I arrived in Yangon on Christmas Eve to be met by Seema, Ian and Tristan’s housekeeper – a small person of few words who it would appear, spends most of her life locked in a cupboard, steam ironing. She escorted me by taxi back to the boys’ house, relieved me of my dirty bag and disappeared into the cupboard for a long session with her ironing board. What a relief to be in a clean, presentable house with soft furnishings, mood lighting and a fully fitted kitchen. There were two other guests, Julia and Jeff, ex-pats living in Malaysia. Julia is a maths teacher and likes sky diving. Jeff is from the Philippines and has perfect skin. They too had been off-piste, travelling around Myanmar, so were relieved to be in relative civilisation, abluted and laundered, and with a large bottle of gin and some dried broad beans with which to toast the season. We had a blackout during which I nearly fed the ensemble cat biscuits that I mistook for some sort of Myanmar chilli snack but apart from that, Christmas Eve was a relaxed evening of eating, drinking and sharing travel stories.
Christmas Day was spent in Bago, north of Yangon, at a friend’s boutique hotel. Think bamboo verandah, rattan furniture and teak floors. We drank Camparis, ate mousse and exotic fruits, and had a bit of light petting in the swimming pool. Well, if you can’t pet in a pool on Christmas Day, when can you? Our only concession to the festive occasion was a box of luxury M&S crackers that despite their selection of premium novelty crap had skimped on the paper hats. Mine burst the minute I tried to ram it onto my great big head. Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without a ripped crown and a fish skeleton key ring!
The next day we had a tour of downtown Yangon, a really beautiful, if dilapidated old colonial part of the city with wide, tree-lined avenues and grand old buildings reminiscent of the Europe of old. Yangon doesn’t have the chaos of India or the poverty; what it has is bucket loads of charm and a more relaxed ambience that delivers without overpowering the senses. Yes, there are frequent power cuts (Myanmar sells a lot of its electricity to China) and the traffic jams are a nightmare but it also has fascinating markets, friendly people who don’t look at you like the freak show has come to town, and great places to eat and drink. All the men wear longhis – long cotton skirts that they wrap around and knot to form a sort of sporran over their bits. The women meanwhile (who also wear a longhis but fastened more discreetly) like to plaster their faces with a creamy coloured tree bark paste. It’s part fashion and part sun protection; think wheat germ face mask without the germ. Apparently, it’s most beneficial for acne.
Next stop on the itinerary was Nay Phi Taw, the vast, glitzy new capital that’s been built in the centre of Myanmar, housing the ministry HQs and other administrative centres. It’s a weird, ghost-town that has no centre but consists of separate shopping, hotel and business zones, interlinked by enormous 20 lane highways that, apart from the odd scooter and private car, are eerily deserted. The city’s hotel complexes, set way back off the road in the middle of huge dusty areas of waste ground, generally have only around 5% occupancy. It seems, no one wants to go to Nay Phi Taw unless they really have to – and I can see why.
Our bolt hole for the next two days while Ian and Tristan were running a workshop, was the Royal Ace, a huge, plush hotel where the only other guests were a bunch of grim-looking Russian men (big old units in shorts, heavy smokers). The hotel boasted all the accoutrements of a high-end Western hotel but sadly was lacking any real personality. In the cavernous lobby someone had tried to create some festive cheer with an undersized plastic Christmas tree that could have done with the magic hands of Kirsty Allsop. No baubles, no fairy, just a few manky lights and a bit of threadbare tinsel. In the huge dining room, we were surrounded by a multitude of eager staff – there was one person to take your order, another to top up your water, and yet another to lay your napkin oh so carefully across your waiting groin. Unfortunately, the money they’d spent on staff training hadn’t been extended to health and safety; I got violently ill from the salade Nicoise. It’s times like these you’re thankful for Thomas Crapper. I don’t think I could have faced kneeling down retching over a squat toilet. Julia too had dodgy guts. She hadn’t eaten the tuna but something was obviously bubbling away in her intestines because she had to keep excusing herself, and her skin was the colour of custard.
