I have the answer to Formula 1s lack of teams problem. They need to get a Burmese team. These guys really know how to overtake.
We hired a private taxi to get us up to Pyin Oo Lwin (POL from here on in), the old British summer capital. A place to go to escape the heat. There are lots of options to get around Myanmar: posh bus, not so posh bus, trains (v slow), strange pick up things with bench seats in the back, some rickshaws, motorbike taxis, shared taxis, boat and private taxis. We chose the last for ease and the fact we are getting over-privileged and lazy.
Our driver was in a race to the top and was undertaking, overtaking, weaving in and out and getting so close to trucks our bonnet was physically under the flat bed. This in a country where fancy car seats cover rear seatbelt buckles. The saving grace is that the conditions of the roads mean It is very difficult to exceed 60kph. Perhaps that is why Myanmar does not have an F1 team.
The trip up is reasonably interesting and as the road climbs into the hills there is the potential for great views, though at this time of year smoke from cooking fires, stubble burning and exhaust fumes reduce visibility markedly. It should take about 2hrs: our guy managed it in just over an hour.....
The climate in POL is pretty perfect. Beautiful, clear summer like days, and cold crisp spring like evenings. This allows the town to have lush green gardens and lots of colourful flowers. An enterprising british couple once decided to take advantage of this in 1915 and with some guidance from Kew Gardens, set up what are now the National Gardens. There are about 400 acres of flower beds, lakes, woodland, lawns and exhibits such as the butterfly museum. They are really tranquil and impressive. Well, perhaps not tranquil on Christmas Day. Despite Burma being 86% Buddhist, Christmas Day is a holiday and it seems that about 30% of the population and 90% of the schools want to spend it in the gardens. They have picnics, do lime and stick races (the local version of egg and spoon), sack races and generally laugh a lot.
They also take photographs by the thousand. Some are happy snaps but the majority are very serious, with model like poses in front of flower arrangements and statues. They queue for the best spots. They also dress up in their best sparkly clothes and put very odd formal clothing on their children
As western tourists are still comparatively rare, they were also keen to have photographs with us and we soon learned not to sit still for more than about one minute. The first time we sat down we were pounced on by a group of girls in pink and white uniforms and for the next 10 minutes laughed and laughed as they took turns in ones, twos or groups to be photographed with us.
In the midst of this a mum asked if her son could have a photo with me. Sure. What appeared was a 5 year old Liberace in a white suit with tails, diamanté decorated collar, shirt and bow tie. Wow.
Some where not bold enough to ask but would walk past us taking sneaky pictures on their smart phones or trying to get us in the background of a shot.
By the end of the day, this did get a bit tiresome and we had to ration groups to a few photos. We really wanted to tell them to 'f*** off' after 4 hours of it, but our awareness that people's first contact with westerners should be enjoyable, made us refrain.
Stardom became a little more real after we stopped in at the Kandawgyi Hill Resort, a converted old colonial home, for a drink or two to cool down. After our second drink a man we had christened 'jumper man' due to his very drab hand knitted jumper, asked if I wouldn't mind being in their Internet promotional video. I am not sure who they are trying to attract but if short, fat slightly sunburned and very unrelaxed people are your thing, then after seeing this video, you will know where to come. Jodie was very supportive and cackled in the background taking photos of my great screen debut.
POL is home to a number of old colonial homes and early on Christmas morning I decided to go for a jog around to see some. I was well prepared. I took a couple of photographs of the map in the lonely planet, no phone that had reception and no water. I also made some assumptions about where I could go if I went off the bottom of my map near the start of the run. I got lost.
I ended up in a big forest block with lots of red signs and little in the way of life. Whilst I knew there were many military training areas around the town I assumed the red signs would be in English. After about half an hour I was getting concerned. I eventually found an old man who could not understand my pronunciation of the town but did get my impression of the clock tower in the centre of town. I am not sure what the scene would have looked like: sweaty confused Englishman acting out a clock tower to a bewildered looking farmer in the middle a deserted forest. Still, I took a leap of faith, followed the directions his hands had acted out, went into a clearing, skirted a coffee plantation then hit a dirt track that led me to very poor village on the outskirts of town. You can imagine that I was a sight never seen before and some stopped what they where doing to stare, some called to their friends to have a look, other smiled or laughed and the odd one said 'Happy Christmas'. A few more miming sessions later I made it home a lot later than intended and was not sure if I was happy or disappointed that J had not been concerned in the slightest.
The fact that POL is a top tourist destination helps to understand just how early Myanmar is on the journey to a tourist infrastructure. We went to the two top places to eat in town (Feel and Club Terrace) and had to pay $5 for a main rather than the more normal $1.50-3.00. Both places were nice, but neither remarkable. We also went a little off the beaten track and ended up in a very poor area before entering a slightly smarter suburb were the market traders lived. We were a bit of a novelty even in this area and were stopped by an ex Indian army bloke who used his good English to invite us into his friends house to see his collection of antiques. Interestingly his collection of stuff took up three rooms and his family lived in two. This lack of infrastructure is not a bad thing as we didn't come here for great food or state of the art tourist sites, but it is a bench mark.
We stayed in Hotel POL which is near the gardens and feature 18 detached villas, each with two suites. The rooms were big and well appointed despite the fact the fire was for show only. The bits that small Burmese cleaners could see we're clean, but higher stuff hadn't been dusted in a long time. The reception and bar had an air of a Scottish hunting lodge but without any of the welcoming banter. In fact it was v
ery very soulless. However, it's maybe the best place in town and I would recommend it.
The final thing worth mentioning about the town is that it is home to quite a large amount of military people, partly because the equivalent of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, the Myanmar Defence Academy is just outside the town. Its motto says a lot about Myanmar and the Junta. The motto for RMAS is 'Serve to Lead' and the ethos is all about serving others, leading from the front and being humble. The sign at the entrance of the Myanmar equivalent is 'The future triumphant elite'. Not so humble.