After 7 1/2 hours on the crammed local bus fail to get us the 200 kilometers to our intended destination of Hsipaw, we eagerly jump off at a rest stop in Kyaukme when a local guide named Thura offers us the chance to see something not in the guidebook.
Along the way Thura teaches us that one should not refer to national democratic hero Aung San Suu Kyi by name. Instead, she is “The Lady”. “The Lady” is invoked quite often during our two and a half days together. Thura tells us that elections are scheduled for 2010, but he doesn’t see much prospect for change. He admits he has friends in the army, but that they signed up for the perks (salary, free university education, etc.), rather than because of any affinity for the military. It’s clear that there are few options open for young people in this country, but the government is so clearly reviled by everyone we speak with in private, I have little sympathy for those who cross the line.
I should add here that Thura is one of many Myanmar citizens who have been vocal in expressing their fervent distaste for the government. Each has their own series of criticisms, each equally damning and persuasive. And none of them have mentioned the 2007 shooting of unarmed monks or the 2008 response to the cyclone which made George W. Bush look like Noah.
We head into the Shan Mountains outside Kyaukme on a two day motorcycle trip with guide Thura. Over the course of the day we visit villages home to both Shan and Palaung people, two of Myanmar’s many ethnic groups. It’s clear that these places have seen few Westerners as most children aged five and younger run away screaming when we approach. CeCe thinks it’s my goatee. I think I look dashing.
This high up the temperatures are comfortable, and all villages seem primarily occupied with growing and processing tea. We spend the night with a family whose day ends around 7 with a communal steaming and pressing of the tea in preparation for drying the following day. Afterwards is dinner, often including pickled tea salad (very spicy), and if someone nearby has a generator, neighbors gather to watch karaoke DVDs and gawk at the funny looking albinos in the corner.
The people here are nominally Buddhist, and we see many stupas and meet plenty of monks during our journey, but their traditional animistic beliefs are just as vibrant. The tops of many hills have been spared for firewood to appease the local nat (local spirit) in hopes that it will look favorably upon the village.
For lunch, we ride to a hilltop monastery that nursed a handful of American airmen to health during WWII whose plane crashed on a mountaintop nearby. The young abbot is too busy taking videos of us with his camera to remember to show us the Air Force parachute still in the monastery’s possession. After our visit, we’re invited to share lunch with those gathered nearby for a funeral. For those of you keeping score at home, that’s two weddings and two funerals for us thus far.
In the afternoon, CeCe falls off her motorbike three times, yet emerges with just a few purple bruises. If you think CeCe’s solo biking adventures mean that Mark has forgotten his pre-trip pledge to her father to take care of his daughter, it was clear to all involved at the outset of the trek that Mark riding a motorcycle unsupervised was in no one’s best interest. Near dusk, we stop at a paya on the outskirts of Kyaukme to gaze wearily at a golden statue of the Buddha depicted while he was near-death from lack of food prior to his Enlightenment. None of us have ever seen anything like it.