Anyway, after emptying my guts a few times, we went ‘sight-seeing’. There being no public transport in Nay Phi Taw, we got a private car to take us around. Highlights: the National Landmark Park, a 400 acre theme park that largely consisted of a rifle range, antiquated swing boats, and a few models of Shrek, the Little Mermaid and a giraffe; the Fountain Water Park, an evening attraction where I walked behind an illuminated waterfall and felt sick on a mini suspension bridge; and, and,…..no, that’s it!
Thankfully, we then left the big city for Inle Lake, a beautiful wildlife haven where the locals live in bamboo houses set high on stilts above the water and farmers grow tomatoes on floating reed beds. We stayed in Nangschwe, a small village that was rammed to the gills with 20-something neo-hippies dressed in elephant pants and bandanas, eating banana pancakes and drinking flat whites. ‘Like yeah, we’ve done Thailand,’ they’d drawl to each other, flicking their carefully groomed dreadlocks. ‘And these days, Micronesia is like so full of tourists.’ Unfortunately, we had to spend the next couple of days with twats like these as Nangschwe was back-packer central. Wandering around on the first day, we were accosted by a local guy on a mini moped smoking a cheroot and sporting the reddened teeth of a habitual pan chewer (the betal nut mild narcotic favoured by the men around these parts). He also stank of whisky! He was touting trips around the lake on his motorised long boat where we’d see floating pagodas, craft workshops and fishermen plying the waters of the vast reed-lined lake. Impressed by his spit punctuated patter, we said ‘yes’ and the next day, bright and early, we followed our boatman (still stinking of whisky) down to the river along with all the other tourists for our day on the water. We saw lots of fishermen (showing off by fishing on one leg while steering their boat with the other), visited the lotus and silk weaving workshops (little old ladies on Industrial Revolution era looms), avoided the long-necked women of the Paduang tribe (sad victims of a human freak show) and wandered around the souvenir stalls (‘Mingalarbar big lady. Wanna buy my nicky nacky noos?’).
Next on the agenda was a three-day hike. Tristan and Ian joined us from their workshop in Nay Phi Taw but sadly Julia and her bubbling stomach and Jeff with his perfect skin, opted to stay at Inle Lake a little longer to recuperate. We were walking from Nangschwe to Kalaw, an old British hill station that’s reached by forest-capped hills peopled by various hill tribes. Our guide, I’m going to call him Ow Ow, was a very smiley 24 year old who used to be a painter and decorator but had switched to trekking as a more lucrative way to feed his extended family. Ow Ow didn’t exactly look the part; he was wearing suit trousers, holey socks and a pair of ripped pumps. I said to him: ‘Ow Ow, you’ll see where you’ll end up with that type of footwear. You’ve got no support. And you could do with a new pair of socks.’ He just smiled but then Tristan gave him an old pair of woollen/nylon mix from Sock Shop which perked him up no end.
On the first day of our trek, we traversed steep limestone crags before the path reached a plateau and we had a pleasant ramble into a small village where we were going to spend our first night. Consisting of a few bamboo houses and a monastery, the village had no electricity but a lot of cattle hence much dung that they could use for fuel. It was a bit Eurovision at our homestay; there were the jolly French girls, the bald headed Italian Phil Mitchell lookie-likie and the wholesome Norwegian bearded man who probably chopped wood for a living. After dinner, our assorted guides and chef built a fire and enticed us with half pint glasses of rum sour – a potent concoction that brought out the crazy in some of the party. To the strains of an out of tune guitar and some very creaky vocals, we sang Myanmar pop songs and twerked. The chef, who had consumed vast amounts of rum sour, was very thrusting and, when he wasn’t almost falling into the fire, kept making a bee-line for my arse. I tried to change the mood with a rendition of ‘London’s Burning’ but the Myanmar contingent wasn’t keen. I then threw in a bit of ‘Tiger Feet’ for good measure and Tristan got me dirty dancing – we both had a go at the Jennifer Grey lift – and we finished off with a Myanmar rendition of ‘Country Roads’, at which point the whole ensemble linked arms and shared some Euro love before going to bed – at 9pm.
