Had the most fantastic mid quarter break last weekend. We (8 women!) drove 7 hours north on the road to Mandalay to a little town called Taungoo (a former capital of Burma sometime after the Bagan Dynasty, but before the Mandalay kings). We stayed in the nicest little guesthouse that I've found in Myanmar-- majestic teak with peaceful varandahs overlooking the misty rice paddies--very rustic, but not in a way where you're sacrificing comfort or civilization. At night there was no light anywhere to be seen (powercuts' minor "bright" side), and the cicadas hissed and the stars were bright.
We awoke at an indelicate and uncivilized hour of the morning to one of the most enormous breakfasts I think I've ever had. There were literally 50 plates in front of us, each with a different dish. The fruit was sweet, locally produced stuff that we can't get a hold of in Yangon. The orchard was quite impressive. Let's see, just in the range of fruit, there was orange, banana, watermelon, papaya, passion fruit, avocado, pomelo and the exotic ones new, even to me: starfruit, mangostein and the delightfully humourously named testicle fruit (I am not kidding--this one must have been named by a woman, though this link thinks that they're avocados, when they're not!). We giggled to ourselves and made these poor German tourists blush. Heather said her husband Matthew would be glad he missed that particular conversation. Those who ate it were mysterious to those who hadn't, intriguing them to try it for themselves. We even passed one around just to say we'd had a bite of the body-part fruit! Aside from the fruit there was banana or coconut pancakes, samosas, fried sweets, french toast, pastries, and other delights.
The truck ride was a bit tedious--the planks of wood that pretended as seats may have had a foam mattress cover, but my bum is too small to fit, especially when every other moment is a hole in the road bounce. I rode a lot of it on the roof-top, which was glorious, but still not very stable. Chris and I had a good giggle to ourselves as we bounced into each others' (and the young Karen assistant boy's) laps. The physics of trucks also insists that you end up as close as is humanly possible after each series of bounces.
The first destination was a working elephant camp. There are lots of places in the world where tourists can ride elephants, but most are cosseted, trapped animals. While I don't necessarily approve of a lot of what happens, these camps at least treated their animals reasonably well (or as well as they can in the uneducated 3rd world!). They're released into the wild each night, and when we arrived, they rounded them up (though some cheeky ones fill their wooden bells with mud to stop the tinkle or stand stock still--the bell won't ring--so they won't be caught) and brought them down for a water bath. Each night they cover themselves with mud and dust to stop the flies, but if left on, causes a rash and rubbing. The mahouts went in for a bath too, rubbing and massaging each animal, even cleaning behind their floppy ears. The elephants lie down and take it with puffs (more like minor tidal waves) of breath out their trunks under water. After harnessing them, we followed them on a path through the forest where they felled a tree and cut it, axeing holes to loop chains through so the elephants could drag the enormous logs out of the forest. After these loping beasts of burden had completed their task, they resaddled them so that us tourists could take a ride. The mahouts told us they were afraid of us because we wore trousers, and only doctors with feared injections wear trousers (the men of course, all wear longyi skirts)! We loped down the hill, through the river, and around the road for a while, jolting awkwardly on unusual wooden side saddles. One poor elephant was afraid of crossing the bridge and stubbornly turned around on half the planks to go back and cross the creek instead (an interesting movement where he managed to stick his bum out like a circus performer). The mahouts were not happy, and prodded with a knife and a knock on the head, which upset us all. This was the only sign of mistreatment that we saw, though.
After a picnic lunch, we headed a couple more hours into the Bago Yoma (hilly area in between the rivers) to a Karen village. This was amazing! It was really remote, pretty much completely isolated in the rainy season. We arrived near dusk, and the whole village came out to watch us unpack and settle! They emptied the school house of its wooden benches, and set up foam mats and mosquito nets for us to sleep under. I felt like I was on a school camp, without the unnecessary giggling and silliness. I think this village was probably the most rustic place I have stayed, ever, and it was truly an experience. We were the first westerners/outsiders to ever stay in their village (though others had visited before). The campfire was made special by Chris dancing and Becka singing. Chan, our doctor guide, also brought out his guitar, and the school teacher coaxed them into singing and showing some traditional dances. Most in that village are devout Christians, so we sang a lot of carols together. Chris is amazing at getting people up and active and dancing, so we did some silly things like "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" for all the little children, not to mention the Chicken Dance and "Stick Your Left Foot In". The shy children loved it and then they showed us a Karen dance that we could master! The rice baked inside the bamboo into little rolls, and we enjoyed tea and a scrumptious meal by fire light (there is no electricity in the village, and our headlamps were a little too foreign, and seemed well out of place).
We fell asleep to the cooks and assistants singing softly to the guitar, while we cozed under our mosquitoe nets. This, of course, was after we'd found a nice bush to spit our toothpaste out under, and we'd trekked mud across the clearing to the little out house (where the bamboo door was not attached, so we lifted it sideways into place and looked out at the village watching over the top of the door!).
The next morning, Chan began his medical work. I am glad that I will probably never need to visit him as a doctor-- not because he wasn't good, but that each examination, regardless of what body part, was done on the wooden benches (that had been our breakfast table!) with the entire village and 8 foreign women watching in fascination. Women had the midwife rub them up and down, and men were stroked, tested for fever, given little bags of pills from his fisherman's toolkit pillbox, and all other ranges of diagnoses. The children cried when they even came close, and one poor boy has a wound on his head that when cleaned, sent blood everywhere over the doctor, the seats, his shirt, etc. It was too difficult to clean properly, but iodine was added, it was dressed (it finished the last of his gauze), and hopefully it will be alright by the next time Chan visits in 3 months time!
We were toured through the village to the weaver's house, to the rice pounding station, and other village operations. The women still grow the crop, spin the cotton, weave the fabric and sew every item of clothing they own--and single women sew seeds on by hand while married women are less decorative. We were told never to send western clothes to them as aid, because it would hurt these tradtions, although we will send some educational materials and medical supplies.
The midwife was sent around the village to ask women to sell their spare clothing to us tourists. I do not enjoy encouraging this artificial aspect of life. I do not like disrupting their village and lifestyle, but they sold it to us and no doubt the money will come in useful to them. Globalization at its worst!
All in all a fantastic weekend. We rode the truck back under the stars--light pollution is not a problem in Myanmar, especially in the mountain villages. I sat inside and became white as a sheet with the pale dust. Luggage lost its color, and our eyes stung. In Taungoo, we appreciated the shower and real bed! Tuesday, we drove back to Yangon, and felt as if we'd been away at least a week.
Pictures will come soon!!