After our two day trek through the Shan Highlands, Aris and I wanted to explore some more of this scenic and relatively untouched region of Myanmar. On our way back to Hsipaw, we had passed a small village which seemed very nice and interesting. Our plan was to make it back there, till having to figure out how to, and spend the night. Not sure how to exactly get there and not knowing if we could actually stay, we packed our bags, charged our camera batteries and set off for what would be one of the best experiences of my entire trip.
A rough journey
We first had to make it up to another village from where we would hike up to our final destination. We decided to rent a motorbike in town to drive up there. For Aris and I it was the first time riding a motorbike in Myanmar since it is not as easy as in other South East Asian countries. We aligned a bike and told the owner that we would only cruise around town for a couple of days or so. If he would have known where we wanted to take his bike, he definitely would not have given us his ride. We took off along nicely paved roads but soon turned to go uphill. And the road conditions worsened with every couple of hundred meters we went. Two big guys with heavy backpacks on a small 120cc bike going up an almost non existant hill road didn’t seem like a good idea all of a sudden. I was just praying that our bike would not break down us. The ride seemed longer and longer but we finally made it to our stopover. I felt the need to check the bike thoroughly but miraculously nothing was broken, no leaks or any other damage. Thank god.
The owners of the small shop where we had already rested a couple of days before remembered us two and greeted us friendly. We stacked up on some small snack and water and asked if we could leave our bike with them for a night. Of course they were eager to help and let us park it in their little barn. We said goodbye and continued by foot hoping that our luck would continue. After about an hour hiking we were not sure if we had actually taken the right path. We were unsure and a little bit worried but finally decided to keep going. After a while my memory came back and I recognized a few distinctive landmarks – the village was not far away.
A warm welcome
We finally arrived around noon time and not much was going on in the village yet. Most adults were out in the tea fields and the kids in school. We walked around a little bit and discovered that the Burmese army actually had a little outpost in the village. Probably because the Shan region had experienced some ethnic violence just recently. We were not sure how to approach the soldiers but decided to just walk up to one of them, put on our friendliest smile and greet them. The tension loosened quickly as the soldiers greeted us friendly with some even being able to speak a little English. We asked if we could sleep somewhere and they pointed over to the little monastery. One of the soldiers walked us over and introduced us to the few monks. After a little talk, the monks showed us the way inside and indicated that we could leave our bags there. We were surprised and happy that all this worked out so well and uncomplicated. Spending the night in a Burmese monastery seemed like the jackpot, it couldn’t have worked any better for now. We were hungry though and asked the soldier who was about to leave if we could get some food somewhere. He pointed to a hut close by which seemed like a regular house to us. But once we made it over, it became clear that it was a small shop and as usual some people were hanging out inside, sipping tea and smoking. Everyone was very surprised to see us there and offered us a seat and some more tea right away. Using the global sign language, we indicated that we would like to eat a little bit. The only woman inside instantly started cooking and we were served a basic but tasty meal. We were observed curiously by the other “guests” and had a good time together.
A day at the local village school
Aris and I heard some laughter outside and wanted to see where it was coming from. It was the village school, a small wooden building with a little fence all around it. We wanted to see what was going on inside and how teaching works in rural Myanmar. The two teachers present didn’t seem to have a problem and allowed us to stick around and take some pictures. For the kids of course we were a huge attraction. But after a while they somehow got used to our presence which allowed us to take some great photographs. To see how they were studying, reading, taking notes and trying to solve math problems in such a simple and modest environment was a fascinating and humbling experience. So different from what we are used to back in Europe.
There were at least three different classes in one room and it was very loud inside with every class doing different subjects. The kids had to repeat what the teachers were saying and it almost seemed like a sort of choir. Since one of the classes was just being taught some basic English, I thought it might be interesting for the kids to get taught by an actually foreigner. I was allowed to step up front and teach a little bit. The kids listened closely and for a moment it was completely quiet inside. Then they repeated as they were used to and they did a great job. It was such a great moment.
After a while school was about to finish. We thanked the two teachers for their warmly welcome and their patience with us and ran outside with them. They seemed very happy to be done for the day and go playing. Pretty much the same phenomenon as in every other part of the world.
Afterschool playing time
We followed some of the kids through their village. A lot of them seemed to stop at one specific house and just hang around there. Since it was open we decided to check it out and the owner greeted us with some freshly brewed tea. He instantly also invited us for food and even offered us a place to sleep for the night. So much friendliness and kindness everywhere we went to, it was unbelievable. Since we already had a nice place to sleep in the monastery, we declined the offer but arranged that we would come back for dinner. In the meantime the kids were playing outside, shouting and screaming and just having a good time. We joined them for a bit and actually got to know some of them by their names. One of them was Epi, a smart young boy who was really confident. He showed us around the house, smiled the whole time and had lots of fun getting his picture taken. It was fun and time just flew by.
After a few hours of hanging around and playing, we decided to return a little bit to this friendly community. We went to the local shop and bought some cigars and drinks for the owner of the house and some candy for the kids. They enjoyed it a lot and we all had a good laugh.
Sun sets very quickly in the Burmese mountains and before we realized it got dark. Dinnertime. Our host and his wife had prepared a nice meal. Rice, vegetables, fried peanuts, soup and lots of tea. It was good and very filling. Villagers topped by every now and then to have a look at those foreigners and we enjoyed everyones company. We finished with some Burmese cigars together with our hosts before it was time leave. Since there was no electricity, the village’s activities come to abrupt end once it is dark.
A night to remember in the monastery
We headed over to the monastery where we had arranged to spend the night. The monks and their little novices were chanting inside the big hall so we waited outside for them to finish. Once they were done, they asked us in and showed us around. They gave us small blankets to sleep on, pillows and some more tea. By that time the hall was warmly illuminated by a few candles that were placed close to our “beds”. The light was being reflected in the altar and other golden and silver ornaments on the walls which made for truly magical atmosphere. While the older monks slept in separate rooms, the novices slept in the hall as well. Most of them were still very awake and curious about us. We started showing them the pictures of the day and took some more inside as well. The monks seemed to like it and we all had loads of fun. The best moments were when we showed them the picture we had taken. The amazement in their eyes was priceless.
Time to say goodbye
We woke up early the next morning but of course the monks were already up and going. They gave us some more tea and a sort of soft cookies for breakfast. We packed our stuff, packed away our temporary beds and went over to see our friends from last night. They were also up already preparing for the tea fields and kids getting slowly ready for school. After a last stroll through the village, it was time to say goodbye. We thanked for the generous hospitality and high fived all of the kids around. We returned to the monastery and also thanked them for letting us spend the night in their home. Our last stop was the school where we also said goodbye and once again thanked the teachers. Some of the kids walked us out of the village and we started the descent back to our motorbike.
Last thoughts …
I can say that it was the best decision to go back into the highlands all by ourselves. It was a bit risky with so many things totally uncertain but it payed off. It was honestly one of the best experiences of my journey which I think also goes for Aris. To be welcomed so friendly and warmly by people who basically have so little was just great and a real eye opener. The spiritual and magic night at the monastery and the time we spent with the monks was absolutely amazing. The whole trip could not have went any better and was as rewarding as it could get. Those are moments you can only experience when you venture off the beaten track and get out of your comfort zone. I am happy that I decided to come along and that I had the chance to experience the wonderful people of Myanmar in such an authentic way.