Forging Frontiers in the Mountains of Kalaw

Kalaw is fairly high up so temperatures take a welcome dip.  This means we can turn off the air con and leave a window open. The full extent of Ray’s injuries have surfaced.  He’s got badly bruised ribs and has to sleep sitting up. Fortunately there is a pharmacy in the town with a good supply of pain-killers.

Hike to a mountain village
Hike to a mountain village

I take up the option of a four hour hike up to a mountain village with veteran hikers  Nev and John – who did the Outside the Square’s Milford track – plus Mike and of course our leader Richard C.  Our guide is a small, compact and very fit young man called Tenzing.  We all get very excited on hearing his name and ask him if he’s Nepalese.  He doesn’t know. He thinks he’s Burmese.  The British brought Gurkas and Sherpas here to build the railway but never returned them.  It was more cost effective not to use local labour, which might at any time decide to go home. We are convinced that

Tenzing looks serious while Mike does a dance
Tenzing looks serious while Mike does a dance

Tenzing looks Nepalese although none of us have a clear idea of what that might look like.  I ask him if he’s heard of Mount Everest. He has. I explain that we come from New Zealand, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing were the first to climb Everest and that they are heroes in our country. His eyes light up – he’s pleased.

We drive for twenty minutes in a taxi to a rough road which has obviously taken vehicles of some sort, but we only see motor scooters – the workhorses of South East Asia – passing occasionally.

Dragon fruit cactus
Dragon fruit cactus

We’re walking through market gardens on the edge of the mountain forests. Fields of Dragon fruit (a cactus), coffee trees growing under the forest canopy, taro, random bananas, corn and greens on the flatter areas all grow splendidly.  Oranges are one of the main crops, covering the steep hillsides.  I walk with Mike for some of the way.  He’s a keen gardener and works in a garden centre in Auckland, so he knows a lot about plants.  We’re able to share observations and identify some species.  One discovery is that teak trees have huge leaves and we have been looking at new plantings all along the mountain roads we travel on.

Fields and shack Kalaw
Fields and shack Kalaw
A hillside of Orange trees
A hillside of Orange trees

John, who knows a lot about NZ forest giants can’t believe that teak would have large leaves, but it’s confirmed when we actually see a huge tree with its distinctive trunk. I develop a theory that the large leaves have evolved to beat the creepers which choke the forest. Large leaves cover the smaller leaved creepers, depriving them of light. John agrees with my theory.  We’ve seen logging trucks on the road and carefully labelled logs stacked along the way, but very few mature specimens. It looks as if some of the denuded rain-forest is regenerating and young teak trees are being planted everywhere.

New house in the mountains
New house in the mountains

The English language paper reports that illegally harvested teak logs have been seized.  Police and the forestry department found three tonnes of logs worth $506 US – they are still looking for the culprit.  Of course regeneration is a problem for the farmers here who have to constantly weed their crops and reclaim farm-land. Tenzing says that these hill farmers are better off than most Burmese because they work harder.  This might be partly true as new grander houses are being built here.  There is still no strategy for rubbish collection in the countryside (parallels with rural NZ here) as time and again I see plastic near rivers; when the Ayeyerwady River floods, much of this will end up in the Indian Ocean.  In these hills, as everywhere else, rubbish is tipped at specific locations, often in a gully at the start of a stream.

The Village
The Village

On close inspection, it’s entirely packaging: empty plastic sachets once containing laundry powder, body lotions or snacks.  Everything these days is packaged – for our convenience, but eighty or even thirty years ago everything on these tips would have been biodegradable.  Is this progress?  In the west, this rubbish might not be visible, but it’s still around, in land fill.

A grand new house. Elderly woman with grandchild
A grand new house. Elderly woman with grandchild
Richard with fallen Jack-fruit, a greatly undervalued nutirionous food
Richard with fallen Jack-fruit, a greatly undervalued nutirionous food

What price is Myanmar paying to so eagerly join the global market? There’s also evidence of ‘roundup’ use in places – suggesting that the Monsanto giant has already planted its influence. Provided you don’t look down the track banks, the scenery is lush and verdant and the walk, good exercise for my legs.

Weeding the crops
Weeding the crops

In the village we stop for a prearranged cup of green tea from flasks and palm sugar snacks.  The house is dark and rustic, belonging to an elderly man – all the other villagers are out working in the fields.  Tenzing reveals the origin of his fitness. disappointingly this is not tramping in the mountains but attending the Gym.

The afternoon is to catch up on writing and sorting out photographs before I forget what happened.  The others go into town as its market day and reputed to be vast. It’s still light when we walk into the centre for dinner, dressed as has become our custom in longyis.

Kalaw Mosque
Kalaw Mosque

There’s a bar the others have sussed out in the afternoon where pool is being played and we stop to have a pre-dinner beer. We pass one of the few mosques I’ve seen so far.  There’s quite a controversial standoff between Buddhists and Muslims in some part of the country and foreigners are still restricted from travelling to these areas.  Once again the English Language paper comes to my aid, reporting that the UN has sent a Human Rights Reporter to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi about the situation for Muslims of Bangladeshi origin in Rakhine State.

After dinner at a Burmese restaurant, some of us go to what claims to be the smallest bar in the world.  It’s a horseshoe shape and six of us join conversations.  Two American girls (one German born) are looking at us from the other side.

Temporary Gay bar in Kalaw
Temporary Gay bar in Kalaw

I own up. ‘Yes we’re all gay.  By just walking in, we’ve just turned this bar gay.’ It turns out that the girls are lesbians so the place is at least LG.  The Polish couple talking to Peter are probably not gay and there are two locals, one of them very drunk.  He’s talking very loudly to the girls but there’s a gap in the conversation, so I jump in.

‘What should we call the people of Myanmar.’

‘Bama,’ is the short reply.  He then launches into a lecture about how the country used to be called Bama before the British.

‘We know about that,’ I say, but he expands his thesis that the British liked to put ‘ese’ on the end of every country: Chinese, Siamese etc.  I don’t mention that there are quite a few countries which escaped this treatment, like Cambodia, India, Nigeria etc.

‘So do we refer to the people as just Bama or Baman people or Baman?’

‘Just Bama.’

He’s too drunk to go on and I hear the barman say, ‘Actually we’re just Burmese.’

Further research suggests that Bama is the old name for the Bagan area.  By now I’ve finished my whiskey – not at all sure that it can be called Scotch but it’s good and the trouble is that I always want one more.  I decide to be sensible and some of us go back to the hotel.  Fortunately Richard C has brought a torch and there’s always the trusty mobile phone to light my way.

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