|We had an early breakfast at the Three Seasons Hotel. It consisted of some fruit, tang juice, coffee/tea and a rice noodles in a fish and peanut soup. I did not particularly enjoy the soup, but Myles ate it up, even finished my share. Dr. Htun's sister was very nice, and last night Myles got very good feelings from her and her colleague. He took the time to write out directions to the highway bus station, and was generally very willing to help. I guess first impressions can be deceiving. Shortly after breakfast, we headed downstairs, loaded our bikes and thanked our host for a nice stay. She genuinely cared about how we felt about the meal, and our stay. Her mother was sitting outside, making a string of jasmine flowers. It was early, but already hot. The street was full of people selling flowers, and earlier we saw a few nuns, and monks come around to collect their daily handouts.
We started heading out, worried about the already heavy traffic, and our tires being too soft for these rutty roads. The sound of traffic was already very loud. There were people everywhere, and many cars, trishaws, bicycles and trucks on the road. The air felt hot and heavy with fumes. I felt quite nervous at first, at the site of all the other vehicles, and the rough roads. Last night we realized that there are no gas stations in this town, per se. Therefore, we had to figure out another way of inflating our tires. We didn't get very far before we passed a roadside air-pumping business, or 2 women and a bunch of pumps. Their main clientele consisted of trishaw operators, many of whom lined up as soon as we pulled over. They didn't have the right attachment to inflate our tires, but they quickly managed to solve that problem by creating a makeshift gasket. It worked like a charm. We both got our back tires inflated for 100Kyat.
We managed to ride for 10 minutes or so, while inhaling a hefty dose of black fumes pumped out of old clunkers and city buses, before we realized the lack of street names, specifically ones in English. We stopped to ask for directions a few times and got nowhere. Most people we asked could not show us where we were on the map, they only pointed in what seemed to us as random directions. Eventually, we agreed to go with our gut feeling, only it didn't get us too far - Myles got a flat. We pulled over immediately, not knowing what was to await us around the corner. As soon as we pulled up onto the sidewalk we became surrounded by a group of curious onlookers. Most of them came over from a nearby shop, while some stopped as they were going past. Knowing we had to be at the bus station by noon, and knowing that the ride there was not going to be trivial, Myles decided to use our spare instead of fixing his tube on the spot. Many of the onlookers got right in there to help, making the task all the more difficult. It did give us a nice feeling though. Everything went rather smoothly until the tube tore at the valve. Myles had to use our second and only spare. We did not care, all we wanted was to get to the bus station in time to board the bus - simple in theory, but far from it in practice. As Myles worked on his bike, I was trying to get someone, anyone willing, to point out where we were on the map, as there was but one street sign around, and it made no sense to us. A man, who spoke a couple of words in English pulled over on his bicycle. He kept on pointing right, but was saying left. When I pointed right, to confirm, he looked at me puzzled, reassessed his answer by looking on the map, and pointed left saying right. In the end we went with our gut feeling down a busy road, in what we thought was roughly the direction of the bus station. What followed was a number of wrong turns, a few more confusing directions, and a man on a bicycle who followed us for the last quarter of our ride, stopping whenever we did and smiling widely. It became unbearably hot outside, and the constant traffic didn't help. We were thirsty, and dehydrated, not to mention a little on edge. Somehow we got on the right road in the end. We stopped every few hundred metres to double-check that we were on the right track - several people in a row pointed in the same direction, which made us sigh with relief at each confirmation.
We entered the bus station through a guarded gate, which first led us past many broken down buses, many of which were being worked on either side of the narrow dirt road. We still had our doubts about being in the right place, as there were no working buses in sight for a long ways. After asking a taxi driver for some final directions, Myles got us to the right spot by following his nose through the chaos of numerous different bus companies, hawkers, taxi drivers and people. We arrived at noon, half an hour before scheduled departure. As we were trying to unload our panniers, while standing between our bus, and another one ready to leave we were accosted by a number of aggressive food sellers. One guy was even trying to sell me some books in Burmese. We were quoted 8000 kyat per bike. They made us remove all tires and turn the handlebars sideways. They proceeded to unload a bunch of luggage from the compartment below the bus, and our bikes ended up sandwiched one on top of the other. It was completely out of our hands at that point. We were ushered into a room with some chairs, where all of our co-passengers were awaiting departure. No sooner did we get a chance to sit down than the door opened again, and a lineup formed instantly onto the bus. By the time we got on board, all seats were taken. We were in the last row of 5 seats. It didn't seem too bad at the time, but little did we know we were sitting on top of the engine, and had no luxury of having access to windows which open. Myles quickly run out to grab us some food, as the first scheduled stop wasn't for another 8 hours or so. He came back just in the nick of time with some questionable fried meat dish, we opted out to fast until dinner. As it turns out once all the normal seats were occupied, a row of pullout seats in the aisle was filled with passengers as well. There was no easy way for us to get off the bus, unless that is, we opened the emergency exit. What followed was a very hot ride. The A/C worked on and off for the first little bit of the ride. We passed a lineup of trucks and busses waiting to get gas from a roadside barrel. We continued past until we turned in to a smaller road, into a hidden gas station. As soon as the bus stopped it got really hot, and remained so for the rest of the trip.
