We were off to Mandalay early the next morning, watching the women monks walk the street in their peachy pink robes, they walk and chatter and smile shyly. We hopped on the empty bus and took a double seat each preparing sleep, we awoke in a small village and all of a sudden the bus was full, wiping drool from the side of my mouth I called mum awake and she shuffled through the crowding people to the seat next to me. They began laying out small plastic stools through the isle, the bus was full and this meant party time for the drivers, so sure enough the disco lights came on above head with the tacky love songs in Burmese playing through the crackle speaker with ‘make you want to spew’ romantic video clips on the television up front.
We were staying at a nice small homestay walking distance out of town and in a lazy mood decided to walk around a part of Mandalay and grab a bite to eat. Mum began to feel sick and we realised that she had fortuitously drank a whole bottle of dirty water on the bus, which thereby led to an act of public vandalism later that evening out the front of quite an upper class Mandalay villa. It was all laughs, but poor mum was sick, so we spent a few days doing nothing and being lazy. It was too hot to be doing anything other than sitting and eating anyway.
Because mums stomach was tender, the lady at the guesthouse insisted that we take a taxi bus to Kalaw, a small village in the mountains on the edge of Shan state. The Taxi bus was actually an old rusted station wagon, whose windows liked being open and whose suspension was non-existent. From talking to other travellers, I think the bus may have been the better option. The taxi driver was overconfident with his handling of the wheel, and half his time was spent honking the horn than actually watching out for incoming traffic. However it was an entertaining 6 or so hours and the landscape between Mandalay and Kalaw on this back rock bed road was a charm.
I would say that Kalaw is a sleepy city. We were only there for one night, but nonetheless it felt like one of those places where you enjoy sitting on a veranda wrapped in a blanket, smoking a pipe and watching the rain come in. The clouds loomed low the sky a white thick mist, the pines lining the hills planted by Europeans made this place seem very mystical. When we arrived we headed straight for a place called “Sams tours” this place organised trekking into Shan state and we wanted to walk to Inle lake. Sam was a big smiley man with messy teeth, he made you feel very welcome as he talked you through the various paths we could take, you could see he had a successful business here. He organised us to do a 3 day walk with a guide called Ko Kyi, Mum and I teamed up with 3 other girls from Israel to do this trip, they were avid photographers, and this got me being more snap happy.
The walk began at 8am the next day, we began with a 5 hour walk towards the train station where we would be having lunch, and it was raining the whole way. Ko Kyi was a great guide, telling us about all the plant properties, some that can be used for healing hepatitis, others for asthma and diabetes, and one that when braking the stem of the leaf in two you can blow bubbles from; showing us how you can make a spikey sling shot weapon out of a blade of grass and often stopping to eat an apple pear like fruit, fresh from the tree. The girls were really keen to take some photos of people on the train, and the market women selling their produce, all the colours, flowers, fruits, vegetables, bright orange head wraps and women singing their vegetables loud to the buyers, generated a carnival like atmosphere, but I am sure they’d all seen it a million times before, tourists in their faces taking photos.
Another few hours trekking through red clay up and down the mountains and we finally made it to our first night’s stay, a beautiful village surrounded by rice paddy and purple fields of eggplant. We were staying in a local’s teakwood house, all sleeping in a line in the largest room. It felt very homey and I loved this village. We had arrived early afternoon and so mum and I went for a quick walk around the village, which probably only consisted of 50 houses. Some of the local women took interest in my hair and I was stopped as they began touching and foraging through it like they were trying to decipher if it was genuine or not. The mothers were interested but as usual the children were a little scared.
The next day was an adventure! Whoa! What a day. We began the walk, it was raining as expected and we were told it would be 7 hours of walking. Well, it took us about 7 hours to get to the lunch stop, I don’t know if we walked slowly or if they just had their Burmese clocks on. Sitting eating lunch at 2 pm and outside pouring rain we were informed we still had 4 hours more walking till we would reach the Monastery we were staying at. We made a group decision that we didn’t want to be walking in the mud clay slosh at night time, so we thought we could try and hitch hike to the nearest town and taxi it to the monastery. We had also joined up with a guy from Ireland that had been walking 4 days with his two guides, so all together we were 10 trying to hitch a lift. After an hours wait and terrifying a few cars away with our number, we hopped atop a cabbage truck! Mum looked with shock, “how the bloody hell am I going to get up on that thing!” me responding, “your just gonna have to mum!” big smiling. With everyone on board yelling hurry, hurry, get up, as if waiting one extra minute for us to climb on would end in the cabbages going to mould, but mum leapt up the 3 meters with grace and balanced over the wobbly crunchy floor to seat up with me near the workers that had bright beetlenut smiles. We soon realised that time was of no essence though, the driver stopping at many of his friend shops to show what he had on top of his truck, then popping in to buy another bottle of whisky and Cigars. It was out of the villages that time became important, either that or he was a speed demon, swerving the corners in the rain like it was a play station game, not real life. Well we arrived at the intersection, hopped down in awkward motion and Ko Kyi was off to find us a Taxi, he arrived with a tuk tuk, for the 10 of us…. For those of you who don’t know, a Tuk tuk is a 3 wheel motorcycle with two rows of seating and a roofed section at the back. This was a most humorous choice considering the road ahead this poor vehicle and driver faced.
