Get on the bus Myanmar – and get me there alive!

The overnight bus ride from Hsipaw to Nyuang Shwe was a rather memorable event… even more so, it makes a damn good story.

…It felt like we’d only just rolled out of Hsipaw when already we were pulling into a road house for a rather early dinner break, which was perfectly okay by me. The road houses here in Myanmar are incredible; they serve such great looking food and put the shitty road houses in Australia to absolute shame – there were no three month old shrivelled up sausages rotating on bacteria infested metal rollers here, on no! Instead, fresh curries, vegetables and rice, noodle soups, snacks and sweets, hot teas and social circles could be found at every table. You want some spiritual enlightenment whilst you eat your curry? Yeah, there were monks there too.

As the dinner break came to an end, so did our first bus driver’s shift – he swapped with a man teenager who then spent the next few hours – and way too many hair pin bends – trying to learn how to actually drive the bus.  He first attempted to learn what switch did what (turned cabin lights on, off, dimmed, on, off, lowered the bus suspension, turned the TV on, then off, then on, then the lights on, then off, then on again, found the sound button – turned that up to full volume…) before eventually crashing our bus hard into a cement barrier…
on a hair-pin bend…
on a very steep incline…
directly above a large cliff face…

I was suddenly very awake.

Reversing the bus whilst the local passengers laughed and I quietly shat myself, the driver attempted to move around the bend again… and again, he was unsuccessful and another crash, jolt and horrible scraping sound could be heard.
Managing to turn on the third attempt, he was able to drive for a few more minutes before another sharp bend saw our bus crashing again – barely missing a large truck as it drove on by at full speed, honking the horn loudly as it passed. At this point, the local male passengers were wetting themselves laughing whilst I was finding nothing about this situation all that funny.

“Oh my god. We’re going to die.”

A few more minutes passed whilst terrible Burmese karaoke continued to blare through the TV screens and our bus driver collided our bus hard with another sharp corner yet again. The grating sound was long and louder this time and even when reversing – or at least, attempting to reverse back up the steep incline – the grating on metal continued. It forced two of the other drivers/bus staff out onto the pitch black roads – bare footed and in their little white singlets and lungis – where they spent the next half an hour or so running in front of the bus, between massive trucks and speeding motorbikes and around the sharp corners, directing the driver and teaching him that he actually needed to go wide to get around these corners and not bottom out. From my window I could see this all unfolding and couldn’t help but think… “only in Asia.”

These steep roads, blind spots, hills and sharp inclines/declines, curves and bends, narrow roads and terribly rough and damaged road conditions understandably make it difficult to navigate a bus, and I spent a good portion of the night hours staring out my window watching every section of dimly lit road pass under me. The driver had obviously learned the hard way how to take corners wider but had not yet discovered the off button for the cabin lights that shone brightly all night long.

At some points during the journey I felt nervous; at other times the situation was just so ridiculous that it was actually laughable…

…Like at 12am when our bus stopped for another dinner break, giving us all an opportunity to check out/admire the damage to the front of the bus. Yep, it was… aaah, well. Let’s say “rather damaged.” Someone’s boss isn’t going to be too happy.

…and then again at 1am when I watched as our bus driver foolishly attempted to overtake a motorbike on a sharp bend – at the very same time that our bus was being undercut by a massive truck with an idiot driver behind the wheel. I mean, seriously. I’m wondering how I am actually still alive and writing this.

…and then again at2am when Akon’s “I Wanna Make Love Right Now Na Na” ringtone buzzed loudly before the phone-owner eventually answered and began having a general chit-chat.
What is it with Asia’s obsession with Akon!?
It’s becoming insufferable.

…and again at 3am when the driver was still winding his way up and around and then down and around hills and mountains; the the bus bouncing and jerking over every pothole and uneven surface… and the lights were all still on.
It was impossible to sleep…unless you were a local, of course.

Finally at around 6am I watched our bus arriving into Nyuang Shwe – more than two hours earlier than we’d expected. I was happy to be here… and just alive in general, really.

If traveling has taught me anything, it’s this:

Sometimes, you just have to trust that things will be okay.
And if you can’t trust? Then I guess you just have to have faith.”

Inle Lake: I’m here.

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Early to Rise Myanmar: 5-6.11.2013

After a night spent with my head over a bin – thanks to some nasty travel bug – I unfortunately wasted an entire precious day in beautiful Hsipaw (a day that should’ve been spent trekking throughout the villages and hills of the surrounding area). I mean, why couldn’t I have been struck down (if I had to be struck down at all!) in Mandalay, where we were already willingly doing nothing!?

I did attempt to venture out a few times during the day, and again finally that evening when I was feeling well enough to eat something. We found a little noodle eatery which looked delicious but I thought best to avoid anything too… anything.
The women making the noodles thought it was hilarious when I stood there miming “no chilli, no meat, none of this, none of that, no spices, no salt, no MSG or whatever that delicious looking powder is…” When I simply pointed to the noodles, a few vegetables, the boiling stock and some spring onion, it felt like I’d just requested the most ridiculous thing imaginable. The woman laughed, turned around and told another woman, they laughed, said something in Burmese to some other customers who then also laughed, along with half of the people eating in the little shack…

I see…

One day wasted being sick on this trip is one day too many and I was disappointed we didn’t get to go on the trek we’d been looking forward to. Tomorrow would be our last day in Hsipaw before taking an afternoon/overnight bus to Nyaung Shwe – nearby Inle Lake – and there were a few more things we wanted to do around town before we left.

Planning on getting up at ridiculous-o’clock tomorrow morning for the local morning market – which starts up by 2am and finishes by 5:30am (yes, you read that right) – I was trying to work out if it was simply “smarter” to stay awake until 2am and then just head out, rather than set the alarm for way too early. Supposedly this market is one of the best local markets in all of Myanmar, which must mean it’s pretty damn impressive. I first thought it was better to stay up late and many hours of entertaining myself with games of Candy Crush followed…but then at 1:30am when all my lives had run out, I decided to just get up early the next morning.

The alarm is set for 4:30am. Fuck it, I’m going to sleep.

On our final morning in Hsipaw the alarm went off at the romantic hour of 4:30am. Roosters were crowing outside our window and for a few fleeting moments, I considered passing on the market to continue sleeping under the thick covers. Then I reminded myself how much I’d already missed out on by being sick and got straight out of bed.

Let me just point out that there is not a lot in this world that I deem worthy of a 4:30am start… really, me out of bed before 8am is rarely seen and I feel I deserve of some sort of medal for my enthusiasm… To say the least, with my bleary eyes and bird nest hair, I was expecting a lot from this local market.

