The sound of automatic gunfire rang out, reverberating around the hills like firecrackers. Everyone looked at Jojo, our young, happy-go-lucky guide. His unshakable grin had disappeared, replaced by a hard, pale stare. The trip had been advertised as ‘seeing the real Myanmar’. Things had just got very real.

This was a three day trek through Myanmar’s eastern Shan state. Located in the opium producing ‘Golden Triangle’, Shan is famous for three things: rice noodles, tea and civil war. “You will get lots of noodles” the organiser had promised, without mention of the conflict that has ravaged the region since independence, over half a century ago.

Two days earlier our group of five travellers had assembled for breakfast with Jojo, in the town of Hsipaw. Phil, a gentle giant with a thick red beard and northern English accent, was suffering from a terrible hangover. Concerned he might pull out, Katie, a tall, light-hearted north American, offered him a small glass bottle with the letters M150 on the label. “This will help” she said with a wry smile; it was a super strength energy drink, Myanmar style. We set off shortly after with Phil powering ahead. An hour later he felt worse than ever, but it was too late to go back. The rest of us exchanged smiles. It hadn’t taken long for the group to gel.

A short time later we entered the first village. Wooden shacks, topped with corrugated iron sat either side of a dirt road. A stream ran parallel, serving as both the village laundry and bathing grounds for the local water buffalo. Bouncing and tumbling in the dust was a young puppy. “Bye bye” came a soft voice. Then another. A short distance away a group of children jostled, their bare feet kicking up clouds of orange haze. “Bye bye”, their hands were waving. Did they want us to leave? We hurried on to the village shop.

Open rice paddies became mountain paths carved from rusty red soil

Brightly colored packets of processed snacks hung densely around the window, an enticing contrast to the drab, weathered timber frame. As we rested, Jojo offered an explanation to the children’s welcome, “‘bye bye’ is easy for them to remember, they just say it because they know it’s English.”

As the day wore on, open rice paddies became mountain paths carved from rusty red soil. The hillsides shimmered in the midday sun as the waxy leaves of the Camellia Sinensis bush – the shoulder height plant grown to produce tea – reflected the course light. In the distance bright green hilltops layered themselves out to the horizon, each row losing a little more definition to the milky haze.

In these isolated parts of Myanmar, meat is an expensive luxury reserved for special occasions. Thankfully, our arrival at the first nights homestay, in the village of Pankham, was one such special occasion; dinner would be chicken stew. So fresh was the bird in question, that it was able to witness the lighting of the stove that would go on to cook it. Collectively, our hosts slaughtered, plucked, gutted and butchered it, without a single calorie going to waste. As dinner was served, I politely turned down a foot to accompany my noodles.

The following day took us through villages that were visibly poorer. Again, Jojo explained: “The wealth depends on how easily they can get water. If it is hard, they don’t have time to grow crops to trade”. He had suggested we bring toys to give to children we met. “Give them to these kids” he said at the entrance to one village.

The kids beamed at the brightly coloured toys emerging from my bag. While we kicked a shiny blue football around, there were still a few kids playing with old rubber bands. I disappeared to the local shop and returned a moment later with a bag containing hundreds. Rich and I began distributing handfuls, but quickly became swamped in screaming children, grabbing, pushing and fighting. In the melee the bands fell to the ground. The children jumped on them like rugby players in a scrum. “We’ve just created a currency among these kids,” Rich said in dismay. That thought lingered for the next few hours, until it was replaced with a more immediate concern: not getting shot.

We had almost reached our home for the night when the gunfire rang out. It took a moment to recognise the crackling as that of bullets exploding with deadly power. Our tired eyes burned bright as the adrenaline kicked in. “Come on, we need to arrive” Jojo said. We followed, glancing at each other, a mix of fear, confusion and excitement on our faces.

It was replaced with a more immediate concern: not getting shot

The region has seen varying levels of violence since Aung San, the country’s founding father, was assassinated. He had vowed to give the people of Shan the opportunity to form their own nation, but that promise died with him. In 1958 the Shan State Army – South (SSAS) was formed to fight for independence. Support came from the opium trade; the region’s fertile poppy fields meant money and weapons flowed from China. Despite a 2011 ceasefire, skirmishes continue.

We strode into the village from a point high up on the hillside. As we entered we passed the monastery, conspicuous for its lack life; a handful of maroon gowns could be seen in the windows, but none in the large open courtyard. Below us rows of homes sat high on stilts, descending the hillside like stepping stones into the fields below. There were no puppies rolling in the dust, nor children offering bye-bye. The few people we saw seemed reluctant to even look in our direction. Then came the clusters of green camouflage. Soldiers. They were scattered around the village, standing in groups of varying civility, armed with an array of rifles and ordnance.

That night’s homestay was a wooden building raised on a meter of red bricks; we were told to wait on the terrace while Jojo investigated. Soldiers marched past in both directions. “I guess our evening stroll is cancelled” I joked. Nobody laughed. Katie was staring at something behind me: a bowl of broccoli on a small table, above which rested a huge rifle.

The soldier emerged onto the terrace carrying a bag of eggs. His green trousers were contrasted by a bright multi-coloured shirt. He was young enough to be denied cigarettes in a British corner-shop. “Ming-gla-ba” we said in unison, the standard Burmese greeting. He smiled. Around his shoulder was a satchel with the letters USA. Katie pointed to it and softly chanted “U.S.A”. He frowned and reached for the rifle. We drew a collective breath. “Photo” he said, pointing at my camera. He was smiling again, the rifle resting on his shoulder. I stood slowly with my camera, releasing the shutter and turning the screen towards him. He raised his thumb, turned and left.

A young soldier poses for a photo at our second night's homestay.

Jojo returned to inform us that SSAS had been in the village that morning. The army was pursuing them and the gunfire we had heard was an exercise. He grinned and casually added “The rebels fled in the direction we came from”. It took a moment for the significance of his words to sink in.

Phil finally broke the silence. “You know what they say about rebels?”. Perhaps he was going to reassure us. “You don’t see them, but they see you.” Not reassuring. Had heavily armed eyes been watching us that day, as we strode past completely oblivious, teaching Jojo crude jokes in English?

That evening we sat in a large open room, a fire burning in the corner. Smoke filled the air before escaping through an open section in the roof. Brightly coloured posters – Buddha, a Ferrari, a fish pond – leaped out from the blackened walls. My mind whirred as I tried to make sense of everything that had happened. “It’s the way of the Shan!” Jojo said, as though he had heard me thinking.

Early the following morning, the long descent back to Hsipaw began. It was hard not to imagine silent eyes watching from every tree, behind every shrub, and over every hill crest. But, soon enough we were striding through rice paddies and

Eventually, we reached our final stop: a hot spring bath on the outskirts of Hsipaw. As I descended the rough concrete steps of the male bath, three days of sweat and grime dissolved into the warm soothing water around me. “Hello” came a voice from the corner, where a group of tourists were relaxing. I smiled and gave them a nod. My body had returned to familiar surroundings. It would take a little longer for my mind to do the same.

Washing away three days of sweat and grime, at the hot spring baths in Hsipaw.

About Aram Balakjian

Born in 1980’s London, Aram spent a large portion of his 20’s running a web design agency. After a major life event, he decided to leave that life behind and hit the road. Today he spends the majority of his time searching out new places to visit and fresh stories to tell.