A thin mist broke over pale green rice fields in a wet hill-wrapped bowl in the Shan Highlands of northern Burma. An ox chewed its cud. Smoke rose from bamboo huts on the fringes, and longyi-clad men swung slow-motion sickles in garden plots. From over the next hill came the plaintive cry of the train from Mandalay, winding laboriously from village to village, overloaded with produce, creaking under the weight of the country’s isolation for lack of spare parts.
As we squelched along the muddy track I turned to my companion, a Shan man in his late thirties. His arms were tattooed with symbols in the Burmese script.
“What does it mean?” I asked. I’d seen similar markings on men throughout the country.
“A spell,” he said with a smile and a shrug. “A charm to keep away snakes. Many Burmese have them. We use the Shan script because the spirits cannot read.”