Amongst a group of 4 Canadians, a Brit, and a Swede, I ventured north. We would be leaving the comforts of the southern cities in search of rugged landscapes and treks through the wilderness.
Our first stop would be Kalaw, which is visited mainly as a starting point for various hikes east. The small town held a smattering of guesthouses, which lined a square market at the centre. Small stalls with trekking guides could be found dotted around, each offering their own bespoke routes and experiences. After arriving at 4am on the first night, we were guided from the bus stop to a small guesthouse to rest for a few hours. Our main company that night was a combination of damp and cockroaches, which would be a suitable introduction for the days to come.
After much discussion around which trek to start, we came to the conclusion that a small guide company that provided a more “off the beaten track” approach would be most suitable. The destination would be Inle Lake, with approximately 40km of terrain standing our way. Our guide, Sunny, was a small Nepalese man with an ear-to-ear smile, and would be aiding us throughout the journey. The trek would take 2 days, including an overnight stay in a mystery monastery at the halfway point.
The following morning, with ample snacks and spare socks at hand, we set off. Though the air was clogged with humidity, we clambered over the hills and crossed small streams throughout the day. Our route connected several villages, each with its own tribe, personality and dialect. Agriculture was pretty much the only consistent enterprise in the area, and a patchwork of fields coated the landscape. The crops varied from corn to peanuts, and watermelon-sized Jackfruit were picked from the trees above. The adults (generally women) would work throughout the day, and most villages would be accompanied by a local school which were packed with children (at least those whose parents could afford the schooling fees).
The landscape was unlike anything I had seen in the rest of South East Asia. Unlike the sharp peaks which lay further east, and the flat pancake of Bagan in the west, waves of rolling hills could be seen in every direction, more reminiscent of a scene in England than in Asia. The skies were mainly overcast throughout the day, though that did not prevent the temperatures from rising to 35 degrees. Light rain conveniently cooled our skin when it occasionally fell during the afternoon.
Only once on the first day did the skies truly show their potential nature when they opened up with a monsoon like downpour which we had become more accustomed to in the south. The roads that were mostly clay suddenly became quagmires that painted our shoes red and sunk deep if you put your foot in the wrong place. One of the fellow trekkers who insisted on completing the journey in flip flops would quickly learn the hardships of his footwear, although Sunny somehow managed to stroll by in his flip flops with ease, much to the amazement of the group.
When the afternoon was waning, we suddenly found ourselves at the monastery. The monastery was a large wooden building with two floors. The downstairs area was an open floored room with a row of thin mattresses following one of the walls that was to be the visitors sleeping space.
Younger monks would spend much of the time playing football or other games outside, before being beckoned in at sunset. The simplest of foods would have easily satisfied our stomachs at this point, but that did not stop an immense variety of dishes being presented to our hungry eyes. The plates were emptied and the meal was topped off with some delicious Chai tea. We slid into our beds early that night, which unfortunately did not provide the most comfortable night’s sleep. But that was fine – sleep could wait until Inle.
We rose at 6am the next morning to continue the trek to completion. Again, through rich green landscape we moved onwards, now with the large glistening lake in our sights. The sun also showed itself to join us for the final leg… which was not that warmly welcomed. The heat that came with its company would make those final few kilometres just a little but harder. Then, before we knew it, we were at the foot of the Lake. What was even more impressive than the wooden walkways that neatly dissected the lake was the sight of lunch and a cold drink. Only then were we certain we had arrived at the end.
Sunny, who had occupied us throughout the trek with local information, riddles and trivia questions, offered his home to us for lunch in the coming days. We gladly accepted the offer, hoping there would be an opportunity to later in the week. The days following at Inle Lake were spent exploring the surrounding areas by bike and seeing the villages which sat on sticks above the Lake. From silversmiths to tailors, to local restaurants, there was plenty on offer. Waterways were carved into the reeds so that boats could speed by to their respective destinations. In the centre of the lake, of course fishing was the main game. Fishermen would stand on the ends of their boats with a single paddle strapped to one leg, so they may cast their nets, whilst drifting through the water.
We were actually staying in a town next to the lake called Nyaungshwe, which was one of the first towns we visited without an early curfew that would prevent us from trying out the local draughts on offer into the night. So like giddy schoolchildren excited at the prospect of staying out later than 10pm, we made the most of what the local bar had to offer.
After a couple of nights, it was time to leave the picturesque Inle Lake. We were heading north towards the old colonial towns surrounding the next big city, Mandalay. But that was not before us having the opportunity to enjoy a lunch with our guide Sunny and his family. His home was just outside a small town an hour from Inle Lake.
On arrival at the bus station, we were picked up by Sunny and the 7 of us were squeezed into the back of a truck to be taken to his home. After feeling every bump on the twisty roads up a hill, we stopped outside a simple house. We were greeted lazily by a dog which lay in the doorway (who despite his brown coat was called “Blacky”). The walls were plain, with the exception of one section which was plastered with bollywood DVD film covers. Other areas were decorated with small trinkets and family photos. A crib hung from the ceiling, with Sunny’s newborn sleeping calmly.
The grin on Sunny’s face was especially wide that day, as he was clearly proud that we had joined him that afternoon. He introduced us to his mother and wife, who were also busy preparing a meal for us. In addition, Sunny had three brothers and a sister who also lived in the house together. It was humbling to see such a warm welcome from the whole family. Dahl, curry and chapattis were provided for us all, followed by freshly prepared Lassi and various sweet treats. It was easily one of the best meals I had eaten in Myanmar.
After the meal, we even had a go at trying to milk Sunny’s cows, which we all fumbled around to produce the most pitiful amount of milk. He then guided us around the town to various homes, where we were presented with even more food, before showing us the nearby market streets. By the end of the day, we had seen and done a lot. But again, Myanmar hospitality found a way to make its impression greater than anything else.