Friday 17 February – The Road to Mandalay

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We have a new perspective on ‘Nellie the Elephant’ but more on that later.

We made an early start after a cold night, the van driving us half an hour or so out of town for a 54 km ride – three legs each got more and more undulating – make that hilly, as the day got hotter, as we rode through rolling countryside and villages. Mr Win and Jaw’s packing 6 bikes plus us and our luggage into an ordinary Hi-Ace van was quite a feat!

We stopped on the way at a school, donated some toys and observed a gorgeous line of children singing the national anthem and then trooping into their classroom to recite by rote prayers and chants. The very basic classroom has a whiteboard which surprised me.

We were glad to reach our lunch point – a highlight of this trip has been eating lunch at small local eating establishments – fried rice, and noodles are always available as well as variations on chicken, pork and fish curries.

The van was again loaded with bags and bikes and we set out on the road to Mandalay. Greg observed that the description of this route in the briefing, was a long descent and wondered why we weren’t cycling as it sounded as if it would be a blast! We soon found out why. The journey to Mandalay included a long descent all right, but it was possible to navigate the road only at a snail’s pace because of the hairpin bends, the dusty and stony surfaces resembling a quarry, sheer drops and two delays while graders cleared slips. From the top, it was possible to see the road zigzagging around the hills way down to the green fertile valley floor, and the rest of the 4 hour drive was through lowland villages and towns on the outskirts of Mandalay, to the city with its roads teeming with motorcycles (mostly Chinese – we have been told that they are a third the cost of the Japanese models) to our hotel, the Eastern Palace, and a glorious shower and we looked forward to availing ourselves of the swimming pool. We went out in vain in search of chocolate and I imagined the headlines “NZ couple in search of chocolate, mown down by Mandalay traffic!”

We have noted no visible military presence nor fast food outlets but I’m sure I is a matter of time before they move in. Also because tourism is not huge here yet, people we pass yell out Mingalaba, Tata, or Hello and seem intrigued and friendly. Most signs do not have English subtitles, so it is hard to work out what many of the buildings are – have seen few medical facilities or hospitals, but it may be that we haven’t identified them as such.

Thursday 16 February – Lake Inle to Pindaya

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Pindaya is on the shores of Lake Ponetaloke and the ride there was about 63 km, not overly far but a very demanding ride nevertheless. Initially the road was flat and through rural villages, then came a very tough 10 km ascent, less steep than K2 but twice as long, which I was rapt to manage although I was thoroughly stuffed when we reached the first snack stop. Juddy rode behind admiring my….fortitude! As each 20 km was knocked off,  we had snacks set out beautifully on a table: peanut brittle….yum yum, chips, cookies, fruit, and canned coke which I’ve become quite fond of, for its coldness, its fluidness but also its caffeine content! As we have become used to, there was lots of the motorcycle and truck traffic but again we felt relatively safe as they did keep their distance and sounded their horns in a ‘here I am about to pass you’ way rather than as in NZ ‘get the f2#$^&%@ out of my way’ routine.

After the hills, the ride was through the countryside around Heho airport, but was getting hotter and hotter and we were grateful for the shade of the enormous sacred (you are advised not to choose them to pee under) banyan trees, a bit like Morton Bay fig trees as in Albert Park, for our snacks and a ‘bus shelter’ for our takeaway lunch.

The soil is an amazing bright red colour and while some of the roads are narrow, the surface wasn’t too bad. Some stretches were being paved….by hand! Stones were being broken up with hammers, women were laying them on by hand and bitumen was heated in drums and spread over the stones.

We were pleased to arrive at our fairly flash accommodation earlyish for a pathetic shower and a trip to some limestone caves housing thousands of Buddhas. How many Buddhas does one need? And stupas for that matter.  We were amused at the depiction of an enormous spider being shot by bow and arrow outside this tourist destination, an illustration of one of the legends of Burmese Buddhism. We also visited a cottage where paper made out of mulberry leaves and bamboo umbrellas  are made. I will look at Rachel’s with new respect given this process is so labour intensive.

