Saturday, 29 March 2008

Day 311 - Yangon

I stayed at the Smile Motel in Pyay, it's an appropriately named place as it was a nice place to stay and the staff were very friendly. As I was about to leave they told me that I should reach Yangon in 6-8 hours, a distance of 180 miles, that's faster than the buses and about twice the speed of the train. I must be looking younger and fitter than I realised. They also said that the road was really good, but I took that with a large pinch of salt given their previous statement. When I set off I was soon out of the town and the road was smoother than in my wildest dreams. I could once again cycle with a nice steady rhythm and was able too look at my surroundings a bit more than just looking at the road just ahead of me, it made a real difference to my progress. The scenery was back to rice paddies and I passed through lots of villages and small towns. I covered 150k before it got dark so I had made it half way to Yangon without any problems, other than that as expected there were no signs of a hotel. I was told of one small town were there was a guest house and a motorcyclist guided me there, but as expected they were not licensed for foreigners. I stopped at the next town for dinner as it was getting dark. For the past few hours I hadn't seen any police stations but as I sat in a grimey restaurant I was spotted by one, stopping in his tracks as he was about to walk past me. I had no intention of asking police for permission to stay anywhere today as I presumed that as soon as they would look at my visa and realised it expired the following day they would force me on a bus to Yangon. Thankfully this one was more interested in his beer so when he was distracted I left. It was still only 19:45 but I didn't fancy going all the way to Yangon so I planned to stop in a roadside hut somewhere. During daylight I saw lots of potential but strangely enough they were really difficult to spot in the dark. I found a few too close to the road but they always open on two sides which meant passing traffic would be able to see me. Anyway, it was still too early and people were still about. I decided to just plod slowly on until I found the ideal spot or it was late enough to be quiet. Every so often motor cyclist would pull up alongside for a chat, I always feared them being police, but I at last had a stroke of luck. One pulled up alongside and said "May I help you", the dreaded phrase from the police stations so I assume police and just said no. He started to chat and I noticed he had a young girl on the back so I guessed he would not be police so I asked if he knew of a guest house. I knew he wouldn't but it had the desired result as he invited me to stay the night at his house, so a few minutes later I finished cycling for the day with 186k covered. The house (photo) was reasonably big by Myanmar standards with one large room and a separate kitchen, all built from solid teak and about 50 years old. I was made very welcome from the 3 generations that lived there together. I was given a longyi to wear, the wrap around skirt type thing that most men wear here and taken to the 'bath', a big concrete tub outside and full of water that you scoop out and pour over yourself. I have seen lots of people bathing whilst I have been here and they do so wearing their longyi, or in the case of women fully dressed, and often wondered what it would be like to bath with clothes on, I was about to find out. Actually it was ok, but I still fail to see how you can wash yourself all over properly with clothing on. In my case it was even worse as they all came out to watch their strange guest take a bath, the neighbours were watching too, but to make things even worse the longyi kept coming undone, clearly I was no expert. Well if washing is difficult, what I hadn't considered in the past was drying. How the hell do you dry yourself whilst wearing wet clothing and half the street watching you? Thankfully most realised my predicament and left, so when it was down to the last man I used the the conventional method, then quickly put on a dry longyi provided for me. Back inside I was given coffee and bananas, friends and neighbours had come round to enjoy the spectacle so the next hour or so was spent talking to Than Toe who was the only one that could speak English, then he would translate for everybody else. This must be a respectable household as nobody spat on the wall or the floors, they bent down and spat through the gaps in the floorboards, the house being on stilts. Eventually it was time for bed, but first there were prayers in front of the little shrine in the lounge. I tried to sit as they did but couldn't without supporting myself with one arm, so Than Toe suggested I squat as they do, but I did so on bent toes. He tried to get me to do it on the flats of my feet but I just couldn't do it and kept falling over backwards laughing. I think I am either not very supple or a very strange shape, or both! Prayers then started, each one ending by placing both palms on the floor and bowing the head to touch the hands. Being a house of one room it doubled up as everybody's bedroom. There were no beds as such, just thin rush mats laid out next to each other and a pillow at the top with separate mosquito nets. I lay down on the hard wooden floor feeling very tired but remarkably comfortable and very content even though I was sleeping next to a family I had only just met.

The following morning I think I was the last up at 6am. I had been dying to go to the loo in the middle of the night but didn't want to wake everybody up as I went to the raised little wooden loo at the bottom of the garden. Daw Khin was already up and ironing a shirt on the floor for Than Toe to wear to work. He works in Yangon, a two hour bus journey. I said he must be mad to do that until I realised I had been doing the same length journey for the last 10 years. I noticed a telephone sign on the outside of their house so I suspect their phone also doubles up as a public phone. After exchanging addresses and meeting more of the family I set off at 7am. It was lovely and cool to start with and as I passed small villages and roadside houses I felt I had a much better understanding of what village life in this country must be like. It's all too easy to see the romantic side of it after just one night, but to spend a lifetime under those conditions, and in the wet season too, no thanks. The only padded seat they have is on their motorcycles. I stopped for breakfast and was amazed to see that I had already covered 25k, however once the sun got up the going became really tough, my toes once again hurting like hell in the heat. I passed a couple of long processions during the morning, at the front were woman carrying plants, then women with rolled up mats on their heads followed by excited men around horses that carried young girls, all of whom look terrified. I am not quite sure what they were all about. I had booked myself in at the Motherland Inn whilst I was at Pyay as I expected to be very late, but having covered most of the distance the previous day I arrived at 13:30. My last problem was to get booked in. Some of the hotels are very fussy about the visa and had been warning me it was running out and given how close they are monitored by the government I suspected I could be refused on an expired visa. When I arrived, there was Dan from NZ who I had met in Mandalay, so I sat and chatted a while. The young girl at reception said she didn't need my passport as I had stayed there before and they had my details, but wanted to know when I last stayed there. "29th February" I said, to which Dan replied "Blimey, how long is you visa valid for?". I told him to shut up and thankfully it didn't register with the receptionist. I felt really pleased to be back in Yangon, the same sort of feeling I had when I arrived back in Paris after Paris-Brest-Paris, though this hadn't been so physically demanding, but I often doubted being able to cycle all the way back, but I had made it.

