Author Archive: carono

Myanmar: Trekking around Kyaingtung (Day III) [Lahu Shi, Village II]

We entered a second Lahu Shi village soon after leaving the first. It was very quiet as most of the adults were working in the fields. We were welcomed into a hut, where a couple of older villagers were at home to look after children. The hut soon started to fill up, and we apologised that we had no gifts, explaining we had not planned to stop here.

We decided to try to entertain the children for a while. My guide played a cartoon on his phone, which had then all crowding to see. I decided to show them how to use my small camera. One or two of the kids were too shy to take it from me, but once we got going there was a lot of fun. One of the funnier moments was when we were taking photos of each other at the same time (see last photo below). It great when you can manage to connect with people where language and culture are different.

The photos below this text show a one of the older villagers, and of course some of those wonderful kids. I did not photograph the young girls as they were too shy. However, they are included in one snap that I took as they watched the cartoon on my guide’s phone (first photograph).

  1. Not the best photograph, but it’s the only one i have that has all the children in it. It also shows my guide, Sai Zawm Wan, showing a cartoon on his phone.

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2. An old man who wandered into the hut to see who the visitors were.

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3 and 4. A couple of the children who came in to see us.

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5. The young lad took the camera and the others all watched. Good fun for all!

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Myanmar: Trekking around Kyaingtung (Day III) [Lahu Shi]

I am really enjoying my visit to the Kyaingtung region. I have a great guide, Sai Zawm Wan, and the villages are interesting and welcoming. I have some thoughts on how the hilltribes could benefit more from tourism than they currently do, but I’ll save those thoughts for another post.

Sai Zawm Wan and I visited the Lahu Shi tribe today. At the first village, we visited the chief, who was not working in the fields as he was feeling unwell. We took gifts of coffee and shampoo. The Lahu Shi grow and drink tea, so coffee is a nice change for them. I am guessing the shampoo will be used mainly by the ladies, judging by their stunning long hair. The ladies are incredibly beautiful, although the younger ones are very shy so I did not take photos of them. The men were really very gracious and welcoming. I asked the chief what he thought of tourists coming to his village. His reply was that he is happy to receive tourists as visitors, as he cannot visit us in our countries. I really love that answer.

One of the men showed us his foot, which he had just injured. Although the big toe did not seem broken, it was bleeding, swollen, and already bruised. He asked if we had any medication, which we did not, and I realised how difficult life must be for these people if they have medical problems. I asked my guide to tell the man that he should wash the wound in hot water regularly and keep it clean. The instruction was passed on, but when we saw the man outside shortly afterwards it was clear he had decided not to take the advice. My guide was returning to the village in a few days, so I gave him money for bandages and antiseptic spray. I also asked him to ask about antibiotics, and to consider taking some to the village with instructions on how and when to use them. [update: Sai Zawm Wan just sent me a photograph of the man receiving the medical supplies and a message of thanks. Thanks to Sai Zawm Wan for making it all happen].

Some photos below. The last photo is the village chief.

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Myanmar: Trekking Around Kyaingtung (Day 2) [Eng Village Part II]

A few more photos of the Eng village we visited. After making introductions and eating together at the chief’s hut (see previous post) we took a walk around the village.

Older lady at the chief’s house.

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The men were repairing the water structure that runs through the centre of the village. Water is piped down from the mountain and then directed to the bamboo channels. The villagers use the water for drinking, washing etc, but the structure also has spiritual meaning. When a village person dies, a wooden carving is placed by the water channel.

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Below is a new section of water channel, made from a piece of bamboo. On the left is one of the wooden blocks that has been placed by the channel after a death in the village.

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Thread for weaving textiles hanging outside one of the village huts

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The village children can be quite shy, but they are also very curious. It takes a little effort to get their trust, but at first you are viewed from a distance.

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A friendly old man, with teeth stained from chewing betel.

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Probably the most ferocious looking man i have ever seen, working hard at repairing the water channel. Of course the villagers are very polite and friendly, so looks are deceiving. I would have loved to photograph this man some more, but they were hard at work and so i took just this one shot.

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The Eng people grow their own food, including rice and tea.

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Looking up through the centre of the village, with water being channelled down the slope.

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The children are lovely, but sadly infant mortality is high in these very poor communities.

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A mixture of traditional and western clothes are worn by the kids.

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I take a little compact camera (Canon powershot S110) with me on trips as well as my bigger dSLR. I like to show people how to use it as it’s fun for both them and me. These children were initially very shy and running away from me. After a little joking around, they became more trusting, and then lost their shyness as i showed them how to use the camera to take photos of each other.

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As with many the the Eng villages, the houses are built on steep slope.

