Writing on 24th November:
Days filled with coffee and nothingness, reading and overthinking, Myanmar perhaps hasn’t been kind to my extroverted self. Whilst I have been able to find some pure and beautiful souls along my way I have just been a little bit bored of pagodas. As someone who has not yet built the confidence to ride a scooter or an e-bike (one writes the night before she perhaps goes on an e-bike tour) it seems doing anything a little outside a city can prove difficult.
After Hpa An, the spread out and beautiful mountain town, I took a night bus to Mandalay. A whole 13 hours sat under a broken air con blasting out an arctic blizzard. My body is adjusting to travelling on an overnight bus now – I put on my jumper and funky jacket, snuggle under the provided blanket and put the neck pillow against the window and hope I doze off before we get onto bumpy roads. Mandalay was okay, I stayed in a hostel that felt a little empty. There were day trips that were cancelled because not enough people sparked interest and 28,000kyat (£14) was way over my budget to go alone. On the first day I took a bicycle and cycled from pagoda to palace to pagoda before I eventually arrived at Mandalay Hill at 4:30 ready to climb and watch the sun go to bed. I put my headphones on, chose a Gurls Talk podcast and began to climb the steps through the small temple snaking up the hill. About 15 minutes into the walk two Buddhist Novices (a buddhist novice wears orange robes and is a novice because perhaps they won’t study forever) joined mme. One, Justin, spoke more English than the other and began asking me usual small talk questions about where I’m from, where I’m going and where I’ve been. After I mentioned China he lit up because he wanted to test out his Mandarin with me. He got out his leather wrapped notebook and flicked the little rectangle pages to one full of pinyin and Burmese translation. I helped correct little things and taught him some new words too. It felt good teaching someone else how to say things in a language I’m so shit at. Our engaging conversation cut us off from the world around us – tourists fighting to get a spot for sunset, monks passing by and the sun cowering below the horizon but I wasn’t paying attention. Other buddhists approached the circle to listen in and then a group of young women came over really hoping to speak English with me too. Both the young women and the Buddhist novices and monks seemed very grateful that I spoke with them for 3 and a half hours, and I was too. I learnt so much. It was so surreal and I’m still in awe when I say the sentence “I spoke to and taught Chinese to a Burmese monk in English for 3 hours on top of a hill at sunrise.”
The same night I got back to the hostel I saw that two women were hanging out in the room. I really wanted to go on a trip and do something with someone after how lonely I felt in Hpa An and so I fought with my awkward subconscious and gave myself a pep talk in the bathroom. Only one of the women perked up when I asked the room. Kate, an Australian woman, was keen to go and see the white pagoda with me in the morning because it would be her last day. She is ever so lovely and wise and I was as interested in picking her brain for top tips about Vietnam as she was in picking mine about working in rich Asia. She’s now in Japan on a working holiday visa – the poor girl has gone over with 1 pair of jeans, one jumper and a ski coat. When i’m on a freezing cold bus she often crosses my mind. We took a boat over to Mingcun and headed for the famous white pagoda, we didn’t have a whole lot of time to fully explore Mingcun but we were right in doing the pagoda first. Yes, I said pagodas bore me but this one was different, it was completely white and felt like a depiction of heaven. The 2 days that followed weren’t exciting in the slightest – it was spent reading in a café and clock watching with my next destination in mind.
The peaceful town of Nyuangshwe neighbours the infamous Inle Lake. Home this time around was in the shape of a boombox, yep, the hostel was literally a giant boombox. I knew for a fact that this was going to be a wonderful hostel when I was greeted at 4am with huge smiles and a bed for me to catch some shut eye in, in the early arrival dorm room. The walls inside the hostel were hugged with a pale blue paint and kissed with beautiful murals from travellers around the world. Inside each capsule bed were travelling lyrics from famous artists like John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd. The blackboard in the hangout area featured different activities for guests to do, the amazing breakfasts they cooked up each day and where the market would be. The complimentary breakfast went above and beyond any expectations I had considering it was free. Fiona, the small and dainty owner, is incredible with her menu, she is constantly trying out new recipes for people so that she can be more inclusive for vegans and vegetarians. One evening she prepared a bacon sandwich with “calamari” rings for Jess, which she kindly let us try, and my mind was blown. The calamari rings were made from mushrooms but the difference was so discreet. Jess was volunteering there for 10 days and she joined (another) Jess and I for an evening on the rooftop of the hostel. The conversation started light and happy but quickly veered off track and became a heartbreak anonymous discussion where we described our biggest loves and worst heart breaks. We each rode an emotional rollercoaster through the highs and lows of each climax and fall. It was horrifically beautiful but one of the best conversations I’ve ever had with a group of new people.
writing on 2nd December:
Earlier that day Jess (the second one I mentioned) and I had woken before the sun came up and set off on the sunrise Inle Lake boat tour. Four us climbed into a long wooden boat, the young American couple occupying the front 2 chairs whilst I took one for the team and sat next to the motor. My overtired eyes struggled to stay open as the wind hit my face and teased the hairs on my arm to a stand. The motor spluttered and chugged loudly behind my head as we sped down the river chasing the sunrise. The river opened into a lake and we saw the leg rowing “fisherman” frozen in time, occasionally adjusting their pose to please eager tourists with fuck off huge lenses pointed their way. The fisherman, with the cone shaped nets, at the opening of the lake are purely are fake and have sussed that money can be made. Fishing techniques of the men have developed and they have found a more practical way to catch fish. We reached the middle of the lake and the motor stopped leaving us lingering in a haunting silence under the lilac sky. The drivers of our two boats started to unpack and prepare our breakfasts – 2 samosas, rice, a banana and Burmese tea – and handed them to us one by one. The most unforgettable breakfast of my life to date.
