24-hour tea shop in Kalaw. See the full post: https://crystaltrulove.wordpress.com/2018/02/17/trekking-from-kalaw/

The reason I skipped a few days in posting my daily blog while in Myanmar (Burma) was because Margaret and I were hiking through the hills from Kalaw to Inle Lake. I’ve posted days 1 and 2 in their proper place with the proper date stamp, but here I’ve included a link so you can get to the post easily. Click the image to go to the post.

 

I skipped three days while I was in Burma – called Myanmar by the locals and much of the world. This was because I was hiking across country, and had no Internet. I’ll post the next two missed days when I get to them. Click the image to reach the blog post.

Our first view of the Golden Rock from a distance.

https://crystaltrulove.wordpress.com/2018/02/16/the-golden-rock-at-kyaiktiyo-pagoda/

A monk feeds some pigeons on the bridge/hotel/train station.

At breakfast we decided to try to find anything but temples, pagodas, and Buddha. Mandalay is a big city; there must be other things to see. After reviewing pamphlets, Trip Advisor, the front desk…we decided it would be a crafts day.

First though, we walked over to the train station to buy a ticket for Margaret’s departure to Hsipaw the next day. It was a little confusing to find where to go, but we eventually discovered the ticket offices in the open air second floor of a hotel, on a bridge over the train tracks. (Yeah, get your head around that) We explained what we wanted at the counter, and the man shook his head and pointed for us to go somewhere else. We didn’t see anywhere else to go, but he seemed insistent, so we walked away and stumbled upon an identical ticket office on the other side of the building. After much discussion behind the windows, someone finally said “sixteen,” which we realized was window #16, and once we got there, everything was rather self-explanatory. Language is really not so much of a barrier when you look at it practically: two tourists show up at a ticket window at a train station. It doesn’t take language to realize they are most likely hoping to buy a ticket. All the tourists have to say is “Hsipaw,” and all the counter agent has to convey is the price. Except…. there was a little more to say, and thank goodness our agent was able to convey it. First class was sold out, and the only seats available were coach, it was a 12-hour journey, and it departed at 4:00 am. Margaret decided to take the bus instead.

On 78th Street near the train station.

Blur of the hammer as a man pounds thin gold into very thin gold. In the bowl of water is half a coconut shell with a small hole drilled into it. The coconut fills with water in 3 minutes, then the pounders know to flip their packet and beat the other side of it.

Woman applies gold flakes

Then we walked to the gold leaf craft shop. We arrived soon after two tour busses arrived, so the small place was filled with tourists from England. It was noisy the whole time we were there, while two men banged away at their tiny pieces of gold flake, making them molecule-thin. An employee came up to me with a bunch of samples and explained the whole process of making gold leaf and also of making bamboo paper (which is made exactly the same as other paper, as far as I could tell). The gold flakes are pressed between layers of bamboo paper, then bound into a packet. The packet is then pounded for hours, periodically opened to split the flakes into smaller pieces, then bound up again and pounded some more. Eight hours total for each final flake of about 2 inches squared. Inside the show room I found a few lacquered bamboo boxes, embellished in gold designs. Continuing to test what I had been told (look, I just don’t trust that the stories told to tourists are always accurate), I asked if they made the lacquered boxes here in Mandalay. “No, the boxes are made in Bagan.” This pleased me, since I had purchased a box in Bagan, believing it to be a local product. From my casual investigation, it appears to be true.

Margaret and I were sitting on a bench in a corner, looking at the map and trying to figure out where to go next, when the buses pulled away. The banging of the men with hammers ceased immediately. Ha ha ha!

Our next stop was miles away so we hired a taxi. The hotel front desk had told us that the wood craft shops were near the Mahamuni Buddha Temple, so we asked the taxi driver to take us there, just to give him and easy landmark to aim for. We had no plan to visit the temple at first. But our driver brought us to a quiet street with a less popular entrance, and the quiet was inviting. We decided to step inside and check it out, since we were there anyway. It was a good decision.

A wooden Buddha sheltered by a cobra.

The entrances to many temples have people selling things on both sides, and this place was no different. Small Buddha statues, jade jewelry, textiles, and paintings were offered. This one held multiple palmists, which we had not seen previously. Margaret bought jade bracelets and I browsed.

The temple proper was surrounded by pillars encased in jade in myriad mosaics. It was specatacular, all green and glistening in the sun. Just inside, we found the Mahamuni Buddha. Like we saw at the Golden Rock, worshipers bought gold flake and applied it to the Buddha while praying. Again, only men were allowed to do this. Women sat in rows outside, praying. And for the benefit of the people outside, there was a livecam going the whole time, so we could watch our men apply the gold. We continued on and realized this was a large complex with museums and other holy sites. We explored bronze sculptures on display, magnificent art, artifacts, a giant gong, several giant bells, and additional pagodas. There were at least four separate museums with different categories of collections. One appeared to hold manuscripts, and looked something like a library, with books, parchments, and even dusty old cassette tapes.

Interestingly, very few foreigners were there, which could have explained the amped up excitement of the local visitors. Many more group photos were taken. We were delighted when a super happy monk begged us for a photo with him, then demanded (with a sly smile) that his shy, blushing sister also get a photo with us. (Margaret has the photos of this, or I would show you.) Twice more we bumped into the same monk and his sister, and it felt like we were old friends after awhile.

Jade pillars of the Mahamuni Buddha temple.

Mahamuni Buddha in the background, with livecam out front for the women.

Golden hall around the Mahamuni Buddha.

Margaret loves to get people to be goofy in photos. Here she begged them all to hold their fingers up, which made them laugh. Look, I’m tall and thick like an Amazon next to them. It was something M and I were always conscious of.

Posing for us.

Here, Margaret demonstrates that she is also willing to goof off in photos.

One of the paintings in the art museum.

Bronze figures on display were originally from Angkor Wat in Cambodia and were taken to Thailand. After winning a battle in 1599 when the Thai king attacked Taungoo (in the Bago region of Myanmar), the Taungoo king presented these bronze figures to the Rakhine king in gratitude for his assistance, and thus they came to live in Myanmar.

Bronze elephants

Bronze men. One 8 feet tall and the other 7 feet tall.

We were both so glad we randomly decided to tour that temple. It was one of our best stops of the trip!

Outside we went to a wood crafters shop, which held some pretty cool wood carvings but was not really set up for tourists like the gold flake place. No craftsman was around, no evidence of the work being done, just a very dusty showroom with one young woman and a baby on site. I found it amusing that the baby’s blanket, crib, and diaper pack were in the center of the showroom.

Across the street we found marble crafts, which weren’t even mentioned by the hotel front desk or in any of the lists of things to do that we found during our morning search. There were many shops selling marble statues (mostly of Buddha), crowding each other on both sides of the street. This is clearly a major craft in the area and I’m surprised that we hadn’t heard of it before stumbling onto this part of town.

Baby blanket and crib in the middle of the wood craft showroom.

Thousands of Buddha statues sit, in various stages of completion, in this section of town.

One crafter at work.

Near the marble Buddhas, a dove guards her nest in a very protected place. Can you see it?

We were hot and tired at this stage. Our plan had been to grab a taxi to our next stop, but there were none in sight. I can’t understand why, but there are simply very few tourists here, among all the marble and wood and the wonderful Mahamuni Buddha complex. That explains why there were no taxis. We thought to start walking to the bridge. Why not? But soon we had to stop for a rest. We picked one of the millions of tiny little shops beside the road to sit under an awning in the shade. There was a woman rolling up betel leaf packets in the front. A dirty little boy in the back sat on the floor beside a cooler. I went to the back and tapped on the side of the cooler, and the boy opened it for me. I bought a soda for 500 kyats (38 cents), and we sat there while the women and children from other nearby stalls drew close and chatted happily around us, though we couldn’t speak to each other. I gave some of my mandarin oranges to the kids. Would you believe it? While we sat there, the happy monk and his sister showed up and stopped at the stall next to us. We all laughed at seeing each other again.

