March 27, 2013

I Almost Kidnapped Several Burmese Children. But In A Nice Way. (Kyaukme, Burma)

True story.

Adorable children is one of the many reasons why our time in Kyaukme was the highlight of our time in Burma. The other reasons? Read on, Reader Friend.

We knew we wanted to spend a few days trekking while we were in Burma, but we wanted to avoid Kalaw and Hsipaw, popular backpacking routes that we've heard are crowded with hundreds of other trekkers. (Side note: When Tom was in Burma  10 years ago, he got super sick in Kalaw and couldn't go on the trek he had planned, so we were hoping to avoid a repeat of that experience.) Luckily, our friend, Karen from San Francisco, had just visited Burma a few months before us and had highly recommended Kyaukme (pronounced Chow-may), just south of Hsipaw, and a trekking guide, Moe Set. Her email about Moe Set was absolutely glowing and talked about how people like Moe Set are going to change Burma. So, with that kind of recommendation, our plans were set and we hopped a bus from Mandalay (read about our time in Mandalay here) to Kyaukme. 
Some adorable Burmese're intrigued now, aren't you? You're going to read the rest of the post, right?

We arrived in Kyaukme in the late afternoon and met up with Moe Set, who we instantly liked, grabbed some dinner and got a good night's rest in preparation for our 3 day/2 night trekking trip through the mountains around Kyaukme in the Shan state. Up bright and early, we devoured breakfast and drove into the countryside where we began our adventure. First of all, I have to say that Tom was a SuperChamp. We stupidly didn't bring a comfortable daypack with us on the trip (the Flash 18 is awesome and compact, but it's not exactly comfortable holding 5 liters of water and it actually wasn't even really big enough to carry everything we needed), so Tom carried my large backpack (Beatrice, if you remember from this post), filled with everything we would need for 3 days. He's my hero. He also had a really sweaty back, but I'll forgive perspiration in favor of heroism.

Doesn't he just look like a hero in this pic? Tom Swain, FTW!
Each day, we hiked about 6 hours, stopping for lunch in villages and visiting schools and monasteries along the way before stopping for dinner and sleep. It wasn't always easy. In fact, usually, it was pretty intense. To begin with, it was hot - really hot by our standards (just 4 degrees shy of a boy band), and the sun felt even hotter for some reason. (Tom says it's because we're closer to the equator, but my pea brain can't wrap itself around that. I mean, if it's 94 degrees, shouldn't that feel the same everywhere? Why does 94 degrees feel hotter when you're closer to the equator? Science geeks, feel free to chime in here.) The trail was very steep sometimes and, to make things more difficult, it was mostly unshaded and made of crushed sandstone that made it impossible to find solid footing. Needless to say, it was tough.

View over a valley, Shan State, Burma
Okay…and disclaimer…I'm not a hiker. I never have been. I used to scoff at Tom's weekend hiking plans for us. "Ugh. Hiking? Why would I want to walk uphill for fun?!?!" Honestly, I didn't get the appeal. About a year or so ago, I started to appreciate it though. The first thing that made hiking more enjoyable? Being in better shape. For me, that means lung strength. I've always had the lung capacity of a newborn kitten, but I started running occasionally last year and even trained for a 5K, and I built up to some big hikes with a few smaller ones (like this one with our friends in Sonoma County), and my lungs thanked me. I still have a ways to go, but I'm getting better (breathing with the capacity of a baby penguin now). In any case, by the time we started our cross-country road trip, I was ready for hiking in Yosemite, Zion, Bryce, and the Grand Canyon. Still, I'd never done a hike longer than 4 or 5 hours, so signing up for 18 hours of hiking over 3 days in the sweltering heat was a stretch for me and I really felt like I deserved a trophy or at least a merit badge at the end of the 3 days. But….I'm.So.Glad.We.Did.It!

