(Phew, this is a bit of a long one, but there is a lot to say about the place - maybe should have done chapters for Myanmar!)
Having followed improvements in the political situation over recent years we have been keen to explore this fascinating country, especially since the lifting of the self-imposed travel boycott (recommended by National League for Democracy leader Aung Sang Su Kyi as new money into the country from tourists was largely going to the military government and thus contributing to the oppression of the people, this changed in 2010 to advice that independent travel could now be a benefit to the country providing travelers take care to limit money reaching the Government and be sure to spread money around). So landing at Yangon airport, we were both excited at the prospect of our Myanmar adventure, having heard many good stories about the place, particularly the people, we knew in our hearts that this step of our travels would be unforgettable.
Now, usually we always take local transport from airports, it’s the best way to get bearings in a new place and see how the locals do it, plus it’s usually the cheapest option by far. Some research into the usual methods, buses, trains, metros, told us however that this was not practical in Yangon. The buses and trains would be so complicated to work out and take an unknown amount of time that even the most hardened travelers advise that here, just take a cab. So, a half-hour taxi ride from the airport (shared with a lovely guy called Adam from Hong Kong) we arrived in the heart of Yangon. We hadn’t arranged anywhere to stay, which some said was foolish given Yangon is recently getting more tourists than it has beds, plus we were arriving in the evening, it is also very expensive by SE Asian standards, $25-$40 for basic rooms…
Well, we strode in to the first place we saw once out of the taxi, a grotty looking place up two dark staircases by the central Sula Paya pagoda in Downtown area. Informed that there were only two dorm beds available, we had to part company (for now, as we do meet again later) with Adam as he goes to try his luck elsewhere. The place turned out to be our first unforgettable Burmese experience – 4 very thin mattresses lined up on the floor of a fairly dingy room. We loved it! We were right in the city centre, the beds were the cheapest in Yangon at $4 each and being in a dorm we met some great folks who we exchanged very useful travel tips with. We both noted that the people we met here were particularly good to talk to, an interesting and informed bunch, even by traveler standards, probably as people that come here tend to be politically aware and fairly well traveled.
That first evening we went for street food with young English gap-year type named Hugo and his German mate who’d been sat drinking rum at the communal area at the guest house hotel (i.e. 4 chairs at the top of the staircase) and decided to join us as we were heading out for food. This was useful as they had already been in Yangon so could tell us the basics such as where the decent cheap food could be found and how much water, snacks and, more importantly, a beer should cost! We soon learned though that all that we had heard about the people of Myanmar was very true, they are a lovely, friendly bunch who do not try to rip you off. Sure, there is often a ‘tourist price’ for things, which is more than locals pay, but it is a fixed price and does not change according to their greed or rely on your bartering ability (in general, there are exceptions to this; particularly taxi drivers who hound you when you get off buses etc, they vastly inflate prices, always walk away and get one on the road people).
Having filled our tummies on a variety of bargainous street snacks it was off to bed – a French couple to one side of us sharing a mattress (that’s right, they were sharing the $4 mattress!) and a nice Russian bloke from Siberia on the other. Fun times.
The following day we were off to explore Yangon properly. What we found was a city a bit like an Indian city, compared to Thailand and Cambodia that is, busy, lots of rubbish (although way more contained than in India), street stalls taking up the pavements (if there are pavements), Indian style cafes, plus lots of red betel spit on the pavements. But the defining difference were the people; smiles and a sense of humour and total honesty were evident from the start. We felt comfortable and happy here.
We wandered around, stopping off to listen to some singing in an Anglican Church (quite lively, entertaining singing by Anglican standards!) and then heading down some bustling market streets to see the river. After all this activity it was time for tea. We happened to walk past The Strand, the grandest hotel in Myanmar, we decided to pop in for a well-deserved posh cuppa. We made the most of it, spending over an hour in there, making use of the excellent wi-fi, finishing the plate of complimentary shortbread and catching up on global happenings in The New York Times. The bill - $10 for a tea and a coffee; more than our accommodation, but worth it for the refreshing experience, and we were sure to enjoy two uses each of the lovely loos!
Refreshed (and with a slightly lighter wallet) we made our way towards the main site of Yangon, The Shedwagon Pagoda. Entry to the main area of this massive, gold stupa should have cost us $8 each (Myanmar uses the US dollar for many ‘tourist’ transactions, with the Myanmar Kyat used for other purchases). Knowing that the entry fee goes directly to the Myanmar Government, still an oppressive military regime, we decided to try to sneak in as we’d heard that this was possible from some angles. We tried 3 separate ways to get in but were stopped each time and pointed to the ‘foreigner ticket booth’ (extremely politely in each case!) and we retreated. We had however manage to get quite close to the main attraction and photos successfully taken, we were satisfied with the result. Happy that we’d prevented the government from buying more weapons with our $16, we headed back towards the city centre where we had arranged to meet up with a friend of a friend who is living and working in Yangon, it was cool to have someone to meet up with and we had a fun night out with Sarah.
