Buddha's Burmese Birthday

Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
1
8
26
Trip End Nov 18, 2002


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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Friday, April 26, 2002

WARNING: In order to properly run a successful military dictatorship, it's important to suppress all types of news and information. In Myanmar, the efficient ruling junta has, among other things, banned privately run Internet access and it is considered illegal, which pretty much means that unless you are willing to scribble down your emails and have the government provider send it out for you, there is no way of getting connected, without of course being arrested. This explains why I haven't emailed or updated the entry in over 3 weeks! Thanks for the concerned emails. Sorry to make you all worry, I am still alive and kicking :)

This also means that I've landed in perhaps the one country in the world that has absolutely no need for any of my trained skills... yes, professionally speaking, I am completely useless here.

What this does mean is that I have one big fat juicy entry for all of my zany Myanmar adventures. It's a long entry, so before diving in, get yourself a coffee, beer, tea, lassi, Kaung Ye ( read on to know what that is! ) and kick your feet up... or just flip through the pics and wait for the movie to come out to find out what I did in Myanmar :)

-- Majestic Myanmar

I arrived in Myanmar awaiting a pack of touts and aggressive, money hungry taxi drivers foaming at the mouth, as I'd been accustomed to in Delhi but Myanmar was different. To my delight, only a handful of smiling taxi drivers were waiting outside the airport.

"Humm, this is strange" I thought as my tension eased a little.

'Hey you, downtown Yangon'. I told the first cabby I saw and off we motored to the "white house", a guest house I'd read about on the Internet.

The taxi driver was friendly and had an ear-to-ear smile. Having spent the last 3 weeks in India, I had been conditioned to automatically associate this with an approaching scam. 'The bastard's out to get me' I thought, clenched, preparing myself to launch the car door open and rollout of the moving vehicle to escape.

"You know I do tours of Burma" the taxi driver offered.

"Here it comes!", I muttered to myself.

"No thanks, just white house" I said with a stern bark.

"Ok, no problem." he said, smiled genuinely, turned and kept driving.

"Wait a minute, this isn't right! He is supposed to keep hassling me... hey look, that's the white house, he even took me to the right hotel!" I couldn't believe it. My driver dropped me off, after a pleasant chat and without any hassle. This was great! Could I actually trust people again? Could I let my guard down? Hhhmmmm...

It took a full day before I realized that Burma ( or Myanmar, as it is now known ), the Buddhist military controlled country, was nothing like India.

I walked down the streets of Yangon to see an occasional car pass by, a stark contrast to the manic bumper car streets of Delhi. The air was even slightly breathable here! To top it off, a bird was chirping as I stepped out of the cab ... this was paradise!

"Yeah, Yangon is crazy, it's too noisy and polluted here" other travellers shared their dislike for Yangon with me over breakfast.

"MMmmmm" I groaned, I had no idea what they were talking about but I nodded knowingly to keep the conversation flowing. Sure it was a little noisy and the occasional tout would offer you something, but after India, Burma was blissfully quiet, even in the busiest of Burmese towns, Yangon. Best of all, like most other Buddhist countries, everyone smiled back when you smiled at them... Mmmm... LOOoooovely...

I treated myself to a rare luxury and got the best room at the white house. An 8$ US room with AC, double beds, warm water and attached bathroom. I settled in and took a quick nap before washing up and whipping out my scissors to fix the butcher-job that my flamboyant hair dresser in Delhi callously transformed my hair into before I fled India.

-- 'Serenity Now! Serenity Now!'

I needed somewhere to let my hair down, well, what was left of it at least. After spending the morning getting the local scoop from other backpackers in the hotel, figuring out the funky local currency and studying the map of Myanmar I was decided, Inle Lake would be my oasis of tranquility. There I could spend a few days and purge India from my system. Then I would head up to Mandalay for the water festival. Having penned my route from Yangon through Myanmar, my route was set, I was ready.

First, I needed to find a bus but with the water festival approaching fast, every Burmanite in sight was heading to Mandalay and bus tickets were going like hotcakes. Somehow ( I like to think it's payback from all the good karma I was raking up ), I managed to get one ticket to Inle Lake for 12$ US, but the bus left in one hour and I still hadn't checked out of my room yet.

"I'll pay 1000 kyat if you can get me to the White House Guest House as quickly as possible" I shouted to the taxi driver as I dove into the back seat.

"No problem, I very quick!"

Zoom! He was off, speeding through the streets of Yangon, zipping down side streets and honking like a madman. Half way to the hotel, a uniformed man on the side of the road was waving frantically at us, it was the police.

