I said goodbye to my big backpack – I was assured I’d see it again in three days. For I was about to embark on a three-day trek from here to Inlay Lake. July is the name of one of my favourite months of the year, and also the name of one of my favourite guides from any of my travels. July met us with a beaming smile, and simply said: “You’re ready? Let’s go!” Small of stature but with big lungs and a big heart, July led our group of 6, a Spanish couple, a couple of Swiss friends, and a German girl on one of the finest treks any of us had ever experienced.
July led us into the heart of Burma, through fields and forests, in hues of verdant greens and orange. She led us through yellow meadows of blooming daisies, past chilli fields, skirting venomous caterpillars and snakes, along old train tracks, and into small villages. We saw scenes far removed from the modern world; oxen pulling carts down bumpy tracks, farm-hands in tattered robes shuffling up dirt tracks with huge loads of straw strapped to their backs, women sorting chillis and putting them to dry on the roof of wooden shacks….we came across young monks sitting and chatting, had tea with the elder of a village we passed through, and took breaks under trees or in small villages where simple but delicious food was served to us.
On the first evening, we came into a village, and were met with the excited commotion that six young foreigners strolling through your fields and into your village and asking for a bed for the night would bring. Curious kids came out to cautiously greet us. A kindly family offered to put us up for the night in their simple wooden house. We were given thin mattresses on the floor, where we would all sleep together huddled in the same small room. But not before a delicious candle-lit dinner, and then joining the party of the year. For we had fortuitously arrived in the village on a special night where they celebrate the Buddha returning to earth after 3 months (or is it years?) in heaven delivering a sermon to his mother. The whole village was out, and there was a candlelit procession to a shrine, which was the main event of the evening. Then there was dancing, and we were invited to take part and join in with the ‘possessed’ (drunk) village elders, who kept lurching somewhat menacingly in and out of the candlelight. We then returned to our hut, bringing our candles with us, for there is no electricity in this village, and we huddled down and fell asleep.
Cock-a-doodle-do! It must have been no later than 4am. But life in a village starts early. We probably spent a couple of hours in the limbo of half-sleep, as the cocks crowed all around, and we could hear preparations being made for breakfast. I got up, took my small bar of soap, and went to the shower in the garden, which was just a barrel of water with a jug you poured over yourself. After breakfast we headed off again, spearheaded by the ever-energetic and bubbly July, her thanaka on, who all the men of our party were secretly now in love with.
Another memorable day of trekking followed, July not just guiding us, but educating us on the surrounding nature, the power of the plants, stories of local legend. The second evening was spent in another village. This village, however, had already seen tourism. The people were different – more cautious, not wanting to interact or have much to do with the tourists. Usually on such treks travellers sleep in one of the monasteries, but the monastery was, apparently, full, which we found strange as we hadn’t seen any other tourists but us trekking this whole time. So instead, we stayed in a thin wooden and tin shed, clearly erected to house foreigners, just outside the village. This is what it will be like everywhere soon, I imagine. Soulless sheds, full of tourists who want an ‘authentic’ village experience. They won’t get it, not like we were lucky enough to get the previous night. Instead, they’ll be put in these sheds and mix with a community of other backpackers. That’s what happens, unfortunately. And so we loitered around the village shop, had a shower (a pipe spurting cold water this time), ate our meal in the shed, and slept early.
I woke earlier than the others the next day, determined to walk around the village and take some snaps – there is no better time to see the heart and soul of a village than on an early morning stroll. I met villagers, but found in the majority of cases negative reactions to my being there – not unfriendly, just overly cautious. They had clearly experienced it too many times before – tourists blundering around invading their privacy with a camera lens. Still, I managed to connect with some of them, and got to see a little bit of their simple, every day life.
I got back to the shed and joined the others for breakfast. We were getting on well, our little group. I was trying my best with my limited Spanish to communicate with the Spanish couple, which they appreciated, and I got on with the Swiss guys and the German girl really well, and we shared many a tale of travel and adventure. July geed us up and we once again laced up our walking boots and headed off.
It was a shorter trek this time, a trek which took us to a canoe which took us down a reedy channel and to Inlay Town, where we got off and suddenly found ourselves back in the real world. There were other travellers here, restaurants, tour shops, hostels and hotels. Inlay Lake is a place well-geared up to tourism. It’ so popular, that we were told at the tour agents where we picked up our big backpacks that had come up on a bus, there were no more rooms available. Anywhere. Some others in the group had booked ahead and already had digs. Not me. I’ve never really liked committing myself to a hotel without checking it out first. A bit daft in this day and age with TripAdvisor etc, but there you go. Not believing the “no room” comment, and fearing a scam of some kind, I grabbed my backpack and headed off in search of a place to stay. It was a fruitless search for some time, and I began thinking of which shop doorway looked the most comfortable, until I found a cheap place some way up the main street. It was barely habitable. But it would do.
After resting, I headed down into the lively town, and to a small restaurant where our trekking group had all agreed to meet for a curry and a well-deserved bottle of Myanmar beer. We shared stories as the Myanmar worked its magic of bonding the unbondables and promises of everlasting friendships were made that were made to be broken and which everybody knows but it is never spoken of. I love these kid of evenings. We agreed to meet the next day and head off on a tour of Inlay Lake together. We had had an incredible three days together, and I would highly recommend the trek to anybody.