The three of us decided to hike to Inle Lake. Fifty five kilometers lay between us and our destination. We were walking to Inle Lake. We packed our day packs for the following three days, sent off our big bags to the hotel we would eventually stay at, and set off.
We were lucky as the day we were heading out, there was a monk-becoming ceremony in a village close to where we would be staying our first night. The hike was beautiful, but tiring. Our walk took us through rolling hills speckled with farms where people grow ginger, rice, tomatoes, strawberries, garlic, and other vegetables. Boys and water buffalo wandered the fields as we made our way under the hot Burma sun. Occasionally, a gentle cool breeze put smiles on our faces.
We arrived in a village to witness a great celebration. 108 novices were becoming monks. People arrived from the surrounding hillsides wearing their finest clothes to celebrate this important moment in these boys’ and girls’ lives. A procession of scared-looking girls and boys on motorcycles slowly made their way towards the monastery. They wore ornate, princely clothes, faces full of makeup, each accompanied by their motorbike driver and a man carrying a golden umbrella to shade them from the searing sun. Women threw flower petals at them and small bands with gongs and drums marched alongside. Everywhere people crowded, wearing their Danu and Pa’o traditional dress. It was a brilliantly colorful affair.
Our home for the night was in a different tiny village. We stayed with local people in their home. We slept on thin mattresses on the floor of their living room, washed up outside by scooping water from a water basin, and enjoyed the yummy Burmese food our traveling cook made for us. We were so tired that we did not even engage in any evening conversation with our hosts and went to sleep soon after the bright red sunset.
Burma being a very poor country, we wanted to do a little to help. Our guide told us not to hand out candy or money, especially to the kids. Instead, we stocked up on toothbrushes and toothpaste and were giving them away as we went along. At one time, we were walking along the path and three women wearing colorful turbans yelled something in the local Pa’o language. We asked our guide what they wanted. He said they needed empty water bottles. As we were still drinking ours, we could not give it to them, but we told our guide that we have some toothbrushes left over. He called out to them, and they ran down the hill. We gave them toothbrushes and toothpaste, which they accepted to no great fanfare. However, they were watching us drink our water with eagle eyes, Once we finished, we offered them the empty water bottle and they literally pounced on it.
People generally were happy and thankful with the toothbrushes and toothpaste, but the real prize was always the empty water bottles. They use them to bring water with them when they go out into the fields. One woman showed us her old 500 ml bottle, dirty with mud and overgrown with algae. She brimmed the biggest smile as she received her brand new one-point-five liter model, crispy clean, only slightly used. We handed out dozens of bottles on this trip, and each time it felt like Christmas.
At the end of our second day, our home was a monastery. We slept in the main hall, in small thatch cubicles. Washing up was fun once again. The water in the main reservoir went rancid, and women could not wash in the area where the remaining fresh water was. We carried buckets for Weronika and her mom so they could get their refreshing “shower” after another hot and tiring day of hiking. The outside squat toilets were pretty bad as well, but what can you expect from a “household” of thirty boys under twelve and a fifty year old abbot. Besides the bathroom facilities, everything else was nice and comfortable.
Our sleep was cut short by chanting at five in the morning. This was no calm and soothing chanting. It was more like the boy choir, erupting suddenly in the stillness of the night. It was almost possible to get used to the sound, but of course there had to be one boy who sang off-key and off-tempo, so falling back asleep was an ordeal.
Before we could go, we had a brief “Introduction to Buddhism” session with the abbot, who did not speak English. With our guide as the interpreter, we watched as each of our questions received a two minute response, which with the uncanny skill of our guide was distilled into two sentences brimming with Buddhist wisdom. Well, mostly. There was also the enduring monologue as the abbot enumerated to us all the non-human reincarnations of Gautama Buddha. “A cow, 14 times. Elephant, 6 times. A dog, 11 times. A pig, 8 times. A bird, …, you know (flapping his arms), 3 times. A different bird, 4 times. Dragon, no, not dragon, old animal, you know, dinosaur 1 time. A cow 14 times, An elephant, 6 times…………..”.
Everywhere we walked in the countryside, the hillsides were burning. We heard explanations from simple pyromania, to slash-and-burn farming, to self-starting fires from rubbing bamboo. It was dry, and white smoke was always visible. At night, you could see the boundaries of the flames slowly spreading out. We got to do our little part in firefighting as we stomped out the flames as they crossed the path we were walking on, but most of the time we remained helpless and watched the countryside burn.
On our third and final day, we arrived at a village close to Inle Lake. We crossed over fifty kilometers, saw very colorful people, rested our legs in the shade of numerous Banyan trees, and traded many empty water bottle for timeless grins. We were happy to be at the end of the hike, as the sun was hot and tiring, but it was an unforgettable experience in the Burmese countryside.