The soda was finished and we were ready to go when a taxi pulled up. The woman had laid down for a nap, and the taxi driver obviously knew her, because he went right to her betel stand, grabbed what he wanted, and said a few things to her and she nodded. M and I asked him “Taxi?” he nodded, and we asked “U Bein bridge?” and he sort of hesitated, then nodded. So we climbed into the back.

The driver turned the taxi around and began heading north, and we were pretty sure the bridge was south. We found the photo of the bridge in our itinerary, and tapped on the window to show one of the men in the cab where we wanted to go. The driver nodded with great assuredness, but did not change course. We waited until we were confident again that we were going the wrong way. We tapped on the window to get the driver to pull over, which he did. We showed him U Bein bridge on the GPS. He nodded – clearly no hesitation that he knew what we wanted. He spoke quite a bit, but obviously we didn’t understand anything until he began pointing to the bags of goods in the back with us. OH! He needed to make another trip first! The man in the front was a passenger, not his buddy. We dropped the man off at the hospital, with all of his goods, then turned and headed due south.

It was a rather long trip and Margaret and I realized we would never have made it walking. It was a good 5 miles south of where we stopped to rest. Once we arrived, the driver would not accept payment, which puzzled us. We tried multiple times to pay him, but he wouldn’t accept it. We thought maybe his plan was to wait for us and then get a larger payment by returning us home, so we used sign language to say we would be back and we would meet him at that spot. We hoped he understood.

U Bein bridge was packed with tourists, both local and foreigners.

The piles of food for sale always looks delicious though we often won’t eat it: like these fried crabs.

The bridge is built in a curve shape to withstand the current of the water when the lake is higher.

I saw these men trying to pull down a piling.

They seemed amused that I wanted a photo.

The U Bein Bridge is 3/4 mile long and believed to be the longest teak wood bridge in the world. Tilapia are farmed in the lake, but due to recent growth in industry along the shores and tributaries, there is a wastewater pollution problem. Thousands of fish are dying, impacting the fishermen and causing a rotten fish smell that we noticed along portions of the bridge. In 2016, the government of Myanmar designated Taungthaman Lake an environmental conservation area and began making plans to clean it up.

The popular thing is to see the bridge at sunrise, but we were there at midday. Still, there were plenty of tourists. This, unlike the Mahamuni Buddha temple, draws the masses. People hawked their wares all over the parking lot and the roads up to the bridge, and for a good portion along the bridge as we walked it. I was very excited to see my favourite snack of Myanmar – sliced green mango in chili powder – sold here, and I bought some within minutes. M’s tummy was still upset and she didn’t share the spicy treat with me. In fact, she was still feeling poorly when we had walked all the way to the end of the bridge and back, so we bought a coconut to drink the milk and fill up on natural electrolytes.

Crunchy spicy goodness!

Natural health food drink.

We searched and searched for our taxi driver, but he was nowhere to be seen. We were disappointed because we wanted to pay him for that very long ride earlier. We couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t accept payment – he was a taxi driver after all. Maybe it was because the shop owner said good things about us. Maybe they appreciated that we had befriended the monk. Maybe he regretted the confusion about delivering the guy to the hospital before taking us to the bridge. Finally we hired another family that was thrilled to get our business. There was a man sleeping in the back of the taxi and the son thumped his leg to wake him up. We showed them our map of where the hotel was, and they happily carried us north again through the entertaining streets of Mandalay.

People on the streets of Mandalay.

They look much more gruff than they really are. Takes two seconds to get them to smile.

Uh…cattle? Ok.

Map of the Mandalay Palace Complex

The seven-tiered tower at the entrance commands the view.

Margaret was feeling much better this morning – Yay!! We were picked up by the JJ Tours bus company (for Joyous Journey, M told me) and we took a bus from Bagan to Mandalay. The bus asked us for the address of our hotel and dropped us as close as they could. We had only nine blocks to walk. Still, it’s in the 90s here every day. Personally, I love the heat (not humidity), and after a couple days I was used to it. We also didn’t know the city, and had to cross the railroad tracks which took a while because we had to find a bridge first, then figure out the street signs till we were sure we were headed in the right direction. Dragging luggage nine blocks on busy streets with no sidewalks felt hotter than the 90s though. We were so relieved to find our hotel finally.

We dropped our bags, freshened up, and met in the lobby by 3:30 pm. There was a lot of day left. We caught a taxi to the Mandalay Palace. It was $4.50. I’m getting used to taxis for everything when it’s so inexpensive.

Entrance to the main palace building.

Detail in wood on all the buildings is elaborate.

The palace was built from 1857 to 1859 and the monarchy was in place when it was built. It was designed to be the center of the new capital city of Mandalay. The complex is an enormous square in the middle of the city, and surrounded by a fortified wall and a moat. There were cannons out front. The security is more rigid than anything we’ve experienced so far, with police/military meeting us at the front gate and asking us to turn over our passports and name our hotel before we could go in. Also, no photos were allowed in the grounds outside the palace area.

I included the map at the top to show how many buildings are here. The grounds are extensive and well-kept, and visitors are allowed to wander through all of it. The larger buildings are more decorated. Inside they contain several old thrones for different kings and queens. One building holds artifacts such as the royal betel spittoon, royal sandals, and a royal pot.

The royal sandals, Yak tail whisk, the royal dagger.

Inside one of the buildings at the palace.

More mirror adornment.

Life size replicas of king and queen on their throne.

More carved wood detail.

The buildings near the rear of the complex.

Fiery red in the setting sun.

We walked through many of the buildings, and came out again near the spiral watchtower. We collected our shoes and went back to our taxi, where two young swindlers tried to cheat us by trying to talk us into having them drive us to our other destinations. They were so sneaky, and so bad at it, we lost our patience and told them to forget it. For example, they quoted us 20,000 kyats at one point. So then one says, “Ok, I’ll give you a discount of 2,000. So the price will be 22,000 kyats.” Margaret said, laughing, “That’s going the wrong direction!” A fair price for what we wanted would have been more like 8000 kyats anyway. When they took us back out to the front gate, I handed over my 2000 kyats that we had agreed to in the beginning. “No, it’s four!” the tall one says. “You told me two,” I said. “But there are two people,” he counters, “Two thousand kyats for each of you.” “No way! We discussed it, and we agreed to a price of 2000.” Well, we went back and forth with those scheisters, and I finally gave in and handed over another 2000. We have not had anyone try any kind of manipulation this whole trip until these two. It’s only $1.50. But still. Ugh.

Margaret and me in one of our taxis. You ride in the back and it’s open air.

Young monks at the palace, with cellphones and sunglasses.

Looking across the moat toward our next stop: Mandalay Hill.

We were so mad we walked to our next stop. It was only a mile to the base of the hill we were about to climb. On the top of the hill is the Su Taung Pyae Pagoda, and apparently the place to watch the sunset. Many people gleefully told us there were 1700 steps to the top, which is 755 feet above the rest of the city. So. We started up the steps.

It was a pretty long haul. That’s a lot of steps in 90+ degree heat. We stopped for breaks and took photos of the city on our way up. There are a few smaller pagodas on the way up. And finally, we came to an escalator to carry us the last few feet. Since we had to leave our shoes at the entrance, I remarked that stepping onto the escalator in bare feet did not seem like the safest thing to do. At the second level, we walked around spilled blood on the floor, then passed an older woman as she had her toes bandaged. Right. Not safe to ride escalators in bare feet. Just sayin.

