The highlight of the trip was our trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. After two days of riding a train that chugged across dry plains and up jungle-covered mountains, we reached the town of Kalaw, a small mountain retreat, where we met our guide Zani. According to Zani, whose English was pretty good, it would take three four-hour days of trekking to reach the lake, a famed oasis in central Burma. Perfect. However, we had a hotel reservation in Inle Lake two days later that we didn’t want to miss, and since our train had been delayed (slash we heard that the train was either two hours, four hours, five hours, or seven hours, depending on who we asked), we needed to make up some time. Ever-resourceful Zani managed to round up a battalion of seven motorcycles and drivers within an hour. Brian, Chuck, Mark, and I clambered on the back of the motorcycles, left our bulging backpacks in the hands of the passenger-less riders, and donned helmets that looked like WWII reproductions. Hanging onto our bikes and/or drivers, we rode through the Shan Hills as they glowed in the last hours of daylight, and we spent our first night in the home of the village chief (who gave no indication of his status).
The next day, we began our trek in earnest. Starting out at 8am, we headed out with our porters in the lead. (We had read in the Lonely Planet that you can get your luggage driven to each stop on your trek. However, Zani was apparently not aware of this option. Rather he hired a few guys to carry our backpacks during the three day trek, which became more humbling and impressive with every step….they were wearing flip-flops.) We walked through the most thriving pastoral landscape I have ever encountered. In America, the vastness of farmland gives it an anonymous quality, as though the fields had spontaneously been sown without the intervention of a human hand. But the agriculture of the Shan Hills is almost intimate. Families and communities tend by hand their plots of land, each parcel small enough to see its boundaries. We didn’t witness a single piece of machinery in use, but rather bullocks pulling tills through the soil and men and women bent over with their hands in the soil. These were pastoral scenes out of a painting, though peaceful images that belied a life of hard work.
As the day heated up, we crossed the four hour mark. This was not flat terrain. We were walking up and down hills in our hiking boots. Meanwhile, our guides ahead of us kept up a good clip, while they carried our forty pound backpacks…and walked in flip-flops. We finally arrived at our destination after eight hours on the trail. The next day, the estimate was another two hours of walking to Inle Lake….we made it there in five. (This severe underestimation is apparently a regular occurrence and cultural trait in Burma.)
Our trek took us through many villages of the Pa-O people, where they welcomed us with smiles, tea, and bowls of peanuts. In one village, an older woman sat weaving on a backstrap loom, and in another a man wove baskets from bamboo. People live in beautiful two story homes, built from bamboo, wood, palm, and other natural materials. They eat rice pounded in their own kitchens. They cook in pots sitting on flames. They keep cows and chickens in their backyards. In the villages, there was no electricity, and only candles lit up the rooms where we listened to our trekking guides talk into the night while we fell asleep exhausted on our floor mats.