Most long, arduous bus rides begin with an inexplicably early start, this was no different! We awoke at the crack of 4:15 and had our pre-booked a taxi take us to the street-side bus station/pickup. Plenty of people - even small children - were getting about at this hour under the yellowish light which illuminates the pre-dawn streets in Myanmar.
Our bus pulled up briefly and then departed, although no-one seemed concerned. A local bloke I had been talking with told me there was something wrong underneath the bus and it was making a horrible noise – oh good! We filled the next 45 minutes chatting while we waited for the return of the bus. This guy I met had pretty good English and explained that he was a merchant seaman and worked two years on, ten weeks off. His vessel, a container ship, made its way around the world and he had visited many places. Vastly different from the majority of his countrymen.
Our bus eventually returned - with no apparent changes - and we crammed on and found our allotted seats. It was immediately apparent how uncomfortable this trip would be. It was only a half-size bus and the seats were only big enough for two long distance runners from Kenya! They were also so closely packed that I couldn’t put my knees straight out in front of me. So my wife Shazz got in first and I (with one bum cheek on the seat) got in next to her. Across from us, it was almost comical to see two fairly plump young Canadian girls side-by-side; the only way they could manage was to put a stool between our 2 seats and get a bum cheek on that. It worked for a while, but the bus stopped everywhere for anyone who needed a ride. This meant that soon enough, the aisle was full of locals on stools taking up any remaining space within the bus and a tiny, unfortunate little boy stuck on the stool between the girls and I...talk about being 'up close and personal'! As we traversed each bump in the road, he either had one of the girls, or myself, sitting in his lap and apologizing.
The bus didn’t get too far before it was completely full and people had to start getting on the roof and sitting on our luggage while they held on for their lives - about ten of them at one stage. We all took the opportunity to get off the bus and stretch our legs at each of the frequent stops. A breakfast stop, lunch and several pee-breaks ensured some relief from the cramped conditions. Meanwhile, Shazz had taken a pill and knocked herself out at the start of the trip (hence my guest appearance here in the tale).
Much of the trip saw the countryside filling both sides of the roads with agriculture. Out here though the place is a dust-bowl where slash-and-burn is king and has wilted the land. Trees are ever-present around the many small villages we passed alongside the road, but shade is the main crop of concern there. Bamboo huts and fences keep people and animals out of the elements, and ox and carts and Asian tractor/trucks are always overloaded with locals hitching a ride into town.
The largest town we passed was Meiktila, on the shores of Lake Meiktila in the country's Mandalay Division. It was much bigger and greener than anything we’d seen up to that point. It is mainly a road/rail hub though, and we didn’t stop. We had lunch at a road-side cafe much like you would in Australia. Shazz slept through the whole thing again, as I dodged the swarms of flies in the cafe and watched the waitresses man-handle the rice and noodles onto the people’s plates. No thanks, I’ll give that a miss.
Just before we began our relentless climb into the mountains surrounding Lake Inle, we passed the largest lumber yard I’ve ever seen. It was at least two kilometres long and stacked with tens of thousands of ancient trees - probably teak - about two metres diameter and about 40 metres long. They would constitute a large area of forest in anybody’s books. We were told they were awaiting export to China.
After an hour of climbing via an endless number of switchbacks, we stopped for ten minutes to hose off the brakes and cool them down. Two more hours of climbing finally got us to the pass, but the ever-present haze prevented us from any extensive views or a sighting of Inle Lake. In fact, it wasn’t until we got out on the lake itself a few days later that we’d actually see it at all.
We gratefully scampered off the bus at Schwe Nuang, a small township which has grown around a road junction about 30 minutes drive north from Nuang Schwe, for which we were bound. Our taxi was a 50-year old Ford Zephyr, which was, not surprisingly, unprepared for the afternoon downpour now coming through the side windows that stopped winding up or down, likely years before.
The countryside around the lake is much greener than the land we’d passed through and mainly set aside for rice paddies. We paid yet another Tourist Entrance Fee (this time of US $5) and our chirpy driver took us to a guesthouse a few blocks from the Central Market area.
The Aquarius was a lovely place to stay but they are so popular we could only get two nights so we soon moved just down the road to the Mingalar Inn, which was lovely too. We had a massive room with a balcony for just $18, and the family was so gorgeous. We soon found out that when the Water Festival started on the 13th of the month there would be no buses out until at least the 17th and, with the backlog, it would probably be closer to the 19th. We met an Argentinean guy who had spent two and a half fun filled days on the train getting from Yangon so we weren’t keen on that and the plane fares were $86 each versus about $18 on the bus. Decisions would have to be made. But not yet.