With our jackets on we walked out into the dark streets; the cold air hit us as we walked through the mist towards the market. The tiny, pot holed road we walked along was busy with trucks and buses; we were walking along a tiny stretch of road that back home would’ve passed as a back alley; here in Hsipaw and Myanmar we were walking along one of the country’s main highways.

As we approached the market I was getting excited; I’ve said it a hundred times but I absolutely adore Asian fresh markets – the prospect of going to one that starts so early and is finished before the sun is even coming up is just so cool!

The market was busy – so busy – and in the dark, the little stalls were lit up with either battery powered flood-lights, candles or…not at all. People sat on the ground, on tarps, on blankets, wrapped in blankets, or on tiny plastic chairs in the cold and dark; there was just enough light to see the stall holders sitting in their traditional clothes, make up and conical hats – they were busy working, preparing food and selling their goods.

Still trying to adjust our eyes and take in the sights, sounds and smells surrounding us, we slowly worked our way through the crowds of buyers and motorbikes piled with produce. Of course, lots of the produce for sale was the same as at other markets we’ve been to – fruits, vegetables, herbs, rices – but there was also a large variety of foods on offer that seemed quite unique to Myanmar and also to the North of Myanmar. It was fascinating to see these differences and the local people were friendly enough to smile at us while we looked and pointed to foods with such interest.

It was amazing for us to see bowls of traditional Myanmar sweets for sale on the ground, right next to people hard at work butchering chickens in the darkness. I watched as blood oozed onto the gravel, right next to women sitting by candle light selling enormous bags of fresh green herbs and piles of thick, juicy carrots. Thick pig tails, heads, ears and skin were sitting in little mounds alongside bloodied meat and organs, next to fish heads and fillets in silver dishes. Smaller fish flipped about in little metal buckets, half-dead, ready to be killed, cooked and eaten. Whole yellow-skinned chickens with their feet and heads stiff were laid out into dishes and on wooden tables. On the ground men squatted on wooden boards with large cleavers in hand; bare footed with their feet in the juices of the freshly butchered animals they had killed by candle light. Bowls of cut up chicken feet and heads were for sale separately.
Mountains of vegetables could be found at every second or third stall; enormous piles of garlic, ginger and onions gave off a delicious aroma that covered the smell of fish and meat. Even in the dark, the various vegetables vibrant colours looked beautiful, fresh and delicious.
There were stalls that simply sold tofu and soya bean curd, or bags upon bags of fresh noodles. Often we saw just one or two women huddled together on tiny seats selling just a few vegetables or hunks of glistening fresh tofu.
There were people frying in woks mounted over hot coals and women sitting behind baskets of steaming sticky rice. We gave into temptation and bought ourselves each a bag of sticky rice and some bean curd to go with it for breakfast – a traditional Shan food, we’re told.
Along the street we saw tiny noodle and soup shops open with customers already sitting on little wooden stools slurping their morning noodles…
Motorbikes covered in hundreds of plastic bags, woven baskets, buckets and tubs were filled with various produce bought from the market – attached to any possible part of the bike. They looked as though they were overflowing with food, piled to breaking point. The riders wove through the crowds, bought their goods and tied them to any space possible. It was an unusual and spectacular sight.
The market was so alive so early, it was happening around us and it was hard to take in all the interesting sights. It was by far the best produce market I’ve seen, and I couldn’t help but feel we’d stumbled upon something very special and very memorable. It was wonderful to be able to see where all this food was sold, bought – prepared even. I thought to myself that I now have a better appreciation for where the food I eat has come from and the hard work, dedication and early morning starts involved.

Once we’d seen the market up and down we left – although I could’ve done another walk up and back just looking at everything over and over. We were tired but at the same time, so awake. We walked back to our guest house – just a few minutes away – feeling excited and on a little bit of a high. That’s what Asian wet markets do to us. I think that more often it’s the simple things that are the most enjoyable and memorable.

Back at the guest house by just after 5am, I dropped into bed and fell instantly back to sleep, waking a few hours later to more roosters crowing and a bowl of sticky rice and bean curd, along with the obligatory sugary bread and what the little staff guy at our guest house calls “morning beer” – fake orange juice. It was the best way to start our day.

Walking into town in an attempt to find a post office, we ended up stopping off at Mr. Cute Toothless Dumpling Man for a final steam bun and cup of Burmese tea.
Once we were sufficiently full of sugar and sweet bean bun, we continued on our way to find the local post office. We did find it; it was more like a weathered heritage building where a group of women were sitting inside eating lunch. They seemed a bit put out when I asked for a stamp and told me “no more stamp, come back tomorrow.” I’m not sure if the post office had run out of stamps, or I’d just interrupted their lunch time; either way the situation was funny and I didn’t get to post my letters.

We decided we’d dedicate the rest of today to visiting Mrs. Popcorn’s Garden – a little oasis in Hsipaw about a 30 minute walk through and out of town, past little villages and bamboo homes with quaint gardens filled with cabbages. It was just a short distance from Hsipaw town centre but when we arrived it felt like we were much further away. Mrs. Popcorn, the woman herself, was there at the gate to greet us as we walked up the little dirt path. Her garden was large and beautiful; full of shady spots and comfortable chairs and all surrounded by greenery.
We found Matt from England there – we keep on running into him! – and the three of us chilled out in the shade for the rest of the afternoon, sipping on Mrs. Popcorn’s home-made coffees and organic cold fruit teas with ingredients picked straight out of her garden. She bought us out crackers and bowls of fresh papaya straight from her garden, and delicious little potato chip things she’d worked laboriously to make, boiling, marinating and spending days drying out potato slices in the sun. This place was amazing and I only wished I was hungry – people rave about her home-cooked food.  Mrs. Popcorn was a sweet little lady and I wished I’d come here yesterday when I was feeling a bit off; I think a bit of sunshine, garden atmosphere, cold herbal teas and some fresh fruit might have done me some good.
I want to come back here next time I’m in Hsipaw – which I hope is one day not too far away!

As it turns out, Matt was taking the same bus as us to Inle Lake, as well as heading back to Yangon the same day as us and staying at the same place there too… looks like we’ve found ourselves a travel buddy for the next week or so.

Our bus was departing at 4:30pm; hesitantly the three of us eventually left Mrs. Popcorn’s and headed back into town, stopping by the clay pot noodle joint from yesterday for more noodles with the many different toppings. The lady remembered me from yesterday and instantly was laughing again as she boiled us our noodles and wood ear mushrooms.

None of us particularly felt like getting on an over night bus for 16 hours – especially knowing what the drive up through the hills and mountains had been like a few days earlier – and we were apprehensive about what kind of bus we’d be boarding. When our bus eventually pulled into the road side bus stop we were all relieved to see a lovely new looking bus with comfortable chairs, blankets, neck pillows and water. Wonderful.

