Monday, December 29, 2014

Travel low (but only for a few hours)

My friends at the Smart Hotel hooked me up with a ticket to Kalaw on Shwe Nan Taw bus line, departing at 8:30pm on Sunday. (Humorous side note: I just had to take a poll to see if today was, in fact, Monday. I'm on "vacation time" and sleep-whacked, so, unreliable.)

Episode 1: There's an inebriated man--I'll call him Homer Simpson--on the bus being a general, but harmless, nuisance.

Episode 2: There's an older couple (German or Dutch?) seated behind him that really should have thought twice about travel to Myanmar... maybe even travel at all. They are intolerant, and Homer is causing their blood pressure to skyrocket, primarily because he has the audacity to be showing signs of intoxication and yet have two more beers in his sack. Homer was touching the back of his own seat--thereby putting his hands in Mr. German/Dutch's declared (though not actual) personal space. The reaction is excessive, as Mr. G/D loudly declares he "will cut Homer's hands off" if Homer crosses the imaginary line again. Ok, sure. That's a reasonable next step. Pandemonium ensues.

Episode 3: As a result of Episode 2, we depart 10 minutes behind schedule. We make a right turn out of the bus station parking lot. A few blocks up the road, and maybe 2 minutes later, the driver is attempting a left turn onto a main road. As I mentioned, the traffic pattern is General Chaos: we T-bone a small car. I didn't actually see the impact, though we weren't going fast, and frankly it seems the car's driver had entered a no-win contest based on ego. He lost. Now what?

Nothing. We stopped a few minutes. Then a few more, up the road at a filling station--presumably to get a well-lit assessment of the damage. Then we left for Kalaw.

Alright then.

On the bus, I was served a cup a coffee. Then a Mandalay donut and a wet wipe. And then I was given my Passenger Prize: a 2015 Shwe Nan Taw calendar. Awesome.

Our ETA wasn't clear. I had heard mixed information: the Madalay-Kalaw journey is 6 hours, no 8, no 10. The later the arrival, the better, from my perspective: 1) Kalaw is in the mountains and it gets cold at night, 2) I don't have a place to sleep until tomorrow--with an early afternoon check-in. To be clear, the one piece left to chance on my itinerary was the Mandalay-Kalaw transportation. I had vague ideas of methods, timing, and prices, but nothing was certain. It couldn't be, because there was no way to book any arrangements online. So I had kind of prepared myself mentally for this to be a less-than-ideal evening.

And so it was.

The bus pulled into Kalaw at 2:30am. Oh, perfect! At the "stop" (where the bus pulled to the side of the road), an older gentleman with a dubious air was hawking a bed in a "shared room" for US $7. Perhaps it would have been good to accept, but I felt uncomfortable about going heavens-knows-where in the middle of the night to sleep in some room where others are already asleep. It could be his kids in this "room for rent," or in-laws or backpackers... Who knows? I decided to wait for sunrise at the a 24-hour "café" up the road. Know this: Kalaw is tiny. There shouldn't be anything open 24 hours--so I feel lucky. But this place is...

...where I would spend the next 4 cold hours. With the exception of the two breaks attending to Mother Nature on the dirt road behind said "café"--which has no bathroom. It's a super dingy place, with 10" stools that are not designed for long-term (or short-term) comfort. Mini-tables (16"H) complete the set.

Initially, there are 11 other patrons, all male, all locals--plus the lad running the place. They serve the worst coffee ever... but it's better than roaming dark streets. There's even some Tom Cruise movie on HBO. And against all odds, wifi.

Sure. Why not?

Two hours later, my humor is waning. I'm tired, cold, and had resisted peeing in the dark alley until I had lost all hope of an alternative. I grapple with my frustration at whoever had the genius idea to drop tourists in a shuttered town at 2:30 am and simple gratitude for the fact that I am on holiday in Myanmar. I knew that the latter will win, but at that moment it was a dead heat.

Lucky for me, entertainment arrived around 4:30. First, in the form of English-speaking local Ko Min, who runs a trekking company to Inle Lake. We had a nice conversation: he's a funny, curious, smart and amiable fellow.

About the time that Ko Min had to get on with his day, other backpackers arrived. First, three solo travelers that started going the same route--a Swiss guy and girl, and a Dutch guy. Next, a French couple. (Incidentally, the Europeans are a few steps ahead of the USAmericans in catching on to the delights of Myanmar.) Among these new "single serving friends," I whiled away over 2 hours in better spirits. I ate "parata with egg" (yum) and waited for sunrise so I could venture out on the road toward my B&B.

