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24-hour tea shop in Kalaw

The overnight bus from Yangon (craziest bus station ever) was due to arrive in Kalaw at 4:30 am. It was late and arrived at 5:30 am. I was grateful.

I mean, I wasn’t exactly sleeping, but at least it was dark and the intent was to sleep. My seat was in the back of the bus and all the luggage that didn’t fit underneath was jammed behind my seat so I couldn’t recline. And the air conditioning was blasting. I mean, full-on blasting cold air. What the heck? And the little air control thingies over my head were broken, so I was in the wind for about two hours till I found an empty plastic bag and shoved it into the hole. And the road was so rough – the worst in our entire trip. Margaret said she literally caught air on at least one bump. Maybe the worst bus trip of my life.

Despite all that, I actually think I slept a couple of hours. I had thought enough to bring my rabbit-soft wool scarf, and with that, added to the little blanket provided by the bus company, I managed to cover up completely. And we both used earplugs. That way I was a bit shielded from the light and noise and cold.

But at 5:30 we all had to disembark. Margaret had heard from the tour company that there was a 24-hour tea house nearby, and that we should wait there for someone to meet us. It was still dark and cold out, and we had a long wait.

For the next two hours I peeped through a window into a world of twenty-somethings engaging in devil-may-care life of travel around the world on $5 day. Margaret and I walked up the steps into a small room, floor and walls covered in white and blue linoleum, and lit – painfully – with fluorescent lighting. The room had three sides and the fourth was a half-wall and open air. And it was cold. There were a few low tables and 30 tiny plastic stools and heaped all over the place were young, beautiful travelers and their luggage. A vivacious redhead from Croatia caught our attention with her chatter, next to us two slender Italian women were trying to sleep on the floor (people stepped over them without blinking). There was a New Zealander, a Czech, Frenchmen, all crammed together drinking very bad instant coffee and smoking cigarettes. For a moment I was in Michener’s novel The Drifters, with all its young beautiful people traveling around the world with no specific plan beyond the day’s hopes and dreams. We were all meeting guides for treks, and we compared names of companies and how many days we would be out.

Guide from A1 Trekking carries our luggage from the tea shop to the company’s office in Kalaw.

My seat was facing into the room, and when I got up after a while and went out to pay for our wretched coffees, I was startled to see the pale blue dawn. Soon after, a person met us and led us to A1 Trekking in town, where we checked in and were immediately taken to an Indian restaurant across the street for our first meal with the company.

After breakfast we were told there was still time before departure, and that a market was setting up in the center of town we could explore while we waited. So we explored.

I am grateful that Margaret loves markets as much as I do. Who can resist the colours and textures and smells and sounds?

These fresh veggies trigger an instinct in me to want to buy them all and eat, eat, eat.

This woman twisted leaves into a wand to make carrying the coconuts easier.

Margaret (hands clasped in the chilly morning air) at the market in Kalaw.

Dried fish in heaps.

Pasta, beans, grains, and soup starters.

Bananas and bananas. The market in Kalaw was one of the best we saw during the whole trip. (Trust me I left out a ton of photos.)

We returned to A1 and it was time to go. We met our fellow travelers, Fumi from Japan and Lukas and Anna from Austria. There were just 5 of us, with our guide Hein, who grew up in Kalaw, and the cook. Some of the other companies take 15 people, we spotted one group later that looked like it could have been 18 people. A-1 has a policy of never more than six, to ensure a quality experience for each person. We walked out of town and directly onto a trail.

For the next three days we walked. That day to Hin Kha Gone and Myin Taik villages, through areas with the Paulaung and Dannu people.

Dried up terraces for rice paddies. Hein said they only have one season for rice per year because it gets so dry.

Left to right: Margaret, Anna, Lukas, Hein

While still in the forest we came upon a man herding cattle.

We stopped for a break here at the reservoir.

During our food breaks, Hein handed out a variety of local things for us to try. This fruit was pretty good. I don’t remember what it was called.

The view from our lunch stop.

Unused to walking so much, I was grateful when it was lunch time. We had a cook that traveled along with us, and damned if I can remember his name. But this young man made the most delicious foods and fed us very well, three meals a day, while we were out trekking. While he cooked, we explored the site.

