Travelogues

Trip Information

Myanmar
Working for Peanuts
Working for Peanuts (30)
Trip Date:2006-06-23 - 2006-07-21
# Photos:62 [View]
Countries visited:Myanmar
Viewed: 3461
After hours of being transported across cities and continents by super modern aircraft, we were spewed into the dark, sultry streets of the dilapidated Burmese capital. Greeted by the noise of geckos and crickets. It was my second trip to Burma but for Keith the first. He was immediately reminded of an Indian city. (Less people of course, and quiet, tooting of horns is forbidden)

Our first morning was spent slipping and sliding on the marble floor and feeling a little like cartoons characters, (due to the jetlag,) in the Shwedagon Pagoda. (Probably the most photographed pagoda in Burma.) On the streets of Yangon there is hardly any private transport on the roads, many buses, taxis cycles and pedestrians. Hardly any public services, street cleaning, erratic electricity power, no street lights, high fuel bills for generators, pavements are broken and forests grow from old colonial buildings. We enjoyed just roaming the streets, drinking tea in the many tea shops the cram themselves into an available space on the sidewalk. Sometimes the poverty was too much to bear. In a street behind one of the most prestigious hotels, The Strand, vegetable sellers sold their wares in a flooded market, squatting in rancid water to make a few kyat, by the ferry, we saw a mother and daughter sweeping around the unloading trucks with a makeshift dustpan, trying to gather the fallen rice grains.

Sunday evening was the night of the England vs. Equator World Cup game, which of course we wanted to see. The Burmese are football crazy, many can name entire squads and from which club the come. England seemed to be the favourite, so we thought watching with group of locals with a glass of beer would be the end of a nice day. Entering our chosen bar where the big screen, blared out a live concert of Mariah Carey and dancing girls jumped to their feet to dance on the small dance floor amidst the disco lights for their clients. But we were the only two in the bar, we asked for the football to be turned on, which they willingly obliged, but the soundtrack remained. So we watched England win, Mariah Carey and Destiny Child sang loudly in the background and the girls waiting patiently for the game to end and their clients to arrive.
Early the next morning, as soon as we left the oasis of our hotel, Burma started. We were called a taxi which seemed to be held together by string, no windows, no upholstery, and a driver that had just woken from having slept in it all night. The taxi coughed and spluttered to the outskirts of town bus station, where we with no problem found our bus and seat to Kyaiktiyo, (we thought) ok seat, nice drive down, lovely scenery, nice weather. At some unknown place along the road, bus stopped and we moved into a small pick up, the bus goes no further in the rainy season. Several kilometres along the road we transferred to an open top truck for the next leg of journey. Luckily for us it still wasn’t raining, but once the truck stopped and then last 45 minutes which is a STEEEP walk up the mountain, the heavens opened. The footpath soon became a river. Porters and sedan chair carriers offer their services at the truck stop. We hired two porters to carry our bags, but to be carried up in a sedan chair was a bit much. Two young men patiently followed us half-way up the mountain with a sedan chair watching us for any signs of distress. Continuing to lower the price and at every steep turn trying to coax me in. We declined, walked and got soaked, from then on for two days we sat in the clouds and mist and rain and didn’t really dry out until our return to Yangon. The magnificent views were obscure to us; we saw only mist and the sound of waterfalls crashing through the jungle below. The fascinating balancing golden rock that makes this place a pilgrimage, sat for the entire time in the mist.
We relaxed caught up with our reading, the hotel staff were really friendly and with 12 waiters to our beck and call, we were the only guests.
The journey back to Yangon two days later, was much the same except that we were not so lucky with the weather in the open truck and sat at the back holding onto supporting iron bars with our ponchos over our heads trying to keep as much as the rain out and praying that our cameras would be OK. Stopped in a no name town and Bago, on the way back. Bago, home to many pagodas, and the enormous Shwethalyanug reclining Buddha.

