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Hsipaw - Liverpool FC and Burmese Tea

Written on: Tuesday March 11th, 2008

A journal entry from: Around The World Without A Plane

Crikey, I could write a book just on Burma there?s so much to write about, but I?ll try to keep it concise. Hsipaw ? a little town with not really a lot to talk of. It has a high street, it?s on the main route in to China, which the Chinese have without conscience once again utilised for their own profits to import their cheap, crapply manufactured goods in to Burma, and the expensive teak, oil and illegal trade of drugs out back in to China. But it?s the fact that Hsipaw has a cinema that I will remember it for.

On a map the distance between Mandalay and Hsipaw doesn?t look all that. It?s actually only 314 miles, but the journey took for ever as it wound up and down valleys and across hills. This time though I had the pleasure of being joined by Hans, my beer sharing, Austrian friend; Kiwi Dan, who had taken to sharing a room with me and the newly married, Dominique and Marko from Switzerland. The bus was packed, and not just with people. The whole of the back 4 rows were piled with bags of rice, vegetables and vast amounts of other bags and boxes that were no doubt to be sold in the villages along our route, or perhaps on a longer journey further north east in to China. The journey took 10 hours anyhow, but was reasonably scenic, and I had Hans next to me who is my travelling God! A 62 year old who has travelled just about everywhere in the world there is to travel, and he has a story for each and every place to boot. He lives up in the Austrian mountains when he?s not travelling, which isn?t actually that often. Every other minute on the journey he would break out with another tale of his adventures. Now normally this could be quite an annoyance, but Hans told a good story, and was like a 21 year old travelling for the first time the way he went about each place we stopped off at with a fervour not that of what you?d expect of a 62 year old. Faced with the option between Hans and Dan, (the Kiwi had been following the same sort of route as me since leaving the Motherland in Yangon), totting up both of their vital statistics and comparing them with mine, you?d expect that I would have hung out with Dan more often, but there were many reasons why this was simply not so. 

On your travels you meet many, many people, and generally they are all pretty good people, sharing a lot in common. In Thailand there is quite a mixed bunch because some are package tourists, whereas the rest of Asia it?s more likely you?ll bump in to other backpackers. The package tourists I?ve met have all been good, easy to get on with people though too, just generally with a different agenda. They?re mostly here to lie on the beach by day, and get off their head by night, day-in, day-out. Dan is a 32 year old traveler, who has a passion for climbing, and had come to Burma for very similar reasons I had, and was also intent on minimising the amount of dollar going to the government. It seems we had many things in common. I despised him. It?s a pretty harsh word ?despise?, but it?s true I did. There aren?t many people in my 29 years that I?ve met and I can affix that word to, but Dan is one. He was a completely idiot. First impressions back in the Motherland made me think he was alright, we had dinner together one night and ended up sharing a room one night together in Mandalay. It was at that point though I realised the guy was missing some sort of social gene. There was something not quite right about his ability (or inability) to interact. He had commented on my foot on our first meeting, as my ankle had swollen up to quite large proportions with the antibiotics I was on beginning to take effect. He sounded quite knowledgeable to start with, and then went on to talk about all the things he had brought with him in his first aid kit, and about how he had treated a man who had cut himself in the street. I immediately assumed he must have some sort of career in the medical industry, so I asked him thus. ?No, I?m a labourer? he replied. ?I mostly do gardens, like clearing out areas and stuff.? Fair enough, I thought him just an intelligent guy who hadn?t yet found his niche, who was clever enough to know that if you?re going to travel on your own you need to know how to look after yourself. As time went on though it soon became apparent that Dan here was a little infatuated with all things medical, you might go as far as to describe him obsessive. He began regularly commenting on how he needed to top up his first-aid kit, how when I was redressing my toe one evening, that he would have to get some more gauze the next day. That wasn?t the worst of it. His other obsession was being a complete skinflint and pikey! Wherever we went the first thing he would say was, ?How much is that?? almost certainly followed by ?I?m not sure?. We stopped off for lunch at a small village on the way through to Hsipaw. Myself, Hans, Dominique and Marco sat down at a little restaurant to eat, while Dan declined, instead hovering around, pushing out his face and his chin, squinting with his slitty eyes and screwing up his face, like an old disagreeable Victorian headmaster inspecting his classes? fingernails. He said he wouldn?t eat as it was too expensive (lunch cost us 75p each), instead he brought some processed cupcakes for the equivalent of a pound. Weirdo. This was probably the third or forth meal I had shared with Dan where Dan hadn?t actually eaten anything. Cheap date he may be, but not much of a conversationalist, unless of course you want to talk about Band-Aids and hairline fractures. Don?t get me wrong I understand the money issue. It is constantly a burden when you are travelling for a long period of time in any regular country that has its fair supply of ATMs. You have to budget otherwise you?ll be back home in no time, and in Burma it?s even more important as if you run out of whatever it is you?ve brought in, it?s either very difficult to get further funds or extremely costly. But you?ve also got to think about where you are. Burma, back in the days of British colonialism was the richest country in South East Asia. It is now the poorest with, thanks to the government, the highest rate of inflation. Families here survive on roughly 50p a day. They are happy in their lives if they know they can afford to feed the entire family for the next three days. They will think about the forth day tomorrow. So here is Dan, squabbling and kicking up a fuss about paying a local restaurant owner 75p for a plate of rice, chicken and vegetables. ?That?s too much!? I wanted to bury his head in the bowl of rice. He wanted to haggle on prices with everybody. Fair enough in the markets of Bangkok or with the motorbike taxis in Saigon. Those people sell you a big price in the beginning for the very reason to haggle. These local Burmese people weren?t trying to cheat us out of the dollars we had brought in to the country, they were trying to make a living, and have the few Westerners that now come to and visit this part of the country help towards this. It?s safe to say he infuriated me like nobody else I have met on my travels, and I planned to go somewhere different to him after Hsipaw just so I could avoid him on any further parts of my trip here.

