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Cheng Chin Yuen

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Kalaw (28 – 30 Dec)

3am is not at all the best time to arrive in Kalaw (or anywhere in the world for that matter) which sits in a wind-trapped basin 1300 meters above sea level. Abandoning the warmth of the bus, we marched up the steps of Winner Hotel to ask for a room. It must have been 10 degrees on the outside. ‘We have 10 dollar room but no hot water. The heater not working’, said the sleepy man on duty. ‘Can’t be a better name for the place’, we thought. At this altitude, ‘no hot water’ means no shower. No shower would mean loads of scratching through a sleepless night. So off we scampered only to find the next guesthouse three streets away fully booked out. Fortunately the green Sikh-owned Golden Lily Guesthouse next to it had rooms available and hot shower in the shared toilet. Soon we were into the comfort of our warm sleeping bags tucked beneath the comforters. (Thanks Jennie for lending Karen your superb sleeping-bag. It was a life-saver for me!) A bath could wait just a couple more hours. Kalaw is definitely by far the coldest place on our tour in Myanmar so far but at least it wasn't raining.

After the 20th toast and egg breakfast, I had a chat with the eldest son of the owner of Golden Lily. This inquisitive 18-year old biology undergraduate is hungry to learn about the world beyond Myanmar. Because both his Myanmar-born parents are Sikh and not ‘pure’ Burmese, none of the family members has a passport. You need to be of pure blood, not even muggle-blood would do. According to him, it is ‘difficult and very expensive’ to get one even though the family is wealthy by Burmese standards. You could fit three semi-detached houses in the land Golden Lily sits on. They employ three workers who stay in a house at the back and their father owns a ruby mine somewhere near Mandalay. ‘We have travelled everywhere in Myanmar but never been abroad. To get out of the country, we have to pay about 2000 dollars each’, he says. I can tell that he is very bored in Kalaw. Someday, I hope they will find their passage to India.

I ask him how he manages to get the rare Hotmail and Yahoo on his computer. Just to provide this email service, he has to pay the officials 30 dollars a month and an additional license fee at the end of the year. No wonder sending one email costs 1.50 dollars. The connection speed? A crawling 14 kilobytes per second and connectivity is as erratic as the town’s power supply.

Kalaw is so small, you could walk down every street in an hour. There is a mosque with the holy number ‘786’ above its main entrance and all hahal restaurants in Myanmar has this number on its signboard. Right in the centre of town is a stupa decorated with a mosaic of mirrors. When they reflect the sunlight, all the glittering and gold makes the centrepiece even more prominent and almost magical. It is very convenient as a reference point for travellers. Near the stupa, workers were melting tar by wood-fire in a huge metal drum to surface the road. It looked like a huge viscous blob of liquorice. In Kalaw we saw the well preserved colonial houses that we missed in Pyin U Lwin which was a considerably larger town. From the hilltop monastery, where a bunch of monks were enjoying the splendid view of the town and its surrounding higlands, you can clearly see how Kalaw derived its name from the Pa O (one of the hill tribes) word for ‘bowl’. Kalaw is pronounced as 'Ka(2) Lau(1)' which I believe in teochew means 'drop or fall down'.

The most memorable encounter was the teachers receiving their pay in the local school. Once a month, the education officials will come with fat wads of kyat to be distributed to the teachers. This was done outdoors beneath the shade of a tree in groups of about 10. As each teacher received her pay, the official will record the payment in her file. It was quite an eye-opener to see them counting and re-counting their cash. The whole process did not take very long. They only received 10 bucks. Besides the money, teachers also got some rice, oil and groceries. The government also provides them with a small wooden shack often located near the school. We have seen some of them and they were no larger than 2 HDB master-bedrooms put together. When we entered the school, two friendly teachers approached us and started chatting. Karen never fails to tell Burmese teachers that I used to teach English back home. Sometimes, this is met with slight embarrassment as their English teachers struggle with the language. I received permission from them to tour the school but barely a minute later, one of the teachers caught up with us and apologetically told us to leave the school. The government overlord on the second floor saw me taking photographs and wanted us off the premises immediately. We quickly complied, not wanting to get anyone into trouble. The other teacher that we were chatting with earlier had already made her quick exit out of the school gates. Ta Ta!

