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Return to Kyaukme

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Eight months after the conflict in Kyaukme township made international news, convincing visitors to return hasn’t been easy – but there are many reasons to visit this picturesque region of Shan State


Kyaukme township in northern Shan State has been a frequent presence in news headlines this year, and for all the wrong reasons.

Longstanding peace in the region was disrupted in February when fighting broke out between two previously allied ethnic armed groups: the Restoration Council for Shan State (RCSS), which had signed the so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement in October 2015, and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which had been excluded from the peace deal.

The fighting has continued throughout 2016, further complicated by frequent clashes between the Myanmar army and the TNLA. Allegations of rights violations have been made against all three sides, and thousands of refugees have fled to Kyaukme town to escape the war zone.

The conflict made international news in April when two German travelers and their local guide were wounded by shrapnel from an explosive device as they neared Kyaukme at the end of a three-day trek from Hsipaw – an incident that brought tourism to a virtual standstill in Kyaukme township.

The conflict has been an unfortunate turn of events for a town that my wife and I have visited a number of times over the past decade. We had always enjoyed the non-touristy atmosphere, the silent nights, the aimless walks around town in search of food and beer, and the long treks through the bewitchingly tranquil Shan countryside. Despite the reports of war, we decided to return during last month’s full moon of Thadingyut to see for ourselves whether tourists were justified in giving the town a wide berth.

On previous visits to Kyaukme, we had stayed at A Yone Oo guesthouse, which up until a few years ago was the only place in town licensed to accept foreigners. While not exactly cozy, A Yone Oo does offer the advantage of cheap rooms and a central location near Kyaukme’s main market.

This time we sprang for accommodation at Hotel Kawli, which opened in June 2015. The location isn’t great – a couple miles outside of town along the Mandalay-Lashio highway – but the US$45 rooms are big, bright and comfortable, with small balconies overlooking green hills and farmland. We were also enticed by the hotel’s facilities – specifically, by the prospect of going for a swim and getting a massage after a day of trekking.

Hotel staff arranged two Shan trekking guides, Kyaw Hlaing and Aik Dar, who showed up promptly at 8am just as my wife and I were finishing our breakfast of Shan noodles. We climbed onto the back of their motorcycles and headed west from Kyaukme, bumping along a rocky dirt track for a few miles until we picked up the narrow, roughly paved road that, had we followed it to the end, would have taken us all the way to Mogok in Mandalay Region.


After about 45 minutes of cruising past lush, monsoon-nourished paddy fields, we began climbing out of the Kyaukme valley, the road snaking its way higher and higher into the mountains. After another half-hour, high altitude pines started appearing in clusters among the deciduous trees, and each bend in the road revealed increasingly spectacular vistas of deep ravines and knife-edge ridgelines. We passed Shan, Palaung, Lisu and Gurkha villages, and finally stopped for a rest at a roadside shop for green tea and kao moon hodong – sticky rice and sugar wrapped in banana leaf.

We had hired Kyaw Hlaing and Aik Dar to take us on a half-day trek in an area unaffected by the region’s ongoing skirmishes. They assured us that the conflict zone was located to the north and east of Kyaukme, and that the road heading west toward Mogok was “safe and peaceful” enough to accommodate motorcycle tours and treks of up to three days in length.


“The German tourists [injured by the explosive] were on a three-day trek from Hsipaw [east of Kyaukme] to Kyaukme. But the incident happened closer to Kyaukme, so everyone thinks the whole area around our town is dangerous,” Kyaw Hlaing said. “Now tour companies in Yangon don’t send tourists to Kyaukme anymore. We tell them the place where we trek is safe, but they don’t believe us.”

But other, far less dire hazards lurk along the way. Shortly after departing the snack shop, Aik Dar, who was carrying my wife on his motorcycle, suffered a rear flat when he sped over a small rock that tumbled from the cliff bordering the road. While he set about repairing the blown tire, Kyaw Hlaing flagged down a passing Shan motorcyclist and recruited him to take my wife to the starting point of the trek.


It was a fine demonstration of the sort of spontaneous selflessness common throughout Myanmar, except the motorcyclist explained that he was unable to travel all the way to our destination – it was his girlfriend’s native village, and it just so happened that his parents would be visiting her home the following day to arrange the young couple’s marriage and dowry. If the motorcyclist passed her house beforehand, it would be bad luck for their relationship – as Kyaw Hlaing explained, the couple would “miss” each other and the engagement would be off. I image it would not have helped matters had the boy’s fiancée seen him flying through town with a strange woman sitting on the back of his motorcycle.