It actually turned out that I didn?t have to change my own plans as the day after we arrived in Hsipaw Dan miraculously left, just like that. We?d actually shared a room the night previous, although I wasn?t there that much (I?ll get on to that in a second). When I returned after a day of hiking through the nearby hills I was told he had taken off earlier on that day. Nobody really knew where he?d gone, but I found a note in one of my books I had left out, commenting on something he thought I?d said but whereas I had actually said quite the opposite. He penned that he was going to try and go to another town, that we had passed near on the bus the day before and left his email at the bottom of the note, saying he hoped to meet up again soon for a beer. And who?s going to buy those beers Danny boy? Certainly not you, that I?m sure of. I promptly disposed of the note in the bin, hoping never to have to struggle to talk to that man again.

Hans however was a different kettle of fish. Maybe because of his age, maybe because of his ever-present grin, maybe because of his good-natured and free-living personality, maybe all of these, he reminded me of my Dad. We got on extremely well, I lapped up his stories and he in turn enjoyed my own that I bestowed upon him. His favourite words were ?Simon, you wanna share a beer with me??, in his lively Austrian accent. This brings me nicely in to the cinema and why it was I wasn?t didn?t spend much time sleeping in my room the first night. Oh the cinema! How funny that on arriving in Hsipaw the first thing I see is a large chalkboard sitting grandly on a wooden stand outside Hsipaw?s proud cinema advertising Inter Milan vs Liverpool that night at 2:15 in the morning, live from the San Siro Stadium. This I was not going to miss. And so Hans that night became a disciple of Liverpool FC, not wanting to miss out on the fun. In fact, he was knocking on my door before I was even up, ?Simon, are you awake?? I grinned to myself knowing he had woken up Dan also. 

When we arrived at the cinema, it was nowhere near full, but had about 30 people already sitting there getting ready to enjoy the Champions League showcase, a fair few of these onlookers being members of the monkhood. So Hans insisted on taking a photo with my fellow Liverpool supporters, as the whole cinema was cheering for the Pool. The Burmese people, as I have touched on before, are an extremely warm, caring and welcoming people. When they see you walking along the street, they stare up at you (as even I am tall here) like you?re some sort of Hollywood celebrity. Once acknowledging them, a broad smile appears on their faces and they?ll make every effort to talk to you, even with the few English phrases that they possess. It?s the same conversation each time, always beginning with ?Where you from?, followed by ?Are you married?, but the difference with the Burmese is that as soon as you say you are from England, they ring off all the Premiership teams they know, and most of them know them all, then they go through all their favourite players. They simply love the English football here. Viet Nam showed a lot of it in their bars, even in Cambodia and Laos we saw a couple of games, but here is unbelievable. Everybody has Manchester United and Liverpool shirts, although I regret to say it but most Burmese are Man U fans, adoring Rooney and Ronaldo. It is funny though that stopping to talk with a random Burmese who only knows four key English phrases can take up an hour because after their first question they learn you are from the footballing Mecca and they then want to talk about last weekend?s games and goals. What made this particular night even more special than what it already was that Liverpool beat Inter in their own backyard thanks to a sweet half-volley from Fernando Torres, taking Liverpool in to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. The cinema stood and cheered in their jubilation. No ripping out the chairs and chanting that ?The referee?s a w#*@*r?½?? here.

