Itâ€™s all OK, I found the magic of this country again. Oh Kalaw
THANKYOU... Took an overnight bus from the madness that is Mandalay headed for the quaint colonial hillstation of Kalaw. My first long distance bus ride in Myanmar nearly turned into an â€˜adventureâ€™ in itself. Again I was the only Westerner. I was seated next to a Chinese (he was born there)/ Taiwanese (he mostly live there)/ Burmese (he has lived in Myanmar a year) fella who seemed really nice, spoke very little English but we still managed a conversation about his family and his business. Like any other night bus I have taken in SE Asia the aircon tends to be rather vicious and can make it quite cold when you are trying to sleep.
So, I nod off listening to my ipod trying to drown out the loud Burmese comedy/soap opera that was playing on a large plasma screen in the bus that was intensely amusing everyone else, if only i could understand the language!. I wake briefly I realise that the guy sat next to me had covered me with his coat, ahhhhh so sweet. I nodded back off but when i next woke realised this guy was now stroking my arm euggghhhh!!!!! Actually, i donâ€™t think he meant any funny business, he didnâ€™t try anything other than stroke my arm, OK got to respect different cultures whatever but he should respect mine and i didnâ€™t ask him to touch me!!!!! In my semi-consciousness I started to plan how i was to deal with this. My ideas ranged from subtly moving away and pushing his arm off â€˜in my sleepâ€™ to a full on karate chop in the nuts!! Anyway, lucky for me (and him!) no such drastic measures were needed as at a highly convenient moment the bus came to a screeching stop (like they do here) and the driver shouting at me â€˜KALAW MADAM WAAAAAAAAKE UPâ€™!! I was the only one on the bus to be bundled off with my bags in this unfamiliar town, 3am being the time.
I had been dumped next to Winner hotel, that will have to do i guess. So I had to wake up the receptionist who was sleeping on the floor went through some sleepy confusion on both our parts but we got there eventually!!
I awake to complete peace and serenity. Immediately I loved this beautiful sleepy town, such a refreshing change from the traffic chaos and craziness of Mandalay. Walking through the town was an absolute joy, back to Myanmar magic, nobody hassling me FINALLY!! People would still stop to talk to me in the street but it was always to say hello or pay me a lovely compliment. Here though the compliments were coming FREE of charge, they were not expecting anything atall in return, so I returned compliments back and meant it. The people here were beautiful, relaxed, genuine and smile A LOT.
Wonder where these steps lead?
I sat in a teashop to take it all in. Teashops in Myanmar are the equivalent of the Singapore coffee shops. They are pretty basic open shops on the streets but are the best place to get a cheap drink or bite to eat and, more importantly, hang out with the locals. In other places of Myanmar the teashops were mostly serving up copious amounts of Chinese tea but here it was very much Chai, as there was definitely more of an Indian influence here. Actually this place reminded me quite a bit of Naini Tal in Northern India Himalayan foothills. The same kind of chilled out atmosphere and I loved it there too. I got talking to a lady in the teashop who beamed a big big smile at me but with sad sad eyes. She only had one arm and one leg, her story of how her own father did this to her and took away her baby shocked me.
Monastery on the hill
I ended up sitting and chatting to her for over an hour and in this time had attracted a small crowd of people joining into the conversation, mostly listening in but occasionally contributing. They offered me some Indian snacks that looked like they had been sat around for a while attracting the flies. My travellerâ€™s instinct immediately kicked in â€˜STEP AWAY FROM THE DODGY SNACKS KARENâ€™. I knew I shouldnâ€™t eat them, they were stone cold too, but I was enjoying this interaction with the locals and felt it would have been rude to decline them. I decided I would take the risk (I think you might guess what is coming up, literally, in the next blog instalment!) Anyway, I paid for the ladyâ€™s drink and her snacks, cost me less than 1USD but it seemed to really make her day, she wasnâ€™t expecting anything.
Monastery on the hill
The first thing noticeably different about Kalaw is the temperature and the clean air. At an altitude of 1,400 metres it is at least 10 celcius less than Mandalay, even more for bagan. It is so nice. I wandered through the colourful market, and even here no hassle whatsoever. I was planning to take a trek of some description to visit some of the surrounding minority hilltribes so thought i would buy some pencils to give to one of the schools. I also remembered in India how the children i visited there in the school in remote Himalayas loved blowing bubbles, so I made it a mission to buy some bubbles in Kalaw market. I must have looked like a right plum going from stall to stall simulating bubble blowing but it was good fun and it finally worked! I went into a shop that didnâ€™t have them but the owner took me for a walk, quite a way through the town, to another shop that did sell them! I was so happy and grateful for genuine kindness of the people in this town.
Monastery on the hill
Well my day then went from good to completely epic. I found some steps over the road from my hotel that looked interesting so decided to climb them. They went up quite a long way and was quite steep. I was glad of the cooler temperatures and it was actually nice to feel like i was getting proper exercise without getting too hot. At the top of the steps I found a monastery with beautiful views over Kalaw and the hills surrounding. There was a lovely calm atmosphere, beautiful buildings, and only the distant sounds of young monks reading their scripts to realise that i was not alone on the hill. I was just about to head back town and grab something to eat when a monk poked his head out of a window of the monastery, asked where i was from etc.. then invited me into the hall to join them.
Another busy high street in Myanmar
So I walk through these big big doors, guarded by some mean looking dogs, into a dark hall with a large Buddha image and 50 or so novice (young) monks sat on the floor reading loudly from script whilst rocking backwards and forwards kind of in a trance. I quietly sat down and observed them for a while. Some of the young monks would kind of grin at me cheekily, others would just openly smile. One by one they would go and sit in front of the older monk who invited me in, pray and read to him. WOW!!!!!! Later on, around sunset, I took the same walk up the long flight of stairs. Firstly, I quite enjoyed the exercise and thought it would prepare my muscles for trekking, secondly I fancied the view at sunset, and finally i wanted to give a donation of money to the monastery.
Very unexpected special and genuine experience. I felt pretty good so decided on the full monty three day 60 km trek all the way to Inle lake. Oh lord what am i letting myself in for? Best get an early night.....