As we cross the second highest railway bridge in the world the train slows to a crawl and I hold my breathe as everyone runs to one side of the carriage to take a photo. This could be it, the unstable train carriage could over balance and topple over the side, plummeting down to the river below! Luckily this didn’t happen on the notoriously wobbly Myanmar trains instead we gasped out of the window at the view. Our train journey was to the town of Pyin oo Lwin, once the colonial Britons favourite summer get away for its much cooler climate, and to be honest one of our main reasons for going there as well.
We had found some lovely fellow travellers on the train and set off in search of a guesthouse. An elderly Myanmar man tried his best to help us, telling us the guesthouse was one furlong away… I mean really who knows how long a furlong is? Well apparently elderly Myanmar men in Pyin oo Lwin do! New found fiends in tow, we set off in search of curry, and we weren’t disappointed! Pyin oo Lwin has a large population from the Indian subcontinent and we stumbled upon an delicious Nepali restaurant in the front room of a family’s house. Not only did we get delicious dhal and chapatis but also a hindi action film to watch thrown into the bargain.
Relishing the cool weather the next day we hired bicycles and set out to the nearby botanical gardens, which of course was established by an Englishman during the colonial period. The gardens are imaculate and beautifully maintained, with large pine trees, flower beds, a lake…it could have been a national trust garden back in the UK, if it weren’t for the two gibbons swinging above our heads in the trees above!
As time on our visa was running out we jumped aboard the overnight bus to Inle lake that proved more eventful than we had expected. About an hour and a half into our journey the bus stopped and the driver proclaimed that the road ahead had been closed. After a few more questions we worked out that the army had closed the road until 5am the next morning due to fighting up ahead… We were still in Shan state, where the separatists are at war with the government. Dozens and dozens of other vehicles, mainly buses and lorries, were also caught up in the confusion and had pulled up for the night, which provided the surreal experience of walking through parked vehicles with people sleeping in the luggage compartments or ontop of the drivers carriages and ladies breast feeding their babies on the side of the road in the dim light. As the driver decided to turn the engine off the full bus became overwhelmingly hot and stuffy…. So this is how we ended up sleeping on the dirt at the side of the road on a pink mickey mouse blanket with street dogs sniffing around our heads. Not the glamorous trip many of you thought we might be having, but hey that’s Myanmar. When we were finally on our way again we passed huge numbers of army vehicles and personnel. We never fully understood what had happened that night, but it was once again a stark reminder of the delicate political and military situation in Myanmar.
We reached Inle lake a few hours later and fell into our guest house, never more pleased to have a comfortable bed to sleep in! We stayed at Remember Inn, a clean and comfortable guesthouse that supplied tea and snacks on arrival, we would definitely recommend it. Inle Lake, like Bagan, is a big tourist attraction in Myanmar and has been for a while. Mountains encircle the large lake with small canals and waterways connecting the villages around the shore and the villages on the lake (yes you read that correctly… on the lake). The houses on the lake are built on stilts (to stay dry obviously) and to get around everyone has their own small canoe or boat. Makes popping next door to get a cup of sugar a hell of a lot more difficult. We opted to jump on an extremely cheap boat tour, coming in at a grand £1.50 fact ($2.50 AUD). There were two main reasons why it was so cheap, one – part of the day would be spent looking at shops the driver gets commission to take you to, and two – the boat was incredibly overloaded with a few last minute Korean tourist passengers… it wasn’t the most stable boat journey we have ever had. None the less we saw some incredible sights including markets, weaving shops, waterside temples (all built on the lake) and even the floating gardens. This is where they grow vegetables, mainly tomatoes, on the water! A very surreal sight! We ended the day at a french cafe with good coffee and tasty chocolate cake…not easy to come by in southeast Asia!
The next day was especially perfect. We hired bicycles (a bit of a running theme in Myanmar!) and cycled around the lake to the nearby Red Mountain winery…I know not something we’d expecting to find here either. It may have been a tad early (i.e. before noon) but we tried their tasting menu and bought a couple of bottles of our favourite white. We then cycled on through the winding roads and down an off a dirt track to Bamboo Hut restaurant. We were the only customers at this hidden away gem and were made to feel like honoured guests. The staff were so attentive, and kept bringing plates and bowls full of tasty treats before we even ordered our meal. The traditional Shan food was delicious, fresh and all for a super cheap price. Into the mix was eating our lunch with a beautiful view of inle lake, and watching the staff picking the veg for our meals from the organic garden we were sitting in- what a treat!
With this it was time to start the long journey back to Thailand. As the nearest land border, which didn’t involve flying, was Mae sot we were forced to retrace our steps through Yangon and Hpa’an…but we made it. The border crossing was really smooth, just as it had been on the way in. The immigration guards even tried to convince us to stay the extra three days left on our visa while making jokes about how Ryan looks like a girl in his passport photo, due to the long hair. We met many people in Myanmar who were put off from using land borders because they had read that they were difficult, but this is really not the case.. in fact some of our best stories came from our experiences while doing these crossings.
We only wish we had had more time in Myanmar, a country really unlike anywhere else. It is a mixture of all its neighbours, Thailand, India, China but somehow something unique as a result. The friendliness of its people is its charm, along with a still old fashioned way of going about daily business. Here a train ticket is laboriously hand written, all records kept in ledgers and there is no such thing as a bar code or a fast food take away. But this is changing and changing fast…what will Myanmar be in ten years time? Somewhere different. I feel lucky to have seen it now.
Thanks so much for having us!