He was dressed in impeccably pleated suit pants and wore creased but polished black shoes. His face was as worn as his shoes, lines branching off at the corners of his eyes. His ears stuck out behind pokey greying hair. He swung an umbrella by his side like it was a cane. Our guide looked ready to stroll down Fleet Street, not trudge through the farmland surrounding Hsipaw.
His serene aura and ever-present gentle chuckle reminded me of Kesuka Miyagi, the wise and calm sensei in the 80s classic, The Karate Kid. And so though we could call him by his traditional name Jo-Jo, or that given to him in his British missionary boarding school, Basil, I couldn’t help but see him as my very own Mr Miyagi.
Hsipaw village trek
My sister and I had booked ourselves in for a day trip through Myanmar’s trekking town of Hsipaw (pronounced See-paw) with Mr Charles Hotel. With the monsoon’s unpredictable weather and stifling heat, we settled for a gentle walk through the hills around the town. And judging by Mr Miyagi’s attire, gentle it would be.
On the outskirts of town, Mr Miyagi invited us into a rice noodle factory. Sweaty, bare-chested and barely-shirted men worked at steaming vats and metal contraptions, compressing rice into long flat sheets and hanging them from racks like towels in a laundrette.
A youthful factory line fed these sheets through a shredding machine. One man peeled free a sheet and handed it to his co-worker. This co-worker fed the sheet through the machine, where it shredded like paper. A third worker caught the threads with large sticks and hung the noodles from a pole, though a pile of missed noodles accumulated on the floor, near to a skinny cat licking its crotch.
From the factory, we were led out of town, through fields of rice and corn and along water-logged tracks. Mr Miyagi pointed out the mimosa, or don’t-touch-me plant, whose fragile leaves shrunk together shyly at the brush of a shoe.
We stepped aside to make way for a grinning boy riding atop a sluggish buffalo. Mr Miyagi told us the buffalo would never be eaten, but would enter retirement at old age, its owners appreciative of its hard-working life.
The region was fertile, and as we walked Mr Miyagi pointed with his umbrella tip at the various vegetables and fruit growing in our surrounds: eggplant, oranges, papaya, peaches, grapefruit, dragonfruit, tamarind, mangoes, long beans.
We wended our way through rural villages where knocked-together wooden houses, muddy yards and rickety bamboo fences marked each property. There were plenty of roaming roosters, and a number of front yards housed pigs lounging in their sties.
From somewhere came a methodical clanking. Mr Miyagi walked into the property to show us blacksmiths working in their bamboo shed. A younger man pumped the billows near the fire while his senior stuck farmers tools into the flames. Once the tools had a cinder glow, the senior blacksmith transferred the tool to an iron block, where both workers hammered the metal in rhythmic turns, the sound clanging across the village.
Across more fields, we entered a nunnery, where 170 pink-robed girls of all ages stared at us shyly. Their shaved heads accentuated their round, curious eyes. Older girls neatly propped at desks echoed Myanmar language verses in sing-song tones from their teacher’s instruction. The kindergarten class was more rowdy, and a gaggle of shy girls giggled at us awkwardly outside the classroom door.
The walk included trips to the region’s iconic Hsipaw Hill, topped with stupa and abandoned royal cemetery, and the Peace on Earth Pagoda, which flattened Australia and forgot about New Zealand, but at least included “Sorth America”.
At the summit of Hsipaw Hill, Mr Miyagi pointed out the holy Bodhi tree – holy because Buddha was said to have gained enlightenment under one.
“Sometimes we say we are lucky,” Mr Miyagi explained. “Chinese don’t buy [the Bodhi tree] yet.”
He chuckled perplexedly about the dominance of Chinese industry in the region.
“There is a saying in Hsipaw,” he said. “Blessed be our father who art in China … The Chinese are like termites. They eat everything.”
The standard sights were interesting enough, it was the side trips that proved most memorable.
We hid from rain at a small “restaurant”, a thatched bamboo shelter in a petite village that was new to electricity (installed a month ago). The woman inside served us steaming Shan noodles, gluggy but surprisingly tasty with garlic, tomatoes, and soy beans. She followed the meal with lahpet, Shan tea salad, a concoction of fermented tea leaves, dried beans, peanuts, sliced tomato, garlic, shredded ginger, and lime.
At another village, we were collected by a long boat. A man up front guided us around the shallow patches of the Dotthawady River with a long bamboo stick while his companion in the rear steered the boat grinning maniacally.
We passed women scrubbing clothes in the river, others were bathing, their longyis raised to their armpits. The ropey roots of banyan trees crept over the muddy banks, crisscrossing towards the water.
Our final stop was a traditional village called Soe Lo (Big Garden), inaccessible by car. The village perched above the Dotthawady River, houses high on stilts. Mr Miyagi gave a brief wave to the occupants of the first house we encountered. They were lazying in hammocks and on a raised platform in the cool beneath the house, between stilts. Hens and roosters clucked around them.
Mr Miyagi led us into the house without invitation. The large open room was poorly lit with thatched bamboo walls. A charcoaled kitchen jutted out over the structure. A woman in a darkened corner was sewing. She ignored our presence.
The town is home to a tiny single-roomed train station. The station master, a graceful woman, invited us to a seat and some green tea. She proudly showed us photos of her son’s novitiation into the monkhood. Dressed to mimic a king in blue silks, the boy looked more like a little girl, complete with a heavily made-up face (foundation, eye shadow, eye liner, mascara – the works), brightly painted nails, and a pierced right earlobe.
We head back to Hsipaw by boat once more. Our trek had produced no fanfare, no product peddling, nothing inauthentic. I felt, perhaps for the first time in Myanmar, that I had understood something of the people, of their way of life. I had finally been let in.
I’m fit to bursting with stories about my time in Myanmar. Whether you’re interested in visiting temples for ghosts or wandering through the rapidly changing “metropolis” of Yangon or perhaps venturing out for an unguided hike, there are plenty of options on offer. Read up on my other Myanmar adventures today.