The following day we had time to kill before our night bus to Bagan. We spent some of it hanging around in the lovely park across the road from our place, an indication of how lovely Burmese people are occurred in the park. We went to sit down on the slightly damp grass and a teenager immediately ran up to us and smilingly offered us pages from his newspaper to sit on! We were very impressed with his kindness and thoughtfulness.
For our next long journey, we’d paid $3 extra for the VIP bus rather than ‘regular’ for the 11 hour overnight journey to Bagan, we think it was worth the extra as it was the best night-bus we have taken so far and we both managed to get some sleep. Though we remain confused why we had been instructed to leave central Yangon so early for the bus station (3 hours before, meaning we had over 2 hours to wait there, this we have found to be a theme in Myanmar, they like you to be ridiculously early for transport). It was also a little annoying to arrive at 5am, (we had heard that all long distance buses here are scheduled to arrive at their destinations in the early hours this way), although it did mean we avoided paying the Government entry fee for the Bagan area so that was a bonus.
Despite buses arriving at this time every day, guest houses still seem surprised when you turn up at 5:30 am looking for a room. Even so, we found a room easily enough in a place that allowed us to have it immediately meaning we could have a nap before heading out to see Bagan once daylight arrived. It wasn’t a great room though, and at $30, on the expensive side, so the following day we moved to somewhere $5 cheaper, but nicer, around the corner.
Bagan is a highlight of Myanmar, a draw due to its 26-quare mile landscape of ancient temples and stupas, it was once the heart of Bamar culture. We stayed in the village of Nyaung-U, a couple of miles from Old Bagan (and further still from New Bagan), which are closer to the temples, but Nyaung-U is more of a real, living village than the other more tourist oriented parts, plus it is a good bit cheaper. So for our time there we hired bicycles and cycled around the areas temples. Compared to the Angkor ruins of Cambodia, there are no particularly impressive individual temples, but what is special here is the landscape, strewn with them, especially in the early morning and late afternoon light. We watched the sunset over this awesome background and next day got up early to see it rise again. On our way out to find a good sunrise vantage point we passed by some of Bagan’s famous hot air balloons ready for their morning sail (at $300 for an hour this particular activity was way beyond our budget!). Deciding that we have already seen a lot of sunrises but had never watched hot air balloons being inflated or taking off, we settled ourselves in the field to watch this spectacle. It was really fascinating to watch them go up, once they were off we cycled on to some temples we could climb and got some great shots of the landscape with the balloons floating above, which actually added to the scenery rather than detract we thought.
In our guest house we spotted a sign headed “Tired of Temples?”, well, let’s just say this caught our eye. We got talking to an American named Steve who was leading an afternoon boat trip out to see some alternative sights around Bagan including walking tunnels dug by 10th Century monks, a rural village on the river, swimming in the Irrawaddy and watching sunset from a river ‘beach’. It sounded fun so off we went, we had a really fun day capped with us enjoying (our first!) Myanmar beer on the ‘beach’ while watching the sunset over the Irrawaddy, it was a very worthwhile trip and made a refreshing change form cycling around temples. We were also amused by Steve suggesting Rach has a look of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (it must be the hair-do), we were again cycling through Bagan temple-wards the next day and hear “How do you solve a problem like Maria…” from across the street, to see Steve cycling the other way. Bagan was a good place.
From there it was onto another of Myanmar’s large cities, Mandalay. We took the relaxed travel option of sailing along the Irrawady, which made a nice change form a long bus journey (sure, it took longer than the bus, but it’s so much nicer to be on a boat). Not too much to say about Manadalay, we did get a good room there (by Myanmar standards) with a fridge and tv (though showed only local channels and Korean soap operas…) and we hired a really lovely cycle-rickshaw (tri-shaw in these parts) driver for the day to take us around the main sites which included more temples, monasteries and pagodas atop hills. Once we’d done this we felt we’d seen Mandalay, we enjoyed the day but it is basically a hot, dusty city and a day’s full-on sightseeing was enough. We moved on to the much more interesting town of Hsipaw, in Shan state (named for the majority Shan people who live there).
Hsipaw is a small town and looks somewhat like set for an old Western film, we felt we might’ve gone back in time a hundred years, and again showing the sense of humour of the people here, in Hsipaw you can buy snacks from Mrs Popcorn’s place, reading material from Mr Book, dinner from Mr Food and hire a comedy trekking guide named Mr Bean! We hired bikes and cycled around getting a good feel for this little place, we saw ‘Little Bagan’ which is a small collection of some old temples in another lovely setting, visited the Shan palace where we learned some fascinating family history from the lovely lady there who invites visitors in daily to hear about the last sawbwa (Shan Prince), her husband’s uncle and what has happened to her family under the military regime. During our first day exploring we kept bumping into Lou and Jacki who’d been on our bus and eventually ended up joining them for dinner. We all got along great and so were pleased to discover we had all booked on to the same 2-day trek into the hills.
