Published: February 26th 2007December 28th 2005
At five in the morning a half dozen foreigners stand in the guesthouse lobby. Across the street trishaw wallahs sit complacently in the teashop sharing small talk over small cups of tea tasting of dirt and tree roots. Our bus journey departs Bagan before sunrise. I am cramped against the window in seat 12 next to a French Arab, a cook from the Cote d'Azur, who is friendly and opinionated and blind to the fact that I am immersed in my novel. The bus fills with women toting checkered bags full of tins of food and young men chewing cheroot, spitting red goo into the aisle and out the windows. The bus forces its way through the last minutes of darkness and into the morning, headed east across the central plain and into the Shan mountains. My neighbour shows me countless pics of poor smiling children, yaks and mountain peaks, taken on his hikes in Peru and Kyrgystan. He complains of the food in Burmanie and that he cannot use his credit card. What kind of country is this, he asks. He cannot wait to return to Thailand, a real country. He can have Thailand. The sky grows overcast as we
pass through Myktinia. I lose myself in my book. I am with Orwell in a British Station in the 1920s far up the Ayeyerwaddy. Flory, who oversees the teak operation is incensed at the thought of Elizabeth together with the young soldier Veerall. Flory shoots himself and his dog. I let out a gasp of disbelief. U Po Kyin, the wily district commissioner, has finally got his way and will be admitted to the European's club house. I highly recommend George Orwell's The Road to Burma
for his descriptions of the jungle's flora and fauna and the activities of the locals.
The bus passes through Kalaw
mid afternoon. The sun is out and I'm starving. My neighbour climbs off the bus and we book in at a cheap guesthouse before grabbing a bite to eat. Kalaw is a quiet village, a few square blocks, nestled in the hills with a recent tourist boom thanks to the trekking possibilities in the surrounding countryside. The receptionist at my guesthouse helps organize a 3 day hike to Inle Lake. Actually, she takes a third of the payment for a last minute phone call to a young local guy who will in fact earn
very little once the food and other supplies have been purchased. Take my advice. Avoid The Golden Lilly. It is run by a comparatively wealthy Indian family who own their own diamond mine elsewhere in the country. Try to find a local entrepreneur. The same goes for booking a guide. The next morning our trekking expedition set off into the hills. I was quickly acquainted with the other foreigner, a tall Dutchman named Michael, a social-worker from Nijmegen. Our guide, a five foot tall student from the Shan state, who went by Alex, studied electronics in Taungyi and bussed at a hotel in Kalaw to support his studies and his new family. He spoke with an adorable accent, pronouncing people, peeprr. Alex' cousin from some distant town was on his first hike in Shan state. Keyo could not speak any English. His skin was almost black and he wore under his baseball cap an inexpressive yet serious face. One night while sharing dinner I caught him off guard with his big grin, radiant like a child. The first day's trek was the steepest. We climbed out of Kalaw on an ox-cart path, passing farmers carrying squealing pigs to market. Alex
pointed out the vegetation, castor seed trees, sesame fields, tea plantations, avocado and papaya trees. We rested inside a Palau village long-house where young children pushed hand woven purses and hats in our faces, most of which is made in distant villages by other tribes. Lunch was served at 'the Viewpoint', a collection of gazebos offering shade on a hilltop among pink and purple flowering trees, pumpkin and squash vines. We were served chappatis and pumpkin curry with a spicy garlic paste. Michael and I shared our gazebo with several Germans, a Pole and a group of Swiss cyclists in spandex. That must look funny to the locals. We continued hiking, into and out of the intense heat and cool shade, passing Palau, Denu and Dtanyu villages, where homes were built of sturdy looking bamboo or pine. A train line lead us to Rrsta village where we bought groceries and a second guide, Tutu, because Alex wasn't certain of the way. An hour later, descending into a peaceful village scattered across cascading rice paddies, we found our way to a farmhouse for a night's stay. Michael and I relaxed on the veranda and watched the sun set across the valley.