"Trouble, only11 hours in Yangon and I am already in trouble with the police" I thought as the driver pulled over.

The copper, in a white helmet and green camouflage, looked me over in the back seat, then stared at the driver. My speedy chauffer was talking in Burmese, I couldn't understand a word but, they were talking about me. I could tell. The driver was pointing directly at me. "This can't be good" I thought while I bit my finger nails to the nub. Then, completely unexpectedly, the officer took a little white laminated card from the driver and waved us on.

"Huh? What happened?" I asked the driver a he speed off.

"Is ok!" He smiled back at me in a typical Burmese way that could be interpreted as 'is ok, you going to jail now and I'll just drop you off at the labor camp before I get lunch' or 'is ok, we go to hotel now, I smooth talked my way out of it'.

I'd have to get used to the vague subtleties of the Burmese way later, I just needed to catch my bus!

"But what just happened?"

"He stop me, I run red light, is ok"

"Really? What did he take from you?"

"Is ok, just my license, he give back"

"He took your license? Damn, sorry man!"

"No, is ok, is ok!"

I sat back in my seat trying to digest what had just happened. From the looks of it, we had burned a red light in an attempt to get me to the hotel as quickly as possible, a police man had stopped the driver, the driver explained that a foreigner needed to get to his hotel in a hurry so the police man let him go, only taking his license so that they could later sort it out. Being a foreigner in Myanmar had it's privileges, although I would never find out what happened to the driver. I'd read many stories of tourists doing something wrong or going off the beaten path in Myanmar. When the authorities would find out they would punish the locals for letting it happen.

In one such story, a couple of backpackers refused to show their passports at a checkpoint in protest. The authorities forced the driver to get out of the bus and stand out in the sun for 5 hours while the foreigners stood and watched.

I hoped my driver would be ok!

"There goes some of that good karma!" I thought

Back at the white house, just before leaving the hotel desk had a note for me. It was a note from a nice Malaysian man who I had eaten with the night before.

"Luc,

When you come to Kuala Lumpur, call me 555-5555 and I'll show you around.

Be safe,
Chin"

Cool...

-- Busing to Inle

I just wanted to be alone, to have some time to re-compose myself after India. I had finally figured out the wacky currency system here with it's Kyats, US dollars and FECs when I finally boarded the bus. "Ahhh, two seats!"

I had it made, no one had taken the seat next to me, and I could stretch out and relax. This didn't last long though, Huib, a 26 year old Dutchy plopped down next to me in Bago, 2 hours away from Yangon. Huib had been travelling for 7 months. Surprisingly, almost everyone in South East Asia was on a long journey. A quick impromptu survey revealed 80% travelling for 0-6 months, 10% for 6-9 and the super cool ultra backpacker elites 9 months to 2 years at 10%. I'd even met one women who'd been travelling for 14 years. My 9 month jaunt put me in at the high 10%... Not quite "super cool" but "cool" none the less... Yeah that's right! 9 months! Hehe, Who was I kidding, 9 months was a scary amount of time to be away. My constant dreams of being back home were constant reminders of that...

Surprisingly, Huib turned out to be a really nice guy and we would travel the rest of Myanmar together, although we didn't know it yet. We had alot in common and he was the first other backpacker my age that I had met. We got along smashingly.

Unfortunately, the other Dutch guy on the bus, a 28 year old balding man named Danny, wasn't quite as "socially apt" to put it nicely. Danny tagged along as we climbed off the bus, after 13 hours, to a hotel I had been recommend in Inle.

-- Inle Lake

Imagine Venice, Italy. Put the houses on stilts, replace the pavement with floating gardens and swap the gondolas for fishermen, presto, you have Inle Lake. Wonderful. Just what I needed. Everyone was so friendly, smiling a big, red, betel nut stained tooth grin. Another nice change was that it almost seemed that everyone wanted their picture taken. This was a nice shift from India where where taking a picture of someone almost certainly resulted in forking out some rupees for the privilege.

Best of all, I had my hunger back. Horaah! I was healthy again. I celebrated by gorging myself on local foods, beer and scrumptious banana chocolate pancakes. Gaining back the 10 pounds I had lost in India in the process.

I was amazed at how clean my feet were. After a full day walking around town, my feet were actually still a healthy pinkish skin color, unlike the black grime that coated everything in Delhi. I felt a huge weight lift from my tensed shoulders.

