This plateau of hill tribes in Myanmar proves to be rustic rather than primal. There’s no jungle or bark huts or uncultivated natives. It’s pastoral, more like being in a European art-house movie set at the turn of last century with enchanting characters and muted landscapes where boy meets girl in a script written by someone from the Romantic School.

We’re on a trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake in Shan state. Sharing my journey are four French hikers; Sanmya, our guide, a nineteen year old Pa-O girl, her cheeks adorned with circles of the ubiquitous thanaka cream; and Zaw, our cook from Yangon.

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Audience and crew having a banana break on the first morning. In order of appearance from left: Zaw, Christophe, Sanmya, Olivier, Sophie & Yves

It rains for two days prior to the trek and is still falling before we set out. This is meant to be the dry season, but Kalaw has a unique climate.

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My rain jacket is in storage in Bangkok, so I make a last minute dash to the market to buy an undersized and overpriced poncho. But as Murphy’s Law would have it the weather clears and remains dry for the entire trek

* * *

On day one …we leave the former colonial Hill Station carrying essentials in a day-pack – the bulk of our luggage is transported ahead to Inle.

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The first character emerges. She joked she would have dressed for the occasion had she known we’d be here. But her appearance is fine to us – natural.

We continue on a long, but gentle climb on a dirt track made damp and occasionally clayed by the earlier rain, entering tea plantations interspersed by spindly pines with banana trees huddling in gullies, and overlooking multi-hued country similar to Galicia in Spain.

IMG_9215 IMG_9216 IMG_9223  Myanmar trek multicoloured valleyAt one point a villager stops on a motorbike carting containers of fuel to a gold mine. He lights a cigarette, oblivious of any risk, and continues on his way.

We reach an altitude of 1800 metres – the sixty kilometre route is mostly at that elevation making for mild temperatures – and approach the Paluang village of Nyang Kong, today’s destination.

IMG_9236 Entry is via a dirt track that passes a small monastery, a row of timber and brick homes and ends at a large banyan tree sheltering a Nat shrine that honours a guardian spirit.

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Photo (c) Christophe Chol

IMG_9241 IMG_9244IMG_9288A cropped There are two variations of the Paluang tribe – Golden and Silver – differentiated, partly, by a preference for the respective colour. This is a Golden Palaung village. Once comparatively reclusive, they are now opening up to the world. Here, they live in individual homes rather than traditional long houses. Tea is the Golden Palaung cash crop. Other produce, oranges, carrots, soya bean, bananas, papaya etc are grown for their own consumption.

Sanmya takes us to the home of Dawjak, where we will stay tonight. She has the demeanour of a favourite aunty and serves us tea.

IMG_9251A croppedAfter lunch we venture off on a side trip to a small monastery village nearby.

Temple summit on side trip
The peak to the left is the highest point in this area, and at the summit is a temple. Some of us detour to climb it along the way.

IMG_9254Villages dot the occasional ridge white then the clouds spread allowing the sun to spotlight fields and crops, accentuating yellow, brown and green hues.

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A Nat shrine at the temple on the summit

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It’s a recent custom to represent Nats in a physical form. There are 37 Nats in total and they are worshipped across Myanmar, together with Buddhism
Myanmar monestary village
Entering the monastery village
Monastery Myanmar trek
Outside the monastery, curious locals converge

IMG_9278The assistance of a local villager is required to guide our return via a short-cut route. We arrive back at Nyang Kong as dark appraoaches.

Cooking our evening meal
Dawjak’s kitchen – typically the stove is a fire on a hotplate embedded in the floor.
Photo (c) Yves Salingue
Myanmar trek evening meal
Soup, okra, tomato, snow peas, steamed rice, potato and chicken curry, soya ‘potato’ chips…

 * * *

Early morning on day two …a rooster crows with routine belligerence, a grandmother recites prayers to Buddha at the foot of our sleeping mats, and a loudspeaker trumpets Palaung songs across the valley. The wet season is over, the tea is harvested and weddings are in full bloom.