There were a lot of steps.

You can see the rooftops over the steps as they continue up the hill.

A view on the way up.

Inside one of the pagodas on the way up.

At the top the pagoda is beautiful and mirrored (which by now you know I like). There were people everywhere and the sun was setting, making the light a little bit magical. We walked all around the pagoda and talked with people and took selfies and had a fun time till the sun set. The sky was rather hazy and obscured most of the view, but turned the sun a bright red as it dropped to the horizon.

People waiting for sunset.

All these vessels contained drinking water. Not sure what the signs say, or what difference it makes, drinking from one pot vs. another.

This dude was really into his shot.

Setting up a great shot.

There it is! Sunset over Mandalay.

We left just a bit before sunset in order to beat the crowd. We had to wait in line at the elevator, and the queue was growing so long (and sunset not quite happened), that they reversed the order on the escalator, and had both elevator and escalator going down. Finally we got to the bottom, paid a donation to get our shoes out of the locker, and went out into the parking lot to find a taxi. After our last experience, we were afraid of being taken advantage of. The guy who took us was totally no-nonsense, and practically rolled his eyes when we tried to bargain. “Look,” he says. “It’s 5000 to take people to the bottom of the hill. You want to go to your hotel. That’s 10,000 total.” We asked, “How about 6000?” He just looked at us. “8000?” He rolled his eyes and gestured to us to get into the taxi. “The price is 10,000,” he stated matter of factly. Ha ha ha!! So funny.

I can’t help myself. The street views are still so captivating to me.

We were passed by lots of fire engines on the way back to our hotel. We saw at least five of them. Note the man in back is wearing a sarong. Is that safe? Will he change to other clothing before fighting fire? He will certainly put shoes on.

This place was packed nearly the whole time we were there. You can always spot Margaret’s blonde hair in a crowd here. Just below and to the right of her, you can see where the curb of the sidewalk is. All the tables in front of that are in the street! (Curt- notice the plastic chairs)

Delicious buffet from Shan State, a large region on the east side of Myanmar.

We were hungry and ate dinner at a place recommended by the hotel staff as having authentic Shan State traditional food. When we arrived, there were only a couple people there, though tables from the place were spread out onto the street. We sat down and ordered and before our food came, people started arriving. In no time, the place was jammed with people, and more and more arrived to grab take-out meals. Margaret and I were seated at a large table, and the staff asked if we would mind having others seated at our table with us. Of course not. A lovely young French couple sat down and we told them what was delicious on the menu. They were getting ready to go – not on a three day trek as we had done – but on a six day trek! Out in the western part, I think they said. “Where women tattoo their faces,” they told us. “Not many tourists go out to that region.”

Finally we walked home to Home Hotel (aptly named). What a day! Bagan in the morning; Mandalay in the evening. Full belly and comfortable bed. Life is good.

 

One room in the Prince of Wales suite

We are sleeping in a historic room.

Our hotel is amazing once more. The place is enormous and also dated in a delightful way, such as the chairs upholstered in purple velvet. We are on the shores of the Irrawaddy River, that flows south past the dining patio.

Margaret and I had a nice easy 9 am start this morning, but there was a problem. Margaret’s supper last night included an amazingly spicy salad and it did a number on her in the night. Despite feeling off, we met our driver for the day. Ansel (I’m sure I’m spelling that wrong) met us at the airport last night and took us to our hotel. He offered to be our driver for today. At $35 for the whole day, split between the two of us, we quickly agreed to give up our motorbike rental idea for someone who knows the area and the traffic.

Shwezigon Pagoda – major bling

The first pagoda stop was very touristy with lots of bling! By bling I mean plenty of gold, many colors, vendors set up everywhere, gaudy in every direction. M was still feeling poorly and stayed in the car. I made a quick trip through and headed back to the car with a plan to give instructions: no more bling, less people. I wanted to see all the gorgeous pagodas we had been passing to get to this one. Luckily, that was Ansel’s plan all along. He got what he said was the most famous pagoda out of the way first, and all the rest were much better.

There are 2600 pagodas in Bagan. At the most, there were 4000 of them, but many were destroyed in the 1975 earthquake. Unfortunately, in 2016 another big one hit north of Mandalay, which isn’t too far from here. It was 6.9 on the Richter scale, and damaged 400 of the local pagodas. Ansel said that until that time, tourists were allowed to climb the stairs inside many of the pagodas, and thus get on top for a great view. But now, for safety reasons, there is only one pagoda safe enough to climb. (I climbed it!) They were all built from the 11th through the 13th centuries. As we drove through the region, the renovation work could easily be seen on many of the larger pagodas.

At the next pagoda, M tried walking around a little and that only made her feel worse, so we dropped her off back at the hotel and she had a down day. Then Ansel and I continued our pagoda tour.

I’ll apologize right up front. I did not keep track of the names of all of the pagodas. I’m simply going to post the photos.

Inside most of the bigger pagodas are statues of Buddha.

One pagoda is still safe enough to climb and get a view of the incredible landscape.

Pagodas through an arch.

In this case, we climbed a monastery beside the pagoda, and then got a good shot of the pagoda. Note the bamboo scaffolding while repairs are made to the tower.

View from the top of the monastery.

The bougainvillea helps add interest to yet another pagoda.

Sometimes they were in clusters like this, and sometimes a lone pagoda beside the road.

Look at this exceptional architecture.

It’s just before the hot season here. I don’t know if these flowers bloom year round, but it was nice to see so much colour.

I loved scenes like this. Looking out across the land where so many beautiful towers rise up.

It’s hard to convey just how incredible it is to have pagodas in every direction. Our driver said to close our eyes and point, and we would be pointing at a pagoda. I often walked past several smaller ones to get to the one Ansel wanted me to see. They are in unexpectedly good shape for their age and being in an earthquake zone. They are gorgeous: that orange red brick, particularly in the morning and evening light against a blue sky.

I am most struck by the outer architecture of the pagodas, but several caught my interest for other qualities. In particular, I loved the murals painted inside many of them. Once Ansel found out I loved the murals, he took me to a few more very good ones with exceptional paintings inside.

The Old Gate to Old Bagan city.

Before entering any pagoda or temple, you remove your shoes.

These lovely ladies agreed to have their photo taken.

I love the attitude on this face!

Impressive large Buddha

Some were enormous inside

I couldn’t get enough of the murals.

A few pagodas had murals of great detail.

Some images, like this one, were repeated often. There was still quite a variety, owing to the different artists, maybe?

Inside this pagoda, this huge mural is covered from floor to ceiling in activity. People of all sorts are acting out some legend(s) possibly. I stood and gaped a long time.

This boat scene made me think immediately of the murals on the tombs in Egypt that also depict boats.

Here’s a nice simple elephant that I particularly like.

One pagoda had carvings instead of murals. There was damage in this one and I talked with a crew of people doing some work on a crack inside.

This is Payn Payn, one of the three resident kitties where I stopped for a beer.

At lunchtime my driver took me to a lovely little café with delicious and affordable food. (Who am I kidding? Everything is affordable here.) Later in the day, after several pagodas in the hot sun, he found me a super tiny café so I could chill with a Myanmar beer. While I drank the beer I played with one of the cats lounging around. An older woman came out from the back and brought me some fried bread after I had been sitting there awhile, complimentary.

There are hopeful vendors at every big pagoda, hoping to catch your eye. The people selling handmade goods in Myanmar have been the most laid back I have ever known in a country I am visiting. Until Bagan, they barely called out to us. Here they may be the most aggressive in the country, because they will actually call out to you, and some will follow you. Compared to other countries, it’s still very manageable and they give up quickly and leave you alone.

The street scenes in between pagodas are often this beautiful.

Visitors are allowed to ring the bells found at some sites.

