Coffeemix and a Celica, or the Road to Pyin U Lwin

Karen, Ne Lin and I took the bus from Nyaungshwe to Mandalay and travelled from there to the hill station of Pyin U Lwin. They were going because they had heard it was really nice. I was going because it was one of the places that, 50 years earlier, British travel writer Norman Lewis had included in his book Golden Earth, only then it was a Colonial hill station and called Maymyo.

The town was one of many renamed by the junta about a decade ago, supposedly as a way of consolidating national unity; even the country was renamed, from Burma to Myanmar, as the generals claimed “Burma” was too closely associated with the Bamar majority people. Most young people use “Myanmar”, possibly because that’s what they’ve been brought up with, but older people often use “Burma” to show what they think of the junta, and that’s why I’ve used the words Burma and Burmese in these travelogues.

We arrived in Mandalay about 4.30am, with around two hours to wait for a bus to Maymyo. Despite the time, the streets were pretty packed, with monks collecting donations of food. Burmese males are expected to become monks at least twice in their lives, even if it’s only for a couple of weeks. The mother of a friend of Ne Lin’s, having heard about her son’s antics in Thailand, told him he had better go to a pagoda for a few weeks to atone for his sins!

It’s a common sight all over Asia, though: monks wandering the streets soliciting their food for the day. People feed them in the hope of “earning merit”, and increasing their chances of being reincarnated into a better life (a big incentive in a country with as many problems as Burma!).

We whiled away our time drinking Coffeemix, a three-in-one blend of coffee powder, sugar and creamer, and which is particularly popular in Burma. Signs outside roadside cafes, for example, proudly proclaim: “Coffeemix”. There is something quite addictive about the stuff. Although Coffeemix would be your last choice of beverage when you arrive, after a week, you will not patronise any establishment that doesn’t offer Coffeemix. I’m not making this up: I met scores of other visitors who swore at first that they would dehydrate to death before they would drink Coffeemix who also developed an addiction for the stuff.

The ‘bus’ was actually a songthaew, and it was eventually ready to leave. We set off. And promptly stopped outside an office at the side of the road. From there, we went to a petrol station, where the driver put some fuel in the tank, then, after driving for about five minutes, we stopped to fill up at one of those roadside carts of pop bottles of fuel.

I found out later that drivers, even bus and pickup drivers, are rationed to six or eight (can’t remember which) litres of petrol a week, and after that they have to turn to the black market. One litre of ‘legal’ fuel costs 800 kyat, but it’s 1,800 kyat a litre on the black market. And, of course, people have no choice but to pay, even the bus drivers who provide public transport in a country where so few people have their own vehicle! Oh yeah, and a country that has such reserves of oil there was once a company called Burmah Oil.

We arrived in Maymyo and called the guesthouse, which sent our ‘free transport’ to collect us – a Toyota Celica with a purple metallic paint job, thumping sound system (Burmese rap again), with a row of lights across the back bumper that flashed in time to the music, and “Blackburn Rovers” seat covers (even though the driver looked at me blankly when I said: “Blackburn Rovers?”). We didn’t half give the trap-pulling ponies a fright!

There’s supposed to be a nice-ish waterfall near Maymyo, but I didn’t find it because, having rented a bike, I got lost and ended up checking out the suburbs. I noticed elsewhere how quickly Burmese towns, especially the small ones, become the countryside. One street is shops cafes etc and the next is a field with just one house surrounded by crops; bizarre, and disorientating.

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