CURRENT LOCATION: Kalaw, Myanmar
After our epic blunder in the super weird and super new capital, it was such a relief to arrive at our accommodation in Nyaungshwe (I will refer to it as Nshwe for my own sanity). On our first evening we ventured 2km into town on our free hire bikes to get a decent meal of pizza and pasta, which was surprisingly good, especially after the decidedly average food we had eaten the last few days. A bit of comfort was welcomed. We returned to three staff members helping us to park our bicycles, asking us how our dinner was and if we wanted any help with organising our plans for the next few days. This was also very nice. Sam was starting to feel under the weather so we decided to wait until the morning to make any plans.
Lucky we did. Sam woke up feeling awful and could barely manage to sit up in bed. This made for a rest day in our wonderful hotel room. Again the staff at our guesthouse were so great. They made Sam breakfast and brought it to her to have in bed. They asked if we needed a doctor. They checked up on us during the day. They were so nice! While Sam was in bed fighting off the Black Death, I cycled into town to find some lunch and top up our cash supplies. I rode all the way through town to scope out all the possible lunch options and in doing so found an ATM. I withdrew the maximum amount at that ATM, which was 150,000 kyat (pronounced "chiat"). This is about $150 U.S. so not a big deal. Except that the largest denomination of currency that they regularly use is 5000 kyat. So there I am standing in the middle of town with a wad of bills as if I've just joined the cast of Goodfellas. I shove as much of the cash as I can in my wallet and neatly fold the rest into my pocket. At this point I am suspicious of every person that walks by. Not used to carrying this much moolah. I find a place that does some nice French-style sandwiches to take back to husk of a human that is my wife. Of course, the moment I pay for the sandwiches it starts to rain. Knowing that I can cycle back to our accommodation in about 7 minutes I literally get on my bike, sprinting to hopefully get home before the inevitable monsoon hits and I become a drowned rat. You guessed it. I get 400m from home and the universe throws a big old water balloon on me. Luckily I had them put our food in a plastic bag. The screes of bills in my pocket did not fare so well. But, it's not as bad as all that. It was actually really fun getting caught in the epic rainstorm. It's not like I was on a way to a business meeting or something.
Sam was feeling brave enough to venture 20 feet across the courtyard to the restaurant at our guesthouse to get some dinner. And because I'm such a nice guy, she's an adult, and plus she was sick all day, she was allowed to have strawberry ice cream for dinner. I chose the curry.
The next morning Sam woke feeling decidedly better but not 100%, so we chose the more relaxing option of a day long boat cruise on Inle Lake. This was awesome. Our boat driver, Captain That, looked to be no older than 18. He was wearing traditional dress which consisted of super baggy black and turquoise pants, a vest, and aviators. He was pretty cool. His boat was probably 6m or maybe 8m long with a big long tail-style outboard motor. This thing went like the clappers and had the soundtrack to go with it. In this boat we visited many different sites, including villages, pagodas, and shops, a lotus silk farm and weaving shop, a boat builder, a team of local cigar (called cheroot) making women, a local restaurant, a silversmith and jeweller, a woman who belonged to the "long neck lady" tribe who was working on a loom, 2 pagodas, a floating vege garden in the middle of the lake, and the temple where the monks USED to train cats to jump through hoops (but don't any more, but there are still lots of cats). It was an action packed day and we even got witness the famous "Leg Fishermen" of Inle lake. These guys get their name because of the way they paddle their tiny boats using their leg to guide the paddle through water while balancing on the other foot at the front end of the boat. It's an amazing thing to witness. They are in such control, even while holding a 1.5m giant bamboo fishing basket. Some of these fishermen employ the strategy of whacking the water with their paddles to stun the fish near the surface and then they simply collect the stupefied fish. This was bizarre and fascinating to see. The lake itself was also interesting as it was dotted with lake weeds and grasses, breaking it up, making it look a bit smaller that it actually is.
