One of the things we knew we wanted to do while in Myanmar was to go trekking. We knew of trips near Inle Lake, but hesitated due to the number of tourists in that area. After doing some research I found a trekking opportunity in the Hsipaw (pronounced see-po, I believe) area that sounded promising. Hsipaw is a small town in one of the hilly tea growing areas. I did a little more research and discovered reports of “conflict” in places relatively close to Hsipaw; not as promising. I searched the reviews on trip advisor and found person after person recommending to avoid trekking in Hsipaw; two German tourists were hospitalized in mid-2016 after a landmine exploded where they were trekking!
So we decided to go trekking in Hsipaw.
Maybe you’re reading this now and thinking that we are nincompoops and taking unnecessary risks. “WHAT ABOUT THE LANDMINES AND CONFLICT?!?”, you’re asking. I had the same thoughts, and emailed our would-be guide, named Aike, with these questions. He assured me that he had a route that would be completely safe (and he had good reviews from other travelers) so I put my worries aside and we booked a 3 day/2 night trek. Aike later told me that he had showed my email to his trekking guide friends so that they could all have a good laugh. I had no problem with this as I enjoy bringing humor into people’s lives.
We arrived in Hsipaw after having taken the journey across the Gokteik viaduct on the train. It had been raining and after making several wrong turns through muddy streets we found our hotel. We met with Aike that afternoon to introduce ourselves in person and to discuss any last minute questions. We had little to discuss that we had not already emailed about, so we soon departed, agreeing to meet at our hotel at 8 the next morning to begin our trek.
Michelle and I woke up early and ate breakfast while Bonnie slept in. She likes to walk, but had no interest in walking 5-7 hours per day for 3 days through the mountains. She was taking the night bus to Kalaw (near the southern end of Inle Lake) and we would meet back up with her after our trek, in Nyaung Shwe (at the north end of Inle Lake).
At 8, Aike arrived and we climbed into a tuk tuk for the ride out of town. The tuk tuk left the highway and about 10 minutes down a bumpy dirt road we were dropped off and began walking. There was a small group (6) of foreigners in the distance ahead of us trekking and 1 man from Estonia next to us. The Estonian’s guide was a good friend of Aike’s, so the 5 of us hiked together until lunchtime, when our paths parted.
The few small villages we passed grew less frequent and our path went from dirt road to dirt track to just a simple hiking trail, which was sometimes invisible to me (though Aike never missed a turn!) Foreigners are not allowed to go to this area without government permission and a guide. We had a guide, but no official government permission that I was aware of. During our first few hours we passed 2 or 3 armed individuals wearing camouflage. When we saw them, Aike greeted them, exchanged a few words, and we each went our separate ways. I asked him about this and he explained to me that these were soldiers of the Shan state militia and they were heading up to hilltop outposts and lookouts. Halfway through the morning we passed a soldier sitting with his weapon beside the path into a village. A Shan state checkpoint, Aike told us. It seemed that there was military presence in the area, but no conflict or fighting that we saw.
Many different states and ethnic groups within Myanmar are (and have been, some for decades) engaged in struggles for their self-determination and independence. While Myanmar’s national government has made small steps of reform from the time of the military junta, there’s still a long way to go. Myanmar has been called the home of the world’s longest running civil war and many civilians have lost their homes, forced to become Internally Displaced Person or to flee to camps on the Thai border. We have read stories of forced recruitment for life service in the Burmese military. While hiking, Aike told us stories of lotteries being held by the state militia in villages as means to enact their own forced recruitment (and again, recruitment is for life). So, while I comment that there was no real conflict near us – and no land mines – the situation in many areas of Myanmar really is serious and sometimes deadly. But for the most part, tourists have little to fear as the government would go to great lengths to preserve their blossoming tourist industry.
Our lunch stop was in a villager’s home, which Aike had pre-arranged. We had the ubiquitous tea leaf salad (pickled tea leaves, a little cabbage, onion and tomato, oil, some lime juice and crispy fried beans – it is delicious!) followed by a few different types of curry and rice. All of this was accompanied by hot green tea. Myanmar people (and I) drink a lot of hot green tea; there are always steaming pitchers of it on the tables in tea shops, restaurants, and roadside stands. I could never get enough of it!
After lunch we moved on and saw no more foreigners, or locals, until reaching our destination late that afternoon. We had started that morning in somewhat flat agricultural areas, green with crops, then moved into desolate hills that would be planted with corn in April-May. The empty corn fields were hot, dry and dusty, but as we moved past them into higher hills we finally came to the tea growing areas.
We stayed that night (and the following, as it would turn out) at a homestay in tiny Man Tan village. It’s made up of about 5 or 6 families and surrounded by their tea plantations. We dropped our bags and found seats around a table with the 6 other foreigners that would be staying in the village that night and waited for our tea to be served. Along with it, there was sweet black sticky rice (I LOVE black sticky rice!) and afterward we all had beers. Being so far out, there are no power lines to the village so these beers were “room temperature”, but fortunately temperatures cool quickly up in the hills.
homestay father & sons
Looking around, the house was 2 stories, made of wood, with a dirt yard and a few shed buildings. Upstairs was a large room leading to a smaller room, which led to a still smaller room. Michelle and I slept in the 2nd room, 4 of the other foreigners and our guide were in the big room (the remaining 2 foreigners were staying in the house next door) and the homestay owners seemed to be sleeping in the smallest room. On the first floor was a large room (the dining room at meal times) with a dirt floor and the kitchen was in a small room on the side. Outside of the large room and kitchen was a small bath house. Customs in Myanmar are that men take bucket baths outside while wearing shorts or longyi (the sarong like clothing that is common in Myanmar). Originally, the bath area was set up for this, with no screening walls around it. After the first few foreigners openly bathed nude, the homestay owner put up walls to create the bath house. It was not a shower, but instead a hose of water that descended from streams further up the mountain. That water was cold! It made for quick bucket baths, but anything would’ve felt good at the end of 7 hours of trekking. At the backside of the house, the side of the mountain descended downward, and a short distance down was the outhouse.
The sun sets early in the mountains and it was well past dark when we ate dinner. It was great! All the meals we head while on this trek were great, if not hugely varied. A combination of rice and curries were served for each. Alongside these was a bowl of… salsa? It wasn’t quite salsa, but closer than you’d imagine finding in the mountains of Myanmar. Fire roasted cherry tomatoes chopped up with little chilies, shallots, and lime juice. So good!!
Shortly after dinner Michelle and I thanked our hosts and went upstairs to bed (a pad on the floor). We we were tired and needed our rest before the next day of more trekking. Read about day 2 here: a waterfall, bamboo cups, butterflies and a constipated mule.