Chapter 32: Me and Myanmar, Part 2

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Saturday, April 10, 2004

OK, so Yoshi and I found our bus at 8pm. We weren't prepared for what we found, though! It was an old (50's/60's) Japanese clunker that was filled beyond capacity with boxes and bags of random stuff. Yoshi (being the more experienced of us two at this sort of thing) found our seats and raised hell until the boxes were cleared out of our foot-space, and then we settled in for our 9-hour ride. As soon as we got our seats, the bus was packed with locals who promptly laid down on the sacks and boxes - filling every square inch of breathing room on the bus. Luckily we had the two seats in front of the door, so we could kind of stretch out (on top of people)... but the ride was still uncomfortable at best. I was sort of amused by the whole thing (thanks, i-Pod!), but poor Yoshi didn't get a wink of sleep. At about 4:30am the bus stopped, and the few foreigners (um, us) had to get off and pay $10 to enter the Bagan Archaeological District. That was OK; the bus stopped 30 minutes later at its final stop in Nyaung U, which is the closest town to Bagan. I stumbled up to the Eden Motel and found a great room for US$4/night - including A/C and private hot water bath (when the power worked).

Predictably I slept through most of Wednesday, and then set out to explore Nyaung U by foot. I found some great pizza at San Kabar Restaurant, and then proceeded to the nearest sight: the Shwezigan Paya. My longyi came in handy for touring the old stupa, and afterwards I walked down a dusty trail to the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy for a river-side stroll and some good photo-opps. The kids in the villages by the river were especially friendly, and they enjoyed listening to tunes on my i-Pod. For better or worse the songs that popped up were all old 80's classics, so the local kids have a warped idea of what's popular in America now... someone should ring up Ian McCulloch and let him know that there's a big demand for old Echo & the Bunnymen tunes in the under-priviledged youth sector of central Myanmar!

On Thursday I rented a bike and rode out (in the 95-degree heat) to the ruins of ancient Bagan. It was an incredible (but very sweaty) day of exploring Buddhist temples from 800 years ago. The whole plain has an eerie feel to it, as there are literally thousands of deserted ruins scattered around the dusty terrain. I biked through Old Bagan, "New Bagan" (the government relocated thousands of locals to their new homes), and the surrounding towns and temples, until the sun started to set and I decided I should head back to Nyaung U. On the way I stopped at a riverside temple to climb up and watch the sunset; while I was there I bumped into a few friendly Americans and a German couple who I recognized from the Moustache Brothers performance in Mandalay.

On the way back to the bike-rental shop, I stopped at a corner and watched a lizard running through the dead leaves... it turns out the lizard was being pursued by a long-nosed vine snake, which was of course very exciting (to me). As soon as I started snapping pictures, though, I realized how tough snakes have it in Myanmar. A local guy came up, grabbed the snake by the tail, and hurled it into the brush with a laugh. Some tourists told me that their pick-up truck stopped en-route to Bagan because there was a snake in the road, and that a guy jumped down from the truck to hack its head off. I guess it makes sense, since Myanmar has an incredibly high rate of death-by-snakebite, and the locals wear nothing for protection aside from a glorified tablecloth and flip-flops... but still, i was horrified, and vowed not to point out any more snakes to the people around me.

I spent Friday wandering around Nyaung U (it was too hot to rent a bike again), and I met up with Yoshi for lunch and dinner. He lives in Bangkok at the moment, so hopefully I'll see him again sometime soon. I made the decision that on Saturday I'd have a big adventure (I had days to spare): I'd try to make it as far as I could across the country using only local transportation (um, pick-up trucks) without spending more than US$5/6. On Saturday I got up at 6:30 and jumped on the 7am truck to Kyaupandaung, which is 50km to the south. The trip was a lot of fun: I jumped up on top of the covered truck, and rode behind two monks with the wind in my hair for two hours, marvelling at the dry but beautiful terrain around me that was filled with scrub and coconut palms. Kyaupandaung, unfortunately, was a small little hell-hole. Well, OK, that's harsh... but I felt distinctly out of place and stared-at as I made my way from the drop-off point to the main road heading east to Meiktila. I found my road after a few kilometers, and there was a pick-up waiting to take me to my destination for $1.20 (after bargaining).

