Tuesday 30 April. Kale to Kalewa. 40km. Followed by river ferry to Monywa.
After making full use of our inclusive hotel breakfast we set off at 7am for our first day of cycling in Myanmar. It was already hot, but the quality of the road wasn’t bad and we knew we didn’t have a huge day ahead so it was a nice introduction to cycling in Myanmar and the Burmese people. I know we have talked a lot about the friendly people we have already met on our travels, but the Burmese are on a completely different scale…..lots of smiling children who started waving the minute they saw us, lots of shouting of “Mingalaba” (“hello” in Burmese), Nigel getting bottled water from a truck driver who was driving past….we had RSI from waving and our faces were actually sore from smiling!
We made it to Kalwea by around 10.30. Although we had planned to stay here overnight and take a ferry down the Chindwin river to Monywa tomorrow, because we were so early we decided to check out the ferry times. Not much English spoken but we eventually figured out that there was a ferry leaving at 3pm that would arrive in Monywa tomorrow morning. Kalewa didn’t look particularly interesting and the only accommodation option for foreigners had received rubbish reviews so we bought our tickets and then hung around people-watching, eating lunch and Nigel trying to blend in like a local until it was time to leave….
We always feel a bit nervous before taking local ferries as we have no idea how easy it will be to get bikes and all of our bags on board. When the ferry came into view our hearts sank….it was a small floating tin can…and the temperature was by now about 40 degrees!
It was already full of people (the photo is from when we disembarked in Monywa…hence empty!) and it had one very thin wooden plank to board. Thankfully it pulled up close to the water’s edge so we could lift our bikes and luggage on, with the help of a friendly local. This friendly guy had taken it upon himself to take care of us but he quickly started to become more of a hindrance than a help. He kept pushing us towards a place to sit and telling the ferry workers what to do, whereas we were determined to at least check our luggage was all together and onboard. We tried the conquer-and-divide approach where I would follow him in the direction of the seats while Nigel would ‘sneak off’ to check stuff, but he would then follow Nigel and literally stand in his way to stop him having to do physical lifting!! He then joined us in the one available and empty cabin that we found and started drinking whisky, which we politely declined when he offered.
The cabins weren’t cabins as we know them…basically there was a bare floor with a mat and a grid through which you could talk to the passengers next door.
We have no idea what tickets we had bought but as we had had our tickets checked we assumed we were OK to sit here. It was only us and Mr Whisky-Drinker in the cabin and he was excitedly shouting into our neighbours’ …but that only lasted a couple of minutes because the captain’s right-hand-man/ticket-checker came in to ask to see his ticket (again!) and had a stern word. It was actually quite unnerving what happened next as he immediately went quiet, turned his back on us and sat on the other side of the cabin. After about 15 minutes he took his belongings and left. We have no idea what was said or threatened and we will never know, but it made us aware of the underlying oppression that these people are subjected to by authorities. We also felt slightly guilty and responsible but didn’t know how to make it right, so we left it…and interestingly no one else joined our cabin on the entire trip, so we don’t know if that’s because it’s forbidden to mix with foreigners. But on a positive note, when Mr. Whisky-Drinker was leaving the boat 3 hours later he was all smiles and waves, so at least he wasn’t angry with us!
The boat was hot, hot, hot! The movement created a breeze that was similar to being in a blast furnace and as there weren’t any outdoor seats we sat by the door of our cabin taking it all in – until we got cramp and then had to stand outside until it got too hot, and then get back inside again! The scenery was fairly dull – but we had heard from another cyclist who had done the trip recently that this stretch of road (which takes 3 days to ride) was all roadworks. So we agreed that this was still the preferable option. We passed lots of temples, floating houses where people actually live, other boats, kids swimming in the river….and passed the time with lots of waving and smiling to them all as well as to the other passengers looking out their windows at us further down the boat. Every now and then a smaller boat would pull up alongside and someone new would get on or off, but never to join us in our cabin. When we stopped at a decent-sized village/port food vendors would jump on from the shore or a boat and sell food or cold water,which livened up events for a few minutes.
We had been told the boat would arrive into Monywa at midday on Wednesday (21 hours after departure!) so we assumed it would travel through the night. Not the case – around 11pm the engine stopped, we heard lots of movement on the roof above us and then it went dark. We were bedding down for the night at the side of the river…the furnace-like temperatures had cooled but whatever breeze we had, completely stopped with the movement of the boat, so it was a very hot and sweaty night. Thankfully we had our camping mats and surprisingly we both managed to have an OK night’s sleep….to be woken around 5am when the engines restarted. “Horray – only another 7 hours to go” we thought, but when we checked our position on Google we could see our destination was a lot closer than we expected and before 8am we arrived in Monywa! Our arrival into port at Monywa was a bit lively as about 20 locals jumped on board before the boat had even stopped, all shouting at the top of their voices ….it was absolute mayhem and even frightening, with all the pushing and shoving that was going on. We thought they were trying to get seats for the next ferry but turns out they were local porters and taxi drivers touting for business. We literally had to barricade ourselves into our cabin and say no to the repeated offers of help to take our luggage as again we are paranoid about it going missing. With our tag-team efforts we got everything off safely..
