Wednesday, March 6, 2013

End of the East

Last night was my final one in eastern Myanmar. Since it's been 10+ days since my last update, I'm going to briefly go over what I've been doing since.

Leaving Pin Oo Lwin, I took the rickety-est train further into the hills to Hsipaw. It was seven hours on wooden benches in a carriage shared with an exceptionally bold mouse. But the most curious thing about the journey was watching the carriage in front of us swing side to side. This train was seriously rickety. I talked to another traveler who said she comforted herself reckoning that if the carriages were swinging in opposite directions they must be balancing each other out... The best part of the ride was crossing the Goteik Viaduct, which was the largest railway trestle in the world back when the Brits built it... a century ago. The train slowed down for crossing the antique infrastructure. 

I spent one night in Hsipaw and then caught a passenger truck up further into the hills on a curvy dirt road. The truck was overcrowded, three people sat on the roof and I sat on a burlap sack in the back with a Burmese family of four. For five hours. I didn't feel too good, but who does in that situation? But when we arrived in the gorgeous ridgetop town of Namhsan, my not feeling good wound up being my second major bout of food poisoning. Which was horrible.

I laid out for a day, but was still determined to get some trekking in. So on day two in Namhsan, I started down the hill - with a Belgian couple and one other American, plus a guide - for a three-day, two-night trek back to Hsipaw.

Now this may seem like common sense to some of you, but... Hiking is hard when you can't really eat much. On the second day we covered about 21 miles. I was kind of hating it by the last half of that day, but I always hate hiking once I'm tired.

All the views of these remote tea farms and tiny villages were worth it. We stayed in village homes both nights, ate eggs and forest veggies, since meat is only for special occasions out there, and slept below the home shrine both nights. One morning we woke up to the grandma praying beside our sleeping bags. Some of the villages we trekked through were very, very basic. There, they had animist shrines instead of Buddhist ones. We rested in one home where the 24-year-old lady of the house had four children. Wow. Also, I can't remember the last time I saw as many stars as we did at night. 

Another interesting thing in the villages: I saw villagers with symbols for the National League for Democracy and t-shirts with the face of Aung San Suu Kyi. This is quite a contrast from my experience in rural China where, at least where I visited, people were angry and fed up with corruption at the local level but basically believed the national government was a force of good, or at least well intentioned. It would be interesting to contrast the successes and failures of the two authoritarian regimes. My impression (and perhaps this is just due to the recent relaxation of rules) is that the Myanmar government isn't nearly as good at censorship. Also, if you just spend a few weeks in China, it's easy to get the sense that the country is rapidly changing and peoples' lives are improving. Whatever its faults, central planning is basically working. I don't get that feeling here. Myanmar is rich in natural resources, but you don't see anything going to the people. The one bit of proactive government seems to be poster boards encouraging people to wear helmets on motor bikes. And roads are being built pretty quickly now. But then, a lot of villagers are required to build their own roads, for no compensation, so that's a bit of a wash. Other travelers have shrugged and told me you see the same thing in plenty of other countries, on plenty of other continents, but this is my first experience being in a country where the government seems so blatantly apathetic. Anyways, a lot of people seem optimistic that lives will improve because of increased tourism. I hope so.

Meanwhile back on the farm: After arriving back in Hsipaw, I took a 15-hour bus the next day to Inle Lake and spent the day on a long wooden boat seeing all the sights (pictures to come). Then today there was another long, cramped, and this time not air conditioned bus ride to temple-central, Bagan. Inle Lake and Bagan are the top two tourist sites in the country, so things are busier than they were down south but I still haven't had trouble finding a room. Although, in Inle Lake I paid the princely sum of $30/night. 

I've all but given up on Burmese food. In the tourist towns you can get crappy pizza, so I've turned to those. I'm a little miffed at the food writers I've read recently. They really soft-pedaled the, ahem, deficiencies of Burmese cuisine. I'm mostly turned off because I got sick twice, but also several places I've been served food that's so salty it's difficult to eat. Our trekking guide told me this is because a lot of Burmese people chew betel nut which ruins their sense of salty/sweet, so they overdo it.

Just a few days left in country, then I'm off to Kuala Lumpur, to eat everything. Seriously. That city will be obliterated. And then on to Vietnam.  

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