Tuesday, 5 June 2007

King of the road to a soy chai latte

I've well and truely crossed the one week mark in Myanmar (as now rolls off the tongue rather than the English 'Burma' ) and I think I've negotiated every kind of transportation available to 'foreigners' in the country. From the cycle trikshaw, where a poor soul carries either one or two back-to-back passengers, pillion-style through the crazy heat, to hitching a lift in a truck carrying black-market fuel to the outskirts of the country, it's been done. I've taken local buses between towns which means a 70 kilometer journey from Kalaw to the Pindaya caves (8094 buddhas in some limestone caves) took 12 hours there and back. The journey to Pindaya cost US$1 to get there, with 22 people and their luggage stuffed into the tray of a Hilux ute, with another 10 standing on the roof for the 1 1/2 hour journey. On the way back (there were no more buses after noon) it cost us US$10 to hire motos with drivers to get most of the way back, followed by hitching a lift with the truck between the last two towns.

To assure you mum, it's safe here. There aren't too many travellers but there are enough to get by with. I travelled with the intrepid Belgians (sic?) for a couple of days - Golden Rock and Bago - making some friends that are welcoming us to their home near Gent anytime we choose. Bring on Belgium pancakes, I say.

After Bago, I made it to Kalaw for some trekking in the hills. The ride took 16 hours via big bus. When it comes to the roads, size matters in Myanmar and buses are at the top of the food chain. The big bus journeys are characterised by a soundtrack of funny, terrible karaoke videos and the bus drivers honking their way through the towns. On the three hour bus ride from Bago to Kalaw, we heard a one music video no less than eight times. They also use their horn to tell people (scooters, bikes, pedestrials, minivans, trucks - anyone smaller) to get out of their way, and then to thank them for getting out of their way. Noise is a constant.

Kalaw was an interesting, but sonambulous place. The LP describes it as one of the most backpacker-friendly towns in Myanmar, but other than a couple of guesthouses and trekking guides, I didn't see any evidence of this. No internet (again). US$5 a minute to make an international phone call. But there were many Nepalese people in the area, which was curious and meant great food plus an authentic soy chai latte. Most of the 150 Nepalese families in the town are descendants of the gurkhas who came to Myanmar with the Allied Forces to fight off the Japanese during the Second World War. Seeing an oppurtunity in the fertility of the planes, many stayed behind of their own will to farm the land, not being provided (even today) with any assistance or land from the British or now, the Burmese. These Nepalese speak four languages - Nepalese and Hindi at home, plus Burmese, English and often the languages of those Burmese tribes that live in the surrounding hills. It puts us Aussies to shame!

Yesterday and today we went trekking to see some of these tribes - Palaung, Danu and Tangu-Yo people that live in the surrounding hills. Fortunately for them, agriculture and a little tourism (not now) thanks to their proximity to Kalaw is bringing more wealth to them. The downside is that it seemed to me that they were not living so much their tribal ways, even as much as that of the displaced (Burmese) Lahu and Karen tribes I visited in northern thailand last year.

Global warming is another concern that is noticable in this cooler, higher area. There are cobras around that have never been seen before. They can grow mangos now. Malaria is more commonplace thanks to the greater number of mosquitos.

On finishing the trek, a kiwi, english lass (current travel companions) and me headed to Inle Lake this evening, which is much more used to seeing tourists. I'm staying at the 'Little Inn' for the next couple of nights at least.

So I'm well and safe. Sending happy birthday messages to Miss Wong. You must be a whole 23 darling - may you have an awesome birthday and year.

Love to all. Cazx

PS: Richie, I think there is a photocopied version of the Myanmar LP in the bookshelf in the hallway. That might give a bit of insight into where I am, with you in Soi Chai Lattes. xx

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