Wednesday 15 February – Lake Inle

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What a memorable day!

When we arrived at Lake Inle yesterday, as we meandered around the canal, we spotted the most amazing boats – wooden, like long canoes and a cross between rowing eights boats and jet skis, noses in the air with huge motors at the back, water spouting out the back, apparently hooning at great speeds on the canal. However it wasn’t in fact hooning – this is normal lake transport behaviour which we then experienced for ourselves on our short 20 km ride and lake trip today.

The ride was similar to yesterday’s but the road surface better and we were met at a lakeside village by two of the aforementioned lake craft, all set up with cushioned wooden seats, four, one behind the other, huge life jackets, synthetic rugs and umbrellas, the need for which we discovered later. The motors powered up and away we went across the lake, passing fishermen some using their feet to operate the oars on their smaller motorised versions of the boats we were in, and men harvesting lake weed for fertiliser. We headed for a village on poles which was accessed only by boat – the houses were similar in structure to the ones we saw on land. We were shown in one section of this village, lotus and silk weaving factories – the lotus roots contain a fibre which is woven into gorgeous fabrics and their products were on display in showrooms for the tourists transported in similar boats to ours. I felt a bit like a colonial or a tourist on a Venice canal. When the heavens opened we were grateful for the umbrellas and the rugs as we were woefully unprepared for the coolness of the very cloudy day. We were impressed with the skill of the skipper. These boats are not just for tourists but represent business as usual transport for the floating villagers and we saw many of them speeding across the lake.

We visited a couple of temples – hopefully that’s it for the trip as they are garish, lavish, ugly with the juxtaposition of religion and tourist commerce.

Tuesday February 14 – Kalaw to Inle Lake

imageimage79 Km was the scheduled ride today, commencing with a retracing of ‘steps’ of the last stretch of yesterday’s ride. I opted on the advice of my cycling coach and the guide,  to ride in the van for the first leg, then joined the group for the second straightforward leg,  rode in the van for the third leg which was much like the most challenging of yesterday’s ride  ( I was happy to avoid that on the grounds of sore wrists) and then rode the last 20 km to Inle Lake – had the chance to open the throttle although the roads, though better than the tracks, were still rough and unpredictable.  It was hot.

We rode through lowlands lush with banana palms, sunflowers, sugar cane, bamboo and rice, past villages with small houses with walls made of bamboo like the mats the Tongans wear around their waists, and created in a variety of patterns according to colour. Some had corrugated iron roofs, some were thatched. We saw piles of post harvest sugar cane foliage some of which is burned to make molasses and mainly women working in the fields.

We noted that motorcycles were uncommon in Yangong, but they abound in the rural areas – petrol is cheap and while not as unbelievably laden as they were in Vietnam, they are still the main means of transport although small trucks with exposed motors like motormowers of the past are used for people and goods. Buffalo-drawn carts are also used.

En route we visited a Buddhist temple with hundreds of stupas, approached by a long sloping path lined with tourist oriented stalls – all with similar merchandise – garments, wooden carvings, jewellery. It’s always interesting to observe that if one takes an interest in an apparently unmanned stall, magically someone materialises and try their best to sell you something – there has been remarkably little of that so far elsewhere. Prominent are brightly coloured headscarves worn by the rural women. We had to cover our knees when we visited the temple resulting in a somewhat unfortunate combination of my New Zealand flag cycle shirt and my wraparound tapa cloth patterned skirt and manky leather riding sandals.

The people are friendly and our “Mingalaba”greetings seems appreciated.

Mr Winn and Jaw provide as expected were very attentive and provided us with snacks and filled our water bottles every 20 km or so. Paul, the judge fainted as he had been unwell with a fever and the d’s for a few days and Greg officiated with the first aid kit as he lacerated his arm in the fall from the bike, on one water stop. Meals en route and at our destinations of local fare have been great with watercress, broccolini and variations on chicken, pork and fish curries.

