In Bagan, there are 4,000 temples occupying a 26 square mile plain. Some are red brick stupas, others dazzling gold pagodas topped with gilded ‘hti’ pinnacles. How to see them all? Hop on an electric bike, that’s how. At the Ruby True Hotel – which had all the exterior glitz of a Nevada knocking shop – the ever-smiling, matronly ‘Madame’ assured us that riding one of these nippy vehicles was a piece of cake. On a regular tarmac road, this might be an accurate assessment but on winding sandy tracks, rutted by a host of other vehicles, a piece of cake it was not. The first major incident occurred when I’d slowed down to avoid hitting a monk. I lost my balance and somehow, the bike (which was quite a big lump of metal) fell over on its side. In the process of trying to get it back upright, I panicked and inadvertently activated the accelerator. The bike jerked forward (with me still holding on for dear life), and crashed into an unfortunately placed hovel where I bashed my shoulder. Thankfully, Ian came to the rescue and switched me off before I could whizz off again. Meanwhile, the monk I’d narrowly missed came dashing over, not to see if I was injured or needed assistance, no, he was most perturbed to see that I’d dented the hovel’s rusty old corrugated iron roof with my clumsy shoulder and proceeded to bend it back into shape. I’d like to say that over the course of the day, I became a proficient electric bike rider but that would be lieing. I skidded and careered around the dusty tracks, narrowly missing other bikes, dogs and tourists who hadn’t the sense to hide behind a tree when they saw me coming.
Despite the transport challenges, Bagan was stunningly beautiful. We watched the sun go down from the giddy heights of one of the city’s largest, most spectacular pagodas, visited the family of one of Ian’s friends, sharing dinner in their tiny bamboo house from where they run a small-scale lacquer making business, and wandered down to the mighty Irrawaddy River, a serene blue ribbon in a sea of dry desert. Despite it being a tourist hot-spot and awash with hawkers peddling everything from boat rides to baskets, parasols to puppets, Bagan was bloody brilliant.
If Bagan could be said to have embraced Western travellers with zeal, our next destination was still languishing in the dark ages, yet to even dream about the potential for tourism that lay in their mountainous land. Chin State was until recently, off limits to travellers (the government blamed insurgency but the reality is this is a very poor region and they didn’t fancy the bad press they might get) so I felt very excited to be going to this north westerly region of the country, 60 miles away from the Indian border. Our launch pad for Chin was the town of Kalaymyo, a bustling town two blocks wide and nine miles long with an airport that consisted of a shed in a field, and just two hotels. We were booked into the Majesty, a large, imperious looking building with a Paladian frontage and a Holby City interior. While the reception area exuded ‘Dynasty’ (peach curtains, gold trim, mirrored glass), the corridors were long, high, white tiled and extremely utilitarian. This was a hotel that had done a deal with Topps Tiles; its aim – to aurally torture its guests. ‘Echoey’ is a wholly inadequate word. At night, the upstairs function room turned into Karaoke central, filling the hotel’s vast network of corridors with a blasting Myanmar version of Cher’s ‘If I could turn back time’ and other assorted soundy likies. Thankfully, we were only staying here two nights, just long enough to shop (I could have bought a concrete mixer or a plastic urinal in the shop next door), have a swim in the hotel pool (also somewhere to wash seeing as there wasn’t any hot water in our rooms), and marvel at the lack of cutlery in the downstairs restaurants (which had a Lazy Susan on every table but no knives – we had to ‘butter’ our mattress bread with a spoon).
Kalaymyo, like many towns in the region, is Christian which, after Bagan with all its Buddhist and Hindu temples, felt weird. Whatever your denomination, as long as you’re Christian, you’re catered for in Kalaymyo. There’s Baptist, Methodist, Seventh Day Adventist, and the mysterious Believers (maybe I read the sign wrong and it said ‘Beliebers’ – Justin is big here too as is One Direction). One night, we passed by a large Baptist Church set back from the road and blazing multi-coloured Christmas lights all over it. In the car park was a life-sized nativity scene, minus the baby Jesus but with a modern-day attraction of three youths sprawling in the hay smoking. We could hear some Mariah Carey warbling from inside the church so we poked our heads around the door. Our arrival prompted a bit of a commotion. A middle-aged man in an ill-fitting suit spied us and came hurtling down the aisle to welcome the foreigners and question our presence in the town. Were we missionaries? What ‘project’ were we involved with? Were we the second coming? By now, the whole congregation had stopped listening to the warbling woman and were staring at us. We were invited to join the service and sit at the front as guests of honour. I was ready to lead the prayers, give a sermon or even slip into an ecstatic trance but Ian, not being a total show-off like me, declined the invitation and we went back to bed to be kept awake by the screeching karaoke brigade.