To pass the time I picked up the newspaper. "Is this white out?" someone had put white out on some of the words in the newspaper. After reading some of the drab propaganda, I realized that free press wasn't something I'd find in Myanmar. The news paper was cover-to-cover ranting about the west's unfair treatment of the country. Clearly written by the military dictatorship's (junta) hand. Unlike Sri lanka and India, I wouldn't be able to get any, unbiased, info on the country from the papers here. Talking to the locals wouldn't help much either, as the government had been known to throw locals in jail for speaking of anything political. Almost no one talked about politics here.

By the second day I'd had enough of Danny. I decided to turn up the rude meter a little to dissuade Danny from following me around but unfortunately, it didn't work. Danny came along for the day. We booked a boat on the lake and day tripped through the floating gardens, markets, stilt houses and monastaries. Despite having to tune out his constant complaining and nagging, the lake area was lush, picturesque and just what the doctor called for...

By the 3rd day, the paradise image of Inle was starting to fade when I found mouse droppings in my bed. I decided it was time to leave.

-- Buddhas-a-plenty

Huib had a plan to see the Pindaya caves and we all jumped along for the ride.

The Pindaya caves, 3 hours from Inle housed 5000 Buddha images. Feeling like acquiring a little more Buddhist Karma, which I'd most likely lost for causing that poor taxi driver in Yangon to loose his license, I forked out the 800 Kyats to apply a few gold leafs on the statue which represented the day of the week which I was born. Thanks to my snazzy pocket organizer, I now knew it was a Thursday. I also now knew that my symbol was the mouse... how's that for irony. Maybe the dropping were for good fortune.

-- Mandalay, THE place to be for the water festival

Danny persisted for 3 days along my side. I had done everything short of telling him to sod off but he still followed... I mentally drafted 3 separate routes that I could use to see Myanmar. I would pick the one which Danny was least likely to follow. Unfortunately, it didn't work and somehow he ended up settling in in the seat next to me for the bus ride to Mandalay. I drowned out his pessimistic remarks by listening to my CDs the entire ride, thank Buddha for spare batteries!

When we arrived we headed to the Nylon Guest house for what may have been the last rooms in town. The water festival was to start that day and the city was buzzing with action. Trucks loaded with face painted and masked youths armed with water pistols and water buckets filled the streets. As soon as I walked out from the hotel I knew I wouldn't stand a chance at staying dry for the next 4 days. SPLASH! A bucket of ice cold water was dropped smack on my head by a passing car. Brrrrrr....

I ran back in to wrap as many zip locks and plastic bags I could find around my money, passport and cameras. An effort I would later learn that would not prevent every inch of my body and, unfortunately, passport from being doused with H2O.

The city was alive. The energy in the air was magical. The city center, an 8 km square palace, was surrounded by high barracks loaded with several hundred water hoses each. Trucks, overloaded with people would drive around at a snails pace all day getting doused as people up on the stages unleashed streams of water.

We lost Danny the second day and managed to get atop one of the barracks to dance, hose our share of locals down and party non-stop. For the next 3 days we sat around drinking, soaked in water and enjoying the festival.

I had to admit, once you were utterly wet, it was a blast. I had found the biggest water gun in town thanks to a helpful trishaw driver who cycled me all over town from shop to shop. We could finally retaliate!

On the second day, Bobby, a Burmese man working in the hotel offered to take me out for lunch at his house, with his family. An opportunity I snatched up gladly. Huib and I rode on bicycle first to a Keung ye bar... better known as a "the toddy bar" . Toddy is made from Coconut palm and is picked in the morning. It ferments throughout the day gaining alcohol content as the day goes on. Bobby took us to the local "toddy bar" were we drank, ate and hosed down the local patrons with our water guns.

The toddy was kicking in so we filled to plastic bags with toddy and strapped them to the bike for our lunch at Bobbies.

Contrary to Bobby's "Not far, Not far!" promises, he lived far. About 45 minutes into the Burmese suburbs his thatched hut stood. We ate with his family, roused up the neighbours with a little jovial water play and headed back to town.

Bobby was poor and his kids loved the water gun. Before I left, I gave Bobbies daughter my massive water canon. "Up the Karma meter goes... back to 0 now I think"

-- Sihk Hospitality

"Ever seen a Sihk Temple?" I asked Huib back in Mandalay.

He hadn't either, so we marched over to check it out. A ceremony was in full swing and the Sihks were more than happy to bring us right into the main hall. Once we put a towel on Huib's head (apparently, you must always cover your head in a Sihk temple), we were allowed to enter where people were playing tabla and singing wildly.

"You stay for lunch! It is special day!" the Sihks were unbelievably kind.

To our surprise, we had stumbled in, by pure chance, on the biggest and baddest day in the Sihk religion, and a large lunch was being prepared. they insisted we stay, so, of course, we did :) ... The food just kept coming and finally, bloated and giddy from all the attention we received from the curious onlookers we donated a few thousand kyats to the temple and walked out.

