With the rain on the tin roof playing an out of time accompaniment to the cacophony of snoring from the dozen or so men around me on the floor of this monastery I snuggle further into my sleeping bag, mummified to the extent that only my nose is uncovered I’m still cold, but it’s a nice kind of cold. Despite the temperature, the hardness of the floor and the background symphony of unsynchronised apnoea, I’m tired enough to know that nothing will prevent me from achieving the deep satisfying fatigued sleep of someone who has completed a decent days walking.
Early this the morning under clear blue skies we set off on our two day trek from the small town of Pindaya. We are gaggle of trekkers made up of foreigners of varying ages and levels of fitness and a small army of enthusiastic local guides, and like the children being led away from Hamelin by the Pied Piper, we dutifully follow behind the energetic and enigmatic U Doh Soe Min (or Mr Doh as he is better known). He’s excited, and sets off at a cracking pace, proud to show us the product of his months of hard work mapping out twenty new trails in this region. I struggle to keep up as he describes the range of routes he’s been working on, apparently this one isn’t one of the more technically difficult ones, but (as I discover) it is far from being a relatively easy half-day stroll.
Within the first half-hour my knees begin to complain like miserable teenagers being dragged around a museum on a wet bank holiday, and it occurs to me that I don’t actually do that much walking anymore, not proper walking. I might potter around the market or take the dog for an evening stroll, but in my hectic life of meetings, schedules and sedentary place of work, I often never seem to have the time to walk, and certainly never just for the for the sake of walking.
But if you are so inclined as to enjoy the luxury of stretching the old legs once in a while, then you are fortunate that Myanmar is blessed with a plethora of pathways upon which to perambulate, and trekking fans have long flocked to the Shan hills to ply the tracks and trails from and around Kalaw and Hsipaw. These well-established tourist routes have consistently provided great pleasure to hikers from all over the world and they offer a splendid stroll, if a not particularly challenging one. However these locations are potentially in danger of becoming spoiled by their own success, in the height of the tourist season the Kalaw to Inle lake trail often becomes a long queue of people wearing drip dry clothing or ethically manufactured ethnic leisurewear, a well-organised, well-equipped, slow-moving exodus.
The Danu Self administered zone (Danu SAZ) of Shan State is located in-between Inle lake and Mandalay, and is made up of the townships of Ywangan and Pindaya (the location of the famous Shwe Oo Min caves, and a place where tourists often stop off as they travel through the area on their way to or from Nyaung Shwe or Kalaw), The trek I am on is one of the new trails developed here by the Danu Literature, Culture and Development Association with support by The Myanmar Institute for Integrated Development (MIID), and it is hoped that these new trails will encourage more people to visit the area for more than a day trip.
We wind our way uphill on a dirt road for about an hour, before without warning Mr Doh darts into the trees, following through the gap we find ourselves at the bottom of a steep staircase that disappears into the distance high above. It appears that our ascent starts here, that last bit was clearly just a warm up and we stumble our way up the uneven steps roughly carved into the red clay. Concentrating on my footing I am unable to properly take in my surroundings, and although the steady narrative of entomological and botanical facts from the local guides keeps me up to date on what I am missing, my focus remains firmly fixed on the floor. Leaves are plucked and their uses explained, wild fruits gathered and distributed, the guides are keeping themselves busy and are keen to impress, they even collect litter along the way.
We eventually reach the end of the steps and a steep path continues up, as a light drizzle begins to fall the snippets of information and chatter dries up. Silently we each find our own pace, a comfortable speed through which we can settle into our reverie, and our party naturally stretches out along the trail, each person with a little space to call their own, a place to be comfortable. As the compacted red soil of the path begins to shine, slicked wet with the fine rain, our shoes start to slip, and we are forced to slow down. Unable to remove my eyes from the path for fear of foolishly falling I pause occasionally to catch my breath, marvel at the scenery around me, snap a photo, or step aside to allow heavily laden, elderly slipper-wearing ladies to effortlessly skip past like wiry mountain goats.
We skirt around the edges of tea plantations and smiling tea pickers pause to wave, we occasionally venture into the fields, or work our way around large looming rock formations precariously close to the edge, our journey is dictated by a path carved out of the landscape by a million pairs of feet over many centuries. Occasionally through the trees I catch glimpses of the valley far below and the mountains high above, before the path veers back through the lush green curtain into dark tunnels of foliage that hides the other members of the party in front and behind me.
