Hsipaw and Inle Lake: Gunshots, Trekking, and More Pagodas
With rain pounding the entire country, we skipped our final sunrise and booked ourselves a bus to Hsipaw (pronounced see-po). The five hour bus ride was uneventful and took us through the endless flatlands of Myanmar. After the bus, we were transferred at a town called Pyin Oo Lwin. Here we were ushered by a few locals to a shared taxi. As our F1 wannabe driver passed around blind corners, topped out on straightaways, and weaved through trucks. The sketchiest part of this drive came when we needed to drive through a gorge. The winding switchback road down and up the gorge was clogged by trucks. The rain washed gravel and dirt on to the road. At some points the gravel and mud became a few inches deep, making traction difficult. After we drove past our first truck that had run into the hillside, we unplugged our headphones and got ready to bail out of the car if need be. Looking up from the bottom of the gorge to road terraced the hillside. All I could imagine was a truck sliding off the guardrail-less road and toppling into our car. Our driver only got stuck once, forcing us to push the car out of the unstable gravel. Here, the drivers ignorance fully blossomed. As we got behind his car to push I expected a gentle acceleration. Rather, the driver floored the pedal, shooting gravel in all directions. Luckily, none of us were hit by the flying shrapnel and after a bit of tire smoke, we set our car free. less than a mile later, we passed a car that had slid off the road on to a hill that dropped down a few hundred feet. The Toyota truck was easily at a sixty degree angle on the hillside. I am still confused on why it didn’t roll down the embankment. Relieved at the top of the gorge, we were surprised once more when a three inch hairy spider crawled out of the trunk on to Jordan’s passenger side window. With a unanimous “holy s**t” we rolled down the window and the driver pulled over confused by out commotion. He saw the spider and was a bit unnerved himself. We survived, laughed about the experience, and finished our drive to Hsipaw.
The rest of that day and the next, the rain continued to pour. We hung out, drank tea, and researched further travel plans. I knew I was getting used to the hot Southeast Asia weather when a seventy degree day called for a warm cup of tea. We woke up the next morning, refreshed from hanging out for a day, and began our trek to Pankam Village. The 9.3 mile trek from Hsipaw to Pankam took us around three hours. We started the trek straight from our hostel, Mr. Charles Guesthouse. For some reason, there was a pattern of restaurants and homestays having Mr. or Mrs. prefixed in front of their names. There was a Mr. Shake, Mrs. Popcorn, and a few others. We did frequent Mr. Shake, always indulging ourselves with the same shake: pineapple, mango, lime, mint, and ginger. Although recreating the $0.80 price tag may be difficult back at home, I will be recreating this shake stateside. We hired a guide for the trek because there has been some instability in the northern villages. It was also nice to get some local insight on the trek and surrounding areas. Our guide introduced himself to us as Jack. Puzzled, I asked him if that was his local name. Of course, he said no and said his local name. After four different and hard to pronounce names I understood why we were going to call him Jack. Jack was eighteen, and guiding trekking was his summer job. In the fall he was going to return to a university in Lashio (east of Hsipaw), where he was studying English. The trek began with a hike on a mud road through corn fields. They grow both white and yellow corn. Along with many of Myanmar’s other natural resources, the yellow corn is all exported to China. During various points on the trek, Jack would point out power lines and say “to China”. We also crossed over underground gas pipelines that Jack said were bound for China. The old government of Myanmar essentially sold many of their natural resources to China. The leaders made sure to keep a nice tip for themselves from the sale. This has been a big sore point for many Burmese people.
As we weaved through the fields and various small villages we approached the mountains we would be climbing. Through the hills, we passed more farms comprised of newly tilled soil, ready for the new corn sprouts. Jack explained to us that different farmers plant and grow corn at different times of the month, so there were a few plots of land with sprouts much more mature than others. Continuing on the dirt road, we stopped at a tea house near the top of one of the passes. Here we enjoyed what was soon to be one of our favorite Burmese dishes, tea leaf salad. The salad is made up of pickled tea leaves, peanuts, dried crunchy soy beans, onions, chilies, limes, and ginger. All of this was mixed together and a homemade peanut oil was drizzled over the top. We could not have enough of this salad and lucky for us, this was one of many tea leaf salads we would enjoy. One of Pankam’s main exports was tea leaves. Since the pickled leaves essentially never went bad, it was the perfect dish for them. After a little over three hours under the partially clouded Burmese sky, we arrived at Pankam village. Greeted by some of the largest banyan trees I’ve ever seen, we walked to our homestay. Since we arrived a few hours earlier than expected, a birthday party was in full swing at our homestay. It was the second birthday of the young girl who lived in the house. The majority of the homestays in the village were run by one family. The husband and wife who lived in our homestay headed the operation. The husband was the leader of the four villages in the area and seemed to be a very respected man in the village. It was his daughter who was having her third birthday. The husband’s parents also operated another homestay as well as one of his siblings.
