Monday, June 11, 2007

Amongst the Hill Tribes

After separate adventures in South Africa and Laos, Carol, Edith and Rick meet in Bangkok to begin our SE Asia journey. Holly Hook, a friend of Carol's from Beaufort, SC, joins us for this leg of our world voyage. What fun! Our next stop is Burma or as the military junta call it, Myanmar. As a country now under military rule, we had many questions and concerns about going to this country, but decided it was someplace we all wanted to see.

Notes on Thailand: any interest in silver jewelry or clothes, this is the place. Negotiate heavily and buy silver by weight. Excellent quality, plenty of variety and the weight is good. Silk is gorgeous - most anything can be tailored while there. Bring a sample outfit or picture and in a day/two you can have it made.

Another note of interest is how the Thai love their king. 2006 was his 79th birthday and 60th Anniversary of his reign - longest reigning monarch in the world. Everywhere people wore yellow t-shirts, honoring their king. Why yellow - the king was born on Monday and of course, you know the color of Monday is yellow. When you ask people about their king, you hear how the king cares and the many projects he initiated to help hill tribes and farmers, to save the environment and to educate all. His philosophy - people must do for themselves so he provides the means and education to help themselves. Yellow is Thailand's new black.

Now onto Burma! After standing in a long customs line, we are met by our guide, Ms. Aye Aye, who whisks us off to our hotel . We thought customs might be difficult or there would be a $300 entrance fee, but no questions or collections - just a look-see at our passports. There is a limit of bringing $3000 into the country. You must use currency - credit cards are not accepted most places. Bring small currency as you don't want kyats. $3000 in small denominations is a load to carry. At the hotel, we get our first glimpse of the oppression that the military junta imposes - limited internet access, no email access, no global news.

After a night's rest, off we fly to Heho (in the Shan state) where we are met by another guide, Ms. Aye Mar. We soon determine that Ms. Aye Aye is our government guide for the entire trip in Burma and when we arrive in a new town, we are met by a local guide. Our ultimate destination is Kalaw (a 2-hour drive from Heho) - a former British Colonial outpost considered to be a retreat from the sweltering heat and humidity of the lowlands. Here we are hiking the countryside to a few hill tribe villages. Along the way to Kalaw, we take a side track off to a cattle market, attended by Pao and Shan people. These people are beautiful with delightful, but shy smiles. They travel great distances to both sell their products such as vegetables, chickens and pigs and buy their necessities such as tobacco, rice and fortune telling at the market. It is amazing how many people can pile into and on top of a funny looking truck - no hood, just the engine or even tractors.

Burma has more than 135 ethnic groups, the largest as follows - all with different traditions, customs and dress.
  • BURMAN: A Buddhist group, also known as Myanmar, which accounts for two-thirds of the country's 54 million people. They live in most parts of the country, except for remote border regions.
  • KAREN: Tribal people who practice Buddhism, Christianity or a mix of both. They have fought for more autonomy for more than 60 years in a mountainous region bordering Thailand. Estimates of their population range from 3.5 million to 7 million, with about 400,000 more in Thailand.
  • SHAN: Buddhists ethnically related to Thais who live mostly in Shan state next to Thailand. Estimated to number 5 million or more, but like the Karen, their last official census was 70 years ago.
  • ARAKAN: Also called Rakhine, they are predominantly Buddhist people who live in hilly country in western Burma and number between 2.5 million and 4 million.
  • MON: Buddhists who once ruled kingdoms in the southern region bordering Thailand. They number more than 2 million in Burma and nearly 100,000 in Thailand.
  • KACHIN: Mostly Christian tribal people numbering more than 1.2 million. They live mostly in northern Burma, but also in China and India.
  • CHIN: Mostly Christian people of various tribes. More than 1 million strong, they speak different dialects and live in Chin state bordering India or in India itself.
  • ROHINGYA: Muslim group in northern Rakhine state. Many have fled across the border to Bangladesh and by sea to Thailand. (source: Associated Press)
Along the way to Kalaw, our van breaks down at a small market, but luckily we can push start it. Upon arriving, Kalaw is very primitive and we are told that there are 3 army bases in the area. We figure these are to fight the rebels in the north, though we are not told this. We are staying at Pinehill Resort which used to be a British military station. After checking in, we climb up to see the view above the town and take in the colonical houses and the barracks where George Orwell stayed while stationed here. It is said that George Orwell's 1984 was really a prediction of what has happened in Burma with the miliary junta controlling everything. Many here consider him a prophet. The four of us stay in a two room bungalow. Since we are in the mountains and it is the cooler time of the year for the whole country, it is cold and the only way to warm up is to take a hot shower since there is no real heat in the rooms. Dinner is at a Nepali restaurant and everyone loves the Nepali tea, especially since it's hot.

We're up early the next morning to begin an 8 hour trek to several Pao and Palung villages. Soon we meet Palaung people on their way back from a wedding in the village of Ywathitikan which is one of the villages we are visiting. They have their formal clothes on and the women have rings around their waists which signify they are married. We pass tea, mustard, rape, corn and dry rice fields. All are replacement crops for opium poppies - at least that's what we are told. Much of the land is deforested for this purpose - it is amazing how they cultivate on the steep hills. We pass a number of oxcarts with Brahma cows or water buffalo pulling them. Along the trail, we meet a group of young monk acolytes. Holly gives them some balloons and they have a blast - what a smart and easy gift to bring.

Once we arrive at Ywathitikan, we hear more about the wedding from the villagers, see lots of children and meet a woman chopping wood who invites us in her home. It is a long house on stilts. She tells us that she has 7 children, two of whom are sitting by the fire. The room has no real furniture except a special mat for guests and a fire which sits in the middle of the room for cooking and heating tea. After leaving, we see a girl shucking rice using a mill which she operates by pushing her foot up and down. Edith tries it and it sure looks easier than it is.

We visit a couple more villages, have lunch and then take a treacherous hike back around the lake's slippery banks. The lake is very low in water. After questioning why, we are told that the several Army personnel blew up the damn with dynamite while fishing just for fun. This happened over a year ago and no attempts are being made to fix it. The day before we saw many people carrying water on their backs from wells about town. It's amazing the power the military has and their disregard for the people.

The evening is very cold and this night, there is no hot water for showers. The hotel brings us metal hot water bottles to put in bed for our feet. Interesting approach to staying warm!