A popular activity in most southeast Asian countries is trekking to minority hill villages. So we left enough time in our Myanmar itinerary to head northeast from Mandalay to a town called Hsipaw, from where we could trek and overnight in nearby Palaung villages that are said to be largely uninfluenced by Western culture and visiting them is a nice insight into their way of life.
We were a bit disappointed when we arrived in Hsipaw to find out that there's really only one village the guides go to, and they suggest only going for one night. I had pictured a multi-day trek staying in a couple different villages, but as our guest house told us, "it's too hot to go for more than one night during this season." Wow, were they not kidding! So we went ahead and organized a guide to take us to a Paulang village a few hours hike away.
We knew it wasn't going to be a nature walk through pristine forest from what we had read, but were still surprised to see how completely deforested the small hills were. To make matters worse, it is burning season, so the few trees that normally cover these hills were being burned down for agricultural purposes. This made for a pretty hot, sunny and at times smokey hike; I thought I was actually going to pass out at one point.
So, while the walking was uncomfortable, we really enjoyed staying in Pankam village, where we walked around and chatted with some of the residents. This is tea country, so each evening, the villagers return from the tea plantations and sort, boil, and lay the leaves out to dry. As we found elsewhere in Myanmar, almost everyone we met was happy to see us and welcomed us into their home. We stayed with a family who cooked us delicious vegetarian meals, and let us sleep on their floor, and our guide, a young, energetic and funny gentleman named Asai, was great to spend time with as well.
Despite this being the main village that most backpackers visit from Hsipaw, we didn't find it completely overrun with other tourists (as we've heard is the case with similar hill villages in northern Thailand), but there were about five other backpackers staying in the village that evening as well. The experience was overall a positive one, but it left me once again thinking about the whole "trying to get off the beaten track" dilemma. Every traveler strives to get off the beaten track and away from his fellow travelers to see things that aren't on everyone's whistle-stop itinerary and to interact with people who aren't yet sick of tourists, but it can be a difficult thing to do, especially when you don't speak the local language and so much of your information comes from a guidebook-- the same guidebook every other backpacker who's trying to get off the beaten track is using! It's funny, because Nick and I both felt like the back streets of Mandalay, a city with a couple million residents, felt much more "undiscovered" than this small village of a few hundred, which has no cars and is a 4-hour walk from the nearest bus stop or internet connection.
After returning to Hsipaw from our 2 day/1 night trek, we spent our remaining time biking around the small city and its surrounding rice paddies, sampling delicious shakes made with local strawberries, eating more noodles, and stumbling upon THE BEST STEAMED BUNS OF ALL TIME. Almost daily, I still think about these delicious morsels of goodness that came filled with chicken, sweet bean paste, and coconut!
- While the guest houses will strongly urge you to take a guide, if you're really on a budget or just like to be alone while hiking, it is possible to hike to Pankam by yourself. The folks at Mr. Charles Guest House, while very friendly and generally helpful, will only give you their set options for treks, which all go to this same village. Inquire elsewhere if you'd like to visit a different town; perhaps an independent guide could take you to different villages.
- The aforementioned delicious steamed buns can be found at the tea house on the corner of the Main Street. Coming from Mr. Charles Guest House, make a left onto Main St., and the tea house is the one on the first corner on your right. You'll see the huge steaming pots full of these goodies out in front of the tables!