April 12th, 2015
What is on the menu for breakfast on the rooftop terrace today is entirely unclear, as I can’t make out what the young woman is proposing in lieu of fried noodles. For some reason the lot feel sorry for me and haul an epic breakfast to the table, including pancakes, a mountain of toast with jam and margarine, eggs sunny-side up, along with a plate full of French toast.
As a result, the breakfast takes some time to eat, digest, and in the end I leave the hotel far too late in the morning, yet again. The first mandated stop is the travel agency, where I am informed that now all bus tickets to Magwe have been sold out until the 21st or so. What? Seriously?
I continue to the next travel agency – same story – and the next one again, same story. I am pointed to another agency, farther up the road from where I came from, but it is closed until the 18th. Next door, the young man behind the counter tells me he doesn’t deal with tickets for buses to Magwe, but I could arrange something in Shwenyaung. Wait – how is it you are a travel agent and can’t pick up the phone and find out what the deal is from Shwenyaung?
I persist, and after his phone call he tells me that the direct buses from Shwenyaung are also sold out for the first few days following the end of the water festival. However, there are buses to Meiktila that I could flag down, where I can change to another bus to Magwe. I can just catch a tuktuk to the adjacent town on the main road and flag down the next bus passing by. Wait – when will this be possible? Any day I want?
Let’s backtrack here – there are absolutely no buses during the water festival – so how can it be that I could just flag any bus down towards Meiktila, whenever I want to? No, there are no air conditioned intercity buses running during the water festival, but the local buses keep running. Wait – I just spoke with something like 6 or 8 travel agencies here in the last few days and no one bothered making that distinction?
I keep asking him the same question – is he sure what he is telling is correct? He smiles and shakes his head affirmatively – ‘they are local buses’ he tells me, buses the Burmese take’ implying that westerners would never take these buses. I just can’t believe this …
So now my plans change again – where I had been set since the day before yesterday evening on staying here until the 18th, it turns out that I am now leaving again as originally planned, on the 14th. Sure, the trip will be tough, especially considering that I am now sick with a flu and feeling quite morose.
The next stop would have been the waterfront, with the purpose of renting a boat for the remainder of the day, but after months of baking hot sunshine, the sky has become overcast, the temperature dropped dramatically, and it begins drizzling. Going out onto the open lake at this point does not seem like a good idea, given that I already have a bad cold, the open water will be colder, windier, and the light drizzle might just turn into something much more serious.
A secondary option would to be rent a bicycle and see how far I could get down the west side of the lake, but I think at this point it is just too late in the day, never mind the ominous cloud cover that threatens to put a major pall on things. So the best thing would just be to meander aimlessly through this small town and take in what little redeeming the place offers, despite the now depressing pall over the town.
At the Aung Traditional Dancing and Puppet Show, the diminutive owner tells me that the art of puppetry in the country has been reduced to the members of his family, who perform in Yangon, at a restaurant in New Bagan and in Nyaung U that I saw bits of several months ago, as well as some luxury cruise that runs up the Irrawaddy river.
He had started up his business in Nyaungshwe in 1985, but never gets more than a handful of people, the earlier performance being a safer bet than the later one, for which typically too few people appear to even warrant the performance. The performances are only attended by tourists – locals have absolutely no interest in this essential remnant of their culture, which is really very sad, but also a testimony to the loss of cultural heritage across the planet.
Museum road runs parallel to the main road and demonstrates a certain degree of comfort, but with largely more modest hotels than to the south of Yone Gyi road. The museum on one end looks inviting from a distance, but on closer inspection appears largely decommissioned. The hotels running towards the market are relatively economical if not completely empty at this time of year.
Orange irises lend some colour to the otherwise drab road, culminating in the slightly dilapidated storefronts radiating around the market area, a relative beehive of activity compared to the otherwise abandoned town. Shan locals in broad-brimmed straw hats hunch in the storage bed of their primitive motorized transports, lips and teeth stained red with betel, darkened faces smiling broadly under mops of spiky bleached or coloured hair.
The few lone restaurants in this part of town are bound to get very little business, considering how few travelers can be seen around the main road itself. Probably one of the few truly aesthetically appealing parts of Nyaungshwe would be the entrance to the town itself, at the admission collection booth located under the broad, dual-carriage road leading through the waters on the north side of the town.
The travel agent in the booth across the road is little consolation, barking gruffly into the phone, then more politely confirming that I can forget about any direct buses to Magwe before the 21st. He offers an alternate option, a direct passage to Kyaukpadaung, from where I could catch a connecting bus to Magwe, but without the presence of a hotel allowing foreigners, can’t risk staying in the town, particularly tragic considering that the town is close to Mt. Popa.
I feel too worn out and dejected to want to deal with this any longer, and am just looking forward to leaving the country. Sorry Myanmar, your people and culture are amazing, but you need to rethink your take on tourism, because you’re just not cutting it.
Another days rolls by, seemingly utterly pointlessly. Under the grey foreboding skies, I watch the long row of longboats docked on the canal, regretting having lost another day here. As unmotivated as I am to even go through the touristic claptrap on Inle Lake, I did come here to at least check the place off the list, and spending four or more days in Nyaungshwe without having seen anything in the area would seem unjustifiable.
A man approaches me, offering a trip around the lake’s attractions for 25,000 kyat. How about 15,000, I counter. He walks away, comes back offering 20,000. Given that most travelers I have spoken to have paid 15,000 or less, I should probably stick to my guns – not that I am even that motivated at the moment. And if the weather is awful tomorrow, then it will all be for naught anyway.
Minor attractions along the road keep me busy, including the unfortunate souls who perform construction work here for a pittance while the visitors throw around their Burmese money like loose change.
Small plastic water pistols are creeping into evidence as it becomes increasingly apparent that the next few days will be a water-drenched affair, in which I risk getting pneumonia and losing yet another camera. Great!
At my favorite coffee place, the lemon-lime bamboo Inle Palace, a few interesting characters collect on the upper terrace, including some oversized Dutch hipsters, a slightly distraught older vamp whose rough hair has withstood too many bleaching, and an articulate young English couple, subtle twists of his enunciations and intonations adding a lightly comical tone to his exposés, ranging from the political to the intimate.