The Kalaw-Inle Lake Trek (30 Dec – 1 Jan)

We came to Kalaw to find out more about the recently established Kalaw-Inle trek. This 3 day 2 night walk appears only in the latest guidebook and thanks to our encounter with Pauline in Mandalay, we now had an opportunity to do some serious exercise after 20 days of casual sight-seeing. Jimmy approached us as we came out of an art gallery. He had two Germans going on the trip the next morning and asked if we were interested. I think we must have the look of hardcore trekkers. We went to his home where I paid the deposit of 20 dollars after 15 minutes of advertising and Q and A. He probably won us over with the meals we were promised over the next few days. The other plus points were that we had two more people to share the cost of the boat-ride (8 dollars) at the end and that according to Jimmy, they were older and wanted to ‘go slow’. Our big packs will be sent by pickup to a guesthouse of our choice in Inle so we could walk with mimimum load. The trek costs 10 dollars a person per day and included all accommodation and meals which would be prepared by his ‘cooking man’. This price is standardised throughout Kalaw.

The next morning filled us with excitement. The last time Karen and I did a long walk together was in the Czech Republic through the Cesky Raj National Park which featured massive rock pillars and 3 ancient castles along the way. My 6-day solo Overland Trek in Tasmania gave me a much needed respite from people, pollution and modern-day development. What would this one be like?

I didn’t trust the pickup with my laptop so it went into my trusty 90-litre Macpac together with our sleeping bags, clothes and toiletries. In times like these, my fragile laptop enslaves me (only to free up loads of photo-editing and transfer time later I must justify). Jimmy got quite a shock when he saw my pack and gave it a lift. 'You sure you want to carry this?' 'I've carried heavier and walked longer', I replied like a yaya papaya.

Gelly (pronounced Gill-ee) and Andy were our German company for the trek and we enjoyed many funny conversations about our respective countries. Here are some to share:

1) The Burmese junta weren't the only ones who relocated their capital. The Germans did it too after the reunification and spent billions on the new Frankfurt. The ex-capital of the west is now called Frankfurt Main.
2) Supermarkets follow the standard office working hours so it’s a mad rush to buy groceries after work. This will soon be changing though.
3) Their fertility rate is 1.4
4) The Oktober Fest is not in October. It’s in September and ends on the first of October.
5) They are very proud of their bread. The square slices of bread according to our friends ‘is not bread’.
6) One of the few good things that the former East Germany brought with her is a better, more widely available child-care system.
7) 1 in 3 Germans have to do NS. Whether you get to do it depends on ‘luck’. For those selected who absolutely hate the army, they can opt for community service for e.g. working in a hospital.
8) Every major company has to conduct an evacuation drill at least once a year. Unlike Singapore where forewarning is given days in advance, this drill is impromptu. If they exceed the timing (about 20 minutes), it has to be re-conducted.
9) The social welfare system is breaking down. The working population is too small to pay for the pensions of the greying population.
10) 70% of their income goes to tax. The taxation system is so complicated, no one really understands how it works. Singles get taxed more than married couples.
11) There is supposedly a really good German band called Rammstein who according to Gelly has a ‘unique sound’.
12) The skinhead problem is grossly hyped-up. There is no problem with racism.

The highlights of the first day included The Viewpoint where we had a simple but tasty lunch of chapatti and pumpkin curry prepared by the Nepali family who ran the basic restaurant and guesthouse. Most of the chapattis that we had sampled earlier were way too oily to qualify as true chapatti. At more than 1500 metres and overlooking a long patched-work valley of farms and tea plantations, the dramatic view this place offers makes it worth considering spending one extra night here. It costs 4 dollars per night including dinner (probably chapatti). It was a great spot to have a leisurely lunch under a small thatched shelter in the open. Nicely noiseless.

