Published: December 18th 2010December 10th 2010
Kalaw - Inle Lake trek, Day 3.
The bus from Nyuang U to Kalaw was an old creaking metal beast, the insides of which had clearly been refitted by someone that had never sat down in their lives. The legroom wasn’t suitable for even a midget and the seat-back was positioned at a 95 degree angle. This ensured that my bum was always uncomfortably perched on the edge of the uncomfortably upholstered seat whilst my body tilted forwards uncontrollably for 10 hours.
I was up at 3.30am with my Italian friends and the bus departed at 4am but sleep was expectedly elusive considering the seating arrangements. The dusty road continued through small towns and villages, picking up more people each time we stopped. We paused at Meiktila and Thazi, passing long military convoys comprising of large bottle green trucks and artillery surrounded by Burmese army personnel eyeing onlookers suspiciously.
We finally arrived at Kalaw in the early afternoon and welcomed the cooler air of this small town located in the hills. We had arranged some accommodation and a trekking guide around this area already but soon decided to amend our choice. This one particular local agency tried to overcharge us and blatantly lie about certain aspects
of the trek to capture our business. We parted ways to find a better – more honest agent to arrange a hike with.
The one we settled on was amazing. Uncle Sam is a bit of a legend in Kalaw, having been a guide for many years and a well known face in many of the surrounding minority villages. We walked into his restaurant, which is a simple place, and were greeted by large canvas and oil paintings as well as photographs of him and his beaming smile on many of the walls.
The big man himself rose from a table with that familiar wide smile and ushered us to a table where he began to give us an overview of the many different trekking possibilities in the area. He was slow and methodical in his explanations, throwing in small anecdotal gems regarding the scenery and of the people we are likely to meet. His passion and enthusiasm were infectious and we all exchanged a look that confirmed that this was our man.
As well as a great trekking service Uncle Sam owns a wonderful little eatery that we spent much time in the following lunch and
dinner. The curries and chapattis were awesome and very cheap – even for Burma. They filled us up further with free fruit and Chinese tea. We confirmed our trek with them to start the next day, following a trail that promised to put us in touch with many little villages and unique tribes coupled with some fabulous scenic views on the way.
The hotel we had moved to, Eastern Paradise was also amazing. The staff went out of their way to help and answer every query we could throw at them. I had my best breakfast in Myanmar here also as the enormous morning meal included varieties of fruit such as oranges, papaya and banana, tea or coffee, toast with jam and eggs. I have tried on multiple occasions to explain a poached egg to the cooks at hotels and guest houses – most just bringing a boiled or fried egg. Eastern Paradise was the first one to nail it and I love them for it!
We met our guide, whose name is Kyi (pronounced ‘g’) the following morning at the more reasonable time of 8.30am and set off from Uncle Sam’s Restaurant. We climbed out of Kalaw
past colonial houses serving as a reminder of the town’s old use as a British Hill Station. British expats would escape here, in the cooler hill air, to escape the oppressive summer heat.
Soon, we were walking amongst nature, past fields of green and brown and through forestry thick with foliage sprouting from all angles. We skirted past a lake and rose higher to a viewpoint offering an exceedingly pleasing panoramic view of rolling hills of green and brown with tea plantations cascading down the steep sides. The air was fresh and the sky a scorching blue which was all very nice.
The trail wound round the ridge of hills to our eventual lunch spot encased in gardens of papaya trees and an orange grove. The shady spot heralded great views of the surrounding hills, dotted with tea plantations and small villages balanced on top. This was a Nepalese owned restaurant and they served up a sumptuous lunch of divine chapattis, pumpkin curry and avocado salad.
After lunch we retraced our steps along the ridge and within a couple of hours we came upon our first village. Small thatched huts lined a small brick-red track, many of
them on stilts with large mats of tea drying in front of them. Women were busy working in the huts, washing plates or sorting through tea. Children ran to us with beaming smiles and enjoyed every opportunity to catch a glimpse of themselves through the viewing screens in our cameras.
This village introduced me to the simplicity of life in these small communities where men work and toil in the field alongside women, working symbiotically to produce their crops and sell them at the markets to provide an income and nourishment for themselves. We were invited in to one such house and sat drinking tea on mats, chatting with our guide about the challenges of local life, such as medical care – of which there is none.
Leaving the village we waved goodbye to everyone who had lined the street – the children running after us barefoot yelling ‘tata!’ We walked for a couple of hours more, following an old railway line – hemmed in on either side by thick, colourful foliage - for some distance.
The railways here were built by the British and many of the tunnels we passed were stamped with a building date
which dated from almost a hundred years ago. The trains that ply these old rails are ancient too but we didn’t see any on this occasion. The old wooden sleepers were still solid underfoot though and we followed this path all the way to the final village of the day – in which we would spend the night in a family home.
The village was set into a hill and the house we were staying at set near the top amongst a small plantation of bamboo trees. We met the family whose house we were staying who were incredibly lovely and kind people – eager to converse with us all to improve their English. One of the daughters took me and Daniele up to another village as they had to carry some fruit up – which we offered to take for them – much to their delight.
