Kalaw to Inle Lake

Myanmar

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

2 1/2 days walk, March 2013

Day 1

Kalaw

At 9am sharp, we lurch out into our colonial era rest-house’s garden on a ridge above Kalaw - and into sparkling early sunshine.  There by the gate is our guide-to-be, Eddie. He is a slightly stooped, softly spoken, almost diffident mannered, 60 year old, and it is easy to miss on first meeting that he is a hero among trekking guides. A recently retired government agricultural adviser whose job has been to help the tribal farmers around Kalaw improve their practices, he is incredibly knowledgeable, clearly well known and liked, and extremely solicitous for our wellbeing.

Tony, our Sikh fixer’s brother (there are lot of Indian families here, from the days when the railway was built), takes off with our luggage hanging over the middle of his scooter, to be delivered to our destination – and it does in fact turn up in the bottom of an Inle Lake boat three days later.

Then we are off, down the road into this former hill station on the western end of Myanmar’s Shan plateau.  I have somehow come without sun cream, so we are having to zag back into town to pick some up.  Good start. But we get a good look at the dilapidated colonial houses in their ruinous gardens, and the one-time mission school, now a run-down looking army college, where Eddie started what was evidently a very good education.

We cross the railway line through the station, another group of charming but depressed old buildings with the swinging water dispensers for the steam engines still in place, which Eddie can remember in use. Up the far hillside are rather better-tended suburbs and some recently restored houses, all tudor-and-cream. The roads – indeed everything look in better nick than we expected: to our untutored eyes like, despite the oppression and mismanagement, they are doing no worse here than real basket-cases like the Philippines.  It looks less at its last gasp than mid 1980s China.

After a surprisingly pleasing meander round this hillside, we turn off onto a track in open pine forest.  Fine walking starts immediately, although the dense hamlets and farmsteads in the wide valley below remind us we are still on the outskirts of Kalaw.  This definitely is not primary forest: the Lonely Planet implied beautiful forested hilltops, but the timber was apparently felled for the Japanese in the 1970s, and we alternate between stands of pine and steep, hardscrabble fields of mountain rice and other crops in rotation.  Across the valley, scrubby slopes nestle narrow rice terraces. Far below, occasional patches of bright green betray the presence of permanent water.

We climb steadily below an increasingly steep hillside, enjoying the occasional blossoming tree.  A pair of bright white stupas proclaim a monastery on a lower ridge. We meet few people, other than the occasional man or couple on the growing population of motorbikes.

Round in a side-valley, terraced slopes climb to the cliffs that line the edge of the plateau. On the hilltop across this gulf is, apparently, the village we will lunch in. Around a bend, just as this long traverse is beginning to pall, we join a new world on the high plateau, following an old lane among hedged fields of dry, hard earth.  Fortunately, we are skirting round the edge of this bowl. We meet our first ox-cart, a chunky affair pulled by a pair of young bulls, then wind through our first (quiet, mid-day empty) village, of the Taung Yo people. It turns out to be pretty representative: surprisingly tidy, with neatly trimmed hedges separating bamboo-walled, stilted huts and the occasional whitewashed breeze-block creation – but it is a poor and tough life, Eddie assures us, although they are “simple” (ie straightforward) and happy and don’t envy the townspeople.

A hot uphill trudge gets us to a huge, spreading, spectacular banyan tree: these are sacred and thus were not chopped during the logging, apparently because the Buddha attained enlightenment while under one.  Depressingly, these are the only giants we see.  Under the tree squats a very smiley, very old man, his few belongings in a small heap beside him.  He is on his way to a festival, and waiting to meet his relatives. We quiz each other through the intermediation of Eddie.

Then it is another tramp up a steep little slope beside terraces of red and yellow flowers, which are papery-dry to touch and apparently last a month once picked. Aloe cactuses are festooned in spider webs which sparkle in the midday sun. Then we are under a row of majestic banyans and on the edge of the Pa-O village of Shar Pin, winding between huts and yards of tamped earth where cattle loiter in scraps of shade or lie in resignation in the blazing sun. Eddie can’t find our cook, Thar Nge, who went ahead, so we haven’t met him properly yet.  He sets up in whichever hut is most receptive on the day, depending on who is away or out in the fields, so Eddie has to ask about. All seems quiet in the noontime, but some children take us to our bamboo-walled destination, were we deboot and climb the steep stairs to the surprisingly light and airy chamber – considering it has no windows: the little holes in the woven walls and the doorway allow for a diffuse glow and a pleasing draught.  Clever. We settle to a remarkable lunch of avocados, tomato salad and chapatis dipped in curry on a low round table which somehow accompanies us. Our limbs stiffen quickly from sitting on the floor, but we soon stretch them out in a luxurious, jetlaggy siesta, interrupted by the children of the household – indeed the village – imperceptibly sitting nearer to us, and noisier and gigglier as their shyness dissipates.

