Moulamein train station was very much station like. Platforms and ticket people and stuff. We located a row of restaurants outside and ate a rather tough beef curry with rice and a fabulous tasting lapeiye while the sun set. We’d spent the whole day on the roller coaster express from Bago so this was a fitting end to the day. A lot of restaurant stroke cafes in Myanmar have large silver pots full of curries sitting outside them on a make shift table, slowly getting cold. They are not kept hot and have more cooking oil in them than actual sauce. Healthy.
Recharged from the mammoth roller coaster of a train journey from Bago and refueled, we decide to let the trishaw dude, who’d been patiently waiting for our custom while we ate, take us to the largest meditation centre slash monastery in Myanmar. We weren’t enrolling. The Planet claimed we could stay for a night for free, so we decided to take the 14km ride out of town to see what the fuss was all about.
We arrived, sore arses from a particularly bumpy trishaw ride, at the monastery. A quick conversation with the chief Monk dude signaled that ‘The Planet’, again, had slightly misleading information. His response was a quick and swift ‘no’. On offer was ten days solitary meditation, or nothing. The Planet had obviously sent a lot of free loading dirty back packers, like us, his way. I’m guessing we weren’t the first. He spoke a few angry words in Burmese to our driver, smiled and hushed us out. Mission failed.
Our hopes dashed and it was bloody late so we braved another trishaw journey back to the main town where we were dropped off at the Breeze Hotel, a clear favourite with the backpacking community. To be fair, it is the only backpacker hostel in Moulamein, so favourite, on this occasion means ‘no other choice’. They had three beds left and we squeezed in a mattress on the floor. Any where will do eh Guy?
These extremely efficient, helpful and friendly guys had a lot of rooms squeezed into a relatively small space. Everything internal was made from old creaky wood, the floors, seats and even the walls. You could hear the person in the next room breathe. Like everything in Myanmar, it was designed for midgets, I was overwhelmed but not surprised by the short beds, the tiny door ways and the low ceiling. I bashed my head regularly. However quirky this hotel was, Mr Anthony and his team looked after his guests and treated them well. He claimed he had a steady flow of foreigners every year but the last year had seen foreigners flood the place, tripling his footfall and, presumably, his profit. He looked a happy but busy man. A walk around the local area culminated in the tasting of a few of Myanamr’s finest lagers. Tipsy and with a bed to sleep in I believe this is what we call ‘mission successful’.
The creeping floor boards and beds, the snoring, the laughter from the cleaners, the chatter from the early risers, the dog howls, the cats screams, the cockerel cries and the noise from reception gave me a slightly disrupted sleep and gave me no option to get up early. I slipped into my running trainers and took in the sights of the river, boat jetties, boats unloading and fishermen going to work while running at a steady pace.
However unfit I am becoming, I still enjoy a good run. I’m used to the locals laughter and the banter gets me in a good mood. I smash out some push ups and rest by a dirty looking muddy river next to the hostel. Stretching my once firm but now wobbly calves, a women approaches the river to throw out the bin from the toilets. That’s right, she chucks the soiled toilet paper tissues into the already polluted river. She stops and smiles. Disgusted, I smile back. She asks my name. Then my country. Nothing unusual about that. Then she asks me if I’m married. I truthfully reply ‘no’. I ask her if she’s married. She says ‘no’, with a little giggle. She asks where I’m going next. I reply ‘Hpa-an’. She asks if I want to stay with her instead. I pause. It’s not even 9am and I’m being propositioned by the cleaner lady with a big hopeful smile and a face, covered in yellow paste, only a mother could love. I smiled, nervously, and declined. She said sorry and ran back in to continue with her duties. Later on in the shower, her repertoire is repeated, this time Guy is the lucky man. I love this place.
We meet a couple of fresh out of uni lawyers and head off as a group of six to Bilu Kyun Island. A place that time forgot, even for Burmese standards. The local ferry takes us up the river and delivers us to our destination an hour later. We haggle a good price for a trishaw guide, it was actually a five wheeler motorbike, tuk tuk, taxi thing but I don’t know what to call them so I’ll use trishaw.
The day saw us zoom around the island that time forgot. The main means of transport was cow and cart. Our guide took us to a variety of crazy places, hat makers, walking stick and wood craftsmen, a rubber band factory and a place that served us a rough tasting coconut drink, a locally made delicacy.
The island was scattered with quaint little villages, stunning scenary, farms and bamboo huts. Thrown in for free was a motorbike crash and a cow who’d given up the fight and collapsed in the middle of the road. The other cow, the crowd that had gathered and the owners were confused as to how to resolve the tired cow issue.
The island boasted a good trade history, locally made produce using only traditional methods make this place famous in industry and also for an ideal day trip for us tourists too.
Returning on the last ferry, 3.30pm, we took a short hike up the hill to a pagoda for what was promised to be ‘the best sun set in South East Asia’. The Planet, again, making glamorous claims. The sun set was awesome, not sure if it was the best in SE Asia but it was nice. The view of Moulamein, it’s river and surrounding islands and hills was a beautiful sight. The pagoda was just another pagoda. Nicely kept but I’m on pagoda overload. Myanmar has a lot of pagodas. They are on every hill top and down every street. Wherever you are in Myanmar, you can see at least one sitting gracefully somewhere.
A Myanmar curry, a couple of beers and some good company saw the night off. Like every town in Myanmar, it was dark and deserted by 8pm. We returned to the Breeze Hostel just before the doors shut at 10pm.
I like this place but it’s time to move on. We got up early and boarded a small boat that took us down the Thalwin River to Hpa-an. We floated past villages, fishermen, women washing clothes, kids playing and various boats. The three hours drifted past, tranquil and relaxing, I lay back and witnessed life on the river. Waving at the locals who were delighted and surprised to see us.
Roots Manuva, Netsky, Camo and Krooked and The Roots supplying me with some much missed musical beauty, I floated into a state of meditative bliss for the entire four hour journey. This place gets better by the day. I’m continually on a high. I am looking forward to every part of this journey. Me and Burma are pals now, I think I’m in love.
The media, rightly so, report about the cruelty of the Government, ethnic cleansing and the civil war in the north but where tourists are entitled to go has no signs of repression or of civil unrest. Funnily enough, I feel really safe here. Crime is almost nil. Shops are left unattended and no one steals. Drug abuse is unheard of and extremely minimal. There are numerous signs asking people to take care of tourists and to help them. Tourists are welcomed here. Collectively, as a nation, these people, not the Government, are the nicest people I have ever met. Maybe in my travels I will see some signs of the unrest but it’s only the ethnic cleansing in the North West and the Kachin movement north of the Shan State that are still causing concerns in a country once dominated by social unrest and civil war. I’m planning to head to Bhamo near the fighting in Leiva, I’m intrigued. But for now, it’s destination Hpa-an.
Roll on Myanmar, show me your magic.