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Kalaw and the trek to Inle Lake

Written on: Saturday March 15th, 2008

A journal entry from: Around The World Without A Plane

The most pleasant bus ride so far took me the 9 hour trip from Mandalay to the mountainous village in Southern Shan State of Kalaw. I was the only one that got off the bus. Everybody else was fast asleep, so at 2:30am I set about trying to find somewhere to sleep. As I?ve said, Burma doesn?t have a nightlife so to speak, so the whole village was in sleepy silence, other then the bugs singing in the trees all around. I began to wander up the street to a guesthouse that had received good review in my Lonely Planet, but resembling something similar to the Thriller music video, shadows began moving towards me from either side of the road. In an instant I was surrounded by an angry mob of dogs all giving off the impression that I should get back on the next bus that rolled in to town. There were about 10 dogs, now all barking together and snarling their teeth in my direction. Not having had my rabies jab and reasonably sure that my safest bet of the rabies vaccine was Bangkok should I be bitten by one of their mangy mutts, I shrank in to the nearest available open door, that being the Pineland Guesthouse on the main drag through Kalaw. There was nobody on reception and not a sound to tell me that there was at least one other person staying there. I began to think I should have stayed sleeping on the bus the further two and a half hours to Inle Lake. Instead I had chosen to jump off here in Rapid Dogville and trek the 63km to Inle.


I checked behind the reception desk thinking that I might just take a key to one of the rooms and sort out check-in in the morning, but there weren?t any keys there. It was cold, really cold being up in the mountains, so I positioned myself on one of the plastic chairs in the reception, zipped up my hoodie and made myself in to a small ball. At 4am out ambles the manager, and Bob?s your uncle, Fanny?s your aunt, I had a 4 bed room all to myself for the very satisfying price of ?2. I could if I choose to, set my alarm to go off every hour and swap beds each time until it was time for eggs and bananas at 8am. I thought better of it and slept well until 9am.


There wasn?t much to do in Kalaw. I spent the beginning of the day visiting different local guides to decide which one I would pay to take me on the 3 day trek to Inle Lake, then with a hand-drawn map that the ex-high school teacher and now tour guide, Hua Hua had drawn for me I attempted to negotiate the nearby hills and trek to Viewpoint, a place that had been also been recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook. I was doing pretty well following Mr Hua Hua?s map. I?d gotten at least half way when I came to a monastery, which he had on his map, which seemed to show that I needed to go around it and then follow the buffalo tracks straight to Viewpoint. He had written some instructions in Burmese for me to show people that asked them to point me in the right direction for Viewpoint should I get lost. Despite being sure that I was on the right trail I showed this local lady the instructions and she beckoned me up the hill to the monastery. As fine a building as they are, I?d sort of been getting a bit fed up with monasteries and temples for the time being and didn?t relish visiting another one, but this time it didn?t look like I was going to escape it. A monk appeared and beckoned me in to the monastery, then as I entered the shrine area a lady appeared, sat me on the carpet, and brought me over some tea and a plate of nuts, while she went and joined the rest of her family watching some surreal Burmese  martial-arts soap opera on the TV in the adjacent room.


Appreciatively I finished my nuts and tea, gave Buddha a quick bow in thanks and tried to get back on the trail to Viewpoint. Sadly this was to be as close to Viewpoint as I was to get. I circled the monastery a couple of times looking for the buffalo tracks but to no avail, then once again asked a local who appeared very knowledgeable in where I wanted to go. Using hand gestures as he spoke no English he insisted I get in the back of his pick-up with the seven other members of his family. I could only oblige. Before I knew it he had taken me all the way back to Kalaw.


Disheartened I walked to the nearest beer-station, took out my book and resigned myself to staying there the remainder of the afternoon. I plucked up the motivation after a couple of sly Myanmar beers, to walk down to the sports field towards the end of the afternoon, and spied a group playing Volleyball. It wasn?t long before they?d invited me to play, and being taller than most of them, wearing shoes instead of being bare-foot and being able to jump a fair bit I proved quite an asset. Before long there was money changing hands as onlookers began to bet on my team winning each of the games we played. I?m no volleyball player, but having played a little whilst in Asia I can get the ball back over the net well enough, and if somebody sets the ball at a decent height I can get it to the other side with a bit of venom. And so it was that my team dominated for the rest of the afternoon.


I left, talking to one of the guys who had been on my team, his brother who had originally invited me to play and one of their friends. My team-mate spoke relatively good English and asked me if I would like to see his home, so off we trotted. Like in Hsipaw, a quick visit to a local?s house turned in to 5 or so hours meeting the whole family, having dinner with them and having bottle after bottle of whiskey pushed up under my nose. It seemed that the older brother wasn?t used to drinking that often, as by the time we sat down to dinner that their mother had insisted I stay and eat, he was slurring his Burmese and barely able to sit up straight. The family were very poor, their house was a self-built wooden hut, separated into three rooms, the living room and then two side-by-side bedrooms where the family of 6 slept. All their cooking was done outside on a bonfire with a huge stove sitting upon it. Yet here they were, sending out friends to the local shops to bring back Western crisps and whiskey to make me feel at ease and at home, a gesture once again that was not necessary but one that I shall never forget. After entertaining the family with my IPOD (they enquired if I had any Westlife or Bon Jovi, who are apparently both very big over here) I thanked them humbly and was, like with Sai given a life on a motorbike back to the Pineland Guesthouse.


