Notes on Myanmar

I’m still playing catch-up so here’s another non-Monday non-morning update for your weekend pleasure.

There’s a lot to write on Myanmar to the extent that writing it has held up my blog (I’d like to keep it chronological). So this post is going to be my notes on Myanmar which is unfortunate because Myanmar deserves a lot more…

[Edit: having finished writing this my notes on Myanmar are actually quite long even though I’ve left out a lot of details, you don’t need to read all the text – so for the less bored, less busy of you the pictures should some it all up.]

My summary note is, anyone who’s thinking of going to Myanmar is definitely do it as soon as you can. Myanmar’s rapidly developing, culturally globalising and becoming increasingly “touristy”. My itinerary and summary is

  • Mandalay – don’t stay too long
  • Bagan – foolish to miss
  • Kalaw – get here and do the 3 day trek to Inle Lake (not the 2 day unless you’re extremely pressed for time)
  • Inle Lake – though I didn’t, it is worth staying here to do a bit more trekking. The market is average but the winery has great views of the valleys
  • Hsi Paw – great to get a taste and glimpse of northern life
  • Yangon – interesting city architecturally culinarily diverse; I didn’t stay long though but many people did
  • Golden Rock – good to see but okay to miss
  • Hpa An – caves, buddhas, caves, buddhas, caves, buddhas…and bat caves; chilled town with plenty to see
  • [Mawlamyine – I didn’t go but worth seeing according to people I met]

Getting to Myanmar

Andrew and I flew from Koh Samui via Bangkok to Mandalay – Myanmar’s second largest city. Not wanting to arrive clueless to the language we attempted to learn some basic Myanmanese from the guide book. Andrew first read out the introduction to the language and pronunciation from the Lonely Planet. Eventually both of us are sitting in our very comfortable seats at Bangkok airport, each holding our hands in front of our mouthes saying words with different emphasis on syllables attempting to work out aspirated sounds versus unaspirited sounds. Eventually we understood the difference through saying the word “why” in the way you’d normally say it and the way Stewie from Family Guy would say it (“hwhy”)…try it! We learnt (so we thought) some of the basic words such as hello (mingh-la-ba), thank you (je-zu-la-ba), how much (be-lau-le).

Mandalay

Upon arrival we needed to change our dollars for Kyat (pronounced Chaat), before we could get to the exchange counter we were circled and verbally attacked by vulturous taxi drivers. We tried to explain we first needed money, then we can talk though they felt not continuously asking if we needed a taxi would lose them the sale. They didn’t let up and continued to circle as we moved towards the kiosk.

I had some trouble exchanging money as Myanmar only accepts completely clean and crisp dollar notes. They checked each and every note thoroughly. [Hint: if your planning on going take crisp 100 dollar notes as you’ll get the best exchange rate; otherwise you can ignore your guide book as you’ll find plenty of ATMs everywhere in Myanmar now]

We hopped into a taxi and eventually we had about 6 people so it set off into the city. The first glimpses of Myanmar’s landscape looked promising. A combination of rich green trees scorched clay and the mug promised from every guide book – pagodas. Myanmar has temples like England has pubs. They have no hangup about putting a pagoda right next to another pagoda. The journey was made a combination of comical and annoying by a French lady who saw my travel guide and insisted the best way to travel is without a travel guide – perhaps a fair comment for discussion elsewhere – then proceeded to ask if I’ve read the book and if so can I let her know if some obscure part of Myanmar was open to tourists. Andrew found the right page in his book quickly and offered the book which she profusely refused explaining “I don’t read travel guides, you read it, you tell me”. Metaphorical slaps on the head echoed around the cab. In the end she got nothing from us; we didn’t know and didn’t see the need finding out if she couldn’t be bothered to read a book put on the right page for her.

After arriving at the hotel we walked around Mandalay but quickly decided there’s not much to do; we bought a bus ticket for Bagan leaving the following morning. [Note: I met some other people afterwards who loved Mandalay because they stayed out in the suburbs where they can climb the numerous hills on Mandalay’s South side.]

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We were astounded that walking around the streets we were left alone by all of the local people. It’s a very different feeling to the fast paced in your face experience of Thailand, Vietnam or India. We had our first experience of “Myanmanese-ness” when we negotiated a taxi driver down from 7000Kyat to 6000Kyat. We didn’t have change so paid him 10000Kyat. He realised he only had 3000Kyat change so instead of insisting on the original price of 7000 he rounded down to 5000Kyat and gave us back one of the 5k notes. We insisted on 7000 but he refused to accept so in the end we gave him as much change as we had (though he tried to refuse this too).


Bagan

Bagan is a must see in Myanmar. Home to 3200 temples accessible by bicycle, electronic bikes, or taxis. The journey from Mandalay to Bagan was a speedy 4 hours despite guide books and people exclaiming that it takes between 6-7; a testament to the massive investment being made into infrastructure right now.

Bagan is too awesome for me to ruin with words so, pictures:

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Though we cycled Bagan a lot, we agreed the best way to see Bagan is at dawn with a Hot Air Ballon:

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Kalaw to Inle

Following advice from one of Andrews friends and the recommendation by Greg Howse we went to Kalaw.

