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Sunrise reflects off the home of the village Chief.

We woke at 6am in the Chief’s home after a good night’s sleep to a lovely dawn sky. As anticipated, it was cold cold cold that morning. After the ice-baths in the cistern the evening before, I assumed the nights must get very cold to keep the water at that temperature despite the consistent hot days.

Outside at the table in front of the house, we sat and mixed up our coffees. In two weeks in the country, I didn’t see brewed coffee offered anywhere in Myanmar. Nestle instant coffee packets were proffered everywhere we went. At the outdoor table in the frosty air were bowls with packets of coffee, packets of instant creamer, and packets of sweetener. *sigh* But it was around 30 degrees and all those packets came with a thermos of hot water, so we considered ourselves fortunate.

By 8am we said goodbye to the family and walked out into the red dirt streets of Ywar Pu. Today we walked 26 km, continuing through the lands of the Dannu people and then into Yaung Yoe country.

A group of young women heading for the fields. The silver cans are their lunchboxes.

A man and his beast.

Terraced rice paddies

We walked through low mountains and valleys. It’s agricultural country, and the activities we witnessed were in support of the economy there. Field stubble was being burned, as well as slash and burn activities to clear more land. It made the skies hazy but we rarely smelled the smoke because we didn’t come close to the active burning. Most of the cattle and oxen were tied to trees singly or in pairs, and were clearly used to pull carts or to plow. Occasionally there were more cattle in a field, so I could see there were at least a few ranches.

Though we had seen it the day before, I am still impressed with the terraced hillsides of rice paddies. We were in-between seasons and did not see any rice still growing. Everything had been harvested, the dirt was dry and hard, and often cattle were out grazing on what was left of the rice plants before it was burned. We also saw chilies and ginger harvested. The chilies would be in great heaps in the shade beneath a house (houses and storage buildings were often two story, with the living quarters above and storage beneath). Ginger was spread out on tarps beside the fields, drying in the sun. Crops are harvested by hand, and though it is late in the season, we saw people all day long in the fields, still bringing in the last of the crops.

Workers harvesting ginger, most likely.

The baby had been sleeping in the shade while its mother worked, but we must have disturbed it. The baby cried and cried until Momma laughed and went to soothe it.

I didn’t see any parents around, just these kids watching us walk by.

A huge, beautiful heap of chilies.

Remember the blisters I developed on my first day in Yangon? No problem! I had protected my feet in every way I could in the few days before this trip, and now on day two of my hike, they still felt fine. I definitely could still feel the blisters, since they were there between my toes (from the flip flops) and on my heels, but in my hiking shoes it was manageable and I didn’t give them a thought. I had, however, begun to sport a sunburn on my face and after the fact remembered to start using the sunscreen I had in my pack. Ha ha. I’ll never ever learn about the sun. I just love heat and sun so much, I can never remember that it’s supposed to be dangerous.

At our morning break we stopped for tea in a big open hut with an older woman on one side weaving cloth. She had a stack of completed scarves and bags beside her. Much of it was garish lime green and orange and cobalt blue, but I found a subtler and tasteful weave of white, black, gold, and purple. The scarf cost me 4000 Kyats – exactly $3. If I had more cash on me I would have paid her more for the lovely scarf woven by hand by a lovely country woman.

This woman weaved stacks of lovely scarves.

She graciously posed for a photo.

Our lunch stop couldn’t have come soon enough. It was hot and there was no getting around it. By noon it was 96 degrees and we were hiking in a lot of direct sunlight. We literally dropped to the floor in the large village home, half of us going prone right away after gulping warm water from our packs. People at the house sold us liter bottles of water all around, and we gulped at those too. Hein came in at one point to check on us, and immediately asked Fumi to change his position. Not knowing the customs, he had accidentally laid down with his feet pointed at the shrine to Buddha – very disrespectful.

Hein allowed us a very long stop. I wondered why we had to get up so blasted early if we had a 2 ½ hour lunch stop. After our brilliant cook prepared another delicious multi-course meal, we were offered the opportunity to go explore the town as we had yesterday. Every one of us stayed put and either rested or fell clean asleep. But I had to trust the Company. A1 Trekking had been around for years and was likely well-beyond a learning curve. The long rest did me so much good.

Our wonderful cook, hard at work in the kitchen.

