Yangon and Back – Circle Loop Myanmar: 11.11.2013

On our final day in Myanmar we woke early and got chatting with another traveler. It was certainly interesting to hear another person’s point of view about Myanmar and great to get some advice and insight into travel in Vietnam – a destination we’re headed to next month.
What I found interesting was thinking about Myanmar as being a country that, at the present moment, can be seen changing, growing and developing so quickly. In some ways, you could “feel” the development and changes around you, so to speak; especially in the tiny town of Hsipaw, for example, where seven new guest houses are currently being built to be ready late 2013, in order to keep up with the demand for accommodation. That’s how quickly tourism appears to be growing and an example of how much more accessible Myanmar will continue to become.

Matt joined us this morning for breakfast and the three of us decided to go together on the city circle loop train around the entire of Yangon today – a different type of tourist attraction, you could say, that offers insight into the different areas of Yangon and a glimpse at life in and around this city.

We walked down to the train station, accidentally stumbling into a fascinating morning market in full swing. There were locals everywhere eating and slurping bowls of noodles, fried goods bubbling away in boiling vats of oil, people sitting drinking tea, people buying and selling and the pungent smell of raw meat mixed with fresh produce floating through the air. If we hadn’t been in a hurry to catch the 10:15 circle loop train no doubt we would’ve stopped for a snack and a few photographs.

When we arrived at the train station, walking past vendors selling slices of fresh watermelon and water, we purchased our tickets and found out the train was now departing at 10:45am. We could’ve spent more time at that little hidden morning market, after all – oh well.
I went off to use the toilet at the other end of the station platform, leaving Jake and Matt with my bag – and my wallet. The platform was dotted with families sitting and eating, food vendors, news paper sellers, fruit sellers, toy sellers… such an interesting sight.
Once I’d finished using the toilet I went to leave and was met with a tiny frail woman making smooching noises at me to get my attention, beckoning me to pay her money for using one of the filthiest, foul-smelling toilets of this entire trip to date. I motioned “no money” to her and walked away whilst she made even louder smooching noises at me. It was quite a comical situation, in my head.
I still don’t really understand this concept that seems to be found all over Asia, where you must pay to use the public toilets. Someone sits all day outside toilet blocks that are more often than not beyond filthy, putrid, foul smelling and covered in urine and shit. Squatting over a poo-covered hole in the ground whilst trying not to touch any surface, contract any disease or vomit from the stench, I wonder why I need to fork out money for someone to do nothing. Seeing as there is no water to flush, no toilet paper to use, and very clearly no cleaner working, I see no reason to pay. Perhaps if the toilets were kept in a useable condition that didn’t pose a threat to my health – and my life – I might be a little more willing to hand over money. Furthermore, whilst I have to pay to inhale toxic waste, men are quite happy to shit freely over the side of the train platform or urinate on the toilet block wall. Rant over.

On the train, which cost us just 1200 kyat ($1.20 AU) for the three hour round trip, we sat back in clean seats and watched the life of local Burmese move past. It was incredibly fascinating to see life around Yangon: little markets set up on train station platforms, religious aspects of every day life, monks riding trains (one monk in particular took a liking to us three), locals carrying all sorts of goods, little children forever smiling and waving at us – and lots of adults too. We took the train to simply see the people and life here and seeing as the train moved at a walking – jogging pace for most of the journey, we were able to get some fantastic views and photos. We really were able to see a great deal and enjoy the slow paced journey.

With the sun shining, I moved to the open train doorway and sat on the steps with my feet dangling out of the train. It was a really amazing feeling – I felt so free and calm; the heat of the sun and the cool breeze from the slow-moving train was brilliant. I’ve never felt so free as during this Asian Adventure, and this moment sticks out in my memory.
From the train steps I was offered a full view of the sights, scenery, homes, villages, markets and people. The locals smiled at me and I waved to the children who took delight in calling out “hello.”

