The blog

Hsipaw Trekking: Day 2

This is the continuation of our trek in Hsipaw, read part 1 here.

The original plan for our trek had been to stay in Man Tan village only for our first night, then to continue on. But sometime that evening, our guide got a phone call from his friend in the next village, where we were to stay the following night. As mentioned in the last post the local Shan military had been setting up small outposts throughout the hills and mountains of this area. The call was to say that the Burmese (national) army had moved into the village with around 150 soldiers and set up camp. This village was located approximately in the center of the Shan military outposts. No one expected anything to happen, but they all agreed it would be better for us tourists not to stumble into the middle of a Burmese army encampment. The phone call changed our plans and we stayed two nights in tiny Man Tan village. The host family was nice, the food was great, and the home was comfortable so we weren’t disappointed in the least.

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Hsipaw Trekking: Day 1

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.
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Train to Hsipaw

Many people we’ve met have told us that riding the train in Myanmar is a must. Specifically, taking the train to Hsipaw (pronounced see-po, I believe) over the Gokteik Viaduct shouldn’t be missed. The Gokteik Viaduct was completed by the British in 1901 and was the largest rail trestle in the world. It still retains the honor of being Myanmar’s highest bridge at 102 meters (and 689 meters long). It took no time at all for us to decide to take the trip. We took an early morning taxi a short ways from Mandalay to Pyin U Lwin, where we got on the train (we could’ve boarded in Mandalay, but we got to sleep in a little longer by taking the taxi. Trains in Myanmar are slow.)
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Mandalay monastery

We knew ahead of our arrival that we would not be “wowed” by Mandalay. Especially not after having just left Bagan. It was really just a stop to find transportation to our next destination and we didn’t do much sight seeing. The one place we did visit during our short stay was Shwe In Bin Monastery, built out of teak in 1895. It was quiet, with few tourists or monks to be seen, but entirely beautiful.

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A few downtown Yangon sights

By chance, we were in Yangon while the first few days of the 9th Yangon Photo Festival were taking place. There were a few public art installations (my favorites can be seen below: a sculpture made of spoons and colorful umbrellas arranged above a pedestrian walkway over a busy intersection) around the downtown area, centered in Maha Bandoola park beside city hall, along with evening presentations on a big screen in the park of photography work by Myanmar students-turned photographers. Click here and watch some of the stories that these talented folks have created.

We also took a Michelle-guided walking tour of part of downtown and saw some interesting sights.

Resting in the shade

Unbelievably, this was totally unplanned.

sleeping

old dirty building

pipes

old minister's building

holding hands

A man’s hands hang out of a window as he escapes the heat, napping in the back of a parked bus.

Brick post office

The old brick post office is still in use near the river.

sandwiched

Yangon is developing quickly, often leaving old buildings looking lonely, sandwiched between new.

Old arch

The north side of the old minister’s building is still in need of repair.

looking in

Bonnie peeks around the construction fence for a view of the restoration.

Sule pagoda

Sule Pagoda, located adjacent to city hall, glows gold in spotlights.

Leaving Hpa An, on to Yangon and Shwedagon Pagoda

Michelle and I left Zwekabin Myay school and Hpa An in the first week of March, but we were not alone. The indefatigable, and also super fun, Bonnie (Michelle’s mom) had joined us! Myanmar is a country she had long wanted to visit (like mother, like daughter) and Michelle and I managed to convince her that she should come and join us as we traveled the country in the three weeks after we finished teaching.
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Going away

Michelle wrote about Zwekabin Myay school and the students. As she said, it was a really great experience. It’s hard to really describe the students, though. The first few days of school they were a little hesitant and seemed scared to interact with us. For most of them it was their first time away from their families and, I’d imagine, the first time they’d spent around westerners. As the days and weeks passed, they opened up more and really started to show their personalities. We just left school 3 weeks ago (after 2 months teaching) to travel the rest of Myanmar and we received an amazing goodbye from everyone. We were given a group photo signed by all of the students with some really nice messages. They also surprised us with a water buffalo horn traditionally used to call villagers to meetings. It was totally unexpected; we were stunned.


Further, one of the students had been making a hammock and was kind enough to give it to us. Oh, and emotions. They gave us a lot of emotions! On the way out of the school for the last time, I ran through to make sure I had said one last goodbye to each person. At least 3 were crying. One of the students volunteered to drive us into town to catch the bus. About 10 students came along on the 3-wheeler ride to see us off. It was really touching and was the best going away present we could’ve asked for. We’re already trying to make plans for a return visit to our new favorite country. Don’t tell, though, we want it to be a surprise!

Saddar Cave

The are around Hpa An is full of limestone karst peaks, and therefore also full of caves. Many of these have Buddhist temples or shrines in them. We went on a trip to one of these, Saddar cave, with the school and had an eventful day.

Me & Zaw Zaw Aung

For this trip I was fortunate enough to ride on the back of a motorbike instead of in the 3-wheeler. Anytime I didn’t not have to ride in the 3-wheeler I was happy. My roommate/friend (the grammar teacher), Zaw Zaw Aung was driving, and away we went. But before we had even driven 10 minutes out of town we heard a loud noise behind us and turned to find that the 3-wheeler had blown a tire.

Just jack it up

There are a lot of motorbikes and 3-wheelers in Myanmar and, therefore, there are also a lot of repair shops. I mean, you can’t throw a stick without hitting a motorbike repair shop! Well, the tire blew was well out of stick throwing distance from the nearest one, so a couple of guys took off on a motorbike to find it. They came back with tools and began working to remove the tire. While waiting, the students and teachers took shelter from the sun on the porch of a nearby shop… And everyone pulled out their smartphones! Myanmar might be a developing country, but they definitely have cellular towers and smartphones! Meanwhile, I prowled around looking for interesting things to take pictures of.

