Published on September 24th, 20152
Myanmar Memories: Part III – Hill Tribe Moto-trek
My near 3 week amble around Myanmar truly proved to be the frosting on my 2+ year Asian odyssey cake. Oh so many memories of Yangon, Kalaw, Inle Lake, Bagan, Mandalay, and dear sweet Hsipaw.
Ah but the very fondest of all – my 4 day spin through the Burmese countryside on the back of a motorbike, dodging muddy potholes, gasping at rural vistas so exquisite it often brought tears to my eyes (or… maybe it was just road dust!), and sleeping on the floors of humble Hill Tribe homes.
Though the precise facts and figures may well now escape me after these many months, I can emphatically assure you – the delicious memories of bouncing freely through the back-roads of Myanmar have not dimmed in the least.
As detailed in my Part II of this Myanmar Memories saga, I initially fell so in love with the lovely highland town of Kalaw that I dallied an extra 2 days there. The first order of business of course, was setting up my trek to Inle Lake. While there are a handful of tour operators in Kalaw that offer such small group treks, my previous online research pointed me to “Sam’s Restaurant” (his trekking HQ is in his family restaurant) as both the best and the cheapest. So naturally I headed there the day of my (pre-dawn!) arrival by bus from Yangon.
Sure enough, there was a small group headed out on foot the next morning for a 3 day/2 night trek (at $40 pp.). But I wanted to leave two days later in order to catch the weekly Hill Tribe market in Kalaw on Friday. I also hoped to do a 4 day trek, but was a bit concerned that my dodderin’ legs weren’t up to such a strenuous trudge.
Talking it over with Sam, he suggested a motorbike instead of plodding nearly 40 miles on foot. That way I could spend more time in the Hill Tribe villages and my knees would no doubt thank me. A 4 day moto-trek (with my own personal driver/guide) was a bit more costly of course, but at just $90 for a private 4 day/3 night trek (including all meals and accommodations in homestays) proved to be among the best values in all my travels.
But by departing for Inle on Friday, I still had a day to spare before the weekly market, and Sam mentioned a wedding the next day in one of the nearby villages. Another solo lass opted to join in, so for $20 each, the four of us (each lass on the back of a motorbike with driver) set out the next morning for the wedding. Turns out, it was actually THREE weddings, with a trio of nuptial pairs.
Weddings of course are very special affairs among these rural communities, and the villages are scattered far and wide among the hills. So multiple weddings are combined so that everyone (on foot or speedy oxen) can attend. Needless to say, the festivities proved remarkable – the brides and grooms colorfully adorned in their most sumptuous finery. The entire village welcomed us with open arms, and we danced in the middle of the village to 70’s tunes blaring from boomboxes tucked on the porches above. None of the newlyweds had set up a gift registry at Bed Bath & Beyond of course, so instead we offered a few thousand kyat (pronounced “chat”, about $3) to each couple, as was the custom.
The following morning I rose early and enjoyed the weekly Hill Tribe market as planned (see more market pics in my earlier Myanmar Memories: Part II post) before starting my 4 day moto-trek to Inle Lake.
My trusty private guide spoke excellent English and proved a most knowledgeable and amiable companion for the 4 day trek. Sam’s trekking services also include conveniently transferring your luggage directly to Inle Lake for a small fee, allowing me to travel uber-light for the 4 days with just a small rucksack with but a change of underwear, a toothbrush, and rain-gear.
Words fail, to describe the idyllic ride, meandering past miles of yellow flowering canola fields, and stopping to chat with locals working in fields or tending their stock, along with petite lasses hefting piles of rocks to reinforce the potholed roads. Indeed, while the way proved a good deal physically challenging at times (bouncing over dirt roads filled with puddles and deep ruts), we occasionally passed small groups of trekkers on foot – mostly twenty-somethings – loudly bemoaning both their blisters and the tedium of walking for hours ‘n hours on end.
Instead, thanks to our little motorbike, we covered a lot of territory including lofty villages (otherwise not reachable to the trekkers on foot with but 3 days to cover nearly 60 km) with views that were truly breathtaking. The bike also allowed us to arrive in each village by mid-afternoon, so as to have plenty of time to wander among the simple rattan homesteads and interact with the locals. And while by day 4, I was more than ready to give my sore motorbike bum a rest, I must say, I was reluctant to leave such a rare and idyllic travel experience behind.
And finally, I leave you with my most cherished memory of Myanmar: Just before dawn on the final morning of the trek, as I lay on my bamboo mat on the floor of my homestay – a faint creak of the flooring (luckily) prompted me to open my eyes…
There in the corner knelt this young lad, carefully applying “thanaka” to his cheeks by the dim light from the window.
Can you spell “priceless”?
Still many more Myanmar tales to tell, so stay tuned for the final two chapters of this most memorable saga. Next up: those bazillion temples at Bagan, the jiggly-jarring train to Mandalay, and the oft’ missed (but most exquisite) far-flung haven of Hsipaw.