Digital house move…

August 22, 2014

Hello 🙂 I am moving house. Well, not literally, or physically, but virtually. My new blog will be housed at a very similar address, but please go to http://millalight.com (without the wordpress, you’ll notice) and subscribe if you wish to continue receiving my ramblings…

I am off to Brazil in a little over 2 months, on an adventure that will see me working with a charity for 30 days, helping them to develop their communications and advertising.

All the info is on the site, and I’ll be updating the blog regularly once the fear sets in ahead of my launch into Latin America, and while I am out there. 

See you on the other side…

http://millalight.com

 

Travelling day again. Monday morning saw us ride out onto the lake for the final time, to be whisked onwards on our climb towards the far eastern parts of the Shan region.

Boat turned to taxi and before we knew it, we were back at He Ho airport (He Ho was our town most visited; we passed through there by car, train and plane no less than 4 times during the trip). The airport was still no more than a single room that constituted all manner of departures, arrivals, lost baggage, lost people etc. We were a little earlier than we might have liked to begin with, and when we discovered that the plane was running a little later than we might have liked, and that the inbound service would probably land about 40 minutes after our original departure time, we installed ourselves in a coffee shop slash wine bar and fuelled up on caffeine.

These plane services are more like buses than planes. We were travelling from He Ho to Kengtung, deep in the Shan. This meant that we joined the shuttle in He Ho and would stop off in Mandalay and then Taichilek before hopping the final 20 minutes to Kengtung. At each stop, those planning to continue with the plane just stayed on board while a few people left, a few newbies joined and within no more than 15 minutes, the plane was back in the air. Purely because we could, we took to switching seats to take full advantage of the free seating policy, as well as the empty plane.

It was actually a bit of a round-about route, if you look at the map, but it got us to Kengtung, and my goodness it was worth it. Kengtung airport was like nothing I have encountered before. We stepped off the plane and walked the 10 metres across the runway to the small, concrete hut that represented the terminal. We showed our passports to the man behind the free-standing window above which the sign said ‘Immigration’. We had heard that the Shan region was more restricted and regulated than other parts of Myanmar and what we experienced was not dissimilar to what you expect from China (or at least, rural China). We dutifully answered the questions about where we had come from, where we were staying and when we would be leaving, while the immigration officer noted all our passport details. (On arrival at the hotel, our passports were whisked off for a 30 minute interrogation which we imagine saw them faxed over to the police station to confirm that it was OK for us to stay.)

Once we had been approved by Shan state authorities, we were guided out of the terminal building to ‘baggage claim’. This was a battered-looking roof, on stilts, with no walls under which a few passengers were already waiting. We hovered here for a minute or so before three trolleys were wheeled through the terminal and stopped out the front.

As well as collecting our bags from the trolleys, we were in the somewhat hassled situation of trying to decide which pestering tuk tuk driver was going to win our custom when suddenly a tall, tanned man, wearing a Bagan Air polo shirt came running towards us clutching a wine bag. Seeing as we were the only foreigners for about a mile, it was a fair assumption that the Athayar (Myanmar’s first winery) wine left in the overhead locker would belong to one of us. My friend was in fact the rather forgetful courier of this particular bottle, but as she accepted the bag gratefully, her face suddenly changed to an expression of grief-stricken shock, and with wide eyes she cried ‘My elephant!’.

This wasn’t a comment that was immediately understood by the Bagan Air rep, and he stood still looking slightly uncomfortable for a few seconds, before the exclamation was elaborated upon. There was, in fact, a lost elephant. A lost elephant marionette, that is. He had been travelling in the same over-head compartment as the wine, and had somehow evaded the sweep. He was, therefore, at that precise moment, (we heard) taking to the skies once more (as a stowaway, no less) en route back to Mandalay, via He Ho (of course).

True to form, and as we have come to expect and enjoy everywhere in Myanmar, the local airport teams had a smiling solution almost immediately. The marionette would disembark in Mandalay, and its (albeit irresponsible) parent would be reunited with it at the Bagan Air counter on our return in 2 days.

Content in the knowledge that the elephant would be well looked after, we returned our attention to the issue of the tuk tuks. We had somewhere and somehow lost a driver, so we had just the one option. For 2000 cats (around $2US) he would take us to our hotel, and if we wanted, would discuss trekking options with us once we had checked in. We didn’t have anything like a confirmed itinerary for our 2 days in Kengtung, so we thought that sounded alright.

We hopped aboard the tuk tuk and were bounced all the way down through the potholes into town, finally deposited on the steps of the Princess Hotel, Kengtung. Were we actual princesses, we think we might not have been best pleased with the far from palatial, no frills setting we found ourselves in, but as we are hardened travellers, we found the mostly functional facilities satisfactory. Who doesn’t love the excitement of a sporadically surging generator causing irregular power outages? Who needs to know if the shower will have hot water each time? Who minds that the air con clunks like a sickly car engine and that to get internet you need to sit in the hallway beneath the router? We thought the place had, um…character. (And potentially bed bugs)

It was around 5pm when we checked in, and having apparently passed the passport inspection, we accepted the recommendation of our receptionist and set off in the direction of the lake on the other side of town (around a 10 minute walk) to investigate the promise of some local restaurants and a sunset.

