On the 24th we caught a bus out of Mandalay in the evening. It was not a sleeper bus, but it was very well equipped, with blankets, and wet tissues and they even screened a Bollywood movie! Scania buses are very popular here, which I think is funny, since it’s a Swedish brand. At three AM they kick us out of the bus into a freezing Kalaw; luckily I have made a reservation before hand at Roberts Inn, So we show up and wake the poor guy sleeping next to the reception, and for 10000 Kyat each, he lets us check in early.
We were going to Kalaw on a rumor that there is a three day hiking trail from Kalaw to Inle Lake that only cost 20 dollars. Vanessa, the spidergirl from Brazil told us that she heard of someone who had done it.
Kalaw is beautiful. Just like in India, the British brought the railway to this mountain town. It feels more like we were in Switzerland than in Asia, not only because of the pine-covered mountains (not as high as the alps, but still larger than hills), but because of the super cute, super spiky houses. The British had also taken a liking to this city, and there are still around 50 residential houses inhabited by British descendants.
Sam’s family trekking
In the morning of our first and only day in Kalaw, after we had a few good hours of sleep after arriving with the bus, we read a few blog posts and found out that Sams Family trekking or Uncle Sams is the company to go with for trekking. August was first to sign us up for the coming days trek. If it was only the two of us, we would have to pay 70 000 kyat each. If one more person signed up, the price would go down to 50 000 Kyat each, and if two or more, we would only have to pay 38 000 Kyat per person. What I really like about Uncle Sams is that they take a maximum of eight trekkers on a tour. We met some people who had gone with what Tripadvisor advised, and chosen the trekking guide company Jungle King. They paid 1000 kyat less than us, (which is like 1 euro, or 75 rupees) and they were 11 in their group.
So around 8 am five of us ( making our price 38 000 Kyat, which is like 21, 22 dollars per person for all inclusive 2 nights and 3 days) set off with our guide Joling. He started off with singing Dolly Partons “Joline” to make his name easy to remember. Our group consisted of a Dutch couple and a Lithuanian guy. The Dutch were Kelly, who is travelling south east Asia for some time, heading for Nepal next, and Rood, who is working as a mechanical engineer in the Netherlands and is in Myanmar to spend time with Kelly. The Lithuanians name is Kasper, and he is also travelling for some time, and have done similar trips before, he is heading to India next for one month before going home.
The first day of the hike was amazing. We start up through the shade cast by the pine forest, up on a mountain for an amazing view of the landscape below. This time of the year is very dry here, and many people are burning land because it is so dry the fire will come in an uncontrolled form if they do not burn it. But this effects the air quality. The drought also leaves the otherwise lush and green rice fields dry, and makes for a very desert like feel. We stopped in a village on top of a hill were we ate a nice home cooked meal with a local family as a part of the planned hike. After lunch we had a scheduled one hour nap! Amazing! Along the way, Joling showed us two kinds of edible berries which must be related to raspberry or blackberry. So delicious.
Already on the first day, Joling tells me and August about a monastery south of Inle lake, where they take care of children of all ages and provide education and housing to all who wants it. Me and August wanted to follow another rumor of a monastery down south to Yangon, but Joling argues that the climate is much better up here.
We slept on thin mattresses on the floor in the house of Jolings parents in law. They prepared delicious food for us over an open fire. I find it funny, that people cook over open fire, have to drive to a well to get water and live in bamboo houses, but every single person has a smart-phone. There you have development!
We stayed up after sunset, playing cards and drinking beers until late. The first day was great.
Second and third day and the food poisoning
The second day we walked without much shade over dry fields. It was very hot. I tried paan for the first time, this beetle nut based tobacco treat that turn your mouth and teeth red. It’s quite tasty, and I think in moderate amount it may even be good for you, ‘cause there is not much tobacco in there at all. Here is a picture of my tongue turned red:
Kelly got sick also, food poisoning most likely, she was throwing up all the water she drank, but still, she managed to walk a few kilometers before she gave up and was sent to the village on the back of a bike. As we reached said village, Rood also got sick. So me, August and Kasper shared the dinner food, although none of us were especially hungry. Joling had prepared home made peanut butter for us. I have never had that before and it was very delicious.
The next day, both Rood and Kelly were feeling better and had somehow miraculously recovered so well that they participated the last day of the hike. That last bit was fun. It was a little cloudy which made it easier to walk, and we came to the Inle Lake area, in which the nature looks almost like desert, with blue agave plants (of which you can make tequila) and cacti. It is sooo dry, and I can only imagine how nice it must look in the monsoon.
We reached Inle Lake around lunch, at which point Joling had to leave us to catch a ride back to Kalaw. The rest of us got in a boat, typical to Inle lake, and dozed off during our transport to Nyaung Shwe town.
We all exchanged numbers and parted ways. We were all supposed to meet up for dinner, but right before we were about to leave, I started being sick, so August left without me. I though I caught the same bug as Kelly and Rood, and that I’d be well the next day, so we planned a boat tour of the lake, its markets and pagodas for the coming day.
The boat tour started at 8 and we went to some pagodas, to a silver smith and traditional silk weaving places. But I was not well so I didn’t really enjoy any of it. Altough, It was cool when they showed us how to make thread from the lotus flower and the whole process from flower to schawl. Here is the process:
Nyaung Shwe and “Development”
I ended up being sick for another three days, stranded in our room in the Diamond Star Guesthouse, until we finally got out of Nyaung Shwe. Nyaung Shwe is a super touristic place, with loads of tour providers, hotels and restaurants around every corner, but actually there is nothing to do inside Nyaung Shwe. This town is a perfect example of development gone wrong. Myanmar has only allowed tourism like this for 9 years (they opened their borders in 2010) and there are sooo many resorts and restaurants and travel agencies, which in a way would make it ideal for tourists… At the same time, Inle lake is terribly polluted, much due to chemical farming up and around the lake. People in the villages are rather poor also, and the roads are terrible, worse than India in many places, as soon as you leave the main tourist beat in Nyaung Shwe… While I was sick I wanted to find a hospital in case I got worse (i googled my symptoms, against better judgement) but authorities – SOS international for example – discourages tourists from visiting hospitals in this country… “Better go to Thailand” they say. To me, “development” is defined as improvement for the people, not tourists, meaning education, infrastructure, trash management and reliable health care.,
We were very happy to leave the dry heat of Nyaung Shwe, when we got in to a shared pickup truck and went to the Monastery that Joling told us about, Phyar Taung. As of writing, we left the Monastary yesterday after spending 10 days there. The next post will be about our time there.
Lots of Love
Linnea & August