It was mid November 2012 in the humid metropolis that is Kuala Lumpur, school was out for monsoon season and I needed to go somewhere, quickly. A month in Burma it was.
I arrived at 8am at the embassy and immediately regretted my decision to leave the task of getting a tourist visa to the last minute. Walking past the huge compounds of the American and Russian embassies, I couldn’t help but wonder what the Republic of the Union of Myanmar’s equivalent would look like, when around the corner I saw a sprawling line from what seemed to be a rusty iron door leading to a dirt courtyard. I had arrived. After holding my ground in the queue and a whole lot of sweet talk and pleading it was done. I was apparently very lucky as ‘uncle’ wasn’t here today and I wouldn’t have to pay a ‘fee’ for quick service. A small taster of things to come.
So I was off. KL to Yangon. A bumpy taxi led us to a hostel with an even bumpier bed, but I wasn’t here for comfort, I came to do what all travellers must; to see, to feel, to live. This city was an assault on the senses – colours and smells from thriving markets and spectacular golden pagodas. The alleyways, street food and smiling faces trying to sell you everything from fried cockroaches to wardrobes. An old boy I met said that this was like travelling back to Asia 30 years ago and I think he was on the right track. In this country where McDonalds and Coca Cola had no place, where the general’s grip that ran the state was only just beginning to loosen, stepping into the past was a possibility.
I took the long bus to Bagan, a vast sprawling plain, filled with thousands of ancient temples running alongside the sleepy Irrawaddy river. Long sunny days were spent cycling around this historical site, in a haze of bewilderment as the numerous monuments blended into one, but with each being so very unique. Smiling faces with thanaka, a yellowish-white paste made from ground bark rubbed into their cheeks greeted me from every direction, and tea, always tea, was at hand.
The gentle chug of the local train slowly but surely brought me to the old royal capital of Mandalay with its daunting Mandalay Hill and the never ending staircase! At the top the sun was setting over the city while the local monks discussed politics with the tourists, something that would not have been possible all that long ago.
Feeling the oppressive heat that surrounded the valley it was time to get off-the-beaten-track and head into the hills to the chilly town of Hsipaw. This lovely little British hill station with spectacular waterfalls and day hikes was not remote enough, after a long six hours on a very suspect 4×4 and only one flat tire I was dropped off literally at the end of the road, in a village called Namshan.
This was about as far North-East as you could go without a permit and I was in an area renowned for the Shan State rebels. Stuck out there with a Swiss couple I teamed up with, we planned to trek for four days back too Hsipaw through the hill villages that were dotted along the way.
After a few mishaps (our map way literally a few sketches scrawled by a local) we arrived, rather later than we has anticipated, on a mountain top monastery for the first night. Welcoming monks seemed more than pleased to give us a few blankets and a spot to sleep. It was a chilly night and we huddled round a small fire, wind was battering the walls of this ancient shrine and we were wondering what on earth we had gotten ourselves into. Waking up on the summit of this peak was one of the most awe inspiring moments of my life, the valley was shrouded in mist and a silence fell upon us all.
The most kindhearted of monks was brewing black tea and a hearty Burmese breakfast. We packed our bags for the long day ahead. Heading down the steep slope there was a colossal BOOM! The earth shook like it was alive and frightened the life out of us. ‘What the bloody hell was that?’ When we passed the next village we discovered that two valleys across from us the local Shan State rebel forces were having a scuffle with the army again. Much to our horror, this was said in a way that led us to suspect this was normality here. Later that day we heard a faraway echo of a rapid burst of rounds fired from an automatic weapon. Needless to say we upped the pace slightly.
The next night was spent dancing at a festival that we happened upon in a small village. We sighted a guide that for an extortionate price had offered to show us this rare event two days prior. A few smug grins were seen amongst our party as he was leading around a very gullible looking Japanese fellow. The villagers were quite surprised that we did not have a guide; but we didn’t deem it necessary with our intricate map and sense of direction. We hoped.
Those next few days were long and arduous but the hospitality of the people was extraordinary, the last three miles of road were spent clinging on for dear life to the top of a homemade rubbish truck and needless to say that the evening’s hot shower was well needed. During the hike we were never without place to stay or a cup of tea when passing through the villages. The spirit and generosity of the Burmese people is what makes this country such as special place.