Into the Wilderness

He says, 'I'm only stopping here to get some gasoline.
I guess I'm going thataway just as long as it's paved,
I guess you'd say I'm on my way to
Burma shave.'
—Tom Waits

The morning sun shot off
like a firework over the hills. Ron and I took our backpacks to Sam’s trekking office, where from a painted portrait, three feet across, the old gopher-toothed Burman explorer looked out from under his rice paddy hat to the narrow room and the street beyond. Naing Naing, Sam’s nephew and our guide on the trails to Inle, was there waiting. He tagged our bags and sent them to Nyaung Shwe, on the northern bank of the lake, where we would proceed, in a meandering way of hills and vales, over the next three days.

Naing Naing kissed his little daughter goodbye and shouldered his knapsack, and we followed suit, with only the bare necessities. We walked south out of the Kalaw valley, on winding ways cut into the hills, past groups of novices in burgundy tunics, with metal dishes for their monastic meal. None of the monks ate after noon. Naing Naing stopped us in the shady path to squat and smoke a cigarette—I think we walked too fast for him—and he told us about Buddhism: its six senses, eighteen elements, twelve causes, and four noble truths.

We continued on through hills and forests of spare dry pines, past the army camp, and came out onto a long unnamed valley east of the Tong-La that Robin showed us, opening south to the plains, and to the north hemmed in by the hills of Kalaw. The trail zigzagged along the tops of the eastern hills, turning from forest to glade, where smiling children in rice paddy hats and rubber boots with Shan knives in bamboo sheathes shepherded herds of stupid cattle, shooting them straight with slingshots. Bullocks carts went off the other way, making for the market day in Kalaw.

Across the valley we saw a train snake down the tracks, and the Knuckle Mountains, sloping above, and not a river in sight, but plenty of green fields and white stupas. The monsoon irrigates the highlands, fills the paddies tier by tier, but then it was still early in the season. The hillsmen, mostly Danu tribesmen where we were presently, grew tea and vegetables in gardens of rich earth and waited for the rain on which they were completely dependent. They prayed to the thirty-seven nat nature spirits, and they shot rockets into the air with messages for God.

At that time the farmers would sow their rice in a well-tilled field, and in August, when the rice paddies become full and smooth with gray water, they plow the ground there and transplant their crops. Households owned certain sections of the nearby paddies, and most of the rice they grew was for their own consumption. In the highlands, they also grew brown mountain rice, which is more nutritious and does not require standing water; and this, along with their vegetables, they sold at market.

In Lupyin, Naing Naing, Ron, and I stopped for tea in a dirty bamboo bungalow that housed ten Danu. Most everyone was a farmer, but we met a man who traveled through the villages selling lottery tickets for a living. They bet on the last three numbers for the Thai lotto. There was also a monastery in each village, with a few monks and the abbott, who was the de facto village headman. Some monasteries had televisions where the village could come to watch football. Boys ran around with water tanks hanging from bamboo staves, a wheel at the bottom end and the top across the shoulder.

Here, as my group came to the village of Lupyin, is a good time to present the map, the making of which occupied my voyage, secondary in importance only to an active marveling at my ancient surroundings. Behold! my journey, from beginning to end:

Trekking Map

As the Reader can see, we three lunched in Shar Pin and passed through Lin Pan, a Paoh town where a half-dozen kids waved and screamed, “Bye-bye,” the only English phrase known to most of Burma’s peasants, and they screamed it after us until we were out of sight, calling across the hills. We walked on through wilderness, beneath pines and oaks, banyan trees and the Flame of the Forest with its red flowers, and passed phloxes, ninnias, marigolds, pale orchids, and frangipani: the temple flower, bells of white and gold with a sweet musk.

We arrived, around four in the afternoon, at the village of Kyaut Su, where there was a secondary school for 250 Paoh students. I saw a few primary schools on our trek, and only this one secondary school outside of Kalaw. The students must either lodge in the town or walk several hours every day, and it is prohibitively expensive for most families. So the children go and work in the fields, with no time for politics or revolution, and when their children grow up they will do the same. A few go to high school and college in government-sanctioned programs, and they graduate to government jobs. The government likes it this way.

Our road climbed up a hill, with two banyan trees guarding the top, and we began our descent when the rain started coming down. The trail turned to sticky mud and the rain blew at us in torrents and weighted us down like seas. I unfurled my umbrella and Naing Naing and Ron donned their jackets, and we marched on through wind and rain for some time, through wet hills and bamboo groves, until we came to another part of Kyaut Su where we would spend the night.

