A day on the lake

Day 79, Friday 23 March 2012,  Inle Lake

I am sure the pickup ride yesterday didn’t help, so I woke up with a streaming nose this morning, bugger it.

Nyaunshwe is a dusty little town, there may be some small sealed sections of road, but largely it is dirt roads and small single storied buildings – I liked it !

After all the ‘fun’ yesterday I forgot to mention we ran into Giovanni (G) at an internet cafe in town and he said he had arranged a boat ride for us today on Inle Lake, along with Richard and Blathnaid (sorry for murdering your name : ) ) to now be known as R n B – which kinda has a wee bit of funkiness to it, who he had met earlier in Myanmar.

Inle lake has a number  of points of interest around it and the only way to see them is to hire a boat, though one day is never enough and that ignorance is definitely milked by the boat drivers and you get taken to many places where you have the chance to “invest in local crafts”, as it were…

We met with G over breakfast and were introduced to R n B,  R is Scottish and B is Irish and they were of similar age to me, well travelled and very interesting (and as turned out- very cool to hang with). Breakfast at the remember inn was the best in Myanmar, with  more choices than others and mine was fried rice and egg, the rice was great – not stodgy boiled and they did the eggs perfectly, yumbo !

We also had Lisa join us on our cruise, a Chinese woman (I guess late 20s) who spoke good English and was cruising SE Asis like the rest of us – which is highly unusual for a Chinese woman !

Our boat

Our driver collected us at 8.30 and we walked down to the canal to get on our boat for the day, we had hired it from 8.30 to 6.00 PM for about $4 each, though it only had 4 chairs. Mike and Lisa were happy to slob on mats on the deck.

The ride up the canal was interesting – I shot more photos today than any other single day on my trip – and deleted as many – taking photos from a moving boat – with head cold – of moving objects is not that simple!

After 20 or so minutes we hit the lake. The lake is the primary source of LIFE in these parts, it provides water (for everything), food, fertiliser, transport – and lastly a large and growing source of income in tourism.

The fishing boats are all canoes and mostly powered by humans. They have a unique style of paddling here – using the leg !

Collecting lake weed to be later used as fertiliser for the floating market.

Our first stop, (shopping opportunity) was at a weaving shop where they hand make a number of products, Mike has been gagging to buy a longyi – which is the male skirt worn by most Burmese men, and he picked up one here. It was interesting to see local cottage industries at work, and if I was not such a horrible cynic (and in need of a skirt) I could have been tempted to buy something. The technology is basic here, as is common in a very poor country – until you visit you do not appreciate poverty – nothing goes to waste and as there is no electricity so many things are done manually. Cotton is spooled on an old bike wheel…

I loved this crude form of pool/snooker/billiards, played all over SE Asia, using all sorts of material, old beer bottle tops being quite common in Myanmar. The guy with his back to camera is our boat driver.

We then stopped at a Myanmar cigar making place – now I know for a fact that Cuban cigars are rolled on the thighs of virgins so I was bitterly disappointed by this.

We had a further opportunity to share financially at a silver smith, but they were all lying about till the boat docked, leaped into action to make things, then all went back to drinking tea when it became obvious we were not spending any money – so, so much for cottage industry !

The package tour tourists got given nice umbrellas, we got to roast in the unrelenting sun, my cold did not improve! But I know where I would rather be.

After a lunch stop we went upriver to see an old temple site, the river was very cool, with a lot of buffalo cooling off and some wonderful bamboo weirs to manage the water level – my weir photos suck so you don’t see them.

We arrived in the village with the temple site which was surrounded by spending opportunities, I managed t make my way to a wonderful collection of very old stupas and was merrily snapping away when i got approached by a guy who demanded I pay to take photos. Apparently I had missed a sign saying I needed a photo pass, by this stage my snozz was a streaming mess, I had a monster headache and was no way paying to take photos. I said I would stop and he said I had taken some photos, so I walked over to him and deleted every photo in front to him and stormed off in a monster huff – and huge loss of face. He followed me all the way back to the boat. I was steaming (it was 36 degrees – everyone was steaming !) . I found this on the seat by the water – my only photo of the site- but fuck it, I am not paying to take photos – a tourist scam, bastards. 

I waited an hour for everyone else though, so more fool me, tough R n B joined me after 20 minutes so we got a good chat in. I did get a nice shot of some of the local women in this particular head dress (which I am sure has a name) but it is unique to this area.

Once the suckers who had paid their 60 cents to take photos (it was a matter of principal, no cost) had arrived back on the boat we head back down stream to the jumping cat monastery.  I had heard that the cats only jumped in the morning so I had told the boat driver that if there were no jumping cats then I was not paying any money… luckily there was one !

