We arrived at about 5pm from Hpa-an via a boat down the Thanlyin river. It was a nice change, but thank God for earplugs because the engine was very loud – ahh the serenity!
Fortunately the boat dropped us off right next to some guesthouses. The first and cheapest was full, but we found a decent room at Aurora (25,000 kyats for a double with bathroom and aircon) a bit further down the road.
Mawlamyine is apparently the third biggest city in Myanmar and I have to say it was my least favourite so far. As we walked around looking for dinner it felt a bit dodgy.
We ate at a place that was supposed to be Thai, but everyone who worked there seemed either Indian or Bangladeshi. The boy who served us stared very intensely as he patiently waited for us to order. It was amusing, but I think he was just intent on doing a good job. It was good to have some food variety finally!
What is it with us and ice cream? Just a few shops down from our guesthouse was another ice cream shop. I was itching to try a kulfi which is an Indian styled ice cream. There was no choice of flavour, but it was kind of cheese curdy – interesting. The other thing I really wanted to try were these avocado milkshakes (two of my favourite things!) I keep seeing it everywhere, but I was too full.
The next day we hired a driver to take us to Pa-auk Forest Monastery which is about 15km south towards Mudon. You can take the number 8 bus according to our guesthouse, but as we didn’t want to miss lunch with the monks we paid a guy 10,000 kyats to drive us and wait 2.5 hours while we looked around. It took about 30 mins one way.
The van saved us a long walk through the complex and then we walked up the steps to the upper monastery. I think we were walking past lots of small lodgings for the resident monks.
We arrived about 9am towards the end of a meditation session. There was a two level hall full of monks sitting in quiet contemplation. Some were under these bell shaped mosquito nets, but all completely silent and stoic. It was a very tranquil setting, deep in the forest, birds chirping and butterflies flitting about.
We joined the meditation on the top floor and read the teachings on the walls. The interesting thing about Pa-auk is that it is one of few places where anyone can participate. It seems to be known internationally and there are special visas for those wishing to make extended stays. We saw at least a dozen foreign disciples.
At 10am a monk rang a wooden bell signifying that lunch was to begin. We headed to the refectory with the last of the monks and were welcomed in. A huge queue of hundreds of monks had formed around the sides of the walkway. We were a little bit lost as to what the protocol was.
Thankfully, one of the foreign students told us we were standing in the “seniors” queue and rescued us from any disrespect. We grabbed some dishes and waited patiently for our turn. Funnily a monk handed me his dish and pot. Luckily I saw someone else experience the same thing, so I took it and gave it back to him. Later we found out it’s a tradition because all the monks must be given what they have.
Finally it was our turn after 45 minutes. A large group of volunteers were serving food. There were instructions not to waste alms, but a lady dumped about a rice-cooker-worth of rice in my bowl. Holy crap! Then there were all the other dishes. I could only take half of them, but clearly all the good Burmese food has been going to the monks because we haven’t seen too much that wasn’t fried in some way.
The other interesting thing was a drink which I think was made with condensed milk with thinly sliced honey dew and rock melon – delicious. We did our best to eat our alms, but the rice defeated me. A little ashamed, I put the rice in the bin, but there were volunteers collecting it all so presumably it’s not actually wasted.
Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to eat in the main hall with all the monks (guess we had to earn our place first) but overall it was still a cool experience.
Our next step was Kalaw for the hike to Inle Lake so we went looking for buses and found one company just outside the Central Market. It was 20,000 kyats for the 18 hour overnight bus to Kalaw. What a killer, but it was first class.
Since the bus left at 7pm daily, we had to cut our stay short. The guesthouse owner kindly refunded 60% of our cash and we made the most of the room for the afternoon.
Looking to see one last thing before heading to the bus station we took some scooters for 1,500 kyats via the Kyaik Tan Lan pagoda. Amusingly, the guy was happy to take all our gear.
Riding backseat with a 20kg pack was interesting, but even more interesting was the ride from the pagoda to the station where the guy rode with my full pack and tripod between his legs. He wouldn’t let me carry it and seemed to have a point to prove. They were pretty good drivers and like everyone here they were very honest. They insisted on driving us an extra 30m when they stopped at the wrong bus.
I had a little food at a motorbike hawker that reminded me of Penang and then we grabbed something more substantial at a restaurant in the bus interchange with some funny boys working there.
Then began the longest bus ride of my life high up into the mountains to Kalaw and Inle Lake.