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!

 

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.

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.

Unexpected Myanmar: 24 – 26.10.2013

The alarm went off at 2:45am on the morning of the 24th; with our eyes feeling as though they were hanging out of our heads and our bodies heavy after only three or so hours sleep, we hauled our packs onto our backs and walked out into the dark, empty streets of Kuala Lumpur in an attempt to find a taxi.
The taxi dropped us at KL Sentral Station, where we were instantly able to board the bus bound direct for the airport – one hours bus ride meant one more hours sleep, and I woke as we pulled into the International Departure Drop-Off area. I didn’t feel ready for Myanmar in so many ways, but I guess, as per usual, the unknown was the scariest part. With out knowing what the country would be like and with so much conflicting information, it was hard to know what we were heading for… an odd mix of hesitation and excitement began.

Arriving into Myanmar, we flew over several golden pagodas emerging from the landscape below and glistening in the morning sun. We were here, finally, in “the land of a thousand pagodas.” Somewhere amongst the sheer exhaustion and uncertainty of what this country had in store for us, I felt excited.

With our bags collected and clinging to our pristine, clean, new US dollars, we headed for immigration – past a very large – empty! – VISAS ON ARRIVAL counter with several customs officers sitting, waiting… Flash backs of the absolute ordeal that was getting our Myanmar visas in Kathmandu, Nepal, were suddenly entering my mind – but it didn’t matter; the lady stamped my passport and ushered me through. We went directly to the money exchangers at the airport; regardless of what the guide book says, the best exchange rate for USD to Myanmar Kyat was surprisingly at the airport; confusing – yes, but true!

Feeling suddenly very rich with a thick wad of thousands of kyats in our hands, we headed towards the exit and walked out into Yangon’s morning heat. Headed for our guest house in the city centre, we hopped into a car with right hand side steering wheel, with a driver that drove on the right hand side of the road… and sometimes the left… and sometimes in the centre…or anywhere he really felt like, or fitted, really…

The city centre was an hours taxi ride away and as we rolled towards our guest house we tried to take in the sights and sounds of a new country whizzing past our eyes. We were instantly reminded of Laos and the fact that we were absolutely not in Japan any more. Pagodas shimmering in the sunlight were dotted amongst buildings and greenery. The roads were filled with traffic that was still hectic compared to say, Japan or Melbourne, but nothing like what we’ve experienced else-where in Asia. We immediately felt a sense of calm here. The cars on the road were older, some rusting, lots of Japanese models… it was quickly obvious that one classic style of transport found everywhere else in Asia was missing… where were the motorbikes? Turns out, there are none: motorbikes are illegal here in Yangon.

When we eventually arrived at our budget guest house – which we’d paid a whopping $45 US dollars for (yes, that is for just one night in a basic room with shared bathroom) – we were at first a little (and by a little, I mean, a lot) taken back…We’ve not paid more than about $17 for any accommodation this entire trip and when we have (which has been very rarely) we’ve gotten absolute luxury in return. From our past experiences in Asia – particularly in South East Asia – we recall paying around $5 for a decent room or dorm room with a bathroom, so it was a very rude shock to our budget to find out that $25 – $35 per night is pretty standard for budget accommodation here in Myanmar…
So, our first impressions? We needed to make a bit of an adjustment to our budget (and our mindset), which we’d been expecting to sit around the $35 per day mark. Shit…

After sleeping away the morning, both of us woke feeling groggy and run down. We ventured out to find a place to eat and ended up walking through the streets – passing so many friendly and curious faces, avoiding large gaping holes, rubbish, upturned rubble and uneven ground on the footpaths, breathing in car fumes and delicious smelling street food.

