Archive: Further adventures of foreign ghosts

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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.

Farmers near Inle Lake

Hard at work tilling the orange dust around Lake Inle

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.

Lake Inle

On Lake Inle

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.

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Archive: Adventures with San Mya and the magic chef

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View from around Kalaw

The temples hot on my heels, I fled to the hills.

The first day we walk south along high mountains to Lupin. The views down into the valleys are breathtaking, and the tapestry of colours woven by the different crops – green garlic, red chillis – is quite beautiful. We poke our heads into a school with the express intention of distracting the students from all further study. The whole school is in one room, a corner for each grade. One teacher is overseeing it all as the children read and repeat from their books. To think, I get narky when the internet goes down mid-class.

We then “take a look” in the local monastery, which involves being offered giant heaps of fried sticky rice snacks and a neverending supply of tea. The monk lives here on his own, so his brother has joined him to help out and keep him company. Although he’s older, the monk is the better preserved – no kids and a life indoors will do that (er, and his faith, of course). Judging from the breadth of their grins and their reluctance to let us leave, they don’t get too many visitors.

Time to make our apologies as we head to the Danu village of Lupin for lunch. Our mysterious magic chef has somehow appeared before us and whips up a banquet – no worries that we’ll waste away here. Suitably fed and watered, we wait for the sun to fade a little before heading on to the Paoh village of Kyuksu, passing bands of Paoh people in traditional dress walking back from a festival in Inle.

Dinner in Kyuksu is by candlelight, for the chef as well as the diners. The darkness doesn’t faze our chef one bit, and we’re glad for the roaring fire – it’s cold this far up. After dinner we’re invited into a home to chat through our interpreter and drink even more tea. We’re told how beautiful we are, and how tall and how white, and introduced to each new arrival until the small room is crammed with about fifteen people all asking us questions from the candle gloom.

Once we’ve answered the same set of questions a sufficient number of times, attention switches to dressing us girls up in the traditional garb we saw earlier today, a loose black shirt and jacket over an embroidered longyi, topped with an elaborately folded dragon headscarf. I feel a bit daft, especially as I’ve jeans on underneath, but at least I don’t get the feeling we’re the twentieth tour group through that month. The local people do seem genuinely excited to host us, and judging by the volume and frequency of the giggles we’re pretty entertaining guests.

The conversation and candles eventually run out, and we fumble our way back to our quarters and sleep until first light.

From here on July 17th 2011.

Archive: Making friends in high places

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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.

View around Kalaw

Up where the air is clear

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.