Kyaukme was a bit of a lucky accident: originally, we planned on heading to Hsipaw to do some hiking in the mountains. Then, our guesthouse owner in Pyin Oo Lwin suggested we head to Mogok, a relatively un-touristed town known for its gem business. That idea lasted one night until the next morning he told us about some possible rebel-government fighting in the area near Mogok – not something that interested us. So, he recommended yet another option: Kyaukme. As a less-touristed option to visit mountain villages, our research made it seem like a great option, so we headed there. The benefits of a flexible itinerary!
Through TripAdvisor and Google searches we were introduced to Thura, a local tourism-legend as running the very best tours you can find in town (his website is the third listing when you Google Kyaukme). Visiting when we did in June, he was free with only a couple days notice and, after a night in town, we were off the next morning to motorbike into the mountains.
Although I had driven a motorbike already on our trip, it was my first experience with a semi-automatic model: no clutch, but you shift gears with the left foot while braking with the right. It took some adjusting, but I got the hang of it and trailed Thura and Anaïs into the mountains as the weather threatened to break at any minute.
On the paved road I had little difficulty with shifting and braking, but once we hit the mountain roads, it was a different story. The whole first day, I had a difficult time keeping the bike in gear on the slick, rocky declines and in the thick mud we'd come across occasionally. Thura advised me to shut the bike off and glide down those hills on the brakes, which I had mixed success with. I got a little better as each day passed, and Thura was unceasingly patient with my driving, but it was stressful and exhausting to learn how to drive a semi-automatic on rainy, rocky, steep mountain roads.
That disclaimer made, it was undeniably worth it.
We watched locals pick tea leaves on foggy, hillside paths and learned how this activity was the main economic activity of the region. We often had to duck out of rain and found our way into many homes: a Nepali family descended from migrants of decades past; a carpenter who had just moved into a new home he did not build (it would be like “cutting the handle of his knife with his own knife”); a local hunter who was providing a shelter for three migrant female workers from the south of the country. We ate fresh figs and raspberries (!) as we hiked between riding sessions and were able to see local life in the villages. We saw how fresh tea leaves were steamed and rolled in preparation for drying or the production of laphet toke, pickled tea-leaf salad. Whether Thura knew these people already or not (the latter was more often the case), we were always welcomed warmly with tea and snacks and stories of these peoples' lives.
Some people question the validity of hikes like these, where one “gets to know village life”. How much of their real lives do you witness when they are set up for tourists to pass through on a daily basis? How much is done just for profit? On this trek, regarding where we stayed, it felt like we were bystanders in our hosts' lives, witnessing what a normal day was for them. Assisted by Thura, we helped the children with their English homework. The father told us stories about the home and his grandfather, whose shrine sat in the corner. We would drink tea and watch grandma and grandpa prepare dinner. The host mother was very pregnant during our visit, but carried on with cooking, cleaning and couldn't ride a motorbike, so she walked for 2 hours each way to the family's tea plantation.
We were lucky to visit that plantation and have lunch one day with all the workers, being fed different things by everyone and Anaïs was plumped up by the oldest woman there. We were fed local ants that Thura had collected that day, fried in oil and garlic, which tasted absolutely delicious (I said popcorn, Anaïs says chicken). Although everyone seemed accustomed to tourists already, there was a friendliness and casual comfort that I relieve whenever I think about our trek.
Nothing about this tour was extravagant or felt overly planned. We chose to stay both nights at the same place after I had a rough couple days on the bike – switching would have entailed another 45 minutes on the bike. A women who owned the remote village shop we stopped in for tea wouldn't let us leave without a huge bag of tea leaves, which seemed to surprise Thura. And, seriously, we walked by a school with undoubtedly the cutest kids in the country:
It's been nearly a year since we went on this trek, and we had many wonderful experiences, but this one holds a special place in our hearts. For me, overcoming the difficulties I had with the motorbike and seeing such a beautiful place and meeting such friendly, happy people is something special that will stay with me forever.
We stayed at Ar Yone Oo Guesthouse, which was the only place open at the time. It was the only place to stay in town for a long time thanks to government restrictions, and it showed. Northern Rock is open now, and I saw on TripAdvisor the restaurant on that street may be opening their own place soon – check those two out first.
Thura's website is basic, but the best way to get in touch with him is by email: email@example.com. He's really easy to get along with and, although he seems a bit passive at times, does try hard to give you a great tour and will answer any questions you ask. And, by god, he can eat a lot. Very highly recommended!
Kyaukme is pronounced chow-may. ky = 'ch' sound in Burmese transliteration.