Two courses from our amazing lunch.

The incorrigible Hein.

A boy in the village where we stopped for lunch.

Cattle pulling carts were a common sight.

Boys rolling tires with sticks.

Kids twirling and giggling and falling down

Off we went again, into the sun, over the hills, past the water buffalo. At our afternoon snack stop we finally came close to one of the fires. I heard a rushing, snapping sound in the distance and asked Hein what it was. He didn’t hear it. We sat down on the grass to rest in the shade of a tree, and everyone’s ears adjusted to the sound of our chosen spot. Chatter died down. And Margaret popped up to her feet! “Hein, what is that sound?” she pressed. He listened and finally heard it, “oh, that’s fire.” Typical, easy-going Hein. Margaret’s ears tuned in while I slowly got used to it and tuned it out. She periodically walked out away from our tree to watch the fire burn.

Margaret was still triggered by recent memories of having to run for her life from wildfire, and I didn’t grudge her a moment of that worry. While house-sitting for a friend in northern California last fall she was awake by coincidence in the night and glanced out a window to see flames on the hills, moving toward the homes! She only had time to grab her keys and her purse and run. From the car she called another friend nearby and woke him up. He did not have a car so she drove through the thickening smoke to pick him up. She called another neighbor who was already awake and told them to call everyone they knew. In an unknown neighborhood, in the smoke, in the middle of the night, chased by fire, she and her friend got away to her house, which for that night was safe. The home she was house-sitting burned to the ground. Whoah. In fact, the whole reason she is on vacation at the moment is because the owners of the ruined home are staying in her home (Margaret rents her house frequently on Air BnB).

Mud steps

Bamboo forest

We walked into a more forested section that provided some shade and saw our first bamboo forests of the trip. Hein took us past a courtyard of extremely derelict pagodas. There was a single shiny gold pagoda among them, but most were ancient and crumbling. I was eager to wander through them, as I am always drawn to the ancient stuff and less excited about the sparkly gold paint. Call it the anthropologist in me. Hein explained that this site was going to be demolished and brand new pagodas built. He said that upset him because people would come and steal the relics. I asked what the relics were, and he said they are often gold and jewels. I asked a few questions but wasn’t exactly clear on the cause and effect of the future crimes. He discussed the pagodas in the moment as though he assumed the relics were inside, but he talked as though the dismantling of them would result in theft. I didn’t understand whether he thought the workers would be the thieves. Hein took me to a particularly decrepit pagoda and showed me the section of bricks that showed where the relic had been placed – I could easily see the area outlined. Have you seen an old brick building where a hole that was previously a window has been subsequently bricked in? It looked like that. Only, this was a hundred years old and falling apart. I could have pulled the bricks out with my fingers. I wondered why the thieves wouldn’t have done their work now, before the workers showed up. But I am sure additional information was lost due to my inability to understand fluent Burmese.

Crumbing pagodas… and one shiny one!

I loved the tree growing from the umbrella on this one.

Up close they are so beautiful. It pains me to think this thing of beauty will be torn down and replaced with a shiny gold one.

We entered the town of Pattu Pauk and came across a monastery. We had passed several monasteries on our trip and I asked Hein if they were abandoned. They never had a soul about. Hein explained that the monks go out into the communities and do good works and collect donations during the day, but sleep there every night. I had overheard him talking the day before with Anna and Lukas about being both Buddhist and Muslim. His father was Muslim, and his mother was Buddhist, and each of the children in the family had chosen which religion they preferred and had the family’s support. Hein said that he had chosen to be Muslim, but had not given up the Buddhist practices taught to him by his mother. So he laughed and said he was both, since he observed both whenever he could. Anyway, Hein expressed his disgust with monks that he called “fake monks.” In explanation, he used percentages, saying that 85% of monks were fake monks and of those left only 5% of those were truly following the religion devoutly. I asked him to explain more. He said that most people joined the monastic life “because it’s easier. You don’t have to work, you don’t have to have a skill. You can do nothing and still have a place to sleep and food to eat.” He said those people did the bare minimum to escape scrutiny, and lived off donations.

