Friday, December 3, 2010

Oh My Buddha (Part 3 of 3)

The huge comfy beds at the hostel made for a very much needed 8+ hours of sleep. After that bus ride from hell, all ten of us had very much been looking forward to some time to heal ourselves from the mental and physical pain endured during the previous night (some people did come out of that bus ride with bruises).

The sleep was good, the complimentary breakfast was up to par, and the views from the roof of the hostel were phenomenal as you could see during the day how Nyaung Shwe was sandwiched in between two large mountain ranges. Since we were to lose one member of our group the next day because of an early final back at NUS, it was in our best interest to get a boat tour of the northern part of the lake that Wednesday.

A little before lunchtime, our group set off in two boats to see Inle Lake. One could not have asked for more perfect weather: sunny skies with giant puffy clouds scattered about complimented by warm weather with relatively little humidity. As the boat pushed through the marshland leading up to the lake, the anticipation was growing to see what was in store for us once the river opened up. It took fifteen minutes before we finally reached the northernmost part of Inle Lake; few words were spoken as we were busy trying to take in the panoramic views on display. Those two mountain ranges that I mentioned before were out in the open as they are split by the gargantuan lake. All around one could see fisherman going about their business in addition to many boats being run by children as young as eight and nine years old. There a handful of other tourist boats that would pass us by, but in general there were very few Westerners around outside of our group. The driver of our boat had us continue forward across the lake towards the many villages on stilts that exist at Inle. I got a feel for how big the lake was as it took roughly thirty minutes before seeing any of these homes above water. There was no shortage of entertainment during this period of time between taking in the landscape and racing the other boat to our destination. As we found out based on our boat travels for the rest of the day, the other boat's driver had no idea where anything was so we always won the race as they had to follow us to get anywhere.

We eventually made it across the northern basin of Inle Lake and sure enough there were houses built one after another on stilts. It was really interesting to be able to watch the people who live there go about their daily routines from afar. Although, as soon as we entered their line of sight, they immediately would stare at us; the older generations did not seem too enthusiastic with our presence while the children appeared very happy and friendly as they would wave to us from their abode, boat, etc. We cruised through the many "streets" that held these different households seeing the infrastructure of how these villages were built. Our first stop of the day was at a sewing shop in town that had many locally made (we think) blankets, bags, articles of clothing, and so on. The owner of the business immediately took us through the store to show us how such goods were made. We walked around from person to person sitting at these wooden contraptions; it looked like it required great precision by an individual to use such machinery to create some of the products we saw for sale. After some of us made a couple purchases at the shop, our guide drove us to the nearby cigar shop. It really was something to watch as three girls were lined up on the ground sitting cross legged methodically churning out one cigar after the next. While it didn't seem as labor intensive as the last shop we were at, it didn't seem like the best of situations to be on the hard wooden floor all day repeating the same short process over and over again.

It was around 3:00 P.M. at this point so the ten of us were taken to a restaurant nearby for some Burmese cuisine*. Following lunch, it was a quick boat ride to the Phaung Daw U Pagoda in the middle of the village. Once we got inside the pagoda, we were presented with an interesting scenario: there was a platform that held sacred golden statues of Buddha, but only men were allowed on it. So the seven of us guys gallivanted around the steps while the three girls watched from below. The story behind the golden blobs that were at the top of the platform is that there were three statues of Buddha that overtime had gold leaves stuck on them for good luck until they eventually turned to nothing that would resemble Buddha. About thirty minutes went by of seeing much of what the pagoda had to offer before moving on to our next stop.

Now this next part of the trip was one of the more depressing parts as we had done a thorough amount of research from the Lonely Planet guide before coming to Myanmar. We stopped at a souvenir shop that was in a different village on stilts to see a girl sitting in a chair with rings around her neck (this is similar to the ones worn in African tribes). That isn't the issue as there are tribes in Myanmar that follow this same practice, as well. The sad part is that this girl was most likely taken from her tribe to sit in that chair all day to have her photo taken by tourists and lure those same Westerners to buy stuff in the shop. In short, such people are treated as farm animals. Let me backtrack for a second by going back to the bus ride from Bagan to Inle Lake. At numerous points during this nine hour ride we saw many women paving new roads and building walls. Unfortunately, this is more than likely the result of forced labor implemented by the government. It was a very painful reminder of the country we were in, as beautiful as it is.

