18 hour bus to Kalaw, 3 day trek to Inle

Trip Start Nov 06, 2006
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Trip End Jun 15, 2007


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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Monday, January 29, 2007

From Yangon, a hellish 18-hour bus ride takes us north to Kalaw. The bus breaks down eight times during the journey, and at one point I look out the windeow to watch the on-board mechanic dump buckets full of water onto the engine. We're seated in the emergency exit row. The emergency door, which is jammed shut, has big gaps around its entire perimeter and frigid air poors in until Todd stuffs a plastic bag and wads of tissue into all the holes. My seat won't recline, and it's an overnight bus, so it's a long, long ride and we arrive in Kalaw with bloodshot eyes and sore necks. From what we've heard, this is a fairly typical Myanmar bus ride. We'll see.

Kalaw is a pleasant hillside town. We check out the market and visit Shwe Oo Min Cave, which is packed with Buddhas, each one signed with the name and country of the person who donated the sculpture. Many of the Buddhas have a flashy, Las Vegas-style multi-colored light display behindthe head to represent the radiating qualities of the Buddha.

In the morning, we begin a 3-day trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake with our guide and three others - David (USA), Nick (England), and Batiste (Belgium). At Nee Paya, they're working on a new building and we watch the craftsmen hammering silver and cutting and carving intricate wooden panels by hand. Our guide seems mostly disinterested and dispirited, but as we get further from town he begins to share with us his incredible frustration with the current government and his disgust over how the Burmese are treated. We come across a line of Pa-o villagers who are working to clear a field for planting, and the guide explains how these are forced laborers for the government. Without warning, a government official arrives at their village, tells every family to send one adult male, and assigns them a project and timeline. If they don't complete the project in the designated time, the village is fined, and in the meantime the wives and children have to assume all the work of maintaining the fields and food while the men are away.

In the afternoon, Batiste mentions a "gay friend" of his and our guide's eyes nearly pop out of his head. When I say that he must have had many gay clients over his more than ten years of guiding, his eyes get big again and he says "No, never! If I saw a gay person I would just run away!" I decide to let it be until the right opportunity arises.

On the first night of our trek, we stay in the stilt home of a Pa-O family. Unfortunately, our guide doesn't introduce us to them so it's not much of a cultural experience. The 5 of us end up playing cards for the evening.

On the second evening, we stay at a wooden monastery, a huge teak building standing on stilts in a nice hillside setting overlooking the large valley spread out below. The sound and sight of the monks doing evening chants gives the place a peaceful mystique. We awake at 5 am the following morning to their enthusiastic chants. I'm amazed that they can function in the freezing cold air with their light cotton robes. After chants, the novices, some as young as 5 years old, immediately get to work calmly sweeping out the shrine room, cleaning the steps, and taking care of morning chores. I step outside into the dark to watch the starry night sky give way to dawn. A small fire on the front porch warms my toes as I take in the beauty of the sky, the beauty of this place, and the beauty of the steady, melodic chanting.

When we arrive at Inle Lake, a boat takes us past villages on stilts, floating gardens, and distant mountains dotted with white pagodas. After the group gathers their bags, I hand our final payment to the guide and say, "Congratulations! You made it through three whole days with two gay people in your group!" All of us burst out laughing, including the guide, and his bug-eyed look gives away his complete surprise. Hopefully he'll be a bit more mindful in the future, now that he sees we don't spit venom.

Our time at Inle Lake has been enjoyable - next stop Mandalay!
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