Don't order the chicken!

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November 21st 2009
Published: December 3rd 2009
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Tis a simple enough rule, one developed very early on during my foray into Myanmar cuisine for ordering the chicken rarely resulted in chicken as I am accustomed to it, but rather a small side dish of chicken bones would arrive to accompany my rice. These bones were mostly devoid of flesh and a person would have to pick one up and gnaw it like a rat to get anywhere with it. Having a profound dislike for gnawing bones in public I subsequently eschewed the chicken dishes throughout my stay.

Having done so well with my avoidance of the feathered bird I confess I'm at a loss to explain why, when arriving in Mawlamyine ravenous with hunger (9 hours on a train far too bouncy to eat or drink on) I entered the first restaurant I found and immediately ordered the chicken. Aaaargh! Of course I realised my error as soon as the waiter had departed but still, how wrong can you go with a sweet and sour? As it turns out you can go a darn sight more wrong than imagined.

Picture, if you will, a chicken all plucked and ready for the pot. Now strip that chicken

OK, so I'm turning into a transport nerd, but honestly.. don't you just love the bus!
of around 95% of it's flesh but leaving the skin intact. Done that? Good. Next I ask you pop said chicken in a blender and whizz away to your hearts content. The resulting mess of splintered bones and sinew will resemble very closely the chicken that adorned my dinner. After a tentative prod confirmed my worst fears all appetite fled, as did I shortly after, having eaten not a bite.

Stomach still churning I made my way to a guest house and was promptly housed in the smallest room in existence (honestly, Tom Thumb may have been just fine here but not I) with no window and one reluctant fan. Each night I found myself arising every few hours to fan the door like a mad thing in an attempt to avoid suffocation. Aside from the room however the hotel was great, I especially liked the two room boys neither of whom had any English to speak of but were a delight to behold. One of them, coming across me one night at the other end of town shouted hello, gesticulating madly to ensure I recognised him, and them promptly offered me a lift upon the back of his

They think they've caught something big...
bicycle. Touched by his offer I did however decline, fearing for his heart should he try to peddle my weight the great distance to the hotel.

Mawlamyine is a leafy little town (4th largest city in Myanmar apparently) liberally sprinkled with palm trees and other greenery and with 3 charming market places, although I never managed to determine where one ended and another began. Interestingly, a new central market is currently under construction, the original having burnt to a crisp last year when the fire brigade ran out of water after only 15 minutes of fire fighting. I was a little astounded to discover this as the market is practically within spitting distance of the river, when I vouched my incredulity however it was met with a shrug and the simple reply of "This is Myanmar".

A phrase that could well be applied to my trip the next day when I ventured to Ogre Island, eager to see the various villages at work. Alas, due to the vagaries of Myanmar transport we arrived late and thus spent the whole day traveling with no time to stop anywhere (other than for lunch that is, I was all for skipping the meal in order to actually see a little but the 3 French I was with were aghast at the idea and so, to prevent tantrums, I backed down and agreed to eat). We managed to fly through a house where they made beautiful walking sticks, I was tempted to buy one for Dad's Christmas but decided, on reflection, I rather liked having a roof over my head and so refrained. The only other stop we managed was at a local rubber band making factory. Now, I don't know about you but I personally have never given a thought to how rubber bands are made and thus found it a fascinating experience. My personal favourite were the choppers that chop the hollow rubber tubes into the bands themselves, very hypnotic one almost wants to reach out and touch - but that of course would result in the loss of several fingers so do try to resist should you too venture out to see this curious process

Forgoing further group travel I ventured out alone the next day, well alone apart from Min Min that is, my driver and self appointed bodyguard (not that I needed guarding but there you

They did catch somethign big... a tree! oops
have it). My goal for the day was to see Nwa La Bo, a golden stupa perched upon three golden rocks (each of which impossibly balanced upon the other). Once again however I was to be foiled in my plans as, arriving at the bottom of the mountain we found but 3 other pilgrims waiting to ascend. The truck that was to trundle us all to the top would only leave when full (which would have required at least another 30 people) and so quite clearly was going nowhere that day. All was not lost though as Min Min advised he knew a route up the mountain we could traverse on foot. My immediate reaction to two hours (minimum - more like 6 hours if I'm the climber) of stair climbing in sweltering heat was - Not bloomin likely mate! As I searched for a polite way of phrasing my refusal I caught Min Min looking at me worriedly.

"Two hours" he advised making scissor motions with his fingers "very steep" pausing for a second as he eyed me up he puffed out his cheeks and let me in on his assessment. "You little bit fat!"

A little
Bus station Ogre IslandBus station Ogre IslandBus station Ogre Island

Can you tell just how much I liked these buses?
shocked to hear those words said out loud (not that it was untrue, indeed I thank him for the 'little bit) but immensely glad to discover we were both of a mind re. my ability to ascend that mountain, I quickly agreed that yes, I was far too fat to make the climb and why didn't we go see a local waterfall instead. Darn and blast but my luck was holding firm for upon arriving we discovered that the roaring falls (as seen in the guest house photo's) had reduced to naught but a trickle and the promised swimming holes not more than ankle deep.