Before we left, Daniele and I played a popular football game that many of guys seem to participate in across the country. They use a small, grapefruit-sized wicker ball which has usually been varnished. The object of the game is to keep the ball in the air with many people twisting
and spinning intricately, using some well-practiced flair to keep the ball up in the air. It was good fun and I made a mental note to buy one of them when I return to Rangoon.
We strolled down into the valley and passed rice paddies that had recently been cut and began on the muddy path up to the other village. On the way we passed a woman carrying an incredible load on her back – it was supported by her head and looked to weight at least 40kg. On her front, a small baby of perhaps a few months old was wrapped up and attached to her chest – a scene which really epitomises the incredible strength these women emit.
Up in the village we climbed to the monastery and chatted to some of the monks as the sun set and the area grew dark. Torch lights began to flicker as women washed in wells nearby, using the versatile longyi to preserve their modesty.
We spent some time at this village in a house with a group of women preparing fruit for the following day’s market in Kalaw. They would have to hike for some distance
to reach this and yet again, in their company and from what I had already seen, I was blown away by their (physical and mental) strength and attitudes and also their incredible grace and hospitality. These girls are tough but they still retain their delicate femininity and their strong maternal roles in the village.
We made our way back to our village in the darkness to devour a much needed dinner. Our cook had rustled up a delicious assortment of vegetables and rice with fried kale and watercress in delicious sauces. On top of this we had a great fish curry and lentil soup. The food never stopped coming and constant top-ups of rice and soup were placed in front. The Burmese love to feed – the more you eat the happier they are. They were going to love me!!
Suitably stuffed we spent the rest of the night chatting to the family and talking about their lives and schools. We discussed their goals and aspirations and even looked over their textbooks. They were learning some complex stuff including chemistry, physics and maths – all written in English. It was all beyond me and very impressive for their
ages, which were 18 and 21.
We all slept that night in the same large wooden room. The windows were closed and the electricity (provided by hydroelectric) flickered off for the evening at 9.30pm. The room was absolutely pitch black and the surrounding wilderness came alive with an assorted symphony of rhythmic sounds. Our beds were the floor, made slightly more comfortable with straw mats and a few blankets. Overcome with tiredness though, I fell asleep easily.
After a breakfast of horrid fried bread (which no one touched), brown sticky rice and fried rice we left the village. We said our goodbyes to the wonderful family that had hosted us and wound out of the village into the fresh, clear morning. The sky was brilliant blue yet again and a slight morning dew hung on the dried grass and wild sunflowers that grew by the side of the track and glinted in the early light.
This second day was a long yet enjoyable trek. The scenery we passed was overwhelmingly agricultural as we passed fabulous fields of yellow sesame flowers, flowing green stalks of wheat and dried brown rice fields that had just been harvested. The colours
were incredible and the palette mixed with an assortment of blues, greens and browns which combined with beautiful wild flowers of purple, yellow and blue. It was a joy to wander through and a pleasure for the iris to absorb.
Within these fields local villagers were hard at work. Men and women drove carts powered by Ox and Buffalo along bumpy dirt tracks. These familiar carts litter the hilly landscape as workers ploughed fields and harvest the land. They appeared to take great pleasure in their work, laughing and joking amongst themselves (or at us possibly) as they toiled in the rising sunshine.
The staggering variation of agriculture made me realise just how self-sufficient this country is. They produce an enormous amount of their own produce from different rice, corn and wheat’s to potatoes, bananas, apples, oranges, onions, garlic, cabbages, strawberries, limes, lemons, courgettes, aubergines…the list goes on. The fertility of the land and their century-old skills, passed down through generations has yielded fabulous variety. They are also self-sufficient because they have to be – lack of trade partners across the world ensures that they must create many of their goods from the raw materials they make for
Great Keep-up Game
Day 1 of the Trek
We passed through more villages and unique tribes on this day, each with a distinctly different flavour. One of the best we actually smelt before arriving. The smell soon became evident as we reached the thatched huts that were dotted around a wide, dry mud path. Outside each house were large mats of bright red chilli’s drying in the sun. There were millions of them sending a sweet scent into the air.
The people here wore beautiful red and orange scarves wrapped around their heads and many wore loose fitting black pyjama-type outfits. Some of the women were weaving with manual machines, making new scarves and small bags. They were all smiling and happy people, equally as curious about us as we were about them. The children again were excited and giggly and were great fun to play with.
We left the sweet chilli smell and stopped at another chilli village further on for lunch. The morning had been a long hard toil with the sun beginning to hammer down, it’s rays of light feeling like physical blows upon our heads, quite unlike the cool start of the day. We had been walking for several hours
Taking us to another village, laden with fruit.
already on hilly terrain – a few more hours were in front and so we slurped down every available calorie in our noodle soup and tea leaf salad for lunch.
We ambled on, passing numerous villages, happy chatty farmers and beautiful scenery. At one stop we rested our tired legs and an old man came over to say hello. At one point he walked over to a bush and cut off a scarlet-red looking flower. He rinsed it and offered it to me to eat. I crunched the outer petals – their sour taste permeated through my mouth. They were not too bad, and after dipping in a little chilli oil they became great. Our cook picked a few and promised to use them in tonight’s meal.
