The road from Bagan to Inle Lake claws its way up a series of white-knuckle switchbacks from the hot, dusty floodplain of the Ayeyarwady River into the rugged mountains of central Burma's Shan Plateau. Years of neglect have reduced the pavement to a narrow, potholed strip flanked by crumbling shoulders where transport trucks and oxcarts compete for passing space. The teak forests that once thrived here were long ago stripped away and the hills are now encrusted in tree-strangling vines. There is no evidence of reforestation.
We opted to break the eight-hour drive to the lake with an overnight stop at Kalaw. Located at a cool elevation of 1,320 metres Kalaw, with its charming colonial houses and pastoral rural surroundings, was once a British Hill Station where the Raj could escape the oppressive summer heat of Ayeyarwady Valley. Today about 20,000 people live in and around Kalaw and its bustling market is an eclectic mix of local Shan and Indian farmers, tourists, Muslims, Nepalese, and fatigue-wearing recruits from a nearby military base. Wandering through its market, past bins overflowing with local vegetables, and counters piled high with fresh chicken, fish, and pork, it's hard to reconcile this scene of abundance with UN reports that Myanmar has one of the world's highest rates of chronic malnutrition. But Kalaw is on a main transportation corridor and we are seeing it at the peak of the harvest. For thousands of Burmese who live beyond the country's crumbling roads, in the frontier villages where tourists and journalists are forbidden to go, hunger and disease, like corruption and repression, are part of everyday life.
Beyond Kalaw the road to Inle Lake winds through a verdant rolling upland where huge fields of cabbage, corn, melons and tomatoes are being harvested. Using two-wheeled ox-carts and trailers drawn by primitive Chinese-made garden tractors the farmers deliver their produce to waiting trucks — some destined for China, others for Yangon, Mandalay and other big Burmese cities that depend on this part of rural Myanmar for so much of their food.
Arriving at Inle Lake is like entering a dreamscape — a surreal world of stilt villages, floating gardens, leg-rowing fishermen, and thousands of tiny boats. Although it is only 22 km long and 11 km wide the lake supports 17 stilt villages woven together by a web of canals leading to floating markets, craft factories, and more than 100 monasteries and shrines scattered along the shore. About 70,000 people live on and around Inle Lake. Most are Intha who are believed to have migrated from the coast of southern Myanmar in the 1300's. Industrious, hard-working people the Intha have embraced a market economy while preserving much of their ancient culture and tradition.