It Could Only Happen To Me – Inviting myself to stay at a stranger’s house in Burma
I don’t know what is the most “it could only happen to me” moment of my visit to the village of Pan Kam in Burma. If could have been the fact that we went trekking in 45C heat; or that when we arrived in the village the only person who spoke English wasn’t there; or possibly even that I invited myself to stay at a stranger’s house. To be fair I’m pretty spoilt for choice…
The village of Pan Kam is just outside Hsipaw, in the north of the country. Our guidebook had advised not doing the trek alone as “nobody speaks English” but as we felt like that’s kind of the point when you’re travelling, my friends and I decided to give it a go by ourselves. Armed with a map drawn on an ancient computer by our lovely hotel owner’s son (which included helpful annotations like “don’t go this way, I got lost”) we were about to head off when she stopped us and insisted that we needed to wear hats to protect us from the sun. I tried to explain to her that I never wear hats (on account of my tiny pea head) but maybe pea head doesn’t translate very well into Burmese as she gave me such a mum look that I just had to agree. Which is why I began our walk with a straw hat, which was weirdly a bit too small for me, perched on top of my head and tied under my chin with a piece of string.
In hindsight it’s probably not the best idea to start a five hour trek in 45C heat, but at the time we thought it would be fine. I think it was about half an hour later, when we were downing our water reserves, that we suddenly realised ‘hmm…we’re doing a five hour trek in 45C heat.’
Nevertheless we trudged on, much to the amusement of the people in the villages we passed. They came out of their bamboo-made houses to stare at us as we went by, giving us a friendly wave and shouting “mingalaba” (hello). Some of the younger children just gaped at us open mouthed. I seriously hope that, with my red sweaty face and tiny hat balanced on my head, I was not the first white person they had ever seen.
The great thing about trekking somewhere like Burma us that none of the paths are marked. So when you arrive at a fork in the road there is absolutely no indication of which route you should take (and to be honest the map for our trek to Pan Kam wasn’t that much help). This resulted in us having to flag down motorbikes passing by and asking “Pam Kam?”, while pointing hopefully in what we thought was the vague direction.
The locals had a brilliant time laughing at us and nodding encouragingly. At one point a number of them started saying “three” but we weren’t sure whether they meant three miles, 30 minutes (they sometimes get their tens confused here) or – worryingly – three hours! Eventually, just as were were all ready to drop, we arrived at the village. The relief from all three of us was massive. We collapsed in a heap, fully expecting the chief of the village, who we’d been told speaks good English to come and find us. But when that didn’t happen, we set off to find him.
On the way we stopped at a little shop to buy some cans of pop. The woman took them out of a dusty looking cupboard (no electricity or running water here) and we all commented on the old fashioned ring pulls. It wasn’t until we’d drank the contents that I actually looked on the bottom of the can and discovered they were all out of date…
We began our search again for Omagh, the village chief, and came across two old grannies who probably had about four teeth between them. They were wearing long bright, striped skirts, colourful jackets and headscarves and had clearly been working in the fields as they hands were caked with dirt. We tried to find out from them the whereabouts of their MIA chief but in a mixture of Burmese and sign language they explained that he was working far away and would not be returning that night. Hmm…not something we had really planned for. But we need not have worried as the grannies had a plan and kept telling us to follow them and signing that we could stay in their house. By this time we were thoroughly confused. (Hotels in Burma need government permits to take in foreigners and we weren’t sure how things worked in remote villages.)
We decided to go back to the shop to see if we could find out any more information. However, once there, I confused the situation even more by accidentally inviting myself to stay with them. (My sign language obviously needs a bit of improving.) In all fairness to the lovely Burmese couple who ran the store they did actually agree, but luckily for all concerned we were saved by another man who came along and introduced us to a family which actually offered homestays to visitors.
The owner instantly plied us with cups of tea and I instantly felt at home. The house was small, but cosy, with all of the cooking done on an open fire in the middle of the room. Our host quickly knocked up a meal of aubergines, vegetables and rice, which they refilled constantly.
It was an early night for us all and before we bedded down on piles of blankets the only other drama was having to walk past the bulls to the outdoor toilet – all just another part of the experience I guess.