We departed in the evening. The journey was something special for two reasons:

  1. We were greeted on the bus to 2000s teen pop music. The music didn’t stop for most of the trip, and I relied on Andrew to explain who the singers were and their stories.
  2. The bus was cold. Really cold. We later found out cold buses were endemic to Myanmar – the air conditioning would be left to blast out air at an uncomfortable 18 degrees for the entirety of the journey. At most times it felt like the bus company was showing off their air conditioning and ability to get air down to 18 degrees.

On the bus we’d bumped into some familiar faces from our time in Bagan. When we arrived in at Kalaw at 2am most of us had just got to sleep an hour before. Sleepy eyed we get off the bus expecting the temperature to be warmer then the icebox we had just alighted from, instead the chill mountain air woke us up as the chill gripped our bones. Not having booked a place to stay everyone followed me and Andrew to our guesthouse. With plenty of rooms available everyone settled in for a short but good night’s sleep.

Andrew and I were keen to do trekking but unsure whether we’d want to trek from Kalaw to Inle. After seeing the pictures in the book we were sold on it and booked it straight away. One of our friends from Bagan, Ale, was walking down the stairs ready to have a relaxed organisation day but was convinced to join the trek with us. 20 minutes later we were packed dressed and ready to go.

By lunch time we had caught up with some other friends from the bus who had risen bright an early to set off.

The trek from Kalaw to Inle was stunning and a highly recommend it to anyone visiting Myanmar. It took us through the valleys and forest surrounding Inle to a view point showing off the Pine and Bamboo forrest.

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At the end of day 1 we made it to the top of another valley where we were shown to our home-stay hosts. By night fall the locals had built plenty of fires around the village and we were treated to some delightful local food.

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Day 2 would take us through valleys where local farmers would grow garlic, ginger and my favourite – CHILLIS!

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At the end of day two we settled down to rest in the a buddhist monastery for the night. We joined the younger monks for game of football before having a dinner and getting some much needed rest in the main prayer room.

Day 3 was the perfect end to a long trek. We trekked for a few hours until we arrived at a clear, cold river. None of us needed much persuasion to jump right in. A not so quick bathe and we were all feeling clean and particularly comfortable in a fresh pair of underwear.

Our ice cold bathe was quickly undone by a slightly longer walk through scorched clay landscapes peppered with ancient Banyan trees.

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We walked through until noon and arrived at our final point by foot where we would have lunch and watch the local football match. It was a lively match which the locals took seriously and fortunately the home team won. We jumped onto a boat which would take us through the canal through to Inle Lake, our final destination.

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Inle was a beautiful lake surrounded by local villages and the main town. Local fisherman showed great skill, balancing on one leg at the back of the boat, rowing the boat with their other leg, and using their hands to cast and reel in the net.

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Hsipaw

Not content with having trekked for 3 days covering about 60km we travelled to Hsipaw (again in a very cold bus) we trekked again in Hsipaw. Our guide was from one of the minority ethnic groups in Myanmar – Shan – and for the following two days navigated us through the Shan villages, explaining Shan agricultural techniques, current trade relationship with China, the language and arranging for local Shan food (which is really great!).

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Yangon

Yangon is a very large city with some of the and diverse food around. But I didn’t want to spend much time there others did.

Leaving Yangon I suffered the first casualty of my trip. My beloved hat that I bought in Croatia had to be left behind after a friendly, drunk homeless man scratched his head then proceeded to take off my hat, put it on his head, smile at me, and then attempt to return the hat onto my head. Of course I took by hand. The hat never touched my head again and I waited until I was out of sight (British politeness in action) before I discarded the hat.

Golden Rock

It’s a rock, it’s golden, and it’s very sacred. I caught an early morning bus from Yangon to Kin Pun then took the $2.5 taxi up to the top. Typically buddhists will do the 6km climb by foot during their pilgrimages and stay at the top for a few days praying to the golden rock, before doing the same journey down.

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I decided to walk down and didn’t regret it; there’s some stunning views to be viewed on the way down as well getting some exercise.


Hpa An

From the Golden Rock I sat on the back of a very basic wagon for 3 hours to Hpa An.

Hpa An is a small town surrounded by rocky outcrops creating a beautiful back drop to an incredibly chilled town. Many of the out crops can be reached by boat and climbed providing impressive sun set views. The caves were wide and varied. One could be walked through for 10 minutes before opening out to a rice field which can be crossed through traditional boats (hollowed and smoothed tree trunks). Another cave could be scaled to near the top of the mountain where it opened into a plateau providing a stunning view of the nearby valleys and landscape. And the final Bat Cave had bats flying out from the caves for about 40 minutes straight.

During the excursion I could feel myself coming down with a stomach bug – my body showed its usual signs, slight temperature, slight weakness in muscle and loss of appetite. I was meant to travel back to Yangon that evening but in the end was persuaded by a friend, Liat, to stay an extra night and do the journey the following day.

Another backpacker, Alex, let me share his twin room which worked out perfectly for both of us (shared the cost for him, got me a room at a low rate). The following day I headed back to Yangon with both Alex and Liat. Hopefully Alex should make another reappearance in the blog as I should with a bit of luck bump into him Laos at some point.

And then I flew home on a quirkiest plane I’ve seen.

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