4-8 March 2013. The hike from heaven and hell. Having spent three days exploring Inle Lake from one end to the other, including visiting a monastery, a pagoda, two markets, some crumbling stupa ruins, a cheroot factory, a wooden boat factory, and the incomparable floating crop gardens, we decided it was time to get out of town and explore the countryside around the lake. Another early morning. I thought I should eat a decent breakfast to have some fuel on board for the four or five hours of hiking in the hills that was ahead of me. Big mistake. I don’t usually eat much breakfast, and I especially don’t usually eat it early.

We met up with our guide Winthane, and fellow trekker Graham from Australia, and the four of us were driven to a village a little way out of Nyaung Shwe.

It all started out very well. Flat ground, on a dirt road, heading towards the hills. Quite quickly we came to this

and these two children going out to dig for some kind of root vegetable. I wish I could remember what. Or knew if it grew wild or was planted by the local farmers. I think it’s a root I saw frequently and it looks a little like ginger. I saw huge piles of it spread out in the sun in one of the villages we passed through. I saw it for sale at one of the markets we went to. And I saw an ox cart piled with enormous bags full of it being loaded onto boats at one of the markets (see Don’s photo in the last post).

I don’t remember when I started to get nauseous. I don’t know if it was what I ate for breakfast, or that I ate at all. Then we started climbing. The more we climbed the worse it got. Oh God can I die now please? There we are out in the middle of no-where and I have no choice but to keep going. For hours. Usually I love hiking, getting out of the towns, climbing. I’d never experienced anything like this, and hope I never do again. And to add to that Don was having heart palpitations. He’s worried for me. I’m worried for him. Graham and Winthane are worried for us both, and Graham probably wonders if he’s joined the old crocks hike, though he did tell me he’d once had a similar experience. Eventually I unceremoniously threw up at the side of the trail and after that things gradually got better. For me. Eventually we stopped climbing, and stopped for a lunch break, and finally Don’s heart settled down. So it got better for him too. And it didn’t stop our interest in all we passed along the way. It did mean that the promised five-hour hike was closer to ten.

A village

And in the village an inventor. It looks like he’s making a “dolly”

Along the trail

This tree was fairly covered in these brightly coloured insects “birthing” themselves

We saw a few lone houses like this, and a few small villages. Winthane pointed out the small square thing on a post next to the house. It is a solar panel! So everyone living out here has a light at night. I was so happy to learn about this. How simple. And how appropriate and obvious in a tropical climate where there is so much bright sunlight. So even the poorest, most isolated homes have a light at night. It must be a huge boon for them.

Things started to improve. It slowly morphed into the hike from heaven. We passed through some soul nourishing scenery

and finally came to the Pa-O village where a wedding was being held, and where we were to have lunch.

I’d cheered up quite a bit when I was told we would be having lunch in a village where a Pa-O wedding was taking place. When Winthane first said so I didn’t quite believe him. It seemed like just too much of a coincidence that we would run into a wedding again! In a remote village in the hills of Burma! But there it was. Not surprisingly I was not interested in lunch, but a local wedding, now that did interest me. We were invited into the house, and sitting inside was a group of Pa-O women drinking tea. I immediately joined them and started taking photos. They were very friendly and accommodating to this strange tourist from some far off land, and we all laughed a lot.

Don and Graham had gone right upstairs to the wedding room, and eventually I joined them. Many people were in there

Don’s photo

The bride and groom sat against the main wall of the decorated room, while the people watching sat along one of the side walls. I think many people of the village had come to watch.

We watched as members of their community approached the bride and groom, gave gifts, and placed white “bracelets” around their wrists.

I think the village was quite big with a mix of Pa-O and another ethnic minority, maybe Shan. Maybe these women with the straw hats are Shan. I never did get the ethnic groups sorted. There are so many of them and not being the diligent sort I didn’t make notes. Don’s photo

Pa-O man

After lunch, served in another house in the village, we set out again on the long trek back to Inle Lake.

Along the way, as the land flattened out there was more agriculture, and villages.

then the lake, and at sunset a short boat ride back to Nyaung Shwe. A long full painful joyous rich heart-lifting day.