IMG_9345 Myanmar early morning view Palaung villageIn this case the marriage is arranged, though Sanmya explains the couple: “Already know each other and are in love”. They’re both from this village (she’s a local teacher) and twenty years-old, other factors diverting from traditional convention. We met the couple at their respective homes last night, joining guests chewing betel nut, drinking tea, and eating minya and sali (snacks of leaf, bean and nuts) and a tasty soya-bean version of a potato chip that becomes a staple-snack during our trip.

Paluang bride the night before her wedding
The bride to be.
photo (c) Yves Salingue
Myanmar Palaung woman
The groom’s mother. She was very proud of her belt

IMG_9294 Myanmar snack150kg of pork will be consumed for the wedding breakfast.

IMG_9301 Paluaung preparing porkWe’re invited to the wedding ceremony, but there’s uncertainty about the starting time. Then the music is replaced by a male voice calling villagers and Nats to attend, so we make haste. It is 6.30AM.

IMG_9338We’re ushered past villagers assembling outside and offered a position on the floor of a large room, near the bride and groom. Sitting opposite them is the chief of this region of Palaung tribes and the man behind the voice. He continues to recite, blessing the union on behalf of the elders, who cram the room. The men on one side…

IMG_9304 Myanmar Palaung weddingPalaung bride and groomAnd the women and children on the other…

Myanmar Palaung wedding guests
And the occasional Western trekker

The ceremony is fervent, but informal. The rhythm and tone of the recital evoke meaning even if the Palaung words don’t. The couple will also visit a monk tomorrow to receive his sanction.

Palaung tribesman IMG_9336IMG_9347 Myanmar Palaung boyThe wedding breakfast follows at the bride’s house – spicy pork. When we return to Dawjak’s, another, even larger breakfast is prepared by Zaw.

Palaung wedding breakfast
(c) Yves Salingue

A group photo is arranged with the bride and groom and their mothers.

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(c) Yves Salingue

Dawjak presents us with a parting gift of home grown tea, apologising that’s all she has to give, but it’s the perfect souvenir. She claims the house will feel quiet with our absence. Her husband is away, representing the family at another wedding.

The Palaung soundtrack alternates with Myanmar contemporary now and bon-voyages us (with very full stomachs), following us across a distant ridge.

Myanmar Palaung hut
A Palaung bride and groom will typically honeymoon in a hut like this one on the ridge below

We continue a gentle hike for around two hours to our lunch destination, the Viewpoint, a makeshift Nepalese restaurant, and popular trekking junction.

Myanmar Palaung trek view
View from the Viewpoint. Breakfast still lingers so intake is limited to tea, oranges and chapati

Two primary schools are passed on the trek. This is the first one, The kids are a mixture of shy curiosity, cheekiness and sing-song recital.

Myanmar trek school
(c) Yves Salingue

IMG_9367A Myanmar trek schoolBy mid-afternoon the steep country gives way to gentler terrain. At a fork in the path we rest under a large Banyan tree. Villagers have propped up its sacred branches with lengthy bamboo poles.

IMG_9368 Myanmar trek banyan treeAs Sanmya explains, “A mother, or something like this, goes to a fortune teller about something …maybe a sick kid. For a cure she must support the Banyan tree.”

The track follows a dilapidated railway line through a narrow, forested cutting for several kilometres emerging at Mindak. Villagers come from surrounding areas to sell their produce.

IMG_9372 Myanmar trek railway station marketTea plantations are replaced by rice paddies (likewise recently harvested), arranged marriages are no longer the custom, and the track descends from ridge to valley floor.

IMG_9374 Myanmar trek rice paddiesRed soil is exposed on the surrounding hills …it’s a drier climate here, but with ample water supply, the two ingredients often associated with abundance.

Plants hanging from trestles like grape vines. “Pumpkins”, Sanmya says, then also indentifies pear trees growing on a rise above the paddies, their leaves fallen in deference to winter.

