Thursday, July 17, 2014

Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake

Kalaw doesn't boast too much in the way of activities, aside from being a place where treks to Inle Lake depart from.  When Jimmy and I arrived, we knew that we wanted to book a trek, but we took our time, speaking with various companies and guide until we were sure we would have a group to go with, taking advantage of the much cooler temperatures and just hanging out for a few days.  We booked a room at the Golden Kalaw Hotel after our very early morning arrival, opting to spend a few extra dollars for one of their "nicer" rooms which unfortunately had quite a few plumbing issues, but was otherwise comfortable.  We found a great little bakery just down the street called Poe Poe, which served tasty chicken floss buns and spicy little pizzas with all manner of toppings.

On our second full day in Kalaw, Jimmy and I each paid a visit to the "five day market" (so named because it happens once every five days), where members of the various tribes that surround the little city come into town to sell their wares.  I walked through the streets of the market slowly, seeing villagers with tanned, lined faces and gap-toothed smiles, wearing colorful turbans and longyis sitting on tarps or in tiny stalls, selling everything from beans and garlic to fresh fruits and vegetables, to gorgeous bundles of fresh flowers wrapped in banana leaves, to chicken, freshly plucked, and other small fowl, to fish, even some eels, piles of tiny dried fish, dried chilis, and other items, even some clothing and shoes.  I towered over the locals, eliciting some stares and some smiles.  Eventually I stopped off at a stand where they were making small roundish bits of fried batter, filled with chickpeas and scallions.  At the urging of a nicely dressed older lady, I sat down to try a few, later realizing that she had purchased them for me.  It was such a sweet gesture, and the little fried snacks were tasty!

That morning we had also met a trio of Spanish guys - Nacho, Tato, and Igor - over breakfast who had arrived in the middle of the night as we had and were planning on starting the trek to Inle Lake the following morning.  After chatting with them a bit and meeting with their guide later that afternoon, we decided to go ahead and join them.  The next morning, we woke up bright and early for last-minute showers and packing and breakfast.  Thankfully we were able to leave our big bags with the hotel, to be transported ahead to Inle, and with only small bags in tow, we set off.

It was nice and cool out, a bit overcast, but quickly became sunny as we proceeded through the day.  We started on paved roads until we got to the outskirts of town, then followed paths of red clay through wooded areas and small farming villages, with William, our guide, pointing out various crops along the way.  We took a break for green tea in the shade of a massive 100-year old tree, then continued a short way to a small village with long strands of garlic hanging and left out to dry.  We entered the home of an old woman shelling beans - a member of the Danu tribe, she has seven children, with 30 grandchildren between them, at least four of whom hung out with us during our lunch break!  She was amazed to learn I was traveling alone, and she almost scolded the guys accompanying me on the trek to look out for me!  Shortly we filled up on a delicious lunch of soup, rice, cucumbers with tomato and onion, a fragrant mint salad, and fresh sweet mango for dessert, followed by a blissful one hour siesta, which the guys took advantage of with a quick nap.

After siesta, we set back off under bright blue skies, walking up a ridge with a fantastic view below - shining gold and white pagodas, squares of brown and various shades of green, small segments of crops across the farmland, with small trees popping up here and there, and rolling hills in the distance.  We stopped to pose for a few group photos (some more successful than others, as we tried to coach William in the art of taking a jumping photo), before continuing through more rolling farmland, passing an ancient looking wagon cart that the boys posed with, and a handful of white cows roaming nearby.  

Eventually we reached our next brief stop, outside a monastery, where dozens of young novice monks gleefully played and posed for photos, happily giggling when we showed them the results.  Nacho and Tato, two of our Spanish compadres, joined a few locals for a game of chinlone - basically a game of hackie sack with a small rattan ball.  

We weren't far from our overnight destination, and after another quick stop for snacks and supplies, we reached the home of William's in-laws, where we would be staying the night.  We climbed the stairs of the small house to enter the room where we would be staying and were shocked to find that it was absolutely full… of garlic!  Tiny bulbs of garlic, being stored out of the elements, blanketed almost the entire floor, forming small snowdrifts in the corners, with the only clear areas a narrow walkway and a small square area in the corner, where a mat and small table had been placed.  We huddled around the table, sipping green tea and laughing at the scene, as William and his mother-in-law began clearing another small area of the room by scooping and relocating piles of the tiny white bulbs.  

After stepping outside to catch a brief sunset, we returned to our little corner table for a fantastic dinner of soup, local rice with chicken, okra, french fries, and greens.  A massive downpour began as we were eating that would last off and on for the rest of the evening.  We passed the time by playing music and card games, and when the rain let up for a brief respite, we ran outside with William to shoot off homemade 'fire rockets'.  From how William had described them, we expected fireworks, but they really were just little bottle rockets!  We took turns, each shooting them up into the sky, having a bit of competition as to whose rocket went furthest, watching the smoke trails curling through the air.  Finally we retreated back into the room for some rum and card games until the little overhead lightbulb flicked off and our candle guttered out, sending us finally off to sleep.

