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Published: January 30th 2012
In perhaps any other country, being swindled out of $100 (and almost another $100 further) on your very first day in a new country may set an early tone for an unpleasant stay, but then Burma isn’t just any other country...
After a short stay in Yangon, a frigid bus ride later we were abandoned roadside in the icy chill of Kalaw, a former hill station retreat made popular by the conquering British Empire in the late 19th
century. Today Kalaw exists as a peaceful town, centred around a market where locals from surrounding villages make daily visits to buy food for their families and partake in some neighbourhood gossip. For foreigners, Kalaw exists as a starting point for treks to those surrounding villages hidden away in the hills or for the more ambitious trekker, for the 60km hike east to Inle Lake. Indeed, it was the latter which drew us to this town, but I can assure you; stumbling off a bus into the freezing night of Kalaw, not twelve hours after experiencing the blistering heat of Yangon was enough to give us pause.
Bleary eyed, we sought out our accommodation at the Golden Kalaw Inn, where thankfully,
the owners awoke and allowed us into our basic (although at the time heavenly-looking) home for the next three nights. Most travellers we met during our time in Kalaw and the ensuing trek to Inle Lake had tended to only stay in Kalaw for one night, opting to begin their pilgrimage to the lake with haste. However, after the speed with which we had moved around Indonesia, Amy and I determined our stay in Burma would be conducted at a slower pace, reflecting the unhurried tempo of rural Burmese life (or so we had read), a decision for which we have been rewarded thus far.
We awoke the following morning to a decent breakfast and endlessly clear skies, which is the norm at this time of year in Burma outside of the big cities and often within them. Ambling around the dusty town, we were greeted by the locals with endearing, toothy smiles, something which like the clear skies, we have found to be a prominent feature of this unfamiliar country.
Another apparent element of Burma is the vivid way in which two subcontinents collide. Burma is the place where South East Asia and sub-continental India (and Bangladesh)
unite and the amalgamation is startling in everything from physical appearance to diet, with the heavy Indian influence significantly noticeable for the first time in our journey since George Town. For us, two lovers of Indian cuisine, this was welcomed with open arms as we lazed away our days, spending time wandering the calm streets from tea shop to tea shop, drinking the local brew and eating cheap chapattis and samosas.
Away from the restaurants and eateries, Kalaw (for such a small place) is teeming in culture in its own right. Like most places in Burma it is home to numerous Buddhist monasteries and we spent the remainder of our first day at two in particular, one by our own determination and the other completely by accident. After climbing a long staircase leading away from Union Highway, we found ourselves at the silent hilltop monastery of Thein Tuang Paya, easily visible from the town with its golden stupas illuminating the northern hillside. Thein Tuang Paya is home to numerous monks, puppies and a particularly well placed bench where we sat silently in sunlight enjoying panoramic views over Kalaw and its surrounding mountains. Whilst enjoying the tranquil afternoon, the absence
of action at the Paya was noticeable, with barely a handful of monks quietly walking by, attending to their daily business. Undeterred by the absence of human activity, Amy simply set about finding a particularly cute litter of puppies to spend some time petting (and begging me to sneak one inside our backpack!).
After taking a beating from the sun, we finally descended the hillside, after which we walked around the southern edges of the town, where we saw countess locals flying kites high into the clear skies. Indeed, it was at this point that we became aware of just how many kites had been deserted along the streets of Kalaw, after becoming irrevocably tangled in tree branches or power lines!
Along our walk, just as the sun had begun its descent in the late afternoon, we had started our walk back to our guest house when we happened upon Hsu Taung Pye Paya, a monastery whose grounds are lined with numerous white and gold stupas. Walking amongst these stupas, we could hear the sounds of cheering and the pounding of feet and footballs on the hard ground. After exploring a little further we discovered the cause of
the commotion and perhaps the reason for the lack of activity up at Thein Tuang Paya – monk football! Countless novice monks; infants and teenagers alike, were playing football in small teams, whilst waiting players/monks animatedly cheered for their friends!
It was here that we remained for close to an hour simply watching one of the most strangely intimate things we have seen on our travels. Disposing of any preconceived serenity, the older monks played the game with a furious competitive spirit whilst the youngsters honed their skills along the sidelines, possibly in the hopes of one day being called up to the big leagues! As we walked among the watching monks, we were observed with curiosity and approached by some of the younger monks, who generally pointed, smiled and laughed as we tried to communicate in broken English and gesticulations to no avail.
Our final day in Kalaw was spent at another temple; that of Nee Paya. A three mile round hike from the town centre, Nee Paya sits atop a hill and is home to a 500 year old gold encrusted bamboo Buddha. We sat silently at the feet of the Buddha as an attendant at
the monastery kindly brought us some tea and snacks. Again we were alone, the quietness and seclusion of this countryside abundantly evident and thoroughly appreciated by these two nomads!
