John leads the way on day 1
People i met here who contributed to, and improved my trip: Julia (Russia), John (Myanmar), Ko Myaung Nyo, Macho, Chinayea and Khin Zin Chew (Myanmar)
A choice between a rickety 3 hour bus ride or a 60km walk wasn't really much of a dilemma and we signed up for the trekking with little doubt that we were taking the seriously easier option! Our guide John was of Indian decent and multi-lingual, having pretty much mastered Urdu, Burmese, English and some of the tribal dialects too. He would prove a valuable source of information during our trek and someone i would come to like greatly. Thus it will be a shame how our story ends - but more of that later.
Our journey began at 8.30am on Thursday morning, with John collecting us from our Hotel and leading us up into the surrounding mountains and past the local Mosque, Pagodas, Baptist Church and Christian cemetery.
Jaw dropping views from Viewpoint
John informed us that contrary to popular belief, Myanmar has a wide diversity of religions and Buddhism is probably only followed by around 70% of the population. Currently flourishing in the Kalaw area are Baptists, Methodists, Hindus, Buddhists, Jehovahs Witnesses, Muslims and Johns choice of Catholicism. This came as rather a big surprise to me, as i had believed that 95% of people in Myanmar were Buddhists - after all, its probably the country with the most religious Temples and largest amount of monks that i've ever come across. First lesson learned!
Leaving behind Kalaw and its 150,000 residents - it didn't seem that big to me, but i trust Johns figure - we slowly worked our way up the first climb of the day and were greeted at the top by 3 pretty little children who all wanted to give Julia a flower.
Poppies growing at Viewpoint
It was a lovely start to the day and began to remind me of our wonderful trekking experience that we had in Hsipaw. Talk soon turned to politics, as it so often does in this country, after all its about the biggest issue on anyones lips when the word Myanmar is mentioned. After the media hype had died down over the September government massacres, supposedly marshall law was enforced within Yangon and some other areas of the country and plenty of people thought to have participated in the riots were hunted down and killed. Stories of bodies popping up in streams and ditches were numerous and all hospitals were ordered to do strict questioning as to where any injuries had occured, and any people thought to have been caught up in the bother were to be refused treatment.
Killer ant takes home a small tarrantula!
Those with gun shot wounds would be ensured of a slow and painful end.
Anyone that truly believes in the military governments current jargon that 'When the army is strong, the country is strong' must be crackers, as with the current regime, nothing has come to this country but poverty, misery and often death. Whenever the focus of the Western media has been diverted to other issues around the World, seemingly the junta proceeds to make the Burmese peoples life a living misery. Only recently the junta banned all Westerners from entering the country, in an attempt to cover up the atroscities taking place, but now they are letting us back in, they supposedly are keeping a very close eye on the movement of all Americans and Brits in particular and this news comes as a great reasssurance to me - not!
The scenery that we were passing through during our conversation was very nice and the first important section of the trip that we reached was the local resevoir, built by the British to supply 5,000 people.
2 Palaung kids at Hin Khar Gone
Only last year the dam wall had collapsed, but thankfully no-one was injured and it is now back in working order. John informed us that 2 more resevoirs had been built, but the water in these was sub standard and between the 3, they were only meant to supply 15,000 people. My maths says that Kalaw has a serious shortage of water, a staggering 10 times less than what it requires to be exact!
Our next destination was another hour or so away and would offer breathtaking vistas, the name was aptly chosen - Nepali Viewpoint Restaurant. Mota the owner probably has just about the best views from his front window that any home owner could dream of, i think my pictures prove that! To keep the wolfs from the door the family run an organic farm and produce their fare share of Pumpkins, Potatoes, Bananas, Green Papaya, English Tomatoes, Corn, Sweet Peas and Oranges, whilst having 30 cows to provide dairy products, which are supplemented by a large number of chickens pecking their way around.
3 local men walking towards Minedike station
Although he has no electricity up there, he had happily spent the last 21 years coping without and even offered tourists the opportunity to stay with him for free, as long as they bought their meals there. Not a bad deal! His wife rustled up some delicious chapatis with pumpkin and potato curry and i believe we ate our way to 3rds before we eventually had to politely decline!
