Published on August 25th, 20152
Myanmar Memories: Part II – Kalaw and Inle Lake
While doing my Myanmar research, Kalaw was suppose to be just some non-descript incidental jumping-off point for treks through the Burmese countryside en route to Inle Lake. And indeed, Inle Lake was to be the prize – the alleged idyllic place everybody seemed to favor in all of Myanmar. Thus my “plan” (after finally grabbing back my passport from the Thai embassy in Yangon on Monday afternoon) was to head out by overnight bus to Kalaw. Spend a single night there and allot a generous 5 nights of idle relaxation at Inle Lake.
It didn’t turn out that way. At.All. Just the reverse in fact. I fell in love with Kalaw. And later (after a most extraordinary 4 day motorbike trek visiting Hill Tribe villages) when I arrived at Inle Lake, it turned out to be… a “meh” at best. Just goes to show that – even with boatloads of research, it’s not a good idea to lock yourself into a specific itinerary. Far better to (as I did) play it all by ear – pre-book a single night in your next destination, and leave the rest open to whim.
And so it was that I did take that overnight bus from Yangon to Kalaw. I was expecting the worst (I mean, we ARE talking a 12 hour ride on a public bus in Myanmar after all), but that too, turned out to be an astoundingly comfy surprise – with fully reclining seats, festively ruffled neck pillows at every seat, and plenty of snacks and bottled water.
Furthermore, even after nearly 2 years now, I can still vividly recall sleepily clamoring off that bus 12 hours later in the pre-dawn darkness. Standing in the middle of a dirt road with my rollie. Utterly alone in the dark, knowing not where I was nor what direction my Kalaw hotel might be.
Frightened? Not a bit. Weary from the long ride of course, but most definitely excited to see what adventures might lie just around the bend. I mean, it’s not like I hadn’t been in similar circumstances many times in g-forsaken places all over the world (Honduras, Morocco, Israel and Nepal spring to mind). It’s a “trust” thing. After years of solo travel to 40 countries, I dare say I’ve come to trust in the universe, and in a world that has a 99.9% record of keeping me safe. But also, trust in myself and my own resourcefulness to get through whatever bizarre situation I get myself into.
And that dark morning in Kalaw proved no exception. I hadn’t taken but a step down the road towards the twinkling lights of the town, when the rumble of a motorbike assured me that I was well on my way to a comfy bed. Indeed, hopping on the back, my new “chauffeur” soon deposited me at the Nature Land Hotel. And shortly thereafter, I was cosily tucked under warm covers (talk about “early check-in”) catching a few lost winks before exploring the sweet town of Kalaw. (btw, much like elsewhere in Myanmar, my room at $30 per night was necessarily a bit above the usual cheapo Southeast Asia prices, but at least in this case, I got what I paid for – a nice large, comfy room with a full breakfast, set on a lush, garden hilltop with a lovely view of Kalaw town below.)
Later, I strolled down the hill to see what Kalaw was all about. In a word: perfect. The perfect little town with but a couple of small tour operators soft-selling multi-day treks to Inle Lake via overnights in remote Hill Tribe villages. Precisely what I was after. And I did indeed negotiate a couple of treks (both by motorbike as I wasn’t at all sure these dodderin’ legs would hold out for 3 or 4 days on-foot over Burmese hill ‘n dale): a day trip to attend a Hill Tribe wedding, and a 3 night private trek (just me and my motorbike driver) to Inle Lake. Trust that both of these adventures will be detailed with oodles of pics in my next Myanmar Memories post.
Meanwhile, I so enjoyed exploring Kalaw that I ended up staying 3 nights there before setting off by motorbike for Inle Lake. Blessedly no glitzy string of tourist traps, just a pretty little town, with friendly folk, and just enough to see and do to keep me happy. I’d heard that the weekly market (attracting Hill Tribe vendors from miles away) would be held later in the week, so I happily stuck around to see that. The market didn’t disappoint, and my carefree days in Kalaw proved most enjoyable. In addition to hitch-hiking in a cabbage truck (!) out to a beautiful Buddhist cave complex, I even dropped by the local school and (seriously) inquired/considered returning to Kalaw to teach English there.
Inle Lake? Uh, not so much. Jumping over my 5 day motorbike trek from Kalaw (detailed in a separate edition of my Myanmar Memories), I was honestly expecting Inle to be an idylic haven and planned on spending a goodly bulk of my precious Myanmar time there (5 nts.) pedaling a bicycle around the lake and soaking up the natural beauty of the setting.
Um, not really. I loved the boat ride across the lake from the shore where my motorbike dropped me off. But… suffice after moseying around the (picturesque-not) town of Shwe Nyaung, it became crystal clear that any of the touted boat excursions were effectively a trip to the mall by quasi-charming boat. All ended up at one floating Walmart or another, and I wasn’t foolish enough to “buy” into it.
Instead, I made the best of it – doing what I do best: aimlessly wandering around the dusty backroads and snapping photos. The highlight of my stay at Inle was grabbing yet another Myanmar geocache – this one kindly tended by an 80 yr. old monk that lives alone in the lovely Ywa Thit monastery, set amid the rice fields along the edges of Inle Lake.
Indeed, this is geocaching at its best: seeking boxes of “treasure” in remote corners of the globe, and meeting the local folks along the way. Seriously, geocaching truly IS a World-wide game of hide ‘n seek custom made for travelers. If you haven’t tried it, I strongly suggest you grab a free account at geocaching.com, and skip off (likely not more than a few blocks from where you presently sit reading this) to find the nearest bundle of geo-joy.
But yammering with an old monk notwithstanding, it didn’t take me long to realize that Inle Lake was not my cuppa travel tea. So I subsequently got outta Dodge (on another long-haul bus, this time to those legendary temples at Bagan) after just 2 nights there.
Stay tuned for future weeks of (finally!) sharing details of my many adventures throughout the incredible land of Myanmar. Next up: That amazing trek on the back of a motorbike through scattered Hill Tribe villages that I mentioned earlier, plus the wondrous temples at Bagan, the globe’s most rickety train to Mandalay, and (my fave) sweet little Hsipaw.
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