A three-day trek in the highlands of Myanmar

This file picture taken on February 26, 2012 shows hot air balloons carrying tourists above pagodas as the sun rises in the ancient city of Bagan in northern Myanmar. — AFP pic
This file picture taken on February 26, 2012 shows hot air balloons carrying tourists above pagodas as the sun rises in the ancient city of Bagan in northern Myanmar. — AFP pic

YANGON, Dec 20 — We’d been walking for hours on a dirt path with no shade when we came to the rice field. In a clearing, half a dozen farmers had set slanting wooden boards on the ground, arranged in a circle. They were hitting bundles of harvested rice plants against the panels so that the kernels broke away and slid down onto a tarp. Oxen waited nearby, hitched to heavy wooden carts.

We were in the rural foothills of Myanmar’s Shan state, in November. It was more than 90 degrees, and the three of us — my friends Tressa and Tanya, and myself — had been walking for two days. As we stared at the farmers, fat drops of sweat dripped down my face, and my hair lay in damp clumps on my forehead. Later, looking at photos, I would realise that I resembled a harmless, but decidedly dishevelled, stranger.

When we’d stopped, Tar Ngye, our porter, watched us, amused. Everywhere we went, we stopped to help women pick chillies or men thresh rice. A farmer himself, Tar Ngye seemed to find our interest strange but endearing. He asked the men if we could try threshing, and soon we were hitting the bundles against the boards, first timidly and then aggressively, to the very satisfying cicada-like sound of hundreds of tiny kernels slipping to the ground.

After a while, two farmers walked around, solemnly placing orange segments and wisps of rice on each board. This was an offering for good weather, and hence a good harvest. A bad harvest would spell disaster. It meant children pulled from school; meals missed; long, anxious days in a region with scarce or non-existent public resources.

They handed us, the foreign guests, some orange segments, which were among the many gifts we received during our stay in Myanmar. It was a constant flow: bananas, persimmons, a wood apple, more tiny oranges, many, many chillies. Long after I returned home, I could think of little else but what it meant for so many people to wish something refreshing on the unexpected stranger.

My friends and I were on a three-day hike in the southwestern part of Shan state — farming country known mostly for narrow, silvery Inle Lake, a popular destination for travellers. Bountiful and ethnically diverse, southern Shan is a patchwork of villages and farms growing sesame, wheat, potatoes, rice and chillies in a stunning highland landscape. Dirt paths and quiet roads connect villages, some of which host markets on alternate days.

With our guide, Ko Phyo — whose services we had arranged through a local guesthouse — we set out from the former British hill station of Kalaw on a road that became a dirt path, passing through a stand of mountain pines that opened to undulating valleys dotted with villages.

Tar Ngye, who is in his 30s, walked ahead of us in flip-flops and a longyi, a saronglike garment — my stuff hoisted on his shoulders. (An old spinal injury prohibits me from carrying my own pack.) On the day we arrived, someone from the guesthouse had run into the market and asked if Tar Ngye could set aside his work selling cabbages for a few days.

A few hours into the trek, we passed a terraced garden of onions and cabbages, and Tar Ngye nodded his head toward a cluster of huts made of bamboo woven in chevrons. Because he spoke Pa-O, a language used by one of the many ethnic groups that call Shan state home, Ko Phyo translated for us. “That’s his village,” he said. Tar Ngye lived there with his wife and young daughter and raised vegetables that they sold at the market. Theirs was one of the more prosperous settlements we’d see, with shade trees and elegant, fenced gardens with rows of greens, garlic and eggplant.

That first day, we walked seven hours, until we arrived in the village of Kyut Su. In the common room of a small home built on stilts, we set our packs near a shelf of Buddhist icons. Three mats were spread on the floor where we would sleep. When we poked our heads in the kitchen, our hosts, a middle-aged husband and wife, beckoned us to sit on the floor near the fire. They were joined by their daughter and her young son, and their son-in-law, who poured rice wine in small glasses. Using gestures rather than words, we made a toast.

Salty, pleasant smoke floated through the room. Tiny fish were roasting on a screen held over the flame. “With the rice are these fish,” Ko Phyo translated from Pa-O. “At the end of the harvest, they take a car battery and...” He mimicked placing the cords of a battery charger into a watery rice paddy. “The fish float to the top,” he explained.

They passed the fish, browned and crunchy, in small bowls. Through a square cut into the bamboo wall, we could see the moon rising, while the fire chased off the growing chill. Conversation went in all directions, with Ko Phyo as the conduit, translating between English, Burmese and Pa-O. But generosity is as much a language as any other; everyone smiled and laughed at the antics of the baby, and our glasses were filled and refilled with rice wine. Soon, our muscles begged for rest; on my mat in the common room, I lowered my eyelids to the smell of wood smoke and the sounds of our hosts whispering good night to each other.

In the morning we walked down into a wide, treeless valley. It was nearly 100 degrees, and for the first four hours we talked mostly about a river that Ko Phyo had mentioned. After lunch, we arrived at a small riverside beach. Two men — solo travellers, one Chinese and one Israeli, who had connected in Yangon — caught up to us, the first walkers who stayed with us for any length of time. They lingered nearby as Tressa and I took our shoes off and walked over the cool river stones, and then returned to the shore to watch Tanya and Ko Phyo dive into the hollows. “This is boring,” one of the men said.

“This is not boring!” Tressa whispered, incredulous.

We needed to make it to Tadiy village before nightfall, so we forced our boots back on and hiked across the sun-baked river valley to a broad stony ridge, where we ducked back into the woods, out of the heat, and walked up to an old teak Buddhist monastery. In the courtyard, young monks played soccer, their maroon robes tied above the knees so they could run. Whenever one team scored, the other had to do pushups. An extended family of tiger-striped cats scooted from monk to monk and up the creaking steps of the monastery, to a balcony that looked out on the soccer pitch and the valley below.

Inside, we set our things to the side of the altar, taking care not to turn our bare feet toward the giant, bejewelled Buddhas, a sign of disrespect. As the sun fell, we stood in shoulder-high concrete baths, pouring bowls of cold water, cruel but delicious, over ourselves. We returned, in our least dirty clothes, and sat around a candlelit table.

Earlier in the day, during one of our many stops at a farmer’s field, Tar Ngye had dug into the soil and come up with a dozen tiny potatoes cradled in his palm. They were now rolling, crisped and roasted, on our plates, next to noodles and Burmese salads, or thokes, made from tea leaves and beans. The monastery was a popular place for travellers to rest, and we were joined by other young porters and cooks. As the monks disappeared into the building for final prayers, Ko Phyo, Tar Ngye and the other guides told ghost stories until we could barely make out the shape of the giant, antique temple in the dark.

In the pitch dark, we sneaked back into the monastery and lay on the ground. Sleep would come quickly, as it had the night before. But in the candlelight, I kept my eyes open as long as I could. I could barely make out the prayers painted on the soaring teak framework that rose over our heads. We would wake long before sunrise to the chanting of monks. I looked forward to that moment, but before I got there, I was content to watch the shadows of cats and monks moving silently across a wooden sky. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. — The New York Times