Danu tribe beautiful ladies
I am living with rebel monks in a monastery! My bed is a mattress on the floor underneath the Buddha image, my alarm clock, synchronised chanting by 50 or so novice monks, goes off reliably at 5am.. Of course there is no internet or electricity in the bamboo forested hills of Myanmar Shan state, so I am writing this into my notebook (thanks Matt, Beccy and Toby i think of you every time :)) by candlelight on the veranda of the monastery and I am surrounded by fireflies, its so cool... I am having one of those special realisations, this is a unique experience and I will never forget it. There were certainly one or two downsides though to this crazy 60km trek i decided on at the spur of the moment..
Let me start with waking up in Kalaw
on the morning of my trek.
Danu tribe beautiful ladies
I had arranged to meet my trek guide at 8.30 am but i woke at 5am not feeling so good. CURSE OF THE BURMA BELLY typically on the day i leave for three days two nights of trekking up and down hills, through minority villages. Yikes!! Yikes, yikes yikes... If you are interested in working out the culprit just click back to my previous blog entry... those damn Indian snacks in the teashop, i remember them well. I really didn't know what to do. Kalaw wouldn't be a terrible place to stay longer til i got better but i just had a feeling that this trek was an opportunity of a lifetime. Very few people visit Myanmar and even fewer get to do the mammoth trek to the lake. My guide later told me that he had taken out only one other person in the past month and that maybe only a few hundred tourists do the full trek in a given year.
Pa-O tribe ladies
There are so many minority hilltribes around Kalaw that few of them get to see westerners. This is a unique opportunity. I MUST DO IT... So out comes the immodium for the first time in over 3 months of travel, not too bad an innings I guess, was bound to happen sooner or later. There was no way I was keeping down my breakfast so started walking on an empty stomach too... not so good. As soon as we started though WOOOOOAHHHH, with the drugs kicking in I forgot all about being ill.. There were plenty of trees around for emergencies anyway, better this than being stuck on a long distance bus or something..
I am finding it hard to find the words to describe how inspiring the scenery was on this trek. We were generally trekking downhill but there were also some significant uphill moments, scrambling up rice paddies and through fields upon fields of agricultural farmland.
The kind of things growing and the scenery itself seemed to change dramatically every few miles or so. Where we started in the cooler highlands I was surprised to see crops similar to back home, cabbages, potatoes and tomatoes found dotted around the endless fields of rice. Everything was so vivid, so green, so fresh. To feel truly alive. Trekking in Myanmar is unbelievable good value. Having now been to Northern Thailand where trekking is very popular I realise exactly how incredible this was. 10 US dollars per day, my own guide, just me, food included (cooked by my guide), overnight accommodation one night in a village one night in a monastery included too.. Also included was the boat to pick us up at the end of the trek to take us across to the nearest village.
Awesome huh?? Oh and it cost me 2 US extra to have my bag transported to Inle lake so i didn't have to carry it.
Luckily my guide, Thet, could speak good English as well as the language of some of the tribal groups we were to meet. He was also a very funny man. 'You go ahead as i would like to make a small waterfall' meant he was going for a piss behind a bush!! I wondered what he meant at first, thought it was some kind of party trick hehe.. He was a sweet guy and I learnt a lot about Burmese way of life through him and he also asked me a lot about what was happening in the world! We met several different ethnic groups on the trek all with distinct lifestyles, clothing and language. In the distance we could see a group of ladies in the field preparing the land for crops.
The men in the village weaving baskets while the women out working the fields
They screeched out to us, couldn't work out what they were saying but they sounded pleased to see us! These very giggly and very very beautiful ladies were from the Danu hilltribe. We got closer to them and i asked my guide if i could take a picture. He had already warned me that for some of these people taking their photo can offend them. They believe that taking a photo takes part of their spirit. I got the nod from him and the girls so it was OK here. They giggled a lot seeing themselves on my camera and i agreed i would print the photos off when i got to Thailand and send it to them via Thet. Just wonderful.. A mile or so after this we came to their village where there were actually not many people around. As it is the start of wet season, most are out preparing the land.
Thet cooking dinner
All the ladies actually. Some of the men were in the village weaving baskets from bamboo!! Bit of a role reversal there from where i am from but this is how things are done here. The ladies work the fields and bring up the children, the men collect bamboo and weave baskets, mats, hats, and make their houses from it. Bamboo is very important for these hilltribes. The further we got into the trek the more dense the bamboo forests became. The people would transport huge bamboo canes on ox-drawn carts.
The next couple of villages belonged to the Pa-O tribe. The people of this group can be distinguished by their bright red turbans and colourful clothes. We saw many Pa-O ladies in the fields, their tubans contrasting sharply with the vivid green of the fields.