The next day we flew from Heho to Yangon domestic airport, as opposed to the shiny chrome and glass international airport. It’s small and old and run down. Bags were off loaded by hand onto carts and shoved in through a door to the waiting crowds who immediately pounced upon them.

From Don: Getting our luggage was a zoo, but eventually Alison appeared with both bags from the melee and then stopped to book a taxi from the taxi desk. While she was discussing this I saw three men in military uniforms approaching rapidly from the tarmac and right behind them was Aung San Suu Kyi with her entourage! Unfortunately by the time I got Alison’s attention Aung San Suu Kyi had disappeared through the door at the front of the airport.

Back to Alison: I can’t believe I missed that! She came through and was gone in a matter of seconds. Don and I were both aware of the reaction of the crowd – or perhaps I should say non-reaction. People moved aside of course, but no one hailed her, or cheered her, or acknowledged her in any way. Perhaps after years of military rule, and years of her being under house arrest, everyone just keeps quiet at this point. I would imagine people are still wary, and are afraid too-public displays of support for her might cause more trouble.

From Don: That night in Yangon I slept intermittently on what felt like a straw mattress. We couldn’t find a way to turn off the overhead light in the room without turning everything, including the air conditioning, off. Consequently the room got very warm overnight and I ended up throwing off all the covers. Early this morning I had a powerful dream: I was watching the Beatles make the difficult transition from acoustic instruments to electric instruments. They were out in the countryside under a large tree and their acoustic instruments were on the ground around the tree. I could see the regret and hesitation in their eyes about leaving their old way and embracing a new way of being. Then the scene switched to a recording studio. I could hear the Beatles singing but couldn’t see them. Instead I was looking at a group of about six drummers, some black some white, rocking it out to the music they were helping to make. They were behind a glass wall and in front of that wall was another drummer, an older man, who was still rocking it out with the rest of them. When the song finally ended the older man said in a questioning tone “That’s a wrap” as if to say “I did the absolute best I could and don’t want to have to try to reproduce the quality of that experience.” I didn’t understand what the dream was telling me until I retold it to Alison then it became clear: I made the transition from a home-based life to life as a nomad and I did the very best I was capable of doing as a nomad, but I don’t want to have to try to repeat that: it’s done and I’m done!

I did my best yesterday to stay present to whatever was happening, despite the difficulties with Air Mandalay and the long delay in getting off the ground in Heho. Today we have to get from Yangon to Bangkok, and I find myself hoping that there’s no delays or difficulties getting out of Burma, because I’m done with it. I’m done with taking anti-malarial pills and wearing Deet every day. Bangkok looks like an oasis of civilization from here. But the practice is to stay as present as possible in every moment regardless of what appears to be happening, so that’s what I’ll continue doing to the best of my ability.

Escape from Myanmar: we left the appalling Nice Day Hotel, which looked a lot like the government-owned hotels mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide with its pale green undecorated walls, grotty bathroom, and a “nicely appointed” restaurant just across the parking garage from the hotel elevator. Behind the front desk was a plaque stating that the hotel was a one star establishment: I think that’s an over-rating, except for the bathtub and boiling hot water.

At the airport it was a quick trip through Immigration and into the departure lounge. Just being in a western-looking international airport departure lounge brought a certain feeling of relief after the domestic terminals we experienced in Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Heho.

My Beatles dream of early this morning tells me that on this long journey, and especially during the Myanmar part, I did the absolute best that I could possibly have done, and to try to repeat any part of it would be asking too much of me. I don’t know what’s to come next.

I was so happy when our plane got off the ground at Yangon Airport and headed towards Bangkok and civilization. I heaved a couple of big sighs of relief once we were safely on our way.

Thus ended our sojourn in Burma. Or Myanmar. The experience changed Don. He’s much less afraid of travel and new places than he used to be. I don’t think it changed me except in the glorious fulfillment of a dream I’d had for forty years. I finally got to Burma. Was it worth it? Oh yes! Every second!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.