“It’s going to be a hot two weeks,” Carlo said as we gazed out to the towering mountains dominating the flat landscape in front of us. Alongside Carlo and me stood Oscar, Mike, and Judit: Oscar, the Brit that we had met at the bus station and Mike and Judit, an English/Spanish couple who had experienced difficulties boarding our same bus.
Mike & Judit
England & Spain
By 7am we had crossed borders and hired a private driver to the nearest town of interest, Hpa-An (four hours away). Immediately upon crossing we saw women and children wearing thanaka, a paste made of ground bark to remove acne, smooth the skin, and protect from sun damage and men wearing longyi, traditional cloth worn around the waist.
The computer used at the Myanmar border side was running Windows XP and the webcam used to take our photos was propped up on cardboard boxes. It already felt like we were in another world.
As we began our roadtrip, it reminded me of the one that I had taken with Jonas and my parents through Greece over the summer. That had been the last time that I had been in a nice car around the same size, driving through beautiful scenery to the next destination. All five of us (Carlo, Oscar, Mike, Judit, and I) immediately hit it off and in between periodic napping, we’d remark at the beautiful fields of green that surrounded the car.
Halfway to Hpa-An we stopped for lunch, aka our feast. On the side of a street and surrounded by no other establishments, a surprisingly crowded restaurant had a table waiting specially for us. We picked a main course of beef, chicken, or fish then sat down to try the many included soups, vegetables, curries, beans, tofu, and other side dishes which seemed to continue multiplying as we indulged. We tried many of the dishes then immediately passed them on, attempting to get the next person in line to brainstorm a better description. It was the first time while traveling for each of us that we had tried so many new sorts of foods that we struggled to explain the taste of. As we finished lunch, we were relieved that the next few hours involved us only sitting in a car. We had unintentionally stuffed ourselves with the unexpectedly delicious yet indescribable new cuisine.
When we finally arrived in Hpa-An, we joined the other small groups of travelers going from guesthouse to guesthouse inquiring about their availability for the night. Unfortunately the best rated one didn’t have room for five, but we quickly found another just down the street that did. No wifi, no hot water, no AC, but for five, we received a discount that we couldn’t pass up. We booked it before others did. With daylight quickly disappearing, Carlo, Oscar, and I went out to explore the town with the remaining light that we had.
Vibrant colors only contributed to half of Hpa-An’s liveliness. The other half: the people. As we walked past each building, many locals couldn’t help but crack a smile or a nod of the head, intrigued with our presence. In the town center, we stumbled upon a relay race of kids and their mothers which we later learned was a celebration of Myanmar’s Independence Day (January 4). People crowded around the event, cheering their friends and neighbors on over the techno blaring from a speaker.
Continuing on our walk, we found a promising looking chai shop and sat down. Our first round of tea was standard black, however our next was exactly what I had been hoping for: Myanmar Chai. I had read that the country’s “national tea” was similar to Indian Chai but with its own twist. Three cups of dual-layered tea were placed on the table and the owner of the shop came over to demonstrate that we had to mix the bottom layer of condensed milk with the upper layer of black tea. The result was heavenly and Myanmar Chai quickly became our go-to drink for many of our meals in the country.
What would go along well with the chai? We couldn’t have been more lucky to try one of the coconut pancakes that an older woman was making on the ground outside the shop. We split one between the three of us but minutes later couldn’t help ourselves from each ordering our very own. The thick and steaming hot pancakes were the ultimate compliment to the chai, especially since each was made fresh to order as we watched.
We continued walking, observing the many street vendors and fruit stands. The biggest, greenest avocados that I had ever seen were sold everywhere for only 500 kyat (38 cents), another reason why I had been so excited to visit the country. Just like home, avocados seemed to be expensive in nearly every country I visited, that is, until I traveled to a country they were grown in locally. Fruit shakes were also popular in the country, and an avocado shake wasn’t out of the question. Sugar cane and ice were usually added to the refreshing drink.
Back at the guesthouse, we were warmly welcomed and encouraged to try Kout Nyin, coconut rice, then Htan Lyat Khate, coconut sweets, homemade by the guesthome’s owner once a year, again for Independence Day. As we ate, she stared at our faces, eager to watch our reactions to her desserts. Seeing that we loved them, she continued to feed us more after we had finished and brought out tea for the next course. We stayed downstairs for an hour, conversing back and forth between the owner and the other guests staying. Before heading off to bed, Carlo, Oscar, and I caught up with Mike and Judit who had spent their afternoon catching up on sleep to coordinate that we’d all be bargaining for an all-day tuk-tuk tour the next day to two caves and a monastery in the area.