I had my new friend P step in to add a little perspective for this ginormous reclining Buddha.

I thought this sign was a total crack up. Signs in English are rare, but appreciated. I read this one twice and I’m still pretty sure I don’t know what’s going on. {click the image to get a larger version}

Something about that magical morning and evening sunshine makes these places even more spectacular.

At one pagoda, I stopped to watch a man work on his sand painting. He began explaining what he was doing, and how he made the sand paintings. It’s pretty cool: he glues river sand to cotton fabric, then paints over the top. It’s a neat look. He began explaining a few of his paintings, spending the most time explaining the days of the week calendar (includes Morning Wednesday – elephant with tusk, and Evening Wednesday – elephant without tusk). I decided I wanted to buy the week calendar. Unfortunately, I did not have enough money on me. He let me take the painting with me and pay only a part of the cost, and I came back a few hours later with the rest.

The artist had assured me that the sand painting can only be found in Bagan. When I got back to the car I asked my driver if that was true. He said it was. He said there are two crafts unique to Bagan. The other is lacquered bamboo. Ansel took me to a workshop where women were busy scratching designs into black lacquered bowls. A man explained what they were doing, and also how the lacquered crafts are made. They begin with bamboo. Then they are covered in layers of thick black sap from a tree I can’t remember the name of. If I remember correctly, the sap is baked on in layers. Then the patterns are either painted or etched onto the final layer. I really enjoyed the stop and when he ushered me into the showroom as I was expecting, I was happy to go look for what I wanted: a ramen bowl. I found one that looked the most like what the women had been working on. I also found a square box I liked and negotiated them down almost 30% on the price, since the original price was way over my budget.

Women etch designs into lacquered bamboo bowls.

Seven stages from bamboo to finished lacquered product.

Finally it was 40 minutes to sunset and Ansel took me to a mound of some sort to watch the sun go down. To my chagrin it was packed with people and more poured in after I arrived. *sigh* But the tourists were picking up the “love” vibe from the locals, and it was actually very pleasant with much chatter back and forth between people who didn’t know each other but were sharing a moment.

The sunset over the pagodas was spectacular.

Lake behind the mound where we watched the sunset.

The Londoner standing behind me said this scene was worth his whole trip to Myanmar.

The beds at our room on Inle Lake.

I wanted to say a little bit more about the luxurious Inle Resort. I guess that’s because it was such a change in accommodation after two nights of homestays in the mountains around Inle.

The living room

Our cabin from the outside

A patio near the dining hall

The dining hall.

Guests arriving by boat, as we did last night.

Same view, at sunrise this morning.

outlet cover

Our arrival was by boat, though the resort is on the shores of Inle Lake and was not on stilts but upon land. The service was excellent and the grounds were exquisite. We stayed in an individual cabin with two large rooms – living room and bedroom, with a spacious sink area, and additional rooms for the toilet and a generous shower room. (Did I mention hot water? Hot water is so great.) The dining facility was a separate huge building and the breakfast buffet was included with our room.

After checking out we had breakfast then waited for our driver. Before leaving Hein yesterday, we had asked him to help us arrange for a driver. It was a great decision by Margaret to have someone handle the driving for us today because we covered a lot of territory and trying to navigate it all by bus would have been maybe crazy, maybe impossible. If we had rented a car, we never would have found the stupas at Kakku.

I had to look up the word. “Stupa” simply means heap, or pile. The word in this case refers to a small pagoda built over a relic. At Kakku there are 2,478 stupas together. The Internet site we referenced to find this place says, “some are simple and unadorned while others are covered in a riot of stucco deities and mythical beasts.” It’s a great description.

Stupas at Kakku

Row upon row of stupas

a riot of deities

elephant

love the colours

more riotous colours

crossed foot turned down

A more open area between stupas.

There is a temple on the grounds, but since Margaret and I did not wear a long skirt and had our shoulders exposed, we could not go in. But the woman who took the entrance fee assured us that we were dressed appropriately enough to wander the stupas. We did remove our shoes, of course.

Each stupa is itself fascinating. Though we passed thousands of them, they continued to catch our attention. The many styles we saw are attributed to the changing styles of architecture through the years as more were constructed. We didn’t see any new stupas going up, but many of them were undergoing renovation. Some were shaped like buildings, mausoleum style we thought, and housed multiple Buddhas typically.

After the stupas we wandered the little market out there. Kakku is very rural, and there didn’t appear to be a town. The market held about thirty stalls, all selling the exact same things. These included sunflower seeds, rice cakes, fava beans, dried corn, garlic, ginger, and a bunch of stuff we couldn’t identify. There were a couple of textile stalls as well, and a couple of small convenience stores.

Photo is poor quality due to shooting through a dirty windshield.

This kind of sight is not unusual.

Farmers working the fields

Side saddle is necessary due to the long skirts.

Interesting trees along the highway.

We returned to our driver, Aung Ku Zin, who had been waiting in the shade for us the whole time. He is a friendly man and a remarkably safe driver. He also used some English to explain some of the sights we passed such as garlic fields and the Taunggyi University. Our trip from the resort to Kakku was 1 ½ hours, and the trip from Kakku to the Heho airport was two hours. We had the opportunity to see much more of the Myanmar countryside, this time Shan State in particular. We particularly enjoyed seeing the people we passed on the road, women often riding side saddle on bikes, bikes loaded down with incomprehensibly large loads, a truckload of ducks, trucks filled with people and more people on top. There are no lanes, and there is a natural flow of faster vehicle passing slower vehicles while looking out for oncoming traffic on the single lane strip of pavement.

The road was always in pretty good shape. A single lane of blacktop down the middle is flanked by the red dirt of this area. Most of the time there was enough room for automobiles to creep past each other and not leave the pavement. Most of the vehicles in this area are motorbikes, unlike Yangon, where we were surprised not to see many bicycles or motorbikes in the three days we were in the massively congested city. We agreed that motorbikes made a lot more sense in Yangon than their huge American-sized trucks and SUVs. In the city of Taunggyi we were impressed with the wide roads in good repair, often bordered by attractive roadside landscaping. We were also impressed with how clean and organized everything appeared. After the chaos of Yangon, I admit we were surprised to find a city like this in Myanmar.

Taunggyi is a clean, organized, and apparently economically sound city.

Typical roadside view.

The tiny little Heho airport runs smoothly, and it was a piece of cake to get our boarding passes. We have a short flight to Bagan. I suspect that once the flight lands, and we get to our hotel, and then find a place to eat dinner, that will be the extent of our adventures today.

Watching the sun set beyond a plane at the Heho airport.

Valleys of agricultural activity spread out beside us as we walked.

Today was day three of our trek through the countryside from Kalaw to Inle Lake. We woke at 6 am to a beautiful sunrise in the home of a local village family along the way. Our cook prepared another fabulous breakfast and by 8 am we were walking again. Anna, Lukas, Fumi, and Hein and we are all friends by now, having spent so much time together. We have slept in the same room and eaten every meal together. We’ve learned each others’ personalities and can joke together with insider knowledge. It’s fun and comfortable.

Morning sky across the rooftops from our homestay.

Looking the other direction at the pink clouds of morning.

Today was the shortest hike, but with the highest elevation gain. We saw more stunning vistas and interacted with more generous, loving, local people. We laughed and talked and asked a hundred questions of each other.

When we first met our guide at A1 Trekking in Kalaw, we had the option of choosing a private tour. This would be me and Margaret traveling with our own guide. We chose to hike with others and I am so glad. The price drops for more people, but that was not our reason. We thought with two weeks of being together, day in day out, that it would be nice to interact with some new personalities. It was the perfect decision and we were lucky to join a group of good people.

