The travel company has stuffed us in spades. Our cruise kit with all our documentation and travel advice was delivered to our Sydney home address about a week after we’d left. We’ve had to convince the Myanmar end of the tour that we’re genuine, and not ring-ins trying to score a free holiday. Our first contact with our travel companions was supposed to be at the Shang. The tour leader (hereinafter called the Kommandant) was supposed to address the platoon in the lobby at six thirty, according to our original information sheet. We preened and puffed ourselves up and went down at half past six. No Kommandant and no platoon. Enquiries revealed that the meeting had been changed to half an hour earlier in the meeting room on the first floor. Up we went, gingerly opened the door and were confronted by 20 peeved people and a clearly irritated Myanmar Kommandant. Sheepishly, we sat down while his lecture continued.
As I looked around, my fears of not being able to physically keep up evaporated. Somebody had left the gate open of the old people’s home and 20 had escaped here to Yangon. Admittedly, I was one of their number, but I didn’t feel threatened after I had seen florid faces, turkey necks, paunches, walking sticks and a variety of prostheses.
The Kommandant had drawn a map on the whiteboard showing our schedule. At six o’clock the next morning we would meet in the lobby to be taken to Yangon airport by bus, then fly to Hebo. The Kommendant had been through the rules for being good platoon members and wasn’t going to do it all again just for us. Instead, we were given sheets of instructions to read while we watched him outline our route to Hebo and the Aureum Palace Hotel on the on the shores of Lake Inle. He drew a diagram of the lake which looked like a pancreas, and traced our lake-borne adventures to come. When he said that there would be plenty of pee stops along the way there was muffled cheering.
I stole a look at the notes. On the guidelines sheet we were told that we must smile at the locals, wear decent clothes when visiting religious sites; male knees are obscene as are female shoulders. Feet have to be ‘tucked away’, people’s heads may not be touched, no kissing in public, don’t beckon to somebody with an upturned finger because this is inviting a fight, don’t touch the robe of a monk, don’t expect any nightlife and do not give sweets to children. And best of all, practice safe sex! It didn’t mention with whom.
Dinner followed, during which we planned to catch up by asking lots of questions of the platoon members. I was seated next to Don, a retiree from Queensland who filled the entire meal time pinning me with his long and exciting medical history, his current medications, his wife’s ailments, and his daughter’s pharmaceutical career. His wife acted as prompt when he got the information wrong. Dinner over, I knew no more about the tour that I had before. But I knew all about what was wrong with Don.
After a pleasant enough small prop plane flight at 9.30 am (we were bugled up at 4.30 am from the Shang) we boarded the bus for a meandering downhill drive to Lake Inle. The Kommendant provided a knowledgeable commentary about the history of Myanmar and the lake we were going to find in the valley that ran between two mountain ranges. He said that Myanmar has a population of 51 million, three quarters of whom are involved in primary production. As so often happened in Asia, once the Brits were kicked out the local warlords moved in and ran the country for their own benefit. Only relatively recently has there been a move to democratic rule. The trip we were on was far more typical of the real Myanmar than the impression we might get from the chaos of Yangon, a typical Asian city choked with cars, building hysterically and becoming corrupted by slick Western consumerism. And here’s a weird thing. The mostly small cars are all right hand drive, yet the traffic drives on the right hand side of the road, meaning that the driver is next to the gutter and can’t see around the car in front when wanting to pass. The reason is that nearly all the cars come in second-hand and right hand drive from Japan, where they are not allowed to drive an old car.
Along the way to the Aureum we stopped at a little town to inspect a very old wooden temple where we had to remove our shoes and socks. Some of my platoon colleagues declined to go inside because, without their special chairs and long shoehorns, they would be unable to get their footwear back on. I took off mine and paid a dog five dollars to look after them.
