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.

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.

Get on the bus Myanmar – and get me there alive!

The overnight bus ride from Hsipaw to Nyuang Shwe was a rather memorable event… even more so, it makes a damn good story.

…It felt like we’d only just rolled out of Hsipaw when already we were pulling into a road house for a rather early dinner break, which was perfectly okay by me. The road houses here in Myanmar are incredible; they serve such great looking food and put the shitty road houses in Australia to absolute shame – there were no three month old shrivelled up sausages rotating on bacteria infested metal rollers here, on no! Instead, fresh curries, vegetables and rice, noodle soups, snacks and sweets, hot teas and social circles could be found at every table. You want some spiritual enlightenment whilst you eat your curry? Yeah, there were monks there too.

As the dinner break came to an end, so did our first bus driver’s shift – he swapped with a man teenager who then spent the next few hours – and way too many hair pin bends – trying to learn how to actually drive the bus.  He first attempted to learn what switch did what (turned cabin lights on, off, dimmed, on, off, lowered the bus suspension, turned the TV on, then off, then on, then the lights on, then off, then on again, found the sound button – turned that up to full volume…) before eventually crashing our bus hard into a cement barrier…
on a hair-pin bend…
on a very steep incline…
directly above a large cliff face…

I was suddenly very awake.

Reversing the bus whilst the local passengers laughed and I quietly shat myself, the driver attempted to move around the bend again… and again, he was unsuccessful and another crash, jolt and horrible scraping sound could be heard.
Managing to turn on the third attempt, he was able to drive for a few more minutes before another sharp bend saw our bus crashing again – barely missing a large truck as it drove on by at full speed, honking the horn loudly as it passed. At this point, the local male passengers were wetting themselves laughing whilst I was finding nothing about this situation all that funny.

“Oh my god. We’re going to die.”

A few more minutes passed whilst terrible Burmese karaoke continued to blare through the TV screens and our bus driver collided our bus hard with another sharp corner yet again. The grating sound was long and louder this time and even when reversing – or at least, attempting to reverse back up the steep incline – the grating on metal continued. It forced two of the other drivers/bus staff out onto the pitch black roads – bare footed and in their little white singlets and lungis – where they spent the next half an hour or so running in front of the bus, between massive trucks and speeding motorbikes and around the sharp corners, directing the driver and teaching him that he actually needed to go wide to get around these corners and not bottom out. From my window I could see this all unfolding and couldn’t help but think… “only in Asia.”

These steep roads, blind spots, hills and sharp inclines/declines, curves and bends, narrow roads and terribly rough and damaged road conditions understandably make it difficult to navigate a bus, and I spent a good portion of the night hours staring out my window watching every section of dimly lit road pass under me. The driver had obviously learned the hard way how to take corners wider but had not yet discovered the off button for the cabin lights that shone brightly all night long.

At some points during the journey I felt nervous; at other times the situation was just so ridiculous that it was actually laughable…

…Like at 12am when our bus stopped for another dinner break, giving us all an opportunity to check out/admire the damage to the front of the bus. Yep, it was… aaah, well. Let’s say “rather damaged.” Someone’s boss isn’t going to be too happy.

…and then again at 1am when I watched as our bus driver foolishly attempted to overtake a motorbike on a sharp bend – at the very same time that our bus was being undercut by a massive truck with an idiot driver behind the wheel. I mean, seriously. I’m wondering how I am actually still alive and writing this.

…and then again at2am when Akon’s “I Wanna Make Love Right Now Na Na” ringtone buzzed loudly before the phone-owner eventually answered and began having a general chit-chat.
What is it with Asia’s obsession with Akon!?
It’s becoming insufferable.

…and again at 3am when the driver was still winding his way up and around and then down and around hills and mountains; the the bus bouncing and jerking over every pothole and uneven surface… and the lights were all still on.
It was impossible to sleep…unless you were a local, of course.

Finally at around 6am I watched our bus arriving into Nyuang Shwe – more than two hours earlier than we’d expected. I was happy to be here… and just alive in general, really.