It seemed strange to be sat here at the Motherland Inn and watching life go by on the street outside without it feeling strange if you get my drift. When I was last here I had just arrived and all the sights, sounds, smells, customs and way of life were strange to me, now they are not, they are now the norm to me. But on Sunday I head of for Thailand and Chiang Mai and the whole process starts all over again. I feel very lucky to be around in our lifetime with the wealth, health and freedom to be able to travel as I am. Most people here do not have those privileges.

Today I just wanted to take it easy, but I still found it hard to lie in beyond 7am, does that mean I am getting old. I went to Shwedagon Paya (photo), the biggest and most famous golden pointy thing in the whole of Myanmar. Given that I wanted an easy day I went there in the afternoon, a big mistake. By then it was far too hot and as you have too walk around temple in bare feet it was almost impossible. Everybody was running between the shaded areas. Surely sightseeing isn't supposed to be that painful!

Judith and Andre, if you are still reading this I still think of you cycling around NZ. I normally think of you when I open one of my front panniers and see Andres old socks that he gave me to clean my bike with, so clearly I don't clean it often enough. Today whilst at Shwedagon Paya I padlocked the bike to a tree. When I returned they were watering the grass around it, but they had also cleaned my bike bless them. I had only thought in this morning that I ought to clean it but I couldn't be bothered as it would only get dirty again. They obviously thought it needed it more than I did.

Just for a bit in interest I have compiled a couple of lists.

10 things I will NOT miss about Myanmar

1. Betel nuts: These are wrapped up in leaves and chewed constantly and fill the mouth with horrible blood red liquid that gets spat out in long jet squirts everywhere. By default you get a smile full of rotting red teeth, disgusting!
2. Police
3. Restricted access to where you can travel. I think I covered most of the roads with the exception of the route to Inle Lake.
4. Non foreigner hotels, make life very hard for the cyclist.
5. Cash only society of the traveller. They have lovely ATM's in Thailand, I can't wait.
6. The Sun: It is way too hot here, though I have a sneaky feeling it is going to follow me where ever I go for the next few months.
7. Police: I almost forgot to mention them. What a bunch of mindless jerks! Why do so many people want to spend their lives watching other people live theirs? I guess it's a case of if you can't beat them, join them.
8. Power cuts: I have been suffering those since mid November when I entered India. I just hope Thailand has the stuff for 24hrs a day, luxury.
9. Miles: You get so many more kilometres for you money, who uses miles anymore anyway?
10. Military Dictatorships: Guess I shouldn't say too much about that other than it has put me right off going to North Korea!

10 things I WILL miss about Myanmar

1. Trishaws: They are ordinary bike with sidecars bolted on (photo), I want one!
2. Free tea: You get unlimited free tea in every cafe, you aren't even expected to buy anything else.
3. US$1200
4. Clean sheets: even in the most basic of guest houses (not that I am allowed to stay in those!)
5. Longyi: See text, also one being worn in photo. They must be lovely and cool in the heat.
6. Keepy Upy: Seems to be the national sport. Played by men of all ages with a wicker made ball. They are really good at it with lots of back flicks, good entertainment.
7. Bagan
8. Flat bells: Bell shaped but flat and very heavy, make a lovely sound when struck with just about anything.
9. Golden pointy things.
10. Blowing kisses: The sound made in cafes and restaurants to attract the attention for service. I tried it but it didn't work, I don't think I could do it loud enough, more practice needed.

So do I regret coming to Myanmar? No, not at all. They have been some of the most intense experiences of the whole trip so far, ok most of them bad, but I have always wanted to come here and if I hadn't, then that desire would still be there. Besides, the backpackers I talk to haven't had the same problems for obvious reasons, so most people come even and go away with just good experiences. Everybody that travels has different experiences in the same place, some good, some bad. That's travel, that's life.

There are also those that say you shouldn't come here as it is just funding the government. That may be the case for package tours, but certainly not in my case. I never stayed at government run hotels and never used government transport. The buses I used from Bago to Yangon were privately run. Of course the places I did stay at have to pay tax, about 10% I believe, but with all the police time I have wasted whilst I have been here I am sure that they have made a loss from me, I did a good job!


dad said...

A note for Caff - Gold pointy things are,I asume, the temples. Give me the Latin names of the pointy flowers you saw and I will try to find the English translation. Enjoy Thailand John, haven't been there before? I shall be very thankful when you get there.

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