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This old man was very friendly and we said goodbye as i prepared to leave the village with my guide. Note the electricity cables in the background; the villagers use a nearby stream to generate limited power. Even though this community is remote, the advantages of the modern world can be used. Some villages in this area also have solar panels. However, the electricity generation is very small scale, and generally used for the occasional light or sometimes a television. Refrigerators or washing machines are not yet features in homes.

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Another shot of crops rice drying outside a village home. This Eng village had mainly traditional roofing. At other villages closer to Kengtung you will see that metal sheeting is now more commonly used for roofing material.

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This lady is washing clothes using the water that is channelled through the centre of the village.

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A lady carrying baby on her back.

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Children outside their home watching us leave the village. The markings on the face are very common in this area of Myanmar, both in villages and in the city. The branch from a certain type of tree is when wet with water and then put on the face to protect the skin from the sun. More often than not, the markings seem to applied to just just the cheeks, so i’m guessing the people also like the look.

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Looking back at the village as we made our way back to Kyaingtung using our ‘hybrid’ trekking method of motorbike on the easier bits, and me walking the more difficult slopes.

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Myanmar: Trekking Around Kyaingtung (Day 2) [Eng Village]

Setting off around 8am from Kengtung, we made our way out of the city and up, up, up into the mountains. We used our special ‘hybrid’ trekking method, which was sharing a motorbike for the easier bits, with me walking up the steep or difficult sections. The shot below shows my guide waiting for me at the top of a slope as i make my way up to jump on the back and continue the journey. Without using the motorbike on the mountain paths, it would have been difficult to reach our destination and return to Kengtung before nightfall, and the Myanmar government does not allow foreigners to stay overnight on the mountain.

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Arriving at the Eng village, we were welcomed by a few of the men who were busy repairing the structure that runs water through the centre of the village. The structure is used to supply their drinking water and also has spiritual meaning when someone dies.

It’s always a dilemma knowing what to take as gifts. Quite often the guides recommend to take biscuits for the children. However, biscuits are loaded with sugar and the kids in the villages don’t have toothbrushes. We decided to take a big box of noodles. We also brought some mosquito coils.

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My guide had visited this village a few months ago with his father to sell them a cow, so they knew him and greeted us warmly. We made our way to the chief’s house to talk. The noodles we brought were cooked up to feed the children and some of the adults. We had brought some lunch with us, which we also shared with some of the Eng.

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The photo below shows the inside of the house, which is a single room where everyone sleeps. The large drum has spiritual meaning, and i was warned not to touch it, although they were fine for me to take a photograph.

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Before leaving the chief’s house, i bought a skirt from one the lady in the picture below.

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Myanmar: Trekking Around Kyaingtong (Day 1 Part II) [Eng]

After lunch at a pleasant but litter-strewn waterfall, we continued our short trek to an Eng (also known as An, Ann, Enn) village. We’d covered a lot of distance on motorbike, but walking to the villages was on foot.

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The Eng ladies make textiles under their houses using looms with bamboo foot pedals.

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Moving upstairs to the house, I bought some fabric from the girl in who was operating the loom. Her name is Ee-am (although not sure about the spelling) and some photos of her cutting the cloth for me are below.

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This lady also wanted to get in on the photos, so i obliged.

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This is the father in the household. The Eng people are very welcoming. I hope that doesn’t change as tourism increases.

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The Eng are also well known for the black teeth of the women, which is a sign of beauty to them. They chew a lot of betel leaf which, along with other methods, certainly helps get the effect they desire.

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The house filled up because of visitors, and family and friends, young and old, sit together.

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Walking out of the village i stopped to take more photos of another lady making fabric. It’s quite dark under the houses, so i had to blow out the background so she would be correctly exposed.

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Under another house they were sorting out some thread, which they get from the market. On the lower photograph you can see the lady has black teeth, but not from betel. I’ve read they use charcoal from a certain tree bark.

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An experienced guide is pretty much essential to visit tribes such as Eng. They are shy and there is certain etiquette to observe. You will never get the same level of interaction and enjoyment without one.

I am never entirely comfortable taking photographs when visiting hilltribes, so have developed a little set of rules to follow. I take photographs only after all the introductions and some small-talk has been made. I only take photos after asking the guide and members of the household. I try not to photograph for too long, putting the camera down every now and again. I find that some people can like having their photo taken, whilst others are shy. I don’t take photos of anyone who is looking uncomfortable with the camera, and don’t push it.

