Chapter 33: Me and Myanmar, Part 3

Trip Start Oct 01, 2003
Trip End Nov 2004

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Naung Kham

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Wednesday, April 14, 2004

The bus trip on Monday from Kalaw to the little crossroads town of Shwenyaung was possibly the worst transportation experience I've had - ever. I got the last seat in the very back corner of the rickety old bus, so I was smashed in next to 4 other guys, and unfortunately I'm a few sizes too big for the cheaper Asian buses. My legs didn't quite fit in the space allotted, and to make things worse, the seat in front of me was broken and the road was in typically awful shape, so the hard plastic backing repeatedly slammed my kneecaps for the entire ride. I actually had tears in my eyes for part of the trip, and the bruises on my knees (and knuckles, from trying to protect my knees) lasted a few days. Enough whining, though... the torture was over after 90 minutes, and when I got to Shwenyaung I promptly jumped in a car heading to Nyaungshwe with a friendly couple from Munich named Andy & Marion.

Nyaungshwe is the major town in the Inle Lake region of the Shan State, and it's pretty cute and chill. The car dropped the three of us off around 9:30am at a place called Naung Kham - The Little Inn. True to its name, the charming place has only 7 rooms set behind a pretty garden where they serve an included breakfast - the Myanmar standard of fruit, toast, eggs, and tea/coffee. We ate very well in Nyaungshwe. My lunch Monday at the pancake kingdom was an awesome crepe filled with fresh local avocado, tomato, and mushroom. For dinner we headed to the Golden Kite pasta house, which was oddly proud of its little metal fresh pasta maker, and justifiably proud of its caipirhinas (sp?).

Tuesday Andy, Marion, and I chartered a long tail boat for the day (only ~$10 total) to take us out to Inle Lake. The lake is stunning. It's perfectly still, shallow, nestled in a beautiful valley, over 20km long, and maybe half as wide... it's difficult to tell exactly where the borders are because the distinction between land and water is blurred by all the floating vegetation. The ride out to the lake along the main canal was chilly but exhilirating. Our first stop on the lake was the infamous Ywama floating market ("floating" is a key word around Inle Lake... everything floats). On the way we passed some of the local "leg-rower" fishermen, who propel their boats by standing up at the front and rowing with one leg which is strangely twisted around the oar.

The floating market was basically a tourist trap. Any smart locals know to go elsewhere for their produce, as the water is jammed to capacity with boats like ours (tourist boats with a few chairs in a single row) surrounded by boats of souvenir hawkers peddling all kinds of useless junk. We made a quick exit, and then got routed into a floating gold & silver workshop/salesroom; we walked right out and told our guide "no more shops!" That made our trip in the floating town significantly shorter.

We followed a long, meandering channel through the marsh to a small village on the west coast called Indein. Once back on firm ground, we stopped for a drink (it was hot!) and then explored the ruins of Shwe Inn Thein - an atmospheric collection of hundreds of crumbling stupas with some nice views over the hazy lake. Next up was lunch, back in the center of the lake at some floating Chinese place where we ordered some fresh lake fish. It was decent, but I still have trouble with the bones in Asian fish dishes. I know I'm just supposed to eat them in a lot of cases, but it usually ruins the experience for me.

After lunch we toured a floating village with lots of cute little kids waving from their windows at us, and then visited some floating gardens. Our guide had us get out of the boat and stand on the squishy "ground," which is a 3-foot deep layer of vegetation and soil floating on the surface. Walking on it is wet and wobbly and weird. Our last stop for the day was the Jumping Cat Monastery in the middle of the lake. The monks there have many adorable and content-looking cats who they've trained to jump through tiny hoops that they hold a few feet off the ground. It was cute in a "Funniest Home Videos" kind of way, I guess...

Wednesday was March 31st, which was a big day for me, as it marked exactly 6 months of travelling! How did I celebrate? By being completely lazy and doing absolutely nothing! Well, I read, ate, drank, played games, relaxed, and generally enjoyed myself and my surroundings, but you know what I mean. I also wrote in my journal about lots of random ponderous topics, from the connections between my love of travel & games & other forms of escapism, to what I want to do when I get home (um, find someone to give me lots of money and then leave again), to how the experience of long-term travel is affecting me, to how my handwriting looks like an illegible combination of my mom's, dad's and my friend Alexa Tobin's... OK, I probably shouldn't have had a few Myanmar Beers before writing.