It was now quite late and I still hadn?t booked a guide for the following day to Inle Lake, but sometimes things just have a habit of working out. I spoke to Naing Lil, the hotel manager and asked if he knew of a guide who could take me tomorrow and it just so happened that his friend and local guide, John was upstairs about to watch the Liverpool vs Reading game ? double whammy!


I arose the next day and packed just my small Nike hold-all with what I?d need for the next three days, sending my main bag on to Nyangshwe by bus and joining John to meet a German and a Dutch guy who were also wanting to hike to Inle Lake. I was pleased to have some more company along, but on meeting them they seemed very apprehensive to have me in their party. They didn?t go as far as to say they didn?t want me to come with them, but they may well have done. I never found out what their thoughts were, whether they preferred to have the isolation to themselves or maybe they just didn?t like the English, but it never surfaced again. What did happen though was I spent three days, and then a forth in Inle Lake with the second person on my trip that I have absolutely no inclination to meet up with again.


I bet you?ll all thinking it?s the German fella. It?s always the German, they?ve got no sense of humour, are really rigid in personality, grab all the sunbeds and have incredibly hairy armpits. But quite the opposite, this particular German, Sebastian was his name, was a great bloke in summary. A very kind, instinctively generous and warm-hearted guy, him and I got on very well, but sadly his Dutch friend, Daan, was a bit of a dick. That?s two people in Burma now, what?s going on here, why are all the weirdos visiting here?


The three of us set off, me with my miniscule bag in comparison with the huge backpacker?s rucksacks that Sebastian and Daan had brought with them. I made a concerted effort at the beginning to instigate conversation with both the Europeans and John so the next three days would be as relaxed as possible as soon as possible, as I know John picked up on their apprehension to have me join them also. I questioned them as to why on earth they would not bring small bags and have their big bags transferred ahead of us as I had, but Sebastian was intent on getting in to practice for a Himalayan hike he had planned for October. He was only 22, but was of a stocky build, was a keen Mountain biker and looked at ease with the bag so who was I to dispute.


We hiked past the monastery that I had reached yesterday and then further to the local reservoir, before stopping for lunch at a local village. All the villages we would visit had Pa-O tribes people living in them. There are 135 different ethnic groups in Burma, which makes it a very hard country to try and govern as consequently there are many different influences. But still, when you do not listen to any of them there is an injustice of ill proportion, but let?s not get back on to that again.


Our route over the next three days was going to take us on a not so direct route to Indein, to the west of Inle Lake, so that we would take in certain villages where foreigners do not usually go to, and it was one of these villages where we would that afternoon hike to, to spend our evening there. We arrived a few hours before dark and had all the local children, nervously but intriguingly hover around us, anxious to find out who we were and why we had such funny coloured skin. Sebastian decided to decorate ourselves in tanaka, a facial cosmetic which is cultivated from a certain type of expensive tree that women in Burma use to decorate their faces in. A bit like your Western Este Lauder blusher. The tanaka in addition though is good for the skin and also acts as a sun-screen. However, it made Sebastian and I look like gay clowns.


We spent the night and ate the delicious Burmese vegetarian food that John cooked for us in a local family?s hut. I never, ever in my life thought that I could consider becoming a vegetarian and missing out on good old steak, and that necessity that is chicken, but the vegetarian dishes that John produced had so much taste in them, the cauliflower, the garlic, the lentils were all a delight to eat.


After a good nights sleep we arose like giddy schoolchildren knowing that this morning, before we left, we were going to be introduced to the village chief, also the local medicine man and celebrated fortune-teller. We were beckoned to enter his bamboo home and be seated alongside him. When you enter somebody else?s home for the first time you?re obviously polite, but you also look for customs that they hold that you, out of politeness try to adopt. For example, back in England, if you enter somebody else?s house and they remove their shoes before they go in you don?t run in skidding across the cream carpet in your black-soled Nikes. Here in the chief?s house, (Seya Chei, as he?s called which means Master Chei), I attempted to reciprocate his custom of sitting like an Olympic contortionist. I can?t however sit comfortable in the normal cross-legged position that every 6 year old assembly attendant is so adept at, let alone this unexplainable lotus-style maneuver that the chief had bent himself in to. I thought better of it and decided that this home-grown custom was one I?d hope he didn?t mind me not abiding by.


