Day 5 – Journey to Kalaw

16 Mar
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Hotel staff waving us off

Soooo.  Today was a bit of a late start, for me.  Unfortunately, not for everyone else.  My alarm had not been set for the correct time, so at 7:00am when it went off, I was already 15 minutes late for catching the morning train to Kalaw.  Thankfully, they hadn’t left yet, and the breakfast table was on the way to the bus.  Four pieces of cake were quickly snatched for eating later.

On board the bus, we transferred to the nearest train station – Shwe Nyaung.  Only one platform, only one train, so no mistakes were possible.  There were two classes of ticket – “upper class” which had large cushioned seats and a footrest, if airline style, but also some fours – facing each other.  All with plenty of leg room.  They weren’t in the newest of conditions, but certainly much better than the “ordinary class” in the next carriage.  This had hard blue moulded plastic bench seats with high backs which looked remarkably uncomfortable.

Getting on the train meant we had to evict a grandfather, daughter and her two children from our seats.  Thankfully, they had seats across the aisle.  The lack of windows (just holes) proved ideal for photography, and the keen photographers spaced out along the carriage for optimal coverage.  The Explore! brochure had promised fantastic scenery, but we only saw dusty fields, turning ocassionally to red soil in the slightly more productive areas.

We did pass a cattle market that had lines of cattle heading there.  Also a buddhist cemetery and a small bridge called ” Ba Wa Sam Sa Ra”, which sounded like a song to me!

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We stopped briefly at a few stations to allow for the loading or unloading of produce from the goods wagons, for sale elsewhere.  At one stop, we were allowed off whilst some traders got on.  Young boys were busy running the messages for those that didn’t want to move from their seat.  On the platform, a woman was hand mixing vegetables, noodles, sauces and the occasional piece of meat to form some fast food options.  Other women, decorated with the thanaka face cream (helps cure acne apparently) were selling garlic, ginger, fruit, sweets, watermelon, crisps and cheroots.

We arrived at the busy platform in Aung Ban to be confronted with lots of children trying to flog more vegetables, some as young as 4.  Detraining, we moved through the crowd, mostly selling green leavy veg and out of the station to our bus which had taken our main luggage by road.  Despite being advised of likely delays, the train was almost exactly on time – 2.5 hours.  It’s slow speed of travel had provided the ideal cool way of viewing a good chunk of the country.  I reckon it travelled so slowly so that it wouldn’t come off the rails – it had a problem of majorly rocking from side to side.

Twenty minutes later and we had driven through Kalaw, our base for the next two nights to the Shwe Oo Min Cave Pagoda.  Outside there were lots of golden and coloured glass encrusted stupas – we’re now assuming that everywhere we go there will be stupas!  After removing our shoes and socks (and receiving another wet wipe), we entered the cave – quite high, but it was hard to spot the rocks as the place was entirely covered in buddha statues that had all been recently donated by individuals or families.  Barefoot, the tiled floor was nice and cool, but they insisted on having matting on top of the tiles which was surely only designed to make your feet bleed.  Must be some kind of tourist torture matting.  The cave was not huge, but had several branches and one was a very narrow corridor, which I managed to squeeze through.  Not American sized though.  The cave was well lit, but the electrical wires were not exactly hidden.  Fascinating site.  The main buddha statue was at the front of the cave and was 200 years old, but all the other statues were added in this century.  Further on there was another small cave with more statues.  It’s likely that this complex will grow and grow.  Outside, Cassandra (from Cambuslang) pointed out that one of the statues had been sponsored by the “Crazy English Club”.

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Zat Byat Byat

After using the wet wipe on our dirty feet, we headed for lunch at the “7 sisters” restaurant.  They are the grandaughters of an Irishman and serve some of the best food in town.  A particular speciality of the place was “Zat Byat Byat”, described as minced meat with tomato, basil and Shan parsley.  I tried the beef version, forgetting that George had said that a portion could easily do two.  As it turned out, it could easily serve 3!  I attempted as much as possible with coconut rice, but although delicious had to admit defeat with the quantity.  Still not bad for £6, including two drinks though!

We drove back through Kalaw to our hotel, and was assigned room 101.  What are they hinting at?  Smaller rooms, but very comfy, even if my room has a large picture window on the hotel’s garden, at ground level.  Thankfully for everyone, a blind was provided.  WiFi highly unstable.  The shower is behind the door, without any protection for the rest of the bathroom (not that there is a bath).

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The beds were decorated with rose petals and proved too much of a draw to escape their calling. 4 hours later, I awoke from my afternoon siesta in time for our evening meal.  A free afternoon well spent.

As we met for an evening meal, it transpired that 3 people had already succumed to dodgy stomachs – John, Graham and Claire were all at various stages of recovery.  George had predicted that 4 would suffer, so the other John is now most worried.  He’s gradually adding to his list of potential ways to die in Myanmar!

8 of us headed to “Everest Nepali” – to sample some Nepali cuisine.  It looked a lot like the stuff we’d been eating so far, but with the additional of a chapati.  I went for the mutton curry – which is made with goat meat, and upgraded to a garlic and cheese chapati.  It was served with communal side dishes – including a spectacular pickled mango dish (not chutney).  All washed down with a chocolate pancake. This is without doubt the best meal of the trip so far.  So many flavours, expertly blended together.

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Over the meal, I asked George about the politics of the country.  In a hushed voice he replied that there was no real problem speaking about it, but kept on looking over his shoulder to check.  I believe that he was being overly cautious, but he did recount that journalists had been thrown in jail for trying to investigate too deeply into some of the issues.  I did establish that the trouble in the north of Shan state (clashes between ethnic minorities and the army) was mostly caused by the usual reasons – desire for autonomy and control of resources – in this case, gems (emeralds and sapphires) – one of the main exports of Myanmar.  George on the other hand was interested in the Northern Ireland situation, and talk turned to the censorship and bias in the media, in both countries.  The Burmese are very aware of this, as are more and more of the UK population.

The locals are very tolerant of their new government, in that they appreciate the changes already made, and look forward to more.  But there is realism that everything cannot be changed overnight.  The constitution in particular will take more than 20 years to change, as there is an inbuilt majority in favour of the army.  Overall, a very varied and wide ranging insight to the political life in Myanmar.

Walking back to the hotel was the first time that I contemplated adding a jumper.  Didn’t need one, but we are trekking tomorrow with the hill tribes and are at a higher altitude than previously.  Apparently it can go down to 0°C here.  I don’t believe that.

Setting the alarm for “early” tomorrow …

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