Yangon seems quieter than other Asian cities we’ve been to but still full of traffic, people and life, buzzing with activity, little shops and street carts, open air food stalls, men carrying large bird cages full of birds on their backs, women cooking on ancient stove tops fueled by hot coals and fresh fruit for sale that is always so tempting… so much is happening and it feels great to be back amongst the grungy, homely Asia that I fell in love with…

Street food lined the roads and footpaths we walked by – the main foods seemed to involve varied noodle dishes or big pots with a boiling stock, surrounded by bits of skewered meat that looked very much like organs of some description. Vendors were mixing noodle salads by hand under the shelter of their tiny carts or under larger tents set up like make-shift restaurants; people were everywhere eating on tiny child-sized colourful plastic seats. The food all looked so interesting, so delicious (although maybe not the organy looking things…) and it smelled beautiful and fresh; at the same time I felt the need to proceed with caution – I wasn’t ready yet to dive into the street food scene here. Maybe tomorrow…

The Burmese, it seems, are crazy about tea – sweet, milky tea which can be found almost everywhere. Every second building seemed to be a Tea House; complete with concrete floors and child waiters with cigars behind their ears, wooden seats or tiny plastic ones, and people everywhere, sipping tea and making smoochy noises to get the waiters attention.

I love this tea culture we seem to always be following regardless of what Asian country we are in. Although, it’s safe to say I have a severe sweet tea/sugar addiction after the copious amounts of tea we have been consuming in the past 4-odd months and the threat of diabetes is starting to worry me ever so slightly. Asians seem to love their tea SUPER sweet – if you can taste the tea, it’s not sweet enough apparently – and we’ve gotten somewhat used to wincing away the teeth-pain every time we take a sip.
Whilst funny, it wasn’t all that surprising to find a menu in a tea house displaying a number of different options for tea:
Little sweet
Sweetened
House Special (more sweet)
Diabetes

“…aaah, yes, I’ll have the diabetes, thanks…”

We walked gladly through the streets, watching and observing. It’s nice to be surrounded again by a new and different culture yet, oddly it feels really familiar. We keep being reminded of Laos and other areas of South East Asia… and then something new or different is discovered or revealed.

The boys and men here mostly wear lungis – much like the ones the men wear in Sri Lanka, India and Nepal – and it’s quite normal to see people (men and women) with faces and skin smeared with a cream coloured powder – especially all over their face; the traditional make-up of Myanmar that has been worn for thousands of years.

The people here are friendly and curious; their stares are warm and no one tried to cheat us or bother us – apart from one man who offered us a very generous exchange rate on the street – a little too generous – but he was polite when we said no thanks… we knew his tricks!

We eventually found a very local looking restaurant packed with people, took a seat on the tiny red plastic chairs and ordered Burmese tea and a bowl of Shan noodles; our first Myanmar meal. The verdict: delicious.

Our second day in Myanmar was spent doing not a lot at all; it rained heavily in Yangon for most of the day; thunder clapped and the roads and footpaths – even some shops – began to flood.

Feeling so unwell from a nasty coldy-virusy-thing that took hold overnight, venturing out of our room to the downstairs restaurant (that doubles as a strange mobile phone shop) to simply get our breakfast was an effort in itself. The pouring rain meant we spent a lot of time resting today and I didn’t have to feel so guilty about not being outside exploring and sight-seeing.

When we did venture out around lunch time it was still drizzly weather and we were amazed to see roads flooded with brown water, people driving through massive puddles that had become small rivers, men hiking up their lungis to wade through the water and women scooping water out of the shops with dust-pans and stick brooms.
We spent some time just walking along the accessible bits of footpath and taking photographs.
Unable to cross any roads, we were limited to where we could walk without the threat of falling into a flooded pot-hole. We found a little local eatery nearby our guest house and experienced some local food: fermented tea leaf and rice salad and another type of Shan noodle soup.

Our afternoon was quiet as the rain continued to fall. We spent some time trying to plan out our rough route and itinerary. It was quite difficult to plan a route for some reason: I think we were not sure what the best options are, what is available and what we should/must see/do. Furthermore, we were wondering if we need to start booking accommodation now: it’s getting into peak season and it’s become quite clear already from what we’ve seen and heard that there are many tourists in Myanmar and not enough guest houses. This is absolutely something I wasn’t expecting nor planning for – I think the both of us were expecting to be able to travel here like we have done previously in Asia – just show up and take it from there, plan nothing and see what happens… I’m not sure that’s possible here – at least not in high season…
The standard of accommodation also seems to be either very good at a very high price, average to good at an affordable price (although still WAY above our backpacker budget) or horrible (think horror film scenes) at a budget, but still over-priced price. Seeing as I refuse to sleep in a grimey prison cell, we decided we need to at least book ahead a place before we arrive there.

