19 APR 2012: From Mandalay we drove southwest through far-between, tiny villages, stopping occasionally for a market or temple to arrive at Mt. Popa Resort, a classy retreat on the lush slopes of the volcano, with arguably one of the world’s best views. It looks out upon a 740-metre high, steep finger of land formed at the last eruption some 250,000 years ago. Atop sits a collection of temples – think fairy-tale and you’ve got it.

It’s much more enjoyable looking across at this from the resort’s restaurant than climbing the 777 steps of the shrine. However, this area being the centre of nats – spirits – it’s always a good idea to hedge your best and ward them off with a temple visit.

If Myanmar has only one must-see (truly, it has many) it is Bagan where myriad temples -- some books say as many as 3,300 -- are sprinkled throughout the gentle valley. Known as Myanmar’s first kingdom, it is believed more than 10,000 Buddhist temples and pagodas existed between the 9th and 13th centuries.

Today we visit a 42-square kilometre archaeological zone. Suffice to say that we were shoeless often and the more rugged roads and lanes we followed the more we saw. Highlight? Climbing the precipitous steps to perch on Shwesandwo Pagoda and watch the sun set over the temple-rich valley and the Irrawaddy River.

This two-week tour with World Expeditions was well paced – we spent two days in Bagan – and all the accommodation was excellent. Well worth a mention is Thazin Garden Hotel, where we stayed in Bagan as a 3th century pagoda adorned the garden-set restaurant plus this was one of the few places with reliable Internet access.

We flew north then drove to the hill station of Kalaw, cooler weather and once a summer retreat during the colonial era. Along the way we stopped at the Shwe Oo Min Cave Pagoda. In a natural vast cave are more than 8000 Buddha in all shapes and sizes; many kept up by donations from donors around the world.

From a village near Kalaw, we set out on a two-day hike to Inle Lake. This is the Shan Plateau, a quilt of golden and green crops backed by forested hillsides renowned for its outdoor activities and its rich cultural aspect as you hike among the hill tribes. (Myanmar has 135 different ethnic groups; tribes are recognizable by their traditional clothing.) Thanks to our accompanying porters, we didn’t have to carry full packs, a relief as the temperature hovered around 34C.

Heat aside, I found it idyllic, walking a foreign landscape through tiny villages where lustrous skinned oxen rest and children rush out to jabber and wave; you amble, often by yourself, through fields where tribal people in colourful headdress smile and wave. You trudge uphill in rich, red soil, pass huge Blue Agave plants and join your group to rest in the shade of a massive fig tree.

Each day’s walk of four to five hours covered between 10 to 14 kilometres, with an overnight at a monastery. It was rustic, like camping indoors but we loved the company of young boys who come from the surrounding villages to be schooled by the monks. It was fun when they saw a video of themselves on a friend’s computer.

Lunch time was a bonus as we were hosted by locals. At Kone Hla village, we flopped on the floor of the main room of a stilt house and admired the family pictures on the bamboo walls while enjoying a delicious noodle meal prepared by our porters.

The chief of this Danu tribe sat nearby smiling; Abba played in the background. Among our group was Bill from Seattle who had brought eye glasses and Robbie offered several pair to the chief to try. Suddenly his weathered face lit up and Robbie passed on his comment that he would now be able to read something at his grandson’s wedding. It was one of those warm, fuzzy travel memories. (World Expeditions contributes towards these villages.)

The last hour of the hike was a rugged rocky descent but we were constantly agog at the pedestrian traffic going uphill as villagers trotted by us with huge bundles of rice, bananas, hay, vegetables and more. Eventually we hopped in a motorized longboat to Nyaungshwe, a pleasant town that caters to tourists – it even has an Italian restaurant.

Exploring the 21-kilometre-long Lake Inle is via boat; the marshy lake is dotted with 17 villages built on stilts surrounded by floating gardens. We viewed the lifestyle of the amazing Intha tribe, who clear weeds and sludge from the lake, by hand, to build islands where they grow crops of vegetables and fruit that they live on and take to market. Their fishing technique is equally as intriguing as they paddle their flat-bottomed skiffs with a single paddle that they steer with one leg wrapped around it; to fish they cast a huge net all singlehanded. Makes fly fishing look a breeze.

We cruised beside water buffalo, disembarked on wharves to visit ancient temples, stopped at small ‘factories’ where threads are woven into fine fabrics; we saw cigars being made, and lacquer and silver products produced. People so obviously work hard, yet, whether we watched them weed their crops (from a boat) or produce the fine thread of the lotus plant (it takes 5-7 days to get one spool of thread), we were rewarded with smiles.

To me, Inle Lake, well perhaps all Myanmar, is a treasure trove of travel experiences but then it was time to go home. Good-bye to these wonderful lake days viewing unique culture, so long hill tribes and picturesque valleys, adios amazing temples and golden Buddha. Hello clean feet.

Travel Tips:

⋅ A visa is required at a cost of US $40. It can be done online www.myanmar.visahq.ca

⋅ I flew with China Airlines from Vancouver with a stopover in Taiwan.

⋅ World Expeditions started taking groups to Myanmar at the end of 2010. Trips run every month except June.

Nathalie Gauthier, North American manager, says that while it is unavoidable for anyone to travel to Myanmar without contributing to its government, World Expeditions uses “locally-run companies and avoids government hotels and businesses. And of course just being here supports the economy, much of which is small family businesses and shops.”

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Derrick Bloch

A regular contributer to Travel Industry Today, Derrick has been recognized by National Geographic Traveler as one of the top 80 travel agents in North America. 

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