The trek turned out to be one of the most worthwhile experiences of our trip, though it certainly was not the gentle stroll to some villages we had been led to believe, this was very much hill trekking and hard work. We were a fun group of 6, us four plus Australia living Brits Tracey and Mark. Our guide was a lovely, gentle soul with smiley eyes called Somani who took us through charming Shan and Paulang villages and described the nature, landscape and more usefully the rather strange mixture of food at mealtimes. We stopped off for lunch in the village of Pankam, where we ate tea leaf salad, peanuts, rice and all manner of strange soups and salads made from local plants. Rachel who is famed by her family for eating ‘anything’ took a grim view of the food and by the second day was not much for eating it, the flavours were definitely bizarre, things like flower salad, which sounded nice, were not, a little too much shrimp paste coating everything! We spent a night in a typical village house in Thansam, all 6 of us plus our guide and a few village kids on the floor of a big wooden room above a shop. It felt like a grown up sleepover, even down to getting tucked in by the funny but scary grandmother, it was hilarious and we giggled like St Trinians girls which made us scared of being told off by ‘grandma’ for making noise after lights out! We all slept very well though, as you do after a day walking mostly uphill! Also the evening had turned out to be a late one as the village was out in force rehearsing for the following days’ celebration of their Monks’ graduation; there was a big stage with a band and local dancing and ladies dressed in traditional costume. It was very fun to be part of this and we were welcomed warmly to participate in the festivities, memorable indeed.
The following morning we made our way back to Hsipaw, all quite weary, achey and sun baked, but very happy with the experience. The gang all met up later for a merry evening of well-deserved post trek beers and food, except for Rach and Lou who were feeling a little sickly from the sun exposure and had to have early nights, boo.
Next up on our Myanmar adventure was a train journey that is touted as one of the world’s must-do rides, from Hsipaw to the old British colonial town of Pyin Oo Lwin (which we think must have been named by a Welshman!). By only part coincidence, everyone from our trekking group was on the same train, so the following morning we were once again reunited for the snail paced 6 hour journey, we were pleased Jacki and Lou were heading the same way though and we planned to stick together at the other end. The scenery was fantastic, rolling at 20km/h through stunning Burmese paddy fields, villages and mountain regions. There was a very scary bit (well, Tess thought it was very scary, everyone else was hanging out of the windows, T was almost crying) along a very high viaduct over a deep valley. This was the highlight of the journey for most, though not one that T wants to repeat, but at least she can say she’s done it.
Pyin is an interesting little town, combining typical Burmese streets with big colonial mansions left over from when the British used the town as a cool hill station retreat. We hired a horse and carriage (the thing to do here) with Jacki and Lou to take us around the town and see a few sights which was a rather fun way to do it (and we were pleased to be assured by Jacki, who knows horses, that they were in very good condition, which meant it was ok to do this!) The four of us also had a ‘night out’ to a nice restaurant which had some surprisingly nice Myanmar wine, the food was average at best but the company made up for it. It had been really nice to have friends to hang out with for a few days but after Pyin Oo Lwin, Lou & Jacki were heading on to Bagan where we had already been, and we to Inle Lake.
So it was just the two of us again for a few days in the touristy but agreeable village of Nyaungshwe, just a couple of miles downriver from the shores of Inle Lake, famous for the unique one-legged rowing technique of its fishermen and attractive stilted villages that surround. (Unfortunately here we were hit with the $10 government entry fee on arrival, they were waitng when our bus pulled into Nyaunshwe). Soon after arriving we went for a wander through town to get our bearings, we didn’t have to wait long before a nice looking boatowner approached us asking if we wanted a boat trip for the following morning. As this was in our plan, we settled on a price and agreed to meet at the jetty at 7.30am. The rest of the day was spent chilling out after the long bus from Pyin.
The boat ride was one of our highlights, not just of Myanmar, but of the whole trip. We saw lovely villages on stilts, learned all about local cotttage industries including cotton and silk production (this part was rather like a sunnier version of Quarry Bank Mill outside Manchester), saw how the local cigars (cheroots) are made, saw floating vegetable gardens, had a yummy lunch with amazing views and of course witnessed plenty of leg rowing, which was quite baffling to watch - how do they manage it?! It was well worth the 15,000 kyat (£10) for the day.
We hired bikes for the next two days to explore the outskirts of Nyaungshwe. We visited a winery a few km from town for wine tasting of the local Red Mountain brand, the red was horrible (the one in the tasting selection anyway, their other red was the nice one we had tried in the restaurant a few days before), the whites were quite nice. The views from the winery were great though so we spent some time there chatting to some French people from Biarritz, who of course disliked the red wine intensely (“c’est un vin etrange!”)! Another day, another sweaty bike ride, took us 10km along some rough and very dusty terrain to a village on the lake followed by a hot spring. The hot spring was quite expensive ($10 for the ‘tourist’ pools) but was a nice way to relax for a couple of hours, good after the long cycle!
Our last day at Inle was quiet but livened up by the arrival of Jacki and Lou. We met for coffee and after an early dinner with them it was off to catch the bus for us, back to our starting point of Yangon and the finishing leg of our most excellent Burmese adventure. Next, a two week Thai holiday with Rach’s parents, fancy hotels and all, can’t wait.