Rural life

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Apr 30, 2011

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Where I stayed
Mr Charles Guesthouse

Flag of Myanmar  , Mandalay,
Saturday, October 23, 2010

Despite its exotic sounding name, Mandalay is actually a scruffy boomtown without much appeal so we left in the morning, taking a share taxi along with a couple of Buddhist monks to Pyin U Lwin. This small hill town is the old British colonial summer capital, a cool retreat away from the sweltering plains below. Many old colonial mansions remain, some of them now upmarket hotels, and the clock tower in the main street was a present from Queen Victoria. There are also large numbers of Indians and Nepalis living here, descendants of those who came here to lay the railroad and build the road to Lashio. We checked into Grace Hotel, located down a quiet leafy street, and went for a walk around town, first stopping in the Golden Triangle Cafe for a slice of cake and milk shake. One mode of transport around town is horse and cart but the poor horses looked very thin and some has nasty looking sores from where their harnesses rubbed so we didn' go for a ride. We wandered around the hectic market place where many locally grown fruits and vegetables were on offer. Foreigners are still quite thin on the ground in Myanmar so people stare at you a lot but they are incredibly friendly and welcoming and many stop to have a chat. After the market, we paid a visit to Liqueur Corner where we bought a bottle of locally produced passion fruit wine which was delicious! In the evening we had dinner at Club Terrace, a lovely Thai restaurant situated in a colonial bungalow, with a terrace lit by lanterns and candles. We chatted to the waiter, a young lad who told us his dream is to go to hotel school in London. We hope that one day this might be a possibility for him.

After a couple of enjoyable, relaxing days in Pyin U Lwin, we followed in the footsteps of Paul Theroux and caught the '131 Up' train to Hsipaw. We were in First Class, distinguished from Ordinary Class by the fact that the upright wooden seats have a padded cushion to sit on. There are large military academies around this area and many of the other people in our compartment were Myanmar Army soldiers. The journey took 7 hours and we travelled through countryside of fields of maize, rice and vegetable plots. About half way we crossed the Gokteik viaduct, which was built in 1901 and crosses a deep ravine. Supposedly photography of the viaduct is banned for security reasons, but none of the military personnel in our carriage seemed to mind when Tom hung out the door taking pictures! Towards the end of the journey, the previously bare hillsides (Myanmar has a serious deforestation problem) became covered in trees. The rice paddies, small villages and forested backdrop was very picturesque and we were glad to see that we had reached our destination as the train pulled into Hsipaw.

As soon as we stepped off the train, a man approached us from Mr Charles guesthouse, our intended accommodation for our stay here, so we both hopped into a bicycle trishaw and bumped along the back roads to the guesthouse. We warmed to Hsipaw's laid back feel right away. The main street is buzzing with motorbikes and roadside stalls but the back streets are quiet and sleepy and being here is like stepping back in time to the Asia of yesterday. It's the kind of place we would be happy to stay for a few weeks if we had the time.

In the morning we went for a walk with a trekking guide from the guesthouse. He spoke excellent English and we leant a great deal from him as we strolled through the rice paddies and several Shan villages. The Shan make up 9% of the Myanmar population, are mostly Buddhist and are related to people in northern Thailand, Laos and Yunnan province in China. Again we were made to feel very welcome and people were happy for us to enter their attractive bamboo homes and take photographs. After our walk we wanted to try some local Burmese food so went for lunch in a restaurant popular with locals. We were overwhelmed when they brought out a huge spread of various dishes. We feasted on la-hpeq dhouq, a crunchy salad of green tea leaves, pulses, garlic, dried shrimp, ginger etc. We also had hin-jo, a soup made with green squash, balachaung, made with chillies, dried shrimp and tamarind, various other pickles and a bowl of rice enough to feed about 8 people! We felt very greedy but were relieved to see that everyone else was eating exactly the same as us!

The next day we hired a couple of ancient bicycles from the guesthouse. It was great fun and everyone we passed waved and said hello or sometimes goodbye! It was the Festival of Lights, an annual Buddhist event, and we popped our heads into a monastery to see the people chanting. Then we cycled out of town, left the bikes by the side of the road and walked for about an hour to a waterfall with a 100 foot drop into a deep pool where we went for a refreshing swim. The walk was lovely and took us through rice paddies and past a small banana plantation. A sweet boy of about 7 came out of his house and, for a small fee, led us to the falls, waited for us while we were swimming and then led us back again. On the return hike it started raining heavily and the path soon became a quagmire. We reached town completely soaked through and splattered with mud. Luckily we found a small cafe on the banks of the river and had a nice warming cup of Earl Grey tea!

Tomorrow morning we leave on the 5.30am bus back to Mandalay and from there we travel on to Bagan.

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