This trip was somewhat less comfortable than the first, because I was inside the covered bed of the pick-up, and it was very hot and dusty and squashed inside. Plus the benches are hard and seated too low to let my legs relax naturally. Along the way we picked up an additional 20 passengers, 20 boxes, and 20 chickens (live and dead), which the made the journey all the more colourful. At least I had some amusement from the locals, who all wanted to try on my sunglasses. As elsewhere in Myanmar, they were very interested in me, and in my comfort level, which was nice. I had some pleasant, though stilted, conversations. After three hours of driving through really depressing red desert countryside, we arrived in Meiktila, which is an oasis in the middle of nowhere. Specifically, it's the town where the Yangon-Mandalay road intersects the Bagan-Inle Lake road... but I couldn't find any obvious intersection. In fact, I couldn't find anything, because the map in my 2002 LP guidebook was woefully inaccurate. To make a long story short, I wandered around in the mid-day heat for an hour receiving a fair number of bemused glances before I finally found a restaurant where someone could A) give me food, and B) point me in the direction of a pick-up truck to Thazi.

The Thazi-bound truck was much more fun than the last, because it was full of 20-something bashful girls who all wanted me to sit next to them, but who couldn't say much to me once I did. I picked up a few more Myamar words on the 20 minute ride, and endeared myself to everyone by sitting on the floor to make room for additional passengers. Thazi had been my (modest) goal for the day, so when I arrived at 2pm and found little to sustain my interest, I decided I'd try to get further along on the road to Inle Lake. I found an old guy with a pick-up packed full of boxes and baskets who was heading my way; he wanted 4,000 kyat to get to Kalaw, which was the cost of a bus ticket all the way from Bagan to Inle Lake! I convinced him to take less than 3,000 - still a rip-off, but at that point I just wanted to get out of Thazi (it's the railway equivalent to Meiktila, which means there's even less there).

The journey through the mountanis from Thazi to Kalaw is supposed to take 3 hours. My pick-up took 6. Thankfully my high price meant I bought the front passenger seat - otherwise I would have been crammed into the bench behind the cab (which had no leg room). We drove for 45 minutes, and then stopped to let the truck cool down - a process which was apparently aided by opening up the hood and throwing buckets of water inside and then sitting around for 30 minutes. We repeated this procedure about 4 times, and eventually I resigned myself to ignoring my watch. At one stop, in the village of Yimnabin, there were a bunch of local kids who had never seen a digital camera before, so I had some fun letting them play and take pictures of each other. The scenery along the way was beautiful, but still dusty and arid, and the slash & burn agriculture fires looked very spooky & worrisome as we drove by them in the night. They looked just like forest fires, and with the mountains as dry as they were, I had no idea how the fires were kept in check!

We finally arrived in Kalaw at 10pm, and I checked into the Winner Hotel on the main street. As soon as I threw my bags down I set out to find some food - not an easy task since everything closes at nine. Luckily I ran into a friendly Dutch guy named Morris, who introduced me to a local Indian guy named George, who in turn convinced a nearby Chinese restaurant owner to re-open his kitchen and get me a chicken curry & beer. Phew! After 15 hours of travel, I'd made it to Kalaw, which is kind of sad given how close it looks to Bagan on a Myanmar map!

As it turns out, Kalaw was excellent. It's an old British hill station - rather similar to the Cameron Highlands in Malaysia, except not as developed. I hung out with Morris, his Indonesion girlfriend Weny, and George, for another hour or so, and then slept well after promising to meet them the next night. On Sunday I walked - a lot. Since the temperature is much cooler in Kalaw than in the rest of Myanmar it was pretty easy to throw on a pack and go exploring by foot. I walked through the hills for hours, passing beautiful stupas & temples, huge old British colonial stone houses (who lives there now?!), and humble villages with friendly children shouting "hello!" as I passed by. It was an incredible place - beautiful and relaxing - and I wish I could have stayed longer. I guess I could have, but wanderlust got the better of me, so I booked a bus ticket to Inle Lake for Monday morning... and I think I'll finish up my Myanmar entries next time. 'Night!

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