What I thought was an overnight bus from Bagan to Kalaw turned out to be much shorter – you never can be too sure on times in this place – and we arrived at the fairly fresh time of 1am. As the bus contained the largest proportion of foreigners we’d seen in one place since setting foot in Myanmar, it didn’t take us long to make some new friends – three of which would be joining us for a three-day trek to Inle Lake the following day.
Kalaw itself has very little to offer: a small market place, a monastery, and a sikh temple. But as the country is still not completely open to foreigners, a number of tourists stop here to get their trekking fix, as we were about to do.
The guesthouse we stayed at, while damp and dingy, was extremely cheap. It was run by a third generation Burmese-born Indian family and it noted too: breakfast was rotis and bananas, with chai, and later we were offered Indian sweets with tea – which are little more than pure sugar. Exploring the town took no time at all, and we broke up our wanderings to drink tea at tiny tables, and eat triple deep-fried samosas.
We spent three days wandering through the lush green hills and paddy fields of the area, drifting past old war bunkers, meeting locals and eating locally. The simple beauty of these places never ceases to inspire and amaze me.
Arriving into Nuang Shwe was a mess of dust and scorching heat, but the draw card of this town is the lake so we jumped at the chance to get out of it all and explore life on the water. The local fisherman have a unique way in which they paddle their boats. By tucking the oar up under their armpit and wrapping their leg around the length of it, they balance carefully with one foot on the boat and the other twisting and curving the oar through the water. While I imagine it takes quite a bit of skill to do this, it’s not without its benefits: they have both hands free to tend to nets, and they can see above the reeds and floating plants.
The down side to any organised ‘tour’ such as this is that despite vocalising that you only wish to see certain things you still get shepherded around a bunch of overpriced shops. Our first stop was a silversmith in the stilted village, and while there were a hundred things I could admit to loving, they were far overpriced – most could be found for much cheaper at the Nuang Shwe market. But such is the tourist trap… We all made an obligatory circuit around the shop and then walked briskly back to our boat. “No more shops, please” – but he obviously didn’t hear us, as the next one was much worse.
Upon entering all you could see about the place were statues and carvings, bowls and ornaments, jewellery and scarves. However, sat at the end of the shop quietly weaving were four beautiful women with neck rings – these women were the only real reason for the shop, and one of them waved us over to pose for a photo. I felt a bit awkward and so obliged, but regretted it immediately afterwards. Emily, from our group started asking the owner questions such as: “where are they from”, “how much money do they earn”, “how often do they return home” and just watching the way the owner answered her spoke volumes about how disgusting this particular ‘tourist attraction’ was. The women get brought in from their villages and made to work each day, earning pittance – likely little more than commission on what they make – and only get to go home every two years. All so tourists, like I did, can come and take photos of them. It made me feel sick.
This time we really demanded that he take us to no more shops. We stopped off for lunch and to wander around a temple. Some fairly dodgy bridges lead across the waterways and onto the brilliant white tiles of the place. In the centre of the temple is what I can only describe as five golden poos. Having once been two small statues of Buddha, and three monks, years of devotion and gold-leaf-application had rendered them unrecognisable blobs of goldenness. A monk sat in front of a book of scriptures and a microphone and was the source of the constant warbles of chanting we could hear from around the lake. Much like that of mosques, we had heard this in various places across Myanmar.
Another unique feature of this lake is the large area devoted to floating gardens. Yeah, I said floating. The locals harvest reeds and plants from the bottom of the lake and use them to create floating garden beds, which with the addition of soil, and the abundance of fresh water below create the perfect, unfloodable, environment for the local staple. Row after row of garden stretch out and are attached together with bamboo poles. The locals punt slowly up and down the channels in their low boats, fixing, tending and adjusting their gardens.
While all this was fascinating to see, I was hanging out to get to the monastery. Not just any monastery in fact, but one with monks that teach cats to jump through hoops. Whaaaaat?! We idled up to the large wooden structure as our boatman cut the motor. Brushing past a large bloated snake, we climbed onto the jetty and scrambled into the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery, to find… a bunch of cats sleeping, and not jumping through hoops. We did our best to pretend we were there just to see the place, sneaking numerous glances back at the seated monk, but after reading the whole story-board panel of Buddha’s life there wasn’t much else to do but admit defeat and head back to the boat. On further research, I found out that they haven’t been training cats for years. Sigh.
The following day I decided to explore the area surrounding the lake. Hiring a bike that had seen much better days, I took off with Emily to find the hot pools on the northern-western edge. With the squeakiest brake (only one worked), temperamental gears, and a chain that had a tendency of jumping off the chainring, we, by some miracle, managed to avoid all accidents and make it in one piece to the pools. The pools didn’t look half bad, until we got close to the water. As the single-sex pools were cheaper we opted for that, and on some crazy whim of madness jumped into the slimy hot pool in the already hot 30-something-degree heat. At least we felt cool when we got out, for five minutes.
The original plan was to continue on until we found a boat to transport us back across to the township, but as usual, they wanted a large amount of money and, as usual, we declined. I had hoped to make it to a winery on the other side of town – yeah, I was surprised too – before it closed in the afternoon. We pedalled on and on, and arrived there… 10 minutes after it closed! Nooooooo! I settled instead for a pickled tea-leaf salad and a fanta. Glamourous.
The remaining day was spent pretty much eating – one of my favourite things to do. The girl from our guesthouse taught us how to make the popular Shan tomato salad with peanuts, which, by the way, is AWESOME (as if tomatoes and peanuts couldn’t be), before yet another overnight bus to Mandalay.
Thanks to Angelo for letting me steal all his photos for this post!