Bagan to Mandalay

So I took another night bus on 17th from Nangshwe by Inle Lake to Nuang U by Bagan, This time the ratio of locals to foreigners was reversed – it was very much the tourist bus to the temples. I sat next to a nice guy from Poland called Cuba who is a travel agent who seems to get more vacation that is humanly possible. And that’s the quartergapyear queen talking.

Nuang U is a pretty non-discript town – dusty (like evrerywhere in Burma) and not really that much going on. I stayed in an ok guest house at one end of the town, actually slightly away from where the ‘backpacker’ scene is apparently happening. It’s all relative, though. Hilariously, there was a small cafe called ‘Weatherspoons’ – in case you were wondering, no it didn’t bear any resemblance! But it did serve a very tasty Thai curry, which I had for lunch two days running.

There are 3 ways to see the temples of Bagan and I ticked all of them off my list. Day one I took a horse-drawn cart out to old Bagan and new Bagan, around which most of the 2000 or so temples are located. My driver was a lovely young Burmese guy who took me to some amazing sights and spoke pretty good English so we had a nice chat as we travelled. He pretty quickly realised I wasn’t interested in the big fancy temples (cue tour buses and the chatter of photos being taken) and took me to some amazing spots off the usual track. The best temple was a really tall one that you could climb to the top of and the view from the roof was breathtaking. I know I keep using that word, but really, seeing is believing.

Day 2 I switched to bicycle, which was slightly more work but lovely to get some exercise and have the sun on my back and the wind rushing through my hair. I ambled along, stopped a few times and took a leisurely lunch in old Bagan. When I asked to use the toilet in the restaurant, the slightly precocious daughter of the owner took a 50 note from her dad and personally escorted me to the small town’s wash house. There I found a toilet, and saw the locals washing and preening themselves. There was no blank face and pointing me vaguely in the right direction – no, it was important to the restaurant owners that I find my way there safely, and the little girl waited for me to take me back again. The Burmese are such kind and hospitable hosts,

Day 3 I made a mental shift from scruffy cheap skate backpacker to international jet setter as I took the (rather expensive, but hell it’s only money) third travel option of hot air balloon. Naturally, we set off first thing so we could see the sun rise en route. It was quite literally one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. Only thing missing was a romantic companion… But there is always the danger that hot air balloon + boyfriend = cheese-tastic. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it! I took it easy for the rest of the day, busying myself only for the purpose of playing hours of guitar, learning to pick, and learning a couple of new songs (Rain City by Turin Shakes – really pretty song, and Homesick Lullaby by Sam Forrest – usual greatness from the god of song writing. Anyone who doesn’t own his album Papercrown should not call themselves a music fan).

Yesterday I took the 12 hour boat from Nuang U to Mandalay. Not really because I wanted to come to Mandalay (I’m flying out after only a night and morning here) but because I wanted to sail in a boat up the Ayerwady River. It didn’t disappoint. I caught both sunrise and sunset, got some rays on the deck, jammed with a couple of guys from Sheffield and played a lot more guitar myself. I was also joined by the Slovakian guy I shared a basket with in the balloon yesterday, an interesting man who works as a chef in Norway now and told me about his life in both countries. The boat also served cool beers, so I kicked back and enjoyed the view.

The guys from Sheffield were staying in the same hotel as me, so we caught a taxi there together and then headed out for dinner and beers. Really sweet guys – Laurie has just finished working as an English teacher in Cambodia so gave me some tipas for the next leg of the quartergapyear and his friend (who I think was called Hobo) works in a small community in northern Scotland. We breakfasted together this morning and said our goodbyes.

I’ve met such a lot of nice people on this trip, and it’s amazing how you keep bumping into the same people from place to place. You think you are being independent and creative, but it turns out we have basically all chosen the same itinerary. We’ve probably all have just about the same photos, too!

So, this afternoon I fly to Yangon for a brief night there before taking an early bus tomorrow to Ngwe Saung and a few days of beach r&r on the Bay of Bengal. Apparently there is great snorkelling so I will finally get to use the gear I bought in Australia and have dragged around Burma with me. So can’t wait. And now I have a decent internet connection I’m going to see if I can upload some photos… Watch this space…

Hot springs and cold beers

Yesterday, I went on a day’s bike ride with my new friends Matthew and Arian. We set off at around 11am, hiring ‘delux’ bikes from a bloke up the road. I was grateful for both of the gears mine had. I was also glad to have someone else map reading (cue sniggers about my world class geography degree).

