Shan state, Myanmar, Dec 2013,

After one week, we were happy to leave behind the temples-saturated landscape and take off to the uplands. The drive from Bagan was 8 hours long, and by the time we crossed into the mountain, darkness had already fallen so we couldn’t really admire the scenery. But it was easy to make out the imposing silhouettes under the stars, and that unmistakably cool crispy air of a higher altitude.

Initially we were to arrive in the state capital Taunggyi, but we could only make it to Kalaw, the first major town and a tourist hub for trekkers to the popular Inle lake. Foreign tourists in Myanmar can only stay at registered hotels but we didn’t have any reservations since it wasn’t planned. No worries! Ukkamsa spent 6 formative years in this town and he decided to smuggle us into his old monastery. The car pulled up in front of the guesthouse quarter, we got in and immediately drew the curtain to avoid privy eyes. Ukkamsa kept reminding us not to venture out; hotels nearby would complain to the police if they caught sight of us. We did not have any intention to be out and about. It was freezing. We were only too happy to get wrapped up in blankets and enjoy the hot tea that they had thoughtfully prepared prior to our arrival. (Were told later it was 2 degrees C that night).

Welcome to Shan state, Burma, MyanmarWelcome to Shan state

Kalaw monastery guesthouse, Burma, Myanmar


The next morning, we continued onto Taunggyi and got a permit to visit Kakku, which lies in a restricted access area. Myanmar has 135 officially recognized ethnicities and there have been many different conflicts between minorities and the state. The situation has calmed down a lot in Shan but it’s still not totally open. The permit required a small fee for a Pa’oh guide but he abandoned us as soon as he talked to Ukkamsa and saw that we already had a Pa’oh expert among ourselves.

Kakku was such a pleasant surprise. We were so done with temples by this point but were glad that we came to check it out. Totally different from everything else we’d seen. The first thing that popped into my mind when I saw these spires was the hoodoo forest in Bryce canyon. Walking around these thousands of stupas, we admired the intricate carvings of courtians and fantastical animals. Most of the bells are still intact and rang cheerfully in the light breeze.


Leaving Kakku, we headed to to a monastic school run by Ukkamsa’s friend in a small town outside of Taunggyi . It ended up being one of my favorite destination of the whole trip. The school was established 12 years ago and has grown rapidly to a population of 900 boarding students, the biggest school in the area. (And tuition is free.) We came to give a small talk to the teachers and had a great time listening to their teaching experience and philosophy. They have a huge playing field where kids were running, shouting, laughing, completely caught in intense games of soccer and chinlone. It put a big smile on my face seeing so much joy and energy.

monk novices play soccer, monastery school, Taunggyi, Burma, Myanmar

monk novices play chinlone, monastery school, Taunggyi, Burma, Myanmar

Our last stop in Shan state, about which we were most excited, was Ukkamsa’s home village: Htipase – Rough Water, where we saw his mom, his relatives and neighbors, and so many adorable kids. The village doesn’t have electricity lines but many houses these days have installed small PV cells so they can have a small light on at night. It was a tiny quiet village and yet we heard a lot of guitar playing and singing. Turned out bachelors go out at night to visit girls, serenading them with love songs. The guys move around in groups, and if the girl likes one of their members, they would leave him there and continue on. Too bad we weren’t guy and couldn’t join in their ritual.

Htipase, Pa'oh village, Shan state, Burma, MyanmarUkkamsa counseling the villagers.

Pa'oh traditional clothes, Shan state, Burma, MyanmarOutside of Ukkamsa’s: Pa’oh women in traditional deep blue garbs and colorful turbans