Monday, October 13, 2008

Myanmar: Twenty-eight Days in the Golden Land of Burma (Part VII)

"I have found out that there ain't no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them." - Mark Twain

Chapter Seven - Excursion into Northern Shan state

It was a bright sunny day. The route to Pyin U Lwin is quite scenic though rather busy, and it occurred to me that the drivers in this region were less courteous, less thoughtful than where we'd been before. The road winds its way up through the hills, sometimes passing a 'view-point'. Personally, I found these viewing points very badly chosen; there are better opportunities along the way: just keep your eyes open.
The roads were being repaired. As we passed them, the gangs of workers stared at us expressionlessly. Some signalled us to give them money. Phone Kyaw said most were prisoners. I said: "If they're prisoners, then why don't they run? I see no guards." "They're prisoners who've almost done their term. They're dropped off in the morning and picked up again in the evening. If they run away, they will be caught again and spend a long time in prison. Now they probably have a maximum of six months to go." "What are they? Political prisoners?" "No, not political. Thieves, murderers or rapists, most likely. Political prisoners aren't allowed out on their own." In Myanmar, as in some other countries, people with outspoken political opinions are considered more dangerous than murderers.

Myanmar didn't strike me as a country of murderers and rapists, stories about the misbehaviour of soldiers in the inaccessible zones apart. Phone Kyaw said murder in Burma is mostly an impulse crime; sometimes the men who commit it are drunk. "And not all convicted rapists are guilty. Sometimes they're just men who visit a prostitute. Prostitution often places a very heavy burden of guilt and shame on the woman involved and from time to time it happens that during copulation these feelings get the upper hand, especially if she's caught. She may then file a complaint with the police in an attempt to save face, resulting in the man being arrested for rape."

Entering Pyin U Lwin, formerly known as Maymyo, we passed the Purcell Clock Tower, a gift of Queen Victoria. Maymyo was a hill station to which the British liked to retreat from the summer heat, but when we were there it was bloody hot, even though it's at an elevation of almost 1,100 metres (3,600 ft). The town looks distinctly colonial but - contrary to what's often said of the place - the atmosphere is no longer typically British. Diagonally opposite the clock tower a beautiful, pastel green mosque adorns the street scene; it's one of the few mosques in Burma that don't have a totally neglected appearance. Colourful carriages, somewhat reminiscent of those seen in Wild West films, are the preferred way of getting around town.

None of us felt the urge to spend a lot of time in Pyin U Lwin. We only went to see the Pwe Kyauk Falls, about eight kilometres (5 miles) north-east of town. They're also known as the Hampshire or Be Falls. Not high or mind-blowing they still make for a nice spot to relax for a while, and there is a fruit and vegetable market where one can buy excellent fresh groceries. We bought two pineapples, a bargain at K70 a piece.
A photography permit for the falls is K75. There are a couple of small eateries where you can have a drink or simple (but safe) meal. While sitting there I started to feel as though I was getting the flu.

The drive from Pyin U Lwin to Hsipaw is delightful. Everything around you is green and hilly. The people along the way are shy but friendly. At a certain point the road traverses the same 300 metres (984 ft) deep ravine as spanned by the famous Gokteik railway bridge, which can be seen in the distance. When it was built by the British in 1903, it was the second highest such bridge in the world and a unique engineering feat. Some people make the train journey from Mandalay to Lashio solely to cross this bridge which even after renovation shows its age, but it's a fact that the span can be observed much better from the road...
The road descends into the gorge as a series of really tight hairpin bends. Fortunately the most critical spots have been bordered by concrete blocks and other barriers. A truck driver who had become stuck will have thanked heaven for that. The turns are so tight the trucks have to drive as far to the outside as possible to avoid hitting the ground with the middle of the vehicle. The lorries are also so overloaded they become top-heavy, are lowered too much, become difficult to manoeuvre and the utmost is demanded from suspension and brakes. The combination of all these factors had probably led to the hairy situation this driver was in. Luckily for us we could get past, but only just. We were less fortunate on our way out of the ravine... Another truck (coming from the opposite direction, so also descending) had become stuck, obviously for the same reasons as the previous one. The driver was in a much more dire position than his colleague. The road was completely blocked and the truck didn't need much to make it go over the edge. Within no time there was a real traffic-jam; all drivers and passengers, including ourselves, got out of their vehicles, sat down in the scorching sun and waited while a handful of brave lads tried to get the truck moving again. They had all the trouble in the world, especially as they had to be very careful not to send the lorry down the mountain slope. Finally, a couple of hours later the problem was solved and we were on our way again.

