The long road to Kalaw - a blister here, a blister there ...


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Asia » Burma » Mandalay Region » Kalaw
December 28th 2006
Published: January 15th 2007
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Hiking trail to KalawHiking trail to KalawHiking trail to Kalaw

Only 40K more to go!
"Trekking to Kalaw from Inle Lake - it's better than taking the bus!" Now that caught our attention and we were firmly committed to trying it. 40km as the snakes wriggle and water buffalos lumber, we sussed our a guide for our 3 day and 2 night trip and after finding a company that seemed good handed over our $30 each and we were ready to go. But all did not start out as well as we'd hoped ...

It turned out that the company had sold us quite a tale and the owner was nowhere to be found, leaving instead his poor nephew holding the bag - quite literally. We arrived at 8am ready to go only to find the entire contents of our meals sitting on the table out in front of us. Never in my life have I seen such food for hiking - a huge head of cauliflower, a dozen giant carrots, beans, and other miscellaneous vegetables and instant noodles after being told that we would only be cooked "traditional Shan food!". Well, I guess the Shan can like cup noodle as much as the next guy!

I couldn't imagine carrying that kind of weight
Sugarcane in fieldSugarcane in fieldSugarcane in field

Finally, something taller than Kurt in this country!
on your back, but wait, it gets better. Apparently the backpack that they usually used was broken so our guide was planning to carry everything in a plastic bag. Now I could only imagine the carrots puncturing the first hole as the veggies tumbled down the hill and we all had to scramble to keep hold of our dinner. It was not a reassuring premonition! Three days and thin plastic?! I really had to wonder. Then there was the fact that we were supposed to have a guide and a cook - presumably to share the load of the monsterous cauliflower et al, but allegedly our cook was under the weather. After we showed our dismay, they managed to round up another guy for the trail and with their veggies in plastic we were off.

Win 1 as we called him was our guide. In his flipflops, flannel shirt, rolled up pants and baseball cap he cut quite a figure. Of course he was only upstaged by Win 2 or Mini Win who wore his longyi complete with an ill fitting suit jacket and flipflops completed the look. Win 2 was only 17 and hadn't done much trekking, but
The long walk for waterThe long walk for waterThe long walk for water

Pa-O women carrying precious water home
was pinch hitting. Seemed like the odd couple, but we were off. First stop, the market, to buy some kind of backpack for the food. Phew ... our carrots were saved.

Finding a boat to transport us across Inle didn't go as smoothly as planned either as they seemed very inexperienced in the matters of negotiation. Finally as it was getting extremely late and hot, we managed to tag team along with a Dutch couple and a German guy and their guides for our trip across the magnificent Inle to the starting point for our 3 day trek.

Back on dry land we said goodbye to the Intha and the amazing area of Inle Lake and looked forward and upward to the hills of Kalaw that beckoned. Day 1 started off rather tamely with a flat section where we walked along fields of sugar cane where workers would cut 200 stalks for less than a dollar and from which that fantastic Mandalay rum of our mojitos was made. Bamboo forests gave us cover and also provided materials for the locals to make houses which to our amazement could be built in just a day with a whole team of people helping out. Fields of turmeric, soy beans, wheat, rambutan, bananas lay in our paths, but after the first hour up we climbed. Up, up and up in the blazing hot sun of the day. Finally a lunch break in a very small Pa-O village. We quickly realized that our limited Burmese wouldn't help us here since no one could speak it and we were back to the basics again.

Now while our guides carried a whole crate load of veggies, they were missing some other basics like plates, bowls, cups, forks, stove - the typical backpackers self sufficiency stuff so we weren't quite sure how things would work, but we shortly found out that none of this was necessary because they simply marched up to someone's house and asked to go in and use their things. Warning: do not try this at home! Only to be executed by well trained Burmese guides in Myanmar!

The next thing we know a family is cleaning up their storage area, sweeping away mice, laying out bamboo mats for us to sit and we are being fed cakes and tea while our lunch is being cooked. Sitting on the floor on the lookout for hungry critters, sunlight streaming in through the roughly cut bamboo, we feel strange as the people are not all that friendly which was unexpected. We tell Win 1 and Win 2 to eat with us and finally find out that these people have never had foreigners in their house before! No wonder they seem so leary! Their baby has never even seen foreigners and seems very scared. Not many places in the world where you can have that experience, but there we were.

The afternoon was spent walking on clay soil of rich reds in a harsh landscape of scrub brush and rolling hills feeling much like the southern US. The highlight of the afternoon was arriving in a village where the children were in school and hearing them all singing together, reciting their lessons, their little voices carrying over the hills and beckoning us. Once the gong was struck, they came running to us with curiousity wanting to have pictures taken and mobbing us to see the results. It was a very common reaction for most of the trip.

Finally arrived for our first night's rest at our hotel for the night, the Monastery. Now this wasn't just any Monastery. It was fully equipped for foreign guests with sheets strung up on one side of the monastery to enclose makeshift bedrooms with 3 blankets and one pillow for each person, double occupancy of course! There were 3 outhouses and even a shower area with a bucket shower. Talk about deluxe! On the front porch were chairs with 14 other trekkers in full relaxation mode. Arriving at 5pm we were fairly late and only had a brief time to enjoy our surroundings before it got dark and the temperature plummetted.

