Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Myanmar: Trekking in the Shan State

December 15th - 16th {notes from journal}

On the western edge of the Shan plateau, Kalaw is the base for trekking in Myanmar. In the area surrounding Kalaw: ethnic minority groups such as the Pa-O, Palaung, Danu, and Tuang-yo... mountains, plantations, and villages. Opium flourishes in the Shan State, but we won't see poppy fields -- travel to these areas is restricted by the government because of warlords and rebel armies -- these parts of the Shan State are 'no go' zones, but outside of Kalaw, it's possible to walk into the mountainous region -- all the way to Inle Lake if one chooses to do so, but we've decided on a 2-day trek, overnighting in a village home-stay.

Our guide is a 58-year-old man named Ronald, of Indian descent, and he tells us that we can ask him about anything, "except politics."

We set off early in the morning. As we left Kalaw: a procession of monks collecting alms (food) in black bowls and silver cannisters; children on their way to school; women frying samosas and other Bamar treats along the roadway; men making bricks by hand. Ronald, tells us about the diversity of Kalaw: there are Indians and Nepalis and Chinese and Burmese... people are Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian (Baptist, Protestant, and Catholic). There are dozens of ethnic minorities.

We head into the hills where we'll see mountains, plantations and farms, hilltribes, and village life. Ronald stops to point out the numerous Pine trees as we amble out of town, explaining that there used to be Teak but the British cut a lot of it down and replaced it with Pine -- it's why they were in Burma, he explains, for their natural resources. Teak, being hard and light, was used to build ships. Further on, Ronald stops to point at deforested hills in the distance. "It used to be jungle," he laments, "now there are laws against deforestation." We saw more evidence of deforestation in the hills as we walked for two days -- the farmers use slash-and-burn farming techniques; trees are cut for fire wood; some trees are still standing, but missing large pieces of their trunks, as if a giant took a bite out of their sides -- people burn notches in the trunk and cut out wood chips for cooking fires. These trees will eventually be blown over in a strong wind because of the breach in their structure.

The views were fantastic -- from the ridges of mountains and from the bottoms of valleys, there are rolling hills and mountains visible beyond -- all a patchwork of colors and textures like fuzzy wool and satiny silk -- a labyrinth of farming plots on steep hills. Standing at the top of one mountain, gazing upon a valley below filled with terraced rice fields ready for harvest, it seemed as if I was looking upon a golden river surging through a canyon, twisting and turning at the base of green hills.

In total, we walked 36 km (18 km each day) through fields of sesame, wet and dry rice, castor bean trees, garlic, tea and coffee plants... past gardens with tomatoes, flowers, snow peas, wheat, pumpkin, corn, cabbage, cauliflower, soy beans and more... you name it and they grow it. It seems that in the hills, the villages, life is all about growing food. If not for sale, then for consumption. People grow food first for survival and secondly to sell in order to purchase their 'wants and needs', as Ronald put it. It's hard work -- everything is done by hand, without the aid of animals in many places (the hills are too steep) and machines (Myanmar is underdeveloped -- people farm the same way they did hundreds of years ago).

As we walked, Ronald talked to passing villagers: one woman, out collecting fire wood, was 10 months pregnant! And this man over here, he had a good harvest this year, 52 baskets of rice, enough to feed his family; and the old, toothless woman... she's on her way to buy cotton from the market. The people asked Ronald where we were from. "Singapore and America," he answered first pointing to Jason and Samantha (our travel buddies) and then us. "Oh, Singapore!" the children cried -- they know Singapore better than America because occasionally, they get to watch football (soccer) on TV.

More walking: villagers are out on hills weeding sesame fields; we pass women with bundles of bright flowers on their backs; we have tea in a wooden longhouse where 6 families live, the only one left in the area; we pass through villages with homes on stilts, built with wood and thatch -- we learn from Ronald that more and more homes will be built with brick -- a decade from now, these villages will look quite different and I'm happy to have seen them now (the change in building materials is due to deforestation and economics -- brick houses last longer).

We pass a tree with crutches supporting its branches -- Ronald explains that women go to astrologers and if they are forecast bad luck, they are told to come to this tree and support a branch in order to change their fate; we pass harvested fields of rice with offerings placed in the center to thank the guardian Nat (spirit). In peoples' homes, Ronald points out objects placed over the doorway, there to ward off bad spirits. Myanmar is, like much of Asia, a land of spirits and superstition. The Burmese belief in spirits, called Nats, is left over from days of animistic religious practices... or perhaps it's a belief founded on a sensible respect for the spirit world -- I, myself, saw a ghost in Myanmar as we slept in a villager's home on this trek... more on that in the next post...


Post a Comment

<< Home