"You must come back for dinner! Promise!" we couldn't, but were delighted at their hospitality.

What a great experience...

-- Too much water

Outside the temple, the Water Festival raged on. People were so happy and energized during the celebrations but by the 3rd day, the festivities were getting a little out of hand. Some youth were chasing others with sticks and fights broke out through the day.

Day 3 was enough for both of us.

-- Bagan Bound

South East Asia, or SEA as it's known to the Lonely Planet devotees, has 2 major rivalling ancient ruin complexes. Angkor, in Cambodia and Bagan, in northern Myanmar. I'd already been dazzled by Angkor a few years back and was dying to relive the adrenaline of walking through the thousands of ruined Pagoda's ( temples ). Hsipaw was the plan though. First Hsipaw, a quiet, tribal town for some recovery from the water festival then to Bagan. Huib and I had our tickets early that day. He was already heading off to Bagan at 10pm and I was off to Hsipaw at 4am. As most nights of copious drinking go though, we had a change of plans.

"Tell you what, let's both miss our trains tonight and in the morning we'll get some new tickets for Bagan... I can see Hsipaw in another lifetime and I can still rest in Bagan." the plan seemed like a good one. I didn't want to bump into Danny, the sarcastic annoyingly attached Dutchman there anyways. He wouldn't be heading to Bagan and I could finally enjoy Myanmar without constantly conspiring to avoid him.

Nursing our hangovers, we trotted over to the train station to escape Mandalay.

We knew the train would be bad, but we didn't know how bad. Everyone takes buses in Myanmar. It's easy, efficient and cheap. With the water festival in full swing, our only hope at getting to Bagan was the expensive, slow and untimely trains. "It can't be that bad, besides, it'll be a good experience, right?", I asked. "Right!" Huib was a keen, hardcore traveller and wasn't fazed for one second.

The train was late... 4 hours late. Worse of all though, our "upper class" seat, was a hellish non-reclining cushion coated park bench. It would be next to impossible to sleep on this over night train... Huib, had a clever idea. "You know in India, some people sleep in the luggage racks. You know, right there" he said pointing to the narrow rack over our heads where my backpack had been stuffed. To everyone's amusement, he climbed over the seat and stuffed his 7 foot long body into the tiny enclosure.

The lime green painted metal box which the ticket master had strangely called a "train" was now starting to chug it's way out of the station but something wasn't right. "Trains aren't supposed to rock like this, are they?!?". The train jolted left and right at alarmingly steep angles. The light bulb, hanging dangerously from it's two red and black electrical wires was dancing violently over head, casting long, disco-like shadows in the compartment. I could see the compartment in front swaying in the opposite direction and for a few minutes I wasn't sure wether the train was on the cusp of rolling off the tracks. Riding the train was like riding a blind, drunk, camel, on a fishing boat, during monsoon. After 30 minutes of wild wide to side rocking and violent swaying I realized that the old train tracks, in desperate need of repair, must have been unbalanced causing the train to bump up and down and sway dramatically left and right. Looking at the other Myanmar people trying to casually sleep through the chaos, I comforted myself in thinking that this may actually be normal. Huib only lasted 5 minutes until he nearly fell off the luggage rack. It was back to the seat for an attempt at sleep which was destined for failure. Curled up, legs high up on the table, neck crushed back into the seat and legs twisted like a pretzel, I managed to squeeze in 30 minutes of sleep and to cause myself irreparable bodily damage.

The train finally snailed into Bagan at 10am...

Unfortunately there was still 1 day of the water festival left. We were both tired of being wet, of having our money belts, cameras and wallets in zip locks and most of all, of being attacked by ice cold water buckets. Our hopes of staying dry vanished instantly, as a bucket of water splashed through the train's opened window, soaking me head to toe. The passengers laughed as the boy ran from the train, empty water bucket in hand. Ve... ry... funny. "Uggg more water."

After we arrived, we hopped into the back of a pickup truck with another German bloke and a slightly shady pseudo-Mexican with an American passport chap.

"Shit drive faster man! " we could see hordes of locals armed with buckets standing by the side of the road, arms cocked ready to pounce on our open truck. We knew what was coming. As the truck flew by, a gush of cold ice water slammed into the back of the truck knocking me and Huib forward and throwing the German guy's glasses right off his face and onto the street.

-- Stupas, Pagodas and Dagobas

Soaking wet but still intact, we slogged ourselves to the nearest double room to sit down for our free breakfast. In Myanmar, all rooms came cheap and with breakfast.