If traveling has taught me anything, it’s this:

Sometimes, you just have to trust that things will be okay.
And if you can’t trust? Then I guess you just have to have faith.”

Inle Lake: I’m here.

Early to Rise Myanmar: 5-6.11.2013

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

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

I see…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myanmar I’d been waiting for: 3.11.2013

Our train to Hsipaw was due to depart at 8:30am this morning, so naturally, it arrived in Pyin Oo Lwin well after 9am. Classic “Myanmar time” – I love it.

It meant we were able to take an unexpected stroll through the little local market right next to the station where produce and street foods were being made and sold. I bought myself a little bag of sticky rice for the journey and gushed over a tiny puppy asleep in a wood pile.

The train station with its quaint single platform was dotted with just a few tourists and several locals; I enjoyed ‘people watching’ as the locals travelled both by motorbike and by foot, carrying all sorts of goods and bits and pieces slowly over and across the railway track, uncaring that the train was due in any minute. The tea stall out the back of the station was busy – packed with people filling up on noodle soups, samosas, a myriad of other deep fried things and tea served with frightening amounts of condensed milk. The occasional woman with a large plate of food balanced perfectly upon her head would wander through the crowds of waiting passengers and along the platform, occasionally setting down her goods and packing little plastic bags full of hot fried noodles, vegetables, rices, curries and a range of unidentifiable foods for customers – along with two bamboo skewers to be used as chop sticks. Myanmar’s version of take away.

Eventually our train rolled into the station and casually everyone moved about whilst people got off, people got on, more food vendors arrived and began making their way up and down the platform, goods were unpacked as well as carted onto the train – lots of bags of cabbages included – and the little portly station master tried to work out where all the tourists in our single “upper class carriage” were meant to sit, even though minutes earlier he’d assigned us all seats on hand-written tickets. He clambered aboard after yelling through the window from the platform, wrote down our seat numbers in pen in a little book, shuffled off, then came back and scribbled out the original, adjusting it so we got a “better view seat.” Nice one Mr. Train Man.

As food vendors moved about, people continued to fluff about buying and selling and eating and sitting and not really doing an awful lot too quickly; it didn’t seem like anyone was too fussed about timings so the pace was relaxed and the people mulling about were disorganised in the most organised sort of way. Somehow, it all works out and I had time to get myself a bag of take away tea for the journey.
Eventually the train blew its whistle and people finally took their seats; the train began to roll out of the station at a walking pace and we sat back in our newly assigned “upper class” seats.

We’d been told that the train journey to Hispaw would take between 4 and 11 hours for the 200km journey. Yes, that’s no typo: between 4 and 11 hours. Preparing for a long ride, we sat back and watched as some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen rolled past our open window at a walking speed. This train is known to be one of the 50 “must-do” train rides in the world. It is also known to be painstakingly slow; at times we were moving at a speed slower than what we probably could’ve walked, but it didn’t matter. It was a wonderful, beautiful and sometimes strange experience.

Most of our time on this ancient train was spent rattling around in our upholstered upper class seats; as our carriage shook and jerked along the tracks we were frequently thrown into the air. Bouncing around, we watched as our carriage jolted and shook, swaying at scary angles as we rolled noisily along the tracks. Maybe this train ride is not for the feint hearted and I tried to ignore the fact that it was only days ago that a train travelling a similar route here in Myanmar had derailed… I could understand how that may have happened as I watched people being thrown about. Still, all in good fun.

I had been momentarily disappointed in myself this morning when I chose the upper class seating option over the ordinary class seat (which was $3 cheaper), thinking I would maybe miss out on the whole “experience…” However, I was grateful to have my own cushioned seat during those moments when my ass parted from the seat and was thrown back down with each bump. Peering into ordinary class, the overcrowded wooden seats, the people sleeping on mats in the isle and the several bags of cabbage rolling about looked interesting – sure, but not for me. Not right now.

At one point I had to use the in-train lavatory and spent a good few minutes holding my breath and my balance whilst squatting over the foul smelling toilet, pissing zig zags and being violently thrown about as the train continued to roll at it’s own special pace.