The train ride was great, really, and very unique to Myanmar in my opinion.
Walking back into town, the three of us went to Lucky Seven Tea House where we ordered tea: the “little sweet” tea, not the “diabeties tea,” although we were still under some threat from the amount of sugar.

Eventually we said goodbye to Matt who left for the airport shortly after – it had been fantastic travelling with him this past week and we had a lot of fun together.

We stopped off for lunch at a street food stall where I ordered a Burmese food known as hot-pot mee shay noodles. I watched as the young boy added various noodles, vegetables, quail eggs, tofu and miscellaneous edible items into a clay pot, added sauces and spices and then bought it to the boil over an open flame. This dish is one of my favourite dishes in Myanmar, as long as it is from a street stall and not a restaurant.

We spent the afternoon flitting about; we tried to find Jacob a barber so he could get a beard trim but no luck – the barber was there, sitting outside his shop, but obviously just didn’t feel like working and put his feet up, telling us to “come back tomorrow.” If we were in India still, there would’ve been several street barbers within a 50 metre radius, all ready to go. Funny.
I like it.

Packing our backpacks for the final time in Myanmar, we prepared for our flight to Thailand tomorrow. It’s hard to believe our travels in Myanmar are now already over and tomorrow we’ll be meeting my brother and mother in Thailand.
It’s going so quickly – too quickly – but I just can’t work out how to slow the time down. Often I remind myself and am consciously aware of how incredible this moment is, this experience is, this adventure is, but I know for some reason I can’t ever fully comprehend what I’m doing and seeing until it’s in the past and I am looking back and reflecting upon ‘that moment from before…’

Already it’s mid-November – next month is December, the last month of 2013! – and I’m already starting to become a little anxious about going home to Melbourne. I have these worries about fitting back into a routine and an environment that will no doubt cause some sort of ‘reverse culture shock.’
Asia has become so normal, so comfortable, so convenient and so continuously exciting and entertaining; it feels so… well, it’s become my every day and I really love the mess, the noise, the smells, the chaos, the hectic traffic and the unorganised-everything. Asia is free spirited in so many ways – disorderly and full of odd and strange things, shocking things and enthralling things… I think – I know – I’ll miss this madness that makes me smile.

I think what I adore most about the life style here is the continual blatantly obvious differences between my own culture and the Asian cultures. I’m always being entertained, educated, thrilled, excited, confronted, challenged, questioned; I am always aware of how out of my depths I am in so many ways yet so conscious of how much I thrive in the different environments I am in. I love the lifestyle I am living currently and how much I am learning and the way my thoughts, opinions and attitudes are forming. I love the atmosphere, the people, the street food stalls and tiny plastic chairs, the six-times-a-day cups of tea, the constant moving and changing. I love our ‘the night before’ packing sessions and dumping our bags in the next destination once we arrive, and I feel completely settled even though every few days we’re on the move again. This part of the world suits me in so many ways and, really, I feel so happy to know that I’ve truly embraced it all.

Golden Myanmar: 10.11.2013

We’d arrived early into Yangon after an overnight bus from Inle Lake and had shared a taxi back to the same guest house we’d first stayed in on our arrival here in Myanmar. Matt was also staying at the same place so we ended up having breakfast together and made plans to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda this afternoon and evening.

Once we’d checked into our room, showered and started feeling remotely human again after the over night bus ride with little sleep, we ventured out into the streets of Yangon. I was keen to find a certain shop I’d researched so we took a taxi to a mall where this shop supposedly was. No luck.
Another taxi and we arrived at “Scotch Market” – a market that is massive and diverse in what it sells, catering to tourists and locals alike (although, I think they are two very separate areas). It was evident before we even barely walked through the entrance that the prices were highly inflated tourist prices and we were pretty happy to not buy the $300 USD miniature statue of Buddha, nor the antique something a rather for $500 USD. Every sales person wanted us to buy gems or jade stone, gold, silver, antiques, fabrics, clothing, shoes, local goods, everything and anything – and of course, they would promise profusely to give good price and big discount.

