Bag ready. Camera charged. Trekkers up for it. Breakfast egg and chapati was accompanied by Sky News. The first time in four months I’d caught up on world affairs. The main story was Chelsea’s Eddie Hazard kicking a ball boy in the stomach. How I miss the real world.
We waited an hour watching the same 10 minutes of news re-read in a variety of ways before we were summonsed. Our promised, mature and knowledgeable guide, was replaced with a young Burmese kid with a cap on sideways. He was smiling and spoke broken English. Although these Sikhs were born and brought up in Myanmar they sold us a trek using traditional Indian methods. Hugely exaggerated truths.
We walked out of town and into the mountains. The team was six strong plus our young and trendy guide Mulan. The A Team was as follows…
- My close and valued compardres, Guy and Nourdes
- A young German girl, Isobel
- Andy and Deyna, a couple of Americans from Oregon
- Yours truly, the man, the legend, the unit, Michael ‘Trekker’ Craig
Leaving Kalow we started to climb a mountain path. This being our first ever trek we were a little unsure of proceedings. If there was trekker eticate, we didn’t know. Mulan seemed to walk ahead but I called him continuously to gather information about the area we were walking through. I’d like to think I was inquisitive but maybe the rest of the team thought I was a little over talkative and maybe slightly insensitive in my choice of topics. I discussed various Burmese issues with Mulan our guide, most was lost in translation. We talked about the Kachin fighting in the north, the Government and his home village. He told me Bhamo is not safe and it is a restricted area, tourists are not permitted there. Another destination crossed off my wish list.
Trekking the mountain range from Kalow to Hsipaw will take us three days and two nights and will take us through various villages inhabited by a number of different tribes.
The first village we come across was a Bolan village. There are only 100 folk that live here and they still use there own native language. Choosing to isolate themselves from the Shan and Burmese people we were not welcome to stop. They only talk and marry within their own community. A little like the Isle of Sheppey. I think Mulan thinks they are weird. He also tells us that although their is now peace in the Shan State, the Shan army still works and lives in the mountains. I want to see some guns. No violence, just guns.
Walking through the mountains we see a variation of different crops and locals working the fields. The weather is a respectable 25C. My newly shaven head starting to turn the same colour as the rest of me. Smiling, talking and walking we were having fun being away from the rest of civilisation.
I quizzed Mulan regularly. We paid a decent amount to our guide so I thought I’d make the most out of his services. He told me that the Government education was free but most villagers left school at 12 to go and work with their parents. Farming and agriculture is their main industry but opium growing has been pushed out of the area. Opium is still a huge industry in Myanmar and pays extremely well but he seemed reluctant to talk any more about it.
Mulan quote of the day:
”I want to grow opium but it is not good for the human race.”
We ate at the top of a mountain. Our cook drives ahead, prepares our food for lunch before we arrive and again drives to the next destination in order to prepare for our dinner. The food was always varied and delicious. He provided plenty of carbs. Us white folk need the energy.
The afternoon saw us enter a larger and more friendlier village. We played with the novice monks at some monastery. It was school kicking out time and we were again besieged by excited children of all ages. I introduced the snotty little terrors to my high-five trick, which they then hounded me to play for the next half an hour. Another fun game was seeing how many little Palau children we could lift on each arm.
Getting this close to the children was fun. The language barrier was not an issue. Their dirty unwashed hands, snotty faces and the occasional untreated wound and eye infection should have deterred us but we all politely entertained the children. They were lovely.
A game of football broke out using a torn, flat football. Who needs an xBox? Exhausted we said our goodbyes to the school children and trainee monks. Little bundles of joy. Wreckless and smiling, they played hard. White people must seem so much fun to these wee ones.
Check out the Liverpool shirt. An instant bond was formed. Dude for life.
Late that day, in some other village we passed through, Mulan took us to see the local Shamen. The traditional villages usually had a Shamen to sort out any illnesses via traditional, herbal methods. Turmeric seemed to be his cure for everything but he had a few other potions knocking about. We sat in his wooden house and drank green tea. Mulan translated for us. For a small donation to the cause, I was gifted a bracelet accompanied with a blessing for the trek. The bracelet was a bright red string sealed with what looked like a treasury tag but I was assured it was a traditional Shan bracelet. Good enough me.
We continued our trek through fields and across a variation of different mountains before following a railway track to the station. We stopped at the station cafe. A long days trekking was rewarded with a sweet cup of lapeiye, a sweet tea with added condensed milk. A close relative to Indian chai.