This area was probably as about as touristy as we had seen so far, with lots of foreigners some on hired bikes, whom we sped past as thy meandered along the same roads! Is this the Bali or Pokhara of Myanmar?

Monday February 13 – Yangong to Kalaw

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imageIt was an early but eagerly anticipated start being taxied to the airport clutching our breakfast boxes. It was the usual busy airport scene as we were processed for our one hour internal Air KBZ to Heho. Guess who forgot about a long buried Swiss army pocket knife and much to her chagrin had to empty her toilet bag as they searched for and of course confiscated it. It was piss-offing!

More food on the flight – we are being exceptionally well fed on this trip, as we have always found – but then these trips do cost an arm and a leg. Let’s hope we are able to cycle it all off. We were met by a smiling Spice Road guide – Jaw (sp?) and equally smiling and obliging driver – Mr Winn (sp?) and driven for about 45 minutes to the Dream Villa Hotel.

Kalaw is in the hills – an ex hill station for British colonials, and the temperature pleasantly cooler. We were accommodated in a beautiful teak panelled room with all mods cons and were exceptionally grateful for the hot shower after the scheduled ‘short’ ride. 36 kms sounded like it would be a doddle, so we set out on our specially tailored mountain bikes and bike gear thrilled to be cycling at last.

Well, the ride was one of the most challenging I have done, initially on ‘paved’ roads through small towns, then at 21 km turning off on to very-challenging-to stay-on-the-bike tracks which were very stony, rutted and up and down but fortunately dry, winding through villages perched on the side of the hills. Houses were made of concrete bricks with wooden shutters and reminded us of Namche Bazaar architecture.
We saw cabbages, cauliflower, turmeric, ginger, tea and lots of unidentifiable things being grown with mostly women working in the fields, and much of the traffic we saw was taking the produce to market. Buffaloes looked shortsightedly and lazily at us.

The somewhat misty views were spectacular over flat, dry patchwork fields.

We completed the most challenging stretch and closed the loop back to the hotel along quite busy roads with myriads of motorcycles and trucks all heading ‘home’ as the sun set – we had to ride quite steadily and arrived exhausted but satisfied back at the hotel just after sunset and a very very welcome shower and food at a local restaurant.

Sunday February 12 – Yangong

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After a hotel breakfast consisting of what is probably local fare but somewhat rich for that hour of the morning: fried rice, shaved chicken, chicken thighs, eggs and some fruit with a small representation of western food, we ventured out on foot along a main road towards the central city, dawdling towards a market shown on the map but this ended up being a large department store under construction. Hands were held tightly and accompanied by the odd “shit shit shit’ as we manoeuvred our way across the roads at intersections, doing what the locals do, observing the traffic flow and the traffic light.

All the time the temperature was getting hotter and we sweated all over which necessitated copious imbibing of water. We passed government buildings, a school of nursing, a large hospital, and surprisingly an Anglican cathedral and Methodist and Baptist churches along with Buddhist shrines on lamp posts and a garish Hindu temple. We can see a huge golden pagoda from our hotel window.

We found a large and busy local market. Garish is a good word to describe a lot of what we saw with evidence of trashy Chinese plastic goods, and material from Thailand which the locals have made up into elegant long skirts and tight short sleeved tops for the women and lava lava equivalents for the men. I was glad I was wearing a long skirt too. The stall-lined lanes had their designations – meat streets with a variety of fresh cuts of chicken and pork, vegetarian inspiring viscera and fish, vegetable street, sewing machine street etc. We observed that the people we encountered were quite reserved and there was none of the loud and insistent badgering we had encountered in Delhi.

We didn’t linger as by late morning we were ready because of the heat, reportedly 30+, to catch a taxi back to the air conditioned comfort of Panda. Women in their finery clutching presents were evidence that there are a couple of weddings being held in the hotel reception rooms today.

