Saturday, August 15, 2009

Who to Trust?

Due to the global economic crisis the drop in tourists had substantially affected this little town. The desperation for business had created aggressive behavior among the tour guides to the point of bad mouthing each other and sometimes violence.

I first spoke with Lily, the owner of our guesthouse, and she was explaining the different treks, a two and three day hike. The price for a guide, food, and accommodation was $10US per person a day. She also told me that the government would take 30% for taxes, they would keep 20%, and 50% of the money would go directly to the villages we would visit. This was very inspirational, but I still wanted to check around before making a commitment.

Before I left to walk around Lily began to tell me that they were the only non-government business in the town. She said that the owner of the guesthouse next door was in the army and used the business to launder drugs. She also told me that there were military training camps all over the area from Kalaw to Inle Lake and I would need a guide to avoid possible military trouble. In addition, her guide (her husband Robin), knew all the different dialects/languages and would be able to talk with the villagers and translate for me.

Feeling good about getting the down low on Kalaw I wondered around for a bit and eventually found a nice place for dinner, Sam’s, to think about the trek. I asked if they had any rum and they brought the whole bottle. I only wanted one drink and didn’t want to pay for a whole bottle until I notice the price was 1800 Kyat! That’s about $1.80US for a whole bottle of RUM!

Finally, I decided to go on the trek with Robin the next day when I noticed a huge map of the treks and villages on one of the wall and began studying it. Close by was an elderly man, who I learned was Sam, enjoying his tea. I introduced myself and we started to chat about the area and trekking. As I spoke about what Lily told me and how I was happy that 50% of the money would go to the villagers Sam’s face was in shock.

Sam proceeded to tell me that he had lived in Kalaw for 20 years and knew all the villages, never had he heard of Lily giving money to any of them. Also, there would be no way to sustain a business on 20%. Furthermore, there were no military training camps around and the province was completely open to tourists. This of course was distressing, how did I know if Sam himself wasn’t lying. Who should I trust? I asked Sam these very questions.

Sam told me that I should ask around to verify all the information and not just take his word for it. He also stated that he had nothing to hide and it would be fine if I told Lily about our discussion. In the end Sam said that he could answer any question I had about trekking for free and I should make my own decision about who to trust.

So I kept asking Sam lots of questions about his family, his life in Kalaw, and learned a lot about the man. Sam came to Kalaw a bit over 20 years ago and it took him that long to finish one of his goals of building a school for one of the nearby villages. The schools in the remote villages only went up to 5th grade so Sam’s son-in-law, who grew up in one of these villages, asked if Sam could build housing for the kids who wanted to continue their education in Kalaw. Sam agreed and only asked for the parents to provide rice and firewood for their child to help with costs. Each child also had to have the blessing of their parents and head monk of the village.

In addition to owning a restaurant Sam also ran a travel agency with guides speaking several languages. He explained the 3 day trek would cost $10US per person a day and $13US for the boat ride at the end of the trip. Besides a guide and private cook, they would provide all the meals and accommodation. About 20% would go to the villagers and the rest would cover costs and profit.

One of Sam’s interesting stories was about his first time as a tour guide. Young Sam had a group of Japanese tourists who asked so many detailed questions about everything which he didn’t know that answers. This experience caused Sam to lose face and feel shame of his ignorance about his surroundings. From that point on Sam determined to learn everything about everything and acquired a comprehensive knowledge of his surroundings. He also passed this philosophy on to his guides, making sure they all have a thorough knowledge of the region to explain to their clients.


My time and money was soon running out in Myanmar. I had to determine where to spend my last week. One thought was to take a boat to the West Coast, but the rainy seasons stormy weather in the ocean deterred that idea. Not to mention that they run the boats till they literally fall apart and boat sinking’s have occurred with some frequency. Then I heard about a three day trek from a small village, Kalaw, to Inle Lake in the Northern Country.
Since the government owned the railway I chose to take a private overnight bus (20K Kyat ~ $20US). Make sure you get a seat up front or you will be bouncing up and down on these older buses. This applies to every developing country. The bus terminal was near the airport so we had to get a cab, which should be about 5K Kyat. It was a maze at the sprawled out bus terminal so just ask your cab driver to help you find your bus and you’ll be fine.

In the early morning when it was still dark the bus conductor shook me and asked for my destination. I told him Kalaw and he said something to the effect that we were there. So I got off the bus and look around to get my bearings. I asked again if we were in Kalaw and the guy nodded yes and pointed in a direction down the road. Eventually I got some answers and found out that the bus passed my stop and Kalaw was 6 miles away. Rather than waiting around for a couple of hours for bus services I decided to walk and start my trekking early.

It turned out to be a nice walk as the rising sun lit the beautiful morning sky. Soon I found my guesthouse, The Golden Lily, listed in the Lonely Planet. The owners were nice enough at first, but we’ll get into that later. Kalaw was a cute little town more and more backpackers were visiting to trek through the beautiful landscape to Inle Lake.