After visiting the Eng, we made our way down the hillside to deliver some printed photographs to another village. The photos had been taken by tourists on a previous trip, and my guide had printed them for the people. We found the village chief (or chairman), who was presiding at the construction of a room to house a Buddha effigy. His village were practicing both animism as well as Buddhism. The chief was in an excellent mood, perhaps due to the rice wine that he was drinking, and somehow – despite the language barrier – we got on really well. I was admiring the tattoos on his arms, sadly not shown in my photograph, and he told me a story about them through my guide. His tattoos had been made to protect him against harm. However, he found out the hard way that they were not fully working, and now sports a large scar in the centre of his chest where he had been shot. My guide told me he had been shot by slingshot, but the scar looked very big. The chief also told me his age (72) and looked at my palm to read my future. I didn’t quite understand what he had seen, but i got the feeling it was all good news. It was great to meet the chief and have a couple of drinks with him, but the day was getting long so we got back on the motorbike and drive down, past the rice fields, and back to Kyaingtung.

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Before heading off, my guide told me tomorrow would be even better, although a lot more hiking would be required. That sounded good to me 🙂

Myanmar: Trekking around Kyaingtong (Day 1 part I)

I thought it would be a good day, and it was!

After meeting my guide we set off on my rented scooter, with him driving and me on the back. You don’t have to drive too far to get to the most accessible villages. We started off at Wan Nyin village, in the Pathein township, which is where Sai Zawm Wan (my guide) lives. Parking the scooter at his parent’s house, we visited the monastry, which is where the kids are taught due to lack of government schools. Prior to handing out some gifts of books and pencils, I had a go at being teacher for a while but I’m not sure i’m suited to it 🙂  I’ll upload some video at a later date.

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Next stop was the Wan Garn Village, where they make rice wine. I was impressed with the rice wine production line, which is a valuable source of income to the village. The rice wine is exported to China. I had my little compact to take the photos below.

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A short scooter ride later and we were at the start of the trek. Tourism is growing in Myanmar and, even though Kengtung is not on the main tourist trail, some of the hilltribe groups are slowly changing. This is apparent here, where the Akha ladies have started selling handicrafts to tourists. I read someone moaning about this on a website recently, but considering the poverty in the hilltribes I am more than happy to put a small amount of money into their hands. It was here we left the scooter and set out on our short trek (next post).

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Myanmar: Around Tachileik

I really like Tachileik. If you read the guidebooks and online reports, you would believe Tachileik is a town you pass through only through necessity as you enter Myanmar from northern Thailand. However, I could easily have stayed another day. I was going to go directly to Kengtung. However, I missed the last bus that leaves around midday, so i had the afternoon to look around. After checking in a cheap hotel, I visited a few temples and the market. But not before getting something to eat. I found that pointing to a couple of dishes does not mean you will actually get those dishes. As you can see from the photo, you seem to get a little of everything.

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I liked this temple – no idea which one it was – because of the crazy lights inside. They were all flashing, so it was pretty disco in there.

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The highlight of Tachileik is the Shwe Dagon Pagoda (or Shwedagon Paya Pagoda). I went up there at the end of the day, and ended staying until just after the sun went down. It’s a great little walk up the hill to get there, and the view across the town is well worth it. A lot of locals seem to go there to hang out, and you are greeted with smiles the whole way around. As i was sitting in one place for a while to take photos, a few folk came over to say hello and have a conversation. After leaving i went into one of the little food places at the foot of the hill, and was warmly welcomed. How people can say this town is not friendly is a mystery to me.

Below are a few photos of the pagoda. I’m hoping to please Uncle Paul by posting some photos in colour today.

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As the day ended, i was using longer shutter speeds to correctly expose the pagoda. I’ve got quite a few capturing movement. It was hard to choose which one to post, but decided on this one as I like it how many feet are showing. The last photo on this page was a 20 second exposure as night fell. The man in the bottom left sat perfectly still, so it looks like the image was taken with a fast shutter speed.

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Thailand/Myanmar: Border Crossing from Mae Sai to Tachileik

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After a couple of days in Chiang Rai, I reluctantly left the comfort of the Chian Guesthouse and made my way to the Chiang Rai bus station (the one by the night bazaar). I caught a local bus for THB 39 to the border town of Mae Sai, which took 2 hours. There are faster buses, but I find the local transport more interesting. I also like it that they don’t have frosty air-conditioning and blaring Thai music. The bus drops you at the Mae Sai bus station, which is 3km from the border crossing. Songthaws to the border are waiting to take you there for THB15. I got dropped off a hundred meters or so before the border point as I wanted to wander the markets and change some money.

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The markets in Mae Sai are really great. There are many different types of people, from hill-tribe groups to tourists, and lots of interesting things on sale. I’ve read on other blogs that Mae Sai has got an ‘edgy’ feel to it. All I can say is that I think some people have let their imagination run away with itself. Either that, or their travels have been to the ‘standard’ tourist spots in Thailand, and they’ve never visited some of the smaller and less touristy towns. There is really nothing ‘wild west’ about Mae Sai and there are plenty of accommodation and other services for tourists.