Our flight up north from Yangon had been cancelled. Air time-schedules are subject to weather conditions, prevailing government conditions and staff availability. Finally with a one night stop in Mandalay we arrive in Myitkyina.
Myitkyina., sits in the far north, in Kachin state. The town was pleasant enough, small laid-back as relaxed as its reclining Buddha. The railroad passes through, a few trains a day ferrying passengers to Mandalay. Our plan was to take a boat trip from there, but no luck. The boat which had travelled down river earlier was stranded, couldn’t get back upriver again now that the rains had started and the current stronger. Our hotel was dreadful, (at the time we thought the worse hotel in Burma, but we had that to come!!!) The highlight of Myitkyina. was sitting on a terrace overlooking the Irrawaddy River and surroundings mountains with cold beer at 30 cents per glass. So we had to take bus out to Bhamo, lovely bus ride, through mountains and remote villages, very much like northern Laos. Our fellow passengers found it hard to stop staring at us, and people came out of their houses and tea shops to look at us as the bus pulled in at the small towns and villages along the way. I don’t think many foreigners get up here. But no problem at all with checkpoints, in fact we only showed our passport once, when questioned nationality and we answered English, the reply was ---oh, good, Rooney, Lampard, and it seemed if we could reply, yes yes, Cole, Gerard, Hargreaves, that was good enough to get us through with no further hassle.
We really enjoyed Bhamo, pagodas, bustling markets, so much fruit, pineapples and mangoes, huge trees shady the lanes, friendly people. Walking along the banks of the huge Arrawaddy River passing the day away, and to also stay in a spotlessly clean Chinese hotel, where we could open our eyes and touch things when we entered the bathroom, made our stay complete.
Time to move; the boat is only twice a week, so we booked a cabin for US$ 54, yes, its real prices when you want something. The Burmese probably only pay a fraction of that. But sleeping on deck for two days was not an option.
Two days cruising down the Arrawaddy, beautiful scenery, through narrow gorges, thick jungle to the water’s edge, birds flying alongside, really nice. Our cabin had a small sink to wash, but the water came from the river and poured out of the taps – brown and full of grit, so washing was no option, but we were travelling in relative luxury, below decks was another story, passengers camped out in between the cargo, families sleeping, eating, living on a small bed sheet for two days. We made a few stops at small towns where the young and old excitedly met the ferry, and vendors clambered on board to sell their ‘delicacies’. Much commotion in the night as we hit a sandbank, the crew jumping on shore to free us with bamboo poles and we were woken up at two in the morning by a vendors selling their wares at a small village stop, who wants to eat curry and rice and two in the morning!! We had to make an extra stop in the morning as someone on the lower deck had died overnight. The body was taken from our boat and placed onto a small sailing boat and sailed back up river. Finally we arrived in Kyaukmuang where we had decided to jump ship and continue our travel overland to Bagan, missing out Mandalay. Bad move. Our first stop was Shwebo, only one hotel in town, arrived too late to move on, so no choice, we were forced to stay in, which must be surely the worse hotel in Burma. It was so filthy and grimy, we showered with a garden hose to get the boat dirt off of us, and for the rest we didn’t touch anything in the room. A nice afternoon and evening followed, once again met with very friendly people. I don’t want to keep saying Burma the land of the smiles and sound like a bad travel guide, but the people that we met were so warm and open, and if you consider how hard their life is..................
At first light next morning, we left the hotel, preferring to spend time at the bus station than in the room and took the first bus to Monywa. A few days in and around Monywa, a small town on the banks of the Chindwin river where there it seems that there are more monks than people. It was so hot though, we sweated all day and all night, despite airco in the room, it just couldn’t cope with the temperature and of course, the electricity supply cut out by 10:30 pm. We spent our time walking by the river, visits to the Shwezigon pagoda, where an old man speaking perfect English showed us the treasures “backstage” of the pagoda. A day in a hired motor-rick took us into the surrounding countryside of the Po Khaung Hills. As we left in the rickshaw and cycled pass the tea shop where we drank- the people stopped to wave, as we passed the restaurant- the people waved us goodbye and as and we passed through the market - the mango sellers waved us goodbye. We were only there for a few days but felt like we had made so many friends! We wanted to leave by bus, but being full moon day the only busses running were to Mandalay, not our destination. So, we had to think of plan two, rode around the town with the rickshaw wallah and with his help finally convinced a driver of a small pickup to take us the three hours to Pakokku. While resting in a tea-shop in Pakokku and while Keith negotiated the boat price to Bagan, I was besieged by the village women that wanted to trade any toiletries that I was willing to give up for a cotton blanket. I didn’t really want a cotton blanket, but they were having so much fun going through my toiletries bag that made a swap.
So in a small wooden launch, complete with one blue plastic chair that also served as the jetty from the beach to boat we sailed once more down the Arrawaddy River to Bagan.
Bagan is Myanmar’s number one tourist attraction as a 9th century ancient city, littered with pagodas both used and ruined. In between the pagodas are farmed fields, very picturesque. Rented a horse and cart, (Bagan's mode of transport) and toured from early morning until midday the pagodas. We rented bikes to cycle around the next few days, chasing sunsets, being overwhelmed with the beauty of Bagan in the moonlight, and meeting our first westerners for two weeks. From Bagan we flew to Heho, for Inle Lake.
The lake is beautiful, but we wanted to avoid the over touristy side, the markets where there are more souvenirs than local produce. Luckily for us we met a boatman with a reasonable knowledge of English and he understood what we were looking for. The following day he took us to an area on the lake which has only recently opened up to foreigners. We visited Pa-O tribal markets, his friends in Shan villages and crumbling old pagodas around the lake shore. An amazing day. One friend of his offered to take us into the hills on a two day trek, staying overnight in a monastery. We left at the crack of dawn. 6 hours up to the 6800ft monastery, pretty strenuous, we were lucky that it was overcast and mostly in the forest. Lots of birds, butterflies and superb views. Passed through several villages, stopped in a house of a friend of our guide for lunch, also a nice experience and ended up at the monastery. Greeted by the head monk, who was desperate to practise his English, which was not so good and with a mouth full of betel nut and us being pretty tired was all hard work. Nevertheless, the monks were hospitable and we were very welcome. Our sleeping space was so SIMPLE, two thin lumpy mattresses on an uneven wooden floor, despite being so tired we slept pretty badly. The one thing that we really wanted was a shower after the long sweaty walk, but there was no water, only that which we had brought with us to drink, so a quick brush of the teeth and a wettie had to suffice. The following morning we awoke to the sounds of horns and drums, the foundation stone for the new monastery kitchen was being laid. Once the celebrations had ended we headed back down to Nyuang Shwe. Lovely walk down - down - down - down to our guesthouse and probably the best shower of the holiday

So, that was Burma for us. We had thought very long and hard as to whether we should travel to this country, we believe we made the right decision. I think that we will certainly come back to Burma at some point, especially if the government opens it up further, we would like to travel around other areas that at this moment are certainly off limits for foreigners. I am so happy that we were able to complete the trip that Keith had for a long time researched and envisioned.
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