Discoveries, Motoadventures, Myanmar

Roughing it in Myanmar’s Mountain Villages

On the recommendations of former Couchsurfing guests, Five Dollar Traveller, we looked up Thura, a Burmese motorcycle & hiking guide for the northern Shan state, to embark on a 3 day, 2 night adventure through remote villages across Myanmar’s spralling mountainside. Contact info will be posted at the end of this article.

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DAY 1
We met up with Thura, a man with far fewer years on his face than what we expected. With 2 middle-aged couples from Germany, a trio of rambunctious Belgian men, and a second Burmese guide of only 23 years, the nine of us strapped in on seven 125cc motorcycles. We navigated mostly roads at first, dodging tractors and waving at smiling locals. A couple of dirt roads – including a water-logged one that dumped mud all over my lower half – brought us to a handmade tofu chip manufacter, followed by a bamboo paper mill, both of which hooked us up with samples. We made a pit stop at a street side shack where Thura whipped up several betel nut chews and offered them to all of us. After initially declining, I gave it a shot and was pleasantly surprised with the sweet and tangy flavours, which Thura explained was thanks to coconut, lime, cardommom and licorice.

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We hit roads winding up the mountains and the higher we went, the more I regretted not bringing a proper jacket to brave the overcast day and high altitude cold. Luckily, we stopped at a mid-mountain village surrounded by green tea fields for a 3 course lunch of pickled tea salad tossed with peanuts, thin shan noodle soup and what can only be described as a tender honey and sugar riddled rice krispie square for desert, with plenty of freshly brewed green tea in between.

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Several mountain hugging roads later, we arrived at a secret hillside house where we stabled our motorcycles and set off on foot for the 1,800 meter peak. Never have we ever seen such large piles of ebony dung along a hiking path, which Thura told us could be either cows, or wild boars at higher altitudes.

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Along the way we stopped at a rustic Nepali village of just a few straw & wood huts with dirt floors. The villagers’ ancestors had been brought here many generations ago to work for the British Raj. With visages resembling my own relatives, they served us fried flatbread and potato curry in honour of Diwali, while I exchanged the few words of Hindi I know with them and admired their mustard leaf crops on the hill below.

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Massive reaching banyan trees and gruelingly steep climbs later, we finally arrived at the peak and enjoyed a view of overlapping mountain ranges smothered in emerald green forests. To the south lay our next village, nestled among green tea fields and towering bamboo.

We descended muddy trails and retrieved our stabled motorbikes so we could ride a shortcut to the village via the hardest dirt trail yet, littered with rubble and marred by freight trucks. So treacherous was the track that one pair of our German compatriates tipped into the ditch and required rescue by our guides.

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Just as the final light of sun slipped away, we finally arrived at our sleepy village for the night, a collection of wooden stilted buildings made of neem and pine. We climbed the stairs to our residence for the night, a long building with simply two florescent lights inside and a wood fire to cook our dinner. We removed our shoes outside and relaxed on the floors as kittens roamed around and an elderly couple prepared our meal, traditional cloth wrapped around their heads and longgyis – traditional long skirt-like fabric – wrapped around their waists. Two girl barely 7 years olds thronged around Jen and I as we busted out our smartphones, and we gladly handed them over to let them peruse our photo galleries and play the few games we had. Thura and Aungphyo appeared with rice wine – which tasted a lot like Korean bamboo wine – and showed us BBC videos about rebel armies and undesirable events affecting the province. We shared separate stories about Hindu festivals and  European history with our travel friends before enjoying a lovely meal of white rice and four vegetarian curries made with the utmost care over 2.5 hours. With full bellies, we retired for the evening at 9:30PM as a night sky watched us from above, blanketed with the brightest stars as far as we could see.

DAY 2
Start strengthening your leg muscles because outhouse squatty potties are all you’re going to get in the villages. Showering is also done outside under a running hose of cold water in the center of the village, so be ready to strip down to your underwear or borrow a longgyi wrap to rinse yourself clean. We enjoyed a late breakfast of rice and 3 green leafy veggie curries before preparing for the day’s 6 hour hike on foot to retire in a different village, and therefore leaving non-essential items behind.

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The dirt and mud paths were quite narrow as they snaked up down and around the lush green hills. We made frequent stops at isolated huts along the way, with Thura demonstrating the secrets of the forest, including ripe passionfruits, making a horn out of a palm tree stalk, breaking a cactus leaf stalk open to blow bubbles out of it and even demonstrating a traditional green tea grinding device at a hillside hut.

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We rolled into a hut perched on a hill above a bubbling brook. The brown structure stood on stilts in order to stay clear of both floodwaters and wildlife. As our guides helped our middle-aged female host cook our lunch, we hit up the creek. My favourite part of the trek, it was a  shallow with its cool waters rushing over rocks. Wading into the knee deep center was a respite from the hot and sweaty hike. We made it back to the hut in time to enjoy our first meat meal yet – wild boar stew sided with crushed ginger leaves and Chinese-style pickled tofu. The host’s husband had hunted the boar himself a few days earlier.

