Inspecting my waiting sleeper bus at the Aung Mingular bus station, located an absurd distance from Yangon’s city center, I found myself breathing a deep sigh of relief; while the seats weren’t private sleeper berths, they were cushioned, separate, clean, and reclining, and I felt sure I would escape the suffering I learned to expect from my overnight Indian commutes on hard flat seat with snoring Indians leaning into my shoulder on one side and into my thigh on the other. However, my sigh of relief would later become echoed by the weary sighs of stomach cramps. In effort to tame my bloating budget, I had limited my dining options in Yangon to the cheaper selections that could be found on the city’s sidewalks. I then found myself paying the difference saved another way and began my first serious case of traveler’s sickness. How I made it to my destination without screaming at the driver to pull over and find a bathroom will remain a mystery to me, but the night proved to be long and miserable. Further humiliating my dignity was the onboard “entertainment.” The first leg of the journey was propelled by Burmese sketch comedy and soap operas that could take some production notes from my high school’s television broadcasting program, and as soon as these were finished it was a succession of bad covers of American pop songs from the 80s and 90s and Burmese country power ballads. All this would be fine, I suppose, if it weren’t played at a volume so loud that if the bus plowed headlong into a tree you’d still be paying attention to the soap opera. And the music, when it started playing, didn’t stop. Not at midnight. Not at three in the morning. For the 13 hours I was on the bus, the garbage they played was so loud it chewed its way through my earplugs and rattled my brain. I attempted escape by watching a Kazakhstani film based on the life of Genghis Khan I scored from Sophie in Kathmandu. Halfway through the film, I had to adjust my legs and then the screen atop them, and then someone from behind me tapped my shoulder. I turned around to find the whole back row of the bus was watching Mongol with me and wished to continue doing so.
From the bus stop, I hopped on a crowded pickup truck to Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake’s tourist village. Through underslept eyelids I watched the sun come up over the hills and prayed that this early bird got the worm – if the worm is a reasonable rate on a room for my beating the crowds. With an increasingly zombie like stagger, I sauntered from hotel to hotel, sometimes getting turned away before I could say a word. The place, this town, was booked solid. I was cursing the Myanmar government for issuing more tourist visas than hotel licenses (you see, it’s very illegal for a hotel to house foreigners without difficult to obtain licensing, making rooms both rare and expensive), and with painful defeat, I was actually starting to look for places to sleep out of doors. Perhaps under that bridge? I wonder if anyone ever looks behind this fence? Finishing at least a baker’s dozen tour of filled up hotels and tired to the point that I was losing sense of reality, I finally stumbled into a place by the river that maybe had a vacancy, but I would have to wait four hours to find out. And the one room – a double – would alone cost me as much as my five beautiful days in Hampi cost in total. A slighter cheaper room did open up (still my most expensive to date) and I took it eagerly and embraced a hard nap and my first hot shower in two weeks. My frequent – and I mean frequent – visits to the toilet made it clear that the day was going to be an off day, and I adjusted my itinerary accordingly.
Determined not to lose another day, I woke up the next day to a mild breakfast and not so mild medication. In the lobby I found someone to share the expensive room with (something I had hoped to accomplish the day prior but was too wretched to attempt), then I set about doing what I came to do: I was going to enjoy a relaxing day cruise of Inle Lake even if it killed me. It took more time that I had hoped, but I eventually found a family by the river with a spare seat in a boat they were booking, sparing me the costs of having to hire a boatman for the day all on my own. I was then adopted by an Irish/Belgian couple and their homeschooled son. Oh yeah, and this was on Christmas. “A very Myanmar Christmas,” I wished my adopted family. I probably wasn’t as good as company as I might have been otherwise, but we all got along just great. I was worried I was pushing myself too hard too soon, but as our narrow boat chugged its way to the lake, I discovered there was something oddly soothing about the rapid vibrations of the cheap Chinese motor to my ailing gut, and all day I felt best when I was in the boat.
Lush floating greens foregrounded great misty mountains to the east and to the west. Just past the mouth of the lake we came across a foursome of fisher boats being paddled about in a technique the lake is famous for: while standing on one leg with the other wrapped around a long oar and lending the driver additional thrust. One of the fishermen posed nimbly for us with one leg high in the air supporting a conical wicker fishing net.
Scooting further along, we came to the first of a series of villages, all balancing on stilts high above the water. The midair porches led down to small canoes so the tenants can get around. Improbable seeming, but very beautiful, these floating neighborhoods proved just how bountiful the lake is for the people that lived there, some 70 thousand of them, and the floating villages shocked me repeatedly with their expansiveness. Aside from fisherman, the lake villages boast a population of craftspeople and farmers which tend to vast and verdant fields of floating vegetation.
We stopped at a weavers’ shop where we watched step by step how pulpy threads drawn from the lotus plant got wound into thread and then woven into intricate patterns by complicated wooden looms powered by foot pedals. In a floating cigarette factory girls were rolling flavored tobacco into banana leaves bound with sticky rice glue. I tried one flavored with anise and while puffing it to ash I learned more about the traditional “sunscreen” so popular in Myanmar. Thanaka is a cosmetic paste made from a tree. A barkless chunk of the tree is rubbed against a pizza sized stone made splashed with a small amount of water. The secretions from the plant matter thicken the water into a hazelnut colored paste which is then applied to the face for purported health benefits. The paste is either applied in thoughtful patterns – my favorite is a single leaf on either cheek – or in a sloppy mess on smiling Burmese faces.
Despite my waves of intestinal throbbing, the pain proved to be manageable and bathrooms were frequent enough for me to preempt disaster. I ended up feeling grateful that if I had to be sick, it happened somewhere the scenery could be enjoyed while sedentary.
I tried to muster strength enough for a bike ride the next day, but limited energy reserves and multiple dead ends had me coming back to the ugly tourist village to rest up for the next journey. From the back of the pickup truck on the way back to the bus station, I viewed the countryside’s beauty with great admiration and felt bitter I wasn’t healthy enough to taste more of it during my visit.