Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Burma: From the hills to the Bay of Bengal

TREKKING THROUGH THE SHAN HILLS









A two day trek took us up, down and over valley from the hill-station of Kalaw to the fishing and farming communities of Inle Lake. Ascending lung-bursting fir-tree covered hills and transversing patchwork valley that would look ever so much like the south of England were it not for the huge water-buffalo and paddy fields.

We passed through numerous villages seeing people of varied and proud Shan hill tribes. This is an area that has been at ends with the government for a long time. It is technically off-limits but we went after ascertaining that it was relatively safe for foreigners. The political situation in the immediate locality of our route has calmed down in recent years with less open aggression and an undertaking from the locals to stop growing the opiates that the region is famous for. The people were very friendly and on the first day we ate lunch in a local house with a birthday celebration before setting off again through the heat.

Part of the reason I enjoyed the trek so much was undoubtedly because of the beauty and tranquility of the area we trekked. The other part of the story is the group we trekked with. A really fascinating group of Simon (English doctor to be who has been volunteering in East Timor), Israelis (interesting), Belgian (funny) and "Ladies Love Larry" (hilarious – he even inspired me to cycle from England- Greece, watch this space), made the walk and the few days relaxing afterwards a pleasure.

Overnight we stayed in a monastery half way up a hill in the middle of nowhere. A shower outside with a bucket, some great food, great chats, local card games and a floor in the corner of the prayer-hall combined with the utter peacefulness of the place refreshed the legs after the 25km of the first day.

Around the hill we trudged to be greeted with a series of simply blissful views. Those who have trekked mountainous areas will recognize that moment when from passing next to and betwixt the mountains you turn a corner and are blessed with a sudden clear view of valleys stretching are far as the eye can see. A precipitous point of elevation that allows you to view the earth as if from the air and even more satisfying after having to break a bit of a sweat to get there.

Only a couple of clicks on we once again were given the most bonita vista. A similar elevated panorama of valley stretching below, twin hills rising dramatically but broken in the middle by space for Inle lake to proudly show itself, glittering in the afternoon light.

Down again we went past numerous small villages. Past children guiding buffalo and women reaping the fields before we broke through the trees and slowly descended to the lake.

After some more ancient pagoda watching, we took the long narrow boat through the little river ways (literally jumping over the small ingenious dams) out into the expanse of the lake and across it to the main village of the valley. In the center of the lake you are quite a distance from the high hills that line the valley on two sides. The gently sloping plain that adjoins these parallel rises spreads from you in all directions as watery mass before being engulfed by read, village, paddy and eventually hill. The lake communities fish and farm from huts with legs surrounded by this blue and green.

Four days we spend just chilling out here. OK, I watched some monks play football (precarious with those robes), went on a couple of magnificent walks past dead snakes up into the hills (over the rim to the border area with Thailand – strictly off limits where much is grown in abundance) and around the plain (some locals I think thought I was a bit mad wandering aimlessly all on my own in the middle of nowhere), played chess, watched both big cup finals, played Pro Evo (big local favourite here), downed caipirinhas with the crowd, laughed at Larry’s footie jokes, hanged around with Tom Cruise, progressed my juggling and ate copiously, but in general just relaxed. Bliss after running around for so long.

One by one we said goodbye to the trekking company until it was just Dave and me. We jumped on the 20 odd hour bus accompanied by a whole contingent of monks to the soon to be disposed capital Yangon (more politics – the government apparently fear US invasion and are retreating inland in their paranoia). A couple of hours for lunch and then on another 6 hours to an overnight stop at a big fishing town and some more Pro Evo before the final 2 hours across the vast delta to a beach…… a beach….. exactly what I have needed since leaving all those in South America heading for the golden sands of Brazil for the hot, dry expanse of central northern India.

BEACH TIME

There is not too much to say about 5 days spent at a mostly cloudy-rainy Chang Tha beach. It is a nice, reasonably developed palm-clad beach that looks out onto the emerald Bay of Bengal. More of a family place then for party, with Burmese walking into the sea mostly fully clothed in much smaller numbers then usual partly because the rainy season has just arrived and largely because the largest hurricane in 40 years had ripped through the location as we landed in the country and devastated much of the vegetation and construction. Fortunately there was early warning so no-one was hurt. It was a bit weird coming in the aftermath of such a thing but, support where it is needed, we could assist the clean up with our almost nightly fires on the beach burning excess debris.

In fact I believe that was the highlight of our time. Learning fire bush skills from Dave while others played guitar, sang (on my part attempted to), talked, drank whisky and whiled away the dark hours under the beautiful array of bright stars that chose to show themselves every so often through the cloud.

There were very few people around, but those that were were good company to accompany my headlong dive into David Copperfield. In fact the only negative companion was a bottle and more of very evil local whisky (we are talking can’t move uber hangover) and some fishy stomach bug that inhibited my partaking in a veritable lobster feast which, from the corner of my eye, I watched Dave devour as I squatted on all fours in the mud removing the contents of my stomach.

On the one sunny day I got suitably burned after swimming across the delta to an island and giving the whole sun-bathing thing a go found my “travel-tan” is fundamentally insufficient. Otherwise there were walks into the surrounding villages and swims into the sea, but most importantly exactly what I need from beach time - not sunshine or party, but the knowledge that there is nothing I have to do except lie back and hear the mighty ocean lap against the shore – BLISS!
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