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  • Fond farewells and red tooth smiles - the train from Lashio to Maymyo - Myanmar

    Stepping out of the car it is hard to see where I am. The ticket counter is lit by candles and only locals are queuing for seats. Very few Europeans make it this far north into Shan State where I am just a few hundred kilometres from the Chinese border. I join the queue. In the dark light I stand out as people brush past, dark faces, with all manner of bags and packages. A certain stillness remains; people talk quietly and go about their business deliberately and without fuss.

    I am on board just as the light of a new day is breaking through. There is just one first class carriage, but the difference between the classes of service is not obvious. Only the seats are different: in first class they are cloth covered and in the other carriages just wooden slats. The train jerks into motion and we chug off, 12 hours to Maymyo. The carriage wobbles and shuffles. There are timber floors and uncomfortable seats – probably dating back to the 1950s at a rough guess. The windows are all open. It is cool enough in the half-light, and if the weather does turn there is a metal shutter that can be pulled down as protection from the elements. The cabin itself is pretty dirty: an old fan stuck on the roof and a light bulb or two hanging precariously from some loose wires. The overhead racks are packed with all sorts of produce to be traded or offered as gifts, or just people’s sum possessions crammed into whatever type of case or bag they could find. I survey my fellow travellers: all Burmese and Shan. A family of four is in front of me and a plump woman is sitting next to a military gentleman to my immediate left. Everyone is dozing, the sun is rising. The passing landscape is busy with farmers using terrace agriculture for small plots of rice, while water buffaloes in teams of four work the paddy. There are skimpy huts of bamboo walls and thatched rooves; sometimes more elaborate houses with raised levels, staircases and balconies. On this trip I will pass through 15 stations and there may be other unscheduled stops for whatever reason. We push along, a flash of green on the track as the train cuts through thick vegetation, and then open again to farming country. The bemused locals rest on their hoes and ploughs as the train snakes by.

    As we pull into a station the scene is almost carnival. I am greeted by a swarm of Tanaka painted women (Tanaka is a skin cream derived from the Tanaka tree – it protects and moisturises). They have pineapples, fried chicken wings and piles of noodles for sale, all displayed on trays on top of their heads. The train pulls to a halt and they walk up and down past the open windows, calling for business, advertising their goods. Hands reach out exchanging fistfuls of grubby notes; buying and selling is uncomplicated, simple and fair. These Shan women are longyi-clad with bright eyes and beaming red tooth smiles. My travelling companions have purchased a dozen pineapples and a huge bunch of cut flowers, which they carefully place on the overhead rack with much commotion and chatter.

    I decide to eat my breakfast, which consists of two boiled eggs and some sweet bread. This proves to be my sustenance for the day, apart from a couple of bananas and a packet of peanuts. I don’t want to drink too much water for fear of having to go to the loo too frequently. There are people crouched on the floor with bags and boxes against the toilet door, and every time the train stops at a station there is an all too familiar smell that wafts down the carriage. As we travel further, the train becomes busier with more passengers – some standing or sitting on the floor. Earlier this morning I had two bench seats to myself, but now I am joined by three young Burmese men and I am a little squashed back into my seat – with long western legs there is little room to move.

    As time goes by, the countryside gives way to corn crops standing high in the sun almost ready for harvest. I chat with the Burmese boys across and beside me. It turns out that they are all from the Military Academy at Maymyo, all Lieutenants by rank. I share a Chinese cigarette with the fellow across from me. He has spent most of the time sleeping but now we strike up a broken conversation about Australia and the work he is doing with farmers in the northern parts. They are friendly – everyone is friendly. The plump woman, who has been on the train since Lashio, offers me some lunch of curry and green beans; she has brought everything with her.

    Another station and the train fills with merchants strolling up and down the cabin selling everything you need to munch and drink. There is a wandering minstrel who plays delightful tunes on his mandolin, another who sings (rather badly) for a few Kyat (Burmese currency) and even a snake-oil salesman who has a magic cream which, he announces to the whole cabin, will cure just about anything. He proceeds to hand out free samples; my Lieutenant travelling companion buys a jar.

