Shan State is a remote region in the north of Myanmar. For decades it has been tarnished with a long standing conflict between government and rebel forces. This is my story of a 3 day, 2 night hiking excursion through it's unique landscapes and settlements.

It was about midday. I was arriving into the township of Hsipaw from Mandalay city by train. Myself and my backpacking buddies, Anna and Lauren, had just finished a wild 4 days in Mandalay’s Palace Square. We were celebrating the Country’s annual water festival, known as Thingyan (read about my Thingyan experience here). Feeling pretty worn out from the festive partying, plus the all nighter we had to pull before our 4am train ride, we literally hopped off the train, checked into a hotel, and had a much needed nap.

The reason we were travelling to Hsipaw, was for the hiking possibilities in the Shan State region. The region lies just north of Hsipaw and is home to some of Myanmar’s most unique scenery. Although the region is fast becoming a sought after tourist attraction, it also poses an element of risk.

Northern Myanmar has a long standing civil war that exists between government and rebel forces. Insurgency lies as the primary cause of the conflict, although opium production is another contributor. Lasting over 60 years, the conflict has been dubbed as one of the world’s “longest running civil wars”. Although most of Myanmar’s north remains off limits to tourism, certain parts of the Shan State region are open to tourists when deemed safe.

After getting some well deserved sleep at the Red Dragon Hotel, I assembled with Anna and Lauren in the hotel lobby. We set out to find a tour guide to discuss what hiking options were available. We ventured around town and found a couple of decent deals, but ultimately, decided to go with the connection our accommodation had. The guide came to meet us at the hotel and we a agreed on a price. For the life of me I can’t remember the guides’ name. He was a young Burmese lad, about 26, and was full of spirit and energy.

The following day we got up for our free accommodation breakfast and waited for our guide. Unfortunately for Lauren, she had fallen ill the day before. She was feeling even worse on the morning of the hike, so sadly, she had to pull out. Fortunately we had another traveller on board – Gabby. I met Gabby previously on a hiking tour through northern Laos. On the day prior to the Shan State trek, we bumped into her in Hsipaw. We found out she was looking at doing a hike as well, so we told her our plan and she decided to hop on board.

Lauren wasn’t the only one who fell ill. I had felt a bit dicey on the train ride coming into Hsipaw. Over the course of the following day, my system had seemed to have straightened itself out. That is until the morning of the hike.

Luckily my unpleasant visit to the bathroom was before we had started the hike. I necked a couple of Imodium pills and was good to go.

Setting off on the hike, we made our way through the streets of Hsipaw on foot. We then navigated through some lush rice fields before making our way to the hills ahead. The first village we had to reach was a good 4 hours walk away, and the path leading there was a steep, dusty incline. With no shelter from the 40 degree sun, I was feeling the burn.

Prior to this hike, I had done my fair share of battling in the searing South East Asian heat. However, this mission was to be the ultimate test. Especially when I was still woozy and dehydrated from being ill – it was no day at the beach.

Arriving at Ban Kham village, we were met with our first taste of civilisation in this rugged and remote part of the world. The roads were an uneven mixture of dirt and stone. They weaved their way through a myriad of shanty houses and shacks, made from various materials. The housing was primitive, but well constructed. Children, pigs and chickens ran around freely, while women completed their daily chores.

Although the village appeared scar free from the region’s conflict, it didn’t take long to bump into a few armed assailants. Despite the fact that they wielded AK47s and a serious persona, they went about their business, and no tension was exchanged.

Continuing through the village, we reached a homestay to have lunch. Our host, put on a delicious assortment of traditional Burmese food. This included lahpet (pickled tea leaf salad), Shan tohu (chick pea tofu fritters), and an array of fruits to name a few. I didn’t over indulge, as I knew with my dodgy stomach, it could backfire – literally. Thanking our friendly host for the meal, it was time to leave and continue the venture.

We headed north west. There, we would arrive at our final village for the night. Luckily the skies clouded over on this leg of the tour, meaning we had a much needed break from the heat. We were starting to branch out into the forest as well. A welcome sight after the barren hills we ascended earlier.

Back in Hsipaw, we had come across a stray dog. He had accompanied us for the entire day when we were out exploring the town. Although he was friendly, every time we encountered a posse of dogs, he would get himself into a massive brawl – quite unnerving when you didn’t get a rabies vaccination. On the day we started the hike, it just so happened that our loyal stray showed up. We thought he’d just linger around for a couple of hours, but nope, he stuck with us for the entire duration of the trek – I think we named him Snoopy.

Eventually we reached the next village (with Snoopy) and deposited our belongings at the homestay. We headed down to the stream where we had a vitalising fresh water shower before heading back for another feast of Burmese cuisine.