At one of the many pagodas in the villages
Why was it so great? Well, to begin with, we really liked the other 3 people in our group (a French couple, Karen and Hubert, and a French guy, Francoise, traveling solo). We were all traveling long-term, which usually means we'll get along well, and everyone was friendly and funny and we had great talks during the long days. (Did you know why the English versions of the words for beef, pork, mutton, and venison are so similar to the French words?!?! This is why. Cool, right?) We also adored Moe Set, just as Karen predicted we would. He's wonderful and he has really big plans for his life. He loves Burma and has dedicated his life to his community. Throughout the 3 days in the hills of the Shan state, we visited a lot of villages, and Moe Set was in-tune with each and every village, telling us about their struggles and triumphs and explaining how the villagers live. Another great thing about the trekking was that we didn't see any other tourists the entire 3 days we were in the Shan hills. At times in Burma, we could feel a little like we were on a tourist conveyor belt (more on that later), so it was really nice to just be surrounded by authentic Burma.

Our Crew...on a snack break!
The biggest reason it was great though was because of the people we met. In each of the villages, we were invited into homes for meals, snacks, shade, and conversation. We even stayed in the villager's homes each night, sleeping on their floors, and played with their (very curious) kids. They were unfailingly kind, funny, and interested in us in the most respectful way. They fed us their food (sometimes tasty, sometimes less so….Banyan Tree Leaf Soup anyone?) and gave us blankets and woke us up in the morning for eggs! They boiled drinking water for us and showed us their prized possessions and made us feel at home.

In the schools we visited, the kids were HILARIOUS. They were super enthusiastic and basically jumped all over us like crazy people using every English word they knew. They taught us secret handshakes and had us giggling the entire time. At one of the schools, a teacher was absent, so Moe Set jumped in front of the class and taught them a Burmese history lesson. The kids hung on to every word, so eager to learn. It was fantastic to see such dedicated students.

There was one little girl, especially, who I was absolutely OBSESSED with. She was teeny tiny and technically too young to be at school, but she accompanied her older sibling because her parents both worked during the days. She never left my side at one of the schools and when the other kids would crowd around and nearly push her over, I would just see her tiny little face looking up at me smiling. I very nearly tucked her under my arm like a football and ran into the hills with her. (She obviously has a fabulous family who is making sure she's going to school but, at the moment, I didn't care. I wanted the little peanut for myself!) Sadly, the quality of education these kids receive is pretty low. I don't say this to insult the teachers. By all accounts, the teachers are excellent and are doing their very best to teach these kids. Unfortunately, each school is just one room, so kids of all ages crowd into one room and, usually, only 1 or 2 teachers rotates through the kids, sorted by age, which means that, at any given point of the day, over half of the students are just sitting and waiting for their teacher to get to them. And, because the schools had no books and very few notebooks and pencils (we saw only 2 or 3 during our time visiting 4 or 5 schools), the teachers are limited in the ways they can keep the kids engaged in educational activities when they're working with the other kids.

That's my little peanut at the bottom

Another cutie
We also stopped at a few monasteries and had a blast playing in the yard with some of the young novice monks. Tom and some of the others played soccer with them and I almost exploded from cuteness. For a little while, there was a very real possibility that we were coming home with tiny monks in tow.

(In case you're wondering, the yellowish/white stuff on their faces is called thanaka. It's made from the bark of a tree and helps keep the skin cool and protected from the sun. It's supposed to be really good for the skin, too! Nearly all the women and children wear it every day. Click on this link for an explanation and to see some very cute photos.

Check out this video of Tom and the others playing soccer with the novice monks. (Video will not show up in your email alert.)

I mean, LOOK.AT.THIS.KID! His little face was so sweet and he just loved this scruffy puppy so much. The other kids were a little rough with the dog and this adorable little cutie kept swooping in to rescue the pooch, holding it close to him and whispering to it. My heart melted to mush.

If your heart didn't just explode looking at this picture, I'm not sure we can be friends anymore.

Some more adorable kiddos.

It really was a very special 3 days and was not only the best part of our time in Burma, but one of the highlights of the entire trip so far. If you are ever in Burma and are wanting to get a little off the beaten path, we can not recommend this experience enough. The village life is fascinating and you will never meet kinder people than the Shan people. Ever. I guarantee it. (Even if they do feed you tree leaves for dinner, which tastes exactly like it sounds.) And if you really want to sweeten the deal, give our pal, Moe Set, a call. (Email us and we'll give you his digits.)

You can check out all our pics from Kyaukme here. A few more of our favorites are below.

Hot husband!

You can check out all our pics from Kyaukme here.

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