This article originally appeared on Munchies in the US.
I desperately need an interpreter.
Sitting in a wooden shack in Loikaw, a backwater town in the Eastern Myanmar mountains, I'm in what's supposed to be an internet cafe. But there's no signal, just an awful yellow triangle over my laptop's WiFi connection that reads "Limited Connection." Containing my panic for the benefit of the pleasant Burmese proprietor, I plug in my phone in and start praying.
The phone rouses itself, bleeps to remind me that I have 56 unread SMS messages (all spam) and, mercifully, connects to a 2G signal—a small miracle in this remote area. I feverishly check my messages. The phone died this morning as I began the second day on a rolling and tumbling bus. It was a hard trip to get to one of the last fragments of the former golden triangle, as the Southeast Asian opium-growing area was known.
Opium farmers in a rural Myanmar village gather for lunch. All photos by the author.
An email lands like three cherries in a slot machine. It's from a contact passing me the number of a missionary priest who might know someone who can take me to the fields. The priest gives me the number of a local interpreter named Mario, probably a Burmese Christian, going by the Western name. I dial the number and hope he is competent, cheap, and comes with his own transport.
Mario is all these things. He meets me the next morning at The Worst Hotel in the World, where I am unfortunately staying. We leave on his motorbike and drive through planes of green rice fields towards the distant mountains that hide opium fields. After an hour, the road starts to snake upwards, turning an earthy red colour.
It takes another two hours to get to the village as it is marooned in a high altitude valley. It is a remote community of 150 families and most of the houses are wooden and ringed by bamboo fences to keep animals out of their vegetable patches.
The road only become passable last year. Before that, every rainy season it became a clay bath that would suck up motorbikes and jam four-by-fours. The only way out was an eight hour hike.
Village chief, U Mint Aung welcomes us into his home. We sit on crispy bamboo mats and drink instant coffee. The rainy season hasn't long finished and it's still damp outside. The trees hang heavy with moisture, engorged by the rain. After taking a look at his fields, we return to his house for lunch.
U Mint Aung's wife Lin brings out a clay pot brimming with multi-coloured grains and plants a wooden straw inside. The thing looks like a trendy wholegrain smoothie. But it's home-brewed rice wine—a local staple. The people here start drinking it at five years old.
"They drink it every day," explains Mario. "From morning to night."
Mario takes a thermos full of hot water (in remote Asian villages, a day's hot water is usually boiled in the morning and dispensed into several thermoses) and pours it over the grains. He takes long sips through the straw. It smells warm and sweet. I don't drink alcohol but Mario guzzles it down, apparently unconcerned about the drive back. He smacks his lips.
"It's delicious and not very alcoholic," he says.
Lin makes rice wine by mixing cooked rice with dried husks and yeast, packing it in a clay pot and leaving it for a minimum of a week. She says it's better to wait nine months but if you're impatient or running low, you can drink it after a week. Once hot water is added, it's ready to drink in five minutes.
"When people here relax, they always drink rice wine and snack on meatballs," explains Mario.
Water buffalo meatballs are chewy and rich with a smoky flavor and fiery aftertaste. Lin bought the meat from someone in a nearby village who had slaughtered a water buffalo for a wedding. The animal was so big there was meat for whole village and plenty leftover to sell.
Lin beats the meat until tender, chops it, and mixes with salt, garlic, chili, and a spice that Mario can't translate. I examine it and can't place it either. It tastes like strong cardamom or clove. Once mixed, Lin shallow fries the balls.
U Mint Aung and his family watch Mario and I eat lunch. So do several of their friends. Few foreigners come here so they want to peek at the big-nosed, bearded westerner. I fluster in my Britishness and hope I'm not eating all their food or causing them bother. They dismiss my concerns.
Afterwards, Lin pulls out a smartphone and holds it out smiling and excited. The cover hangs and flaps. She points it at me and goes click.