We rode down the Western shore of Inle Lake hugging the feet of the surrounding hills. We were riding through rich fields of sugar cane, sunflowers, and cabbages and in between the villages there were long stretches that felt like we could have been on a back-road in Australia or Europe. Then we’d round a bend and see some people riding buffalo, or road works being done by hand, or a truck filled to the gunnels with people and with still more sitting on top and singing as they bounced along.
We stopped and explored a village which specialised in dried soy products. They dry and roast the soy beans, make a paste and then drain it out into flat, thin cakes which they dry in the Sun. Each village family works the trade with subtle differences. It was fascinating to watch them work and they were very generous letting us see them going through their day.
After a roadside snack, there’s no shortage of food on this tour, we rode on and gently hit some hills. Most of the surrounding hills are rounded and checkered with fields, but the more pointed ones will have a pagoda on top rising from the mist like something out of a fairy tale. The thing the pictures can’t capture is that riding along in the otherwise silent countryside there will the drifting sound of music and chanting coming from the monasteries attached to the temples. And then a little tractor will chug into view and drown out everything. The other thing the pictures don’t convey is that there is a constant smell of wood smoke – both from burning off in the fields and from the cooking and heating fires the locals use.
The riding was pretty easy as we were on tarmac almost the whole way. As there’s just the four of us, the guide and a support vehicle we get to set our own pace which is pretty nice.
We were aiming for yet another temple at the town of Indein. This one was originally built in the 1100s but they’ve been continually adding to it ever since. You approach it via a long, winding colonnade that has market stalls on either side. As you near the top of the hill you start seeing small pagodas in disrepair with plants growing from them. At first there’s only one or two then suddenly there’s a forest of pagodas in various states of repair. As you near the temple at the top the number and quality of pagodas increases until you’re quite literally surrounded by golden spires.
After a lunch by the river – the boys were thrilled to find Myanmar’s only authentic wood-fired pizzas on the menu – we drove for a couple of hours up into the hills. The soil of the hills is a deep, rich red – just like something out of central Australia. The first half of the drive was on dirt roads but as we neared our destination the roads got progressively better. We were heading for Kalaw which was a hill station in colonial times where the English could retreat from the heat. It serves much the same purpose now for the military generals and is home to the senior officer university – which explains the good roads. Kalaw is now also as centre for trekking and is close to the elephant sanctuary that we’ll be trekking to in the morning.