Hpa-an is a small town. It offers a small market, another Pagoda, a few shops and a variety of homes. It’s the lovely people and surrounding attractions that made this friendly little town a bit of a special one for me.
Again, we had to squeeze into our new home, the Soe Brothers Hostel. Two beds for our group of seven left two of us sleeping on the floor and our new English and Dutch friends who we met on the boat, up in the spare room, occupying the last remaining parts of the hotels floor space, minus the toilets. Everywhere in Myanmar, that was classed as budget accommodation for tourists, is busy. It’s peak season. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. The staff love our enthusiasm and usually charge the mattress-on-the-floor service a little cheaper than an old creaking wooden bed. A sign at reception reminding us that not all is great in the South.
The diner across the road served us some great traditional foods. This family run diner was representative of most dining experiences in Myanmar. When ordering the food, usually half of the items are unavailable and the person taking the order uses no form of note pad, they just mentally note what you want, usually with a very confused look. The order and any dietary requirements are either lost in translation or forgotten. This unstructured customer service also includes orders being taken at different times. If you don’t call them and tell them what you want, they probably won’t ask you. The food, like most Asian countries comes when it’s done, sometimes the gap between us polite Europeans meals being delivered, can go over the 20 minute mark. Although they were lovely smiling people, they weren’t geared up to having a large group of westerners besiege their tiny family run cafe. Bless them. They got into a bit of a caffufel, shouting at each other and running to and from the kitchen. However, their food was good, oily, but good. When ordering drinks they pop over to the shop across the road and get them in. Some are cold. Refrigeration has not hit the mainstream yet.
Another trick I learned from this gem of a cafe, a personal favourite of ours, was that you can fill up your water bottle for free from the purified water tanks doted about the place. Not just in this cafe but in the hotel, other shops and restaurants did this too. Brucie. You could top up for free anywhere with the water tanks. Sometimes there were clay pots full of water with metal bowls that you could use to drink from.
Although the accommodation is expensive for what it is, everything else can be cheap. Food for a quid and free water. Sometimes it’s the small things in life. Learning about the new country I was in was extremely pleasurable. Do not take my sarcasm as cynicism. I love their eating traditions and their oily foods.
Refuelled with my tea leaf salad and a Star Cola, I wondered down to the local market and bump into a friendly local man called Joseph and his non English speaking friend, Momo. Before I knew it, I was sat down next to the coinya (Indian paan) chewing pair, discussing their respective love of Manchester Utd and City. Joseph spoke good English and was the one of the first Burmese people I had a good and lengthy conversation with. We covered a variety of rich topics such as the vital info on the local temples and pagodas, his countries politics, and England’s, Americas and India’s, the military, civil war in the north, the school system and his lack of faith in the ability of my beloved Liverpool FC and their manager Brendan Rodgers.
According to Joseph, mobile phones only became affordable in Myanmar two years ago. The Government lifted their $2000 charge for a SIM card so ordinary people can communicate. Now things are changing rapidly, most people can afford them. Internet is not affordable to most people and the town only had two shops with slow connection speeds. Internet is more accessible for residents in the larger cities. It is classed as a luxury item. He didn’t have an email address, most people don’t but the youth are starting to change things. He said the internet was only for sex. These sights are also blocked by the Government.
He also said peace has spread across most of the country, the mood here was good. He looked concerned about the troubles in the North and warned me against going. He said even in the Shan State, where there are still rebels living in the mountains, there is peace. He looked happy and proud that the Mon State was quiet and peaceful again but his hatred, like all Burmese people, for the Police, the corrupt Government and the military was loud and clear. He was happy to share his opinions on worldwide politics too, strangely, he was a big fan of Margaret Thatcher. He helped me nail some key Myanmar phrases and taught me some slang.
I was introduced to their kids who’d just come back from school. Momo’s twins were his prized possession. A crowd of friends and family had gathered to see what was going on, everyone impressed with Joseph’s English language skills and the big white guy with ridiculously blonde hair and blue eyes sitting down, chilling out with the lads in the market. They all smiled and giggled.