The road tax booths in this part of the Shan state are really modern with automatic barriers and digital ticket machines, but come with prices to match: the road tax here is among the highest in the country. In all fairness I must say that the roads are good. Sometimes very narrow they were being expanded by road workers, ordinary ones this time, not prisoners. Phone Kyaw had to drive very carefully. Still, we were sometimes passed by Mandalay taxi drivers in a great hurry. They were heading towards the Chinese border, to the town of Mu-Se. They need to drive fast to make the trip within one day. Travel from Lashio to Mu-Se is not permitted for foreigners; only businessmen can go.

The road went through a village. In the distance I saw what looked like a boy riding a hippopotamus. When we came closer I saw it actually was a really fat albino buffalo, the biggest I've ever seen. Obviously I stopped to take a picture; in no time most people in the small settlement were outside, looking and laughing at the crazy white man who was busy taking a photograph of a domestic animal. Shortly before entering the township of Hsipaw, a major Shan principality, the road passes Bawgyo Paya, the most revered paya in northern Shan state and built in the local style. It's beautiful; exquisitely carved wooden panels adorn the outer walls while inside are four important crafted wooden Buddha images, dating back to 1175.
The old caretakers were odd characters. Their faces reminded me of the fellows in the Chinese opium-den in the Tin-Tin album 'The Blue Lotus'. They watched our every move, without saying a word. Shortly before I left I gave a donation, at which one of them seemed to awaken and promptly handed me a leaflet explaining about the paya and its antiques. He smiled, showing his poorly cared for teeth, and it turned out he even spoke English.

We didn't know where to stay the night in Hsipaw. Phone Kyaw asked around; it was his first visit there too. Locals directed us to Mr Kid's Guesthouse, near the entrance to town (coming from Pyin U Lwin). The proprietor showed us rooms on the ground and first floors. Washing basins, a shower and toilets were outside, so it was more convenient to have a room on the ground floor, especially in the middle of the night if there is a power failure. A bathroom on the first floor was being installed when we were there, so it may be finished by the time you read this.

Rooms are very basic but clean cardboard cubicles. Ours had a bed, a rickety table with iron legs and a fan and a wire with a simple light bulb was hanging from the ceiling. We could forget about light and cooling most of the time, though, because electricity was truly problematic. Sleeping was difficult because there was a lot of noise, especially in the early morning when the Burmese guests were leaving and the school next door opened. I also advise you to use mosquito nets in this place - this is definitely a malarial area.
We found out too late that 'Mr Kid' hadn't been very straight with us; he charged us K500 per person while all guest houses in Hsipaw apparently have an agreement to ask 250 Kyats per person per night. When I queried this with Mr Kid, he told me we actually had a room for four but he'd arrange a reduction. In the end, this 'reduction' turned out to be only 50 Kyat per person, a joke.

The place is not so bad but due to it being extremely noisy and the manager's attitude I cannot recommend it; there are several other guesthouses in town where they are more honest. We got most of our information from a very friendly man nicknamed 'Mr Book'. He owns a bookshop in town; I don't know the address but everybody will be able to direct you to him, especially other travellers. His little shop has become a true travellers' hangout because the man's so extremely kind and helpful and speaks excellent English. He's a great chap to talk to; if you're there, go and see him, you'll discover he's very eager to talk about even the most sensitive subjects...

At Mr Book's we met Simon, an English traveller, two French guys travelling together and a French lady travelling alone. All were really nice except the French broad who clearly despised us for travelling around by car. She was very curt to us. I've travelled via public transport many times myself and I've never disliked anyone I met for getting around by whatever means. During the conversations I repeatedly heard the 'titles' Mr Book, Mr Basket, Mrs Noodle, Ms Medicine, etc. This was too much of a coincidence, so I asked why everybody called him/herself Mister or Mistress. Apparently the Israeli travellers, who've turned Hsipaw into something like their own private Burma hangout, found the Burmese names too difficult to pronounce or even remember and made up easier names relating to the profession or a characteristic of the person in question. It does make things a bit easier in Hsipaw, and those so renamed even seem to take pride in their new designations; it has even led to some of them actively studying English.

