“You Are the Monkey”

Arrival in Hsipaw – Riding Motorbikes – Tea plantations and stupas in the sky – Namsam – You Are the Monkey – Thoughts on Tourism – Return to Hsipaw

I walked to the outskirts of town and caught a ride with a guy carrying a load of grapes up to Lashio.  I was going halfway, so I slapped him some bills and hopped in the front seat.

Three hours later I arrived at Hsipaw, a small Shan town of 15,000 people nestled high in the mountains.  The air was clear and refreshing.  The people were smiling and friendly.  The place had only opened up to tourism fifteen years earlier after the Shan rebels signed a cease-fire with the government.  There was only a handful of guesthouses in town and I picked one called Mr. Charles’ Guesthouse, a place preceded by its reputation.

Ahhh…perfect.  I spent five days relaxing on the porch of the guesthouse, cycling through the surrounding rice paddies, watching the lazy river drift by my feet, and sipping tea with the locals.  The small village was home to a number of tranquil monestaries and crumbling pagodas, all of which I wandered through each day.  It was just what I needed, a place to lay-low and recuperate while I thought up a plan to take on Ares and Apollo.

Soon enough, the traveler’s fatigue I had been feeling wore away.  I hadn’t spent so much time in one place in the entire two months of traveling.  On day 6, I rented a motorcycle, grabbed a few friends and took off into the hills to explore the countryside.  I planned to be gone for two days, spending the night in a remote Shan village called Namsam.

Riding my bike through mountains was the best thing I have done so far.  The roads were almost impassible; they were nothing more than dirt trails full of boulders, barely wide enough to accommodate a car.  In some places they seemed more like a donkey-trail than a road.  I began to understand why the British deemed this area too difficult to administer.

We moved slowly.  Every kilometer of travel was a journey in itself.  We ascended from the foothills through valleys, across wide rivers, and up steep mountain passes.   There were no other tourist for miles, but somehow we hit a major traffic jam – we were boxed in by a mountain cliff to our left, a burning roadside bush to our right and a pack of cattle blocking the road.   At one point we were forced to wait for a work crew to finish building the road ahead!  They poured gravel over the hot tar, waited five minutes and waved us through.

Terraced rice farms trickled down the mountainsides to wide, green valleys below.  I rode through small wooden towns of hill-tribe people.  Women and children passed by with woven baskets full of freshly cut tea strapped to their foreheads.  Tea plantations dotted the hills, and monasteries lined the roadside.  Long bamboo aqueducts channeled water from cool mountain streams to the farmland below.  We refilled our bikes at roadside gas stations that sold us gasoline in plastic water bottles and poured it into our tanks through metal funnels.  Um, do you take American Express?

Shortly before dusk we summited the hill and arrived in Namshaw.  The place seemed like Nepal – dirt roads leading to small villages perched high on the top of the world.  Golden pagodas graced the ridgelines and scraped the sky above.  The ancient cobblestone streets ran between rows of dark brown teak houses.  The locals burned wood on open stoves to cook food and to warm their water.  It was perfect.  Night fell and we ate dinner by candlelight – no electricity, and finally a place with no noisy generators!

In the morning, we woke up at dawn and began the journey back down the mountain.  We rode down the trails in neutral, silently gliding down the mountain as if we were mountain biking.  We paused constantly to regard the staggering views.

With only a hand-drawn map for reference, we relied on our instinct and the sun’s position in the sky to navigate down the tortuous roads.  We stopped for lunch in a village so small it didn’t have restaurants.  Old men stood on their porches and smoked opium from enormous bamboo bongs.  The local children stared at us with wonder and awe.  I usually have reservations about visiting ethnic villages.  While working in India, I went on a camel safari through the desert that included a visit to a desert community.  I was sickened by the sight of children running up to us and searching our pockets for rupees.  The presence of foreigners had destroyed the community and it had turned into a human zoo.

I wondered if this was any different.  But this was not the same as in India, as we were the ones being observed.  As one of my companions said “You are the monkey.”  Yes, I am the monkey, I am the unusual spectacle in this village.  But for how long?

Burma is a beautiful secret, and by telling you this I am somewhat destroying what I have just observed.  Burma is special for many reasons: for what it is, but also for what it is not.  It is not Thailand’s tourist traps.  It is not the Banana Pancake Trail.  How long before that changes?  Isn’t it inevitable?  And who is to say it is a bad thing?  But one thing is for sure – these hill tribe villages can only exist for so long before they are dragged into modern society and assimilated with the rest of Burma.  But isn’t that is exactly what the Burmese government wants – assimilation?   Am I, as a tourist, inadvertently helping the government destroy these communities?  Maybe Levis and rock and roll are more powerful than bullets and bombs.  These thoughts went through my mind as we left the village and continued back to Hsipaw.

We rolled up to Hsipaw at dusk, covered head to toe in brown dust from two full days of riding.  We threw back a few Myanmar Beers and toasted to an amazing two-day journey.  I was exhausted.  I booked a bus back to Mandalay and went to sleep early.


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