The next day we got on a minibus for the far-flung town of Falam, only 70 miles away but an incredible mountainous journey of perilous switchbacks that lasted seven hours. Chin is one of Myanmar’s poorest regions and has the added disadvantage of being prone to severe weather. Last year’s cyclone had resulted in countless landslides which decimated the only road that linked Falam with Kalaymyo, hence the time it took to reach our destination. Every few miles we’d come across a red flag and join a queue of motorbikes and trucks, all waiting stoicly for a gap in the roadworks. Chin people have learnt to be patient. There were JCBs shifting mountains of sandy soil to create flood terraces and legions of bamboo hatted female workers laboriously transferred baskets of stones on their heads to the road ready to be covered by the evil smelling pitch that was bubbling away in nearby oil barrels.
We eventually arrived in Falam, a former British hill station that is well off the beaten track for most tourists. Our accommodation here was the Holy Guest House, a two-storey hostel in the centre of town, opposite the Baptist Church. The bare and basic double and single rooms were arranged on either side of a long corridor that led to communal wash facilities at the back of the building. The latter consisted of a couple of squat toilets, a ‘shower’ room with a big tiled water tank, and a Western toilet. The Thomas Crapper was strictly prohibited to all but foreign use, probably owing to some Asian type who, unable to grasp the special position required of this type of facility, had climbed onto the porcelain to do a number two and broken the seat, if not the whole toilet bowl.
My bedroom was triangular in shape with a sliding door and a Goldilocks sized bed plus a washing line for my clothes. Separating me from the man next door? A flimsy plastic wall bearing a green bamboo leaf motif. Sleeping was a challenge in the Holy Guest House owing to the snoring, farting and sleep-talking, as well as the heavy-footed guests who seemed to be constantly prowling the corridor at all hours. Our hosts, Mr and Mrs Holy, were an elderly couple who slept in a shoebox on the ground floor and spent all day either gazing out of the window, carrying bags of dirty laundry to and fro, filling up our thermos flasks so we could have a strip wash with a flannel (for we had no hot running water) or, once the sun had gone down, huddled around a small charcoal brazier on the first floor landing. Falam boasted the balmy temperature of a typical UK summer during the day but once it was dark, it did get rather chilly. Oh yeah, and the electricity kept going off – one night I had no torch as I couldn’t charge my phone which meant when I blindly stumbled to the loo in the dark, I inadvertently put my foot down the squat toilet. Nice!
Being the only Westerners in this remote neck of the woods, in an area that had hitherto been off-limits to the outside world, we were viewed like celebrities everywhere we went. Some people smiled but seemed too shy to say hello, others were keen to practice what little English they might know – “Happy birthday” was one greeting – others just stared or ran away screaming.
We had a contact in Falam – Jack, the Secretary of the Chin National Democratic Party and editor of a local newspaper. Like a lot of Myanmar minority groups, Chin is having a tough time getting its voice heard at a national level which is something Jack is hoping to redress. He took time out to arrange for us to go trekking (an activity unheard of in Falam), putting us in touch with a couple of local guys who could take us around the local villages. The first trek we did was about 12 miles long and took us west along a dusty road that skirted the mountain. On incredibly steep terraces we passed villagers scratching out a living growing a variety of vegetables. Irrigation here is an elaborate and highly creative system of bamboo and plastic pipes bringing the water from the many waterfalls that cascade down the mountains to the fields. Everyone that passed us on the road slowed down on their bikes to stare and ask our guide what the bloody ‘ell he was doing: a. walking when he could be on a bike, and b. fraternising with a man with grey hair and enormous feet (Ian), a smaller man with a big bottom and a ridiculously loud sneeze (Tristan), and a towering mass of hair, knees and nose (me). To every comment, our guide, Luey, would laugh, saying: ‘They want me to walk them to my village and they’re going to pay me for it. It’s bonkers!’
