Together with our trekking guide in Kalaw, we had come up with a new hiking tour over the previous few weeks. Rather than lead to the northern part of Inle Lake as usual, the two-day hike would take us off the beaten path to the southern part of the lake, also known as Samkar Lake.
Along with my nephew, who spent part of his summer holidays with us, and our guide Htun Ti, we said goodbye to Uncle Sam and his family shortly after sunrise, climbed onto the back of a small pickup truck and left Kalaw behind us. Shortly before reaching Aungban, we turned right towards Loikaw and drove for another hour through the Shan Mountains to Naungtayah, a village in the middle of the Pa-O region. This was the location of the big five-day market, and it was correspondingly lively. We walked around admiring the women in their blue and black traditional garb and colourful scarves that they wrapped around their heads like turbans. Htun Ti, who had worked there for several years as a teacher, was greeted warmly time and again, and after coming across an old friend of his who was now the proud owner of a small restaurant, we sat down to idly watch the market visitors file by while enjoying a bowl of delicious Shan noodle soup.
We then drove another 15 minutes south to the starting point of our two-day hike to Samkar Lake. The path led over flat terrain and past fields of cabbage and maize. We stopped frequently to watch the people working in the fields. In Klarpu, a typical Pa-O village, we were served lunch in one of the houses. It was very tasty; we dug in gratefully. Thus fortified, we continued on our way, passing vegetable fields, fruit trees, rice terraces, tea plantations and forests, until we reached Ngola, a pretty hillside village. From there, we enjoyed a fantastic view of the Shan Mountains. We reached Hsaungkhar, a small Pa-O village nestled among the hills, in the late afternoon.
As the next night was a full moon, the young unmarried Pa-O locals met in the evening to prepare gifts which they would then take with them to the monastery in a solemn procession the next morning. The young women sat on one side and the young men on the other. Exuberance was in the air, and there was joking and laughing. While the young women prepared the gifts, the young men pulled out their traditional musical instruments and began to play. What they lacked in talent, they certainly made up for in volume.
We awoke with the cock's first crowing and started off again after another substantial breakfast. Just past the village, the footpath led over a grassy hill where we enjoyed a fantastic view of the Shan Mountains. Then we went past orchards and rice fields to Narmoon, a big, impressive Pa-O village. The small pagoda offered us a wonderful view of the landscape. We stayed there a little longer and watched the village locals pass by – young and old alike, festively dressed on their way home after visiting the monastery. Continuing from there on mostly narrow paths, we passed by cabbage, maize and rice fields. Time and again, we enjoyed beautiful views of the Shan Mountains – before Samkar Lake suddenly appeared, glistening in the distance. The trail led comfortably downhill between the mountains and right to Tharkaung Pagoda, located on the western shores of the lake.
After a late lunch, we boarded our boat and crossed Samkar Lake to Samkar. A fascinating watery landscape swept past us: floating gardens, pagoda forests jutting out of the water, some of which were overgrown by gnarled trees, fishermen throwing out their nets, lotuses, carpets made of water hyacinths, and now and then the brilliant white plumage of a great egret with the Shan Mountains as a backdrop.
From the pier in Samkar, it was only a short walk to our hotel "A Little Lodge in Samkar", a two-storey traditional Shan-style house. The rooms in the main building were simple but comfortably furnished – pure luxury after the two-day hike. After a refreshing shower, we sat on the balcony, enjoying our cold Myanmar beer and gazing off into the idyllic landscape.