Six months or so through the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma & China
As you may remember from our last entry we were unceremoniously dumped off our night bus in Nyaung Shwe at 4am. We blearily made our way through the deserted streets, feeling like we were in some kind of wild west town, until we found our hotel and set up camp outside the locked gates. Luckily the kindly staff are early risers (or couldn't sleep through our semi-whispered chatter) and soon woke up to let us in. Miraculously our rooms were ready so we could all have showers and a couple of hours kip. Bliss!
Nyaung Shwe is the last stop on our Burmese adventure, apart from a quick overnight in Yangon before we fly back to Bangkok. It's a small town on a northern tributary to Inle Lake, one of the must-see destinations on the Myanmar tourist trail. The lake, the second largest in the country, is located in the Shan state, a mountainous region in the east bordering Thailand, Laos and China. It is famed for the many different tribal people who live on the lake and in the surrounding hills, as well as for its mirror-like surface. We spent two days cruising around the serene lake on a motorised long boat seeing the sights. The traditional market was surprisingly traditional, other than a few modern t-shirts it felt like the filmset for a medieval epic. There were a few stalls selling tourist trinkets, but most of the market was just for the local people. Everyone arrived by boat or wooden bullock cart carrying faggots of wood or woven baskets of vegetables. Many of the women, in particular, wore traditional tribal dress, such as crazily bright tartan scarves as turbans. There were no motorised vehicles, except the boats, and everything was transported to and from the boats hanging off long poles slung between two men's shoulders.
We also saw floating villages and vegetable gardens, Inle is particularly famed for the tomatoes that are grown on floating banks of seaweed and soil in the lake. The fishermen all over the lake have a distinctive paddling style, this involves standing on one leg on the stern of the canoe and using a foot (their foot is wrapped round the vertical shaft of the oar) and a hand (holding the top of the oar) to row while both hands are occupied with the fishing nets.
There were also lots of monasteries, apparently until recently one used to have domestic cats that the monks trained to leap through hoops. The new head monk however no longer approves so, devastatingly, no more jumping cat shows. Spoilsport! Still, lots of lovely cats to cuddle. We also saw a few local crafts that are carried out on or around the lake, silver smithing, lotus and silk weaving (the lotus flowers for the thread are grown on the lake and apparently the fabric is highly prized, though we thought the finished product felt like sack cloth) and cheroot rolling. Helen even talked her way into having a go at the cheroot rolling, and made a pretty good cigar!
Inle is also a good place to cycle, it's pretty flat, the countryside is beautiful and the guest house had some bikes in surprisingly good nick. No gears of course, we can't remember when we last cycled with gears. We did lots of trips, including one to a vineyard! Really, I bet you didn't know Myanmar produced wine. It was actually delicious, much better than the local wine in Vietnam. Sitting on top of a hill overlooking vineyards and the lake and sipping a rather good chilled late harvest white wine it felt like we could have been in Tuscany or California. Apart from the cheese perhaps, which I insisted on ordering as I'm having cheese withdrawal symptoms. It turned out to be rather rubbery squares of mild cheddar!
On another day we had a cycling adventure to visit an English cemetery we'd heard about. There was no info in the guide book, but a random waiter had written down directions for us in Burmese. We headed vaguely in the right direction stopping occasionally to wave the piece of paper at locals. Eventually we found a local determined to take us there himself, for a fee of course! We tramped half an hour up the hillside through sugar cane fields and dense undergrowth. We'd never have found it ourselves and in fact the local guide had a few difficulties. Jo helpfully informed me, after we returned, that Myanmar has the highest number of death by snakebites of any country in the world. The cemetery, when we found it, was overgrown and rather dilapidated, ninety percent of the graves had no headstone. Those that did were for English soldiers who were stationed in Burma in the 1880's and who died young during various local uprisings. It felt like they should probably never have been there, but undoubtedly they were just following orders and it was sad to see their graves untended and so far from their homes.
An unexpected highlight was a day trip to Kakku, the location of 2,700 16th to 18th century stupas, densely packed onto a hillside site. Though the stupas were impressive, the best bit was our delightful and excellent guide, Nan (she did have a much longer PaO name but it was unpronounceable for us). Nan was fiercely proud of her PaO heritage, the PaO are one of many ethnic minorities in Myanmar, there are about one million in the country. PaO legend says that they are descended from a mother dragon and alchemist father. Therefore the women's dress reflects their dragon heritage, layered black woollen leg warmers, longyi, tunic and jacket represent the scales and a brightly coloured turban mimics the head of a fierce dragon. On the way back from Kakku Nan kindly took us to her grandmother's house for tea and snacks. Nan and her family were so hospitable and friendly, we felt very privileged to be able to share tea with them.