Village chief, our host
The final village of the day was a Danu village where we were guests for the night in a cute bamboo house on stilts with 'interesting' bathroom facilities (see pic). I helped my guide cook dinner on an open fire in the backroom kitchen area of the house, a wonderful Burmese soup with noodle dish with spicy sausage, vegetables, and egg washed down with green tea. I was actually feeling quite hungry so managed to eat some of it. Maybe I am OK now? We picked some fresh mangoes off a tree to eat, yum yum! No electricity and very tired so pretty much as soon as it got dark I went to bed. More magic the next day although was struggling with energy levels and it was getting hotter the further down we went. The scenery was changing again, more limestone karsts, more tropical vegetation, bigger bamboo, HUGE bamboo.
We were greeted with excited squeals where ever we went, and we always tried to go over and talk to the people. Mostly they were from the Danu and Pa-O tribes but also we were seeing more and more of the Intha ethnic group. This tribe are famous for their unique rowing technique on inla lake, where they use their legs! We saw this in action when we finally reached the lake at the end of the trek.
Whenever we walked past a school we had to brace ourselves as sod the lesson eh lets go outside and mob the visitor. Big smiley smiley cheeky faces would greet us, vibrant laughter and warm welcomes. Every time we came to a village I would forget all over again the achy belly, the headache that was starting and the increasingly tired legs. I was so happy when we finally got to the monastery and greeted by some of the novice monks there.
Pa-O lady with child
I have forgotten to mention that somewhere along the line actually the two of us became three. On the first afternoon we were in the middle of no where, i think Thet was making a small waterfall at the time, when a cute dog came bounding over to us. Where in the hell has this fella come from? Thet told me that sometimes this dog, or another one, joins him on the treks and follows him all the way to Inle. I didn't believe him at the time but it was true. Bob the dog, as i called him was faithfully by our side the whole trek. He knew the route well too, often running ahead and waiting for us in the shade or trees where he knew we would stop for a break. I thought we lost him the first night but no he slept overnight somewhere in the Danu village too and was waiting for us in the morning.
Novice monk, was so pleased to get to the monastery
He was still with us at the monastery. I got quite attached to him.
So we stayed the night with rebel monks, what an experience. I say rebel as it is actually illegal for oversea visitors to stay in monasteries, in the villages too come to that. Doesn't surprise me, everything seems to be done under the radar in this country. Tourists are supposed to stay only in licensed accommodation where they can track you. I also saw the monks drinking rice wine and smoking!!! When i asked Thet he briskly changed the subject. Right, well i was VERY DESPERATE for a shower, so much so that I didn't care what state the 'facilities' were in as long as there is some water to wash in. I was directed to a concrete walled area with a pipe leading into a well. Oh gawd I have to pump the water from the well into this tub but the tub is FULL of algae and goodness knows what, here we go.
... The pump did not blimmin work, water trickled out, desperate desperate when there was about 2 inches of water i decided that would have to do. Attempted but failed to cover the completely open side of the bath area with my towel, didn't want to offend the monks, but anyone walking past could see everything. When i got in and stripped off i also realised that anyone visiting the toilet, that were so disgusting they were kept up a little hill by the side of the monastery, they could see everything anyway. Well, this is not my problem, these are the facilities here and i'm desperate. Lost count of the number of monks that would have had a clear view shot!! But I felt better after. While i was taking a 'shower' Thet had prepared the most incredible meal for me and set up a table for us to dine in a little side room, tablecloth, candle and everything.
Dinner in the monastery
He had bought the stuff from a nearby village, traditional Burmese food cooked again on an open fire. Monks do not eat after midday so it was just us eating. Unfortunately, i wasn't feeling too well again. This amazing meal had been cooked for me and the table set so nicely and i could only manage to have a taster of everything. I felt really bad. I desperately wanted to have an appetite and really needed the fuel in my body too. I was starting to worry.
No electricity just candlelight and a headtorch so it was DARK. Something very very bright landed on my skirt though, it was beautiful. It was a firefly! This was joined by many fireflies, it was so beautiful and I was glad we were in the dark. The chief monk had prepared my bed for me, in the actual monastery where all the monks sleep, behind a bamboo screen.
The monk that made me cry
I could see the Buddha shrine above the screen. I must say the monastery had a very eerie feel to it, pitch black apart from the fireflies, the golden Buddha just about visible from the gleam from the moon, just the sound of the rather annoying clock ticking on the wall. I hardly slept. Didn't feel so good and was in a very very strange place with that damn clock. Went for a trek with headtorch to the toilet and Bob the dog was sleeping there!! At first he growled at me but when he realised it was me went all soppy. He had become quite protective of us during the trek, even trying to see off some of the huge farm animals. Not a chance mate, give up now! My headache was getting worse, think i managed only 1 hour sleep. Not so good when you still have another 20 or so kilometres to cover on the hottest part of the trek.
