Joe Bindloss goes trekking in remote Burma to meet the Shan State hill tribes.
Every country likes to describe itself as a melting pot, but in the hills around Kengtung (Kyaing Tong), in Burma’s rugged Shan state, the tag fits. The tiny villages scattered around this sleepy Buddhist outpost are home to an extraordinary mix of hill tribes, from the Buddhist Loi to the jewellery-addicted Akha and the animist Ann, whose women blacken their teeth as a sign of beauty.
The tribes of Shan state are found elsewhere in Southeast Asia – the borders of Burma were a colonial creation superimposed over the traditional territories of indigenous tribes – but isolation and obscurity have protected the Burmese hills from both tourist exploitation and Western cultural imperialism. Here traditional culture is the norm, not the exception, and days can pass without seeing another foreign traveller – this is not your average hill tribe trek.
My first experience of Burma’s hill tribes was riding into the hills on a rickety Honda motorcycle, then tracing a path on foot through forest glades and stepped fields to a cluster of long wooden Loi houses. Entering the village, my guide and I were greeted with shy smiles and then invited for a cup of tea on the reed-mat balcony of a Loi longhouse.
As we sipped the wood smoke-infused brew beneath a canopy of dried grass thatch, my guide acted as translator. Our host, an elderly lady with teeth darkly stained from chewing betelnut, asked where I was from, then laughed at the reply –she had never been further than Kengtung, she proclaimed.
Although many Loi wear modern clothing, most follow a deeply traditional way of life, and up to five families live jowl-to-jowl in each wooden longhouse. In the village wat (Buddhist monastery), the Myanmar melting pot was almost perfectly represented – a Burmese monastery, in a timber longhouse that would have looked quite at home in Borneo, beneath a stepped roof that would have slotted in neatly in Phnom Penh, Vientiane or Bangkok.
The beauty of trekking around Kengtung is the astonishing diversity of customs and cultures crammed into a small area. You can start the day in a village of the silver Palaung, surrounded by women with gleaming silver belts, and at lunchtime find yourself in Akhu country, where black-robed villagers smoke bamboo pipes and the focus of village life is the local Baptist church. Trek on, and you might find yourself amongst the animist hill Eng, or the Akha, famed for their extravagant silver headdresses and garlands.
My first trek from Kengtung was a geography lesson in tribal cultures. In one village water flowed to terraced fields along crude bamboo pipes, slotted together like drinking straws. In another, old aluminium cookpots were melted down to provide shiny metal for ceremonial armbands. Between the villages, we followed winding earthen paths through forest groves that were alive with birds and butterflies, passing occasional clearings that afforded spectacular views across the hills.
Our last stop before returning to our temperamental motorcycle was a forest wat, founded as a retreat for novice monks from Kengtung. In the main bot (ordination hall), an excited group of school-aged monks huddled around a television set, eagerly awaiting the start of a football match between Arsenal and Liverpool, a thought-provoking reminder of the proximity of globalisation, and the fragile harmony that survives in the Shan hills.