We set off in search of the hot springs. En route we stopped off at the small village (really no more than 20 houses, I guess) and came across a sugar producing factory (well, an open walled bamboo and wooden hut with 5 people producing sugar from sugar cane). This being Burma, they didn’t shoo us away or warn us about the health and safety dangers of approaching the boiling cauldron of liquid sugar. Instead, they greeted us with wide smiles, invited us to drink the pure liquid coming off the sugar cane, help them to make the solid sheets of brown sugar (think sweet kendal mint cake), and offered us samples to try. It was really interesting to see the process up close and I took some nice photos that I’ll share here when wifi connections allow.

Then onto the hot springs, preceded by a bowl of shan noodle soup (Matthew had 2 bowls – part sign of how good it is, part reflection of his gluttony). When I say hot springs, we’re talking 2 small swimming pools with increasingly hot water, allegedly containing minerals that – amongst other things – help to cure gout. We enjoyed the water, chatted, took in the sun and then noticed someone carrying a beer in a cooled glass tankard. No need to spell out what happened next. And again. Pure bliss.

Amazingly, the bikes cooperated when we went to leave and we headed off in the direction of a vineyard (yes, you heard it here first – Burma has a vineyard). The restaurant and tasting station were right at a the top of a peak overlooking the beautiful rural countryside we had cycled through, part lake, part sugar cane farming country. Arian and I enjoyed the wine tasting menu, a full glass of the Shiraz Tempranillo and a light bite to eat to sustain us for the cycle home. Matthew missed the vineyard in favour of finding a hotel for the night and a flight to Thailand. Poor decision.

The countryside around the lake is breathtakingly beautiful – field after field filled with sugar canes, carts pulled by oxen, women carrying their wares to market, and always a friendly smile and ‘hello’ from 95% of the people you pass. I caught myself as I was cycling along, smiling a bigger and broader smile than I have done for a long time. The country makes me very happy indeed.

Tonight I take the night bus to Bagan for a few days temple watching, some of it by bicycle, some by hot air balloon. Let’s hope the road to Bagan is kind to me…

 

Inle Lake

I have spent the last 3 days by Inle Lake. Day before yesterday I took a one-day boat trip for one around the lake. We set off at 8am when the mist was still rising off the water and visibility wasn’t so great, but the scene was spectacular. Like something from a Charlotte Bronte novel.

We took in lots of interesting stuff – a local market selling everything from jewellery and clothes to vegetables and oxen. Then it was off to a factory making clothes spun from the fibre inside lotus flower stalks – pretty amazing – where I bought a beautiful pink traditional Burmese skirt. I also saw silver being made and cigars being rolled elsewhere. I stopped for lunch at a restaurant on stilts over the lake. The sink outside the toilet was quite literally a steel sink unit hanging over the lake – the waste water just fell into the lake below. Funny. I also hoped to see some cats that have been taught to jump through hoops by monks at a monastry on the lake, but there was no feline action to be seen. Rumour was they were cat-napping (ahem…).

While at the monastry I bumped into Aussie Matthew and Dutch Arian who I had met and music’d with at the bar in Kalaw. We made plans for dinner and beers and I saw them later. We were joined by Becca from Canada, her German boyfriend Johannes and Michelle from Melbourne. A trans-continental dinner party.

The lake is stunning – it emerges out of the reeds and you are never clear where it starts or finishes. It reminded me a bit of Lake Titicaca (sp?) which sits between Peru and Bolivia which I visited back in 1997. Like its South American equivalent, it also boasts floating islands and a dreamy feeling.

I do wonder about my extreme love of being on or by the water. When my dad and I took a weekend away in Whitehaven earlier in the year to trace his roots, I realised that his family had sea-faring credentials going back generations. Can salt water run in your blood? Maybe there is some other explanation…

Kalaw to Nangshwe

I had a lovely time in the dusty town of Kalaw. It wasn’t quite as physically demanding (i.e. trekking) as I had hoped as I have picked up a cold which has knocked me for six a bit. Today I had a 3 hour nap at midday – not like me at all. But when you’re surroundings are like this, who cares about a cold?…

I read a hell of a lot in Kalaw. I read Letters from Burma by Ang Sang Suu Kyi which which a beautiful account not just of her time after being released from house arrest, but about this wonderful country, its people, their customs and the hardships of everyday life. I’d highly recommend it. I then moved on to a book called The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, recommended to be my the lovely Jennifer. It’s about a guy – Randy – who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He is asked to deliver ‘the last lecture’ as his university – apparently a custom in the US where academics deliver what they would say if it were their last lecture. In other words, they are supposed to distill their knowledge into the most important lessons. He delivers his on fulfilling your childhood dreams. The book is an extension of the lecture, and is an important reminder of the importance of focusing on what you really want – not what you think you should want or others will expect of you – and having the courage, drive and focus to achieve it. Corny in parts, but very uplifting. He quotes Walt Disney, who said, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it’. Couldn’t agree more.

