Travel Stories


I meet Birgit, Axel and Tutu for breakfast.  The day is dark, cold, and thick with obscuring morning fog.  By eight thirty we are walking with our local guide – Soule Oo - to the river.  We get in a long boat with a long propeller shaft running off some small auto motor mounted on the rear of the craft, along with a few Burmese villagers, and head out into the fog.  The river water is running fairly rapidly against us, but is also very warm.  We pass farming villages on the shore that look like riverine settlements elsewhere in southeast Asia, like villages along the Amazon or Orinoco, maybe even New Guinea: women bathing and washing clothes, water buffalo led down to the river to drink. 

We pass a man going downriver on a lashed together bamboo raft that our guide says is actually covering illegally harvested teak being taken to some down river site from which it will be picked up and transported to China.  China is a big focus of life here in northeast Myanmar.  A huge natural gas pipeline is being built to move Myanmar gas to China. A new train line is being built to move goods and agricultural produce to China.  Soule Oo points out an omnipresent flowering weed, which he says it is known locally as a Chinese daisy, because “no matter where you look you see them.”  He says, “We have an expression in Hsipaw, ‘Where there’s smoke there’s Chinese.’”

About an hour after starting we stop at an indistinguishable section of riverbank and climb out of the boat.  The fog has fully lifted.  It’s a bright sunny day.  The boat continues upriver as we clamber up a steep riverbank incline.  Soon we come to a tiny bamboo hut in the middle of rich fertile fields where we are met by the hut’s sole resident, a toothless, indeterminately old woman, who laughs hysterically and warmly at my height, and who hugs me and pulls me down to her so that she can kiss my check.  We take photos.  When she puts her arm around me, her hand at the height of my butt, and leaves it resting there.

We continue climbing a quite steep hill along a single person wide path past fields of pineapple, sesame, mango, sugar cane, and corn, passed small fenced and unfenced gardens filled with cabbages, beans, chili peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes.  I fancy I’ve learned a bit about gardening on this trip, some by visual observation, some by osmosis, from the orchid displays and the flowerbeds at the National Garden and from the gardening methods I see displayed in the villages, especially about aerating the soil and the use of trellises and stake supports.  The sense of gardening as craft inspires me when thinking of my own gardens at home and provides what may be a possible partial answer to the question of what I will do at home that might serve as spiritual practice, in addition to yoga, and what will inspire me there the way travel does here.  I imagine I’ll buy a small tiller and like the image.

Half an hour or so up the path we come to an ancient monastery, now home to six older monks, and over two dozen young monks in training, all boys under twelve years of age.  We are served freshly harvested pineapple and jasmine tea.  The young monks are all watching Disney cartoons on TV.  A bell rings.  The TV is turned off and the young monks pray in front of the Buddha statues.  A bell is rung and the young monks go off to eat lunch. After lunch they ride their bicycles around the compound.

I kneel down and pray in front of the Buddha as well.  I offer heartfelt thanks for having arrived here, for the privilege of being here.  I offer my gratitude to the Buddha for his example, his inspiration, and his teaching.  I think of Jesus’ message, as opposed to what arose in his name.  I do not think about Moses or the prophet Muhammad.  One lasting image I have is of a poster in an area of the large pagoda hall that serves as a spare dormitory sleeping area for some of the young monks.  There I find an almost life sized representation of the Buddha on which someone has “accidently” hung a round wall clock that completely obscures Buddha’s head such that it looks like his head is a clock.  I call Axel over to see it.  I say, “Observe the relationship between time and mind.”

As we are leaving the monastery we go inside a small building that serves as a classroom.  Low tables wide enough for two students seated side by side on the floor are lined up two across the room and about six or seven deep facing a chalkboard.  There are small mostly filled notebooks at every student’s place.  There is a low door into the classroom and two openings in the far woven bamboo wall that serve as windows to let in air and light.  It is very quiet.  As we are leaving the classroom I walk forcefully and unconsciously into the top of the doorframe and bang my head so hard that it knocks me down backwards onto the floor on my butt where

I lay flat, dazed but unhurt.  I am reminded of the ethnographer Colin Turnbull, who I met and spent a brief period of time with, writing of his life among an African band of pygmies in “The Forest People,” where he figured the role he fell into with them was village idiot.  My companions rush over to comfort me and help me up.  For the rest of the day Soule Oo reminds me at every doorway and low hanging branch to bow.  He says, “Bow,” to me at least forty or fifty times: at each temple, leaving and entering houses, at small store stands I enter, in a restaurant, on the path.  I am thrilled to be reminded to bow.  I have understood for years that we can never bow too often or too much, but perhaps I wasn’t practicing well.  While lying on the floor of the classroom I hear the temple chimes ringing in the breeze and offer my gratitude.  When I see an iridescent blue bird I bow.  Seated on the boat moving on the river I bow.  On the path I bow.  With every breath I try to remember to bow.      

Back on the boat we head further up river, to the confluence of where another river joins this one, to some decent sized rapids and to the bridge over the river that the Lashio to Mandalay train runs on once each day in each direction.  Headed back to Hsipaw we stop at three different traditional Shan farming villages.  One is reachable only by boat.  At one, Sun Lon, a train stops once a day in each direction.  About 300 people live there.  The village has a school that goes to the eighth grade.  The school has a sign on it that says in English “Drug Free.”  The village, like every other village we see on this side of the river has a very deep well for drinking water dug with UNRA funds and aid.  We eat lunch in the last village we stop at, Shan noodles, of course.  There is a narrow path from there that leads to the road back into town and we walk the rest of the way in.