When we arrived at Luey’s village we were invited into the house of a local woman and treated to a plate of trifle fingers and a cup of hot beverage (none of us could tell if it was tea or coffee). We were then handed one bowl of assorted beans, one spoon, a saucer of salt, and one cup of hot water. Unsure of whether to put the hot water over the beans or wash our fingers in it, we decided to each eat one spoon of beans topped with a sprinkling of salt followed by a hot water chaser and then pass the bowl to the next person. This seemed to be the correct procedure by the look on the face of our hostess. We imagined this was ‘lunch’ but then Luey took us to his house where we had more beans, this time there were three bowls accompanied by some salsa. For pud, Luey’s wife then plonked a load of sugar cane on the table with assorted knives. Ignorant of how to strip, trim or even eat sugar cane, Mrs Luey had to demonstrate. She got out the biggest knife in her arsenal and with the dexterity and speed of a master chef, trimmed the cane, cut it into bite-size pieces and demonstrated the chew and spit method of ‘eating’.
Lunch over, we bid our farewell to Luey and his wife and started the trudge back to Falam. Walking on a metal road is hard on the legs so just before we reached town, we cadged a lift from a vehicle that consisted of a sit-on lawn mower engine pulling a much larger trailer containing some stones and timber. The driver was all of 14 years of age and was delighted to have Ian and Tristan in the trailer and me alongside him in the cab. He dropped us off on the outskirts of town where we then ran into an octogenarian dressed in a beige rainmac and fleece pyjama bottoms who had studied English in Cardiff in 1961. He showed us the hospital that the British had built in 1951 complete with isolation ward for leprosy and other highly contagious diseases. Sadly, the building was now in a parlous state of disrepair and like a lot of Myanmar’s old colonial architecture, not likely to be restored to its former glory any time soon.
Just before the sun went down that night we watched a game of Sepale Takraw in the town’s sports hall. It’s played on a volleyball court but the ‘ball’, about the size of grapefruit, is made of bamboo and players use their head and feet to pass the ball to each and slam it over the net. It’s a bit like ‘keepy uppy’ but much faster and involving rather dangerous looking scissor kicks. The next day, we did another trek to a couple of villages in the other direction from Falam, and, it being Sunday, we got to sit in on a Baptist Church service. The pastor did a lot of shouting while babies cried and people wandered in and out willy nilly. There was a man on an organ but he only got to use it once at the end, and we didn’t do any clapping, shaking hands or kneeling down. Also, all the festive decorations were still up – despite the 12 days of Christmas having long been and gone. I was going to suggest they took them down but then remembered I had absolutely no idea why it was the custom (UK or Western-wide?) to take down the decorations on the 12th night.
We were a bit sweaty when we got back to the Holy Guest House and my hair was full of dust and God knows what else so I locked myself in the bathing chamber and threw a couple of thermos flasks of hot water over me, lathering up with two sachets of Silvikrin that I’d bought the day before from a hole in the wall shop along with a jumbo packet of what I call Vile Crisps (very, very oily). The sun had gone down so I layered up and we went out to the Chinese restaurant for the third night running (it was that or the dodgy restaurant where everyone was pissed on 11% local beer), along the way, running the gauntlet of Miss Fiddle, the local fruitcake who, every time she saw us would burst out laughing. The restaurant was a bit like eating in a garage – overhead lights, concrete floor, doors wide open. We were served by an expressionless 10 year old girl who’d wipe our table with a pair of old underpants, casually sweeping the previous meal’s detritus onto the floor before throwing you a menu. We were just settling down for a stir-fry (without soy sauce!!! What Chinese restaurant doesn’t have soy sauce?) when a large and rowdy office party came in and plonked themselves down next to us. The head honcho, some district government minister, who’d obviously been on the pop, was eager to talk and kept coming over to our table. ‘Can I have a conversation with you?’ he asked us? ‘Yes, OK’ we replied. But he was so pissed he couldn’t string a sentence together and every time we tried to say anything he blindly ignored us. At one point he wanted to analyse our palms: mine was ‘weak’, Tristan’s was ‘weak, Ian’s was ‘medium’, but his hand was ‘strong’. It just looked dirty to me but anyway, his wife then pitched up and dragged him away from us and we got to finish our dinner in peace.
The next morning I bade my triangular bedroom goodbye, packed my rucksack for the umpteenth time, had some fried oil cakes dunked in a cup of ‘three in one’ (super sweet coffee’) and we went down to the bus stand – the final farewell of Mr Holy: ‘I will pray for you’ ringing in our ears. The roadworks on the way back to Kalaymyo were even worst on our return journey and we only just made our plane back to Yangon. The airport officials were a bit perplexed by the cast iron fire stand that I was transporting along with my regular luggage. Did I have a bag for it? No! Alright, slip us 1,000 Kyat and we’ll go and buy one for you. That’s how they roll here in Myanmar. Money gets you everywhere!