Having let our stomachs settle, whilst enjoying the sumptuous views, it was eventually time to drag our backsides off our seats and continue with the trekking. The sun was shining, but it was still a little chilly due to the altitude, so it was a good idea to keep moving anyway. The path led us through our first tribal village of the day called Hin Khar Gone, which was a Palaung Tribe that consisted of 250 houses and around 1000 people in the surrounding areas.
Village woman walking down the train tracks... where's River Phoenix!
They made their livelihood by growing Tea leaves, Orange and Ginger and the houses were perched on the top of the mountain ridge, making for a really great location.
Our converstaion soon changed to village life and in particular how they chose their spouses. I wasn't overly surprised to hear that the Palaung usually arrange their marriages and it is to do with social standing and wealth rather than love as to who will marry who. In neighbouring Pinepin there would be 10 couples marrying the following week and the youngest groom was 15 years old. Even with an average age of only 60, this still seems like a pretty young age to be getting forced into marriage, but John assures me that there is little else to keep youngsters accupied on a night time!
Our walk continued for several hours more and the terrain was pretty steady and conducive to walking at a fairly reasonable pace.
Flower seller at Minedike station
Eventually we came to the railway line and followed this to a small station called Minedike. It felt like i was River Phoenix in Stand By Me and i just kept wanting to whistle the theme tune! The station was awash with activity when we arrived as a train was due any moment, so all the women had gathered with their goods by the side of the track. The train slowly chugged into view on the horizon and after finally coming to a standstill, the women were up at the windows selling anything from flowers to biscuits and fruit. It was like watching a market place on speed, as money and produce changed hands at a frantic rate, with all parties trying to conclude their business before the train blasted its horn to signal that it was time to move on.
A further 45 minutes on and we eventully reached a Danu tribe village of 17 houses, where we would be spending the night.
Train pulling into Minedike station
The sun was beginning to set as the buffalos were tucking into their Dinner and we were greeted by the curious family members. The mischievous little son Chinayea had his slingshot in hand, Dennis the Menace style, whilst daughter Khin Zin Thew looked very pretty having just returned from concert at her school. Phole Lone the cat ws scampering around the yard, trying to avoid Chinayea's clutches whilst Mum Macho and Dad Ko Myaung Nyo both had a smile to greet us. We were shown where the outside toilet was and somewhere that we could take a quick wash. I was actually quite surprised on the trek that there were no small wooden enclosures to shower in, like you find in most hill tribe villages within Asia. John just said that the women have to learn to hold their longyi up with one hand and try and wash around with the other.
Baby buffalo and parent munching on their dinner
They really should just build a small shower block like their toilets, life would be so much simpler!
The cheery old grandma brought in some Chinese tea to keep us warm whilst waiting for John to cook Dinner and the temperature had plummeted since the sun had set and i was pleased for the warm clothes that i had packed. John is not only a very good guide, but also a very good cook and brought out a huge table full of food. This included Chinese Cabbage, Fish, Lentil Soup, Rice and Marrow and we ate until our bellies couldn't take any more!
Dinner was followed with a game of Ludo and this caught the childrens attention immediately. With sign language and a little help from John, Chinayea soon picked up the grasp of it, but Khin Zin Thew was too shy to play.
Sunset with the buffalos
Macho came in to watch us playing and we spent a really fun hour messing around before it was time for the kids to go to bed. Khin Zin Thew who was 9 had school the following day whilst 12 year old Chinyea had already given up school and was helping his Mum and Dad in the fields full time. Julia and I went to join the adults for the rest of the evening and Ko Myaung Nyo started setting us puzzles and showing us different card tricks, which was really nice. In return i got my sudoku book out and tried to teach them how to play. They understood but it took them a while to get going as they had never seen anything like it before! I ended up leaving a wad of the puzzles, which i'm sure will keep then entertained on evenings for some time to come.
Julia and I retired to the room where we would sleep and snuggled up in bed with all our clothes on.
Does she ever stop eating :)
When i say bed i mean a mat on a wood floor with a blanket to cover us :) The only problem to having drunk so much Chinese Tea was that it had to come out again, but with the toilet so far up the path it seemed such a hassle to get there. It was therefore a mixed night of sleep, waking up on many occassions with the dilemma of 'to go, or to hold it'!?