Thursday, September 21, 2017

An unlikely trail: trekking in the Danu SAZ

Bikini-Clad backpackers posing for selfies with exotic-looking war refugees, tourists in Beer Chang vests clambering around on the heads of tired elephants and long-neck women being gaped at in “human zoos”: This is how the trekking experience across much of Southeast Asia has come to be known, and the reason why many travellers are now heading to Myanmar in search of uncharted landscapes and “unspoiled” hill-tribe villages.

Monks take photographs at the entrance to the Pindaya caves.Photo: Charlotte RoseMonks take photographs at the entrance to the Pindaya caves.Photo: Charlotte Rose

Most head to the Shan regions of Kalaw and Hsipaw, but as tourism in the country continues to grow – and with few other established trekking destinations catering to travellers – trails in these areas are becoming crowded, increasingly unable to provide the off-the-beaten-track experience sought by more adventurous hikers.

With this in mind, other areas of the country are seeking to increase their share of tourist dollars by developing new trails in previously unexplored regions. One such project, developed by the Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development (MIID) in partnership with local community groups, has mapped 20 new heritage trails in the Danu Self-Administered Zone (SAZ), comprised of Pindaya and Ywangan Townships in Shan State, in an effort to jumpstart tourism in the region.

“We could drive up the mountain,” said Mr Doh, our guide, “but it’s better if we take the stairs so you can enjoy the view.”

Only a few minutes into the long, steep climb up to the Shwe U Min Pagoda overlooking Pindaya, I was already cursing under my breath Myanmar’s fondness for building pagodas at the top of mountains. But as I heaved myself up the last few steps and caught sight of the breathtaking view over the Pindaya valley and Pontalouk Lake, I secretly thanked Mr Doh for doing things the hard way.

Despite its strategic location between Mandalay and Inle Lake, Pindaya sees only a trickle of tourists each year. Most visit solely for its famous Buddha caves – the main reason for climbing all these steps.

"It must be fake” – but the blue lake near Ywangan isn’t.Photo: Charlotte Rose"It must be fake” – but the blue lake near Ywangan isn’t.Photo: Charlotte Rose

Set deep in the hillside hidden behind the pagoda, the caves are brimming with over 6000 Buddha images brought by pilgrims from all over the world, some dating back over 300 years. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of statues as you wander around the awesome complex: Except for a brief encounter with two selfie-taking monks, I found myself wandering alone in eerie silence among the glittering gold figures, disturbed only by the sound of dripping stalactites.

The next morning we pulled on our walking boots and set off from the town, joined by a group of locals who have been involved in mapping the trails over the past six months. Though they were clearly keen to attract tourists to their town, the idea of ambling around in the mountains for no useful purpose seemed somewhat alien to them.

“I never walk anywhere,” said one. “I’ve got a motorbike.”

The trail took us deep into the hills, past tea plantations and through old-world villages where we stopped to watch Danu women processing tea leaves. Said to number only a few thousand, the Danu people speak an archaic dialect of the Myanmar language – which they seemed keen to teach us, unimpressed by our attempts to communicate in Myanmar.

The steep uphill hike was far from gentle, and after a three-hour climb we were grateful when we stopped for tea at a small mountain village. Temperatures in this area of Shan State are far cooler than other parts of the region, and there was something magical about drinking the warm, fragrant tea while watching it being picked on the nearby hillsides, cloaked in mist.

Tea growers process tea leaves for sale at the local market.Photo: MIID/Robert TylerTea growers process tea leaves for sale at the local market.Photo: MIID/Robert Tyler

Like elsewhere in the county, home-stays are not allowed in the Danu Zone. Our group stayed overnight in a village monastery high in the hills, where we were welcomed by the chief – and only – monk, except for two young novices who promptly scarpered, only to be found later, enthralled in a game of frisbee with members of our group.

It is hoped that, in the future, the Danu SAZ will be able to offer bed-and-breakfast accomodation, similar to that of the nearby Pa-O SAZ, south of Inle Lake, which allows tourists to stay overnight in traditional houses (though a clear distinction is made between these designated houses and private “homes”). In the meantime, the monastery makes for a cosy stay, though I awoke to find the top half of my body completely numb from sleeping on the uneven floor – there is only one direction you can sleep with Buddha watching over you.