We set off again at 2.45 for what turns out to be a superb afternoon’s walking, probably the finest of the expedition. We drop to a dry little waterbed, then climb gently through a gorgeous open pine wood, emerging to a bowl of fields which terminates abruptly to our right at the elegantly curving plateau rim, behind which cliffs fall to the deep valley we walked above earlier on. Recently tilled terraces and yellow fallows glow in the now slanting sun. A line of tribesmen walk purposefully round the high ground toward us, heading for the old man’s festival, wherever it may be. The bowl boasts a fine array of trees. Pollarding is a big thing here, producing thick round crowns above sturdy trunks, like in a child’s picture, and some lovely freestanding specimens create colour contrast-harmonies with the red soil that Cezanne would be proud of.  Piles of dung, carefully collected and tended and laboriously carted out, wait to be tilled into the soil.

Then we reach the high ground, with its huge views across the gravidly dim valley to the rough, actually quite thickly forested hillsides to the west. We wind along this glorious ridge for the next couple of hours as the light mellows, then fades, passing ox-carts returning to dry little villages, laden with water cans. They are coming from tanks which are filled by pipes that run, for many kilometres, from the high hills the far side of the big valley, operating, Eddie tells us, like grand siphons, wider bores on the far heights helping to get the water up to our ridgetop. How would they have coped with the yearly droughts before this ingenious trick was begun?

We get to the “remote” Pa-O village of Kyauk Su where we will be staying just as the daylight surrenders. And there, in this village Harri Singh assured us would be remote, are the sweet French couple we shared a taxi with from Heho to Kalaw, and another group of trekkers sitting in the last glow with beers in hand, watching children play and their mothers fill their cans from the tap.

Our stilted hut has one all-purpose room and a kitchen in the corner by the stairs, and again is airy and light, very clean and evidently tidied for us.  The family has cleared out to neighbors’ huts.  Just below is a spotless privy-hut. The Singhs run a slick operation: there is no way of getting a message to these distant villages that a group is coming, as there are no mobile (or indeed any) phones and presumably most expeditions are fixed on less than a day’s notice, so they have arrangements with a selection of houses in each of the key villages, so their groups will always find somewhere good to stay. The only thing left in the main room after it has been cleared for us is a huge zipped plastic bag, which Eddie unpadlocks to produce clean mats and blankets. It looks like there are several of these sitting in each strategic village, waiting for trekkers to arrive in any particular hut.

We explore the village in the gentle gloaming. Buffalo trail in, meekly peeling off into the dark undercrofts of their owners’ huts. An old woman steadily turns and tamps a huge heap of animal and human dung – or, as Eddie calls it, shit (a technical agricultural term). The trees of the ridge to the east are silhouetted against the misty deeps beyond. The village seems to relax, people loiter a little. The majority of people are still traditionally attired, the men in baggy trousers or the ubiquitous long yi (joined sarong) and the women in long yi, tops and patterned orange turbanny headdresses. All seems peaceful and calm, but Eddie says that it depends on who you are.  He is a Karen, so acceptable as a fellow tribesman, but it could be dangerous for a Burmese guide here, and by extension for his guests: they really hate the government, and a Burmese would be suspected of being a spy. It isn’t that long ago that this was rough and rebellious, a non-go area to visitors.

Then it is a superb supper of salads and curries, all produced from our cook’s quite small-looking backpack, evidently the trekking equivalent of a tardis. We eat ravenously, then sink onto our mats and read until late (well, 10-ish).  What a heart-swellingly lovely day.

Day 2

Seldom has the very early morning been such a delight.  Having slept well, apart from waking with a flailing start, thinking I have been brushed by a rat, when Ali touches me to stop me snoring, I come awake gently in total dark at around 5am. The birds are just starting their morning songs, and he first murmurs begin from the village not long after, as scintillas of light squeeze through the woven bamboo wall. Then it is sounds of washing and cooking and low talking as daytime slowly steals into our room.

We eventually haul ourselves up at 6:40. Layered up against the morning cool, I take a stroll round the village before breakfast. The buffalos and cattle are out of their ground-floor byres, munching deliberately on unnourishing-looking armfuls of straw. They are timid, despite their size and shared village lives, and back off if I approach. Women at the pumps giggle as I pass. Hundreds of feet below, the ridges of the plain to our east emerge from a thin mist.  A large group of children play marbles with roughly rounded stones in the dusty court of our neighbour’s hut, which is warm in the first direct sun.

Breakfast is avocado and tomato salad, papaya and crispy deep-fried naan bread. Not having needed a pee all night, I must be a bit dehydrated, so swig down a litre of water.