The next 16 hours would see us go from Hsipaw back down through Pyin Oo Lwin and Mandalay to Nyaung Shwe, the town nearby Inle Lake. I’m ready for this.

A Palace of Sorts Myanmar: 4.11.2013

Today was literally spent chit chatting with various people; we hadn’t planned it to be that way but that’s what was probably so great about it. I’m sick of planning; it’s so much better when things just happen and fall into place – and they usually do.

Agreeing we’ll do the one day hike and depart tomorrow, we decided we wanted to see lots of Hsipaw town today; first things first, however, we needed a decent coffee from Pontoon Coffee – a little cafe owned by a chatty Aussie lady, Maureen, who serves up the best coffee we’ve had in Asia so far. She was out when we showed up this morning so we enjoyed our coffee and decided to stop by later. Heading back into town, we visited the market and just strolled through the streets looking at everything going on around us.

We ended up back at our new local, Mr. Shake, for lunch where we enjoyed delicious fruit salads and good conversation with a fellow traveller from Belgium. She’d just returned from a two day hike and agreed the one day trek into the villages was probably enough to get a ‘feel’ for the area.

We’d been really interested in visiting the old Shan Palace here in Hsipaw; the home and ‘palace’ of the last Shan Price. The nephew of the last Shan Prince, Donald and his wife Fern, now reside there and welcome tourists at any time of the day to come and see the palace home and hear the story. Between 2002 and 2009 it was off limits and closed to tourists when Donald was arrested and jailed apparently for interacting with foreigners. Donald was eventually released from prison and again their fascinating story is being told to anyone who wants to know more about it.

Walking out to the Palace, we passed by Pontoon Coffee and thought we’d just stop by again and see if Maureen was around. We were interested in having a chat with her and she was happy to sit out in the sunshine with us for what turned into more than a few hours!

Late afternoon we finally continued on our way up to the Shan Palace – the walk there was short but beautiful and little children and monks pointed us in the right direction as we walked along the dirt track and through the greenery and villages. This place is beautiful.

When we arrived at the Shan Palace the entrance gate was closed; seeing as we’d only read online that it was open to tourists now (the guidebook says it’s completely off limits!) I wasn’t sure if we should just open it and walk on down the path. However, Fern must’ve realised we were there and walked down the path to greet us so warmly. She gave us a brief introduction and welcomed us to walk around the grounds for a while; a few other tourists joined us and soon there was a large group. We were welcomed into the front room of the palace (which is really more like a large, historic Brittish home, rather than a palace) and we were given a wonderful introduction into her family history and their story.
The palace is home to a fascinating history as well as generations of royalty. The story is amazing, shocking, saddening and interesting. We sat for a while and talked, Fern answered any questions and we gave a small donation at the end of our visit. It was an absolutely worth while trip out to the palace and a memorable afternoon.

Leaving the palace, we were planning on heading to Mrs. Popcorn’s Garden – a large, beautiful and chilled-out garden owned by an elderly lady who apparently makes beautiful organic foods and drinks – but I was feeling a little off, so we decided to just go back to the guest house. By the time we’d walked the 20 minutes back into town I was feeling worse, and unfortunately the rest of my evening was spent vomiting into a bin and watching My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Classy…

Yes, finally, more than four months and 6 countries into our travels, I had been struck down.

We asked if we could move to another room with a private bathroom and thankfully they had a comfortable double room with a bathroom right next door to our current room – Jake was able to just move all our belongings (which we’d naturally spread all over the room) next door whilst I lay on the bed feeling sorry for myself.
We’d been planning on booking our trek for tomorrow, but I guess that won’t be happening now which is really disappointing; tomorrow was our last opportunity really to take the day trek as we’re leaving the following day.

On the bright side, I guess, if I have to get sick anywhere, Hsipaw is a lovely place to slow down in for a few days…

The Myanmar I’d been waiting for: 3.11.2013

Our train to Hsipaw was due to depart at 8:30am this morning, so naturally, it arrived in Pyin Oo Lwin well after 9am. Classic “Myanmar time” – I love it.

It meant we were able to take an unexpected stroll through the little local market right next to the station where produce and street foods were being made and sold. I bought myself a little bag of sticky rice for the journey and gushed over a tiny puppy asleep in a wood pile.

The train station with its quaint single platform was dotted with just a few tourists and several locals; I enjoyed ‘people watching’ as the locals travelled both by motorbike and by foot, carrying all sorts of goods and bits and pieces slowly over and across the railway track, uncaring that the train was due in any minute. The tea stall out the back of the station was busy – packed with people filling up on noodle soups, samosas, a myriad of other deep fried things and tea served with frightening amounts of condensed milk. The occasional woman with a large plate of food balanced perfectly upon her head would wander through the crowds of waiting passengers and along the platform, occasionally setting down her goods and packing little plastic bags full of hot fried noodles, vegetables, rices, curries and a range of unidentifiable foods for customers – along with two bamboo skewers to be used as chop sticks. Myanmar’s version of take away.

Eventually our train rolled into the station and casually everyone moved about whilst people got off, people got on, more food vendors arrived and began making their way up and down the platform, goods were unpacked as well as carted onto the train – lots of bags of cabbages included – and the little portly station master tried to work out where all the tourists in our single “upper class carriage” were meant to sit, even though minutes earlier he’d assigned us all seats on hand-written tickets. He clambered aboard after yelling through the window from the platform, wrote down our seat numbers in pen in a little book, shuffled off, then came back and scribbled out the original, adjusting it so we got a “better view seat.” Nice one Mr. Train Man.

As food vendors moved about, people continued to fluff about buying and selling and eating and sitting and not really doing an awful lot too quickly; it didn’t seem like anyone was too fussed about timings so the pace was relaxed and the people mulling about were disorganised in the most organised sort of way. Somehow, it all works out and I had time to get myself a bag of take away tea for the journey.
Eventually the train blew its whistle and people finally took their seats; the train began to roll out of the station at a walking pace and we sat back in our newly assigned “upper class” seats.

We’d been told that the train journey to Hispaw would take between 4 and 11 hours for the 200km journey. Yes, that’s no typo: between 4 and 11 hours. Preparing for a long ride, we sat back and watched as some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen rolled past our open window at a walking speed. This train is known to be one of the 50 “must-do” train rides in the world. It is also known to be painstakingly slow; at times we were moving at a speed slower than what we probably could’ve walked, but it didn’t matter. It was a wonderful, beautiful and sometimes strange experience.

Most of our time on this ancient train was spent rattling around in our upholstered upper class seats; as our carriage shook and jerked along the tracks we were frequently thrown into the air. Bouncing around, we watched as our carriage jolted and shook, swaying at scary angles as we rolled noisily along the tracks. Maybe this train ride is not for the feint hearted and I tried to ignore the fact that it was only days ago that a train travelling a similar route here in Myanmar had derailed… I could understand how that may have happened as I watched people being thrown about. Still, all in good fun.

