Treking in the Shan

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February 27th 2009
Published: March 1st 2009
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Pindaya and Kalaw-Inle Lake trek

Morning's breakfast was granular 3 in 1 coffee mix, sweet bread (again) and some jam - not exactly a breakfast for kings (or for trekkers particularly) but it was free and nutrition is what it is so it didn't bother me so much.The owners of the guest house were third generation Punjabi speaking Sikhs from the Punjab, who had come with the British to Kalaw but who had never been to their homeland. The female matriarch took great delight in speaking (very good) English with me - missionaries were active in the area with schools during British rule and as it was too late in the day to do a trek she suggested we go to see the weekly market in nearby Pindaya.

It was a baking hot date and the journey was a very bumpy hour-long ride in a taxi but the countryside was very pleasant countryside and so reminiscent of England.Once in Pindaya we visited the lively and colourful market where local tribeswomen of the Taung-yo people were selling fresh produce such as vegetables, fish, fruit on blanket covered floors. There were lots of looks in our direction and we felt a bit self-conscious so we sat down at a long table under cover and had some lunch of spicy fish and soup and tea. Very tasty! The people seemed very friendly here and even some big-shot gave us some sugar cane drink as a gift. We then visited the Pindaya caves - with 9,000 Buddha statues! The taxi driver took us to a paper and umbrella making workshop - an interesting way to see local craftsmanship, plus umbrellas/parasols are an important item in this part of the world during hot summers and wet monsoons. We were expected to buy something of course but backpackers like me can't afford to increase their heavy load. I wish I had bought one now, of course.

Trek - Day One

The next day we commenced on a three day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake with our guide Robin, a very knowledgeable Sikh guy from the town. Accompanying us was Sven a mid 40s guy from Dresden in east Germany and a French couple in their mid twenties, Bruno and Sandrine from Lyon. Robin took us around Kalaw with its Nepali communities (former Gurkha soldiers settled here during the Second World War) and relatively middle class citizens (most people in the town being employed by the Burmese Army who have a large base here). He also showed what an amazing horticulture Burma has, flowers and roses and berries and fruits and leaves, all edible or used for something or other. This continued over the entire trip as Robin showed his environmentally-conscious side. The area was once sub tropical with forests that were full of wildlife such as tigers and wild cats but due to deforestation and the need for arable land this has sadly all but disappeared.We walked though quite rugged terrain and reached our first hill tribe village - that of the Pao-O , where we lunched or rather feasted on Burmese food inside a house. We also got to view the carpenters who were building a house, have their lunch in the same room, sat on the floor around a low circular table.

In the afternoon we visited a medicine man, a characterful 80 year old fella who had loads of children and grandchildren but who told us had no one to take over his job. We sat on the floor and drank loads of his herbal tea as he answered our questions. I think Robin was expecting us to be more interested than we in actual fact were.That first day we climbed quite steep hills and covered about 9 km walking through hill tribe villages from the Pao-O and I was totally knackered. That night we stayed with a family where dinner was very large and way too much to be honest. We lay down to sleep on blankets on the floor but the temperature dropped dramatically during the night and I struggled to keep myself warm.

Trek - Day Two

That morning Sven, who was sleeping beside me, lived up to national stereotypes by waking up at 6.30 am and began to fold away his blankets. The rest began moving at around 7 and as we had a long day ahead of us, we were on the road by 8. It was cold outside so I wore my jeans and fleece until around 9.30 am whereby I was sweating like a beast. The day was much longer in length as was the walking distance but less hilly and more undulating. The rice paddy fields and farmers working in the fields were a real highlight as was the surprisingly fertile land.We lunched at the house of a former mayor in a tribal village. We were by that time so gasping for something cold we ordered some cold fizzy pop, a shitty unfizzy rip-off Burmese version of Sprite. The lunch was really good again, samosa, rice and noodles.As we talked about food and restaurants I asked the French guy Bruno if he had heard of the chef Gordon Ramsay, who had trained in Paris. John G butted in with, "like you'd know". I guess snarly comments should be expected when you've been in each others pockets for 3 days. I wasn't very happy though so I glared at him and decided to travel solo after that.

We then hiked a long way up and down hills stopping to look at girls in the field farming, some of them remarkable pretty and always ready with a smile. One of the girls was 18 years old and very striking with thanakha painted on her face like a tiger along with bright red lipstick she was incongruously racking cow manure. The others in the group stood around taking her picture, oblivious to how shy it was making her. Curiously, of the gifts that we routinely doled out in return such as pencils this girl asked if we had anything that would whiten her skin. I briefly thought of my sunblock/skin whitener that I'd bought in a market but thought better of it in the glaring sun.Several hours more of walking with our guide and we reached our final night's accommodation - a monastery.

