Oh and now you’ve had your fun
Under an air-conditioned sun
It’s burned into your eyes,
Left you plain and left behind
I see them rise and fall
Into the jaws of a pestilent love
This trip had a way of oscillating between utterly, desperately, I-want-to-go-home awful and breathtakingly, deliriously, I-never-want-to-leave wonderful; for every boring-ass Buddha there is a mercilessly flavorful curry; for every mountain of monkey poo there is a ride in a beautiful balloon. On rare occasions, these lows and highs happened simultaneously.
We touched down in Heho around four in the afternoon. It was a joy to get out of Kyaing Tong, especially since I was in the early stages of what would prove to be an ugly bout of Montezuma’s revenge (Thibaw‘s revenge?). I was feeling alright at the moment – the view of the surrounding area was lovely, and when we got to the car, a pack of strange men hustled towards us, and began massaging us. It was unsolicited, and weird, but damn did it feel good. At least, it did at the time – but soon I would come to feel nothing but remorse and anger for paying them 7000 kyats.
The drive to Pindaya was beautiful, in an unexpected way – the landscape would not have looked at all out of place in southwestern England, or central Wisconsin. Rolling hills, a quilt of crops – yellow and ochre, green and red. Cotton candy clouds. I wish I had asked the driver to pull over, like the van full of Japanese tourists ahead of us had done, so that I could take photos.
But I just wanted to get to the hotel as fast as possible. My tract was buckling and convulsing as we drove on; a war was being waged as savage microbes fought to colonize my insides. The typically bumpy Burmese road (not something one gets used to quickly, as it turns out) didn’t help the situation, and neither did that massage. That massage – I don’t know what those people did to me, those horrible little con men, but my muscles have never felt worse. It started as an ache, a patch of discomfort somewhere between my shoulders, and then it expanded into an encompassing, disquieting, pulsing pain throughout my upper back that caused me to sweat, glare at our guide, and curse this rotten trip, curse this vulnerable body, curse this insufferable country.
It was dark when we got to the hotel. I took six Pepto Bismols and three paracetamols, ate a plate of plain white rice, drank a glass of rice whiskey and went to bed. Tomorrow, I decided, would be much better.
At least until the night I spent vomiting and defecating into a toilet that wouldn’t flush in a millipede-infested treehouse in the middle of a jungle in southern Thailand, that drive to Pindaya was the nadir of my trip. I was in pain from that regrettable massage for a while longer, but otherwise the rest of the week was just lovely:
A cave of eight thousand Buddhas, a stunning demonstration of traditional paper and parasol making, and a trek through the mountains near Kalaw on a clear day.
Next stop, Inle Lake: calm, glassy water filling a wide-open valley, surrounded on all sides by mountains, many capped with the distinctive brown patchwork and green terraces of hill tribe agriculture. But down here, the people live on the water – literally. Houses, shops, restaurants, markets, and resorts built on stilts hover just above the water. Transportation is by boat. Schoolkids row their way home at the end of the day, as fishermen pull in their final catches; there are no lights on the water, so it’s important to be home by sundown.
It’s amazing, the resources the people here have found in this lake – obviously there is seaweed, and seafood (lakeweed, and lakefood?); but also lotuses, prized not only for their blossoms but for their stems, which contain a bundle of strong, thin fibers that are woven into beautiful and durable (and expensive) fabrics.
And then there are the tomatoes – possibly the best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted, and grown in an ingenious way. Hedges of buoyant seaweed are lined up neatly atop the water, then soil and compost is layered on top of the seaweed, then tomatoes are sown in the soil. Little floating farms, bringing forth the sweetest, savoriest, sauciest tomatoes. There must be something in the water.
And then it was onto Ngapali: this was the much-awaited “vacation” portion of the trip. In the four and half weeks since I started my trip in Taiwan, I hadn’t had a single day off – in fact, I had barely had an afternoon off. The trip had been non-stop sightseeing, non-stop hotel inspections, and non-stop yammering from our guides until our two days in Ngapali. No guides. No temples. No Buddhas. No bumpy drives. And we only had to see five hotels and we could do that whenever we wanted to – so it was time to relax.
(I’m afraid I may have used too many superlatives in these posts about Burma, so this is the last one, I promise:) Ngapali is the most amazing beach I’ve ever seen. Now, I haven’t even been to that many beaches, so I suppose that isn’t that great of an endorsement, but I should mention that I don’t even like beaches very much – too much sand, and you never know what’s gonna brush up against you in the water (jellyfish, kelp, fast food containers, children… ugh). But I liked Ngapali. I reeeally liked it. The sand – fine, flaky, and ivory in color. The water – crystal in your hand, and so delightfully warm. Perfect weather. Gorgeous sunsets. And the best part? No people.
I actually feel a bit conflicted just telling people about Ngapali. One one hand, I feel like people need to know about this beach; on the other hand, I don’t want anybody to go there. But if you do go, you have to get out onto the main road and head to one of the local restaurants for a dinner of fresh, tender grilled squid with an electric sauce of lime, chili, and ginger. (You can thank me later.)
Finally, we flew back to the dusty haze of Yangon, relaxed, tan, and more than a little annoyed that our short break was over. Of course, we didn’t know that we would be stuck in Yangon for the next week with nothing to do while we waited for Thai protesters to leave the airport. In the end, I left Myanmar satisfied, but knowing that I will return.