 

Friday 11 February 2017 – Auckland to Yangong

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It’s marvellous to be peripatetic again, having had the disappointment of cancelling our planned trip to London to visit Nicki et al and then cycling in Slovenia, Italy and Croatia in July of last year on account of “The Hip!”

We decided on this trip because Myanmar is relatively closer to home than Europe, the climate is favourable at this time of the year and Greg has Michael Fraser to locum for him. But Google any country and key in ‘cycling’ and there are hundreds of options.

We left home for a 1.30 am flight to Singapore purchased cheaply at the time of an Air New Zealand ‘sale’, after a riotous ‘last supper’ with the mouldy lot and the mouldy littles. This was the last time for us all to be together for a year or three as Rachel and family fly out in a few days’ time after a fabulous three week visit with some days spent at the Jac House. We all traipsed along Huia Road at the Chev and enjoyed a variety of ethnic dishes at the community centre before heading to Casa Huia where the six cousins entertained us and each other – they so enjoy each other’s company – it’s wonderful and all the more reason it is time for Rachel and Pete to seriously consider coming home……for good, soon.

Rachel dropped us off at the airport, a reversal of roles but somewhat easier to handle than the usual painful farewells at the airport departure area.

First leg was to Singapore, an uneventful 9 hour flight. I had ordered Hindu meals which means we got ours first – works every time!  Front seats with heaps of leg room did not assist much with cankles very much in evidence, their appearance redeemed somewhat by red toenail. We spent hours dozing and reading at Singapore airport while waiting for our 2 1/2 flight to Yangon and enjoyed dosa and spicy soup for lunch. Loved browsing at Muji but the handy screwdriver sets which we have found so useful would be prohibited as potentially offensive weapons so we will try and pick up a couple of sets on the way back and pack them in the checked bags. We are travelling quite light. I’m using my faithful old pack and Greg essentially an overnight bag. Packing is always a challenge to cover all contingencies.

We had half expected Spice Tours to meet us at the airport which was surpisingly civilised, its shiny tiled wouldn’t look out of place anywhere else in the world.When there was nobody holding a card up with our name on it celebrity style, we caught a taxi – 8000 kyat – the equivalent of about $6, across the city. No issue with paying the agreed price…and some,  for a not-really-necessary tip.

Well here we were safely and happily delivered to our three star Panda Hotel in Yangong, Myanmar as the sun set. It was huge and orange with a faint haze and everything we saw reminded us of our previous excursions to Asian cities especially Kathmandu but without the poo smells! Buddhists and Christians have different toilet habits from Hindus! Talking of toilet habits, there was a notice in our bathroom, quite common in other Asian cities I believe, due to the tenuous nature of city plumbing, not to put anything down the loos except what you produce, so disposal of toilet paper was into a small bin. We were grateful for daily servicing of our room!

The first sight of the busy city on a Saturday afternoon reminded us that we are “not in Guatemala now Dr Ropata!”as we observed a typical Asian city with its dirt and contrasts…..and traffic. Motorcycles do not seem to feature here and we saw only the occasional intrepid cyclist on old iron bikes like the Heroes we had in Kathmandu. The cars are noticeably slower and quieter than we would have expected, and quite respectful. Since 1979  driving has been on the right but most of the vehicles are Japanese imports and the steering wheels are also on the right which reminded us of driving our VW campervan in France. We noted crowded buses, and tall buildings interspersed with modern buildings and slum-like apartment blocks many of concrete construction and bundles of power lines looking quite random and unsafe. When having Asian adventures it pays not to think about safety and maintenance of things like elevators.

We had been quite well fed and hydrated so there was little need to venture out for food although we did go for an excursion around the block as it got dark – plenty of open drains, non-threatening dogs lying lazily everywhere, parked cars and trucks to be wary of, small roadside shops with dim lighting and plenty of locals hanging about and eating. We kept wanting to greet people with Namaste but I don’t suppose that works here!