Shan State

My trip into Shan State, a region in the east of Myanmar, started in the north of their territory in a town called Hsipaw. The Shan are an ethnic minority descending from the Mongols who settled in this land some 4000 years ago. This minority makes up a total of around 9% of Myanmar’s total population.

Hsipaw is a very laid back town, situated amongst some beautiful countryside as you weave up towards the mountains north east of Mandalay. It’s a popular tourist destination due to the opportunity to join guided treks through the mountain scenery to spend time in the local villages.

I chose to join a 2 day trek, with a 1 night home stay in the village of Pankam, some 15km from Hsipaw. It doesn’t sound like a long way, but the first day was spent almost entirely climbing uphill in the sweltering heat. The sun only getting lost behind the clouds for a brief period whilst the heavens opened, ensuring that first, we were able to cool off from the sun, and then second, that despite our ponchos and waterproofs, we were all soaked. The heavy rain of recent weeks had turned parts of the dirt tracks and earthen paths to solid mud, making for an interesting few days of trekking.

All the problems we encountered due to the weather were totally worthwhile enduring, as we scaled to hill paths and ridges with some truly breathtaking views down through the country side. The home stay was a chance to get to know the locals and find out more about the country and what it means to them. We talked about Shan heritage, way of life in the village and of course about the politics of the country and of the upcoming general election. Everyone seems hopeful that they will finally start to see some change, but only time will tell if a democracy can emerge.

The day after finishing the trek, I went back out into the countryside to see what else Hsipaw had to offer. I took a bike as far along a narrow country path as I could, before I was forced to abandon it because of the heavy mud and also due to the lack of working brakes, especially going down some steep, rocky sections of path. This left me with several kilometres of trekking through thick mud, as my destination, a waterfall, was on the other side of some flooded marshland. All this trekking on my ‘day off.’

As usual, this was totally worth it again and after then climbing up through some thick crop plantations, I found myself in a pool to cool off from the heat at the foot of a spectacular, large streaming waterfall. It was like no other waterfall I’d seen though, as even with the height and steepness with with the water fell, it almost came down in slow motion, trickling over a rocky cliff face. In the other direction, I had more incredible views down over the valley towards Hsipaw.

 That night, I took a bus to the South of Shan State. What I noticed through my intermittent sleeping was that in order to safely get us down the dark, narrow and winding mountain paths, the bus crew was having to get out of the bus, guide the driver round the bends by torchlight, run along side the bus to the next bend and repeat. It felt remarkable safe and smooth, but was a strange sight to see this procession of a number of buses with the same routine snaking off into the distance down below.

I reached Kalaw in the middle of the night. This sleepy town was once an old retreat loved by the Brits due to its cool temperatures way up in the hills. There’s not a whole lot to do in this town, but it was a stop off before I embarked on yet another trek (I can’t get enough) to the Inle lake.

Whilst in town, I did stumble upon a local football tournament, with 4 teams from the area competing for the title. The whole village seemed to have turned out, which I thought was weird because it was early on a Thursday afternoon. I guess convention work hours don’t exist as they do at home though. I struggled through watching one match of very questionable quality. The teams were dressed in Tottenham and Arsenal kits, but soon both ran around in different shades of brown as the overgrown, muddy, heavily puddled pitch took its toll on the game. It ended up as a 6-0 win to one of the brown teams, with an indifference to the offside rule and a goal coming directly from an inswinging corner being the two particularly memorable moments from the match.

At full time I was taken for a beer with a few locals, but couldn’t bring myself to return to watch any more matches.

So the following morning I set off on my 3 day trek to the Inle lake. Over these 3 days, it rained the entire time. I’m sure there were some nice views along the way, not that I managed to see them as they were either masked by the thick clouds, or I was watching my feet to ensure I didn’t slip in the mud. I did the trek with a really fun group of people though which, despite the weather, made it another incredible experience. I guess we either had to laugh or cry to endure the rain, but together we managed to preserve some sanity.

One of the highlights of the trek was sleeping in a monastery in a small village in the middle of nowhere. This impressive complex was a welcome sight when we desperately needed somewhere dry and warm to stay on the second night. Other memorable things to note was the food – we had a chef who kept overtaking us on his motorbike (he never stopped to give us a lift even in the pouring rain) who always had plenty of amazing (and importantly piping hot) food waiting for us at our stops 3 times per day – also being woken up a 4am each morning by roosters and of course the cheap bottles of local rum we found, which may have also played its part in keeping our sanity.

But I suppose all of this is the risk you take when you decide to go trekking in the wet season. Thankfully the great guide, and the great group of people I was with made this an unforgettable experience for the right reasons.

The trek concluded at the South West side of the Inle Lake. We had to get to a town in the North, and the best way to do that was by boat. But as you can probably guess by now, it was raining for the duration of the hour long boat ride, which of course had no cover. More fun. But the boat ride allowed us to see the local fishermen at work, which is the iconic picture of lake, as the fishermen manage to fish with their nets whilst standing at the back of the boat on one leg, paddling with the other. An amazing sight which I was unable to get on camera due to the heavy rain…

On the east side of the lake we found a winery which we just couldn’t resist seeing. I was pleased to do sample some wines, especially as I hadn’t tasted wine for some time now, however, I was with a group of Italians who probably had a more sophisticated palate than mine, and apparently the Myanmar wine just wasn’t up to scratch. I thought it was alright.

And then came the final day. And the morning greeted us with the joyous sight of sunshine peaking through the clouds. At the sight of this we jumped on some bike and started pedalling through the countryside in search of a nice market we’d been told about. It would apparently take around 2 hours to reach the market on bikes, and, predictably, after the first hour passed, it started raining. Heavily. After the second, miserable hour, we asked for directions. The market was still another hour away. After the third hour we arrived at a familiar looking town, the town we’d taken the boat from just 2 days ago but were too wet and cold to take any notice of the name. What’s more is that we arrived as the market was closing. A complete comedy of errors, but a lot of laughter and a nice chocolate pancake meant that it wasn’t all bad for that day. We paid a truck driver to take us back to town with our bikes as we’d had plenty enough rain.

I should add that at this point, unbeknown to us at the time due to our loss of contact with the the rest of the world on our trek into the wilderness (I’m writing this a week or so after it happened), Myanmar was on the verge of being declared in a national state of emergency due to flooding and that the rain and misery was in no way restricted just to this region of Shan State. Infact, this was (and continues to be) one of the least effected areas in the country, as disastrous conditions left over from a typhoon off the coast of India are having a huge impact particularly on the west coast.

The weather conditions on the second half of my trip through Shan state couldn’t be helped, but resulted in experiences that I’ll never forget, and all for positive reasons (believe it or not!).

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