Ian, Tristan and I were bunked up in a hut next to the kitchen so I fell asleep to the sound of our drunken chef breathing heavily, just inches from my face on the other side of a very thin bamboo screen. And then, at the ungodly hour of 5.15am, the resident cockerel started its morning squawks, followed by some very vigorous hawking from our homestay hosts. The next day, we picked our way between paddy and wheat fields and along dusty tracks of brilliant russet earth to the next village. Along the way, we saw fields of red chillies and white flowering mustard. This is Myanmar at its rural extreme. Teams of oxen plough the fields and transport the workers by wooden cart to and fro; the male farm workers wear bamboo hats to protect them from the hot sun and the women carry their babies on their backs, eating their lunch under the shade of an acacia tree. We saw women sifting the chaff from black sesame seed heads while others were spreading red chillies over the ground to dry before taking them back to the village.
At our next homestay, we ran into the giggling French girls and another French-speaking couple, a young woman and her French-Canadian boyfriend, a painfully thin individual who looked in dire need of a solid meal but who wasn’t averse to having a very thorough outdoor strip wash while we were enjoying a nice cup of tea on the verandah. That night, we all slept on the first floor of the homestay. The gigglers were in one corner while I lay inbetween Ian and Tristan under my multi-coloured blanket. Meanwhile, the Quebecers had their own small space just off the main room. Not forgetting the host family who, to make room for their guests, had decamped to a broom cupboard, also off the main room. It was all very cosy. In the night, Ms Quebec went down to the toilet and on her way back had a fainting fit, falling into an occasional table and bumping her head. At this point, the cupboard family all came out of the cupboard, while Mr Quebec, who had an air of Munchausen by Proxy about him, started telling us all that she had Dengue fever and they would have to call off the trek and go to the nearest hospital.
A word about the food. Myanmar bread is a bit like chewing on a mattress; Myanmar ‘butter’ biscuits have a chalky, breeze block consistency about them, and every main meal comes with a bowl of washing up water, masquerading as chicken soup. The jam is nuclear red – with no discernible fruit in it and ‘butter’ is cooking margarine. Apart from that, Myanmar food is very tasty! I am, however, missing cheese. The minute I get home I’m going to get some Sainsbury’s multi seed and make myself a great big cheddar cheese and pickle sandwich.
My final act upon leaving the homestay was to visit the pig pen – positioned suspiciously close to the squat toilet – my aim, to feed the pigs the remains of my deep fried breakfast banana. They screamed with delight (as they did, disturbingly, when anyone approached the toilet). Ow Ow told me that the pigs spend their whole life in the pen and are never let out to stretch their short porky legs. This bothered me a bit but what can you do? On our way out of the village, we paused to watch a football match being played, curiously, on a ‘pitch’ peppered with what looked like oversized mole hills. Naturally, this made the game very stoppy starty but oh how those boys laughed as they ran up and down the hills emulating their favourite Chelsea/Manchester United player.
As we approached our final destination, Kalaw, we came across a narrow gauge railway line, one that the British had built during their Empire days, so I naturally re-enacted a silent movie where the damsel is in distress because she’s been tied to the railway line by two gay extremists. How we laughed! Ow Ow, in his new socks, thought this was highly amusing. We rewarded his enthusiasm and good humour with a big fat tip, said goodbye to Tristan, who was off back to Yangon for work, and Ian and I got on the JJ Bus for Bagan. ‘JJ’ stands for ‘Joyeous Journeys’ and the motto emblazoned across the windscreen reassuringly told us, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done’. Praise the Lord for an evangelical bus company, that’s what I say.
Watch this space for my final thrilling installment……