There’s no dressing up 3:30 as a sensible time to catch a bus. I stumble blearily to my seat and collapse straight into a snoring mouth-open dribbly kind of sleep until the bus stops for coffee. I utter my first bleary words to my neighbour, who turns out to be lovely. He doesn’t even laugh too uproariously when the first thing I do upon re-embarking is drop the cap of a full 1 litre bottle of water out of reach among the stools and bags and feet. Still, could be worse. I could be the impossibly tall guy with his spiderlegs up around his ears who eventually succeeds in persuading the driver to let him ride on the roof.
On arrival in Kalaw, we don’t have far to look to find the Singhs of the Golden Lily Guesthouse, who have somehow wangled themselves a good three pages of the Lonely Planet, as they’re waiting by the bus stop. Their guesthouse is fine – nothing to write home about, but not outstandingly uncomfortable for $5 a night. The problem is more the trekking sales onslaught from the moment we set foot through the door, and the speed with which the smiles disappear when we refuse to sign our names in blood. It’s pretty daggers drawn – when we start to back out, they switch to badmouthing the competition, bringing out an array of laminated complaints and official notices. Clearly used to being the only game in town, these tactics, combined with the sheer unfriendliness of the staff, only succeed in driving people away.
That evening a small insurgent group conduct a little research involving whiskey and some locals. Falling into a neat group, we sign up with Sam’s Trekking Guide, who distinguish themselves by offering a choice of routes to Inle Lake, capping the maximum number at four, and showing at least some concern over my masochistic desire to climb hill and dale for three days in a pair of beaten-up Birkenstock sandals. Reassured that my hobbit feet will withstand the abuse, they agree to let us meet our guide later that evening.
After some more concerted sleeping, we troop back at 6 to find a fifth wannabe member of the group, who’s been told to “ask our permission” to join, which is nice. At least they don’t just spring people on you. We also meet our guide, San Mya, from the Paoh tribe. Warm, giggly, and 19 years old, she divides her time between trekking, university, and cooking for a school. She’s just back from a 3-day trek to discover that she’s leaving on another in the morning.
We reconvene at 8:30 the next morning after another risible breakfast at the Golden Lily (another coffee? Another 100 kyat! And all the while the family eat from a table groaning with chappatis). We’re 8 in all – the five of us, San Mya, a second (quite painfully shy) guide, and our chef, who will flit mysteriously in and out of sight but somehow always be in the kitchen when needed.
And so began what was to be the absolute high point of my trip.
From here on June 23rd 2011.