The market was okay; we ran into Matt – we keep running into him – and had a quick chat before deciding we’d had enough of the touting and jade scams. On exiting the market we came across a lady selling some sort of street food snack – a local sweet – that involved some sort of sweet bean in a rice covering. It was half-decent.
Whilst I think some Burmese food is really incredible (like Shan Noodles and Shan Tofu Salad), I’ve noticed the food in Myanmar as a general rule is lacking something, and more often than not, a little bit more on the bland and ridiculously oily side…

We soon left the market area and walked through the streets, navigating our way to a famous Indian curd and sweet shop. We found the shop and ordered ourselves a lassi each which was probably the closest we’ve come to finding authentic Indian food/drink outside of India.
Although it was boiling hot outside and we were quickly drenched in sweat, it was a pleasure and a joy to walk through the streets of Yangon. I feel safe here and I like the old, weathered buildings. I like the people and the traffic, the food stalls on the streets and the miniature chairs. The streets are easy to navigate too – they go by numbers such as 19th, 20th, 21st etc.
It’s nice to end in the city we started in after travelling throughout other areas of Myanmar – I feel we’ve returned with a different view of the city and more of an understanding.

We stopped by a noodle shop that was supposed to be one of the better places (according to our almost useless guide book) to eat at but the food was just barely okay; I ordered something and was bought out something completely different and five times the price, meanwhile, the owner didn’t understand any English when I said it might not be what I ordered, but then very fluently tried to sell me her amazing guide services… We decided again, after countless times previously, we are ditching the guide book and it’s outdated and unreliable information.

Late afternoon we met up with Matt in our guest house lobby and caught a taxi to Shwedagon Pagoda together for the evening to watch the sun set. Previously when we’d first arrived in Yangon we’d decided to ask other travellers if this pagoda was worth paying to visit; seeing as there are thousands upon thousands of pagodas in Myanmar and we were also going to Bagan, we wondered if it was more spectacular… as it turns out, our three hours spent there has become a true highlight of our time in Myanmar. It was pretty spectacular sight – especially as day turned to night and the massive golden pagoda shined and glowed in the changing light and lit up when the sky turned a royal then dark blue.

Our bare feet soaked up the heat of the sun through the tiles on the ground as we walked throughout the pagoda grounds. The area was just so massive and the pagoda was just so spectacular and impressive. The gold was shining from every angle in the sun light and surrounded by so many other religious statues and areas for people to worship.
Whilst we didn’t understand the religious ceremonies, rituals, practices and monuments, it was fascinating to watch everyone practicing their religion and spirituality. It felt very special to be able to witness and be surrounded by this religion that is such an integral part of the local’s lives.
Watching monks meditating, people praying, people offering gifts and volunteers spending their time to ensure the areas of the pagoda were kept in good condition was very humbling.

What I especially loved seeing was the locals and families who had come to the pagoda with large containers of food, blankets to sit on and plates to eat on. So many families were sitting in groups eating in the surroundings of the pagoda, the social family and community aspects of this pagoda really stood out to me and it was really quite a beautiful part of our experience there.

Watching the sky turning from daylight to a royal blue to dark, and the pagoda go from a shining gold to being lit up against the night sky was spectacular, and we were grateful for the opportunity to see this sight at this time of the day.

Once the sky had turned to dark and after more than three hours at the Shwedagon pagoda, we left and walked a few kilometres to 19th street, a street famous for hawker and street food stalls and open grills.
The entire street was packed with people eating and grilling, every eatery had a stall of fresh skewers and touters keen for business.

It was enjoyable for us to be out in the fun and bustling night-time atmosphere and a cool experience with good company. It’s Matt’s last night in Myanmar as he returns to the UK tomorrow evening.

Late evening the three of us took a walk from 19th back to our guest house on 54th street. After little sleep on last nights bus ride and a full on day today, we were in bed and asleep by 9pm.

