“Shhhh, we no want spies to hear us. Many government spies in black area.” our trekking guide warns us with a mix of foreboding and nonchalance. “Tourists cannot come here. You very special.” I’m not sure being ‘special’ in this case is a good thing, but I am intrigued.
The six of us are sitting cross-legged on a bamboo mat in a smoky candle-lit hut in the middle of a bamboo forest. In front of us, the thin shaman lays on a pile of blankets as he prepares to access the spirit world through his ‘medicine’ – a mixture of sticky black opium that he’d gathered in the jungle earlier and a small packet of store-bought aspirin. The shaman’s wife braces the door (against government spies, presumably) with a bamboo pole. We’ve been brought here after dark on our second day trekking in order to visit the local shaman (who seems to be more of a local drug addict than anything else). Even our guide admits that the shaman is “little crazy, but not too much”. It’s a slightly creepy, and I’m glad to be surrounded by fellow international trekkers that seem as interested/confused as we are.
From our guides’ heavily accented English, we gather that we’ve now entered the black area, the dark side or the restricted region of Myanmar. Tourists aren’t allowed here because the area is controlled by warring local hill tribes and government spies. I’m not sure what the punishment would be if we got caught, but I prefer not to dwell on this in the dark jungle and just enjoy our trek towards Inle Lake.
Other than some short day hikes, this is the first time we have done some real trekking in Asia. Over the course of three days, we will hike the dry red mountainous trail from Kalaw to the large lake, stopping in remote hill-tribe villages to sleep, eat and drink copious amounts of water. Seb and I have joined a group of fellow travelers: two freshly graduated German doctors, a student from Scotland who just finished a year in Singapore, and a Columbian who fell of the corporate ladder in order to travel the world indefinitely. Out motely crew gets along well and we enjoy chatting about travel, cultural differences and this mysterious black area of Myanmar.
The trek itself is very tiring – especially due to our lack of exercise – but not over-strenuous. We climb up single track gravel paths, slip over weedy hills and clamor up dry creek beds in order to fulfill our 6 hours daily hiking time. Water becomes a source of concern as the villages with purified water bottles become few and far between. We ration ourselves to one liter per hour: in this humid heat, it goes quickly.
For all the warnings and restrictions about the black area, the most notable aspect is its lack of other trekkers. We are truly alone as we push through the thick jungle trees and share our evening ‘shower’ with a long black river snake. The local Pa-O people, dressed in black tunics with colorful turbans, are curious and shy. When we stop for a break in one of the villages, we are invited into the chief’s bamboo house for tea (locally cultivated floating tea leaves in hot water served in small porcelain cups that are never washed). For more than an hour, people filter in an out of the narrow opening, as eager to interact with us as we are with them. They have never seen Westerners before, and don’t even speak the national Burmese language so our interactions are limited to smiles, gestures, and showing photos snapped on our phones.
We were feeling suitably sore and sweaty when the placid Inle Lake finally appears through the hills, a few more miles off in the distance. Just at that moment, the gray sky which had been threatening rain drops for the past few days suddenly opened up into a torrential downpour: the monsoon season was upon us. For the next two hours, with the aid of rain covers and plastic sheets, we attempt to keep the pounding rain from infiltrating our packs. The black clouds juxtaposed with the white streaks of lightening made for a dramatic entrance to the lake.
Inle Lake itself, despite its reputation as one of the biggest tourist draws in Myanmar, is rather unremarkable in our opinion. Indeed, after the experience of our varied, challenging and spectacular trek, this large it feels a bit overrated. For us, having noodles in a remote monastery, sleeping in a bamboo hut doubling as a garlic warehouse or sharing warm Myanmar beer at the end of a long day with fellow trekkers as we discuss what it means to be in the black area of Burma – the journey, and not the destination – will be the best part of the trip.