A Little Surprise Awaits, Off The Beaten Path
(This is a continuation of the ‘To The Golden Land’ series on my Myanmar trip in Nov 12. For the full itinerary, refer to here.)
We woke up at 5am to get ready to make the almost-400km journey to Kalaw. At 620am, a pick-up came to our hotel to retrieve us. It’ll go on to haul up more tourists from other hotels before finally arriving at the bus station. Then, there was a mad scramble for the toilet and we were off with the bus at 720am. Booking the bus tickets (11,000 Kyats/pax) was easy – we got the hotel to do it.
At around 230pm, the bus rolled into Kalaw and we got off. But Kalaw wasn’t our final destination. We were headed to Pindaya (because we weren’t able to secure a hotel booking in Kalaw). Ironically, we were accosted almost immediately by 2 Indian men asking if we needed rooms, the same Hari Singh that some travellers had warned about in travel forums. No, we don’t want rooms, we need a taxi.
Hari quoted 37,000 Kyats for a taxi to Pindaya. Any good Singaporean would know that there ought to be 3 quotes for comparison but there we were, standing in the middle of the road with our backpacks, our lack of connections obvious. The next best thing was to inquire at the nearest hotel available.
The hotel quoted 40k-45k Kyats so we accepted Hari’s final offer of 36,000 Kyats and were soon on our way. The 45km journey was not comfortable (rickety roads, bumps galore) but not unpleasant; a vista of colourful fields basking vibrantly under the late afternoon sun kept us enthralled for most part of the almost 2-hour journey.
We arrived at Pindaya at around 430pm, straight to Golden Cave Hotel. Golden Cave was lovely: we had a spacious room, comfortable beds and free wifi. That night, we had dinner at Green Tea Restaurant, surprised that we could find such high quality fare in so remote a place. But there it was.
(Note: Pindaya is reknowned as the gateway to the Pindaya limestone caves, which contains some 6000 Buddha statues coated with gold leaf, hence ‘Golden Cave’).
Pindaya was a small place, brimming with nostalgia and friendliness. Very easy to walk around, very easy to lose yourself.
We began our trek to Yatzakyi from Golden Cave Hotel, with an earnest young man, our guide Yar Zar, and a jolly, older assistant who turned out to be the Hotel’s chef, Ah Khu.
At first, we cut through the backyards of some houses, so there wasn’t much of a view unless you count the occasional errant chicken doing its morning exercise. Then we came to the first steep slope. This was followed by many more. After only 30 minutes, not a single inch of my shirt was dry. Even our guides were panting hard.
After lunch, the pace slowed considerably (maybe we were quite fast?). The trek wasn’t particularly scenic but it was very enjoyable because the people we met on the way were so warm, so hospitable and so real. Nobody tried to sell us anything; they were happy to invite us into their lives and we accepted unabashedly.
We arrived at Yatzagyi at a respectable time of 3pm. There was a school and lessons were in session so we went to peep.
That night, we slept in the huge extension block next to the monastery, just the 3 of us. It was cold but thick mattresses and blankets were provided. According to my mates, it rained hailstones in the middle of the night, but I didn’t know it.
We were early, so after changing into fresh clothes (no shower facilities in the hills), we paid a visit to the hill tribe village nearby. We drank tea with a matriarch, sitting around the hearth and trying to make conversation (with the help of our guide as translator) while her grandchildren gawked at us from a polite distance. and we gawked back.
After visiting the matriarch, we walked around and met other villagers, some just back from working at the tea plantations. It struck us that although they didn’t have flashy clothes and accessories, they were always smiling and seemed so carefree.
Dinner was a big spread and very very delicious. We were sure the other (trekking) group was jealous of our good fortune. We thanked the Golden Cave Hotel owner silently for lending us her chef for this trek.
The next morning, we left at 730am, slightly later than planned since our taxi wouldn’t be at the hotel so early. Because it rained/hailed during the night, the air was ripe with moisture, so we got to walk pass a rainbow on our way out. The walk back was much easier, mostly going down, with many breaks.
It was a good trek, we were able to mingle with the locals, and we were well looked after by our 2 guides. Very good people who went out of their way to make our trek comfortable and meaningful and they did not even expect tips.
We reached Golden Cave Hotel at 11am, took a slight breather and at 1130am we were on the road again to Lake Inle.
The driver was the brother of the hotel owner, another nice and honest man. He suggested pit stops for us to take photos, stopped at a local market en route for us to explore, even drove us around Inle to look for a money changer, all on his own accord.
We reached Mingalar Inn at Inle at 330pm. Slightly bedraggled (no shower for 2 days!) but warmed by all the people whom we met along the way. Pindaya might not have been the easiest place to travel to, but it was certainly a very memorable one. Aand we were glad we went for it, battered bums and all.