Following our third night in Kalaw, we rose early to begin the first of what would be a three day hike to Inthein, a small market town along the western shores of Inle Lake, where we would then take a boat to Nyaungshwe on the very northern tip of the lake. From Kalaw, Inle lake is only around 45km away, but our first day would see us walk south from Kalaw rather than east, through tea plantations and along the route of a local gold mine, taking in the beautiful views as we went. This southern loop added another 15km or so onto our journey, but was worth the extra effort.
Shortly into our trek, we began to get to know the other people in our assembly in what transpired to be a very friendly and cohesive group. With nationalities ranging from Israeli to Slovakian, Canadian to Danish and American to French, we never fell short of good conversation with our new friends. Sharing each other’s stories
and experiences as we went along, spirits were high as we approached a hilltop viewpoint for our first stop of the day for what would be a delicious Indian style lunch accompanied by amazing views of the surrounding landscape.
It was after lunch on that first day that Amy began to encounter issues with her walking boots. It’s not the first time she had walked in them but the previous hike was in the damp, soft soil of Bukit Lawang’s national park in Sumatra. We were now faced with the arid landscape of Burma’s Shan State, whose unforgiving ground had been scorched by the sun for months since the country’s rainy season had ceased. As such, Amy’s feet began to blister quite badly and her knee was also giving her cause for concern. In such places however, what is there to do but continue? As we went, Amy soldiered on in considerable discomfort towards our accommodation in a local village set amid the hills.
The clear skies that had allowed the ground to become so seared during the day provided us with astonishing night skies during dark. With no moon in the sky and no ambient light for
miles around, we were treated to starry skies, the quality of which we had not seen since perhaps Koh Rong or Chiang Mai. However, as they say; it’s rare to get the sweet without the bitter, and bitter were the nights under such a cloudless cover. After admiring the skies for a little while, we surrendered to the cold and retreated to our ‘beds’ for the evening – two blankets on a hard ground where we lay shivering most of the night inside a concrete house inhabited by rats, for what was the first of two nights without much sleep. Still, if given the choice, I’d hasten to sacrifice a night’s sleep for the chance to see that night sky again!
Our second day saw us hike for a gruelling eight hours through the sweltering heat, over hilltops, through valleys and across rice and corn fields. Ambling along, I remarked to Amy how similar some of the views were to those found back home, particularly on walks I had been on in the Cotswolds in my childhood (sans the rice fields and dryness of course!). Walking further, the landscape transitioned further from greener pastures to wonderfully bleak plains. It
was somewhat surprising given that we had hiked in Chiang Mai, only a few hundred miles from our current location and the landscape was very different to what we now found. Its arid beauty is striking, there is something desolate about the landscape but rather than take away from its appeal, it only enhances it.
Our final evening on the trek was spent in a remote monastery 15km west of Inle Lake. Here, we were joined by other trekkers and were greeted by our hosts as we arrived – six child monks who giggled and looked on in curiosity as strange-looking foreigners arrived seeking food and shelter for the evening. We ate by candlelight and chatted long into the night with our fellow trekkers before retreating for the evening, not before taking in another wonderfully clear but crisp night sky and occasional shooting stars, which given the absence of ambience, were all the more prominent.
Earlier in the evening, our guide ‘Paul’ had informed us that we would be woken in the morning by the child monks, who would enter the main hall of the monastery (where we were sleeping) to begin their ritual morning chanting at approximately
5.30am. Like clockwork, we were indeed awoken by the sounds of six small voices chanting in unison some unknown incantation. Amy and I dressed quickly and silently approached the monks – there we watched this beautifully intimate moment as six small figures, cloaked in red, knelt below their revered Buddha and, in the flickering light of two candles continued their mantra.
Outside the monastery, we waited, shivering as dawn broke for our guide to rise as promised so we could head out early to catch the market at Inthein, which only happens once per week. However, for the second morning in succession, our guide failed to wake up on time, due to some excessive drinking the night before and, according to him, chatting late into the night with the other locals “about the war!” Eventually, we recommenced our trek for the final 15km to Inthein and our ultimate destination of Inle Lake.
An hour into our day and Amy’s feet were causing her serious pain and when we removed her shoes to examine the damage, we counted ten blisters, half of which were around 2cm in diameter and starting to turn a nasty colour. Replacing their dressings with
some blister pads, we slowly walked on for another three hours and whilst the trail was relatively flat, the ground remained firm and rocky in places, causing some agony for Amy for what was becoming a rather frustrating day. Finally, however, just after midday, salvation presented itself in the form of a tiny restaurant at the edge of Inthein market, where we slumped in our chairs before eating lunch, spent from the trek and longing for a decent night of rest.
After lunch we boarded a boat which would take us up to our final destination of Nyaungshwe on the northern shores of Inle Lake. With little energy remaining, we each sat in our small boat, contemplating what a great few days it had been and what a beautiful country Burma was proving to be. As our boat meandered along a narrow canal, the waterway finally opened up to reveal what must surely be one of the most breathtaking places anywhere in the world...
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