. There were other checkpoints along the route where we were just waved on. What was a little more unnerving was seeing heavily armed guys just wandering around on the road who looked like they were waiting for something to happen. What that was I had no idea but was glad not to be sticking around to find out. As we continued on into the hills the roads winded up and down the mountains around sharp hairpins making the ride feel something like an amusement park. The first to puke was the kid beside me who seemed to spontaneously spew directly onto the cargo below while his mother panicked to find a bag for him. Shortly after that the girl behind me let loose but she was kind enough to direct her puke out the window so it was only the sound effects I had to deal with. Usually I have a stomach of iron for travel and have not suffered in the slightest on any transport but even I had some shaky moments where I could have joined the legion of barfers. I wasn't the only tourist on the bus… there were two Americans heading for Hsipaw; a town which has made its mark on the tourist trail. They were young solo backpackers, and seemed cool, a kind I have rarely seen here. As well rolled into Kyaukme, what seemed something of a 'one-horse-town’ I was especially tempted to stay on the bus and jump on board with these guys. I gave myself a mental slap on the face and as I jumped off the bus. Even the driver thought I was making a mistake as he told me we were not yet in Hsipaw. I smiled and said 'I know, Kyuakme is my stop'
I usually like to find my own way when I first arrive in a place. But I was feeling unwell and disoriented from the cargo bus journey so I jumped on with the first motorbike taxi who offered me a lift. I knew there was only one guesthouse in the town licensed to take foreigners so he couldn’t lead me astray. I went for the cheapest room in the place, which at $4 (€2.80) would be the cheapest room on my travels so far. I was shown to Myanmar standard room which had a hard bed and a light inside a tiny wood board room. It had no fan, or even a plug and the toilet was a squat outhouse which was 100m away from the building. It was the definition of basic but I didn’t care. After the journey I had I was happy to have anywhere at all to rest my head and snooze for a few hours. I woke at about 5 and I went down to sort out some trekking in the surrounding villages… the only thing to do really in Kyaukme. It seemed the Lilly, the receptionist, had made a few calls to friends of hers to tell them a tourist is in town. One guy, Romeo, came and introduced himself, inviting me to join his English class in the evening. Of course I accepted. Later while I was having dinner another guy, Joy, came to me seemingly excited to see a tourist in town. He was a trekking guide and we arranged to head out first thing in the morning. At 7 one of Romeo’s students came to pick me up and bring me to class
. When I arrived it appeared that I would be the subject of the lesson. I was sat in front of the class answering questions from the students for a good hour. After that dried up I got to asking about the classes and how they usually are. It seemed they never ever play games which I was quite shocked to learn. I tried to show them a game or two that I picked up in GVI Thailand to make their classes a bit more fun. After class I went back to my box for an early night as we would be having an early start.
At 7.20 I was ‘up and atom’ which got me out just in time for my 7:30 meeting with Joy. Since I had only two days we decided that we would do a motorbike / trekking combo to get the best out of my time. Joy offered to let me drive but the bike was manual and he said the roads would be challenging so I hopped on the back instead. It felt a bit weird being on the back after being the driver for my previous biking experiences. We first stopped in the town’s morning market to pick up some fruit for breakfast before hitting the road. The journey was about two hours long and the road which started ok quickly turned into a rocky potholey track. It was harsh on the bum and the bike too was taking a beating, we had to stop for in a village on the way to repair a puncture. Eventually we did arrive at the end of the road where we parked the bike had some noodle soup for lunch
. Noodle soup was something of a new discovery for me here… I was cursing all the not so palatable curries I had been eating. After about two hours trekking we stopped into a house in our first village for tea. After the village we mounted a 1700m peak, my new record for the highest point I’ve been on Earth. The trekking seemed to be a bit more difficult than in Nepal although I’m sure the defining factor was the heat and sunshine. It was already moving towards sunset so made haste down the mountain toward the village where we would be staying. We were staying in a Shan village. Shan is one of the many races here in Myanmar; they descended from the Himalayas thousands of years ago and bear a stark resemblance to the Nepali people. The family was a tea farming one and we got to see them bringing home the days pickings, steaming the leaves and scattering them for drying. It was interesting to see and now I know that a lot more goes into making a cup of tea than a bag and a cup of hot water. The house was basic. They had an open fire in the middle of the room for cooking food. We had a nice meal of beef curry with banyan leaves and rice and shortly afterwards the days allowance (like two hours) of power went out. We sat around the open fire chatting for a few hours. It was an evening that I would have imagined people in Ireland had about 100 years ago. Joy is also Shan so he was able to translate and keep me in the loop. We were asking them about their lifestyle and how much things cost for them
. They measured every cost in kilos of tea… saying they paid 3 kilos per month for power and 15 kilos a year in tax. I was amazed how tea is their currency. It’s a simple life they lead free from the burdens of modern society. Their only concern is keeping the tea harvest coming to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. We went to bed early sleeping on the floor on a mat with some blankets, just as they do. It was wonderful to get such a genuine home stay experience.