At each station the train would halt and spend anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes there; the same buzz of people hopping on and off, food vendors with exceptionally good balancing skills would move up and down the platform, people would load and unload more goods and there was always something interesting to see. I liked getting down and watching the flow of people and bought myself some delicious noodle salad for lunch from one of the balancing acts. Sitting back on the train with my little take away bag of deliciousness, I tried not to stab myself in the face with my chop-stick skewers; the bounding, shaking, rattling and jerking made it difficult.

After a nap during the heat of the day, I woke to cool breeze blowing in through the open windows, along with too many little bits of foliage and the occasional strange looking insect. I had no idea where we were or how far away Hsipaw was but that was not important; we were really enjoying the journey.

Mid afternoon Mr. Train Man told us we were ten minutes away from Hsipaw; around 30 minutes or so later, we arrived. We were excited as we rolled into the platform – Hsipaw has been a place we’ve been really looking forward to; it sounds so beautiful and relaxing from what we’ve read and we’re looking forward to doing a hike and exploring in the surrounding areas, as well as checking out what this little town has to offer. When a young boy from Nam Khae Mao Guest house – the guest house we’d been intending to check out on arrival – popped his head up next to our window and offered us a room at a very cheap price, we immediately agreed and were carted into a tuk tuk with a group of other tourists and taken straight to our new home for the next few days. $12 a night (our cheapest accommodation in Myanmar by far) bought us a great room (Myanmar standards) with a shared bathroom, hot water, wifi and really friendly staff. We were in a great location too, looking out over the lovely historic clock tower – complete with a flashing electronic neon sign. Welcome to Hsipaw.

It was already after 4pm by the time we checked in and we were so excited to see the town. We considered briefly walking up the nearby hill to see the sun set but instead decided to head straight into town and explore. We have a few days here to do all the things we want to do. We were too late for the central market – it had just closed, and “Mr. Book”, the book stall guy was not around when we tried to visit his stall, but we did find a very cute toothless elderly man selling delicious chicken and sweet bean steam buns, a road side street food stall selling delicious grilled rice cake with palm sugar and sesame seeds, more little deep fried something-a-rathers and the very touristy “Mr. Shake” juice bar, where Mr. Shake and his wife served up incredibly fresh juices and lassis for a ridiculously cheap price.

We ended up sitting out the front of Mr. Shake until late – an Aussie guy showed up not long after us and we spent a couple of hours chatting and being reminded of how awesome the Australian style of speaking is. We’ve missed it and we didn’t even realise. On a recommendation from the Aussie guy, we ended up at “Mr. Food” for dinner (do you see a trend starting to appear in this town…?) where the same guy we’d met in the tuk tuk on our way to the guest house here was eating alone; we joined him for dinner and learned he was Matt from England.

Late evening we headed back to our guest house and planned a full day for tomorrow; we were trying to decide if we should do the one or the two day hike into the nearby villages and furthermore, if we should leave tomorrow or the next day… We’re still undecided about that, but one thing is for sure; Hsipaw is already a winner – it’s the Myanmar I’d been waiting for and I already adore this quaint, dusty, friendly little town.

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.

Bagan Bound Myanmar: 27 – 29.10.2013

Our first overnight bus pulled out of the bus station perfectly on time; the steward came through giving everyone clean blankets and a little hot dinner with drinks, reclining our seats and switching our lights off. There was no loud music, no tacky karaoke, no hocking or spitting, no mobile phones ringing late into the night… just quiet as the bus rolled and bounced along, Bagan bound. Something seemed strange… it was too good to be true

Our luxury bus arrived into Bagan at 6am; the sky was just starting to show signs of light in the distance and rain was already falling. We stepped out and were immediately hit by taxi drivers and hotel touters at the ready; we’d arrived into tourist territory and again we were reminded that we absolutely underestimated this country.
We declined offers of “I’ll drive you the 6km to your guest house,” “just pay me how you like give me first customer lucky money”  and “It 3km away, too far for you”  and walked the 10 minutes along the road to a guest house.Taxi drivers are funny.
It was dark when we’d arrived but in minutes of walking the sky was getting lighter and lighter; we passed tea shops and small road house restaurants already brimming with people feasting on morning noodles, rice and Burmese tea.
The main road was pretty quiet; a few bicycles and motorbikes rode by, some stray dogs and the occasional woman carrying a basket on her head, but otherwise empty and silent.
Good morning Bagan.