We pretty much missed sunset, and as we circumnavigated the lake, found very little by way of restaurants, which confused us. In fact, from what we had seen, the whole of Kengtung confused us. The entire town appeared in half-dis-mis-repair…except, we couldn’t tell if things were on the way up or on the way down. Piles of rubble littered every pavement, some of which suggested the promised of a new section of road, others of which looked like the remains of something that was there before. It was as if anyone could decide to join in with the construction (if it was that sort of area) and we saw both men and women of any age upwards of about 14 joining in on the job. If the town had a guiding style, it might have been ‘wild-west meets hill tribe meets shabby chic meets 1984’, with a preference for pastel green paint, and all apparently sponsored by Grand Royal rum in association with Chelsea FC. We were genuinely unsure as to whether we had stumbled into a living museum dedicated to a beautiful and bustling heyday (investment into which had slowly waned with the opening of the region in around 2010) or far too early for the opening of a new tourist escape in the heart of the Golden Triangle.

As we rounded the top of the lake, we found a large bar that appeared to have been set up for a party during the 2006 World Cup (Clue: it said ‘World Cup 2006’ in weather-worn scrawl on the exterior brick wall), complete with karaoke stage, dusty, falling streamers, checked plastic table cloths and the inevitable blue of the Chelsea strip adorning the walls. The only thing was…there were no people, no music and no lights. It was eery. And smiley as the proprietress was, we didn’t hesitate long before gathering our confusion, and continuing round the lake.

There were not really any people anywhere, it transpired. And as darkness fell, there was also not really any light anywhere. Peering into houses we passed, we could see basic living spaces lit by the dancing orange of candles, small huddles of family members chatting quietly from hard benches in the shadows, and occasionally the flicker of a TV screen. The Karaoke bars were long silenced, and the metal grills covering the fronts of almost all the houses were drawn shut.

It was barely 6pm and the town felt as though it had already turned in for the night. We had almost given up hope of finding anywhere to grab a bite to eat when we happened upon the wonderfully welcoming, hipster hangout that is the ‘Don’t Forget’ cafe. I am pretty sure that even if we had had alternative establishments vying for our custom, we would have opted for this one.

On first impressions, it was a vibrant, pink-painted, open-fronted, fairy-lighted Myanmar interpretation of the diner frequented by the cast of Grease, in the original movie. If you ignored the huge Myanmar beer stand in the middle of the ground floor ‘terrace’, you could almost be in teenage Europe, or at the very least, Taiwan.

Everything was as kitsch and coloured and cute as could be imagined in Kengtung, and to our enormous (and not subtly expressed) delight, there was a roof terrace, complete with Romeo and Juliet balconies (and plenty of bite-y bugs, but we were armed with 100% deet which, it turns out, destroys nail varnish and has been known to eat through watch straps).

With conscious memory of an exchange in Kalaw, during which we were asked if we were on our honeymoon (we think there might have been a mix up between the words ‘honeymoon’ and ‘holiday’ in this man’s head) we picked a lovely ‘holiday’ spot, ordered some beers and took a deep breath before simultaneously garbling out a few noises that mostly expressed how utterly perplexed we were by this town. We reached no conclusions.

My companion then took it upon herself to pop downstairs to order some food…local fair that included ‘Don’t Forget Fried Rice’ and the local speciality of a rather disgusting sounding, but strangely tasty ‘fermented tealeaves’ served with deep fried, refried and probably fried some more soya beans and some token (terrifying) small green chillies. She took her time on this expedition, and re-emerged onto the now surprisingly buzzing rooftop with a hint of mischief in her eye.

Downstairs, she had not only found a Mandarin speaking, second generation Chinese immigrant (that sounds weird if you don’t know that we both used to live in Beijing and speak Mandarin to a level considerably more comprehensible than we will ever reach in Burmese), but one that was in charge of the cocktail counter! Kengtung suddenly looked a whole lot better 🙂

So we hung out. (I am fairly sure I have never ‘hung out’ in an ice-cream parlour cum cocktail lounge cum rooftop bar cum Myanmar restaurant in my life before. Sadly, I worry I might never again). Our two cocktails were a Sha-wa-yi (Hawaii of sorts), that was blue and tasted a little soapy, and a rum sour…which tasted, well, exactly as we had hoped.

We even splashed out and had an ice-cream sundae. This was the stuff dates are made of…were made of…in 1950s America. Having established a bit of a rapport with our Chinese mixologist (once we had tuned into her accent which was fantastically upside-down, and as squiffy as I imagine Geordie sounds to someone who thinks they have mastered English), we were offered a lift back to our hotel, on the grounds that it was just too dark for us to walk. With that, I agreed.

Kengtung is an unidentified species of town – we learned that much in just a couple of hours. But having decided against an extortionately expensive trek to see some awkwardly costumed, parading hill tribes (there I go renting a high horse from which to judge tourism), we had another whole day to try to decipher its code and see into its soul.

