Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sikh and you shall find...

A trek from Kalaw to Inle (Burma)

(click on link for whole story and accompanying instamatics!)

After the standard, tailored-for-westerners free breakfast, consisting of white toast, margarine, a jam like substance, fried egg and coffee-mix (yay!), we meet our guide Robin, responsible for taking us safely on the 2 night hike over the hills to Inle Lake.
He immediately inspires confidence and respect. His accoutrement consists of two well worn canvas sneakers, a pair of light cotton pants held up by a belt, missing a button as it were, a camel logo emblazoned shirt and a thin windbreaker. He exhudes gentleness and wisdom. His face is framed by a white beard and his head is crowned by the turban betraying his Sikh Faith. We're trekking in style! Star Trekking, couldn't ask for a better Omen!
And We're off.
We, being two Aussies, a Swiss couple, a Frenchman and an Italian...and I. The brisk pace set by Robin feels great in the crisp morning and we warm up in no time. He's no slouch!
We're also accompanied by a villager from the place we're set to sleep the first night. He kept picking up herbs and plants along the way to bring to the medicine man in his area.
It's a gentle climb as we gradually leave Kalaw behind and venture in and out of Pine forests.
Cool one minute and hot the next. We're hiking through a subtropical Rain Forest. Robin is a virtual encyclopedia and disperses information on a variety of plants we pass along the way. Their nutritional value as well as medicinal if any. We pass terraced rice fields not in use at this time of year. Many hills are stripped bare of any vegetation. This is due to the local Hill tribes methods of slash and burn agriculture which they've been doing for hundreds of years. Migrating down from Mongolia they've laid to ruins many a mountain on the way! They cut down the forest, burn then plant a crop or two and move on! So much for living in harmony with nature. Their worldview is such that the world is an unending source of natural resources for them to use up, very similar to ours I guess!
This altitude lends itself perfectly to two crops, Opium and Tea. We pass by many Tea plantations. The locals used to grow Opium here, but in this area apparently the government has encouraged the growth of tea instead. Opium is grown to the East under the control of the Wa ethnic group and their army. Off limits to us!
Burma is second only to Afghanistan in the amount of Opium production. The crops used to have to be shipped to labs in France to be processed, no longer. The stuff is nowadays processed in domestic labs near the Laos and Thai border. The Golden Triangle as it areas restricted to grubby backpackers like us.
We stop in for a little visit with the local medicine man. He lives in a simple hut decorated by calendars and posters. He's the health care provider for a number of villages around here.
His knowledge passed on from previous healers. He's also got a book of Ayuervedic medicine written in Pali which he consults in preparing his concoctions. He's thrilled with the delivery of fresh herbs our cook brings him.
He also practices Tattooing as a form of preventive medicine. With the help of protective patterns mainly against disease causing evil spirits and such...I gobble down one of his prepared anti malarial balls, gaaag! that's some vile concoction! Useless as it turns out since we're at a too high altitude for mosquitoes to live.
At some point of your treks you're bound to come across a water buffalo and its keeper. Due to our foreign diets, we emit an exotic fragrance (we stink) that the beasts can experience as a unknown threat, so better steer clear! Guess some domesticated animals are naturally prone to xenophobia?
We pass a smattering of villages and stop in one for some rest and a lunch. The food throughout was delicious as the cook comes along (actually ahead of us the whole way and prepares food)
Late afternoon and it's time to stop in a village for the night. We get to stay in the village headman's home, upstairs. Turns out most village headmen are a bit reluctant for the commission as they have to regularly report to the authorities on the goings -on in their village.
Soon the sun dips over the mountains and the temperatures spike. Time to slip on the thermals etc...barely time to get settled before we're brought a delicious vegetarian meal and some Tea, Rice and Chapati. We're of course famished after the long trek and devour the spread in no time! Sleep won't be a problem either, but just in case I break out a bottle of excellent Burmese Whiskey ( again!?) I had the forethought to pick in Kalaw the night before. I knew it would be appreciated once the sun set down and the temperatures dipped. We all slept like Babies on thin mats and under blankets supplied by the host.
In the Hills, the faint sounds of Nat Spirit music accompanies us on the path to dreamland...
Up at the break of daaaaawn, yaaawn! Woken up by our guide who's making it easier by serving us a delectable hot breakfast consisting of yummy Pumpkin soup and chapatis with Coffee mix on the side. The freezing temperature makes the thought of a bucket shower by the well not so enticing...Skip it!
Just as well as the guide likes to start early. Not a bad idea as you want to take advantage of the cool AM temps around here and make tracks before the cruel sun starts beating down, sapping all energy...
Gently rolling hills mark the second day and we're off. On the road we pass several human beasts of burden carrying heavy loads bound for the market. We tried lifting one of the loads. Ouch! it must have weighed 60 lbs! He was carrying this on a daily basis for miles! He ran with small skip like steps at a brisk pace! I'd hate to see the shape of his shoulder bone at a later age.
We pass through a series of Hill Tribe villages...consisting of Palaung, Pa-O, Kayah and Danu Hill Tribes.
We hike along the railroad tracks built by among others our guide's grandfather, through tunnels, across villages.The landscape is stunning throughout.The repressive Military Junta seems very far away at a time like this.
A second pleasantly strenuous day comes to an end as we reach the Monastery where we're slated to spend the night. And we're not the only ones! It seems there's wholesale hostelling going on here. A real little cash cow for the place. Hey I'm not complaining. It's a serene milieu to spend an evening after a hard day's hike through the hills. Still I wonder if it isn't a bit of a corrupting force, exposing the young novices to gangs of western hikers on a daily basis. Seems like half the trekking groups in Kalaw stopped at this place...And this goes on Nightly during the dry season...
No consumption of alcohol is permitted on the premises, but there is a hut within feet of the monastery's perimeters where one could buy some cold beer YAY! I guzzle down a cold one while watching workers at a brick making operation.
Again, had a wonderful meal and the night sky was amazing with the most stars I've ever seen. To top it all the night is accompanied by a spectacle of Shooting stars. Lovely opportunity to make a multitude of wishes some of which would be bound to come true...sooner or later.