Bamboo strips coiled and drying

Missed meal: caterpillar spine stuck in a lizard’s mouth

The tire was finally removed and the guys took off on the motorbike again with it. Before too long they returned, reattached the tire, drove back to the shop to return the borrowed tools, came back, and we were finally on our way. Again.

We drove for about 45 minutes, turned down the dirt road that led to Saddar cave, and Zaw Zaw Aung and I discovered a crack in the wheel of the motorbike we were on. Are you getting why there are so many motorbike repair shops? Another of the motorbikes carrying students circled back to check on us, and the decision was made for me to ride on the back of that motorbike instead. The student that took my place weighed much less than me, so they didn’t have to worry as much about the wheel. Thanks, guys!

The parking lot of Saddar cave was crowded with local tourists and people selling all sorts of snacks. We made our way around all of this, took off our shoes (standard procedure for a Buddhist temple) and entered the cave. The cave mouth was tall and wide and there were various assorted statues within.

As we went further, it quickly became much darker until we came to an area where a foot bridge was being constructed over a low point. Since the construction was actively in progress… we kept going. Did you think I was going to say we had to turn back? Not in Myanmar. We simply climbed down the narrow scaffolding supporting the emergent bridge and walked across the muddy bottom, continuing on from the other side.

We came to an area where a part of the cave wall/ceiling had collapsed and the area was bathed in rays of bright sunlight. Of course all the students stopped for pictures and selfies!

A little further on, we arrived at the end of the cave and a small set of stairs carved into the rock ending by a small lake. Narrow wooden boats were gathered around and I could see them taking passengers across the water. We walked left, around the lake, and over a concrete foot bridge that crossed a rice paddy to another cave that was home to yet another Buddhist temple.

After more photo ops, including one where Win Tan and I posed with a sign nailed to a palm tree advertising pay toilets, we headed back to the lake and arranged boats for our group. The students were thrilled for the boat ride, even more so when they saw that part of it was through a cave! On the far side of the cave passage the lake merged into a narrow canal that arrowed its way through rice paddys and back towards the parking lot.

It had been a long day and everyone was tired as they hopped back onto motorbikes and into the 3-wheeler. My luck held, I was still riding on the back of Nan Dia’s motorcycle.

We had almost reached Hpa An when the three motorbikes we were riding with pulled over to the side of the road (Michelle, a few other teachers, and the rest of the students in the 3-wheeler had long been left behind due to its slow speed).

Win Tan, on the back of another motorbike leaned over and asked, “Marc, remember talking about the palm wine?”
“Yes…” I responded, hesitantly.
“Do you want some?”, Win Tan said.
“Right now??”, I responded.
“Yes, man!”, Win Tan replied and our three motorbikes made u-turns and stopped at a thatched bamboo shack just up the road. We got out and sat on a raised wooden platform under some trees. From a large barrel, using a bamboo scoop, a pitcher was filled with a white milky fluid. Several glasses were filled from the pitcher and the next thing I knew, I was drinking warm palm wine. It tasted slightly tart, but was not nearly as bad as I had feared. So we sat, me, one other teacher, and several students laughing about silly cultural differences and talking about unimportant topics.

Then we heard a familiar sound. I turned and looked up the road and saw the 3-wheeler approaching. Everyone just sort of froze, like we were about to be caught with our hand in the cookie jar. At the last moment, as the 3-wheeler was just about to pass where we were sitting, the students started clapping and hooting to get the driver’s attention. I sat, wondering that they had seemed nervous to be seen drinking by those in the 3-wheeler, yet had the immediate response of being unable to not call them over to join. Myanmar has a very social culture. So the 3-wheeler came to a stop and people slowly unhinged themselves to climb out of the back. When Michelle climbed out all of the guys I was sitting with sucked in a loud breath and turned to me with panicked looks. One of them said, “Marc, Michelle will see you! What do we do??” I responded, “Oh good! If she’s sees me then I don’t have to go yelling at her to come over and taste the palm wine!” They all looked at me like I was crazy, but Michelle walked over and took the glass that I offered and tasted the palm wine as I had said she would. It seems that husband-wife dynamics in Myanmar are not quite the same as that which Michelle and I share! The students all piled out of the 3-wheeler behind Michelle, several of them joining in to drink some palm wine, and no one felt any longer that we had been caught doing something bad. Except for me. Maybe it’ll never feel quite normal for me to drink with my students, even if they are 20 years old and it is “just” palm wine from a barrel on the side of the road in Myanmar. We didn’t stay much longer, but when we did leave I tried to pay; the students would have none of it and refused. The people of Myanmar are known for their hospitality, even if it is just the equivalent of $.30 US for a couple pitchers of palm wine!

Kyondoe Fire Festival

While still teaching at Zwekabin Myay school we, the students and teachers, were invited to attend the Kyondoe Fire Festival. Kyondoe is a village that is about 65 kilometers from the school and is the hometown of the alumni that invited us. We departed late on a Thursday afternoon, picked up in someone’s car (it was the first time Michelle and I had ridden in a car in months!). There were 8 of us plus the driver; Michelle and I were sharing the front passenger seat (as we often did in grand taxis in Morocco), there were two western teachers and an alumni in the back seat, and three students in the back of the hatchback.
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