I had been momentarily disappointed in myself this morning when I chose the upper class seating option over the ordinary class seat (which was $3 cheaper), thinking I would maybe miss out on the whole “experience…” However, I was grateful to have my own cushioned seat during those moments when my ass parted from the seat and was thrown back down with each bump. Peering into ordinary class, the overcrowded wooden seats, the people sleeping on mats in the isle and the several bags of cabbage rolling about looked interesting – sure, but not for me. Not right now.

At one point I had to use the in-train lavatory and spent a good few minutes holding my breath and my balance whilst squatting over the foul smelling toilet, pissing zig zags and being violently thrown about as the train continued to roll at it’s own special pace.

At each station the train would halt and spend anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes there; the same buzz of people hopping on and off, food vendors with exceptionally good balancing skills would move up and down the platform, people would load and unload more goods and there was always something interesting to see. I liked getting down and watching the flow of people and bought myself some delicious noodle salad for lunch from one of the balancing acts. Sitting back on the train with my little take away bag of deliciousness, I tried not to stab myself in the face with my chop-stick skewers; the bounding, shaking, rattling and jerking made it difficult.

After a nap during the heat of the day, I woke to cool breeze blowing in through the open windows, along with too many little bits of foliage and the occasional strange looking insect. I had no idea where we were or how far away Hsipaw was but that was not important; we were really enjoying the journey.

Mid afternoon Mr. Train Man told us we were ten minutes away from Hsipaw; around 30 minutes or so later, we arrived. We were excited as we rolled into the platform – Hsipaw has been a place we’ve been really looking forward to; it sounds so beautiful and relaxing from what we’ve read and we’re looking forward to doing a hike and exploring in the surrounding areas, as well as checking out what this little town has to offer. When a young boy from Nam Khae Mao Guest house – the guest house we’d been intending to check out on arrival – popped his head up next to our window and offered us a room at a very cheap price, we immediately agreed and were carted into a tuk tuk with a group of other tourists and taken straight to our new home for the next few days. $12 a night (our cheapest accommodation in Myanmar by far) bought us a great room (Myanmar standards) with a shared bathroom, hot water, wifi and really friendly staff. We were in a great location too, looking out over the lovely historic clock tower – complete with a flashing electronic neon sign. Welcome to Hsipaw.

It was already after 4pm by the time we checked in and we were so excited to see the town. We considered briefly walking up the nearby hill to see the sun set but instead decided to head straight into town and explore. We have a few days here to do all the things we want to do. We were too late for the central market – it had just closed, and “Mr. Book”, the book stall guy was not around when we tried to visit his stall, but we did find a very cute toothless elderly man selling delicious chicken and sweet bean steam buns, a road side street food stall selling delicious grilled rice cake with palm sugar and sesame seeds, more little deep fried something-a-rathers and the very touristy “Mr. Shake” juice bar, where Mr. Shake and his wife served up incredibly fresh juices and lassis for a ridiculously cheap price.

We ended up sitting out the front of Mr. Shake until late – an Aussie guy showed up not long after us and we spent a couple of hours chatting and being reminded of how awesome the Australian style of speaking is. We’ve missed it and we didn’t even realise. On a recommendation from the Aussie guy, we ended up at “Mr. Food” for dinner (do you see a trend starting to appear in this town…?) where the same guy we’d met in the tuk tuk on our way to the guest house here was eating alone; we joined him for dinner and learned he was Matt from England.

Late evening we headed back to our guest house and planned a full day for tomorrow; we were trying to decide if we should do the one or the two day hike into the nearby villages and furthermore, if we should leave tomorrow or the next day… We’re still undecided about that, but one thing is for sure; Hsipaw is already a winner – it’s the Myanmar I’d been waiting for and I already adore this quaint, dusty, friendly little town.

Myanmar Eats: 1 – 2.11.2013

Our share taxi arrived on time this morning – and by on time, I mean on Myanmar time – just half an hour or so later than organised. Nice! Earlier than we’d been expecting!

I’d been trying to work out exactly what a “share taxi” would involve – it always seems to differ in every Asian country and after seeing so many different types of rust-buckets and packed full of people transportation zipping about on the roads, I was apprehensive. Jacob was betting on a mini-van, I was betting on a more pick-up truck style vehicle. Turns out, a share taxi is just a normal rusty shell of a car packed full of parcels to be delivered along the way to the final destination – which in our case, is Pyin Oo Lwin.

Our driver packed both Jacob and I, our backpacks, a heap of golf clubs, a few large boxes, two Burmese women and their belongings and a few more parcels into the tiny hatchback before lead-footing it for an entire two hours up massive hills, around hair-pin bend and tight curves and over taking anyone and every vehicle within sight.

We stopped twice (besides the several times the driver parked, leaving the car running, to deliver a parcel): once when the engine got too hot and our driver had to hose it down and again to get petrol. The petrol station was very oddly more like a small party – about twenty or thirty staff in blue tee-shirts and bare feet stood around just chatting and waiting for a car to re-fuel, music pumping in the background to keep them entertained. When we arrived, they all went wild for these two whities jammed into the back of the car, faces almost smeared against the window glass. Whilst our car was re-fuelled, five or ten people stood outside our car door smiling the BIGGEST smiles at us and laughing uncontrollably whenever one of them tried to speak English with us. All we could do was laugh and smile back. Momentarily one of the smiling women left, returning with about fifteen cups of raspberry cordial for us to drink. We took two. We told them we were going to Pyin Oo Lwin and they started hand gesturing a “shivering” motion, explaining to us it would be very cold. I wondered what the Burmese considered to be “very cold…”
Once our car was filled with fuel and ready to roar again, we waved goodbye to several massive smiles and sipped on our cordial as our driver put his lead foot back down.

The drive was wonderful though, beautiful scenery and pretty quick – just a couple of hours and we were absolutely a world away from hectic Mandalay. On arrival, we dumped our bags at our very fancy guest house and headed out to explore the town…

Pyin Oo Lwin was colonised by the British way back in the day and the old weathered buildings and Purcel Clock Tower (the wanna-be Big Ben of Myanmar) had a distinctly British look and feel – a charm that certainly seems to exist throughout this cute, welcoming, dusty town.
We admired the surroundings as we strolled up the main street looking for a place to get some local food for lunch. We discovered what we thought was a local place and had some average noodles there – later we realised what a touristic eatery this actually was. Jacob spied a local curd shop – he’s got a nose for this sort of thing now – and we ended up there sipping thick yoghurt through curly straws, watching the locals around us and the interesting street scenes continually unfolding. Horse drawn carts with wooden Cindarella-style coaches (although not as glamourous – think weathered wooden boxes, filthier, tackier and with sick looking horses) trotted past and locals roasted peanuts by the side of the road. Men huddled around betel nut stands, buying leaves and spitting massive glugs of burgundy goo onto the road and pavement. Women could be seen in their shop fronts, knitting hats and jumpers whilst waiting for their next customer. Children were playing, tea shops were busy, the air was fresh(ish) and it felt really nice to be here.