To be courteous, I will abstain from naming the place. It's located a 30 minute walk, mostly uphill, from the village center. There are no street lights and no street signage that would be useful to a foreigner--so obviously I wouldn't have set off alone in the dark. Much better to get desperately lost during daytime. Plus, even if I had gone night wandering, and had miraculously found the place, no one would have been awake to let me in, and surely the limited rooms would be occupied.

I arrived at Guesthouse-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless (heretofore, "Guesthouse") shortly after 7:00am. I was greeted by the owner, who I had corresponded with on numerous occassions since my April booking. I asked to drop my luggage--understanding that I wouldn't have a space for several hours. He tells me that there's a nice hill hike just up the road. There are lovely views at the top, he says, and it will take about 90 minutes--about the amount he'll need to prepare my room.

Note 1: The owner is not Burmese. At the time I thought this might be an advantage: perhaps he was more in tune with Western comforts and business practices. I would later realize this was a patently erroneous assumption.

Note 2: Eight months ago I selected this Guesthouse, after due diligence, for its charming, secluded, garden bungalows. I prepaid for two people (as is the custom when traveling as a single but wanting a private room) with my reservation: US$40/night for two nights. When I booked the room, the owner emailed to say that he hadn't yet updated the booking site (Agoda) with the high season prices, but he wouldn't require a 2-person payment for a single. All told, though I only paid $40 when I would have otherwise paid $44/single/night for the garden bungalow in high season, the owner would honor the (mis)pricing.

Or not.

I had a few misgivings recently, because the owner wasn't good about responding to my emails requesting confirmation. I've read several stories in Myanmar forums that mentioned people with reservations (prepaid or not) arriving to find their rooms "unavailable" in the high season.  So you better believe I pestered every accommodation I pre-booked to confirm and re-confirm.

Given the well-documented Mandalay-Kalaw transportation mystery, when I realized (the day prior to the bus journey, when I arrived at the Smart Hotel) that I would arrive in Kalaw inconveniently early, I emailed the Guesthouse to ask for advice. No response.

So I get to the Guesthouse, exhausted and cold, and the owner informs me that I am now in the single bed room in the home, rather than in one of the three garden bungalows. This room, unfortunately, overlooks the noisy construction site of a new hotel about 50 feet from the window. I am really unpleased to hear this.

Seriously? I booked and paid for a particular room 8 months ago--and he's telling me, in not so many words, that because I am traveling solo and had paid that -$4 rate (his error), he just bumped me into a lesser room to accommodate other guests, in spite of my confirmationS.

Hmmmm. Ok. I mentioned, uber-politely that I was a little disappointed, but he did nothing to acquiesce. He did offer me breakfast in a corner for K2,500.

Nobody puts Baby in the corner.

I go for that walk.

You know what? NOT ok. A little over an hour later I return and tell him that I would like a refund and for him to find a comparable place in town for me to stay. He was polite but not apologetic. He purported that his was one of the lowest rates in town (which I knew to be false), and that "others [guesthouse proprieters] get angry at me for my low rates." Yeah, sure. He tried to subtract the Agoda booking commission from my refund, since I "was canceling." Uh, nope. I am not canceling. You re-sold a room (three times over) that I had paid for, and downgraded my booking without advisement or concession. Nope. His $14 commission loss was not my concern.

In the end, he refunded my money in full and had a young lady that worked for him take me (on her motorbike--an adventure in itself: her slight frame, my not-slight frame, and my big backpack on a tiny scooter!) to a friends' place across town.

That place is Nature Land Hotel (the original, not #2), and I lucked out. There is no hot water, but who cares? Every other aspect is totally my speed. The sprawling grounds are goregous. I have a traditional bungalow. The staff are amazing. They serve the most delightful breakfast--different each morning, in private little huts surrounded by lush gardens. And it was less than half the price that the Guesthouse owner had charged me.

Moreover, the Burmese proprieters and staff of Nature Land have already (in a matter of hours) exceeded all expectations of kindness, courtesy, and service. They confirmed my New Years Eve flight on Air KBZ to Bagan, and they made sure that all of the logistics for tomorrow's visit to Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp goes off without a hitch.

Which brings me, finally, to close on this: my visit to GHV, where I will bathe elephants, hike, and plant teak trees--and learn a ton about regional conservation efforts--had been the expected pinnacle of this entire trip. Let's see!