Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Posts Tagged ‘trekking Myanmar Burma

Return to Kyaukme

leave a comment »

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

leave a comment »


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.




Last day out in Kengtung

leave a comment »


Our last “trek” in Kengtung did not involve much trekking: Just a 30-minute car ride outside of town and a couple of short walks to ethnic Akhu and Enn villages, plus a visit to a hilltop pagoda with an amazing view. Many photos below:


Wan Sai Akhu village.


Wan Sai Akhu Baptist Church.


The Akhu mafia threatens us with incessant finger-wagging if we continue taking photos without buying bamboo pipes and necklaces.




An Akhu woman prepares to pity the fool who refuses to buy a pipe.


Pipe purchased (from the least pushy woman in the village), peace restored.


Kaba Aye Pagoda.


Inside Kaba Aye Pagoda.


Sexism on display in the pagoda precinct.


The view from Kaba Aye Pagoda.


Ethnic Enn weaver.


Enn woman with betel-blackened lips.


Basket weaving.


An Enn woman prepares lunch.


Mustard soup, fresh-off-the-rock lichen soup, and mountain rice — just like mom used to make.


An Enn man pours tea for his guests.


Loi Monastery, shaped like a royal karaweik barge.


Loi village trek: Wan Nyet and Wan Seng villages

with one comment

More images from the ethnic Loi villages of Wan Nyet and Wan Seng in eastern Shan State:


The entrance to Wan Nyet village.


Traditional Loi longhouse in Wan Nyet. Each building houses eight or nine families.


Inside a Loi longhouse.


The walk up to Wan Seng.


Wan Seng.


Here and below: Loi villagers.






Motorcycle tire repair at Wan Seng Monastery.


Wan Seng Monastery.


Monastic kitty cat.


Mountain biking monk.


Loi hunter.


Snake on the trail.


Loi village trek: Wan Nyet Monastery

with one comment


The start of this trek is located about two hours by car northeast of Kengtung in eastern Shan State, and only about 30km (20 miles) from the town of Mongla on the Myanmar-China border. A map of the walk can be seen here.

Among the highlights of the 10.7km (6.6 mile) out-and-back walk are the ethnic Loi villages of Wan Nyet and Wan Seng, where residents live in longhouses that accommodate eight or nine families in a single large room. Between the villages are mountains covered with thick, unlogged jungle – an increasingly rare sight in Southeast Asia.

The first stop on our trek – after about 45 minutes of uphill walking – was 300-year-old Wan Nyet Monastery. Not atypically for eastern Shan State, the architecture looked more Thai than Burmese, but it also boasted unusual Himalayan touches that I’ve never seen anywhere else in Myanmar.

Photos of Wan Nyet Monastery are below, with more images from the Loi village trek to come.














Images from an Akha village trek, Part 2

leave a comment »

More photos from the Hokyin village cluster in eastern Shan State:

Akha village 13

Akha weaver.

Akha village 14

Rolling up woven and dyed fabric.

Akha village 15

Kids show off their homemade go-karts.

Akha village 16

Go-kart ride.

Akha village 17

Dried chilies.

Akha village 18


Akha village 19

A protective sign marks the entrance to animist Hokyin village #2.

Akha village 22

A cross marks the entrance to a Christian Hokyin village #1.

Akha village 23

Akha church.

Akha village 20

Akha village 21


Cutting sugarcane. (Photo: Thandar Khine)


A small child carries a slightly smaller child. (Photo: Thandar Khine)


A certain blogger braces for a shot of 160-proof homemade Akha corn hooch. (Photo: Thandar Khine)


Images from an Akha village trek: Part 1

leave a comment »

Akha village 07

Kengtung in eastern Shan State is pleasant enough, but the best reason to travel there is get out of town to explore the ethnic minority villages in the surrounding mountains.

The day before the Akha New Year Festival – covered in my previous post – I went trekking to the Akha village of Hokyin. The starting point for the 10.8km (6.7-mile) walk was located about 45 minutes by car from Kengtung along the road to Tachileik at the Thai border.