Our guide, Hein, has been a resource for every question we have. He is constantly in good spirits and helps us avoid embarrassing circumstances. He said his smile solves all difficulty, based on his four years’ experience trekking.  I began referring to that as his super power. Hein smiles and we are all immediately ready to comply with any request.

A man carries a single bamboo pole. I wish I had been better positioned to show the entire pole. It was enormous and must have been difficult to carry.

Small boy entertaining himself while his mother worked in the field.

A bike loaded down with goods.

Our view near the highest point of our trek.

These women were selling crafts near the fee station. We all had to pay a $10 fee to enter the Inle Lake region.

Entering a bamboo forest.

Some of our cook’s incredible creations in fruit, for our last lunch together.

The whole gang! Left to right: Cook (can’t remember his name, gah!), Lukas, Anna, Hein, me, Margaret, Fumi.

At long last, but also too soon, our trek was over and we had to say goodbye to Hein and our cook, who traveled with us the entire way. They handed us over to a boat man on the shores of Inle Lake. We had left our heaviest luggage with A1 the day we left, and only carried what we would need for three days. Our luggage was on the boat when we arrived. We climbed into a long, narrow boat and I spoke up and asked that Fumi sit in front. He is an artist with his photography; making more of the sights with his camera than any of us could. I wanted him to have an unmarred view because he had promised to share photos later.

The five of us had three different destinations. We traveled north to drop Anna and Lukas off at their homestay first. A homestay is like Air BnB. The boatman took us through the shore communities to their homestay. They were staying with a local family.

The journey was through a community entirely on the water. Crops of beans, squash, lotus, and many other things we couldn’t identify were grown on the shores of the lake. Houses and workshops were on stilts, and everyone travels by boat. There were restaurants, pagodas, cultural sites, and homes, all on stilts above the water. I think this is the first time I have ever seen such a community. It is fascinating to me. Rather than try to describe it, I’ll include a bunch of photos and let you see it.

Making our way through the channels between crops in Inle Lake.

This is what the view looked like from where I sat in the back of the boat.

Heading under a bridge.

Our boatman.

Woman working the crops. Here I am guessing they mostly harvested lotus root.

Convenience store on the water – so funny!

Other boats blasted past us on a water highway.

I like the yellow windows.

I also love buildings that are falling down.

I still can’t believe all these places are built on stilts.

What seemed like neighborhoods cluster along the shores of the lake.

After our goodbyes to Anna and Lukas, we took a long, long ride south to our stop, Inle Resort and Spa, where we had to say goodbye to Fumi. It was unexpectedly sad, to leave the boat and leave our connection with our new friend. When Margaret and I stepped out of the boat, it brought home the realization that our friends were all gone and we were on our own again.

Our boat pulled up to Inle Resort and it was a whole new world. Our luggage was carried for us, and we were greeted with hot towels and juice. Our room is exquisite. The toilet is indoors AND you can sit on it instead of squatting. Yay!!! There is a shower with our first hot water in three days. Hell, our first non-ice water in three days.

The dock up to our resort hotel.

The dock from the other direction.

Me, sunburned, bathed, and really happy not to have to hike anymore. Oh, look: I’m blogging. Always thinking of you guys.

Sunset across Inle Lake.

Sunrise reflects off the home of the village Chief.

We woke at 6am in the Chief’s home after a good night’s sleep to a lovely dawn sky. As anticipated, it was cold cold cold that morning. After the ice-baths in the cistern the evening before, I assumed the nights must get very cold to keep the water at that temperature despite the consistent hot days.

Outside at the table in front of the house, we sat and mixed up our coffees. In two weeks in the country, I didn’t see brewed coffee offered anywhere in Myanmar. Nestle instant coffee packets were proffered everywhere we went. At the outdoor table in the frosty air were bowls with packets of coffee, packets of instant creamer, and packets of sweetener. *sigh* But it was around 30 degrees and all those packets came with a thermos of hot water, so we considered ourselves fortunate.

By 8am we said goodbye to the family and walked out into the red dirt streets of Ywar Pu. Today we walked 26 km, continuing through the lands of the Dannu people and then into Yaung Yoe country.

A group of young women heading for the fields. The silver cans are their lunchboxes.

A man and his beast.

Terraced rice paddies

We walked through low mountains and valleys. It’s agricultural country, and the activities we witnessed were in support of the economy there. Field stubble was being burned, as well as slash and burn activities to clear more land. It made the skies hazy but we rarely smelled the smoke because we didn’t come close to the active burning. Most of the cattle and oxen were tied to trees singly or in pairs, and were clearly used to pull carts or to plow. Occasionally there were more cattle in a field, so I could see there were at least a few ranches.

Though we had seen it the day before, I am still impressed with the terraced hillsides of rice paddies. We were in-between seasons and did not see any rice still growing. Everything had been harvested, the dirt was dry and hard, and often cattle were out grazing on what was left of the rice plants before it was burned. We also saw chilies and ginger harvested. The chilies would be in great heaps in the shade beneath a house (houses and storage buildings were often two story, with the living quarters above and storage beneath). Ginger was spread out on tarps beside the fields, drying in the sun. Crops are harvested by hand, and though it is late in the season, we saw people all day long in the fields, still bringing in the last of the crops.

Workers harvesting ginger, most likely.

The baby had been sleeping in the shade while its mother worked, but we must have disturbed it. The baby cried and cried until Momma laughed and went to soothe it.

I didn’t see any parents around, just these kids watching us walk by.

A huge, beautiful heap of chilies.

Remember the blisters I developed on my first day in Yangon? No problem! I had protected my feet in every way I could in the few days before this trip, and now on day two of my hike, they still felt fine. I definitely could still feel the blisters, since they were there between my toes (from the flip flops) and on my heels, but in my hiking shoes it was manageable and I didn’t give them a thought. I had, however, begun to sport a sunburn on my face and after the fact remembered to start using the sunscreen I had in my pack. Ha ha. I’ll never ever learn about the sun. I just love heat and sun so much, I can never remember that it’s supposed to be dangerous.

At our morning break we stopped for tea in a big open hut with an older woman on one side weaving cloth. She had a stack of completed scarves and bags beside her. Much of it was garish lime green and orange and cobalt blue, but I found a subtler and tasteful weave of white, black, gold, and purple. The scarf cost me 4000 Kyats – exactly $3. If I had more cash on me I would have paid her more for the lovely scarf woven by hand by a lovely country woman.

This woman weaved stacks of lovely scarves.

She graciously posed for a photo.

Our lunch stop couldn’t have come soon enough. It was hot and there was no getting around it. By noon it was 96 degrees and we were hiking in a lot of direct sunlight. We literally dropped to the floor in the large village home, half of us going prone right away after gulping warm water from our packs. People at the house sold us liter bottles of water all around, and we gulped at those too. Hein came in at one point to check on us, and immediately asked Fumi to change his position. Not knowing the customs, he had accidentally laid down with his feet pointed at the shrine to Buddha – very disrespectful.

Hein allowed us a very long stop. I wondered why we had to get up so blasted early if we had a 2 ½ hour lunch stop. After our brilliant cook prepared another delicious multi-course meal, we were offered the opportunity to go explore the town as we had yesterday. Every one of us stayed put and either rested or fell clean asleep. But I had to trust the Company. A1 Trekking had been around for years and was likely well-beyond a learning curve. The long rest did me so much good.

Our wonderful cook, hard at work in the kitchen.

Two courses from our amazing lunch.

The incorrigible Hein.

A boy in the village where we stopped for lunch.

Cattle pulling carts were a common sight.

Boys rolling tires with sticks.

