Lush Scenes of Shwenyaung to Kalaw

Trip Start Dec 28, 2011
Trip End Jan 19, 2012

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Where I stayed
Golden Lily Guesthouse

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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Morning Fog
This morning's taxi ride out of Nyaungshwe to Shwenyaung Railway station costed me 8000 kyats. Up til now, I still havent figure out the fare systems for taxis, trishaws and pickup trucks. It was almost like a free for all quoting, depending on who you get for the driver. The ride int he morning fog was pleasing and atmospheric to say the least. Abit like Hanoi on a hazy winter morning. I arrived at the station at 745am just to purchase my US$3 train ticket to Kalaw. Apparently nobody can say for certain the departure time. Only at the ticket booth, you will be informed and in my case, it was 930am. Enough time to explore the station for photo opportunities.

Free Man
I happened to strike up a conversation with a local passenger, as I always do. This conversation however was not an ordinary one. It began when I casually asked if he learnt his english in school. It turned out that Htun Htun Oo was a history major graduate from the university in Taungyi. Not that he was fluent in the language but it was enough for Htun to share his personal story.

I was on the other end of the platform when he swung around and asked if he could buy me a cup of tea. Not a bad idea, I thought, so off we went to a street stall outside of the train station. Myanmar teas were ordered  and it was served with condensed milk much like the rest of Asia. Myanmar tea however has a rather distinctive flavour that punchesabove the sweetness of the condensed milk. I also ordered for Mohinga - Myanmar street noodles - a mildly spiced noodle soup with crackers and fresh herbs. I could not possibly ask Htun to pay the bill so I paid for the table.

In between sips of myanmar tea, Htun began to open up with his story. It started with Htun showing me a piece of laminated pink slip. I understood that it was a statement from the myanmar government. With as much efforts as Htun could offer, this was what I gathered from him.

Htun was a military officer with a Lieutenant rank, with an armour division in Taungyi, not too far from where we were. He physically fought with his superior and was sentenced to military jail for a period that was unknown to me. He was only recently released on the 2nd Jan 2012 and with not much on him except his catholic bible, a notepad, a set of clothes and a small bag. Htun claimed that after his release, he was no longer a soldier. He was free butpenniless. His plans were to visit his mother and daughter in Mandalay before heading down to Yangon to look for work. He also shared that he had a younger son who had since passed away.

Out of a sudden, Htun asked if I could help him with some money for his train ride to Yangon and began wriing on a piece of paper his request. His Yangon ticket from Mandalay would cost 10000 kyats.

I am normally a skeptical person but what if I was wrong? I offered and handed over some money and wished him well. I think he was kind of surprised that he wanted my 'autograph' on his notepad and proceeded to buy a packet of tissue and also a plastic crawling baby toy (probably costed not much). In return I gave Htun my spare red pen that I accidentally brought from Melbourne.

Now Htun was not entirely penniless because he bought himself an upper class train ticket so that he could sit with me in the same berth. Throughout the journey to Kalaw, Htun would always offer to buy me fruits or snacks. He did bought me that tasty crispy crab snacks at Heho station when the street vendors hawkered for business at the train windows.

Three Slow Hours of Rural Scenes
Not forgetting to write about the train ride to Kalaw - train was incredibly slow to start with and the berths would swerve violently side to side as we rumbled through the amazing scenic landscapes of farmlands, lush rolling hills, rock cliffs and distant mountain ranges. There were at least two nervous bridge crossings but the train did come to a crawl for these bridges. The carriages were not surprisingly filthy and you would empty your bowels through a hole in the toilet onto the tracks. I also saw a tiny Mickey mouse darting around on the train floor.

Arriving at Kalaw 130pm and Htun even helped me unload my backpack to a motorbike taxi outside the station before he raced back to his carriage and onwards with his new found freedom. The 1000 kyats ride into town was not that far and I quickly checked into Golden Lily Guest House for US$6 a night with hot shower bathroom.

500 years old teak buddha statue
Headed straight out for lunch at this Nepali place Everest which served some kick ass mutton curry Nepali-style. Had a wander around the market and the town before embarking on a walking trail to Nee Paya featuring a 500 years old teak buddha statue. The exact location was not shown on Lonely Planet's guidebook (I got the old edition) and the street directional signs were terrible. It took me 1.5 hours of uphills before I finally found the monastery hidden deep n the southwest of Kalaw outskirts.

The buddha statue itself was kind of an anti-climax. Fortunately the route leading directly to Nee Paya's entrance was exceptionally scenic with folding hills dotted with huts both traditional and modern. Left the monastery with a canadian chinese and a spanish couple, back to downtown, exchanging stories on Nyaungshwe and Mandalay.

Spanish Friends and Nepali Dinner
Later in the evening, we would join another spanish couple for a hastily prepared salad from this morning's market and another chapati & curry at Everest restaurant. Dinner with four spanish speaking people was delightfully dramatic. They did not always speak in English first and the use of hand gestures accompanying every sentences made us looked like we were arguing. Amazing two of them self confessed to be extremely fussy eaters but they survived backpacking in northern India for 3 months.

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