From Bagan we took a slow boat to Mandalay. It was supposed to take 8 hours, and ended up being closer to 14 (in fairness they did tell us it would take 11 hours when we got on, which almost made us reconsider, but we decided to go for it). Turns out in the dry season the boat takes longer because it has to navigate around sandbars in the shallow river. We ended up getting stuck on several sandbars, and in some spots had to wait for another boat to pass before being able to squeeze through the navigable path in the river. Once we got caught up next to a cargo ship that seemed to be anchored in the navigable path of the river for the night. But after wiggling back and forth and getting into a very slow motion collision with the cargo ship, we were free! We saw both sunrise and sunset from the boat. At first I wasn’t sure how I’d make it through the ride without going crazy — I quickly figured out that the A/C on the boat was so weak as to be basically non-existent, while the temps were in the (thankfully, low) 100’s at this point. But it’s amazing how beer and books can pass the day!
Once we found our hotel in Mandalay we ventured out to find dinner. We ended up at a street food stall serving noodle soup. We were the only white folks around. As seems typical in Myanmar, the kids run the show — our 12-year-old waitress smartly showed us a bowl with the four noodle options, had us point to what we wanted and asked us if we wanted “water” (broth) with it. We all opted for water. Although we saw others eating hot pots and stir-fry noodles, they just brought us what seemed to be their main attraction – a really good spicy noodle soup with pork. Of course this was fine with us, it was good and there is no need to complicate things. When the army of child waitresses sat down at the table next to us and stared at us while we ate, we realized we were a spectacle, which was both funny and new. In fact, we were stared at more in Mandalay than anywhere else. Apparently not as many tourists include Mandalay in their circuit and venture out for street food.
Mandalay is much rougher than Yangon. We must have missed the shiny new part built with Chinese money that we had heard about, because the Mandalay we saw was grungy. The roads were closer to dirt than anything, and the tepid refrigeration made the heat feel almost unbearable. But the city has its charms. When we hiked up Mandalay hill we were like celebrities – everyone wanted us to take photos with them and their kids, even the monks! We toured around to some of the artisans in Mandalay and to the old cities surrounding Mandalay (each of which was the capital of Myanmar at some point). We saw how gold leaf was made, which the Buddhists use to guild certain Buddhas as a form of tribute. Of course after Ilene purchased some gold leaf, the only guild-able Buddha we visited didn’t allow ladies to get near it. So the gold leaf went unused. Myanmar is the only place (so far) I’ve seen this gender discrimination in the temples.
We also visited a monastery to see the monks do their morning procession for breakfast. Apparently it’s the tourist-approved monastery, as there were many tourists there to see this. We actually felt a bit bad about making the monks into a spectacle. But the young monk Steve be-friended didn’t seem to mind the tourists.
We took the train from Mandalay to Inle Lake, which required an overnight stop in a little town called Thazi. The train from Mandalay to Thazi was just shy of 3 hours, and since we got the tickets day-of, we ended up in “Ordinary Class.” It was a lively ride with lots of vendors coming through. And not having A/C wasn’t a huge deal for such a short ride. The ride was dusty though, and we all emerged covered in a layer of dirt from riding with the windows down.
Thazi is super small and that was the only time we had a bit of trouble getting food. We wandered into a random place (Ilene and I being the only women in there) and tried to point to what we wanted. We ended up eating – some fried rice with egg and some flat bread – but it was the simplest meal we had in Myanmar. We stayed overnight in a cute guesthouse, very simple, with only fans against the heat. It was all fine until I locked myself out of my room at 11:00 p.m. — and with the heat I was basically in my undies, which isn’t a great thing to wander around in in this super conservative country — and I couldn’t find the owners anywhere. Apparently I can’t be trusted to go down the hall for the toilet! Thankfully the box of keys to the unoccupied rooms was unlocked, so I crashed in another room until morning. I didn’t sleep well though, as I was worried about missing the early train if the owner wasn’t up at 6:00. But in Myanmar the locals get up early (I often heard locals playing their morning music before sunrise) and it all worked out.
Unfortunately I woke up feeling a bit off. I had some coke and crackers in the time we spent waiting for our train (it was an hour late), but this didn’t accomplish anything apart from earning me a new doggie friend on the platform. When the train arrived, we were shuttled on, only to be told we had to move at the last minute because the porter mistakenly put us on the wrong car — interestingly, while the seat/car numbers are written in the Roam alphabet on the train tickets, the train is labeled in the Myanmar alphabet, making it impossible for us to match up where we’re supposed to go. For this ride we were able to get “Upper Class” seats, but they were not much different than the “Ordinary Class” ones on the (apparently) nicer train from Mandalay – no more than bench seats with a bit of thin cushion on them, still no A/C, and the train was super old and dirty.
So I was feeling really nauseous by this point, and as we were hurrying between cars I lost my coke and crackers – giving everyone on the train a good show as I puked three times while making my way down the length of the train. Seeing no alternative to the 8-hour ride ahead of us (which ended up taking almost 11 hours) I declined Steve’s offer to abort. Instead I spent the ride trying to sleep. Ilene and Steve were nice enough to give me a whole bench so I could just about lay down with my legs crunched up — assuming the fetal position. Sitting up was more than I could handle! I tried to hold down water, but had two more rounds of losing my cookies. The most exciting was when I got up to use the toilet, but barely made it to the open side door of the train in time to puke out the side of the moving train. Some locals sitting in the seats by the door saw this and sweetly asked if I was okay (using a questioning thumbs up sign) and offered me a piece of fruit. I said thanks, but hand-signed back that if I ate the fruit it would also come back up, so no thanks. Somehow I made it through the hot, rocky ride on the train (the narrow gauge railroad cars rock so much that at points I was sure we’d derail). It took two rounds of antibiotics to clear this thing, so much of my time in Inle was spent eating rice and resting.
What I did see of Inle was beautiful. What is sad is that the air quality is not great – likely because they burn all their trash right out in the open, often right on the side of the road – otherwise the mountains surrounding the lake would be more visible. On the days I felt well enough to go out, I joined Ilene and Steve in exploring the town on bike, got a Myanmar massage (mostly similar to Thai massage, but not a rough), saw a traditional puppet show, and did a full-day boat trip. From the boat we saw the floating villages and the fisherman (including the ones who just seem to pose for tourist photos right at the entrance to the lake), and of course were escorted to many local artisans – weaving, woodworking, silversmiths, blacksmiths, cigar making, etc. – who all wanted to sell us souvenirs. It’s amazing how quickly Myanmar has got the tourist circuit mastered, considering the country only recently opened officially to tourism.
Around Inle, the locals do all their bathing and washing in the lake — it was really common to see whole families in the water splashing around with soap in their hair, having their afternoon wash. They also grow lots of produce on the lake, which is interesting. The lake is really shallow and water plants are visible on the surface or right under it in most areas. But the farmers have also set up fields on top of the water to grow all sorts of produce. Pretty ingenious. Another impressive thing was the bamboo lock system on the small river we went up. The first one looked like a dam made out of bamboo, and I thought maybe we couldn’t go any further. But there was a small slot cut out of the middle just wide enough for the long, narrow boats to slip through. The boats fit through that slot one at a time, passing through the locks to make their way up or down river. Pretty cool!