We took a stroll through the big Central Market area – it was filled with all sorts of goods and bits and pieces. There was cooking items, house hold items, clothing, shoes, underwear, food items and lots of knit wear that was oddly enough, exactly the same at every shop – besides one lady we found who was crocheting gorgeous little beanies. Moving away from this area of the market, we found ourselves out in the open-air produce market where all sorts of fresh foods were being sold. Deep fried insects, scary meats, unidentifiable items and lots of beautifully coloured fruits and vegetables dotted the ground and small tables. Women were fanning fresh fish that were displayed in metal bowls under the heat of the sun, right next to whole dead chickens, fried birds and little quail eggs. I think I’ve said it before, but I adore these types of wet Asian markets, and I never tire of looking through them; there is always something new to find that we didn’t see the last time we looked..

People were smiling at us, babies were being taught to wave and blow kisses and smiled when they saw us, the women kept telling me I was beautiful and pointing to my skin… People here were friendly and no one was touting or trying to sell us anything. It felt like a place where we would be really able to experience the local life style in an honest, non-touristic manner.

Evening time and we were hungry for some street food. We heard there was a night market here that sold “Myanmar snacks” but what we found was an entire street filled with tents and plastic chairs, metal tables and wonderful smells. Smoke and steam was rising from the hundreds of hot pots, woks, stove tops, barbeques, grill plates, coal fires and steel pots at every different street stall. Men and women and children were all busy – either cooking or eating – everyone seemed to be there. There was so much to choose from, so many different foods being cooked and prepared, boiled, chopped, fried and stirred. The organs and pig heads being cut into bite size pieces with house-hold scissors may have been immediately scrapped from our list of choices, but the vegetarian options were in abundance and there was certainly no threat of going hungry. We strolled by each stall looking and choosing what we might want to try. We ended up at a little noodle tent, slurping Shan Noodles and enjoying being amongst it all. Moving on, we found a place that was jam packed with people and with a queue forming for take away. The staff were under the pump and we decided this was the place to be. We enjoyed a clay pot of steamed vegetables, tofu and various noodles mixed with chilli and other spices and sauces. $1.50 bought us an incredible dinner; one of the highlight meals of this entire trip to date, and we were definitely coming back tomorrow night.

Taking advantage of the fast internet back at our hotel, our evening was spent watching one of my favourite movies of all time and drinking hot 3-in-1 milo. A tiny bit of normality for us; it felt a bit like home.

I really like this place, it’s quiet and calm and slower paced – I’m not missing the overwhelming honking and pollution that we found in Mandalay and Yangon. However, we’ve found this ‘quieter’ pace to be the case since arriving in Myanmar and it’s been olldy enough a little difficult for us to adjust to.
Maybe we were expecting something completely different? Although, I don’t actually know what we were expecting – or if we had any specific expectations at all.
It’s certainly a country I want to know more about, but at the same time, I wonder if it’s possible for tourists to get a real insight into what’s been happening and what is currently happening. We feel very much like outsiders – very much tourists – with no way of getting closer to the locals.
Furthermore, our budget is quite limiting – due to such high accommodation costs we can afford little more than accommodation, some transport and food/drink each day for about $50 – 55 (a lot more than the $35 we’d planned on spending). I guess Mandalay, for example, could’ve been completely different for us had we been able to afford more.

I’m hoping that as we move away from the big cities – now in Pyin Oo Lwin and into Hsipaw and Inle Lake – we’ll be more mesmerised and captivated by this country. We feel it has a lot of noticeable similarities to other countries we’ve visited – we keep being reminded of Laos and Thailand – and we hope Myanmar offers us something wildly different and makes us fall in love with her. No doubt there is immense beauty and a fascinating culture and history to be discovered here if we take the time to find them.
I think maybe I had this picture of what Myanmar would be and besides the temples of Bagan, I haven’t quite found it yet…

Our second day in Pyin Oo Lwin turned out to be pretty awesome and left us feeling way more motivated and back in “travel mode” than the previous day (and this morning).

We ended up organising a tuk tuk to take us out to the starting point of the Ani Sakan Waterfall hike early this morning; whilst we knew it would be spectactular and feeling as though “we should absolutely go,”  for some reason we were feeling unmotivated. I guess, as I’ve learned during this trip, “the scariest moment is just before it starts” – aka, “the hardest part is getting out the door.”  As soon as we jumped into the back of the rust bucket open-air tuk tuk and began hurtling down the bumpy, dusty roads, we were loving it. The cool breeze was beautiful against our faces and we enjoyed watching life whizz past us – often in the form of men hanging out of or clinging onto the side of pick up trucks whilst they waved and called out to us.

Arriving at the start of the short trek, we grabbed a couple of chewy lychee drinks and set off downhill. Instantly a group of very young Burmese girls began following us without saying a word and expected payment to walk with us down to the falls and back. I wished they were at school instead. We declined their service and continued down the path that almost instantly became steep and windy and continued that way for the next 40 minutes or so as we made our way down, down, down. The path was steep and often muddy or covered in loose stones and rocks. Images of my ass getting covered in mud from a potential (hilarious) slip often crossed my mind…
The scenery was breath taking and we often paused to marvel at the sheer cliff faces, forest, waterfalls and mountainous backdrop before us.

By the time we reached the bottom we could hear the massive falls so close and see the mist rising through the forest. The track turned to watery mud and we inched our way closer, trying even harder not to slip. When we made it up a small muddy incline the falls came into view: roaring and massive, they fell from a huge height and the mist almost instantly covered us in a fine layer of water. So refreshing.

Climbing down from the falls we passed smiling monks who greeted us with “mingalaba” and laughed as we all slid around in the mud and slush beneath our feet. The only difference was we were kitted out in hiking boots and they were barefoot. I think we were at more risk of slipping.

