March 14, 2009

Hsipaw and Palaung Village, Myanmar

The distinct Third World smell of burning leaves mixed with the dinnertime kitchens of the restaurants along the dusty main road of Hsipaw hit my senses as soon as I stepped off the bus. It had been a long twenty-four hour journey from China and as I wandered around wearily in the dark with my backpack, I was soon stopped by a man riding a motorbike. When he asked me where I was going, I replied with the only two words left in my mouth, “shower” and “bed”. I kept repeating them like a Buddhist mantra and within minutes he delivered me to a guesthouse, where, when finally in my room, the cold shower and hard bed seemed to be glimmering as if under a divine light.
The town, which has two roads and a collection of dirt pathways connecting brown bamboo houses under flowering trees, felt as sleepy as I had the previous day. It was as though I had stepped through an old photograph and into a world that was suspended in the Kodachrome of time: a place without cellphones or internet, a place where ox carts outnumbered cars, a place where families talked together by candlelight. The sound of bicycle bells and locusts remained in my ears even after they had moved on or stopped singing and the late afternoon light that crept through the leafy branches of the big banyan trees mixed with rising dust from the roads seemed to blur the boundary between reality and dream.
After I confirmed that I was not actually in an old photograph or dreaming for that matter, I decided to take an overnight motorbike tour through the surrounding mountain villages with the nice driver who had rescued me from my travel delirium two days earlier. Ko Palaung had mentioned that a full moon festival would be taking place in the neighboring village to his and if we left early in the morning, we would arrive to it by afternoon.
Sitting on the back of the bike as we rode on a dirt road through fields of tea plants, onion trees, and marmalade farms, dodging wandering cattle and waving to passing locals, I felt as though I was in a movie; a journalist or special agent on an important mission through the wild and dangerous countryside of Myanmar. As the plot of my invented fantasy was thickening, we arrived at a beautiful panoramic view with three villages perched effortlessly on the ridges of the mountains and in the distance I could see a big gathering at one of them.
Even though it was daytime, the full moon festival was in full swing and the scene that lay before me was nothing short of entertaining. Known as a Nat festival, the villagers celebrate by building a big pagoda shaped structure out of wood which is then filled with more wood and some stones with three big ropes attached on opposite sides. The men stand on one side and the woman stand on the other and they play several games of tug-of-war until they finally drag this thing out into a field and set it on fire. Unfortunately I wouldn’t be around for the lighting ceremony, but I did get to see some playful gender rivalry and also bore witness to the ridiculous spectacle of the people trying to drag this heavy, combustible pagoda through the village, along an uneven path littered with rocks. Watching as they struggled, Ko Palaung just kept shaking his head and saying “These people are crazy.” He explained that, in his village, they built the wooden pagoda on the open field so it never had to be moved. But then I explained that by doing it that way, his village severely decreased the entertainment value of the festival.
That night we stayed in the dark wooden house that his grandfather had built which is now inhabited by his sister and her family. Ko Palaung spent the evening explaining the history of his people, his country and his culture as his young niece and nephew twirled around the room in toddler amusement. We ate mustard greens and rice cooked over a wood stove and, over dinner, I began to learn a few Burmese words. I watched the sunset and the moonrise from the chair on the front porch and sat poised as the women came over to marvel at the foreigner and then dress her up in traditional clothes.
I was a little sad to be retuning to Hsipaw as I could have idled away days with the friendly people of Ko Palaung’s village, but I knew there was still a lot more of Myanmar left to see. My long overland journey had all become worth it, as landing here rather than the big city of Yangon, was the perfect place to slowly acclimate myself to an incredibly beautiful country and culture.

No comments:


blogger templates | Make Money Online