We left Kyaukme after some breakfast and a quick visit to the market. We were heading towards Hoo Kwat village. Thura was up front on his scooter, and we followed on our bikes. We brought with us the bare essentials, so as to make our panniers as light as possible. It was already hot outside by 8am. We stopped on the way to admire a massive Buddha monument, and a smaller one depicting the fasting Buddha. There were many other statues depicting various stages of Buddha's journey towards enlightenment on the grounds. Apparently, after failing to achieve enlightenment, following 6 years of fasting, Buddha realized he needed to take the 'middle way'. While there, we were followed by a group of kids, some of them novice monks. They were shy, but curious to check us out.
We passed fields of white sesame, and black sesame, as well as rows of local bio-diesel plants. The road was quite rough, and downhill at first. Then we started climbing. We continued climbing the entire way towards our destination. We were climbing up on dirt and rocks, and although the angle became really steep in just a few sections, it never let up. Some really rough sections, with large slippery stones, as well as muddy sections with standing water appeared once in a while. Myles traded his bike for a scooter with Thura. Thura was having a great time, riding up in his military helmet, and flip-flops. In fact Myles had to ask for his bike back. The scenery was beautiful. Rolling hills of tea bushes and white stupas. Numerous little villages situated on mountain tops looked really picturesque. Virtually no traffic on this single-lane road, except for the occasional scooters and some locals on foot. We stopped at a small restaurant on the side of the road for some tea and noodles, at around 11:30am. A few PaLuang women, with shaved heads, wearing traditional clothes were sitting at the table next to us. A few of them were smiling in our direction. Later on they all got up and continued on their way downhill towards another village. The owner of the little restaurant informed us of the Ka Thain (or donation festival) happening in Pan Phat Village over the next few days. We decided to head there instead of Hoo Kwat, adding a few uphill miles to our ride.
The scenery became more and more stunning the higher we got. Massive bamboo forests, and more tea fields, along with some more stupas. We stopped in another tiny village, at someone's house. She served us some tea. We gave her little boy a pencil and a little booklet, but he seemed more interested in showing us his Mickey Mouse hat and playing with his mom's knitting. The house, like many others we've seen on the way had stunning views of the valley below and distant mountain ranges on the horizon. Inside was dark hardwood flooring and furniture, and a very inviting and homey feeling to the space. A man pushing 75lbs of pickled pork up the hill on his rusty, single-speed stopped outside for a rest, along with his wife. They were both heading to Pan Phat for the festival. Myles got him to try his bike, and he had a hard time at first as it was in easy gear for going up. He had an awesome energy about him, and was having a great time getting the hang of a mountain bike. He made Myles try riding his bike uphill, and ride Myles' bike with the 75lbs of pickled pork on the back. Both proved challenging.
The promised downhill never came. The final section up to Pan Phat became considerably steeper, with a number of switchbacks and sharp corners. The views made up for the effort of going up. The higher we got the more spectacular they became. It was around 4 or 5 pm, an many people were on their way home from tea plantations, and some were bringing cows home. Several monks on scooters passed us on their way down, a couple of them stopped to say hello. They recited all the English sentences they knew; "where are you from?", and "where do you go?" etc...
Finally, we arrived at Pan Phat. We passed a monastery to our left, and continued down a dirt road further into the village. Everyone stopped and stared, children, adults, and even monks. Some continued staring for a long while. Earlier in the day the chief of the village passed us on his scooter. He invited us to stay with him. However, when we got there we were told he was out and about, hanging out at a friend's house. We decided to relax over some Shan noodles at the only place serving food in the village, that we could see. Locals were looking at as through windows and doorways from the outside the entire time. This village is too far out to be easily reached on foot, and so is rarely frequented by foreigners.
Eventually, we agreed to stay upstairs of the restaurant. The owner entertained us with his charades. At first we appreciated his attempt at trying to communicate with us, but it quickly became annoying as we realized he was saying the same thing over and over again. His wife warned us about him, and told us to just ignore him. The more he drank, the more tiresome he became. We quickly learned ways to avoid giving him more opportunities to fill our time with his antics.
