19.02.2010 - 24.05.2010
We are finally on our own here in the small town of Hispaw, which is modestly cooler than sweltering Yangon and Mandalay. It has been wonderful to meet and greet the relatives of our students, but everyone has been so concerned for our welfare that it has been overwhelming at times. We are staying at The Lonely Planet recommended, Mr. Charles' Guesthouse, seemingly THE PLACE, since nothing else comes close to being as nice. Mr Charles is half Chinese, extremely personable, and seemingly as interested in talking to us as we are to him. He has obviously made the hotel successful, as we are in the relatively upscale and newly completed addition. There are younger European backpackers, as well as older tour groups, primarily French and German, arriving daily. The town, on a plateau and surrounded by higher mountains, is not especially attractive. With concrete and wooden buildings, hot tin roofs, and scooters buzzing like flies, it is dry and dusty this time of year. There is less truck traffic than usual, thanks to Chinese New Year, but still some. Curiously, there appears to be more electricity here than in the big cities thanks to our proximity to the power lines going to nearby China.
The marketplace, as always, is colorful, and the nearby family run noodle and oil factories are interesting.
Nuns in the Market
The Noodle Factory
Despite their very limited English, with help from our guide JoJo, we got into a deep conversation with the oil factory owners about aging and the joys and difficulties of a long marital relationship. I guess they weren't used to seeing people of our age roaming about. Their openness was astonishing.
His Wife and Grandson
The bucolic countryside, in contrast to town, is green, full of verdant fruit, vegetable, and rice fields, as well as incredibly friendly people.
We took several walks through the fields and a villages, including one to a small, undeveloped hot springs. Walking along the river past bamboo houses and field workers, we were greeted by children and adults, saying H E L L O O H, B Y E, B Y E, and smiling broadly. We responded by saying Mingalaba, in Burmese, not realizing that for many, Shan was their primary language.
Tourists in significant numbers have only recently begun to make it out here, and so we are still something of a novelty. There will no doubt be more as time goes on, unless political unrest prevents it. At the springs, some of the young Euros, French, Finnish, Swiss, and Dutch, were there, as well as a couple of Burmese families, bathing in the warm stream water.
It was a delightful and relaxing way to spend the day.
Between a Rock and a Water Buffalo
So far at least, rural village life has seemingly not changed that much from the way it is described in Twilight in Burma, Memoirs of a Shan Princess. (I should qualify this by saying that a considerable amount of the farmers' income is now generated by growing watermelons that are shipped to China). This fascinating book was written by an Austrian woman who married a Shan Prince, shortly before the Tatmadow, Burmese Army, took over. Several years ago it was still possible to visit the palace described in the book, though now it is off-limits to visitors, following the imprisonment of the last of the Prince's relatives. Rumor has it that he has recently been released after many years, and is back living in seclusion in the palace.
The Shan are quite separate and distinct from ethnic Burmese, and to put it mildly, have not always seen eye to eye. There are still pockets of violent resistance in a few places in Shan State, and in other border areas as well, in what may be one of the longest civil wars in the world. Some of this is probably related to skirmishes over control of the drug trade between the central military government, factions of the Shan, Was, Wa and drug lords in Yunnan, China. According to one of our contacts, the possibility of a larger war preceding the upcoming election cannot be discounted.