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.

Bamboo Fishermen, Neck Rings, Floating Farms and Cat Monestry Myanmar: 8.11.2013

It was an early morning start; we woke at 5:30am, wolfed down the usual terrible guest house breakfast and headed out into the cold morning air. We met Matt at the bridge overlooking the boats on the canal before 6am; it was already light outside although the sun had not yet risen over the mountains. We needed to find a boatman and agree on a route and destination before the sun rose any higher, otherwise we’d miss sun rise completely.

We found a boatman with ease and agreed on 25,000 kyats for a full day going right down south of the lake; this area was supposedly much more picturesque and less touristic than the “standard route/area” of Inle Lake. Once we’d done our very easy and hassle-free/scam-free negotiations, the boatman teenager arrived and proceeded to unfold chairs, lay cushions down on the seats and then provided us each with a blanket, life jacket and parasole. Luxury...

With the motor of the tiny boat roaring and our boat-teenager ready, we were off for our full day on the water, and what an absolutely incredible and memorable day it turned out to be…

As we gained speed and pushed through the water the morning air was indeed so cold we had to use those woolen blankets I’d previously laughed off. Sitting there on our little cushioned seats with blankies on our laps, I had to smile to myself. At least I wasn’t decked out in an oversized life jacket…
The boat continued out onto the lake and we were indeed able to watch as the sun rose over the mountains that seemed to form a wall on both sides of the lake. It was pretty spectacular to see and reminded me once again how lucky we are to be here. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Soon after we had left the canals the lake began to open up to reveal the massive body of water that is Inle Lake; we were struck by the natural beauty surrounding us and entertained by the several Bamboo Net Fishermen in their boats who appeared to be posing for photos quite willingly. The caught their feet into the edge of their nets and stuck out their legs; balancing on one leg with their conical nets jutting out looked rather comical and a little unnatural, but I guess made for a good photo. The push for money after they had finished posing was hardly there, if at all, and made me wonder what this area of Myanmar will become in the near future…
We did notice these fishermen had pristine “uniforms” on rather than the odd worn lungis and scrappy t-shirts, no fish in their boats and no equipment besides their one conical bamboo net…

The more authentic looking fishermen were just as impressive though – if not more – as they paddled the lake using their legs and feet rather than their hands. With their foot, ankle and lower legs wrapping around the paddle, they balanced perfectly on the other foot and went about using their hands for fishing. Their balance alone was something to marvel at and their perfect paddle strokes even more so.

I loved watching the fishermen paddling, fishing with their nets and working on the lake; it was more impressive for me than the pristine posing fishermen and when our boat-teen turned off the motor and let us float silently for a moment amongst the fishermen I felt truly calm. Another reminder of how amazing this whole experience is.

Our first destination for the day was the Floating Markets. Whilst it sounds touristic and flashbacks of the nightmare that is the Bangkok Floating Market came to mind, it turned out to be brilliant and we were so lucky that the market happened to be active the day we chose to explore Inle (the markets in this area are on a weekly rotating roster-type system).

The floating markets were pretty spectacular for a number of reasons, but what made it even better was the fact that we’d started our day so early; the local section of the market was in FULL swing whilst the tourist stalls (selling the same generic crap that no one would want at ridiculously overpriced rates) were all just starting to set up and had not really opened yet.
For this reason, our first destination for the day turned out to be the highlight.

Instead of being hassled to buy creepy wooden masks, beads, fake silver, wooden cats, miscellaneous objects, random things and bits and pieces of wood, bamboo and bone that Australian customs would no doubt have a fit over, we were able to wander around the more local area and take in the sights, colours, sounds, smells, tastes and the people.
People were everywhere: eating, cooking, buying, selling, socialising. Women from different tribal villages wore stunning clothing, head pieces, scarves, wraps and we saw several of the Long Neck-Ringed women shopping and socialising with the other women.
There were so many stalls cooking and selling food and the sounds and smells were beautiful. I bought a local tofu salad from a little man sitting on a tiny plastic chair, cutting up tofu and cabbage with big pair of hand-made kitchen scissors; the salad turned out to be one of the most memorable meals I had in Myanmar.The produce looked so fresh and colourful, the tomatoes so red, the carrots so orange, the herbs so green. It was truly an overload of colour, contrasted against the colourful head scarves and tribal clothing. It was actually a pretty special event to witness and be immersed in.

