Up a Myanmar mountain: Christmas with a difference

 Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Myanmar is blissfully free of Christmas hype. The week before, a few decorations went up in the posher tourist hotels, we saw one random "pre-Christmas sale" notice in a store selling washing machines, and there were piped carols in the toilets at Yangon airport. Otherwise the Christmas build-up didn't exist. No endless ads on TV, no rush to buy presents, no crowded shopping malls, no office parties.

By December 22, we had arrived in one of Myanmar's top tourist attractions - Inle Lake - and our select three-person world tour ranks were swollen to 13 - Emma and Ben from NZ and Japan respectively, and the Han family, minus my wonderful friend San San, but plus a Yangon cousin on holiday.

 Our Christmas trek. Note my new handwoven hat, bought no expense spared ($2) in a village store outside Pathein

Our Christmas trek. Note my new handwoven hat, bought no expense spared ($2) in a village store outside Pathein

Christmas Eve found us in Koung Soung, a 650-inhabitant village, 17km up a mountain, 1500m above sea after a full-day, mostly uphill trek. It was a hot, but beautiful walk, on small dusty tracks through patches of forest, scrubby cleared areas, and cultivated sections, past little houses lifted off the ground on stilts and with woven bamboo walls. We even visited a cave full of Buddhas.

 Team shot (with obligatory scruffy dog) outside the Buddha cave

Team shot (with obligatory scruffy dog) outside the Buddha cave

 Stopping for water outside a fairly typical rural house

Stopping for water outside a fairly typical rural house

Everyone was wonderfully stoical about the walking experience, though it has to be said, some of us were more enthusiastic than others.

 Being enthusiastic about walking. Note Sam's slingshot, acquired from some local teenagers, who use it to supplement food supplies. Below, slingshot bullets made from dried mud are surprisingly effective

Being enthusiastic about walking. Note Sam's slingshot, acquired from some local teenagers, who use it to supplement food supplies. Below, slingshot bullets made from dried mud are surprisingly effective

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Our overnight accommodation was a village hut, although ours had a tin roof, not thatch. As soon as we arrived smartphones came out and Sam produced a travel Monopoly set he'd carried up the mountain. The more adventurous among us showered in "refreshing" (read friggin' freezing) water at the open air village tank, showing our immense ineptitude at using a washing longyi - a wrapper which allows women to wash modestly in public but requiring dexterity to avoid revealing all - a skill I was lacking in. Two scruffy small boys found themselves ringside seats in a car tyre and watched the show. 

 Not looking at my best, despite an oh so refreshing shower...

Not looking at my best, despite an oh so refreshing shower...

Our December 24 dinner was a rather delicious curry, rice and veges, cooked by our fabulous guide Shan Hea (named after a grandfather from Shanghai) on a single iron tripod and a couple of clay burners over an open fire.

 Taung Yo family members in the kitchen at the house where we stayed. The fire is in the middle of the room, so during the winter you can sleep round it. Afterwards we wished we'd had that option - it gets really cold at night!

Taung Yo family members in the kitchen at the house where we stayed. The fire is in the middle of the room, so during the winter you can sleep round it. Afterwards we wished we'd had that option - it gets really cold at night!

We slept on mats on the floor, wrapped in blankets. It was, if truth be told, uncomfortable and bitterly cold; the wintery mountain air seeping through all the cracks in the woven floor and walls. Going to the toilet in the night involved a treacherous bamboo ladder into the yard and then a basic but clean squat in a hut behind the house.  Again, some were more enthusiastic than others. One member of the group got sick, poor guy, requiring frequent visits to the outside dunny. A strategically-placed-to-deter-robbers cowbell on the door jingled cheerily whenever he crept through. Only the youngest, hardiest members of the party slept much that night, which is perhaps why Santa Claus didn't have a chance to deliver presents.

 No Christmas is the same without a family game of Monopoly

No Christmas is the same without a family game of Monopoly

Anyone who did happen to be asleep was woken at 5am, when the Christmas morning chanting started up from the Buddhist monastery on the hill above the village. Lest anyone miss it, it is broadcast through the village on loudspeakers. It went on for an hour, discordant and repetitive - or was that just the lack of sleep? But the view from the village over the lake was spectacular, and the local children excessively excited by the distraction caused by the tourists. (Most treks from Inle Lake go to the west, rather than the east, where we were, so the children in our village weren't as used to foreigners as some.)

 Michelle leads Christmas morning zumba classes in Koung Soung village

Michelle leads Christmas morning zumba classes in Koung Soung village

 PIed Piper or Santa Claus?

PIed Piper or Santa Claus?

We gathered quite a following as we wandered between the houses; the calls to breakfast from frustrated mothers went quite unheeded. Michelle bought cookies from the village shop and handed them out to the kids, who repeated her "Happy Christmas" greeting totally oblivious to the meaning. I suspect a few children got the bamboo massage treatment for being late for school that morning.

 Daniel is medevacked out of Koung Soung. He survived.

Daniel is medevacked out of Koung Soung. He survived.

By this stage Daniel was too sick to walk far, but fortuitously we came across an unmade-up road heading precipitously into the town below, and Shan Hea flagged down a motorbike driver to take Daniel back to the hotel. It looked a pretty dodgy drive, but the monk's early morning prayers came through and he arrived safely. 

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The rest of us headed down on foot. It really is a spectacular walk through jungle-like scenery, made even more enjoyable by the lack of tourists - just locals going about their business cutting firewood and working in the fields around the villages. It being the cold, dry season, rice isn't being cultivated at the moment, just a variety of different vegetables, plus tea, garlic, cane, and corn (the latter dried and destined for animal feed). We also saw dragon fruit, which grow on a spiky cactus plant originally from Mexico, and a spectacularly-laden avocado tree.

Sam's slingshot and clay pellets came into their own as we practised our village kid marksmanship with trees and power poles. (Strangely, the village we stayed in has very smart power poles running right to it and beyond, but all their electricity comes from mini household solar panels connected to car batteries. Nowhere even to charge your phone, shock horror!)

 Not just in museums...

Not just in museums...

 Getting a ride back into town from the winery. Actually, after this photo was taken, Ben was told he couldn't ride on the roof. It's fine for Burmese New Zealanders to be killed falling off van roofs, but not European New Zealanders.

Getting a ride back into town from the winery. Actually, after this photo was taken, Ben was told he couldn't ride on the roof. It's fine for Burmese New Zealanders to be killed falling off van roofs, but not European New Zealanders.

The two-day trek finished at one of Myanmar's few wineries, where we purchased some expensive and not-very-delicious wine (there is a reason Myanmar isn't famous for its viticulture) for Christmas dinner back in the hotel. Before leaving we had decorated the reception/breakfast area with tinsel (normally sold for Buddhist temple decorations), balloons and paper chains. The meal was (you've guessed it) curry, veges and rice from the restaurant across the road, plus "pudding" (Myanmar's answer to creme caramel) and some German spiced Christmas biscuits sent somewhat incongruously by Ben's Japanese family. We made mojitos, opened some very fine presents bought in the market over the previous few days, and a good time was had by all.

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WISHING YOU A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!