Late for Nowhere

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No sweat: Hot-weather hiking in Kyaukme

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The view from the monastery in Nwe Sa village, Shan State.

It was mid-April, the hottest time of the year in Myanmar, and our trekking guide Sein Tun wasn’t drinking any water. While my wife Thandar Khine and I each dispatched several 1-liter bottles of life-sustaining H2O throughout the course of our single-day, 23-kilometer (14-mile) walk through the hills of northern Shan State, Sein Tun subsisted on small sips of hot green tea served at the monasteries and village houses we visited along the way.

When I asked about this strange (and to my mind potentially dangerous) approach to hydration, Sein Tun pointed to the perspiration-drenched T-shirt that was clinging to my torso.

“When you drink, you sweat,” he said. Pinching his own shirt between his thumb and forefinger, he added, “See? Very dry.”

I had always assumed that sweating on a hot day was a good thing, part of the body’s natural cooling system aimed at preventing such inconveniences as death by heat stroke. All the same, I wasn’t about to lecture Sein Tun on Western water-ingestion customs, however scientifically sound: He had been a trekking guide for 10 years, and his green-tea system seemed to be working just fine for him.

Sein Tun met us at our hotel in the town of Kyaukme at 7am, and we walked a few blocks through the already wide-awake town to board a dilapidated Chinese bus that was jam-packed with Shan and Palaung locals.

“It’s not usually this crowded, but there are only two buses that drive this route and the other one crashed last week,” Sein Tun informed us less-than-reassuringly as we rattled away from the stop.

The bus managed to hold itself together, and after 20 minutes our trekking trio disembarked from the wreck-on-wheels along a quiet stretch of road between villages. Sein Tun led us to the start of a trail that we never would have found without his help. We shouldered our packs, stepped off the pavement and plunged into the countryside.

Our walk began with a 6.5km stretch to the Palaung village of Nwe Sa, most of it uphill, some of it hellishly so. Knowing we had a long day ahead, we walked slowly and (Sein Tun excepted) drank plenty of water.


Sparse forestland in Palaung territory.

The first couple of kilometers consisted of shade-free farmland worked by the Shan, but then we entered Palaung territory where villagers grew black tea in the spaces between tall, leafy trees. As we gained elevation, we enjoyed decent views across a cultivated valley backed by a haze-obscured range of hills in the distance. Irrigation kept the rice growing for the summer harvest, aided by early rains that Sein Tun said had come the previous week.


Sein Tun and Thandar Khine at the entrance to Nwe Sa village.

Our first stop in Nwe Sa was a monastery with a dozen monks in residence. We sat with the head monk eating bananas and green tea, while demons and tortured souls peered at us from the paintings of Buddhist hell that had been hung high on the walls around the perimeter of the main hall.


Hillside monastery in Nwe Sa.


Hell awaits.

We then explored the neat, well-tended town of about 100 houses and 600 residents, where tea cultivation was the main industry. Nearly everyone was out working in the fields, but there were a few kids and elderly residents around. For the best view, we climbed a hill that had been consecrated as the site for a yet-to-be-built pagoda. An adjacent, slightly lower hill was home to a nat (spirit) shrine where offerings were made to ensure a fruitful harvest.


Nat shrine in Nwe Sa.

We ended our tour at a wooden house raised off the ground on stilts in the traditional Palaung style. The longhouses for which the Palaung were once famous – large enough for 10 or more families – are now rarely seen, but the smaller varieties seen today are usually spacious enough to accommodate an extended family or two.

The house where we stopped was inhabited by a passel of curious but well-behaved children, presided over by their mother who prepared noodles for lunch. We rested there for quite a long time – long enough that our host brought out blankets and pillows so we could nap if we so desired. We politely declined over fears that we might fall into a deep, dreamless sleep from which we would not awaken until the next day.


The elderly and the young in Nwe Sa.


Our lunchtime host in Nwe Sa.

Indeed, the loop we were hiking is more sensibly done over the course of two days, with the added bonus of spending the night in a Palaung village. But we had asked for a single-day trek that was physically challenging, so around 12:30pm we stepped back into the blazing sun and continued on our way.


Harvesting summer paddy.

We headed downhill and into open farmland and, throughout the afternoon, dropped by a series of houses to rest, eat snacks and of course drink hot tea. We walked across a picturesque valley where golden summer paddy was being harvested, and then climbed up into a forest of young teak trees. We stopped at a small monastery where an 85-year-old monk lived alone. Religious and astrological tattoos decorated his arms, shoulders and shaven head. His sole companions were a trio of kittens that slept in a plastic bucket next to his bed.


A solitary life.

From the monastery we walked down a long flight of stone stairs to a pond that Sein Tun said blossomed with lotus flowers during the wet season. In April it was barely more than a mud pit, but the scene still managed to retain an aura of Edenic tranquility compliments of a stately banyan tree that shaded a pond-side shrine installed with a Chinese-style laughing Buddha.


The stone stairway down to the pond.

We took another long rest here before the final push back to Kyaukme, which we all reached alive and well despite our contrasting approaches to liquid replenishment.

The next day my wife and I hopped on local transport to Hsipaw, located 35km northeast of Kyaukme. The town is another good starting point for treks to Palaung villages, but with our feet still aching from the previous day, we opted for an activity that promised greater opportunities for staying cool: a boat ride on the Dokhtawaddy River.

We met our boatman at the river on the eastern edge of town and embarked on an hour-long ride in his long-tail boat. There was plenty to see as we chugged our way upriver, including flying and floating waterfowl, a few villages and a cliff-side monastery overlooking the water. The trip was relaxing but not entirely effort-free: The passengers had to contribute a bit of casual bailing to ensure that the porous craft did not flounder and sink to the bottom of the river.


Bailing water from the leaky boat.

Our destination was the confluence of the river and a secondary stream, a turbulent juncture where water rushed among big rocks worn smooth by erosion. There were several calm pools that were deep enough for safe jumping, even during the dry season. We spent several hours there, diving, swimming, floating and sunning ourselves on the rocks.


Docked near the confluence.


Our swimming hole.

When we wanted to explore further, we stopped struggling against the current and let it carry us to the other side of the river. We then walked upstream along the rocky bank and jumped into the water, allowing the flow to take us back to the confluence, where our pilot waited with his leaky boat for the return trip to Hsipaw.


A boatload of locals arrives at the confluence.

Written by latefornowhere

November 20, 2014 at 9:00 am

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