Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Discovering Northwest Myanmar 5: Hakha to Falam

In Part 5, we continue our adventures through Chin State. Just a few years back, It would have quite remarkable that I was even up there. Like much of Myanmar, Chin had been closed to foreign tourists for decades. The few that did make it up there were invariably accompanied by gov’t approved tour guides on gov’t run travel packages. This little state, landlocked between India and Myanmar hasn’t had many tourists until recently. 

They like to paint their houses in vivid colors
Some facts about Chin State: At about 15,000 square miles, it’s roughly the size of Switzerland. About 2/3rd the size of West Virginia and one and half times bigger than Vermont. Whereas 8 million people live in Switzerland and 2 million reside in West Virginia, the population of Chin is a bit shy of 500,000. And like these other places, it’s all mountainous. I can’t say that I saw a single bit of horizontal land in the whole state that people hadn’t made that way. 

Being so sparsely populated, there are only a few real towns in the state. In this episode, I travel between two of them which aren’t very far apart: Hakka (the new capital) and Falam (the old capital).

Again, I was taken in by the amazing mountain views I got to see and noticed a few things. Chin burial customs involve roads. At almost every major turn in the road, at almost every spot where you could look out and see spectacular vistas of expansive mountains and valleys, there were graves.
Not graveyards, just graves. Two or three, up to eight perhaps if it was remarkably beautiful spot. And of course, memorials to the dead. Structures to preserve them from the elements. It was kind of odd that at every point when I wanted to stop and take a picture of the remarkable landscape, that I was doing so alongside someone’s dead uncle, but I’m not superstitious in that regard. If there’s life-after-death, ghosts, that sort of thing, I’d think any human soul would appreciate what I was doing, and wouldn’t be offended if I needed to go pee on the periphery of their gravesite. 
Breakfast in Hakha
I got to Falam, a very religious town which I’ve heard recently tried to ban alcohol sales within the town limits.
Having a nose for these sorts of things, I found that this ban would involve shutting down one shop, because it seemed there was only one place in town to get a beer. 

Enjoy the video 

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Discovering Northwest Myanmar 4: Gangaw to Hakha

Leaving one of the few guesthouses
Sunrise in Gangaw
in Gangaw, I was ready from some real mountain roads. Long, straight, smooth roads with gorgeous scenery around have their place. They can be enjoyable. But what every motorcycle tourist likes are windy roads – roads where you lean into your turn and accelerate out of it. Not to mention that the topographical attractions of mountains are nicer to look at. 

After a ways of brown, scrubby hills, the road definitely turned up an incline. Finally heading into Chin State. Chin is one of the smallest and least populous areas of the country of Myanmar. Their people are known for being strongly Christian, excellent hunters and a bit outside of more mainstream Burmese existence. 

Hakha... that way.
I’d been there before. On my last long motorbike tour, I visited Kampletlet an Mindat in southern Chin, but got turned back on my little scooter by the road conditions. Not this time. 

Eventually, I found myself at thousands of feet of elevation, riding down some gorgeous roads. As I’m a bit afraid of heights, what was somewhat disconcerting was the mile after mile of driving along roads where on one side, there’s a wall of rock, and on the other, there’s no guardrail and a steep drop of hundreds and hundreds of feet. 

Rolling into beautiful, Hakha, I was impressed by the view overlooking the city.  Hakha may not be around much longer in its current form.
There are plans to move the entire city due to constant danger of landslides during the rainy season. Just a few years ago, one third of the town was wiped away due to massive landslides. All the roads were blocked and Hakha was cut off. It’s hard to see signs of that damage today, but I’m no expert at spotting it.

Hakha has an “Old-West” feel to it. The buildings are all made of wood and strung together haphazardly.
The people are nice though. I didn’t have a meal in Hakha without at least one person sitting down next to me, asking me to join them

Enjoy the video.

