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Exploring the Mountain Villages of Northern Shan State, Myanmar

After relaxing and organizing for a few days in Hsipaw, Shan State, Myanmar, my newfound trekking friends and I mobilized and departed for the backcountry. Although there are a few established guided trips from Hsipaw, the route we wanted to take was far off the beaten path. Rather than see the tried and true, well groomed and setup “farming village” attractions that most tourists are taken to, the five of us wanted to get way out of town, and trek deep into the mountains to see what we might find – be it vast jungle, endless mountain peaks, farmland, or whatever else it is. We were itching to get away from civilization. Luckily, after researching a few connections, we found a local guy nameed Somany who grew up in the area, and agreed to take us trekking for five days – where he didn’t know, but he did know the general layout of the mountains, and collectively we decided to take it one day at a time. Perfect.


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Departing the first morning, it was decided to travel as light as possible. I had only one change of clothes with me, and little else. Jordan, Dimitri, Nick and Caro had about the same amount. Somany had just a shoulder bag. We were traveling light, and hoping to find jungle villages to stay at. We were dropped off at the end of a dirt road by a tuktuk, and then began hiking into the mountains.

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Hiking in Northern Shan State, Myanmar is relatively straight forward. Even though we were in the mountains, there were small dirt roads and trails everywhere. Some are large enough for proper trucks, but most are simply for foot traffic and motorbikes. As we hiked deeper, we passed by spotted farm houses, sheds, and fields.

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After a solid 8 hour day of hiking and a tasty lunch, we made it to the first larger farming village, perched out on a small mountain ridge.Somany actually knew one of the families who lives there, and they were nice enough to let us sleep on the floor of their common room that night. We spent the night with that family, had a very good dinner, played games and hung out with local kids.

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The next morning, we had another great breakfast, and trekked on further into the mountains.

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On our second day of hiking, we came across two small pagodas perched at the top of small mountains. One of the pagodas had a loudspeaker on its roof, and was blasting strange burmese pop music, interspersed with the news and weather. Upon investigation, I figured out that the monk who was maintaining the pagoda had hooked up a microphone to his radio, and blasted out whatever music he could tune into on the radio. He had electricity up there, and in typical Burmese style, the connections to the electrical grid were epically dangerous and convoluted.

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Throughout our trekking, in every village and at every house, there were kids. Lots of kids of all ages. And they were almost all surprised and interested by our strange, white-skinned presence. Lots of photo ops. Of note, when taking pictures of kids, they love to see their pictures on the camera screen afterwards. Once they figure out that you will show them their pictures, they start posing and running around, hoping to see shots of themselves in action.

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Lunch in rural farming huts were basic, but tasty. This woman who cooked us lunch in her home used a stove consisting of a horeshoe shaped pile of mud, with a fire burning in the middle, and the mud supporting the cooking pots. She’s 23, has 3 kids, and runs the family’s entire home while her husband tends to the fields. There’s one other house near hers, with another comparable family. In addition to cooking and maintaining the home, she also makes hunting munitions for her husband. After she was done cooking us lunch, she showed me a box full of charcoal that she was drying in the sun. The charcoal is used along with other common ingredients to make gunpower, which is used in their hunting rifle, which was also shown.

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Trekking into another rural village – each one was spectacular, and welcoming to us.

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On our third night trekking, we were having a quite moment with the townsfolk, when a bit of a stressful vibe came over the people- the Shan Tigers, a local militia force, had marched into town to take supplies back to their jungle camp. They walked by us, and although they were relatively friendly, it took a bit of warming them up, and assuring them that we would keep their location secret. Apparently, they were in an active fight with the Burmese Army, and had we leaked their location to other villages, the army would have come looking for them to engage them in a fire fight. The 12 or so militia members didn’t stay long, but I did have the opportunity to share a beer with them and discuss their fighting tactics. They carry both Chinese-knockoff AK-47’s (Type 56) and American M16A1 rifles. Certainly interesting.

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Another delicious homecooked dinner. This grandfather cooked for his grandson too.

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In rural villages like there, there’s no connection to a regular electrical grid. All electricity is either locally generated by solar or water, and most homes power themselves by solar. Lots of solar powered flashlights are left in the sun during the day. Occasionally a village will have a waterwheel hooked up to a crude electricity generating turbine – but it is very rare. Additionally, cell phone service is very weak in the mountains, and even people don’t have cell phones. In villages where there is somewhat usable service, there’s usually a single desktop cell phone for use by the community. The phone is battery powered and rechargeable,and is connected to a very large external cell antenna. Some of the more fortunate families do have a few modern entertainment centers, which usually consist of basic laptop computers or even more basic self contained DVD players connected to car batteries and inverters. There’s a large trade of CD-R video disks, containing pirated, highly compressed copies of burmese music videos, and international movies. On one of our nights in the villages, we were treated to a showing of Star Trek.

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Of course, trekking around village brought kids from every house.

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Our final village was a bit closer to a road, and was much bigger. A few families had large solar panels which were able to charge multiple car batteries – a definite luxury, giving them permanently mounted light sources in the home, rathern than handheld solar powered flashlights.

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Our final day hiking back to civilization passed us through good farmland, and a nice village with a stream for bathing, and more reliable electricity from a waterwheel.

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