Looking at the wet weather and feeling pretty tired from the overnight bus, we were not sure exactly what to do on our first day here in Bagan. It didn’t take too long for our guest house owner to help us out – he was straight to the point in saying that “Relax in your room today. Full moon day, no market. Everything close today. Rainy weather all day today, no clear sky. No good for temple. No good for Mt. Popa. No good for bike. Bad weather. You should be tired after bus ride. Relax today.”
Okay sir, will do…

The first day in Bagan was pretty much a nothing day; the rain continued to fall heavily all day and left the dirt roads nothing more than a flooded muddy mess. When we did attempt to explore the town on foot, large puddles forced us to walk through the muck and flowing rivers of water – our thongs acting like suction caps and flicking dirt up our legs and backs and motorbikes spraying us as they rode past.
Hoping the following day would be better weather, we planned to explore the temple area. E-bikes (electronic bikes) are everywhere for rent in Bagan and I was super keen to get my bum on one of those bad boys and zip and zoom all over this ancient city.

The next two days in Bagan offered us much better weather and an opportunity to explore the town and spectacular ancient temples and pagodas.

We started our second day by firstly paying an early visit to the large local markets which were still muddy and wet from the previous days’ rain. Within minutes mud had flicked up our legs and backs (and all over our clean clothing) and our thongs were suctioning us to the ground, causing us to near-miss falling flat on our asses in the mud. The markets were large, sprawling and smelling strongly of raw meat; that distinct smell that all Asian wet markets seem to have. People were everywhere and as we walked through the narrow alley way we dodged sick looking dogs and small playing children. Most of our concentration was taken up in an attempt  to step over and around the blood that was trickling down the meat market tables and spilling out into the mix of mud, water and filth on the ground. Whilst the many bare footed customers didn’t seem to worry about the blood and animal matter that spattered on their skin as they trudged through the slop, I did.
We watched as whole animal carcases were skinned, sliced and cut open, organs and gizzards hooked and hung out for sale, blood collected and pig head skins shoved out on display. The sellers were posed squatting in their lungis, bare footed, cutting and chopping with massive knives that sliced through entire animals in one loud chop. They talked and laughed and smiled as they handled the chunks of raw meat and fish – it was gutted and prepped and weighed, then shoved into metal dishes for sale. We were once again amongst the fascinating, foul smelling action. On the other side of the alleyway, all sorts of colourful vegetables and fruits were being sold. We turned a corner, away from the pungent smells that were forcing me to cover my nose and mouth with my sleeve, and were suddenly no longer in the locals area – we were in the tourist section. Damn.
“Lady, you want lungi, looking is for free” “You need wood carving? Laquerware? Bell? Metal thingy? Useless item? T-shirt with strange English translation? Ugly wooden cat?….”

We didn’t stay much longer.

Deciding we would head out to the temples, we started walking… Why not? It was about a 4km walk to the Old Bagan area and it was nice weather.
It’s hard to explain how it appeared and felt when we began to see these ancient ruins start popping up along the sides of the roads, through the over grown jungle grass and surrounded by thousands of dragon flies, but it was pretty spectacular. These 4000-odd Buddhist temples that are dotted about a massive area of land could be compared – in their own magnificent way – to the temples of Angkor Wat, and were truly stunning.
I think you are supposedly meant to pay $15 USD for a week long general entrance ticket to the temples but there was no ticket seller around anywhere and no one checking tickets, so… awesome! I checked this later with the guest house manager and he said “no one is checking so don’t buy.” Love it.

