Myanmar part two: Nov 11 to 15
Trip Start Nov 03, 2011
2Trip End Dec 07, 2011
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The next day we explored another pagoda complex and then hired a taxi for the two hour journey to Pyin U Lwin, an old “hill station” at about 1000m above sea level, which the Brits established in the late 19th century as a place where they could go to escape the brutal heat of the Myanmar summers. Our patient taxi driver took us to seven hotels before we found one that a) met our (ok, my) slightly picky standards, b) had space available, and c) was licensed to take foreigners, as many are not. Pyin U Lwin is a bustling market town with a few old houses left over from the colonial era. We ended up staying in one, Candacraig, apparently where Paul Theroux stayed during his journey immortalised in “The Great Railway Bazaar”. It’s now government run, and it shows: faded paintwork, archaic plumbing, tatty furniture and poorly trained, though very friendly, staff
The real reason we headed to Pyin U Lwin was not to visit another hill station, but to take the train journey north-east towards Lashio, this section of which is famous for crossing the Goteik viaduct, built in 1901 and at 95m high, the longest and highest metal rail viaduct in the world at that time. We were only traveling as far as Kyaukme and the cost of an “ordinary class” ticket for the five hour journey was just US$3. We decided to splurge on “first class”, which cost US$4, the only difference being that there was a cushion on the wooden bench! It was a pleasant journey, rolling through fertile countryside, with the windows open, stopping at a few tiny stations where locals hopped on and off, and food vendors sold tasty treats through the windows
We stayed one night in Kyaukme, at the only hotel in town licensed for foreigners, where clean, tidy, bungalow-style rooms went for US$20 per night, including breakfast served on the terrace. A small town with a busy, vibrant street market, we saw no other foreigners, and spent the afternoon exploring a couple of hilltop pagodas, and the narrow residential streets where, in tiny workshops, women rolled and stuffed cheroots, and men pounded and flattened sheets of tin to make chinese funeral offerings. Dinner at a Shan food stall where the fiery chilies brought tears to my ears, quickly cured by a couple of bottles of chilly Myanmar beer.
On Monday, we took a taxi for the return trip to Mandalay, where Zoe abandoned me as she had to fly back to Yangon to be at school the next day, and I stayed one night at the not-so-regal Royal Hotel in Mandalay before flying on Tuesday to Heho, the nearest airport to Inle Lake, billed as one of the highlights of any visit to Myanmar
The billing is justified. The lake is nominally 22km long by 11km wide, but the actual dimensions are difficult to determine because much of it is shallow and becomes “land” in the dry season, and huge areas of it are covered in floating islands of grass and lotus growth, which is used by the locals to grow enormous quantities of vegetables, especially tomatoes. It’s rather surreal to be cruising along in a motorised canoe alongside rows and rows of neatly staked tomato plants, while the farmers paddle their canoes between the rows to tend to the plants or harvest the crop.
I stayed at Skylake Inle Resort, where Zoe had stayed in October, in a cabin mounted on stilts above the lake. The only access is by boat and the hotel’s boat brought me from Naungshwe, the small town at the north end of the lake which is a base for tourists, tomatoes and touts, in about 25 minutes, my arrival greeted by a quartet of dockside musicians playing traditional Shan music. It seemed like a VIP welcome, but I later learned that they greet all guests with a musical welcome, even the riff-raff like me.
In the afternoon, two girls in a canoe paddled me through floating weed beds to a nearby village of bamboo houses all mounted on stilts over the water, eventually to hard ground where I hiked up to a monastery and pagoda for a wonderful view of the lake and surrounding mountains
On the way back, just before sunset, I saw some locals paddling their canoes with the famous, and unique to Inle Lake, leg-paddling technique. They stand on one leg at the rear of their canoe (I would have difficulty balancing on two legs, let alone one!), hold their paddle with one hand and wrap the other foot around it, and use the leg to impart a peculiar screwing motion to the paddle which is surprisingly effective.
More to follow............