I visited the smoky kitchen where the owner was hand-kneading our chapattis. This mountain monopoly certainly has an above average arsenal of pots and pans to cater to the rising stream of trekkers and day-trippers. The family of five slept on a bamboo platform at one end of the kitchen, separated from the buffalo sty by a thin wall of bamboo and crumbling plaster. From where I was seated, I could smell the mixed aromas of the animals and the boiling pumpkin curry. Next to the sty is a large muddy area where the buffalos could cool off when it gets too hot. There were at least 50 pumpkins lying in the sun and the papaya and banana trees were pregnant with fruit. Looking at the three kids munching their sugarcane sticks, it seems that you will never go hungry in this haven of rural abundance.

We also visited a cave whose passage ways were crammed with Buddha statues of all designs and sizes. The names of their sponsors were carved in a block in front of them. Jimmy pointed out that most of them were generals. Some statues had an electronic aura behind them from which psychedelic rays and circles of holiness emanated and flashed like disco-lights. Two more creative ones were carved out from a block such that they resembled a mould rather than a 3D statue. The in-carving created the illusion that the Buddha’s eyes were trailing you as you walked past it. On one bus-ride, I met a local Chinese man who commented that the endless construction of stupas was a heavy financial drain on the country. Looking at some of the temples atop the hills in this isolated region, I can’t help but agree.

The weather had cleared up significantly by the time we reached Kalaw but we still had to overcome several muddy sections in the shady areas. This takes some skill with a big pack and running shoes. On these buffalo-trodden highways, we saw men shouldering long beams of wood, ferrying them to Kalaw. Goodness knows how long they have been walking with their load. We passed a small sawmill on the edge of Kalaw which made crates for transporting vegetables. The workers fed the large circular saw without any goggles, gloves or safety gear. It was probably a privilege to have some form of mechanisation. It was also refreshing to see some men hard at work.

The natural landscape had been ceded to large tea plantations owned by the Pa O tribe. The black tea grows on slopes so steep that just walking up alone would be an excellent workout. Specks of farmers were clearing the slopes with changkols as we went past. Their work looked so endless and formidable. We stopped for a while and Jimmy showed us the plant whose leaves are used to wrap the cheroot.

We visited a village school which was little more than a small creaky house with gaps in the walls and floor. There were 4 blackboards and 5 benches and without partitions, children from grades 1 to 3 would have their lessons here simultaneously. It happened to be the school holidays so the scholl was empty. The villagers here get married on the same day making perfect economic sense. In the recent round just a few days ago, four couples got hooked. Married women wore several thin black bands above their red longyi. We had tea in one of the houses and through Jimmy, who could speak their language, managed a little conversation with its owner. He made us some tea while his wife sieved sunflower seeds in the open. There was no furniture around and the kitchen was organised around a sand pit where a fire was kept burning. An ornate altar faced the main door and we were reminded not to sit with our feet facing the Buddha image. The interior decor was of posters of women in the latest longyi designs and government healthcare notices. Their diet consists of a surprisingly wide range of roots, fruits and vegetables. Meat is usually eaten only on weddings and festive occasions. On the fringe of the village near the edge of the ridge, we passed a group of young children with their home-made bamboo propellers which spun very well in the wind. I wonder how long they were standing there before we chanced upon them engaging in their simple sipnning pleasure.

Part of the trek took us along a railway track to the station where farmers were awaiting the night train to take their produce to the markets. While waiting, the men would gamble while the women ran makeshift stalls selling betel and vegetables. They gambled over checkers, carom and carom-pool (pool using carom seeds and strikers on a rectangular table, salt is used to smoothen the surface). There is also a popular game played by four over a wooden cross-board. In the centre of the cross lies a bowl in which they fling six shells which function as the dice. Bottlecaps are then moved in a clockwise manner around the board. The person who first gets his caps back into their original position wins. It is much alike our Aeroplane game which I have not played or seen anyone playing in years. In all these games, a deck of cards is somehow integrated.