Hopefully. Maybe. Unlikely.

Lakeside Life

May 2, 2014

Besides the excitement in the hotel, there was some cultural exploration to be done at Inle Lake.

We had booked ourselves a boat trip (for which we could probably have used some earplugs, if anyone knows of any good brands…) to visit a few of the tourist hotspots around the lake. Being former China residents, and considering ourselves Asia pros, my friend and I had already crossed a few stops off the list of places to go, dismissing them as the usual ‘museum-cum-compulsory-purchase-trap’ (which, of course, they were). Without meaning to sound ungrateful, I have seen enough silk worms to last me a lifetime, and I really have no passion for blacksmithery (or whatever it is called).

Still on our list, and first up, was a floating market. At least, it would have been floating were it not dry season. As we clambered up out of our boat onto the rickety wooden pontoons, and climbed the stairs to the first shop, we were handed miniature glasses of tea and some odd tasting tamarind sweets. To the left, as we entered the shop, two women from one of the local tribes were sat weaving some beautiful silk scarves, which would have been fairly unremarkable had they not been ‘long-necked’ women. That was the first time I have seen one of these women close up, adorned as they are with the heavy, gold rings that elongate their necks and give them a strange, doll-like posture. I don’t know too much about it, but the line between tradition and tourism is blurred where these women are concerned, and taking photos of them felt heartless when we weren’t about to buy any of their products. (Later, when we returned to our hotel, we did buy some scarves from the long-necked lady who was demonstrating the weaving in the lobby, and so I do have one photo. No high horse for me!)

We quickly realised that this not-at-all-floating market was a classic case of stall after stall with the same wares. We had a bit of fun tasting some local rice flour sugared buns, steamed in seconds in little stone pots, but then continued on our way. We expected Inle to be the most ‘touristy’ of all the places we were visiting, and true to form, the hawkers were much more aggressive in their sales tactics and we definitely appreciated just how spoiled we had been elsewhere in Myanmar.

To reach our next stop, we had 45 minutes of boat time, which, in my humble opinion, was the best thing about the whole tour. We were cruising down those waterways. Every 200 metres or so, there was a mini dam that required us (well, the driver) to give it some gas and jump up onto the next level of the river.

We arrived at the drop off for In Dein Pagoda at about 11am, and our driver waved us towards the direction in which we should continue our journey on foot. It had been a couple of days since we had seen a pagoda, which was probably a good thing. With renewed enthusiasm, we explored the forest of crumbling stupas that sat, engulfed by vines , on the way to the main pagoda. The contrast of these tumbling stone stacks, now left as an adventure ground for the geckos, with the shining, flawless (and kind of garish) gold stupas in the new ‘garden’ of In Dein was incredible. I think I prefer the old, half-destroyed version…but then I never was one for bling.

We had a vague recollection of our hotel advising us that, were we to want lunch on our outing, this would be the place to find it, and so, on our way back to the boat, we paused for a rum. As we sat beneath the thatched porch of our chosen pit-stop, watching children playing in the river, the heavens opened. We weren’t too sure of the implications of rain to our onward boat journey. We took our time in finishing off our liquid lunch and as the dollops of rain eased slightly, we headed back to the boat. Our driver hadn’t exactly given us a time limit, but we wondered if he expected us to take quite as long as we had.

On our way to the pagoda, we had marvelled at a small, wooden hut whose front walls were made entirely of rum, whiskey and gin bottles, and as luck would have it, it was from this very establishment that our driver leapt as we scurried back towards the boat. Motioning to the rain, he pulled us inside. And what a cave of wonders we were welcomed into!

The walls were indeed made of rum, and the sunlight cascaded through the different coloured bottles like a slow motion disco. At the back of the hut, down a couple of mud steps, was a full sized pool table around which a spirited tournament was underway, and to the side of it, a kitchen from which we ordered a plate of delicious noodles to accompany our next order of local rum. Our driver was curled up, looking fully content on a sun lounger so we didn’t feel the need to rush. Across the street (more of a sand track, really) we could see a large, touristy type place serving cold beers and egg fried rice to foreigners, which made us feel all the more smug, hidden away in our local dive bar.

We did eventually have to leave our newly discovered favourite bar and return to the reality of sightseeing. Speed, sight-seeing. It being almost 3pm, and therefore the time that most tours end, we felt bad keeping our driver too late (although he seemed to have enjoyed his afternoon nap), and limited ourselves to a maximum of 20 minutes at each of the next pagoda and monastery. The appeal of the monastery had in fact been shattered the moment it allowed its famed ‘Jumping Cat’ to hang up its jumping shoes. The ‘Retired Jumping Cat Monastery’ as it is now known, just doesn’t have that much going for it.

Our final stop wasn’t a stop at all really, but a slow meander through the incredible floating gardens. Not only were the rows and rows of tomato plots (not to do the other vegetables an injustice, but I only recognised the tomatoes) genuinely floating, but scattered in between were precarious looking homes, carefully balanced on very tall stilts. Not a place to live if you are known to forget a few items on your shopping list as there is no ‘popping’ back to the shop to get some milk from these places. Even navigating a route through the gardens by daylight looked like a challenge…and there’s certainly no possibility of evening strolls.

