Keep on Trekkin’

Besides Bagan, the other must do destination in Myanmar is Inle Lake, towards the East. But rather than go straight there, we decided to visit the mountainous town of Kalaw, stay a couple of days, and then trek to the Lake (or rather, I would trek, Jen preferred the train, and we’d meet up there). The early bus ride to Kalaw was packed, and included many villagers sitting on the aisle floor. It took 7 hours, and kept climbing up into the mountains. It too, was a hairy ride, but scenic, and passed interesting villages and rivers, and offered far off vistas.

Kalaw was strikingly different from Bagan. It was high up in the pines, and much cooler, and the guide book was right: it had a touch of the Himalayas. We took a room at the Golden Lily Hotel, perched above the town. We enjoyed walking around, and appreciated its temples, mosques, and churches, in close proximity. The air was fresh, and the town walkable and interesting. The smallish, central temple, was especially beautiful at night, inside and out. Our timing was good: we were able to see the (once every) 5 day market, which draws vendors and shoppers from the many surrounding villages, most of whom wore colorful tribal clothes. I would’ve enjoyed it more, but its tarp ceiling and ties were designed for tiny people.

We met some insiders who filled us in about the evil military / government stranglehold on Kalaw: how years ago they suddenly took over the desirable parts of town, homes and businesses, simply kicking the owners out. How they extort $ from the non-governmental businesses on a nightly basis. How they threaten and bribe the electorate to keep them in power, and allow a single family member to vote for everyone else. How they closed the schools to all but the wealthy families, who are also aligned with the military to perpetuate the system. We were told that there are only 5 non governmental / military hotels in Kalaw. They stressed the importance for visitors to avoid giving money to the military / government-owned businesses -which are often disguised otherwise.

I was set to start the trek the next morning, and so we toasted to our safe separation with glasses of whisky at the tiny-but-lively Hi Bar. But then at the following breakfast, we met and sat with my trek mates: 1 woman from Italy, and 3 women from Galicia Spain. Jennifer immediately liked them, and changed her mind about going too. Yay! Our guide was named Gita, a young woman from Kalaw via Nepal -of which there was a clan in town, and soon off we went together, the 6 ladies and I, for a 3 day, 2 night, roughly 38 mile trek to Inle Lake.

Our trek was a long and slow descent from the mountains to the valley. It was diverse, and filled with beautiful views and passages. Every hour was different. We passed through, ate at, or slept in Pa-O, Danu, Palaung, Taung Yo, and Danaw villages. We traversed deep-green hills of tea leaves and colorful fields of wheat, pepper, corn, cauliflower, potato, sesame, chili, eggplant, and fields of rice. For a while the hills were divided up among the varied crops, and looked much like a Deibenkorn landscape.

We passed farmers tilling the fields, or herding goats. Water buffalo plowed the earth, or grazed the grass together, or submerged themselves in muddy lakes, or -in one scary instance- chased me away. We walked on train tracks, passing lots of kids going in the opposite direction. We followed some paved paths at times, and veered off-trail at other times. Gita would stop and point out tidbits about certain leaves, or trees, or points of interest. I took her up on an offer to gnaw on betel nut, which is a common Asian stimulant made from the areca nut, betal palm, lime, alcohol, and honey. Small doses generally lead to euphoria and an increased flow of energy -and generate a notorious abundance of deep red saliva, which is spit out, not swallowed. It came in 3 pieces, each about the size of a thumb, wrapped in palm leaves. I first tried betel nut long ago during my first pass through Asia (and Jen and I had seen its red, tell-tail markings all over Thailand and in Bagan). I remember vaguely liking it way back then, but this time, it was dry and hard, and had no effect. I left the third piece behind for a villager to have.

On our second day, we were joined by a married couple from Belgium, who fit in nicely. There was a good camaraderie in our group, with plenty of time to be alone or to walk and talk with all of the others. Several passages were a bit tricky, and everyone was willing to help the person next to them. And everyone made an effort to be friendly -despite some language limitations. On we went, through the countryside, stopping at villages to quench our thirst, or admire the artisans, or temples, or to smile back at the curious children -who loved seeing the photographs taken of them.

We were tired by the time we reached our nightly destinations. The first dinner was especially tasty, and we ate every last bit of the local village cuisine like polite wolves. At night we slept on a row of mats, side by side, by side in one big room. The sun was our guide: we went to bed early, and awoke the same way. The Milky Way was visible above us. We slept in a Buddhist monastery our second night. There were 3-4 buildings there, made of rusted, ornate metal. The shower was of the cold, bucket variety outside, but was still a welcomed perk.

It was a misty and beautiful early morning at the monastery. Before we left, we met with the chief monk in his special quarters. He chatted with us through our guide, and asked us each where we were from. Then we offered donations into a bowl, which he covered, and requested that we all lean in to touch it and close our eyes while he sent us off with a prayer. It was wonderful and heartfelt. For a few seconds I opened my eyes slightly just to take in the scene, and noticed that the magazine he’d covered the bowl of offerings with had a cover photograph of Justin Bieber. I almost laughed out loud.

That third and final day was the short one. After 5 hours or so, we reached a village near the marshy edge of Inle Lake, and had a long, leisurely lunch. We were all exhausted, but also gratified. Nearby, the playful, excited sounds from a school yard wafted, followed by the front gates opening, and a couple of hundred happy, uniformed school children sprang out and headed home in all directions. We weren’t technically finished yet with the trek, but the rest was easy. A few hundred feet away, we all climbed into a long, wooden, motorized canoe, which took us on a fabulous, relaxing, and scenic 90 minute ride across the large, placid, beautiful Inle Lake, to our final destination, the village of Nyaungshwe, where we said our goodbyes.

It had been a wonderful, challenging, and rewarding trek. Jennifer felt great about completing it, and was so glad she’d decided to join us. We all were.

-matt

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Matt Colonell
    Dec 16, 2013 @ 18:07:36

    Wow!!! What a great way to experience rural Myanmar!

    Reply

  2. Matt
    Jan 04, 2014 @ 04:40:12

    Thanks Matt! Yes, trekking gave us a different glimpse into Myanmar, and was a fun experience.

    Reply

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