That night we were woken by a bright flash, followed by a thunderous boom. Initially in my half asleep state, I thought WWIII had broken out – based on the region’s conflict. Fortunately it was just an electrical storm, and man was it impressive. Huge bolts of lightning scattered the horizon, while thunder rolled through the valley. At one point the lightning bolts got so close to the house, I was starting to think we would of been better off with the WWIII scenario.

As morning approached, our sleep was yet again compromised. This time it was Snoopy’s fault. Up to his usual mischief, he yet again got himself into some strife with another pack of canines outside – what a racket.

Setting off on the second day of the hike, a similar schedule to the first day was mapped out. Only this time, we would really get to experience Shan State’s true beauty. As we explored, the landscape varied from dense lush forest, to open hills lined with tea plantations. All that time I was still finding it really hard to believe that such a picturesque quiet place, was also home to some of the country’s most bitter conflicts. At one stage our tour guide pointed out at a hill adjacent to us, explaining how it was the scene of a nasty skirmish. He also proceeded to point out that the rebel forces had shot down an armed military helicopter close by. This apparently happened less than a year prior to us being there – insane.

Continuing on, we weaved our way up and down the mountain trail. Up ahead we spotted 3 rebel troops. Armed and in camouflage. They were walking towards us on the same forest path – I was strangely excited. As they passed by, our tour guide had a brief conversation with them in Burmese. One of the troops was smiling and happy, while the others looked a tad more vigilant. I took a photo of the friendly one. Our guide then explained to us that they were heading to the village that we had come from, to carry out guard duties.

Throughout the day we passed through numerous small villages. We learnt that the local people spoke different derivatives of the Burmese language. These derivatives also changed from village to village. From memory, ‘roc mi’ would mean ‘hello’ in one village, and ‘I love you’ in the next. And some of these villages were only a couple of kilometres apart. Challenging stuff.

Some 7+ hours of hiking later, we reached the village where we would spend the night. Throughout the day I had been chugging back the electrolytes. It appeared to be working because I felt like I had countered my illness – I was feeling great. To celebrate, myself, the guide, Gabby, Anna and Snoopy headed up the hill nearby to enjoy a beer.

On the way to the hill, we encountered another rebel soldier. He had a US $1 bill that he needed to exchange for local currency. I made a deal that if I exchanged some of my kyat for the bill, I could get a photo with him. He was quite humbled and shy, but was more than happy to make the deal. I asked to get another photo of him pointing his AK47 at me with my hands up. Unfortunately he declined, saying it might land him in some hot water – fair call.

Later that night we were again treated to a generous helping of Burmese food. The hosts were extremely friendly and their homestay was amazingly facilitated. Over some conversation, we were informed that tensions were rising in the region. Apparently there were a whopping 800 rebel troops in the area. Their presence was noticeable throughout the village, but it was incredible how safe and at ease everything still felt.

A few troops were at the homestay that night. They were all outside producing green tea. We joined in to watch the process. The leaves were first steamed, and then placed onto a woven bamboo table. Using their hands, they clumped together balls of leaves and pushed them across the bamboo surface with pressure – effectively shredding the leaves before drying them out. I had a few goes at shredding the tea. It felt great to be participating in local culture and tradition – especially with rebel soldiers.

Just to note, the main source of income for the Shan State region comes from tea cultivation – producing over 80% of Myanmar’s tea.

With morning breaking, it was almost time for our third and final day of the journey – or so I thought. Thinking I had returned to 100% health the day before, my evening’s indulgences were about to catch up with me. Overeating, drinking and smoking home made cigars was a terrible decision.

Knowing something was about to cut loose, I made a beeline downstairs to the outside toilet. Let’s just say there was stuff coming out both ends and we’ll leave it at that.

Unfortunately in my condition, it was not humanly possible for me to hike. I had to call it quits. Our guide arranged a ride for me with one of the local villagers. I hopped on the back of his scooter and made the long and bumpy trip back to Hsipaw.

I was pretty gutted that I couldn’t complete the hike. Though, I later found out that the trek was cut short on the final day. Due to the recent rising tension, the military village we were planning to visit was called off – apparently, ‘deemed too dangerous’. In the end I didn’t miss out on much.

Despite falling ill, the whole experience was unforgettable. In such a remote war torn part of the world, it was amazing to witness how peaceful and harmonious society functioned. Interacting with both villagers and rebel troops was a true testament to how friendly the Burmese people are. It was also awesome to see the progression from being slightly intimidated by the rebels at the beginning, to feeling completely at ease and enjoying a cold beer with them by the end. Shan State is a must visit.