There are few countries in the world that are changing as rapidly as Myanmar. Ever since the military junta started the transition to quasi-democracy in 2010 the country has been transformed. Friends of ours who lived in Yangon from 2010 – 2013 reported that at that time there were no ATMs in the whole country and smartphones were something that only existed in other parts of the world. Now these are becoming just as ubiquitous as everywhere else. The other effect of Myanmar shaking off its self-imposed shackles has been a sharp increase in the number of tourists coming to the country. Myanmar is now what Cambodia was like fifteen years ago; the up and coming destination in South East Asia. Although travelling there is still a unique experience, the natural inclination is to feel like you’re a little late to the party. However, it is still possible to see the more traditional side of Myanmar. You just have to put on your hiking boots and get out into the countryside.
One of the most popular trekking destinations in the country is the town of Kalaw, on the southern edge of Shan State. There are about ten different trekking companies in town. We chose to go with Uncle Sam’s, which is the oldest and most well-established of the ten. Uncle Sam himself is now a rather old man but in 1989 it was he who pioneered the idea of trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Back then, there must have only been a few intrepid travellers. Now though it’s boom time. Several groups make the trip every day, choosing between two and three day options. We decided to go for the two day trek and were joined by two German ladies and a Canadian man. On the first morning, we were driven to the village of Larmine where we began our trek. We instantly felt like we’d been transported back in time about 100 years. The villagers were using oxen to plow the fields and their carts didn’t even have tyres on the wheels. Clearly, Apple and Samsung hadn’t made it this far yet. The other striking thing was the breathtakingly beautiful landscape. Gently undulating hills and patchwork fields proliferated as far as the eye could see. Our track crossed over a railway line. It was so overgrown and in such a state of disrepair that it couldn’t possibly be in use. Of course I was wrong. Ten minutes later a train came puffing and straining along the track at a snail’s pace. If it was racing us to Inle, then we surely would have won.
Our first stop was at a Pa O tribe village where we witnessed an old lady weaving the elaborate traditional garments which the tribes sell at markets. Later, we continued to a second village where Su, our guide, cooked us a mouth-watering lunch on just an open fire. The afternoon was a bit more challenging as the sun got higher and the terrain became rockier. The views over the Shan hills were more than adequate reward for our exertion though. Finally, we arrived at the village where we would spend the night and had some extremely welcome cold Myanmar beer. Once again, Su worked some miraculous culinary alchemy with incredibly meagre resources. By 9pm, we were all in “bed” (thin nobbly mattresses on a wooden floor). The livestock slept under the house below us. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most comfortable night’s sleep and it was a relief when Su woke us with glasses of hot ginger tea, which she had bizarrely filled with salt. She couldn’t get everything right I guess.
The morning of Day 2 was my favourite part of the trek. A cloak of mist hung low over the valley we were in and the dew was still falling. We walked across moorland which was surprisingly reminiscent of North Yorkshire and into a forest. The trail was winding its way up through the trees when, all of a sudden, the sun started to appear through the mist. It reminded me of the scene in “Lord of the Rings” when the White Wizard appears to Gimli, Aragorn and Legolas in the forest!
Soon the trail met the road and we were able to look down on the clouds which were still hanging over the valley. Pick-up trucks full of saffron clad monks roared past us. Later we would encounter them all chopping up a fallen “holy” tree for firewood. Some of them must have been as young as ten but not a single one of them was complaining about the hard physical labour. After a final refreshment stop, it was all downhill to the village of Tone Le were our trek finished. From there, we were taken by boat onto Inle Lake where we saw the floating gardens and marvelled at the famous standing rowers. If I tried that, I would most definitely end up in the water. Eventually, the boat docked at the town of Nyaungshwe where we made our way to our hotels and much needed hot showers.
Before going to Myanmar this trek had been one of the things that I had most looked forward to. So, did it live up to my expectations? Absolutely. Away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities, Myanmar is a staggeringly beautiful country. It was also a real eye-opener to see people still living without basic amenities such as running water or electric light, things that we take for granted in the developed world. Despite these handicaps though, the people seemed genuinely happy. In the next ten to twenty years this will probably all change and the and the villagers will embrace the progress of the modern world. However, I’m glad to say that I saw it now, before these traditional ways of life start to disappear forever.
I cannot recommend Uncle Sam’s highly enough. Su, our guide, spoke excellent English, was very knowledgeable and was an outstanding cook. The price of the trek depends on the number of people in the group. As there were five of us, it cost us 40,000 Kyats each. You can find the Uncle Sam’s office in Kalaw. It’s opposite the Nepalese restaurant, which is imaginatively named “Everest.”