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Asia travel

Selfies with armed guerillas: holidays in Myanmar off the beaten track

With growing numbers of tourists looking beyond package tours, a trek through Myanmar’s northern Shan state offers impressive views and a glimpse of an ongoing conflict between ethnic minorities and government forces

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 March, 2018, 7:47pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 March, 2018, 7:47pm

We have been trekking for about two hours through Hsipaw’s tea plantations, rice paddies, and lush palm tree forests, when our tour guide tells us to slow down. Fifty metres ahead, a few armed men stand at a single-barrier checkpoint on the dirt road.

We push on, and, after a few words with our guide, the men in military fatigues watch in silence as we cross the dusty control point. Our group of seven tourists has just delved into rebel-held territory in northern Myanmar.

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Any foreigner visiting Hsipaw might face similar encounters. Many visitors, tired of the high-end resorts and package tours in Bagan or Inle Lake, are heading towards this relatively unknown town in the northern part of the country in search of an “untainted” Myanmar experience.

With a population of around 20,000, Hsipaw is surrounded by round hills and sits next to one of the lazy meanders of the Myitnge river. A stroll through its oldest neighbourhood, Myauk Myo, reveals rural houses, a wooden monastery and a crumbling complex of pagodas generously named “Little Bagan” after the ancient city’s thousands of Buddhist temples.

But many of the surrounding areas visited by tourists here are disputed between the Burmese army and several armed groups from local ethnic minorities, like the Shan or the Palaung, allowing visitors to get a glimpse of daily life in a region constantly on the verge of changing hands.

“These are soldiers of the Shan State Army,” says our guide, who doesn’t want to be named, after we cross the checkpoint. He refers to the armed wing of the Restoration Council of Shan State, an ethnic group that has signed a ceasefire with the government and that controls part of the territory we will cross on our two-day hike through the region’s mountains.

Our hosts are involved in Myanmar’s civil war, one of the longest domestic conflicts in the world, that includes more than 20 different active ethnic armed groups and a complex and ever-shifting network of alliances and ceasefires.

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After crossing the checkpoint, we arrive in Nar Mon, a Shan minority village of no more than 20 houses, that is firmly in the grip of the local guerillas.

Here, running water and power grids are unheard of, and solar panels can be seen in the courtyard of each residence. A tiny turbine, connected to one of the irrigation waterways, is the other main source of electricity for villagers.

When we enter the courtyard of the only venue serving food, several young soldiers from the Shan State Army scrutinise us again. Like us, they are seeking shade from the sun, sitting at a table under a thatched roof, and their curious smiles soon put us at ease.

After we timidly greet them in the Shan language, some even let us take pictures of them, their rifles resting against the table.

Leaving Nar Mon, we remain on the lookout for more military but the only obstacle is the occasional grazing buffalo blocking our path through peaceful flower fields and grasslands punctuated by the wooden houses of local farmers.

Multicoloured Buddhist flags on top of one of the hills indicate the venue of a future Buddhist monastery that will overlook the surrounding valleys.

In the surrounding forests, it’s also easy to spot smaller altars for the “nats”, or local spirits. Fruits and withered flowers can be seen at the feet of cartoonish sculptures of horses and tigers. The spirits are considered protectors against misfortune in most parts of the country, and many towns have temples to revere their own guardian spirit.

Pankam, a rural village about 20 kilometres away from Hsipaw, has become a popular stopover for tourists, who stay in traditional houses on stilts, and end the day drinking the rice wine of the region around a campfire.

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The settlement, which houses 800 people, comprises several wooden houses with blue and grey zinc rooftops, that stand out amid a sea of green palm leaves.

At the local school, one of the teachers, who speaks English, reminds us the conflict is ongoing, and that just a few nights earlier, shooting could be heard in a nearby village. The Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the armed group of the Palaung ethnic minority, is still fighting against Myanmar’s army and other guerilla groups to gain control of villages in the region.

In January, clashes between Myanmar’s army and Palaung rebels forced more than 1,200 people to flee Shan state villages to Kyaukme, 35 kilometres from Hsipaw.

The teacher says the Palaung forces would take the village if not for the presence of the Shan State Army. She tells us how Palaung rebels raped the headmistress of another school in the region last October.

According to the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, there were 11 military clashes in Hsipaw district in 2016 – the most recent figures available – while neighbouring Kyaukme and Namhsan were among the country’s most affected areas with more than 90 incidents. At the same time, ceasefires are unstable, and low-intensity clashes are frequent in the demarcation lines between rebel-held and government-controlled areas.

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So is it safe for tourists? “The Restoration Council of Shan State wants to protect the people, their land, and foreigners,” our guide says, adding that tour operators request permission from the Shan State Army to arrange visits, reducing the chances of foreigners being caught in any crossfire. As these groups rely on taxing local villagers, the arrival of tourists also means an extra source of income for them.

“Rebel groups and the military are not hostile to foreign travellers and both would be politically damaged if something unfortunate were to happen, since it would constitute terrible publicity,” says Michele Penna, an Italian journalist living in Myanmar.

That doesn’t mean that visitors are out of danger. In 2016, two German tourists and their guide were injured by a landmine that exploded while they were hiking near Kyaukme.

“The presence of landmines in some areas and the potential instability means travellers should pay extra attention, first of all by getting information about the areas they intend to visit,” says Penna.

Crossing a field of dry canes on the second day of the trek, more soldiers appear behind the vegetation. Despite initial reluctance, the rebels agree to photos.

As we end the day with a splash in a nearby waterfall, the guerillas disappear into the woods, to continue the cat-and-mouse game that has been going on for decades in Shan state.

How to stay safe

The government keeps an updated website (http://tourism.gov.mm/) of areas that are open to foreign visitors – though some guides are willing to ignore official bans. The non-profit Tourism Transparency (tourismtransparency.org) also offers a map of no-go zones for tourists.

Britain’s Foreign Office recommends avoiding travel by road in northern Shan state, and reaching Hsipaw by railway instead.

Where possible, go local – small group travel and home stays are more likely to benefit villagers. When trekking, always take an experienced local guide.