“If go here, we will go to my village!” AA* beamed as she pointed to a path on her right.
I looked to my left, then my right, amazed at how easy it is for her to tell the two routes apart. Then again, she must have walked to Kalaw or Inle, along this stretch of road, countless number of times. Just two hours into our trek, and already, we have passed women & children carrying their baskets of vegetables, making their way by foot to the weekly Kalaw market. I will not be surprised if any of them knew the way to Inle as well as our guides do.
I was drawn to Myanmar not just for the “hot-air balloons over pagoda” shots, but also the opportunity to see a country that is only beginning to open up to international travellers. And what better way to explore this “off the beaten path” nation, than take a 3 day walk in the backcountry of its largest state?
The Shan State, making up almost a quarter of the total land area of Myanamr, is home to more than 9 different ethnic groups. The state had had its fair share of civil unrest, and certain remote areas, notably the Northern Shan State, remain off-limits to foreigners.
The 61km from Kalaw to Inle covers a tiny fraction of the state, but offers a glimpse into the villages scattered across the mountainous Kalaw region. This is probably the closest I will ever get to interacting with these villagers, who until the late 1990s, remained isolated from the rest of the world.
I went with Sam Trekking, the founder of the trekking route from Kalaw to Inle. It was the peak of summer, with temperatures soaring as high as 41 degrees in cities like Yangon.
Despite my initial worries about having to undertake the trek alone, I was joined by four French, an Australian, and a Scot for my adventure. The 3 day trek cost 40,000 kyats for a group of 6, a bargain considering it included all the meals on the trek, a boat ride across Inle Lake, and transportation of our huge backpacks to Inle.
I looked to Trent and Jane, the Aussie-Scot couple I have met at a Kalaw teahouse at 4am, where we chatted and waited for 3 hours before Sam opened for the day.
They have spent the past few weeks in Myanmar, and having done treks in Hsipaw, concluded that it was safe to tackle this with flip-flops. I was reluctant to wear my sans-sole running shoes, and followed suit, assuming that it will be mostly a downhill walk, since we were descending from the highlands to the lake.
That naive assumption was quickly overthrown as we found ourselves on the dirt tracks, steadily ascending with Wee Wee*, our other guide, leading the way.
It was 8am, but the sun had crept her way up, beating harshly down onto the trails. “A lot of people trek now?” I asked AA, who was walking with me right at the back of the group. “No. Now is too hot!” she replied earnestly, wearing a huge straw hat to protect herself from the sun. I looked to my flip-flops and T-shirt. I should have known at that time, that I was in for a major Myanmar tan line.
The first part of the trek was mostly covered, and we were fortunate to have the company of a gentle breeze throughout our walk across the rice fields, to our lunch stop.
Perched right at the top of a hill, the “restaurant” had chickens, cattle, and dogs, roaming freely around. We sat in a pavilion overlooking the farmland as we devoured a simple spread of naan, veggies and curry.
I did not know at that time, but AA & Wee Wee were also the chefs for our group, and will continue to serve up sumptuous meals for the next couple of days.
Post-lunch brought us to several villages, a monastery, and a small teashop where we were promptly served local green tea and chips. This will be a common occurrence for all our subsequent breaks.
It seemed like all the children were gathered here, giggling as they saw us in the teashop.
I took a photo of a boy, and he sported such a huge grin when he saw the shot, the other children rushing forward to take a look. Given the popularity of the Kalaw-Inle trek, I would have thought these children might have been accustomed to seeing foreigners. Their reactions showed otherwise, expressing pure joy at seeing something as simple as a photo.
Our upwards climb continued alongside cabbage fields, until we reached our sleeping quarters for the night.
It was considerably cooler, and as the group sat around the porch with bottles of Myanmar beer and Mumford and Sons for company, the owner of the house, a man of about 70, joined us. He never spoke a word, seemingly just enjoying the music while smoking his local cheroot cigar. I wondered what we would have talked about should we have spoken the local language.
Day 2 started with a similar scenery , but we soon found ourselves on red clay soil, reminiscent of the Australian outback. The heat radiating off the ground sure reminded me of the desert.
Thankfully, the breeze continued to follow our group as we walked across the dry landscape, passing by women tilling the lands, and men leading the buffalos.
As we approached our second home stay, the sky turned a dull grey. We were packed in a small shack when the downpour struck. The villagers who were smiling shyly at us moments ago, began running towards their homes, laughing heartily when the water from the puddle splashed onto their longyi.
I rose early for the final day of the trek, and snapped a shot of the young Shan lady who was working hard in the kitchen. The owner gave a huge smile when he saw the photo, repeatedly gesturing a thumbs-up, and excitedly calling his family to come around for a look.
AA & Wee Wee led us to our final lunch stop. They were due return by motorbikes to Kalaw, and will rest for a couple of days before leading another group to the exact spot.
In two days’ time, there will be another group of travellers who like us, will be awe-stuck by the simplicity of life in the mountains. They will be taking shots after shots of beautiful faces, and landscapes along the trek.
They will marvel over simple conversations with the villagers. They will trade commonly used phrases in French, Mandarin or English with the guides.
Like me, they will probably go away feeling like they have gained a lot from the trek, and from the people – guides and villagers – who so graciously shared a part of their lives with us.
Even though we speak a different language, hail from different parts of the world, and will never see each other again, the simple smiles on the faces of the locals I have met, will be something that will stay with me.
They may have little material wealth, but they have such big hearts.
AA was always smiling when talking to us, offering her bottle of water when she thought I was thirsty, and enthusiastically sharing her dream of becoming a primary school teacher. Wee Wee knew she wanted to become the best guide, kicking all the men’s asses, in her trekking company.
As we boarded the boat I took a quick moment to take in the silence around me, well aware that I will soon be greeted by markets, vehicles and tourists at Inle. It was only my 4th day in Myanmar, but I know, the experience from the trek is going to be hard to beat.
*This is based off the pronounication of our guides’ names, not the actual spelling