I carefully folded the pint-size dry bag over and clipped the plastic latch closed. I was unsteady on my feet, especially as the bamboo floor flexed beneath me. The last thing I wanted was to spill the bag in Mr. Bike’s treehouse.
I turned my headlamp on and delicately made my way down the wooden rungs which acted as steps. The clock just ticked 7pm, but in the depths of the jungles of Myanmar’s Shan State it was already pitch dark. My trip mates were having a nice time on the lower level, ‘Happy Water’ making the rounds after a camp dinner.
A few minutes later I stood by the open-pit which acted as our jungle toilet. Flies buzzed and the smell was… less than pleasant. I unclipped my dry bag and dumped out the bag of vomit. My camp wipes came in handy — I used them to clean the bag as best I could.
I had a feeling I would need it again.
Exhausted, I took a seat on a rock outside the corrugated metal shack and put my head in my hands. One of the three dogs that came along for the hike with their masters followed me out and nuzzled my leg; sometimes animals just know.
The joke among travelers in Myanmar is “Have you been sick? No? Just wait.” That my turn came seven hours hike from civilization was an inconvenience.
Shan State is the largest of Myanmar’s twenty-one administrative regions, occupying almost one-quarter of the country’s territory. It is also among the most complex, both historically and ethnically. Sorting through its muddled history of foreign invasion and influence, shifting alliances, armed rebellion, drugs trading and various ethnic armies will make your head spin. Trust me — I’ve been there!
If you’re interested in the full details, this is a brilliant in-depth read.
Basically, no one up here cares for the central government, some much prefer neighboring Chinese influence and most ordinary people, unsurprisingly, just want to be left alone.
Despite a number of peace agreements in recent years, ethnic armies remain heavily armed. Low-level insurgencies in Northern Shan State continue to flare up on occasion. Foreigners are never targeted, but have been accidental victims.
The main tourist towns along the railway from Mandalay and Pyin Oo Lwin — Kyaukme, Hsipaw (the departure point for Mr. Bike’s Jungle Trek) and Lashio — are rarely the scene of military confrontations. Most of the action occurs further east. You may run across a train carriage full of Burmese soldiers (as happened during my trip south) but that should be the extent of it.
Over the course of three months in early 2017 I planned, cancelled, re-booked and, finally, visited Northern Shan State. I found the Trip Advisor Myanmar forum to be much more worthwhile than any State Department government advisory. Plenty of timely information and a great place to inquire about current conditions.
Catch up with the rest of my 28-day visit to Myanmar
Again, nothing to be overly concerned with, but a quality guide with local contacts is highly recommended for any trekking adventures.
I felt pretty good on day one of Mr. Bike’s Jungle Trek; we hiked ten miles, more uphill than not, and put thirty-six hundred feet of elevation change behind us. We passed through a couple of small villages before the dusty dirt paths gave way to full on forest trekking. Dense foliage obscured the most expansive views and we spent most of the afternoon climbing steep hills in the shade.
By 4pm our night one rest stop came into view and it was a doozy — a treehouse in the middle of the forest.
Mr. Bike’s main camp is the kind of place every kid dreams about. The hand-built multi-story treehouse wraps around several massive trees and clings to a steep hillside. The highest level peeks over the treetops like a lookout tower. Below that lie a pair of expansive sitting areas full of handmade tables and chairs. Thatched roofs cover the entire thing. Ground level houses a kitchen with plenty of storage space.
From top to bottom it’s pretty much the most awesome place ever.
Several times throughout the sweaty hike, Mr. Bike teased about a jungle shower. I couldn’t wait to see if it was every bit as cool as the treehouse.
A rather steep hike — actually a brief hike followed by equal parts slipping and sliding down a hillside — led to an exposed bamboo ‘pipe’ in the middle of dense forest. The guys diverted a small creek to create a sort of retaining pond. Open up the bamboo plug and ice-cold mountain water rushes out of the pipe.
Sufficiently cooled and cleaned, I scaled the hill and headed back to camp.
On the way I began to feel a bit light-headed. Then my stomach started churning. I toughed it out for a couple of hours and even managed a reasonable meal with my trip mates.