Two everyday things have struck me about Burma. First, there are dogs everyone – that makes me happy, although I want to take all of them home with me. Second, I hear sweeping wherever I go. At times, I wonder if I am hearing things – doesn’t matter where I am, I will always hear the familiar sound of a woman with an old fashioned broomstick sweeping away. Strangely comforting.

First thing this morning, I caught a bus to Nangshwe which is the town nearest Inle Lake. The bus journey was a traveller’s delight – watching the mist rise through the trees and over the hills. I saw so much of Burmese life on the way there – going through small hamlets and villages, women selling their wares on the side of the road, having to stop while a herd of cows crossed the road, a bull striding down the side of the road on his way to knows what, men and women working together to build a new road, and dozens of young children playing on their way to school.

My hotel in Nangshwe is beautiful. I have a small bungalow with its own veranda – there are just 8 at the hotel and we have a swimming pool (the only one in the town apparently). I have visions of playing the guitar on that veranda later. Shortly I am off to see a traditional Burmese puppet show before dinner and tomorrow I have booked a boat ride for one on Inle Lake. I love being on the water and apparently it’s really beautiful, but cold first thing so my trusty blanket will be making the journey with me. The following day may well involve a bike ride and some hot springs – both of which might just clear this darned cold…

Guitar Hero

So, I come all the way to Burma and the highlight so far? It naturally involves guitar.

I had heard a rumour that there was a bar in Kalaw where the owner is prone to impromptu guitar playing, so it seemed like the natural place to grab a Myanmar Beer. After he’d played a couple of songs I asked if I could play – his face lit up and for an hour or two we took it in turns – one from England, one from Burma. It was fantastic fun.

The following night (last night) I went back and took my own guitar (it can be difficult playing someone else’s guitar as it just feels different. For instance, his strings were raised more from the fret board than mine, so I had to press down firmer as I was playing. Workman and his tools, and all that.

We played for the whole night – who needs food when you have music? There was a really nice group of French people in, too, who joined in with the singing and dancing and some Brits and an American woman I had met the previous night dropped by after dinner and I sang Fields of Gold for Sasha as a special request. I also had to dig deep to revive my French skills, but one of their group spoke Spanish so I got by with a mix of both. And a number of the local guys spoke reasonable English. It was one of those nights that I will remember forever.

Kalaw

The bus journey from Yangon to Kalaw was an adventure in itself; 10 hours in a basic (but with a little air con) bus, riding over increasingly bumpy roads venturing deeper and deeper into the heart of this amazing country. I was one of only two foreigners on the packed bus, kept company by Marion, a lovely woman from Paris but originally from New Caledonia, a French island between Australia and New Zealand. We shared our breaks together and talked about our experiences of Burma and our lives back home. At our first stop, we panicked the bus had left without us as it wasn’t where we left it. However, as per normal, some friendly Burmese stepped in and helped us to find it.

We arrived in Kalaw at 3.30am – it was pitch black and freezing cold. Waiting for the bus were a couple of young lads, one wearing a face mask and sporting a motorbike. Coming from London, the first thought that came to my mind was that they might be bandits preying off stupid westerners who catch buses that arrive in a sleepy and dusty town like Kalaw in the middle of the night when everything has closed. Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth. They were there from guesthouses, seeing if anyone needed accommodation. I didn’t as I had booked ahead, and the lad with the face mask insisted on walking us to my guesthouse so we got there safe. Marian didn’t have a place booked, so she came with me and we shared a room for the few hours before breakfast. And thankfully the place was open and waiting for me and the room was ready. Perfect.

Kalaw is a tiny market town. Not much more than a main road through, a gaggle of side roads hugging the market which is at the heart of the town, with the obligatory temple and a sprinkling of small guest houses and restaurants. That’s it.

My guest house is simple but will suit me fine. I decided to push the boat out and go for a private bathroom (14 dollars – outrageous), although there was a distinct lack of water coming out of the tap or the shower this morning. Oh well, adds to the adventure. And besides, as soon as I have showered I immediately dusty again so what’s a bit of grime and body odour among fellow travelers?… My room opens on to a large shared balcony that runs the length of the building – I have already marked that out for reading and guitar playing this afternoon. It’s time to master picking.

Breakfast was a basic affair – 3 pieces of bread topped with a scrambled egg with instant coffee and something masquerading as orange juice. But it filled me up. For lunch I’m heading to a place that apparently does phenomenal bowls of noodles for 500 (that’s 50p). Tonight I have my eye on a bar where the owner has a guitar and apparently needs no encouragement to play. Maybe he’ll let me have a go, too.

Tomorrow, the plan is to do a day’s trek in the local area. The countryside looks beautiful – green and lush and hilly.

As I talk to fellow travelers about what they have done and what they plan to do, it’s clear I won’t even scratch the surface. This is an amazing country with so much to see. Just might have to come back again soon to see the things I have missed…