Away with the Opies

Our travel adventures……

Category: Myanmar

Kalaw to Inle Lake

Kalaw to Inle lake



The night bus from Hsipaw arrived in Kalaw at the un-Godly hour of 4:30am. It was dark and the streets were deserted but amazingly, tucked amongst all the little shut up shops we found a cafe peppered with local folk kick starting their day. Sitting on tiny chairs arranged on a raised pavement we drank coffee with front row seats of the sunrise over town – despite the hour we felt energised.

Weirdly, getting off the bus in the shadowy cloak of darkness and watching the day unfurl in an unfamiliar place is one of our favourite things – our adventures feel they’re starting afresh every time we do it.

Our guesthouse Thitaw Two was a way away on the other side of town but having been sat on a night bus (unlike neighbouring countries there appear to be no beds on night buses in Myanmar) for the best part of 12 hours it was an easy decision to walk there rather than taking a taxi and anyway it was a lovely time of day to wander through the town. With dawn breaking the streets were coming to life, the cafes were opening and the vibrant local market was filling with people – it was shaping up to be a lovely day.


Thitaw Two was a great choice and became another favourite. Nestled in its own little grounds and bordered by forested mountains it was very different from anywhere else we’d stayed. We were allowed to make ourselves at home even though we’d arrived many hours before checking-in time and were treated to a hearty and very much appreciated breakfast, including avocados grown in the gardens. Once fed and watered we set about making plans for our trek to Inle Lake, the main reason for our visit to Kalaw. Having talked to fellow guests we made a couple of calls and just like that the next few days of our trip were arranged. A 3-day trek through remote villages staying with local families on route – perfect.

We use sleeper buses mainly to save the expense of a night’s accommodation, but arriving early in the morning, hopefully refreshed after some sleep, also means there’s much of the day left to explore our new surroundings. Luckily we both got some shut eye during the night and so with plenty of time on our hands we headed to a large cave a few miles away. The day was hot, but fortunately our path threaded through forests where shade offered much welcomed relief from the fierce sun. The Myin Ma Hti cave, although not out if this world, was worth the trek and we spent an hour or so wandering around it. 

 

 

 

 

 

Unusually for us we opted not to walk the return trip and so, with the help of an affable cafe owner, we hitched a lift on the back of a flat bed truck instead. It was a fun, if somewhat unconventional way to see the surrounding countryside.

On the way we passed this truck transporting somewhat larger cargo!


Having been dropped off in town Steve popped into a barbers for a quick trim…

3/4 of an hour later he came out with this – Oops!

Better put some sun cream on the bare bits!

Back at the guesthouse it was a quick freshen up (and straighten up of Steve’s new do) before deciding where to eat. Now this can sometimes present a bit of a dilemma, often the biggest of our day. “Where d’you want to eat?” – “I don’t know, where d’you want to eat?” – “Don’t ask me!” but tonight the decision was easy and unanimous. During our stroll through town earlier in the day we’d noticed a Nepali restaurant so tonight it would be Dahl Bhat for old times sake. It was a great choice and memories of our 5 wonderful months in Nepal flooded back as we ate the deliciously familiar food. We left full and happy.

Whilst in Nepal we were told that there was a sizeable Nepali community in Myanmar. These Burmese Gurkhas number between 350-500,000 and are a legacy of British colonial times, primarily descendants of Gurkha troops and railway navvies. As well as in the major cities there are communities in a number of hill station towns where  British housed barracks, including Kalaw where we now were and Pyin Oo Lwin, where we’d just been.


What every person should be told and then strictly follow when trekking here – sadly lots don’t!

The next day was trek day and we were itching to get started. We’d opted for a small group trip and so were a party of only 6. We instantly warmed to our companions, Franck and Marion, Marek and Kate and we all chatted the miles away. The countryside was beautiful and diverse and our guide Sona (an ethnic Nepali) kept us amused with interesting facts as we went. We talked about the Myanmar love of betel nut, a Burmese habit that takes some getting used to. Many people here chew the nut which has the creepy side effect of staining teeth and gums red. It can’t be swallowed so the large amounts of red saliva produced are spat out – everywhere! Apparently it gives you a buzz, is very addictive and people of any age can do it. Sona said that in the past he’d smoked, drank and chewed betel and of the three betel was the hardest to give up. Sadly judging by the amount of youngsters we saw chewing it, it’s not a national addiction about to end anytime soon. Sona added that he likes his bus drivers to have red teeth because he believes they’re more likely to stay awake – we made a point of checking our drivers’ teeth from then on in! Guides are recommended for this trek and although Steve and I generally shy away from guided walking there are times when it is necessary. On these occasions we relish the extra snippets of local knowledge we glean, try to learn some native language and feel good about giving employment to people from local communities, especially out of high season (as it now was) when work is harder to come by.

