We met a Ukrainian traveler over breakfast. He's been on the road for 3 years, non-stop. He spent a large portion of it in India. He gave us an idea on how we could get into Bhutan on a pilgrim visa - a definite possibility for our next trip. We all agreed that a month in a country is not enough to truly get a feel for it. You feel really rushed, if you are on a really tight schedule. Of course the world is huge, and you can only see so much. Hopping from country to country is stressful, and not very stimulating to the senses on the whole.
Riding out of Mandalay was really straightforward. We got a wicked smile from an old monk on our way out of the 'monk' district. The traffic was bad until we crossed a bridge at the edge of town. The road was smooth and flat. We stopped for some more noodles on the way. We passed a number of villages, and some more food stands. Then we started climbing, passing more villages. We stopped at mile 21 village for some lunch. We felt like we were the first foreigners that ever stopped there. The meal was very good, and we enjoyed just sitting in the little restaurant/living room afterwards, sipping some Chinese tea. It wasn't easy to get moving again, but we managed to get back on the road eventually. We followed a winding road, with switchbacks that seemed to go on forever. It became extremely hot, and we were drowning in our own sweat. The terrain has all been logged, and there wasn't much to look at. All the trucks that passed us had their exhaust pipes mounted on the right side, and blew black clouds of smoke directly onto our faces. We were forced to stop several times to let them pass. The road we were on goes all the way to China through Lashio, so we knew what we were in for.
Later on we passed some prison/labour camps, and a massive airport, completely fenced in. We ended up stopping for some oranges. A man ushered us to sit at a bench near the stand, and fed us a bunch of bananas. We think he spoke English, even though he answered every question we asked with: "yes, yes, ok, ok". We both found him rather tiresome, as he scarcely listened and went on frequent little rants, which we couldn't understand. Eventually, we managed to free ourselves off his hold, and continued on our way to Pyin Oo Lwin.
At the edge of town we were greeted by a rather impressive Golden stupa, and later by a very authoritative figure. He directed us where to go without us having asked for directions. We both didn't appreciate his energy. I looked back to catch him looking in our direction with a suspicious intensity. It's probably just my paranoia talking. A little further on we passed a massive, billboard-sized sign, white on red, written in both Burmese and English. It stated, in no uncertain terms that any one, including foreigners who expresses views contrary to those of the regime, is in fact 'an enemy' of the regime, and should be treated as such.
Pyin Oo Lwin has many Colonial style buildings, including an old Anglican Church. We sat at a café serving real coffee, and watched the noisy strip in front. There was a surprisingly high number of horse-drawn carriages in town. An older gentleman chatted with us, sharing his thoughts on the country. He exports cigars from Bago (Myanmar) into Thailand, and therefore spends quite a lot of time in Myanmar on business. He feels sorry for the people of Myanmar, and at the same time fears that it will become Thailand if a change in government was to take place. Ultimately, the people of Myanmar should be given the choice. He expressed his general dislike of the regime, and his belief that it is so deeply ingrained in the society that any transition would be a painful one. He was also of the opinion, that a great majority of head Buddhist monks have been bought out by the government, while many monasteries infiltrated by government spies. In this overwhelmingly Buddhist country, it is difficult to believe that the people themselves would ever affect the change.
By the time we started to look for a place to crash for the night, it was totally dark outside. We didn't have much trouble finding a place. It was a little ways from the main strip, and very quiet. We seemed to be the only guests there. Our room was very large, and somewhat unkempt. We were happy to have a shower before heading out for some dinner. The streets were dark, except from some faint lights coming from shop and restaurant windows. We ended up having some pickled tea leaf salad over rice. It was very tasty. We sipped some tea and people-watched, our favourite past-time (locals watched us back). Pyin Oo Lwin is a military town. There were many young guys out and about. All the shops seem to cater to them. We were happy to find a string of shops selling yummy Indian sweets, everything from kolfi to a wide assortment of barfis, and gulab jamun. We loaded up at one of them. They were fresh and delicious. As we started to head back to our room, we stopped to share some with a family minding a small betel stand. The little kid gobbled one down.