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……

Hand dyed and beaded chiffon scarves? 

As we drove into Mandalay, a city set out on a grid system, our taxi driver got a teensy bit lost and we ended up pretty much in the right area but pretty much down the wrong roads.

We drove through a couple of narrow streets, fairly modern houses built right up to the roadside. One caught my eye on the right: there seemed to be a family run cottage industry in the small parking space/courtyard, involving a boy and girl, maybe about ten or eleven, and a middle aged woman, maybe their grandmother or an aunt. It looked as if there was a small scale dyeing bath. There were some long scarf sized panels of chiffon, beaded, over the dye bath. The boy had placed some wooden frames with the beaded chiffon panels pinned in place on the other side of the street. To dry? To advertise them? 

Realistically, they would have dried very quickly in the sun so maybe they were not drying after all. Unless some sort of graduated dying technique was in place. And one of them was lighter in colour. So maybe it was and advertising display.

I should have asked the driver to stop. I do not know what they were. For all I know, they could have been expensive hand beaded work for a swanky international brand. I missed my chance. Sand slipping through my fingers. No cat killed by curiosity here. No second chance.  Damn, damn and damn.

All I need to make my life complete is one of these scarves, but, in the words of the song,  it’s too late now. 

Rangoon to Inle Lake on the JJ Express overnight bus 

It’s time to leave Rangoon (or Yangon, as it is now known) for Inle Lake by an overnight bus, twelve hours bus terminus to terminus. The bus station is manic, sellers everywhere. If I was in the market for children’s clothes, there are women laden with brightly coloured clothes on hangers. People wandering around with plastic baskets, peddling all sorts of wares. There are some fruit stalls – the black grapes are almost the size of golf balls and look delicious, but there is nowhere to wash them. The travel staple, bananas, curiously not for sale. 

I quite fancy a beer to take with me – third day in Burma and no beer thus far: it was Gordon’s gin and tonic last evening. The restaurant the previous evening served no alcohol. The mini market with the beer is about three minutes walk and I am nursing a knee injury so decide this is not such a good idea as I’m not really up for weaving through the crowds and do not want to leave the comparative luxury of the JJ Express (JJ stands for Joyous Journeys) waiting room. The plethora of staff are working hard, selling and confirming tickets, all transactions conducted manually and efficiently, inspecting US dollars for any damage before accepting them, putting large luggage items into areas according to destination, someone making hot very sweet coffee and offering it in paper cups to waiting passengers. The loos are not the worst by a long stretch for Asia either, not award winning, but loo roll and running water for hand washing score well. 

This is the VIP bus. Large seats, a fleece blanket on each seat, foot rests, a bottle of water in the seat pocket and a snack box of a cheese pudding bread (think baked brioche/doughnut, filled with a small dollop of sweet vanilla custard) and a moon cake (think small round thing with artificial red glazed topping). 

The bus terminus is near to the quietish international airport: I see one aircraft land. Small. Propeller. Like all the domestic flights here. No thanks, and hence the bus. 

We leave at 6pm. It’s been chucking it down with rain most of the day and now it’s a dull grey dusk. There will be little to see along the way as night falls sharply here, and early. 

After three hours, state highway I think, the LED interior lights of the bus play a little wake up pattern for those dozing and we pull into a service station for a thirty minute break. We race for the loos, grab some food, or in my case just a beer, a can of icy cold Myanmar beer. First of all, I use it to help cool my knee injury, then glug it down. Divine. Almost as good as the, no doubt authentic, Louis Vuitton Damier Ebene upholstered chairs in the service station. 

We don’t speak a word of the language, it is dark, we don’t know whether the bus will be crossing mountains or travelling along minor roads to reach our destination. We don’t know when the next loo stop will be either. 

We stop a few more times along the way for ten minutes or so at a time. Forget corporate themed service stations of Europe or the 7:11 shops of the rest of Asia. There are plenty of spotlessly clean loos, but a strange assortment of items for sale. Huge bags of onions, anyone? 

The drivers sit out front for a cuppa and a quick fag. I notice that there are cigarette boxes with lighters on each table. You must be able to buy cigarettes individually if that floats your boat. 

We carry on through the black night. There is nothing to see. 

Eventually, dawn breaks and misty hills come into soft misty focus. This looks like imagined Burma. 

The light increases and the hills dip away behind us. We stop at a checkpoint where all foreigners have to pay US $12.50 or 12,500 kyats to enter the Inle Lake area. 

Everyone is half asleep. But it is good for everyone to have been woken up here because in about ten minutes time, it’s the end of the bus journey and a swarm of taxi drivers and boatmen will noisily descend upon the new arrivals to offer their services to reach hotels dotted around the lake. Prices are high. This is a bit of a local cartel and our first experience of feeling like cash cows. Meanwhile, on the other side of the street, young Buddhist monks are walking to their school, serene in their carmine coloured robes, looking at us all, overladen with things we don’t really need.

We get a taxi to Inle Resort and Spa, a nice drive along a country road, lots of agricultural workers in pick up trucks heading out to the fields, bison carts, scooters, bikes, cars, signs pointing to the various hotels along the way. 

We are warmly welcomed and the room is waiting for us. Overlooking a natural pond, set back from the lake. It’s a nice room and a totally relaxing place for the next three days. I do not actually leave the hotel for these three days because of the knee injury so no messing about on a boat for me nor seeing the lakeside villages. 

 But a sun lounger is set up on the jetty and I get a great view over the lake and the hills behind right until sundown. 

L

And then dinner, garlic herby fish parcels cooked in banana leaf with a cone of steamed rice. It is sublime and quite delicious. The ice cold beer is good too.

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…..