Travelling around Burma is a character building experience.
You need patience, stamina and a decent stash of muesli bars.
In a further illustration of the disparity that exists in a country where agriculture still comprises 40 per cent of GDP, Burma now has four domestic airlines.
These are cheap, of surprisingly good standard and, if you are on a tight schedule, can save literally days in travel time.
However, if you’re after a ‘proper’ travel experience, buses, trains or pick ups are the way to go – but keep an open itinerary.
Our journey from Yangon to Kalaw, a distance of around 600km, took more than 13 hours.
This is quite fast by Burmese standards. The new capital Naypyidaw is on the way, ensuring good road quality, but things got pretty rustic after that.
Kalaw is at an altitude of 1300 metres and the roads through the mountain passes were unsealed, narrow and used almost exclusively by heavy vehicles.
Just watching our bus driver gradually maneouvre his way up the mountain served as much better entertainment than the insanely loud Burmese soaps which kept the rest of the passengers (including Gaz) transfixed.
For my other travel companions Otto and Taryn it was their second time in Kalaw – and the trekking guide from the first trip (Alex) greeted us when the bus arrived at 3.30am.
No sooner had we made it into our hotel room than the inevitable occurred. The compulsory Asian stomach bug had taken less than 48 hours to scoff at my pathetic Western immune system and hit me with full force.
It was a rough night, but salvation was to come from an unexpected source the next day, tiger-flavoured medicine.
To be fair I don’t know if this was the case, but there was a tiger on the box, as you can see by clicking here.
I am of course against the improper use of any animal, endangered or otherwise, in the treatment of human ailments – but it’s amazing how a good dose of gastro can make you temporarily step down from the moral high ground.
The medication in question was offered to me by the pleasant woman behind the front desk at out hotel – but there was nothing nice about its consumption.
In consistency it resembled something between powdered concrete and dirt and tasted like it may have been procured from near the back end of the tiger.
Under strict supervision, I placed a hefty pile of the mysterious substance on my tongue, and then added a mouthful of scalding hot water.
I was then to hold this vile mix in my mouth for 30 seconds, just enough time for my gums to peel back, before making a determined attempt to swallow.
For all my criticism of Burmese tiger cement, there’s no arguing against its solidifying effects. A couple of doses and I was back out on the streets of Kalaw, camera in hand, ready for our hike to Inle Lake the next day.
In Aussie vernacular, our trekking guide Alex would be described as a bloody good bloke. He and Otto had kept in touch since their first meeting and I can’t help but feel we were given a special experience due to their friendship.
We stayed overnight in rural villages and monasteries, ate delicious local food prepared by our womanising cook TuTu and learned first hand about the fascinating rate of change in Alex’s home country.
It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime travel experiences that you feel privelaged to live through – like getting drunk on Skull Splitter Scotch Ale in Orkney.
Thankfully, unlike this landmark evening from my time in Scotland, there was no hangover or unpleasant North Sea ferry journeys back to the mainland as a kick in the tail.
Click here to access the Facebook gallery for part II.
In Part III we continue hiking through the countryside, meet a spritely centurion and learn just how hard it is for some to eke out a living in Burma.