We were advised that the fastest internet in town was at KKO, almost the furthermost point in the village from us, but still only a 15 minute walk away. Tim had a couple of big jobs on and it was essential he could download and upload larger files. It proved to be reasonably true. On a good day it was the fastest we had experienced in the whole of Myanmar so far. On a bad day it could still take an hour to upload a 1 MB file. Still it was better than Yangon and considering the transport issues, we decided to hang out here until 20th and then fly straight back to Yangon to fly out on 22nd.
Our days turned into fairly laid back routine other than the obligatory lake tour, which we did on about day three. We would be woken up at 3.30 in the morning by the surround sound temples that went almost non-stop for the whole five-day festival, then fall back into a fitful slumber around 7.30 when the volume decreased a little. We'd get up in time for a complimentary four-course breakfast of samosas, pancake, eggs, toast, coffee/tea, juice and fruit, then chat to whoever was the latest intake of guests to see what they had been doing. Tim would work if he needed to and I would catch up on reading, or whatever. We'd head down to the Internet cafe for the latest uploads and downloads, trying to dodge - usually unsuccessfully - the kids with water pistols, buckets and hoses. We would then wander back via the local tea house for a milk tea, then onto the guesthouse where there would be complimentary chilled lime juice waiting for us. A shower and a rest later, and we'd head down for cold, evening beers at Htoo Htoo Aung, a little restaurant just down the street that provided great views of life in general from their front grassed area.
More likely than not other travellers would see two foreigners in the restaurant and decide to give it a try. We ended up with 16 people in a big group one night as people who had met each other in previous travels connected. What is it...six degrees of separation? There was even an Italian brother and sister who met up with an Argentinean guy who they had met on the remote west coast of Australia!!!!
Most nights we would eat there, mainly because the food was as good as any other in town unless you wanted pasta or pizza. The lady did a mean chicken curry and the Shan set menu for about $4 was huge.
The great majority of travellers we met were long termers; some at least six months on the road and many, like us, longer. We definitely saw package tourists when we went on our lake tour but it seemed that they were “separated” from both the general populace and us independent travellers. I’m definitely not complaining as it appeared to keep the hassle “separated” too. It seemed that Myanmar was that kind of place. Perhaps it was the lack of Internet that meant that people actually had to remove their noses from their notebooks and iPhones to connect with each other.
Our trip on the lake was nice but did include the expected “cultural” stops that were an excuse to get you to buy stuff. The local market was very small that day - it rotates on some weekly or five-day roster - which meant that those tourists on the lake were concentrated in one spot. It was our first wake-up call on how many tourists were actually about, and our first real experience of “the hard sell” in the area. Although they soon left us alone once they worked out that we weren’t interested, and once the wealthier tourists arrived.
We got to visit the silver shop, the weaving shops, the black smiths and the cheroot making factory. All were very interesting and we managed to get away with only one small weaving and a lacquer ware box full of cheroots. What we will do with them I have no idea as neither of us smoke! We also saw the floating/stilted village and the floating tomato gardens, both giving us some insight of life on the lake. We visited a couple of temples, including the Jumping Cat Monastery, before the weather took a turn for the worse. It was interesting as we watched the tourists arrive in various states of sogginess arrive and settle in for the long wait. I didn’t see any jumping cats but Tim did see one vaulting the offering bowls on a row of Buddhas before doing its business on one! Not very auspicious methinks!
When the rain finally stopped we hopped back in our boat and took off at full tilt back to the village. Our prop unfortunately couldn’t handle the strain and it wasn’t long before the “key” snapped and we were set adrift in the middle of the lake with big black clouds on three sides and an amazing sunset on the other. Tim snapped away as our driver fixed the bits and we were off and away within 20 minutes.
While we didn’t do all that much in our ten days, we did manage to walk most of the streets in the town, eat at a good percentage of the restaurants and get to know a fair bit about the locals. We were a bit sad to leave for our flight back to Yangon, but the visa was running out and Tim needed decent internet to finish off his work. We booked a ticket on KBZ, the newest airline, and hoped it would be a bloody sight safer and nicer than the government airline!
About the Authors
Sharyn and Tim Nilsen share a passion for travel that has taken them and their backpacks through 75 countries. They are currently undertaking Transasia from Southeast China through to Istanbul via the 'Stans. Their latest blog can be found at http://blog.travelpod.com/travel-blog/timshazz/2/tpod.html.