In the farmyard, two young children played on a water buffalo, hopping on and off. The beast seemed indifferent. A young woman continued plating seedlings until the last ray of light. The old owner treated us to tea and we smoked a cheroot together. On the walls hung airline posters and beer ad calendars. A large altar hung from the back wall, decorated with dried flowers and surrounded by framed photographs of the old farmer and his son back in their days as novice monks. Before dinner we were invited into the small thatched farmhouse at the foot of the vegetable patch where the son lived with his family. We crowded around a small fire and Michael played checkers with the young girl.
The next day, the trek took us across rolling hills sewn like a giant quilt in patches of green and brown and in the sun, yellow and red, and interspersed with shiny grey sequins of leafless trees and their black shadows. We passed corn fields, cabbage fields destroyed by a recent rain, potato, taro, ginger, lima beans, lobster beans, lentil and cumerick. When passing through villages, the children would come and watch Michael and I. Sometimes we
shared songs but mostly they just laughed with us. Or a group of young novices would come to the road's edge and watch the circus pass through town. Around noon we stopped in a Dtanyu village, Llupyin, full of children, buffalo, men chopping wood, erecting a neighbour's new home, women washing at the well. In one large pinewood home we sat around a small low table for soup and oranges. Late afternoon we reached Thitai, a Pao village, above which stands an old monastery where we would put up for the night. We washed our feet and sat on the front deck in the lowering sun. One of the elder monks served us tea and bars of sticky rice. We were shown our sleeping quarters tucked behind a bamboo partition along a width of the main prayer hall. A dozen or more novices who'd been sweeping the grounds filtered inside and joined what at first seemed a rather comical prayer chant. Slowly they found their unison, the smaller ones led by three or four boys whose voices were just reaching puberty. The little ones referred to sheets of scribbled sutra folded before them. I lied on my matt enchanted. Michael
and I, Alex, Tutu and Keyo cooked and ate supper in a barn attached to the hall. We sat cross-legged on the matts, sharing beef curry with rice, vegetables and lentil soup. The prayer chanting continued in to the dark hours, another chorus echoing from a second monastery tucked in the forest below at the foot of the hill. It was a cold night's sleep. Five-thirty the next morning, the boys returned for prayers, much less enchanting at this hour. We ate a quick breakfast and pressed on. The hilltop path rose above a blanket of thick morning mist covering the valley in winter dew. The sun shone in our eyes. The silhouettes of farmers and their ox-carts passed in the other direction. The path climbed higher cutting into the last mountain range. We stopped above a narrow pass to reenergize on bananas and looking far below, framed by jagged red cliffs and creeping vines, appeared a wide valley with glistening patches of sugarcane, villages and further on, the soft blue shimmer of Inle Lake. After climbing down, the path widened and continued through a tall bamboo forest, before entering into the open hot sky. The path narrowed and rose
on a dike, skirted by a canal and a field of feathery 12 foot tall sugar cane stalks. At Indein
we stopped for a cup of instant lepeye to wait for our boat. The driver motored us out of the fields past stilt houses and clumps of palm trees, homes sheltered on little mud islands, white cranes stirred by the boat's roar, swooped over head. Low skiffs rocked in our wake, supporting skilled fishermen, ravelling and unravelling nets. The canal widened, the community of stilt houses grew denser, some advertising restaurant signs, silversmith workshop. We docked at a golden spire stupa, Phaung Daw Oo Paya
. Inside the walls, covered in murals, depicted the story of some primitive idols unearthed by a King. The idols, five golden globules stood centre stage. In the market under the temple, I purchased a pair of Shan pants. I eyed the hundreds of trinkets, the same wooden images of monks, Buddha, nats, peasants, eunuchs, puppets, brass and wooden pipes, hand woven shirts, bells and gongs, wooden animals, old bank notes, sling shots and crossbows. It was a further hour's boat ride across the lake to Nyaugshwe
, passing the famed fishermen of Inle who balance at
the stern of their skiff on one foot, the other wrapped around the paddle to propel while their hands are free to work the net.
There are more photos below