Sleepless In Shan State, Myanmar

We arrive at the monastery in the early evening, as the shadows lengthen and the heat of the day is about to disappear. I am so tired now that my knees are starting to wobble. The temperature is plummeting.

We’re hiking through the bucolic countryside of Shan State, from Kalaw to the shores of Inle lake, and tonight we are sleeping on a monastery floor. This is a teaching monastery where a few dozen kids (a.k.a. novice monks) live and get educated by the older monks.

Here’s what I learn about sleeping in a monastery in the hills.

  • Monastery buildings are built from wood – floor, walls, roof, and are raised up on stilts. Theres a lot of draughty gaps between boards, and it will get down to 6 ° tonight.
  • the monks hang sheets from the rafters to create separate sleeping spaces within the one large room, but we are all just metres from each other and every sound carries.
  • my bed roll is the thickness of a couple of sheets, with a sleeping bag and another sheet on top. It will feel like I am sleeping on a wooden floor (because I am)
  • tourism dollars have contributed to the building of a collection of quite new huts housing the squat toilets, down a path under the trees. It’s still a challenge , in the dark, to balance my light source while using them.
  • there is cold water available for a shower (of the tip the bucket over my head variety) but I choose to stay dirty and dry – I am going to be sleeping in today’s clothes and continuing the trek in them tomorrow so getting wet and cold for cleanliness seems superfluous.
  • lying on my bed roll and peeking under the sheet curtain to watch baby monks in their class is fun.
  • the monks evening prayer session is more singsong style than chanting.
  • young monks sing with enthusiasm and gusto, but not necessarily in tune. Get used to it, prayers go for a long time.
  • the easiest way to sit on the floor for dinner, when my hiking muscles are too tight to sit cross legged for long, and I need my arms free for eating, is to sit back-to-back with a friend, an easy way to prop each other up. I still need to make sure my feet are not pointing at Buddha.
  • a dinner of vege soup, rice and a fresh apple is a welcome diversion from evening prayers.
  • it will be lights (candles) out and everyone into bed before 8pm.
  • I will stay warm and cosy in my layers of clothing inside my sleeping bag, my angry birds hat from Kalaw market will also keep my head and ears warm overnight.
  • Floorboards are not a mattress. I am in deep discomfort all night (yes, I am a soft westerner who is used to a mattress, any mattress, please!). Moving is painful so I position myself as best I can on my left side, and then try unsuccessfully to doze off. After about an hour, the pressure points are burning so I gingerly roll over and repeat on my right side. I am so uncomfortable that getting up at 3am and heading out into the cold and dark to find the toilets seems like a substantial improvement.
  • I have never been happier to hear the monks’ prayers start up at 5am, out of tune or not – I can get up now! I discover that most of my fellow hikers also didn’t sleep, but everyone kept quiet as they didn’t want to wake anyone else – so we were all lying there awake all night!

After morning prayers, we hear the baby monks trying to recite the english alphabet as part of their lessons. We spontaneously start singing the alphabet back to them (while still wearing our silly market hats), and they burst out laughing at us, and then join us in a sing-a-long. All of a sudden sleeping on the floor is forgotten, we are having fun, making a small connection with our hosts, and it is all worth it after all.



Finding Chilli Town in the hills of Shan State, Myanmar (Burma)

It’s not really called Chilli Town. But it is the name we bestow on it as soon as we see it. We are only an hour or so into the first morning of our hike from near Kalaw, through the hills and rolling farmland of Shan State, to Inle Lake. Freezing overnight, it’s now warm and sunny under a clear blue sky. And on the ground, in every direction, around every house, are huge sheets of plastic covered with freshly harvested red chillies, drying out under the sun. The kids are playing between them, the women are working around them, and we are enchanted.

So we hang around for a while and get to know the village a bit more. We compliment the women on their bright and practical clothing – fisherman pants, colourful scarfs and tops. Before you know it, we are literally buying the clothes off their backs. Not surprisingly, the women of the village are far smarter negotiators than us, but we are happy customers.

Then we spot the local “Mr Whippy” – his old wreck of a bike carries an icebox inside a battered tin box, from which he sells homemade ice blocks. It’s also hung with old empty sacks that previously carried more toxic sounding materials, hopefully there has been no cross-contamination. The village kids are all kinds of excited, with their ice cream treats and a group of odd visitors to play with as well.

Eventually it’s our time to go as well, with many more miles to walk, with a few extra chillies in our pockets, and a definite spring in our step.