After the birthday celebration and one of the best vegetarian lunches I have ever had, we departed for a short hike to the top of a hill that overlooked the village. Continuing on a small dirt road, we passed many green tea plantations, corn fields, and buffalo. Arriving at the end of our path we skirted off the trail to make it to the top of the hill. As we got to the top of the hill I noticed a small tent-like structure made of sticks and leaves. Assuming they were forts built by local villagers, I looked a little closer to see if anyone was inside. Then I heard Jack whisper “soldiers”. I scanned the forested ridgeline and saw these manmade tents positioned every one hundred yards. Jack told us he didn’t know what type of soldiers they were. He said that if they were Shan soldiers we were fine, but if they were Palaung soldiers we would be in trouble.
The Shan soldiers and Palaung soldiers have been butting heads for quite some time and do not get along. The villagers of Pankam are aligned with the Shan army. Pankam village is made up of about 700 people, 300 of which are in their army. All males are required to join the Pankam Army unless they marry early and have children. This has led to many young mothers and fathers in the village. The Pankam and Shan soldiers are aligned and technically Pankam soldiers are Shan soldiers, Shan referring to the Myanmar state they are from. The tension between the Shan Army and the Palaung Army is not one where they immediately shoot when they see each other. Sometimes fighting will break out between the two, but in the recent months, there has not been any heavy exchange of fire. Regardless, we didn’t want to play a guessing game on which army was sleeping on the hill so we promptly got the f**k out of there. Jack was able to confirm with the other villagers that the soldiers were with the Shan Army and were in place to protect the village. Relieved we were not going to be caught in the middle of a war, we smoked some Burmese cigars and drank some beers, reminiscing on the experience. Throughout the rest of our stay in Pankam, we occasionally saw soldiers walking through the village with guns slung across their shoulders. The soldiers were always kind to us, exchanging smiles and waves whenever we saw them. During the night we woke to a single gunshot and heard another single shot during the day. Our guess was that it was just the guns misfiring. The guns looked like they were dug out of a hole, leftover from the Vietnam war. Needless to say, they appeared than reliable.
After our encounter with the Shan soldiers, we wandered the village to try and get a feel for life was like in the village. Bamboo huts, sheltered by rusting tin roofs scattered the village. The only source of power came from government issued solar panels. Our guest houses also had a gas generator, but it was never used during our stay. The stoves were all wood burning and smoke would billow from village chimneys during mealtimes. During our jaunt through the village, we ran into a little local boy. He was not over the age of three and was booming with energy. He was enamored with our cameras, so we let him put his photography skills to work. After a few minutes, he was taking photos and we were able to show him the photos he took. Beaming with excitement it took us ten minutes before we had the guts to tell the boy we were going to continue our walk. The rest of the day was spent relaxing at the homestay watching the fireflies zip between the houses. A few stars that were able to peek through the cloud cover exposing a partial starry sky. I talked to Jack about an hour that night before retreating to my sleeping pad upstairs. During my conversation with Jack, I tried to learn as much as I could about the conflicts between the villages. I was also able to get a sense about how removed from Western culture some of the Burmese people are. Jack knew all the major Western bands, Justin Bieber, One Direction, Taylor Swift, etc, but his knowledge in other pop culture topics was limited. He didn’t know much about the United States election, he had never heard about Donald Trump, and he had never heard about Brad Pitt. I know these are just a few small examples from one single person, but it was cool meeting and speaking to someone who has had such different experiences and exposures than myself. This was really the first time I was able to talk to someone, in understandable English, who was so removed from Western culture. When we talked about the growth of his town Hsipaw, Jack mentioned that they didn’t have motor vehicles until 1998. He said when he was young Hsipaw was a small village, just like Pankam, made up of only small bamboo houses. Tourism has helped develop Hsipaw and has changed it drastically over the last few years. Whether this is good or bad is up for debate and many people feel strongly on both sides.
Between a gun shot and the heavy rain on the tin roof, sleeping was a little difficult that night. The overhanging mosquito net provided enough piece of mind to allow me to rest easy for at least a few hours. Powered by our home cooked vegetarian meals, we awoke the next day, ready to begin our hike. The hike out of the village was on a similar mud road that wrapped around the back of the village, and we continued our loop back to Hsipaw. The first few hours were cloudy until we saw rain charging towards us in the distance. Sporting our rain jackets, we trekked through the mud for the next two hours. The rain never became unbearable but it moistened up the mud enough to turn it into a sticky paste. Caked with mud, our shoes doubled in weight and we slipped and slid down the majority of the trail. Dodging the mud and jumping over puddles became sort of a game and laughter was exchanged for the rest of the trek. The scenery was similar to our hike in. We descended from the mountain to a large valley, rich in tilled soil waiting to be planted. Our trek ended at a waterfall where we showered and washed our clothes. After this, we boarded a taxi bound for Jack’s home where we would eat the best noodle soup I have had thus far. The noodles were the highlight of the Shan noodle soup. Referred to as sticky noodles, they were chewy, sticky, stretchy, and delicious. After our meal, we bid farewell to Jack and thanked him for guiding us through the Burmese mountains.
