Hsipaw to Pyin U Lwin by Rail

We arranged to take the bus to Hsipaw, for the simple reason, we wanted to take the epic train journey to Pyin U Lwin. The bus journey to Hsipaw was quite short, about 4 hours. Alexander & Tina from Belgium, who we seemed to be bumping into since Yangon were also on the bus. Tina is a beautiful redhead, reminiscent of those Laura Ashley type dolls, with a rosy complexion, and Alexander looks thoroughly Dutch for some strange reason. We had a good few laughs on the coach, as Alexander is extremely witty and funny. When the coach arrived that night, our girls were waiting for us, jumping up and down excitedly outside our coach window shouting “Mudja! Fadja!”. The girls had been drinking since 2pm and were quite a bit tipsy.

It actually felt really nice to get such a great welcome. We hit the local bar almost straight away, and before we knew it, there was a party of six, with Alexander and Tina becoming part of this extended family.

I had such a great night, after 4 hours sleep I woke up, and was looking for someone to play with. Michelle would not move, so I jumped down the stairs, wakened the girls – Sofie was not amused, but the ever friendly Carina got up instantly and joined me for breakfast. The weather was really bad in the morning. What can one do under those circumstances? Well unusually for me, and being a big fan of Mr Johhny Cash, I had a beer for breakfast – and it tasted so good, I had one more for dessert.

Next morning (I can’t remember the previous day), we headed to the train station. Michelle had to organise all of this, as I was still more than a bit drunk from the night before. The train was something from a Wild West movie. There was no glass in the windows, the seats were teak wooden slats and I will not mention the toilets. I think I just did, okay, it was a cubicle with a hole in the floor and smelled of ammonia from rank stale urine. But for some reason, this just felt good – like we were really travelling. We were the only Westerners on the train, this was a local train for local people, and you could tell we were a novelty.

The train must have been about 14 or 15 carriages long. I stuck my head out of the window, and watched confused as each carriage concerningly, seemed to be lulling and rolling from side to side as the train gathered speed. Things did eventually settle down, and the lush scenery and scents of rural Myanmar rolled past. We crossed a bridge at very slow speed, and were crossing the really deep Gokteik Gorge within the mountains. The bridge was high up in the air, and the scenery was absolutely breathtaking. There was a massive waterfall cascading down the face of the mountain, and the gorge seemed to run for miles in each direction.

I was happily smiling and engaging the ever friendly locals and really enjoying myself as the rural countryside rolled past. A young Burmese boy couldn’t take his eyes off me. I suddenly realised he was interested in my sunshades, and with no hesitation, I pulled the spare pair I had in my rucksack and offered them as a gift. He was over the moon, and 5 minutes later arrived with a gift for Michelle and I – it was 2 loaves of bread! On seeing this, one of the local guys got up, bought me a beer and sat down beside me, chatting away like a long lost buddy. I was quite merry, and having such a great time, I actually forgot why we were on this train. This was when Michelle reminded me, we were meeting up with our extended family the following day to do a 3 day trek from Kalaw to Lake Inle. Carina had seemingly convinced me in the middle of the night. There had apparently been much resistance from me, but after much persuasion, and obviously much Mandalay Blue, I had eventually conceded.

On hearing this from Michelle, I was stunned and altogether dumbfounded and completely speechless.

The last time I did a 3 day trek was 1986, a 3 star hike with the army cadets. I hated it at the time, but still think of it to this day as one of the greatest memories of my life. Personal Stereos were the Ipod’s of the day, and I can remember being so happy, trekking through the Yorkshire Dales, feet blistered, and in complete agony, but with Kate Bush singing through my head, and with absolutely terrific scenery. I can remember at the time saying never again, but Michelle has heard this story so much, I must have thought it would be a great idea under the influence of umpteen Mandalay Blue’s, to inflict this pain on Michelle so she could really understand how great this was. The deal had been done, and there was no going back, I had committed both of us. I was dreading this, but tried unconvincingly to assure Michelle that this would be one of the best things ever, and she would look back on the experience fondly.

So, we only stayed one night in Pyin U Lwin. That night, we headed out trying to find some Indian or Burmese food, but were told by a friendly middle aged bloke on a motorbike that most of the restaurants in the area were now closed. He asked us to jump on his motorbike and he would drop us off at an Indian Restaurant he knew about 2 miles away. You sometimes get a feel for people, so we both hopped on, the three of us on one bike. Kareem took his time and drove at a slow speed chatting to us along the way. We had wonderful mutton kebabs, and this gent sat with us through the meal, chatting away, asking us question after question about ourselves and our family. I offered to buy him a meal, but he had already eaten, and he said he was happy just to talk until we were finished eating, then take us back to his home to meet his wife and baby. There has to be be catch right? The house was a 1 room affair, and he introduced his wife and little girl. He wanted to show me his record player, which must have been manfactured in 1965, and then he proudly showed me his only 2 LP’s. One was Elvis the other Pat Boone. He was absolutely in love with Pat Boone. What was the catch? Well, there was not any catch, and after about 15 minutes of idle chit chat, Kareem offered to take us back to the hotel on the motorbike. We were confused, astounded and overwhelmed by the sheer generosity of this man, who sought nothing but friendship. This is Myanmar all over.

I think I have left my heart there – forever.

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