The shop at our lunch stop. What you see here was pretty much the entire stock. Those “water” and “liquor” bottles you see on the left are petrol for sale.

My favourite toilet of the entire trip!! Everyone in the country had outhouses, and this one had an unparalleled view.

We could see a pagoda in the distance.

Hein encouraged us to walk over to the pagoda and monastery during our lunch stop, and down to the village below if we wanted to. And we did.

The village below the pagoda.

Me with some pretty obliging kids.

Off we went and finished up with some serious hiking. At one point we walked along train tracks, which is pretty hard if your natural gait doesn’t match the frequency of the supports beneath the rails. Lukas and I fell back, but it did allow me some shots of the others.

The others gain ground as I struggle with the awkwardness of walking on train tracks.

More lovely rice paddy terraces.

Work truck rumbles along the red dirt road.

Cute little house along the way.

Finally we reached our destination for the night, Ywar Pu village. We were surprised to find out that we were staying in the home of the village chief. The family stayed nearby, but gave up their beds for us that night. Our fabulous cook went to work and we took our chances bathing in the icy cold water of the family’s cistern. Then we walked around the property and the town till it was time to eat. The families contract with the tour companies, and get about $5 per night per person. They also sell water and Myanmar beer and… well… we were hot and tired and beer was just the thing! They probably earn as much selling drinks as they do on rent.

This was not where we stayed, but an example of a typical home in Ywar Pu village.

Our beds. You do not wear your shoes into this room. Each home we visited has a shrine like this.

Our cook in the kitchen, getting the flames hot for our dinner.

Catchment pool to the right, cistern (slightly out of sight behind the fence) to the left.

One of the family’s three pigs poses for my camera.

I had inexplicably slept poorly at the Golden Sunrise Hotel, waking up at 2:30 am and not able to sleep again. The following night I was on a freezing cold bumpy bus ride all night long. Trust me when I say this night in Ywar Pu, under all those blankets, I slept like a rock.

 

Trucks with narrow seats are nearly the only traffic on the mountain road.

The lobby of the Golden Sunrise Hotel was dark and silent at 5:30 am, but as promised, our boxed breakfast was there waiting for us on the counter. So kind of them. Fried egg sandwiches and bananas. I whooped to Margaret, “They remembered us!” and accidentally woke the attendant who was sleeping in the lobby in a little tent. Ooops. Poor kid. We left everything in our rooms because we expected to return well before check out time. It was dark out and in the lovely coolness we made the easy walk into town and quickly found the truck station because that’s where all the activity and light was!

In a large warehouse-type building, tall trucks were parked beside metal staircases. We picked one at random and walked up the stairs and were quickly ushered into seats. The entire bed of each truck is filled with about six narrow rows of metal benches. People cram themselves in. The orchestrators hollered at Margaret and I multiple times to squoosh down, but it was hard. The seat in front was too close to sit with knees forward. Literally impossible for us to sit normally. My solution was to tip my knees down toward the floor, so I could face front. Margaret had her knees to the side. We are not big people, but they wanted us to minimize our space. A woman in front of us said “six,” and we finally figured out that they wanted six people in each row. Ours only had five. I suspect our difficulty condensing had more to do with a rather large grandmother seated next to me than Margaret and I, but since we were the ones at the end, we were the ones getting hollered at.

We leaned and pulled our elbows in and became very close to one another, and finally had squashed ourselves enough to cram one more person in our row. Then we handed our money (2000 kyats/$1.50) over to the orchestrator. We were off!

I quickly became grateful for being wedged in there like sardines. There were no seatbelts, obviously, and the truck began hurtling up the narrow paved road to the top of the mountain where we would find the Golden Rock. We were told the ride was a half hour, but it felt more like an hour because it was a real adventure. I am convinced that the reason no one bounced out was because we were packed so tightly. Grandma and I became friends out of necessity. The whole population in the back of the truck would say “whoah!” in unison, and grab onto each other to stay upright as we careened around hairpin corners and blasted ever faster toward the top.

We were still in the dark, and wind blew through our hair. Margaret and I were in sarongs (the clothing in Burmese is called longyi) and T-shirts, but all the locals had on down coats and hats and mittens. It was possibly as chilly as 70 degrees. About halfway up the mountain the sky began to lighten, and the sun was clearly in mind to rise by the time we reached the top.

