I began my trip in the old capital of the country Yangon (previously known as Rangoon). This continues to be an important city and a major economic hub for the country. It is filled with pagodas, old colonial and also newer high-rise buildings. I stayed in China town where you find a mixture of Indian, Chinese and Burmese culture in every corner.
I travelled to Bagan, an ancient city on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River with around 2,000 Buddhist monuments and temples scattered all over the area. I visited a few of the temples by bicycle with my friend Patrick from Austria whom I had met at the hostel in Yangon. We arrived as the rainy season had begun but luckily we did not get a lot of rain. The temperature reached a high of 43 celsius (110 farenheit) during the day so people usually visited the temples from sunrise until 11:00 am and again between 4:00 pm and 7:00 pm. I would recommend doing a few sunrises and sunsets from the top of the temples if you go to Bagan; absolutely mesmerizing!
On the second day we met Taylor from Canada and decided to continue to see the city by motorbike, like everyone else. It was my first time riding a motorbike but it was electric so it was a lot easier to handle than a regular motorcycle. I had a hard time learning to drive in thick sand on the smaller side roads to reach some of the temples. At one point I actually lost control and fell to the side but quickly recovered. I am not sure driving a motorcycle is for me but I am glad I tried it at least once… I am however very happy to be a passenger on one!
I realized I had left my cell phone charging at the reception in my hotel in Bagan. I always rely on Maps.me to guide me in new cities, especially from the bus station to my hotel. In some places in SE Asia and India some people will scam tourists to get more money out of them. With Maps.me I always know where I am and how far I am from my hotel so it allows me to negotiate a fair price for transportation based on the distance. Well without my phone I had no idea where I was and I couldn’t remember the name of the hotel I had reserved. Luckily in Myanmar they don’t seem to be out to get you. They charge fair prices and they always want to help. The driver dropped me off at the hotel where others on my bus were staying and asked the reception if I could use the internet to find my hotel name. He waited outside until I was done… bus drivers don’t do that! Two days later when I finally found the correct phone number for the hotel in Bagan I called them. They had my phone and offered to send it to me on the next bus out of town and had the driver deliver it to my new hotel. The phone arrived that night as promised, only they had completely reformatted it and I lost all my contacts and some other stuff. I guess they were getting ready to sell it…? anyway I was happy to get it back.
In Mandalay I stayed in a great hostel called Four Rivers B&B; which had really great WIFI and a nice lounging area. The staff were very helpful too. I met two really cool girls from the UK Vanessa and Sarah who invited me to share a taxi to the suburb city of Amarapura to see its biggest attraction, the U-Bein bridge. This is the longest teak wood bridge in the world at a length of 1.2km (.75mi) located over the Taungthaman Lake. It is a nice spot to enjoy the sunset, see the local fishermen, and watch the village life around it.
We stopped at Hmwe Paya (snake pagoda) in Paleik to see the two pythons inside laying by the side and on top of the Buddha.
We later walked by a fortune teller named “Mr. Owl”, and we all had our fortunes read. Apparently I am marrying a general or a police man very soon and we will have a boy. The man specifically said that I would have “no control over him”. He repeatedly said that this man was “above me” and was more powerful than me. He also warned me not to look for a new house, get a new job, or travel in 2017. What am I supposed to do with my life then?! I hope this general can support me… 😉
After Sarah and Vanessa left I did some sight-seeing in the city by bicycle. This ended up being really tough considering that I rode about 7 miles (12km) in 100 degree weather. Luckily the city is well laid out and easy to navigate. The main attraction is the Royal Palace; which stands at the foot of the Mandalay Hill is easy to get to from anywhere. It covers a huge area of about 16 blocks and it is surrounded by a moat 64 m (210 ft) wide. The palace built between 1857 and 1859 was the last royal palace for the Burmese Monarchy. It later suffered looting by the British, was used as a supply depot by the Japanese during WWII and finally burned to the ground by bombings from the Allies. It was reconstructed in 1989 following the original design but with newer materials of sheet metal for the roofs and a lot of concrete for the buildings. I found out that Foreigners can only enter through the north-east gate after trying to enter at two other gates and being stopped by the guards.