The scenery on the lake was so beautiful and it wasn’t long before the cold air changed to warm and then hot. It was warm on our skin and as we floated through the lake I fell asleep briefly in the sunshine.
I woke minutes later to see our boat moving through tiny canals and little “laneways” amongst the high grasses and foliage. Tiny lilly pads and bright pink lotus flowers burst out from the water’s blue surface.

Beautiful.

We rode through floating villages where bamboo and wooden houses stood on stilts above the water and it was fascinating to catch a glimpse of how life on the water might be like for these Burmese people.

We stopped at a Lotus Weaving factory; women weaving using thread made from the fibers of lotus flower stalks made intricate and beautiful items. We were shown how lotus flower stalks are broken and the sticky fibers stretched to create a thin thread. A painstaking and laborious process: in one day a woman can make 15 – 20 metres of lotus thread. Whilst we didn’t even consider purchasing anything from the in-factory shop (where prices fetched more than $300 USD for some items and were absolutely not in our budget), I found it really impressive to watch the craft and making processes; it’s hard for me to comprehend how these women learn and memorise these ancient weaving patters and operate such complex looking looms.
Back on the river, I noticed many of the houses on the lake had a loom and often, a woman working at it.

Our next stop was at a large pagoda area that is also another market location. We missed that market today as the floating market was happening instead, but we’d already been lucky enough to visit one market so no dissapointment. We were given a whole hour here to explore (I think purely so our boat-teen could have a nap in the sunshine) and ended up marvelling at the pagodas and then sitting for the rest of the hour in the tea house drinking packet-mix Burmese tea. It’s interesting to have another traveler with us; Matt had some fantastic stories to share about his travels abroad and it’s nice to meet someone who’s as passionate about Asia as we are.

Throughout the day we traveled by boat through so many little – and not so little – floating villages and I really never got tired of looking at the houses on stilts.

A floating Village called ‘Namba Village’ was especially interesting and gave us a glimpse of life on the river. Our boat-teen turned off the motor and we were able to witness a large group of male “carpenters” (what looked more like a group of local men working together) building a new home. Large bamboo frames were being installed into the lake, stilts and frames jutted out of the water and boats were being used to cart bamboo poles around the water. It was so impressive and it was so lovely when they all made the time to stop, wave, smile and say hello to us.
It was truly a joy to see the life on the lake and felt very authentic; it was non-touristic and we were often the only tourists around.

Some looked to weathered and worn and were standing on complete slants or angles, threatening to fall over at any moment. Others looked newer and stood proudly over the water. Clothing hung from under the house or through open windows. There was no glass on windows or no closed doors; the houses were open to the elements and exposed the insides of rooms.
Cats slept on windowsills in the sunshine, elderly people and children peered from windows and so many homes had looms out in the open.
It was nice to imagine what village life on the lake must be like. Taking a boat to pop down to the local store, cafe, tea house, work… it’s a lifestyle I can’t imagine.

Lots of hotels, cafes, restaurants and resort-style accommodation could be seen throughout the lake – even beauty salons complete with photos of Justin Beiber and shops selling packet-mix Burmese tea.

We stopped off at another area where boats were being built in the mud at the waters edge by barefooted craftsmen. Boats take two months to make and cost around $2000 USD.

Another stop off at a local cigar making factory where several women sit each day crafting cigars by hand with a mix of tobacco, honey, tamarind and banana, rolled up in dried leaves.
The women spent their entire time smiling at us all as they went about their work.
They worked with such speed, getting paid for each cigar they complete, rather than by the hour. It was interesting to see as we’ve seen these cigars all over Myanmar and in the mouths of many Burmese people. Apparently they’re pretty tasty.

I liked that there was no hard sell at any of the places we went; we were fine to just visit, observe and learn rather than be forced to part with money. I did wonder if these factories were purely set up for tourism or if they existed prior to the influx of visitors.

There were countless silversmith factories located throughout several of the villages we passed through but we never stopped at a workshop. We weren’t so interested in seeing those sorts of factories and were more interested in seeing life on the lake.

Our lunch stop was at a floating restaurant packed with tourists – no doubt every boatman had taken their tourists here. We ordered fish dishes and ate fresh fish (hopefully) straight from Inle Lake.

In the afternoon we headed first to a BIG pagoda where gold leaf was everywhere. It felt a bit like the Disney Land of pagodas with flashy entrances, tourist stalls, drink vendors, photography exhibitions, murals that stretched across the walls and ceilings, camera fees and gold as far as the eye could see.