That night we had an accidental dinner at the guesthouse restaurant while attempting to order some snacks and watch the live stream of the NZ women's under 23 frisbee team play Germany. It was lost in translation... But the short version of the story is that they had a "chicken nugget burger" on their menu, we wanted chicken nuggets, but what we call chicken nuggets does not equate to what they put in this burger. So chicken burgers with no buns for dinner then! I can think of worse scenarios! Unfortunately the internet connect was not sufficient to watch the stream, but we caught the end of the game watching a bunch of coloured blobs shift around on the screen in very, very low resolution (all their connection could manage).
The next day Sam was feeling good enough for us to go for a bicycling adventure. We hit the road heading for the natural hot springs of Nshwe. It was a considerably more difficult ride than we had anticipated, compounded by the simplicity of our bikes (no gears and iffy brakes) and the bumpy, hilly roads. But about 50 minutes later we arrived at the hot springs and it was a lot nicer than we imagined... Which given our previous experiences in SE Asia, was a maybe a stream with some wooden planks to sit on. It was a proper hot spring spa type scenario, not too dissimilar to the Polynesian Baths in Rotorua. We take to the "foreigner" wing of the complex where we had some quick showers to wash off our bike ride, and then soak in the hot springs. It must've been close to 30°C outside the hot springs, so it was a bit counterintuitive, but we wanted to do it anyways. There were 4 pools. And oh my god were they hot! The hottest one clocked in at 40°C. Luckily there was one pool that was at a bearable (just!) 35°C. The pools were situated in way that we had a stunning view of the lake and the hills that surround it. We met a nice French Canadian couple and exchanged travel stories and relaxed in the pool, and had cold drinks for a few hours. Not a bad way to spend the day!
After this we rode our bikes about 1km to a sign that said "boat hire" written on a piece of scrap wood. There was a guy on a motorbike who asked if we needed a boat to the other side of the lake. Perfect! This was our plan! He told us to follow him down a muddy path, past a bunch of stilted homes, along some rickety half-assed bridges, where finally found about 4 boats crammed on a small canal that led into the lake. He spent a good 5 minutes freeing his boat from among the others and we piled our bikes in. It was a relaxing 15 minute journey across the lake. He kindly dropped us off at a local restaurant and unloaded our bikes at the end of a very long, wooden jetty while we ordered some lunch. I know we've mentioned this before, but, the people in Myanmar are so kind, friendly, and just generally beautiful people! We ate some lunch and watched the locals on their boats weaving through the canals and into the lake. It was sunny and beautiful. After lunch we got to ride our bikes along the epic jetty where we met a gang of friendly locals. One of them, a young man named Eggo, spoke great English and introduced himself to us. We had a conversation with him in English and then he taught us some Burmese! His friends all laughed and smiled at our attempts to recite the phrases Eggo gave us. It was a really nice experience. After we said our goodbyes, we had an 11km cycle back to our guesthouse in the late afternoon sun. A very good day indeed.
The next day we woke up early to catch the morning train to Kalaw. Our guesthouse arranged a taxi to take us to the train station. We arrived at the train station at 7.56am for what we thought was a 8.30am train. However, once we unloaded our bags from the taxi, and our driver pointed to his watch, pointed to a train at the platform and said, in broken English, what sounded like "Hurry!" We realised it was probably an 8am train... No worries though, we got two tickets for $3NZD and boarded the train. We had virtually the whole carriage to ourselves, sharing it with a single monk for the first hour before he alighted. The train was old and the tracks were uneven. This made for a hilariously wobbly ride. It was so much fun, and the Myanmar countryside was just breathtaking. Rice paddies, corn fields, rolling hills, mountains in the distance, and so many locals going about their daily lives. The train had a max speed of what felt like 25km, so it was on more than one occasion that we would lock eyes with a local who would instantly become delighted with having seen a white person. They would shout, wave, laugh, scream, jump up and down, it was awesome. Sometimes while we are here the constant staring and sticking out like a sore thumb is unnerving, but today it was great! This was by far my favourite journey of our 6 month trip! 3 hours later we arrived in Kalaw. At approximately 1500m altitude it was immediately cooler. I better leave it there and save Kalaw for the next entry.
Lots of love,
Z & S
(Original post date: 17th July 2015)