Little did we know that we had only just finished the easy half of the trek. What came next was mostly crazy steep uphills with our feet slipping out from under us. Frequent breaks with us teetering on the 50 degree incline were a necessity as we heaved and panted and soaked right through our clothes. Once we crested the top, the path trailed around the midsections of mountains to mountains throughout the forested valley. As sunset lay all of the valley in shadow except the peak across from us, we finally spotted the village we seeked, still a mountain away. We kicked up the speed and put taking breaks behind as we raced against the sun to try snd make it back before dark. Exhausted, we finally arrived at 1,500 meters above sea level just as the sky turned royal blue painted with the Milky Way.

In dire need of a shower, Thura pointed Jen and I towards the main water tank of the town, which just so happened to be right next to the busiest building. We frantically scrubbed ourselves and our clothes under the cold water taps in our underwear, but luckily both the dark and our ethnicities blending us in with the locals kept all attention away from us. Refreshed, we enjoyed a hot dinner of rice and curries made by our host, a young lady of 30 with a pair of both toddlers and cats, before collapsing under fleece blanket into a deep slumber.

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We were awoken by the town’s loudspeaker recording of chanting monks that reverberated throughout the town and our house. But as we got up, we were treated to an amazing view through the window – a magnificent opaque mist blanketed the entire valley below our village. We quietly took pictures as our fellow travelers slept and our host prepared breakfast – which she had already begun at least an hour earlier. We were treated to a meat curry in addition to our usual veggie fare and everyone filled up in anticipation of the 2 hour hike ahead of us.

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As we walked out of our village house, a gaggle of young children had gathered and loved the balloons and paper airplanes our group entertained them with. Their tiny legs followed us to the furthest edge of village before Thura gifted them a pencil each and Aungphyo quenched their thirst with a sip of water. They adorably waved and shouted “bye bye” and “tata” to us before running back to their homes.

We had hoped it would be easy, but by the time we got back to our first village where our motorcycles lay stabled, we had wetted and dried our brows several times over already. Along the way, Thura had introduced us to a bright greeb pomel or pomplemousse, which he picked fresh off a tree for us.

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Our European co-travelers bought several handmade baskets and bags from our host village before we fired up the motorcycles and roared up the rubble hill, this time without incident. Cows greeted us along the path as did the hot noon sun. Finally on paved roads, we swung back to town, past a government military barracks where smiling army green-clad men stood in the doorways with their meter long rifles. Following a generous lunch, Thura took us to enjoy some homebrewed rice beer, a sweet translucent white ambrosia, before bringing us back to where we first departed. We were tired, but happy that with everything we accomplished and thankful to both Thura and Aungphyo for introducing a world we would not have been able to see without them

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Overall, it was a fantastic experience that we will definitely recommend to anyone who is looking for an adventure they won’t forget. Thura’s tours can be customized based on fitness level and group size, so feel free to contact him directly at thuranaing84@gmail.com or at +950947308497. His website is a little dated but you can look him up at www.thuratrips.page.tl Cost is quoted to be between 20 to 30 USD which covers everything for your 3 days and is set based on how many people and what the activities will be. We paid 25 USD per day (for a total of 75 USD) in cash as 93,000 Burmese Kyats and it was worth every single dollar, especially since we knew that a good portion went to pay the villagers for keeping us! Questions, comments? Please feel free to comment below or email us!

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5 Comments

  • Reply Myanmar General Tips and Intercity Travel | Barilee Traveling December 6, 2015 at 5:35 pm

    […] – Kyaukme. 5 hours, 4,000 to 5,000 ks. Mandalay to Hsipaw. 6 hours. 5000 ks. Kyaukme – Inle Lake […]

  • Reply Ayesha December 28, 2015 at 12:41 pm

    Hey! Ayesha here from LENSES&LOCALS – thanks for directing us here through Instagram, there’s heaps of great info! Did you stay in Kyaukme the night before and after your trek? If so, where and how did you book? Thanks!

  • Reply The Common Wanderer January 11, 2016 at 6:35 am

    HI There

    Mark here from The Common Wanderer – this all sounds incredible and we will be sure to look into this when we arrive. Those photos look amazing!

    Do you have any other recommendations for Myanmar? We can’t wait to arrive.

    Regards,
    The Common Wanderer

    • Reply Jen A January 18, 2016 at 1:42 am

      Hey Mark! We didn’t do a write up about Mandalay, but we would recommend visiting Kyauktawgyi Pagoda at night. We accidentally stumbled upon it during a downpour and it was like a religious amusement park with no admission fee. Just down the street from there is Atumashi Kyaungdawgyi that’s okay for a quick look, but you’ll definitely want to spend some time wandering and photographing Kuthodaw Paya across the street from it – we sure did. There’s also the ancient monastery that guide books rave out, called Shwe Nanda Kyaung, but we didn’t choose to pay to enter because it was heavily overpriced (whereas the three places mentioned earlier were all 100% free). Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to the famous U Bein bridge, but we hear it’s best to be there for sunset photos.
      In the south, close to the border crossing to Thailand, is Hpa-an. It’s a quaint little town that is surrounded by various caves, striking temples, waterfalls and life-from-a-generation-ago villages. We recommend wandering into world of darkness, stalagmites/tites & bats of Sadan Cave. Hope that helps!

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