It was pouring rain, it was night time by now, and the road was nothing but ditch next to ditch next to river. We all hopped out (except for fragile ol’ mum) as the bike threw itself over the humps and bumps, and basically walked all of the way by dim torch light, falling and slipping in the puddles. It was a pointless exercise taking the vehicle but they wouldn’t turn back. The guides insisted that mum stay in the back of the tuk tuk and at times I think she would have been safer out on the road with us in the rain than trapped in there, at one point the bike got caught in the river and was spitting mud and water over everyone pushing, it looked as if it were going to topple onto its side, and the 3 Israeli girls and I were all yelling, “JULIIIEE get out while you cannn, it gonnnna ROLLLLL!!” which im sure was barely decipherable over the revving of the wheels and engine through the mud.
Well we made it, and were treated with chocolate pancakes for dinner, drinking tea and chatted with our eyelids heavy. We woke up early with sore calf muscles, said goodbye to the welcoming old teak monastery and walked 4 hours to the boat at Inle Lake. The descent was magnificent, and the flora on the walk down to the lake reminded me of walking through Australian bushland, I would be back in the blue mountains again until a huge dinosaur looking succulent would be in my path and snap me back to reality.
And this is where the story gets sad… I think we should all take a moment to pay respect to a beautiful friend of mine that has come on many adventures with me, my puddle scarf.
One day when walking in the pouring rain a few years ago, I found a lump of material in a puddle.
I took it home and washed it, and there before me came a beautiful pashmina scarf,
newly named, 'puddle scarf'.
Puddle scarf, you were such a beautiful thing, i loved you dearly.
You came with me to Tasmania, to the desert of Australia, up to Northern Queensland, to Timor Leste, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and now rest in Burma.
You covered my shoulders when i needed to be culturally appropriate, shaded me when sunny, dried me at the beach, kept me warm when it was cold, you were also very good looking.
You were the best.
But then you fell off the back of a motorbike on a rainy day, and now im lost without you.
I hope you landed in a puddle, someone picked you up, and now they love you as much asw i did
Sadness aside we caught the boat to Nyaungshwe and were amazed at the livelihood of this place. The peoples houses, bamboo shacks and teak, built on stilts rising above the water of the lake. It was fantasy, and busy, floating gardens of tomatoes, water lillies everywhere, and fishermen spotted throughout. Locals rowing using their feet whilst standing atop wooden canoes that sat just above water level. It was unlike anything I have ever seen before, and the stunning mountains in the background made this place even more dramatic a landscape. Inle Lake is a truly beautiful place, we spent a day visitng various places, a silversmith, a few pagodas, a weaving factory, and enjoyed watching our boat driver prove to us that the tomatoes were growing on floating gardens by stepping off the boat and wobbling about half sinking into this thick floating grass.
Mum and I caught a bus back to Yangon, and were saddened to realise that we only had 2 more days together. It had been such a great couple of weeks. We were full of conversation, I had so many things to talk to her about after travelling for so long, questions about family history, about culture, her travels, dads travels, her perspectives on life, and a hell of a lot of other random things id learnt along the trip, that I’m sure came as a surprise when brought up. And she too had a lot to say and a lot of helpful advice to gift.
It was like Christmas when she first arrived, bringing with her a full bag of new clothes (to replace some of my stinky 9 month old wear every day ones) new sandals, some probiotics, Turkish delight chocolates! and letters, stacks of letters from friends and family. It was so amazing to have all these heart felt hand written letters in my possession, I realised how much I miss everyone back home, and it was great to get an update from them in paper form, so much more honest on paper like they were writing a diary entry to me. Somehow the keyboard seems to take away the preciousness and expression, ink to paper it connects to the heart, and I really felt it in every word and picture of each letter. I feel so lucky to have such beautiful people in my life.
The last day together was spent doing what mum loves, shopping! We woke and went to Auntie Mai Mai’s for some lunch and a trip to the Jade factory, and come afternoon with only 2 hours till the markets closed!! rushed around bargaining lacquer wear, jewellery and hand woven scarves.
We had a great last night of conversation, a few beers and a lot of hugs. Come morning I caught the taxi to the airport with mum and we sat and waited till the time had come for her to walk up the steps and fly off into infinity. It was so sad to separate paths, but it was such a great trip that we had together. So instead of being gloomy saying goodbye to my mum, my best friend, my most beautiful role model, I will appreciate the time that we were able to spend together. Always full of such grounded thought and advice, she may have left in physical form, but her words and vast love drift with me wherever I go.