Northern Shan State’s Trekking Alternative

Photo - Douglas Long

Shan State has long been established as Myanmar’s go-to destination for cultural trekking tours – these are not expeditions to remote Himalayan regions requiring special climbing equipment or survival skills, but rather easy to moderate walks through tropical highlands, well-tended farmland and ethnic minority villages. In Shan State, travelers are never too far from motorized transport, shelter or even small shops where they can stock up on snacks and drinks.

Well-known Shan trekking centres include Kalaw in the southern part of the state, Kengtong near the eastern border with Thailand, and Hsipaw in the north. Often overlooked is Kyaukme: While the October-to-March high season sees backpackers crowding guesthouses in popular Hsipaw a mere 30 kilometres (20 miles) away, Kyaukme generally retains its quiet backwater vibe.

Until a couple of years ago, only one guesthouse in Kyaukme was licensed to accommodate foreigners –A YoneOo, a budget property offering basic rooms and conveniently located within walking distance of the town’s central market, and teashops and restaurants.

Since 2015, however, there has been another option: the midrange Hotel Kawli. With the new hotel’s higher price come big, comfortable rooms and a swimming pool; its location a few miles outside of Kyaukme offers peaceful rural scenery, though own-transportation must be arranged to explore the town.

Staff at A YoneOo and Hotel Kawli can easily arrange motorcycle or trekking tours led by experienced guides who can speak English and other local languages.

Hiring a knowledgeable guide is essential in Kyaukme township as some areas have been wracked in the past year by armed conflict between government troops and ethnic armed groups. An expert local guide will ensure that travelers remain far from the danger zone.

Trekking tours can range in length from one to three days, with multiday trips featuring overnight stays in Buddhist monasteries or village homes. Motorcycle tours, as might be expected, typically involve less physical effort, with frequent stops for short walks to scenic overlooks or less-remote villages.

Proper treks might involve six to eight miles of walking each day, providing greater latitude for visiting areas far from the main roads. 

Some of the most rewarding – and safest – treks in the area can be found along the paved road leading west from Kyaukme toward the distant ruby-mining town of Mogok in Mandalay Region.

Upon leaving Kyaukme by motorcycle, travelers will first pass through a valley of paddy fields before the road begins winding higher and higher into the spectacular green mountains; each bend revealing increasingly impressive vistas of deep ravines and knife-edge ridgelines.

Villages in this region are home to Shan, Palaung, Lisu and Gurkha (Nepalese) people. Most trekking routes pass through expansive, high-altitude Palaung tea plantations, for which the region is famous – the town of Kyaukme is one of Myanmar’s main tea-trading centres, attracting vendors who buy the products for distribution throughout the country.

Depending on which time of the year the plants are harvested, the leaves are used for making green tea, black tea (the sweetened variety sold at teashops) and fermented tea – the main ingredient of one of Myanmar’s most famous and beloved delicacies, pickled tealeaf salad (laphetthoke).

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that treks through Palaung regions usually afford plenty of opportunities to sample locally produced green tea and laphetthoke in the homes of villagers.

Women in these villages can often be seen wearing distinctive Palaung traditional outfits, even when doing day-to-day activities. Their colorfully striped longyis are thought to represent the scales of the mother dragon from which all Palaung are believed to be descended, while silver hoops worn around their waists– the source of the nickname “Silver Palaung” by which the ethnic group is sometimes known – are said to symbolise animal traps and provide protection against evil spirits.

One short and easy day trek, which can be reached via a 90-minute motorcycle ride from Kyaukme along the road to Mogok, takes travellers to the interconnected Silver Palaung villages of Ban Lin and Naung Sin. The journey involves less than two hours of walking, first down a dirt path that descends steeply away from the paved road, and then along a narrower track that follows the contour of the hillside, with tea plantations above and below, and dramatic views of the mountains all around. The trip includes visits to Palaung homes and Buddhist monasteries, as well as a home-cooked lunch made with fresh, local ingredients.

Those who want to spend less time on a motorcycle and more time exercising can head for the Palaung village of Nwe Sa, where tea cultivation is again the main industry.
The starting point of the trek is a mere 20 minutes’ drive outside of Kyaukme, but reaching the village involves nearly 7km of uphill walking. A large monastery perched on a hillside overlooks the entrance to the well-tended town of about 100 houses and 600 residents. Most of the buildings are supported by stilts in the traditional Palaung style, but the longhouses for which the ethnic group was once famous – large enough for 10 or more families – are now rarely seen.

The trek to Nwe Sa can be done out-and-back, or as part of a longer, 22-kilometre loop over two days that passes by paddy fields and through young teak forests, and includes visits to more remote villages and monasteries before circling back to Kyaukme, where hot food, cold drinks and comfortable beds await weary trekkers.

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