Namshan to Hsipaw: Shan rebels, opium and a bit of trekking.

The team of trekkers assembled in Lily’s courtyard. I was joined by two English couples, Daz and his Julie and Josh and Gilly. It was 9am. The sun finally decided to kick in with a small dose of warmth, justifying my ambitious selection of shorts and t-shirt. As a five-some, we were due to drive to Namshan and trek back. Four days in total, of hardcore trekking lajusy ahead of us.

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After brief banter, we boarded our already overloaded pick up truck. I got a back seat place squashed in between various bags of clothing and food types, on top of a huge bag of garlic, which I’d like to add, turned out to be rather comfortable. After a few hours of travel my weight had started to crush the bag, which then emitted a pungent but pleasant odour. The road between Hsipaw and Namshan was a little rough in parts, the journey was a bumpy and slow moving one, but we expected nothing less. The road swerved over and around the Pat Do Mung mountains. The height we’d climbed started to display stunning views. The trek was going to be a lot tougher than my previous one from Kalow to Inle Lake. This was off the beaten track, completely off it.
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Our journey was slightly delayed while the mountain road was being revamped by a team of locals and their families. Hot tarmac was being cooked up in barrels on top of wood fires on the side of the road while teams of young boys, men and women laid it on the dirt road. We stopped and waited, observing the rather old fashioned and time consuming technique they used to lay a flat-ish surface. Families work during the day and then live on the side of the road at night in what seems like a never ending job. Children as young as four or five were seen digging and mothers had babies strapped to their backs using a thick blanket while they worked. Teenage boys were used for the hard labour of pouring the tarmac and spreading the dirt. We stood and watched them graft, hard, and observed their homes made from wood, bamboo and tarpaulin on the side of the road. Hard living.
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After what seemed like an eternity, the freshly laid road was cool enough for us to drive on and we moved on. Momo, out future guide, later informed us that the Government give the locals a large amount of money and the equipment to complete the road to be built, linking them to the rest of society. However, the locals have to top up the rest of the funds as well as lay the road for no extra pay. This is why large amounts of women and their children are seen laying the roads, with no guarantee of quality.
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We’d already created a good bond and the team of trekkers was going to be a good one. I was excited. The drive was a long one. Lots of time to put the world to rights. Finally arriving in the mountain top village of Namshan, we dropped off the locals and their produce and headed towards the only guest house that had a license to take in tourists. The journey had taken almost seven hours. I enjoyed every minute.
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As we approached our guest house we were given a warm welcome by the locals who giggled, smiled and waved enthusiastically as we drove slowly past. Feeling a little like celebrities in this small town/large village of Namshan we were swiftly greeted by our charming and well spoken guide Momo and his older and very cheeky side kick Shanti and introduced to our hosts.
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The guest house was basic but clean with a stunning view of the mountains out the back balcony. The altitude difference making it much cooler. We were immediately whisked off by our guides to the local Chinese restaurant with equally stunning views. The buildings in town were all made from wood. If you took away the Palau people and the shops you would have felt as if you were in the American Wild West. Inside the Chinese restaurant there were three containers on each table. Salt, pepper and MSG. That’s right folks. pure MSG.
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We were well fed, our food was made fresh and at our request, minus the MSG. After our feast, us keen trekkers were swiftly taken on a tour of Namshan before the sun set. Momo’s English was fantastic, we were in good hands.
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There had recently been a huge fire in the village. Many houses had burnt down and had to be rebuilt from scratch. He showed us Chinatown, which looked the same as everywhere else but we were assured that the reason it was called Chinatown was due to its Chinese people that inhabit this area. We visited the monastery at the top of the hill and saw the local monks and their trainees. The young monks all seemed to be suffering from a skin disease on their shaved heads. They came across as happy and were delighted to pose for pictures.
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Walking through the streets of Namshan was fascinating. As the sun set, the cold came and so did the street fires. Shops started to close, children returned home and families started dinner. Real life.
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That night at around 7pm, when the streets are dark and deserted, we met my two American friends from my previous trek, Andy and Danea. How random. We descended upon the only drinking establishment in town for Myanmar beers and banter. Finally, after watching Guy and Nourdes win prizes from the competition bottle tops on several occasions, I won a free beer and a 200 kyat prize. Double winner. If only they were there to witness my pride and the others envy.
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The toilet the bar offered was a beauty. A drain in the back room, where the food is stored and prepared, served as a number one deposit only. Confused and tipsy when the man pointed towards the drain, I became clear of the toilet arrangements after a brief demo from a local. Classy.
