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Published: December 2nd 2015
Next stop on our Burmese adventure was Shan State, starting in the lovely little town of Kalaw. Trekking HQ for Myanmar, Kalaw was a hill station founded by the Brits to escape the heat of the plains and the jungle. It's the place to go for nice day treks and longer trips, with the big draw being the three day trek to Inle Lake, which is what we were there for.
We intended to spend two nights in Kalaw, to give us one day to chill out before starting trekking. After getting everything ready to go, however, the night before starting trekking we happened upon the best bar we've been to in Burma. A tiny little place called Hi Bar, with just 12 seats around a little oval bar, it serves almost nothing but rum sours, which consisted of a very generous measure of rum, a tiny splash of water and a piece of lime, and cost 50p each. Mainly populated with locals who didn't speak much English, it wasn't particularly easy to have a conversation with them at first, but as the night went on, more rum sours were knocked back and the bar's battered old guitar made an
appearance. Most of the popular music in Burma is Western music re-sung in Burmese, and suddenly we all bonded when someone played Sing, by Travis, in Burmese and I started singing along in English. Conversation was easy now as, half-cut, we passed the guitar back and forth between me and two great Burmese guys, one named Minthu and his brother, whose name I didn't write down at the time and then almost immediately forgot. As even more rum sours went down conversation flowed freely despite each other not understanding a word that was said - shouting cheers (Aung Myin Par Say!) while holding a glass aloft, singing and smiling worked just fine. Then three more locals turned up with more guitars and we ended up having a big old multilingual jam session until the bar closed - needless to say with more rum sours as an accompaniment. Awesome night, but the moral of the story is not to do that kind of thing when you have a 25 km trek to do the next day. The alarm went off at the crack of dawn, and we crawled down to breakfast feeling like death. After struggling to get a fried egg
down, we made the courageous decision to wimp out, and called the trekking place to say 'we're both a bit ill today - could we please start tomorrow instead?'
Anyway, all's well that ends well; we started trekking the day afterwards and ended up being with a great group of people. Particularly, we met a Kiwi couple, Mark and Anna, who were similarly delighted with the low cost of alcohol here after a couple of months working up the Malaysian peninsular - I'm not sure if we were a bad influence on them or they were a bad influence on us, or a combination of both, but either way the beer count increased even further through the trek and while in Inle Lake together...
The first day of the trek, in what seems to be getting pretty standard for us on treks, was promised as one with fantastic views over tea plantations but ended up being cloudy with about 50 metres visibility. The clouds lifted towards the end of the day though, and we wandered through what appeared to be the 18th century - tiered rice paddies tended by farmers in khamauk
(conical bamboo hats) and longyi
ploughs behind water buffalo. Not a hint of mechanisation to be seen - it was very evocative to stand there looking over it knowing the exact same view would have been there hundreds of years before. I'm sure it will all change within a few years and much to the better for the local people, but somehow on a peaceful, beautiful evening, with the jingle of the water buffalo's bells tinkling through the sunset, the old way of life didn't seem too bad either.
We were staying in homestays through the trek, with the various tribes that live in the mountains between Kalaw and Inle Lake. These were all pretty great, although we felt slightly awkward as we took up the families main upstairs room and they all piled together in the kitchen... (the main downstairs room is for the buffalo, of course). The first night we stayed with a family from the Pashtun tribe, then woke early the next day for another 25 km hike. The weather was glorious that day, and we were treated to beautiful views across the hills. We were now mainly in Pa-O tribe territory, who are big chilli growers - fields and fields
of chilli plants, with every available surface in the villages used for drying them, down to the roofs and doorways, which was very scenic. Our guide was Pa-O, so had some good friends in the village we stayed that night. The main upshot of this was that he asked his friend to keep his shop open late into the night once we had all had a couple of beers, and predictably enough we ended up over-indulging a little (this was where we discovered that the bad whisky in Burma costs the equivalent of 6p per shot...). So the final day of our trek was pretty painful, but fortunately was a little shorter and all downhill to Inle Lake. A great three days, definitely one of the highlights of our time here.
Inle Lake is another of those places where you could almost be going back in time. It's a few more years along the road to modernisation than the villages we saw on the trek, but once you get past the boatmen posing for tourist photos and get out into the lake proper, you see fishermen working the same way they have for centuries. They have a very unusual
method of rowing there, where they stand on one leg on the back of the boat and wrap the other leg around the oar, and row with their leg - leaving both hands free to fish. It looks like quite an art, and they must have incredible balance not to end up in the water. They then either fish with a net or have a large cage which they drop into the water and then stab blindly through the top of, which looks very inefficient but which I presume must work for them to still be doing it - either way both methods are very photogenic, even if they're not that practical... As you float around the lake, you also see whole villages of bamboo huts raised above the water, with boats the only way in or out, and farming is all done on the water - beds are made with lilies (or some other kind of floating vegetation) and fixed in place with poles to the lake bed, then tomatoes and various other crops are grown from the floating beds, with the farming done from boats going up and down the rows between. It's all very pleasing and peaceful
to see (or at least it would be if the tourist boat engines weren't so loud), though again it was hard to shake the feeling that in a few years time this will all be gone - modernised and replaced.
Slightly surprisingly, there's a vineyard in Inle Lake (run by a real Frenchman, apparently). We all cycled up there one afternoon (which turned out to be bloody hard going up the steep hill at the end), to sample some Burmese wine. Not at all surprisingly, it was all pretty terrible, but we had fun trying all the different wines on offer and watching the sunset over the lake. Less fun, though very memorable, was the bike ride down the hill after a large quantity of wine, in the dark, on a bike where the back brakes didn't work at all. It was going OK until my phone flipped over on a bump and shone the torch right into my face and not at all on the road, adding complete blindness to the list of woes. Somehow we all got down safely though, and celebrated with some more alcohol back in town. Another Burmese piss-up - another hard morning.
All of this seemed like a lot of hard work - now off to the beach for a few days to relax.
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