Technical note: the problem with the 4:3 video format cropped up again. This time, I figured out what caused it, so this will be the last we'll see of it.  Note also there's "bonus material" at the end of the musical part. Continuing the bluegrass music theme.

Sampling some Chin Wine.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Discovering Northwest Myanmar 3: Pale to Gangaw

As explain in  the video, April in Myanmar is sort of equivalent to autumn in more temperate climates. See, it hasn’t rained much in this part of country I’m in for months, and so everything is kinda brown and lifeless. How soon all that will change in a few weeks when the monsoon hits.

Day three had me very angry as I checked out of my hotel room in Pale. See, I hadn’t paid up front, and paid on leaving, and so I got to see the ledger for all the other guests who had arrived after me in this medium-sized, small time hotel. My room wasn’t at all good. No breakfast. No fridge. No mini-bar. No kettle. No coffee, and yet I had paid 27,000 Ks (USD$21). As I looked at the ledger, it showed what every other guest had paid who’s arrived after me. 22K, 18K, even down to 14K. No one else had paid even close to 27K, even those with 2 or 3 in one room.
My hotelier couldn’t understand my  anger. Of course I had to pay more. I’m a foreigner. 

Out on the road, through the dry, desolate hills of Sagaing, I made my way to Gangaw, a town on edge of Chin State, in the valley of the Yaw River, that’s the home to the Yaw people. According to this 2005 article, the Yaw people are a subset of the Bamar who make up the majority of the people in Myanmar, but they have their own dialect and have a notorious reputation.

Gangaw: Home of some high grade shirt!
Gangaw is supposedly known for its witchcraft.The people from this area are mistrusted and feared in  the greater community because of this reputation. Some Burmese won’t even eat food cooked by the Yaw people. 
Well,you're doing it all wrong! That's not how witches ride a broom!

The Yaw are also known for their exquisite longgyi, the traditional sarong of people arounf here. I bought one. But I think I made the wrong choice. I bought a special one.  Great for the next time I’m invited to a formal occasion, but it’s kind of like I bought a tuxedo. Not too useful for everyday wear. 
At the longgyi shop. They don't loo like witches to me.

So, this week happens to be “bluegrass” week at my ukulele club. I’ve been so taken by this music that I think I may make it the theme for the entire series of “Discovering Northwest Myanmar” 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Musical Interludes

You may have noticed in these tour videos that I've got a(n) ukulele strapped onto my backpack.|

For good reason! I can't miss a week of Ukulele Underground's Seasons of the Ukulele contest!

Discovering Northwest Myanmar 2: Sagaing to Pale and Hpowintaung

One thing I was thinking about in the planning of this motorcycle journey was not taxing myself. See, touring on a motorbike through an exotic land like Myanmar is enjoyable thing...  for the first four or five hours. If you ride longer than that, then it’s no longer enjoyable. Then it becomes a slough. So in the planning of this trip, which I’m still on, I made sure not to schedule any really long grueling rides of 250 km+. I wanted to enjoy my rides, not be burdened by them.

Another cool aspect of only scheduling 4 hours of driving per day is that you don’t have to leave in a hurry. As I prepared to leave Sagaing, I took my time. I took in the sunrise.
Checked out the morning market. Got a few essentials. 

Always good joo joo to donate at the roadside 
The road to Pale was easy. I got there about noon. Zach from texted me to see how I was doing. Arrived in Pale, I told him, but without plans for the rest of the afternoon. He suggested I visit the caves at Phowintaung.  Why not?

The road was rough, but completely manageable on the CRF250 (man, I gotta get one of these for my own). Turned out that the “caves” were man-made. Buddhist devotees had carved these enclaves out of the living rock hundreds of years ago, and they’ll be here for hundreds, if not thousands of years into the future. 

The monkeys were interesting. Monkeys are always interesting.  

 Enjoy the video...

Discovering Northwest Myanmar 5: Hakha to Falam

In Part 5, we continue our adventures through Chin State. Just a few years back, It would have quite remarkable that I was even up th...