Though whether it was worth visiting or not is a mute point. The monastery has been teaching cats to jump through hoops for decades, well before it was a tourist thing, so I was not concerned about any weird animal cruelty thing. The monastery itself was quite interesting, some awesome Buddha and monk statues, but so badly lit it was impossible to take photos.

From the monastery we had a quick whip through the floating gardens – a vast vege patch built out of the lake – and where all the fertiliser goes, and then back out to the lake for an hour long ride back towards the canal for sunset. I was feeling so crap by this stage, nose streaming, sneezing and coughing all the way, no fun on a large uncovered canoe for 10 hours –  at least my hanky got to dry in the sun : )

We stopped at a great sunset spot and the local poser drifted past for some classic Inle Lake photos – I took a lot, posed, but hey I am not going to get them again – he drifted past for a collection and we were all happy to throw a few dollars in the pot.

Once we got back to the hotel, I crashed for a few hours while the others went for dinner and then I joined them for a beer later on.

Bagan to Inle Lake – really it’s not that far…

Day 78, Thursday 22 March 2012, Bagan to Inle Lake

You will be glad to know this post features no temples, but I still managed to make it a long one; which sums up the day I guess. One of those days I will remember for a while I suspect !

We were up at 6.15 to get ready for the 7 am bus and were wondering about breakfast when the breakfast guy knocked on our room door and asked if we would like him to make us some food, that was so awesome, most places wouldn’t bother – we said yes to coffee and he didn’t need to make eggs for us.

We were down in reception waiting for the bus to arrive to take us to Meiktila, a town about 4 hours away and the main junction point for buses going to Mandalay. We had to pay for a seat to Mandalay even though we got off less than halfway,  I am guessing that as soon as we were off the seat was resold to some one else. We were thinking – stupidly that this would be some sort of directi(ish) bus, but an utterly ridiculous thought, though there is only one road, we stopped everywhere and must have packed dozens of people on. At one point, when we were so full I though we would burst we stopped in a town and seven more people got on – from there we were obviously full as we stopped no more  I highly suspect the driver and ticket guy/spotter get paid for x number of people, I guess the legal limit, and anything else is a bonus, they do not give a shit about how many get on, and I guess for those in rural towns with no transport apart from these buses, this is how they normally travel.

The bus…  Are you loving the grungy unshaven look ? it is now 7 days later and the face has still not seen a blade, a new unshaven record. The heads up the centre of the shot are people sitting in the aisle seats, so yep – there is no aisle.

There were 7 or 8 people crammed in the stairwell…

Back to the spotter reference. As mentioned a few posts ago in Myanmar the cars are predominately right hand drive, which is fine in NZ where you drive on the left hand side (and Thailand where I guess vehicles come from), but in Myanmar they drive on the right. This puts the driver on the sidewalk side of the vehicle, which must suck big time if you want to overtake safely, which they generally do here,  but they love to overtake so they have a guy who stands on the left hand side and signals the driver when it is safe to move out into the middle of the road. The roads here are so narrow that any parked vehicle will force a moving vehicle on to the other side of the road. The spotters on these trucks must have one of the crappest jobs out – the roads are extremely dusty.

We stopped for breakfast under an hour into the journey (where I took the above photo), once on the way we went five minutes before stopping for gas, and to allow the driver to flirt with the gas girls, once under way again, we stopped to pick up more passengers and then broke down… seemed to be dirty gas as there was a lot of tools being used and a strong smell of fuel in the bus, I am assuming they were cleaning diesel filters. Under way after twenty minutes we stopped to pick up passengers – repeat….  though this was the last time. I suspect all bus drivers in Myanmar are mechanics at heart – though we got away lucky as you will see later in the day. (though lucky is erm yes interesting…)

After so many stops I lost count, we arrived in Meiktila, one hour late after five hours of the four hour bus ride. We were suppoed to be taken to the bus station but were unceremoniously dumped on the side of the road and vague finger pointing suggested which direction the bus station was in so we could make our way to find the bus to Nyaungshwe, the main town by Inle lake. Or at least to the junction at Shwenyaung which is the main town on the Shan highway, which is where the buses to Nyaungshwe stop and from there you get a taxi or pickup to the Nyaungshwe.

The road from Meiktila is the Shan Highway, lonely planet calls it a national disgrace. Given how crap some of the roads in Myanmar  are you can only imagine…  I may as well cover it now, as far as roads go, yes it was bad, it was so bad that all vehicles went slowly, which really makes it not so bad after all – if we had been doing Malaysian bus speeds on this road it would have been awful. As a notified highway it was bad though – very narrow, barely two car widths wide in most places so passing an oncoming truck or bus in the hills was slow or at least interesting, the road is very rough and in a few places just dirt and rock. However, there are a lot of road works going on so in a year it will be not as bad –  still bad, but not as bad ! I liked it as it is – at least it was slow – I would hate to be doing it at pace… Right,  back to the story (and another whisky)

The eight of us found our way to the Meiktila bus terminal only to discover there were no buses to Shwenyaung until tomorrow, however the kind gentleman could offer us a ride in the back of his truck – no seats, just a tray – we asked him how long and he said 7 hours. We laughed…. his second offer was a ride in a pickup.

