Early to Rise Myanmar: 5-6.11.2013

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

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

I see…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Palace of Sorts Myanmar: 4.11.2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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