Sunday, March 9, 2014
The Irrawaddy and Hsipaw in Photos
After leaving Bagan, our first stop after landing in Rangoon on Friday night, our next destination was Hsipaw, via Mandalay. Hsipaw is east of Bagan by a fair distance, and there are no direct connections that we know of. The Rangoon-Bagan bus wasn't so bad, except that:
...it left at 7pm and arrived at 4am, as many buses in Burma do (almost all buses are night buses - apparently the locals prefer it. I hate it). 4am is not a good time to be at a bus stop 7 kilometers from your hotel, shivering (yes, it gets cold in northern Burma at night) and negotiating with avaricious taxi drivers.
...it means once you get there, you won't be able to check into a hotel unless you've paid for one for that night, which means no shower either. With very little sleep, this translates to feeling like crap for the rest of the day. Your choices are to walk or bike around before dawn when nothing's open, or sit in the lobby and try to sleep in a chair. Wheeee!
...the air conditioning is turned way up on these buses so even if you are the sort of person who can fall asleep on one (sometimes I am, if I'm tired enough, sometimes I'm not - and I do get motion sickness), your teeth will probably be chattering too much to nod off.
...these buses tend to play movies, TV serials and music for much of the night at ear-splitting volumes, and when they stop for breaks, everyone has to get off. That's fine if the break is at 9pm, but sometimes it's at 3am.
In short, I am not a fan of night buses.
Much better to get out of bed at a preposterously early hour (4am) and clamor into a boat slipping softly down the pre-dawn Ayeyarwadi (Irrawaddy) River to Mandalay. So what if it takes twice as long? It's not a goddamn night bus and boat trips can be fun!
We grabbed wicker lounge seats on the deck and didn't bother to move from them all day. There were blankets on board (which is good, because it's freezing) and you get a free breakfast that you can eat whenever you want (coffee and a box with a boiled egg, two packaged pastry things and a banana) and we had the hotel's packed breakfast as back-up snacks. I slept briefly in the pre-dawn hours, nestled in a deep nest of blankets while my nose turned cold and red from the outside air, and then woke up to see the sun rise:
A pretty banal photo, I know, but compare that to a night bus and you get magic.
After the sun was well and truly up, the air warmed up quickly and I cast off blankets, one after the other, as I stretched out like a cat in the warm sunlight and napped until about 10am. I bought more coffee - well, three-in-one - which is free with breakfast but not after - and spent the day looking at the view, waving to passing boats, snapping photos and reading my book (Lonely Planet Publications' A House Somewhere).
People - well, at least I did - imagine Burma as a land of endless jungle: overhanging palms, mangroves, deep grass, colorful birds, huge flowers, monkeys and tigers and elephants, oh my! (we didn't see even one monkey on our trip. Or one tiger, but the lack of monkeys was more surprising).
But...well...no. The fact that we traveled in dry season probably had something to do with this, but it was more of an alternating flat farmland and nearly desert-like landscape, with the Irrawaddy as a big wet gash running along an often scabby shore, with few trees visible at all.
In short, I was picturing something of the wet palmy jungle of Sri Lanka, but Burma - as might be expected - was more of a pancake-flat Bangladesh or ruddy northern India. Geographically this makes sense, but it's a shock to have one's pre-imagined geography rudely shaken awake and pushed out of the layers and blankets of the mind.
We hit Mandalay just before sunset - it takes longer to go upstream after all - and stayed at the perfectly serviceable hotel that our hotel manager in Bagan booked for us. Hotels in Burma are surprisingly expensive, with a shortage of rooms and an influx of tourists ever since the government liberalized the tourism industry (you no longer have to pay lots of money to the military junta for the pleasure of going) causing demand to outstrip supply and prices to skyrocket. What was an $8 hotel room a few years ago is now a $25 hotel room. What was a $30 hotel room is now a $75 hotel room, and so on. I'm not complaining - locals deserve to prosper from tourism - but just so you know. Don't go expecting a budget vacation.
We didn't spend long in Mandalay - rather than see the concrete chock-a-block city's few charms we wanted to head straight for Hsipaw. But we enjoyed the Indian street food at the teahouse across from our hotel, the easy-to-find pharmacy for ibuprofen to treat my blossoming headache (all the crazy sleeping and wake-up times were wreaking havoc on my poor brain-box), and the fast, reliable Internet. Internet in Bagan - whether computer or wifi - was so bad that we, for all intents and purposes, did not check e-mail or social media for 3 days.
Getting to Hsipaw was almost a dream. Brendan got sick in Mandalay and puked once at the hotel and once on the way, but we were able to take advantage of a local taxi service to get there cheaply and efficiently. For about $18 US dollars, a nice fellow - I suspect he was Shan from his cabalistic arm tattoos - picked us up at our hotel in Mandalay, drove us for 5 hours through the gorgeous countryside, and deposited us at our homestay at the other end. We stopped in Pyin Oo Lwin for lunch.