We were on our way towards Inle Lake. The road from Yangon was rutty, with unpaved sections, a combination of gravel and sand, and mud. The road was very narrow, with steady traffic in both directions. We were passing villages with many folks on bicycles and horse-drawn carriages. The bus driver constantly used his horn to get past everyone else on the road - that would be the one advantage of not having seats in the front of the bus.
Myanmar is 20 to 30 years behind, at least. Everything is done manually. Farming is run on water-buffalo power. People get around on bicycles, and trishaws - human powered propulsion. Most homes we passed probably lack running water, and not all have access to electricity. People carry massive loads on their old single-speeds - I counted 10 huge, stacked bags on one bike. As soon as it got dark outside, we saw little businesses with candles providing light, as well as many home in the distance - very beautiful to us. The power grid is unreliable at best, and many folks cannot afford a generator, or if they can they must be wise with their use of fuel.
We were the only foreigners on the bus. The locals have a much lower threshold for cold. As soon as the sun went down all the windows closed, and it felt like a sauna inside the bus. We were toasty warm sitting on top of the engine, and the air was perfectly still. The first pit stop into the ride, 7 hours from departure, gave us a whiff of fresh air outside. Everyone peed on the side of the road, men, women and kids, rather indiscriminately. There was little time to look for a good spot. People with aisle seats were waiting to get on the bus by the time I was ready to board the bus. We were on our way again. Myles asked one of the passengers up front to open the window. He did so for about 5 minutes of blissful breeze.
We stopped for dinner in the town of Toungoo. The restaurant is all we saw of the town. They were ready for us, and the food was all prepared. It was incredible. We got to taste several different dishes that were served in little metal bowls. There was a dish of onions, garlic and some other red vegetable that tasted wonderful. We shared another dish of cilantro, peanuts and some delicious spices, as well as a lovely Indian style spicy soup with vegetables. Unfortunately, the meal was rushed, and we were back on the bus before we got a chance to catch our breath again. We both tried in vain to fall asleep. We did so in 15 minute intervals. Our next stop was in the town of Tatkon. There, we enjoyed some fresh oranges and another type of fruit we never had before (like a hard green plum, slightly sour and somewhat sweet). It was around 1am, and there were little kids up in the market selling fruit. It is a very different life from back home.
From there we both managed to get a few hours of sleep. When we woke up, it was light out, and we were heading towards Kalaw, on a road that mostly went up, and was mostly unpaved.
The little girl in front of us on the bus was fully awake. She spent the night stretched out over her parents' laps. She interacted with us until the end of the trip. I made her a little paper crane, and she kept turning around and laughing. Her mom tried asking us some questions, but there was little understanding. The universal language of facial expressions took us part of the way. A few people began to get off the bus at Kalaw. We made another quick stop for breakfast at Aungban. The air was pleasantly cool outside, I had to wear my jacket. Some warm milk tea did me good. We got some fruit to go, and a bottle of local rice wine for later. We got dropped off at the side of the road in Shwe Nyaung. Everyone's eyes were glued to us as we attempted to assemble our bikes. We did so quickly as we needed some quiet time on the road to Nyaung Shwe, a mere 11 km away. We were on our way in no time. We passed a number of horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, and carts. There were few vans and trucks on the road as well. We passed a procession, carrying donations for the monks, silver collection bowls, and drums. Everyone was dancing, and appearing really excited. We passed an old teak monastery to our left, but didn't enter. We were both very tired, and eagerly awaiting the comfort of a real bed. There was a number of boats and fisherman out on the water, and we passed some locals staging a cock fight off to the side. Before entering Nyaung Shwe, we had to part with $3US each, an entry fee. We cannot pretend we don't know where this money is going to.
After some tea, and very stale biscuits at a local café, we rode around town for a while in search of a bed. We settled on the Aquarius Inn. They greeted us with some more tea, roasted soya beans, and bananas. The fan cooled-room with attached bathroom had everything we needed, namely a bed. We took it easy the rest of the day.