An overnight bus was due to take me east from Bagan, towards another of Myanmar’s points of interest – Inle Lake. Many people stop off at nearby towns with a view to enduring a three-day trek to the lake. I didn’t have time to accomplish this, but still wanted to immerse myself in the countryside of Myanmar. I thus disembarked at one of the main trekking points, a village called Kalaw.
My overnight bus arrived so far ahead of schedule that I was able to get a bed and a decent night’s sleep. In the morning to tried to get future bus tickets sorted and then, just before 11am, set off on a day trekking with two middle-aged Frenchmen and our guide, a local Sherpa called Wellington. That’s right, Wellington.
As the other two were often speaking in their native tongue, it allowed me to speak our 64-year-old guide as we moved through fields of vegetables. He lived in America – in New York, New Hampshire and Texas respectively – for 14 years before returning home in 1992. He received a university education at Cornell in Ithaca whilst away, and was hungry to learn and chat about education. As this is my field, I obliged, and in turn learnt a bit more about this country.
Children in Myanmar study until they are 15, concentrating primarily on Burmese, English and Maths. A year before us, they go to university aged 17, helping their families in the intervening period. Interestingly, most graduates will return home to continue this assistance, rather than progressing to the big cities of Yangon or Mandalay. The picture below is of a primary school that hosts 120 children. A bit smaller than the one I currently work at…
This was being explained to me during what seemed to be a six-hour Biology lesson, where we would stop every 50 metres or so to be told what this tree of that patch produced. The variety of food being sourced locally or close to the Shan region at least, is incredible. From pears to peas, oranges to guavas, avocados to cabbages – it was all in the greenery that we were hiking through.
We stopped in two villages along our circular route. They both highlight the progress being made, but also the work that needs to be done. The dates on the buildings show how recently they were constructed; electricity only arrived in the second village last year.
We were heading towards a gleaming white pagoda when conversation turned to the army. My guide’s comment that many don’t like the army, but won’t say so in ‘civil society’, suggests a reluctance to say anything that can be construed as criticism. The consequences of doing so have already been seen in 2007, when monks protested against the regime led by General Than Shwe. The fatal, brutal events that followed were broadcast worldwide.
A coup in 1962 brought a man called Ne Win to power, and his stranglehold over the country under the guise of a military junta means that people are often wary of criticising the army. Indeed, Wellington told me that the benefits of becoming a soldier – accommodation, education and so on – make it an attractive career.
There is an incredible amount of faith in – and consequently pressure on – Aung San Suu Kyi to bring the country out from the doldrums. She is the son of the revered General Aung Shan, who brokered independence from the British Empire in 1948. Whether she can deliver may be out of her hands, but people are optimistic.
The hike was peaceful and refreshing – I haven’t been able to gallivant in the countryside for a while…mainly because Kazakhstan doesn’t have much of a ‘countryside’. It’s just about the only reason to hang around in Kalaw: the village itself has little to offer.
I decided to get some local Shan food for dinner. Strangely, I haven’t spoken about food too much up to now. It is very much ‘curry and rice’ or ‘fried noodles’. The soup I received, however, is possibly in the top five hottest and spiciest dishes my pallet has ever touched. It felt like a volcano was erupting in my mouth with each nervous spoonful I directed in.
Today, with the much-needed fresh air in my lungs, I learnt a lot and understood more about this country’s past, present and future. The villages we went through can be seen as a metaphor for the country as a whole; progress is being made, but much, much more needs to happen if Myanmar is to fulfil its potential.
Love you all