They layed out a blanket on the floor with two pillows for Myles and Thura, near the Buddha, and one for me away from the Buddha in the same room. The room was very large, and boasted a single, feeble lightbulb. We were impressed to find out that the entire home was powered by a distant turbine. The walls were wallpapered with newspapers, and oversized posters of babies and western style breakfasts, and there was a row of old, manually powered sewing machines against one wall. There was also a beautiful Buddha shrine in the room, with fresh flowers, fruit and water laid out in of it.
After riding all day, we were dying to have a shower. Even Thura broke a sweat when he switched his scooter for Myles' bike on the way up. There was a 2m long, 1m wide and 1 m deep cement tub full of water outside, and a metal bowl for scooping the water. It was located on the side of the house facing the street, with nothing separating you from the curious onlookers. It proved to be a challenging business of washing. I wore my sarong, and tried my best to wash the important parts, but was left feeling like I never had a shower afterwards. Locals are definitely more dialed as far as washing goes, they have a certain technique that allows them to get the job done without having to assume awkward positions, while wasting copious amounts of precious water. All in all, we did ok, given our apparent lack of experience.
Later on we headed towards the monastery, where the action was. There were many children out on the road, and they all followed us around, being shy at first. As soon as we got there, we were invited to have a meal prepared by women from one of the distant villages. We were seated around a tiny, circular table on the floor. We each had a rather large bowl of rice in front of us, and in the middle there was a soup, a bamboo curry and a pork dish for us to share. All eyes in the room were on us as we ate. People seemed completely mesmerized. It was a rather intense experience for the two of us. I cannot remember how the meal tasted, although I am sure it was very good. When we were finished, we thanked everyone and went outside. We were quickly asked to follow someone else to another building within the monastery. Inside, close to a hundred women, half wearing traditional PaLuang dress, were sitting on the floor. They were all just chatting with one another, and invited us to sit down amongst them. They grabbed and squeezed my hand, and I felt so much joy coming out of them. I instantly felt an incredibly strong sense of community around me. It didn't matter which village, or which country for that matter you came from, all that mattered was that you were there. It was similar to sitting among friends at a good party, the music was the many voices of women around me. I didn't have to understand what they were saying to feel the community. I didn't want to leave.
Later on a few of the women asked us to take photos of them. They howled with laughter when we showed them their images in our viewfinder. They all huddled around the camera to get a look.
All of a sudden, as if on cue everyone was up and out the door. We left with the crowd, and ended up at the main temple. Chanting was already in progress with women, nuns and monks in attendance. They encouraged us to come in and sit down on the floor with them. The chanting continued for some time, and it was really deep and meditative. It was very beautiful. We sat there just observing. Eventually we started to see a trickle of women leave the temple, and we followed them outside. The chanting continued long after we left.
Outside the air felt cool, and the sound checks continued at the small, generator-powered stage. We walked around, and tried interacting with some kids. Most of them seemed intrigued by us, but also a little uncertain, and hence a bit on the cautious side. We decided not to go on to another village the next morning. There was so much going on in Pan Phat. We were experiencing a sensory overload. We were also curious to find out how the locals would interact with us after the initial shock of our arrival has diminished somewhat with time.
Whenever we stopped to have tea, locals would sit at our table and stare. Our guide, Thura, explained that they were not too interested in asking us questions, even though he could translate for us. They were mostly interested in hanging around and looking. Thura also explained that they are removed from the politics of Myanmar, and focus almost exclusively on local matters pertaining to their daily lives. We didn't see anyone in the village or on the way listening to a portable radio like they do so often in small towns and cities. The lives of the locals seemed simpler, and very real.
At some point we were drawn to the stage, where karaoke-style music was playing. Everyone, young and old just ate it up. We were walked back to where we were staying by a large group of kids. I had two little girls holding my hand all the way there. They were already warming up to us.