Our first stop was at a silversmith workshop where we watched people as young as 16 making tiny little silver chains and trinkets with their nimble fingers and focused eyes. After a while the process of weaving pieces of silver together with tweezers must become muscle memory.
The second destination (there was a lot of getting in and out of the boat) was a Lotus and Cotton weaving factory. Oh, bare in mind these places were all bamboo, wooden or leaf built houses that stood on stilts in the middle of the lake. There were several different workshop rooms here – there was an oldish looking woman with plump cheeks sat in the middle of the floor in the first room that we entered. Her right hand was spinning the wheel of a machine that was feeding thread into reels and her left keeping the thread steady. Surrounding her were complex wooden contraptions that sported half made fabrics. These machines were all over the factory and were mastered by one person, usually a woman. She sits on a stool with her feet resting on two bamboo pedals and as she pedals she is synchronising the pulls of a rope above her head with one hand and the sliding of the wood into the fabric with the other. It’s quite some fucking sorcery. The mind blowing magic did not stop there. The way these people make products from lotus plants is fucking mental. So after they harvest the lotus plants the worker will slice them in two, pull them apart so that several tiny strings are visible, twist and roll it into a thick long piece of thread. It takes 4000 lotus plants just to make a scarf. Magic.
At lunch the group was faced with dishes upon dishes of good traditional Burmese veggies splayed across the “low to the ground” (idk what the fuck you call it) table. We all took 2 servings before realising that our eyes were bigger than our bellies and that we were falling into a food coma. Right on cue the woman who cooked us food was laying out a pillows in the next room. We were disturbed from our slumbers 30 minutes later and were immediately shimmied in pairs onto canoes to do a little loop around the neighbourhood. Our final local destination was a cigar and cheroot cigarette factory where four women sat, behind our guide, rolling cigarettes in a chain. The paper of the cigarettes is made from a hot pressed cheroot leaf which is then rolled around a corn filter tip. They make a variety of different cigarettes – from mint to banana to honey and aniseed – and they are all pretty fucking tasty. To make the honey and aniseed ones they start by taking the tobacco leaves (obviously) and grinding them in with ground aniseed then melt honey down with warm water and spray over the tobacco. It’s really fucking clever and easy to smoke (yep t’was my first time smoking plain tobacco). The entire day – because it was the same day myself, Marie and the Jess’ had a huge DMC – was filled with amazing things and was, at the time my favourite day so far.
This changed very quickly though. A specific day in Bagan came charging through to knock that day on Inle Lake off balance and into the water. I woke on this day overwhelmed with fear. I was about to go on an e-bike tour… a tour. Where you ride an electric scooter. For six hours. With tons of people. Who have probably ridden one before. Loads of things were coursing through my head; I didn’t want to crash into an object; I didn’t want to crash into anyone else; I didn’t want to make an absolute tit of myself and I didn’t want to be defeated and not do it. After a couple of external shouts at myself I managed to whizz around the roundabout outside the e-bike renting shop and felt like a fucking idiot for not doing it sooner. The guide lead us into Old Bagan, the UNESCO heritage site that is home to 96.2 temple per square metre (some affected by a few earthquakes), and stopped at the most extravagant of the 2,000. He granted us with the history of each one we visited, informing us about the outrageous rulings and misdemeanours that occurred as the pagodas or temples were being built by Indian and Burmese kings alike. For example, there were two types of Buddhism in the 9th century and for one of these types the Buddha demanded that before a couple got married that he, himself, was to sleep with the woman (despite the man and woman themselves not being able to fuck), 9 months later boom whose baby? No on fucking knows. As the day progressed I got chatting a handful of sound people who would end up being the last 10 out of 22 on the tour therefore, we decided that we’d team up and go to find a nice spot for sunset.
Feeling refreshed after some shut eye, we (Matt, Maxine, Eva, Shane, Ricky, Hannah, Leo and I) all congregated in the lobby of the hostel and waited for Matt’s friend Maxient. The majority of us were British besides Matt and Leo who are from the U.S and Maixient who is French but has lived in New Zealand for 8 years. When I heard that my ears automatically pricked up like a dog who has heard “walkies” because I fucking love the kiwi (and ozzy) accent. I asked him a little bit more about himself and gave him the classic “I lived in China” line followed by “partying in China sucks because it’s not DnB”. That. That was moment we knew we were going to get along.