    We are approaching the Go Tek Bridge; a fabulous construction built around 1900 by the Pennsylvania Steel Company. I can see a deep gorge running into the distance, beautiful and wild in itself, a towering waterfall at one end and exposed cliffs along its side. It reminds me of the escarpments in the Blue Mountains. The train rumbles into a series of short tunnels and the cabin attendant very kindly switches on the two light bulbs for 15 seconds as we slowly creep onto the bridge. The view is breathtaking: looking directly down it must be 300 meters to the bottom. Giant steel tripods hold the track high above the gorge. We snail across, and this part of the journey is a highlight for all of the passengers, even the regulars. We stop on the other side with great views back to the gorge and the bridge. I give away the last of my small toy koalas to the kids who sell cups of water to the passengers. Just four more stations and I have made it to Maymyo, the old British hill station. It is with some regret that I farewell my travelling companions: the plump lady with endless food and the three young Burmese officers. I tumble off the train, fond farewells and red tooth smiles abound. 

  • Lijiang – An old new town

    In China there is a circulating joke amongst locals. They say the national bird is the crane. Commonly spotted on a water buffalo’s back and wallowing in the rice field, the joke suggests it is now the crane of construction. Sources indicate there are collectively more building zones and deployed cranes in China than the rest of the world combined. The fast growing building industry is matched only by the tourism industry as entertainment-starved Chinese find they have more free time and money to spend. The Chinese government was not slow to recognise the potential of its fast growing middle class, and across the country there are tourism projects everywhere. I call these projects the ‘old new towns’ or the ‘new old towns’, take your pick – knock down the old buildings and rebuild in the original way with a shopfront.

    In Lijiang in Yunnan province this 12th century town has been largely remodelled from original design, around a centre square, courtyard houses and narrow cobblestone streets. If you did not know you would think it was original. Here the Chinese tourists are thick on the ground showing off their designer brand sunglasses and jeans, spending money and taking photographs with their iPhones and iPads. They are all young and mostly childless. The narrow lanes of Lijiang are thick with revellers; the Chinese girls dressed ‘after five’ with high heels and coiffured hair. Each small shop sells the same thing, or at best a slightly different version of the same thing. Despite this uniformity and contrived environment, underneath you can still feel the pulse of this ancient caravan town and its sturdy inhabitants, the Nazi people. Famed for their conciliatory ways the Nazi men do not work. Their days are filled with games of Mahjong, smoking tobacco, playing music and writing poetry. The women do all of the manual work including tilling the fields, cooking the family food and raising the children. Their colourful costume includes a sheepskin apron with seven circular symbols lined across its rim representing the seven days of the week, the stars and the moon, the sun and the snow, reminding everyone how hard they work.

    Lijiang lies at the foot of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain – the gateway to the high country of western China and the Tibetan plateau. It was once an important link on the southern Silk Road, and the major caravan stop for the Tea Horse trails. These fabled routes were essential to the expansion of the Chinese empire and provided local indigenous groups like the Nazi an opportunity to hone their negotiating skills.

    Tea from the southern part of Yunnan province would make its way through the town in tea horse convoys bound for Tibet. Tea was used as a medicine in those days by the local people. Starved of fresh fruit or vegetables at such high altitudes they used tea mixed with yak milk to balance their diet and reduce illness. Up there it was yak meat or yak milk for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

    Lijiang remained a sleepy backwater in the far south west of China after the new China was born in 1949, and has only come to prominence since 1996 when an earthquake that killed almost 8000 people put this ancient town back on the map. Now Lijiang is a popular destination for Chinese and foreigners alike. The mix of the old with the new has a charm and appeal that is infectious. Visit Lijiang on our Old Burma Road journey departing on 2 October 2015.

  • The smuggler, the revolutionary and the hotel manager

    U Ngwe explains that in Myanmar during the 1980’s (under the Ne Win socialist regime) there were shortages of everything and in particular anything from the west. On one of these smuggling raids he was caught on the streets of Chiang Mai (Northern Thailand) by the local police. With no visa and only his Burmese identity card he was arrested as an illegal immigrant and taken to the lock up. The local Police commander interviewed U Ngwe extensively at first speaking in Thai however this proved too difficult so the interview proceeded in English. Many Shan people and ethnic groups that make up the Shan nation can speak English, courtesy of the English occupation from 1883 until 1948. An offer was made, pay a fine of 3000 Baht and go free or serve six months jail. He only had a small amount of cash and it was Burmese currency, useless in Thailand so no choice, it was off to jail.

    Surprisingly his time in prison proved to be a rewarding experience. The Police commander took a shine to him, enjoying the opportunity to converse in English; they even went beer drinking on occasions outside the prison walls. U Ngwe became the gardener at the goal, watering and tending the plants and he remembered this time fondly. His only complaint was not enough food. A Po Oo man is from mountain country and can eat three plates of rice at one sitting – instead he had to be satisfied with just one plate.

