A real taste of local life: Northern Shan State, Myanmar

A fantastic couple of days

Kyaukme Fire Station

We had a couple of hours to wander round the small town of Kyaukme before heading to bed to prepare ourselves for our five am start the next day. Five am seemed a little early even for an occasion as big as a wedding but for the people of Myanmar this is when the day begins. We arrived at Thura’s wedding and helped put up decorations before attending a small ceremony in his parents living room where he lived.

The monks sitting down to eat separately to us

Four monks conducted the intimate ceremony which involved about an hour of chanting. Afterwards the monks sat down to eat in the living room while we ate a breakfast of meats, rice and pork scratchings outside on round tables with the couples immediate family. It was certainly the strangest and biggest meal I’ve had before 7am.

The happy couple on their wedding day

Groups of friends and families turned up at different times throughout the morning with each table being served the same banquet. I’m not sure if each group was told to arrive at a different time but roughly 500 people attended over the course of the morning and there was always enough seats for all. We drank beer and rice wine and by lunchtime were served another table-full of the same dishes we had at breakfast. Everyone was so friendly and wanted to chat and have photos taken with us, it was like we were the main event as opposed to Thura and his new wife. I couldn’t have felt more welcomed.

The small town of Kyaukme

We decided to head home at 1pm and unfortunately didn’t make it back to the evening reception as we were too tired from the early morning and certainly couldn’t handle another huge meal exactly the same as the last two – apparently there was so much food left that it was eaten for breakfast and lunch the following day too! We opted for a super cheap (15p) chapati bread and dill from the Indian stall in town.

Thura and I on our motorbike

The next morning we met Thura bright and early to begin a three day trek up in the mountains surrounding the town, rarely visited by tourists. We endured a bumpy three hour motorbike ride to reach the remote villages of the Palaung and Shan tribes and home to Burmese people too. Myanmar is made up of different states with different tribes living in each state, so not everyone is Burmese meaning the language, food and culture are different depending which village you are in.

A spirit house on top of a mountain – no one lives here (except spirits!)

We learnt that there had been recent fighting in the area between cultural groups and also the Burmese government which I thought I had avoided by staying away from the borders. It was perfectly safe though and the day was spent having tea with local families before reaching a small village, our stop for the night.

Camping out on the floor of this family home

We stayed on the floor of the home to a local Palaung family consisting of six adults and a handful of children who made our stay comfortable regardless of the fact none of them spoke a word of English. The wife cooked a tasteful dinner of rice, pickled veggies, soup, fried soya bean and some other weird and wonderful oily concoctions found throughout Myanmar. I think we were in bed before 9pm that evening as there’s was really nothing much else to do and locals often rise before 5am.

Tea with local families

After a surprisingly good sleep, I enjoyed a breakfast very much the same as the previously evenings dinner before we headed off on a five hour trek, again stopping for tea with families along the way. Everyone we saw stared at us like we were some kind of celebrities. Children and adults waved and smiled, it was truly a surreal experience and ten times more extreme than the attention I’ve received across the rest of the country. We were continuously told “don’t worry it won’t rain, it’s not rainy season yet” but each day the heavens opened even just for half an hour or so, it was enough to leave my poor Converse shoes wet and muddy.

Fresh tea leaf salad, our lunch for the next few days

Apart from meeting local families and experiencing true rural village life, the thing I enjoyed most about the trek was eating exactly what the locals eat and experiencing some typical dishes like Shan noodles and Tea Leaf Salad and also some very nice but oily Chinese cakes. The second night we stayed in a Shan village at the chief’s house where he lived with his wife.

Dinner and breakfast. Same same but different.

She cooked us a fabulous dinner of rice, beef curry, soup and veggies which we enjoyed again at breakfast. I was fascinated at how those living the most simplest of lives always seem to be the most content and I loved waking up to see a monk eating his daily offering of food from the chief.

Huge trees lined our path

The final day was spent very much the same as the others, hiking and visiting local families for tea. We learnt so much about Shan, Palaung and Burmese culture as well as Buddhism and the country’s political state. We visited tea leaf farmers, weavers and local shop owners too.

One of the larger villages we visited

Thura was an excellent tour guide as his exceptional English meant he was able to answer any questions we had. After rather risky mountainous motorbike ride Jaimie, Emily and I returned to Kyaukme and enjoyed a plate of Chinese noodles before our night bus to Yangon which as usual, I nearly missed as I was at the market picking up an array of my favourite sweet treats such as a stick of bamboo filled with coconut sticky rice. 

Bamboo sticky rice – yippie!

If you’d like to enjoy the same unique cultural experience as I did and really go off-the-beaten track in Myanmar then just give Thura a call on 0947308497 to arrange a trek with him.

Living life, loving travel,

H x

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