My eyes snapped open to the sound of my phone alarm and for a split second I had no idea where I was. High ceilings, industrial lighting, a thicket of stacked furniture surrounding me…. Ah, yes I remember now. I was in my airport foxhole behind a wall of discarded furniture that I burrowed into on the employee floor of the Colombo Airport to catch a nap before my flight. It may not look like much to the untrained eye but I felt as cozy as Br’er Rabbit in the ol’ briar patch. Sri Lankan airport employees went about their business none the wiser that a backpacker was snoozing just feet from where they strolled along their main corridor. Pawing around sleepily, I turned off my alarm which was buzzing urgently next to my head to make sure I didn’t miss my flight to Myanmar.
I’ve practically made finding the best napping spots in airports into a sport. My carry-on go bag is never without an inflatable sleeping pad, pillow, and ear plugs. As soon as I arrive at the airport where I have my layover I do a sweep of the place to try to identify any nooks or suitable hidden spots that I can stretch out in. The more secluded the better. One time I couldn’t find a good spot for the life of me but there was a storefront that was under construction. I spotted a small tear in the industrial plastic sheeting facade that declared “coming soon." The part was just big enough for me to wriggle in. Leaving the bustle of the hectic terminal behind me I slipped into a peaceful slumber for several hours in my very own, cavernous, soon-to-be store before army crawling out the way I came in to catch my connecting flight.
In hopes of catching a bit of sleep and a shower in Yangon, Myanmar before my night bus to Bagan, I got a bed in a hostel dorm room. After a much needed shower and a failed napping attempt, I decided to go explore a bit. Maybe a relaxing massage would provide the restorative qualities of a good nap, I thought. I popped into a massage parlor and decided to give the traditional Burmese massage a try. When in Rome, right? Big mistake. The dim lighting and calming spa music are all a ruse. The little masseuse could easily have taken her moves to the WWE. Everything she did was painful to the point of being almost humorous. She did every submission hold known to mankind. Why was I paying this person to put me in an arm-bar? If she had theatrically tapped her elbow before dropping onto me from a ladder or hit me with a collapsible metal chair, it would have adhered to the general theme of the massage. After an excruciating hour that seemed like an eternity, my traditional Burmese ass-whooping came to an end and I made my getaway.
Limping back towards my hostel mumbling to myself about what a proper massage should and should not entail, I decided to grab some local street food. Much to my amusement, most of the street food vendors had set up outdoor seating using tiny plastic chairs and tables that were unquestionably intended for children. In Myanmar, there are always cups on the table to pour loose leaf tea . I felt like I was being invited to a kid’s tea party. However, instead of stuffed animals and dolls on the chairs surrounding the miniature tables there were adults having dinner. Smiling to myself at the novelty of it all, I eased down onto one of the chairs to slowly test its ability to support my weight. It was surprisingly sturdy but I decided not to lean back and tempt fate. Dinner was a delicious naan and lentil situation along with an avocado that I grabbed from a produce cart. I ran up a tab that put me close to $1.50 before I decided to throw in the towel.
The eight-hour night bus from Yangon to Bagan ended at 5am and spilled its disconcerted passengers out onto a small bus depot in the crisp morning air. This was now the second night in a row that I had been traveling and hadn’t slept in a bed. Feeling sleep deprived and not up to dealing with cab drivers, I was relieved to share a taxi with two Germans and an Iraqi who had been on the same bus. Even as tired as I was I couldn’t help but speak German and Arabic to my bewildered companions. “How many languages do you speak?!”, they asked surprised to meet an American that spoke any additional languages let alone both of theirs. It’s not often that I happen to be in the company of multiple foreigners whose languages I speak so I had to take the opportunity to showboat a little. “Ah, just German and Arabic. Got lucky with you guys," I admitted.
We paid a bit extra for the driver to take us to an overlook to see the famous Bagan sunrise which is characterized by a horizon silhouetted by thousands of buddhist temples under a glowing orange sky dotted with hot air balloons. When we arrived, much to my chagrin, the famous overlook already had several tour buses parked in the dirt lot below it and Chinese tourists had begun to evenly blanket the little hill. Not wanting to have anything to do with that mess, I poked around behind the souvenir stalls until I found the local spot where the taxi and bus drivers drank tea around a fire on little kid chairs. I quietly joined them and after a few hot teas and a snack, I got a second wind.
Just as the sun was cresting the horizon I had finished climbing to the top of a little brick temple about 10 minutes walk off into the bush from the tourist overlook. Without knowing where it would lead I had struck out, intent on enjoying the sunrise without the throngs of other spectators. I looked around triumphantly. There wasn’t another soul in sight.
