A highlight of northern Burma
Published/Last edited or updated: 11th January, 2016
"About one hour," says our guide, navigator and companion over the last three days, Aung Myu Htoo. This time, he blurts it out with a half-cocked smile, knowing that his rubbery time estimates have become a bit of a running joke for our group of seven as we walk from Kalaw to to the base of Inle Lake in Shan State, Northern Burma (Myanmar).
Aung Myu Htoo has only been on the job, in the employ of co-founder Mr Robin of Golden Lily Trekking, for six months, but his enthusiasm -- both for the environment we're tramping through and the English language -- shows considerable promise. Before he worked with Robin he'd been a soldier in the government's army. For 12 long years from the age of 16 he'd trained and soldiered and yet found time to marry, have two daughters and get educated: Dip C.S, DAA, B.A.(Geo;) it reads on his personal calling card.
It's the last qualification, the geography, that best evidences itself during our trek. On the second day, ensnarled by torrential rain and quite wary of a flash flood, he still pauses to pluck some random herb from the surrounds and begins to explain to me its medicinal advantages only to have me blurt out, "I don't care -- it's pissing down rain!"
At least five three-day trekking routes meander between Kalaw and Inle Lake, but the one we're tackling is 61 kilometres in length -- 21 kilometres the first day, 23 the second and 17 the third. In broad strokes, we start walking at 08:00, have a couple of tea breaks plus an hour for lunch (that is, eat for 30 minutes then nap for 30) and finish around the 17:00 mark. When Robin mentioned the 61 kilometres and the seven to eight hours a day of walking I have to admit I didn't pay much attention, but five kilometres in, the 61 kilometres firmed up in my mind as, well, a bloody long way.
Everywhere we rest we have tea. On the first day, late morning, we emerge from the forest to be greeted with a sprawling mountain scene with tea collapsing down the slopes to a deep valley. We walk along a ridge, its slope spotted in tea bushes, here and there being tended to by farmers. We follow the trail towards a hilltop village where we break for lunch and on the final stretch we pass locals packing up fist-sized oranges. "To Yangon," says our guide.
While the trekking routes between Kalaw and Inle were pioneered by one of Robin's competitors, the 72-year-old Sam of Sam's Trekking, Robin has been running his own treks in the area for more than 20 years. Despite being recommended to go on a tour with Robin, we'd actually visited Sam's trekking kiosk on the main road of Kalaw and, after finding the consultation a bit perfunctory, headed over to Robin's for a second opinion and looked no further.
A Sikh, Robin's forebears came to Burma with the British in 1880 and a generation later his father was driving Chevrolet trucks for the British during World War Two. Following in his father's footsteps, Robin also drove Burma's dilapidated roads and by the time they sold the business, Robin had been driving for 30 years and they had a fleet of some 18 trucks.
Robin's guesthouse, named Golden Lily, is one of only two remaining "true" guesthouses in Kalaw. It's a typical Burmese guesthouse, cheap and with some rooms decidedly crappy (go for an upstairs room if you can!). The real attraction, anyway, is the trekking.
"Trekking" is a bit of a misnomer as this is Kalaw, not Nepal. If you possess a modicum of fitness you'll be able to do it. You may well swear now and then, stub a toe, catch a cobweb and perhaps slip in the mud, but the rewards, be it the scenery, the simple village life or, well, just the pleasure of dropping back from the group and listening to the birds and distant village voices carried to you by the wind, more than compensate.
The afternoon stretch on day one has our trail at times passing through lovely rice field valleys and other times along train tracks. Thanks to the British a slow and very bouncy rail line snakes from Thazi in the west to Shwenyaung (for Nyaung Shwe and Inle Lake) in the east. We stand aside to let a train rock past -- a few days later I take the same train, taking in much of the same scenery I walked a few days earlier.
In mid afternoon, we break to visit a medicine man who shows off his thumb sized balls of home-made malaria medication (they taste like dirt) before pressing on through brilliant canola fields to our beds for the night in a village homestay. Lodgings are basic, but clean and adequate. Most importantly, they have cold beer and a generous meal fills our bellies. Despite the thin mattress I sleep like the dead.
Our group is seven: two Belgian guys, two Austrian women, two French women and me the lone representative of Antipodea -- an Australian. It's a well travelled -- and older -- squad than I'd expected and once we get going and we build a rapport over blisters while the travel chat veers from Guatemala and Flores to the Inca Trail and Everest Base Camp.
I'm the only one of the group to have visited Burma previously and some of the others, who have visited other Southeast Asian countries, note that trekking in Burma "feels like Thailand 20 years ago". To a point this is true -- we quite literally walk out of Kalaw and to the boat pier at Inle Lake. Rare would be a trek out of a commercial centre in Thailand or Laos that doesn't first involve a tuk tuk or pick-up ride out to the beginning of an "untouched area".
But the differences don't stop there. Most strikingly, and certainly against my expectations, the villages we visit are far more affluent than their counterparts in Laos or Thailand. While some wooden houses remain, most are cinderblock -- some with solar power and while no TV antennas are in evidence, the overall feel is of more wealth. These are "minority villages" be they Pa-oh, Palaung or Taungyoe, but they make up Shan State's populace in a way that the Akha, Hmong and Lisa don't in Thailand -- they're citizens for starters -- and it shows.
Before the Pa-oh signed a cease fire with the junta in the early 1990s, opium was a cash crop and, as with similar regions in Thailand, the cash crop replacement has been obvious. Staples in the eradication crew's handbook -- cabbage, corn, dry rice, and canola have all replaced the opium of years before. The side effect was that you need to grow an awful lot more cabbage than opium to retain the same bottom line and this has had catastrophic effects on forest cover -- at least the Brits were selective!