Kids twirling and giggling and falling down

Off we went again, into the sun, over the hills, past the water buffalo. At our afternoon snack stop we finally came close to one of the fires. I heard a rushing, snapping sound in the distance and asked Hein what it was. He didn’t hear it. We sat down on the grass to rest in the shade of a tree, and everyone’s ears adjusted to the sound of our chosen spot. Chatter died down. And Margaret popped up to her feet! “Hein, what is that sound?” she pressed. He listened and finally heard it, “oh, that’s fire.” Typical, easy-going Hein. Margaret’s ears tuned in while I slowly got used to it and tuned it out. She periodically walked out away from our tree to watch the fire burn.

Margaret was still triggered by recent memories of having to run for her life from wildfire, and I didn’t grudge her a moment of that worry. While house-sitting for a friend in northern California last fall she was awake by coincidence in the night and glanced out a window to see flames on the hills, moving toward the homes! She only had time to grab her keys and her purse and run. From the car she called another friend nearby and woke him up. He did not have a car so she drove through the thickening smoke to pick him up. She called another neighbor who was already awake and told them to call everyone they knew. In an unknown neighborhood, in the smoke, in the middle of the night, chased by fire, she and her friend got away to her house, which for that night was safe. The home she was house-sitting burned to the ground. Whoah. In fact, the whole reason she is on vacation at the moment is because the owners of the ruined home are staying in her home (Margaret rents her house frequently on Air BnB).

Mud steps

Bamboo forest

We walked into a more forested section that provided some shade and saw our first bamboo forests of the trip. Hein took us past a courtyard of extremely derelict pagodas. There was a single shiny gold pagoda among them, but most were ancient and crumbling. I was eager to wander through them, as I am always drawn to the ancient stuff and less excited about the sparkly gold paint. Call it the anthropologist in me. Hein explained that this site was going to be demolished and brand new pagodas built. He said that upset him because people would come and steal the relics. I asked what the relics were, and he said they are often gold and jewels. I asked a few questions but wasn’t exactly clear on the cause and effect of the future crimes. He discussed the pagodas in the moment as though he assumed the relics were inside, but he talked as though the dismantling of them would result in theft. I didn’t understand whether he thought the workers would be the thieves. Hein took me to a particularly decrepit pagoda and showed me the section of bricks that showed where the relic had been placed – I could easily see the area outlined. Have you seen an old brick building where a hole that was previously a window has been subsequently bricked in? It looked like that. Only, this was a hundred years old and falling apart. I could have pulled the bricks out with my fingers. I wondered why the thieves wouldn’t have done their work now, before the workers showed up. But I am sure additional information was lost due to my inability to understand fluent Burmese.

Crumbing pagodas… and one shiny one!

I loved the tree growing from the umbrella on this one.

Up close they are so beautiful. It pains me to think this thing of beauty will be torn down and replaced with a shiny gold one.

We entered the town of Pattu Pauk and came across a monastery. We had passed several monasteries on our trip and I asked Hein if they were abandoned. They never had a soul about. Hein explained that the monks go out into the communities and do good works and collect donations during the day, but sleep there every night. I had overheard him talking the day before with Anna and Lukas about being both Buddhist and Muslim. His father was Muslim, and his mother was Buddhist, and each of the children in the family had chosen which religion they preferred and had the family’s support. Hein said that he had chosen to be Muslim, but had not given up the Buddhist practices taught to him by his mother. So he laughed and said he was both, since he observed both whenever he could. Anyway, Hein expressed his disgust with monks that he called “fake monks.” In explanation, he used percentages, saying that 85% of monks were fake monks and of those left only 5% of those were truly following the religion devoutly. I asked him to explain more. He said that most people joined the monastic life “because it’s easier. You don’t have to work, you don’t have to have a skill. You can do nothing and still have a place to sleep and food to eat.” He said those people did the bare minimum to escape scrutiny, and lived off donations.

Hein brought up the Rohingya. NONE of us tourists were about to be the first one to speak the word. I swear, before this trip, Myanmar was in my BBC podcast Every. Single. Day. For the heinous crimes of genocide – whole villages burned and the Muslim Rohingya people slaughtered by the Christian military – and leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s adamant denial that anything unpleasant is happening in her country. An outsider listening to the news gets the picture real quick that Myanmar’s military is NOT a group you want to interact with. Since we had been here, we had seen nothing but peaceful, happy people and not so much as a glimpse of military personnel. And here is Hein, laughing and saying out loud that he is Muslim! Hein just shrugged and said he didn’t really know what was going on with the oppressed people of Rakine State. It’s never on the news and no one talks about it. He said he had heard much more about it from his tour groups.

Not an abandoned monastery.

Hein talks to Fumi, Lukas, and Anna beside the monastery’s bell.

Pattu Pauk was our destination for the evening, so we only had a few steps to go beyond the monastery to find our home for the night. But before we got there, we got distracted by a group of women sitting together on blankets in the street doing some kind of work. We asked Hein if it would be ok with the women if we got close and watched them, and he said it would be fine. They were so beautiful, and seemed to be having so much fun, we had a hard time leaving them. In fact, the owner of the home we would be sleeping in came trotting down the street, asking Hein where we were going – concerned that his houseful of renters might change plans at the last minute. Hein assured him that we would be coming, but we wanted to watch the sight in the street. They were separating the white fluffy parts of popped corn from the hard shells and seeds. It was wedding preparations, which must have explained the buoyant atmosphere among them. I didn’t ask, but the popcorn could be for throwing at the newlyweds.

Women working with popcorn in the village.

An irresistible smile.

They were so fun to watch, chattering and laughing while they worked.

One woman empties her popcorn into the bag.

Margaret recorded them, then showed them the video.

The owner of the home was happy to have us stay.

Tonight I had had enough of the sun, sweat, and red dirt. The set-up at both our homestays is this: cistern in the back yard full of ice water, empty pan floating in ice water, platform of boards beside cistern. You pull up the curtain, so everything from your shoulders down is covered (ok, I’m just hoping that everything from my shoulders down was hidden from the passersby…), then reach over and fill the pan with water and dump it over yourself, trying to keep your whoops of frozen astonishment to a minimum. Grab a bar of soap, lather up to the best of your ability, then pour several more pans of ice water onto your body to try and wash off the soap. Then if you are me, grit your teeth, take a deep breath, and dump another pan of water onto your head. I did it! I washed my hair. The others cheered and clapped when I arrived at the outdoor table with wet hair. And well they should have.

The sun sets at the end of a long and wonderful day.

24-hour tea shop in Kalaw

The overnight bus from Yangon (craziest bus station ever) was due to arrive in Kalaw at 4:30 am. It was late and arrived at 5:30 am. I was grateful.

I mean, I wasn’t exactly sleeping, but at least it was dark and the intent was to sleep. My seat was in the back of the bus and all the luggage that didn’t fit underneath was jammed behind my seat so I couldn’t recline. And the air conditioning was blasting. I mean, full-on blasting cold air. What the heck? And the little air control thingies over my head were broken, so I was in the wind for about two hours till I found an empty plastic bag and shoved it into the hole. And the road was so rough – the worst in our entire trip. Margaret said she literally caught air on at least one bump. Maybe the worst bus trip of my life.

Despite all that, I actually think I slept a couple of hours. I had thought enough to bring my rabbit-soft wool scarf, and with that, added to the little blanket provided by the bus company, I managed to cover up completely. And we both used earplugs. That way I was a bit shielded from the light and noise and cold.

But at 5:30 we all had to disembark. Margaret had heard from the tour company that there was a 24-hour tea house nearby, and that we should wait there for someone to meet us. It was still dark and cold out, and we had a long wait.

