We are drinking green tea from tiny ceramic cups, contorted into the child-sized plastic chairs that are the defining element of every teahouse and roadside food stall in Myanmar, watching time pass in the tiny nondescript village of Myin Dike. Slender women carrying deep woven baskets, friendly stray dogs, wooden houses, small shops all selling the same collection of drinks, prawn chips and betel nut, which offers a legal and very effective high if you can get past the terrible taste and bright red teeth.
The train tracks we had walked along to get here double as a pedestrian road, which tells you all you need to know about the frequency and speed of trains in this rural part of Shan state. Once we squeezed into the shrubbery to make space for a squat old train that chugged past at walking speed, engulfing us in a cloud of black smoke.
This is us: me, with vague memories of hiking around these parts as a five-year-old following her parents around the world. (What I remember most is the feeling of indignation about the extra porter that my parents hired for me. My sole purpose on that hike was to never ever admit that I was tired, or that my legs hurt. No way was I going to be carried around like a baby!) Eva and Lukas, a young Czech couple on their way home from a year in New Zealand. Ben, an American friend fresh from a month-long stay at a silent monastery, harbouring a mild and unrequited crush on our guide. And finally our guide, the lovely July, with long black hair and a quick wit. Her cheeks are smeared with thanakha, a traditional cosmetic white paste made from wood bark that remains hugely popular in modern Myanmar. On the other hand, the jet-black teeth that come from chewing betel nut are quickly going out of fashion, leaving our July with a gleaming white smile. (“Are you married?” asks Ben hopefully. “Not yet,” she laughs.)
When July is not guiding tourists around her region she is a ruthless village chief, waging epic battles with her clansmen in the mobile game Clash of Clans. She often plays together with friends at her local teahouse in Kalaw, and sometimes they all wake up at two in the morning to enter a battle that was scheduled for the convenience of another time zone. The game is more than just a way to pass time – recently a Burmese Level 9 player sold his account to a Chinese gamer for a thousand dollars. During our three-day hike from Kalaw to Inle Lake we are largely beyond the reach of cell phone towers and have July’s undivided attention, though she admits that she’ll check on her village as soon as she gets internet access.
We untangle ourselves from the tiny chairs and keep walking. The paddy fields are a vibrant green in the late afternoon sun, the electric sound of insects the only sound for miles. Water buffaloes bathe in murky water and men and women work the fields dressed in colourful longyis. The different tribes that live in these villages – the Palaung, Danu, Pa’O and Taung Yo – maintain distinct traditions and languages, but the sarong-like longyi, which is sown together into a tube of fabric and tied tightly around the waist, is a beloved garment all over Myanmar.
In the south of the country’s old and new names, Burma and Myanmar, are often used interchangeably, but we are in Shan state now and July is quick to set us straight: “’Burma’ refers to the Bamar people, who are the majority ethnic group; ‘Myanmar’ is more inclusive and preferred by the Shan.” While large parts of Shan state are still restricted for travellers, the hiking route between Kalaw and Inle Lake has grown in popularity over the years. We are far from the only foreigners tramping around here, but for now the villagers are still welcoming and happy to see us. The opium crops have long been replaced by rice and corn fields, so an additional income is always welcome.
In the evening the electricity from the solar panels runs out half-way through dinner, and we talk by candlelight about religion in Myanmar – a heady mixture of spirit worship, astrology and Theravada Buddhism. A large golden Buddha gleams cheerfully from the darkness and by nine o’clock we are all fast asleep on the floor beneath the altar.
As the daughter of globe-trotting journalists I filled my first passport with stamps from five continents before losing the last of my baby teeth, and at eighteen I emptied my piggy bank and went to explore the world on my own. Since then I spent about three years travelling – the first solo trip to Asia at eighteen was followed by an overland trip from Iran to Indonesia a few years later, plus a couple of shorter trips fuelled by my SCUBA diving addiction – and the rest working towards my degrees in anthropology and global studies, which gave me a great “grown-up” excuse to move first to Berlin, and later to Buenos Aires and New Delhi. These days home is somewhere between Vienna and my mum’s kitchen in Ljubljana.