Myanmar Climb: Leeches and Spiders and Flies, Oh My – Dispatch #3

Follow our National Geographic-The North Face team on a seven-week expedition in Myanmar (Burma) to attempt to determine the tallest peak in Southeast Asia. The adventure will take them overland by plane, train, bus, and motorbike to begin a 300-mile round-trip jungle trek across tiger reserves, into plunging gorges, over raging rivers, and through cultural areas that have only recently been opened to Westerners. From their base camp in the remote northern reaches of the country, the team—including expedition leader Hilaree O’Neill, writer Mark Jenkins, photographer Cory Richards, filmmaker Renan Ozturk, climber Emily Harrington, and video assistant Taylor Rees—will climb to the summits of 5,800-meter (19,140-foot) peaks Hkakabo Razi and, if time allows, to Gamlang Razi with a calibrated Juniper GPS system to determine their true heights and solve the mystery. This story will appear in an upcoming edition of National Geographic magazine and was supported by a National Geographic Expeditions Council grant.

Read all the Myanmar Climb dispatches.

Leeches are the Draculas of the jungle. They are so deft, so cunning, sometimes, at first, you can’t even feel them sucking your blood. After about ten minutes you will feel a little twinge, unconsciously scratch yourself, and discover an engorged bloodsucker hanging from your flesh. One’s natural reaction is to grab the slimy, stretchy, fluid-filled worm, tear it from your body and grind it into a bloody mess on a rock. The site of the suction is a ragged circle, which will continue to bleed for the rest of the day, and be maddingly itchy for a week or longer. We have been hiking in the jungle now for almost a week and at last count, we have over a hundred leech bites between us.

Our path through the jungle is always wet, verdant, and subterranean, the sunlight blacked out by the interwoven canopy above. The topography—sharp, steep-walled peaks impenetrably dense with foliage—would seem to defy the very existence of a trail. Indeed, you would not believe there is any way to pass through this intense, foreboding landscape on foot if you weren’t actually on the cave-like track. It wends along such treacherously sheer mountainsides that one mistake on the narrow passageway, just a slip on the mossy stones, and you could drop hundreds of feet into a dark green abyss.

We cross creeks in every hidden ravine where the leeches leap for our feet. We push beneath gazebos of bamboo where the leeches drop onto our necks. All part of the felicity of fecundity.

Spiders are also ubiquitous, of course. Not the harmless little things you find in dry country, but subtropical, practically fist-sized monsters with pointy, articulated legs and fangs so large they’re visible from a few feet away. Cory’s flesh seems to be a peculiar delicacy for spiders, as he has whole patches of bites on his leg, arm, and back.

There are certainly far more interesting creatures in Burma’s northern jungles—leopards, panthers, and perhaps even still a tiger or two—but we of course never see them. We tromped for a week, with three 16-mile days in a row, but our heads were down the whole time—just like our porters with their tump lines—studying the trail and doing everything we could to keep our balance on the shockingly slick track.

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Each night we stop in a tiny village of bamboo huts with thatched roofs. All are up on four-foot stilts, with pigs and chickens below in the dirt. We hang our bug nets beneath dangling spiderwebs, the red eyes of the spiders glowing in the beams of our headlamps, and sleep on bamboo slats safely cocooned from the crawly critters.


Lest you believe we are just wimpy Westerners, which I readily admit we are, the local Rawang people are also afflicted by the insects. This evening a mother and father brought us a screaming little boy, perhaps two years old, who was bitten head-to-foot by sand flies. The bites were severe and badly infected. Hilaree and Emily pulled out our expedition med kit, cleaned the wounds with iodine, then smeared them with Neosporin while the child howled in pain. We gave the family some antibiotics and told them dosage. As our main guide Iyin said, in the jungle where there is no medicine, if you get sick, you either get better, or you die.

Check back here and on thenorthface.com for updates from the field. The team will also be posting to Instagram using #MyanmarClimb to document their travels.

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