We have spent the last few days in Hsipaw, a small town well off the ‘banana pancake trail’. Its a quaint little place where you stay with Mr Charles (who runs the towns Guesthouse), eat with Mr Food (...not surprisingly he runs the local food joint...) after you have stopped on the way at Mr Book. Its a rather nice place, nestled in the rolling hills and quite easy see why people get stuck here. Unbelievably, the highlight for me was the trekking to a democratic Burma. Yes, it does exist and thrives away from the reaches of the Junta. We spent a day trekking, to visit a group of Shan and Palaung villages. The Palaung villages people are of Mon Khmer origin, a high mountain people who grow tea to make a living.
The Shan are low mountain people who farm rice. They still use traditional dress and only recently have got water and electricity in the village, although electricity is always limited to just a DIY hydro generator put in place by the villagers. What I found amazing was the difference between the Palaung and Shan villages. They have completely different cultures and speak radically different languages, though they live only a few miles apart. They are however, united in their Buddhist faith, like the rest of Burma. We visited the Chief elder of a Palaung village, who, explained to us that he is elected every few years and is the person who collects tax’s for the community. He taxes those who are doing well and helps those who struggle in the tough environment. They don’t pay taxes to the Junta and don’t receive any help. It was good to see this freedom, even if a central government could help much more through the benefits of infrastructure investment using the economies of scale. The water to the village was put in place by the UN, the first involvement from the UN I have seen in Burma. The elders wife told Sarah she was fat, which is a big compliment in this part of the world. I am now almost certainly going to be in the dog house for mentioning this on my blog. For at least a month, maybe two. To get there was a long days trekking. Not surprisingly, walking in the monsoon involved plenty of mud and water. Lots of it. We had to cross several paddy fields and struggle up muddy paths, meeting many burmese along the way, several times accompanied with their water buffalo. We met the odd Motorcycle plying the route, which was only possible with really chunky chains on their rear wheels, much thicker than ones you’ll get in Europe an Ski resorts when it snows.
While in Hsipaw we stayed with Mr Charles, which rather unfortunately had a school next door and with a 6.30am start. Which would have been fine in most schools, but not a Burmese school with their repetitive teaching methods.
The lessons consists of children repeating after the teachers all day long. Lots of repetition over and over again, which I was told is because the kids have trouble ‘pronouncing’ and ‘remembering’ ? For lessons like arts and science ? I am not an expert, but could see that this was hardly a way to encourage children to develop the ability to learn. I also understand that the Junta does not knowingly allow studying abroad. I have to say I do rather like the school kids uniforms in Burma. They all have their grade neatly stitched on the front of their shirts. Like ‘grade 5’. I bet you you even find their names on the insides of their collars too, something the UK forgot in the 1980’s. Speaking of schools, we met this British school teacher while having a bite to eat at Mr Foods. She teaches culture. Its a New Labour/Tony Blair sort of idea to teach todays UK youth a little bit of culture apparently.
Leaves me wondering how times have changed since my dose of Latin in the 80’s. After a few days in Hsipaw, we have returned to Mandalay and are taking the slow boat to Bagan. We are going to miss Mr Food, his food was excellent.
However, spending a few days in Hsipaw, was not as it seemed. We heard that Mr Charles, although not government owned is linked to the government and is running a racket against his competitors in town. No-one but Mr Charles was able to provide a guide to go trekking. If another establishments, such as Mr Book offered anything but accommodation, the police pay regular visits to provide some persuasion on way this is not a good idea and they are not nice ... after-all they work for the Generals.