One of the most incredible places that is a “must-see” is the Kuthodaw Pagoda; which is a beautiful stupa covered in golden leaves. What is most striking about this place is the 729 kyauksa gu or stone-inscription caves just before reaching the pagoda. Each cave contains a marble slab with a page text of the Tipitaka (Theravada Buddhism scriptures) inscribed on both sides.
Mandalay Hill was my favorite place in the city. You can go up to the top by car or by foot through a long set of open stairs covered by a tin roof that go all the way up the mountain. As you go up you go through different stages with each one hosting a different shrine for the Buddha and souvenir stalls. The last stage is at the top of the mountain and is where the biggest stupa and the biggest shrines for the Buddha are found. As soon as I got to the top it started to rain and the sun started to set. The tourists had already left but the local villagers and some monks remained there. You can get a great view of the city’s lay out from up there.
There is a day tour that you can do from Mandalay to some of the ancient capitals of Burma including Inwa, Sagaing and Mingun. I decided not to do this tour as I wanted to save my visa time to see other places but I hear it is definitely worth doing! maybe on another trip…
From Mandalay I took a taxi to Pyi Oo Lwin; which I shared with a nice Burmese girl. Once again I failed to remember the name of my hotel but she was kind enough to let me borrow her phone so I could look up my reservation in my email. Another example of how helpful and kind people are here.
Pyi Oo Lwin is a peaceful and cozy town located in Northern Myanmar at a higher elevation than the previously visited major cities of Yangon and Mandalay. This city served as a nice break from the hot and humid South. I stayed in a really cool place called Orchid just outside of town. It was a small complex of big white country houses ran by Burmese and temp workers from France. You can rent a bike from here and visit the town center and the main local market with tons of fruit, vegetable and souvenir stalls. At the market I experienced more random acts of hospitality and kindness from the locals. I was gifted three mangoes and a knife from different vendors; things I tried to buy but they would not take my money and told me that it was a present for me.
I ran into friends that I had previously met in Mandalay, a nice couple from the US also traveling around the world. We met another couple from Canada and the US and we all went to the Botanical gardens; which is the #1 thing to do here. The gardens are huge and offer a variety of exhibits, a nice walk through groomed gardens, bamboo plots and pine forests. We got a great view of the city and the surrounding forest from the viewing tower.
One of the great engineering feats of the British here was the construction of the railway and one of the must do’s is riding the train from Mandalay or Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw (or even further beyond to Lashio) in the Northern Shan state. The train is the cheapest mode of transportation here and it suffers from common delays. If you want to travel in nice cushioned seats then try first class. If you don’t mind hard wooden seats, then ride second class. In first class you still have plenty of interaction opportunities with the locals. My train journey began in Pyin Oo Lwin. The biggest highlight of the journey lies bout 34 miles north-east of the town, the Gokteik Viaduct. This bridge is 318 ft high and was built over the Gokteik Gorge in 1901 by contractors from the Pennsylvania Steel Company. This train is highly entertaining, or scary, depending on how you look at the experience. It sways from side to side, rattles, shakes, and bounces. Thankfully the driver slows down before crossing over the viaduct. The train made a stop in a small town about one hour before the viaduct. What we thought was a quick break ended up being a 7-hour delay (as we heard later from other because we left after 5 hours). When I first boarded the train I met Maciej from Poland who turned out to be great company during the delay experience. We tried to kill time by having lunch at a nearby shop, and taking silly photos on the train and on the tracks. We also enjoyed a torrential downpour during the 5 hours we waited. We finally concurred that the train was not going anywhere before sunset and that we did not want to miss seeing the viaduct in the daylight. We decided to hire a local driver to take us to the nearest town of Naunghkio.