Thursday I said goodbye to Andy and Marion (they were heading to Yangon) and explored the area around Nyaungshwe on foot. As soon as I set out I noticed a cart with speakers rolling towards me playing a Burmese-language version of ABBA's "Does Your Mother Know?" This is a hilarious trend in Myanmar entertainment: re-recording western hits with karaoke-quality music and Myanmar lyrics sung by vocalists who sound more or less like their western counterparts. It also makes for a cracking game of "Name That Tune." My favorites so far have been Green Days's "Warning," Offspring's "Why Don't You Get a Job," and Rod Stewart's "Infatuation" (complete with raspy voice)!

The villages and rice paddies and ruins around Nyaungshwe were a lot of fun to wander through, especially because as always the kids were super-curious. Half-way through my 4-hour trip I noticed some ominous dark clouds gathering, and the skies opened up at exactly the moment I returned to the Little Inn. It was the first rain I'd seen in Myanmar, and this storm was making up for lost time! The power was killed (actually my hotel didn't have power in the day anyway, but it was down everywhere else), and acorn-sized hail crashed down for a few minutes.

On Friday I made the long trip back to Yangon by bus. It took 18 hours, but we stopped often for food and stretching, I had adequate leg room and slept a bit, there were no screaming children, the A/C wasn't broken or overpowering, and the bus didn't break down. The only thing that made the trip less-than-ideal was the evil little troll-lady sitting next to me. She had a few packages eating up her floor space, and that apparently gave her license to use mine in addition to half of my seat, even though she couldn't have been even 4 feet tall! Being about 100 pounds heavier, I won most of our subtle seat battles. Who knows - maybe I was bored enough that they were all in my head.

It turns out I exchanged the perfect amount of money for a couple of weeks upcountry, because I only had a few thousand extra kyat when I arrived in Yangon on Saturday. I splurged on some "western" food and an iced coffee at a place called Aroma, which looked incredibly swish for Myanmar. The modern minimalist interior would be better suited to a London bar, and they were actually playing western originals on the stereo (including the La's!), so it was a cool place to kill some kyat. I also stopped at the market and bought myself a bottle of Myanmar Pineapple wine, which was super-sweet and tasted like a pineapple-y port.

Leaving the country was only marginally more difficult than entering it, and that's mostly because the Yangon airport departures terminals are unpleasant and disorganized. I had a panic attack when I showed up on Sunday at noon. My ticket was for a 2pm Biman Bangladesh flight to Bangkok - and it didn't exist on the international departures screen! There was no one in te airline office, either. Eventually I found an Italian couple who had the same problem (only their tickets for the same flight said 1:45), and we figured out that our flight was listed in the domestic terminal - as leaving at 3:40. Ah well... after going through the cattle call check in process and sitting around for a few more hours, we finally departed at 5. As a funny aside, the second we touched down in Bangkok and the flight attendant made that "please stay seated" announcement, EVERY Indian (Bangladeshi?) guy on the plane - and no one else - leapt into the aisle, grabbed their bags from overhead, and pushed and shoved to get 5 feet closer to the front of the plane. It made me happy that I'm skipping India for now.

On the other hand, I am very glad I visited Myanmar. Geographically and culturally, the country sits between India and China the rest of Southeast Asia, and it provides a fascinating mix of contrasts. Poverty like I'd never encountered was right next to ornate golden stupas crowned with jewels. A brand new internet cafe displayed a sign reading "No access to outside e-mail accounts such as hotmail, yahoo." A street went from smelling of enchanting spices to reeking of sewage in the span of a few feet. Homeless women holding babies in Mandalay walked around outside tables at an ice cream parlor with their hands extended to patrons. Incredibly friendly people live in the shadow of a repressive government and smile despite all of their problems. Children wanted to make contact, and smiled at foreigners, but the only words some of then knew were "Hello, money?" There were few outward signs of military presence, but I heard so many stories about how the people desire true freedom. There's one man I met who uses his computer and money from his small business to teach village children English, and about technology and democracy, preparing them for what he hopes the future will bring. Myanmar was a crazy place - simultaneously frustrating and beautiful - but my adventure there reinvigorated my travel spirit, and taught me more than any other country I've visited.
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