The rest of my time in Burma is rather a blur. That’s what happens if you (I) leave it more than a few days to write about what you are doing. Hereafter the places and dates may be wrong, as it’s usually the feelings, rather than the logistics, that my mind holds onto.
Let’s just agree that this post is going to be more Impressionist sketch than 19th century French Realist print. Anyway, I’ve always had a soft spot for Monet, ever since I visited his nasturtium strewn garden in Giverny some 20 years back.
When we first arrived at Mandalay’s teak monastery I thought we had stumbled across a local harvest festival or the filming of a Burmese episode of The Generation Game – with displays of kitchenware adorning the pathway to the main building.
Whilst there were no cuddly toys in sight, at least nobody seemed to have donated old tins of peaches, which happened far too often at my primary school. Sometimes the tightness of middle class people knows no bounds.
We hung around gawping for sufficiently long that we were invited to join the locals for lunch. And it transpired that the offerings were from supporters of the NLD – the country’s main opposition party – most famous abroad due to member Aung San Suu Kyi’s protracted house arrest.
I felt reasonably guilty that I was forking somebody else’s fried egg and white rice into my face and so asked our guide if it would be acceptable to offer a small donation of money. Within moments of our group’s cash being offered to the most senior party member, out came the video camera and standalone lights.
A thought did cross my mind that perhaps we were falling victim a government set up, designed to weed out troublemaker tourists. And they certainly had the evidence for a swift boot over the country’s border, as we each in turn paraded up to have our photo taken holding the cash we’d donated.
But nothing untoward happened – those stories of a spy on every corner must be exaggerated, or there are now just too many tourists for them to keep a track on us all.
Up on a nearby hill for sunset, I spent most of the evening talking with some of the young monks, who enjoy chatting with tourists to practice their English. Many have been learning only a matter of weeks and, boy, are they getting good.
Even so, my admiration for language teachers grew exponentially during the 15 minutes I spoke with one charming young chap, as I paused between every word and spoke in my best received pronunciation. He had an elder sister about my age and so pronounced himself my Burmese younger brother. A definite heart-strings moment.
In general the monks here are so much more approachable than in countries like Thailand – where it’s tricky, as a woman, to have any level of interaction. But you still get the odd enigmatic one, so it was a moment of personal pride that the monk on the ‘sunset chair’ smiled for the photo I took,
given that this was his expression for every other photo.
The rest of Mandalay is a bit hazy, though I did learn that you should never order durian fruit flavoured ice cream. Luckily I didn’t have to figure this one out first hand but merely by watching the facial expression of a friend, as she bravely plunged a spoonful of the pungent milky gloop into her mouth.
As we headed away from the city, we paused by its teak bridge. And yes, I know what you are thinking, but no, not everything here is made of teak.
Even at an early hour the place was bustling with farmers ploughing fields, fishermen tending nets and students crossing the bridge to the university.
If this seems an odd location for a university campus, that’s because you aren’t used to your government deliberately locating students in a place that the army can easily isolate in the event of any protest.
Jumpers at the ready, we headed for the hills of Kalaw. A former colony station, the town used to provide respite from the baking heat of a Burmese summer in the city to the wussy invading Brits. Now it is a popular starting point for hikers.
During dinner at a local Tibetan / Himalayan restaurant, higher forces were watching when I commented – in perhaps a slightly too smug way – that I had gone months without being sick. Hours later I was playing the ‘guess which end of your body can hold in fluids the longest’ game and so I missed the hillside hike the next day.
I’m keeping my mouth shut from now on.
But actually it was no bad thing to happen – I spent most of my early thirties plagued by a phobia of vomiting and it was a pretty miserable time. So my chat with the big porcelain telephone was a useful checkpoint that my phobia is still well and truly in the past, where it belongs.
Talking of phobias, a pretty common one is a fear of spiders. A fellow traveller in Cambodia had impressed me with her determination to overcome hers, by letting a tarantula crawl on her, then eating a fried one. Respect to that woman!
For those less ready to conquer their arachnophobia, maybe starting with a fake spider is the way to go. And where better than Burma’s Pindaya cave – a sacred site, crammed to the roof with statues of the Buddha.
