Dark, dusty and way too early, we arrived in Kalaw. Around 4:00 am, no real way of telling, we stood in a stunned silence half awake, still unable to comprehend what to do. From out of the darkness, a sketchy character approaches with a bit of a limp and half closed eye reminding me of Jafar approaching Aladdin in jail. Taking the useful advice of Disney ‘go with strangers apparently,’ we followed him to the little tea shop up the road to wait for the sun.
After what seemed like an eternity, the sky began to lighten and the market came to life. This meant breakfast and time to find a place to stay. A quick paratha with mango pickle (missed this since I left India and Nepal), and we checked into the Golden Lily. A cheap triple room and a good price for the trekking services to Inle Lake.
We spent the day wandering around Kalaw, but not before second breakfast. Being in the Shan state, the culinary capital of Myanmar, it only seemed necessary to search out a bowl of Shan noodles. A bowl of rice noodles seasoned with garlic, soy, chili and peanuts to name some ingredients. Pickled mustard greens and a light chicken broth are never too far away, this dish landed in my top two. After diminishing the fuel levels yet again from walking through the intense humidity to the teak temple just outside of town and the smell of curry in the air, I knew what time it was. I swear all I think about is food. Anyways, we found a little local joint on the main road by the market. We pulled up the stools and it seemed before we even ordered condiments and accompaniments were appearing on the table. Pickled cabbage, pickled beansprouts, chili sauce and a plate of raw cabbage, beans and greens. Last but not least, the chicken curry itself. Very similar to the curries I ate in the north of India with a little less heat. Tomato based and slightly oilier.
Sitting across from the monastery perched up on a hill with a couple hundred stairs, give or take, we figured we’d make the climb. Solely based on the fact that the staircase was covered from the treacherous sun making it bearable. Not the most breathtaking monastery I’ve laid eyes on, but the view of the countryside surrounding Kalaw made it worth it. Inside, the expected Buddhas and some interesting murals to say the least. After a necessary cool down back at the hostel the one thing needed to cap the day off was dinner. This is where I discovered my most favoured dish. Green Tea Leaf Salad. I honestly can’t describe why this is my favourite. Maybe the unique taste of the tea leaves, the crunch of the toasted broad beans, peanuts and sesame or the fresh lime cutting the peanut oil and blending beautifully with the fish sauce. Whatever it is, this will be the dish I’ll be hunting when I leave here.
As the sun rose, we packed up, crammed another Shan noodles in for breaky and loaded up on Royal D (electrolytes). A short ride to a random corner in the middle of nowhere to meet our guide and there began two days of trekking through the rough Myanmar landscape to Inle Lake. Walking between fields, along dusty paths and over bamboo bridges, the earth was red-orange here, as if rusting from old age. The ‘summer’ or hot season was clearly in full swing. The sticky air clinging the clothes to my body, the soil cracked and dry awaiting the monsoon rains so the rice planting can begin. The trees looking burnt and withered with the sun beating down threatening me with the same symptoms. I trudged on, my attention lost in the distance over the terraced fields covering the hilly plateau. We strolled into a monastery for the night just as the sun was beginning to drop behind the horizon. Greeted by young monks going about their evening chores, we were shown to our accommodation for the night. They fed us in the communal area under the dim lighting and buzzing mosquitos. Once darkness set in, eliminating the possibility of much, it became an early night.
Setting off after a quick breakfast of ‘crepes’ with fruit, it was back on the dusty trail. The red earth was beginning to layer onto my skin acting as a natural sun block (or at least that’s what I chose to believe). A more relaxed pace the second day, passing by a handful of towns until approaching the canal leading into Inle Lake. Paying the mandatory 10 dollars to enter the region (apparently there are ways around it), we were herded onto the boats for the final stretch to Nyaungshwe. Cruising out of the canals, in between gaps in the dams, Inle Lake opened up in front of us. The views of the surrounding mountains obscured by the smoke from the controlled fires, I somehow managed to drift off. It’s unbelievable how one can sleep anywhere when sheer exhaustion comes knocking even with the head thumping motor only a couple meters behind me. It put into perspective how the people in India and Southeast Asia are able to sleep in amongst the traffic and the bustling cities around them. Long, hard days with the intense heat sapping at your energy, some spent trying to survive, some working dawn till dusk.
After checking in the only thing on the agenda was dinner and a few celebratory Myanmar beers. Spotting a cooking class sign outside a restaurant, I had to investigate. Learning green tea leaf salad, there was no question. I was in. First thing in the morning, a little groggy after a few more than expected wobbly pops, I was off to meet my teacher in the market. A small, local market dedicated to food. Open in the early hours with vendors cleaning the days catch from Inle Lake, meat being butchered and fresh produce all being arranged in a visual display. A feast for the eyes. We gathered the ingredients for the day and headed back to her quaint restaurant before opening for a private one on one cooking class. Over a charcoal clay oven we began to make a large pot of rosal leaf (a bitter green) soup to last the day. The broth flavoured with a fish or shrimp paste, surprisingly mellow from the amount put in for those who don’t like the taste of fermented fish. A chicken and fish curry followed. Both done very similar to the preparation of the Indian curries I learnt. The piece de resistance, the dish I had to know, the green tea leaf salad. I sat down to a portion of everything with a glass of palm and coconut juice. I dove in while a brief recipe for Shan noodles was given to me.
Wobbling home after filling my gullet and surprised to find my friends ready to go, it was time to check out one of Myanmar’s only wineries, “Red Mountain Estate Winery and Vineyards”. Only a short bike ride outside of town which is exactly what I needed. A little exercise to work off the mammoth breakfast and then a glass, or four of wine to help ‘digest’.
A boat ride around Inle Lake checking out the local handicrafts and getting a brief glimpse on how the people live in this area was necessary. I wasn’t hiking all the way here, not to cruise the lake. We bartered for a boat (there is hundreds), and began to chug down the canal. Taking the afternoon, we stopped by a couple pagodas/monasteries, one of which houses dozens of cats that the resident monks used to train to jump through hoops. Drifting by on the placid waters through villages on stilts and the floating tomato farms, we then stopped to watch some of the handicrafts being made. Silk and lotus fibers harvested from the lake were woven with such speed and precision. The cheroot makers rolling the popular handmade cigarettes in no more than 30 seconds and the silversmiths melting down the precious metal in front of us. It was refreshing to observe these arts being preserved as they took pride in their culture.
It was time for dinner since we were too cheap to stop at one of the more expensive restaurants on the lake. I sat in reflection of the last 4 days of the things I saw, learnt and tasted while waiting for our next night bus to continue our journey through the past.
To Be Continued…