Inle Lake to Bagan on the overnight JJ Express Bus

So, after three nights at the Inle Resort & Spa, unable to leave the hotel because of a knee injury, but grateful for the sunbed that was set up on the jetty to the tiki bar, an amazing view across the lake and red dragonflies, yes scarlet red dragonflies, it’s time to move on. 

The next stop is Bagan. We’re catching the evening JJ Express bus to Bagan, a journey that takes about seven hours or so. 

I’d wanted to buy some of the delicious honey that was served with breakfast. The hotel could not sell me any but thought that I would get some at the supermarket near the bus stop. We wait at the travel agent’s office for the bus and I ask the girls there about buying some honey. They have a conversational grasp of English, but honey is a sticky word to muster. Never fazed, I start acting out a bee to girls at the bus office, flapping my arms and going ‘bzzzzz’. Bingo. Recognition. Problem: they thought I was acting mosquito and wanted mosquito spray before realising that I was after local honey. They ask me to write down the words in their books  – bee, honey and hive (I describe a hive as being a house for a bee, noting that hive sounds like number five). I learn the Burmese word for honey – it sounds a bit like Piaget. 

Then, the  rattly bus. We are travelling on the JJ Express bus. This is the rattliest, shakiest bus on this planet. Across the windscreen it reads ‘thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as in heaven’. As we begin to rattle our way out of town and into some mountains, I do begin to wonder whether this journey will stay on earth or end in heaven. 

The driver’s assistant soon comes round and asks whether we want Shan noodles or Chinese noodles. Vegetarian for me. After less than an hour on the road, we stop at a cafeteria. There are some cottage industries going on in here – in the far corner, about four women are doing the noodles.  A bowl of noodles, hot water/stock, chicken and seasoning. A free bowl for all the bus passengers, all part of the ticket price. 

I cop out and buy a pot noodle, Tom yum flavour, from the shop at the other end. 70 US cents and I make it up to a dollar with three small bags of mango flavoured candy. The shop is so neat and ordered. 

I ask about honey – I say Piaget – they do not understand – I say it again, English style, which means repeating it and saying it louder and, eventually, they understand. The local honey, just two bottles of it, has been decanted into some quarter whisky bottles, US $1.50. I decide against it as I don’t think I’ll get it home in one piece.  And, if truth be known, I’m not sure which gutter the quarter whisky bottle was picked up from. 

I have turned into Pooh Bear in the last day or so, searching for teakwood honey. I am keeping my fingers crossed that I can source some in Bagan or Mandalay.

It is too bumpy to sleep, even when we get to the Highland Road toll road, part of the state highway. 

Along the road, I notice petrol stations. Dozens of them, not far apart either, all within spitting distance of one another. We cross over a railway line – this could very well be the main train track from Mandalay to Rangoon – there must be a train station here as it seems quite busy, lots of neon lit hotels and roadside bars and cafes. 

We go past a lake – there are illuminated golden temples in the water and a quite humungous golden dragon boat. I am totally clueless about where we are, the significance of this lake. I am a bit of an information junkie so, sometimes, it is good for me not to know! 

Another loo break at the Feel Cafeteria, a nighttime roadside market set up in front of it, lots of fruit for sale, huge grapes and dragonfruit, bananas too.

 But, first, to get past the snarling pack of dogs that is having a shouting match with one another, teeth bared. I go into the cafeteria to avoid the dogs – I think I may have fractured my patella and do not want to add a course of post-exposure rabies jabs and immunoglobulin to my woes. The overflow washroom outside the loos is quite surreal, like a washbasin rockery. 

Back to the bus, it cannot be too far now. I did not realise that the bus could get shakier and bouncier. We are almost being thrown around. Serious turbulence here. If this were a plane, I’d be thinking we were all doomed……

Dhamma Ya Zi Ka Pagoda, Bagan, Burma

So, I sit here on a bamboo chair in a thatched roof open air shop, mosquito central as sunset approaches. I get a Coca Cola Zero as there is no beer and a paper fan to shoo away the little flying critters that are ready for a sunset feast on my very pale foreign skin.

As people drive by on scooters, the shopkeeper asks if they want Coca Cola or water. Her stock comprises a polystyrene chest with some previously chilled soft drinks and a few tee shirts, half heartedly hung along a washing line at the front of the shack. This is really not the sort of place where you’d remind yourself you needed a tee shirt. There is a sugar cane extractor, no sign of any sugar cane though and I am not sure that I’d risk sugar cane juice as rumours that abound in India of the the cane being soaked in non-potable water are now in my psyche. First world wuss. 

There is some music playing, locals hum along. Then some speech. Not sure who. And back to the rather anthem-like music. 

A six year old, okay he may have been eight, drives by on a scooter with a passenger riding pillion. Cars and taxis deposit tourists near the temple that’s considered prime for sunset. More local looking sightseers pile out of a shared pick up truck, similar to a Thai song thiew. There are too many to count, but I estimate there were at least twenty people getting out of it and going into the temple precinct. 

I am a bit of an attraction sitting here, but not sufficiently so for the herd of golden labrador coloured cattle to deviate from their route home. A man comes by for some betal nut. The shopkeeper goes to a little wooden stand that I had not even noticed, paints the paan leaves with a whiteish gum, drops a few crumbled herbs (or is it tobacco?) on the leaves, then crushed betal nuts. The leaves are rolled up into little cylinders and neatly packed into a small cellophane bag. A lot of people in this country chew betal nut, judging by the number of red stained teeth you see. In fact, dentistry looks like it is not high up the list of priorities here.

A couple of horse carts go past – these are a popular way of seeing the temples at Bagan. Then the tuk tuk laden with the twenty odd people leaving the temple. Some of the shopkeeper’s colleagues or friends sit behind – it smells as if they are eating noodles, enough to make me very peckish. A dog wanders towards me – it’s been thrown a crust by a tourist and wolfed into it nervously. It really could do with a good meal and, probably, some worming tablets. I am really cross with myself for having thrown a croissant in the bin earlier and not having thought to bring it with me to fling to a dog along the way. Or a bird – three jay like birds are having a scrap over a scrap. 

The shack shops opposite are taking in their stock. Stalls are packed away, tee shirts are folded up, there’s a bit of what sounds like banter exchanged between traders – I suspect they may all be related or from the same family. Their stock is fairly similar. 
I become an end of day opportunity, not the washing line of tee shirts, but a concertinaed set of postcards, some tourist DVDs and a copy of George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” appear from nowhere and I am given a sales pitch. I don’t buy, but now I wish that I had. The shack is in quite an apparently good location, but most people just drive up to the  temple for the sunset view and then beat a hasty retreat. It is low season, it is a poor country for those without connections, me buying a copy of that book may have made a difference to them that day. But I did not. 

Time to pay the bill and take a quick sunset look at the golden pagoda…..