Entrance to the Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo is too hard for me to say) is jammed with people.

Off the truck, we had a rather long walk through a pop-up market, designed to cater to tourists. Everyone there was a tourist, even the monks, to some degree. There were many many monks. Everyone removed their shoes early on and we carried them for the rest of our time there. We passed hundreds of shops selling either food or things to dedicate to Buddha.

The walkway to the top is bound by many shops selling things, particularly breakfast.

The sunrise views of the valley were lovely.

Sunrise beat us to the rock, but not by much and we did capture a stunning dawn glow on the Golden Rock. It seemed liked everyone up there was in a festival mood. Likely the crazy truck ride contributed to that. It was like an amusement park ride! Pilgrims can also walk to the top, and I hear it’s a lovely walk. Now that I have experienced the trucks, however, I’m glad we did that instead. I walk every day, but I’ve only had one truck ride like that in my life.

On the way up we were stopped by some officials who were not stopping anyone else. We obligingly walked into the building that had large posters in English stating that we had to pay a “Foreigners fee” of 10,000 kyats. We signed our names in a book and were handed badges to hang around our necks. M and I decided: why not? They are smart to capitalize on tourism in this way.

Our first view of the Golden Rock from a distance.

In front of the rock, I proudly show off my expensive”Foreigner” badge.

Women are not allowed to approach the rock itself. Men will purchase gold foil pieces and queue up. When it’s their turn to touch the rock, they say prayers and press the gold foil to the rock. Or, that is what appeared to be going on as I stood at a distance and watched. Legend has it that when locals were concerned that the rock would fall, the Buddha gifted three of his own hairs which were used to prop up the rock. That is why this is a sacred and holy place. I wondered if each man who pressed his fingers against the rock worried that he would be the unfortunate one to push the rock off its precarious balance.

Men applying gold leaf pieces to the rock.

We wandered across the top of the hill, stopping to take photos for ourselves, for others, and regularly being asked by locals if they could have their photo taken with us. I am still surprised by this behavior; how frequently a person’s gaze will lazily drift past the crowd, notice us, and then come alight with delight and a dazzling grin. They wave, giggle, shout “mingalaba” and “hello.” I am also, disturbingly, getting too used to this behavior, and gradually coming to expect it. In anticipation of adoring smiles and waves, sometimes I’ll wave first. On occasion, I get a blank stare in return, with a face that says “Who are you, lady?” And then I feel like an idiot.

In no time we had circled the complex and were ready to return to the madness of the trucks. We again joined a great group of all locals, and as with the morning crew, they all seemed to be enamored with us Westerners. While we waited for the truck to fill up (six to each row!!), many selfies occurred and everyone practiced saying “hello” in each other’s language. Children climbed the staircases to attempt to sell us cheap worthless crap while we waited. Two items were offered by every child on the whole mountain: fake spectacles made of bamboo, and fake unrealistic machine guns. I was rather puzzled that machine guns were so popular at a holy site – a Buddhist holy site no less. People bought way more guns than glasses.

Workmen carry cement to the top for construction.

Pathside food seller can offer an unparalleled view. Just don’t lean too far while you’re looking.

These shy ladies were offering breakfast, and agreed to have their photo taken.

Beautiful pair. We saw some fun fashion on the Burmese: dyed hair, tattoos, even ear plugs.

Carrying trays of food up the hill.

This boy is selling dried beans.

We saw this a couple of times: monks in a row, collecting alms.

The trip down was even crazier! This time gravity assisted and we moved as though we had been shot from a cannon. The truck may have gone up on two wheels at times, while screeching around the switchbacks headed back down. Every so often we would meet a truck coming up the mountain, and both drivers would be forced to slam on the brakes and move to the side.

Waiting for our truck to fill up before we headed back down.

Fake guns for sale, with “love” written onto the stock.

One of the turns on our way down the hill.

Our truck pulled over and we were asked to pay for our trip. Then we waited another 15 minutes while kids sold guns and glasses.

A little shop on the way back to Kin Pun.