Mr Book invited us to watch an English football game on the telly in the evening, but I had to refuse because I'd started to feel really unwell and wasn't in the mood for entertainment. I was sorry to have to decline his invitation, but in any case I'm not a football fan - as a matter of fact, I hate it. Our friendly host then said he'd show us around town the next morning, and "organise something" for us in the afternoon. He said that if I could hang on a while longer we could go and see the sunset from Thaintaung Paya. I could.

Dokhtawady river
A track leads to the top of this hilltop pagoda, which is located on the other side of the Dokhtawady river, along the way to Lashio. A rusty old bridge - British of course - is the only way to cross the stream. It's well-guarded by soldiers, who were - surprise, surprise - very happy to see us. They waved at us until we were out of sight.

Up the hill we first went to pay our respects to the resident monks. They were very welcoming and gave us a quick tour of the small adjacent monastery. We were shown the pictures and remains of a very old monk who used to live and meditate there. Allegedly, some of his bones miraculously would not burn in the cremation fire. His cell - in the most literal sense of the word! - was still there. I don't know how it was possible, but it felt as if the monk was still around. At the time I was shivering and my legs were shaking, not because of the awe I felt but because I was feverish and definitely sickening. And I still don't know why - especially because I'm normally the last person to do it - but I prayed to the old monk, and asked him to make me well again. I promised to make a good donation to the first monastery I entered after that, regardless of whether I was healed or not. Spending some time in deeply religious Myanmar really has an effect on a person's mind.

We said good-bye to the friendly monks and went to see the sunset. It wasn't the setting sun itself but the entire view of the Hsipaw region that was simply stunning. The town lay below us, beyond the river. Behind it were deep-green mountains, and stretching from left to right a paler green valley. It was so quiet, so beautiful, so peaceful... It was as if time passed so much less quickly there. The smoke from cooking fires slowly wafted up from the chimneys, to gradually diffuse and form a fog which was almost held in place by the mountains blocking the wind. It was an ideal place for contemplation - really my kind of place.
We had to eat - apart from breakfast it was the first time that day - so that's what we did. The Hwai Ta Chinese restaurant is a very friendly place serving wonderful, cheap meals. Although I wasn't well, I did manage to eat all the food on my plate.

When I got up the next morning, the first thing that crossed my mind was that the old monk had heard my prayers; I felt really good. Perhaps the day before had been just a hiccup, or maybe it was due to fatigue or the lack of food. I'll never know for sure what cured me but I was OK, that was the important thing.
We had an appointment with Mr Book. He was happy to see us, inquired about my health, then took us to the market. There we met Mr Bean (not the TV comic!), Ms Medicine, Mr Basket - all very kind folks - and finally Mrs Noodle. She served us a tasty Shan noodle soup with pig skin crackers.
I asked Mr Book where I could buy some saffron. Saffron is very expensive at home; in Asia it's often available at a much lower price. He said not to buy it in Hsipaw but in Mandalay. It was cheaper there and the quality was better. He then left us, because he had to open his shop.

After breakfast we went for a stroll on the market. All kinds of goods (but mainly fruit, vegetables, fish and meat) were on sale. The women selling them were really colourful, and often lived in nearby or remote villages. They hardly paid attention to us - the market is very much a local matter.

Phone Kyaw took us to the Hsipaw Haw, better known as the Shan Palace, the residence of the last Shan Prince and now of his nephew who takes care of it. His name is Sao Oo Kya but he likes to be called Donald by foreigners. His wife is Sao Sarm Hpong, called Fern. The palace is not publicly accessible but the family is happy to see foreign visitors; if they're home, you can visit. We opened the iron gate of the premises, closed it behind us and headed towards the main building, which was smaller than I'd expected and actually just a residential house in a rather unusual architectural style. We were welcomed by Fern. She called her husband, who in turn gave us the grand tour of the domain. He's a very clever man, who knows a great deal about religion, architecture, art, health and hygiene, farming, etc. But his main interest is politics, which he's not afraid to talk about, in contrast to most of his fellow countrymen. Not particularly impressive on its own, the Palace is the essence of the Shan question and photographs and a genealogical tree inside the building illustrate the history of the Shan princes. Donald explained it all at length. However, his explanations and opinions about what happened to the prince were vague to say the least.