This local custom necessitated the minor inconvenience of Kyaw Hlaing depositing me at a small general store near the trek’s starting point, then doubling back a mile or so pick up my wife where the Shan motorcyclist had dropped her off at the edge of the village.

While I awaited Kyaw Hlaing’s return, the elderly owner of the store produced a small chess set and challenged me to a game. I smiled and politely declined, as I have been known to lose matches in fewer than 10 turns against even moderately competent opponents – and elderly men who keep chess boards within easy reach are usually better than moderately competent. My intuition was confirmed when Kyaw Hlaing told me the man was a chess master who had won tournaments around the country, earning the nickname U Palaung among his rivals.



My humiliation averted, we started walking. Kyaw Hlaing led my wife and me down a dirt path that descended steeply away from the paved road. After 20 minutes we turned left onto a narrower track that followed the contour of the hillside, with tea plantations above and below, and a dramatic view of the mountains and sky unfolding before us.


The tea plantations were cultivated by the Silver Palaung residents of the interconnected villages of Ban Lin and Naung Sin, our trekking destination for the day. Ban Lin was the quieter of the two, and few people were out and about as we walked through. We visited a home where five Palaung women were sitting and talking, and most were wearing traditional dress, including longyis whose colorful stripes represent the scales of the mother dragon from which all Palaung are believed to be descended. One woman with a big, toothy smile practiced the only English phrase she knew – “Be my guest” – as she served us soft drinks.



We ate lunch at a breezy hillside shop staffed by a cook young enough to be a contestant on Master Chef Junior. Upon our arrival, she set to work whipping up multiple servings of fried eggs with onions and chilies, pickled mustard leaves, sautéed pumpkin and mountain rice.



Naung Sin was only a 10-minute walk away, and the atmosphere was far more festive than Ban Lin. Most of the locals had gathered at the village monastery for an end-of-lent donation ceremony. When we arrived, a monk was delivering a sermon that was being broadcast over a loudspeaker at ear-damaging volume, which led to inevitable jokes about the repercussions of unplugging amplifiers or snipping speaker wires.


We quickly left the din of Naung Sin behind and climbed a steep track back to the paved road, where Aik Dar was waiting with our motorcycles. By this time the sun had reached its zenith, but the alpine air remained crisp and pleasant. We stood beside a road sign bidding us a friendly adieu from the “lush and green tea regions”, and watched isolated thunderstorms drift across the valley.


Before we departed, Kyaw Hlaing pointed to some nearby hills, which he said were occupied by RCSS troops living in jungle encampments. “This area is peaceful because the RCSS won’t let the TNLA come near, and they [the RCSS] let the Palaung live their lives,” Kyaw Hlaing said. “Nobody likes it when soldiers, whether they’re Shan or Palaung, come into their village.”

Indeed, the residents of Ban Lin we spoke with betrayed no sense of unease about the proximity of the RCSS encampments. As one of the Palaung women we had visited said, “We don’t see the soldiers near our homes. We’re happy they stay away.”

Perhaps under the gaze of RCSS sentries, we rode our motorcycles out of the mountains and down into the stifling valley, where visions of pool plunges and foot massages began dancing through my head.

But shortly after our arrival at Hotel Kawli, we learned that even as we were out walking through the idyllic countryside and sharing soft drinks with smiling Palaung women, fighting had occurred that morning between the Myanmar army and the TNLA in a remote highland area 50 kilometers north of Kyaukme.

It was hard to unwind when we knew that people might be getting shot or bombed a shorter distance away than we had travelled by motorcycle to go trekking.

This story was originally published in the November 25-December 1 issue of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.


Spirits, sky lords and single-speed bikes in Hsipaw

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The open fields just east of Nauk Gad village looked typical by northern Shan State standards. Nestled between a range of hills to the north and the narrow, sluggish Dokhtawaddy River to the south, the unremarkable tract of cultivated flatland was dotted with cone-shaped stacks of hay and, during my winter’s morning walk, shrouded in light mist.

But there was more to this landscape than met the eye. As I returned to the Mr Charles Riverside Lodge from my sunrise stroll, I was met at the gate by the man himself: Hsipaw’s original hotel and tourism entrepreneur, Mr Charles.

Keen to fill me in on local history, he explained that the name of Nauk Gad village, located just a few hundred meters down a dirt lane from the lodge, means “near the market” in Shan language. Indicating the open land spread out before us, he said, “Before the 1880s, these fields were the site of a big trading centre that brought merchants from Thailand, China and Laos. Farmers ploughing this area have found old opium weights and other items from those countries.”

