Greetings from Phnom Penh in the Kingdom of Cambodia. As I was checking in to the Washington Guest House yesterday afternoon I met an Aussie named Gypsy who’s been running a bar near the Thai border for 4 years. He asked if I wanted to join him for dinner and I agreed – he seemed harmelss and this is a fairly seedy city, so I figured it’d be good to be with a man. He did in fact turn out to be quite harmless, though boring and a bit strange. His, erm, Cambodian “ex-girlfriend” found us at the restaurant we were at (one of Gypsy’s regular haunts – in fact, he arranged with the owner to have some hash backed into his pizza. I opted out.). After dinner I pled exhaustion and we shared a tuk-tuk back to the guest house. The good news is that he and his girlfriend helped me arrange a reliable tuk-tuk driver named Boh to take me to the Killing Fields and a few other sights around today.
Back to Myanmar, where Marjan and I were trekking in the rain. While our fitness and determination were being tested physically, Robin did his best to describe the natural and cultural history of the area. An astonishing 85% of Burmese are farmers. It seems few are subsistence farmers. Those in the delta region farm rice. But up in the hills where we were people grew tobacco, fruit (a long list including papaya, jack fruit, mango, apple, banana, pineapple, etc.), veggies (corn, groundnut, potato, beans, tomato) and tons and tons of green tea.
The high price of tea and the locals’success in growing it has vastly improved their standard of living. Because everything is subject to rapid inflation, if people make money they immediately invest it in something tangible – mostly buildings. In Kalaw we saw quite a few “fancy” hotels sitting empty – there was one that had been open for a year and had yet to enjoy its first customer. And in each village we passed through we saw construction – new houses as well as old bamboo huts being replaced by brick-and-stucco houses with windows. All this betrays two telling Burmese traits. First, they are replacing “temporary” bamboo huts with more permanent homes, as an attempted hedge against the government’s proclivity for asking entire villages to move with little notice and no compensation. (Really!) The second and more interesting trait is that Burmese people are actually optimistic about the future, despite their difficult past and present. The rich (including one who Robin described as “the Bill Gates of Myanmar”) build hotels, hoping for more tourists. The poor build homes, hoping for modern comforts and a better life. Again, I’m struck by the determined cheerfulness of the people.
(As an aside, one trishaw driver in Yangon told us, “In my next life I’d like to come back as a taxi driver.” Not as a king, or a westerner, or even as the Bill Gates of Myanmar. He just wanted to drive a taxi, because he was tired of pedaling people around.)
Unfortunately, to support all the farming in the hills, the locals have to employ slash-and-burn clearing of the primary forest. So hills once covered with tigers, elephants, wild boar, and lovely rain forest are now riddled with orderly plots of farms. It’s comparable to a long-haired, bearded castaway was sheared and manicured to resemble a Wall Street financier.
For lunch we stopped in the village of Konla, a Danu tribe of 60 families. Our host was a jolly old man who sat in the window smoking his cheroot and smiling. Marjan napped on a bamboo mat, and I sat writing and drinking lots of tea at a low table. We were trying to wait out the rain, which started really pouring down just as we got to the village.
We set off again around 2 pm, having rested (and waited out the rain) for a good 3 hours. Our destination was a monastery about 10 km away. But Marjan’s sickness and the rain & mud made progress slow. I grew so frustrated with my Tevas that I took them off and walked barefoot, local-style, for the last few km. So mostly I was concentrating on staying upright and avoiding cow paddies.
We finally arrived at the monastery around 6 pm. We did our best to clean our shoes and feet and then followed the head monk to our accommodation – two thin foam mattresses and many blankets on the teak floor, with a bamboo wall separating us from the shrine area. Pretty cool, and surprisingly comfy. This is where we first heard of a “storm with high winds” in Yangon that had killed “a few hundred people”. The unseasonable rain we had walked through was all that we felt of the typhoon.
At around 4:30 am we were awoken by young monks chanting. Marjan hadn’t improved – she was physically spent and said she couldn’t possibly make it another day. So Robin had to make hasty arrangements to take us the rest of the way in a bullock cart. I can tell you that it was *mortifying* to be carried down paths in the back of this thing, like two lazy soft tourists, past locals carrying very heavy loads. I felt fine and was only riding in the cart to that Marjan wouldn’t feel stupid all alone. But after an hour the organ-shattering ride was too much for me and I got out to walk. The last day was comparatively easy – about 14 km or so. It rained a bit, but as we descended into the Inle Lake valley the weather improved.
After a boat ride across the lake, we finally arrived at the friendly Remember Inn in Nyaungshwe, where our big bags were waiting for us. Robin tried to extort a “tip” from us. I figure that the money we had already paid him was for his guide service, and to add a tip was redundant. Besides, by then I was a bit annoyed with him (he had an annoying habit of saying condescending things like, “Oh, you didn’t know to bring medicine against flu?” or (when I slipped and fell in the mud, “Oh, you didn’t use your walking stick?”).
We were sweaty, muddy, filthy, and our shoes were thickly caked with mud that was nearly impossible to pry off. Immediately two young women escorted us out back to hose off our feet. We took off our Tevas and one woman scrubbed them clean. All of this for free, though of course it also saved them having to clean up after us. We checked into our room and took “hot showers” that, due to the storm having knocked out the electricty, were closer to “not cold” than warm.
OK gotta run to meet Boh. More later…