After an hour had passed, we took pictures, shared hugs and hand shakes and departed ways. A mysterious country had just been opened up to me, hearing Joseph’s opinions and feelings had cleared up some questions in my mind. An encounter with a local is what makes journeys special. Joseph was one of these special guys, an average married man with two children who owned a market stall. He sat and talked with his friends on that market everyday, chewing coinya and earning an honest living. Humble and proud. He didn’t even try to sell me anything, he just wanted to talk. Having an English man sit down and talk to him was an honour.
Sitting by the river with some new back packer buddies, we sank a cold beer and watched life go by. The local ladies washed their clothes in the murky brown waters while the men drove big, dirty, industrial looking boats kicking out a constant bulge of black smoke. Fishermen used traditional means to make a catch and long boats took workers back from a hard days work with their various crops. Life rolled past.
Pace of life was slow here. We walked the streets, taking in the architecture, the street animals, the people and their traditions and the onslaught of smiles coming our way. People stopped us and practised their limited English skills. Some seriously happy vibes were being created, resonating around the small town of Hpa-an, infecting everyone. Relaxed and discussing back packer things with my new backpacker buddies, I realised how the path I was on was a full filling and special one. This type of travelling is what turns me on the most. Real life. New experiences. Meeting new, interesting people. I’m being educated all day long. Learning is fun. Knowledge is power.
We all regrouped that evening and went to the restaurant The Planet recommends. It’s information was on point this time. We were served free green tea, soup, salad and the table was covered in little bowls of side dishes, the theme was distinctly fishy with a sprinkling of spice. Our curries, noodles and rice dishes were thrown in to the mix, then the pots of sweets started to circulate and a hefty helping of Myanmar Lager kept conversation swift and full of banter. The food was good, buckets of oil, but we expected nothing less. The table was covered with local delicacies, they looked after us, we were fed very well.
Bottles of Myanmar Lager offer a prize, if you peel back the lid a small message declares if you are a winner. Richard won a free beer and Guy won 200 kyats, that’s 20 pence. Guy was extremely happy with his winnings. A proud man.
I went to bed that night, full of oil and beer. The diet here starting to make me feel a little sick. I think I need to look at the fat content of my fuel. There’s a rich and varied range of foods available here, the surrounding countries foods adapted to become Myanmar’s very own. Plus oil. Lots of it. Everything is fried. The Chinese influenced soup and noodles are the healthiest option but even these dishes have added oil. My cholesterol will be through the roof. Am I getting old?
Early Morning prayer and life starts early. The cockerels start first then the cars and market get going leaving us no other option than to wake up. Somewhere near our hotel, in fact, near any sign of human activity any where in Myanmar, is a local monk and his sound system, blaring out tapes of some rambling dudes prayers. Monotonous, lethargic, croaky prayers with minimal musical content. This usually wakes you up at 5am. Sometimes earlier, sometimes later. I’m not a fan of this part of Buddhism. Thrown into the mix is Guy’s persistent coughing throughout the night, this making him a favourite sleeping companion in our cramped digs. I especially appreciate it when he forgets to cover his mouth and coughs in my face. The charms of life as a back packer. Love you really Guy. And your diseases.
After breakfast, ten dirty back packers jumped on board a trishaw heading towards Mount Zwegabin. This is a motor bike with a carriage on the back. That’s right, six people should be its maximum capacity but we squeezed in ten large and well fed Europeans so it was no surprise that when attempting to climb a small hill the entire vehicle started to capsize. Luckily for us all, Richard and Nordes instinctively jumped out the back to restore a manageable weight so the trishaw regained balance. We were saved. Jumping into the front, the weight was distributed a little more evenly and we plodded on. Admittedly we did struggle on the hills, occasionally having to get out and walk up the hill.
It took us just over an hour to get to the top of this little beauty. We passed a field of Buddha statues, a lot of talkative students from Yangon and a fair few pagodas before got we got to the top. The steps were steep and they kept coming, I broke a sweat. It felt good to do exercise, even if I still had that sicky oily taste in my stomach.