We woke up early the next morning, between the light and the stirrings of the family coming in and out of our room, and we slowly congregated in the kitchen to watch the mesmerizing process of our cook as he prepared our breakfast:  fried eggs, toast, fat bananas roasted and drizzled with honey, accompanied by fresh papaya and instant coffee.  We took our time getting ready, letting William brush each of our faces with tanaka to protect us from the sun.  We then set off, the roads luckily not muddy despite the previous night's deluge.  We walked downhill, passing fields that were in the process of being tilled and planted, others being hoed, as we passed more beautiful views of the red and brown and green scenery below, dotted with trees, under a blue sky and bright sun.  After crossing a railroad track, we stopped for a quick break in the shade of a massive tree, before continuing to a village where we stopped for the guys to have a beer, spotting some trekkers doing the two-day version of the hike getting dropped off to start their journey.

The next hour and a half of walking passed relatively quickly as we chatted along the way, coming to our lunch stop in another small town.  This wasn't my favorite meal, but still tasty, consisting of soup, fried noodles, mint salad, tomato slices, and an omelet.  We took another hour-long siesta after lunch, during which Igor and Nacho got a bit lost as they attempted to explore the little town!  Immediately after lunch and siesta, we continued to a fresh spring, where we had been promised the opportunity to do some swimming.  Unfortunately it was a bit smaller than we had pictured, and we wound up getting reprimanded for not obeying rules which we were unaware of, that is, that certain parts of the spring shouldn't be entered at all, other parts shouldn't be entered by women, and that I shouldn't stand around to dry off in a bikini, even if no one is around.  Bah!  We eventually reached an understanding with our guide that we need to be told what the rules are before being scolded for disobeying them, and we began our walk again.

We followed a path next to the river that the spring feeds, alongside the edges of farmland.  At an opening in the river we spotted a group of young boys bathing and swimming with a pair of water buffalo, screaming with glee as they leapt from their backs and splashed around in the water.  Further along, we took a quick break in the shade of another group of trees, with rocky hillsides in front of us and tiered farmland all around us.  Eventually we arrived at our village for the night, stopping at a small store to pick up a bit more rum and snacks, enjoying cold beverages on the patio before walking a few more meters to our home for the evening, just across from the local monastery.  The village was so beautiful, with tall thatched homes on stilts surrounded by equally tall banana and frangipani trees.  We settled into the large, garlic-free room, playing cards until dinner, my favorite meal of the entire trip.  We were served fish in a tomato sauce, asparagus, eggplant, and snap peas that we poured over rice, as well as soup and french fries.  We devoured the meal, chatting with William and the owner of the house afterwards - an older woman with six grown children, she works in the village as a schoolteacher for 7-9 year olds.  She had a lined face and bright, smiling eyes, and she asked each one of us, through our guide, what our ages and occupations were (or had been!). 

Once she had retired for the night, we resumed our card game and broke into the rum, converting the game into a drinking version, with hilarious rules.  After two straight days of walking, however, we didn't last long, and we started getting ready for bed relatively early.  A few of us stayed awake for a bit, asking questions and sharing information from our various countries.  For me, this meant explaining how American elections work, particularly the electoral college (in that it exists and how it operates), and a conversation on our bizarre relationship with gun laws!

We awoke far too early the next morning, after an overly ambitious rooster decided to perch himself in the tree directly outside our window and make his presence known around 4 am.  Sometime around 5 or 5:30, I finally dragged myself out of bed (okay, off my pallet), and into the kitchen to watch another set of breakfast preparations.  This time, we were treated to 'pancakes' (crepes), which were delicately prepared in a small wok and served with a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk, the sweetener of choice in Southeast Asia, and a side of fresh mangos and bananas.  

We gathered up our things and set out for our final day, walking up steep hills over red clay to a road bed, where we were treated to more incredible views of the village we had just departed and the surrounding landscape.  We took a few short breaks due to the heat, passing through a small village where locals were stripping pieces of bamboo and weaving baskets along the side of the path.  Eventually we started on a steep downhill, moving quickly over stones and red clay through what felt like a lush jungle, with our destination - a small village on the bank of Inle Lake - just visible off in the distance.  We passed through a tall bamboo forest before diving in another jungle-like space, William leading us in a charge down the mountain.  Finally we reached the entrance to the lake district, where we paid a small fee, then settled into a beautiful, simple restaurant with bamboo chairs and shelters with thatched roofs.  We had a simple meal of noodle soup, and we celebrated the end of our trek with a toast, clinking together bottles of cold, refreshing Myanmar beer.

After lunch, we said farewell to William and retrieved our luggage from Kalaw, then followed a boat driver out to a long canal with tall reeds on either side, to a waiting longtail boat (much longer and narrower than the Thai version).  The next hour in the boat was a bit magical, as we first cruised through the canal, passing small, stilted huts, and locals in their own smaller, non-motorized boats, wearing wide-brimmed hats and carrying everything from bags of cement to piles of fresh produce.  Eventually we came out of the narrow canal into the much wider lake, surrounded by distant mountains, silted huts visible in silhouette.  We passed distant boats with the famous Inle fishermen casting nets, steering their boats with a single leg curled around a paddle, stirring the water around them.  We saw plenty of other motorized boats as well - some acting as taxis, full of locals hiding from the sun under umbrellas, and a handful that appeared to be full of tourists  Finally we pulled in, parking the boat just across from the Gypsy Hotel, which seemed as good a spot as any to stay for a few nights.

After checking in, we got to enjoy our first showers in a few days, wandering out into the town to locate food and beverages to celebrate the end of the trek, finally being clean, and for Jimmy and I to bid farewell to our new Spanish compadres before they departed the next morning.  The trek from Kalaw to Inle was definitely one of the highlights of our visit to Myanmar, and we were lucky to have wound up with such a fun group to accompany us.

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