Now you never think of South East Asia as cold, but beware. In Dec at night, the temperatures can go down to 0 celcuis and when you're sleeping on the ground that can feel really cold, even to Canadians while in the day it is blistering hot! We put on all our layers including our down jackets and hats and got ready for our dinner outdoors! Yes, they had a whole little dining area set up for us where the trekkers sat side by side at lower tables and gorged themselves on food. It appeared that Win 1 and Win 2 wanted to lighten their load and had made no less than 5 dishes for us plus soup and appetizers! There was absolutely no way that we could eat all of it. We sat there trying to get through what we could while the sound of monks chanting echoed in the distance.

After a restless sleep where we longed for our soft beds, we were shocked off the floor by the most heavenly sound ever, all of the monks had crept into the monastery and were singing in harmony. Somehow the voices seemed to fill up full that entire cold room until we felt almost warm. There is nothing that I could ever write that could capture the feeling of being awoken by that sound, but trust me, it is the world's best alarm clock ever! And up and at 'em we were. At 7am we were on the trail to beat the heat of the day because we had to walk about 8 hours that day.

The day proved to be long with some rolling hills, but also some serious stretches of uphill coming at the most inopportune time in the full hot afternoon sun. Wandered through fields and fields of chilis where women worked to harvest them and stopped to say hello. There were also fields of cauliflower which our guides looked upon with greedy eyes and thought about taking another which we didn't recommend! In the villages that we passed, blankets of red could be seen everywhere as the chilis dried in the yards of the villagers. Children came running and screaming hello and it was brightened our spirits until the next hill.

Inle Lake was far away and people had to walk long and far for water. At the top of one hill we saw women washing their clothes and themselves after walking a distance for the precious commodity. Down below, way down a series of stone steps, lay our village and bed for the night. We were very happy to get there. The family who hosted us had two houses so we slept in the upstairs of one and they slept in the other. With a well, water buffalos, cows, pigs and electricity they were fairly well off, but still, their house had no heat and they cooked outside as well as warming up by lighting fires outside around which they all huddled.


The women of the house was absolutely warm hearted, making up for the cold temperature, fussing around us and bring us tea, blankets, food, drink and then coming to share the evening with us as the guides translated for us. It was a true pleasure to sit in her company and exchange life stories and experiences - hers being so entirely different than ours. In the cold of the night - and it was even colder here than in the monastery - where we slept in all our clothes - she came to tuck us in when our blankets got moved about.

In the morning as the daylight came up and the fires were build, we went outside with everyone else, grandmother, children and parents to share the fire and share laughter before breakfast of fresh avocados, bread and our most addictive 3-in-1 coffee. Yum!

We sorry to leave the family and wished we could come back and build them a woodstove and stay with them for a week, but Kalaw called. Giving them some medicine that we had carried from Nyaungshwe and also a picture that they had admired from our album of BC, we left, but not before the mother gave us one of her pictures and even thought I didn't want to take it because she only had a few photos of her entire family, she insisted and I knew it would be wrong to not take it graciously. Such is the generousity of the people. Waving and looking back I thought about our lives, how different, yet how connected.

We were on to our last day - an easy 2 1/2 hours - to the former British hill station of Kalaw and the end of our trip. The day was anticlimatic after leaving our adopted family and everyone felt the end drawing near. My feet were covered in blisters and looking forward to my flipflops - maybe Win 1 and Win 2 had something there! Walked into town which felt so organized after being in the hills with its park, sidewalks and tudor style Colonial buildings. Far from being thronged with tourists, it was dead quiet. Put our stuff in our hotel room and then our guides asked us to come with them for tea. We were dirty and tired, but it just didn't matter. They had a number of hours to wait
Celebratory beer, KalawCelebratory beer, KalawCelebratory beer, Kalaw

With the Dutch couple and all of our guides
until the pickup back to Nyuangshwe so we were happy to keep them company.

The Dutch couple came along with their guide and we all decided to put a grand finish on the trip by sharing pitchers of beer in the sun. For Mini Win, it was his first taste of the golden elixor - nothing like corrupting minors, but it was well earned. Both Win 1 and Win 2 had done a superlative job. Freezing in the mornings with only one layer to keep them warm and tired at night after lugging the food a long, long way over rough trails in flipflops, they were the poorest equipped of all the guides we saw, but they had an unparalled spirit and a sense of humour. They kept us laughing and extremely well fed with delicious dishes and endless amounts of food. We would be sorry to see them go and know that they were poorly paid while the owner pocketed most of our $60 US so we handed them a generous tip and bought them their beer, walked them to the pickup and waved goodbye with profound thanks in our heart.

For them it was a long ride back and for us a lazy day in Kalaw, a quiet little town in the mountains, mainly used to transition for trekking. The cold nights made us long for the south and so southern we were bound - to the beach and a whole other piece of life in Burma. The north would remain elusive to us and we would wonder about it long after we left - not for its tea sloped mountains, trekking and hill tribes, but for the quality of life of the people which was not supposed to be that good. For this trip anyway, we would never know.



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