After a hasty breakfast of noodles (why are we always running slightly late?!), we met up with our guide (Aike Thein – email: email@example.com or ring +95 (0) 936186367) and John, the Frenchman who we had met the day before, for a two day trek into the northern Shan mountains. Most treks around Hsipaw take a (fairly!) well trodden tourist trail to the villages and forest area to the west, as detailed in the guide book. However, Lily, our host at Lily the Home Hotel, had astutely realised that we might be a hard sell for a standard trek, and as a result had chosen Aike Thein as our guide. He is originally from a village in the mountains to the north of Hsipaw and he was one of the first few who pioneered the idea of taking tourists trekking in the area. Routes available are very much restricted by what your guide actually knows, so having an experienced guide is vital. It also helped that his English is excellent, which really added to the experience as he was able to point out and explain lots of things of interest, both in the villages and the forest. Our first morning consisted of an uphill hike with regular tea breaks in different Shan villages, followed by an authentic lunch in the homestay where we were to spend the night (which helpfully turned out to be the village restaurant!). We ditched our bags, and went exploring in the forest around the village in the afternoon. Returning to the homestay later on, we were amazed when we learnt that Aike Thein had bought a haunch of venison (hunted earlier in the day) from the villagers for us to devour for dinner! The food was so good and again utterly authentic – venison pieces, venison soup, rice, omelette, cabbage salad (crunchy and slightly spicy), green beans and rice – and a beer for those who wanted! We were all impressed. We slept on mattresses on the floor above the restaurant – pillows, duvets and blankets provided – and pretty much all got a solid 10-11 hours of sleep!
A breakfast of Shan noodles (sticky noodles in soup) and unlimited tea greeted us in the morning, and we were back on the path by 8. The evening before, Aike Thein had asked us whether we wanted a longer, harder and more remote trek through the jungle, or to follow the more common route back to Hsipaw. Our response was predictable, and he had arranged for an additional guide to help us find new routes through the mountains. The scenery was varied, with thick banana and bamboo forest, mingling with pine and birch on the steeper sections. In places, the villagers had cleared areas to grow papaya, limes and mangoes, as well as their main sources of income: tea and corn. The additional guide who was with us was a local buffalo herder, and even Aike Thein was excited by some of the paths we were taking – although at this stage we didn’t realise that he had arranged that we would have lunch in a distant Shan village where his sister lived. On route, he collected some pickings for lunch: stone ginger and banana flower, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to take down a parrot with his catapult! The day was a lot more fast paced, and after only one break mid-morning in a buffalo herders shelter, we were tired and ready for lunch by 1pm when we walked into the Shan village where his sister lives. They only see each other every two months or so, and we felt very privileged to be there, as we were invited into her house made entirely (walls, ceiling, stilts and floor!) from bamboo. The lunch was wonderful and very needed! Boiled vegetables (a cross between a potato and a parsnip that had a faint taste of Brussels sprouts!) appeared for us to snack on as a wide spread was cooked for lunch. We were almost certainly the first Westerners to visit the village and it made the morning’s trek so worthwhile.
The trek finished with a much more sedate two hour walk back down to Hsipaw and tea with Aike Thein’s wife and family.