The market lasted until 1888, he said, when an outbreak of smallpox devastated the area. Villagers interpreted this disaster as a warning from angry local spirits (nats): The merchants from afar were no longer welcome. The market was closed and the town of Hsipaw, originally located in the adjacent hills, was moved a few kilometers east to its present location.

More than a century later, Hsipaw has emerged as an increasingly popular stop along the Mandalay-Lashio Highway. Although the main road through town can get busy with through-traffic, the laidback vibe of the side streets and the surrounding countryside beckons travellers who are looking for an excuse to slow down and dwell in one place for a few days. As such, it’s ripe for exploration on foot or by bicycle.

A wide variety of such trips can be planned through local hotels, from half-day walks around town to overnight excursions to distant ethnic Palaung villages. During a recent visit to Hsipaw, my wife and I opted for a one-day walking tour of the Shan villages that dot the countryside just outside of town.

Shan trekking guide Joyin met us at the Riverside Lodge at 8am, and we started the day by walking through Nauk Gad, where we became acquainted with the local spirits – perhaps the same ones who had driven away the foreign merchants so many years ago.


Shan trekking guide Joyin (right) and a friend.


A Nauk Gaud resident demonstrates traditional Shan smoking methods. (Photo: Thandar Khine)


Nauk Gaud residents grill fish for breakfast. (Photo: Thandar Khine)

In the centre of the village was a watchtower-like shrine dedicated to Kyaut Won, who protects each populated settlement in the area. Directly underneath the tower was a lingam-like wooden phallus, beneath which was buried an urn of cooking oil.


Shrine to Kyaut Won.


Magical oil lies beneath the wooden wiener.

“The oil is changed every two or three years,” Joyin explained, “and the old oil is used as a healing balm rubbed on the skin to rid the body of evil spirits.” Just outside of Nauk Gad we visited a bigger shrine to Kyaut Mein, a more powerful nat who protects whole region. These shrines – there were several in the area, each located between but never within the Shan villages – feature statues of red and white horses, small pavilions with bedding for Grandmother and Grandfather Spirit, and plenty of offerings from families seeking various blessings for themselves and their children.


Shrine to Kyaut Mein.

Leaving the shrine behind, we walked through open countryside. For a short time we followed the tracks of the Mandalay-Lashio railroad line before climbing up to the main highway. On the other side of the road, we walked up another incline, passing a nunnery and Loi Mote Pagoda and Monastery on our way to a cluster of the hilltop tombs: the burial sites of several Shan saopha.


Walking along the Mandalay-Lashio railroad line.


Buddhist nuns return from their alms round.

During the time of the Burmese kings and for several decades beyond, these Shan “sky lords” (as the word saopha translates into English) were the hereditary rulers of the numerous fiefdoms into which Shan State was once divided. The largest of the three tombs in Hsipaw – featuring a domed ceiling supported by tall columns – was dedicated to fiery-tempered Sao Khe, who ruled the region in the early 20th century until his death in 1927.


The tomb of Sao Khe.

One of the smaller tombs on the hill was the burial site of Sao On Kya, the father of the last saopha of Hsipaw, Soa Kya Seng. The history of the saopha has particular resonance in Hsipaw because of the manner in which their rule came to an end: When the military took control of Burma in 1962, all of the saopha throughout Shan State were arrested. Most were released several years later – except for Soa Kya Seng, who was reportedly thrown into a bamboo cage after his arrest and executed by the Burmese army shortly afterward.

This story is told in detail in the 1994 book Twilight over Burma, written by Soa Kya Seng’s Austrian wife Inge Sargent. They had met as students in Colorado in the United States, and in 1954 she had returned with him to Hsipaw, where Shan astrologers gave her the name Thusandi. Following Soa Kya Seng’s arrest and execution, she fled the country with the couple’s two daughters.

Photographs of Soa Kya Seng, Thusandi and their daughters can be seen in hotels and restaurants throughout Hsipaw. My wife spent a long time studying one such family portrait and finally said, “I like history, but sometimes it’s too depressing.”

The ubiquity of these photos around town is testament to the hard feelings still harboured by many Shan over the saopha’s abduction and murder. It was just one of the countless atrocities committed over the decades by the Burmese army (Tatmadaw), which had been created in the 1940s as the patriotic, much-beloved brainchild of Burmese independence leader Bogyoke Aung San but later, under generals Ne Win and Than Shwe, degenerated into the scourge of its own citizens. To this day the army refuses to admit that it played a role in Soa Kya Seng’s arrest, much less his execution.