    When the six month sentence was completed the Police Commander provided a car and accompanied U Ngwe to the Burmese border where he waved goodbye to his Po Oo friend and as a parting gesture gave him 3000 Baht – the original fine that U Ngwe could not afford.

    The arduous journey across mountain ravines and wild rivers was undertaken to his village in the mountains near Inle Lake. On his return he found his people at war with the central government so he joined the resistance fighters and spent years in the jungle, constantly on the move, harassing government forces where they could and at the same time trying to avoid capture. The cycle of fighting, pausing and resting continued until 1990 when a truce between the Po Oo and the Government was hammered out. Up until 1992 Inle lake had been off limits to Burmese travellers and there was definitely no opportunity if you were a foreigner. As part of the armistice the Po Oo were offered a Ruby mine lease and from the profits of this mine the local people were able to construct the first hotel on Inle lake in 1996. U Ngwe became the manager.

    This decision proved to be a triumph in forward thinking as now in 2014 Inle Lake is arguably the highlight of any visit to Myanmar. A pristine environment, the lake is home to many ethnic groups who row their boats with one leg wrapped around an oar, a conical shaped fish trap in their hand. They grow tomatoes on ‘floating islands’ and in a good season take out 50 tonnes a day. Around the lake there are stupas and pagodas, their ringed spires with dangling bells always present. The hotel also offers opportunities for Po Oo students to study tourism and hospitality, similar to a training centre. Here students can gain a skill and move around the country to work in the fast growing tourism industry.

    U Ngwe’s remarkable story is a testament to his will and resolve, a desire for peace and a better life. In an interesting life so far U Ngwe has been a smuggler, a revolutionary fighter and now a hotel manager. I ask him what’s next and he just gives me that wizened smile – enough I think, time to rest.

  • The Thangyan Water Festival celebrates the Burmese New Year

    It symbolizes the end of the old and beginning of the new. During the ‘Tet’ New Year festival in Vietnam a family will visit a Pagoda after midnight to remember their ancestors.   Australians go to parties and watch the Sydney Harbour Bridge go off in millions of dollars worth of fireworks. And the Burmese, well, they just throw water at each other! This ‘dampening’ process symbolizes cleansing of the soul or washing away the sins of the past year so that an individual can move into the New Year with a clear conscience. It is April sixteen, and I find myself in Yangon along with my fellow travellers and it is New Years Eve. We were about to experience the water festival close up, on the back of a flat top truck to be precise, crammed aboard, along with three Burmese locals and a large tank filled with water. Each of us is armed with a brightly coloured plastic cup. None of us had any idea of what to expect, what to do or how to behave. The answer came quickly as one of our Burmese ‘helpers’ pours water on my head and it’s on! Our truck pulls away from the Strand Hotel and immediately across the road is a temporary grandstand, especially erected for the celebrations, adorned in ‘Happy New Year’ banners, music blaring from gigantic speakers and full of young Burmese revellers all with hoses squirting mega litres of water onto the trucks which line up like lambs to the slaughter.

    We join the queue of trucks full of gyrating, fancy dressed and face painted locals and soon enough we are being drenched in torrents of water. In your face, in your back, on your head, there is nothing you can do and nowhere to hide. This is not the ideal place to be if you have just had your hair done or your pants neatly creased, everything is immediately wet through. The truck pauses while the laughing faces holding a variety of hoses pick their targets and give us a thorough wetting before we are told to move on by an equally wet policeman. The streets of Yangon are full of New Years parties. Groups of men and women, old and young, boys and girls, piled onto the backs of trucks, jeeps, buses and taxis. Some streets are closed off, the crowd is colourful, everyone waving, smiling, banging drums, strange musical sounds everywhere. Blowing whistles, shouting and screaming, everyone seems to be in a catatonic state of happiness.

    We learn to give as good as we get, soaking people with our plastic cups, excitedly dipping into our tank scooping up water to toss on anybody within range. Their are cheers of triumph as we develop techniques for tossing the water, finding our targets with great hilarity and growing precision. The locals are pleased to be wet in such a way, it gives merit to receive a dowsing and for them quite a novelty from a bunch of westerners who just got off the plane from Singapore! Everyone wants to say hello to us, they wave smiling and cheerful, they ask us in stilted English “Are you Happy?” We are, and they definitely are.