Downhill had been “easy” in comparison to going uphill and it took us just over 50 minutes to climb the steep incline and arrive back at our starting point; puffed out, we were happy to get back into the tuk tuk and ride through the cool breeze. I love sitting in these open air tuk tuks watching the scenery and the life going by. Firstly, the scenery is beautiful and secondly, there is always someone hanging out of their car/truck/van/tuk-tuk/pick up/motorbike/bicycle waving and smiling and laughing at us foreigners. At one point a man on a motorbike drove past carrying hundreds of dead chickens all hanging off the back. Oh Asia…

Back in Pyin Oo Lwin, we took another stroll through the streets and found ourselves back at the “night market” which, at 3pm…wasn’t so night-y. It was never the less full of street food stalls with smoking woks and boiling pots, cooking smells wafting and people everywhere eating and cooking and sitting at metal tables on TINY plastic chairs under tents. People were hard at work – and then there were those hard at eating. Last night it had been a bit dark and overwhelming when we came here and we’d chosen the sorts of meals we knew were ‘safe’. Today that was not happening – we wanted to try everything these little Myanmar food stalls had to offer. Most snacks and meals cost us between 100 – 300 kyat, (10 – 30 cents) which meant that we could hop from vendor to vendor, try every new delicious food, end up extremely full and with only the equivalent of .80c less in our wallet.
We had noodle soups, deep fried tofu, grilled fruits, rice paper pancakes, takoyaki-type rice balls, coconutty things, vegetable bits, salads, some sort of nut thing…

We returned late that night to the night market for another snack (or five) and the best cup of Burmese milk tea we’ve had. It amazed me that this night market was absolutely tourist-free, the three times we have visited this central place in the past two days we’ve not seen one other tourist – and there are a lot of tourists here. The Chinese restaurant down the road, however, seemed to be brimming with them. I wonder how much longer this market will remain a local-only type of place, souvenir and tout-free.

Back at our room we followed our standard ‘the night before we leave this place’ routine: we acknowledged we needed to pack our cases, we procrastinated for a good hour (or three) and then finally – way too late at night to have the energy or motivation to do so – we got our things together and packed our packs.

After today’s little trekking adventure and the joyous experience of trying new things and eating with all the locals, I feel my excitement about travel and being here in Myanmar start to heighten a lot more; I feel so much more motivated and excited to be here than I was feeling when we were in the big cities.
Tomorrow we’re taking the scenic train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw. I think the distance is something like 200km and takes around… oh, you know, between 4 and 11 hours by train! It’s been described as one of the 50 “must-do” train travel routes in the world, but also, as being “painfully slow.” I’m a little apprehensive about what a train trip involves in Myanmar, but at the same time I of course want to experience it. If it’s anything like some of the scenery we’ve seen else where in Asia, no doubt it will be stunningly beautiful… if it’s anything like the crowded, jam packed trains we’ve seen else where in Asia, 4 – 11 hours may end up feeling a lot longer. We shall see.

From what I have read, Hsipaw is a pretty magnificent place and I am looking forward to getting there and seeing what’s on offer. It sounds like a place you can really start to ‘feel’ and take your time in – I love those sorts of places. I much prefer to travel and just get a feel for a place rather than hop from tourist attraction to tourist attraction, so Hsipaw sounds like it will  be perfect…

For now, Pyin Oo Lwin – you’ve been pretty great.

Perspective Myanmar: 30 – 31.10.2013

The bus ride from Bagan to Mandalay was stress-free and offered a wonderful view of the beautiful scenery and often, quick glimpses of Myanmar life. I watched out the window as our bus drove through vast fields of uneven sand whilst children ran alongside the bus frantically smiling and waving. We passed by small village homes where children were busy playing with old tyres and women were combing and picking the lice out of their family member’s hair. Our bus drove over ancient looking bridges as we waved back at women in lungis with large bunches of branches and leaves sitting on their heads, perfectly balanced.

The roads were uneven, unpaved and full of pot holes ,and the bus struggled at times to plough over the mud and sand that often replaced the tarmac. We rolled past houses built from the leaves and branches of trees, sitting in the middle of rice fields and greenery. Goat, sheep and cow herders could occasionally be seen watching over their flock near by the roadside.
Karaoke could be heard streaming from the TV at the front of the bus; home-video style film clips accompanied the songs providing short lived entertainment before we were forced to resort to our iPods for some sanity.
I watched as women in conical hats sat on the road side piling rocks into baskets; metres away men were filling a large hole in the road with the rocks – buses and cars were given ample warning in order to move around the workers: a bunch of small rocks in place of safety cones/witches hats made a small border surrounding the workers to keep them safe.
As we moved through villages I was yet-again amazed by the living conditions as we caught a quick passing glimpse of life here. Babies sat naked in the dirt alongside cows flicking their tails in the dust, women were busy hanging laundry in the heat of the sun and in the open bamboo hut next door, men played pool around a very fancy looking billiard table. Myanmar’s version of a men’s pool room…
We passed an area that looked to be purely a rubbish tip; massive amounts of filth and waste, pollution and rubbish were scattered across a large section of land. Mountains of plastic and and discarded items were sifted through by women with large collection baskets. Their working conditions and the pollution seeping into our earth made me sad.
Recent rains have left the roads in an even poorer condition than what I can imagine is normal. Pot holes that could no doubt engulf a motorbike were filled with muddy water and flowing over; entire sections of road seem to be completely covered in thick uneven mud that made driving through them even more difficult and unpredictable. Traffic was quieter than we’re used to, but still busy and full of motorists that never seemed to follow any specific road rules.
People sat along side the road in that typical “Asian squat” that looks so comfortable; their lungis up around their thighs and a cigarette in hand…

I like these bus rides.

I like the act of travel – not just being in a place, but actually making my way there. I like these bumpy journeys, the new and different sights and the quirky people we seem to meet.

We stopped for lunch at a road house – complete with a massive kitchen, huge meals, a massive group of women balancing all sorts of foods in metal dishes on their heads, a large serving of deep fried whole quails and the pretty standard scary squat toilets. Jacob and I played it safe and said no the bag of quail eggs that had been sitting in the sun and instead ate some sort of sponge cake with a sugary pumpkin-bean-something-a-rather filling. We met an American girl who was also trying to work out what food was safe and edible and we quickly became friends – discovering we were all staying at the same guest house in Mandalay, we planned to share a taxi on arrival there.

Arriving into Mandalay, getting off the bus was a struggle due to the massive onslaught of touters and taxi drivers, people yelling and pushing and screaming for our attention in the doorway of the bus. In fact, before the bus could even stop there were touters running along side the bus checking each window; once they spotted our white tourist faces they became very eager to get our attention. A man with a sign stating our guest house name and “Free WI-Fi. Suitable Place” caught our attention, but his taxi price was too high and we instead found a driver with a strange sweat-rag/hand-towel wrapped around his head who complained to us that he is thirty two and still single. We told him he’s still a spring chicken and there’s plenty of time to find a wife. He told us he should’ve been married at eighteen. I see.

