We packed so much into our first day in Yangon that we decided to change our plans and head straight for the hills the following day – on our first night bus of the trip. Tempting as it would have been to fly, I’d done a fair bit too much of that of late (well, Indonesia & the Philippines being island nations gave me an excuse to be nice and lazy) and so I had no choice but to go for the 17 hour bus – the longest single bus journey I’d taken since Argentina, and I had a sneaky suspicion that Burmese buses wouldn’t quite be up Latin American levels of luxury.
With such a long journey ahead of us, we stopped off to refuel at the bus station. Experienced travellers will already have spotted our mistake there and then – bus stations around the world are hardly noted for their gourmet cuisine, and this one was no exception. Filled up with rather unpleasantly greasy chicken and vegetable curries, we got on the bus and settled in for the long journey north.
The plains north of Yangon are some of the flattest, dullest landscape I have encountered on any bus journey yet on this trip, but I wasn’t complaining, as flat = quick, and anyway, we were kept quite entertained by Burmese pop videos (best of which: a Burmese cover of Britney Spears’ Womanizer) and some rather slapstick comedy.
Soon enough we were to be introduced to one of the unbreakable rules of Burmese bus travel: they must stop every three hours on the dot so that the locals can all have a full meal. As everyone piled out and enthusiastically tucked in, we decided to abstain, which was probably a good move, as it was soon after getting on our way again that the troubles began. Tony started to feel very ill indeed, and after a couple of unscheduled stops, eventually had to be to be let off the bus – and ended up being dropped in the new national capital of Naypyidaw (it turned out to be quite an interesting experience for him – they don’t get to see many tourists, especially american ones!).
Our second three hourly stop was at midnight, where, despite the loss of one fifth of our party, we managed a beer to celebrate Frankie’s birthday, before reluctantly heading back on the bus before it wound up into the mountains.
It soon became apparent that the food poisoning hadn’t just hit Tony, for soon enough Andrew and I started to hear groans from am & Frankie in the row behind us. I was worried we wouldn’t make it at all, but luckily, the building of a new road meant that it didn’t take 17 hours after all – but 12, and the bus dropped us off in Kalaw at 3am. By this time Sam and Frankie could barely speak, and only just made it to the hotel. Fortunately a very understanding owner showed us straight to our rooms and allowed us to delay check-in til the morning.
As always, I was very grateful for my iron stomach – and continued to be later that day, as our first meal in Kalaw turned out to be as greasy and flavourless as the one in the Yangon bus station. Burmese food was rapidly becoming the one thing we didn’t like about the country.
The town itself was lovely, with a beautifully tiled Paya right in the centre, and another collection of golden Payas outside a cave full of Buddhas just outside the town, that all made for a lovely afternoon of walking around the town – well, lovely enough until we realised that Frankie’s birthday, already ruined by food poisoning, had plunged to even lower depths by losing her camera.
We soon fanned out round town to head to everywhere we’d been all day, and in the end it turned up – outside the Buddha cave. We headed back to the hotel to celebrate, with Sam & Frankie beginning to feel better (although still no sign of Tony), and it really felt like maybe our luck was beginning to turn – especially as the staff at the hotel insisted on buying us some food to help us celebrate. We were, understandably, rather wary, but the dish we ended up with, a salad of fermented tea leaves with nuts, garlic and chilli, turned out to be the nicest Asian salad I’ve ever had (and began to redeem Burmese food somewhat)
We had an early start planned again for the next day, so we soon headed to bed for an early night. Just three days in, and Burma was already turning out to be the most intense experience of my travels so far.