IMG_9376 Myanmar trek valleyWe walk through gardens of soya bean, and sesame and mustard seed. Cabbages and cauliflower add to the vegetable mix.

IMG_9381 Myanmar rice paddie and villagers

Myanmar trek candle wax tree
The sap from this tree is used as candle wax
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photo (c) Christophe Chol

The track follows a creek winding through the valley. Clouds play shadow puppet with the descending sun, projecting shades of light and dark on amphitheatres of harvested terraces. The earthy scent of straw hangs in languid air.

Mynamar trek valley of paddy fields
photo (c) Christophe Chol

Seen from the crest of a hill is a Danu village of timber homes with rusting tin rooves. The golden spire of a Buddhist temple rises behind it on a forested knoll.

IMG_9382A darker Myanmar trek Danu villageThe village is approached via a long footbridge emerging into a path embraced by trees and hedges that leads to the house where we stay night two.

IMG_9384A darker Myanmar trek Danu villageWe’re greeted by the father, a stocky man who invites us to tea on the verandah. He has a shaved head – a Danu Yul Brynner.

Myanmar trek Danu man
Dad, now wearing a cap

Now that the rice is harvested the Danu gather around fires each night peeling the garlic to be planted in its place. Following our evening meal, Sanmya escorts us along a rambling dirt path matted with loose straw and flanked by rickety bamboo fences and gently burning fires. Conversation and laughter predominate while garlic is peeled unconsciously, with deft fingers, the cloves split and dropped in a small basket, the downy feathers of peel scattered around bare feet.

Myanmar trek Danu garlic ceremony“It’s a custom that if a boy likes a girl he will visit: She serves tea and they peel together. Maybe he comes with friends or something like this, but after …they leave,” Sanmya confides. In parts of Europe, at the turn of last century, garlic was used to repel evil; here it’s a match-maker.

Myanmar trek Danu village garlic peelingWe continue sauntering. Sanmya makes casual conversation with the villagers – small talk, easy going. They mostly want to know where we’re from. The evening is mild and calm, the sky littered with stars and softened by a moon nearing full. In a nearby bush, a cricket, not to be out done, loudly announces itself, strumming wings in its own courting serenade.

A lone girl sits beside one fire. She rakes the scattered papery leaf into a rim caressing it into the flames, blowing on the embers, sitting on her haunches, performing a busy, crouching dance. She directs glances with eyes speaking multitudes in a foreign language. A boy ambles shyly, playfully up to her. She teases pushing him away then serves him tea.

* * *

On day three …mist veils the village, water buffalo breakfast, free range, in the yards and verges, and at the thatch-roofed house next door a young child helps his mother sweep a verandah in his own act of devotion.

Danu village foggy morning
The water buffalo are considered members of the family

IMG_9397A Myanmar trek Danu villageThis village is more serene than Nyang Khong, nestled as it is in the calm of a valley. Is there a hierarchy about location? It also appears more affluent, relatively speaking. Fate offers a hand – a UN funded scheme generates power from the creek. Though limited in supply, one house has a satellite dish. Plumbing is also on its way – our house has an outdoor, western style toilet, though it isn’t working during our stay – not that we demand it. A shower, for the moment, is still a dish and water.

After a pancake breakfast, we leave the Danu village…

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Sanmya must have overheard Yves and I express our love of coffee because a jug of it materialised this morning. Hit the spot!

Myanmar trek, woman sifting riceSesame seeds.

Myanmar trek sesame seedsFlowers are another cash crop. Villagers mainly buy them for religious purposes.

IMG_9418 Myanmar trek flower cropIMG_9421 Myanmar trek view of Danu villageThe leaves from this plant can be used to stem a bleeding wound.

IMG_9425 Myanmar trek medicinal plantA last look back over the Danu village.

IMG_9426 Myanmar trek view of Danu valleyMemories of last night echo.

Entering Pa-O country the landscape alters again: expanses of red-chilli fields.