A short one hour walk later, just as the sun was setting, we arrive at our friendly home stay for the night. A small farm with several fields, a small two-story wooden house with a great view of the village, valley and surrounding mountains. What a treat. Water buffalo, chickens and some hot Shan ladies greeted us. Almost immediately, our food was served and we feasted outside.
We were cooked traditional Shan fish, a potato curry, a selection of various beans, roasted peanuts and purple sticky rice. Desert was peanut brittle and fruit. A side helping of Mandalay rum, a fire and some high quality drunk conversation made the very cold evening pass quickly. The temperature dropped considerably. Sharing our rum with Mulan was a great idea. He was hammered. A real treat of his classic one liners entertained us all night. Our new friends from the States were a welcome edition to our pack. Trekking was fun.
We retreated early to our beds, a blanket on the floor with three thick blankets to keep us warm. We needed them. This is the coldest I’d been for many months.
The monk in the village has a massive speaker system and wakes every one up at 6am playing a prayer tape, LOUDLY. Thanks buddy. The cockerels start soon after. Awaking first, I step outside into the freezing damp darkness. My breath viisably freezing. The cook prepares our breakfast.
The sun hasn’t quite come over our side of the mountain but life started to blossom. Birds cheeping, the water buffalo shifting around and the children start to play. Life in rural Myanmar starts to unfold around us. To our amusement, as we eat breakfast, a buffalo lays a huge steaming poo.
To start the day, we set of on a four hour trek leaving the farm at 8am. On our travels we see many village people using the old cow and cart as a reliable form of transport along the bumpy dirt tracks as well as farmers, manual field workers and random kids on water buffaloes.
We pass through a couple of villages, the locals happy to see us, waving and shouting kids greet us enthusiastically. I will reiterate that the folk, young and old, from Myanmar are collectively the nicest nation on earth, minus the military.
We meet a lady making a bright pink bag using locally sourced wool and traditional methods. We drink green tea with her and watch how she works. No factory machinery on sight, she makes a bag. Nourdes is so taken in, he purchases one of her masterpieces. Fair play. No middle man involved, all proceeds go straight to the little lady. Supporting local trade, Nourdes has not only bagged a top quality bag but a lashing of karma too. This old lady below, continually talked at us in her native tongue. Nobody knew what she was saying. She was pissed. I’m sure of it.
The locals gathered to stare at the white foreigners who’d turned up in their village. They wore brightly coloured head scarves and traditional longhis. Guy used his Gangnam Style dance to entertain the youngsters before we were treated to lunch in one of the villagers home.
Fascinated by village life, we stopped to talk to locals and waved and played with their little ones. They were very welcoming and as long as we interacted in some way, they were happy for us to take pictures. The ratio between walking and village stops was perfect. Mulan, although he was young, was a top guide. We all warmed to him.
Continuing our path out of the village and through the mountains we bump into many locals working the fields. Trekking over bridges, through fields, past buffaloes, through rivers, over hills and down them again. No mountains but Mulan worked us hard.
We stumble across a coal mine. Initially, we met a local fella baked in black suit. Then we saw a set of bamboo sticks above a small square hole in the ground. Unbelievably, a man was down there chopping away at the coal and sending it up in small buckets. Just the two of them worked there. Health and safety minimal. Their tough and grueling job shocked us.
We plodded on. Conversation was random, varied and at times deep. The team was a good one and Mulan was slowly taking to my barrage of random questions about life in Myanmar. I was a sponge, soaking up the culture that was on offer.
Bunyan trees were a common sight. Some had sticks perfectly placed to keep up the low lying branches. Mulan told us that if a baby is ill or somebody needs some good luck, they will strategically place some support for the Bunyan tree branch, a holy tree for the Buddhist lot. Someone had randomly placed a light bulb in one of the trees branches too, an energy efficient one. They are a spiritual bunch here and they believe in keeping the spirits happy as much as they do their opportunities in their next life. Buddhism is for their future life when they pass away and keeping the spirits happy will make their day to day life full of good luck. Mulan insists the belief in spirits is nation wide but each ethnic minority has slightly different spiritual systems in place.
We stopped briefly at a tea shop shack in a village for beverages. We met a couple of retired British couples who were slightly tipsy on the stronger than they’d anticipated Dagan lager. They educated us about their Thailand border crossing experience. We thought entry into Myanmar with a 28 day tourist visa was only possible via plane but these guys proved us wrong. Things are changing fast in Myanmar, they’re starting to catch up with the rest of SE Asia. These old folk were a laugh.
