Monday, July 8, 2013

Hsipaw, Myanmar

The next morning I was taking the train to Hsipaw. Mr Guy picked me up and took me to the train station. He even made sure I had my ticket before he said goodbye. I was impressed that he made certain I got a good seat with a view of the Gotiek Viaduct. As I waited at the train station, a woman came up and sat down next to me. She asked where I was from and where I was going. I answered her questions and asked her the same questions.  She was going to the market but when she saw me sitting alone, she wanted to know more about me and my travels. As we talked, I showed her pictures of places I had visited. She was amazed I was travelling alone for a year. She said I was her hero and wished me well. She told me she was born in Myanmar and lived her whole life in Pyin Oo Lwin. Her husband had left the country for work in the USA 30 years ago but never had enough money to get her and their children out of the country. She had found out last year that he had died 5 years earlier while living in Washington DC. She was confident life was going to get better for her and her family. I wished her well and many years of happiness. 

This was one of the few times I was willing to support the government and take a train. I had been very conscious on my travels to make certain that I limited the amount of money to the Myanmar government. The Lonely Planet guidebook explained the locations and the amount of money that goes to the government. I stayed away from the government run hotels and only took the train twice, Circle train ($1) and the train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hspiaw ($13). I had paid the fees at  historical sights ($10 at each of the cities Bagan, Inle Lake, and Mandalay). And the flight to Mandalay was a government sponsored airline. Otherwise, I had stayed away as much as I could. I was also conscious about spreading my money around the towns instead of only buying things at one restaurant or hotel. I wanted the people to get the money and not the government. I want to be conscious of how I spend my money here.
The train and tracks were very old. As the engine chugged along, the cars rocked from side to side. It felt more like a boat on the ocean as it rocked along the tracks. I sat in my seat looking out the window. We were passing farms where the people were hard at work plowing the fields. We stopped twice to leave supplies at small villages.
Then stopped at train stations to pick up a few more people. The train stations were filled with women selling food. I was not feeling well....again. The food in Myanmar was causing havoc on my digestive track. Ugh! From a distance I could see the bridge. The Goteik Viaduct was built in  constructed in 1899 and completed in 1900 by Pennsylvania Steel Company. When it was completed, it was the highest bridge in Myanmar. We slowed as we approached the bridge.
All of the seats had good views of the bridge. We stopped before crossing the bridge. The conductor saw I had my camera ready and he grabbed my arm. He motioned me to follow him. We exited the train and walked down the tracks to get some photos. He held up 5 fingers and pointed to his watch. Who needs English sign language works fine? I understood I had 5 minutes to take photos before the train left. I turned and saw my Taiwanese and Chinese friends from the train watching me. I waved to them to come take photos. The laughed that I was the only person taken to the spot to get photos while they all sat in the train. It pays to be a woman and smile at the conductor!
The rest of the train ride was a little hard for me. I felt awful. The rocking of the train was not sitting well with my nauseous stomach. I really hate train bathrooms...they are not clean and are awful when you are sick. I took a sea sickness tablet because I knew it would allow me to sleep and ease my stomach. When we arrived in Hsipaw I was happy to see Mr. Charles Guesthouse waiting to take me to my room. I was sweating and running a fever. I told the man that I had a reservation and he took my bag. He asked me several times if I was ok. When we arrived at the guesthouse he took me straight to a room and brought me tea and water. He took my passport and filled in the paperwork. I appreciated it as I was sick. Whatever I had eaten the day before was at war with me. I have never had such bad food poisoning. The staff was good at checking on me. I went down for some hot tea the next morning and the girls told me to get back to my room because I was green. I asked about trekking and she told me "none for you today." She was nice and brought me ginger and lemongrass tea to settle my stomach. I went back to my room and spent the next 24 hours wishing I felt better. I was sad because I had planned on doing an overnight trek into the villages. I just had no energy and was wiped out. As I lay in my room wishing I was feeling better, I decided no more meat. It was going vegetarian until I got back to Thailand. I think the food cleanliness with the meat was the problem. I had to decide what to do next. Stay here a few more days or give up on the trekking and go to the Mon State in southern Myanmar. I spent a second day trying to get well. The next morning, I went down at breakfast to talk to the trekking guides. I wanted to see if anyone was going or if I would have to pay the single fee. As I talked to a guide, he told me that nobody was doing a village hike. I would be the only person and I would have to pay the full cost myself. That was too much money and one of the downfalls of off season travel. I told him how I had been sick for 2 days and he suggested a day exploration I could do on my own. I decided to rent a bike and go see the Shan area that he suggested.

I noticed the map had the Shan Palace labeled in the area  he had suggested I explore. I had read the book Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess by Inge Sargent. I also had read in the guidebook not to bother the residents of the home. So, my plan was to bike out and see the palace through the gate and continue on my path.
Gate of Shan Palace

As I stood looking in the gates and taking a few photos, a woman walked up and asked if I wanted to visit. I asked if it was allowed. She said of course I could visit. Historically, the government had cracked down on visitors over the years and Mr Donald, the nephew of the last Shan Prince, had been imprisoned for talking with tourists. As I went down the driveway, I could see the palace which was in need of repair.
Shan Palace

Ms. Fern, came out and welcomed me to her home. She told me I could go out and see the private prayer room. As I wandered out there I saw beautiful butterflies and the spirit houses. The prayer house was falling down and was in need of repairs like the rest of the property. As I walked back to the home, Ms. Fern invited me into her home.
Ms. Fern with photographs of the Shan Princes