But shortly after dinner I retired upstairs to the lookout tower. I unfurled a pile of bedding and tucked into a sleeping bag. Without much success, I tried to get comfy on the bamboo floor.
I knew I was in for it.
After three trips to the jungle toilet with my trusty orange bag — seriously, what would I have done without it? — I fell asleep, stomach empty, head pounding.
The first rays of morning sunshine peeked through the bamboo slats of the lookout tower just after 6am. My stomach was already growling, everything I’d eaten the day prior sitting at the bottom of the pit toilet. Movement of any kind seemed like a fantasy. Simply getting up and out my sleeping bag required a colossal effort.
Know that shaky feeling that washes over you when you’ve had stomach issues? I had a case of the wobbles. BAD. I managed to get downstairs and find a seat in a bamboo deck chair.
If you’re up this way, don’t miss out on Pyin Oo Lwin, the lovely former capital of British Burma.
The post sunrise view over the forests of Northern Myanmar was particularly scenic, but I could barely muster up any appreciation.
“How in the world am I going to manage this hike?”
Michèle sat down in the chair next to me.
“I could stay here all day.”
She was referring to the expansive view over the hills of Shan State. I wholeheartedly agreed, the view stunned, but I wanted to stay put for other reasons.
A lovely Slovenian girl I met on the train from Pyin Oo Lwin brought me a cup of tea. A full breakfast was on offer, but I only managed a spoonful of plain rice. I asked Mr. Bike if he had any fruit. He offered up one of my hiking snacks, a small apple.
A spoonful of rice, one small apple and a cup of tea — that was my fuel for the upcoming hike.
THE WALKING DEAD
I left camp in decent spirits, mentally taking it one step at a time, counting down the hours to our riverside camp. The constant descending took a toll on my sneakered feet. Hot spots began developing. I slipped several times, lost my footing and tumbled in to a tree trunk. A walking stick lessened my exertion, especially on the uphills, but even that relief had a downside — a blister formed on my hand.
I couldn’t win.
An Australian girl walking behind me got to enjoy an unexpected dip in the stream below when she slipped off a rotting log and went thigh-deep into the water. And there was the Portuguese backpacker with a nasty motorbike burn who had difficulty walking.
So I suppose it could have been worse.
By our lunch stop I was walking dead. I plopped down on some leaves, closed my eyes, poured water over my head and zoned out. My tank was on empty, though my underlying condition actually seemed to be improving. I managed a bit of food and could drink and eat without throwing up.
And so we continued… crossing streams, scaling hills, ducking branches, hopping fallen logs, the porters occasionally hacking the way with machetes.
More hiking! This time in South Africa’s Kruger National Park
Mr. Bike counted down the time. One hour. Thirty minutes. Fifteen minutes. I constantly looked at my watch. My mind was beginning to go soft. Another hour would have been trouble.
HOME SWEET HOME
Finally, eight hours and more than nine miles after departing the treehouse I stumbled into a clearing beside the Myitnge River. We had arrived. Camp was just up the sandy bank.
I stripped in the fading afternoon sun and slipped into the river in my underwear. The cool water enveloped me in a cocoon of comfort and relaxation.
Thank God, no more hiking!
I floated in the river, took some sunshine on the rocks and chilled out.
My contentment was total.
I ate a full vegetarian dinner — freshly picked orchid flower soup, simmered beans, rice and tea. After brushing my teeth and refilling my water bottle in the stream beside camp I got into my hammock.
And stayed there for thirteen hours.
I was the first one up on day three and felt like a new man. I sipped tea from a bamboo cup and warmed up beside the fire. Birds chirped. Sunlight filtered through the canopy.
I felt fantabulous!
Less than an hour of hiking awaited, sandwiched around a three-hour inner tube trip down the Myitnge River.
I got stuck in a whirlpool near one of the rapids, bashed my butt on a rather large rock and generally had a glorious day in the sunshine, floating back toward civilization.
At one point we passed herders walking their buffalo to cash in on higher prices in China. Mr. Bike later verified the looks on their stunned faces. We were the first Western tourists they had ever seen and they wondered if we were allowed to undertake such a journey.
