We walk something like 23 kilometers (14 miles) through farmland that has seen far less rain than the land immediately surrounding Kalaw and is an appropriate shade of brown. We cross paths with people from a handful of different ethnic groups, among them Pa-O, Shan and maybe a few others. Honestly, you’d need an anthropologist along to help pick out the differences. Aside from an orange head scarf here or a black dress there, everyone looks more or less alike to my eyes. Maybe it was the heat. Our guide, a Sikh, whose great-grandfather emigrated in 1910 to help the British build the nearby railway, is a nice guy but not much help. Having him guide is akin to engaging the proprietor of a Chinese restaurant in Tucson to lead a tour of local American Indian communities.
To his credit, he does speak the Myanma language and a bit of some others, so he’s able to facilitate some conversations along the way. At one stop a man tells us that his forearm tattoos and those of his friends are designed to keep spirits from getting sexually adventurous with him in the afterlife. Makes sense, no? After learning this bit of local wisdom, I find myself trying the local drink of choice: instant coffee mixed with a raw egg. Revolting at first, yes, but when you think about it, not so bad. Instant coffee here always has milk and creamer with it. Milk, sugar, eggs, coffee. What’s not to like?
Despite the blisters, we press on. It’s a comparably easy, 4.5 hour walk through very dry and inhabitable terrain to Indein on the shores of Inle Lake. We have another remarkable meal, lunch under the shade of an immense banyan tree. The cooking duo served up avocado, tomato and peanut salad with homemade chapatis. If nothing else, we’ve learned from this trip that tomatoes and peanuts are a match made in heaven.
A well-advised rest day. So instead of hike, bike or boat, we shop. We also visit a stupa at sunset. As I wander taking photographs, I notice that CeCe is no longer by my side. When I finally find her, she is surrounded by a circle of monks that is easily three deep.
During a chartered boat trip on Inle Lake, we visit a monastery known for its jumping cats. Yes. Cue CeCe giggling.
The night bus again proves better than expected and by 10 we’re exploring Mandalay’s streets. Like Yangon, the city has a modern grid layout, lots of people, and not much atmosphere. The day gets better later on
In the evening we take in a vaudeville-style performance of the Moustache Brothers, a traditional Myanmar song-and-dance-and comedy troupe. Once upon a time, the group traveled the country giving all-night performances. Now at least one of the brothers is under house arrest for his criticism of the military regime (two others did seven years of hard labor), and the group is barred from giving Myanma language performances. In an odd twist, thanks perhaps to international pressure, the group can now only perform for tourists from home in English. As a result, they are free to candidly criticize the government’s cronyism, nepotism and gross mismanagement of the nation’s affairs.
Before the show, one brother shows us parts of a DVD featuring a handful of famous people talking about the oppression of Myanmar’s people. Go to YouTube and search for Myanmar and Will Farrell, Alec Baldwin or Diego Maradona, and you’ll get a taste of what this country has endured over the last twenty years.
I’d post the videos here, but of course, we’re in Myanmar, and both this blog and YouTube are censored.
We take a whirlwind taxi tour of the sites outside of Mandalay (one lake, one river, no bay), but make sure we avoid paying the $10 tourist fee to keep the dollars out of the government’s hands. Yes, all such fees are payable only in dollars. Local currency isn’t accepted.
Part of the trip involves horse carts in Inwa, the capital of Burma for three hundred years or so starting around 1350. CeCe gets wheezy at the furthest possible distance from the taxi and we soon discover we left her inhaler back in the room. So we traipse back only to get lost a few times along the way. As a result, we see some temples we otherwise would have missed and get a sense of the vast grandeur of this faded capital the hard way.
But our wanderings cost us valuable time. We arrive at the teak U-Bein’s Bridge, the world’s longest such span at 1.2 kilometers, too late for sunset. CeCe parks herself on a bench to people-watch; I walk the length. Most of the distance I’m accompanied by a stunning 20-year-old jade jewelry saleswoman and part-time student, who does her best to charm me into a purchase. I finally escape and guiltily return to my wife who is surrounded, yet again, by a group of adoring monks.