    We stop for a Myanmar beer or two at a local place, even the proprietor seems to have had the odd drink, his glazed but smiling eyes welcoming us to his modest café. The beer tastes good and the adrenalin is rushing. The temperature on this day is around 33 degrees so by the time we struggle aboard our vehicle we are just about dry. This state of normality is brief as we are hosed, buckets of water tossed at us, people cheering and shouting as they dowse us. Eventually we find ourselves at another ‘Grandstand’ the traffic is congested and the going is slow. We pause next to other vehicles where we can chat with the locals and throw water on them; we are well equipped with our strategic tank, unlike some others who just have the odd water bottle. Here we have the opportunity to do the hosing as we climb the podium stairs and let fly on the passing cars and people. A sweet revenge for some!

    By this time the afternoon is well passed and we have been wet though for the last three hours. We head back to Strand Road, hurtling along beside the Yangon River. Our driver cannot resist one more dowsing so he pulls over at a water station where the locals go berserk throwing water on us. Here we get dowsed with ice cold water, you certainly know about it then! There is a collective grown from our vehicle as the icy water finds its mark. Back to the Strand Hotel and we are a bedraggled, soaked and exhausted lot. We hang around outside to dry off but the hotel staff encourage us inside and provide soft white towels for us to use. This is the Thangyan Water Festival, the end of the year, everyone is wet so don’t worry about it. We don’t and tumble into the hotel slightly numbed, welcome to Myanmar (Burma)! 

  • A taxi ride in Yangon

    A taxi ride from Scotts Market, downtown Yangon, to the Governors Residence Hotel at 35 Taw Win Road, is a short ride through leafy streets – or at least it should be.  After spending a few kyats (that’s Burmese local currency) on some t-shirts and sandalwood Buddha images I decide to head back to my hotel. There are about 20 taxis to choose from, but for some reason I find myself in a 1970’s Toyota that sounds like a tank!  Inside the interior is falling to bits and it is messy with empty drink bottles strewn everywhere, but I am in, so I am off.  There is an elderly gentlemen driving and he looks as disheveled as his cab. He clutches a piece of paper with Burmese writing and has a hazy, beetlenut-induced look in his eye. The men of Myanmar constantly chew the beetlenut, crushed into small pieces, pasted with lime and wrapped in green leaf.  They toss the whole package into their mouths and chew, never swallowing, and periodically spitting out the red juice with a flurry and little consideration of their public surroundings.  The effect of constant chewing gives the men a red tooth smile and whatever is in that beetlenut seems to have an analgesic effect, which accounts for the bleary eyes.  There is a plastic bag tied to the steering wheel and I suspect it contains everything in the world that is important to my taxi-driving friend.  “Taw Win Road” I say.  He nods, so off we go.

    I have taken taxis many times from Scotts Market where you can buy jade Buddhas, ruby bracelets, gold rings and necklaces, silver ear rings and bolts of cloth. Tall and dark longyi-clad men will sidle up to you as you browse the shops asking you to change money. Smiling Burmese merchants will call you into their shop with the promise of a cheap price, hoping for the first sale of the day. If you buy something they will take your crisp US dollars or fistful of kyat and brush it across their display cabinets, muttering to themselves ‘lucky money’.  If you have been travelling around Burma for a month and missed out on buying that treasured item en route, you can usually make up for it at Scotts Market.

    We are rattling along Inya Road, heading north, so I ask him to stop by waving my arms and pulling all sorts of faces. He gets the message and we pull up next to a couple of young lads out for a stroll. Many Yangon residents can speak English, particularly the younger ones, so I take my chances and show them the hotel card.  They indicate to the driver we are going the wrong way so we turn around, my blind and illiterate taxi driver doing his best to reassure me that we are now on the right track. At no stage was I really that concerned about my safety or even the intentions of my taxi driver – Myanmar is a safe place and Yangon is a safe city, at least when compared with some other cities in the world. We head back down Inya Road and come to the turn where the Savoy Hotel is, and that’s enough for me. I suggest we call it quits and I pay him 2000 kyat for his trouble – this is about $2 and the standard price for a fare just about anywhere around Yangon. I say thanks, but he has got no idea. I wonder afterwards where he thought he was taking me – maybe just for a drive so he could get some money. I don’t think so. There is a hotel on the Inya Road built by the Russians in the mid-eighties and still popular with tourists; I had even stayed there on my first visit many years ago. So I resolve that this was probably the only hotel he knew, and in the absence of not being able to read, with very average sight and just about being deaf, I probably did well to make it as far as I did!

    I ask the door staff at the Savoy Hotel to get me a cab to the Governors Residence Hotel and twenty minutes later I am in my room.

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