened up into expansive farmland, the rice paddies displaying irrigation rivets of a burnt shade of brown and bone dry amidst the droughts of the dry season. Our feet danced around mountains of “cow patties” as though they were land mines, until we finally arrived at the home of an elderly farmer, who graciously allowed our guides to cook our lunch at his home. As we sampled locally grown produce including cabbage, mustard greens, and cauliflower, the farmer sat under the shade of his favorite tree, quietly lost in his daydreams as he smoked his cigar. I couldn’t help but be intrigued by what he may have been thinking, this man whose life was worlds apart from mine, yet seemed so genuinely at peace.

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In the afternoon we found ourselves once again immersed in the mountains, this time almost continuously uphill. All four of us are in decent shape and no one was outwardly complaining, but after a few hours I was beginning to doubt my packing strategy’s long-term ramifications on my legs. An inaudible collective sigh of relief was released as we crested the last hill to first set our eyes upon the small farming village of Aung Pan. As soon as our packs were off our backs, Kyuak Ione, the resident spokesman of sorts, warmly welcomed us. Kyuak had graciously extended the hospitality of his family’s home for the night before we had even been introduced. I was instantly struck by the vitality, enthusiasm, and wisdom that clearly lay behind this 69-year-old man’s eyes. It was awe-inspiring that this man, born and raised in a tiny village that was barely a speck on a map spoke decent English, completely self taught from a simple battery operated, hand held radio. It only went to further enhance what I have witnessed firsthand on countless occasions: ignorance is a choice. Kyuak took it upon himself to show us around, taking the time to explain the incredible array of crops grown locally including every imaginable variety of vegetable, and introducing us to many of his friends, most of who had spent their whole lives in the village. We were invited to the home of a man he had known for 67 years, where we were treated like long lost family members, consuming delicious nuts and dried tea while smoking Burmese cigars. I was in complete awe of the sense of community, sharing, and friendliness that everyone in the village displayed, what I saw as a true testament to the beauty of humanity. That night we gorged on a delicious dinner while quickly buying the local shop out of their alcohol supply, a strong 8% Burmese beer called Dagon. After all, what is Christmas Eve without an overindulgent supply of alcohol? Following dinner, Kyuak made us what he called a ‘Christmas bonfire.’ He invited many of the curious villagers and we drank together, watching their shy and conservative natures melt away, and quickly realizing despite cultural and geographical barriers how few differences truly separated us as human beings. At one point I wandered off to stare up at the vast expanse of the stars in the night sky, realizing that we were the only foreigners around for miles, and appreciating the warmhearted way this village had accepted us so eagerly as one of their own.

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We awoke the next morning to an incredible sight. Mist shrouded the entire valley, adding a mysterious ambience that perfectly complemented our surroundings. The morning was quiet other than the occasional sounds of children laughing. All of a sudden the silence was broken as we heard Kyuak’s transistor radio crackling away with a static filled rendition of ‘Silent Night’. There couldn’t have been a more perfect touch to Christmas morning. The sun began to bathe the valley in light, which lifted the mist, and thankfully our hangovers as well. We handed out candies to the gleeful children, and said our fond farewells to the incredible people of the village before setting off again. So-So initially assessed the degree of difficulty this day as, “Not bad, a little uphill.” Nothing we couldn’t manage. I should have already learned that So-So clearly possessed a different barometer of difficulty than I did. By lunch we were completely soaked through with sweat. The terrain had again shifted from shady pines to an arid, desert-like environment rift with aloe and cactus, hardly the type of vegetation one could seek shelter under from the cruel midday sun. The terrain wasn’t aided by the fact that a steep incline had persisted throughout the entire day. By the time we arrived at the monastery, our home away from home for the second night, I was completely exhausted. The monastery itself was a beautiful place. Surrounded by rolling hills and immersed in nature, it exuded a sense of spirituality that could absorb one just by being in its presence. Alas, the novice monks in training at the monastery had different ideas than inner tranquility. Although clearly devout, they seemed to attain the majority of their enjoyment from playing tricks on each other, play fighting, and hitting each other with branches. I suppose that boys will be boys. That night So-So prepared one hell of a feast, with the dishes centering on the fiery chilies we had bartered with some farmers for earlier in the day. Full and exhausted, we crashed hard on the floor of the monastery, fading as fast as the setting sun.

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We were awoken at 5am to the sound of the novice monks harmonious chanting. Although having someone wake me at 5am would normally piss me off, I must admit in this instance it added an ethereal appeal to the entire experience. I found myself lost in one of those moments that makes you really sit back and take it all in, fully appreciative of being somewhere in the world where no one you know could even find on a map. After receiving a blessing from the monastery’s only adult monk, I again cursed the amount of gear in my bag as I threw the pack onto my sore shoulders. When asked about day three So-So had assured us that it would be, “Easy. All downhill.” After a couple of hours marching uphill on the hottest day yet, sweating again through my only shirt, tired, dirty, and sore, I almost leaped with jubilation as we finally crested the mountain and stole our first glimpse of Inle Lake in the distance, our final destination. Again the landscape rapidly transitioned from barren and desert-like, enveloping us in the humidity of a jungle as we descended. Again I was struck by the incredible diversity of landscapes we had witnessed over the three days. We all laughed as we saw two bright and shiny travelers waving to us, clean and with huge packs on their back, clearly on their first few hours out and beginning the ascent. Ah, to be so naïve of the trials to come. As we reached the bottom of the mountain the dense bamboo and lush forests gave way again to cultivated farmland, brimming with a brilliant myriad of sugarcane and sunflowers. Not for the first time I marveled at the resourcefulness of these people, utilizing everything the land could offer and leaving nothing to waste. If the impending apocalypse arrived tomorrow, something tells me our ‘educated society’ in the west would be lining up to take lessons from these resourceful farmers. With the end in sight we asked So-So just how far we had come. “57 kilometers,” he replied with a shrug in his usual offhand manner. Just another day at the office. After some confusion and a number of wrong turns, we stumbled across a boat driver who was patiently waiting to navigate us through the labyrinth of narrow tributaries that surrounded the lake. After enough twists and turns to make our heads spin, we finally broke out into the gorgeous expanse of Inle Lake, the late-afternoon sun glistening off the water with a beautiful golden hue. We hopped off the boat at the town of Nyuangshwe, where So-So took us for a late lunch in the local market, my favorite kind of place to eat like a local.

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After wolfing down a delicious bowl of Shan noodles and a cold Myanmar beer, I took a few minutes to reflect on what we had just done. Certainly the landscapes and sights along the way were incredible, but what really made this trek amazing was the people. The Burmese people we had encountered were such caring, warm hearted and generous individuals, constantly going out of their way to make sure we felt welcome and comfortable. They did this not because they expected anything in return, but simply because they are brought up with an emphasis on the spirit of family and community, a lesson many of us in the west seem to have lost somewhere along the way. These people will always hold a special place in my heart, and I couldn’t have been happier to get off the beaten track and meet them.

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One thought on “Trekking off the Beaten Path in Shan State

  1. This is some excellent writing and great photos. I love the top two portraits, and the photo of the mother with her baby.

    This has also whet my appetite for Burma later this year. I will have to talk my wife into trekking with me though. Thanks for sharing.

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