It turned out that the floating gardens were in essence, our back garden from the hotel, and as we turned the last ‘corner’ (can you have corners on large expanses of water?) we arrived back at the Paramount docks.

There was very little left to be done at Inle Lake other than climb to the highest point in the hotel and sit and watch the sun fade to a pastel orange over the spectacular watery horizon.

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MY GOD those boats are LOUD. There is no amount of capital letter typing that can really compare to the kalashnikovnical (definitely a real word) alarm clock (at around 5.30am) that is the sound of the boats starting their many daily trips over and around the lake at Inle.

I am not normally a light sleeper, but in our hotel, which was a little like a museum re-imagination of a colonial cruise ship…all dark wooden floors and walls, with an enigmatic slant (one that you were never quite sure was really there, was just a figment of your over expectant imagination or was the result of one too many rum sours), there was really no protection from the outside world. What we had originally viewed as ‘oh wow – we have a private balcony’ was in fact more or an ‘oh wow, the sound really carries through these (essentially open) windows and thin slatted walls.

That said, the hotel was kind of brilliant. In a way that only Agatha Christie properly could do justice. Our first night in (or on, I am unsure of the appropriate prepostion) the Paramount Hotel, we are pretty sure there was a death.

As an outsider, and potential suspect, of course, the series of events as I saw it, unfolded thus. Dinner was a fairly bland affair in general. Not in terms of food for us, I will say, for we discovered how wonderful a pairing cauliflower and scrambled egg make (OK, it’s not earth shattering, but it’s not exactly an obvious marriage). And perhaps, the rum sours had a bearing on the significance placed on the discovery.

But bland dinner was, in terms of restaurant companions. There was the clutch of 3 generations of Swedes (none of them better endowed with pigment than the previous), the inconclusive table comprising a couple of slightly confusing women (the sort that shaves half their head) accompanied by two children somewhere between the ages of 12 and 16, one whose face was entirely hidden by a free-roaming afro and the other whose impression was made more in the from of a harsh american squawk than anything visual. The final table that saw activity in the galley-like restaurant was occupied by a shrill and demanding asian lady and her apparently bored boyfriend.

Needless to say, we paid next to no attention to our surroundings, we had wifi (more valuable than gold in Myanmar) and the internet was infinitely more attractive than our fellow hotel guests. We had a lot of googling to do as we had very little idea as to where exactly we were, and what we were supposed to do here. That aside, we were very much enjoying our rum, and the food was a welcome companion to the local tipple.

It was only when we de-camped to the lobby for the totally anti-social e-mail checking that we became aware of the issue with room 104. I am ashamed to say I judged the poor british bloke who stumbled, bleary eyed out of his own cabin to complain that someone had their TV on too loud. I rolled my eyes on hearing this, and was still busy thinking how eager some people are to express their dissatisfaction as I turned in for the night.

I left the main lobby of the hotel and squeezed through the sticking, heavy wooden door and out onto a brief outdoor decking area before I entered the annexed corridor to our room. I had barely stepped out into the warm, night air, when I heard a yelling. “NYPD…put DOWN your weapons”, followed by ear-piercing screams and gun shots. I am, of course, referring to the sounds coming from what was indeed an exceptionally and unacceptably loud TV…not to the action unfolding in room 104.

It was so loud that the whole corridor would have been hearing it, as well as the local village floating across the waterway. It was impossible that someone had fallen into a natural sleep with that level of noise. From my own room, 6 doors down, I could still hear every word, every footstep and certainly every shot fired.

Suddenly our phone rang. I answered it, for no particular reason. An asian voice on the other end started speaking.
“We are room 102.” Right, I said, I think you have the wrong number. “Yes, we are room 102 and there is a very loud television.” Right, but you have the wrong number. “Yes, we are 102, there is a loud TV”. OK, but you have called room 112, this is not reception. “Yes, reception. We are 102 not 112”. *deep breath* I understand, but you have the wrong number. Please call 100 as instructed on the phone. “Yes, we are 102”. CALL THE RECEPTION!! thankyougoodnight.

Amused, I wandered back into the lobby to give my roommate an update on the situation, only to hear the same determined asian voice escaping from the reception desk phone. Apparently, something would have to be done about room 104. I walked back outside to find a rather timid member of the hotel staff knocking on room 104. After about 5 minutes, the door to room 102 opened, and a disgruntled, sleep deprived face appeared. The hotel man decided that if he could just climb over the balcony to 104, he could see through the windows, and so off he went, scaling the outside of the ship in the pitch dark. Only a few minutes later he re-emerged to say that yes, there was someone in there. And that yes, the TV was on.

I didn’t see this as progress.

