After our wonderful night’s camping, which we have since found out is illegal in Myanmar, (no wonder we had to negotiate for 45′ last night – oops!), a refreshing shower and yet another delicious and very copious meal, we are taken by coach to Old Bagan.
A bit of historical background courtesy of wikipedia. From 1044 to 1287, Bagan was the capital as well as the political, economic and cultural nerve center of the Pagan Empire. Over the course of 250 years, Bagan’s rulers and their wealthy subjects constructed over 10,000 religious monuments (approximately 1000 stupas, 10,000 small temples and 3000 monasteries) in an area of 104 square kms (40 sq mi). The Pagan Empire collapsed in 1287 due to repeated Mongol invasions (1277–1301) and the city formally ceased to be the capital of Burma in December 1297. Bagan had suffered from many earthquakes over the ages, with over 400 recorded earthquakes between 1904 and 1975. Many of these damaged pagodas underwent restorations in the 1990s by the military government, which sought to make Bagan an international tourist destination. However, the restoration efforts instead drew widespread condemnation from art historians and preservationists worldwide. Today, 2229 temples and pagodas remain. (www.wikipedia.com)
It feels strange to be traveling by air conditioned bus but it is great to be able to look at the countryside without having to concentrate on the road. The shadows are getting long, the lighting is making the contrasting colours more intense, we catch glimpses of individual stupas and pagodas from behind the bushes as we zoom past in our luxury coach. We would love to walk amongst them in the stunning countryside but we can only go where we are taken.
And our first stop is a lacquerware workshop. A typical tourist stop. Definitely not where we would have chosen to go to although it is interesting. Next stop is a massive gold covered temple. It is massive. There are many locals praying and paying their respects, but also such a massive tourist stop. The number of tourist we spot surprises us. Again it was an interesting stop but the countryside is calling me. The old simple pagodas have such a story to tell, especially as the evening mist is starting to rise. I am not the only one. We ask our guide if we can go to one of the simple, older pagodas. Ok. We finally get to an area with no other tourist coach – beautiful.
We can’t linger too long as we have to be somewhere else for the sunset so off we go. Now we get the biggest shock: there are coaches and coaches, thousands of tourists and sellers following us with their various wares, never taking no thank you as a final answer. It is dreadful. What are we doing here? We look at the massive pagoda and each level is covered in colourful ‘ants’. People everywhere!! Suddenly I worry about how Myanmar is going to be able to manage the obvious massive tourist influx, which we have since found out was 1 million in 2013 and expected to be 2 million this year.
I reluctantly join the line of tourists and climb the massive steps up the pagoda. And am I glad I did:
We head off the next day for Kalaw. The countryside is stunning, we enjoy a mid morning roadside stop. We love the people of Myanmar. Although they usually don’t speak a word of English, they are always welcoming, smile and chat (even if we don’t understand each other). They often bring extra chairs out for us to sit on. We are also often given free bottles of water at petrol stations.
When our guide sees us, he stops and tells us that we are to meet in 50kms for lunch. While our tour manager Tin was full of energy and enthusiasm and spoke good English, our guide has none of those attributes. As we get to about 40kms, I spot our guide on the left hand side of the road in the shadows of trees with no pilot car to be seen anywhere. This led to the first of many, many frustrated conversations I and then others had with him that the pilot car should stop before and not after and 200 metres down the road and should be visible. In this instance, one of our group had driven right past so Anthony went on after him. Unfortunately, our poor guide, with his lack of communication and leadership skills ended up causing frustrations within the group. Nothing major, but some grating.
After our massive, varied and delicious lunch, where we met Michael (an Aussie now living in Chiang Mai who flew into Myanmar for a week and hired a motorcycle to travel), we all set off to Kalaw. The weather is looking ominous, with growing rain clouds forming ahead. Eventually, it starts drizzling. As we ride up the mountain pass, two unnerving events happen. The road is horrendously slippery. I feel a couple of fish tails. Nothing too bad but unnerving. We slow down even more. A car that has just overtaken us does a full 180 spin just in front of Anthony after a sharp bend. The truck we have been following then overtaken has diesel slushing out of the top, all over the road!!!! Rain and diesel on the road does not make for a comfortable ride. Then suddenly, Streak stalls on me twice on as I am about to tackle a hairpin bend. Not nice. I pull over and stop as we spot Max pulled over too. He also has a problem with his bike. Something is not right with Streak. Streak is ‘coughing’ and loses power just when I need to open up. As we’re chatting with Max, the diesel truck drives past. No!!!!!!! Now we will be behind him again, with more spilled diesel on the road… Anyway, we ‘limp’ to our next hotel without incident. Unlike Michael who unfortunately came off his bike and damaged his knee.