The second day has far less forest and far more farmland. I'm very thankful for my hat as the sun beats down on us trudging through broad farms and up and down over gently rolling hills. Where forests would have once stood, today beautiful flowers litter the way and vegetable crops -- eggplant, potato and all manner of green leafy stuff -- cover the hills on each side. It's attractive, but after a while, gets a little mundane. I miss the trees -- for their beauty, the life that comes with them, and especially around midday, their shade. Conversation ebbs save for the occasional, "How much further?" as we trudge towards our lunch stop. Again cold beer and ridiculous amounts of food raise our spirits considerably.
When I ask Robin what has changed over the period of him running the treks, deforestation is one of the first things that pops up, courtesy of slash and burn agriculture to plant dry rice, and a drop in "authenticity" as visitor numbers have slowly increased. He talks of leading single travellers through the region in the mid 1990s and having locals being visibly scared and children running away as a foreigner walked into the village.
The afternoon on day two has us visit arguably the only real "tourist activity" of the trip. We stop to watch an elderly woman hand-weaving scarves and bags. She started weaving at 20 years old and today, 52 years later, she's still banging them out. It takes her three days to make a bag, five days for a scarf. The price seems ridiculously little and she bags a few more sales from our group.
Much has changed through the 52 years the woman has been weaving. Roads have improved drastically. Motorbikes lean on their stand in front of many houses and smartphones are surprisingly common. But it needs to be acknowledged that what you're experiencing, while certainly not as restricted as previously, is still a tightly wrapped package. According to Robin only five villages in the Kalaw area are permitted to host foreigners and officially the entire area is still denoted as an area with security issues -- officially, you require a permit to enter. Unless told, you wouldn't realise this.
In the scheme of things, slash and burn is probably the least of the concerns when it comes to protecting what remains of Burma's forest coverage though industrial ravaging hasn't reached Cambodian standards . It's telling that of the entire trek, only the first few hours of the first day involves a walk through anything close to a native forest. That area is a protected area that encompasses Kalaw's drinking water supply, but as was our experience in northern Laos, the development focus appears to be primarily on farming cash crops rather than farming tourists.
The weather starts to close in as we continue through Shan State's farms towards our second night's stay in a local monastery. It starts to sprinkle. I'm concerned as (against advice) I'd packed no wet weather gear and my bag is too small for my camera. Then the heavens open. It gets heavier. Then it sets in. We're utterly soaked and still have hours to go. What were previously dry hill trails become raging torrents in minutes. Chocolate waters rush off the topsoil -- and unwary travellers. A few take a spill. My camera, desperately hidden beneath my T-shirt, stops working (thankfully it comes back to life the next day).
Later the rain eases, revealing beautiful post-wet scenes, but the mud, oh my god the mud. It feels like a kilo has attached to each boot and they only get heavier each step. We're aiming for a pass through the hills, slowly making our way up a muddy slope that would have barely registered a mention had it been dry, but now it's an unpleasant slip'n slide and sense of humour failure lurks. But then we make the pass and, under failing light, peer the temple in the distance - oh salvation!
As with the village homestay the previous night, sleeping quarters are authentic -- meaning wooden floors, a bamboo mat and a very thin mattress. While the mattress does little to placate weeping joints, the Chinese-made blankets fend off frostbite. The bathroom is just a squat shack with a bucket of water for some left hand action located comfortably distant from any other quarters. The well water bucket shower is so cold I involuntarily yelp when I throw the first bucket over my head.
We trekked in high season November and perhaps, over the three days, I set eyes on 40 foreigners. In wet season the trekking scene drops off to almost nothing thanks to the rain taking away all the pleasures of a walk in the woods, as Robin says. He talks of wading up waist-deep rivers in all-day torrential rain and describes the scene as one that appeals to those seeking an "adventure". Our brief afternoon exposure to the wilds of the weather is but a taster apparently.
While prices in Kalaw can vary considerably (we paid around US$50 for the two night three day trek, Sam's was about a third cheaper), they mostly include all the same deal -- seven meals and the boat from the southern tip of Inle Lake to Nyaung Shwe, the tourist town on the north side of Inle Lake. You do need to buy your own water (you can buy it along the way) and pay the Inle admission fee ($10). According to Robin, 60% of what you pay to Golden Lily Trekking goes to either local communities or directly trek-related expenses like food, drink and guiding services.
The community angle is an important one. Independent travellers are looking for an authentic experience, but on occasions this can clash with their expected comfort levels. It's one thing to say you want to "experience life like a local" but when that comes to bathing in a river or under a bucket from a temple well, a clash with personal sensibilities can arise for some. Robin works with different houses in different villages and generally speaking the home owners vacate the premises, but in all cases they are paid to compensate for a night of inconvenience.
The last day has us mostly walking along a dirt road save for the last few hours where we go back off the road for the final stretch to In Dein at the southern tip of Inle Lake. Everyone's a bit tired from the mud and rain of the previous day, and, once we can see the lake in the distance, it becomes more about just getting there than taking in the surrounds. Just on the outskirts of In Dein we're offered the diversion of climbing to a hilltop ruined pagoda -- only two of us take up the offer.
Just after the temple we emerge into a carpark-like area set aside for a rotating five-day market. The area is littered with souvenir stalls selling "I LOVE Inle Lake" T-shirts, keyrings, wooden carvings and so on. There are package tourists everywhere -- I saw more foreigners in five minutes than I had in the previous week. It's jarring and while an hour later we're on a speedboat ripping north across the beautiful Inle Lake, I can't help but think we've left the best part of the trip behind.
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.