My guide and I pitched our tents high above the village of Hwe Lon as darkness fell.
The light from camp fires identified the location of the numerous small farm holdings nestled in the valley below. Peace and tranquility descended on the mountain community as it drifted into sleep.
Weary after a long day’s climb, I snuggled into my sleeping bag. I gazed at the stars through the flap of my tent as the warm breeze filtered through the opening. The aroma from the mountain blossoms filled the air and the tall trees rustled in the light wind. I thought about the remoteness of my location and wondered what inevitable surprises lay ahead. I suppressed all anxieties and entered a deep sleep.
Early next morning I awoke to the sounds from the Village as it started a new day. The cries from hungry children, the noise from water buffalo sloshing around in rice fields, the rasp of an angry voice, the crackling from camp fires, the familiar sounds and sweet smells as breakfast was prepared. Dogs barked, children played and farmers went to work in their fields. Two Vultures circled high above in search of carrion and the sound of birdsong filled the air. Tall multicoloured grasses blew gently in the wind and the flooded rice fields glistened in the early morning sun. All was peaceful in this picturesque valley high on the border of Burma and Laos as we broke camp. However, numerous lives had been lost to ethnic violence in this very region the previous month. An ongoing feud between Muslim and Buddhist communities discouraged visitors to the region and we entered the village to gasps of surprise as villagers gathered to catch a rare glimpse of strangers in their valley.
The Village Chief greeted us with trepidation initially. A firm handshake, direct eye contact and a warm smile, from the first Irishman he ever met, changed his demeanour and we were soon invited to his house. My guide spoke his language and we produced gifts of farm seeds and household essentials. A broad beam lit up the Chief’s face at the sight of gifts and I couldn’t help but laugh at his big toothless grin as I presented him with tubes of toothpaste. The irony of the gift wasn’t lost on him either as he bent double with laughter. Soon I was surrounded by curious children and their giggling mothers.
A short time later the door burst open. A woman with a serious leg injury and bleeding profusely, was carried into the house on a makeshift stretcher. She had hacked her leg with a machete while working in the fields and she needed immediate medical attention.The wound was long and deep and she was in a state of shock. The unflappable chief, who was also the village Medicine Man, examined the injury. He worked methodically using primitive methods. He stopped the haemorrhage, sutured the wound and gave the woman a foul smelling mixture to drink for her pain. He covered the wound with a poultice and dressed the injury with a variety of leaves, strapped in place by a latticework of thin vines. When he was finished he went to a corner and produced a makeshift crutch carved from the branch of a tree and he handed it to the grateful husband along with a concoction of medicines to bring home. The whole ‘operation’ took little over half an hour and the woman was carried back to her house, in a semi conscious state, to recover. This was emergency medical intervention Akha style and the only option available to mountain tribespeople.
The villagers are very superstitious by tradition and this was evident wherever I travelled.
Women wear ornate silver headgear to frighten off evil spirits and primitive symbols adorned the entrance to every household to protect their inhabitants. I found one custom particularly barbaric and hard to grasp. Amongst the tribal communities twin babies are considered to be a bad omen and the action to stop the spread of evil is both cruel and swift. When they are born, the babies are taken from their family and placed in a hole in the ground. They are then put to death by covering them with hot ash. The family is immediately shunned from the Village and ordered from the district. The community believe that such action restores balance and that evil spirits are expelled as a consequence. The Government has outlawed such traditions but locals maintain that these practices still exist. In spite of such customs the mountain tribes are a very gentle and hospitable people. I spent the next few days travelling between various tribes and never felt threatened during my stay.
On the day of our departure we set out early for the long trek back to Kengtung.
We anticipated reaching the town before darkness and we traversed steep mountains and narrow dirt trails to speed up our decent. By mid day the heat from the sun was intense and my rucksack of camera equipment weighed heavily on my back. We came to a junction on the path that overlooked a steep ravine. The trail was arduous and unstable and rock fell continuously from the mountain above. It was more of a Goat track than a mountain trail. As we edged our way around the sharp bend I heard a sobbing voice crying out from above. We looked up and saw a woman, wearing sandals, trying to descend the sheer cliff face. Her shoes gave her little purchase on the gravel and she was in danger of falling. My guide called out to her and told her to stop and sit on the ground. After a quick assessment of the situation we decided to climb up to her and help her down to the track. We unhitched our rucksacks and, carrying a rope, climbed to her position.The woman was distraught and there was fear etched in her eyes. We tied the rope around her and gently made our way to the relative safety of the mountain pathway. Once down I figured that the woman would be calm but the reverse occurred. She started screaming and sobbing and was clearly in great distress. Fortunately my guide spoke numerous tribal dialects and he started to settle her.
As she calmed, her story emerged. She explained that her teenage daughter had been abducted by child traffickers some hours earlier and she was trying to make her way to the nearest town to alert the authorities. There were no communications in her village and the only way down was on foot. Her precarious journey would have taken another four hours and she was in danger of sustaining an injury, or worse, on the mountains. I had been in Burma for nearly three weeks at this point and I had never established a mobile phone signal outside of Yangon. But on that day and on the edge of that ravine, I got a strong phone signal and my guide, who was fluent in numerous languages, started making calls. It took some time and a number of phone calls to International operators to establish contact with the regional police divisions in both Burma and Laos. The woman was able to give a description of both the van and her daughter’s abductors and the police in both countries said that they would co ordinate an immediate response in all major towns and at border crossings. An hour later, when the phone calls finished we were confident that there would be a happy outcome for both the woman and her daughter. The woman was euphoric and couldn’t believe her luck. What were the chances of her meeting somebody who could help her? What were the odds she would meet two strangers, one with language skills and the other with an International Mobile Phone? What was the possibility of getting coverage on the side of a mountain, when I had been unsuccessful during my entire stay in Myanmar? We helped the woman back to the nearest village and she was overcome with emotion as we said goodbye to her.
A few days later I got a call from my guide advising me that the girl had been found and was reunited with her family.
My trip through Burma had been an amazing experience and a photographers paradise, but the heart lifting news I had just received capped everything and I boarded my plane for home with both a sense of elation and relief. Against a backdrop of a parents worst nightmare, a mother and her daughter had been reunited through a combination of good timing and good luck and I was glad to have played a small part in that happy outcome. I settled into the long journey home with a smile on my face and satisfaction in my heart and I looked forward to returning home to the warmth of family and the excitement of Christmas. I regularly think of that family in Burma and I shudder to imagine what might have happened to that teenage girl had we not opted to take that precarious path on that faithful day.