After a thick and pasty pancake, we headed out, in a horse cart through the slightly disappointing stupas for the day. Although they were big, beautiful and ancient, the 2000 stupas in Bagan had nothing on Angkor. We watched the sun set from atop a tall decaying Stupa. I was amazed, in Myanmar every sunrise and sunset, without fail, was a glowing red fireball. I was sure to get my prize sunset picture here. That day was no exception. The sun went down painting the hundreds of visible stupas bright orange.

The next morning, slurping back our banana milk shakes we planned out our stay in Bagan. "Tomorrow we'll head to Mt Popa for the Nat festival". In 3 weeks I'd done Holi, the color festival, New Years lunch with the Sihks in Mandalay and the water festival, another festival sounded like a good idea.

"I think I will join you to Mt Popa" the german bloke demanded.

"Yes, he is a bit of a weirdo, no? You see how he just invited himself to come with us?" Huib wasn't impressed by the German guy's outright demand to join us. We quickly came up with a plan to ditch him. It worked.

We caught a taxi to Mt Popa for the festival with a german girl we'd met the night before. The festival was slightly disappointing. Drunken Myanmar people shouted and pushed passed and we climbed the mountain to a mediocre view of the country side.

The only redeeming factor on the trip was a quick stop to see the toddy tappers. A strangely funny breed of people who climb coconut trees to extract sap for a yummy alcoholic cocktail. After a quick nip and a few pictures we were back in Bagan for the sunset and a few more temples. We would head to Gnapali beach that night and wanted to squeeze in as many of the 2000 stupas as we could before leaving. 312 would have to do, there were just too many!

We spent the rest of our time in Bagan trying to learn Myanmar pick-up lines. Our success-rate was low though. Every Myanmar person we spoke to had a different meaning for what we were trying to say. Apparently we had been yelling "Hey! Come inside" and "Hey, beautiful wife!" to women all day while zipping around in our horse cart. That explained some of the bizarre reactions we received.

-- "Train come late"

We'd spent 2 days in Bagan and realized that if we were to make it to Gnapali beach, a secluded beach tucked away on the western Myanmar coast, any time soon, we'd have to leave by train. The water festival was reeking havoc on our travel plans. All of the local people had already snatched up all of the bus tickets for the next 4 days... we'd have to endure the train again to leave this town. Something we had liked to have been able to avoid seeing as how the train system in Myanmar was one of the worse on the planet.

"train departure 9pm, but ..." the ticket master chuckled and waved his hand as if to swat a fly. "train not on time. Myanmar train very slow."

Our previous train from Mandalay to Bagan was 4 hours late so this didn't come as much of a surprise. We payed for the tickets. "you come at midnight, if train earlier, I call you at hotel" We gave him our hotel name and room number. The nice thing about this whole mess was that we could snag a few hours of shuteye, in our cushy beds, thanks to the train's predictable tardiness. It was around 11pm when the ticket master called us to say that the train wouldn't arrive until 2am. Delayed yet again. We arrived at the train station with a good solid 4 hours sleep under our belts and waited... waited... and waited.

The train finally arrived and left at 7am. A snappy 10 hours late from our 9pm scheduled departure. It was quite a system...

The train ride was, as anticipated, a bumpy one. The train jolted side to side nearly throwing passengers off their seats. I'd wondered if the tracks had ever been maintained. I slumped back into my seat as the train puttered along at a pathetic 30km pace and looked down at my battered feet. My sandals were taking their toll on my lower appendages. Bruised, dirty, cut, bleeding, bandaged and scabbed, My feet looked as though I had made the previous weeks journey from Mandalay to Bagan on foot! I'd have to heal quick if I could survive any longer here. "No worries, when we get to the beach, everything will be alright.." I thought dreamily as I gulped another cloud of black soot that billowed into my window from the train exhaust. The exhaust streamed into my window, which, of course, didn't have a glass pane to block out the dirty air. After 3 hours my throat was sticky with smoke and I could taste the polluted air in the back of my mouth. A giant dark cluster of bugs buzzed and flew over my head around the bright headlight constantly flying into my face and crawling over my skin. ARRrrrrrrr... Finally I took out my Longi ( a Burmese dress that men wear ) and draped it over my body to keep the bugs away.

The train ride was a long one. At an estimated blazing speed of 30km/per hour it took us 13 hours to blaze the 400km rickety track to Pyay, a town which was to serve as a connection point for us to make our final bus journey to Gnapali.

We arrived in Pyay to a dark, candle lit, train stop with a hand full of passengers waiting around for what seemed to be, at least we had hoped, a bus.

