Onwards to Myanmar..yup, that's Burma to you old fogey's out there!
July 31st. Hmmnnn.... a dubious night's sleep after arriving back from the Elephant Sanctuary on a euphoric high to my skanky guest house; only to find that my lovely guest house owner (thought we had a great connection???) had a) completely forgotten about me, my reservation and my back pack which was locked in her office - she wasn't even there! And b) when she did get back - about an hour later .. she didn't even have a room for me!! There's a long story about a bumbly old man in stripy pyjamas who was kind enough to let me in the locked gate to the guest house but then i realised this meant i couldn't get out, so i was stuck in there, waiting around for the silly woman to return! The man was a wee bitty strange, talking away to me in some version of French, I think ..it was just weird but anyway. Sorry... as usual my digression is ridiculous!
S0 - starting fresh today, I bored my friend Florian, with my thousands of elephant photies that i was so excited by. Poor boy - he tried to escape but really, he had no chance! Florian was still in Chiang Mai contemplating his Golden Triangle tour - which is, of course, the famous, and by now, just a tad over-touristy, spot where you can see Thailand, Myanmar and Laos at once..not to be confused with IndoChina - the crossroads of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia! So I said "hey, I'm not doing a cheesy trek around here to fake tourist villages where the poor ethnic tribes aren't even from here - come with me to Burma and we will go for a wee hike.. it'll be an adventure and hey, there won't be any tourists - a big change from Thailand"... and so like a poor lamb to the slaughter, he so innocently agreed.......and then it all went downhill (nah - just added that bit for dramatic flair). Quick note - as I was leaving Chiang Mai, saw a monk sitting quietly having a cup of coffee, reading a book entitlëd "Good Karma - and how to create it!" Hmmnn.. interesting choice for a monk.. thought they would know all those things anyway!
August 1st. Headed off to Chiang Rai, a mere 3 1/2 hrs away to start our quest to Myanmar. Arrived in town and tried to find the famousHill Tribe Museum - so famous we got seven completely different sets of directions from seven very helpful people - none of which led us to the elusive museum! Why do people always feel the need to give an answer when "I don't know" is just fine! Stayed at Bens Guest house - check out the puppy - too tiny and too cute! Had a funky night at the Teepee Bar - very wierd place with only Florian and I there as paying guests. Everyone else drinking and dancing around were either owners, those who worked there, or pals of pals....quite strange but interesting too!
August 2nd. AAh the museum! Eventually found it and it was definitely worth visiting. So much information explaining about responsible tourism. For example, the poor women of the Long Necked Karen tribe that tourists love to photo, aren't even from Thailand; they are bused in from Burma 'cos they look good in photos for tourists. They don't get any money, just food and lodgings... and recently have wanted to stop wearing the many, metal hoops around their necks but cos of the tourist demand, they are not allowed to, by the business man who "owns" them! Also read alot about opium being such a big problem in Myanmar aka Burma, currently the biggest producer in the world!
Took bus from Chiang Rai to the incredibly touristy town of Mae Sai on the northern border of Thailand where alot of people go to extend their Thai visas beyond the thirty days everyone gets (why? i ask myself when there are so many other fab places to visit!). Interesting process going through Myanmar immigration... they keep your passport while you are in the country and you get an immigration travel pass - they like to keep an eye on you wherever you are in the country. Took a while but no probs getting in .. and so a little bit about Myanmar!
Famous for jade, opium and Aung San Suu Kyi (the jailed human rights activist), going to Myanmar is like going back in time at least 50 years. The town across the border - literally about a 5 minute walk from Mae Sai, is called Tachilek. Immediately you see the differences - which is so weird 'cos Thailand is only 1km behind you at this point.. but the faces are more Indian and Chinese ... men wear skirt-like longyi, women and kids blot thanaka (powdered bark make up) on their faces to help lighten their skin, pools of betel juice congeal on the pavements...its amazing how quickly things change!
Myanmar is an interesting country in South East Asia. Europe and the US have installed sanctions against the current military regime here since May 2003 when activist, Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested for the third time. However strong trade with China, India, Thailand and Singapore have replaced old partners in new business investments - so they don't really care!' There are far fewer tourists who travel here compared to the other South East Asian countries.... this was true even of Tachilek just over the border.. seemed immediately to be poorer than Thailand, and as far as we could see, we were the only tourists here. Pottered around and just enjoyed the town and smiled and practiced a bit of Burmese "min gala ba" means hello. Had dinner then back to guest house early - Myanmar has a curfew of 9pm - well, not really for foreigners but you dont want to be the only ones on the street so early night tonight!