I ventured off on my own the following morning, after my eggs and bananas which I can see myself eating every morning for my entire 21 days here as it?s included with the rate of the room in every guesthouse, off towards the hills north of Hsipaw. I had a fantastic day, strolling across paddy fields full with locals ploughing it with their buffalo or picking the tea leaves. As I got further away from the town, the smiles I had previously received took a while longer to come as the people, the children especially were not so used to seeing ?farang? or white folk, visit these parts. Some were intrigued, others were horrified and ran as fast as they could. 

I made it to a dried-up limestone waterfall, where I relaxed for an hour or so with Stephen Fry?s autobiography, then began to wander back across the fields to Hsipaw. I went a different route back and ended up on a main road somewhere, but a very nice random pulled over on his bike, politely asked where I was going, beckoned me on the back and started off up the hill back towards Hsipaw. He stopped at his house just on the outskirts of the village, where I began what should have been the short walk back to Mr Charles? Guesthouse, only after about five minutes of walking a middle-aged, bearded gentleman shouted ?Hello? at me from his bamboo café. I was vey thirsty after walking good on 10 hours and so decided I?d take a rest and some water in his café. The man introduced himself as Sai, a great name I told him, and then proceeded in the excellent English he spoke to give me his life and family history. After a thirst quenching bottle of water we started on the Burmese Tea which is exceptional. Made with a layer of condensed milk at the bottom it is the sweetest, most gorgeous cup of tea you?re ever likely to taste, and because of this I?d learnt how to ask for it in Burmese too. The tea though was soon substituted for a bottle of Burmese whisky and before I knew it Sai was introducing me to his wife and showing off how extremely proud he was of his two sons, two daughters and nephew, all of whom he introduced me to. Next came the tour of his house and the many things within it he had built himself, followed by his wedding album and then talks of a more serious nature about the government rule. Sai hated the government with a passion, and told me of a time he had worked for two years in the jungle working in a makeshift hospital looking after people who had been hurt in skirmishes with the government. The area I was in, Northern Shan State is notorious for having pockets of unrest and many insurgent groups hiding out in the jungles. He called the government the ?LLB ?¿½?? Lawless Burmans?, describing them as ?snakes in the grass?.

He insisted that I stay and have dinner with him, but apologetically and ashamedly admitted to me that he did not have good enough food for me to eat at his home so he would take me to a restaurant. It was I who was ashamed, that I should come here and be treated like I was somebody important. Quite the contrary, I was somebody who in comparison to these people has had such an easy life, born in to a good family, given the opportunity to learn, the opportunity to travel and the opportunity to make as much money as I wanted. The Burmese people have no such opportunity. The government runs the schools, and if you want to send your children there you have to pay the government. If you can afford for your children to go to school the system, although based on the British education system, is archaic in its teaching style. Children are taught at, or rather talked at, there is no opportunity for them to learn through their own discovery, their own initiative, their own expressions. You either take it in or you don?t. Sai had afforded to recently send one of his daughters off to university in a city 100 miles further north to study computers. He had done this by selling several of his homely possessions. Yet after I had been introduced to many of his friends, eaten and drunk several more bottles of whisky with them all and laughed away about football once more, he flatly refused, almost to the point of taking offence at me contributing to the bill, let alone at me paying for it all. Instead he presented me with two pieces of jade, which is mined in several areas of Myanmar. ?A present to remember me by? he told me, as if after this insane act of generosity, this welcoming in to his family, his life, I would ever forget him and the time I spent in his company. He dropped me off on his motorbike back at Mr Charles? where Hans met me smiling expectantly, informing me that we were going for a beer and some pancakes so I could tell him all about my day.