Our third and final day for messing about on the water and after a visit to the (closed) wildfowl sanctuary where from the somewhat broken down steps we watched rogue fisherman indulge in a bit of fishing in illegal waters, we headed out to see the snack-arge cottage industries of the lake in Khaung Daing.
You couldn’t move for every householder steaming his nuts, roasting his nuts, or drying his nuts in the sun, and not just nuts, but soya beans, pea beans, tofu (made from chickpeas, not soya) or whatever protien-y goodness was to hand such as sunflower seeds and a small pocket of rice cracker producers. Mornings are a veritable hive of sweaty industry over boiling pots and naked flames. Once the cooking was done, then it was sorting out the slightly burnt bits of skin or nuts before bagging. In Khaung Daing, it seems that if you could roast it then you could coat it, bag it in cellophane and sell it. Business was good too, judging by the number of new breeze block houses going up that were replacing the previous woven bamboo ones, and the piles and piles of product drying out in the sun on woven mats.
We stopped to talk to one lady who ferments soy, rolls the pats and flattens them out before setting them out to dry. They have her mark on them – a star, which is carved into the mould she flattens them out on, she’ll make about 5000 a day.
Her business had helped to send her niece to university, where she was undertaking a PhD. Her and her family talked about the village having a lack of land for people to farm, hence the need to produce the snacks. In other villages people were selling land, as the prices were going up, however they weren’t investing the money for the long term, spending it then ending up broke, a pattern I’ve heard repeated in other countries, such as Laos.
We also saw toffee brittle twists being made. Not quite Willy Wonka’s Factory, certainly a lot more rustic. Ladies take the sugar blocks were saw the day before and return it to a semi-solid state before pulling it into a more elastic state over a hook outside their room. Once it’s suitably stretched and softened it’s taken inside and then lengths of it are pulled, snipped with giant scissors and twisted into little knots before being packed.
Before lunch, which turned out to be the most middle class stops ever, complete with retired banker (slight typo there but I’ll leave it) in pink shorts, pinkie ring and rugby shirt with the collar turned up and his trim blonde wife no.2, we stopped off at Nga Hpa Cheung Monastery, aka Jumping Cat Monastery. This was previously a stop for tourists to see cats jumping through hoops, the previous abbot having trained the felines to do tricks. Apparently people (e.g. tourists) complained, so now people (e.g. tourists) get to see a vast array of buddha statues and a teak monastery and some very lazy cats that do sod all. It wasn’t as if they were jumping through hoops of flames or broken glass folks! Now there’s no real distraction to the overdose of Buddha in various repose.
Lunch done and we headed off up a small canal that soon became a ditch with no water, in order to visit a local monk. Mr Lien wanted to use his monastery / village hall to have the conservation meeting in as it was pretty central for everyone. Knowing protocol but knowing there was no way I’d be able to bow down so all 5 parts of me that needed to be on the floor at the same time were meant I resorted to fey Princess Diana nodding of head and looking all doe-eyed and respectful as Mr Lien, some local women and head monk discussed the meeting. All was fine-ish till I went to stand up, a dead leg and an ankle bone that had become overly sensitive meant that a small array of swear words may have escaped my lips as I attempted to become upright. I say ‘stand up’, what I did was sort of roll to one side using the momentum to try and bring me to the vertical. Nearly worked too, if it wasn’t for that pesky pain and lack of blood in required parts. Still, I managed to hobble my way down the stairs and senior monk said ‘See you again soon’ very politely in perfect English, which made me suspect he may have sussed the swear words weren’t gestures of goodwill and thanks for his hospitality.
Our final stop was Maing Thauk bridge, a mini U Pein of Inle, a pretty decent location to see the floating islands up close more than anything. A tourist had paid to build the bridge a few years ago to enable schoolkids to walk to the landside of the village to get to school, and due to it’s location it had become a destination point to see Inle, with a couple of restaurants popping up and snack sellers and the like. Mr Lien suggested I could cycle out here on my remaining couple of days, as well as stop off and visited the vineyard nearby and / or see the hot springs. I listened attentively, looked at the route on the map with him and nodded with a real sense of determinedness to do it, but my reality was nowhere near the tourist dreamland Mr Lien was suggesting. I was knackered, with the onset of another lurgy heading my way, which would in some part explain the out of breathedness and wooziness everytime I ventured up a few steps. We finished up the final day with me totally templed out and overloaded with Inle info. I knew that I wasn’t stepping foot outside of Nyaung Shwe until I got on the bus to Mount Kyyaiktiyo and ideally wasn’t stepping beyond the bottom of my road if I could help it. The only exception to that was when I wanted to go and eat, and even that was becoming an effort.
What I hadn’t bargained on was that I’d end up on my last night working in a restaurant doing the washing up out the back in the dark, rather than out the front nursing a beer and a curry. For two nights I had eaten at a little Indian place next to the hotel, it was run my a mad Eminen fan and Ali G character with betel stained teeth and a hyperactive manner. It was him as front of house and he insisted on not writing down your order, plus it was slightly erractic when you got a menu, got your drink, got a seat or your food. As everything is made fresh there was then a 45min to 1hour wait, but worth it, particularly for the mutton masala, and finally the raita that I ordered the first night which finally came good on the second. For my last night I wanted something light so went to Paw Paw which seemingly did light Burmese food, all freshly made. What I hadn’t anticipated was that a) it was heaving, b) front of house was an 85yr old woman, c) the daughter Zizi was the only one cooking and d) their boy help had minimal English and was equally overloaded by the mayhem.
I got a seat at a table that 2 Americans were vacating, or so I thought. The husband was sitting there as his wife had taken on waitressing responsibilities for some of the other tables. Zizi was drowning under the weight of orders, people were waiting for over an hour to be served, and other tables were waiting for tables to be cleared. The interim help managed to palm her duties off on a British guy by the kitchen, as she really did want to get back to her hotel for the night, and a French woman who had got to know Zizi pitched in with veg chopping so that left clearing tables and washing up, and so having put my order in with Zizi’s elderly mother I set to work.
The sinks out the back were lit by one candle, had no plugs and no running water. The water came out of butts, big butts. Turned out I used the water for cooking for the first big round of washing up…only me and their boy helper knows that…it was difficult to spot the other water butt in the pitch dark! Still I managed to get myself a system in order to work through what was a massive backlog of crockery, cutlery and glassware. It also meant I was away from the 2 miserable German guys on the table I was sat next to, who were whinging about the delay and the other bonus was I got my food a lot quicker – a deliciously light pumpkin and lemongrass curry with rice. The food was what I needed, full of subtle flavour, the pumpkin texture still firm, the dish not oily at all, just good food lovingly made in the madness of a randomly overfull restaurant being helped out by volunteers.
Once I’d eaten I stayed on to help in the kitchen, as did Pascale, the newly created sous chef, and Brit waiter boy, who also managed to find some new volunteers for the next night too. Pascale and her table finally got to eat about 10pm as the restaurant shut, and once they were done we packed up and I said I’d pop back in the morning to see Zizi for a proper chat. Heading home having done an honest few hours of work, I also popped in to see Ali G at the Indian to wish him well for his sister’s wedding the next day. He promptly invited me to pop in before I headed off on my bus journey the next day and to pick up a lil’ bit of bus ride dinner – how sweet is that?