At the risk of being rude towards our host, I came away feeling that he's only really interested in people he can use for his cause (and that's the Shan cause). All the time he was probing us to see what we could do for him. When he finally realised we were just ordinary working blokes, not actively involved in politics or journalism, his interest waned and he wanted rid of us, not as soon as possible but quickly anyway. Also, above the very first photograph in the house is a message saying "Donations appreciated, but not less than 1 Dollar". Come on! That's downright arrogant. Phone Kyaw, a devout Buddhist, was visibly (but not verbally) upset by it. After I'd given a donation of 'not less than one dollar', I was taken to the living room where I was shown some books that had been given to him as presents by other travellers. There was yet another donation box, fortunately this time with a text not committing one to anything.

Donald kept telling us how poor he was and how he needed money for the upkeep of the Haw - which I can very well understand. But later I found out that he's the owner of vast orchards and has interests in other businesses too. According to one group of locals I talked to (not supporters of the military regime), he's a wealthy man who should not be begging for money. This opinion is completely the opposite of another faction. They see "Mr Donald" as a god capable of solving all problems if given the chance. The reality is probably somewhere in between. He's definitely one of the smarter and more potentially powerful individuals in Shan state, but his behavior is that of a politician: he evidently uses people and their money to further his own aims.

We returned to Mr Book's where we met Simon, the Englishman, and the French lady again. Mr Book wanted us to go and visit some Shan villages together. He was a good organiser. I bicycled with him to a longboat jetty on the Dokhtawady river to find out if and when we could take a boat and how much that would cost us. It turned out that a boat would be leaving shortly and the price was K50 per person. We hurried back to the bookshop, but stopped on the way to buy some filled rolls to take with us.

We would go by boat to the village of Soun Lon where we could look around for a while, then take another boat on to Soun Lung. From there we would have to walk a little to the main Hsipaw - Lashio road where Phone Kyaw would come to pick us up by car. Sounded good. Mr Book drew a map to help keep our bearings. Simon took it. The lot of us returned to the jetty. The French lady (unfortunately I've forgotten her name; I'm terrible with names) was clearly strongly attracted to Simon, and I think he fancied her as well.
In the few conversations we had, the French woman had always pretended she was omniscient when it came to Asian customs. Apparently she wasn't... She and Simon had been travelling for half a year or more (but not together) and had been all over South East Asia. So I was surprised to hear them ask Mr Book the simplest questions, questions which I knew the answer to before I embarked on the trip, or which had already been answered by Phone Kyaw.

When we arrived on the river bank, the boat was already coming in. His Kindness Mr Book wanted to take the hawser to tie it around a nearby pole. To be able to do that, he stood on a couple of tree-trunks floating in the water. Not a terribly smart thing to do... He fell into the river and nearly got jammed between the pole he wanted to tie the rope to and the longboat. Instead of panicking and/or trying to get out of the water, he calmly accepted fate and pretended to be bathing. Wonderful chap!

We said good-bye to him and Phone Kyaw and the boat took off. It was crammed with people returning home from the market(s), carrying their left-over goods. The sides of the boat were almost level with the water; abrupt course changes or the wakes of passing boats made it feel as if the boat was about to turn over, eliciting soft cries of terror from some of the female passengers. The sun was shining mercilessly on our heads, which were fortunately protected by caps. Lizards shot through our legs and jumping spiders hopped over our shoulders. The shore had a lush, jungle appearance. Ah, it was an enjoyable trip (although Simon and his friend didn't say a word to us).

About seventy or so minutes later the boat docked at the Soun Lon landing. Kris and I stood near the edge of the river for a short while, gazing at the scenery. When we turned around again, our companions - for - the - day were gone. We made our way through the high grass, towards the village. There they were. We teamed up again and entered the nearby monastery. The village was preparing for festivities. Novice monks were rehearsing on musical instruments and quite surprised to suddenly see foreigners turn up unannounced in their quarters. None of them spoke English. I wanted to find someone to introduce ourselves to, but our 'friends' had a different opinion. They just sat there, talking to each other as if they were on a picnic. Unable to stand it any longer, Kris and I left the monastery and went for a drink at a nearby stall.

