Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake
The bus ride to Kalaw was an interesting one. It departed at the annoyingly early hour of 4.30am, and was an old banger with a conductor who hung outside the open door for much of the journey. The bus was officially full, with all 20 or so seats booked by tourists, but it made several request stops for locals who piled on, doubling the number of passengers. The locals just crammed in wherever they could fit, sitting on each other down the aisle and piled up at the front near the driver. When we stopped for our first break I noticed that there were eight people – including a couple of kids – on the roof with the luggage.
On arrival in Kalaw our priority objective – and that of all other tourists on our bus, we later discovered – was to ensure we avoided ending up in a trekking group with an extremely rude and objectionable Israeli man from the bus. We succeeded, and so teamed up with great group consisting of a Romanian/Canadian, two Brits and two more Canadians. We sought the services of Jimmy Schwe, a very nice Muslim guide, who was so painfully thin it was quite clear he was ill, and he made all of us worry about his health.
Before setting off we had a wander around the bustling weekly market, which was a frenzy of colourful activity. Meat, fish, veg, spices and clothes are spread out on the floor, and the trading is frantic and immensely watch-able, with some amazing looking characters buying and selling.
The first day’s trek was hot and dusty, climbing up to a viewing point where we stopped for some delicious Nepali food. In the afternoon we made our way through a couple of tiny villages and became aware for the first time of the Burmese people’s warmth towards visitors. It is much more noticeable in rural areas than on the beaten tourist track, but as we passed people – mainly women – working the fields, they would down tools to smile and wave. Some would approach smiling and ask to have their photo taken, and would try out a few English words. Kids would stare and then wave, and would continue waving as we left, jumping up and down with excitement. Many of the locals were as interested in us as we were in them.
At one point we walked along a road that was being built by the local villagers. There were about a hundred of them doing hard labour, and they all – men and women, old and young – had hoes and pick-axes and were laying road that led to their village, because if they didn’t build the road no one would. In fact we had seen on numerous occasions across Myanmar roads being built, and usually the hard graft was done by women.
In the afternoon we arrived at a train station where traders were expectantly awaiting the arrival of the next train. We waited with a beer to watch, and when it arrived all the women traders jumped into action, with their wares on their heads: flowers (for Buddhist shrines at home), fire-wood and fruit and veg exchanging hands in a flurry of activity through the train windows. After ten minutes of frenzied trading the train left and the traders dispersed, so we went on our way.
Our destination was a home-stay in a village called You’re A Poo (although they spelt it incorrectly: Ywa Pu). We spent the night in a traditional bamboo farm house on stilts with just one big room for all seven tourists, and a couple of smaller rooms for Jimmy the guide and girls from the farm. We washed from a barrel of water and after another extremely tasty Indian meal by candle light, went to bed. It was amongst the most uncomfortable night’s sleep any of us had had, as the ‘mattress’ was just a thick blanket on a hard wooden floor and the meshed bamboo walls were no barrier to the cold.
The next day, besieged by tiredness, we were a much quieter group. The scenery kept us interested, and began to change quite significantly towards lunchtime, becoming hillier and then mountainous. We stopped for lunch in a local’s house – much the same as our overnight one – in a village called Kone Hla, and then much to the amusement of our hosts we all just lay back on the floor and dozed for half an hour.
Our resting place for our second night was a working monastery, where on arrival I was able to show a couple of young novice monks a few of my finest football skills, before we washed from a bucket of water drawn up from a well and nipped down the road to get a beer to drink at sunset. After dinner the monastery’s generator wound down so the lights went out and the mini-monks started singing practice, which with the most illuminated starry sky I’ve ever seen made for an atmospheric bedtime, even if it was (for the second night in a row) at 8pm. On account of the ‘mattress’ being a little thicker than the previous night, we mostly slept much better, and were up at 6am for breakfast, brushed our teeth by the well and used the utterly disgusting toilets (wooden shack, hole in the floor, with Glastonbury-esque splatterings everywhere).
On the final day the scenery upped another gear and the rusty red dust and soil became redder and the rolling hills became rollier. After stopping a couple of times to lance and treat Lucy’s blisters we eventually made it down to where the hills stop suddenly and complete flatness takes over and Inle Lake resides. We made our way along to a tributary to the lake where a longboat awaited us, and we sped through villages built over the water on stilts to the town of Naung Schwe, where we would stay to explore the lake.
Along with Bagan, Inle Lake is the other must-do on all visitors’ itineraries, both for package tourists and backpackers. The lake is a whopper, and is fringed by scores of villages on stilts over the water, where people can’t leave their house without getting in their dugout boat. Their unique paddling technique looks odd; they stand at the back on one leg and with the paddle vertical they push it through the water and then twist it back for another stroke with the other foot. It looks like an overly complicated and inefficient way of paddling a boat, but who am I to argue with hundreds of years of tradition.