I spent a few days settling into a comfortable routine that involved a roof deck breakfast at my home base, Baobabed hostel, exploring the temples on an electric scooter, the gym, street food, and swapping stories with other travelers. The next logical spot to head was Kalaw, the little village where multi-day treks to Inle Lake begin. Only eight hours away. Yay, another night bus.
In an attempt to keep to a backpacker budget, I decided to take a minibus instead of the larger “V.I.P.” bus. This may have saved me $5 at most. In retrospect, this was the wrong place to skimp. When I got on, I noticed the entire back row was empty. Perfect. Time to stretch out and get a solid night’s sleep. I blew up my sleeping pad and pillow and laid down smugly. “Look at all of those people sitting in chairs when all along there was a bed they could have snapped up.”, I thought. Then I realized why everyone was at the front of the little bus. The road was relentlessly bumpy, especially at the back, and I was being launched a few inches off of my sleeping pad on the bigger bumps. My relaxing night’s sleep was going to be more like trying to go to bed in a trampoline park.
After sleeping in to compensate for my bumpy night bus and 4am arrival, I wandered around Kalaw before settling on a trekking company leaving on a 3-day, 60 kilometer journey the following morning. Two nights lodging, food, and a guide cost around $25. My group consisted of a Swiss couple, four French women, and our guide. After the 20 kilometer hike along footpaths through the forest, along dirt roads, and past fields of farmland we arrived at our home-stay in Dong La. It felt like we had just gotten out of a time machine. The village looked like a small agrarian community as it would have been several hundred years ago.
The water buffalo drawn carts and plows were made entirely of wood including the wheels and many of the houses had thatched roofs with woven bamboo walls. Our dinner was prepared over a wood fire by our guide and consisted of vegetables and chickens that we had walked past that day. All organic and free range. Take that Whole Foods.
Needless to say, the outhouse did not have a bum gun and required a bit of courage. Similarly, the shower was a giant tub of frigid well water that requires dumping a bowl over oneself. Get wet, get soapy, rinse, done. No Hollywood showers here. Feeling lighter after an outhouse run and cleaner after my “shower” I joined some local kids playing a game that combines hacky-sack and volleyball. They were down a player so I was a welcome addition. After a few rounds of that, I joined the owner of the home we were staying at that evening to watch the sunset.
The next day brought us past endless fields of hot peppers and through the hills to another home-stay. The ground floor was a barn where the family’s water buffalo slept and the floor between us was nothing more than joists and thin bamboo. I like the smell of barns and was lulled to sleep by the sound of the deep, steady breathing coming from below. On our final day trekking we stopped for tea and I saw a local guy with a homemade water buffalo leather sheath slung around his back. With the help of our guide as a translator, I offered to buy it and his large “Shan knife," a cross between a machete and an ax which is used to do everything including cutting down giant bamboo. He agreed to sell me the sheath since he could make another but needed the knife so he could work. The best gypsy treasures in my opinion are the ones that come directly from the people, not from a store. I gave him his asking price of $3 and decided to find a suitable Shan knife when we arrived at Inle Lake.
Our trek ended by a narrow canal where we had lunch before climbing into a long, narrow, wooden boat that took us from the southern to the northern tip of the lake. All of us sat on the bottom of the boat alternating sides we were sitting on to balance it. Unlike a typical outboard motorboat, the engine is inside the boat and a driveshaft runs several feet along a metal bar that the captain can raise and lower manually to deal with the shallower areas or floating obstructions. The lake is 13 miles long and 7 miles wide but only about 6 feet deep, making it ideal for the type of basket and net fishing that is still done there today. I wondered if perhaps without the aid of more modern fishing techniques the fish stocks of the lake were able to sustainably replenish themselves and wouldn’t fall prey to the “tragedy of the commons” over-fishing that has happened elsewhere.
The Baobabed hostel I stayed at in Bagan had just opened a location in Nyaung Shwe, the town on the northern tip of Inle Lake, so I reserved a dorm bed there. When I arrived, I met Kai, one of the owners, and asked if there were any artwork I could do in exchange for lodging. After showing him the mural I had done at the hostel in Sri Lanka he agreed to give me a bed, breakfast, and lunch every day that I worked on a mural for the upstairs roof deck bar. I found a concrete pillar that was visible from three sides and set to work. It took me five days to finish and I recruited some hostel goers to help me color it in. I put the clear coat finish on it with less than two hours to spare before my night bus to Yangon where I would be catching my next flight to an old favorite, Thailand.