Myanmar- Many a traveler has set off to explore lands “off the beaten track.” Although a wonderful concept in theory, finding those lands in this increasingly globalized world is difficult, and becoming increasingly so. Last Christmas, two good friends, my girlfriend and I aspired to truly find out what it means to get off the grid and experience people and culture that have not been tarnished by tourism. To do this, we explored far into the Burmese countryside.
After drinking a few too many beers for a long-distance bus trip, we boarded an overnighter from Yangon to Kalaw. I had heard that the temperature would be cooler in “Myanmar’s Himalaya,” but didn’t fully appreciate it until jokingly being asked by a German traveler if I was enjoying “the fridge.” I groggily stepped off the bus into an air temperature that would be described as frigid on the best of days. This was supposed to be Southeast Asia. Little did I realize that this would be the first of many surprises to come.
At around 4 a.m., our rickety bus finally mustered enough horsepower to make the final climb into Kalaw, and we stepped off the bus to meet a shivering man named So-So, our guide for the trek we were about to undertake. At barely 5 feet in stature and weighing 100 pounds on a generous day, I felt slightly apprehensive about his ability to navigate for us on the days to come.
After warming up with a few cups of instant coffee and a lukewarm shower, we set out around 9 a.m. I had asked So-So about the difficulty of the trek. He responded with a shrug and a “not too bad,” exhibiting the nonchalance that would come to define him over the next few days. I loaded my bag with gear, planning to be prepared for any photographic opportunity that might arise. Unfortunately, I didn’t take weight issues into consideration, a mistake that would come back to haunt me as time went on.
Following our departure from Kalaw, the landscape changed as quickly as the temperature. As the sun rose higher in the sky, we found ourselves immersed in cascading hills blanketed with dense pine forests, almost reminiscent of hiking back in Canada. After a few hours of this terrain, the hills opened up into expansive farmland, the rice paddies s laced with irrigation rivers the color of burnt terra cotta, dry and cracked from the season’s droughts. Our feet danced around mountains of cow patties as though they were land mines, until we finally arrived at the home of an elderly farmer who graciously allowed our guides to cook our lunch at his home. As we sampled locally grown produce including cabbage, mustard greens and cauliflower, the farmer sat under the shade of his favorite tree, quietly lost in his daydreams as he smoked his cigar. I couldn’t help but muse about what he might have been thinking, this man whose life was worlds apart from mine. He seemed genuinely at peace.
In the afternoon we found ourselves once again slogging through the mountains, this time almost continuously uphill. All four of us were in decent shape and no one was outwardly complaining, but after a few hours I was beginning to consider my packing strategy’s long-term ramifications for my legs. We released a collective sigh of relief as we crested the last hill and first set our eyes upon the small farming village of Aung Pan. As soon as our packs were off our backs, Kyuak Ione, the resident spokesman of sorts, welcomed us warmly.
Kyuak had graciously extended the hospitality of his family’s home for the night before any of us had even been introduced. I was instantly struck by the vitality, enthusiasm and wisdom that clearly lay behind his 69-year-old eyes. It was awe-inspiring that this man, born and raised in a tiny village that was barely a speck on a map, spoke decent English, completely self-taught from a simple battery-operated, handheld radio. It only went to further emphasize what I have witnessed firsthand on countless occasions: Ignorance is a choice.
Kyuak showed us around, taking the time to explain the incredible array of crops grown locally, including every imaginable variety of vegetable, and introducing us to many of his friends, most of whom had spent all of their lives in the village. We were invited to the home of a man he had known for 67 years where we were treated like long-lost family members, consuming delicious nuts and dried tea while smoking Burmese cigars. I was in complete awe of the sense of community, sharing and friendliness that everyone in the village displayed, something I saw as a true testament to the beauty of humanity. That night we gorged on a sumptuous dinner while buying the local shop out of their alcohol supply, a strong 8-percent Burmese beer called Dagon. After all, what is Christmas Eve without a heap of alcohol?
Following dinner, Kyuak made us what he called a “Christmas bonfire.” He invited many of the curious villagers and we drank together, watching their shy and conservative natures melt away, and quickly realizing how, despite cultural and geographical barriers, few differences truly separated us as human beings. At one point I wandered off to stare up at the vast expanse of stars in the night sky. I realized that we were the only foreigners around for miles, and appreciated the warmhearted way this village had accepted us.