Photo: MIID/Robert TylerPhoto: MIID/Robert Tyler

The next day we started out early on route to the town of Ywangan, to find what we knew only as the “blue lake”. Mr Doh chuckled when I said I’d packed my swimsuit.

“Swimming in the blue lake is impossible! You don’t want to upset the spirits,” he said, as if I should have known all along.

Any disappointment about not being able to swim was forgotten, however, as we started out on the trail and were quickly reminded that what goes up must come down. The ever-intrepid Mr Doh insisted we forgo the road in favour of a “shortcut” through the forest, and we spent most of the day sliding down a narrow, muddy path – only occasionally looking up to notice the incredible mountains towering above us. All around, jagged rock edges stuck out of the forest like gravestones, and in the distance pagodas sat perched on top of mountains, glittering through the mist. The trail took us through Pa-O and Palaung villages, where friendly locals smiled and waved – and took photos of us on their smartphones.

After several hours ploughing through dense forest we found ourselves in a field of curious-looking buffalos, who watched us calmly as we crossed the sun-drenched valley that would take us to Ywangan.

When we first glimpsed the lake from the top of the hill, we were convinced it was some sort of trick.

“It must be fake,” said one of our group. “It’s way to0 blue to be real.”

Indeed, the water is so bright – and so clear – that it is as if someone has poured blue food-dye into it. Other than some vague mutterings about minerals and a joke about a nearby Levi’s factory, no one was able to explain it, though several hours of Googling told me it is actually the clearness of the water that makes it appear so blue. That, of course, or the spirits.

The Danu Trails project – funded by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) as part of their sustainable development plan for the Danu region – is still in the early stages.

“This area offers much more than Kalaw for trekking, but we still have a way to go before large numbers of tourists start coming here,” said Mr Doh, who has guiding tourists in Kalaw for over 15 years. “Finding the trails is just the first phase. They are not perfect, and we still need to train more guides. There are still many gaps.”

He has a point: Occasionally the footpath we were following would disappear completely, and we found ourselves wandering around amongst a farmer’s crops. Only a few hours into the trip we lost one of our group for several hours when she took a wrong turn with her guide, and it looked as if we were in for a chilly night when the bus carrying our sleeping bags to the monastery got stuck in the mud half-way up the mountain. But it is the unrefined nature of the trekking experience here that makes it a refreshing change from the organised, well-trodden routes of Kalaw and Hsipaw.

How much longer the region will stay “unspoiled”, of course, remains to be seen. Within two minutes of arriving at the monastery, we heard Katy Perry’s “Roar” floating through the windows, only to find one of our group holding an impromptu dance-party for a group of spellbound children outside. Whether the Danu people will benefit from such “cultural exchange” is another question entirely, but one does wonder about the impact a sudden cash injection will have on this primitive economy. For now, however, the locals seem unconcerned about an erosion of their traditional culture.

“We will be happy when tourists start coming here because it will improve our town. There will be so many opportunities to get jobs,” said 36-year-old Ni Thu Yu Naing, one of the community members involved in the project.

Local people are excited about seeing visitors, said Mr Doh, though he added that tourism to the area should be controlled to prevent “problems”.

I asked him why he was so passionate about attracting trekkers to the Danu region.

“Everyone wants to be popular,” he replied. “Maybe you want to be like Madonna or Michael Jackson. I want tourists to come here and use my trails so local people will say, ‘Mr Doh! You did something for us!’”

GETTING THERE

Pindaya is a short drive from Heho airport. Several airlines, including Golden Myanmar Airlines, Asian Wings and KBZ, operate daily flights to Heho from Yangon for around US$80 each way.

TREKKING

The Danu trails are located exclusively in the Danu Self-Administered Zone and use Pindaya and Ywangan as a base. Trails are of varying lengths and distances, and have been graded according to their difficulty. For more information, or to book a trek with a local guide, visit www.danutrails.com

SLEEPING

Surrounded by breathtaking landscapes outside of the town centre, the Thahara Pindaya is a new farmhouse constructed in the traditional Shan way, with five simple but elegant rooms. The friendly owners can help with arranging trekking and excursions, and they also serve excellent food. For reservations, visit thahara.com

Golden Cave Hotel in the centre of Pindaya offers basic rooms for around $30.