All we had left on the agenda for the day was to check out of our hotel, and get a bus back to Yangon in time to catch our night bus that was leaving the Yangon bus station at 6:00 pm. After disentangling ourselves from the mass of humanity on the truck, and before heading back to the Golden Sunrise Hotel, we found someone who could sell us a bus ticket. This was accomplished by telling the woman who ran a restaurant that we wanted a bus. She walked out into the street and started hollering. A kid heard it and took off running. In five minutes, a young man in a white shirt with a name tag and a clipboard came running up and told us all we needed to know about buying a bus ticket. Awesome! 😊

We could take the 9am, 11am, or 1pm bus back to Yangon. We decided to spend our time waiting at our cool, clean, lovely hotel rather than at that crazy bus station we had already spent 3 hours at yesterday. So we bought a ticket for 1pm and then went to the hotel and lounged a bit. We came back to the restaurant by noon and bought lunch there, to pay a debt of gratitude for the woman who helped us get in contact with the bus man.

We waited at that restaurant because that’s where the bus kept stopping to drop people off. But at about 12:55, there was still no bus. A young man in a white shirt came up to us, “Ok, come with me.” He explained that the bus departure was actually on a different street, and he would show us the way. So we grabbed our gear and followed him.

This bus trip was fraught with complications. The entire trip should have taken 4 hours, dropping us at the crazy bus station at 5pm. After about one hour, the bus pulled over at the side of the highway near some tiny huts. No announcement. We sat there, looking around, asking the other people on the bus if they knew what was going on. Somehow they had obtained additional information. “I think we are supposed to change buses,” they said. We looked out the window, and sure enough, the bus driver and attendant were dragging luggage out of the bus and lining it up in the red dirt. We scooped up our stuff and climbed out and grabbed our luggage. There was a bus parked in front of us on the highway, and we all climbed onto it. This bus already had people on it, but luckily we all fit.

We went another hour, then – again with no announcement – the bus turned off the highway in a tiny little town, onto a narrow dirt road and parked beside a large building. There were a couple of men sitting beside the building on plastic chairs in the sun. Neither of them stirred. We remained parked there for quite awhile. Twenty minutes maybe. Margaret spotted some oil drums beside the building and guessed that it could be a gas or maintenance stop. Finally, with no warning, the driver and attendant got back on, and began to turn the bus around.

There was a problem. The bus couldn’t go in reverse. Multiple attempts by the driver to pull forward a little, then back up, failed. The men sitting in the sun got up and walked over to watch. A tool bag was produced. More attempts.

We were getting nervous because we were way behind schedule and still needed to catch the 6pm bus. Luckily we had given ourselves a buffer, and as long as we started moving again, soon, we would make it.

The bus attendant came onto the bus and headed down the aisle to where Margaret and I were sitting, carrying a wrench. He walked all the way to the very back, right next to Margaret, and opened up a panel in the floor that seemed to open to the dirt below us – I couldn’t really see. Margaret hid her face rather than watch the great hole next to her. The assistant guy held his wrench in there and hollered at the driver, who attempted reverse gear again and finally did it! Yay! We were off again.

With 40 minutes till 6 pm, we hit rush hour traffic in Yangon, and things came to a stop. We alternately stopped and crawled all the way to the bus station. The bus arrival section was about a mile from the bus departure section where we needed to go, but we did not know that. At 5:55 we leapt off the bus, grabbed our luggage and began trotting toward the congested, confusing bus station we had been at the day before. The place is really enormous. We had no idea how big it was yesterday: like it’s own little bus station city. We’d run a block, say the name of the bus company we wanted, a person would point, we’d run some more.

Through alleys, past stray dogs, vendors, children, shops, and all of this was part of the bus station. It was hot. We were sure we were going to miss our bus.

Finally, finally, we found JJ Tours, and there was no bus parked in front. The young man at the counter spotted us and knew who we were immediately. “The bus is gone! You can’t take it, I’m sorry! Why didn’t you call? I would have held the bus for you. Why didn’t you call? I didn’t know you were coming. I called you but you didn’t answer. I’m so sorry.” We tried to explain about our phones not working in another country….but there really wasn’t a point. He told us there was another bus that left at 7pm. He walked us to the other bus station and helped us buy a ticket.

The other thing we worried about was meeting our guide on time the next morning. The trek was supposed to start at 8:30 am, and our original bus was supposed to arrive at 8:00. Now what would we do? But the new bus had a different schedule somehow, and planned to arrive at 4:30 am. We dropped into our seats, heads spinning though relieved, and tried to get some rest.

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