Our boat arrived in busy Mandalay just before sunset. As our legs adjusted to land Ben and I said goodbye to our friends and checked into our hotel, ready for a soft bed.
Our time the city was pretty short. One day we visited Sunset Hill, a series of temples sitting along a tall hill that overlooked the city. The 1720 steps to the top seemed a never-ending odyssey. Each temple provided stairs up to another. Their mirrored walls, golden buddhas and statues of symbolic sprits made me feel as though I’d fallen down Buddha’s rabbit hole. At the top was the most elaborate temple. Ancient mosaic walls are now accented with colorful neon lights. A typical, new age Burmese design that makes ancient temples look more like discotecs. The view overlooked all of modern, bustling Mandalay. Golden pagodas in the distance were a reminder of what Mandalay used to be.
The next morning we woke up before dawn and went to the U Bein bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world and an iconic landmark in Mandalay.
The bridge is bustling at sunset but at sunrise it’s really peaceful. Everyone emerges from their homes just before the sun appears. Fisherman casting nets into the river look like tiny silhouettes. Monks walking across the bridge, to get alms from the people, do so slowly and intentionally, their red robes getting more vibrant as the sun rises.
We were in Mandalay for less than two days. Lately we’d spent a lot of time in big cities, from Hanoi, to Bangkok, followed by 3 days in Yangon. Although I really enjoy seeing big cities in Asia, I find their hot crowded chaos exhausting. I’m usually happy to arrive and happy to leave shortly after.
We were ready for the countryside and took a 6 hour bus northeast to a hill town called Hsipaw (pronounced See-paw) in the Shan state. The Shan and Northern Kachin State are sparely populated yet ethnically diverse. The Shan people can be divided into 5 subgroups who each have different languages, farming practices, and varying religious beliefs. Most areas are off limits, but a day’s hike outside Hsipaw are several Shan and Palaung villages that are open to foreigners. When we arrived in Hsipaw we found a guide who was leaving on a hike the following morning.
Our guide, an older Burmese man named JoJo, met us and 4 others at our guesthouse and we set off for a Palaung village called Pankam, where we would spend the night. We had a really fun group: two people from Europe and two from the US. Six people including Ben and I, most everyone around our age.
The village was only 15km outside of Hsipaw and a short 5 hour hike. On the hike we got to know everyone in our group, exchanging travel stories and future plans. One girl Shannon from Montana was studying the effects of climate change in the Vietnam delta. Her conclusion: the entire delta would be underwater in the next 100 years. An older man Lars from Sweden was full of stories, like traveling on the hippie highway through Afghanistan in the 60s.
JoJo was an endearing, quirky old man who was full of jokes (the punch line usually regarding how the Chinese are exploiting Myanmar’s resources). ‘The termites of Myanmar’ as he half-jokingly referred to them. He talked a little about what it was like growing up here, but when we asked him to go into detail he said he would later after he had his medicine. His medicine: homemade rice wine.
The intense summer heat is mounting in Myanmar. As we walked to Pankam the temperature and the incline sharply rose. By the time we arrived we were exhausted and drenched from the miday heat.
Our accommodations were at the village chief’s house. He had a basic but roomy two story thatch house next to a monastery. His wife had lunch prepared when we arrived. After lunch and a quick siesta JoJo took us around the village. We seemed to catch everyone eye. Hsipaw has been organizing hiking trips into the village for some time but it seemed our white skin and foreign faces were still a novelty to the people here. We said ‘Kam Sa’ (Hello in Palaung) to everyone we met. Sometimes the kids we passed, who didn’t seem old enough to speak in their own language, would say ‘Hello, nice to meet you!’ in very clear English.
Before we left for the hike, back in Hsipaw, Ben and I picked up a few little toy cars and planes to give out to the kids we passed. The look on their face when we casually put the toy in their hands was so sweet. There was usually a brief look of confusion, but once that subsided their faces would light up. Brightly colored little toy cars seem to hold universal appeal.
