Trekking from Hsipaw, Myanmar
The children smile and wave.
“Bye bye,” they shout out.
I’ve come to discover that it’s quite common for the young kids in Myanmar to think this is a greeting.
I smile and wave back and reply with a not-so-subtle “hello”, hoping they might get the message.
But it’s no great surprise they only know one word of English. I’m in the middle of Shan State, trekking through a tiny village accessible only along one dirt track by foot, animal or motorbike.
As far as my travels through Myanmar go, this is the middle of nowhere.
Along the track, I walk and the countryside passes by. Tea plantations; corn fields; sugar cane farms; small splashing rivers; pagodas and mountains. The path is uphill and, although I was promised things would get cooler, the sun is fierce today.
The plan is for a two day trek. I’m with two other travellers – an American and a German – and we set off early in the morning from the town of Hsipaw with our local guide Dantay who will take us to a local village higher up to spend the night. There are no hotels or restaurants here. It’s only through the kindness of local Shan villagers (and the opportunity for them to earn a bit of cash) that anything’s possible.
And we meet the villagers along the way. They’re working in their farms, looking after the children, or (in one case) standing half-naked in the river catching fish with their bare hands.
There’s always a smile and a wave. Although treks from Hsipaw are growing in popularity, I don’t imagine there are more than ten or twenty people who come by each day. This is far from the tourist trail and beyond the range even of many backpackers. We’re still a novelty to the villagers. As they are to us.
Shan state villages
At lunchtime we stop at the house of a Shan family and are beckoned inside. The mother brings us food – a simple farm meal of lentils, beans and rice. It’s obvious she’s made a little business out of offering her living room as a rest stop for trekkers. It’s also possible to stay the night apparently. We’ve got further to go, though.
As the day wears on we start to encounter people on their way home from a day in the fields. Their tools are over their shoulders, their lunchboxes are in their hands and the smiles are still on their faces. They’re happy for me to take their photos and to chat – although we don’t really understand a word each other is saying. (I’m pretty sure one man offers me the two women he was walking with, but I assume they’re just joking around.)
And as evening approaches we stop at another small village where we are to spend the night. Another family has seen the potential in the foreign trekkers and has converted a large room in the upstairs of their house into a pseudo-guesthouse. A row of mattresses laid out on the floor is our communal bedroom and, downstairs, the table with rice and beans and lentils is our pseudo-dining room.
The second day, much like the first, is filled with the faces of the local Shan villagers. We walk past a group of children on their way from school, past a large gathering in a house (for a funeral, I’m told) and past small ‘factories’ where the sugarcane cut nearby is being processed.
To me, a trek can be about nature and views of the wilderness. But in this case, it’s more about seeing the life that operates within it. Myanmar can seem remote and exotic at the best of times but it’s amplified out here. Lives have pretty much been led this way for generations, regardless of who was in charge of the country. It’s unique, it’s beautiful in its simplicity, and it’s here for you to see and appreciate.