The next day we went to the station to catch the train again. And unfortunately the train was delayed again but only by four hours this time. We did not mind the waiting much as we interacted a bit with some of the locals.
About an hour into the train journey we got to see the viaduct. It was a great experience!
I said goodbye to Maciej in the next station in the town of Kyaukme (he had to turn around to go back to Mandalay). I stayed on the train until I reached Hsipaw.
And the mountains called me once again… I went to Hsipaw, a nice town much cooler than Mandalay. This is one of the popular areas in the country for trekking but it has a lot of restricted zones due to conflicts between ethnic groups and the government military. This is an on-going civil war that began after the country gained independence from the British. Various insurgent groups from different ethnic minority groups have formed through the decades to fight for independence, self-determination and most recently for regional autonomy and government representation. They also seek to protect their gem-rich lands from nationalization. Tourists are asked not to trek in the conflict zones. Although the armed groups will not deliberately hurt foreigners, there is always a risk of being caught in the middle of a battle or get hurt by a landmine explosion; which is what happened recently to a couple of German tourists who trekked to Kyaukme; which is on the no-go zone and were hurt by accidentally setting off a landmine. Sadly Myanmar is one of the few countries that has not joined the international mine-ban treaty and still uses these on their own soil.
I stayed at the popular Mr. Charles guesthouse where you can find guides that take groups on one day and multi-day treks in the Shan region. This guesthouse is where most backpackers end up as it is featured on most travel books, however, there are other budget options in town worth checking out. There is no reason why Mr. Charles should continue to get all the business around here… I wish I would have looked a bit more. I signed up for a 2-day trek with a nice couple Stacy and Chris from the UK and Robyn from Scotland. We spent two days hiking in the nearby villages of the Palaung tribe. It is currently the beginning of the rainy season in the country so the trails were very muddy but the landscape was very lush; which made for very beautiful scenery. We hiked up and down hills with some rice paddies and tons of green tea plantations. We stayed the night at a Homestay with a nice grandma, a mom and her kid. We learned from our guide that women take care of the house, children, (and the tourists) while the men go away to the farming fields for three months during the tea season.
A couple of armed men from the Shan State Army (the largest insurgency group) enters the house while we are sitting there with grandma. The ladies of the house remain quiet and avoid making eye contact with them during their short visit. One of the armed men speaks a few words with a grin on his face but gets no response. As soon as they leave grandma shrugs her shoulders and makes a gesture of disgust. They clearly do not approve of these sporadic visits. Afterwards I see them in the garden and it looks like they were taking some vegetables; which according to our guide they do often.
We walked around town and stayed under a tin roof at the entrance of a monastery during a downpour watching the young monks play in the rain. Myanmar is a highly devout Buddhist society with around 89% of its population practicing Theravada Buddhism (see my previous post on Buddhism). For dinner we enjoyed a delicious dinner of a variety of local vegetarian specialties including Shan noodles, bean and nuts salad with tea leaves, jack fruit curry, and fried tofu. Afterwards grandma proudly showed us pictures of her family.
I spent an extra day in Hsipaw and rented a bike to visit some of the highlights in the area. I visited the popular outdoor restaurant Mrs. Popcorn; which has a beautiful peaceful garden where you can enjoy wonderful vegetarian dishes with ingredients from their home garden. I highly recommend their tamarind tea. Near the restaurant you find a small area full of decaying stupas known as little Bagan. You can also visit the Bamboo Buddha Monastery (pictures to come when I find them).
The name for every business in town catering to tourists begins with the prefix “Mr” or “Mrs” followed by the name of the owner or what the place is known for. Mrs. Popcorn, a restaurant and garden (this one doesn’t make a lot of sense), Mr. Foods, a restaurant in town offering tasty and cheap dishes, Mr. Shakes sells coffee shakes, juice cocktails (with rum), and fruit juices, Mr. Books sells… you guessed it, books!
