Another morning feast, and we’re off. San Mya is a great guide, acting as our tireless interpreter and also boasting an encyclopaedic knowledge of the various trees and herbs and what they can be used for. My absolute favourite is the spiny cactus – break off the spine, dry the fibrous strands attached to it, and hey presto! Instant sewing kit. At one point she confides in us that as a child, she thought foreigners carried backpacks to steal away children in. She’s come a long way.
We stop again in a monastery, this one quite a different proposition with three “young” monks and three “old”, and fifty-five young novices. Again the tea and snacks come out for the visiting dignitaries.
As in the previous day’s school stop, the children are leaning over texts and reading them aloud, though – also like yesterday – a good deal of the attention is wandering over to the tourists and their tableful of treats. Sat at the back all alone is a small crimson-clad boy. He’s new and can’t read yet, we’re told. The teacher in me wonders why they don’t pair him up with another boy who can read – he’d probably be reading before you know it, and he certainly wouldn’t feel so left out.
Saved by the lunch bell, the novices dash off for what will be their last meal of the day, and we head for the village where we will stop for lunch. Our short monastery stop having turned into a long one, we’re out in the noonday sun, and the heat makes it quite a slog. Just as I’m about to give up and plop to my knees in the dust, we arrive at the Danu village of Kone La. The owners are treated to the sight of a bunch of zonked foreigners crashed out on their floor waiting for a feed.
Dinner is at a monastery in Park Tupork, a Taungtu village. Here we catch our first glimpse of other tourists, a whole two of them. Dinner is set up to be another romantic candlelight affair when CLUNK, a generator whirs into action and we’re surrounded by neon-lit Buddhas and fairy lights. We make room around our little table and chat with our guides until the cold sets in and we scamper off to bed.
The next morning we’re up early and drawing a small crowd of open-mouthed children as we slap on sunblock. It’s strange that this should be so surprising, as the vast majority of Burmese women and children on any given street will be wearing thick beige thanaka paste to ward off the evil effects of the sun. Could be the secret of our ghostly whiteness?
It’s a dawdly kind of morning with lots of food stops, including one where our magic chef gets embroiled in a lively game of under the noonday sun – so lively, in fact, that on arrival at our boat he promptly collapses in a heap in the prow and snoozes all the way to Inle. We’re also joined by a large and unhappy-looking group who appear to be trekking with the Golden Lily crew. Lucky escape.
Heading down to the lake shore, the scenery changes dramatically. The rust-coloured chilli fields are replaced with carefully-maintained irrigation channels bridged with sometimes treacherous bamboo planks. Before we know it, we arrive at our boat. The trek’s almost over.
Inle Lake is enormous. Breathtakingly huge. It’s hard to tell where lake ends and land begins – floating greenery or solid ground? In the distance are hazy silhouettes of fishermen, steering with their feet, a method that looks more likely to pitch them into the water than take any fish out of it.
Through a combination of laziness and miscalculation, this was all I saw of Inle Lake. I spent the next day lazing around with my trek buddies, and only realised on booking a bus on to Yangon that I’d lost a day. In any case, a lovely place to do nothing in.
From here on July 31st 2011.