Unfortunately, after a drawn out game of the Burmese "Yes Yes" with the ticket master, we found out that the bus didn't arrive until 5am. It was 10pm and sleeping at the train stop wasn't in the cards. 2000 Kyats proved to be enough cash to motivate someone to cycle to town and rustle up a trishaw.

Trishaws, a 3 wheeled bicycle with a bolted on passenger seat, are meant to carry a small load but we did our best to squeeze two over sized backpacks, Huib and myself on the bike. The trishaw driver had his work cut out for him! To make things a little more interesting Huib took his mini ghetto-blaster out and held it on his shoulder for a little musical accompaniment along the moon lit late night ride..

"Huib, think about this... we are in Myanmar, in the middle of no where, at 11pm, on a grossly overloaded trishaw, listening to techno and watching the stars while all the locals stare at us..."

We both laughed at how silly we must have looked to the locals.

We finally made it to a pit of a hotel and I collapsed onto the bed, drowning in delicious sleep...

"Huib, where are we?" I popped up in my bed and sat straight up. The room was pitch black and confusion was swimming through my head.

"Are you kidding?" I heard his voice off, somewhere in the double room.

"No, fuck... really, where are we?" I had no clue. It must have been 3am. The nightmare was washing away but I needed confirmation that I wasn't dreaming anymore.

"Ummm, well, we're in Pyay, in the hotel."

"Really? Ok... that's good" ... I dug back into bed and switched off leaving Huib awake and confused at my late night demands to know where we were.

I needed sleep. For some reason I couldn't remember where I was, my mind was slowly going into meltdown from the lack of sleep, trains, trishaws, booze and the general frantic pace we'd been keeping. Most of all, the Malaria meds were acting up again. For days now I'd been dreaming of being back home or some place else only to awake, sadly, not in my thick, plump, down sheets but rather in cruddy dilapidated cheap Asian rest houses. Those damn "vivid dreams".

When I awoke and slumped into my bed I remembered a conversation I had with an Irish backpacker over a beer in Inle Lake a week before.

"Is it nice on Gnapali beach?" I wasn't sure if I wanted to go all the way out to the middle of nowhere just for a beach.

"It's nice, no one is out there but... it's a fucking mission getting there ya know. It was the worse bus I've ever taken, and I've travelled quite a bit. "

He was right. It was beginning to be quite a long, painful, agonizing, journey to get to Gnapali, and we had only made it half of the way there.

"This better be one damn nice beach" I thought starring up at the peeling paint on the ceiling of our grubby room in Pyay. Our bus to Thandwe was at 9pm, then another taxi to Gnapali.

In total, it would take... two, hour-long taxi rides, one 13 hour train ( with a complementary 10 delayed departure ), one overstuffed midnight trickshaw ride and one 12 hour ride to get to the beach. A sum total of 35 hours and a predicted 50 hours of therapy to recover from the trauma when I would return home.

Before we left for Thandwe from Pyay, midway to Gnapali, I stopped in at the local makeshift hospital for something to help me sleep. I had given my stash of Valium to Tom in Delhi before I headed to Myanmar and desperately needed something to help me sleep on the long, harsh cargo bus journey to the beach. The idea of sleeping on potato bags and parcels wasn't very pleasing to start with, especially after having just survived the previous night's train ride.

Back at the hotel, we stuffed our packs with our worldly possessions and were ready to head for the bus.

Huib snapped his back straight up, motioned an officer's salut and shouted "All clear sir!" "Move em out!" and we marched out of the room.

The bus was, expectedly late. When it pulled up we ran inside to have a quick look. It was just as we feared. Crammed with rice bags, parcels and a worryingly large amount of passengers, all locals. The seats were 3 feet higher than in normal buses, which would have given me the feeling of being a child sitting on a highchair if it weren't for the bulging rice bags coating the floor.

Unfortunately, Huib could only manage to book one ticket with a seat and the other without. We agreed to take 3 hour shifts, I'd start with the seat.

I battled my way to the back seat, #29. A back-to-back stream of Burmese passengers sat, cross-legged in the isle. Pushing and shoving my way passed them, stepping over small children, I wedged myself into the small bucket seat. I was sitting next to an older man. Next to me, sitting on the floor, which was at the same hight as I was, due to the large numbers of bags and boxes underneath us all, a women sat in the lotus position clutching her child.

The Bus had 40 seats, but seeing as there was only a few buses to Gnapali, 60 stuffed themselves in.

As the bus chugged out of the station I hoped that we wouldn't have a collision. Being at the back of the bus meant that to escape, I'd have to claw my way over a sardined bus load of frantic people. Escaping didn't seem very likely. As the bus struggled to start, I rubbed my Ganesha necklace for goodluck.