IMG_9436A Myanmar trek chilli pickers

Myanmar chillies drying in the sun
Growers usually consume the lesser quality chillies and sell the rest

And a village with a primary school a little less rudimentary than yesterday’s.

IMG_9452 Myanmar school children Pa-O villageIMG_9458 Myanmar Pa-O schoolThe ox rest while the villagers work. Later, roles are reversed.

IMG_9465A Myanmar trek ox restingThe paddies are drained. Garlic is planted in the damp soil and covered with hay.

Myanmar trek villagers in paddy fieldsLunch is at a Pa-O village.

IMG_9468 Myanmar trek Pa-O childrenWearing predominantly black, the Pa-O, related to the Karen, dress in layers to emulate their ancestral spirit the dragon. In the 11th century, King Anawrahta decreed their captive ancestors wear dark clothes to signify lower status. They form the second largest ethnic group in Shan State (the largest being the Shan themselves).

IMG_9469A Myanmar trek Pa-O familyIMG_2586Today is the hottest walking so far, though the temperature’s still no more than mid to high twenties. In the late afternoon, dark clouds form above bleached fields on the eastern horizon, the sky made to appear threatening by the sun’s goading rays. But there’s more brewing than weather …it’s a mood stirred by the light, the tranquillity and a pastel landscape suggesting other than the tropics. At an intersection of trails five Pa-O women load a cart.

IMG_Pa-O women Myanmar

Typically they want to know where we’re from. One observes that we’re “Tall …big”. I joke she forgot to add “Handsome” and Sanmya translates the reply. “She says, Yes, very handsome – you can follow them to the village tonight.”

Pa-O women loading cart

They leave on a rutted track toward the sky crying wolf.

IMG_9476 Myanmar trek Pa-O womenWe continue in the opposite direction passing a field of harvested corn, our feet shuffling through the dry stalks and leaves.

IMG_9483A Myanmar trek corn field

Myanmar trek villager riding water buffalo
Sanmya always engages with the villagers we pass – it’s partly an act of friendliness, and sometimes to convey information to us, but it’s also to acknowledge we’re passing through their country.

The thorn and fibre from this plant is used as needle and thread.

IMG_9489 Myanmar trek neddle & thread plantA rice Nat-offering serves as gratitude and harvest insurance.

IMG_9490 Myanmar trek Nat rice offeringThe sense of anticipation increases. Perhaps the serenity and the rhythm of our footsteps combine to bewitch perception. Maybe the encounters are evoking ancient memories of a collective idyll.

About twenty metres away a Taungthu girl in a long blue dress and a light pink top leans forward to twirl a lengthy orange scarf around her head like an oriental Sophia Loren. The setting sun lights the mountains behind and the rise holds her aloft before them. It’s as if we accidently walked into a film set. I reach for my camera, hesitating …should I? Do I ask? Too late, she turns away.

The image is etched in memory instead. Perhaps only movie directors, with the luxury of rehearsal and repeated takes, can portray moments like these.

Myanmar trek women with scarves
This photo is the best I can do

Myanmar trek sunset on escarpmentAn escarpment draws us into a narrower valley as darkness erases the last of dusk’s crimson.

IMG_9504AB Myanmar trek rural scene at duskVillagers, on cue, exit the fields with their carts and animals converging on a track that winds uphill. We’re swept along with them, directed by gentle laughs, mellow voices and the tinkle of cow bells, transported to our final night’s destination – a nearby monastery. The elderly abbot invites us to make ourselves at home, the ‘bedroom’ being a curtained corner of the main hall.

IMG_9529 Myanmar trek temple stayThat evening Sanmya takes us to visit a Taungthu family living close by. Wooden stairs lead to a candle lit room. A fire burns quietly on its hotplate embedded in the floor. ‘Taungthu’ is another name given to the Pa-O, except this tribal variant has a more open dress code and presumably escaped King Anawrahta’s clutches. We join the eight women, three of whom are daughters of the household, and all wear stupendous headscarves died ambiguous shades of red. They serve us tea and a crab-apple dish that’s sour but oddly more-ish.