Leaving our muddy kit at the porch, we climbed up to the top floor of the thatch longhouse, by way of a bamboo ladder. It was constructed in the same way as the house of the medicine man, mentioned in the preceding chapter. There were two rooms: a kitchen and a hall; bare walls, bamboo mats, ratty blankets, and a smoking firepit set on a round stone, where the husband of the Paoh family made our dinner from things Naing Naing had bought in villages along the way.

I took a twilight stroll through town before dinner. Round brown faces peered out at me from the windows and balconies of their thatched longhouses. They stared shyly, with only an occasional “bye-bye,” as I walked between the dozen homes, the rain cisterns and latrines and bamboo stands, and looked out into the valleys beneath Kyaung Su.

Sam, when we met the old trekking guide, sold the untouched rural culture as a commodity—we would see so much more culture and so many fewer tourists on his trip than the others, he said, knowing by a decade of experience what all tourists want to hear. “Stop,” he had said,—“Look, at the people. Look, at the villages.” So that’s what I did.

I saw simple people, uneducated and modestly dressed and modestly content, going about the routines of homecoming and story-sharing and meal-taking. I saw boys playing checkers with bamboo tabs, white on one side and green on the other. They saw me as a stranger, white and round-eyed and big-nosed, and they were not aware of much outside Kyaut Su.

Eighty per cent of Burma lived in the countryside and worked on the farms, a pristinely pre-industrial way of life. They were not stupid: they could read and write and criticize politics, but the circumstances of life and labor meant they had no time for any of that, not when they had to fight every day for a living. So they keep their heads down, occupied with matters of surviving. This served those men in power very well.

Ten other villagers turned up in the kitchen of the house where we stayed to watch Ron and I eat our supper. They sat cross-legged around the firepit, observing over the flames and the cauldron as we ate plates of rice, meat, and vegetables, with soup and tea and chilies. We finished and sipped our tea while our audience waited, and we asked each other, “Should we do something?” but eventually they departed and we moved to the main hall to let the family eat their meal. We rolled out our bedrolls between the drying garlic and the Buddha shrine and went to bed at eight.

On the second day I rose early and washed my face with rainwater from a cistern and considered the misty morning over the vegetable fields. We had breakfast and coffee, filled our bottles with boiled water, and turned east. We hiked through rolling lowland of dry paddies and barren grazing land, Poah territory. Blocks and cliffs of limestone stood in the vales: huge rocks like Crusader fortresses, overgrown with shrubs and pockmarked with the nests of birds.

We came to and crossed a railway, a highway, and a power line from the hydroelectric plant that the Japanese built in Kirin state, siphoning power north to the rest of Myanmar. All Burmese attempts at damming tributaries of the Irrawaddy have met with disaster, and this Japanese dam is a primary source of electricity for the country, though the towns along the lines are not even wired to them. The town through which we presently passed, Bow Nin Gone, was all turned out, with all the men and women working outside the schoolhouse, building new furniture and planting new gardens, and the stores were filled with donated notebooks and pens—but Reader, they need more!

Beyond the straight lines of civilization, we came to low hills like a heath, with young crab apple trees between the planted fields, grown not for their sour fruit but for the firewood. Paoh girls in long, loose tunics and trousers of orange-trimmed black, with orange turbans on their heads, swung hoes at their bare feet, in furrowed fields of soy and ginger and potato. The women worked and the men watched the home and the children, because the wives could not trust them to stay away from other women if they get out of the house—or so I am told.

I’m not sure what the men do. What I saw was a lot of men gambling and smoking, and a lot of working wives with babies slung under their arms from shoulder holsters or playing around in the bushes next to the rice fields. Older children work alongside their mothers and sisters. However the men do cook the morning and evening meals. Once the wife returned home, the husband lost much of his depraved independence, as is true of every human society.

Under the gray sky, the earth was red as Mars with iron oxide, and the farmers have to sprinkle the fields with lime to balance the acidity. We walked single-file on a raised path between the deep ruts that cart wheels had carved out of the muddy clay, and we passed through only a few villages, built on higher hills, with bamboo thickets around the perimeters. It was quiet out there. Near the villages there was the whimpering protest of a bullocks-cart’s axle, the munching and breathing and ringing bells of cattle, the chattering of Paoh women in the field—but only rarely. Mostly there was only windswept silence and birdsong. It sprinkled a little, but the real rain missed us, and we were usually alone on the road.

Soon we came out from the heath and into a much hillier region, with the arid rocky land good only for soybeans and grazing. We crossed a line of hills and came out into another valley of this infertile stuff, with a few deep mud gorges along the southern end of the path. Twice we had to cross these, once by winding down and up, and again by crossing a creaking bamboo bridge. Ahead and growing closer there was a high limestone ridge, very picturesque, with hills steep as Roman columns in the south. Rice paddies ran up the slope to the base of the limestone, and they also grew mountain rice.