The night drew on, and along with everyone else on the bus, I tried to sleep. The women next to me, was resting her head on the side of my seat and with every bump and sway of the bus, her head would crash into my shoulder. A leaky bottle on the seat in front of my was dripping was onto my bare feet. There would be no sleeping back here.

On the way to Gnapali, we had to stop 5 times to evacuate the bus and show our passports at various checkpoints. Slowly, one by one we would disembark and slowly mount back on. When the bus stopped the first time Huib, who was a good 12 inches taller than me decided he'd try the coffin of a seat I had. At first the switch was pleasant. I sat up front on a laundry bag, next to the open bus door. I still hadn't figured out why they kept the bus door opened for the long 10 hour journey, but at least the fresh air kept me briefly sane. The front view also gave me the pleasant advantage of being able to see out of the driver's window. The vertical drop, straight down from the pot-holed road was a steep 100 foot drop. I tried not to fixate on the fact that a bus in 1998 had crash horribly during this same trek.

The laundry bag was comfy, but not having a seat to rest up against I started to look around at ways to contort myself for sleep. The boy next to me was nice enough to give me an inch of his seat so that I could rest my head but the constant swaying of the bus made that nearly impossible. Finally after trying 9 different positions without trying to offend anyone I realized that my fellow passengers had absolutely no problem with leaning on or being leaned on by people. In sometimes bizarre and intimate ways. After abandoning my western sense of personal-space, I settled my head on a mans lap next to mine. My back pressed up against a laying women's knees and my legs kicked up on the inch I'd been offered by the boy. I had it. A perfect sleeping position.

I slept for about 30 minutes when the bus stopped to help a passing bus fix a flat tire. When I opened my eyes, the bus was spiralling out of control. My eyes couldn't fixate on anything and my stomach was violently protesting it's content. I snapped my eyes shut to stop the flashing strobing of light.

I couldn't tell which way was up, I was completely disoriented. Feeling around with my hands I found the familiar rice bag under my butt and sat up. I opened my eyes to see the people around me swirl and swish. I closed them again long enough for the swirling to stop. I was going to vomit and needed to get out of the bus fast. Good fortune had it that the bus was sitting idle on the side of the road and, as expected the door was opened. I staggered out of the bus like a drunken Irishman. Fighting my uncooperating legs I stammered to the other side of the street, head still spinning as if I'd just spent an hour on a carnival ride. I finally dropped to the ground and began to dry heave hoping no one was watching.

I'd never had motion sickness before and was panicking. I had 8 hours left to endure. How could I get back on that bus? "Maybe they can leave me on the side of the road and pick me up in the morning.", not likely. I crawled over to Huib's window "Huib, I'm not feeling so good, you have anything for motion sickness?"

The bus was still full of waiting passengers but Huib surfed over them to deliver some pills, tiger balm, a mint sweet and a plastic bag. This makeshift anti-puking kit would have to be enough to hold me until we reached the beach.

The bus roared on and I struggled to stay awake. The pills Huib had given me also have the nasty habit of making you drowsy and my eyelids felt as though they had been weighed down with cement blocks. I shook my head violently everytime my eyes would shut, afraid that I would, once again, get the spins.

Around 4am, the hallucinations started. In the distance in front of the bus I could see villagers, motorbikes and children playing. When the bus would get closer, desolate trees and potholes where the only recognizable objects. I couldn't keep this up the whole way. I hadn't slept properly in 3 days. 6 days counting the train to Bagan.

My bashfulness was gone now and I shoved the boy aside and took a good 6 inches of seat to slam my head down onto. I quickly realized that what triggered my motion sickness, along with atrocious spinning and uncontrolled nausea was when I would lay back wards. I tried as best I could to smack my face into a makeshift pillow of dirty laundry, face down. This worked well until the bus would dive into a pothole and spin my head upside down. Immediately, my heart raced and in my mind, the bus spun out of control. Clutching the plastic bag, I managed to make it to the beach by 9am. It was more than just a mission getting here, it was a full-on crusade!

The... worse... bus... ride... ever!

-- The beach.

Seeing as how it's so difficult to make it all the way out here, only a few tourist dotted the beach. We met a fellow backpacker, a dutch ( go figure ) chap who had survived the same journey 2 days before.

Although Huib travelled with a farelly small rucksack, it never ceased to amaze me how many large items he pulled out of it. After showering and grabbing a quick bite, Huib pulled out a hammock and we took turns laying by the beach listen to the waves crash in.