After about half an hour Simon came out. I asked him to see the map but instead of showing it to me, he showed it to his (girl)friend. What an arsehole! I offered them a drink but they turned me down and instead went into the village. We finished our Crusher (a Burmese soft drink). As expected they didn't come looking for us, so we decided to go and look for them. After all, they had the map; we would never be able to find the jetty without a map.

We decided upon a leisurely walk through the village to see if we could find them. The village consisted of typical wooden huts with symmetric, sloping roofs. It was built amidst the trees and scrub, in which colourful spiders had spun their webs. I tried saying 'Hello' to several people but nobody responded. Nobody paid any attention to us - just like in the Hsipaw market. Weird. I think the villagers were too shy.
We finally found our pals sitting in a hut; a family had invited them in. We were signalled to enter too. We removed our shoes and walked up the wooden stairs. A fat old lady with incredibly saggy breasts sat in the middle of the floor, made of wooden planks. The hut, more like a house, was nice inside with several separate rooms. The old lady lived there with her husband, grown-up children and children-in-law, who were all in the back of the room, chuckling at the strange visitors. She was very friendly and did all the talking - talking we couldn't understand as there was no-one to translate for us. The French chick feigned she understood it, but actually didn't know what the Shan lady was on about. Her ten word vocabulary was of very little use. She looked down on us because we had a car and a driver who did all the translations for us, but now she could see how interesting conversations are if you don't know what the other person is talking about! Simon, definitely not the guy I'd expected him to be when I first met him, pretended he was sleeping. How sociable! They're the kind of travellers I rather not meet. They have an air of 'knowing it all' and look down on people who try to make the most of their period in a country in a way which is different from theirs, but actually they know shit.

Fortunately, the old woman was inventive and by using gestures she managed to make some kind of conversation. She acted as if she was flying, made a "Ta-ta-ta-ta-ta" noise and mentioned 'Japon', then ducked; clearly she was talking about sheltering from the attacks of Japanese aeroplanes in the war. She got out an old Thai Airways in-flight magazine and turned to the pages with the world map showing the flight routes. She wanted us to point to the country we lived in. Very clever!

She also said some things about the Buddha; that much was clear, but what exactly was impossible to comprehend. She noticed and decided to change subject. She got out several kinds of vegetables and spices which they grew themselves: cucumbers, cloves, peas, beans,... She wanted us to taste all of them. I was very surprised that before cutting up the cucumber she thoroughly cleaned her machete-like knife with soap and water. As I have said before, the people in Myanmar are generally well aware of personal hygiene. When she passed me, she couldn't resist feeling my arm. White skin was something she obviously envied. I pulled up my T-shirt and showed her my very white belly. She brought her hands to her cheeks, shook back her head and let out a loud "Oooooohhh!". Everybody in the house was fascinated but only the old gal was brave enough to touch my tummy.

After an hour or so Simon decided it was time to go. We said good-bye, then tried to find the jetty where we had to take the boat to the next village, Soun Lung. Most people didn't reply to our questions and those who did indicated they didn't understand what we were on about. We finally found someone who did; it turned out that we were standing 30 feet from where the boat would come in.

Boat full of oranges heading towards Soun Lung The vessel was completely full of oranges. The boatmen weren't counting on taking along passengers but nevertheless arranged something: we could all sit in a spot near the bow - well, on the bow is more accurate.

The trip took barely fifteen minutes. We didn't have to pay as an apology for putting us in an 'uncomfortable' position. Simon and his 'fiancée' suddenly weren't much interested in having a look around the village; they'd learned their lesson. So we gave Soun Lung a miss and headed towards the main road where Phone Kyaw was waiting with the car. Had our French companion been consistant, she would have refused the ride but no, she was only too happy to get in. When we arrived back at Mr Book's, she left us without a word.

The moral of this story: don't visit small villages off the beaten track without a guide/interpreter. There's little or no fun in it, as you just can't communicate with the people.

It had been a fun day despite all annoyances; Hsipaw is a great place to spend some time. In the evening we went up the hill to see the sunset and had supper at the Hwai Ta Restaurant again, because it was such a good place. In the morning we had breakfast at Mrs Noodle's shop, said good-bye and thanked Mr Book, checked out of the guesthouse and headed back towards Pyin U Lwin. I would have liked to spend longer in this part of the country, but our itinerary didn't allow us to. Maybe later...

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