Pictures in the locals homes could have done with a bit of colour. Every village home we visited were proud of their family portraits.
We walked 25km in total that day, before we reached the Buddhist monastery up on a hill village. The monastery was a large place, one of a few in the village. It had a huge courtyard, a house for the monks in training, kitchen area, toilets up on the hill, a well with fresh and very cold water and of course the main monastery and place of worship. It was a wooden building, Chinese and Thai influenced, with a corrugated iron roof. It had seen better days, the floor creaked loudly but it still looked impressive.
We quickly had a wash by the well outside and dashed up the mountain to watch the sun set with a monk and his trainee. Perfect timing.
We ate another top meal served to us by our cook in a small open area with a roof next to the monastery. Surprisingly, we were allowed to consume our alcohol here. Feeling a little disrespectful, we ate and drank quickly before crashing out inside the main monastery building with the head monk and another small group of French folk at the early hour of 9pm. It had been a long day.
At 5am the kiddie monks start their prayer chanting. Their little voices are sweet and soft on the ear. One kid is clearly the leader and knew the words, while the others were softly copying him a split second behind. Reminiscent of a younger me watching ‘Top of the Pops’ on a Friday night back in the nineties, attempting to sing to songs I’d never heard before. Their voices were a pleasure to wake up to. They finally gave up but I was wide awake. We greeted the head monk dude, who was a little under the weather, and gave him a donation for our stay over. He blessed us. Nice guy. Even though he was ill he still smiled. I like Buddhists. A 7am breakfast of pancakes and banana and we were ready for our last day of trekking. Sore and stiff from the last two days walking, sorry trekking, we start our descent down towards Inle Lake.
Although we could see Inle from a distance it still took us over four hours to make it through the fields and down to our final meal prepared by our talented cook.
The first thing that I noticed about this place was a huge presence of tourists, mainly, no, completely, old and very wealthy. No back packers to be seen. It was a strange presence. None of us had been anywhere in the previous two weeks that had so many tourists. The market stalls next to our restaurant sold pretty items at extortionate prices, even compared to prices back home. I felt young and poor in comparison to my other tourist folks. It was a culture shock, especially when we’d hanging out with the ethnic minority lots in the mountains.
We sat eating our tea leaf salad and rice, exhausted and dirty. The orange dirt made us look like the chavs at home who love a bit of cheap fake bake. Glad we had all made it one piece, we reflected on our journey. The scenery constantly changed, the village life fascinating and the local food made fresh was some of the best, and least oily we’d tasted in Myanmar. All in all, the trek was pleasant and a great introduction to the trekking scene for us all. At this point of my journey I decided to head to Hsipaw and do another multi-day trek, I was hooked. Physically testing and out of my comfort zone I wanted another slice, maybe loads of slices, maybe even a whole cake, or bakery. The explorer in me discovered. Michael ‘Trekker’ Craig they call me.
We were just about to leave for our boat to take us along the river and down to Nyaungshe to our accommodation when a small child, no older than 10 years old scuds his scooter past the restaurant, smoking a fag and drinking a can as he goes. I love this country.
The ‘popular’ Government charge foreigners a $5 entrance fee just to enter the area. How nice of them. We reluctantly pay and jump on board a long boat with wooden seats in them. The boat took us down a river past villages, bamboo huts, monasteries, small bridges, fishermen and families washing their clothes.
The river opened out onto the mega huge Inle Lake. I inserted my headphones and let Netsky, Grafix and High Contrast take me to a new level of niceness. The sun was shining, muscles aching and a glow of satisfaction from completing my first ever trek left a growing smirk on my slightly pink face. I sat back and enjoyed the never ending boat journey from heaven. The area is naturally beautiful and I can fully understand why so many tourists come here. Achievement is such a buzz.
When we pulled up to Nyaungshe, Guy spotted a posh restaurant and darted off shouting ”now is the time”, clutching his bag. Guy has a fear of squat toilets. He hadn’t passed motions since Kalow. I presumed he was happy to see a Western toilet. I presume the western toilet wasn’t so happy to see him.
Before I started this trek I wasn’t sure of the difference between trekking and walking. I still have no idea. We just walked for 7-8 hours each day. Is it the distance or the terrain that turns walking into trekking? Or is it the foot wear? Talk to me.
Mission complete, Good Will Hotel squeezes us in and we all enjoy a hot shower. The feeling of warm water and soapy bubbles on your skin is almost … it was nice. Trekking has added a whole new experience to my tour of Myanmar. I fucking loved it.