We ended the day by visiting a fishing village south of the beach and had a nice, dinner of prawns and fish. Seafood was cheap, 4$ US was all we payed for the feast.

When we arrived back in the room I took a look in the mirror. I looked horrible. Black ringlets circled my eyes and looked as though I hadn't eaten in weeks.

"You look like the walking dead!" someone remarked.

I swallowed back a few Valiums and passed out...

When I awoke the next morning liquid was swishing around in my gut. I knew this feeling, and it wasn't good. It was the onset of diarrhea. "Not again!". I wouldn't be able to sleep so I grabbed a book and layed on the hammock, clutching my stomach, until the sun came up.

"My god, it's almost May 1st, my birthday" I hadn't realized it but I was going to turn 27 in 5 days. I had spent Christmas away from home before but never a birthday. I plotted out a rough route for Vietnam so that I wouldn't be along for my birthday. I would head straight to Na Trang, a beach area in Vietnam, as soon as I arrived. I'd befriend some unsuspecting backpackers and arrange to get pleasantly smashed.

I leaned back in the hammock. "Oh ooo!". I had a sudden anxiety bout as I realized how leaning back would cause the room to spin. I sat up, the beach was still horizontal. This was good.

I decided that I would have to abort our ambitious plan to befriend a Squid fisherman and tag along with him for a night of squid fishing on a rocky fishing boat.

"Why am I putting myself through all this?" I thought. After all I had money for flights and taxi's. The more I bat'ed the question out in mind, the more obvious the answer seemed, it was simple. The fact was that, the most memorable nuggets from my trip was the "getting there" hardship bits. It made the temples, pagodas, museums, beaches and lakes, all that more rich.

Thinking back to the tag line on an email I had received from a friend quoting a phillosopher:

"The reward is the journey"

The line made perfect sense to me now. Judging by the hilarity of the raucous journeys I'd been surviving, he was right.

-- Back to Yangon

I scrapped every last Kyat I had and borrowed some extra from Yoldirt, our new Dutch friend, to book a flight to Yangon, where I would spend a few days to recover from the nasty stomach bug I'd caught and then fly to Vietnam. There was no way in hell that I was going to take the bus back over those mountains.

Huib and I had been side by side for 15 days but it was time for goodbyes again.

"This is really tough for me Luc..." Huib said, wiping away mock tears with his knuckle and smirking.

"I promised myself I wouldn't cry" I responded in a false exaggerated frown.

We said our goodbyes. I left Huib with a finely engraved Tattoo pen as a present and Huib had given me an early birthday gift, one I'd wanted for ages. His precious, Thai hammock... a welcomed treat on any backpacking romp.

The bus took off for the airport, Huib running after it down the dirt road, until it finally, speed off. Looking through the rear window I could see Huib doing bizarre goodbye-summersaults in the middle of the road.

"Bye! See you in Holland!"

Returning to Yangon, the city seemed strangely different. 3 weeks before, when I had arrived from Delhi with, perhaps, slightly rose tinted glasses, the town seemed quiet, clean and friendly. Now having been through the serene, quiet, utopian cities of northern Myanmar, Yangon looked like a polluted, loud, dump. 3 days and I just wanted to get out.

Unfortunately, my stomach kept me within 100 meters of my hotel as I suffered the most crippling case of Niagara-diarhea I'd ever known.

I thought about Myanmar... It was a great country with great people. Unfortunately it didn't have an equally great Government. The repressive ruling authority could really do some work in the, human rights, local transportation and civil liberties department, not to mention getting rid of those stupid FECs. FEC or Foreign Exchange Certificates, the equivalent of one US dollar, are only good in Myanmar, can't be changed to other currencies and are a pain to get rid of. I dumped the last of my FECs on Huib, he was tight on funds and I could always use more good karma.

-- Last goodbyes

10 minutes before I was ready to run to the rooftop of the guest house for the delicious breakfast our guest house always had ready for us, there was a knock on the door.

"Hey stranger!". It was Huib. He wasn't meant to be back in Yangon for another 5 days but his bus from the beach to southern Myanmar neglected to tell him to get off at his stop and he rode the bus all the way to Yangon, driving right passed the beach he'd wanted to visit. We chatted over breakfast and parted ways, this time for good...

Sitting at the airport, nursing a sprained ankle from a pothole I'd lunged into the night before, watching Mig fighter jets take flight on our runway, I mentally chewed on all of the tasty bits of Myanmar I'd consumed over the passed 3 weeks... Now it was time for another country. Another currency learn, another language to master, another culture to digest, another map to study... it was back to square one and I was loving it.
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