22.02.2010 - 23.02.2010
I took a two day trek to a Palong village above Hsipaw. It was a steady up hill grind along a recently widened dirt track, and took about five hot hours to get to the village. The only traffic was the occasional motor-bike or ox cart.
My guide was JoJo or Basel, as he was called in the missionary school. He spoke English well, was around my age, and was able and willing to talk on many subjects from Burmese politics to the Beatles, who used to be his favorite group before the military took over in the 60's. He is married to a woman who is 1/2 Burmese and 1/2 British, whose father was a British soldier in 1947. Apparently while her mother was pregnant with her, he returned to England and she knows very little about him.
JoJo in Downtown Hsipaw
The village, a cluster of bamboo and mostly thatched roofed houses, is the largest of many hamlets in the area. Upon arrival, we were taken to the chief's house where we would spend the night. It was not noticeably different than the other houses, though it had a corrugated tin roof. Hotter in the dry season and noisier when it rains, the chief said to us.
We dropped our packs, and then I hobbled off to the town's only water source, a well built with UN funds. Pankam used to have a small river, now dry, a victim of deforestation and global warming. With my blistered feet the 1/2 mile walk seemed much longer.
There was really no way to bathe, so I washed as best as I could, and then walked back. We were served a lunch of banyon leaf soup, rice, pieces of fried sticky rice with ginger as well as a "Palong omelette," prepared by the chief's wife. Not bad.
And No, That's Not a Rat, but a Puppy
After that, the chief's daughter, all of about 5 or 6, decided she would show us around. The other guests, besides JoJo, were a German couple, and so we made a spectacle of ourselves parading around, sometimes with a dozen children in tow. It didn't hurt that the Germans had brought plastic dolls to give away, but we would have been a noticeable attraction anyway. There were no other farangs.
Chief's Daughter First on Left
Most people seemed pleased that we were there, some even eager to have their photographs taken.
"Kham Cha," they said. Hello in Palong which is different than Shan and Burmese. JoJo spoke all three. They were not completely unused to foreigners here. Once every two weeks or so, another small group came and stayed with the chief and made a donation of $4 to bring in a little extra cash.
Our tour would not have been complete without seeing the nearby tea fields. This is how the village sustains itself, by trading tea for rice. It is run as a cooperative with everyone working in the fields. Not long ago, they used to carry the tea into town on their backs, but now that the road is wider, thanks to the chief's efforts, they can bring it by truck.
On the way back, we stopped to buy some warm beer since there were no refrigerators, and sat outside the house drinking in the fading afternoon light. It actually began to get cool, and I put on a fleece jacket that had seen no use since we left home. Chickens and dogs competed for who could make the most noise, but it was not unpleasant. The chief seemed to be immersed in several meetings with villagers from other hill towns. Dinner was eventually served, similar to lunch, by battery powered lights and candles. I was beginning to develop a taste for banyon leaf soup.
Later in the evening, his meetings finally over, I finally got to talk him over endless cups of the local rice hooch, and Burmese whiskey that JoJo brought. This was the highlight of the day.
I asked how he became chief. He said that his father had more or less retired from the position after 17 years. He was the oldest son and was next in line, but also that the people had decided that they wanted him to do it. The fact that he was college educated in another part of Shan State and spoke English, probably had something to do with it. At the time, two years ago, he was 26 and was not sure he was old enough for the job. Being chief was far from easy he explained. He had to solve many different kind of problems from marital issues to land disputes, and although there was a council of four elders to help if he needed advice, the final decision was always up to him. He wanted to try and improve the education level of the other villagers and had many ideas about how to improve the economy as well. With the burdens of his office, he said he really likes it when tourists come because he can learn from them, and also teach them something about his own culture. When he heard that I was a psychologist he was very interested, since dealing with relationship problems is a significant part of his job.
He told me that the Palongs have grown tea cooperatively for many years, although JoJo indicated they used to grow opium until the government put a stop to it. The fields produce no less than 14 different harvests from which they produce green and black tea, tea pickles and other tea products. Most of it is sold or traded for rice and then shipped to China. There is no electricity in the village and so farming methods are primitive and labor intensive. No one is hungry, but the villagers have few things, and lead hard lives working in the tea fields under the hot Burmese sun. Being chief does not exempt him from working there just like them.
I liked him immensely, and felt that his people were lucky to have him. It was also obvious that this was not a job which would make him rich, except in responsibility. After a few hours of drinking and talking we bid each other good night, and I retired to the hard sleeping platform above the earth floor. The German couple, JoJo and I slept side by side, while the chief and his family went upstairs. At around 4 AM I had to use the facilities, a somewhat dangerous proposition as I had to clamor around some big rocks to get to the outhouse. Unfortunately, I must have awakened the first rooster who immediately began crowing, and was soon joined by others, making further sleep difficult.
After breakfast we set off for the return hike which was shorter, though my sore feet did not make things easier.
The Chief and His Family