Eventually we came right up to the ridges on a steep, winding trail and passed through a niche in the stone, like a niche in the blade of an axe. There were shines carved into the walls on the side of the trail, which then opened onto a wide valley, hills in the distance, the cliffs spreading out to either side, and directly beneath us, surrounded by bamboo stands, the Paoh village of Pat Tu, where we would spend the night in the local monastery.

Naing Naing had us halt at a store on the main road, and Ron and I sat on bamboo benches, smoking cheroots and drinking rice wine. A Frenchwoman stopped there but would not sit with us, but an American traveling with his Chinese mother heeded our call to company and conversation. He had been working in Beijing, and his mother, a meditation instructor, had been abroad for twelve years, and was presently taking courses in Burma. I got in her good graces by saying I wanted to go to her home island of Taiwan, so she whispered to me of her son:

“You know he just broke up with his girlfriend. Eight years they are dating, six years living together, and then they break up, and he goes back and she already has another boyfriend. He says, ‘I’m going to win her back,’ but I think someone needs to tell him he needs to move on.” She kept on telling me her son's problems, wishing on me the position of role model, as he kept glancing up nervously, as if at something that was about to explode.

There was also, drifting around this store, a cute moon-faced Paoh girl with earth-brown skin, and every time I caught her bright eyes looking over at me across the yard, she would smile. She lurked around the washing station, clicking her gum and rolling her eyebrows, and Ron would look back to see what the hell I was smiling at.

“You had better stop that,” he decreed.


“You had better stop.”

“I like these peasant girls.”

“You’ll get in trouble.”

“Knifed by her brother.”

“Yeah, they’ll find you hanging in one of the houses, next to the garlic.”

“Good thing we leave early tomorrow.”

“They’ll be waiting for you in Inle. You touch her, you have to marry her. That’s how it works.”

“Machete wedding.”

“I’m serious.”

“Well,” I said, leaning back and puffing my cheroot,—“let’s see how she cooks first. Slowly slowly.”

I spoke only a little with the girl—“What is your name?” she asked, and I complimented her English and winked at Ron, who was just then coming around the store—whose name was approximately Zumeeing, and then our romance was interrupted, as Ron and I took an after-dinner stroll through the town. There were many more Paoh peasant women coming home with hoes or umbrellas over their shoulders, orange-turbaned and sun-wizened. They watched us with the guiltless, bold stare, and well-meaning, and humorous, of one who works hard for a living.

Naing Naing took us up to the monastery, a tall, sloped, stilted building in a wide gravel field between the trees and bamboo. Our guide procured bedrolls from the half-deaf master and laid them out in the wide wooden hall. Ron and I sat on the balcony, as a monk and a girl spoke quietly in a columned nest under the monastery, until it got too dark to do anything but sleep. We were asleep in the hall when the rain started coming down, loud on the tin roof. A monk sat against the wall, meditating matins. The only light came from his candle and through openings high on the wall that let in some silvery moonlight.

Ron (18)

We broke our fast in Pat Tu at Zumeeing’s hut, then headed east along muddy roads. Our soles turned to platform shoes in the muck, and every ten minutes we had to scrape off an inch of it on rocks at the side of the road. Between the ridge and Lake Inle were many rows of hills, and most of the day we spent crossing them. We had tea at a motorcycle repair place in the hills past Nan Yoke, and past another line we climbed down onto the plain of rice fields, all reeds, canals, stilted houses, and green a vibrant jade.

The road followed straight along the canals, shallow at this time of the year, and all through the rest of the monsoon this place must be navigated by boats. Shan kids played in the water around the dams, and peasants in rice paddy hats worked among the fields. Past a monastery, stilted above the marsh, we stopped in a store in Taung Bo Gyi to take our lunch, and near there we met our boat driver, who took us on down the canals, through a forest of bamboo poles marking out danger spots or watery garages, under bamboo bridges, over little dams, and past the peasant women, bearing loaded baskets on their backs.

We came out onto the lake, which is tall and thin. Strands of green tomatoes float in the shallows, and there are stilted hotels and temples standing out over the water. One of these was named the Jumping Cat Monastery, as they had a dozen cats that the monks had trained to jump through hoops, but it was too hot that time of year and all the cats were too lazy to jump—is what I heard. One sunburned hour of this brought us to the northern shores of Inle, and up a canal to the docks of Nyaung Shwe.


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