We awoke the next morning to an incredible sight. Mist had shrouded the entire valley, adding a mysterious ambiance that complemented the tranquil surroundings. Other than the occasional sound of children laughing, the morning was quiet. Suddenly, the sense of calm was broken as we heard Kyuak’s transistor radio crackling away with a static-filled rendition of “Silent Night.” There couldn’t have been a more perfect touch to Christmas morning.
The sun began to bathe the valley in light, which lifted the mist and, thankfully, our hangovers as well. We handed out candies to the gleeful children and said our fond farewells to the incredible people of the village before setting off again. So-So initially assessed the degree of difficulty of this day as “not bad, a little uphill.” Nothing we couldn’t manage, apparently.
I should have already learned that So-So clearly judged hardship on a different scale than I. By lunch, our clothes were completely soaked through with sweat. The terrain had again shifted from shady pines to an arid, desert-like environment scattered with aloe and cactus, hardly the type of vegetation under which one could seek shelter from the cruel sun. Our fatigue was only worsened by the fact that a steep incline had persisted throughout the day.
By the time we arrived at the monastery, our home away from home for the second night, I was completely exhausted. The monastery itself was beautiful. Surrounded by rolling hills, it radiated spirituality. But in spite of the serenity, the novice monks at the monastery did not have inner peace on their minds. While we unwound, they played tricks on each other, play-fought and hit each other with branches. Boys will be boys, I suppose.
That night, So-So prepared a feast with dishes featuring the fiery chilies we had bartered for with some farmers earlier in the day. Full and exhausted, we crashed hard on the floor of the monastery, fading as fast as the setting sun.
We were awoken at 5 a.m. to the sound of the novice monks chanting. Although having someone wake me at 5 would normally piss me off, I must admit that in this instance it enhanced the experience. I found myself lost in the moment, just sitting back, taking it all in. I had a sense of being somewhere in the world where no one could ever find me.
After receiving a blessing from the monastery’s only adult monk, I again cursed the amount of gear in my bag as I threw the pack onto my sore shoulders. When asked about day three, So-So had assured us that it would be “easy- all downhill.” After a couple of hours of marching uphill on the hottest day yet, sweating again through my only shirt, tired, dirty and sore, I almost leaped with jubilation when we finally crested the mountain and stole our first glimpse of Inle Lake in the distance, our final destination.
Again, the landscape rapidly transitioned from desert-like to an enveloping humidity as we descended. And, again, I was struck by the diversity of the landscapes we had witnessed over the past three days. We laughed as we saw two bright and shiny travelers waving to us, clean and with huge packs on their backs, clearly on their first few hours out and beginning the ascent. Ah, to be so naive of the trails to come.
As we reached the bottom of the mountain, the dense bamboo and lush forests gave way again to cultivated farmland, brimming with a brilliant myriad of sugarcane and sunflowers. I could not help but marvel at the resourcefulness of these people, utilizing everything the land could offer and leaving nothing to waste. If the impending apocalypse arrived tomorrow, something tells me our “educated” Western society would be taking lessons from these resourceful farmers.
With the end in sight, we asked So-So just how far we had come. “Fifty-seven kilometers,” he replied with a shrug in his usual offhand manner. Just another day at the office. After some confusion and a number of wrong turns, we stumbled across a boat driver who was patiently waiting to navigate travelers through the labyrinth of narrow tributaries that surrounded the lake. Encountering enough twists and turns to make our heads spin, we finally broke out into the gorgeous expanse of Inle Lake, the late-afternoon sun glistening off the water in a beautiful golden hue.
We hopped off the boat at the town of Nyuangshwe, where So-So took us for a late lunch in the nearby market, my favorite kind of place to eat like a local. After wolfing down a delicious bowl of Shan noodles and a cold Myanmar beer, I took a few minutes to reflect on what we had just done. Certainly the landscapes and sights along the way were incredible, but what really made this trek amazing were the people. The Burmese people we encountered were caring, warmhearted and generous, constantly going out of their way to make sure we felt welcome and comfortable. They did this not because they expected anything in return, but simply because they were brought up with an emphasis on family and community, a focus many of us in the West seem to have lost somewhere along the way. These people will always hold a special place in my heart, and I couldn’t have been happier to get off the beaten track to meet them.