As an alternative to arriving in the tourist spot of Inle Lake by bus, we decided instead to walk there – to a certain extent – from a small town called Kalaw. The bus from Bagan arrived at 1am and we were ushered towards what we had been told was the cheapest accomodation in the village, and with good reason; sleeping in a puddle must just have been a drier option than the damp of our tiny beds in our tiny, thin walled room. But for $7, we weren’t complaining.
The guesthouse was owned by a Mr Robinson, and his family – all Burmese born Indians – who had lived in the area for a few generations, and who would accompany us for the next three days on our trek through the countryside. With our packs sent ahead of us to our final destination we were free to wander the countryside with nothing more than our daypacks and a sense of weightless freedom.
As soon as we reached the edge of town we were greeted with the simple beauty of nature in this area. The small dusty town was seperated from lush green rice paddies and rolling hills by the colonially built railway line, still harbouring a system of trains that run at a sharp 15km an hour – in part a salute to the British for their engineering efforts, yet a sad realisation that the infrastructure is in serious need of an upgrade. Large mansions were dotted amongst more humble traditional houses that hinted at the expanse of the town, and highlighted those who rub shoulders with those in power. The area of Kalaw, according to Robin, is known well for it’s clean water, thanks to limestone in the soil, and that was once carried in large containers by train to the then capital city, Yangon (Rangoon) for drinking water. Although, I dread to think how long it took to get there…
We followed the old train tracks past once-used bomb shelters and over old wooden bridges in a very “Stand By Me” fashion until we abandoned the iron lines and cut our way through mud and grass. Our international conversations were enhanced by Robin’s homegrown commentary and we were often stopped and encouraged to try all manner of herbs, weeds and seeds – all local remedies for an abundant variety of ailments.
Lunch was served at the house of a medicine man who’s small 90 year old frame sat day by day in the corner of his kitchen next to the fire, consuming home bound cigars in a continual fashion. He spoke to us sporadically and pensively while a pot of malarial remedy boiled over the open fire: a concoction of local herbs and plants, the secret of which was passed down from his father, and would continue along to his daughter after he dies, in accordance with the traditions of the dying trade. The Burmese fare was fresh and tasty: a variation of pickled and fresh salads and spicy curries served with rice and rotis.
The train track we were once again following was due to pair up with the train itself so we waited for half an hour at the train station drinking tea and coffee, and relishing the tasty, but absurdly sweet, sweets on offer. The train chugged as slowly as to be expected into the station and encouraged a flurry of activity as the local women paraded back and forth past the windows with produce carried on their heads for travellers to buy.
A sad reality was presented to us beyond Robin’s control as a young mentally handicapped boy alighted from the train amongst all the excitement and came to sit not far from us in the tea shop. The incredible contrast was sickeningly obvious to us as the excitement died down and every single face in the station was trained on this young man and the bag of rice he was carrying for his lunch, which was being scattered beyond his mouth as he switched between eating it with his hands and throwing it at the local dogs before hitting them with a stick.
Having grown up in a society that acknowledges disabled people as being exactly that – people – we didn’t pay any extra special attention to the boy, but the silence soon made us realise that perhaps this was something that the Burmese society hadn’t yet grasped. In a move that made us all quite sick with anger, we watched in shock as a small handful of men yelled and tried to pull the boy out of the shop, threatening him with closed fists and a stick of his own until he was screaming and crying on the ground. Many minutes passed like this until he eventually got up and sought solace at the feet of a monk who did nothing more than shoo him away like a flea-ridden dog. It was heartbreaking to watch, and what made it worse was the clear culture divide – not just in terms of social acceptance – but language which made it difficult for us to know how to intervene.
When we asked Robin what was going on he simply told us that the boy was from another town and nobody knew him here, and the lady from the shop didn’t want him to make a mess. He would be put back on the next train home he assured us, although, we all knew that really it meant ‘the problem would be sent away’ so that they wouldn’t have to deal with him. It made me wonder if it wasn’t just a lack of education but the combination of this with the strong Buddhist philosophy of Karma (that one is born with misfortune or fortune in accordance to how he lived in a previous life) that allows people to justify they way people are treated in this culture.
Clearly eager to move us on, Robin directed us along the tracks once more where a very solemn mood had fallen over the group as we digested what had just happened. The small smiles, waves and excited ‘mangalabas’ from passing school children sharing the tracks with us slowly lifted the mood, and not long after we arrived at the small village where we would spend the night. Angelo drew water from the well for us to shower with within the small overgrown woven walls that formed the shower. It was very hard to remain modest and get clean at the same time and I left Angelo standing guard. He was rewarded for his efforts with a leech on his bum..!
The house we stayed in was typical of a middle class rural family: three buildings – one for sleeping and gathering together, one used as a kichen, and another that sheltered a couple of water buffalo and tools for farming and agriculture. The family had consequently move out of their house to sleep in the smaller, older building to accommodate us – something we found slightly awkward, but they insisted.
Dinner was fantastic as usual, and once the candles died down we all crept sleepily (thanks in part to a couple of bottles of Myanmar beer) to our beds on the floor – careful to point feet away from the small shrine in the room – and fell asleep to the unharmonious – but very enthusiastic – singing of our chef who had managed to get his hands on some of the local speciality. The curtainless windows gave me a perfect view of the stars – a sight that never fails to encourage me into a state of wonderment – and stars that were particularly wondrous in this small part of the world.
Stayed tuned for Part 2!