From Mandalay we headed North East to Hsipaw, to do some trekking (hiking) to nearby hilltribe villages. The bus from Mandalay arrived in Hsipaw around 8pm. We shared a pick-up taxi with 3 other travelers to Mr. Charles Guest House for 500 Kyat/person. George and I selected the double room with air conditioning for $30 USD per night and then inquired right away about trekking. We were given a not so helpful pamphlet and asked some questions about the one day vs. overnight options. We were told that the guides would be at the hotel at breakfast time the next morning (7:30am-9am) and we could find out more details then.
We got to breakfast at 7:30am and after talking to the guide decided on the overnight trip, leaving at 8:30am. It was just us, the guide, and one other tourist from Italy on the overnight adventure.
There was a storage room at Mr. Charles Guest House for leaving our large backpack and we were told just to bring a rain jacket, long-sleeve shirt, and 2 liters of water each. We rearranged our belongings and tried to lighten our day packs, but they were still heavier than ideal. We each brought a sweater and g brought his jacket, none of which we needed. We thought the weather would be a bit cooler here, since it is higher elevation, but it did not turn out to be cooler. It is monsoon season, so it should be raining, but this has been a drought year. I borrowed an umbrella from the hotel, in case of a deluge, but instead it was quite handy as a parasol to keep the sun off.
We headed out a little past 8:30am, armed with our four water bottles and cameras. We had been told that the hike would take about 5 hours to reach our destination for the night and that it was about 14km. George and I thought that we were prepared, being that we walk 2-6 miles per day at home, in warm weather. But we had no idea what we were in for!
For some reason, I was picturing a flat walk, even though it makes sense that hilltribes would live in the hills. And we had expected cooler temperatures. After about the first hour of trekking, the pathway/ motor bike road turned to a gradual incline. It was also starting to warm up. I was breathing hard and thinking, “Man, I thought I was in shape.” After another hour or two we were drenched in sweat. The beads of sweat were rolling down my face and arms, washing away my sunscreen. With my wishful thinking I thought maybe it was in the 80s but just high humidity. As we stopped for another few minute break in the shade the guys guessed that it was around 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) with about 80-90% humidity. The problem with such high humidity is that your sweat does not evaporate, so your natural cooling system does not work. We tried to enjoy the view of rolling hills planted with corn, rice, and soya beans as we walked up and up and up. But sometimes all I could concentrate on was holding the umbrella over me and re-opening it after it would spontaneously collapse shut.
We stopped for a rest and a snack at a small shop in a Shan village. The Shan people are closely related to Thai and the language sounds similar. Hello is “my-soon-ca.” After the rest it was back to walking in the bright sun.
Part way up the hill we finally came to a rest station with a faucet of spring water shooting out of the hillside. We were able to rinse off a bit with the cool water. As we sat to catch our breath a few monks on motorbikes pulled up and used the water to splash on their motorbike engines and exhaust pipes to cool them off. They were transporting big buckets of paint to their monastery to re-paint it. There were many motorbikes that pasted us while we were trekking, blowing dry dirt into the air. We found out from a monk along the way that many people were traveling to one of the villages for a funeral, and that was why there were more motorbikes than usual. It still seemed odd that we were trekking on foot to see traditional villages, while the villagers were passing us on motorized vehicles.
We finally arrived at the Palaung village of Pankam with a population of 600 at around 2pm, as scheduled. We were smelly, soaked in sweat, and dusted with a coating of red dirt. But we had made it! As we were trekking we had dreamed of cold drinks awaiting us, even though we knew there would be no such thing. Instead, lunch was served with hot tea, grown locally, and cool drinking water, supplied by a project built by the UN. We were staying the night in the elected chief’s bamboo home, and his wife had prepared us a feast of Palaung dishes.
After enjoying the meal we lounged outside on bamboo chairs. Our guide said it was nap time until 5pm, but George and I preferred to sit outside and look at the hills and wave to the children walking by. The villagers are a bit reserved, but the children like to wave at the foreigners. Our guide explained that the children never learned to say “hello” in English, but they learned “ba-bye” and they think that “ba-bye” means “foreigner.” For example, as some kids were waving at us, they saw 3 “ba-byes” in front of them. After that, we would wave and say “ba-bye” and they would respond “ba-bye, ba-bye, ba-bye.” We also tried saying hello in their language “cam-sa” but it did not get as much of a reaction.
In the evening we took a stroll through the forested hills and then through the village. There had not been as many trees as I had expected on the hike to the village, since most of the land has been cleared for agriculture.
For dinner our hostess prepared another feast of local dishes. When it got dark, one light bulb above the dining table was switched on, powered by the single solar panel on the roof. There is not much electricity in these hilltribe villages, but we did see a few small hydro-electric generators on the walk up. So some homes can power a light, radio, or maybe even a TV. As we sat chatting under the one illuminated bulb I thought to myself how this remote hilltribe village reminded me somewhat of how I grew up. The solar panels on the roof providing electricity for the light above our dining room table and playing in the dirt and running free in the hills as a child. Of course, we did have more amenities, like running water and a truck to get us into town.
We retired early, around 9pm and awoke to the cock-a-doodle-do of rosters around 4am, followed by the racket of hens laying eggs. We pulled ourselves out of bed around 6am and attempted to freshen up with the pan of washing water. After breakfast there was time for a bit more visiting in the village.
Our hostess also applied thanaka to our faces to help protect us from sun burn. Thanaka is a traditional make-up worn by many Burmese women and some men. It is made by grinding the bark of a thanaka (sandalwood) tree on a stone and adding a bit of water. It is then brushed onto the face. It works as moisturizer, make up, and sunscreen.
After a few farewell photos it was time to trek back down the hill to Hsipaw. The return trip was shorter, only taking about 4 hours, due to walking down hill and some shortcuts through overgrown paths. Boy were we glad when we got back to Mr. Charles’ Guest House and were able to shower. We were so exhausted we took an hour nap before venturing out to lunch.
It was a great experience to see what life is like in Shan and Palaung villages. But the weather can really color your experience. For us it was scorching hot, but the next day was pouring rain, which we do not think we would have preferred. I just wish they would give you a bit of a warning about how difficult the excursion would be, which they do not tend to do here in Myanmar.