Hoping to leave my luck behind I caught the local ferry to Hpa An the next day, a reportedly (and rightly so) scenic journey of legendary proportions. It was a little disconcerting to discover there was no seating aboard but the floor boards proved a comfortable enough perch for the 6 hour journey. There were numerous stops at local villages along the way where the gangplank would be lowered to the ground (for ground read ankle deep mud) at dizzying angles which the locals pootled up and down with narry a care.

Arriving in Hpa An in total darkness (due to a late sailing which atlas meant we missed the best of the scenery) we were whisked off to the only budget hotel in town and where I, (noting the steep and narrow stair cases, the wooden structure, and the prevalent ashtrays) immediately bagged the only room with an escape route in the event of fire. I think Hpa An may just be my favourite place in Myanmar, I discovered a small Indian restaurant here and, rejoicing at the possibility of a meal without rice I gleefully sat myself down. It was unfortunate that no one spoke English and my ability to order Indian food non existent, they get 10 out of 10 for trying though as they valiantly tried to guess what I wanted. In the end I received something akin to a puff pancake that they gaily chopped up for me with the largest pair of scissors ever seen and then indicated I should dip it in the accompanying bowl of sugar. It was jolly nice I have to say, even if it wasn't quite the daal type dish I had envisioned.

Biting the bullet I took another organised tour
Ogre Islands finset transportOgre Islands finset transportOgre Islands finset transport

these were the French girls who insisted we eat rather than sight see, the French and their food, honestly!
to Sadar Cave and various other localities. The scenery was astounding, great limestone karsts rising out of nowhere and surrounded by rice fields galore and Sadar Cave itself was everything I had envisioned. Thinking it would be nice to traverse the cave by torchlight I was disappointed to find a group of pilgrims had gone before us and paid the 3000 fee to have the lights switched on. I must admit though that I was jolly glad of that light as we slipped and slod (is that even a word?) through the cave, emerging at the other side to a beautiful lake dotted with fishermen. We also found the pilgrims who had paid for our lighting and,as happens a lot in Myanmar, they were keen to have their photo taken with us. We, being red faced and dripping in sweat (the heat and humidity in this part of the country is unbelievable, one only needs to breathe to overheat) despite the relatively easy journey reluctantly posed for about 30 different photographs. Having tasted the life of a minor celebrity I am jolly glad to be the relative non entity that I am I can tell you.

The bus back to Mawlamyine was a hilarious affair, designed by heaven knows who for people no more than 3 foot high (perhaps the very same person my hotel tiny hotel room had been designed for?). Fortunately it was not busy and each passanger had the two seats to themselves. Five minutes into our journey we were brought to a stop by a mad man on a motor cycle who zoomed up behind us and peeped and flashed until we pulled over. The mad man, as it turned out, was actually one of the gentlemen from the guest house who had chased the bus for the sole purpose of returning to me the book I had left in my room. Touched but a little embarrassed I explained I had deliberately left the book (I had read it and was too lazy to carry it further, even if he had gone to all that trouble to get it to me) and could he please keep it. All through my journey here the unceasing kindness and generosity of the people has never failed to touch me, there is much we here in the West could learn methinks.

Alas, my time in Myanmar was drawing to a close and it was with a melancholy air I boarded the train for Yangon. It was the most scenic, comfortable and enjoyable ride in the whole of Myanmar and so I altered my plans in order to take it in both directions. Shortly into the journey I was startled to see two grinning faces appear at my window, looking in from the outside! Clinging to anything they could they could get hold of they moved up and down the (outside of) the train selling curries wrapped in banana leaves, when the guards appeared to put a stop to their nonsense they simply vanished onto the roof of the train and legged it to the other end and began again. This game of cat and mouse carried on for over half an hour and I did become a little concerned about the safety of those young men however, upon making our next stop I saw a whole hoard of smiling young men walking up the aisle of the train delivering curries to those few who had not been able to purchase one through the window.

Leaving Myanmar was very hard, there was so much I had not managed to see or do, and so already I have determined to return again next year. All I need do is work on my stair/mountain climbing ability (in 100% humidity) and organise a 4 week stretch of leave from work. Something tells me the stair climbing will be the easy part...

NB I stupidly left my bag of electrical goodies in Sangkhlaburi and so now have no ability to post photo's. Sorry, will try to ammend situation ASAP.

Additional photos below
Photos: 18, Displayed: 18


The Hpa An ferryThe Hpa An ferry
The Hpa An ferry

Can you spot the home repairs?
Disembarking from the ferryDisembarking from the ferry
Disembarking from the ferry

The camera doesn't quite catch the dizzying angle of the gang plank - and this was one of the easier ports
Disembarking from the ferryDisembarking from the ferry
Disembarking from the ferry

Alas, the camera doesn't quite catch the terrifying angle of the gangplank here - and this was one of the easier ports

4th December 2009

hiya chick, oops! babe (lets not talk aboot tha chicken eh,) work is busy, its getting cold, xmas stress has arrived (folk running aboot like headless chickens, OOPS headless geese....not chicken) and there you are in the sweltering, humid, beautifull myanmar. lucky you, c u soon fee xxx

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