Lights out at 10 ...hit the sack! crashed..zzzzz slept great until....those tasty beers are jabbing at my bladder...aaaagh! I get up and stumble around in the pitch black monastery....somehow I get completely disoriented...I can't remember where the doors are!...I hit the flashlight and am horrified as I'm stranded in a sea of crimson robes.I'm smack in the middle of the novices sleeping area....where the heck is that door! I feel my way around the wall... until I get situated. and find my way back to our sleeping area...where I re-boot my brain and set my compass to memory of the previous night....Now I remember...just slink along the right hand wall turn left and feel for the doors on the right....Success, I heave the door open and get greeted by the starry night and moon that lights my way to the designated relief area up the hill....brrrr! it's freezing...
Slept in Nirvana until...
5 AM sharp! We got woken up by the young novices working out their vocal chords! Chanting some Morning Buddhist prayers at the top of their lungs! Did the job as an alarm clock...say no more, we're awake.Excellent breakfast that our guide and not cook had to prepare, due to the cook's raging hangover! Guide asked us to refrain from giving booze to the cook as he had a little "problem" with the stuff. But boy did he make great food!
Next we were to have the "honor"" of handing over a donation to the Abbot for the Monastery. I found a little irksome since I'm sure the trekking organizers already hand over a little sum for the privilege of spending the night there...I didn't want to be a bad sport about it so went along with it and received blessings for safe travels from the abbot in the form of prayers and a string bracelet...(I'm still wearing, and it did work so...thanks!)
After that , off we went in the cool morning onto the gentle descent towards Inthein village on the shore of Inle Lake.
At this point my shins were killing me and I was ready to reach Nyaungshwe...
A nice approach to reach the lake, again with stunning scenery. We get to Inthein around mid day and it's market day. Although this particular place seems geared at half capacity towards the tourist market, there's still all the local hill tribes coming down to trade etc...Quite a pretty setting for a little town. Muddy river, lined by huge trees and a full of the usual riverside activity of bathing, laundry and playing.
We enjoy a last prepared lunch at the boat launch under the shade of trees. Yep , this place is definitely touristy, victim of its own beauty. Dozens of longtail boats are moored, unloading and loading tourists (like us!) I guess the last night at the Monastery was also a bit of a visitors glut as at least 30 -40 hikers like us spent the night there! We better get to Nyaungshwe before all the rooms are full!
We hop on a 5 seater longtail and zoom out the narrow tree lined canal. quite a sight...we hop over small dam like structures regulating the water depth, fun! after 20 minutes of this we reach the open waters of the Lake itself and it's a pleasant ride all the way to Nyaungshwe.
We're taken to the guest house where our luggage was sent to. We bid farewell to our guide and cook.
Due to the poor selection available coupled with the bad vibe I got from the proprietors I and two of my trekking companions take off through Nyaungshwe town until we find suitable accommodations where a shower is in order! Peeee Eeeeew!
Tomorrow it's lake time!

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