Myanmar trek Taungthu womenThey want to know what crops we grow, where we buy our food, what the time is at home, do we like Myanmar? Sanmya says they thought it was a new sun every day. They stare at us, we steal a glance at them drawn to each other’s difference and dancing coyly to evolution’s song of attraction.

IMG_9515A Myanmar trek Taungthu womenThe father returns home from the evening ritual visiting other villagers. He’s an inquisitive, sprightly man with longish hair who looks too young for six children (the three sons have left home).

IMG_9518 Myanmar trek Taungthu father & daughtersIMG_9513 Myanmar trek Taungthu womenThe eyes have it.

IMG_9519 Myanmar trek Taungthu women

According to Sanmya, the Taungthu don’t practice the Danu courting custom, but a girl enters with a large basket and empties its contents near the fire. Garlic.

* * *

On day four …another foggy morning defeats the sunrise; the rhythmic thud of a villager pounding rice transcends the stillness; and a woman balancing a shoulder pole ventures into the monastery ground with food for the monks.

IMG_9523A Myanmar trek temple in fog

Myanmar trek temple, monk visited by villagersThe meals Zaw prepares throughout the trek are plentiful and delicious and so is the last breakfast…assorted tempura, omelette, sticky rice with nuts, fruit, sesame-seed biscuits, green or ginger tea and brewed coffee.

IMG_9526 Myanmar trek breakfast

IMG_9533After thanking the abbot, we leave the monastery among children walking to school, and are soon on an uphill track in open country of stunted grass that, if not for the occasional cactus, would pass for alpine meadow.

IMG_9536 Myanmar trek fog on the trailUnripe wheat shimmers like fields of frost.

IMG_9537 Myanmar trek fog over wheat fieldWe pass spider webs one after the other …small stars of dewy gossamer in the grass; others large wedding veils draped in the shrubs and trees arching the track.

IMG_9545 Myanmar trek spider websThe sun eventually reduces the fog to a warm, bright haze and exposes crops of sesame seed.

IMG_9547 Myanmar trek fog lifting over sesame seed cropClimbing a range of hills we look back over the plateau-valley. The scene reminds of Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, an artist from the Romantic School.

IMG_9559 Myanmar trek valley in fogWhile in Myanmar I read The River of Lost Footsteps by Thant Myint-U, which documents the conflict that has visited villages like these over the centuries, civil and foreign. It’s difficult to imagine this world ever being disturbed by violence, but calm can quickly settle in the wake of chaos as if it never existed.

We’re travelling through at a pace that accommodates presenting a best face, but I’m feeling protective. I’d like to warn them to be careful what they wish for, to caution them about greener grass. Or is that just being Romantic? Change is inevitable and visitors like us are part of the dilemma.

As Myanmar opens up to the world decisions will need to be made about how much to embrace it. Modern technology offers them a chance to be connected without being invaded.

We continue through hilly landscape that Sanmya calls “sand country” because nothing grows there.

IMG_9560 Myanmar trek barren countryIMG_9563 Myanmar trek dirt roadWe’re on a dirt road for now, but there’s little traffic, though other trekkers are beginning to appear.

IMG_9576 Myanmar trek dirt road with other trekkersWe stop at a tea shop in the middle of nowhere.

IMG_9566 Myanmar trek tea shopWe follow a track that detours off the road and rest under a Banyan tree overlooking a water-buffalo way station…

IMG_9577 Myanmar trek boy riding water buffaloIMG_9581 Myanmar buffalo water holeIMG_9587A Myanmar trek buffalo water holeIMG_9589 Myanmar trek buffalo water holeThen make the long, final descent to a river and the boat that will transport us to Inle Lake.

IMG_9599 Myanmar trek Inle LakeWe each pay a US$5 foreigner fee that gains entry to Inle and soon we’re encountering hawkers and tourist hordes … it’s like emerging from an art-house cinema into the dull light of day.

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