Hein brought up the Rohingya. NONE of us tourists were about to be the first one to speak the word. I swear, before this trip, Myanmar was in my BBC podcast Every. Single. Day. For the heinous crimes of genocide – whole villages burned and the Muslim Rohingya people slaughtered by the Christian military – and leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s adamant denial that anything unpleasant is happening in her country. An outsider listening to the news gets the picture real quick that Myanmar’s military is NOT a group you want to interact with. Since we had been here, we had seen nothing but peaceful, happy people and not so much as a glimpse of military personnel. And here is Hein, laughing and saying out loud that he is Muslim! Hein just shrugged and said he didn’t really know what was going on with the oppressed people of Rakine State. It’s never on the news and no one talks about it. He said he had heard much more about it from his tour groups.

Not an abandoned monastery.

Hein talks to Fumi, Lukas, and Anna beside the monastery’s bell.

Pattu Pauk was our destination for the evening, so we only had a few steps to go beyond the monastery to find our home for the night. But before we got there, we got distracted by a group of women sitting together on blankets in the street doing some kind of work. We asked Hein if it would be ok with the women if we got close and watched them, and he said it would be fine. They were so beautiful, and seemed to be having so much fun, we had a hard time leaving them. In fact, the owner of the home we would be sleeping in came trotting down the street, asking Hein where we were going – concerned that his houseful of renters might change plans at the last minute. Hein assured him that we would be coming, but we wanted to watch the sight in the street. They were separating the white fluffy parts of popped corn from the hard shells and seeds. It was wedding preparations, which must have explained the buoyant atmosphere among them. I didn’t ask, but the popcorn could be for throwing at the newlyweds.

Women working with popcorn in the village.

An irresistible smile.

They were so fun to watch, chattering and laughing while they worked.

One woman empties her popcorn into the bag.

Margaret recorded them, then showed them the video.

The owner of the home was happy to have us stay.

Tonight I had had enough of the sun, sweat, and red dirt. The set-up at both our homestays is this: cistern in the back yard full of ice water, empty pan floating in ice water, platform of boards beside cistern. You pull up the curtain, so everything from your shoulders down is covered (ok, I’m just hoping that everything from my shoulders down was hidden from the passersby…), then reach over and fill the pan with water and dump it over yourself, trying to keep your whoops of frozen astonishment to a minimum. Grab a bar of soap, lather up to the best of your ability, then pour several more pans of ice water onto your body to try and wash off the soap. Then if you are me, grit your teeth, take a deep breath, and dump another pan of water onto your head. I did it! I washed my hair. The others cheered and clapped when I arrived at the outdoor table with wet hair. And well they should have.

The sun sets at the end of a long and wonderful day.

24-hour tea shop in Kalaw

The overnight bus from Yangon (craziest bus station ever) was due to arrive in Kalaw at 4:30 am. It was late and arrived at 5:30 am. I was grateful.

I mean, I wasn’t exactly sleeping, but at least it was dark and the intent was to sleep. My seat was in the back of the bus and all the luggage that didn’t fit underneath was jammed behind my seat so I couldn’t recline. And the air conditioning was blasting. I mean, full-on blasting cold air. What the heck? And the little air control thingies over my head were broken, so I was in the wind for about two hours till I found an empty plastic bag and shoved it into the hole. And the road was so rough – the worst in our entire trip. Margaret said she literally caught air on at least one bump. Maybe the worst bus trip of my life.

Despite all that, I actually think I slept a couple of hours. I had thought enough to bring my rabbit-soft wool scarf, and with that, added to the little blanket provided by the bus company, I managed to cover up completely. And we both used earplugs. That way I was a bit shielded from the light and noise and cold.

But at 5:30 we all had to disembark. Margaret had heard from the tour company that there was a 24-hour tea house nearby, and that we should wait there for someone to meet us. It was still dark and cold out, and we had a long wait.

For the next two hours I peeped through a window into a world of twenty-somethings engaging in devil-may-care life of travel around the world on $5 day. Margaret and I walked up the steps into a small room, floor and walls covered in white and blue linoleum, and lit – painfully – with fluorescent lighting. The room had three sides and the fourth was a half-wall and open air. And it was cold. There were a few low tables and 30 tiny plastic stools and heaped all over the place were young, beautiful travelers and their luggage. A vivacious redhead from Croatia caught our attention with her chatter, next to us two slender Italian women were trying to sleep on the floor (people stepped over them without blinking). There was a New Zealander, a Czech, Frenchmen, all crammed together drinking very bad instant coffee and smoking cigarettes. For a moment I was in Michener’s novel The Drifters, with all its young beautiful people traveling around the world with no specific plan beyond the day’s hopes and dreams. We were all meeting guides for treks, and we compared names of companies and how many days we would be out.