At the top, the view was impressive. The pagoda was alright. Pilgrims lit candles, gave donations and kneeled to say their prayers. More importantly the monkeys turned up for a feeding session. Not as charming as the monkeys at the Hanuman Temple in Hampi, India, but I was still amused by these little fellas. I like monkeys. The big monkeys here were bullies and picked on the wee cute ones, stealing the food that was given to them.
Again we were the highlight of the Burmese people’s day, striking up basic conversations in English and having to pose in their pictures. If I’m honest, I like the attention. It was like I was a cool DJ again, back in the day everyone wwanted to be my friend. I even had to pose with a group of giggling girls from the Yangon University. Thirty and I still got it.
We all ate well in the cafe and hobbled down the other side of the mountain. Our under exercised legs starting to shake and tremble as we sang our way down to the waiting taxi truck.
We were a little surprised when we arrived at the Kyan Ka Chaung caves in the early afternoon. What I thought sounded like a natural spring pool in a cave was actually a Buddha themed water park for children. The pool was indeed a natural spring but no adults went in, just us silly tourists. The children jumped in fully clothed. How very strange. Everyone seemed happy to see us and several groups of young local men and families besieged us at the cafe. We shook many hands, exchanged minglabba’s and posed for photos. The ladies in our group were a big hit with the teenage boys. After exploring a couple of temples and caves we were hurried back on to our truck. Apparently we weren’t allowed into one of the caves as a monk had shut it after finding a used condom on the floor. At least it was safe sex. Shame.
After eating some of Myanmar’s finest foods and beers we went down to the Internet cafe. I got through to my lovely family and finally had a good talk with my loved ones back home. Its difficult being so far away. Not being able to help or talk face to face with people who you love. The only part of my home country I miss is my family and friends, some things we all take for granted, sometimes. It can all become a bit overwhelming.
The Liverpool game against Norwich was on and there was a large group of young men gathering to watch it. It was on live but with a six and a half hour delay. The football culture is huge in Myanmar. They love it. They are passionate and at times almost overly eccentric about it. I enjoyed sitting at the back of the Internet shop, watching the lads huddling around the TV, sitting on the floor. There were intense moments of silence and concentration when the ball was in play but they mocked and joked with each other after a foul or goal. Typical lads. Friends came and went. Some showed approval at my love of Liverpool FC, some were bewildered at my poor choice and told me how Manchester United were top of the league. I love football banter, breaks all the language barriers. My enjoyment enhanced by the five nil thrashing we inflicted on Norwich.
On route home alone, very tired, I managed to be followed by a large group of trouble making street dogs. It was late and the streets were eerily quiet. As I turned to face them, I walked straight into a low hanging wooden sun cover in front of a shop. It hurt. The whack to my head managed to wake up a dude who was sleeping outside his shop. He was startled. I felt stupid. The street dogs passed me by. I had a wounded forehead but I was safe. Asians don’t cater for us tall European folks in their shop design plans. It’s a daily occurrence now, hitting my head on something like a low door frame, low hanging sign or low ceiling.
Returning to the hotel safe, I spot three of the team drinking beers on the balcony. When showing the team my photos of the day I realise that my SD card has failed and wiped off all my photos of the last four weeks. A bit of a sinking feeling happened at this point. A real low. But help was on hand. A Swiss gent called Richard, had a MacBook Pro with picture repair software on it. He was a camera pro and had had this problem before. He restored most of my pictures while plying me with alcohol. What a legend. He was an interesting guy. He’s been a professional opera singer, a fine art nude photographer specialist and is currently a full time traveler. Intriguing and extremely helpful, I hit the sack happy that most of my pictures have been saved.
My morning run took me through the market and down to the river. Morning life is busy and hectic in Hpa-an. On my way back through the market I see a man sitting by a pot. This little fella had long hair and a long beard, both tied at the end. He looked like a traditional Chinese pirate and he was drawing quite a crowd. Animated, he talked a good talk in their native Burmese tongue. Before I knew it, he had pulled out a snake, a raging python with an inflamed head. I crapped myself. I had no idea that would happen. The crowd laughed at me. I laughed back. I love Myanmar.