I will break up this not so nice imagery by telling a funny story about what happened after leaving this souvenir shop. In many of these stilt villages, there are people in tiny boats trying to sell souvenirs to tourists. When we walked out of the building we saw one of these individuals was hanging onto the other part of our group's boat. I got a good laugh that she was going to start selling them stuff and being very obnoxious for a portion of their ride. As their boat jetted off with the lady continually asking people if they wanted to buy stuff, the five people in our boat got on and moved out in the same direction. Only about a minute into our ride did we see another smaller boat on a collision course for us. Our driver was gunning the engine at near full capacity and yet this lady was so determined to sell us something that she was risking her boat getting destroyed from the collision. Luckily, she and her boat survived the impact and none of us were tempted to buy any of her trinkets so it wasn't long before she left us alone and let go of our boat.

One of our finals stops on our boat trip was to the infamous floating gardens we had heard a lot about prior to reaching Inle Lake. It seemed like there were never ending rows of plants being grown like the tomato garden seen above. All of the gardens are patches of soil that are held in place by, you guessed it, stilts. It was remarkable that such massive gardens were being grown on the water's surface with the Shan Hills in the background making for an outstanding scene. The driver had our boat glide through the narrow passageways of the garden seeing the locals maintain their crops before we headed to the Jumping Cat Monastery located not too far from the gardens. There were plenty of cats to be seen at the monastery, although, the monks were sleeping in and around the building upon our arrival resulting in us not seeing any cats take flight. We ended up having a relatively short visit to the monastery before rushing out to catch sunset on the open waters of the lake. Our boat just caught the sun setting over the mountains in the west as we came to a stop in the middle of North Inle. No sound of the engine, no words spoken, no other tourists in sight, just the sound of water crashing against the side of the boat. The sun settled below the many peaks of the Shan Hills and our driver then put us on course to make it back to town before dark. It was during this period of time that even more magnificent colors took the skies as clouds took on tones of pink and purple. This made for a very relaxing thirty minute ride back to the docks as the five of us on our boat took in the view from all directions one last time. Clearly, this was one of the better days we had in Myanmar for all the natural beauty we saw and being able to see and interact with the locals of the many villages on stilts.

Upon our return, we cleaned ourselves up at the hostel before having another standard Burmese dinner comprising of sweet/hot & sour chicken, chicken curry, or fried rice/noodles. The town of Nyaung Shwe got very quiet at night, which meant it would be an early night (at least by our standards) as well. Considering all the traveling our group of ten had endured up to this point, it wasn't such a bad thing to get some more rest.

Night came and went; when we all woke up the next morning, one of our friends took off back for Singapore for her final. Our now group of nine carried on, nonetheless, as we had one more full day to hang out at Inle Lake. The plan for that Thursday was to get some bicycles and go around the lake to get some superb views from various mountaintops.

We biked out of town around eleven o' clock and headed off towards the many hills that go along Inle Lake. Along the way, we got up close with many locals that were hanging around on the side of the road. In one instance, we stopped where some children were standing on the other side of the road. I for one moment reached into my pocket to make sure my stuff was there; almost instantly, the children reacted and starting coming up to me asking for money. This is 100% a by-product of older tourists impetuously giving away money to kids who won't know what to do with it (Lonely Planet suggests to only give money to their parents). We also wanted to go in hot springs that were on the path. When we arrived, they looked like nothing more than just small hot tubs carved up out of tile and cement. Anyone of us in our group would probably agree that this was the biggest let down of the trip.

No matter because we eventually made it to the bottom of a huge two hundred-something step staircase that would lead us up a knoll overlooking the lake. We trekked our way up the steep and crumbling stairs knowing that if anyone were to fall or slip, it would be quite some time before help would get here. I read in our guidebook that in the event that tourists are seriously injured or sick that you get airlifted to Singapore for medical care. Those of us who chose to go all the way to the top did make it there without incidence, luckily. We spent some time at the top looking out in all directions seeing many scattered villages, pagodas, and an infinite amount of vegetation. Twenty minutes later, the nine of us came down from the hill to continue biking further down the path into more villages full of Burmese people that would stare at us the second we entered town. It was not because they didn't like us that we would get so much attention, but more out of curiosity, at least that's what I reckoned. There was a small restaurant that we ate at in which there were only two items on the menu: fried noodles or fried rice. It was a very good meal, as most were pretty decent in Myanmar, just with very limited options. For the entire meal there was this little dog that was sitting at my side the same way mine do at home; eventually it decided to sit under my chair reminding me even more of my dogs at home that I haven't seen in almost four months. It was a heartfelt moment having now been away from the States for quite some time.