Now, I only give credit where credit is due, but if I am honest, the next bit was my idea. We knew that there was someone in the room, and that they were unlikely to do anything about the volume of the TV (because, let’s face it, they were probably dead). We had also deduced that the hotel staff were unlikely to use force to enter the room (discover the body) and silence the television. So, in a flash of genius (I know, modesty suits me), I suggested that if we were to switch off the generator and cut power to the entire annex, with any luck the TV would remain quiet once the power was returned.

It worked!! I realise this did nothing to solve the mystery of exactly HOW someone could sleep through that racket (unless, of course, they were in a deep, permanent kind of sleep), but it did allow us to get some rest.

The following evening at dinner, we noticed a couple of new faces that we had missed the previous evening. The lone portuguese man, on holiday from East Timor. The English man who had started the complaints the previous evening and his flamboyant (irritating), Italian girlfriend Camilla (what are the chances, eh?). The older British couple who didn’t seem to like speaking.

We felt sure that any moment, a local detective would burst into the room, lock the doors and keep us all locked inside until he both motive and murdered were identified.

Sadly, this never happened, so being nosy, we inquired as to whether there were further details about the ‘situation’ in room 104. The response, delivered with a shifty glance at the floor, was that the person had fallen asleep with ear plugs. I would challenge anyone to find an earplug that could withstand those levels of disturbance. And so I return to my original theory, that someone met a sticky end in room 104…but I suppose that would be bad for hotel business if it every got out.

The day of the train had arrived…I could hardly contain my excitement. In order for us to hop aboard the 11.30 service from Kalaw to Shwenyaung, our guest house host would drive us down the hill to the station and help us buy a ticket when the office opened around half an hour before scheduled departure time.

When we arrived at the station, we were informed that the 11.30 train was, in fact, running so late, that it was unlikely to arrive before the 1.15 service and that we were probably best aiming for that one. This is a service that runs on Myanmar time, after all.

We didn’t have much choice (aside from getting a taxi which would have been far too twenty first century) so we dropped our bags on a bench inside the station master’s office and wandered towards town to kill a couple of hours. We could feel that heaviness in the air that tends to suggest a rain storm, and without access to a colony of ants to inquire as to whether they were planning on moving to higher ground (apparently this is the Kalaw equivalent of checking if the cows are lying down), we opted for playing it safe, and could find no better place we wanted to spend two hours, than in the safety and comfort of Healthy and Beauty Land.

We didn’t take full advantage of all the facilities available…skipping the hair cut, perm, physiotherapy and ‘jade massage bed’ options and going straight in for the 45 minute foot massage ($4) and the nail painting (20c per nail). To begin with, we were serenaded by MTV Asia’s finest mandarin offerings, but after a matter of minutes, the rains started, and we realised the acoustic effects of a corrugated iron roof. The rain was quite literally hammering down on the building. It was a bizarre contradiction; relaxing on a plush, cushioned sofa enjoying a soothing foot massage while trapped inside a seemingly impenetrable wall of crashing, thundering noise.

Thank goodness for Health and Beauty Land though, because the buckets of water that were falling from the sky were enough to drive all traffic off the roads, and for about 30 minutes, we saw no life on the streets outside. Just in time, however, the clouds rolled back, and as we stuffed our newly painted nails back in our matching shoes (purely accidental, but has attracted some funny looks), it was almost sunny again.

And so the time had arrived…with 30 minutes to go before our train was scheduled to depart, we were allowed to buy tickets. At least, when the station master had finished slurping down his lunch and had decided he was wiling, it was time to buy tickets. And what an experience…

I have never before purchased a train ticket for a 3 hour journey, for less than $2 US. I have never been required to produce my passport to buy an internal train ticket, and I have certainly never been offered life insurance included in the price of the ticket. I might argue that my life is worth more than 0.36 cats (Kyat), or $0.0036 US, but perhaps I over-value myself.

The station master played the role of cashier, admin clerk and ticket issuer, while 4 or 5 other men sat around burping in satisfaction at the last few mouthfuls of their lunch. I produced the passports, as instructed, and the details were dutifully copied both into a large scrapbook which I took to be a log of everyone joining the train at this particular stop, and also onto the paper ticket itself. There was a brief pause in the process while my man put on his admin hat and signed a couple of spaces on other scrapbooks indicated by a small, weather-beaten man in mismatched uniform.

I handed over the 2300 cats I owed ($2,3 US), and waited while the station master walked over to the wooden caged ticket window, behind which there was nobody, and through which I could see a pile of cauliflowers. (Myanmar loves a cauliflower). He took up the stamp, and with a smudgy blue stamp and the squiggle of a biro, added the finishing touches. We were good to go…in about 45 minutes. The train was delayed.

When the train did pull into the station, we were politely ushered on board, into our Upper Class carriage, and directed to our seats. Richard Branson – eat your heart out. This was Upper Class. Permanently reclining seats (some might interpret this as ‘broken’, but not us), extensive leg room, Buddhist counsel on-hand, natural ventilation and all served with a smile.

I am so in love with this train, that I am wondering how I can get one for my very own. We rumbled out of the station at about 5 miles an hour, and didn’t get much over 20 mph for the next 3.5 hours. The width of the tracks felt just about enough to stop the carriages wobbling right off, but the journey was characterised mostly by a dramatic swaying motion with which the doors banged rhythmically open and shut. I hadn’t leaned out of the open doorway of a moving train taking photos before…and, now that my mother knows I have, probably won’t again.