The entrance has the most striking of legend depictions, with the giant spider that had imprisoned seven local princesses in battle with heroic Prince Kummabhaya of Yawnghwe.
A short distance from the cave was a cottage factory making the most beautiful of parasols. Quite apart from admiring the skill involved in whittling the bamboo into a fully functional umbrella, it was a chance to check out the local fashions. Which were strikingly Pradaesque.
Our final destination was the vast Inle lake. Taking a long boat to the lake, down mist-filled canals, we passed trade boats carrying passengers swaddled up like babies under thick warm blankets. This was the first time I’ve happily worn my life jacket, as it kept my middle nice and cosy until the morning chill lifted.
The lake is most famous for its leg rowers.
But there’s far more to this place than a few acrobatic fishermen. Whole communities live on the water, in houses propped up on stilts. I’ve never seen such an aquatic lifestyle before, it was rather like Waterworld, but luckily minus Kevin Costner.
Floating passed the Burmese cat café, I was reminded of my own Burmese cat Jade, that I’d found one day – several days after her disappearance – squished on the roadside into a comedy cardboard cut out of a cat. It was the running joke in my family that I always found the dead animals. Hilarious.
Sadly we weren’t able to visit the local monastery, with its acrobatic performing cats, as the monk that had trained them had, rather inconveniently, died. Where was his succession planning?
But we did stop to admire a number of the local trades, in what turned out to be an extensive shopping trip. I bought a few scarves at the weavers, after admiring the handiwork of this septuagenarian human spider.
A tiny pair of brass bells at the ironmongers, after marveling at the sheer effort involved in beating a piece of hot iron into submission.
And aniseed flavoured cigarettes from these young women, who roll up to 700 pieces a day, as a Christmas present for my brother. I was rather amazed that the parcel – stuff with goodies from India, Vietnam and Burma – sent from Bangkok airport, actually got to the UK, and in time for Christmas too.
We made an inevitable stop to look at more stupas – my temple fatigue now well and truly wearing me down – when I stumbled across a HOLD THE POSTCARD PRESS!!! moment. Baby and puppy = double cute points. Sadly my Nikon 1 still has the better of me and the picture is far too blurred to be of any commercial value.
In one of those lovely ‘can’t plan for it’ travel moments, we also got to gatecrash a local wedding – providing a bit of added entertainment for the couple and their guests.
Something I hadn’t expected to find in Burma was a ‘proper’ winery. I think we were all pretty surprised by the professional nature of the operation at Red Mountain Estate. And whilst the wine wasn’t mind-blowing, a couple were definitely drinkable. With the boom in tourist numbers they should see their market explode over the next couple of years.
We rounded off our stay near Inle in the best way possible, with a massage. I’ve never really considered myself a fetishist and definitely have never felt the desire to be walked on by somebody – high heels or otherwise. But if you feel you might like to explore this aspect of yourself, then I highly recommend traditional Burmese massage.
Four of us lay on mattresses laid on a wooden platform, as various members of the Win Nyunt family team prodded away knots in our muscles. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed the masseuse at the other end start to walk up and down the legs of her client. And then I started to worry. The masseuse over there was a tiny, bird-like woman – maybe 45kg at most.
I think the guy running the show caught the look of concern in my eyes, for he laughed as he said that he weighed 75kg and his wife – the masseuse working my body – ‘a bit more’. I have never felt the pulse in the top of my thigh as strongly as I did five minutes later, when almost 100kg of Burmese woman was delicately stepping up and down my legs.
But none of my bones broke, which is always a nice way to end a holiday.
And, despite my initial fear of being pulverised, the massage was excellent and the family is absolutely charming, so if you are in town and feeling a bit tense about all the money you’ve just spent on the lake, I’d recommend booking yourself in. Just maybe ask for the sister, not the wife if you’re feeling a bit delicate!
After an uneventful flight back to Yangon from Heho – which I took even less for granted when I heard about the plane crash a fortnight later – and a lovely farewell dinner with my new friends, it was time to say goodbye.
Goodbye you strange, beautiful and challenged country. I’ll be keeping an eye out, so remember to play nice with all your new friends.