After Bagan, Mel and I spent three days and two nights on a 45 mile trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. True to form when it comes to Myanmar I have mixed feelings about the adventure. The trek made for some of the most incredible, authentic experiences to-date on my travels. But I’ve also never been so miserable or uncomfortable, maybe in my entire life. My emotional (and physical) state swung from pure joy to complete despair from moment to moment. Thankfully I had Mel by my side and we traded off being the “adult” depending upon when the other needed it. I’m ashamed to say that she was the adult more often than not.
Since we’d be spending the better of 72 hours just walking and talking, we were hoping to find some other travelers to buddy up with. Luckily that’s just what we found. The day before we hoped to start, we walked into Sam’s Family Trekking and there met our absolutely amazing crew: two Dutchies (Max and Tom) and another Swiss (Thomas). Our two local guides rounded out the team.
The following morning we dropped our big packs at Sam’s and said a prayer that they (and Mel’s guitar) would make it safely it our hostel in Inle Lake. In our small packs we carried a change of clothes, some warm things for nighttime, our toothbrushes, water and toilet paper. Only the bare essentials since we knew any superfluous items would be regretted about half a mile into day one. And with that, we started our journey. When I say that we trekked from Kalaw to Inle Lake I mean that we started walking from Sam’s front door and didn’t stop until we’d reached the lake where a boat chartered us to the other end.
The first day was perfect. With beautiful, sunny weather we walked easily (but at a steady pace) through towns, along forest paths and over a small mountain range. Melanie will correct me that these were NOT mountains, but she’s Swiss so her idea of mountains are the Alps. My my definition of mountains can include the sand dunes in Michigan and the rolling hills of Brown County, Indiana. These were somewhere between the Alps and mounds of dirt.
Having nothing to do but talk as we walked, we set right to work getting to know one another, which made for a really beautiful experience in itself. In a few days time I know more about these guys (and they know more about me) then acquaintances I’ve had for years. Perfect strangers, baring their souls to one another because what else do you do when you’ve got three days and two nights together with no wifi, TV or even any other English-speakers? It’s remarkable the things you hear (and say) when there are no distractions from conversation.
Eventually we made it to our lunch spot: a perfectly sweet collection of wooden tables and chairs, covered by a thatch roof, overlooking the valley. It was here that we found out just how good we had it with our cook. The food we enjoyed throughout our trek was hands down the best Myanmar food we had throughout our time in country. We’d had delicious meals in Yangon and were headed for some in Inle Lake, but they were all Indian, Thai or Chinese. Myanmar food tends to be fried, greasy and overly flavored in some way (too salty, too bitter, too sweet – you pick. It’s always “too” something). Our favorites were fried morning glory and what we called guacamole – chunked avocado mixed with onion, tomatoes and some spices. Our guides had never heard of “guacamole.”
Carrying on we walked along a ridge that overlooked a picturesque valley. Dotting the side of the hill were quaint little shacks dubbed “honeymoon houses.” Arranged marriages are still very much a think in Myanmar and, if from different tribes/villages, bride and groom do not meet until the day of their wedding. Afterwards, they’re carted off to one of the honeymoon houses for two weeks to “get to know each other.” Yeah. I know what that means and I’m guessing very little talking is involved. Our guide made a point to say that he believed marriage for love is best.
Throughout the rest of the day we passed a monastery, a school program (attended by the entire town) and countless groups of people playing Myanmar’s favorite sport, chinlone. You see people playing the game EVERYWHERE in Myanmar, with anything that can be conceived as a ball-like object, but mostly one woven of bamboo or hard, pliable sticks. Chinlone is a non-competive sport, which sounds like an oxymoron to Americans. When I looked it up on Wikipedia (where all good sources are sited from), it said this: “The focus is not on winning or losing, but how beautifully one plays the game.” My head is overloaded with analogies, so I won’t even make one, I’ll just leave it at this incredible sentence, which makes me overwhelmingly happy.
We walked along railroad tracks, balancing on the rails, kicking rocks and feeling very much like Huck Finn. It was near sunset when we reached the home stay that would be our resting place for the evening. Our beds were blankets laid out on the floor of the wooden home and a pillow each. Luckily the blankets were very warm because there was no heat or fire – just our body heat to keep us warm during the cold, 45 degree evenings. We washed up in the basin of rain water out back and were shown the toilet: an outhouse in the backyard. Dinner was cooked over an open fire in the kitchen. This was the real Myanmar and I loved it.