August 3rd. Off we headed on the local bus from Tachilek to the town of Shen Tung. This was after our 6:30am stop at immigration to pick up 27 pieces of paper that we gave to the driver had to provide to different check points along the way so the government knew where we were! Long, hot bus journey on local bus...packed with people...everyone seemed quite curious about us, especially Florian who in his own admission is a big man - about 6 ft 4 and has a wee bit of a tummy (please, he has blessed this description - you all know how i feel about fattist comments!.. in fact some people kept coming up and patting his tummy..a tad disconcerting i would find, but Florian is an easy going soul so didn't bother too much about it!). The music videos were so awful you can't imagine - this moustached perverted looking guy was either lusting after young beauties, who in the real world wouldn't give him the time of day, or hanging out caressing his mother at home - very weird indeed but people seemed enraptured by them!
So after 4 /2 hours we got off at what we realized was Shen Tung... hmmn not quite how the guide books describe it... But it was actually a cute wee town, ok more like a village, and we got a tuk tuk to Harry's Trekking. Phew - and its actually there! Nice place - we are def the only tourists here.. went out for a potter and then had dinner by the lake....chatted to the guide at the hotel about our day trek tomorrow...for some strange reason in Burma lots of people are wearing US Army tops and jackets.. all fakes i think but still interesting fashion choice. So we start at 8am and walk for about 6-8 hours tomorrow visiting two key tribes - the Akha and the Aung tribes - very excited.
August 4th. Breakfast at 7am then we were off....First stop local market to pick up bits and pieces for the tribes. We put our foot down and said we didn't want to give candy so we bought paracetemol (strong medicine for the tribes folks according to our guide, Francis!), pens and paper and unsweetened crackers...sounds boring but no point giving them candy, just rots their teeth. Have been to tons of markets now but still love them - so vibrant and colourful, and the smells and sounds .. great! The countryside here is amazing - so green and lush, lots of rice fiels, very idyllic looking. Reminds me alot of Vietnam. Once we stopped, it was off on our first leg as we walked for over an hour to the village which belonged to the Aung tribe. Per Francis, who is half Akha and half Lesa (and speaks over 7 languages!), the village has 23 families and lots of children - which we did see for ourselves. This tribe are known to be less educated and live a more simple, rustic life than some of the other tribes. The people were really lovely; a bit reticent at first but curiosity took over any other feelings as they checked us out and realized we were friendly! Francis only takes these tours once or twice a month so its nice that you dont feel like you are part of the same gravy tourist train like in Chiang Mai.....or that you are taking advantage of these people (well, at least not as much as the regular tours!).
Nothing fake here - the villages are gorgeous. We met the shamen and his wife (who looked really ill! - can't he help fix her i thought with his special powers?). The whole village came out and watched us as we chatted to them... amazing faces. Little girl couldnt be more than six years old carrying her little sister around on her hip..
Then headed to meet the chief of the village - real character who promptly gave us some tea from glasses that clearly hadnt been cleaned in about 6 years (and tried to sell me his handbag... Was a bit nervous - should i buy it - he was the chief after all?
We said goodbye then headed off for some more hiking to the next village - this time a different tribe, the Akhas. We went to the church first. Akhas are traditionally animastic (worship the land and the sky) but many have become Catholic and there were pictures of the new Pope everywhere in their huts!).....they only get a priest to say mass about three times a year but the pastor does his bit in the meantime! We went into the village; quite small only 9 families live here. We met the pastor and his wife and they put on an incredible lunch for us - and what a lunch! Pork skins deep fried with chilli, pork intestines, stir fried pork, yup lotsa pork but really delicious. And babycorn, so many vegetable dishes and sticky rice and bananas. What a feast! The Akha people are much more ornamental in their dress than the Aung tribe, especially with the womens headdressess, which they made me try on. Quite heavy but beautiful! The head dresses tell the stories of the womens lives .. some of them are really ornate! So after lunch the ladies brought out a ton of scarves, jewellry and other bits and bobs for us to look at.. and of course i bought a bunch of things. So many they gave me my own bracelet free! How sweet they were - ok i know i spent money but come on, still lovely of them! And its not going to break the bank at around $8 for 5 bracelets and a scarf (and i didnt even bargain!). They all laughed cos i tried to buy a piece from each of the ladies...
After a very long goodbye; sorry to leave them as they had been so kind... we headed off down the mountain via some crazy bamboo fields (check out Florian and Francis) and a beautiful waterfall. Well, beautiful apart from the tons of litter all around it!
Across lush, green rice fields we walked, eventually back at the car to take us back to Harry's Trekking (did i mention that Harry is no more sadly; when i asked Francis the first time, I thought he had gone out for a bit, but no, Francis clarified he had died last year i think so alas, Harry is no more, but his ideal just keeps on trekking!). Oh yes, as we were driving back and Florian and I were waxing lyrical about our incredible day and the people we met and how wonderful and beautiful life was and how lucky we were.. this perfect moment was suddenly ruined by our driver "hawking" up half a lung and spitting it out a good 20 feet - pretty good shot actually! Oh well, so much for our special moment! Teehee.
Back to the ranch, then out for dinner along the waterfront again! Lovely Chinese restaurant where the owner was ridiculously accomodating to us; super nice people in Myanmar! Have really loved my very short time here and would love to come back and explore Myanmar more!