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May 23, 2014 7:13 pm
This is a tale of two breakfasts. The first took place in a monastery, although it looked more like a glorified shed on stilts than a sanctified building. Its one-room interior was prosaic and multifunctional, with a stack of corrugated roofing propped up in a corner. There was an altar, yes, and there were monks – three, one resident and two guests – but the fairy lights around a Buddha were powered by a car battery whose main task was to charge the monkly mobile phones and to run a television under the altar.
“Maybe we could watch last night’s match,” someone joked, sotto voce, stirring coffee. To our surprise, our guide Naing Tain translated the question. The main monk shook his head.
“Ah,” muttered someone else, “it’s the sabbath.”
“It’s not that,” explained our guide. It seemed the monks would be only too delighted to put the football on, it’s just that their prepaid card had run out.
Of course, silly us. Swallowing our astonishment, we buckled down to the fried egg being relayed to us from the cooking shed. There were many miles to cover before the day got too hot.
Fast forward six days to breakfast number two, and a very different setting. This meal, a warming noodle soup, was eaten around a fire at 3,050m above sea level on the top of Nat Ma Taung (aka Mount Victoria) just after sunrise, in a mountainscape of grassland studded with giant rhododendrons. There was frost on the ground, and the tree we were sitting under was so furry with moss and lichen it looked as if it had pulled on a woolly jumper.
After breakfast, a little ritual was enacted beneath the tree’s branches: our porters and cooks, stamping their feet and blowing their hands to keep warm, lined up to collect their tips for the week’s work, and we applauded each one vigorously as he or she stepped forward. And when, not long afterwards, we set off downhill for a rendezvous with our vehicles, it was with a great sense of sadness, as if we had just suffered the break-up of a happy family.
These two breakfasts were the bookends to one of the first tourist treks in the Chin Hills, a buckled, tribal section of Myanmar’s western flank where it is touched by a tentacle from the Himalayas.
The opening up of Myanmar’s remoter regions, such as this, is the latest stage in the rehabilitation of the country. Just over three years ago, democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi declared that the longstanding tourism boycott should be lifted, and visitor numbers quickly began to soar.
Sadly, facilities on the now well-trodden route around celebrated destinations such as Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Bagan and Mandalay have struggled to keep pace with the stampede, with the result that humdrum hotel accommodation is often sold at eye-watering prices.
For the eight of us (including a GP, a banker and a university lecturer) going off-piste in the Chin Hills, however, there was to be no pretence at any comfort: we were to sleep on the floor, rise with the cockerels, eat what was available and go for six days without electricity, WiFi or even mobile phone reception. It was a reversion to travel as it used to be, which for modern travellers is a bit like going to the dark side of the moon.
The Chin people, who could number anything from 600,000 to 3m depending on who is doing the counting, certainly feel as if they might as well be on another planet, for all the attention they get from central government. They are one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic minorities, which together constitute more than 50 per cent of the population and make a tricky proposition to administer. But, unlike the Shan on the country’s eastern flank, they don’t grow opium and haven’t taken arms to make their presence felt, which is why trekkers are now being allowed to set foot into their homeland.
Our trip had begun with a short flight from Yangon to Bagan, where we watched sunset over the thousands of ancient temples and pagodas, then a four-hour drive the following day to the trek’s starting point, the hilltop town of Mindat. The first suggestion that we ourselves were going to be a star attraction of the expedition came on the descent through avocado, lemon and papaya trees into Khone Ei, a village of stilted bamboo and thatch, four hours’ walk from Mindat. There we were met by a wave of children, yelling and giggling, and a couple of village elders lined up to shake our hands. It felt like a royal visit.
As we unrolled our sleeping bags on the floor of the wooden school building, Naing Tain explained that most of the Chin spoke little or no Myanmarese and many wouldn’t have encountered white people before but, after many decades of feeling ignored, they were delighted that people from beyond Myanmar’s borders were showing an interest in them.
The interest was mutual, and it quickly became clear that it wasn’t going to be a week for privacy. Young mothers brought their offspring to the hillside above to watch us wash off the day’s sweat and dust under the village standpipe. One of the more curious porters hauled out his long-stemmed clay pipe and gazed unblinkingly at our show, something that was to be repeated whenever we stopped.
A routine was quickly established. A large proportion of Chin menfolk are either off hunting or working in neighbouring countries, so our helpers and cooks were mostly women from surrounding villages. After breakfast, three of them were delegated to walk with us and our guide, carrying Thermoses of hot water for mid-morning tea. The rest went on ahead, stopping to wait for us at key points along the way.
The tracks we followed led through a mix of pine and deciduous woodland, wild fruit trees, and thickets of bamboo, busy with birds, much of it at angles approaching 45 degrees. Most of the Chin “hills” are higher than Ben Nevis, and the intervening terrain is so crumpled that it sometimes took us until lunchtime to reach a village that had looked to be within hollering distance at breakfast.
There were supposedly tigers in the region but we saw only leopard footprints and wheeling eagles, plus a couple of mithan – a semiwild cousin of the bison-like Indian gaur, highly prized by the Chin. Occasionally, we met rifle-carrying hunters on the path, one of whom stopped and showed us how he made his own bullets out of strips of lead, using a pathside tomb as his workbench.
Villages cropped up at regular intervals, often surrounded by charred hillsides where village women, some with tattooed patterns on their faces, were out planting maize, millet or rice. Slash-and-burn agriculture is the tradition here, and much of the landscape was covered in a haze of smoke from forest fires.
Despite the Buddhist monastery where we ate breakfast, and various Catholic mission buildings we encountered subsequently, it became clear from the elaborate displays of animal skulls that animism was still a very strong force. Naing Tain showed us sacrifice sites, told us how a man could achieve hero status by the number of mithan killed, and explained the astrological significance in the angle of a throttled chicken’s legs.
At his instigation we were able to rest up in tribal houses through the hottest part of the day, where local families showed us their bows and arrows, and offered us mithan horns filled with musty, sleep-inducing millet “wine”. We learnt how the facial tattoos were both a sort of laissez-passer to allow a Chin woman’s spirit to pass through the gates of heaven, and a form of identification to prevent the women – who have a reputation for beauty – from being taken into slavery by the Myanmarese. Asking our porters, though, it was clear that the fashion was dying out among the younger generations.
Our group progressed onwards, greeting and being greeted, listening and learning, sleeping in different village houses, and walking for six or seven hours a day, until we reached our ultimate destination, the top of Nat Ma Taung. There the porters produced a secret stash of beer for us to drink as the sun went down, and conjured a feast of spiced chicken and mithan with three different kinds of vegetables. Afterwards, there was some dancing around the night fire.
All that remained was the last breakfast, the tipping ritual, and the final descent. After which our Chin companions melted back into the landscape, no doubt full of stories to tell about the peculiar behaviour of foreigners. They’d found us very entertaining over the six days, and we’d found them beguiling in return. Together we had shared an adventure that was new, and special, to both sides.
Andrew Eames was a guest of Exodus (exodus.co.uk). Its 14-day Trekking in Myanmar package includes seven days of walking in the Chin Hills, as well as time in Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay; it costs £2,199 including transfers and guides. Flights from London would add £850
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