We spend the first night, after 17 kilometres of walking, on a farm with a family of buffalos sleeping below us. We got our break from technology and watched the orange buffer that illuminated the ridgeline fade with the setting sun. Above, the brighter stars were emerging as we lounged on bamboo chairs like kings awaiting dinner. For 10 dollars a day, this was a steal. I took out my camera and showed the kids the day’s pictures. They recognised the places and told me their Burmese names which I forgot about two seconds later. Kids here learn to drive young. They drive buffalos around the fields by sitting on them. Meanwhile the farmer’s eldest daughter was offering her massage services for 2 dollars. Dinner was as good as promised and the most interesting dish was a longbean and crushed peanut combo.

After dinner, we talked to Atsushi, a friendly Japanese tourist who worked for Daikin he told us that he worked 12 hour days and learnt close to nothing in his university days. We joked that his university stint was to give him the rest he needed for the working world. The slogging was for the university entrance examination which made all the difference. The breakaway faction from the stressful Japanese lifestyle is known as the Freeta. Basically, I am living a Freeta's life now.

The night was cold and the toilet was 25 metres away past a plot of vegetables. We brushed our teeth and squeezed out every drop of pee before hopping into our sleeping bags. The four of us slept in a corner of the hall behind a curtain and the night was marred only by Andy’s snoring which I could hear through my yellow earplugs which were cleverly coloured yellow to make the ear wax less obvious.

The next day took us through some rice terraces, ginger, chilli and sesame fields and a couple of Pa O villages. It was a long and exposed trek with few trees providing shade. We probably clocked more than 20 kilometres that day. At one Pa O village, we saw children making toy cars out of clay which they also rolled into small balls for catapult ammo. It was nice to see the sheer delight on the children’s faces as we distributed pens and cream crackers. The Pa O women are dressed in black (not a very practical colour in this heat) and usually don an orange or red turban. One of them asked us if we had any medicine for her bad tooth. Andy gave her some painkillers and she was so thankful, she invited us to stay for lunch. As the women were preparing a communal lunch, the children who were standing around did the baby-sitting. A few who were barely 6 years old were already carrying a baby on their backs.

After about 18 kilometres, we arrived at the highlight of the day: a 2 to 3 kilometre long impressive limestone cliff that shot up behind some rice terraces. We rested our legs and admired the wall of orange and grey beneath a deep blue sky. Behind us was a large herd of cows grazing on the left-over rice stalks after the harvest. Two ladies were collecting dung which they carried in baskets on their backs. I wondered if they used their hands.

Trekking through a gap in the cliff gave us our much-needed shade. A river must have flowed here during the wet season as we found ourselves walking on a dry sandy river bed. On this leg, we saw several thick-leafed shrubs which looked like giant thorny aloe vera plants.

Going at a pace similar to my BMT road-march, we reached the monastery well before sundown when it was still warm enough to take a shower in the open-air toilet. It only had a shoulder-high concrete wall to cover the essentials. We had to pump the water from a holding tank into the trough in the shower and then dunk the freezing water over our bodies. It was probably one of the fastest showers we had ever taken. The wind did loads to expedite the process and we did not bother to pick out the little greenish-black organic stuff that was suspended in the water. It sure felt good to be clean again. 'You actually have a FULL bottle of shampoo!', Gelly exclaimed.