We set off, down a track round the eastern hillsides into a particularly pretty bowl between us and the next, lower, ridge.  Small banyan trees, pollarded with hornbeam-like stems reaching elegantly skywards, stand solitary in red-earthed fields recently broken up with the endless, patient swing of the mattock. Nothing is yet mechanised this far from the towns, although things are at the brink of change. Hand-held cultivators are appearing in prosperous areas, and they will follow the motorbikes here soon.  Lives will undoubtedly improve, but the cultural continuity will have to suffer.

Our path is lined with bamboo and trees. A group is steadily hand-sawing a large felled tree for firewood.   Through a notch in the wavy-crested ridge, we descend into a narrow valley with rice paddies on its floor, emerging into the wide farmland plateau we will spend much of the day on.

This really is delightful walking, meandering on the sort of paths where you don’t have to watch your feet, between garlic plots which will soon revert to paddies when the rains come.  On the higher, drier fields they are growing ginger, potatoes and later on maize.

We cross a wobbly railway line, then rest on the steps of a shop by a single lane, but metalled, “main” road. This is a cheerful place with a lot of visitors. An ice-lolly seller stops his bike and rings a hand bell, dispensing evil-looking white things to willing takers. A proud father brandishes a baby. A squatting Pa-O woman funnels petrol into bottles. Gossip happens. A likely lad jokes with the girls, then putts away on his bike gripping a pack of beer between his knees.

Packs back on, and it is more of the same.  We wind through gentle valleys patchworked with small fields, many of them bright with newly turned earth, adorned with pollardees, stands of bamboo and the occasional majestic banyan tree crowning a ridge or dominating a turn in the path.  We pass through a couple of quiet villages whose entire adult population has been working in the fields since soon after dawn. Giggling maidens summon us to their school window to take their portraits.

What becomes a bit of a trudge over gentle undulations with large, empty fields gets us to the Danu village of Kone Hla, which shows clear evidence in its new buildings that various trekker routes converge here. Lunch is in the new breeze-block annex of a hostel which is clearly doing brilliant trekker trade.  We sink onto a fresh bamboo mat and address ourselves to cabbage and ginger soup, avocado, fried noodles with fried eggs on top (I eat four, courtesy of an Ali aversion) and a tomato and cucumber salad. Banging and sawing through the partition reveals our building as a work in progress – but we manage to snooze nonetheless (such are the joys of jetlag), then I write up the day’s exploits.

I have my best Myanmar football conversation here. Everyone here loves Manchester United, and I am asked by one of the hangers-about who my favourite player is. I ask him why Man U are so popular here, and he says it is because they are so nice. Yes, this team of adulterers, divers and doggers. I mean to ask Eddie if this is a symptom of the national character, but never get round to it.

We emerge into the heat of the day, and start off a tad reluctantly on a new grey gravel road, which peters out not far from the village. We swing off to the east, and to be honest things are blurred for a while. We climb a long, gentle valley of heavily worked fields.  I remember a particularly beautiful bright red bend in our track, lined by new bamboo posts on one side and shapely pollardings on the other.   In the huge ridgetop field above, a pair of women stolidly break hard, dry clods in preparation for the new season. 

At the bottom of a steep slope are some lime kilns, just above a small river cliff so the furnaces can be stoked from below, right by the river. It takes four days to cook and cool each batch of raw limestone, and requires a mixed feeding of wood, as evidenced by the piles of branches over the ravine. They make low quality cement bricks which, if we understood Eddie right, mature over three years and fetch higher prices at the end.

Just above, some bulls and their carts rest under pretty pollarded trees and dung heaps make pleasing patterns on the bright, pale soil. A steady trudge takes us to another ridgetop, then it is another steady ascent to another ridge, where the landscape changes again, this time into one of hidden valleys meandering between rough little ridges: somewhat Chinese, in fact.  Back down the hill, a man is struggling to get his ox-cart up a steep track: one of the oxen has veered out of kilter and stubbornly stands there, evidently fed up with his day. Eddie wanders over and helps out while I switch my jungle boots (new and of course now painful) for the bliss of walking sandals. Then we are winding down an immaculate little valley above paddies which are waiting, parched-impatient, for the rains to come.

Over a wonky bamboo bridge, a brief slog gets us to gentle terraces beneath the impenetrable looking cliffs we have been approaching for some time.  We really are in Chinese landscape, intensely cultivated low terracing receding between scrubby hillsides. Wandering along dry rice dykes, splashes of red Pa-O headwear, intense against the greed of the fields, draw attention to a group washing in a pool up the hill.