What a lovely spot! Individual chalets. Garth invites us to his chalet for a drink – he bought a small bottle of the local whisky, my first alcoholic drink for ages as I don’t drink beer. We discuss my bike problem and he offers to show us the modification he made to his fuel filter and how to change the fuel pump. He carries two extra fuel pumps and very kindly insists we should have one of them.
We only have 70kms to ride the next day to get to Nyaungshwe. It is a beautiful, relaxed ride, through serene countryside, where life seems to unfold at a very slow gentle speed.
We have the afternoon off. Time for some bike maintenance, organising what laundry we need done which we give to the hotel (it always feels so luxurious when we don’t have to do all the washing by hand), a nana nap for Anthony while I go out and explore the village and market. This is where I buy cakes, candles and chocolates for Anthony’s 60th.
We have all heard of the fire balloon festival and organise ourselves some transport up to Taunggyi as it is not part of our program.
We arrive at what looks like a massive fair, with blaring music coming from several stands, each one outdoing the other. The noise is horrendous. What is this?!?! As we allow ourselves to melt into the crowd and slowly walk from one stand to another, we start to enjoy what is happening here. It is definitely a local event. It is joyous. Food stalls, candy stalls, beer vendors, people picnicking. We are taken to where the fire balloons will be launched in 2 hours. So we all go our separate ways and eventually find each other again some hours later. The preparation of the first balloon by the ‘red team’ took ages but was fascinating. It started with some drumming and dancing, gradually getting more and more frenetic. We keep being offered drinks and ‘stuff’ which we politely decline. But I eventually accept the repeated offers to join in the dancing. Watching, and for Anthony, being part of the building of the balloon, the lighting of the lanterns and seeing the balloon take off into the night sky was fascinating! What an amazing evening!! Make sure you watch his video.
Today, November 4th, is a full day on Inle Lake. We travel by long boat, powered by extremely noisy engines. The boat ride to the floating villages is long, noisy and fume filled. We are taken to a temple, observe silk weaving, lotus thread weaving, blacksmithing, cigar making. We really have no interest in visiting those places having been taken to similar ones so many times on our travels. We would be so much happier wondering quieter local streets, having a drink at small roadside shacks, visiting small monasteries or temples, all away from the tourist coaches and touristy boats. Towards the end of the day, we are dropped off on the west bank of the lake and walk a couple of kilometers to a natural spring spa. It is quiet and we only see a few locals on scooters. Wonderful. Until we arrive at the spa!! Ha, not so quiet. But we are here now so we may as well indulge. Our bodies are grateful. Some of my impressive bruises are now on display. It is funny how I still clearly remember thinking – oh ho, this will be interesting as I realised I was going down on that forest trail. Anyway, the spa is relaxing and does us good. Dinner tonight is at a very touristy pizza restaurant. We will be glad to return to quieter rural Myanmar tomorrow.
The destination today 5th November is Naypyitaw, 290kms away, the capital of Myanmar. (On 6 November 2005, the administrative capital of Burma was officially moved to a greenfield approximately 320 km north of Yangon/Rangoon). We have a choice of 2 routes but the other route is totally unknown and could be similar to our 2nd day so, because of the state of number of bikes, including mine, the consensus is to backtrack back beyond Kalaw – none of us like to backtrack. Anthony and I decide to leave 45′ ahead of the others as I am not looking forward to the mountain crossing with my bike ‘coughing’ as it is. We wait 45′ for the others at a junction south and start to wonder if they took a turn before our junction as they are all faster than us and should have arrived by now. So we head off alone. Unbeknownst to us, one of the bikes had a new problem and they all ended up leaving much later. We have a lovely ride. We get to the outskirts of Naypyidaw and get totally and utterly lost and completely soaked – it is pouring!!! We turn off to the left – end up in the air force area. The 4 lane dual carriage way is deserted. Turn back quick. Next we end up in the grey roof area. The residential areas are carefully organized, roofs colour coded and apartments are allotted according to rank and marital status. We finally spot a tiny army checkpoint and stop for help. We give our hotel name but no one has heard of it. After about an hour, we understand that there are 2 hotels with similar sounding names and are given one of the army officers to show us the way. It is now absolutely pouring, the rain drops can be felt through our jackets so the poor guy must really feel it!
30′ later we arrive at a hotel and staff is waiting for us!!!!! (We had been given the wrong name.). What a welcome. Ladies in beautiful traditional dress are waiting with a bouquet of flowers for each one of us. We are taking to our bungalow. Wow. The accommodation we have stayed at throughout Myanmar has been amazing! And the staff always so attentive and responsive.
Next stop, Yangon (Rangoon).