Tomorrow is our final day in Myanmar and it’s hard to believe; our time here has been incredible and time has flown…

Cheers to Myanmar: 9.11.2013

The serene sounds of boats and their diesel engines chugging and spluttering on the canal outside our bungalow woke us early on our final day in Inle Lake.

We spent our morning collecting our washing that we’d strung up on the balcony, backpacker stye (so fresh and clean again!) and packed our bags at a leisurely pace.
Eventually we headed to the local market where we discovered a local black smith selling pairs of hand made scissors and other items.
We’ve seen these scissors everywhere in Myanmar – the Burmese use them for everything it seems, especially cooking and food handling/cooking/cutting/miscellaneous chopping/slicing/dicing/shaving/grating/everything. (What’s that, you need that boiled egg still in it’s shell chopped in half? Here are some scissors...) We ended up buying a few pairs for ourselves and as gifts for our mothers; we felt this was a true Myanmar product and really special.

We found ourselves sitting at a tiny counter inside the market feasting on beautiful freshly prepared tofu salad with both fried and fresh beancurd, cabbage, chilli, oil, corriander and unpressed bean curd. The locals seemed shocked that these two foreigners would even give this little stall a second glance, let alone sit down and eat there. For me, this meal was a highlight dish amongst the meals we’ve eaten in Myanmar.

Back at guest house we hired bikes with the plan to cycle out to a morning market near by (part of the rotating market) however the staff failed to tell us that morning (“Oh yes it on all morning”) that it finished by 9am so we missed out completely. Oh well.
Instead, we cycled straight out to the near by Red Mountain Winery, about a 20 – 30 minute ride along some pretty nice and some pretty rough roads, over construction sites and through beautiful scenery.

As was common in Myanmar, we arrived at the Winery to find a massive tour bus of elderly French tourists who had taken over much of the indoor area. Our luck – we chose a seat next to the window to do a very fancy wine tasting for 2000 kyat ($2) each before running into Matt yet again, and then moving outside into the open air and beautiful weather for a few more hours of nothing but pure happiness. It was surreal; yet again a reminder of how lucky we are and how wonderful this trip has been and is. I’d never expected to be sipping reislings and roses at a winery in Myanmar, but here we are… and it’s amazing.

We cycled back into town around 2pm and stopped by a small photography exhibition by a local artist. His photographs of tribal villages and local people were pretty impressive.

We had a late lunch at two different places – whilst I stuck to Shan noodles from a little restaurant, Jake decided against my warnings to be adventurous and order curry from a filthy hole in the wall. The meat curry had no doubt been sitting out in the heat all day and as I watched him eat I knew there would be consequences for eating such a meal…

The rest of our afternoon was spent quietly – we were leaving for Yangon this evening and had no more plans for the rest of the day. I spent time catching up on my travel journal and we relaxed in the sun and the shade of our guest house until our pick-up arrived at 6:30pm to take us to the bus stop. Our time in Inle Lake was now over.

Funnily enough, we were taking the same overnight bus back to Yangon with Matt; we all boarded our luxurious VIP bus (again, these buses in Myanmar always amaze me – they are so luxurious!), reclined our seats, accepted our bag of Myanmar cookies given to each passenger as a welcome gift, accepted the cans of cold soft drink, tucked away our little toiletries packet for later and located the on board toilets…

…so that Jake could spend the entire journey vomiting that dodgy curry up into the sink.
Shit. He’d been struck down.

After almost 12 hour spent on our cushioned recliners and some ridiculously bumpy, rough and dangerous roads, we arrived into Yangon around 6:30am.

We’d now reached our final destination here in Myanmar.