Each station we pulled into had a similar feel to it, and the main differences were in the wares of the carriage-side vendors. Chilli coated mango was ubiquitous, but the quails eggs, raw potatoes, strawberries and prawn-cracker-poppadoms came and went. Such is the laid back nature of this train route, that when my friend turned her nose up at the facilities on board (granted, we knew from intermittent wafts of unfortunate odours that there were facilities), a very helpful Myanmar man from our carriage made sure the train waited at the platform until she had used the toilets there. Such service.

The 3.5 hours passed all too quickly, much to my disappointment, and it was with great sadness that I stepped back down to earth. For the last few miles of rolling countryside vistas, we had been accompanied by the orangey glow of sunset, under which we picked out many a communal river bath time and against which the shadows of the mountains were just visible.

This whole trip, we haven’t needed to think too much about our transfers, as everything has gone to plan…or if it has gone slightly rogue on timings, it hasn’t mattered. Arriving at Inle Lake, however, we cut it very fine. Finer than perhaps we would have wanted to.

We knew 3 things: that our hotel was in the middle of the lake, that the lake was around 20 miles across, and that the only way to make this journey was by boat. What we hadn’t grasped was that the boats have no lights, and that after 7pm, the boat drivers have little or no inclination to make the crossing. It was only when we were half way across the lake at around 6.45pm, gazing up at the stars that brightened with every second of fading daylight that ticket by, that we understood just how lucky we had been to make it to the docks in time.

It would be easy to leave you imagining an idyllic, peaceful glide across an endless mirror of water that lies safely nestled in the warm embrace of the mountains…and if you could turn down the sound, that is indeed what you would experience. Unfortunately, the soundtrack that accompanies Inle Lake is the very same one they used in Apocalypse Now. These boats, while wooden and traditional in looks, are fitted with choking diesel engines that cough, splutter and roar their way to unimaginable decibel levels, from dawn til dusk.

Quite literally, dawn. As we would discover the following morning…damned hotel with its on-lake setting and private balconies.

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Our one full day in and around Kalaw served as a realisation that perhaps we are not as fit as we thought we were, and that 6 hours of mountain terrain trekking is more than enough to turn our legs to jelly. Our guide, called ‘AP’, came to the hotel bright and early, and after testing the freshly baked Belgian bread with some home made cheese and yogurt (best breakfast in Myanmar!) we set off at 7.30am to trek the exposed sections in the relative cool of the morning before the power of the sun drove us down into the canopied rainforest trails.

Before we had even ventured 500 metres from our hotel, we stumbled across a very colourful, very sparkly, very boom-box focussed ceremony that our guide informed us was to mark the ‘novication’ (I am not sure this is a real word, but we understood what the AP meant) of a few of the village boys. I think, in essence, this meant that they had been identified as having the potential to become monks, an honour for the families, and so they were invited to take a sort of internship at the monastry over the summer. If they were good (both at being a novice monk, and in the wider sense of the word ie/ not stealing, not stepping on bugs etc), then they could either choose to continue right away, or to go back to school for another year, and repeat the process the following summer before committing.

As soon as we poked our big, blonde heads round into the driveway of where this ceremony was taking place, we had been ushered in and welcomed by the octogenarian faction with tea and cake. It felt a bit odd gate-crashing such an important day for these boys (I think they were between about 8 and 10), but nobody seemed to care, and were much more interested in what we thought of the cake.

We politely took our leave after not too long, eager to get a little bit of fresh air and exercise now that we were dealing with temperatures of a much more tolerable 30 degrees.

The first 4 hours or so we hiked up and down valleys, through local villages, tea plantations and rice paddies (not in use due to it being dry season). While the homes are still mostly built on stilts, with woven bamboo walls, outhouses and the cooking area underneath, you can see evidence of the work NGOs have been doing in the area in the form of solar panels on nearly every thatched roof, basic water pipes diverting water from nearby streams and concrete foundations growing up around the bamboo houses for when the family has enough money to upgrade to a stone house.

The landscapes were vast and stunning, and although the haze of seasonal crop burning hangs in the air obscuring the furthest mountain tops from view, you are aware that you are looking at miles and miles of uninterrupted beauty.

At one point, we paused at the top of a mountain pass to take in the view and appreciate the breeze. While we were sat gazing out across the valley, some locals appeared from the nearest village, on their way to pick tea along the path we had just followed. At first it was just a few women with their baskets and some wide brimmed hats to protect them from the sun. Following closely behind were a group of men, each clutching something between a hatchet and a scythe. If Myanmar didn’t feel as friendly as it does, and perhaps if our guide wasn’t chattering away to them, this might have seem ever so slightly worrying. But it was when 3 more combat clad, shot gun wielding young guys wandered up, said a brief ‘mengala-ba’ (hello) and continued on their way to shoot wild boar, that I realised just how complacent we have become. If I saw that in the UK, I wouldn’t just sit on my tree roots and wave a cheery hello, but in Myanmar? Sure, it’s just their daily commute.