I could not get enough of the mountains or trekking at this point so I went to Kalaw. I endured a tough 12-hour bus ride overnight where the driver had no consideration for ladies needing proper bathroom stops. He just pulled over by the side of the road and expected the women to find a bush tall enough to cover behind while the men did their business right next to the bus. It reminded me of bus rides in India…
Kalaw is a nice little town nestled between mountains. Another great hill station it the Shan state with a friendly atmosphere, the beautiful Aung Chan Tha Zedi pagoda in the middle of town and various options of trekking companies. I stayed at the Railroad hotel where the room and breakfast are some of the best I have seen in the budget scene in Myanmar. I walked around town and enjoyed a nice view from the Thein Thaung Paya with some monks.
The best part of going around Myanmar is meeting the locals. And what is even better is watching the kids get so ecstatic to see us come by. They throw kisses and say “thank you” repeatedly, probably the only word they know in English. After a while I dare ask for a photo and they all pose for me. They are happy to see the results on my camera.
I booked the popular 3-day/2-night trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake with Sam’s trekking company located inside Sam’s family restaurant. I joined a really fun group of three Dutch girls Ana, Anouk and Karen, and a couple from the UK and Germany, Julia and Marcus, guided by Sun, our knowledgeable and sweet guide. The hike offered a lot of great scenery and with a lot less rain than in Hsipaw. We hiked around green tea and orange plantations. We learned that the Palaung tribe and the Danu trade with each other at the railway station; which is like a central market for them. The Palaung grow oranges and green tea and the Danu grow flowers, potatoes, ginger, cauliflower, and cabbage.
We walked around 20km each day. We celebrated with some beers after the second day’s hike at our new homestay; which was full of animals. The house had two stories, the top was used for the family and guests and the bottom for the animals; which is what keeps the top floor heated at night.
I finished the trek with a few blisters and super tired but happy to finally make it to Inle Lake. As part of the tour cost we were given a boat ride to the city of Nyaung Shwe north of the lake. This is where most tourist accommodations are located.
The locals watch us as we go by…
I spent a few days in this peaceful town, riding a bicycle around the lake. I also took a boat tour for a full day and visited a few places that you can only see from the water. The people of Inle called the Intha live in four cities around the lake, they mostly fish and grow fruits and vegetables in floating gardens over the lake’s surface. They create floating beds by gathering weeds that they fish out from deep inside the lake. The nutrients in these weeds keep the gardens alive.
Typical scenes on the lake of fishermen using their leg to stir the boat while they balance with the other and fish with the net, all at the same time:
When we visited the weaving place I was surprised to find women from the “long neck” tribe. These women are from the Kayan Lahwi tribe, part of the Karen ethnic group (aka. long neck women). They wear these heavy brass coils since the age of 5. It appears as if their neck became elongated but in fact, the weight of these rings push down on their shoulders deforming the clavicle and compressing the rib cage. One of the different reasons for wearing the rings is to resemble the dragon, an important figure in Kayan folklore. A lot of these women have fled their homeland to escape a decades-long war between the Karen army groups and the military government. They have sought refuge in the camps on the Thai-Burma border. Apparently the camps are well run but I have read that they suffer from malnutrition, disease and sometimes attacks from the Burmese military. Some women have found work outside of the camp but risk being detained or attacked if caught by the Thai police. The tradition of wearing the rings has been discouraged by the Myanmar government but some women and children continue to wear them. Some of these women work for businesses that cater to tourists- they weave bags, scarves and such and pose for photos for tourists. This helps them bring revenue to their tribes (and of course the business men that run these places). At these businesses you pay 500 baht (around US$15) to enter and take as many photos as you want. Some people think this is not a good practice as it is promoting a “human zoo”. Others think this is the only way for these women to make any money and become independent from the government aid. It also helps them avoid going back to their homeland; which is still at war. I did not want to visit these type of places when I was in Thailand because I was not sure it was a good idea to contribute to them. When I saw them at the weaving shop on the Inle Lake I asked if I could take the photo. I couldn’t resist and I also find it hard to tell this story without the images.