Our afternoon was taken up with an hour or so long walk to a big shopping plaza – I needed to go to a specific shop that I knew was at this specific mall and we were too stingy to take a taxi, so walked an hour or so through the intense heat, traffic and pollution to get there. We like these kinds of walks that lead us through the hectic chaos; it offers us an insight into the area and how people live.

Mandalay’s footpaths are an experience in their own right: they are like a potentially lethal obstacle course; a maze that takes you over, around and through absolute mess and rubble, with the constant threat of injury or possibly ending up doused in sewage. The massive sections of missing concrete open up to reveal thick, toxic smelling waste below and make you question your every step as you dodge and weave around and over large cracks, gaping holes and possibly-about-to-cave-in cement slabs. All this whilst trying to navigate direction and the chaos happening around you; intense but so much fun.

We found the mall eventually, and my hopes were quickly crushed when we found the shop – completely gutted and closed down. Oh well, we’ll try again when we get back to Yangon. Instead, we spent an hour or so walking back through the heat, traffic and sprawl our guest house.

We met back up with our new American friend back at the guest house and together the three of us went out again to pay a visit to the night market and find ourselves some street food for dinner.
The night market was not so interesting; mostly strange books in Burmese with a few strange English titles such as “Really Good English Essays” and “AIDS Now” mixed in, alongside cheap looking children’s clothing, weird maid costumes, large posters of white-skinned naked babies and the occasional women’s underwear stand – always with male stall holders lounging around in a lungi, smoking casually. Enticing.
Oddly enough, market stands and book stalls (mounds of books thrown onto pieces of tarp laid out on tarmac in the middle of the busy road) were lined up in the street, competing with motorbikes and cyclists trying to negotiate their way around the stalls and people. It was an odd mix, but pretty quickly we found the food area where Jake and America enjoyed scary meat with rice and vegetables whilst I watched happily. I requested vegetarian curry but was met with a blank stare and eventually, “no vegetable, only raw.”… It seems trying to find vegetarian food here is a lot more difficult than I expected it to be. Moving on from the street side eatery, we continued walking to find me street noodles. America bought herself some Burmese sweets which reminded us of overly sweet mochi. The vendor grabbed a huge chunk and cut it into bite sized pieces with scissors that could easily pass off as an antique, or become part of some museum collection. Amazing.
Locating a street restaurant that looked to be full of locals, I went to inspect if noodles were available and watched as a little old man slurped away at a delicious looking bowl of soup and vermicelli. I want that.
I ordered “vegetarian noodle, no meat please” and the short fluffy man in a lungi nodded. I hoped for the best…and the meal served to me was totally amazing. Good food, good atmosphere, good company, good conversation. I loved it.

Our following day in Mandalay was really a “nothing day” – sometimes you need these when traveling, I guess; we felt unmotivated and not in the mood to explore. I guess we were not feeling so much the need to visit monestries or pagodas and the intense traffic, heat and motor pollution here was a little overwhelming. We ventured out in the morning for brunch of more noodle soup and strange dumplings with an unknown meat filling, before taking a walk to find a curd vendor... surely there had to be someone making curd fresh around here…

There was, we found the stall, bought the curd and it was oishi!

Oh Asia, why you be so awesome.

Our day was whittled away with ease – using wifi, playing ukulele, reading Manga and doing washing.  We were interested in taking an evening bike riding tour but it was quite expensive – and I mean, a lot expensive for our tight backpackers budgets – seeing as our budget is so stretched as it is because of high accommodation costs, it meant we had to give it a miss. This part of budget travel is challenging, but it’s all part of it I guess; deciding what you feel is worth the money and what is passable. I think and feel Myanmar is a country that we need to travel in with a lot more “fat” built into our budget; something we absolutely did not expect nor accommodate for.

We ventured out in the afternoon for a second serve of delicious curd (good bacteria for our gut – what we keep telling ourselves, at least), and visited the night market again for more healthy noodle, vegetable and tofu soup. I hate ‘sticking to what we know’ when it comes to street food – I want to try everything – but I had a lot of trouble trying to find vegetarian food and the offle and intestines floating in broth at every second street food stall scared me a little.

Overall it was a pretty quiet day; we now realise that Mandalay was a city we probably could’ve given a miss and moved straight on to the “hill country” in the North of Myanmar; never the less, we came and we saw (a little) and are ready for our next destination. Tomorrow we head to Pyin Oo Lwin by “share taxi” – whatever that is…

Pyin Oo Lwin sounds like my sort of place a hill country town that is supposedly famous for coffee, strawberries and knitted jumpers/sweaters and hats/beanies. Seeing as I adore both coffee and strawberries and am rarely seen without a beanie (unless I’m sweltering in Asia), this town is sounding pretty awesome already.

Bagan Bound Myanmar: 27 – 29.10.2013

Our first overnight bus pulled out of the bus station perfectly on time; the steward came through giving everyone clean blankets and a little hot dinner with drinks, reclining our seats and switching our lights off. There was no loud music, no tacky karaoke, no hocking or spitting, no mobile phones ringing late into the night… just quiet as the bus rolled and bounced along, Bagan bound. Something seemed strange… it was too good to be true

Our luxury bus arrived into Bagan at 6am; the sky was just starting to show signs of light in the distance and rain was already falling. We stepped out and were immediately hit by taxi drivers and hotel touters at the ready; we’d arrived into tourist territory and again we were reminded that we absolutely underestimated this country.
We declined offers of “I’ll drive you the 6km to your guest house,” “just pay me how you like give me first customer lucky money”  and “It 3km away, too far for you”  and walked the 10 minutes along the road to a guest house.Taxi drivers are funny.
It was dark when we’d arrived but in minutes of walking the sky was getting lighter and lighter; we passed tea shops and small road house restaurants already brimming with people feasting on morning noodles, rice and Burmese tea.
The main road was pretty quiet; a few bicycles and motorbikes rode by, some stray dogs and the occasional woman carrying a basket on her head, but otherwise empty and silent.
Good morning Bagan.

Looking at the wet weather and feeling pretty tired from the overnight bus, we were not sure exactly what to do on our first day here in Bagan. It didn’t take too long for our guest house owner to help us out – he was straight to the point in saying that “Relax in your room today. Full moon day, no market. Everything close today. Rainy weather all day today, no clear sky. No good for temple. No good for Mt. Popa. No good for bike. Bad weather. You should be tired after bus ride. Relax today.”
Okay sir, will do…

The first day in Bagan was pretty much a nothing day; the rain continued to fall heavily all day and left the dirt roads nothing more than a flooded muddy mess. When we did attempt to explore the town on foot, large puddles forced us to walk through the muck and flowing rivers of water – our thongs acting like suction caps and flicking dirt up our legs and backs and motorbikes spraying us as they rode past.
Hoping the following day would be better weather, we planned to explore the temple area. E-bikes (electronic bikes) are everywhere for rent in Bagan and I was super keen to get my bum on one of those bad boys and zip and zoom all over this ancient city.