Subsequent to everyone finishing up lunch, we took a short boat ride across the width of the lake with our bikes. It was a pleasant experience to once more get out on Inle Lake and take in much of the natural beauty it has to offer. We then reached the other side pushed forward on our bike tour around Inle Lake.

Almost immediately, we ventured to another monastery in the area to walk around and see the another one of the many shrines to Buddha we encountered on this trip. Soon thereafter, we rode further down the path back towards Nyaung Shwe. The riding experience ended up being a mix of enjoying the nice scenery to playing the game "Scapegoat" where the object is to cut people off so as to make them possible fall. Of course, one unlucky person did have the honors of tasting the ground courtesy of playing this game. Following much biking down the long narrow path, we came across a vineyard that was situated up in the mountains; with time to spare before sunset we decided to check it out.

It turned out they had wine tasting at a very good price so the group decided to try out a couple different kinds of the wines up till sunset. We got to try a number of drinks with an impressive view of the lake, mountains, marshlands, and town in our line of sight. Not a bad way to end another long day of sightseeing and such. Later that night, all of us were tired of eating chicken and rice so we went to an Italian restaurant that was a little pricier compared to everywhere else we had eaten in Burma. The funniest part about this restaurant was the Burmese guy at the door tried to use an Italian accent when talking to us. Then he took all nine of us back into the kitchen to show us where the food was made. To top it all off, he used very descriptive yet hilarious adjectives to describe the food as if it was all straight from Rome ("mozzarella straight from Italy" and "fresh cut tomatoes" to name a few examples).

The next day, it was time to gather our things and catch a bus back to Yangon so as to make our flight back to Kuala Lumpur the day after that. We endured a very long bus ride, fourteen hours to be exact, that went through winding roads in the mountains, dirt paths, and a highway that went through the capital. This was a much more tolerable bus ride than the previous ones as it did not have any Burmese soap operas blasting in our ears nor was it that bumpy.

Our arrival in Yangon came at approximately 6:00 A.M. on Saturday. Having very little energy left to spare, we headed back to the hostel from earlier in the week and slept for a couple hours. When it was time to wake up at noon, we said our goodbyes to the few people not coming back to Singapore since they didn't have finals. The rest of the day included walking around town and checking out the many markets that the former capital has to show for. Finally, it was time to head to the airport for our night flight home.

Now based on my research before our trip, I had read that electricity can be an issue in Burma, especially when traveling outside of Yangon. For the week in Myanmar, there was no such issue as far as the electricity not working, until now. We were sitting in the airport just about to go through security when the airport lost power. Keep in mind this is the biggest airport in the country and yet it for whatever reason had the lights, machinery, and equipment shutdown. Fortunately, it was short-lived and we were able to go through security without issue, but it was still incredible to see a major airport lose power like that; when in Myanmar...

Not to end the story abruptly, but we made it to Kuala Lumpur and took a bus to the border between Malaysia and Singapore with few issues, if any. The last five of us coming back to Singapore made it to PGP at 7:00 A.M. on Sunday morning. What a trip.

I will conclude this thesis of a blogpost by saying that it was a phenomenal trip that encompassed everything one could hope for: the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the temples of Bagan, and Inle Lake. A truly magnificent trip that was even better than one could imagine because of our group of ten having a great group of people, which made for a great dynamic during every part of the trip. Besides the things we saw, the people of Burma were very kind and hospitable to us and I appreciate that very much. Let me add one more story about that here: before we caught a taxi to the airport to leave the country, we had a lot of extra kyat to get rid of. So we gave it to this random store owner outside of the hostel; he looked at us in amazement, but almost as if we were crazy. As we jumped in the back of the taxi, I looked back to see that the store owner was approaching us with water bottles in hand and giving them to us. Our good deed had now been negated by another one. It was little things like that during my stay in Myanmar that made me feel comfortable and safe, despite being in a place that is under sanctions by the United States and other Western powers. In closing, Burma was awesome and I would love to go back in the future to see the rest of the country that I was unable to check out in one week.

*I am letting it be known that I did eat/drink something funny while in Myanmar that got me very sick in the stomach upon my return to Singapore. It left me in very bad shape during my finals as I would have to run out in the middle of them to go to the bathroom. I am writing this with six hours to go before leaving for Beijing and I have made a near full recovery so look forward to a healthy J Coco writing about my adventures in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia in the future.

Adios Singapore, until next time. J Coco out.

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