We awoke at about 7, a good hour or two after the rest of the household. For breakfast we had salted fish with banyan leaves and rice. I found it a bit difficult to eat that in the morning but didn’t really have a choice. I visited the outhouse toilet where I found a small room with a gap in the floorboards above a big hole. There was a bucket of sticks in the corner and nothing more… no toilet paper or even water. I thanked god that I was only there to do a number one. We explored the village a little bit and at about 9 we hit the road again for our seconds day’s trekking. The second days trekking was a little bit more relaxed and the heat was somewhat less intense. We visited 3 villages on the trek; two Patong and one Shan. At each village we would stop in a house for tea. I had assumed that these houses were in some way associated with the trekking guide but that was not the case
. Joy was just arriving at a randomly selected house and saying ‘hi, we are walking a long way, can we rest here and have some tea’. Of course every house welcomed us with open arms and continued with the same battery of questions about me. In fact even the home stay was just a randomly selected house where joy asked if we could sleep for the night and have dinner. Can you imagine just arriving at a place like that in a western country…? I guess you would probably have the door slammed in your face. Anyway we continued the trek back to the village where we had stored the bike. We stopped there for lunch before taking on the two hour bumpy ride back to Kyaukme. We did it non stop and my bum was quite sore by the time we arrived. On the way back to the town Joy wanted to show me a lead paper factory. A guy was beating lead flat which Chinese people burn at the funeral of their family and friends… it all seemed a bit crazy to me! Back in the hotel I discovered I was no longer the only tourist in the town. There was an Americian lady who had just come back from her three day trek and a Belgium couple fresh off the train. It was cool to meet with some tourists, have a few beers and exchange stories. The Belgium couple were very intrepid travelers and had some awesome stories about their two months in Laos. I also met another of the tour guides who went straight into telling me how he is famous in the area for fighting in the rebel forces. He told me of the turning point for them when the Chinese stopped supplying them with guns and allying with the junta forcing them to surrender
. I wished I had more time to chat with him as he seemed like a very interesting guy and very open about the war. One of the students from Romeo’s English class was also hanging around and after we got chatting he offered to take me around the town and show me the place the following morning. An offer I graciously accepted.
John had wanted to meet at 6:30 am to start our small tour of Kyaukme. I had told him he was crazy and we managed to come to a compromise of 8:30. There isn’t much by way of tourist attractions in Kyaukme so instead we visited a few temples, monasteries and homes of his friends. He took me to see one of his artist friends drawing which were really great. Then we saw a bamboo paper factory where there were a few ladies doing what looked like backbreaking repetitive work for a pay of about 1 Euro per day. I saw another of his friend’s rice wine distillery where he gave me a sample. It was good stuff so I bought a small bottle of it for just 50c… cheaper than a beer! I also saw a food factory where they were making some kind of artificial meat, it smelled rotten so I didn’t try any. All the factories were in fact home based businesses set up in back gardens. In was really cool to see this community based way of living. It felt like a glimpse at real Myanmar far removed from tourist attractions and people pushing postcards and souvenirs in your face. To end it all we visited one last pagoda at the top of a hill overlooking the city. Here I managed to open up my jinxed left toe again. We went to a monastery where a monk disappeared into the trees and cane back with some leaf broken up in his hands gesturing at me to rub it on the wound. After the tour I was half expecting John to look for some kind of payment, maybe a bit of learned pessimism. He did nothing of the sort but I insisted on buying him lunch to show my gratitude. He simply wanted to show me his city and practice his English, wonderful to meet real people who don’t see the tourist as a walking ATM machine. I returned to the hotel to get ready for my long bus trip to Yangon. Joy was kind enough to pick me up from there and take me to the bus station. He even waited with me for half an hour which was really nice. After my experiences in Kyaukme I felt I had seen the real Myanmar.
The bus trip from Mandalay was, well, interesting. Really it was something you would have to see to believe. There are two types of bus here, the first being the comfortable air-con type which I took from Yangon to Bagan. Today I would be taking one of the second type, what they call a cargo bus; meaning that as well as carrying the contractions fill of bodies it was also jam packed with everything under the sun. The crates were piled high on the roof and beneath the seats was not a floor but rather a sea of crates. The seats were a hard leather type tightly fitting two abreast with a fifth person in the aisle of each row in the fold out jumper seat. Soon after we set out from Mandalay we arrived at what was my first police checkpoint. The route we were taking is the main overland route to China so I guess it was reasonable to examine all traffic. Still it was a little alarming when all the jumper seat passengers were taken out and these guys boarded with long metal rods to literally poke around