We were sweaty and dirty from the trek but the only washing facilities were in the outside courtyard. We threw cold water on ourselves from a vestibule and despite the shock it was incredibly refreshing after the hard slog.At a vantage point overlooking the monastery we sat and watched the sunset and despite the religious setting we drank some beers. Over the course of the trek John G had spoken less and less whereas Sven the German instead was amiable and chatty. On the veranda we discussed Burma and Sven recommended a novel he had read called The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh which I promised to track down and read. We also talked about the democracy movement in Burma but I also began to see sorrow in Robin's own story. Here was a man who could speak excellent English, Punjabi, Hindi, Burmese and three local languages but who had entered a disapproved of marriage to a non Sikh at the late age of 43. He felt totally trapped by the country he was in and positively discriminated against because of his race.

Afterwards we met the head monk of the monastery (there were only 12 in total) who sat in front of a fire where he warmed his feet. Sat on the floor around him (although some like John G got up and went for a fag) we listened to him talk via the interpretation skills of Robin and we asked him about Buddhism, the world and Myanmar (enigmatically he spoke of Myanmar being the centre for their world because of Buddhism and what more could anyone want?). But it also felt the most forgotten about in the world. As a reminder Burma has the world's longest-running civil war and began shortly after the country's attainment of independence from the United Kingdom (U.K.) in 1948 as Sven and I watched the bizarre sight of captivated toddlers sat watching TV of army propaganda in the jungle somewhere.Our sleeping quarters that night were floor mats within the monastery, separated from other guided tourists by hanging carpets and blankets and being played from the TV was wonderfully mellifluous Burmese song which I heard everywhere I went in Myanmar but had never managed to find out the title of. I still don't, but I will always remember it.I had fallen asleep becalmed but my constant anxiety of having a toilet emergency came to reality later that night - one of those foul outside squat jobs with no bog roll and squatting so precariously and for so long that I nearly did permanent injury to myself. Travel? Who'd do it?

Trek - Day Three

We woke very early the next morning in order to get to Inle Lake on time for our boat journey across to our hotels at Nyaungshwe. Breakfast consisted of fried rice (!!!) and the reappearance of that rubbish 3-in 1 coffee mix, but lots of fruit and there was tea although I like mine with milk. Afterwards we were directed to give a 'donation' to the chief monk and receive his blessings - each of us were blessed in turn and received a white string amulet to protect us. I still have mine on and will try my best to keep it on. Women get there's on the left.Despite only needing to get to Inle Lake by midday, it was very hot and it was very hard going - seeming to go on forever. We stopped briefly at local tribe's wedding which the ceremony had already taken place in the early morning. The whole village seemed to be turned out in their best clothes and feasting on loads of food. I didn't see 3-in-1 coffee mix anywhere. We met the bride and groom who looked very sweet together and smiled and waved at us.

Our trek ended at Inle Lake with an amazing view of the Shwe Inn Thein payas in the distance, they were like something out of Lord of the Rings. We then had a very nice lunch under a tree at Indein, a village on the lake, with a few boats and groves and waterways, all very Indiana Jones. We then boarded a long thin boat and noisily sped through the waterways of Inle Lake, watching people swim, bathe, do laundry and bathe their oxens in the canals. We then got onto Inle Lake proper with lone fishermen perched on the end of these thin boats, using a special one leg rowing motion. It's a very placid lake and it was a welcome change from the trekking, and so an hour later we arrived at our hotels at Nyaungshwe. We said our goodbyes and I was sad to say goodbye to Robin.Stupidly I didn't realize til later that he was sheepishly waiting around afterwards in order to be tipped, I surely would have given one but really didn't think as I had wanted to get my stuff and sort out where I was going to be staying that evening.

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28th October 2011

Robin is bad guide
You should never go trekking with Robin . He is so greedy man and always over charge on us . He always tell about his wife problem to us . I abhore a lot to that guide called Robin
25th March 2012

Robin-great trekker, better person
We really had a great trek with Robin, during August 2001. Besides his knowledge about almost everything related to where he is leaving (plants, customs, culture, medicine, religion..), he was always enthusiastic about asking how are things in the western. I've been trekking in so may places and I can tell you that you will be quite impressed by this trek and his guide...whether you do it open minded, and understanding family and country backgrounds. I had the pleasure of having long chats with him about a lot of different topics, and never affraid about sharing with him personal/private experiences, which by other way I would never dare to make it public. Also, the price for the trek is ridiculuos for what you are getting back in terms of organization and transmission of knowledge, but of course high for local standards, that's why just weterners do it. Anyway you always know the prices in advance so you can trust him and there is no cheat in there Go to Kalaw, trek aroundd, whether is with Robin or with a different guide, know the local culture and spread out the word about Burma and its reality. David

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