The 9 (or 10, i don’t remember) began our 25 minute convoy to get to this specific spot for sunset. Except it wasn’t 25 minutes at all. We’re all cruising along the highway and, out of the corner of my eye I see Maixient over take me… but I caught up with him about 2 minutes later. His bike was slowing down so I called to ask him if he was okay but he assured me he was fine until the others grew further in distance. I slowed to a halt and told him that it’s totally okay to just leave the bike, hop on mine and then tell the shop where it is. He wasn’t sure at first but appreciated my offer of driving slowly with him. Going slowly was okay for him on the highway but we needed to veer off onto the dirt road full of bumps, holes and ditches. That’s when it started going wrong. At this point it was just me and him, I was leading the way because I had the pin. Occasionally I’d look back and he’d be out of view then he went in front so he didn’t lose me. His was bike clinging on to any bit of power it had left. He kept erupting with accent heavy “what the fuck”’s and “come on”’s as he began to bounce on the bike like a fucking horse jockey. I struggled to breathe through the belly aching laughter that took over my body, it was fucking hilarious. Then it died. I told him to drive mine as I rode on the back – I wasn’t yet confident enough to drive two people – before we missed the sunset. Just as we head off there was a clunk and his keys fell. We stopped and he ran back to search for them but a look of horror and confusion slapped his face. Where the fuck were they? “Are you sure they’re not on the bike?” he shouted from afar, I looked down and there they were. We tried again. His bike was parked, he had his keys but time was running out. We sped down the dirt roads before coming to yet another fucking halt. “You have got to be FUCKING kidding me!” we both yelled in unison. Cows. Fucking cows slowly going about their business trying to cross the road. We literally could not believe our fucking luck. Max scooted around them strategically and “hooned
” off until we finally arrived at the hill the others were located.
Disbelief and desperation was evident in the way we told the story 100mph to the others. What a fucking story it was. Sunset hill was crowded with tourists keen to watch the sunset and we struggled, at first, to squeeze in. Matt suggested we climb over the fence and perk our asses on the itchy knee length grass. Matt had also had a dead bike and the poor fucker left his beers in the compartment so he was flustered too. The night was warm and everyone was deep in conversation with their eyes fixated on the horizon, I was letting Max listen to Hybrid Minds’ album Element for the first time. Hybrid Minds makes music that entrances you and takes you some place else and I could literally see this on Max’s face. It’s always really fucking awesome to see some love the music you love. The sunset but we all stuck around to wait for the reds, oranges and purples to waltz across the sky.
Now that we had established a little squad the plan for the next day was to take advantage of the hostel tour to Mt. Popa – a monastery on mountain that also homed hundreds of monkeys. Despite not living in our hostel I decided to invite Max along because we had vibed so fucking well the previous day. When I say vibed I mean Big Lez references, top notch banter and incredible conversation about so many things. There were now a few extra people that joined the group, Joe and Romain, therefore we were divided into a mini van and two cars. Maxine, Eva, Shane, Matt, Max and I took the mini van nattering away about things I don’t remember but things I know were really interesting (fuck my shitty brain man). With the group being pretty huge by this point our walk up wasn’t dull at all. Joe was signing He Lives in You from The Lion King on the way up following our conversation about how for his funeral he would like his face in lights just like Mufasa in the clouds of The Lion King 2. Oohs, aahs and ewws could be heard every now an then as we trekked past monkeys, viewpoints and Buddha statues. The monastery and statues at the top were guarded by men with long sticks alert and ready to fight off any monkeys seeking food. The six of us came across relatively calm monkeys before sundown that were sunbathing on ledges or having their fleas picked by another. Literal dream. This calmness was short-lived. Two monkeys began screeching and squaring up to each other fighting over the tiniest bit of food. Eva had fucking darted it for the stairs terrified of their inhumanely human features. They are fucking weird. Max had come face to face with an angry one too but started aggressively towards to and it fucked off. The second time he came face to face with one of the little fuckers he wasn’t so brave and ended up letting out a sound of terror and clutching onto my arm. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt though, the monkey to flash it’s teeth and looked as if it would take a chunk out of Max’s arm. The sunset on top of the mountain wasn’t as satisfying as the night before because the clouds were that misty looking blanket that and so the colours weren’t as beautiful.
The 6 of us, Joe, Romain and Leo returned from the trip and mustered in a Burmese restaurant around the corner for dinner with Ricky and a few others joining us too. I got chatting to Romain, also French, who is travelling around South East Asia alone at 18. His first country was India, fucking India. I didn’t even know how to make a curry at 18 like what the fuck. I admire him for his bravery. Conversation across the table went from middle names, to Chinese english names to what we would name ourselves if we had to name ourselves an improper name. A constant flow of interesting thoughts and opinions that kept the restaurant buzzing with our noise. Then from the restaurant back to the hostel where more beer and a deck of cards got involved. We tried naming trees and sex positions, forgetting to take the little man off our bottles and sharing never have I evers. Our laughter growing louder and louder soon to be forgotten under the dark starry night sky of Bagan. The atmosphere and company, especially next to me, was pretty bloody wonderful.