There are about 700 people living in the village, a large Palaung community in comparison to others. Tea cultivation is their source of income. After reading a little about the Palaung it seems that the women here, like elsewhere in Southeast Asia, do a majority of the work. Not only are they responsible for raising the kids, taking care of the home and fetching water, but they also work out in the fields. (I’m still not really sure what the men do). Even the chief’s wife, who was very pregnant, was lugging bags of concrete up to the house for their latest renovations. She was very attending to us the whole time we were in her home. We told her to stop and rest, but she replied she loved to work.
At sunset JoJo poured us each a cup of his ‘medicine’ and we toasted to a great day. He had brought with him photos of his family that he proudly showed us. He was particularly proud of a photo of his ‘beloved‘ wife, as he called her. He also brought a few old black and white photos from his childhood, his most prized possessions. One photo featured him as a young man circa 1970, wearing a cheetah print button down, bell bottoms and huge sunglasses.
It seems the hippie culture had made it to Myanmar. Which was further proven when, later in the night, we listened to music and JoJo danced and reminisced to Beatles classics. His reverie a little disheveled from too much rice wine.
We are now on our way to a town called Kalaw. From there we will hike for 3 days to Inle Lake. I’m writing this post on the train to Pyin oo Lwin, where we will overnight on our way to Kalaw. We’ve been looking forward to taking the trains in Myanmar and this is our first trip.
Sometimes we would catch the trains pulling into a station while walking around town. From the outside the vintage trains looks like a peaceful way to travel. From the inside, we sit in poorly maintained compartments, that are thrown from side to side and squeak loudly on even poorer maintained tracks. Our heads bob back and forth as the train slowly moves to Pyin oo Lwin. The trains were built in the 1950’s and it’s seems little has been done to them since.
The fresh air and beautiful mountain views make up for the train’s condition and it’s somehow a really enjoyable trip. The main reason we wanted to take this particular train route was to see the Gokteik Viaduct, a bridge built by the Pennsylvania Steel Company in 1901 that takes the train over a huge, unexpected gorge. It was the second highest railway bridge in the world when it was constructed. The views while crossing over the gorge at 318ft in the air were incredible!
Our excitement didn’t last long. About 30 minutes after this photo was snapped the train derailed at a very inopportune moment. Slash and burn farming is rampant in Burma. The place where we came to a halt had fires burning right along the tracks, on both sides of the train. Train workers estimated that it would take one hour to fix the problem (which in Burmese time could mean five or six). Ben noticed flames rising pretty high close to our compartment. Rather than sit around inhaling smoke we decided to walk the tracks to the next town and look for a bus. (Fire aside, we were just really happy it didn’t derail on the viaduct)
The next town was about an hour’s walk. On the way we came upon a farmer who was excited for the rare opportunity to converse with foreigners. He began speaking excitedly in Burmese. Realizing we had no idea what he was saying, he started using arm gestures to convey his point. We replied with arm gestures. From a distance it must have looked like we were playing charades. We finally established that the train had derailed and we are walking to the next town. He started walking with us until we came to his house. His wife was standing at the tracks with a huge smile, almost like she was waiting for us. She was pregnant with a little boy on her hip.
She was really concerned about us getting a sunburn. They both pointed to a water tap by their house and then all his previous gestures came together. He was trying to invite us to his home for some water. Rather than try to explain via charades that his water would probably make us sick, we pretended we didn’t understand but thanked them several times. Thank you being one of the few words we know in Burmese. They thanked us several times in return. Ben handed the little boy one of our last little toy cars and we kept walking. The generosity and kindness of people who have so little and their willingness to give to complete strangers is really moving. Maybe it’s why they seemed so happy.
When we got to town we found other people who had abandoned the train and shared a van with them. After a long day we arrived to Pyin oo Lwin just before sunset.
We’ll stay here for a couple days before heading to Inle Lake. This time, I think well take the bus.