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Friday 1 Feb 2013
Kalaw, Myanmar

Heading to the hills

We had a fairly early start from Mandalay, but had to do a u-turn when we realised Ailsa had left her fleece in the room while we were being hustled out the door by the porters. Joseph rang the hotel and confirmed it was there, then said he would get the next group coming through to bring it on to Lake Inle for us. When Ailsa clarified that it would be colder in the mountains at Kalaw, it took a while for him to understand that she would, in fact, need the fleece before Lake Inle. In the end she asked the whole group if anyone minded us going back for it, which of course nobody did, so back we went. This required an interesting traffic manoeuvre to turn left onto a main road when every possible gap was filled with bikes and scooters. It took us half an hour to go back around the block, but eventually we were on our way.

Our first stop was at the U Bein teak bridge, which is the longest teak bridge in the world. It was built to connect two sides of a vast river for better trade and to link two parts of the same kingdom. The grand palace of one of the former kingdoms was taken apart to provide the bridge pillars, making some of them about 600 years old. The gaps between the planks were sufficiently big and uneven enough to make watching your step essential while walking across the bridge. It was also rickety enough that we could feel an uncomfortable amount of movement in the bridge, so we decided we didn't need to walk the whole way across and back, just far enough to watch the fishermen on the lake casting their nets. It may have been there for several hundred years, but it was still a bit unnerving.

Back on the bus, we set off on the 240km drive up into the mountains in the Shan state in the eastern part of Myanmar. We passed through a lot of farmland, some of it water crops like we had seen from the circular train, with people wading waist deep to tend the crops. We also saw the new motorway, built by the military government to link Mandalay with Nyapiydaw, the new capital. It was three lanes wide and almost completely empty as so few people actually travel. On our way we passed through several toll booths, which were all beautifully decorated buildings. The road crews we saw were predominantly female, which was very strange to see. I can't think of any country where I have seen women working on the roads. The women used large shallow baskets balanced on their heads to cart piles of small rock and gravel around and laid them by hand. Once this base layer was complete, men came over with watering cans of hot tar to sprinkle over the top.

We stopped at a stall on the roadside which sold traditional snacks. The closest description would be sweetcorn fritters - a type of rice batter with sweetcorn kernals or nuts that was dolloped into a shallow fryer until it formed crispy biscuits. While I was watching the ladies preparing the vegetables and packing up the cooked fritters, I noticed them looking at me and smiling behind their hands. When I wriggled my toes at them, they collapsed into fits of giggles. Joseph translated for me: they were wondering what it was we ate in my country because my skin was so pale!

The scenery changed as we drove higher up into the mountains, going from farmland to dense, beautiful jungle. One road in particular took us higher and higher on long switchbacks with some very tight hairpin bends. Each traverse revealed even more of the stunning view back down the juncture of several valleys until we were almost begging the driver to stop somewhere so we could get out and admire it properly.

I have been listening to the Hunger Games trilogy while we've been travelling, which has turned out to be an interesting listening choice for Myanmar because of the many parallels in the story - a military run dictatorship, repression of the people, controlling them with poverty, punishment and restriction of speech and movement, battles to oppress the uprisings in distant states/districts. Much of the second book, Catching Fire is set in a jungle environment so this really came to life for me as we drove up into the mountains.

We finally arrived in Kalaw, an old British hill station where invalids were sent to recuperate and women were sent to have their babies away from the stifling heat of Mandalay and Rangoon. It is only a small town, dominated by a large market area in the centre. On certain days a travelling market arrives to more than double the number of stalls and cover half the roads too. Joseph took us for a walk around the town and pre-order our dinner at a Nepalese restaurant.  It turned out to be a very nice curry.


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