Guide from A1 Trekking carries our luggage from the tea shop to the company’s office in Kalaw.

My seat was facing into the room, and when I got up after a while and went out to pay for our wretched coffees, I was startled to see the pale blue dawn. Soon after, a person met us and led us to A1 Trekking in town, where we checked in and were immediately taken to an Indian restaurant across the street for our first meal with the company.

After breakfast we were told there was still time before departure, and that a market was setting up in the center of town we could explore while we waited. So we explored.

I am grateful that Margaret loves markets as much as I do. Who can resist the colours and textures and smells and sounds?

These fresh veggies trigger an instinct in me to want to buy them all and eat, eat, eat.

This woman twisted leaves into a wand to make carrying the coconuts easier.

Margaret (hands clasped in the chilly morning air) at the market in Kalaw.

Dried fish in heaps.

Pasta, beans, grains, and soup starters.

Bananas and bananas. The market in Kalaw was one of the best we saw during the whole trip. (Trust me I left out a ton of photos.)

We returned to A1 and it was time to go. We met our fellow travelers, Fumi from Japan and Lukas and Anna from Austria. There were just 5 of us, with our guide Hein, who grew up in Kalaw, and the cook. Some of the other companies take 15 people, we spotted one group later that looked like it could have been 18 people. A-1 has a policy of never more than six, to ensure a quality experience for each person. We walked out of town and directly onto a trail.

For the next three days we walked. That day to Hin Kha Gone and Myin Taik villages, through areas with the Paulaung and Dannu people.

Dried up terraces for rice paddies. Hein said they only have one season for rice per year because it gets so dry.

Left to right: Margaret, Anna, Lukas, Hein

While still in the forest we came upon a man herding cattle.

We stopped for a break here at the reservoir.

During our food breaks, Hein handed out a variety of local things for us to try. This fruit was pretty good. I don’t remember what it was called.

The view from our lunch stop.

Unused to walking so much, I was grateful when it was lunch time. We had a cook that traveled along with us, and damned if I can remember his name. But this young man made the most delicious foods and fed us very well, three meals a day, while we were out trekking. While he cooked, we explored the site.

The shop at our lunch stop. What you see here was pretty much the entire stock. Those “water” and “liquor” bottles you see on the left are petrol for sale.

My favourite toilet of the entire trip!! Everyone in the country had outhouses, and this one had an unparalleled view.

We could see a pagoda in the distance.

Hein encouraged us to walk over to the pagoda and monastery during our lunch stop, and down to the village below if we wanted to. And we did.

The village below the pagoda.

Me with some pretty obliging kids.

Off we went and finished up with some serious hiking. At one point we walked along train tracks, which is pretty hard if your natural gait doesn’t match the frequency of the supports beneath the rails. Lukas and I fell back, but it did allow me some shots of the others.

The others gain ground as I struggle with the awkwardness of walking on train tracks.

More lovely rice paddy terraces.

Work truck rumbles along the red dirt road.

Cute little house along the way.

Finally we reached our destination for the night, Ywar Pu village. We were surprised to find out that we were staying in the home of the village chief. The family stayed nearby, but gave up their beds for us that night. Our fabulous cook went to work and we took our chances bathing in the icy cold water of the family’s cistern. Then we walked around the property and the town till it was time to eat. The families contract with the tour companies, and get about $5 per night per person. They also sell water and Myanmar beer and… well… we were hot and tired and beer was just the thing! They probably earn as much selling drinks as they do on rent.

This was not where we stayed, but an example of a typical home in Ywar Pu village.

Our beds. You do not wear your shoes into this room. Each home we visited has a shrine like this.

Our cook in the kitchen, getting the flames hot for our dinner.

Catchment pool to the right, cistern (slightly out of sight behind the fence) to the left.

One of the family’s three pigs poses for my camera.

I had inexplicably slept poorly at the Golden Sunrise Hotel, waking up at 2:30 am and not able to sleep again. The following night I was on a freezing cold bumpy bus ride all night long. Trust me when I say this night in Ywar Pu, under all those blankets, I slept like a rock.

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