I rode a bike for about 7km to the village of Maing Thauk. The roads are a bit desolate; which is nice but you pass by a lot of little shops selling fuel for motorcycles and all types of snacks and drinks. Along the way you can visit a couple of nice restaurants including the bamboo hut; which has really great food.
To visit Maing Thauk you watch for a sign that points to the village and follow the road until you get to a wood bridge. This bridge is a walkway that takes you to the beginning of the village; which is on the water. Boat men will approach you on both sides to offer a ride around the village for half an hour for 2000 or to the other side for 8000 kyats (around US$2 to $8).
I headed down to the South of the country to see a couple more places before my visa expired. I took a night bus from Inle Lake to the city of Bago where I planned to catch a bus to Kinpun to see the famous Golden Rock. I arrived to Bago at 6:00am and met Nacho, a guy from Spain. He was also going to the Rock so we decided to travel together. After we settled in our hotel in Kinpun we took a truck from the center of town that shuttles pilgrims and tourists back and forth to the top of the hill where the rock is located. The truck did not take off until it was completely full. There was only one other couple of foreigners, everyone else seemed to be from Myanmar. The ride was very windy and the driver went very fast around the curves, it was like being on a roller-coaster.
I was looking forward to seeing hundreds of pilgrims praying by the rock but to my surprise there were not many people there. We pretty much had the rock to ourselves; which was nice for the pictures but I was disappointed to have missed the action.
We had to catch the last truck before sunset and as we were walking back to the truck stop we noticed a lot of pilgrims were beginning to arrive. These were the pilgrims that wanted to be there for the sunset and would spend the night at the one pricey hotel on the hill or in the nearby town. Luckily we caught a bit of the action before we left.
Nacho decided to continue on to the town of Hpa-an with me. We took a short bus ride to Kyaikto where we transferred to another bus that would make the four-hour trip to Hpa-an.
I almost didn’t go to Hpa-an thinking that I did not want to fit in one more place in a hurry and feel rushed and exhausted afterwards. But I am so glad that Nacho ended up wanting to join me; which motivated me to go. This was of my favorite stops in Myanmar. The town itself is pretty ordinary but the surroundings offered some incredible sites. Our first day we hopped on a small boat to cross the Thanlyin river to hike up to the view point on Mt. Hpan Pun, we hiked through a village and then up the steep hill. We could not reach the top where the pagoda was because of a recent land slide but the views from just below it were pretty nice.
The next day Nacho and I joined a day tour on a tuk tuk with 7 other people that we booked through Soe Brothers, the place in town where all backpackers stay. The group turned out to be super fun, they were travelers from Canada, France, Scotland, Australia, Spain and Ireland. We visited caves with amazing shrines inside, a lake, the Lumbini garden where 1,000+ identical buddha statues are found. It was absolutely beautiful and so worth much more than the US$4 that we each paid! I had my last dinner with the group at San Ma Tau in town; which I highly recommend to get yummy local food.
Here are some photos of the beautiful places we saw during the tour:
And the best part of the day tour was running into a “novitiation” celebration. These are held during the summer months when schools close for vacation. The boys aged between 9 and 12 are paraded in their prince costumes before they go home and shave their heads to prepare for their monastic life as novice monks. This is also sort of a “coming of age” celebration:
I did not have any expectations (good or bad) about Myanmar. I was excited about seeing a place that not many tourists have visited yet but was not sure of what I would find there. I didn’t do any research and decided to just rely on recommendations from other travelers as I went along the country. It turned out to be one of my favorite places so far. There is a lot of natural beauty but that is not what makes this country unique… What makes this place stand out is its people. I have never met more amazing people in this year of travel. They are kind, respectful, and hospitable. I will surely miss this place.