From Mandalay we had a long drive to Kalaw for which we had to prepare our own packed lunches, to help stock up we called in at a bakery & mini-mart. Having had what felt like an unending succession of large meals I decided that eating light would be a nice change so I limited myself to some almonds & peanuts, and lots of water.
We had been making excellent progress along the Chinese Road when the driver started slowing down and moving onto the 'hard shoulder' of packed earth. Once we stopped he and his mate (co-pilot?) got out and, after a puzzled pause, so did most of the group. It turned out that one of the back wheels had started shedding its tread and the spare would have to be substituted for it, so while the two men started on this the rest of us took the opportunity to stretch our legs, pee behind bushes, and watch the local wildlife which consisted of a herder with several dozen white, skinny-looking cows. In spite of the advice offered by the tourists the wheel was efficiently changed and after an hour or so we were back on our way.
We did have a proper toilet stop several miles further on at a wayside restaurant and associated small marketplace. This used to be the lunch stop in previous tours but apparently the level of food hygiene had declined, despite this several of us decided it was worth risking the ice cream, which was delicious. Back on the bus we rose through the hills before arriving at the Pine Hill Hotel in Kalaw, a cool & refreshing colonial style resort.
Just how cool became apparent at breakfast the next morning when I had to resort to wearing my hoodie over a t-shirt, the first time I'd needed another layer since the start of the trip. News of heavy snowfalls back in Britain put this into perspective and as the sun rose the temperature picked up to another nice, confortable warmth.
For our day in Kalaw we'd be going on a trek through the countryside and after breakfast we were driven out of the town to our staring point. We overlooked a wide valley with rounded, forest-covered hills rising all around it, several of these topped with a spire. The land was more yellow & orange-brown than green with the white houses of Pein Ne Bin village (our initial destination) making sharp contrast in the distance. We walked through wide fields, looking a bit bare in this driest season of the year but clearly set up for intensive agriculture.
We passed several locals who were affable, happy to have their photos taken, and totally unfazed by this procession of curious tourists. This was explained when we spotted another tour group ahead of us on the road and another coming along behind, this was clearly the established route for trekking groups that everyone stuck to. My initial (somewhat cynical) reaction was that this was a cunningly planned 'picturesque trail' and that just beyond our horizon things were more modern & less conventionally traditional but as we climbed the hills and looked back that didn't seem to be the case, the land seemed similarly used in all directions. I guess using the same paths each time made it easier for the guides and minimised the opportunities for foreigners to get lost, fall down steep slopes or otherwise come to grief.
The cooler climate meant that alongside exotic crops like papaya, jackfruit & avocados lots of familiar vegetables were being cultivated. This was dramatically underlined when we came to a giant terraced field... of cabbages. Not what I was expecting. As our path led up into the hills we left the agricultural fields below us and walked along shaded earth roads with forest stretching away on either side, occasionally parting to reveal dramatic valleys with snaking paths along their sides and a few distant buildings. These buildings slowly grew in number until we found ourselves entering Myin Ka, our lunch stop. The village looked prosperous & well established with large houses spread around the hillside and a large temple in the centre. We were led to a thankfully cool & shady dining room (the sun had climbed & grown in strength by this point) where we were greeted with a refreshing glass of lemonade and served another delicious (& very abundant) traditional meal.
After lunch most of the group took the option of returning to Kalaw by bus while the hardy hikers (including me) walked on, descending to the valley floor along winding paths. After a very pleasant couple of hours we rendezvoused with our bus to be driven back to town but a couple of us wanted to visit the viewpoint over Kalaw that had been mentioned in the trip notes so we were let off en route and pointed towards a steeply rising staircase. At the top was a monastery, a 'Museum of the Buddha' (sadly closed), and some wide views, although the prime spot was in the middle of a building site which compromised the foreground somewhat. As we walked back to the hotel we were spotted by our bus driver, returning from some errand, and driven home - maybe all tourists don't look the same.
Next day we were driving to Inle Lake, our final tour destination, but first we stopped in central Kalaw to visit the market. Five towns in the area share a rotating market that visits each one in turn on consecutive days and today it would be held here. There was the usual mix of fruit & veg, spices, fish and meat stalls but more flower sellers than I'd seen before. There was also a small convoy of military cars & trucks parked on one roadside - number plates in Myanmar are colour-coded by type and these were telltale green, although the trucks were pretty obviously not for civillian use. Despite the army's considerable power in government they had virtually no visible presence in the places we visited and these seemed to be just out doing their shopping.
We were due to visit the Pindaya caves next but just before we reached them we saw a long, ceremonial procession and Lae stopped the bus to let us get out and watch it more closely. A new golden 'crown' was to be placed on top of a stupa and this was it being ritually transported to the site (along with gifts/offerings for the monks) with music, song and general celebration.
The approach to the caves had a very unexpected and (to my eyes) incongruous element - among the statues of pilgrims, princesses & heroes was a giant cartoonish spider with leering eyes and a wide, tooth-filled mouth. This tied in to the local legend of a hero prince who rescued seven princesses by slaying the spider but it all looked a bit Disneyland in the setting of a Buddhist sacred site. Once again there was a lift to the entrance but this time I found a staircase and could make my ascent on foot.
The caves contains over 8,000 images (nearly all statues) of the Buddha. I'd been in other places with lots of Buddha statues and they'd often felt like dusty attics with old artefacts just piled up but this had a much more magical & sacred atmosphere - the statues, although covering virtually all of the floor & lower wall space, felt like they'd all been individually placed and the cumulative effect, along with the subdued lighting, was strangely moving. I was particularly taken by the 'maze' where hundreds of statues were set with narrow, winding paths between them, quickly leading to a sense of disorientation. With every turn revealing more Buddhas I read this as a visual lesson, underneath the convoluted details of our mundane world there's just more of the ineffable & sacred. I'm no Buddhist but as a worldview that works nicely for me. I'd not expected much from the caves but I really enjoyed wandering through them, so much so that I lost track of time and had to hurry to find my way out again (there were no signs) and rejoin the group.
Before leaving Pindaya we stopped at a paper making workshop. Once again my expectations were low but the parasols & lampshades they produced were quite beautiful and I found myself buying three of them.
There was one more stop before we arrived at Inle Lake, the Shwe Yan Pyay monastery. The highlight here was a small temple where hundreds of doll-sized Buddha statues, each dressed in a gauzy red 'robe', were set in little wall niches. Virtually all of them had an accompanying plaque with the name and home of the donor, showing that they'd come from all over the world. It was very pretty but the overall impression was slightly creepy, I'm still not quite sure why.
It had been a long & full day and as the shadows began to lengthen it was good to pull into Nyaung Shwe, the base for our time in Inle Lake, and unpack into our hotel rooms. This would be our final location in Myanmar, what would we find here?