For the next two hours I peeped through a window into a world of twenty-somethings engaging in devil-may-care life of travel around the world on $5 day. Margaret and I walked up the steps into a small room, floor and walls covered in white and blue linoleum, and lit – painfully – with fluorescent lighting. The room had three sides and the fourth was a half-wall and open air. And it was cold. There were a few low tables and 30 tiny plastic stools and heaped all over the place were young, beautiful travelers and their luggage. A vivacious redhead from Croatia caught our attention with her chatter, next to us two slender Italian women were trying to sleep on the floor (people stepped over them without blinking). There was a New Zealander, a Czech, Frenchmen, all crammed together drinking very bad instant coffee and smoking cigarettes. For a moment I was in Michener’s novel The Drifters, with all its young beautiful people traveling around the world with no specific plan beyond the day’s hopes and dreams. We were all meeting guides for treks, and we compared names of companies and how many days we would be out.

Guide from A1 Trekking carries our luggage from the tea shop to the company’s office in Kalaw.

My seat was facing into the room, and when I got up after a while and went out to pay for our wretched coffees, I was startled to see the pale blue dawn. Soon after, a person met us and led us to A1 Trekking in town, where we checked in and were immediately taken to an Indian restaurant across the street for our first meal with the company.

After breakfast we were told there was still time before departure, and that a market was setting up in the center of town we could explore while we waited. So we explored.

I am grateful that Margaret loves markets as much as I do. Who can resist the colours and textures and smells and sounds?

These fresh veggies trigger an instinct in me to want to buy them all and eat, eat, eat.

This woman twisted leaves into a wand to make carrying the coconuts easier.

Margaret (hands clasped in the chilly morning air) at the market in Kalaw.

Dried fish in heaps.

Pasta, beans, grains, and soup starters.

Bananas and bananas. The market in Kalaw was one of the best we saw during the whole trip. (Trust me I left out a ton of photos.)

We returned to A1 and it was time to go. We met our fellow travelers, Fumi from Japan and Lukas and Anna from Austria. There were just 5 of us, with our guide Hein, who grew up in Kalaw, and the cook. Some of the other companies take 15 people, we spotted one group later that looked like it could have been 18 people. A-1 has a policy of never more than six, to ensure a quality experience for each person. We walked out of town and directly onto a trail.

For the next three days we walked. That day to Hin Kha Gone and Myin Taik villages, through areas with the Paulaung and Dannu people.

Dried up terraces for rice paddies. Hein said they only have one season for rice per year because it gets so dry.

Left to right: Margaret, Anna, Lukas, Hein

While still in the forest we came upon a man herding cattle.

We stopped for a break here at the reservoir.

During our food breaks, Hein handed out a variety of local things for us to try. This fruit was pretty good. I don’t remember what it was called.

The view from our lunch stop.

Unused to walking so much, I was grateful when it was lunch time. We had a cook that traveled along with us, and damned if I can remember his name. But this young man made the most delicious foods and fed us very well, three meals a day, while we were out trekking. While he cooked, we explored the site.

The shop at our lunch stop. What you see here was pretty much the entire stock. Those “water” and “liquor” bottles you see on the left are petrol for sale.

My favourite toilet of the entire trip!! Everyone in the country had outhouses, and this one had an unparalleled view.

We could see a pagoda in the distance.

Hein encouraged us to walk over to the pagoda and monastery during our lunch stop, and down to the village below if we wanted to. And we did.

The village below the pagoda.

Me with some pretty obliging kids.

Off we went and finished up with some serious hiking. At one point we walked along train tracks, which is pretty hard if your natural gait doesn’t match the frequency of the supports beneath the rails. Lukas and I fell back, but it did allow me some shots of the others.

The others gain ground as I struggle with the awkwardness of walking on train tracks.

More lovely rice paddy terraces.

Work truck rumbles along the red dirt road.

Cute little house along the way.

Finally we reached our destination for the night, Ywar Pu village. We were surprised to find out that we were staying in the home of the village chief. The family stayed nearby, but gave up their beds for us that night. Our fabulous cook went to work and we took our chances bathing in the icy cold water of the family’s cistern. Then we walked around the property and the town till it was time to eat. The families contract with the tour companies, and get about $5 per night per person. They also sell water and Myanmar beer and… well… we were hot and tired and beer was just the thing! They probably earn as much selling drinks as they do on rent.

This was not where we stayed, but an example of a typical home in Ywar Pu village.

Our beds. You do not wear your shoes into this room. Each home we visited has a shrine like this.

Our cook in the kitchen, getting the flames hot for our dinner.

Catchment pool to the right, cistern (slightly out of sight behind the fence) to the left.

One of the family’s three pigs poses for my camera.

I had inexplicably slept poorly at the Golden Sunrise Hotel, waking up at 2:30 am and not able to sleep again. The following night I was on a freezing cold bumpy bus ride all night long. Trust me when I say this night in Ywar Pu, under all those blankets, I slept like a rock.

 

Trucks with narrow seats are nearly the only traffic on the mountain road.

The lobby of the Golden Sunrise Hotel was dark and silent at 5:30 am, but as promised, our boxed breakfast was there waiting for us on the counter. So kind of them. Fried egg sandwiches and bananas. I whooped to Margaret, “They remembered us!” and accidentally woke the attendant who was sleeping in the lobby in a little tent. Ooops. Poor kid. We left everything in our rooms because we expected to return well before check out time. It was dark out and in the lovely coolness we made the easy walk into town and quickly found the truck station because that’s where all the activity and light was!

In a large warehouse-type building, tall trucks were parked beside metal staircases. We picked one at random and walked up the stairs and were quickly ushered into seats. The entire bed of each truck is filled with about six narrow rows of metal benches. People cram themselves in. The orchestrators hollered at Margaret and I multiple times to squoosh down, but it was hard. The seat in front was too close to sit with knees forward. Literally impossible for us to sit normally. My solution was to tip my knees down toward the floor, so I could face front. Margaret had her knees to the side. We are not big people, but they wanted us to minimize our space. A woman in front of us said “six,” and we finally figured out that they wanted six people in each row. Ours only had five. I suspect our difficulty condensing had more to do with a rather large grandmother seated next to me than Margaret and I, but since we were the ones at the end, we were the ones getting hollered at.

We leaned and pulled our elbows in and became very close to one another, and finally had squashed ourselves enough to cram one more person in our row. Then we handed our money (2000 kyats/$1.50) over to the orchestrator. We were off!

I quickly became grateful for being wedged in there like sardines. There were no seatbelts, obviously, and the truck began hurtling up the narrow paved road to the top of the mountain where we would find the Golden Rock. We were told the ride was a half hour, but it felt more like an hour because it was a real adventure. I am convinced that the reason no one bounced out was because we were packed so tightly. Grandma and I became friends out of necessity. The whole population in the back of the truck would say “whoah!” in unison, and grab onto each other to stay upright as we careened around hairpin corners and blasted ever faster toward the top.

We were still in the dark, and wind blew through our hair. Margaret and I were in sarongs (the clothing in Burmese is called longyi) and T-shirts, but all the locals had on down coats and hats and mittens. It was possibly as chilly as 70 degrees. About halfway up the mountain the sky began to lighten, and the sun was clearly in mind to rise by the time we reached the top.

Entrance to the Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo is too hard for me to say) is jammed with people.

Off the truck, we had a rather long walk through a pop-up market, designed to cater to tourists. Everyone there was a tourist, even the monks, to some degree. There were many many monks. Everyone removed their shoes early on and we carried them for the rest of our time there. We passed hundreds of shops selling either food or things to dedicate to Buddha.

The walkway to the top is bound by many shops selling things, particularly breakfast.

The sunrise views of the valley were lovely.

Sunrise beat us to the rock, but not by much and we did capture a stunning dawn glow on the Golden Rock. It seemed liked everyone up there was in a festival mood. Likely the crazy truck ride contributed to that. It was like an amusement park ride! Pilgrims can also walk to the top, and I hear it’s a lovely walk. Now that I have experienced the trucks, however, I’m glad we did that instead. I walk every day, but I’ve only had one truck ride like that in my life.

