Travel is always a subjective experience. We’ve loved certain spots only to hear them disparaged by other travelers and been completely underwhelmed by sights that had come highly recommended. This is what I like about reading guidebooks and online travel blogs- you often discover through other people’s idiosyncratic interests something you may never have considered.
It is with all this little disclaimer that I say that the writers of the 2011 edition of Lonely Planet Myanmar and I seem to diverge rather sharply in our opinions. After a few days touring the temples of Bagan we headed out to Mt Popa, having read in the guidebook that it was “gorgeous” with a “picturesque complex of monasteries, stupas and shrines”. After one and a half hours we arrived at the jam-packed village surrounding the main temples and walked the steps to the concrete, monkey-shit-covered monstrosity to take in what may have been a beautiful view had it not been impaired by piles of garbage thrown unceremoniously from the top.
In the recommended sights to take in on a tour of Mandalay (admittedly, not really a city which has much to commend it), the writer suggests the banks of the Ayerarwaddy River where “it’s endlessly fascinating to watch the plethora of cargo boats loading and unloading”. Hmmmm. Methinks our author may have been partaking of some of the local hashish, the smell of which wafts strongly from darkened doorways downtown.
Happily, our opinions also differ on the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake, which seems to be downplayed somewhat in the guidebook (although perhaps the authors were just covering their asses against contrary bitches like me!). The landscape is agricultural, but beautiful, even at this, the hottest and driest time of the year.
We loved the three day trek, which takes you from Kalaw (around 1350m above sea level) to the marshy shores of Lake Inle (around 800m), through tiny rural villages, remote monasteries and Burmese farmland.
We were very lucky to end up with Ko Ti (Mr. T) as our guide, a 53 year old school teacher, who was able to share the country’s and his own history, far better than a younger person might have been able to. He was open with us about the military government, showing us the palatial mansions of generals on the outskirts of Kalaw, but optimistic about the future, which made me more hopeful for Myanmar’s scheduled 2015 elections.
He was also immensely curious and at times bewildering uninformed about the rest of world- when talking about the long flight to Australia he asked about whether there were toilets on the airplane and wondered whether Cambodian and Lao people looked anything like the Burmese. He’d married late in life, preferring his ‘freedom’ until he met his wife, whom he wrote love letters to and serenaded, before finally marrying at the age of 43. Very cute.
The walk itself was not particularly strenuous, but given that it was around 40 degrees in the middle of the day, we were pretty hot and knackered by the time we arrived at our homestays in the afternoon and were happy to conform to the 9pm bedtime favoured by farmers and people who live without electricity the world over.
While the scenery was certainly beautiful, the highlight was definitely passing through (and over-nighting in) tiny villages where people still live very traditional lives. And though this is probably the most heavily touristed part of the country-side, people still seemed very interested to see us and talk to us (through Mr T…our knowledge of the Burmese language hasn’t moved far beyond ‘Hello- Mingalaba’ and ‘Thank you- Jey zu be’ which would elicit responses ranging from shy smiles to gales of laughter).
We even liked the children!!! Cute Pa-O children who were fascinated by our magnetic backgammon set, my sunglasses and of course, watching themselves dancing through my flippable camera screen.
The only downside to the trip was having to wedge my feet back into sneakers after months of wearing nothing but flip-flops. By the time we arrived at Lake Inle I was sporting some very impressive blisters and my left toe-nail had turned a rather worrying shade of purple (still not sure if I’m going to lose him but fingers crossed). Definitely one of our best experiences in Myanmar!