Hokyin actually consists of a group of four closely clustered villages, all ethnic Akha but each practicing a different religion, as follows:

Hokyin village #1: Christian

Hokyin village #2: Animist

Hokyin village #3: Christian

Hokyin village #4: Divided into two, with Buddhists on one side and animists on the other.

Despite these differences in faith, strong elements of animism – especially protective signs to ward off bad luck and evil spirits – can still be seen in all of the villages.

The trek – done in cool, sunny December weather – consisted of a steady climb up into the hills where the village cluster was located, followed by a long descent to our pickup point. Our route – which can be seen here – took us through the villages in reverse order, starting with #4 and ending with #1.

Photos below, with more to come tomorrow.

Akha village 01

Tea plantation along the walk up to Hokyin village #4.

Akha village 02

Akha girls on their way to collect firewood from the forest.

Akha village 03

Pagoda on the Buddhist end of Hokyin village #4.

Akha village 04

Dried honeycomb nailed above a doorway to protect the household against bad luck.

Akha village 05

Akha woman carrying firewood.

Akha village 08

Another wood carrier.

Akha village 06

Although I prefer photographing people when they’re not staring into the camera, this woman posed so I could get a good look at her traditional ethnic bling.

Akha village 09

Akha woman making a beaded hat.

Akha village 10

While the women carry firewood, the men water their plants.

Akha village 11

Caged bird.

Akha village 12

Akha house.


The spirit of Mardi Gras in Shan State

leave a comment »


Ethnic Eng residents of Banglue village, Shan State

My wife and I arrived at the ethnic Eng village of Banglue on a special day: The entire adult population had taken the day off work to get rip-roaring drunk on locally brewed rice wine.

The occasion was an annual festival during which all labor is suspended so the men can travel in a group from house to house, eating and drinking at each one, behind which the women follow in their own group.

The idea, explained our guide Francis – a Catholic of mixed Akha/Lahu parentage – was to indulge in copious amounts of food and alcohol consumption before the arrival of the rainy season and the three-month Buddhist Lent period. It was Banglue’s own version of Mardi Gras.

Upon entering the village, we were invited into a house where about 20 men were gathered, most of them sipping rice wine from small cups, while others drank from a communal pot using thin bamboo straws.

The group welcomed us with smiles. They were happy to share their throat-searing brew. We drank despite the flecks of black debris floating in our cups – the astronomical alcohol levels must surely obliterate any harmful organisms, I assured myself. We politely declined sampling from the plate of rancid fish displayed on the host’s dining room table.


Sipping rice wine in Banglue village

The trek to Banglue, located near Kengtung in eastern Shan State, had not been particularly grueling. Sure, it was mostly uphill, and yes, my wife Thandar Khine and I had tackled the hike in mid-May, with temperatures exceeding 35 degrees Celsius.

But the walking distance from where we parked the car was only 2 miles, which we covered in 40 minutes of casual ambling – including a pause to toss twigs at a small cobra we saw hiding along the trail, in a fruitless effort to elicit some movement from the poorly concealed serpent.

The relative ease of access is one reason Banglue is among the most popular day-treks in the Kengtung area. Another reason is the appeal of the village itself, a picturesque collection of 26 wooden houses built on the side of a steep hill.


Banglue village

The 100 or so Eng who live in Banglue still wear traditional black costumes on a day-to-day basis, and many continue the habit of chewing a local variety of betel nut that turns their lips and mouths black. The practice has earned the Eng the nickname “black-teeth people” among other ethnic groups in the area.

I had first visited the village in 2004, at which time the residents seemed unprepared to welcome tourists. Back then, the dogs were angry and hostile, the children either frowned or ran in terror when they spotted me entering the village, and no one rushed out of their homes to sell me handicrafts.

