There is something to be said about endurance and learning what you can really put up with. In Laos I spent 6-7 hours sitting on a wooden plank in a cramped boat for two days and 6-9 hours on some long, uncomfortable bus rides. Burma would take it to a new and different level. On 23 December (2002) I took a bus from Rangoon to Taunggi, near Lake Inle. The bus was to leave at noon and take 18 hours. We only departed 45 minutes late but arrived the next day 23 hours after departure. To tell the truth it wasn’t all that bad. It wasn’t Laos-bus-journey-bad. First, this was a super plush deluxe coach bus. We had reclining seat!. Second, the other passengers seemed more used to travel, no need for all the sickness bags. Third, the music. Burmese music is rather pleasant. Probably because most of the hits played were actually Western songs with Burmese lyrics!! The first time I heard a few bars of a well-known English song, I opened my mouth to sing quietly along, only to hear Burmese instead. I heard pirated songs of Celine Dion, Craig David, The Coors, Shania Twain, The Eagles, Marc Antony, and more. I could not sing along, but I could hum along, and it made the trip easier somehow. Fourth, they also played movies; two in Burmese and two in English! I was really surprised about the English movies yet happy to watch them, though we were not cinematic masterpieces (one was about a dog from outer space). Still, many hours after the scheduled arrival time, I started to worry I had missed my stop. It would not be the first time. Luckily, at a rest stop an English-speaking fellow passenger told me I had one stop to go. Finally, I was dropped at the intersection to Lake Inle where I caught a taxi on to Nyaung Shwe.
Let me be clear: I am not a foodie. I have lived overseas the majority of my adult life and traveled to over approximately 100 countries. I have come a long way in the food department from my childhood, but I am still not an adventurous eater. Thus finding good Western food in unexpected places is a pleasure, particularly when on the road for longer periods. I spent the first day only exploring Nyaung Shwe, recuperating from the bus ride. I check into my guesthouse – a bargain at $3 a night because the in-room bathroom did not work. To take a shower I only had to walk down the hall, into the courtyard, up a flight a stairs, and down another corridor. In my towel. Magical. The guesthouse also had a restaurant with items like pasta, pizza, and hamburgers on the menu. I am impressed. Till I tried to order. I point to the burger, but the man informs me they do not actually have that. I point to the pizza. Sorry, he says, do not have. He tells me, “no price, no available.” I then notice that everything on the menu has no price except for omelets. I go next door where unbelievably there is a small restaurant with freshly made pasta – made by a Burmese taught by an Italian chef from Bologna.
On my second day I spend the morning chatting with fellow travelers and am rewarded with a not-yet-expired Inle Lake Tourism (i.e. foreigners) Region Entrance Fee Ticket. It saves me US$3, which is a night’s hotel. In the afternoon, I arranged for a canal tour. It was a wonderful trip on the most beautiful day. The sky was blue and the water is so incredibly clear that one could look down and see the thick grass and water lilies just below the surface. Due to this thick grass Inle Lake is famous for its leg rowers. In order to navigate around especially thick clumps of submerged grass, the rower benefits from standing, and uses his legs to continue rowing from a standing position. I have the most wonderful picture of my very photogenic rower standing on the back of the canoe, with a gorgeous blue sky complete with perfect cottony white clouds in the sky and reflected in the water. All the houses are built on stilts and are also beautifully reflected in the water in a near perfect mirror image.
A Singaporean traveler and I rent a boat on my third day to travel to the village in the middle of the lake. From Nyaung Shwe the journey took thirty minutes–leg rowers, fishermen, and grass collectors along the way. We first visit a weaving center and then head to the ruins at Indein. There were so many small wiry stupas here seemingly forgotten by time, and the government. There were few tourists. In fact there were many more souvenir sellers than souvenir buyers. Several of the carvings were quite intact and reminded me of those at Angkor Wat, the shapely Apsaras dancing next to entrances to the temples.