Our tour began at noon after we had grabbed lunch but instead of a tuk-tuk, we ended up in a pickup truck. Our first stop was at the Kyauk Kalap Pagoda. Unlike many other pagodas that I had seen, the unique rock formation that it had been built on made it stand out. In the distance, Mt. Zwegabin towered above the landscape. I was interested in making the two and a half hour trek up it for sunrise the next morning and luckily I wasn’t the only one. When I shared the idea with the group, everyone was behind it, even if it meant waking up early.
On our way to our first cave, we started to create our hiking plan but were interrupted by a cloud of dirt kicked up from our speeding truck. Trying to avoid choking on dust, we covered our eyes and mouths until we arrived twenty minutes later at the cave entrance each covered in a fresh, red layer of dust. Our driver laughed when he saw our new ginger colored hair and dusty attire.
Inside the cave, a side entrance opened up into a massive area which housed a gigantic, golden laying Bhudda statue in the back. Out of respect, shoes were never to be worn inside any sacred space such as this but we carried ours along because to the left of the Bhudda, a path led deeper into the darkness. Although walking at a normal pace would have taken no more than twenty minutes to reach the end, Carlo and I took our time, fascinated by the lighting and cathedral-like ceilings of the cave.
On the other side, light poured through a grand opening leading down to a dense, green jungle and a small river with boats waiting to take people back to the front entrance. Carlo and I hopped in a boat, again captivated by our surroundings. The river water made perfect reflections of the rice fields and trees that we paddled past.
Exhausted from our day and knowing our next would start early, we returned back to town, ate an early dinner, and went to bed as quickly as possible.
2:40am: Carlo had awakened ten minutes prior to our set alarm. After a few moments of an overwhelming sleep-deprivation sensation, we quickly packed our bags, brushed our teeth, filled our water bottles, and rushed outside. It only took a couple minutes to bargain with a truck driver to drive us the twenty minute ride from town to the base of the mountain.
With our headlights illuminating the path, we trudged up steep staircases leading up to the dark mountain. Within the first thirty minutes, we had broken up into smaller groups each at a different pace, but rejoined at one point to rest. Sitting down and drinking water, Mike offered us bananas that we had purchased the night before. We didn’t want to hike on empty stomachs and figured something light like bananas would be perfect, but this couldn’t have been further from the truth. We continued on our trek, blind to the horrors about to ensue. Carlo, not liking bananas, passed on our snack.
About three forths of the way up, Oscar had fallen far behind while I was crawling up yet another seemingly endless set of stairs with Mike and Judit. Carlo had trudged ahead in the darkness. Around a bend of the mountain, a faint light revealed our goal: the monastery on top. With the end in sight, Mike, Judit, and I found the energy to charge onwards and finish the fight. We had won, but not without the casualties that were soon to come.
Carlo was waiting atop, with his water bottle already refilled from the purified tap nearby. About twenty minutes after we had arrived, Oscar came stumbling over, not looking too well. After sitting to catch his breath for some time, he informed us that he had felt sick on his way up and had to stop several times since his stomach was not agreeing with the bananas.
Although the hike was supposed to take two and a half hours, we had all made it in only one hour and a half. 5am and the five of us sat at the top pagoda, 725 metres above the ground, patiently awaiting the sunrise. We had unexpectedly beat it and it wasn’t until 6am that glimmers of light began to brighten the darkness. We all walked to the other side of the pagoda where the sun was slowly making its way up and silently sat to watch.
About an hour and a half after watching the landscape below us change in the light, we made our descent and passed by a surprising number of people making the grueling trek up. The heat of the day had already set in and we felt sorry watching them struggle as we had hours before, but now with the intense heat.
At the very bottom of the mountain, we reemerged on the same pathway that we had begun on, only this time, with the light, we were able to observe the thousand Bhudda statues mysteriously placed in a grid surrounding the base. We walked to the main road and hitched a truckride back into town.
Immediately after getting back to our guesthouse, we took turns showering and fell right back asleep. As the day continued we got progressively sicker while we slept. Oscar’s stomach had felt uneasy in the morning, but it turned out that his “reactions” were faster acting than the rest of ours. Judit and Carlo seemed to be ok, but Mike and I were quickly feeling as sick as Oscar. We spent the rest of the day trying to recover.
The next morning, we woke up early feeling better, but our time as a group of five had come to an end. Mike and Judit were to stay another night as Carlo, Oscar, and I moved onto another small town called Kinpun. We said farewell to Mike and Judit, checked out of the guesthouse, then were kindly escorted to the bus station by the guesthome woman who had cooked for us. She even gave us a parting gift of an organic medicine to help relieve stomach troubles. She clearly knew what was up. Waving goodbye from the bus, we embarked to our next destination feeling acquainted with the country. We were off to see The Golden Rock, one of the most important religious sites of the country.