Then we are quickly at a narrow cut in the great wall: up the bed of what must be a torrent in wet season, we are through to Pa-O the village of Pattu, a scruffy place with two adjacent shop-bars: we are clearly back on the main trekker drag. We hit the cold colas and review a parade of workers dragging their animals back from the fields and mothers dragging children themselves dragging toys converted out of old implements.  A group of trekkers emerges, justifying our decision not to stay here:  Eddie had heard that other groups were going to overnight here, so we will be going on another half hour or so to a monastery, its lodgings usually full but likely to be emptier tonight.

The next half hour or so is a very pretty walk in fading light, passing rural tableaux of dung-heaped fields and pollarded trees silhouetted against the sunset.

Skirting a thick thicket behind a bamboo trellis fence, we feel the immanence of our monastery. We meet the first maintained road for some hours, recently graveled and which in uncouthly separates two very charming monasteries of rusting iron.  

Both are topped with Chinese-style pagodas – square towers with layers of little roofs - and the ubiquitous symbolic umbrella at the very top; they and their basic, dilapidated outbuildings look like they are melting back into their hillsides. In the fading light – it is after 6pm - they have a sleepily numinous air.

No wonder this place is a popular trekkers’ overnighter:  it is ridiculously charming and atmospheric, although their presence, no doubt all resenting the presence of the others, risks breaking the spell. Eddie’s adjusted plan turns out right: there are few other foreigners to be seen.

We remove our shoes and wince up the steps to the surprisingly large prayer hall, supported by slender red columns, where a row of boy monks is sitting on the floor in front of the main altar, engaged in haphazard-sounding chanting. The hall is dim, dusty and empty feeling, despite a random and secular- looking assembly of stuff lining its walls. We have come to meet the abbot, but he is not to be seen, so we troop back out and climb the steps to the big, empty room where we are to stay.  Rough, dusty boards and nothing else, except a sheet creating a small division and some mattresses and blankets piled neatly the other side. We are apparently lucky.

A quick bathe in an outdoor washroom, then supper arrives promptly and we guzzle another full and remarkable meal of curries and salads.  We then read until we are sleepy, which isn’t that late – it has been a long day. Having been a bit chilly, I am suddenly dripping with sweat, and have to throw off a blanket: some very man-made fibres, me thinks.

Day 3

That was quite a night. I wake from a light sleep to hear scratching, then the unmistakable sound of a rat (it is too large for a mouse) scuttling at great speed past our heads, then crunching on something the other side of our sheet-partition, where Eddie sleeps and some supper remains may be sitting in state.   Eddie later confirms this, although he says he wasn’t sure what it was eating.

We doze as muffled monastic sounds weave with early birdsong.  We knew we were above the novices’ dining shed (hall or even room would be overselling it) and that they eat early, and sure enough, childish voices have me reaching for my ear plugs not long after 5am.

We haul ourselves off our mattresses at something like 6.45, and potter about in the quiet early light before tackling another delicious breakfast – pancakes and avocados are my abiding memory.  Once packed, which I do with sleep-deprived inefficiency, we shuffle across to meet the abbot, who is sitting on a couch to the right of the prayer hall, surrounded by the detritus of long hours spent there – books, spiritual knick-knacks, a water dispenser, a Zimmer frame.  He had a stroke a while ago, and his right side is still partially paralysed. We put our donations next to Eddie’s on a bowl, which the Abbot blesses while we all hold its edges. 

We snoop round the cavernous hall. On a column near the door is a portrait of a monk who seems to have stood up successfully to the military over some important misdoings. The aisle to the left has been converted into sleeping spaces for trekkers, group-size cubicles divided by wood and cotton.

Then it is boots on and hitting the road time, this morning starting with a half-hour ascent up the grey-gravelled road to another gap in a high but surprisingly narrow ridge. Through the other side, we meet a group of red-scarved girls off for a hard day in the fields, their mattocks over their shoulders.

We are winding down round the steep hillside, with big views east toward the ridges above Inle.  It is getting hot and the fields are pre-monsoon parched brown, many of the trees leafless: it looks a tough landscape. We drop off the road into another sleepy Pa-O village, then follow narrow, red-dusty lanes through the dry fields.  Our first glimpse of the lake, through a gap in the ridge to our east, reveals tantalizing greenery studded by the unmistakable glint of tropical roofing.  We meander across a peculiar area of boulders and smooth lumps protruding from ox-blood earth, then join a drove road, fenced by cactuses, which leads us to a group of superb banyan trees on the last ridge before we start the final descent to the lake, a long, hot trudge over rough stone, then along an old path between steadings in their tough little fields, toward a sharp hill topped by a group of white and gold stupas.  Our destination, a creek-head jetty, is somewhere below.  We join hot grey road which heads through the quiet, gravid secondary forest of the lakeside flats, and ten minutes later (which feel like ten minutes too many), we sink into chairs in the shade of  a restaurant on the edge of a wind-blown, empty market place.  It is done.

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