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After a few beers, we retired back to the guest house. I had the munchies so along with my American counterparts I searched the only open shop for something sweet to eat. The produce the shop sold looked old and out of date. It was imported from China and had clearly been sat their for a while. All food bought has to have a long shelf life as transport to these remote parts is long and costs a lot. This was representative of all the shops we encountered in this area. The peanut wafers and fake Orio’s we bought tasted stale and dry. Almost inedible. But I did find some Gangnam Style crisps.
I went to bed, slightly tipsy and excited for the next three days. Namshan fascinated me. A strange old place in my western eyes.
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The 5am prayer woke me up and I was fresh and ready to go. I even did a brief yoga routine and a hundred press ups. I was pumped. The morning was fresh, the mist lifting from the mountains as the sun rose. A man, somewhere in the guest house decided to reach hard for as much spit as possible, hocking and flemming every minute, on the minute. Beautiful.
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Shan noodles, chai and a doughnut finger saw my belly happy before we set off. The first port of call was at Momo’s house to see his wife and say happy birthday to his daughter. As we walked out the village and into the mountains, Momo explained to us that most of the villages we would see would be Palau villages. These people are only found in certain parts of the Shan State and spoke their own language.
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We learned the basic hello and thank you in Palau which the locals loved. The path we took had not been taken many times, the locals were very happy and surprised to see us. Momo had many contacts and we dropped into various houses for refreshments. Children came running to us waving and wanting to play. Local adults smiled and stared. The village visits were fascinating and the mountain views equally so. Four months ago, I never ever contemplated being here, witnessing village life in the mountains of the Shan State, off the beaten track.
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We passed many manual labourers working the fields, driving cow and carts and motorbikes taking produce to neighbouring villages.
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The first days trekking was tough going, 9am to 5.30pm with only a couple of breaks. We stayed in Om Then village at the top of a mountain in a home stay. The family spoke little English but were delighted to have us. They cooked local food and fed us well. We ate with the charming head of the house while the rest of the family served us. A feast was had. Chinese beer and Sanayet, a local rice wine, was our tipple for the night. The head of the house was a particularly tiny, happy man with a warm smile. He pulled out his rice wine with pride and have us all a shot. It tasted like a weak tequila but was five times the potency. We were instantly drunk. My head spun. I guessed it at 70% strength liquor. Hardcore stuff.
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After dinner we huddled around the coal fire and discussed life as a trekker and as a protestor and demonstrator. Daz and Julie told us intriguing tales of life on demonstration camps back in the UK. They have lead an extremely fascinating life. Like the local Palau people, they have been used to life without electricity and water from a tap. These guys are the ones you see on the demo camps on the news. Fascinating tales were told. The cold of the night set in and I was soon under the thick blankets laid out for us on the floor upstairs. No duck feather duvets here, Definitely no mattresses either.
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At 4am, the highly confused cockerel starts vocalising and at 5am the cow bells start clanging as herds start to be transported through the village. By 6am I’m up and ready. I walk through the village, families starting to wake up and get ready for the day. The locals wave and smile. I hike up to the pagoda and find a spot over looking the mountains to meditate. Peaceful. I felt great.
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I returned for a breakfast of cabbage and rice. My favourite. Not sarcastic either, it tasted stunning.
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Guy, had realised that Gangnam Style and the infamous dance routine made famous by Pys, was known the world over. In Guy’s absence, I decided to use the dance to see if the kids knew about the South Korean phenomenon. However, probably due to lack of TV reception and actual TV’s, the children had no idea why a six foot tall white man with strange coloured blonde hair was waving his arms around whispering ‘wopan Gangnam Style’. Although I got little response from the children in the villages, I decided to persist.
We set off early on another hard days trekking. We soaked up the mountain views and the Shan and Palau villages we passed, blisters and cut feet taking its toll.
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When trekking, you get into in depth conversations. Momo was extremely knowledgeable and was happy to explain life in the Shan State. We entered a deep conversation. Back to basics, no TV, no Internet, limited electricity, simple food, working on a farm. Would there be enough stimulation for someone who has grown used to western ways? Personal relationships would become closer and time to interact with your neighbours would be your source of entertainment. The difference between my complicated western life at home in England and the basic village life on a Palau mountain top is vast.
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The trek was tougher than the day before. The mountains got higher and the pathways were at points, very steep. After a 4 hour trek we stopped in Kheun Hot, a tiny village, for lunch. We were being served a beautiful Shan Noodle soup when a small group of Shan guerrilla troops walk past. Stunned. We smiled and greeted them as they strolled past us. AK 47’s in hand. I never felt threatened, I loved it.
