Back in Nyaungshwe there’s time to find the bank to change money. Hotel reception tells me there’s one just down the road but when I get there, it’s closed. All banks close at three pm – a legacy from the British I suppose. I have better luck changing my US dollars back at the Cherry Queen Hotel. They are apologetic about not giving the same rate as the bank and it all has to be approved by the Finance Department which is upstairs. Phone calls are made to verify the amount then one of the girls has to go up the stairs to collect the cash. The Post Office is in the opposite direction where I easily by stamps for postcards. Yes, I have one or two friends who still do these.
Richard still owes a couple of our group massages. Ray, who now has an infected foot, is in no mood for this, but Mike is up for it. Garry and I decide to join the expedition and follow Richard C into town via a dog’s hind leg route. He points out land-marks on the way and I’m thinking that this may well prove useful later. The Massage is once again excellent – one by women this time. Mike and I share a room and I hear him giggling away to himself. The masseuse keeps asking him if he’s OK – he’s just enjoying himself. Rather than walk all the way back to the hotel, Garry and I stop for a beer and wait for the others to join us for dinner. It’s Ray’s choice – he’s done his research on ‘gay friendly’ places in Myanmar and day-time coffee has confirmed this place. The obviously gay friendly staff aren’t on this evening, but that’s OK, they are still friendly. Some of the others are going on to a bar, but I’m ready to go home and set off confident that I know the way back. A turn to the right seems to be leading me into the outskirts and I end up in a dead end bus terminal, dark and deserted. Retracing my steps I run into Nev and Richard N – who fortunately know that it’s a left turn that’s needed to get back to the Cherry Queen.
The following morning we’re back on the road to Mandalay. Last year this journey took twelve hours and was allegedly scenic for part of the way. Four of our party have elected to fly on a leisurely midday flight. It’s an early start for those of us loyal to Priscilla but the deserters still have to get up and pack so that their luggage can go on the bus.
Our intrepid navigators Oo and Suu have a plan to take the quick route and not to stop for lunch. Our journey to Mandalay takes only six hours and we arrive olnly half an hour later that the flyers – much to their surprise. This gives me and Peter time for yet another massage – to remove the travel weariness and meet up for drinks before a fantastic Burmese meal from Mama’s Guest house, served on the roof.
Our final destination is Pyin Oo Lwin, the Hill station where the British carried out their colonial administration in the hot season. It’s a sprawling mass of a place with remnants of early 19th C colonial architecture struggling to be recognised among later additions and alterations. We visit a waterfall which Richard hasn’t seen before. It’s full of local tourists and the young men have taken off their shirts for a swim. We buy hot freshly cooked snacks from a stall and explore. These falls cascade over arranged rocks made from concrete, they are pretty but artificial.
Next we call in at Oo’s favourite temple it’s claimed to have the largest marble Buddha in the world. The Chinese had ordered it and were trying to transport it back to China. The task seemed impossible and it was decided that the Buddha did not want to travel to China, so here it stayed.
There’s time to recover before what Richard says will be a surprise at 4pm. It’s a ride in horse-drawn carriages.
Peter and I go for the pink one and off we all go to look at the colonial architecture, which now seems out of place in this country. We pass a mosque then stop at a Hindu temple, followed by the Catholic and Anglican churches.
It is strange to be in these familiar buildings albeit with a local flavour. Our dinner tonight overlooks a lake or more properly, a dam. Garry orders a whole bottle of Gin and a crate load of tonic plus ice, so we are obliged to help him out with this.
We walk the short distance back to the Hotel in the dark. It’s threatening rain and continues to do so the next day when we visit the National Kandawgyi Gardens. Richard C is intending to change money in town and gives me what he thinks might be enough to cover our entrance fee.
It’s nowhere near enough, but I can just manage it leaving me with 500kt (50c). I immediately set of to walk around the lake as indicated on the map. The layout looks promising with manicured lawns and brightly coloured bedding plants. The weather is inclement and we have only two hours before the bus collects us.
I’m attracted to the bamboo groves. I’ve always admired its versatility and tenacity. It has so many uses from scaffolding to kitchen ware. Some of the stands here are massive. There’s an aviary and I’m apprehensive as I especially hate seeing birds in cages. They were meant to fly. These ones are in a netted off forest, not exactly free to fly away but better – only just. There’s a raised forest walk – very trendy in botanical gardens these days and a massive orchid section. Unfortunately it’s not the season and I’m guessing that this would be fantastic at the right time of year.
By this time I’ve teamed up with Peter and John who seem to have a system. We have a look at the butterfly museum. No, there aren’t any butterflies floating around, they are all dead and we’re initially disappointed but they are so magnificently mounted – arranged in patterns en mass, that we are stunned. I am determined to walk right around the lake, even though it means going out of the park and around the road. Richard N, who has rushed up the tower, joins me and John – Peter takes a short cut bridging the lake.
The view from the tower is through dirty glass windows, not worth the climb as the lift is not working. Everyone else is having coffee when we get back to the main entrance and the bus is waiting for us.
There is no sign of Richard C when we get back to the hotel, which is a bit of a worry as I now don’t have enough cash for lunch. A whole crowd of us go to a local espresso place which does cakes and French toast. Garry treats me to lunch but back at the hotel, Richard is still not around. He’s been all day looking for a place to change dollars, not realising that it’s Sunday. Eventually a gold jewellery shop does it. Fortunately he returns in time for me to pay for my last Burmese massage. Having been told that there are no massage places here, Garry has discovered a couple of lads who make Hotel visits and I’ve grabbed one of them.
They are rumoured to be twins but when both arrive at my room, they are clearly not even brothers. Richard N has agreed to vacate our room for ninety minutes, so I leave one lad and take the other one to Garry. I’m a bit nervous about this taking place in the hotel room but this turns out to be the deepest and best massage of the tour. My lad says he’s nineteen – been doing this for one year and his mate who finishes a bit early, comes to chat while he finishes. They have little English, but I gather that they only visit hotels and massage ladies and men. They get excited when I mention Aung San Suu Kyi and they have heard of Obama, although I point out that unlike Garry, I am not American. The older lad is twenty and sports the local sun-block on his cheeks. They both have mobile phones and were probably checking with each other and whoever finds them the work.
The last dinner is a set menu at the old ‘Club’ building from colonial times. We are the only guests and have an entire dining to ourselves. It’s a great atmosphere and we’ve had a fantastic time with Outside the Square. Richard did warn us that Myanmar is still developing and not to expect the same standards as other nearby countries. We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the hotels and how safe we all feel in this amazing country.
This all may change in the future, but I hope not. Best of all, someone points out, that being an all gay group, we’ve not had to filter our conversation as we do in mixed situations. This has surely contributed to the relaxed atmosphere throughout the tour. I’m looking forward to Argentina with Richard C in September – watch out for it.