She shared pictures of the Shan princes in the room where ceremonies took place. She talked to  me about what had happened to the Hsipaw Shan Prince and to her husband, Mr. Donald. Mr. Donald had been arrested by the government for talking to tourists in 2005. The government charged him with sharing state secrets because they had found a book that tourists had written in when they visited the palace. Mr. Donald was sentenced to 13 years in prison. He was eventually released after four years and placed under house arrest. He was ordered not to talk to tourists. Ms. Fern explained that the government allowed her to visit her husband in prison once every 2 weeks for 15 minutes. She would pack up food that would stay edible for 2 weeks at a time. I was shocked as she told me about their life. I asked again if she should be talking with me. She assured me that it was ok now and that I could write about our visit without any harm to her or her family. She told me the head of Myanmar tourism had visited her and Mr. Donald last fall and said there were no problems with them talking to foreigners. She wanted to share their stories and about life in Hsipaw and the difficulties of the Shan people. It was a part of their history. I noticed she had a large library of books. She explained that she loves to read true life stories about people and showed me the books. I asked her how she got all the books and she told me tourists had left with her. One of my favorite stories she shared was about the tractor out in front of the house. I knew from reading Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess,  the last Shan prince had bought tractors to try to help the his people become more productive with agriculture. He bought tractors and allowed his people to use them to help farm their lands. I was inquisitive and noticed that there was a tractor under a tarp outside and asked if it was one of the tractors originally bought by the Prince. Fern told me how the military government had taken it and returned it wrecked. She told me it had sat for 30 years before Mr. Donald got it running again. It took 4 months of work and the help of friends and tourists but it is now used to mow the lawn.
I enjoyed my time with Ms Fern at the Shan Palace. It was an interesting insight into Burmese life and struggles under the military dictatorship. She and her family went through very hard times. Friends turned their backs on them for fear of being persecuted. Their only source of income had been the donations given by tourists. When Mr. Donald was arrested and ordered to not talk to tourists, times got very difficult. I was impressed with their perseverance and admired them for believing in future. Ms. Fern is hopeful that Myanmar's future will be brighter. As most Burmese, she is waiting to see what happens in the 2015 elections. As I said my goodbyes, I thanked her for the time and history she shared with me. I was happy as I left the palace. I had been given a personal account of the history of the Shan people.

I was back on my bike and headed towards little Bagan. As I cycled down the small dirt path with bamboo fences on each side, I saw a sign for Mrs. Popcorn's Organic restaurant. Why not try it? Mrs. Popcorn was the sweetest lady. She greeted me and took me to a spot under a large tree. As I looked at the menu, she brought out a plate of fresh pineapple. Mmm! I ordered a tea leaf salad with a fruit plate and a mint iced tea.
We talked and when she saw a vendor going by she said she had a special treat for me. She came back with a small bowl of rice and chicory root topped with coconut. I tried it and it was good but very sweet. I could only eat a small amount. After relaxing in the garden, I was cooled off and I headed for little Bagan. It was an area with small pagodas similar to Bagan. My favorite was the one with a tree growing out of it!

I came across a monastery and stopped. Two young novices were playing marbles in the front. I stopped when they greeted me. I watched them play marbles and soon I was invited to play along.
I giggled as they were better than me. If I said anything in English they repeated it and giggled. We all know I have a soft spot for novice monks. So of course, this was a fun hour just playing marbles.
I had spent most of my day chatting with people and had lost track of the time. It was 4 PM and I noticed the sky was getting dark. Rain was coming and I wanted to get back to Mr. Charles Guesthouse before I got soaked. I was a few blocks from the guesthouse when the rain started. Whew! I was ready for a shower and a hot dinner.

I woke up early (5:00 AM) the next morning and decided to walk down to the morning market. I had been told it is a good market. I have visited a lot of markets in SE Asia but this was a first. Everyone was selling their fruits, vegetables and meats by candlelight. It was a beautiful sight.
Candlelight market in Hsipaw

Woman loading her purchases onto her motorbike
I am not sure how the people see what they are getting. I suspect they rely on the sense of smell to know it is fresh. I wandered back to the guesthouse a half hour later and checked the weather forecast. Rain was predicted for the next 3 days. There would be no hiking into the villages. I decided to book the overnight bus to Yangon. I was sad to leave without hiking to the villages but I had great experiences the day before that made the trip to Hsipaw worthwhile.
I sat outside in the cabana as I waited for the evening bus. I had a 16 hour trip to Yangon. It was scheduled to leave at 4:30PM. I was dreading this trip. It was going to be long and painful. I just wanted to sleep through it. As the bus pulled up I was pleasantly surprised. I have been on many buses in my years of travel and this was the nicest. It had big business-sized seats that reclined with foot rests and a stewardess on board. She walked up and gave me a bag with water, snacks and candy. Then she handed me a pillow and a fuzzy soft blanket. When she came back I wondered what else she could have to offer me. This time she opened up a box and asked if I wanted aspirin, motion sickness pills or sleeping pills! Wow! I declined and decided to stick with my own medications. I curled up in my seat with my headphones, blanket and pillow and slept most of the night. They woke everyone up for a bathroom and dinner break at 10:00 PM and 1:00 AM. It was an odd time but we were all forced to sit outside for a half an hour each time. Otherwise the trip was uneventful. I arrived in Yangon and back to the hotel I had stayed on my first week in Myanmar.  

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