Walking along the roads and dirt tracks, we took time to move about the little temples and structures as we chose. There are so many of these marvelous structures, it’s not hard to find one that is completely empty and it was amazing to have such an area to explore by ourselves. We found one temple that, when we climbed up the dark narrow staircase, offered us a stunning view over a large area of Old Bagan and surrounding temples. Thousands of them seem to just sprout up from the greenery to give a view that is spectacular; one that no words – or my dodgy camera – can do justice…

We spent our third and final day in Bagan zooming around on bikes and exploring the temple areas. Whilst I chose a gnarly looking e-bike (a tiny bike with a massive battery on the back that whizzes along at a surprisingly fast speed), Jake chose a pedal bicycle. I tried to get him to hire an e-bike; I wanted us both to have the opportunity to speed around on one of these bad boys, seeing as we don’t get to back home, but he was eager to stay “traditional.”

Trying to negotiate the muddy, wet, pot-holey roads and the many unorganised road users – human and animal – with an e-bike was at first a little bit daunting, but before long I was speeding along at a “medium speed”… (actually a lot faster than I was expecting).
We headed out towards the area we had visited on foot yesterday, planning on travelling much further down through Old Bagan to the area where there are lots of these stunning ancient structures (although, there seem to be lots everywhere!) but, of course, Jake’s bike tyre went flat about an hour into our explorations. We’d been to just a few temples before we were forced to turn around and walk the hour or so back into town – me pushing the bike and Jake riding my e-bike at a walking pace alongside me. “Should’ve gotten an e-bike…”

Back in town, Jake selected another bicycle from the pretty dodgy selection and again we were off. We took a different road to get to some different temples – the road that runs parallel with the main road was much quieter and in a much better condition – and we had a lot of fun zooming down the flat stretches of road. We hopped from temple to temple, walking bare foot through ancient ruins and structures with murals from hundreds of years ago covering the bricks. Again, no words to describe it.

We met a young Burmese guy who was very eager to tell us where to see the best views and what temples we should go to; he was super kind but… no, we don’t actually want to buy any paintings, sorry.
Back on our bikes, we zipped over the road and up a very muddy and wet dirt path – almost getting bogged more than once along the way – towards the Buledi Stupa. Supposedly with some of the best views over the area, we climbed the several steep stairs up to a view point that literally left me awe struck. There are just so many temples… so many. Breath taking.
We stayed up for a while just trying to take in the view and the structures that dotted around us for such a far and wide distance. Shiny golden pagodas peeped through the greenery, along with the red-coloured bricks of the ancient temples and massive structures.

As the sun was setting we took in our last views of the scenery before hopping back on our bikes to head back into town before dark… but of course, we couldn’t just have a leisurely non-eventful ride back– Jake’s bum was obviously too heavy for these Asian-made bikes and he bent the actual metal bike seat pole: it just folded all of a sudden like a piece of paper crumbling. I was riding along and heard a sudden loud noise and then “shit!”…

We arrived back into Nyaung U town at peak hour where we shared the road with all sorts of people and animals and vehicles. It was dusty and chaotic and there were roosters strutting about, children playing on the road side and water spilling out from somewhere unknown… people riding on the opposite side of the road, women carrying large baskets and dishes of goods on their heads and restaurants gearing up for the evening rush. We rolled into the bike rental shop where the faces of the staff members dropped when they saw Jake’s bike… and then changed from a state of shock to a state of laughter whilst the male staff member said “too strong” and tensed his biceps. Jake went next door to the conveniently located bike repair shop and bought a new pole for 1500kyats ($1.50c)… so, not so damaging on the wallet, thank goodness.

Since we are leaving Bagan tomorrow headed for Mandalay, we spent some of the final evening cleaning up our mess: after two nights here we’ve “somehow” managed to spread our (my) belongings across the entire room. I had done some laundry that wasn’t quite dry, so had it hanging over the furniture. As I sat there amongst the mess and drying clothing in my mud-splattered trekking pants, treating a bottle of water with the steri-pen, I thought to myself… “We’re really here. We’re true backpackers…”

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…