Our two day nature trek from Kalaw to Inle lake in Myanmar’s Shan State in early April was nothing short of fabulous. Physical, scenic, cultural and informative with genuine exchanges with local people in a non-touristy, non-commercial context. Our time spent here exceeded our wildest dreams and expectations. When we paid what felt like pennies (i.e. $35 including food and a private guide) for a two-day ‘private’ trek’, we simply expected to be shown how to get to Inle Lake through the villages, across the fields and up and down valleys. We mainly wanted to exercise a bit, enjoy the scenery and take advantage of the ‘trekking HQ’ that was said to exist in Kalaw.
But I suppose one of our best (and luckiest) decisions was to hire a private guide, as this was the only way we could have met Maosam (pictured above). Maosam is certainly not your average guide. One of the first things about himself that he shared with us was that he survived a king cobra bite. He then went on to show us the scar (about 3 inches in diameter) that he still carried with him on his calf. ‘Opium saved my life,’ he said, ‘my uncle – a medicine man – rubbed it on my leg and then I couldn’t die’.
Maosam isn’t ethnically Burmese – he’s ‘Pao’. He also speaks a total of 5 tribal languages around the area, and can easily integrate within any neighbouring village of the Shan State. Maosam enabled us to meet and exchange with locals we otherwise couldn’t engage with, and Maosam was so knowledgeable about the villages, their traditions, their crops, their languages – that we had the opportunity to listen to a running narrative on most of what we saw.
‘These old women are married,’ Maosam says. ‘And they’re Pao’. Pao women wear scarves on their head, woven around their hair in a certain way to communicate to other men that they are married. The head-dress is the equivalent of the Western wedding ring: it symbolises union.
We encountered countless buffalo – a prized and valuable rural Burmese possession. Some were standing around with flies buzzing around their eyes and landing in their nostrils. Others were eating hay. Some were licking their baby buffaloes. Some kept playing children company in the fields.
By sheer circumstance, Nico and I brought about a dozen new toothbrushes from Bangkok into Burma. We weren’t 100% sure how ‘developed’ the places we’d visit would be, or what situations we might get into, so we brought toothbrushes as potential ‘gifts’. During our 2 day trek, they were instrumental in our exchange with locals. Without even being aware of their power, each toothbrush that we donated, resulted in an invitation to a local’s village hut for tea: a token of ‘thanks’.
Maosam also had a few friends that he knew along the way; one of which invited us into his hut for freshly BBQ’d peanuts and home-made rice wine. During our stay there, the village’s children found out that ‘white people’ were in the village, and they came and joined us. They had never seen a camera before, and were therefore, very amused. They requested to take photo upon photo upon photo just for fun. It was a magical experience to share a whole village’s ‘first-time’ with a camera. It really puts what you have into perspective, and makes you realise how genuinely lucky you are to be born into whatever you’ve been born into.
Note how young these children look, and note their head-dresses. They were overwhelmingly mature for their age, ranging from between 6 – 10. As far as Maosam revealed, none of these girls are actually married. They’re only wearing their head-dresses to appear taken; as a way of preventing someone from approaching them.
It was quite fascinating to see, actually. Whereas girls in urban areas would fix their hair before taking a photo, these girls insisted on removing their head-dresses and putting them back on for each photo. I was joking with them about this and fixing my hair and posing for photos too. One of the children then removed her head-dress and fitted hers on me, instead. (Thus, the picture with me as both ‘taken’ and ‘married’ further below).
Unfortunately, the girl who removed her head-dress for me refused to join us for the photograph. It was quite interesting, actually; her reaction. It was almost as if she felt naked and ashamed without it. Despite requesting to pose for photo upon photo, without her head-dress, she just wouldn’t join in. Wonderful little nothings. 🙂
This lovely newly-married couple took upon the responsibility of housing us for the night in their window-less bamboo hut (they are planning on cutting holes into the bamboo, but don’t have enough money yet). We slept on the bamboo floor, and were given blankets. I rolled a jumper up to serve as a pillow, and fell asleep listening to their buffalo breathing just below the floor.
Apart from crossing paths and exchanging tid-bits with locals over a few cups of herbal tea, we walked. We walked and walked and walked. There were no formal paths… no signs… no indications of whether we were going the right way. We were 100% reliant on Maosam and his sense of direction to get us somewhere.
We crossed many people who were curious and wanted to talk to us… many little girls who wanted to pose for photographs and play with us… local men who wanted to drink and smoke with us … little boys who were so baffled by us they stayed in their tree and didn’t move an inch as we said ‘hello’ and tried to interact (see picture below).
In one of our final rest stops before the end of our trek at Inle Lake, one little boy even stalked us. He kept his distance from us as we sat on the grass, standing about 100m away, but simply wouldn’t stop staring. He looked as though he had been rolling down hills the whole day, as his clothes were covered in dirt. When our break was over, I called out to the little boy and said ‘good-bye’. As we walked away, I asked Maosam: ‘why was that little boy standing there staring for so long?’ Maosam replied: ‘He wants your empty water bottle so he can fill it up with water from the river to bring home to his family. Empty water bottles cost 100 kyatt at the market, which is really expensive for many village families.’
In astonishment, I exclaimed to Maosam: ‘Why didn’t you tell me!?’ I then turned and walked towards the little boy to give him our two empty water bottles.
Our 2 day trek in the sticks of Myanmar was probably one of the best experiences I had in my 8 months of travelling. Nonetheless, after walking…and walking…and walking… and walking… by day 2, with quite a number of blisters on my poor feet, I was relieved when we arrived for lunch at Inle Lake… where we would finally take a little long-tail boat to enjoy the scenery over water (see below).
- Burmese diaries: 445 Miles to Mandalay (thirdkulturekidparis.wordpress.com)
- Pyin U Lwin: An escape to a former British colonial hillstation (thirdkulturekidparis.wordpress.com)
- Bagan: An ancient city of ten thousand temples (thirdkulturekidparis.wordpress.com)