Things were different during this year’s visit. By the time we left the drinking hut, word had spread that tourists were in the vicinity, and the women temporarily abandoned their house-to-house wine-tasting tour to ambush us with a heap of handmade hats, necklaces and bracelets. As the inebriated men staggered their way to the next pit stop, Thandar Khine and I found ourselves enveloped in a flurry of fluttering fabric and clinking jewellery.


Eng women selling handicrafts

After much haggling and few unnecessary purchases, we broke free from the mobile souvenir market and caught up with the men’s group at their last stop of the day, the village shaman’s house. We were invited inside for another bout of drinking, but we were told that if we touched any of the religious objects, we would have to pay an unspecified fine.

The Eng are animists, and the relics inside the shaman’s house included a hanging alter crafted from animal skulls bound together with twine – where offerings were made to ensure a successful hunt – and a huge drum that was only played two or three times a year on special religious holidays.

Francis was able to supply only the vaguest explanations about the Eng’s religious beliefs, which clearly existed somewhere beyond the confines of the minutely documented, recorded and dissected cult of the 37 nats (spirits). This was a more rustic, pastoral animism whose adherents see spirits in every rock, tree and trickling stream.

It wasn’t clear whether our guide’s oblique answers were based on his inability (or unwillingness) to answer questions about Eng religion, or whether the beliefs themselves were hazy and poorly defined.

I’ve encountered both circumstances in my travels, and not just in Myanmar. In Battambang, Cambodia, I once had the misfortune of hiring a Buddhist guide who responded to my questions about spirit worship by saying that animists were “ignorant” and “superstitious”, and that their beliefs weren’t worth discussing.

On a separate trip, I had a more positive experience. In 2010 I traveled to Ratanakiri province in northeastern Cambodia with a Khmer guide who took great pains to accommodate my questions about the religious beliefs of the animists there.

In the remote, ethnic Kruy village of Preung Lok, we sat under a shady tree talking to a group of local elders, with my guide acting as translator. Concerning my first question about the worship and appeasement of nature spirits, the group’s leader explained that trees can have “good or bad” spirits.

“When there’s a bad spirit, we cut the tree down and have a ceremony to banish the spirit. We make offerings to trees with good spirits and pray for protection for the village,” he said.

Attempts at deeper scrutiny of local spiritual beliefs met resistance, and the rest of my questions elicited either confusion or mild amusement. On the subject of life after death, the Kruy elder said there was no such thing as reincarnation. “When people die, they are gone from the earth,” he said. But where they went he had no idea, and he didn’t care to speculate.

And how did he think the human race, the earth and the universe were created? By gods? By a cosmic explosion? Did the Kruy have any creation stories? “We don’t know about those things,” the elderly man laughed. “All we care about is praying to our village spirits.”

Coincidentally, like those in Banglue, the animists of northeastern Cambodia proved themselves quite fond of sipping cheap, noxious rice wine through bamboo straws. With the religious conversation having run its course, we abandoned the unseen nature spirits in favor of those that were more palpable – the type whose presence can be detected by the way they burn the throat on the way down.


Sipping rice wine in Ratanakiri province, Cambodia

Back in Banglue, Eng Mardi Gras started petering out around noon. The drinking group broke up, each man heading home to sleep off his rice-wine-and-sour-fish daze so he would be ready to head back into the fields early the next morning.

Among the questions that our guide was unable to answer satisfactorily: Why did a village of animists hold a once-a-year “Mardi Gras” to mark the approach of Buddhist Lent? And why did it occur more than two months ahead of this year’s July 22 start of the Lent period?

“The villagers are 90 percent animist and 10 percent Buddhist,” Francis explained, without really explaining. Perhaps he was suggesting that the Eng were Buddhist enough to mark the coming of Lent, but animist enough to do so according to their own esoteric calendar.

Obstructed once again by a veil of vagueness, I didn’t press very hard for more information. The summer sun was raining hot spears onto the Shan hills, and we still had a few more ethnic villages to visit before circling back to our parked car. Already firmly in the grip of my own rice-wine stupor, I could only hope there were no more localized pre-Lenten festivals to enjoy along the way.