….and were at our hotel, 1km away, and checked in by 9am.
1 May. Monywa.
After check-in we sneaked in a cheeky breakfast in before the buffet closed, scraped the grime of the boat away with a warm shower and had a snooze. As it was way too hot to go far, we then wandered to a nearby restaurant for lunch. We thought that food here would be difficult and as bland as it was in Mizoram, but so far we have been pleasantly surprised. We have also thrown caution to the wind and started eating chicken and fish (let’s hope we don’t regret that!) and we had a HUGE and tasty lunch of squid and chicken…and a couple of cheeky beers!!
Lunchtime conversation was around the rather strange feeling we’ve both had since we crossed the border on Sunday. We passed what seemed to be an invisible barrier …and went from hills and hardship into what appears to be a bit too-good-to-be-true…great western-style accommodation that we think is reasonably priced and we don’t feel ripped off, a smile and a wave from everyone, roads that haven’t seemed too bad yet and really tasty food. Perhaps we’re just gluttons for punishment and think that everything has to be difficult OR have we been lured into a false sense of security simply because the last few weeks have been particularly difficult?!? But we are definitely aware that we will be battling the heat as one of our main challenges here. It has already passed the 40 degrees celcius mark so we are already planning our cycling days to be 6am to midday to manage that. There is also the accommodation challenge for foreign travellers in that we can only stay in certain government-approved hotels and not every town has one, especially where there are no tourist attraction. So as well as being too hot to camp it’s also illegal. But it’s all feeling quite manageable at the moment ….and a bit “isn’t Myanmar wonderful?”
So along that theme I decided to have my hair cut and coloured after lunch. Let’s just say I should have stuck to my original plan to wait until Thailand….my hair is now blue!! At first Nigel said it was more of a silver grey (like THAT was a good thing!) but is now calling me blue rinse….oh well it will either fade or grow out eventually I guess!
Dinner was at the rooftop restaurant at our hotel where the holiday feeling continued with a few more beers. Curbing this “holiday feeling” and getting back to some proper cycling is another challenge I can see us facing over the next few days and weeks…..
2 May. Monywa.
We had booked a tuk-tuk to take us to visit Hpo Win Daung caves, a local tourist attraction, so off we went at 8am. Over an hour to get there and again we were surprised at the quality of the roads and consideration of the drivers. Our driver organised a local guide for us and we had an amazing morning being guided through a complex of 14th century man-made caves with buddhas of all shapes and sizes carved out of the cave rock – as well as some amazing wall paintings. The photos make them look like statues, but they are actually part of the limestone rock caves and have been carved in situ….really fabulous!
There are over 400,000 buddhas and 947 caves (yes, those are the correct numbers!) so we obviously didn’t get to see them all, but it was a fantastic sight – and only one other set of tourists to share it with. Khaing Mar our guide was really knowledgeable with decent-enough English to teach us a bit about Buddhism, its teachings and the various positions of the Buddha statues, such as this nirvana stance or sleeping Buddha. The place is also swarming with monkeys which we are always wary of, but she convinced us that they knew her and we had nothing to worry about, so we took the plunge. And they actually have very warm little hands!
An interesting interaction with our guide Khaing Mar also reminded us that all is not what it seems here. There was no fixed price for the tour and she told us we could give a donation of whatever we wanted at the end of it. Half-way into the tour we were followed by a lady who was selling food for the monkeys. We didn’t buy, but she stuck with us throughout the tour chatting to Khaing Mar and hanging around the caves while we went inside. In one of the caves towards the end of our tour, Khaing Mar said that if we were planning to give her a donation, could we please do it inside the next cave where the other lady couldn’t see us. She also asked that as part of our tip if we could give her a small note in full view of this other lady at the end of the top to make it look like our “official” tip. She would then hand over to this other lady when we were gone. Apparently she isn’t a registered guide and didn’t want the other lady to report her for accepting money for the job. Who she would report her to we don’t know, but it is another reminder that we need to be careful not to get local people into trouble with the authorities because of their willingness to help us. Needless to say we obliged, for which she was very appreciative of our understanding, and duly stuffed her own tip money down her bra away from prying eyes.
Our afternoon was spent chilling in our air-conditioned hotel, but we did ventur out to have dinner at a local restaurant that served Myanmar food. Yet again the food that we thought was supposed to be bland was very good and we enjoyed it.
We visited the local Pagoda, which is a shimmering sight of gold ….
…and went to the local night market for a look….
…all the time calling out ‘Mingalabas’ to the cheery locals. We made it back to the hotel just before a heavy rain shower completely drenched us….but hoping that means it might be cooler tomorrow!