We were welcomed to Myanmar by a lovely local wanting to help. We were a bit sceptical to start with, as this is usually a receipt to get scammed, but being new to this country, we let it play out. The immigration check point was a small shack and the workers, lovely. They smiled and tried to make conversation. Our friend got the guitar out of its case and started playing. So far, so good.
We needed to find a bus to Mawlamyine, but it seemed there was only one each day, which departed early in the morning and no other public transport the rest of the time. The option left to us was to take a private shared car to our destination. Our ‘guide’ helped us negotiate with a local that spoke almost no English, and we said goodbye to him and were on our way. The driver circled the town a few times trying to find further customers, but was unsuccessful. Once he decided to actually leave, the car broke down before exiting Myawaddy. We waited for a while for him to try to start it back up with so success, and I finally decided to stand on the side of the road and catch another ride. I did not have to wait for too long for another car to stop and offer to take us to our destination, for a better price than what we had previously agreed upon with the other driver. The only downside was that the car already had some people on board, so I had to travel in the trunk with the luggage. It was not too bad as I had space to stretch my legs and a good view out the back window.
The scenery change was immediate and a big contrast from Thailand. Huge ancient trees greeted us on the side of the road. Massive limestone formations broke the flatness here and there. Apart from that, we mostly saw swampy land and rice plantations. We were expecting to see evidence of the recent floods, but this area did not seem to have been affected too badly. We stopped half way to have a late lunch and got an introduction to Burmese food: cheap, big portions and delicious!
After about four hours we made it to our destination, as the sun was getting low in the horizon. We did not have much energy to look too long for a hotel, so we opted for OK hotel, on the river front and next to the local market. It was the most expensive hotel we stayed at during our whole trip, but with a few added benefits: We got a welcome drink of orange juice, our packs were carried upstairs for us, and breakfast was included (and fabulous). To our defence, everything we had read said this was a normal amount to pay for accommodation in this country and we did not know better yet.
By the time we had a shower the sun had already gone down and the town was dead. We had some delicious dinner and got money out of the ATM. The biggest denomination in Myanmar is 5000 kyat, which means after withdrawing approx 300USD we had… a lot of bills. So we proceeded to take a bunch of stupid photos pretending we were rich. Yes, we are very mature 😛
The next morning we got up really early to have a chance to explore the town before our 12pm bus to Yangon. We walked along the market, where with had our first peek into this new fabulous culture we were getting immersed into. The fresh produce looked recently harvested and amazing.
Most locals had their faces smeared with Thanaka as sun protection and for decoration instead of nasty cosmetics.
We saw many men chewing something and spitting red, and a bunch of stalls rolling something inside leaves. Finding someone that spoke English was almost impossible, but that did not prevent us from making friends. Tim approached one of the little stalls with the mysterious pots and leaves, and was offered one and instructed to chew it. When I came around to see what was up, I was given one as well. The taste was bitter and not much to my liking, but the effect was almost immediate: like a punch of the face to wake you up. Tim liked it better than me and used it a few times during our trip, as coffee is not easy to find in this country. The locals all throughout use it all day long, while they drive, walk, hang out… The combination of betel nut, tobacco and other mysterious substances definitely gives you an interesting buzz!
We walked towards a temple complex inland and found a huge set of shrines of various sizes on a hill. They were of very different kinds, with mixed levels of structural integrity. The style was very different from the ‘all bling bling’ temples in Thailand, and it was very interesting to spot the differences. At one stage I almost stepped on a snake, but I am pretty sure it got a bigger fright than I did.
Same as everywhere else in Myanmar thus far, all the locals we encountered greeted us with big grins on their faces and open arms. We were yet to find anyone to have a conversation with, but their lack of English language skills does not impair their ability to make you feel warm and welcomed in their neighbourhoods. The view from the top of the hill was quite awesome
We made our way back through side streets and smaller roads, and the feeling was the same all around. It was our first taste of this amazing country and we were certainly loving it, despite it being considerably poorer and a little bit dirtier, the people made up for it by being uber friendly 🙂
Back at our hotel, they helped us book a ticket and find transport to the bus station. We climbed into the back of a tuk tuk and had a few minutes to kill once there, so we decided to see what was on sale. We found this huge cigarettes that would become my addiction during my stay in Myanmar. They are made with 100% natural ingredients: tobacco and sometimes flavouring on the inside (fruit juice, cloves, anise, rum, flowers, you name it), a corn stalk for the filter and some sort of leaf that composes the outside. They are utterly delicious and without the nasty chemicals that accompany industrial fags…
We also found some amazing cookies, and we purchased a box that gave us a taste of a few different types. The last thing on our list was a SIM card, as internet is not always easy to find. I paid about 1USD for one, and the credit that came with it lasted my whole stay… Cool country, aye? And we were just getting the party started…