“What is that?”
pointing curiously at a large rusty metal bar hanging off of the ceiling.
“It looks like one of the metal foundation bars just broke off the building…nothing special”, we thought to ourselves.
“Well, when the train is about to arrive, they bang on this metal bar to signal to all passenger to come to the train station from the village!”
Our guide for the next 3 days, Ying Ying, excitedly explained that here we stood in the only train station in Kalaw, which dates back over 100 years ago. The trains run 2-3 times a day, but goes at a tremendously slow speed of only 15km/hour.
“I could practically run faster…”, I thought to myself.
It’s like time stood still here… And in the following 3 days, we trekked through the forests and tribes of Kalaw to reach Inle lake. For 3 days, we went back in time.
It’s one of those charming mountain villages where practically everybody knows each other. It’s name signifies “Pan”, like “Frying Pan” because apparently it’s shaped like one. After arriving from our 6 hour winding bus ride, we went straight to book our hiking agency (Ko Min), and then bought some supplies for the next few days. Who would’ve thought that the next few days we would actually eat like royalty. In fact, the next few days we would be treated to one of the warmest hospitality from the local people, a people who have so little but give so generously.
Having the rest of the night free, we decided to visit Hi Snack & Bar, actually the ONLY bar in town. It’s more like a small corridor tucked neatly into the wall, with dimly glowing lights revealing a narrow U-Shaped bar counter.
We were greeted immediately by the owner and struck up a conversation. Quite quickly, he took out some of his home cooked food and started sharing it with the rest of the local bar patrons, us included. As the night went on, some locals took out their guitar and started playing. Apparently everybody knew that Burmese song because the whole bar burst into song. The guitar was passed along to different locals and more songs were sung.
We requested “Hotel California” and “Adele” and he willingly obliged, bringing us into the singing. I guess we left a good impression that night since the next day while trekking, we crossed one of the locals present that night and he remembered us!
The next three days
of hiking brought us through 57KMs of beautiful farmlands and village tribes, instilling a sense of both fascination and appreciation.
In these fields, they grew everything from rice, shallots, tomatoes, avocados, lettuce, and potatoes, to chilies. Through their land, they lived with full self-sufficiency. Coming from a Chinese family, it was truly humbling to see the origins of rice and to learn the many steps to properly grow it and harvest it.
As we passed through these tribal villages, little children would poke their heads out of the window or even run down the street to wave and say hello to us. Within their farming lives, the agricultural duties fall upon the responsibility of the parents and grandparents, truly regardless of age. Many times we passed groups of women over the age of 60, with a large basket strapped to their backs, patiently picking the crops. Mothers would do the same but with their babies strapped across their chest with a sort of cloth.
Whenever we had the chance to visit the locals, they would welcome us so warmly and immediately offered us the minimal that they have. These are villages with bamboo houses, no insulation, no foundation, no furniture, no window except for a slot in the wall, no connected electricity, no heating, no running water, just a bamboo interlaced frame with a roof. And by village, I mean a cluster of about 20 houses.
But when we visited one family, the whole village came to sit with us. They brought out and let us try on their traditional ceremonial outfit which after some inquiring, we realized cost them over 150$ to make. That might not sound like much, but in a country where the monthly wage of farmers could be 50$, it is a substantial amount. For that reason, the whole village owns only one set of this outfit and shares it on special occasions.
After Nan tried it on, the villagers burst into a bright smile, as if their Burmese daughter was dressed to be married out. This was made even more convincing with the Tanaca sunscreen painted on her face exactly like the locals do.
Going through those 3 days in the villages, we came to realize truly how fortunate we are to have running water. There, they have a cylindrical well outside that collects the rain water off the roof, and it serves as their “running water”. With it, they wash their vegetables, wash their faces, shower, brush their teeth, wash the dishes…a universal function. To have fresh water, they have to have large crates of bottled water driven to them, although I assume this is mostly to sell to us Tourists.
At night, the whole village falls into pitch blackness. Considering it is only forest and mountains surrounding us, we were treated to the most incredible starry skies. With our 2 new friendly Swiss travel companions, we strode up into the darkness to take in this captivating moment.
This trek not only allowed us to see beautiful scenery of farm life and witness the real authentic local life, it also gave us the amazing opportunity to meet this lovely couple, Alessandra & Till. During those three days of trekking, we shared all our time together, be it laughs, eating together, brushing our teeth together, watching the sunsets, and even taking our undesired squat toilet breaks together.
Going through the hardship of accommodating to rural lifestyle, away from the distractions of technology, allowed us to develop a valuable bond. We continued with them through Inle Lake and Yangon and had to sadly say our goodbyes as we are now flying back to Thailand and they continued their journey in Myanmar.
For our next step: North and South Thailand!