As I reluctantly handed over 20,000 kyat for a windowless room large enough for a single bed and a fan on the wall, I padlocked my bike downstairs went upstairs to have a shower. The only unlocked door was that of what seemed like a giant concrete bath full of water. The drain pipe was clogged up with remnants of soap and black hairs so the floor was flooded with 5 cm of soapy, gungy water. There was a stained plastic pail sitting on top of the water.
That was obviously the shower.
It was hard not to be shocked. The room was hideously overpriced for such basic conditions.
I wasn’t looking forward to the toilet.
By law the Government insists Hotel’s and Guest House’s obtain a licence in order to have Tourists stay. I assumed the licence must be quite expensive. The room was 4 x as much as I’d pay anywhere else in South East Asia. It sure didn’t fit with what I saw out in the streets.
Someone was making a buck and unfortunately I didn’t think it would be the very basic local run Guest houses.
Walking up the next morning feeling really hungry after fasting for 19 hours, it appeared i was the first at the Buffet breakfast. Piling my plate up with (what I thought was) a conservative amount of watermelon saw the exchange of eyes between the staff and heard a snigger.
Oh yeah, watch the white, vegan Cyclist woman eat her weight in watermelon!
When more people arrived in the restaurant, it took the pressure off me and I was free to refill without judgment.
Obeying by the saying, eat Melons alone, or leave them alone, I waited 20mins before I got into my second course of black sticky rice, sesame, and coconut – a local food I would become very familiar with often wrapped in banana leaf and sold for NZ 19c on the side of the road.
After the rice, that was it, the flood gate to my stomach had officially opened up and I was to really get my money’s worth on the fried rice and vegetables (with no egg wohoo!) and the fresh garnishes of mint, coriander, red onion.
Not that i really wanted to eat so much. I’m mostly happy eating as a Fruitarian, adding a few sweet potatoes, sticky rice an abundance of green herbs.
*one of these days I will have the self control and the unwavering discipline to stick to my preferences and honour my values despite the circumstances – going to a buffet that I’d paid for and only have one plate, would be the ultimate in success.
But right now I was happy to fill my belly with cheap rice and get my money’s worth – yeah I know, it doesn’t make sense right! I had a Mountain to climb up and over today, and by this rate I was going to be doing it right in the midday sun.
This would be my breakfast and lunch.
Heading out of town on the one main road was dusty and dirty. There were numerous and constant large rumbling trucks and mini van type pick up trucks overfilling with people clinging on to the sides or piled up high sitting on luggage or supplies brought over from Thailand.
Everyone was constantly tooting, not by any means in an aggressive manner but simply to tell you they’re there, or that they’re passing on a narrow stretch of road, or that they’re created another lane across the centreline, or along a blind corner. However after 15km I was well and truly over the loud and abrasive sound of the horn. I was almost hoping someone wouldn’t see me and crash into me rather than use that stupid sharp horn one more time.
It felt like death by horn. And I’d only be going 15km.
I stopped a few times at the fruit stalls and were aghast at the prices. All the fruit was imported from Thailand but the price they were telling me was hard to believe. 3000 per kg for mangos (that’s 90 baht which they were selling for 30 baht only 4km away.) Papaya was 100 baht a kg which is $4 which I was easily finding them for 50c a kg (10-15baht.) Papaya was everywhere in Thailand, literally dropping from the trees. I had assumed only a few km away Myanmar would also be the same? I realised they were obviously charging me a ‘foreigner royalty but 3-8 times the price was a little heavy.
Just as well as I had no need at all for heavy mangos or papaya to come for a ride up a 12000m hill I was to cross.
As I turned off the main road it was like I entered a new country.
I took off my face mask that had already turned brown from the dust and exhaust fumes. I breathed in (slightly less polluted ) fresh air and I started to relax. The road was pretty rough in places, but quiet. I could hear the birds. It was beautiful. It was green. It was just what I was hoping for as an off the beaten track in Myanmar.
I passed many wooden, very basic huts which appeared to be people’s homes, the dark skinned , dirty kids were so excited to see me, waving their hands frantically with wide big smiles yelling “bye bye!”
I yelled back ‘Ming a la bar’ the word for Hello in Burmese a few times before I succumbed to simply copying them and waving back ‘Bye Bye’
It was kinda cute.
The road climbed up switchbacks, but in a very conservative incline. Thick green bush and tall coconut trees stood bare with what remained of the undergrowth as black, strong smelling, soot and ash at its feet. The sun shone brightly. The higher up I climbed the more disappointing the view over into Thailand got, obscured by a thick haze of pollution from fires and pollution.