Pa-O school children
5am I heard some whispers, then footsteps, then the monks started their early morning chanting and meditating. It was actually quite beautiful, went on for about 20 minutes or so, a synchronised melody obviously been practised a few times. What an experience eh? Thet came over to me around 6am to tell me he had prepared my breakfast, fried bananas and sticky rice with an egg. I wasn't feeling so good. Thet felt my forehead and suspected i had a fever. I did manage some of the brekkie and it helped those bananas were so delicious.
I was just thinking, am i going to be sick? when i was ushered over by the chief abbott monk, an older guy than the others with tattoos. He sat me down and spoke to me, translated through Thet as he didn't speak a word of English.
The Pa-O ladies I traded with, a bamboo sun hat for the pencils :)
He gave me a blessing, wishing me luck and prosperity and tied an amulet round my wrist that was made by one of the novices, all the time blessing me. As long as i wear the amulet i will be protected from evil. What he said to me next actually made me cry, i was not expecting this. He fetched a globe and got me to point out where i am from and which countries i had been on my travels. He then said, through my translator, while pointing at Myanmar and England. 'Our countries are so far apart, we do not get many visitors and for this i am so grateful that you have come as we would have never had the opportunity to meet. You are welcome any time to my monastery, my home and i can teach you more about buddism and Myanmar life. You are special, you travel the world, you choose to come here, i thank you.
Thet leading the way, looking for somewhere to 'make a small waterfall'
I wish you health, love and happiness.' Tears were flowing down my cheeks by now, unexpected. This country is softening me up right? I then spotted his half empty rice wine on the table near us and had to suppress my giggles!!
Bob was there by the monastery gates waiting for us with this look on his face 'where have you been?' This last final day down to the lake was TOUGH. We were at lower altitude and it was HOT. We were also moving away from the shade of the bamboo forests and more out in the open, exposed to the sun. At the next Pa-O village Thet asked the people if they could sell me a hat to shield the sun. After several offers from people to give us the hat from their own heads we found a lady who had made a few hats from bamboo. Thet asked how much, then i got emotional again when the reply was that they wanted to give me the hat as a gift.
They wouldn't accept my money. Turns out this lady was a school teacher though and i still had a pile of pencils in my bag, fair trade i thought. I so enjoyed interacting with the tribes here, was so refreshing that they have not been spoiled by tourism. Finally we spotted the lake in the distant, our final destination yay couldn't believe i made it after how poorly i was feeling. SIXTY KILOMETRES IN TOTAL, with little food and little sleep but memories to last a lifetime. I was ecstatic to arrive in the final village, quite a developed one for intha tribal people, where we had a tasty noodle soup, Bob too, and picked up by a boat. Said a sad goodbye to Bob, he had been faithful and good company. He looked at us with sad eyes as we got on the boat.
The moment we got on that boat to take us right across Inle lake to the village of Nyaungshwe
the experience completely changed.
Inle lake has been RUINED by tourism. Compared to the unique experience on the trek this was all rather depressing. Inle lake is pretty large, about 13 miles long, and surrounded by houses on stilts that are inhabited mostly by ethnic minority groups. The lake itself is pretty enough, many fishermen, interesting locals zipping around on boats, and the leg rowing thing was quite amusing. The boat driver insisted on dropping off at a couple of the stilted villages, on a commission i am sure. The first one was a silver smith where we were offered Chinese tea, which i drank, and shown jewellery, which i declined! Hehe take the tea and run. The next place was even worse. I think most people have heard of the long neck Paduang tribe, a subgroup of the tribe named after me, the Karen tribe, many of which are busily fighting with the Burmese government for independence.
Paduang long neck lady
Some of the ladies in this group have brass neck rings that are fitted when they are young so as they grow their collar bone is pushed down to give the impression of a long neck. This is considered to be aesthetically pleasing but is a tradition that is dying out as it is not particularly healthy. Well here, these ladies are put in shop windows to attract tourists, like some kind of freak show. They were all around me asking if i wanted to take their photo. I mostly declined but took just one so i could put into this blog. Managed to get away from this horrible place and was dropped off in Nyaungshwe town for an overnight stay and recovery. Sad goodbye to Thet and promised to send him the photos so he could distribute to the tribes.
Nyaungshwe was nice enough and for the first time in Myanmar there were other travellers.
Weird foot rowing thing by an Intha tribe man
I must admit it was nice to sit down and chat with some people over a fruit shake after what i had been through. Still feeling sick though, still had a fever, think i was dehydrated, getting worried. Well, nevermind only a 15 hour overnight bus back to Yangon
the next day.. Wow just seen how long this entry is, apologies....