Tea time any time in Hsipaw

Water festival had a side effect. In Hsipaw I started coughing like an old smoker. The journey by train was long and uncomfortable, even though we had first class seats. The Burmese call it “buffalo train” because it’s slow and rocks from side to side. The biggest attraction on the way was a steel bridge cutting through a deep valley and small train stations where locals gathered to welcome their relatives and to sell food to hungry passengers.
Hsipaw attracted travelers with countryside treks and as soon as we got to our guesthouse, we arranged a trek for the day after. Hsipaw itself had a few things on offer too – ruins of stupas, an impressive pagoda, and most importantly a few good coffee shops, great fruit shakes and ice-cream. We especially appreciated the latter. Pagodas were omnipresent in Myanmar, but good coffee and refreshing treats like fruit shake and ice-cream were hard to come by.

Still, the highlight of our stay in Hsipaw was the trek. It was unbearably hot, so we decided to go for an overnight trek and sleep in a village, instead of going there and back the same day. It turned out to be a good choice, because the trek was like walking on a frying pan (I never sweated like that in my entire life). Despite the heat we enjoyed the company of our guide and two other couples that were in our group. The scenery on the way wasn’t anything special though. The main attraction were Shan and Pankam villages. We learned that treks in Southeast Asia are not about nature but people and that trek confirmed it once again.

Like in other parts of Southeast Asia, also here people in countryside lived in bamboo hats with straw roofs, sourced water from a river and lived simple lives in a rhythm of nature. The difference here was that they were tea farmers. The village we stayed in lived from tea and on tea. Everyone drunk it at all hours and even had it in a salad. One of the traditional Burmese dishes is tea salad, and not surprisingly, it’s the village’s specialty. It’s a salad made of fermented tea leaves and spices. I’m not a big fan of it, but others were mad about it. The whole time we spent there was about tea. We saw tea plantations, watched how villagers prepared tea leaves and had afternoon tea with elderly ladies. Dry season was the best time for tea, we were told. Young leaves were picked for green tea, older leaves for black tea. Leaves picked during the rainy season were of lower quality and people on the market in Hsipaw mixed them with high quality leaves to increase their sales. We bought green tea in the village. Fresh, pure and strong.

The food we had at our home-stay was delicious too. Lady that cooked for us filled the table with the most tasty dishes we’ve had in months. Food in Mayanmar was not too good – monotonous and often oily. But in home-stay we had a real feast for lunch, dinner and breakfast. All vegetarian, cooked with organic produce from her garden. Yummm…

The village itself was a beautiful place to stay overnight. We arrived there at 2pm, exhausted from the heat and recharged quickly in the shadow of gigantic Bodhi trees at the entrance to the village. They were hundreds of years old (nobody knows precisely how old) and were the oldest trees in the area. Up until recently there was an ancient teak tree forest covering the area between Hsipaw and Pankam village, but it was all cut out and exported to China. The Burmese, just like the Khmer, the Laotians and the Vietnamese, talked about China with bitter emotions. They felt exploited, manipulated and pushed by the Chinese who paid off anyone their wanted in governments of their neighbouring countries. What saved Bodhi trees from logging was religion. It was under Bodhi tree that Buddha reached illumination and it became a sacred tree for all Buddhists. Until today these trees cannot be touched even by the most greedy profit seekers.

We passed a pleasant afternoon in the village, strolling from house to house and visiting a school that was fully supported by profits from treks like ours. The school was a proof that trekking organised locally brought many advantages to the community. In this case, it wasn’t only support for guide’s family, but provision of free education in a secluded rural area. The trek was really worth the sweat, if only for that reason.
We ended our day with with a few shots of sticky rice wine and uncountable amount of tea. Before going to bed we had to face one more challenge though. Asian-style shower – scooping water from a container, using a small bowl. The water container was in front of the house, together with a bar of soap and a bowl. It was right next to the main road, so we all silently decided to wash ourselves after dark. The way the locals did it was with a towel across their body, pouring water from top to toe. We didn’t a towel big enough though and had to improvise.

What followed was a sleepless night. Not because of a shower trauma, but simply because we all had too much tea. None of us could sleep and the day after we were so tired we could barely walk back to Hsipaw. When we finally got there, all we wanted was to have a nap, but we still couldn’t fall asleep!

We stayed in Hsipaw an extra day. It was Easter and we didn’t want to spend it sweating on a bus. Also, we wanted to visit a meditation monastery and have a chat with a monk. We treated ourselves to fairly good coffee and chocolate cake for Easter breakfast and then went to look for a portion of Buddhist illumination. From monastery we were sent to a pagoda and after a few inquiries we found the right place. We first had a chat with an elderly monk. He just finished his lunch and was smoking a cigarette (were monks allowed to smoke?). He offered us coffee and although we were huffing and puffing from the heat, we didn’t want to be impolite and accepted hot 3 in 1 instant coffee that was so tragically popular in Myanmar. After a short chat he sent us to a younger monk, who gave us enough of his time to ask about meditation, reincarnation and other aspects of Buddhism. It was an enriching encounter.

Later the same day we took a night bus to Bagan. It was not a sleeper bus as we used to take in Laos or Vietnam. It was just a normal old bus, driving on the night. It took 10 hot and uncomfortable hours to get to Bagan. We were sitting on the very back of the bus, on the engine, and the aircon didn’t work. It was like doing the Hsipaw trek again. We arrived to Bagan soaking with sweat.

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