Taking shelter from the rain at a tea factory I watch ladies fastidiously sorting the leaves through a giant mechanical sieve, they barely acknowledge my presence, and the harsh flash of my camera that momentarily highlights them freeze framed at their labours doesn’t do justice to the efforts involved in the process. I feel awkward at the intrusion and wonder how I would react if a stranger turned up at my office and took a few snaps of me sat at my computer. We continue up through this vertical village and drop in to meet Daw Khin Swe, who is unfazed by our interruption and fusses around us with refreshing green tea and snacks, before swiftly ushering us out of her home, and bidding us farewell. Clearly we all have more important things to be attending to, and as she returns to her business we continue our slow climb.
At another village further up into the hills we are treated to a lunchtime feast, (as in fact we are at every meal), and we devour our curries and rice with silent enthusiasm. Replete, we stretch and rub our calves whilst sipping hot and bitterly strong tea from delicate porcelain bowls and watch ladies picking tea up above us in the hills, just below the cloud line. In the course of our travels we encounter very few men in the tea plantations; many of them are away at the mines – “Good money, but dangerous work” one lady later explains to us.
We reach the clouds at a plateau after several hours of steady uphill walking and splay out on the wet grass to catch our breath, the soundtrack of bells from the necks of nearby hidden grazing beasts sounds mysterious yet soothing. Before we can get too comfortable Mr Doh drives us onwards, “not far to go” he promises, and we follow him splashing through shallow streams, squelching through muddy fords. I am are already wet and dirty so I don’t care, in fact the change in texture of the ground feels wonderful on my tired feet. The word “leeches” is whispered back along the line and I instantly search my uncovered legs for unwanted passengers, racking my memory to remember what is was you were supposed to do if you found one. Do you use salt, or is that slugs?
Thankfully leech free we drop back below the clouds and arrive at our night stop, Yasagyi. Inquisitive children shyly welcome the unusual visitors and we respectfully and gratefully remove out boots before being granted a meeting with the head monk that involves more warming green tea. The clouds seem to have followed us here and the dramatic scenery of waterfalls and mountains quickly disappears and as the weak light from the sun is filtered through the fog a sepia tinge is cast upon the small village that is our mountain refuge, turning it into an old faded photograph.
Eventually the sun gives up trying to fight its way through the clouds and clocks off leaving an eerie darkness that descends as swiftly as the temperature does. We make ourselves comfortable on the floor in the candle-lit hut, the air warmed by steaming bowls of rice and curry, and after doing a fine job of emptying them we retire to our sleeping mats.
The next morning, suitably fed and watered, I stretch my stiff muscles and make the necessary sound effects one must during such an activity, the sun takes the chill out of my bones, and I feel ready for action. The guides are crafting rudimentary walking poles from stout bamboo sharpened at one end, an indication that the second days walking is going to be a tough one and nobody refuses the offered assistance, even those like myself that would normally shun such things as an unnecessary accessory. They turn out to be very necessary.
When the first of our party slips onto their backside I stifle a laugh, when the second person hits dirt, some of us might have tittered under our breath. But as the members of our party were picked off one by one as if by a hidden sniper, we each knew that it was only a matter of time before it would be our turn to join the muddy red bottom of shame club on this slippery and steep downhill walk. I was the fourth to join the club, and in fact also the eighth and eleventh, if you are counting.
We survive the climb down the mountain intact, and in good spirits compare our wet-bottom trophies before finishing our walk at the blue lake, which as the name suggests is blue, perhaps lake is a bit of an exaggeration, as it is more of a pool, but is most definitely blue. And what a marvellous place to finish, the lake is that exact shade of blue that it absolutely shouldn’t be, a blue that only appears in computer edited travel brochures of idyllic beaches, or in wickedly dangerous cocktails and one that you cannot do justice to in describing. The water was so clear you could watch streams of bubbles chasing each other to the surface as they passed through a criss-cross frame of submerged skeleton trees. We couldn’t get too close the lake, as a tatty barbed wire fence that was in the process of collapsing kept us mere mortals out of the water, this is a sacred lake and home to spirits, but it was a stunningly special and peaceful place to visit and a truly magical spot to end our trip.
Tired, dirty and happy we made our way back to Pindaya by minibus, and after long hot showers we drink ice cold beer and discuss our trip, all in agreement that trekking in Danu SAZ is an exceptional and exciting addition to the trekking options in Myanmar, and one that we would all recommend.
For more information on this unique opportunity to explore and discover an as yet relatively unexplored part of Myanmar visit www.danutrails.com.
A version of this article was published in My Magical Myanmar Magazine September 2015