I slept well despite the cold, a few very dark trips to the outhouse, an unsettled water buffalo who resided just below us and a rooster that confused 3am with dawn. But I was so tired from the trek that none of it mattered. What DID matter were the three very large blisters that had formed on my toes during the day. They were the size of quarters, nearly the full length of each toe, and RIPE. With Mels safety pin I drained them (always a favorite activity), washed them and wrapped them up with band aids.
But the next morning I knew from the start it was all going downhill from there. I crammed my wounded feet into my shoes and started walking, already feeling like I was limping around on stubs. I found that as I walked my feet eventually numbed, which was – strangely – a positive. But when we stopped… they throbbed and were so painful I actually felt nauseous. And then the rain came…
“Do you think it will rain all day?”
“I really needed you to lie to me just now.”
Though it was on and off, the rain did, in fact, last all day. Sometimes a miserable drizzle, other times a straight up down pour. I had so much water running down my face I had to wipe it away from my eyes so I could see.
I won’t go on and on but it was a really rough day. Every time something cheered me up and my confidence surged, something else happened to bring me down (more torrential rain, accidentally kicking a cement block with my largest and most painful blister, sliding down muddy hills, etc.) I think the worst was knowing that there was no “light at the end of the tunnel” – at least for that day. There was no hot shower, heat, dry clothes, running water or proper toilet waiting for me at the home stay. Just a hard bed on the floor of a cold room. These thoughts made me spiral.
I’d had enough. I was soaked, freezing and worst of all my blistered were rubbed raw, and new ones were forming with every step I took. My shoes HAD to come off, but because of the rain, walking in flip flops was impossible. So I ditched shoes all together and walked it barefoot through the puddles, mud, buffalo shit, atop the rocks, down and then back up the hills. This, friends, is known as a textbook low point. I cried, I cursed the weather, our guides, my friends and God. I questioned everything.
“What am I doing here?! I don’t belong here. Why did I think I could do this whole trip? I should just go home. But I don’t belong there either now. I’ve fucked it all up, I’m wasting my life and now my TOES ARE FALLING OFF!!!!!”
We’re talking full on existential crisis. Emotional, physical and spiritual breakdown. But let’s be honest, it was bound to happen at some point. But I kept going. And thank God because not continuing was not an option. Night was coming and the torrential rains had made it impossible for vehicles of any kind to get to where we were. The road was so covered in mud that it was impassable even on foot, so we had to find a new route over the hills.
And then, when I thought I couldn’t take any more, the sky cleared. And the sun came out. We found a patch of grass overlooking the terraced fields where we sat to rest. We played music, and before long Mel and I were singing and dancing (dancing in place, but still, dancing) and the guides were showing us their best chinlone high kicks and fanciest traditional Myanmar dance moves. We threw back the last of our whiskey (which we’d picked up at lunch to ease our pain) and carried on with renewed energy.
That night we snuggled at the little table on the porch of our home stay and indulged in an enormous meal of Myanmar food, prepared again, over an open fire in the kitchen. Everything we had – including the clothes on our backs and those in our packs – were soaking wet. We headed out to a little shack near the house where a fire was lit and we constructed clothes lines of sticks to hang and dry our things. We stayed there getting warm, listening to Melanie sing and drinking beer. Just as the thunder started up again we gathered our things, darted inside and snuggled under our blankets, falling asleep to the thunderous sound of rain on the metal roof. It was, as Max said, “kind of cozy.”
The following morning, our last of the trek, we put on our damp clothes, wet shoes and set out for the finish line. While we didn’t have any more rain, I’m embarrassed to say that I slowed us down substantially because of my feet. Having a group of people (all younger than you) wait as you drag your mangled body down cliffs is embarrassing/humbling. Big shout out to my wolf pack that was patient, encouraging and so so amazing throughout the whole trek. Thanks babes 😉
While there were some serious lows on the trek, they were balanced with some unforgettable highs. And, more than in any other place I’ve been, I felt like I got to see the real Myanmar. Once, in a tiny village we passed through, Melanie reminded me, “not many other people have been here.” She was right and it felt great – going where, perhaps, no Hoosier has gone (or cried) before.