On our first night we ate street food at the market with our trekking group (a big barbecued fish for 85p!), and caught United beating Liverpool in a local beer station.
The next day hired a motorised boat man to tour us around some of the lake sites. We slowly cruised through some ‘floating gardens’, where on long rows of floating soil all manner of vegetables are grown. From boat height most of what you see are the tangle of thousands of canes sticking out the floating soil to support runner beans, tomatoes and the like. The growers (or farmers?) paddle along between the rows of vegetables to tend to them, and seemed quite used to the tourists pointing lenses in their direction.
Almost all of our stops seemed to be selected with gift shop shopping in mind. First stop was a house on stilts where they make papyrus-style handmade paper products (and have a large gift shop), followed by a silversmiths and jewellery maker (and shop), a weavers (the most interesting, but with shop) and then a hand-rolled cigar company (plus shop) where women sat on the floor nattering and nonchalontly rolling green leafed cigars, barely looking down at what they were doing.
The most interesting thing about Inle is seeing how the villagers go about their working and social lives using only small boats, and so rebuffing the hard sell on the gift shop tour got a bit tiresome after a while. We clearly weren’t spending enough time in the gift shops and so we’d worked our way through the tour itinerary before the intended finale of sunset, so our guide took us to his family restaurant in a village on stilts so we could kill time with a beer until sunset. It was more enjoyable watching from his house the world go by, as villagers paddled across the water ‘street’ from his house to fill canisters of fresh water from a tap, or paddled to a boardwalk to take a toddler for a walk.
In the evening we went back to the locals beer station to watch Wolves v West Brom where I perfected my technique for catching the barman/waiter’s attention. The way it’s done in Myanmar is by pursing the lips and kissing the air a couple of times in the waiter’s direction. It doesn’t come very naturally at first, but you soon realise that in the frenzy and noise of beer station activity waiters are oblivious to the English way of slightly raising the hand and mumbling an ‘erm…?’ in their direction. The first time I kissed for a waiter I didn’t think it would work, as the beer station was quite noisy and I didn’t think a kissing sound would be any louder than my ‘erm, scuse me…’, but to my surprise and joy it worked a treat – the waiter spun round from clearing a table near us and took our order. Waiters’ ears are obviously finely tuned and highly sensitive to the sound of kissing.
The long overnight bus to Yangon was fairly comfortable after the windy roads at the beginning ended within the first few hours and we hit the smooth highway, meaning we could try to doze. It took about 13 hours but the Burmese obsession with making sure you get to all transport early meant another three hours of getting a pick-up and sitting at a junction to wait for the bus to arrive. We arrived in Yangon at the unsociable hour of 4am. Unlike arriving at that time in Manila, where youngsters are still out drinking and eating fast food, Yangon goes to bed no later than 10pm. We wasted some time on catching a slow pick-up truck to the centre of town, sat on some small plastic chairs on the pavement to drink some sugary tea amongst the grimy open drains and rats, then at 6am headed to a traditional tea house for noodles and deep fried snacks for breakfast.
We hoped that by delaying arriving at our guest house until 7am they may let us in, but unfortunately our room was still occupied so we made the most of being up and about earlier than usual and headed to the morning market. It was an explosion of colours, smells and sights from weird veg, dried fish to thanakha sticks and chillies. There were lots of fish still wriggling after being pulled from the river, one even made a valiant attempt at escaping and made a leap a couple of metres from his stall before being pulled back into line.
We then paid an early morning visit in the dazzling sunshine to a temple containing some strands of Buddha’s hair. It was pretty impressive (the temple – you couldn’t actually see the hair) but the trip was made more enjoyable as the early start meant we were the only tourists amongst the devout locals. We had a lovely grandma with her grandchildren enthusiastically run up for some photos with us, communication was tricky but her motherly hug whilst we posed made up for the lack of words we could share. A few locals keen to practice their English chatted to us as we watched a pond full of giant carp. By the time we could get into our room at 9am I felt like we’d already done a full day of sightseeing and had seen a glimpse of Yangon that uncovered more about the real daily lives of the locals.
After a snooze the day was spent having a tea house lunch of noodle dishes, a wander around the city in the boiling near 40 degrees heat and then a romantic Valentine dinner of a few final Myanmar beers, grilled fish and tofu before bidding a fond farewell to Myanmar. Off to Singapore then the big cross continent trip to Brazil!
For photos of Myanmar click here.
For beer reviews of Myanmar click here.