There was no tourist entree fee and a sign warning tourists about purchasing gold leaf from street peddlers. We’ve seen a lot of signage like this in Myanmar to date; signs telling locals to “warmly welcome tourists” and “take care tourists.” I love Myanmar and its non-scammy ways.

We watched as men bought patches of gold leaf and stuck them to gold leaf covered buddhas on a podium in the centre of the pagoda. No women were allowed on the podium, nor allowed to place gold leaf anywhere sacred… It makes me wonder…

We headed on towards the floating gardens that cover a decent portion of Inle Lake. Various vegetables are grown on floating gardens and held in place with bamboo poles. The gardens seemed to stretch for kilometers with lane ways and canals dividing them so that boats can move through.
Having a boat-teenager at this point was awesome because he found a decent patch of garden, stopped the boat and let us jump out onto the floating garden. At first, when he skipped out of the boat and along the floating walk way, the three of us were a bit shocked… and then, when he invited us up, there was no hesitation.

Yes, it’s silly but true: wobbling, jumping about and flouncing around on the floating garden was a real highlight and has become a stand-out memory of our time in not only Inle Lake, but also Myanmar.
The water was soaking up through the mulch past our shins and our movements made each other wobble off balance, just as much as our laughter. It was all a bit surreal; here we are in Myanmar, frollicking about on a patch of garden that is only inches thick, floating above the massive Inle Lake. Loved it.
Loved it even more when a group of life-jacket clad tourists rode past in their boat with looks of horror/envy. Their boatman wasn’t as fun as ours.

Back off land and in the boat, school was out and that meant countless little boats began emerging with uniform-clad children. Parents paddling, children paddling – I even saw a small child paddling with his foot! We saw so many children throughout the day mastering skills like paddling, rowing and fishing; I was truly amazed and impressed. At one point I saw a toddler – yes, a toddler – rowing a boat.

Our final stop for the day was at a famous floating monastery, well known as the Jumping Cat Monastery. Unfortunately, there were no jumping cats (any more) but there were a lot of lazy looking cats hanging about. Apparently one of the monks here taught some of the cats to jump through hoops and… well, there are a few different stories so I’m not exactly sure what the deal is, but supposedly the monk – or the cats – got sick of the hoops and the jumping and performing…or…apparently the monk died. Who knows.
Regardless, the monastery was impressive and packed with locals. There was a large group of women sitting in a circle peeling and crushing handfulls of garlic with pestles. The sound of the pestles thudding against the garlic and mortar was rhythmic and in time whilst the women socialised and took more garlic cloves from the central dish.
It was a pretty touristic place and appeared to have been extended massively to incorporate tourist shops and vendor stalls, food and drink carts, a silversmith shop and some other sales focused stalls. There were a lot of tourists being bought here and whilst it was interesting, not exactly my favourite stop of the day.
Back in the boat late afternoon, we began the journey back to Nyaung Shwe. We asked our boat-teen to go back slowly so we could see more fishermen on the lake and enjoy the sunset. All three of us had really loved just observing the working fishermen on the lake and the stunning scenery and vast body of water was so beautiful (and created brilliant photo opportunities).

It was all so stunning and beautiful I don’t think any of us had really wanted the day to end. It had been such a brilliant way to spend the day and our time here in Myanmar. As the sun began to set behind us, I was so grateful to have had today – it will remain as one of the more memorable days to date.

Back at the boat docks we ended our day on the lake. Our boat teen smiled and helped us off the boat; there was no touting, no asking for more money or tips, no awkward “requests” (aka demands) that we’ve so often had to deal with in these sorts of situations. I really appreciated that and it’s something that continues to stand out for my in Myanmar. I truly hope it stays like this.

Matt, Jake and I headed to a local joint for a few beers in the evening and then dinner at a Burmese restaurant. It was the first time in Myanmar we’d had beer and we made sure to try the local specialty, Myanmar Beer… it was late before we moved on for dinner and ate more local style foods, curries, shan noodles and fermented tea leaf salads.

By 9:30pm we all called it a night – we were all exhausted after what felt like a massive but incredible day. It was so awesome, I actually can’t even begin to describe how it felt. All I can say is amazing, amazing, amazing.

A true highlight of Myanmar, and our Asian Adventure.

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.