When we were researching Myanmar before we left Australia we used our guide book as a rough guide. $7 – 12 rooms seemed reasonable-isha and we imagined it to be quite easy to get accommodation. Amazing how the latest guide book is already SO out of date. This country is obviously changing rapidly and I certainly didn’t expect the level of tourists that are here to be so many. I think it’s safe to say that both of us grossly underestimated Myanmar; the guide book information has now been deemed pretty much useless – besides the maps – and we have not much else to rely on besides word-of mouth.

Our second evening was spent at the local night market which was alive and full of people. I adore Asian wet markets and never tire of seeing them in action – they always have something new, exciting, interesting and often foul-smelling on offer. It’s so impressive and fascinating to see bare footed women and men sitting on – again – tiny plastic chairs, cutting open animals on the ground with massive knives in one big chop. Chickens are displayed – beheaded and befooted(??) – right next to the massive river fish sitting alongside tied-up crabs, flicking prawns and the organs and heads of pigs.
The colour at this night market was intense and I loved it – it could be seen in the countless types of fresh fruit and vegetable as well as in the coloured clothing that everyone seems to be wearing. Black-clad fashion conscious Melbourne would go into shock with all these wild colours and patterns.
There were no tourists at this night market, no tacky souvenirs on sale or people pushing us to “only looking – looking is free.” We wandered about enjoying ourselves in the cool night air, finding serenity in the loud buzzing and pumping of generators and the harsh light of the powerful fluorescent lamps.

I seriously love Asia.

On our final day in Yangon – for now – we had good intentions to visit the famous Shwedagon Pagoda… but it never happened. Whilst the weather was better today, both of us were still run down with a nasty cold and decided to spend a decent portion of our day planning out and organising the rest of our trip.
Whilst I usually hate planning in advance and would much rather just ‘wing it’, judging from what the guest house owners and other travelers have said (one couple told us it was virtually impossible to find a room on arrival at some of the bigger tourist destinations they went to), it seems pre-booking accommodation in advance during high season was pretty much a must.
With the assistance of the incredibly helpful and generous staff at our guest house, we were able to call and reserve accommodation. I was amazed to discover how difficult it was to reserve a room at even the most basic of guest houses; at one point we had to try five different guest houses before we could find one with availability for our visit to Inle Lake in two weeks time.

We booked ourselves seats on the night bus to Bagan for the evening and requested VIP seats on the “best bus;” we handed over $18 each and wondered what standard that would result in – memories of our “Ultra Deluxe Bus” in India that was in reality much more like a prehistoric rust bucket sprung to mind…

At around 6pm we left our guest house to take a taxi to the bus station, which was more than an hour drive away from the city centre. It took a while to find a taxi that would even take us  there– apparently none of the drivers felt like sitting in traffic or driving us that far…
Eventually – thankfully – one agreed to take us and the next hour and a half was spent stuck in traffic jams, hectic traffic and near misses. Our taxi driver kept phoning the bus company and confirming that we’d be there on time – I think he was worried we’d miss our bus which was making me a bit nervous, but we made it there at check-in time at exactly 7:30pm (that was after our driver stopped twice to casually urinate on the side of the road) – what a guy!

Arriving into the bus station was like driving into a mini city with a thousand buses and people and cars and taxis all trying to move through a small space. Our taxi driver took us right up to our bus company station where he then got out of the car, took our bags, took us to the counter where we handed over our tickets, passports and luggage, helped us with whatever we needed and then made sure we got on the bus and waved us goodbye – again, what a guy!

Stepping onto the bus, we found it hard to believe this was a bus in Myanmar. All those horror stories about “some of the worst buses in the world”… prffft. This was the most luxurious bus I have honesty ever been on. We were greeted immediately by a female staff member who turned out to be the bus stewardess, and smiled and welcomed by the portly bus driver. The bus was clean, new and had only three seats across each row: the seats were massive, comfortable, they reclined and had foot rests. I know this is a lot of detail to be giving out about a bus, but it needs to be understood that we were all in a state of shock – this type of luxurious transport has been non-existent during our travels to date and we were not expecting to find it here in Myanmar – we were overjoyed.. Even more so, there was no neon deities adorning every section of wall and ceiling and no loud tacky karaoke. Holy shit – we might actually get some sleep tonight…