I thought this was a very low price for Burma, considering what it costs to avail oneself of other tourist infrastructure, but he also stopped at his own house on the way, not far from Hsipaw. I gathered that he made the trip frequently for other reasons, and the taxi service was like an extra income he could sign up for.
Hsipaw is in an area that may even be more culturally diverse than the rest of Burma (which is extremely diverse - Burmese, Chinese, Indian, Thai, other tribal and ethnic minorities), where the majority of people are of Shan descent but there are also Padaung and other groups. You may know the Padaung as the "long-necked tribe", but in actuality most Padaung don't do that - those who do may have once done it for their own cultural reasons, but now they mostly put rings on the necks of young girls so that tourists can gawk at them and open their wallets. Ick. And the Shan are more closely related to the Thai people (according to our guidebook, "Shan" is an old word related to "Siam", and the Shan call themselves "Thai"). The language is similar to Thai and Lao.
Also Burma has a lot of cats - mostly street cats, but mostly well-fed - and Hsipaw is no exception.
On our first day, with Brendan feeling a bit off, we walked the easy mile to the home of Donald and Fern. Donald is the son of the older brother of the last Shan Sky Lord (rulers who ruled over one part of Shan territory, Hsipaw being the seat of one of these territories). The last Hsipaw Sky Lord himself was killed by the government in the 1960s (although they have never admitted this), and was married to an Austrian woman he met at university in the United States. After fleeing Burma with their two children, she described the tale in her book, Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess.
Well, he died, she left, and his older brother - who had been chosen to represent the Shan people in the national assembly, took over care of the family properties. When he died - not that long ago, of very old age - his son, Donald, took on that and other roles along with his wife, Fern (the daughter of a Sky Lord from another area of Shan State).
You can still walk up to the old English manor built by the last Sky Lord's father, who was educated at Oxford and came back with a Westernized attitude (he didn't want to live in the old "Oriental" palace, but would use it, and his various regalia, for ceremonial functions. The "Oriental" palace was destroyed by the British, bombing out the Japanese, around World War II). It used to be that you could meet Donald and he'd show you family photos and tell you the story. Then the government decided to crack down on tribals and accused him of being a "tour guide without a license" (not true) and told him to basically never talk to foreigners again. It's not clear if that restriction has now been lifted, but what's clear is that he's not in Hsipaw.
Now, he's off taking care of other family business. However, you will receive a warm welcome and hear interesting stories from Fern, who remains in town.
The next day, we set off on an easy morning hike through a string of Shan villages outside of town. It was hot and dry, but also nice and flat. We weren't the first tourists to ramble through, but people were friendly and welcoming, and it wasn't a road overrun with foreigners (we saw one other).
As long as you're friendly and ask nicely, it's fine to take photos of locals. People do enjoy it when you show them the pictures you've snapped.
One thing that nagged at me was when we saw local construction projects - fixing a stupa, as shown here, or repairing a road or bridge. On one hand, it made sense to do these things. On the other, modern Burma has a history of forced labor, with the government insisting that people "donated" their time and tools to "work together" to "develop the country". In actuality it's unpaid - basically, slave labor. So when I saw such projects going on, I wondered - is this just something the community is doing or are these people being forced to work for no pay? Are they compensated, willing workers, or are they slaves?
I don't know the answer.
After our hike, we had a nice, relaxing cup of coffee at Black House, an old teakwood warehouse converted into a coffeeshop down by the river. Then we wandered over to the local Hindu temple, which was basically like a game of religious scattergories:
Check out the Chinese Fat Buddha and Guanyin along with a Hindu Hanuman idol with Indian and Southeast Asian-style altar decoration.
The next day we did a punishing 5-hour hike up the nearby mountains - not as high as the ones we drove through between Mandalay and Hsipaw, but definitely with some awesome views back over the plateau:
We signed up for the hike the day before, and thought we were getting our own guide. That was not the case. Although I liked our hiking companions - seemed like nice people and we'd all lived in the same area of the USA - I was kind of hoping we'd be hiking on our own. I don't like slowing other people down, but let's face facts: I am a slooooow hiker. I always get to the top. I always make it as far as I say I will make it. I always reap the rewards of the hike. But it takes me awhile, and I don't like being dead weight. That's why I prefer to hike with Brendan or a few close friends who understand this - not with people I've just met who are wondering what's taking me so long.
Oh well. We got there. In the scheduled 5 hours no less (although they could have gotten there faster without me).
The destination was Pankam village, a small mountain village that does quite good business as a hiking destination for foreign visitors. It was a Padaung village, but there were no neck rings or long-necked women to be seen. Just normal people living normal lives. I would much rather meet and spend time with people just being their normal selves than gawk at something done up for the benefit of tourists.
On the final day before our dreaded night bus to Nyaungshwe (on which I got sick - not motion sick but genuinely sick) we walked up to some old monasteries and ruined stupas and enjoyed cool tamarind tea at a cafe nearby.
Note how the tree is growing right out of the stupa, cracking it in the process.
This area is not unknown to tourists and guidebooks, but we only saw one other small group of walkers.
Next up: Nyaungshwe and Inle Lake (tourism central, but still worth it).