So many Asian tours seem to include a ride around town involving horses or three-wheel bicycles. We got the bike (trishaw) treat. The whole platoon formed into a slow, rather mournful procession around the hot, dusty streets. The skinny, older peddler I got made heavy work of transporting my bulk as I sat in a back-breaking wooden seat. Even a slight upwards incline had him standing up on his pedals and groaning. On the other hand, Michelle scored a strong young lad whose muscles she much admired. She showered him with praise and money at the end of the ride, evening asking me to take chummy pictures of them.
After lunch we were taken to a local winery for a tasting. This was quite big enterprise, with new equipment and a building full of steel vats storing gazillions of litres of wine made from grapes grown on the nearby hillsides. The cheery spokesperson, who maintained he loved wine but hated beer, boasted that his wines were now being exported to many wine discerning countries. He invited us to the tasting centre, a shed open to the hillside, and provided us with some bread and cheese to recalibrate our palates after each of the four wines we would be tasting. There were clucks of anticipation as the platoon sat down and the glasses came out. We would be presented with two whites and two reds, along with florid descriptions of the wines, just in case we ran out of superlatives of our own. One wine was said to have ‘a long finish at the end’. How could you have a long finish anywhere else?
The first white was poured. It had virtually no colour. I sniffed, trying to look professionally cool. The overwhelming bouquet was that of Drain-o, used to clear blocked plumbing. The wine itself didn’t really taste of anything more exciting than mouthwash. And so it was for all four. The Drain-o persisted, even with the reds. We then learned that we were booked to come back for dinner the next night, with generous lashings of these wines. The platoon went into mutiny mode – led by Michelle. In the end, nobody wanted to ever see the winery again. The dinner was cancelled and replaced with another excellent Aureum evening meal.
Our first full day at the Aureum was spent on and around the lake. This lake had once been very large and quite deep, but as the accompanying mountains were cleared of their trees, soil erosion and landslides had reduced its size by half. Lake Inle is now only three and a half metres at its deepest. It has so much weed growing in it that it will become a swamp rather than a lake. During the dry season the water level drops to reveal mud, mud, and more mud. The Kommendant explained that this loss of depth had changed the fishing method so that now a much shorter conical frame was used to entice the fish into a net and then run a three pronged spear through them. If we were lucky, he added, we might see a fisherman doing just that. If we did, the driver of our fast, skinny boat (there are hundreds of them whizzing all over the lake) would stop so we could watch. Of course were lucky. Just clear of our hotel patch of private waterway a fisherman just happened to be doing his thing. He plunged his conical frame down, pulled some strings and hauled it up to reveal he’d caught a fine fish, which he held up for photographs. The only trouble was that the fish that he held up had died some time ago. As we moved away I saw him get set up for the next group of boats. He slipped the dead fish into the net before he pushed the conical frame overboard and proceeded to catch it all over again. That’s showbiz. At least we know how they do it.
We sped along the shallow waterways to visit a very big, very busy, very retail orientated Buddhist temple where I ripped myself off by paying twice too much for a faux old clock sitting in a glass ball. After I bought it I had a severe attack of buyer’s remorse when every vendor I passed had the same thing cheaper. It weighs a ton as well. One of my platoon colleagues tried to pacify me by suggesting I look upon it as a donation to a poor Myanmar family.
We flew down other water streets, stopping to see fabric weaving, cooking demonstrations, and cigar making. We wandered through graveyard full of stupas (conical, pointed gold burial towers) , a typical village where everybody had a black pig in a pen and plenty of children – produced by safe sex. In the middle of the trek back from the cemetery there was a rain shower of huge, desperate drops that drench you in a few seconds. When it rains here it comes down like a bead curtain.
Hotel toaster report
This is a red letter day for me. This morning at breakfast I went to do my usual inspection and found an original Burmese Prometheus with rear tray delivery. Trembling with excitement I selected two pieces of bread for a test run when none other than the toast captain himself appeared. He insisted that he conduct the toasting. I told him that I’d met a few toast captains in my travels, but never one who actually inserted the bread and manipulated the knobs for the perfect result. I took a picture of him and promised to send it to the editor of the next edition of ‘The Hotel Toaster Digest’ a fine publication prized by hotel managers around the world.