The monastery is home to the chief monk and 17 orphan monks under his charge. Other than the monitor monk, the rest looked about 5 or 6. There is another monastery across the road, further down the hill. The Burmese name for this one is ‘Down Monastery’ and we were housed in ‘Up Monastery’. Couldn’t be more straightforward than that! After dinner (where I had the best canned beef curry I have ever tasted) we went to the main hall to watch a special VCD with some local visitors and the monks. This VCD is produced for the Pa O tribe and is basically a local-themed collection of karaoke MTV numbers. It is extremely conservative, with everyone all covered up and no intimate scenes. There was no death, defiance and destruction that plague the MTV that we know. Just the good old boy-meets-girl-sit-and-sing-beneath-a-tree plot. It easily had the audience fixated since the television was a luxury they could not afford. The cute little monks were actually more interested in us. They would steal glances when they thought we were not looking and this would be followed by spurts of timid whispering in the lowest most un-intrusive volume humanly possible. These adorable little ones, like many monks we had seen, had some dabs of grey powder on their shaved heads. This, according to Jimmy was a lice-repellent. Our pampered butts felt really uncomfortable on the wooden floor after 20 minutes and we decided to surrender to an early New Year’s Eve in our corner of the hall behind a bamboo partition.

New Year’s Day for us started in darkness at 4.30am to the haunting chants of the monks. Prior to this unique wake-up call, an inconsiderate gong from somewhere in the monastery sounded every hour. When I eventually left the warm sanctuary of my sleeping bag to brave the cold, I saw the little monks seated before the altar (with the chief monk at the helm) chanting and chattering at the same time. They were well spaced out as if to let the cold have its maximum impact. Those poor kids must be shivering. Myanmese monkhood sure takes some getting used to. Gelly commented that eating only two meals a day isn’t very good for a child’s development. How true!

I took a quick picture and scooted off to take a much delayed pee. Peeing meant walking across the freezing gravel courtyard and climbing up two flights of steps just to get to the pee-sheds. The first pee-shed had a more elaborate roof and was exclusively for the chief monk's peeing pleasure. All other personnel had to use the other two. I was impressed with the running water and how swiftly my contribution disappeared down a pipe into a big compost heap buried behind the toilet.

Jimmy put his beeping watch in front of us near the end of an avocado-lime breakfast to get us moving. He wanted us to catch the 1pm boat to Nyaungshwe or he would miss the transport back to Kalaw. I thought it was terrible service for a guide who claims to have 15 years of experience. Andy obviously did not like to be rushed through his breakfast either. There happened to be a market at Indein, our end point for the trek and since we wanted to spend some time there, we had to get off to an early start. Still ten minutes more wouldn’t have made a difference. This migratory market plys five different locations around Inle Lake over five days. I wonder if the locals find this constant moving a hassle.

The scenery on the third day was the best. We trekked alongside wide mist-filled valleys where you could see the dark shadows of the distant highlands above the bluish mist and the peaks of the nearby hills breaking the surface as islands in a sea of cotton. Ghostly trees faded into the shroud which gave clear definition to the rays of the rising sun as they beamed through the breaks in the surrounding pine forest. As Jimmy forced-marched the pack, Karen and I deliberated at the back, enjoying at our own pace a rare 6am morning scenery and taking a ridiculous number of photographs. The cook who was nice enough to wait for us at the critical junctions was more amused than frustrated at my many photographic interruptions to the journey. I guess us getting lost would only delay their trip home.

Our gradual descent to Indein lasted 4.5 hours without any breaks. Along the way, huge spiders with their moisture-laden webs caught my attention. There was an unusually high concentration of 8 or 9 such spiders in a relatively small jumble of webs. As we went down to 900 metres, the mist got so thick that visibility was reduced to 10 metres. I took my favourite shot of the trek here of a young boy with his herd of cows. He was squatting and keeping so still that if not for his whistling, you wouldn’t notice him. Behind the cows was a barely discernable muddy pool and the faint outline of a giant tree formed the perfect backdrop for the shot. We passed another village where some men were building a new house. Grandpa was sagely smoking his cheroot ‘inspecting’ the construction and behind him, a bunch of children amused themselves with the pens we gave them. The first thing they did was to test the pens on their hands. Among them, there was one child with a severely cleft upper lip. On one particularly long and rocky section, I wondered how the buffalo-carts survived the journey without the cart breaking a wheel or the buffalos spraining a hoof.

