Karen State, Myanmar Part One: From Myawaddy to the Remote Jungle

Overland/water border crossings, giant crocodile statues and a rogue elephant in the remote jungle of Karen State were some of the highlights of my trip to Myanmar… and at this stage, the trip had only just begun.

It was 09:00 on Monday 10th October. The air was thick and the humidity rising. And after just 48 hours back in South East Asia, the sound of motorbikes and scooters zipping through the streets had now become a familiarity. The previous day, we had left Bangkok and arrived in Mae Sot – a district in the west of Thailand that shared a border with Myanmar. Mae Sot was one of the most convenient entry points into Karen State. That morning, we were meeting up with Jack, an ex-rebel and Karen local, who would be our guide in and around Karen State for the next five days. We met up with Jack at a local Mae Sot restaurant called Casamia, and we’d soon be walking barefoot through muddy terrain, crossing hip-high rivers and cautiously navigating across slippery rocks that led to pristine, untouched waterfalls.

While our trip with Jack was not supposed to officially start until the following day, we were required to request permission from some Karen State military officials to travel through the areas we would be heading over in the days to come.

The river we crossed to visit some Karen State officials

The river we crossed to visit some Karen State officials

Our guide Jack helping get the boat out of the shallows

Our guide Jack helping get the boat out of the shallows

One of the Karen State military officers who took us across the river

One of the Karen State military officers who took us across the river

So lush, so green

So lush, so green

Chillis being dried out in the kitchen of the village

Chillis being dried out in the kitchen of the village

A couple of the school children who were helping prepare lunch for the attendees of the peace meeting

A couple of the school children who were helping prepare lunch for the attendees of the peace meeting

On the kitchen table: garlic, ginger and guns

On the kitchen table: garlic, ginger and guns

Although it took an entire day to successfully get the necessary paperwork we needed to take with us on our journey, the experience of border crossing over a river and seeing guns casually laid out on the kitchen bench were both completely new to me.

The following morning, we were up and at ’em at 06:10. After getting our packs re-organised and a quick bite to eat, it was time to make our way to the Bridge of Friendship that sat between Mae Sot and Myawaddy. Crossing the bridge and walking through immigration by foot is how we’d get to Myanmar that day. Once we were across the border, we stopped by at a local tea house where we were to await Jack. The tea house was a fine spot for people watching and there were already notable differences in culture and people even though we were barely a kilometre away from Mae Sot.

A border dog and his shadow

A border dog and his shadow

A glimpse at some of the buildings alongside the Bridge of Friendship whilst walking across the border

A glimpse at some of the buildings alongside the Bridge of Friendship whilst walking across the border

A spot of tea at a local teahouse on the Myawaddy side of the border

A spot of tea at a local teahouse on the Myawaddy side of the border

People watching at the teahouse

People watching at the teahouse

As Jack arrived, we left the tea house and began to make our way to a local market to pick up some last minute supplies that we’d take with us into the jungle. But before the market, Jack had made a very interesting sounding suggestion: to visit the Crocodile Lake. A lake of crocodiles? Sure, we were intrigued. Perhaps slightly alarmed, but definitely intrigued.

Little had we’d known that the “Crocodile Lake” was actually a temple with a giant crocodile statue called Myikyaungon Temple. Not exactly what I had in mind, but still quite fascinating in a different way. We took our shoes off and walked anti-clockwise around the temple, quietly observing the pictures that each told a part of Buddha’s life story. The colours of the temple were also some of the most vibrant I had seen in a religious site.

The Crocodile Lake and Temple in Myawaddy

Myikyaungon Temple in Myawaddy which features a giant crocodile statue

A sample of the vibrant colours of Myikyaungon Temple

A sample of the vibrant colours of Myikyaungon Temple

Now that we’d seen the giant crocodile, we made our way to the market to pick up those last minute supplies before trekking out to the remote jungle that afternoon. There was an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables available at the market, which we had picked up. Also for sale were already cooked meals, betel nut leaves and all the different sorts of knick knacks that you’d expect to find.

Stopping by a local market to pick up some last minute supplies before heading into the remote jungle

Stopping by a local market to pick up some last minute supplies before heading into the remote jungle

Market stall owners at work

Market stall owners at work

Rolls of betelnut leaves

Rolls of betel nut leaves

Betel nut leaves are chewed by people in Myanmar (and other South-East Asian countries)

Betel nut leaves are chewed by people in Myanmar (and other South-East Asian countries) and is an important cultural ritual

Leaving the market with the supplies we needed, we were now en route to a village where we’d start our jungle trek from. But before our trek commenced, it wasn’t without another unplanned pitstop to a local Karen school. It was only day one, but we had already caught on that unplanned pitstops were most likely going to be a regular thing. In cases like this when you’re in a third world country and don’t speak the local language, it was probably just best to let any kind of expectations go, and to just go with the flow. This is what we did for the next few days.

A couple of cattle grazing in one of the villages

A couple of cattle grazing in one of the villages we had stopped by at

One of the village homes

Some children we met at a local school

Some children we met at a local school

So with that last pitstop to the school down, it was finally time to start trekking! With our larger than expected crew assembled and our packs on, we hiked through rice fields and across rivers. The humidity was some of the most intense I had experienced. I never recalled ever sweating that much whilst doing very little. As we crossed more bodies of water and the terrain got muddier, it made more sense to just take our boots off. I tried walking in Birkenstock slides as an alternative, but walking barefoot was honestly the easiest as it was the least slippery.

After climbing up and down steep muddy hills, and using shoots and vines of bamboo to hoist ourselves up, we had made it to our camp. Although, this wasn’t without another unplanned surprise, which was an encounter with a rogue elephant. It turned out that there was an elephant on his/her lonesome that stood between us and our route to our campsite. It was fortunate that one of the members of our crew was experienced in working with elephants and that he knew how afraid they could be when they’re not with their respective “owners” or “trainers”. This fear could lead to panic, which could then lead to unfortunate events. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination.

Thirty minutes later, our rogue elephant crisis had been averted and we ended up making up an alternative route to get to our campsite. On the way down the steep, slippery muddy hills, I had taken a fall and cut the palm of my hand open. We weren’t far from camp, and as soon as I got there, I applied hand sanitiser to the cut which made it sting like an absolute bitch. Better than letting it get infected though.

The crew starting up the camp fire on our first night in the jungle

The crew starting up the camp fire on our first night in the jungle

L: Just a few of the crew members that came along with us to the jungle | R: Jack preparing coffee in handmade bamboo cups

L: Just a few of the crew members that came along with us to the jungle | R: Jack preparing coffee in handmade bamboo cups

A handmade bamboo cup made by one of the talented crew members

A handmade bamboo cup made by one of the talented crew members

L: Lati preparing dinner over the campfire | R: The waterfall that we camped near, which we bathed and swam in

L: Lati preparing dinner over the campfire | R: The waterfall that we camped near, which we bathed and swam in

Not a bad view to wake up to at all

Not a bad view to wake up to at all

Soon after and just before nightfall, a few of us wandered down towards the nearby waterfall where we would bathe and freshen up after our humid hike. There was not one other person outside of our group in sight during this whole trek and this waterfall looked like it had been completely untouched by humanity. While we were in the water, I freaked out a little as fish nibbled at our skin (I guess this is what a fish spa feels like) – the tickling sensation not something I was very fond of, but I was still in awe of the serenity and beauty of where we were at in that present moment.