Reaching our Nepali run lunch spot meant an awful lot of uphill, which meant we had more than earned a bowl of curry and the chance to remove a couple of layers of grime with some face wipes. The ‘facilities’ were located in a rickety wooden hut in the middle of a papaya grove, and were joined at the table by some slightly mangy looking chickens (alive), which certainly added character.

Feeling refreshed, we set off into the rainforest, and I realised that those cheesy ‘Sounds of the Rainforest’ CDs that seem so popular in Beauty Saloons (they have been awarded an extra ‘o’ here) the world over, really actually do sound like the rainforest! I couldn’t accurately name a single individual animal, bird or insect…but performing as an ensemble, the results were really very rainforest-y.

We had been strolling through the trees for an hour or so, when suddenly a new sound was added to the mix…that of shouting. Human being type shouting. As we rounded a corner and a huge reservoir came into view, we were able to make out specific words…and not one or two, but a chorus of ‘I love you’s came tumbling our way.

Splashing wildly around in a secluded corner of the reservoir were 20 or 30 young guys, leaping off banks and diving in and out of the water. With one glimpse of the blonde hair, it was as though the testosterone had broken loose and the peacocking was on.

I do wonder if we might have found a solution to all our romantic woes…forget the whole courting/ dating/ ‘one more drink while I focus my beer goggles’ hullaballoo. Just throw a bunch of boys in a lake and wait to see who comes out king of the rock! Tempted as we were to stay and see one of these declarations to fruition, we thought it sensible to continue with our trek. Unmarried.

The rest of the trek led us through more rice paddies, some pine forests which felt strangely out of place, and past some bathing water buffalo. We tried to appreciate it all, but about an hour before we arrived back at our hotel, all 3 of us, the guide included fell into an exhausted silence as we switched our legs to auto pilot and tried to ignore the fact that putting in foot in front of foot suddenly seemed to require so. much. effort.

So tired were we, that our evening excursion involved our taking a taxi down the 10 minutes of hill into town, and being similarly escorted home again after dining at a lovely little restaurant called 7 Sisters that offered us our first chance to try the (slightly) elusive Myanmar wine that we had heard so much about. The climate in northern Myanmar, and especially the Shan state, is apparently just right for producing wine, and having now tasted the results, we are wondering if it is maybe the beginnings of a new, new world wine trade. We ordered a glass of white each, and then quickly admitted we should have gone for a bottle, to which they happily upgraded us, and then left the restaurant to return to our guest house with a 750cl night cap.

Needless to say, what with all the walking, the dining and the wining, an early night followed, getting us ready for the much anticipated trip on the Thazi-Shwenyaung railway.

We made it to Kalaw. Not only did the plane take off and land again in expert manner, but the rest of the journey went off without a hitch. Well, once we had patiently extracted the name and location of our Kalaw accommodation from the painfully slow and patchy Wifi in the He Ho airport baggage hall. I say baggage hall, I mean, the room that makes up the entire airport. We had barely walked 10 metres from the arrivals terminal (again, single room that constitutes an entire airport) when we located the taxi rank, and were assigned a driver who was then, in turn, assigned a car. The drive was only about 40 minutes, instead of the expected 90, but took us up through some amazing red soil landscapes to the sleepy mountain town of Kalaw (pronounced Ke-low).

Our driver spoke a little English, and in between our singing along to a Myanmar interpretation of Hot Chocolate’s ‘You Sexy Thing, took to pointing out the different vehicles ahead of us. First off, we met the ‘China trailer’…which seemed to mean anything with an enclosed motor (so, trucks and trailers that you might find in other countries around the world). In contrast, and pointed out with a knowing giggle, we saw the ‘farmer trailer’. These wooden carts belong in history, and many of the buffalo pulling them, belong in retirement. At this point we were overtaken by an open-topped truck with 4 or 5 teenagers stood in the otherwise empty cargo space at the back. With a huge grin, our driver announced that this was the ‘I Luv You’ trailer…reading out the words painted in huge letters on the back.

Even before our man had found our guest house, with the willing assistance of a rock trio of hair dye aficionados all squeezed on one scooter clutching a guitar and without much help at all from a 110 year old (roughly) betel nut chewer and his donkey, we were fairly sure that Kalaw would make an excellent place to hide for a while. From life in general. As we drove through the gates of the B&B we had selected only 3 days before in a slightly haphazard fashion from the breakfast table in Mandalay, we were convinced that Kalaw really is a gem.

Our host in fact, hailed from Belgium, and having constructed his self-designed, wood-fired bread oven that was resting quietly in the garden, clearly had no intention of leaving any time soon.

We had initially only planned to stay one night in Kalaw, expecting to launch into a 2 day trek over to Inle Lake at the first opportunity, however, seduced by the smell of the fresh pine Myanmar ‘chalet’ and the promise of freshly baked bread at breakfast, we changed tack and headed down into town to investigate a one day trek around the nearby rainforest. We weren’t just lazily avoiding a spot of walking; this decision was actually based more on a sudden obsession with continuing our journey by rail, from the mesmerising train station that time forgot.