Sounds of Serenity Myanmar: 7.11.2013

After arriving early into Nyaung Shwe by bus, us tourists hopped into the back of the only waiting tuk tuk (more like a pick-up truck) and were carted off to our various guest houses – but not before being forced to pay a hefty Government enforced “entrance fee” to the Inle Lake area at a very non-official “booking office” (read: wooden shack with hand-made looking sign). We were not sure that this was legitimate and still aren’t; the entire time we were here in the town the ticket was never checked by anyone…

Arriving at our guest house, we found ourselves situated right on the riverbank that leads out to Inle Lake; it offered us a great view of all the boats and boatmen. In other words, the roaring sound of loud motors from the hundreds of passing  boats was incessant. The chugging, choking and putting of motors, coupled with the serious renovations happening in and around our guest house, made for one very noisy visit to Nyaung Shwe. But it didn’t matter in the slightest; we were here at last.

Whist Jake decided to have a nap, I headed straight up the dusty street to the large local morning market where I went in search and eventually found sticky rice, fried bean curd and a cabbage/garlic/chilli/coriander/unpressed bean curd/oil dressing. Sticky rice and tofu salad: it’s my new favourite here in Myanmar.

The local people seemed a little unsure about having a foreigner in the market buying the local foods, but Nyaung Shwe is a touristic place so I doubt I’m the first… It took a long time for me to actually purchase the foods; not because I couldn’t find what I wanted, or because there were long queues, but more so because it seemed pretty clear that the locals didn’t actually want to serve me and were more interested in staring at me blatantly, then ignoring me, serving anyone and everyone else who came by after me and then laughing with each other and gesturing their hands towards me.
When I did eventually stand up for myself and make sure my order was finally heard and acknowledged, I received even more odd looks, a lot more laughing and some pointing too.
Sigh.
I understand I look different and that I probably don’t order the right thing in the right way, that I speak a different language and that I’m a tourist, but…

Back at the room, Jake and I ate our market breakfast on our little pattio and soaked up the serenity around us, mostly in the form of sounds: banging hammers, electronic saws, construction workers shouting and the endless grating of boat motors.
Nyaung Shwe – I like you.

Trying to decide what to do today and feeling as though it was already “too late” to begin a full day boat trip out onto the late (we wanted to see the sun rise and it was already well after 9am) we thought about possibly taking a half-day boat trip out onto Inle Lake to see the sun set. However, we really did want a full-day and the opportunity to see the sun both rise and fall over the lake.

Still deliberating about today’s plans, we walked into town to explore the area and find a lassi shop. We coincidentally ran into Matt who also had plans to take a boat tour the following day, so we decided the three of us would hire a boat and  boatman for the full day tomorrow, starting at the beautiful hour of 6am. Too easy! We had the full day today to explore and enjoy… and, seeing as every tourist – and there were lots – had their ass parked on a bike seat, maybe hire some bikes.

We did a few mundane things in town for the morning that involved checking out prices for boats, different routes etc., checking prices for buses to Yangon, changing more US dollars for Burmese Kyats and doing a heap of washing back at our room. We converted our balcony into a washing line by tying our piece of rope around the balcony posts at several different angles and draping our sopping clothes over it in the direct sun light.
I love being a backpacker.

In the afternoon Jake and I hired a couple of bikes (this time Jake managed not to break his) and attempted to ride out to a near by tofu bean-curd village, supposedly a 30 minute or so ride away.

It was not 30 minutes away, that’s for sure. Maybe by Myanmar standards it’s 30 minutes away… and by 30 minutes, they mean more than an hour. Not that this mattered, of course, we had a lot of time to enjoy, however it did mean we underestimated the ride and how far we could go before the sun would set…

The road out to the tofu village was incredibly bumpy and in such a poor condition that made riding along it a lot more fun. When we weren’t concentrating on avoiding massive pot holes or ensuring we didn’t break our necks in the process, we attempted to negotiate road side dwelling water buffalo, hundreds of motorbikes, tractors, construction vehicles, road workers, fellow tourists on bikes and the occasional stray dog… all the while, trying to soak in some of the most spectacular rural and mountainous scenery. It was stunning and by bike was the best way to see it.

