I got on the back of the motorbike with my 20 kilo rucksack hugging me tentatively. By closing my eyes and trying not to think about the potholes we were driving over, we made it in once piece to the parking lot next to the restaurant . This was the makeshift bus station in Pyin Oo Lwin, a small hill town once popular with British colonialists in the early 20th century, about 80kms east of Mandalay. My aim was to catch the next bus going north east, deeper into Shan State, towards Hsipaw -pronounced Si (like the Spanish word, but with a lisp) Poor (like the English word), that’s it – Hsipaw.
As I sat in the drizzling rain, watching people hop off buses for a quick breakfast break and board again, I wondered which was the bus I needed to catch. The ambrosial smell of shan noodle soup was tempting but getting onto the right bus was a priority at that point. I was soon pointed to the right bus; okay, it had seen better days, but it had seats and windows. I bought my ticket and hopped on.
The bus was already jam-packed and bags of rice and other goods lay bundled together in the aisle. I found the only available seat was a foldable one next to the driver; this meant shifting my knee every time he changed gears. No problem. It kept me awake… as did the sound of tweeting birds all around. I kept looking out to see where these chirpy birds were but to no avail.
The bus got going and once we left town the terrain became increasingly misty as we drove past small settlements on a perfectly good road.
At our first stop a couple of hours later, which happened to be at the bus driver’s house, he kindly allowed those in need to make use of his home bathroom. This was in a small shed at the back of his garden and his children smiled distractedly as we traipsed past; not an uncommon sight for them, I guess. I was then able to move to a seat which had become vacant behind the driver, and became absorbed for the next few hours by the attention of my new neighbour, an impeccably dressed Burmese gentleman in his sixties who spoke good English and who proceeded to recount his life to me while occasionally pointing out the scenery as we drove towards our destination.
This included the noble but still young teak trees lining the road -each with its own little identity plaque- and a variety of turmeric plants and tamarind trees with their bulbous pods drooping heavily – how he had won the lottery forty times in his life and had recently bought some gold rings which he then extracted from a small silk purse he had hidden in his inside trouser pocket. Better not to have on display in a public place like a bus station, he informed me, as he then put the rings on. Pullulating palm trees and beckoning banana plantations swept past as he described how his beloved wife had died two years previously, leaving him feeling very alone. But, he added with a gentle smile as sparkling sun flowers and corn fields flew past, his daughters cared for him very well and sent him money from time to time.
I watched the colours changing in the well-irrigated paddy fields as the rain slowed and the sun shone through the mist. All this while bouncing along the undulating road surrounded by jungle and red earthy banks. I listened as my companion explained how a young nephew of his had got on the wrong side of the law by taking part in a student demonstration some years before and how, on leaving prison, his family took him in but were loath to talk with him about politics, fearing he might get them into trouble. He left home soon after to join the local Shan insurgents and that was the last they had heard of him.
In the distance, as the mist lifted, it threw into sharp relief the impressive span of the Gokteik Railway Bridge, a remnant of colonial engineering, built by the American Pennsylvania Company for the British Empire back in 1902 and still functioning. Today, when trains approach this structure, the drivers dismount and go ahead with a spanner to check the bolts are all in place before allowing the train to creep slowly across- that train ride is a tourist attraction in itself which I hoped to partake in some day. My fellow passengers all watched eagerly and smiled their approval as I, the only foreigner on board, accordingly expressed my awe at the majestic site in front of us.
I would love to have had the opportunity to take a photo of one of my neighbours, an almost toothless old woman, who was chewing betel nut and nudging me when she spied something she thought might be of interest to me. This consisted mainly of new built stone houses in an otherwise harmonious environment of teakwood homesteads. Unfortunately, my camera battery died on me at that point and most of the pictures I have of that journey are in my mind.
At about this point, as we drove past this bridge, my neighbour’s mobile phone rang -a precious gift from his daughter- and he then reported to me that it was his daughter checking to see he was alright and whether the bus had made it past the hazardous part of the road yet. As I listened in mild apprehension, he explained that just after the bend near the bridge, on the road winding uphill, the Shan State Army sporadically ambush the Burmese army, with whom they regularly clash. This usually takes place at night and, indeed, such an incident had taken place the week before with one fatality. The military was their sole target, my neighbour assured me, so, though we hadn’t yet passed the ‚hazardous part‘, it was day time and we were civilians. I put any notions of panic out of my mind. I did ponder though whether my neighbour wondered about the whereabouts of his nephew at times like that.
I ventured to ask him at this point if Burmese citizens prefered to call their country Burma or Myanmar, its official name. He nodded knowingly and explained that both forms were accepted and used but some people called the country by its British given name, Burma, as a sign of disapproval towards the authorities for changing the name back to its traditional, pre-colonial name, in 1989 without consulting its citizens. Other people, he added with a conspiratorial smile, simply called it Burma to get on the authorities‘ nerves while ackowdedging that it made more sense to refer to the country as Myanmar which was, after all, its original name.
When complimenting him on his English, he related how his schooling had been in a British style missionary school which no longer existed and how, in the old days, many young people converted to christianity allowing them to attend these schools. The majority of these people then reverted to budhism, the leading religion in Burma, once their schooling days were over. From his shirt pocket he then withdrew a neatly laminated photograph of himself as a young man standing next to an Italian nun, a memento of the old days, he said. I came across this explanation from a few other people of around his age that I encountered during my time in Burma, all of whom stood out because of their good English. Indeed the English of elderly English speakers was pronouncedly better than that of younger people, I noticed.
On reaching our destination, my companiable neigbour explained the mystery of the tweeting birds. It turns out the back of the bus was occupied by a dozen or so crates, perilously perched on top of each other, packed with hundreds of chirping baby chickens and it was they who had been providing the melodious warbling sounds throughout the ride!
We parted warmly at Hsipaw and went our separate ways. After booking into a hotel and visiting the local sites on that pleasant afternoon I went in search of supper, and walked down the banyan tree lined main street watching the evening market being set up and cyclists and motorbikes ride past.
As I walked along idly I heard my name being called out and spied my congenial aquaintance sitting at a roadside booth; he had changed out of his travel gear and was dressed more comfortably in a longyi like his neighbours who were there passing the time of day with him. Around him, the stall owner stired the contents of a large pot in which simmered vegetables and little bits, some more recognizable than others, of chicken. Another dish contained cooked rice. I was invited to join them and to try my friend‘s favourite evening repast, which he called a porridge soup. So, in that way, I was able to spend my first evening in that bucolic setting tasting this local speciality, a very mildly spiced chicken soup with rice, and hearing yet more arresting tales about life in present day Burma.