Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Day 11 - 10 March 2015 - Kalay to Monywa

Through the entire night I heard the sound of the generator set. I do not know if that is what woke me up early. However, when I travel like this I cannot sleep for more than four hours and that gives me the extra hours to blog and do the rest of the chores like documentation, social media updation, social interaction, route clearances, laundry, repacking, etc. This day was no different. My main concern was to upload the blog posts that I had completed. I was able to get better connectivity by 6 am and I was happy to upload all of it, except videos that somehow refused to get on to Facebook.

Breakfast was announced at 7 am and Tun Tun came down from his room exactly at the hour.  There was no sight of the other two. The breakfast spread was a cross between the local and continental. Rice with soy nuggets, samosas and bhajji were the local dishes. Fried eggs and toast with orange juice comprised the continental part. Tun Tun told me that he has, and is almost the custom, rice three times a day. The large helpings of rice he has at each meal and the wiry frame, somehow, did not match!
I had additional helpings of the excellent orange juice; it was freshly squeezed. I tasted the rice and soy, which I would have gorged on if it were lunch. The samosas and bhajji are Indian imports in the Myanmar cuisine. Even after we had completed the meal the other two were yet to come down from the room. Tun Tun called them and both of them, Myo Min and Myint Sang, came down in a hurry. They apologised as they misunderstood the breakfast time to be 7.30 when, when actually it was half an hour early. When they were having breakfast I went for a stroll outside the hotel with Tun Tun.

Young girls with tanaka on their cheeks, mouth and nose masks and a bamboo hat on their heads were busy cleaning the streets, raising lot of dust. Women of all ages and young males use tanaka on their cheeks, some in design. It improves the skin condition and keeps it cool. Just in front of the hotel Tun Tun pointed out to a non-descript building and vacant space. It was the airport of Kalay. Curiosity got the better of me. I walked into the premises and took a few photographs, with Tun Tun in attendance. It was a no frills airport, meant only for small crafts and helicopters. The security at the airport was a guy in military uniform, who was smoking a cheroot, squatting beneath a tree. I found the situation extremely funny and asked of the soldier if I could take a picture of him. He readily agreed and posed as I wanted him to. Once that was done and we crossed the road to the hotel Tun Tun told me the story of a Japanese reporter who photographed a soldier in 2007. The reporter was shot at point blank range, without a warning, and bayonetted! Apparently the soldiers with red collar are armed and dangerous. Army personnel have total immunity and all excesses get brushed aside as if to safeguard the security of the country. I was astounded to hear that the Myanmar has over 1 million army personnel and half million monks; the two major influences in the country that has a population of 52 million.
There is a distance board at the hotel which said that Monywa is 135 miles from Kalay. Well, it’s the mile system in Myanmar. Anyway, 215 kms it was to be to Monywa. However by the time I reached Monywa at a quarter past 5 in the evening I had logged slightly over 350 kms. Tun Tun told me, as we started out, that he would be taking a ‘slightly’ longer route for two reasons – condition of the road and safety. As a passenger it may have been slight for him, but the challenging road conditions over two mountains and numerous diversions was quite taxing. The first hundred kms was smooth and was done in slightly over two hours. Considering the small road and the large number of two wheelers, it was satisfactory progress. I was, once again, surprised by the good upkeep of the road. Two wheelers are a way of life in Myanmar, it looked like. It provides passage for men, material and farm produce. Except for some odd youngster trying to be heroic on the road, the traffic was incredibly disciplined. Of course, there were occasional instances of unwarned turning off, etc. But, once the horn is sounded people are on the alert. Tun Tun told me that the horn should not be spared since the two wheeler drivers, who all used some variety of helmet or the other, would not otherwise hear a vehicle in the rear. Even trucks were disciplined and gave way by flashing the left tail light indicating that it was alright to overtake. If they flashed the right tail light it meant that conditions were not safe to overtake. And, of course, I had the feisty Tun Tun in the passenger seat who kept on saying, “Horn, Sir”, or “Take over, Sir”.

The three of them kept up a lively chatter right through the day, except for a little while after lunch when Myo Min fell asleep. I was not too bothered because their English is so heavily accented that I found it difficult to concentrate on the road as well as decipher what they said. We stopped for lunch at a quaint village called Ye Nyet Ni, which also has a railway station and is known for the quality of its lungis. Tun Tun located a restaurant that served a buffet of chicken, chicken parts, pork, beef, bamboo shoot, beans and sprouts, salad, dal, brinjal curry, soup and rice for a measly sum of 2500 kyats per person. Quantity was unlimited, he said, and tucked into the feast laid out before us. In between huge gulps of rice Tun Tun managed to say, “very cheap, very tasty”! I found most of it difficult to savour, but somehow finished a meal of rice, dal and some pork. The taste of the other dishes was quite peculiar, maybe due to the oil and the herbs used. At way side eateries I found that detergent soap is used to wash hands. After the meal was done, which took nearly an hour, small slabs of jaggery were served as dessert. I was told that it helps to digest the fat and keep the mouth smelling fresh!
After lunch we drove through mountainous regions where a lot of road and rail construction were in progress, leading to challenging road conditions and dusty diversions. By the time we got to the hotel the car looked every bit in need of a thorough wash. Tun Tun arranged for it with one of the boys in the hotel, who asked for a tip of 2000 kyats. The hotel was not a star hotel, but was right in the city. I was given a twin bed room with TV and fridge. All the furniture in the hotel was wooden, teak without a doubt. All along the way to Monywa are large, but young, teak plantations. I was told that teak exports to China fetched the government handsome revenue and there had been large scale ‘destruction’ of forest over the past twenty years. Degradation of the environment due to massive copper mining is now being resisted by local people. Chinese companies have formed joint ventures with vested interest in the country to ‘buy’ farming lands at throw away prices, to exploit the resources such as copper and gold.

Myanmar has huge number of pagodas and monasteries. Maintenance of most of them is privately funded, with government support available only to a few of them. Hence, children and elders stand with bowls on either side of the road, near the pagoda or monastery, seeking alms. Children were seen everywhere for schools are closed for vacation.
After a beer in the hotel dining room I walked around the night market, which offered a variety of food. I targeted a busy eatery for skewers of pork and chicken with another Myanmar beer. Next door I had a large helping of chicken fried rice. At all these eateries young girls served and boys worked as cooks. Most of them were busy and this provided good employment for the local people.

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