I needed to buy some Myanmar currency (kyat) and it took me while to find out where to get it. None of the banks money exchanges stock kyat, so you have to go to a licenced money exchange near the markets. I mistakenly started looking inside the markets, which is interesting but not where they are located. My walk then took me under the bridge, where I was met by a funny little man with very few teeth and a stained red mouth from chewing betel nut. He was keen to take me to a brothel it seemed. This wasn’t what I was looking for, so it was back to the markets and the search continued. I finally found a money exchange. I’d been looking for market stalls, but they are established in proper shops. See this post if you need to change money in Mae Sai.

Although certain guidebooks recommend to stay overnight in Mae Sai rather than in Tachileik, I decided I was keen to cross to Myanmar. I already had my Myanmar tourist visa (see this post for getting a visa in Bangkok) so made my way to the bridge.

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After being stamped out of Thailand, you have to cross to the other side of the bridge (and the other side of the road) to enter Myanmar. There was a small queue at a customs sign, and I wasn’t sure if I should join it or not. I decided to walk straight past and no-one said anything, so I guess it’s ok to do that. Well, either that or they didn’t see me. A few metres after the customs office – still on the bridge – you enter Myanmar. They called me in to a small office where five immigration officials were sat doing paperwork. One of them took my passport and started barking questions at me in poor English. I really couldn’t be bothered with this, so just cracked a big smile and announced to the room that I was a tourist and very much looking forward to visiting Myanmar. The barking official thrust a form into my hand and walked out of the door. The others appeared to be a little embarrassed and from then on it was all smiles and very pleasant. After handing in the completed form I continued my way over the bridge and into the busy little town of Tachileik.

Walking into Tachileik, you are first set upon by a wave of tuk-tuk drivers waving pictures of the local temple. I was keen to find some accommodation, which I thought would be close by, so I kept on walking. I was also stopped by a young man very keen to sell me Viagra. He showed me lots of packets and pills, and was very insistent that I should buy some. I was feeling a little tired and hungry, and pretty sure Viagra was not what I needed, so carried on my walk.

I found a cheap hotel a short walk from the bridge and market. The Erawan Hotel is at No. 1/29 Mahabandola Street, Wankong Quarter, Tachileik (N: 20.44905, E: 099.88140). Phone is 084-51156. I was charged THB250 for a double room, with shared toilets (squat toilets) and bathroom (cold water). Even though in Tachaliek is in Myanmar, most transactions are in Thai Bhat. Thai is also widely spoken, so if you have a few words of Thai you can still use them here.

Thailand: Where to buy US$ and Kyat in Chaing Rai and Mae Sai

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There are a few threads on travel forums asking where to buy US dollars with no definitive answer. I thought I would make a post to tell you:

  • Where to get US currency (US$) in Chiang Rai
  • Where to get US$ in Mae Sai
  • Where to buy Myanmar currency (kyat) in Chiang Rai
  • Where to buy kyat in Mae Sai

CHIANG RAI

Firstly, you will not find US dollars at the Chiang Rai Central Plaza shopping mall. I learned this the hard way.

You can find US$ in Chiang Rai town centre at banks/money exchanges near the bus station. Some may just have a single bill to sell, some will have none at all. It seems there isn’t much demand for them to keep much. However, at Krungtahi Bank Currency Exchange on Thanon Phayonyothin (N: 19.90513, E: 099.83311) they told me they regularly have US$ available, and when i visited they had several hundred dollars in stock. The cashier me that often on Mondays and Fridays they do not have any, so it seems you are better visiting on other days if you can.

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You will not be able to buy Myanmar kyat currency in Chiang Rai.

MAE SAI

Getting US$ at Mai Sai is a little easier. I asked at the Siam Commercial Bank money exchange (close to the police station just before you get to the border) and was told that buying US currency was no problem at all. I said a friend was coming in to by a few hundred bucks in the next few days and the cashier said they would definitely have stock. It seems that Mae Sai has a higher demand for US dollars and therefore you have a greater chance of finding notes there.

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Buying Myanmar kyat is also easy in Mai Sai. You cannot buy it at the banks/bank money exchanges. You need to walk back from the border crossing approximately 150m, until just past the police station. There you will find authorised money changers with all the Myanmar currency you need (N: 20.440240, E: 99.882002). Oh, and there are ATMs everywhere in Mae Sai, so you can withdraw Thai baht no problem.

Note also that at the border they require you to have at least TBH10,000 worth of currency before they let you across (THB20,000 for a family). However, I was not asked about this and i read elsewhere only very rarely will they check you have these funds.

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Please also see my post on the border crossing from Mai Sai to Tachiliek here.