Last Wednesday we hired a taxi to take us from Inle Lake to Mandalay, a seven hour drive that we decided we’d rather not spend in one of Burma’s bumpy and sleepless overnight busses. On the way we stopped to visit statue-filed caves in the limestone cliffs above the town of Pindaya. In addition to the thousands of gold Buddha statues filling the caves, the ceilings of the labyrinthine complex are covered in stalactites, and the combination of both man and nature-made features created an almost mystical atmosphere.
The side trip to Pindaya took us away from the mostly-paved main route to Mandalay and onto 7 hours of rural dirt roads through Burmese countryside. Our suspension-less 80’s era Toyota wagon was by far the smallest of the dozen or so cars we saw on the road, but it made the experience all the more authentic. It also kept us eye-level with the periodic herds of cattle with which we shared the road. The region, in Shan state, is one of the most fertile regions of the country, and the ride was filled with scenes of rolling farmland dotted with enormous Banyan trees and the occasional golden hill-top pagoda. As much as anything else, our trip to Burma has been one of gorgeous natural scenery.
We spent most of our 24 hours in Mandalay planning our departure. Mandalay is a sprawling and dusty city that serves as the hub for Burmese and Chinese businesses mining, drilling, and trading in Burma’s resource rich north. Although there are a few ancient palace complexes outside of the city, we opted to forego them to squeeze in two day trekking trip another 7 hours north. There are certain cities that you know will take more time and effort to enjoy than you have, and Mandalay was one of those cities for us.
The trekking trip, based out of a small town called Hsipaw (pronounced see-paw) brought us to more of the same scenery as our Inle-Mandalay car trip, but it was great to enjoy things at a slower pace. We walked through tea plantations, fields of bright yellow sesame flowers, and got to see plenty of ever-fascinating low-tech rural farming contraptions including home built hydro-electric dams, an ox-cart mounted gas-powered corn kernel remover, and a foot-pedal hay chopper consisting of a bent bamboo limb and a 12 inch cleaver.
The trek included a home-stay in a small tribal village. It’s always hard to know what to expect when you’re told you’ll be visiting a community touted by guides and tour books as “untouched”. Despite many experiences otherwise, in my mind I always picture a primitive scene out of a National Geographic documentary. Despite knowing better, this ultimately leads to a slight twang of disappointment upon arriving to find people watching TV, drinking CocaCola, and wearing modern, western clothing.
In Pankam, I certainly had that moment of disappointment. After all, the town is a short, albeit treacherous, motor-bike ride from a well-connected town. The houses have tin roofs, everyone wears machine-made clothing, and many families have motor bikes. Taking a step back though, I realized I was in one of the least connected places I had ever been. In a town of 100 families, only a couple of homes have electricity, in the form of car batteries. People collect their water from a central town well and cook over wood stoves. As with the rest of Burma, there are very few mass produced packaged foods, virtually none of which are western brands. The only formal commerce we saw was at a local stall that sold snacks, cigarettes, and warm sodas. I’ve done trips similar to these in other countries and stayed in towns with no running water and limited electricity. It is always enlightening and refreshing to see a community that lives very differently from my own. However, I think the lack of western influence in Burma really sets my experience in Pankam apart.
It’s taken a few weeks to figure it out what exactly it is about this country that has made it so fascinating to visit. No one feature or experience of Burma has stood out as a single highlight. Rather, the scene of the country and culture as a whole is what really makes this place worth seeing, and seeing sooner rather than later.
Still no luck uploading photos, but we’ve got tons of great ones ready and waiting!