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Momo educated us. They live in the mountains even though they do not fight against the government anymore. Six months of peace seemed to be closing in as a permanent fixture. The villagers support them and do not inform the military of their movements. They also come to villages and pick new troops that must join them. Any male over the age of thirteen can be chosen. If someone chooses not to join them, they can make life very difficult for their family. The Shan Rebels are afraid of Government revenge and are keeping strong in case of future attacks.
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We continued our trek. I got a real sweat on. I loved it. My calf muscles tightened.
Even in these remote villages they still manage to hook up a sound system. The much loved western songs remixed into Burmese lingo are clear favourites for both the adults and their children. Akon and Spice Girls remixes were particularly clever.
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The sun set as we arrive at our lodgings in Pan Naung. It is a small village on the side of a hill and has only 35 houses and 150 inhabitants. Grand Royal Whiskey and Myanmar beers were available and we laughed and joked the night away. Another guide called AO joins us. Being close to the Golden Triangle, famous for its opium growing past and present, AO discusses his wife’s job in the opium fields. He shows us a picture on his phone and tells us his wife receives 8000 kyat for one days work. That’s just over a fiver in GBP but a huge payday for the locals living in these villages.
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That night my legs were chomped on by some sort of beast with a thirst for human blood. It left huge red sores that was tough not to itch. Bastard.
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Check out the little surprise in this fellas basket of vegetables.
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The next day was an easier trek but through more jungle like terrain. Disappointingly, the last part of our trek was along a main road with lots of traffic. As a bus pulls over, we jump on board for a free lift back to the hotel. Sore, knackered and filthy it was a perfect end to our trek. Walking through beautiful countryside, jungle and interesting villages makes for a good trek, dusty roads with lorries pumping black smoke into your lungs does not. We didn’t give up. My conscience is clear.
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I manage to get a dorm room in Lily’s Guest House and their hot shower made me a very happy trekker. The filth from a three day trek always takes at least two hot showers to dispose of. Hot water felt so good. With no plans for that afternoon, I should have rested my tired limbs. Instead I take a two hour trek out of town, through a cemetery, a village and a rubbish dump, up a long path that twisted over, under and next to a small stream. It was a small trek that had it all, the beautiful and the disgusting, real life in Myanmar. The long path took me past farms, smiling workers on the fields and picture perfect views of the surrounding mountains.
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When I finally got to the waterfall, it had dried up. The walk was worth it though. I got a decent view over the surrounding fields, villages and mountains. Maybe everybody knew it had dried up, which is why I was the only tourist. I’m sure Guy told me that there was a lush waterfall here.
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I’ve taken to the squat sit which is popular in SE Asia and as I took this stance to take in the views I notice a little black object on my leg. I flick it, squirting blood up my leg. I presumed it was a leech. I notice large red ants close by. The jungle was crawling with life. I tried to sit down and read but I started to attract the waterfalls inhabitants and decided to take the short two hour trek back.
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Walking through the cemetery, I was shouted at by two children. They wave their hands in the air, unprompted by me, and shouted ‘Gangnam Style’. I’d attempted to gain this response from children unsuccessfully for the last four days and now, finally, I’ve done it. They must have been from a restaurant in Hsipaw and been victimised by either Guy or me to do Psy’s sensational dance routine. This made my day. Thanks boys.
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I spotted Josh in Mr Foods and joined him for some fine Chinese cuisine. We were soon joined by our trekking buddy Daz and the young guide with limited English, AO, for a few draught Dagon’s. AO bought us some sticky rice pudding wraps and we coaxed him into a few more beers. He got very drunk, very quickly. He started calling people and handing us his mobile. Momo was a recipient of one of these drunken calls.
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Liverpool v Man City. A perfect end to a perfect four day trek. The roads were dark. No lights anywhere. One tea shop was open showing the game, it was heaving. The game didn’t disappoint either. The majority of the tea shop were reds fans and when Stevie G grabbed a 35 yard stunner in the top corner, the Burmese Kop voiced their approval. The Burmese football fans as passionate as ever.
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A hot shower and the usual complementary egg and toast fixed me up for the seven hour Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lyin scenic train journey. Hsipaw and its surrounding beauties left me with fond memories. I love trekking. I love that they love football. I love the Burmese people. I love that I am starting to feel fit again. I love it all. Tip top.
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