On the way up we were stopped by some officials who were not stopping anyone else. We obligingly walked into the building that had large posters in English stating that we had to pay a “Foreigners fee” of 10,000 kyats. We signed our names in a book and were handed badges to hang around our necks. M and I decided: why not? They are smart to capitalize on tourism in this way.

Our first view of the Golden Rock from a distance.

In front of the rock, I proudly show off my expensive”Foreigner” badge.

Women are not allowed to approach the rock itself. Men will purchase gold foil pieces and queue up. When it’s their turn to touch the rock, they say prayers and press the gold foil to the rock. Or, that is what appeared to be going on as I stood at a distance and watched. Legend has it that when locals were concerned that the rock would fall, the Buddha gifted three of his own hairs which were used to prop up the rock. That is why this is a sacred and holy place. I wondered if each man who pressed his fingers against the rock worried that he would be the unfortunate one to push the rock off its precarious balance.

Men applying gold leaf pieces to the rock.

We wandered across the top of the hill, stopping to take photos for ourselves, for others, and regularly being asked by locals if they could have their photo taken with us. I am still surprised by this behavior; how frequently a person’s gaze will lazily drift past the crowd, notice us, and then come alight with delight and a dazzling grin. They wave, giggle, shout “mingalaba” and “hello.” I am also, disturbingly, getting too used to this behavior, and gradually coming to expect it. In anticipation of adoring smiles and waves, sometimes I’ll wave first. On occasion, I get a blank stare in return, with a face that says “Who are you, lady?” And then I feel like an idiot.

In no time we had circled the complex and were ready to return to the madness of the trucks. We again joined a great group of all locals, and as with the morning crew, they all seemed to be enamored with us Westerners. While we waited for the truck to fill up (six to each row!!), many selfies occurred and everyone practiced saying “hello” in each other’s language. Children climbed the staircases to attempt to sell us cheap worthless crap while we waited. Two items were offered by every child on the whole mountain: fake spectacles made of bamboo, and fake unrealistic machine guns. I was rather puzzled that machine guns were so popular at a holy site – a Buddhist holy site no less. People bought way more guns than glasses.

Workmen carry cement to the top for construction.

Pathside food seller can offer an unparalleled view. Just don’t lean too far while you’re looking.

These shy ladies were offering breakfast, and agreed to have their photo taken.

Beautiful pair. We saw some fun fashion on the Burmese: dyed hair, tattoos, even ear plugs.

Carrying trays of food up the hill.

This boy is selling dried beans.

We saw this a couple of times: monks in a row, collecting alms.

The trip down was even crazier! This time gravity assisted and we moved as though we had been shot from a cannon. The truck may have gone up on two wheels at times, while screeching around the switchbacks headed back down. Every so often we would meet a truck coming up the mountain, and both drivers would be forced to slam on the brakes and move to the side.

Waiting for our truck to fill up before we headed back down.

Fake guns for sale, with “love” written onto the stock.

One of the turns on our way down the hill.

Our truck pulled over and we were asked to pay for our trip. Then we waited another 15 minutes while kids sold guns and glasses.

A little shop on the way back to Kin Pun.

All we had left on the agenda for the day was to check out of our hotel, and get a bus back to Yangon in time to catch our night bus that was leaving the Yangon bus station at 6:00 pm. After disentangling ourselves from the mass of humanity on the truck, and before heading back to the Golden Sunrise Hotel, we found someone who could sell us a bus ticket. This was accomplished by telling the woman who ran a restaurant that we wanted a bus. She walked out into the street and started hollering. A kid heard it and took off running. In five minutes, a young man in a white shirt with a name tag and a clipboard came running up and told us all we needed to know about buying a bus ticket. Awesome! 😊

We could take the 9am, 11am, or 1pm bus back to Yangon. We decided to spend our time waiting at our cool, clean, lovely hotel rather than at that crazy bus station we had already spent 3 hours at yesterday. So we bought a ticket for 1pm and then went to the hotel and lounged a bit. We came back to the restaurant by noon and bought lunch there, to pay a debt of gratitude for the woman who helped us get in contact with the bus man.

We waited at that restaurant because that’s where the bus kept stopping to drop people off. But at about 12:55, there was still no bus. A young man in a white shirt came up to us, “Ok, come with me.” He explained that the bus departure was actually on a different street, and he would show us the way. So we grabbed our gear and followed him.

This bus trip was fraught with complications. The entire trip should have taken 4 hours, dropping us at the crazy bus station at 5pm. After about one hour, the bus pulled over at the side of the highway near some tiny huts. No announcement. We sat there, looking around, asking the other people on the bus if they knew what was going on. Somehow they had obtained additional information. “I think we are supposed to change buses,” they said. We looked out the window, and sure enough, the bus driver and attendant were dragging luggage out of the bus and lining it up in the red dirt. We scooped up our stuff and climbed out and grabbed our luggage. There was a bus parked in front of us on the highway, and we all climbed onto it. This bus already had people on it, but luckily we all fit.

We went another hour, then – again with no announcement – the bus turned off the highway in a tiny little town, onto a narrow dirt road and parked beside a large building. There were a couple of men sitting beside the building on plastic chairs in the sun. Neither of them stirred. We remained parked there for quite awhile. Twenty minutes maybe. Margaret spotted some oil drums beside the building and guessed that it could be a gas or maintenance stop. Finally, with no warning, the driver and attendant got back on, and began to turn the bus around.

There was a problem. The bus couldn’t go in reverse. Multiple attempts by the driver to pull forward a little, then back up, failed. The men sitting in the sun got up and walked over to watch. A tool bag was produced. More attempts.

We were getting nervous because we were way behind schedule and still needed to catch the 6pm bus. Luckily we had given ourselves a buffer, and as long as we started moving again, soon, we would make it.

The bus attendant came onto the bus and headed down the aisle to where Margaret and I were sitting, carrying a wrench. He walked all the way to the very back, right next to Margaret, and opened up a panel in the floor that seemed to open to the dirt below us – I couldn’t really see. Margaret hid her face rather than watch the great hole next to her. The assistant guy held his wrench in there and hollered at the driver, who attempted reverse gear again and finally did it! Yay! We were off again.

With 40 minutes till 6 pm, we hit rush hour traffic in Yangon, and things came to a stop. We alternately stopped and crawled all the way to the bus station. The bus arrival section was about a mile from the bus departure section where we needed to go, but we did not know that. At 5:55 we leapt off the bus, grabbed our luggage and began trotting toward the congested, confusing bus station we had been at the day before. The place is really enormous. We had no idea how big it was yesterday: like it’s own little bus station city. We’d run a block, say the name of the bus company we wanted, a person would point, we’d run some more.

Through alleys, past stray dogs, vendors, children, shops, and all of this was part of the bus station. It was hot. We were sure we were going to miss our bus.

Finally, finally, we found JJ Tours, and there was no bus parked in front. The young man at the counter spotted us and knew who we were immediately. “The bus is gone! You can’t take it, I’m sorry! Why didn’t you call? I would have held the bus for you. Why didn’t you call? I didn’t know you were coming. I called you but you didn’t answer. I’m so sorry.” We tried to explain about our phones not working in another country….but there really wasn’t a point. He told us there was another bus that left at 7pm. He walked us to the other bus station and helped us buy a ticket.

The other thing we worried about was meeting our guide on time the next morning. The trek was supposed to start at 8:30 am, and our original bus was supposed to arrive at 8:00. Now what would we do? But the new bus had a different schedule somehow, and planned to arrive at 4:30 am. We dropped into our seats, heads spinning though relieved, and tried to get some rest.

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