Using John as a translator we had some time to question the chief, as if at a political press conference. He was more than happy to answer us, telling us that he had been the chief there for 20 odd years, that he was now 79 years old, and telling us how he came to learn about the practice of medicine. He then agreed to read each of us our fortunes. Daan went first, followed by Sebastian and then he got to me. After giving reasonably general readings for the others, you know the sort of ?You?ll be successful? and will get married by this year sort of stuff, his demeanour suddenly changed with me. In fact he began to laugh. As I stared worryingly returning his glance I questioned John as to what he was laughing at. Well apparently he?d taken great enjoyment in predicting that I would marry a widowed lady much older than me some time in the future. She would be around 40! The worrying thing was that the rest of his prediction had a fair degree of truth in it. He predicted that I would have many friends, not just in my own country but in countries all over the world, which if he had known for how long I was travelling for would not be hard to predict, but he did not know this. He also told me I would have a big win gambling, probably from the lottery. Now I don?t play the lottery, but those of you that know me well know how much I love a good game of poker. Maybe I should head back up to the casinos of Macau and see what Lady Luck holds for me there. He then also told me that I would come across a black and a red jewel that would hold some connection with the woman I would marry. What startled me was that Sai in Hsipaw had given me a piece of jade that was black, quite unusual in jade as it is normally green. Was I to start believing this? If so, I?m going to have either one or two children, be well off financially, and have a bad illness at the age of 45 which will kill me. But on the upside if I beat this mysterious illness I?ll live long in to my 90?s. There?s something to look forward to in sixteen years time.


It was while we were in with the chief that I began to question Daan?s character, as up until here there hadn?t been much to dislike about him. Every time the chief began to talk about either Sebastian?s or mine, or John?s fortune whom he predicted after mine, Daan would butt back in asking more questions about his. And the questions were either ones he had already asked, but with the sentence structures changed slightly, or were so obscure not even Nostradamus would have predicted the answer. He began to become irksome. He had the arrogance of youth about him too, a self-confidence that can be admirably in some but wasn?t in him. At only 21 he tried to give off an air that he had experienced everything and was all-knowing in matters of a worldly sense. You can tell by my harping on about him he got under my skin, and people in general don?t manage that very easy. God, maybe I am getting old, I did just use the expression ?arrogance of youth?. Next I?ll be saying that kids these days just don?t listen. Well he didn?t do that either. This wasn?t my main problem I had with him though. If it had been just these things I wouldn?t be wasting my time writing about it now, but it got worse, a lot worse.


We hiked for 8 hours, after leaving the chief?s village, with only an hour?s break for lunch and it was hard going, traversing along valleys and up and over mountains. We covered 32km on that middle day on our way to a village monastery where we would spend our second night. Both Sebastian and Daan began to pay for the decision to bring such heavy bags. Sebastian had accrued blisters on both feet and was in noticeable pain simply walking, even without the extra 15kg on his back, and Daan?s shoulders were becoming painful from the stress from his bag?s straps. For the latter part of the afternoon John carried Sebastian?s bag for him while I took Daan?s, for which they were both very appreciative. Daan even brought me a beer for helping him out.


So he wasn?t all bad, far from it. He was thoughtful and generous, along with Sebastian. They had both brought a selection of toiletries, such as soap, toothbrushes and toothpaste to give away at each of the villages we had passed thought. Something I admired them both for. He was also an intelligent guy, possessing a fair amount of knowledge for somebody so young, so just as my opinion was starting to turn in his favour again along came the ?Monastery Incident?.


We had a partitioned area actually inside the working monastery where we sleep that night, awakened at 5am to the harmonic chorus of the young novice monks praying. After breakfast we packed up and were about to go when John asked us if we wanted to come back in to thank the Head Monk and perhaps offer a small gesture of appreciation. For the generosity the monastery had shown us in allowing us to sleep there, this was the least we could offer, so Sebastian and I removed our footwear and entered the temple again. ?Daan, do you want to come?? questioned John.

?No, I?ve already got my shoes on now, so I won?t? was Daan?s reply.

Sebastian and I approached the Head Monk whom we gave a contribution for the monastery to. He placed the money inside a book of scripture he had and asked us to place our hands upon the book with him as he blessed the money and us for donating it. He then presented us with an incarnation band each that is to be worn around the wrist. He gave John one to give to Daan, but I half wanted to insist on him not receiving it.


John said that I should probably check our sleeping area before we left just incase we had left anything so I went to have a quick check. Daan had had a slight cold and for the past two nights had been blowing his nose regularly using tissues. But instead of keeping a plastic bag to put his tissues in and disposing of them later, he had in the village hut we had stayed in the previous night, just thrown them in to one of the corners for one of the family members to clean up after we had gone. Again, here in the monastery of all places he had done the same. A pile of used paper tissues lay scattered alongside his mattress on the floor. He?d also left a half-used bar of soap and a packet of biscuits. I wasn?t going to keep stumm this time, but I was diplomatic at least in the way I suggested to him that I thought he should probably go and clear up his tissues that he had strewn across the floor. He mumbled as if he agreed, but wasn?t going to remove his shoes to go back in to the temple to clean up his mess.


Sebastian?s feet were in a bad way by the time we reached Indein, on the west side of Inle Lake, at about 2 that afternoon. This time I had carried his bag most of the day to ease his suffering. We took a longboat through the canal system out on to the lake itself. I wasn?t prepared for what I saw. Surrounded by mountains on both sides, the lake is a beautiful oasis after walking the 63km of dusty trails we had followed for the past 3 days, and a very worthy reward. We took the longboat north to the town of Ngheshwe, where over the next few days we would do as little walking as possible.