Anyone who has ridden a bus in Myanmar knows that busses here don’t run on diesel, an engine, or even wheels; they run on nonstop, eardrum shattering karaoke. The air conditioning may not work, the tires may be bald, the paint job a dubious affair, and the doors not closed, but the karaoke and the speaker system appear to be meticulously maintained.
It was a rather harrowing overland trip from Yangon to Kalaw. Sure, we could fly, but we wanted to see the countryside and experience the sights and smells involved with travelling “local-style”. We had even decided to take on the challenge of taking one of Myanmar’s scenic train rides from Thazi to Kalaw.
This all sounded good a fine until a wheel on the bus fell off at 2am, leaving everyone stranded for 4 hours, including those poor souls who were squatting on plastic stools in the centre aisle for the duration of the breakdown, squeezed between bags of rice and farm produce.
The bus ride had started out as promising as a bus ride could, all things considered. The VIP express bus we were promised turned out to be a less pimped out ride than pictured on the ticket – but it had air conditioning and we weren’t on a strict schedule, so it was no big deal.
We were cruising along merrily enough at 2am, trying to ignore the nonstop karaoke, until a sonic “BAM!” threw everyone forward, jolting the aisle squatting passengers into a heaping pile towards the front of the bus.
The bus stopped, the lights turned on, the karaoke remained blaring, and the engine remained running. The running of the engine was a promising sign; I whispered to my French companion, “I think it’ll be quick, they kept the engine running.”
Thirty minutes later, the engine turned off, but the lights remained on along with the karaoke, which I thought was beginning to resemble the sound of a hundred wailing babies. This time my French companion said, “I sink is OK, if it was really bad, they turn off light.”
Then the lights turned off, but as though it was the very bastion of hope itself, the karaoke remained. Until at last, even the karaoke succumbed and the entire bus seemed to let out a collective sigh of despair. It was going to be a long one.
Unfortunately the delay had thrown a wrench into our well planned itinerary and we would now miss our train to Kalaw. We eventually got there, though, walking into town triumphantly with the feeling of having conquered the odds.
On arriving, we met a rather fun French group who had hired a guide for the famous three day trek from Kalaw to Nampan in the Inle Lake area. They told me they were looking for an addition to the group, and not wanting to offend a French invitation, we put our names in the hat.
So, for an all inclusive price of 40,000 kyat each, the handful of us hired a guide for the three day, 62km long trek.
I had never hired a guide before, and the idea of doing so was frankly injurious to my pride. When I saw the route we were going to take on Google Maps, I second guessed my decision even more. Q: How hard could it be?
A: Very hard! Not because we were scaling the face of white capped mountains or crossing crevasses with ladders and ropes, but because there are no marked trails. There was not one trail, or two trails, or ten. In fact, every day we probably got on and off 15 different trails; I completely lost the small sense of direction I had in the first 10 minutes (not an unusual occurrence).
The trek itself was marvelous; we wandered around the back country of Myanmar’s highlands, which offer sweeping vistas over open farm land dotted with cows and gleaming stupas in the distant hills. The first night was spent in a villager’s house and the second at a monastery – both apparently in the middle of nowhere. A cook went ahead of us, concocting superb cuisine in advance of our arrival which we ate outside, stuffing ourselves by candlelight.
Having completed the trek, I would say the trekking experience is one of the best, although if you’re traveling to Kalaw by bus, you may want to consider taking one which pays as much attention to its wheel maintenance as it does to its karaoke system.