In Myanmar, Marie traveled from the former royal capital of Mandalay to the archaeological site of Bagan, then to Inle Lake with its famous leg-rowing fishermen, then north into the Shan State, home to the Shan people who have lived there for over a thousand years.
This story takes place in the mountainous region of northern Shan.
26.01.2015. 4 am.
The bus from Kalaw finally reaches my destination, Kyaukme, a Shan city located 30 km west of the town of Hsipaw. I have spent the last 11 hours folded in three between the bus window and the guy-next-door’s lap, in a semi-comatose state brushing blissful unconsciousness. My physical state borders on gruesome, a medical conundrum of withered skins, rumbling bowels, and canary-coloured eyes. I dig deep inside my bag for a pack of Malarone, praying for their glowing side-effects to dissipate quickly. I had woken up the previous morning to an oh-so-subtle glowing hue of undiluted Fanta joyously bathing my eyeballs, to the obvious bewilderment of my travel buddy. However, this state of deep body confusion was somehow also shared by our internal pipe system, as inevitably expected when leaving the culinary comfort of Europe. Three days of food-poisoning rage had left us stripped of our pants and bared of our dignity, and the idea of a 12h-bus ride had not truly come by with undivided impatience. And it’s with our hands joined in endless worldly devotion that we hopped off the bus, eyes bloodied with tiredness, but chins high and proud, a rite of passage conquered thanks to the blessing of Saint Imodium.
I crash onto the benches of one of the town’s two guest-houses, waiting for the sun to wake my mattresses’ providers. Kyaukme is a pleasant market town that seems to provide well for all: covered stalls for the shopper, cheap eateries for the hungry, photogeneity for the artist, and cyber-cafes for the young town monks eager to vaporize their morning earnings in front of Dota 2.
I meet T., our guide, in the late morning. His scooters are getting ready to tackle the dirt, tires still half-pumped, golden dust blocking the speed gauge, a purr of unrestricted freedom roaring deep in the engines. We drive, jump, crash and crack on hard pebbles, uneven tracks of stones, breathing in smut and the sticky smell of fresh asphalt.
The landscape receives our cloud of unconfident swirls, it sweetly rolls in a cyan haze; the shy green of tea trees thaws into a bleached sky. We spend the night in our host’s Palung village, deep into the mountains, a peaceful hamlet struggling to forget the gun-fights that recently knocked on its door. Rebellion and military offensives scar its faces and memory.
I sit by our host’s hearth. Four logs blithely creak with ambers, heating a heavy teapot of iron cast, fumes filling the wooden house, its weaved roof, and mahogany-colored beams. The fumes spicing our dinner fill the eyes and throat, they prick tender meat with acridity. Petite beads of scented charcoal saturate the senses with ash. Our host stares into the flames, old eyes sadly absent, a freshly rolled cigar tainting his withered fingers.
A young man comes in with a wide smile of misaligned teeth, and a wide stick of wood in his hand. Our host gets up and slowly walks to another corner of the room, crooked-gaited and lethargic. In a nosy tone and voice mealy with use, he speaks a monotonous blessing for his young relative who kneels beside him, hands joined in devotion.
The roads of northern Shan slice through lush waves of succulent green. The rays of the sun travel down in a veil of powdered crimson. Towards the north, whispered tales about restricted lands break the hills’ serenity with rumors of insurgence.
As all the lights dim and we head to sleep, our guide quickly plays a couple of videos on his mobile phone. Military marches and blasting bombing echo through gray light, and with an electronic switch, suddenly faints into oblivion.
In total Marie spent three days on the road in this part of the Shan, visiting villages on a scooter and doing brief hikes into the hills.