The walk continued for many hours with our group getting tired. Near the end of the day, as the sun was setting we walked around rice paddies with workers heading home with their cows and buffalo for the evening as we made a beeline for some limestone cliffs. Around the corner was, finally, our village camp for the evening. Our bed for the night was to be the village monastery, which
Our Beds, Day 1
Inside the family home.
was housed in an old teak building standing on wooden piles.
The ornate monastery was set in large grounds and surrounded by other wooden cabins and buildings. Inside the smoky old atmosphere was wonderful. The air was heavy, damp and smelt strongly of teak which had the odour of old earthen wood.
Our last dinner was served as a large crowd gathered inside the monastery to watch TV. A cheesy Burmese movie was playing and many of the village’s children, who don’t get many opportunities to watch TV, found a small floor space to watch. Many of them were torn between the watching the movie and shooting us curious glances.
The dinner was fantastic though, as the food has been for the entire trek. A very satisfying meal comprising of a variety of plates of vegetables, rice and a particularly awesome mutton curry ensured we fell asleep on the creaky wooden floor of the monastery fully satisfied.
The night was still and with the windows of the monastery closed the darkness was absolute as not even a hand held millimetres from the face visible. The monastery floor shuddered when one particularly weak-bladdered monk went to the
Our hosts on day 1
toilet several times. I awoke at 5am to the velvet smooth, rhythmic voice of a monk meditating in front of the central Buddhist statues. It was a calming sound to wake up to, even if it did sound like complete nonsense. Faint shards of light poured into the now-open windows, exposing floating particles hanging in the air as day-break approached.
The soothing monk chants ended as we ate breakfast as first light began to further illuminate the monasteries innards. After a last breakfast of pancakes we head out into the misty morning at 6am. At this time the teak building was shrouded in a thick mist, giving it an ethereal, haunting disposition.
The sun had not yet rose sufficiently high to burn off the morning mist and heavy dew. This made for an interesting start to the day as we passed many spider webs with heavy, perfectly clear dew drops sliding down the silky strands of webbing. Uncomfortably large spiders have been quite a feature on the trek with many nesting in huge webs, in massive numbers across trees along the way. The ones that chose to live in the wooden toilet cubicles were particularly off-putting!
this particular occasion the spiders were squirreled away somewhere but their beautifully constructed webs looked impressive in the misty conditions. One particularly bushy area of Aloe Vera was covered in them. It looked as if a blanket of cotton wool had been wrapped around each prickly-leaved bush. No one web was distinguishable and so it resembled a fluffy webbed city spanning the thick, spiky leaves.
We hiked on from here past great centuries-old trees with long heavy branches sprawling like the tentacles of an octopus as the sun eventually appeared and began to burn away the mist. On this last day the terrain we were walking in flattened as we passed higher mountains and crossed through sweet smelling pine forests. Finally, we caught sight of the finish line which was some hill-top stupas that marked the small village where we would stop.
The trek had been tougher than I expected. The terrain hadn’t been particularly challenging but the long day walks had taken their toll and I was very much looking forward to sleeping on anything that wasn’t a solid floor. We had racked up nearly 50-ish km of walking over the three days. The glorious weather made
for some fine views but had also made us suitably sizzled, sunburnt and lacking in energy.
Eventually we arrive and collapsed by a lazy brown river to have our final lunch – another delicious noodle soup. We chatted to our guide, who has been incredible throughout and enriched our trek immeasurably. Through him we have learnt a great deal about this country – from politics to religion and tradition. On every topic that interested us along the route his vast knowledge was able to satisfy every question, no matter how bizarre, that we threw at him.
We had dozens of interesting conversations along the way – too many to mention here – but they were very insightful in terms of finding out more about Burma’s past, present and future as well as some crazy societal controls implemented by the government. These included the outrageous price of acquiring a mobile phone which stands at about a whopping $1,000! A mass mobile-phone market would mean the threat of a nationally-organised movement capable of communicating quickly and efficiently and so it is kept out of reach.
The trek has been a marvellous experience and allowed our group to get up
close, interact and talk to local people of all ages. It has given me a unique insight into these incredible people who, despite the constraints put upon them and the difficulties they face, get on with the job in hand and do so with a smile. Their courage, strength and determination are incredibly humbling and the compassion, hospitality and innocent curiosity they all exhibit is truly wonderful.
Apart from the odd TV – life in these places doesn’t seem to have changed much in hundreds of years. People still ply field-side tracks with Ox-powered carts and cut their crops manually with the swift swipe of a scythe. If these people were given the opportunity to trade on the world stage then their fierce determination and work ethic would be a force to be reckoned with. But would this change their way of life for the better? More money would surely flood in but would it buy happiness? Who knows?
For now though I was quite content to let these thoughts wash over me as I sank into a chair, happy for my bum to take the aching pressure off my sore legs. I was utterly caked in red
Dried rice paddies and sesame fields.
dust from the previous track. In front of me bobbed the colourful long-tail boats that ply the waterways of Inle Lake – our immediate next destination.
There are more photos below