Stepping onto the platform at Kalaw feels like you have wandered into either a model village or a film set. The buildings are wooden with peeling paint, and have a tired colonial feel to them. The trains consist of 3-5 open-windowed carriages with the words ‘ordinary class’ or ‘upper class’ in both English and Burmese fading above the doors. The station master’s office is littered with military-style metal trunks, and on his solid, proprietorial desk sit hand written ticket stubs, passenger details and train records. Services run on ‘Myanmar time’ which means anything within a couple of hours of scheduled departure, and with any number of additional pick-ups along the way. At least, that is the slightly magical station we encountered…who knows how long it will stay that way with the ever increasing influx of tourists and the inevitable development of the country in general.

Still, having planned our onward journey, and once we had booked our trek for the next day, we set off to be those very tourists, and to roam the 5-day market that had engulfed the main streets of the town. This market seemed to specialise in cabbage, fish paste, tea, some unidentifiable semi-solid custard-y substance (would answer to any of squidgy, gelatinous, wobbly or congealed) and chillis…none of which we were really looking to buy, but whose vendors were more than enthusiastic in posing for photographs.

We wandered the streets just long enough to get sunburnt at our new altitude of 4297 feet above sea level (we now know that all station platforms in the region display their altitude with pride) and then decided that it was about time for a sit down. A wonderfully jolly and contently rotund local chappy had caught our eye as he had tried to wave us into his shop-front beer station earlier in the afternoon, so we had no difficulty in selecting the Golden Umbrella as our retreat.

We very quickly discovered that our guy was not in fact the owner, but the son in law of the house. The real owner was not only a betel nut expert, but also the creator of Kalaw’s Finest Damson Wine (that’s what it says on the bottle I am now attempting to bring intact to the UK). His English was pretty good, and he opened with a detailed demonstration of how to handle the betel nuts that, cocooned inside a large, green leaf are chewed into blood red oblivion by the country’s menfolk, leaving them with a darkened smile befitting a vampire who hasn’t yet discovered basic dental hygiene.

We were then introduced to the aforementioned Finest Damson Wine, the ingredients of which, he assured us, did not include alcohol or chemicals. It had, however, included some sugar to begin with, and 3 years later…well…let’s just say, alcohol had happened. As the afternoon turned into evening, we sat on our wonky plastic chairs watching the world and his wind-up motor clatter past on the mountain highway, sipping our shared cup of damson firewater, chasing it down with a Dagon beer.

It was an excellent people watching spot, it turned out, with all manner of bikes, trucks, cars and motorised box crates chugging past. We hadn’t been there long when I spotted a helmet that I recognised immediately for its silhouette…something that was popular in Germany around 1938-1945, say. Had it not been for the eagle that flashed into view on one side of the helmet, I might have turned my attention elsewhere, but next second, I could have sworn I saw the red and white of a very (in)famous mark. I mentioned this to my fellow observer, and although she humoured me, she hadn’t seen it and I could tell she was really thinking ‘oh bless, she has forgotten that we are in a devout Buddhist country, and that the religion uses a not dissimilar symbol’. That is, until my suspicions were confirmed and, having spotted 4 or 5 of these helmets riding past, I managed to secure photographic evidence. Sure enough, there it was, German WWII helmet complete with eagle and Swastika…but these did not make up a collection of battered old relics…oh no, these were hot off the production line. Quite the fashion statement!

Soon our damson wine was done, and it was time to find some dinner, with a quick stop in the Internet cafe on the way. It had been a long time since I had sat down at the sticky keyboard of a clunky desktop computer, while the gamer next me shot zombies, the shaggy-haired foreigner behind me got frustrated with Skype and the ‘cafe’ manager tested out all the ring tones on his mobile phone. It was quite the trip down memory lane…and quite the wait for each page to load.

Internet duties completed, we followed up on a recommendation for somewhere that offered local style Myanmar cuisine. Although it isn’t technically rainy season, we were very aware that the sky had turned a rich and ominous purple, and the wind was swirling up dust on street corners. A vague agreement that we should try to be back at our guest house before the contents of the sky was released on the town, and the discovery that it seemed to be soap opera night, meaning everyone in the restaurant was glued to the TV screen from which boomed and flashed a very loud, very dramatic Korean cop drama, resulted in our having a pretty speedy dinner and hot-footing it back up the hill as the rain was just starting to fall.

The rest of the evening was spent on our porch, smothered in enough 100% deet to repel any living creature listening to the thundering roar of cicadas that accompanied a gutsy and impassioned guitar and vocal performance from a nearby construction site. This wasn’t some gentle campfire ditty…this entertainer was singing to the mountain tops.

The idyll was shattered, however, by the arrival of an enormous, man-eating spider that tried to batter down our door and seize our studio. OK, so this might be an exaggeration, but it was a spider. And it wasn’t welcome. And I freaked out and hid under my covers til morning.