In the hills above Pindaya there are a number of villages that are accessible only by foot. These villages are inhabited by the Palaung people, one of the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar.
In the recent past, many Palaung were in revolt against the government, but a 1991 agreement ended the uprising, if not the discontent. Some of the Palaung are still living in refugee camps in Thailand. Others have joined the Wa army and are still resisting the Military dictatorship.
It is about a 2-hour hike up the hill to the first Palaung village. The road is a rutted dirt track. It might be possible to take an ATV up the hill, but I seriously doubt it. A tracked vehicle like a tank or a bulldozer might make it. You can also access Palaung villages from Kalaw. We were told by our guide, Tutu, that the trek from Kalaw was more difficult. Seeing that I had so much trouble on this climb, I can only thank the Nats (animist spirits) for guiding me to the track we did ascend.
The first thing we noticed was women coming down the hill with baskets full of fruit, tobacco, embroidery, tea leaves, kindling, or other stuff. They were on their way to sell the contents in Pindaya and walking quickly, as if the hill didn’t even exist.
We made our first stop at a tea trader’s house, where we were given a glass of hot tea and some locally grown mango fruit. While we were there, a couple women showed up to sell their tea. The owner of the house pays less than the market price and stores the tea until the price is right then sells it. The growers get their money right away and, according to Tutu, are very happy with the arrangement. In retrospect, I should have stopped right here, enjoyed the vistas and headed back to Pindaya, but I didn’t do the smart thing; instead, I continued up the hill.
As we moved up the slope, we saw many tea bushes on the almost perpendicular hillsides. In one case, we watched the tea being harvested by an old man who had to be well into his 70s. This was very disheartening to me because, by this time, my knees were really hurting and I was also struggling to catch my breath.
We also ran into an entire family of five that was on a pilgrimage to Mandalay. Tutu found out that they expected to take at least 3 days for the 500km journey riding pick-up trucks and busses. They would only spend 1 or 2 days at the temples, as they had almost no money, before heading back to Pindaya. They were all excited and eager to get going. I felt guilty from then on complaining about anything on our trip after seeing their dedication.
With many short rest stops, we finally made it up to the 5,000-foot level and the first village. Some of the people in this village live in the traditional long houses, five or six families to a house. Some live in single family dwellings. We had some refreshments on the patio of one of the village’s leading citizens and watched a group of children playing outside a long house as their mother took her morning bath out of the communal water trough.
Too soon, we had to move on. Because of my previous lagging and knee problems, we had to head back rather than visit another village. We walked through the village, which was situated on a long ridge, and then headed down.
Going down was almost more of a test than going up. I was tired, my knees were sore, and my thigh muscles were not used to such a steep descent.
As I was crawling down the hillside, I heard someone catching up with me very quickly, and I was shocked and somewhat embarrassed when a young girl about half my size with a big smile on her face went barreling past me carrying a load of firewood on her back that had to weigh around 50 to 70 pounds.
If I could have, I would have given up, but pride or something kept me going and after a 5- to 6-hour round trip. We finally made it back to our hotel, where I collapsed for a half-hour before showering, drinking a couple liters of water and creakily getting myself into the car for the long drive to Inlé lake.
My struggles make up the bad news. The good news is that, if you are in good shape, the trip is absolutely worthwhile. The vistas from the road are astounding. The people traveling on the track are interesting and friendly. The villages are also interesting, and I suspect that, if we had continued on, the further villages would have been even more interesting. I understand you can even overnight in one of the villages and head back the next day. Maybe that’s what we should have done.
I highly recommend the experience, but caution you that being in okay shape will not cut it. Even my wife, Pam, struggled, and she’s in fantastic shape. She’s been fast walking for 2 hours every day for the last 20 years. Our guide, on the other hand, who’s in his 20s, had no problems, but then he lives here.