We boarded a night bus the same day we ended the trek and arrived at our next destination, Inle Lake. The bus ride was one of the more interesting rides we have had yet in Asia. Attempting to break the Myanmar land speed record, our driver stopped for no one and knew the exact speed he could fly around a corner keeping all four wheels on the ground. Our seats barely fit two small Burmese people. This left Jordan and I essentially cuddling the entire trip. Alex had the pleasure of sitting next to a small attractive French girl, so he at least had that going for him. We traveled through the same dangerous gorge our taxi driver got stuck in on our trip to Hsipaw. The horror was all the same during the entire journey up and down the gorge. With the gorge out of the way, I attempted to sleep for the next 11 of the bus ride shoulder to shoulder with Jordan.
We arrived in Inle Lake and met up with Taylor for our final two days of travel together before he begins his solo travel adventure. He will be in Myanmar a few days longer than us, after that, he is off to Sri Lanka. The shallow lake averages a five foot depth and is set in a valley between grassy hills. Square patches of tilled soil speckled the hillside along with miscellaneous pagodas. Our two days at Inle were greeted with sunshine and intermittent showers. After arriving in Inle we all had to nap due to the lack of sleep we got on the bus. After our nap, we rented some bikes and peddled to the Red Mountain Winery. This may leave you thinking, “Wow, I didn’t know Myanmar had wine country.” Well, it doesn’t. The soil, climate, and culture of Myanmar are all forces that should dissuade anyone from starting a winery in Myanmar, but it didn’t. For under $4.00 you could sample the wines and that was enough to intrigue us and many other tourists to pay the winery a visit. Shockingly, the winery was not a hotspot for the locals. After barely choking down the three of the samples of what I was told was wine, I was pleasantly surprised by the fourth sample. It was called their Late Harvest wine. Since I know next to nothing about wine, and usually only drink it out of a box in the States, I can’t tell you much more about it. One thing was for sure, those first three wines were nothing short of gross. This sweet white Late Harvest wine was good enough for us to order a bottle of it, and at just over $10.o0 a bottle, we decided to splurge. For more information on the winery, you can visit their website here: Red Mountain Estates. The highlight of the experience was the view. The winery overlooked part of Inle Lake and Nyaungshwe, the main town on the north shore of the Lake. The next day, we rented the same bikes and pedaled around the lake. We took photos of the scenery and enjoyed our final day at the lake. At the end of out bike ride, we took a boat back to the village because we hadn’t actually been on the lake yet. We boarded our shallow motorized canoe and cruised the lake, dodging reed outcroppings along the way. The length of the boat was pretty impressive. It fit all of us, our bikes, and the captain comfortably. Our final hours with Taylor were spent relaxing and drinking Myanmar Beer. Our four month traveling with Taylor had come to an end. Bummed he wasn’t joining us in India, I couldn’t be more stoked for him to begin his solo adventures through Sri Lanka. With a plan to meet back up in Russia, I can’t wait to hear about his experiences over a few glasses of Russian vodka. We bid farewell, boarded our bus to Yangon, and slept the entire ride.
Having already spent a few days in Yangon at the beginning of our trip, we were mainly there to pick up our visas and catch our flight to Bangkok, then India. Picking up our passports was smooth sailing at the Indian embassy. That same day we went to the Shwedagon Pagoda, the largest pagoda in Yangon, and arguably the most important one in Myanmar. The pagoda houses relics of Buddha and is a very sacred site for the Buddhist people of Myanmar. Blinded by the gold pagoda and white marble floors, we entered the holy site. Everything on the pagoda was either gold or white, and it took my eyes a while to adjust to the reflection. Praying locals far outnumbered tourists making us stick out even more than we did throughout the rest of the country. Surrounding the pagoda were various Buddha statues representing days of the week. It is traditional to find the Buddha, representing the day of the week you are born and pour water over him. After bathing our Buddhas we left the Shwedagon and hunted for fried snacks through the city. Later that night we stumbled across a film festival in downtown Yangon. It was free to get in and a great way to spend an evening. We learned more about the economic issue facing Myanmar and the citizens thoughts about the changes happening in the country. We spent that majority of the next day at the film festival and took plenty of food breaks in between the showings. The films we saw varied from a film about a Syrian family to coal miners in China. The next I was lucky enough to come down with a fever and a pounding headache. Jordan and Alex traveled to Bago to see a 125-year-old Burmese python. The python hangs out in a temple, eats, and people come to wash it with money. By “wash it with money”, I mean they use cash as a sponge to scrub down the snake. Waking up early the next morning we boarded our plane to Bangkok and prepared for our 21 hour layover. In Bangkok, we watched Finding Dory and wandered in the air conditioned malls. As I was still feeling under the weather, I booked a hotel room to get some sleep before our 5:30 AM flight to Kolkata. Alex and Jordan opted to save their dollars and nap in the airport. Meeting back up in the Bangkok airport, we boarded our flight and prepared ourselves for the cultural diversity of India.