In the center of the lake there was also a floating market (otherwise known as the floating tourist trap – one can’t just walk away, especially when the souvenir sellers surround your boat), a floating garden and a Buddhist Temple. The most amusing place by far was the Temple of the Jumping Cats. This is not the actual name of course, but it has become known by this for the monks have trained the stray cats at the temple to jump through hoops!!! Neither the monks nor the cats seem to particularly like or dislike this. Visitors arrive and see a couple of monks lounging lazily in chairs and beneath them their protégés, the talented cats snoozing away. After enough people arrive, a monk reluctantly gets up and claps his hands and says “okay” unenthusiastically. He grabs a bag of dried fish, throws it on the floor and then prods a few cats awake. For those cats not willing to get up, he snatches them up and drops them in the center of the visitors and the dried fish. Then he pulls out a hoop and one by one grabs a cat and places him on the floor, then prods it. The cat looks up at the hoop, wiggles its behind and effortlessly leaps through the hoop and then slowly crawls back towards some dried fish. After most of the cats had performed this feat, the monk just says it is over and goes back to his deck chair. What an unusual monastery- but given the number of tourists who handed over money to see this spectacular stage show, they are also really smart.
By 7:30 PM that night I was again on a bus, taking the Road to Mandalay. Although shorter, this ride was not as pleasant as the last. The seats were closer together and my knees we rammed up against the seat in front of me. A chilly draft keeping me from being warm; there was a terribly-acted Hong Kong film on the screen. The trip took 11 hours to reach Mandalay, though it was supposed to take eight. We arrived early in the morning; the bus station was full of novice monks asking for alms. As I realized that they wanted to collect their meals for the day I started to unload the extra food I had (Tin Tun had provided me too much): pears, plums, cashew nuts and pumpkin seeds. Another American gave one lucky novice a can of sardines and he scampered away extremely happy.
A long tuk-tuk ride into town brought me to another guesthouse, another $3 room. This was a room just for me. With a bathroom, with working water—even hot water for showers! It also had a tv, with one channel that came in maybe once a day, and included a wonderful breakfast of watermelon, pineapple, toast, jam, tea or coffee, and a cooked-to-order egg. Despite these spenders, the overnight bus has been less restful than I had hoped. Before lying down to nap I went to ask the front desk something. Once downstairs I noticed that my key ring did not have a key. It must have fallen off. A group of boys, I guess hotel assistants, went up to my room with a bag of keys, none of which was labelled, and tried one after another after another on my room. Half an hour later they were still working from the pile of keys on the floor…
It is perhaps little surprise that this beginning did not bode well for a first day in Mandalay. I needed to buy film (it was 2002 after all) and also needed to change money. The hotel and nearby hotels were either offering terrible rates or not changing money at all. Not surprisingly of course a helpful individual presented himself and led me to an Air Mandalay office with a decent exchange rate. He turned out to have a trishaw and a handsome 24-year-old son, named Gypsy, who would be perfect to take me around sightseeing. Gypsy showed up on time at the hotel three hours later to cycle me to several temples and Mandalay Hill. I purchased a combination Mandalay visit ticket, which for $10 would grant me entry to the main sites of Mandalay and the ancient cities of Ava and Amarapura. Mandalay should have been magical. A temple with elaborate wood carvings on all the doors and walls impressed me enough to write about, but I mention little to nothing else of the gleaming white and gold palace and temples and the famous Mandalay Hill. All these years later and I have no recollection of walking up those 1700 steps, though I know I climbed all the way to the top. I wrote it took me 45 minutes. Plus, I have pictures! What stands out in my memory of that first day in Mandalay are two things: the first is that after visiting one of the temples I came across a young woman or women outside the gate. Like many women in Burma, their faces were painted with a yellow paste, a traditional kind of sunscreen called Thanaka, made of ground bark. Yet, unlike other women, who wiped it across their faces in swathes that made it look like they had run into a yellow paint brush, these women had painted designs. They offered to make one on my very pale skinned face, and I agreed. For a few minutes I was not sightseeing or traveling at my hectic pace. I was just sitting still as a giggling young woman painted a leaf on my cheek. The second is while at dinner that evening in a European style restaurant, I sat next to a table of US diplomats. I do not remember the conversation, but I do recall thinking I might like to be a diplomat too. And well now, incredibly, I am.
At the end of the evening, when Gypsy dropped me off at the restaurant after several hours of serving as my guide and transport, he professed his love for me. He was not the first trishaw/taxi/tuk-tuk/bemo driver / tour guide / hot air balloon pilot to make such a declaration. Surprisingly, perhaps, I doubted his sincerity, but let him off gently. And made the decision to find another guide the following day…