Originally Written for One City Road, March 2017
As a kid growing up in England, it was not uncommon for Mum to bribe me into doing some kind of physical activity by assuring me that my “dinner would taste all the better at the end of it”. I’d like to think I was a pretty savvy kid, and soon realised that this generally wasn’t the case, and that dinner was usually pretty delicious without hours of sweat and exertion beforehand.
Fast forward 20 years and you’ve probably gathered by now that I’m not, by nature, the most sporting of creatures. Sitting with a cold beer in hand one evening, you can imagine, therefore, my misgivings when my partner bounded onto the terrace and announced that she’d just booked us onto a two-day trek into the hill tribe villages the next morning. We’d only arrived in Hsipaw, a small town in Myanmar’s Shan State, a few hours earlier after a 12-hour train journey. The slow pace of life here was slowly becoming infectious and I had personally been looking forward to a slow amble around the town the next day, punctuated with numerous cups of tea.
Alas, it was not to be. 8am came around fast and we found ourselves marching out of town with a small gaggle of other backpackers, led by our ever-resourceful guide, Ko. We had to cover 17km that day to reach our overnight stop in the village of Ban Kham, with a climb or around 900 meters thrown in for good measure. Whilst the trail varied from basic to non-existent, the countryside scenery was never less than stunning. Our route was punctuated with small farmer’s huts, where we were invariably plied with bananas fresh-off-the-tree and sweet local tea. Along the way, Ko (not his real name, more of a local phrase meaning ‘Brother’) would stop and pick interesting tit-bits for us to try. Peanuts fresh out of the ground were particularly surprising, tasting not unlike their namesake ‘Peas’.
The British Government advises against ‘all but essential travel’ to a large part of this area due to ongoing insurgencies. As ever, we relied on the mood on the ground at the time to reassure us that we wouldn’t wander into harm’s way. On a couple of occasions, we passed small groups of what Ko cheerfully dismissed as ‘local hunters’. Personally, I’ve never seen anyone hunt with Kalashnikovs, but we exchanged cheerful “min-ga-la-ba ‘s (Burmese for Hello) and went on our way. A bunch of bumbling Brits are unlikely to present much of a threat to their cause, least of all hunting.
Cresting our final hill at around 4pm, we were greeted with a cluster of small, bamboo houses nestled into a small valley, with promising wisps of smoke drifting from the make shift chimneys. We were to spend the night sleeping on bamboo mats around an open fire in one of these stilted constructions, before setting off again at sunrise the next day. Having been warmly welcomed by our host family with more cups of strong and sweet tea, we were soon seated on empty hessian sacks around the clay fire pit that was the focal piece of their single-room abode. Grandma spent the next hour or so lovingly stirring, tossing and boiling numerous clay pots over this simple wood burner, whilst the kids prepared salads and breads in the open-air kitchen overlooking the valley.
Burmese meals at the best of times usually consist of no less than 10 small dishes in the middle of the table for all to share. Spicy chutney’s that can catch the uninitiated off guard; dried fish with peanuts, pickled greens and curried vegetables are all staples of the Shan dinner table, and bring a balance of texture and flavour that any Michelin chef would be proud of. A special mention must go to the Pickled Tea Leaf Salad, with juicy home-grown tomatoes and crunchy fried beans. The freshness of each ingredient sang out loud and clear, yet worked in incredible harmony for a dish that had been mixed with bare hands in a clay bowl just minutes earlier. As soon as a dish was any less than full, Grandma would send one of the kids scurrying out to refill it, lest her guests go to bed anything less than full.
The Fork and Spoon are the classic Burmese eating utensils, with the fork mainly used to load the spoon – a technique that takes a little practice. Nonetheless, several very contented hours were spent slurping around the fire, with Ko doing his upmost to provide a little translation between us and our hosts. With the sun well below the horizon, and Granma’s pots well and truly emptied, we succumbed to the day’s exertions and drifted into possibly the best night’s sleep I’d had in months.