The next two days in Bagan offered us much better weather and an opportunity to explore the town and spectacular ancient temples and pagodas.

We started our second day by firstly paying an early visit to the large local markets which were still muddy and wet from the previous days’ rain. Within minutes mud had flicked up our legs and backs (and all over our clean clothing) and our thongs were suctioning us to the ground, causing us to near-miss falling flat on our asses in the mud. The markets were large, sprawling and smelling strongly of raw meat; that distinct smell that all Asian wet markets seem to have. People were everywhere and as we walked through the narrow alley way we dodged sick looking dogs and small playing children. Most of our concentration was taken up in an attempt  to step over and around the blood that was trickling down the meat market tables and spilling out into the mix of mud, water and filth on the ground. Whilst the many bare footed customers didn’t seem to worry about the blood and animal matter that spattered on their skin as they trudged through the slop, I did.
We watched as whole animal carcases were skinned, sliced and cut open, organs and gizzards hooked and hung out for sale, blood collected and pig head skins shoved out on display. The sellers were posed squatting in their lungis, bare footed, cutting and chopping with massive knives that sliced through entire animals in one loud chop. They talked and laughed and smiled as they handled the chunks of raw meat and fish – it was gutted and prepped and weighed, then shoved into metal dishes for sale. We were once again amongst the fascinating, foul smelling action. On the other side of the alleyway, all sorts of colourful vegetables and fruits were being sold. We turned a corner, away from the pungent smells that were forcing me to cover my nose and mouth with my sleeve, and were suddenly no longer in the locals area – we were in the tourist section. Damn.
“Lady, you want lungi, looking is for free” “You need wood carving? Laquerware? Bell? Metal thingy? Useless item? T-shirt with strange English translation? Ugly wooden cat?….”

We didn’t stay much longer.

Deciding we would head out to the temples, we started walking… Why not? It was about a 4km walk to the Old Bagan area and it was nice weather.
It’s hard to explain how it appeared and felt when we began to see these ancient ruins start popping up along the sides of the roads, through the over grown jungle grass and surrounded by thousands of dragon flies, but it was pretty spectacular. These 4000-odd Buddhist temples that are dotted about a massive area of land could be compared – in their own magnificent way – to the temples of Angkor Wat, and were truly stunning.
I think you are supposedly meant to pay $15 USD for a week long general entrance ticket to the temples but there was no ticket seller around anywhere and no one checking tickets, so… awesome! I checked this later with the guest house manager and he said “no one is checking so don’t buy.” Love it.

Walking along the roads and dirt tracks, we took time to move about the little temples and structures as we chose. There are so many of these marvelous structures, it’s not hard to find one that is completely empty and it was amazing to have such an area to explore by ourselves. We found one temple that, when we climbed up the dark narrow staircase, offered us a stunning view over a large area of Old Bagan and surrounding temples. Thousands of them seem to just sprout up from the greenery to give a view that is spectacular; one that no words – or my dodgy camera – can do justice…

We spent our third and final day in Bagan zooming around on bikes and exploring the temple areas. Whilst I chose a gnarly looking e-bike (a tiny bike with a massive battery on the back that whizzes along at a surprisingly fast speed), Jake chose a pedal bicycle. I tried to get him to hire an e-bike; I wanted us both to have the opportunity to speed around on one of these bad boys, seeing as we don’t get to back home, but he was eager to stay “traditional.”

Trying to negotiate the muddy, wet, pot-holey roads and the many unorganised road users – human and animal – with an e-bike was at first a little bit daunting, but before long I was speeding along at a “medium speed”… (actually a lot faster than I was expecting).
We headed out towards the area we had visited on foot yesterday, planning on travelling much further down through Old Bagan to the area where there are lots of these stunning ancient structures (although, there seem to be lots everywhere!) but, of course, Jake’s bike tyre went flat about an hour into our explorations. We’d been to just a few temples before we were forced to turn around and walk the hour or so back into town – me pushing the bike and Jake riding my e-bike at a walking pace alongside me. “Should’ve gotten an e-bike…”

Back in town, Jake selected another bicycle from the pretty dodgy selection and again we were off. We took a different road to get to some different temples – the road that runs parallel with the main road was much quieter and in a much better condition – and we had a lot of fun zooming down the flat stretches of road. We hopped from temple to temple, walking bare foot through ancient ruins and structures with murals from hundreds of years ago covering the bricks. Again, no words to describe it.

We met a young Burmese guy who was very eager to tell us where to see the best views and what temples we should go to; he was super kind but… no, we don’t actually want to buy any paintings, sorry.
Back on our bikes, we zipped over the road and up a very muddy and wet dirt path – almost getting bogged more than once along the way – towards the Buledi Stupa. Supposedly with some of the best views over the area, we climbed the several steep stairs up to a view point that literally left me awe struck. There are just so many temples… so many. Breath taking.
We stayed up for a while just trying to take in the view and the structures that dotted around us for such a far and wide distance. Shiny golden pagodas peeped through the greenery, along with the red-coloured bricks of the ancient temples and massive structures.

As the sun was setting we took in our last views of the scenery before hopping back on our bikes to head back into town before dark… but of course, we couldn’t just have a leisurely non-eventful ride back– Jake’s bum was obviously too heavy for these Asian-made bikes and he bent the actual metal bike seat pole: it just folded all of a sudden like a piece of paper crumbling. I was riding along and heard a sudden loud noise and then “shit!”…

We arrived back into Nyaung U town at peak hour where we shared the road with all sorts of people and animals and vehicles. It was dusty and chaotic and there were roosters strutting about, children playing on the road side and water spilling out from somewhere unknown… people riding on the opposite side of the road, women carrying large baskets and dishes of goods on their heads and restaurants gearing up for the evening rush. We rolled into the bike rental shop where the faces of the staff members dropped when they saw Jake’s bike… and then changed from a state of shock to a state of laughter whilst the male staff member said “too strong” and tensed his biceps. Jake went next door to the conveniently located bike repair shop and bought a new pole for 1500kyats ($1.50c)… so, not so damaging on the wallet, thank goodness.

Since we are leaving Bagan tomorrow headed for Mandalay, we spent some of the final evening cleaning up our mess: after two nights here we’ve “somehow” managed to spread our (my) belongings across the entire room. I had done some laundry that wasn’t quite dry, so had it hanging over the furniture. As I sat there amongst the mess and drying clothing in my mud-splattered trekking pants, treating a bottle of water with the steri-pen, I thought to myself… “We’re really here. We’re true backpackers…”