For the first time I felt, in equal proportions, happy and stressed for boarding a second class train wagon of a train. There wasn’t any worse. My eyes celebrated the variety of colors the first class would never offer – not that I’m very experienced with first classes but yeah, I know. The kids partied, the excessive bags, the noise, and even the sweat that poured from the long expected monsoon heat. At the same time: what a pain in the back! “For heaven’s sake! How is it possible that a train jumps up and down so hard and doesn’t go off the track?!”, was a dominant thought. So it was like this, with happiness and suffering – and causing general curiosity – that we disembarked in Kyaukme.
For the record: not a single non-burmese-or-any-other-ethnic-group-like-person ever disembarks there. Almost no one knows this place yet. The route in Lonely Planet indicated us to go until Hsipaw. And it is never stressed enough that mostly tourists that visit this recently open country follow the book by the letter. Hsipaw is described as the place where it is possible to find a guide to go through the many trekking routes among the Shan state villages, where one of the ethnic minorities of the country lives. Hence, the scared face of the tourists – and locals – looking at us from within the wagon pulled slowly forward, without allowing a single breath of fresh air to its exhausted passengers. We go down here due to extensive research allied to the effusive recommendations from the inn we were at Pyin Oo Lwin.
Going to Kyaukme – regardless of the train ticket you will choose – is worth it also for the way there. The most famous spot on the railway that connects Mandalay to Lashio, built by the british when the Empire was dominating the region, is the Gokteik viaduct, considered an engineering triumph: when it was built there was no longer. Although the villages and small stations, always with the abandoned touch to them while bursting with commerce, called for as much attention and the elevated bridge. Despite this, nothing can be more refreshing in Myanmar than a night in Pyin Oo Lwin, the old Maymyo, where the british – including the writer George Orwell, at the time a young officer – escaped from the heat. The city gardens still take you back to Europe somehow. Though it could be questioned how is it possible that they keep it so well, amidst the poorness and structural problems in every other corner in Myanmar, they always come back to our minds in its irresistible palette of colors.
Our old west (or “old northeast”?)
Think about a cowboy movie. Foreigners disembark in the dusty station, cross the platform, follow the road. Turning the first corner we are already in the main avenue. Broader, but still no one. The sand surrounds us. It’s 2pm and there is no sign of a single restaurant open, except a bar on our left. Dirty green walls but we’ll come back, cos’ there is really no other option in town where to find a tasty Shan soup – delicious mix of mysterious seasonings and tomato sauce, rice noodles and fresh chive.
We keep on looking for a hotel. There are two: one is maintained by the government. So we give preference to the other: in the authoritary regime in Myanmar, we are always with the private establishments as far as we can. A pleasant old lady and her young (maybe too young) assistant welcome us to the Northern Rock. It’s her own house, with improvised rooms rented out for banana prices (or less…). Orwell really wasn’t exaggerating in Burmese Days when he talked about the heat: it is incredibly warm in late April, close to the monsoon season. Her husband plays golf and we know it cos’ he’s all the time swinging through the air with his imaginary clubs. And he amazes us telling that it costs only $3 a day to have fun in the golf fields around the city.
In the porch we get to know Joy, our guide. Skinny, 20 something years old, english teacher, full of plans for the future. He is from the Shan minority group. And, in this case, from the people who are majority in the region – not by chance we are in the Shan state. Having a guide that speaks the local language, besides burmese and english, makes everything much easier because, in the villages, most people do not comprehend the official language of the country. Joy doesn’t need much to gain our trust and convince us of going on a motorbike to the hills: as we have noted before in this blog, we aren’t good pilots for anything. But the intense heat and the possibility of going much further were really good arguments. Before we said goodbye, we answered some questions from the incredibly shy english students in Joy’s private course and received some instructions on how to proceed on the following three days riding in the back of his bike and driving a semi automatic scooter in dirt roads.
Pedro Alvares Cabral feelings
We are in Myanmar during Thingyan, the water festival, when buddhists from many regions of southeast Asia celebrate its New Year. The name of the festival doesn’t fool one about the main theme of the party: its days on and on of buckets and bottles of water being thrown over people’s heads on the streets. For the farmers of the region, the party wasn’t over. There was still missing the procession of motorbikes, truck and tractors to the numerous monasteries. This is when they take offerings to the monks. Our first stop was in one of these parties. Around there we were really impressed with the conical hats of Shan women, tasted local flavors – a salad of fermented black tea leaves and toasted peanuts – and understood the meaning of a trip around here. We were so impressed with people as they were with us. I had never seen a Shan in my life. They probably hadn’t seen a brazilian (or even an occidental person). It’s months around Asia, but we’re still impressed about how different we are – and the same: we were disputing curiosity.
It was like this in every village we came through. The houses are very humble, constructions of twisted bamboo and, from some years on, straw roofs replaced by noisy Eternit tiles. In the main room of the house – there is usually at least one room – there is always a square meter of coal to cook. We were always served plenty of tasty food: shan noodles, tea leaves salad, vegetables braising. The bathroom is always a small construction, improvised with a ditch some meters away from the houses and no lighting. Shower? We haven’t seen any.
The landscape is pretty, mountains overlap till the horizon. However, for one leaving a tropical country I wouldn’t say it is impressive. In reality, it’s like this all around Myanmar: we noticed the forests were removed long ago. Wood exploitation, tea plantations, the families basic needs to warm up, cook, build. All this dilapidated the natural patrimony. Looking a picture from Brazil we gave them as a gift, one of our hosts was very impressed with Tijuca Forest in Rio de Janeiro – his amazement is also the measure of ours. If the Shan landscape (and Palaung, another group that inhabits the region) is not the greenest of all, the hospitality is worth every hole and dust.