After a while, I looked down aghast that I’d be breathing in that smog, and thought I’d probably still be breathing it in now. Putting on my mask meant for hot and very restricted work breathing, and also it meant I couldn’t smile back at all the young kids.
To mask, or not to mask?
The young children I would come across were highly fascinated by me, all waving excitedly. But then I found all the men and women were just as interested in me too, offering big beaming smiles after usually some initial surprise at seeing me. I suppose it was in the middle of the day. My temperature gauge on my watch read 36 degrees. Although I knew it was going to get hotter. I probably wasn’t a common sight.
I passed many seemingly deserted Monasteries with young boys clothed in dark brown robes. One boy was peddling a basket fronted bikes with the other one legs dangling from the seat on the back. Both waving. Both with big wide smiles.
The ride down was a fantastic reward, however with the furious heat and my heavy packed bike, I had to stop a few times to stop my brakes from overheating. As the road smoothed out the pace of village life started to get more hectic. The road was dark orange clay with ruts, rocks and cows and goats grazing or playing alongside. Riding mostly with one hand on the handlebars, the other one waving at everyone I’d go past, crying ‘Bye bye!” I arrived at a town called Kawkarik.
If I said most people stared at me when I went past, I’d be blantantly understating it. I felt like I was the Queen riding in on the back her Horse. Waving at the crowd.
The traffic was loud and unapologetic. Very old and rustic motor trucks with no bonnets, spurting out black, toxic smoke from its exhaust. Drivers hanging out their windows with a smoke in their dirty hands, wide grins, tossing their plastic drink bottle onto the road below.
There were unkept dogs scavenging on the road side, the ground completely littered with thousands of plastic bags and discarded rubbish. Big black caldron like pots sitting on top of smoky fires full of oil with people stand around waiting for vegetable fritters to crisp and brown. Darting scooters carrying 3 of more people, young kids sandwiched between adults, or clinging on to the waists in front, looking back at me with beaming smiles.
There were two Guesthouses I tried. Both of them took Foreigners. At half the price of the Hotel last night, there were still ridiculously over priced for the scungy, dark, musty, mice pee smelling rooms with piss smelling, dirty shared bathrooms.
I decided on Honey Guesthouse for 9000 with a shared bathroom as it had a window and I thought the guy said power was 6pm – 11pm not 6pm – 10pm like I the other Guesthouse.)
As I’d later find out, the whole town was only rationed electricity from 6pm – 10pm.
The guy manning the Guest House handed me 2 bottles of water, and I thanked him but asked where I would be able to refill my drink bottle.
I very rarely buy bottled water. I could quite easily go through 3-6 bottles a day. To me that is not sustainable travel and is terrible on the environment.
The locals rarely buy plastic bottled water in South East Asia (*of course this doesn’t really apply to the middle to upper class in some countries, but I mean as day to day drinking water.) They would refill bottles or big 20l+ plastic containers through water purification machines. I believed it was arrogant and wasteful of me to buy plastic, and also highly ineffective at being cost efficient.
The guy shock his head, no. I would have to buy plastic.
“It’s cheap. 2 for 500” he tried to consul me.
I didn’t care if it was free. I really didn’t want to buy plastic.
I didn’t believe him however. I was sure they was another way.
Inside the Guest House I parked my bike next to a giant well, and a dark skinned man sleeping open mouthed on the bench beside it. After pailing buckets of water over my body – my shower – I went exploring the village. Stopping to buy a juicy Mango on the side of the road I found a woman making coconut and sesame pancakes at 100kyat (10 NZ c) and bought 3. Having eaten my mango and pancakes in between ‘Mingalabar’s from all the curious and friendly locals, a tiny man, his head not higher than my shoulder introduces himself to me.
It was hard to hear him amongst the loud boisterous traffic, barking dogs, and the audio system blaring from the Temples, and I’m pretty sure he was speaking mostly English, but sometimes I wasn’t quite sure.
I ask him how old he is expecting to be blown away finding out he’s 80 (like I do in Thailand) and he tells me he’s 60.
Life must be much harder in Myanmar.
He has 2 kids, both working in Kuala Lumpur since it’s so hard to get work in Myanmar. He tells me 70% of people are unemployed. His Wife died in 1988. I think from an illness. Although after asking 4 times I couldn’t work out what he was saying. And I didn’t want to keep asking. It didn’t really matter. He didn’t remarry and lives with his Sister.