Uncomfortable and a tad embarrassed I carried on my run back to the hotel, where I bump into Richard. I thank him for his help last night and he tells me about his nudist fine art work. I’m invited to model for him. Naked in a sailors outfit? Or maybe a fireman? Hmm, I told him I’ll consider it. I love Myanmar.
Our final day in Hpa-an sees us pay a visit to the Sadder caves. It’s a good 27km journey from the centre of town and we need to take a jibney, a pick up truck converted with two wooden planks as seats, a metal frame and a roof rack on top, to Eindhu and grab a trishaw to the caves. The jibney was full so we let the women sit down and joined a few local men on the roof rack. What a great way to ride. Guy, Nordes and I loved it, wind blowing through our hair and beards, smiles on point, waving and shouting minglabba’s to the locals we passed. The journey was rough and bumpy, our arse cheeks and backs bruised by the ride but it was worth it.
The entrance to the caves had stunning Buddha statues and pagodas and inside, the carvings and naturally formed stalagmite formations were impressive. We removed our shoes and walked through the dark, poorly lit caves with our trishaw dude leading the way. There was no entrance fee and the lady from the stall outside lent us a torch each. Touch.
The echoes of the hundreds of bats that lined the ceiling of the cave was a little unnerving. The floor was covered in bat crap and we were walking directly underneath the big furry chaps. We moved quickly, crap falling freely.
We’d been in the dark for over half an hour and the light at the end of the tunnel was almost blinding. There was a lake with a couple of small long boats, being captained by happy fishermen dudes. The atmosphere tranquil, the lake almost dream like, perfect. We were the only ones there. It’s beauty captivating. A monk joined us. Surreal.
We took a ride around the lake and through more impressively formed caves, passing through narrow rivers, past beautiful rice paddies and fishermen using traditional methods to catch their dinner. This place was unreal. We saw no other white tourists, only a small Burmese family and a couple of monks that lived on the lake. What a great experience.
The drive back to Soe Brothers brought us back to reality with a bump. Being thrown around the trishaw, we cleared air several times. To our delight, we got the roof rack seats for our return journey on the jibney. Driving through the fields on the roof rack, with the limestone mountains starting to block out the setting sun was a great experience.
This country has many treasures and we keep discovering. I’m having the time of my life. I don’t want to leave this town. Our 28 day visa doesn’t give us enough time to stop and stay, we must move on, good to leave on a high.
Waiting for our bus, the bus ticket ladies son is lively and animated. Playing with him and his sword, I let him play on my drum. He loved it. Music breaks down all language barriers, even with three year old’s. I love the little Burmese kids, they are so cute. Guy wants to take one home. We agreed this may be a little strange.
My first bus ride in Myanmar was relatively expensive, but it had air con and was clean, comfortable and even donned reclining seats. However, all buses in Myanamr have big 32 inch colour TV with a loud speaker system installed. This could be a good thing if they didn’t play dodgy Burmese comedies and romantic drivel pop music at full blast. Headphones and an iPod is a must, in order to survive the journey a sane man. Pop music in Burma is usually a cheesy remix of American and English songs with Myanmar lyrics. The Burmese version of ‘Mother’ by The Spice Girls was one of my personal bessies.
We drive through towns and villages on our way to Kyaitiyo where the Golden Rock is our next target. Street fires line the streets, towns full of smoke fumes from the plastic and waste that isn’t collected by anyone. The excellent recycling and rubbish collection service in my home country seem a long way away from ever being implied in developing countries like Myanmar. The air is thick with smoke. The litter continues to build in man made rubbish dumps.
Our journey is disrupted occasionally, road blocks collecting toll money and the Government keeping tabs on who is travelling the roads of Burma. Sometimes when we stop, men holding silver bowls walk the bus, presumably collecting for a monastery. The young dude collecting tickets, asked for our passports. He stopped at a shop and photocopied them. The Government also wanting to keep tabs on the tourists. The drive is a relatively smooth one and sleep was even an option.
I loved Hpa-an. Bloody great stuff. Bring it on Kyaitiiyo. Show me your magic.