We continued riding for more than fifty minutes; heading out over the pot holes, up gravel and dirt tracks, through spectacular scenery and past one very cute albino water buffalo grazing on the road side, we were still no where near (or maybe we were?) the tofu village… After passing the third construction site where road side workers in thongs negotiated bull dozers and all sorts of hazardous conditions, we were at a loss to where we actually were. Clearly, the map we had wasn’t as ‘to scale’ as we thought…

As it started to get close to dusk, we were still not in tofu heaven and decided to give in; there was no way I was attempting to ride back to our guest house in the dark on those roads – with no lights on my bike or along the roads, I was sure I’d either hit a pot hole, a buffalo or a motorist and never be seen again.
After an hours ride out, we’d definitely missed out on the “30 minute ride away” tofu village. Perhaps the Burmese just ride a lot faster than us…

It ended up being about a two hour bike ride, which I was pretty chuffed about. I really enjoy riding around, it’s pretty easy – although pretty hairy and stressful at times – and the fact that almost every second person is on a bike makes it somehow more enjoyable. I like the relaxed “bike culture,” you could say. Back in town, we headed straight up the main street  for the so-called “night market.” There were only a couple of stalls – all food – with no customers and prices that were pretty expensive compared to other parts of the town, so we gave it a miss and headed back to our guest house to drop off the bikes.

Heading back into town, funnily enough we ran into Matt again so we stopped for a quick chit-chat and confirmed tomorrows plans before continuing up the main street.
We’d decided to do something “unique” here in Nyaung Shwe tonight and go to see the only traditional Burmese Marionette Puppet Show in town; it sounded ‘cute,’ shall we say, so we decided to experience it for ourselves.
A 20-odd minute walk up the main street and we found ourselves in the tiny garage of a local man’s home, where a home-made puppet theatre had been set up and  a heap of plastic chairs. From the walls and ceilings hung several intense-looking wooden puppets of all different sizes and figures. Whilst the man collected our 3,000 kyats each for the 20-minute performance, a little boy helped to lower the stage curtain.
A couple of mosquito coils were lit, the lights in the garage were turned off and the door shut, the guy next to us had a beer in-hand from the pub down the road and the Burmese-style show began…

The following 20 minutes were interesting – unique, even – to say the least and once we had endured a very strange recording about Burmese marionette puppetry and the history, the little man began to jump and dance around on the home-made theatre stage to various musical numbers with some very intricate movements and very interesting wooden puppets. He was skilled, absolutely, and it was pretty ‘cute’ to experience this. “Cute” really does seem to be the best word to describe this whole event; it was innocent and ‘homely,’ in a way.

Once the puppet show was over and we left without feeling the need to purchase one of the hanging wooden string puppets as a souvenir, we attempted to find a non-tourist place for dinner. Unsuccessful, we decided to re-try the night market now that it was later in the hope that there would be more stalls. We later regretted our decision.
On arrival back at the market there were indeed a couple more stalls and a few reasonably prices dishes so we found a place that looked somewhat reliable and we ordered from the menu “Vegetarian Claypot with noodles.”

In true classic Asian style…the dish came out with two very large steaming, very non-vegetarian chicken feel draped over noodles and a few bits of limp carrot. Foolishly I took it back to the stall operator and explained I wanted vegetarian (really, I should’ve learned my lesson by now) so, what did she do? Whipped out a couple of chop sticks and poked them around in the clay pot, fished out a bit of chicken feet here and there, then handed it back. Put off by the limp, bubbly skin of those boney, boiled talons, needless to say I didn’t eat much. What I did eat wasn’t that good, either…
It really seems food in Myanmar is hit-or-miss. Tonight was definitely a miss.

After a long, sleepless bus ride last night and a day of adventure, pot holes and puppetry today, both of us were almost asleep by 10pm – despite the sound of churning boat motors and construction that was still going on. We’ve got another early start tomorrow and a full day on Inle Lake. This has been a day we’ve been waiting for and I seriously can’t wait!

 

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.

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…