I find out he was an English Teacher, retired 2 years ago, but still has to work in order to have money to live. I believe he transports goods from Myawaddy on the bus. But yet again, I can’t be so sure.
I really struggle to hear him. It’s hard work this struggling to decipher his words.
We walk past a busting eatery, with big woks under the fire on the side of the road frying noodles and vegetables and Men waving Indian roti’s then punching them into the wood fire ovens.
There’s an eclectic array of people in this village which surprises me; Muslims adoring their squared hats, Hindu’s with their red spot between their eyes, the more rounded face of the Chinese. Some people look Thai, some look Indian, some look Chinese, some look (what I can only assume is) Burmese . And there’s also a mixture of all of the above I suppose. interesting looking people. It’s a real melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities.
I’m fascinated by the food they’re making. It’s like the mix between Indian, Thai and Chinese.
He asks me if I’d like to try some, and of course I say yes. He tells me no one speaks English here but he will get me some food to try. I tell him that I’m Vegetarian and don’t eat eggs – easiest way to describe Vegan, and I’m pretty certain no one will be serving Dairy here. He nods his head. No problem.
I sit down on the small plastic stalls on the dirt floor and I’m actually really excited. My mind gets carried away and I think about what amazing delights he might be telling them to make for me. If it’s anything like the delicious filled chapatis I’m seeing, with all this fresh colourful vegetables and herbs sitting next to the open fire; I can’t wait. Ooh I’m salivating in anticipation.
They bring me a bottle of water. I look around and no one has water on their table. They all have mugs.
I want to be like everyone else.
I ask him what’s in their mugs.
Not coffee for me please. It’s 7:30pm at night.
I won’t be like everyone else.
They bring me a bright blue plastic bowl filled high with oily fried noddles with just the tiniest bit of fried, once upon a time was a green vegetable. I look over for them to bring me something else, anything else. I stare at my plate. It’s looks just like the awful, fat laden, oily noodles I’ve had many times in China and Thailand.
My first meal in Myanmar, with a freaken English speaking guide even, and I get that?
God they probably put MSG in it too, I thought to myself.
Your last proper meal was at 930am (minus the Mango and thin Pancakes) and you’re now going to put salty, oily, noodles with not an ounce of nutrition into your body that has just ridden 5hours for you today?
I look at my huge plate and sigh.
“Is it ok?’ my new friend asks me.
I contemplate not eating it.
“Will you share it with me? I ask
“No I’ve taken dinner” he tells me.
I do a quick calculation in my head and then I reach for the fork stuffing the greasy mixture into my mouth.
“It’s just great” I tell him.
“Thank you very much”
It tastes amazing. But just like you’d expect any high fat, high salt, high sugar, MSG laden meal would taste.
Halfway through my meal, I start to get thirsty, real thirsty. I reach for the 1litre bottle of water and drink it.
“Fuck” I think to myself. One plastic bottle down.
One ‘meal’ one water = 800 kyat. 80c. I sure didn’t break the bank.
My brain hurts from trying to understand what my new friend is saying. He talks a lot about the Government, in what I think is anger but mostly disappointment and sadness. It appears his Brother in law died being shot driving over the same road I rode over today.
“Why was he shot?”
“He was driving a truck.”
I feel a little concerned. Like I’m uncovering a dark little secret that I shouldn’t know about.
It intrigues and fascinates me.
Welcome to Burma Andrea!
As I wave goodbye to my friend telling him I’ll see him tomorrow for breakfast before I leave, I head back to the Guesthouse. I turn on the plastic fan in my room and the fan reluctantly blows back warm thick air into my face. This sure won’t cool me down. 33 degrees and this is the room fan?
Wow! I chuckle to myself. This will be interesting!
Just sitting inside the room I feel like I’m in a Sauna where someone has just thrown a bucket of water on the heater. I’m like the heater heating up the room. My body’s trying to burn off the calorie overload at dinner by increasing my own internal thermostat. Not to mention it’s 33 degrees outside.
I go downstairs to the bathroom and pour water all over my body. It cools me for an instant and then I’m upstairs in my room lying on my bed, back to my Sauna.
I kinda didn’t believe it, but like clockwork at 10pm the building shudders into a thick, stifling darkness.
I lay on my single bed, the one i’d found mice droppings on, and I pray for sleep to come and take me quickly. I have a sneaky feeling it could feel like a very long arduous night…..