A hill tribe Christmas

Hsipaw early morning fresh produce market.

Seriously, what bus gets into … anywhere … at 3.30am! Talk about all dressed up and nowhere to go! The bus dumped the three of us (we were travelling with our French friend Fabien) somewhere on the side of the road in the little hamlet of Hsipaw. We had a map and so the three of us navigated our way to Mr Charles Guest House.  It didn’t take us long to get there, but everything was still very quiet and the gates to the hotel closed.  We tried to quietly get someone’s attention, and after ten minutes or so, someone finally let us in.  What to do? We relaxed for an hour or so, and then walked over to Hsipaw’s fresh produce market, which starts at 4.30am.  We were not going to be able to check in until much later, so we figured we may as well use our time wisely.

Hsipaw early morning fresh produce market.
Whilst I do love markets, getting up at the crack of dawn is not generally something that excites me.  But here we were … the market was lit up by low-level lighting, and people were selling all types of fresh produce from veggies and hers to chicken and meat.  It was great to walk along, observe and get caught up in the market atmosphere.  What does infuriate me, however, are the tourists that treat such a magic moment as a ‘freak show photo opportunity’! I wanted to say, “Dudes, get that camera out of their faces!” We are always mindful of this, even if it means getting blurry or distant shots.  Show a bit of respect!
Namtok Waterfall.
Once back at the guest house and checked in, we had some brekkie and then went for a walk around town and then on to a  beautiful walk through rice fields, general country living and the gorgeous Namtok Waterfall. This was a world away from the world as we know it … country people happily doing their country thing with smiles on their faces and a hearty ‘mingalaba’ (hello) … where did we get it wrong!  I felt happy, inspired, rejuvenated, at peace … it can only be described as that magical ‘traveller’s minties moment’ that travellers know so well!
That evening we also visited the Shan Palace, which was where the last Shan Prince lived before he was abducted by the military. It is now lived in by his nephew and family. A family member, Fern, was most keen to chat to us, show us pictures and tell us what had happened.  Even only a year ago this would not have been possible and the nephew was actually jailed for speaking to foreigners. Indeed Myanmar is changing at lightning speed!
Hill tribe kids around Hsipaw.
We had heard that the trekking in Hsipaw was amazing; that it was like the hill tribe treks in
northern thailand 20 years ago! I remember doing that trek in Thailand 20 years ago and loving it, then going back ten years later to see how much had changed (not for the better – welcome to the freak show!).  Would a trek here capture the magic that I remembered from 20 years ago?  Along with Fabien we organised an overnight trek from the guest house. Leaving the next morning, it would be just the three of us and our guide Kyaw-Kyaw (pronounced Jo-Jo). We left on the 24 December and came back on Christmas day. What an amazing two days!  Our knowledgeable guide took us through valleys, fields and villages which offered simple people and spectacular views. This is what it feels like to be truly alive!  I felt so incredibly lucky. Coffee stops (not so nice and in wooden huts), playing with the kids and observing the general living of the various tribes were the highlights.  The main villages we passed through were either Shan or Palau.
Palau lady cooking dinner.
I must say that whilst the Burmese food did not blow me away (too oily and too many fried things), the fresh veggies were amazing, and the way in which the villagers cooked them was amazing.  On both days, our lunch was amazing.  Indeed, my favourite food in Myanmar was on this trek. Christmas Eve (keeping in mind that it’s not celebrated in this Buddhist country) was spent in a basic, sparse wooden hut, with a Palau villager cooking us dinner and her young son who said nothing as part of his training as was robed in monk’s attire. This child, however, had the most amazing energy!  We all sat around the open fireplace drinking tea as the mother cooked and the child watched.  Priceless! This family was totally unaware of the commercial fracas that would be occurring in our own countries at this very time. I felt totally at peace!  These people seemed to have so little and yet they had so much.  We, on the other hand, have so much, but in many other ways so little! When the lady finished cooking she retreated into a corner and started chanting … in the same room as we were in; it was the only space she had! These are the moments that have shaped the way I think about the world in which I live.
Getting breakfast ready.
I had the most peaceful night’s sleep, and woke up to the rays of the sun streaming through our window. Again, we were cooked a hearty and healthy breakfast, of mainly vegetables.  I observed the red dusty floor outside (no roads!) and the way in which the villagers had to walk to the well to get the water. The amenities were basic, electricity virtually nonexistent and yet the people always offered a smile! This was a world away from my own! We said our goodbyes and I thanked our host profusely. “Please come back again. You are welcome here anytime”, she told us through our guide. Perhaps, I thought, but there are so many other places I need to see in this lifetime!
Palau school room.
And so, on Christmas Day, we made our way back to Hsipaw … it was like any other day to the villagers we met and waved to along the way.  We stopped at a school in one of the villages, and I could not help but notice how bare their classroom was in comparison to ours.  In fact the school was only one classroom! I thought about the kids over here whinging, whining and complaining about not wanting to go to school … they needed to be looking at this! A happy little bunch they were, but how many of them would progress and get the education they deserve? An issue close to my heart; education (along with health) is the only true way forward.
Just after midday we were met by a pick up which took us to some ‘natural hot springs’. OMG (I am going to sound like a ‘precious tourist’ now!) … the ‘hot springs’ were two concrete boxes (one for the men and another for the women) filled with people scrubbing every single bit of their bodies (in the water!!!) as well as other bits that I did not know existed!  This was surrounded by food stands and lots and lots of rubbish!  Did we want to go in? Fat chance!! Was I sure? Absolutely!  I could well and truly wait for a shower when we got back to the guest house! Back by 5pm, we thanked Kyo-Kyo profusely, for our amazing experience. The evening was spent relaxing. Tomorrow we would take it easy and catch the overnight bus to Bagan, which of course would be arriving at ridiculous-o-clock once again!
Relaxing at Pontoon Cafe.
I must mention Pontoon Coffee run by the very affable Maureen, an Australian who has been living
here for some 15 years.  We had heard about this place on the grapevine, and I must say the coffee was excellent. Whilst culture immersion is important to me, my weakness is good (actually excellent) coffee!
Next: A Bagan New Year

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever” – Mahatma Gandhi
Alex and Fabien in the fields around Hsipaw.
Hsipaw early morning fresh produce market.
Hsipaw early morning fresh produce market.
Laundry, Hsipaw.


Home cooking, Hsipaw.
‘Washing machine’, Hsipaw.
The only mosque in Hsipaw.
With Fern at the Shan Palace, Hsipaw.
Working the fields, Hsipaw.
Hill tribe baby.
Our guide, Kyo-Kyo and a hill tribe toddler.
Alex hangin’ out with the village kids.
Hill tribe school kids
Fabien shows a little kid a picture of herself.
This is the way we build a house!
Hill tribe kid teaching Alex about ‘how to entertain oneself’!
Trekking and contemplating.
Hello sunshine!
Life in a Palau Village.
Hsipaw transport!
Great shakes at Mr Shake’s, Hsipaw.
Around Hsipaw.
Back from our trek; exhausted but happy.
Fruit and veggies, Hsipaw.
River li, Hsipaw.
Chinese temple, Hsipaw.
Barber store, 
Drying out corn, Hsipaw.
Noodle factory, Hsipaw.


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Alex & Ombi

Alex & Ombi

Ombretta (Ombi) Zanetti is a co-founder of veryitchyfeet.com. She has been travelling the world since 1989 and since 1999 with her partner, Alex, who hails from Ecuador. They both like to venture to the lesser known places. Ombi shares her passion for different cultures through her travel stories and Alex through his lens. Come take a detour or two with them!

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