Perspective Myanmar: 30 – 31.10.2013

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

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

I like these bus rides.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh Asia, why you be so awesome.

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

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

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

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