Despite the government’s intransigence in this regard, small steps toward political liberalization have been made in Myanmar since the 2010 national election. One of the byproducts of this modest relaxation has been the opening of the once-forbidden residence of the last saopha to tourists. The mansion is located just north of downtown Hsipaw, and my wife and I rode there on rented bicycles the day after our trek through the Shan villages. We were met at the door by the property’s caretaker Fern, the wife of Soa Kya Seng’s nephew. She recommended that we walk toward the river to see the wooden prayer house – an attractive and atmospheric two-storey structure that is now collapsing under age and neglect – and then return to the living room to hear her abridged version of the last saopha’s tragic story.


The prayer house at the last saopha’s mansion.


The author at the prayer house. (Photo: Thandar Khine)


The last saopha’s mansion.


Fern (left) tells the story of the last saopha to visitors.

This depressing history aside, not all is dark in present-day Hsipaw, as we found out during our explorations. There is also plenty of beauty to be seen amid the reminders of Myanmar’s bleak past: Our trek through the Shan villages, for example, included a visit to the 30-meter-high Nam Tuk Waterfall, which cascades in braids of water down a sheer cliff face and into a deep pool that would have tempted us to swim had the morning not been so cool.


On the way to Nam Tuk Waterfall.


Nam Tuk Waterfall.


Nam Tuk Waterfall.

During our bike ride the following day, we pedaled north out of the centre of town on Namtu Road, which in the morning was busy with motorcycles and thick with wood smoke. We struggled up a short hill on our heavy, single-speed clunkers, and turned left at a huge tamarind tree. The narrow lane led to Sao Pu Sao Nain nat shrine, which boasted the usual array of red and white horses, tigers with bananas stuffed into their mouths, and other mysterious figures from the spirit world. Just past this was Little Bagan, a scenic area of traditional wooden houses and old brick pagodas. The most striking was Eissa Paya, recognizable by the big tree growing straight out of the top. Not far away were Mandalaya Monastery and Maha Nanda Katha, home to a 150-year-old bamboo Buddha.


Sao Pu Sao Nain nat shrine.


Eissa Paya.


Kids playing near Eissa Paya.


The bamboo Buddha at Maha Nanda Katha.

After our visit to the saopha’s mansion, we cruised the town’s back streets, stopping at a small workshop where a man sat out front making sandals from old car tyres. His very friendly and very talkative wife pulled us inside the house, showed us her photo albums and complained that her husband continued making shoes despite the fact that few were actually sold. We bought two pair (2,500 kyats each), despite thinking that we would never actually wear them, before finally extracting ourselves from the house.


Making rubber sandals.


The finished products.

After lunch at a BBQ shop on Namtu Road, we cycled a few kilometers west of town on the main highway to visit Bawgyo Pagoda. This eye-catching shrine – which glows with gold on the outside and glitters with mirrored mosaics on the inside – houses four Buddha images that, according to legend, were carved out of wood given to the Bagan King Narapathisithu (1174-1211AD) by the King of the Celestials.

These statues are displayed only once a year during the week-long Bawgyo Pagoda Festival, held around the full moon of the lunar month of Tabaung (March). During this time, thousands of pilgrims gather to pay homage to the Buddha images, and the area surrounding the pagoda is thronged with market stalls run by Shan and Palaung vendors. But all was quiet during our visit to the pagoda, which is just the way we like it: just a handful of visitors offered flowers to the pagoda as small bells chimed in the breeze and the afternoon sunlight magnified the lustre of the golden stupa.


Bawgyo Pagoda.

With daylight growing short, we cycled back into town, crossed the Dokhtawaddy River on the highway bridge and climbed the paved, forest-flanked road up to Thein Daung Pagoda, our last stop of the day. Our bikes did not provide the best means of ascending the steep incline, forcing us to dismount and push most of the way up.

Also known as Sunset Hill, the peak often attracts significant numbers of late-day, westward-gazing backpackers. But when he reached the top we saw that we had the place virtually to ourselves – again, just the way we like it. We enjoyed the silence as we took in the view of the countryside, which was pink-hued in the waning light of the day. Then we climbed aboard our hefty bicycles and coasted back down into town, the shrieks of our overheated brakes echoing through the darkening forest like a host of angry spirits.


Cooling off in Shan State.




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