Up in Smoke

On weathering a monsoon in a mysterious village in Burma

By / April 2012


We had been hiking backwood trails in northeastern Burma for going on three days when the trouble started. My guide was named Simon. By that point, he had led me across forty miles of paths through the Shan Mountains. Another fifteen-mile loop and we would be to Namshan, the town where our trek had begun. A monsoon was fast approaching, but I was confident that if we cut a swift pace we could beat the storm.

My confidence abated, however, as we topped a ridge and looked out across the expanse. Angry black clouds were already steamrolling the mountaintops. The outer ripples were nearly upon us. The rain would start lashing us at any moment. We scrambled over the rocks and began a frantic search for shelter.

Half a mile away, we spotted an old Buddhist monastery on the facing slope and fled, tripping, in that direction as the first heavy raindrops beat against our brows. The monastery was derelict. It had rotting, weather-blackened walls and sad, lonely rooms. But the roof was sound, so we hunkered there, intent on waiting out the storm. Curtains of rain began whipping the mountainside. The monastery groaned and creaked under the strain.

There we stayed, eating packs of tuna on crackers, while nature attacked the mountains with a rage that had been brewing for six long months. When the clouds finally rolled off toward the plains, we had lost two hours of precious daylight, and had to move. We needed to find a village where we could pass the night.

At the crest above the monastery, we stopped and surveyed the forbidding wilderness. My eyes were drawn toward a plume of white smoke to the west. There, clinging to the end of a narrow ridge, was a small village, all bamboo and thatch, maybe fifty or sixty huts.

Seeing no alternatives, we headed for the village on a path that veered through an ominous stretch of forest. In the thick of trees, it smelled like something was burning. We could neither see nor hear any fire. But smoke was curling through the boughs around us, snaking through the trees like eels through the shallows. If there had been a blaze, I figured, it must have been extinguished by the rain.



We cleared the woods and entered the village. We were happy to see it, happy to see other human beings. We wore big smiles of relief. The villagers, however, seemed anything but excited to see us. They lowered their eyes and stared darkly after us as we drifted among the huts. Simon asked to speak to someone in charge, and we were pointed toward the last hut in the village, beyond which the ridge dropped sharply away into slashing valleys where swollen streams jumped and foamed and ate away at the mountain roots.

The headman saw us coming and met us at the water cistern in front of his house. He was a short, thick man with sad eyes and gnarled hands. Simon made an introduction in Palaung, the local language. He told us his name was Soh Min, and invited us into his home. Several other men from the village had gathered around. They followed us inside.

We sat around a low-burning fire in the one-room hut. Meat hung from the ceiling. Occasionally, drops of fat fell into the flames and sizzled. Soh Min asked us questions about where we’d come from and where we were going. He said the village was called Ho-kwe and that normally we would receive a great welcome here, but we had come at a very bad time. “I can see that something is wrong,” I said. “What happened in this place?”

My question was met with fierce whispers among the men. Soh Min raised a hand to quiet them, and then leveled his eyes toward me. He began telling his story in Palaung while Simon translated.

“Three weeks ago,” he started, “we began to have problems in this village. In the night, we would hear screams and people would see terrible ghosts coming in and out of their homes and moving up the paths. The people were very frightened by this, but then it got worse.”

“How did it get worse?” I asked, growing nervous.

Soh Min stared at the fire. His breath quickened and became shallow. “Some people began to die,” he said and looked up into my face. “In these last three weeks, twelve people have died in this village, mostly children, and it all started when the ghosts came.” As Simon translated these words, his voice got higher and higher, and I could hear the panic welling up inside of him. The chief continued. “So we decided that we must take action, and last night we did.”

“What did you do?”

“At the edge of the forest, there is a place where we bury our dead. We knew that the ghosts were coming from that place. So late in the night, everyone went there and dug up all the graves. We pulled apart the bones and cut up the bodies, and made a big pile among the trees. Then we burned them. A huge fire that burned all night. We did this to get rid of the ghosts and stop the deaths.”

I turned to Simon, who had gone completely white, and remarked that this must have been the reason for the smoke we saw in the woods. It was a curious thing, most Buddhists cremate their dead, but the Palaung tribe had always preferred burial. Evidently, these villagers had decided that they had made a mistake and had sought to rectify it in a gruesome way. “Were any of these people sick before the ghosts came?” I asked.

The fierce murmurs and frantic whispers returned. The answer was an unequivocal “no.” None of the victims had shown any sign of disease, the chief said. They had simply died where they lay, faces staring up into the sky.



Simon and I withdrew from the group and huddled near the window. We had a decision to make. He was determined that we leave that very moment. He didn’t want to waste another second in this cursed village and certainly didn’t want to spend the night.

I pointed out that it was already nearly dark, and that if we didn’t sleep here, we’d have to navigate the forest in the pitch black, or worse yet, pass the entire night among the haunted boughs. Simon liked that prospect even less, so we resigned ourselves to sleeping among the grief-stricken conspirators.

The group dispersed, the men retreating to the warmth and safety of their own fires. Soh Min’s wife passed out rice and pickled tea leaves and we ate a somber meal together, speaking little and staring at the dancing flames. An hour later, I stretched out on the bamboo floor near Simon, while our host filled a water jar from the cistern and blew out candles around the room.

It was dark. The monsoon clouds had unrolled an ink-black veil across the sky, blocking out the comfort of moonlight and shadows. Everything was an ocean of blindness, and blindness breeds fear.

What was really going on in this place? Had demons been loosed upon the village, or was this nameless villain called disease? If it was disease, was I in danger, lying here among the carriers, sharing their food and breathing their air? Had I already been afflicted? I wanted to get up and run, but there was nowhere to go.

The hours drew out, long and weary and without sleep. I heard a noise and saw a flicker through the window. Up the little street a man had made a watch fire and was huddling close to it. It was one of the men who had gathered around us earlier. He was staring towards the woods, as if waiting for a ghost to appear, as if waiting for a scream to ring out in the night, but the ghost and the scream never came.

As word spread the following morning, the mood throughout the village lightened. Everyone seemed convinced that the fire had worked its magic. They were laughing. They were feeding animals and washing clothes. Life appeared to be returning to normal.

But I continued to feel uneasy. Who knew if the crisis in the village had passed? I wished I could be of more help, but there was nothing I could do. They needed a doctor or an exorcist, and I was neither. Simon was already standing on the road, his pack slung over his shoulder. I laced up my boots.

We said our goodbyes to Soh Min and his family and left the village by way of the forest path. In the full light of day, we could see the charred ground, the blackened remains of firewood, the burned grass. Simon and I swapped glances and then, like the smoke, we were gone.


Chris Watts recently profiled an Indian conservationist for EthnoTraveler.