via the locals bus. Surprisingly, the actual bus we would ride in was the vehicle which came to my hotel at 3:30 am. After gathering up the pre-booked passengers throughout Nyaung U, it parked by the market where it was filled the rest of the way by locals heading east.
We left Nyaung U with every seat taken, yet over the day we would pick up more passengers – some short run, others long. The aisles filled with little plastic stools for the overflow. Rarely was anyone who flagged us down turned away. So we stayed true to the dictum which is in force across much of southeast Asia – if you can still move or breathe, the bus or minivan is not yet full.
At 3:30 am, looking out at it in the night, the bus appeared old beyond belief, and the inside told me no different. In fact hours later when I saw it in the daylight, it looked fresh and fine on the outside. Still the age of vehicles here is dichotomized by the side the steering wheel is on. If it is on the right, it is pre-1970; if on the left, it was shipped into the country after that time.. Some time after the British were driven out of Burma, the side of the road for driving was abruptly changed.
Winding up the steep precipitous, and pitted, road to Kalaw, one appreciates deeply the skill of the driver, especially when one realizes that he is steering this behemoth from the wrong side of the vehicle..
This route was horrendously wonderful. With half the roadbed eroded away and the remainder pitted, we wound by villages and rice terraces, arriving in the mountain town of Kalaw some 12 hours after starting out.
I had thought I’d do a hike in the hills above Kalaw, guided of course as the paths are convoluted, mysterious, and no one up in the hills would understand my language, nor I theirs. My concern about the popular walk from Kalaw to Inle Lake was the stories of miserably cold nights with too few blankets. But when I talked with my guide to be, he spun a marvelous tale – that because he was hill tribe born we would not encounter that problem. And this proved to be exactly true.
So I did the 40 mile or so walk to Inle, spending the first night in Aung Aung’s native Danu village Ywar Bu at the chief’s house and the second night in a cozy space behind the little shop run by his Auntie’s friend in the Pa O village Pud Tu Bauk. The chance to see and feel the land, and to walk among the hill tribe people in such a way was amazing. When we at last emerged at Inle Lake, I felt connected to the place as I could not have any other way.
And now my time runs short. I will be two more nights in Nyaungshwe, up a muddy looking canal from Inle Lake, then on an overnight bus back to Yangon. Shwe Dagon finally awaits, a perfect culmination so much anticipated.
I have learned much, felt much.
Many of my co-travelers say that Burma has a deep hold on them, that they never entirely leave. I think that this is the truth.