The pickups are an extremely common form of public transport in Myanmar, we argued over price and availability of buses, but ended up facing the possibility that it was this or nothing (I am still not sure if we were conned or not, but the Burmese are pretty genuine, so I don’t think so, maybe on the price). We agreed on a price and foolishly thought it was just us going in the pickup, oh how naive we were ! Once we said yes, 3 burmese jumped onto the pick up and the 8 of us were left to find spots.  You can sort of see this grin on Mike’s face as he was thinking this is just silly, little did he (or we) know, silly got sillier and sillier…

We made it about 100 metres before the first stop where we picked up half a gear box, on the floor under our feet, and a massive bag of something on the roof. The second stop was to pick up 6 massive bails of something that went on the roof, plus a bunch of people.

Third stop saw a big bag of something, dumped under our feet and a person sitting on it….. stop, stop stop. We were soon under way with about 25 people on the vehicle. In NZ you would legally be allowed 2 – in the front – both wearing seatbelts.  The ride was still 7 hours…. The ute had 3 in the front, two rows of 4 each facing fwd in the back, 6/7 of us facing inwards in the back back, with 2 sitting on sacks/gearboxes in the middle and up to 4 standing on the tray and 5 on the roof…

The road was rough, dusty and dirty, we were crammed in, we let people off and more got on, we stopped for ciggies, for wees, for drinks (hopefully not the driver) and we stopped to allow the engine to cool. The good thing was it was slow, though my butt was killing me after a while, the padding was a layer of vinyl on wood. Bizarrely, once the inevitable was accepted, which didn’t take long, I actually enjoyed the ride, we saw a lot, we shared the travelling experience with numerous people, some quite intimately – if they were sitting in the middle, they were sitting on my feet, if they were standing on the tray then there crotch was in my face… The worst was the dust and the fumes, I had the start of a head cold and was blowing and coughing all the way and the dust just made it all worse. I was wearing a bandana over my nose and mouth cowboy styles for a chunk of the way – I wasn’t the only one…

The ride up the Shan hills took about 2 half hours, of slow grind, though the scenery was amazing, the villages, rural, but friendly . We stopped half way to allow the engine to cool down, parked next to a truck of chickens. The driver is hosing the engine, not urinating on it !

And a really broken down bus, –  that is the engine on the road side with the head off… I did say earlier our wee bus issues were minor compared to some.

There were loads of road works all the way up the hills which forced a lot of vehicles to share a single narrow lane, the drivers here are used to this type of driving so giving way and patience is part of their style – thank God ! apart from road rollers the road works are done by hand, rock breaking and laying, the heating of tar is done by road side fires and the tar is poured by hand – I would hate to see the lungs of these poor men, women and children. Sadly children are part of the workforce in the remote areas:( this is a hard hard life.

After 7 hours we arrived in Shwenyaung and got shifted to another pickup, where there was just the 6 of us (we lost 2 at a trekking town further back) and the last few kms were done at a good speed on a (my Myanmar standards) good road. It was dark by now and it was amazing to see the amount of fires burning all around, lots of burning off of corn and cane fields, the sky was alight in many directions.

13 hours after leaving Bagan we arrived in Nyaungshwe, we asked the pickup to drop us off at the Remember Inn where we had arranged to meet Giovanni who theoretically had arrived hours before us on the direct bus. Fortunately he had and they even knew who we were and had a room for us when arrived – awesome!

We unloaded our gear and I jumped straight into the shower in my shirt and undies in attempt to get the dust out (my shorts were too far gone!). After washing my shirt while it was still on my body I discovered I still had my non-waterproof money belt on, I so rarely use it that I had totally forgotten I had it on. Mucho swearing ensued, though luckily my passport was only damp around the edges, but all money was soaked – the room looked like a money laundry as I dried it out – I had close to 80 notes of various currencies – mostly worthless mind….

Once the passport panic was over Mike and I went for a wander around town and had Italian for dinner while my nose streamed nonstop.

Bed was a relief.

I am going to say, the new NZ passport with the silver fern on the front and back is the most distinctive passport out there, it utterly rocks for coolness – so well done NZ Passport designers – the coolest passport in the world.

I have washed that shirt 3 times and it is indelibly stained with dust of the Shan highway, I am not sure whether to keep it as a badge of honour or toss it in the bin as a dirty dusty relic, and to think that Nike shirt cost me at least $3 maybe even $4…