Just when I was thinking that going in the reverse direction would be more sustained and challenging, I saw a group of farmers carrying baskets four times their size up the track. The men balanced them on a fat bamboo pole over their shoulders while the women piled them on their backs using a head scarf to take the weight. No wonder the Burmese are so short. This incredible display of strength and neck power was soon dispelled as I saw what was in the enormous baskets – bundles of keropok!

When we finally reached Indein, Gelly and Andy had already finished their coffee-mixes. These two 46 year olds could really walk! Gelly (like my dad) doesn’t believe in taking photographs and Andy with his DSLR took less than a hundred shots. I took 660. I told Jimmy that his idea of ‘going slow’ was quite different from mine and that he should factor in more rest-stops for his clients to admire the scenery. Perhaps, Jimmy’s pace is that of the local trekking standard as another group we met at the monastery did the walk in two days. They probably missed the Viewpoint but it was still a great deal of walking in a short period of time.

After an unhealthy lunch of oily prata, vegetable samosas, you tiao and coffee-mix. We regained our energy to explore the market. Some stalls were obviously targeted at the throngs of tourists here but on the whole the market has not lost its authenticity. There was the buffalo section where you could buy one for 250 dollars. Behind it was the professional gambling den so crowded with men that Karen could not see what was going on. The less serious gamblers congregated in another section where a popular game of dice is played. These dice were the size of a 30 inch TV and had different animals painted on the sides. You placed your kyats on any of the 8 different animals and tugged the rope which released three of these dice. You win if your animal faces up. Photography was prohibited as gambling is illegal. There was also the fuel section where old ladies sold petrol from metal drums. A light pink soya-based keropok is sold in bundles using a bamboo strip speared through the centre to hold them in place. Vegetables are still sold using balance scales with a series of standard round metal weights. They are suspended from a bamboo tripod. You could catch Iron Cross on TV at another stall. Iron Cross and their front-man Wine Winee is the hottest band in Myanmar. We’ve heard them on almost every bus-ride and at almost every eatery and guesthouse. Technically, they are very good but most of their songs are Burmese copies of ancient Chinese pop tunes. Jacky Cheung’s ‘Wen Bie’ and Wang Jie’s ‘Shi Fou Wo Zhen De Yi Wu Suo You’ are among their big hits. The Burmese love to sing and they sing with soul. The lone guitarist singing his heart out is as common a sight on the streets of Mandalay as it is beneath the houses of some ulu village…and I haven’t heard a single one who couldn’t pitch. It is again under the charge of the women to run the stalls in the market and it’s nice to see them in their traditional clothes with their basket bagpacks and colourful Shan-style sling bags.

The 8000 kyat boat Jimmy promised us was now suddenly 10,000 kyat. Sheepishly, he revealed that the cheaper option did not include seats! This would not be too ideal for the hour-long finale of the trip. We couldn’t be bothered to argue and paid the extra 500 kyat each. What we paid covered the boat-ride of Jimmy and the cook. Jimmy could use some serious customer-service and QC training.

The boat-ride was indeed a perfect way to end the trek. From a narrow winding channel, we joined the calm expanse of the much-anticipated Inle Lake. At 22 kilometres long and 11 wide, it is a massive body of water which is surprisingly so clear, clean and shallow that we could see the submerged vegetation below. The high ridges that encircle the entire lake also feed it during the wet season where the water level rises considerably. Much to our delight, a flock of seagulls pursues our boat as Jimmy throws the feed in the air. The noisy dexterous birds snatch it in mid-air and hover barely a metres above our heads. Despite the hum of the motor, I was struck by the serenity of the place making it my top spot in Myanmar. We decided to abandon our plan to visit the famous Golden Rock stupa to spend more time here.

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