Guns and bikes

Kyaukme is a small village in the middle of nowhere and more precisely somewhere between Mandalay and Lashio. It is not so hard to get there, but almost no one stops by. As such it was quite a deal when I get out on the bus stop, rather than rushing to more touristic destinations like Hsipaw. There is no bus station in Kyaukme and as such I was standing with all my baggages on the road, waiting for a taxi to catch and go to the city centre. Finally the guy on a motorbike stopped and asked me: „Where do you want to go?”. I gave him the name of the hostel and off we went in the classical order – first my big backpack, then the driver, me, small backpack and the camera dangling from my neck.

After first 5 minutes I knew I picked a perfect destination. No wi-fi, coffee bars, european style shops or restaurants that would care about tourists tastes and favourites flavours. There were only popular local tea shops and the market with stalls full of vegetables and fruit. Just perfect – I thought! And I decided to have a lunch in one of the dinners nearby. It was actually a big living room with the doors wide open to the street so everyone can join in and have something to eat. There were couple of tables, big Buddha painting on the wall and the main attraction – the TV set! There were also only two girls watching TV – nobody else. As it occurred they were working here as a waiters, helping out their mum running the dinner. They were so concentrated on the TV series they did not noticed that I entered the bar. The series was a sad story about myanmar lovers that ended with a dramatic scene involving death, hospital and mysterious presence of the ghost of a dying women. When the film finished the girls suddenly awoke and gave me the menu. They also changed the channel to CNN, but honestly I had more fun in watching tearful myanmar TV series rather than listening to economic news from the world.

I left Kyaukme the next day… on a motorbike! I wanted to get to the Shan people villages and the motorbike was the only option to do that. We set off early in the morning having a portion of betel on the way (strange chewing mixture myanmar people use to refresh – it consists of betel, lime paste, coconut, anise and other spices). Going by bike we passed the villages and small towns, sometimes we stopped to have a look on a paper workshop, knive producers or rice wine distillation process. During the lunchtime we stopped to have the most peculiar meat – salad from marinated tea leaves. I would not say it was yummy but definitely it was interesting and eatable!

After lunch the road became more muddy and stony than before. I was sitting on a back seat trying to be positive and brave, but actually looking down the road I was getting more and more anxious.Suddenly, it happened – we slipped and fell down. Nothing serious as we were riding pretty slowly, however it was a bit scary. Finally we arrived to the village. It was rather small but cosy – pagoda, couple of houses and one shop. We were staying for the night in the shan house, which was really spacious but with almost no furniture – only table, fireplace and the big Buddha sculpture decorated with christmas lights (it felt like home). As it was still quite early we decided to have a look around the city. We strolled around pagoda when we saw the monks playing chinlone (myanmar sport game) and approaching to us soldiers. When you meet guys with guns and grenades in totally remote myanmar village you just feel uneasy…

It was a Shan State Army (SSA) fighters for Shan independance. When you travel around the country you meet a lot of armed people but these are usually government soldiers. Nevertheless, in couple of regions in Myanmar there are still local armies fighting for their independence. We met these kind of „illegal” fighters. So we were standing there surrounded by men in green uniforms with guns and grenades. They invited us for the tea. The same time we heard the bomb exploding far away. You do not really say „no” in these kind of situation…

„Sit down” – we set. Our partizans occurred to be a really „nice” company. In a way of course – the guns and grenades were still there! Also the big tattoos on their arms, bellies and even foreheads did not make a good impression. As they informed us – the tattoos were to protect body from harm. So far they were still alive so they even might have worked well. All in all the company was nice – the only lady in the unit was speaking English well so we were able to communicate with others. When we sat she went to prepare the tea for us and the general that proposed a meeting sent his „boys” to the shop for… peanuts. The meeting was successful until.. „I want your camera!” – general Nu said to me. My camera was, and still is, dear to me so I was in a really bad position. You do not really say „no” to a guy with gun, but still giving away my camera with all pictures was not an option. I played va bank and said calmly: „Okey! I will give you my camera if you give me your gun!” and I used my most charming smile possible in this kind (let’s face the truth) of stressful situation. The general burst info laugh and let us go. I was relieved but to be honest – could not sleep well that night…

In the morning I awoke pretty early – 4:30 am. I heard the prayers of our hosts and the sound of meal preparations in the kitchen. Breakfast, tea and we set off for trekking. It was the most amazing time – marching through local villages and across the tea plantations. Only sometimes we saw the people of general Nu and I just could not stop feel a bit unease during those close encounters…

Author: Joanna Zubkow

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