After a few hours of a bug riddled sleep we caught our bus to Mandalay. Interestingly, the tourist buses are quite nice but the roadways can barely accommodate them. There are still dirt highways, which were in the midst of being upgraded, and single lane bridges/roads.
When reaching Mandalay we could already tell it was a bit more lively and culturally diverse than Yangon. The people appeared to be a pretty fair mix of Asian descent and Indian descent, with an obvious mix of religions as well. Like everywhere else people were super excited to see us. Thanks to Obama’s visit in ’08, Americans are especially welcome! Hillary did us a favor too, as she was sometimes mentioned by the locals. Everywhere we looked people were smiling at us, saying hello, and teaching their young children to say hello. We found a nice place with a room on the roof that gave us some good views of the surrounding area.
The first day we ventured to Mandalay Hill and the palace. The Hill is the highest viewpoint in the area and made us work for the great view. Once half way up the hill you begin a 45 minute barefoot walk up old stairways because the hill also serves as pagoda and monastery. The palace sits at the city center surrounded by a large stone wall and moat, and still serves as a military base. At the entrance we ran into a tourist who filled us in on what there was, and was not, to see inside. It didn’t sound worth the price, so we skipped out. Where most people are fair to tourists, the government price gouges tourists in every way they can find. That evening we cruised through the pretty empty night market which most interestingly displayed a huge array of old books. These covered all sorts of educational subjects including engineering, business, programming, and much more. The books had to be 15-20 years old at the newest. We dug all through them as it was a fun discovery. Quantum Mechanics anyone?
(Just a quick shot of some of the books)
The following days we just people watched. There are tons of cafes with cheap dishes and free Chinese tea. The fantastic food won over Megan’s heart from the very first day in the country. However, the few times we got dishes that weren’t fantastic, they were pretty bad. Some of the best and worst food of the trip so far. While having dinner at a street stall one day, a taxi driver was really chatting us up and told us a good joke.
“We call a person that can speak two languages bilingual, we call a person that can speak many languages multilingual, and someone that can speak only one language, they’re French” -taxi driver
Finally getting tired of my long hair, I attempted a haircut. After the entire salon staff got over the excitement that Americans were in their shop and the stylist painstakingly made me look like a white, old Asian, Megan had to correct it back at the hotel with tiny mustache scissors. I did get 2 scalp massages with the cut though, which were worth the three dollars I paid!
Eventually we were back on a bus heading to Inle Lake. Like many of our other bus rides we arrived at 4 a.m. We stayed that day at a new, clean hotel which was good since Megan started to feel a little under the weather and barely left the room. The town next to Inle Lake is quite small with not much to do. It was interesting to see the immense boat loads of vegetables coming into the docks for export from the floating gardens.
(Some of the unloaded egg plants)
We found a boat guide and arranged a full day tour. We headed out to the lake early the next morning through a canal. As we reached the lake it was a sight to behold. The smooth, glassy water reflected the blue layers of mountains that surrounded the lake on both sides. White cranes swooped down over the water and tended to their nests in small puffs of grass while enormous, brightly colored dragon flies zoomed all around us. Traditional fishermen in wooden canoes dotted the lake and larger boats of vegetables passed on their way to town.
The fishermen have a unique way of working. They balance on one leg on the end of the canoes and leverage a paddle between the other leg and their side to row the boat. While they row their hands are free to tend to the fishing nets.
As we progressed we saw the floating gardens. They literally piled dirt on lake vegetation and then planted crops on top, using long bamboo poles as pins to hold the floating mass in place. These gardens look like fields you would see on dry land except you see locals in small canoes paddling through the rows tending to the crops. Amazing!
On the lake tour we stopped at a textile shop where fabrics were woven from cotton and silk, but most notably were scarves woven out of fibers they extract from lotus flowers. Very soft and nicely scented! Next stop was one of the better markets we have seen in Myanmar since it was well stocked with souvenirs and locals running around buying food, getting haircuts, and possibly stocking up on betel nut. To date this might be the most we have seen of the addictive betel nut. People walk around with mouths stained blood red, spitting everywhere, sometimes narrowly missing our feet. This used to be common throughout SE Asia but it is very slowly fading away.
(Selling some green beans and tomatoes)
Next we visited a cigar “factory” with two ladies making cigars faster than ever, and another lady smoking a cigar telling us what they were doing. Sounds like most jobs back home, but I won’t go there! We saw the making of long boats like the one we were riding in. They had a nearly complete boat and one that was 40 years old and being repaired. Pretty amazing craftsmanship. It takes about a month to make one boat by hand. They use the abundant teak wood for nearly everything there.
(Nearly finished boat)
Next stop was a huge pagoda in the middle of the lake. After seeing so many pagodas this didn’t excite us too much, but as we were walking around it a crowd started forming behind us. Megan felt a bit uncomfortable, but then a monk stepped forward and started talking to us. He was helping all these people learn English and they were super excited to practice with us. As we were talking to the monk, a few of them were circling us like vultures trying to take photos. I asked if everyone wanted to take a group photo, and they all erupted with pure excitement. This must be what superstars feel like. During the photos Megan had a girl cling to the side of her like a magnet. Quite the memorable moment.
We dropped in on a silversmith shop where they made jewelry with silver they themselves extracted from stones. Silver and precious gem stones are mined all over this area. Megan was excited for what was next. I think nearly everyone has seen these tribal women on the cover of National Geographics: the “long neck” women with the numerous gold rings used to stretch their necks. They had a small shop where four of the women were weaving cloth by hand, the most impressive weaving I have seen on this trip. It would have been nice to hike to their village and see them in their home environment instead of jammed into the back of a tourist shop, but the season and our time wouldn’t allow for that.
Before leaving for Yangon the next day, an old lady from our family-run guesthouse gave us bags of fresh green tea as a parting gift. The small family run places always outdo the new fancy hotels! Let alone the breakfast at 4 Sisters Guesthouse was by far the best we had in Myanmar.
The bus to Yangon was the cheapest of all the buses we took in Myanmar, and somehow seemed first class compared to the others. We had snacks, water, soda, and a stewardess to top it off. Heck yeah! Still we arrived to Yangon at 5 a.m. Megan and I spent a few days just walking around checking out some more pagodas, parks, food, books, and the people. One day while looking at books a guy walked up to us and warned us of money exchangers that rip off tourists (which we were aware of). Megan and I got suspicious as to what his angle was, but he caught our skepticism and told us that he is an English teacher. He chatted up a storm through the book shop and led us back to his classroom. He was super nice and even bought us a couple of sodas while he asked about current slang and phrases. After his class arrived, which was predominately tourist police with a few monks, he asked us to keep talking so they could learn to listen. Before we knew it we were teaching the class, but not about grammar or phonetics, we taught about credit cards, mortgages, and interest rates! These services are just being introduced into the country and the teacher prodded us with questions. Our lengthy lesson even included figures on a whiteboard. I am sure we confused the hell out of them, but none the less the teacher was appreciative of our visit.
Experiences like these and everything that encompasses Myanmar at this time is what I think most people are looking for when traveling Southeast Asia. The country is astounding, and we feel honored to have been guests there.
Back in Bangkok we have been hanging around the tourist central, Khaosan road. The world renown “backpacker ghetto”. This was quite the shock after being in Myanmar, but we have adjusted.
If you have made it this far I applaud you as this is a long post. Enjoy the pictures and know that we appreciate you sharing in our experiences with us!