“Relationships,” Byron tells me as we drive along the bumpy dirt roads, “is what we focused on first. One village thought we were scoping the area for mining. They didn’t understand why foreigners would travel all this way just to see a waterfall.” Despite being the biggest city in Shan state, you won’t find good info in any guidebooks, it just isn’t considered a hotspot for tourists – until now.
Byron Hartzler is the managing director and founder of Myanmar Adventure Outfitters, a social enterprise aiming at investing in local ethnically diverse communities in Myanmar through off the beaten path adventures around Lashio.
He and his wife, Eileen, have a heart and passion for people and have spent the better part of the last year fostering relationships with local isolated villages to introduce tourism in a way that is manageable for the locals whilst still being responsible and enjoyable for foreigners.
After meeting a couple of other guests at MAO’s office, we jump in Byron’s pick up truck and get moving. As we continue along the dirt roads, I ask Byron about what brought him to Lashio and how Myanmar Adventure Outfitters was started.
Having lived in Thailand and Myanmar for 5 years, Byron quickly learned that many people were leaving Myanmar to find work in neighbouring countries, particularly Thailand. Being undocumented and without a legal identity offers these people very little to no rights – a vulnerable position that is exploited by Thai employers since they can pay them 1/10 of an already low Thai wage.
Families move and sell young girls and boys into the sex industry. These are driving factors for the business – Byron wants to boost job opportunities in rural Shan state so they don’t have a reason to leave to Thailand or China. Together with his wife and kids, Byron relocated to Lashio to make it happen.
Having been on the road for almost a year, Daniel and I were eager to write about a company that is interested in something other than profits. We stumbled upon MAO on Facebook and after some research, I knew right away that this is the type of business that we wanted to recommend to our readers – a business that combines eco tourism with epic adventures. I assure you, this was not only a very rewarding experience but a heck of a lotta fun and our top highlight in Myanmar.
EXPLORING WITH MYANMAR ADVENTURE OUTFITTERS
We drop off one couple who are mountain biking and another who are trekking to our final meeting point. We drive through various small villages out in rural Myanmar passing by bamboo houses powered by solar panels and little kids who shyly wave at the big blue beast of a car filled with foreigners. Daniel and I opt for a sneak peak of the waterfalls we’ll all be visiting later.
As we climb through some boulders and cautiously navigate to avoid slipping on some moss covered rocks, I hear the sound of surging water, its roar urgent and strong. Have you ever seen a waterfall so powerful and mighty that you feel it in every part of your body? That next to it you feel so insignificant and small, that in any given second it could completely wipe you out? I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a few in my life but this one takes the cake.
Byron calls her Dark Horse Falls.
We head back with my excitement in tow and join the others for a delicious lunch of Shan noodles. Time quickly disappears as we jump from various waterfalls, explore secret caves hidden beneath the a curtain of water and enjoy nature’s jacuzzi. Almost everyone is having too much fun to even bother pulling out their phones or GoPros – a good sign in today’s digital age.
We venture onwards to Ban Khaw village, a village with mostly Lahu & Lisu tribespeople, for our homestay and meet the chief of the village who has prepared dinner for us. He shares with us some of the deer that was caught earlier in the week – a prized catch that would feed the village for 2 weeks.
We are humbly reminded that it’s often the people with little to give that are most generous, even with complete strangers. We are shown our quarters for the night, a bamboo hut – basic and rustic but comfortable and warm. As the sun slowly disappears, stars begin to light up the sky. No electricity in the village means no light pollution and a million star view of a heavenly array.
I wake at sunrise to the sounds of roosters cockle-doodle-doing and pigs oinking. I silently beg the roosters to shut up. It doesn’t work. We begin a short morning hike through some more very… refreshing (OK, they were bloody cold) waterfalls with small pools to play in. With the hike getting us warmed up, I manage to summon the courage to do a rope swing into one of the pools. Note to future self: don’t rope swing whilst holding GoPro because you will slip off the rope and nearly smash your head.
For the rest of the afternoon, Daniel and I are going on a motorcycle tour. We ride through red dirt, across some pretty dodgy bamboo bridges and river banks and after a couple of hours, arrive in Ban Khan, a Palaung village where the family of our guide, Aik Pu, lives. We watch one of the most beautiful sunsets through an open rice paddy field and settle in for our second homestay.
My alarm (ie. the roosters) go off and we’re all up early for our last day of exploring. We ride through some more villages before stopping at Kashi Falls, a deceivingly tall 17m waterfall cascading from an upper river. If you’re game, you can also jump from this waterfall but for those who are too chicken scaredy cats less inclined to take the plunge, there is a safer and smaller jump (2.5 – 3m) available.
We then head to a lake for stand up paddle-boarding. The lake is peaceful and serene, offering the perfect quiet time for reflection. I shut my eyes and hear nothing but the gentle tap of the board against the lake and the songs of a few birds. Magically, the paddle board finds its way around the lake and back without my having to paddle (i.e. Daniel did all the work).
The last 3 days have been nothing short of incredible. It’s not just that I had the best time and met great people, it’s that I could do that AND know that I was making a positive impact in the community. Daniel and I are trying to be more socially responsible in our travels and this has been a great opportunity to gear us forward. Needless to say, we loved exploring Lashio with MAO and consider it one of the top places to visit in Myanmar, right up there with Bagan.