In Myanmar, anything is possible.
DO IT YOURSELF
Northern Shan State is easily accessible from upper Myanmar’s primary transit hub, Mandalay. The main tourist towns are, in geographic proximity, Kyaukme, Hsipaw and Lashio. Lashio even has an airport. Route 3 runs straight up from Mandalay and connects all three. But don’t even consider taking the highway unless you have already been on the railway.
This stretch of track is world-famous for the Goteik Viaduct, a massive steel bridge dating from 1901 which spans a large gorge between Kyaukme and Hsipaw. It is one of the world’s great train trips. I enjoyed it so much I rode the rails both directions.
Where to Trek?
I chose Hsipaw as my trekking base. I wouldn’t call it a full-fledged city, even though 170,000 people call it home. Tourism isn’t the focus of life here, but it offers all the necessities. Day hikes, overnight trips and multi-night excursions are available and easily accessible directly from town.
Same for Kyaukme. Similar sized, but even less focused on tourism. That means fewer guides.
Lashio is, quite literally, the end of the line for the railway. Obviously it sees the fewest tourists. I didn’t make it up that far, but others said the place seems to have a bit of a frontier feel. Heavy Chinese influence.
Note — None of these spots are akin to the atmosphere surrounding the Kalaw to Inle Lake trekking circuit in Southern Shan State. Hopefully it stays that way! It seems every backpacker and their mother is “doing Kalaw to Inle”. I researched other options and urge you to do the same.
I spent a couple of nights in Hsipaw before and after the Jungle Trek at the Tai House Resort. Most flavorful welcome drink ever. Beautiful grounds, peacefully quiet and pleasant. All around lovely staff. They happily stored my backpack while I went hiking.
Tai House does excellent meals. Made to order breakfasts on offer plus a wide variety of dinner items. I shared a Shan feast with Swiss friends Jan and Michèle the night before our trek. Highly recommended!
I enjoyed dinner and a fruit smoothie across town at Mr. Shake.
The Jungle Trek
Mr. Bike offers a variety of hikes, from simple day trips to the full monty, the 2-night, 3-day Jungle Trek. My temporary illness made the Jungle Trek much more difficult than it otherwise would have been. That being said, this trip is no walk in the park. You need to be in decent physical shape.
Groups are typically limited to eight. Then why are there ten people in the treehouse photo, you ask? Someone messed up. Mr. Bike was super apologetic about it, but things happen. We didn’t mind.
Mr. Bike stops by your accommodation the evening prior to departure for a chat. Bring this, leave that, settle your bill. I think he’s also checking to make sure you know what you’re in for! From the moment he popped in at dinner we knew we picked a winner.
Mr. Bike is the man! He is such a character. Funny, kindhearted, endearing and genuinely nice. If he leads your trek you will be in for a treat. The men he employs are cut from a similar cloth, but don’t speak much English. They’re local, so your costs benefit communities that are not exactly well off. That’s always a plus. The guys are good cooks, keep a nice camp and are always up for a laugh.
Food and Water
On departure you need to carry at least two liters of water. I took a very small backpack and had a bit of difficulty cramming two large bottles in with my stuff. From the first camp you can re-stock and then refill from water sources along the way.
Food is prepared and included — lunch and dinner on day one; breakfast, lunch and dinner on day two; breakfast and lunch at a village house after the river tubing on day three.
Myanmar is a relatively cost-effective destination and Mr. Bike’s Jungle Trek is no exception. I paid 70,000 kyat (US$54 at the time).
I’ve heard lots of people complain about tipping in Myanmar. The rant, condensed — it’s not a Burmese custom and travelers are bringing their foreign practices in and forcing it on the locals. Okay, whatever. Myanmar is overflowing with destitute folks trying to earn a living. If someone provides stellar service in a tour guide capacity, give them a tip.
Bring sunscreen, a hat and mosquito repellant, a toothbrush and toothpaste. Wear the best footwear you brought to Myanmar. Pack flip-flops for camp. A warm garment for the cool nights makes sense. I slept in a knit hat. Bring swimming gear.
Most importantly, minimize weight as you will have to lug it up and down large hills!