WHY CLIFF JUMPING MATTERS
“People are the reason we do what we do, the reason for epic adventures, the reason we go out day in and day out to isolated communities, the reason we are in business in the first place. Along the way, each day, we are meeting people, building relationships that have potential for dramatic life change.” – Myanmar Adventure Outfitters
Having experienced just a glimpse of the community impact firsthand, I can see Byron’s vision and mission coming to life. As we climbed through waterfalls, the guides were always prepared with bags to pick up garbage. When our group helped collect rubbish scattered around the base of the waterfall, some locals watched on and eventually joined in.
In fact, a couple of months prior to this, locals saw Byron’s team picking up rubbish so some villages weaved a large basket and left it there as a bin. Simple act, big impact.
As foreigners from privileged countries, we often get frustrated when we see people littering, dumping piles of trash on the side of the road or burning a mountain of plastic. I think what we can sometimes forget our privilege – particularly the privilege of education which teaches us about how to dispose and manage waste in the best way possible.
This is just not something taught or enforced here. Accordingly, Myanmar Adventure Outfitters is planning on working with local schools to help educate students on proper waste management to help change the way the community deals with it.
Byron shares another story about a local woman who cooks delicious Lahu food in a village where they were going to a waterfall. After bringing picnic lunches a handful of times, the locals got used to having them around, and they asked a woman they knew to cook lunch for their groups. They went so often that the lady had the amazing idea of opening a village restaurant.
Now, it is not just a home, it is a small business stimulated through tourism coming to their community for the first time. Every time that MAO go to that waterfall or homestay in the village, they help support her business which helps send her grandchild to school.
Since working with MAO, families that offer homestays now see their earning potential doubled, something Byron hopes to achieve through many more villages through northern Shan state. But the only way he can continue to make a difference in these communities is with travellers.
HOW YOU CAN GET INVOLVED
The best way to contribute and be a part of this community impact is to book a tour with MAO. Tours range from 60,000 to 80,000MMK per day ($60-80AUD / $45-60USD) which includes food, transport and homestays.
Whilst this may be a little more costly than the usual backpacker tours, your money is being put towards a positive social impact and we are certain that you will love every moment of your customised adventure.
All activities are completely off the beaten path and you will not meet any other foreigners outside of those travelling with MAO.
Without having to hear it from Byron, it is clear that MAO is not setting out to be some kind of lucrative business venture. At its core, it is about people, so profits are invested back into the community. To make the most out of your adventure, we recommend touring for a minimum of 2-3 days with at least one homestay.
The team at Myanmar Adventure Outfitters can cater an adventure package to best suit you. Contact MAO by email at: [email protected] or on +95 97 9536 6426.
LOGISTICS & TRAVEL TIPS
How to get to Lashio:
From Mandalay you have a few options:
- Train from Mandalay directly to Lashio. You’ll depart at 430am and arrive at 8pm. This is an extremely long day and journey, but get the upper class seats for an affordable level of comfort. The train isn’t the most comfortable so we recommend you either go with option 2 OR
- Bus to Pyin Oo Lwin (shorter than the train). Train to Hsipaw if you want to break up the journey or directly to Lashio. We highly recommend this train route. It’s scenic and enjoyable.
- Bus or Shared Taxi from Mandalay. Local buses run overnight for about 6,000MMK, and shared taxis can be arranged for about 15,000MMK, and will drop you off at MAO.
From Inle Lake you can take a bus directly to Lashio. The bus ride is 15 hours (overnight) and will cost around 15,000MMK. Suggested bus companies are Shwe Loom Pyan or Taung Pya Tann.From Yangon there is one flight a day for around $100-$150 USD.
From Bagan the easiest & cheapest route is to take Kyay Dagon bus for about 17,000MMK. It is a direct overnight bus and arrives early and in enough time to start your tour.
From Yangon there is one flight a day for around $100-$150 USD, and numerous overnight buses for around 20,000MMK.
Best time to visit:
The dry season in Myanmar runs from October to May – with the hottest month on average being April (temperatures of around 40°C). The peak season for travel is November to February and the wet season is from June to early October. Although MAO offers adventures all year round, the wet season often means that some waterfalls are off limits due to safety. The great news is that there are other falls that are too dry during the dry season that open up. So really, you can visit anytime! We generally prefer travelling in the shoulder season (Feb / March) to avoid booking and planning in advance.
Don’t forget to…
- Dress quite conservatively (shoulders covered and longer than the knees) for both men and women.
- Say hello in Burmese – “mingalabar” (ming-ga-la-ba). Note: there are many different languages throughout Myanmar though most will understand Burmese.
- Ask before taking photos of people – it’s just the respectful thing to do and some ethnic minority groups don’t appreciate being photographed.
- Remove shoes when entering pagodas and religious places.
- Place your left hand under your right elbow when handing over money.
- Withdraw large amounts of cash at ATMs – all transactions are in cash and sometimes ATMs run out of cash so don’t let yourself get stranded without backup!
- Bring crisp, clean (pretty much brand spanking new) US dollar bills if you plan on exchanging cash. Banks don’t accept worn out or torn bills so neither will any other business.
Are you planning a trip to Myanmar? Let us know in the comments what your plans are and if you’ll be visiting Lashio to explore with MAO.