The first day’s trek was long, but not difficult. The heat of the sun was by far the biggest obstacle to overcome. We walked through rural villages and beautiful countryside. We were invited to drink local tea by people who won all our hearts with their warmth and generosity and were high fived by curious youngsters with beaming smiles on their faces.

The route we were hiking, we’d been told by Sona, was a new one and therefore much less busy than the more established trails in the area. Not wanting to be disappointed we took his words with a pinch of salt as it seemed unlikely we’d be heading anywhere into the unknown here. But what he’d said was true, the happy inquisitive folk we were meeting genuinely hadn’t crossed paths with many tourists before. We felt incredibly privileged and humbled to be spending time with these people in their remote communities, to be a part of their so far untainted lives – for Steve and I though our joy was with mixed emotion. We were relishing this unique experience, whilst knowing that us and travellers like us who seek ‘off the beaten track’ adventures change the very things we want to experience simply by doing them. For us it raised some interesting questions and moral dilemmas. But here we were anyway, enjoying the hospitality of these amazingly friendly people. We drank copious amounts of tea, played with the children and chatted (via our guide) with our hosts. Their favourite question to us was how old are you? Their favourite game was guessing who was with who in the group – both proved very entertaining and they clearly enjoyed our company as much as we enjoyed theirs.

Later in the day we passed through a village where a local farmer was setting off on his cart pulled by two beautiful Oxen. Steve asked our guide if he gave rides on his cart, the question was relayed to the farmer who looked somewhat bemused, “no” was the answer to come back. Sona asked if we could have a ride on his cart, another bemused look, followed by a dubious “yes.” All 6 of us piled onto the cart with the obliging smiley farmer and headed off down the dirt track. It was apparent as we became centre of attention that a farmers cart loaded with foreigners had never not passed through this community before. Villagers were jostling for the best vantage points to see this obviously weird spectacle. It turned out to be a long and bumpy ride for which the farmer wouldn’t take a single penny. He did it simply because we’d asked him if it was possible and to make us happy. As he turned and left to go home we couldn’t help but think it was a light bulb moment for him and the community who had witnessed it. A new and easy way to milk the tourist dollar…

 

That night at our very basic homestay we enjoyed some glorious local food and settled into our little mosquito net tents set up inside a villager’s home. We all slept soundly – it had been a very special day.

We woke to more glorious sunshine and enjoyed a hearty breakfast setting us up perfectly for the day. Our trek passed through more villages and stunning countryside, we watched local people weaving baskets, we marvelled at the beauty and condition of the oxen pulling the carts, the girls spent time with the children and the boys played football, well a kind of keepie uppie game with some lads and their homemade ratan ball. We had a huge lunch and a siesta before walking some more to reach the village that would be home for the night and the place where everything started to go wrong…

This homestay was as we expected and, as Steve and I were by now very much used to, basic. It was little more than a garage with an upper floor of two sleeping areas accessed by bamboo ladder. It had only one crude toilet some distance from the house to be shared by the six of us and our hosts. None of this would usually be a problem, but throw in a bunch of very poorly people and it soon became more of an issue – it was not a happy place.

Scene set, the rest of the night goes like this…

Toilet spider

I started feeling ill for the first time in 6 months of our travels. Everyone else at this point was fine. I went to bed, everyone else ate dinner including a goat stew for the non vegetarians. I became very ill finding it increasingly difficult to get from room to toilet in time – no more detail needed. As the night went on we heard moaning and groaning from next door – 4 out of the 6 of us were now sick. Some people slept well, as in our host below sleeping on his paint can pillow, but the tricky bamboo stairs and longish walk to get to the one and only toilet (housing a rather large spider) made for a long and unpleasant night for the rest of us!

Some people it seems can sleep through anything and are happy to use a paint can for a pillow!

By morning everyone was less violently ill but, to be on the safe side, a very young doctor from goodness knows where was called to check us over and medication of goodness knows what was dispensed. The 4 of us were unable to trek any further and so emergency evacuation via jeep was needed. We were in the sticks, miles from anywhere and so getting to civilisation proved neither quick nor comfortable. Marion and Sonar continued the trek while Steve, ironically now the only well person following his long illness, was our guardian, making sure we all got to where we needed to be. The day felt like it went on forever.


At our guesthouse I crashed on my lovely comfy bed and didn’t move for hours. It would be a couple of days before I was up and about again.

Feeling better


Once well enough we booked a boat trip to Inle Lake, one of the must sees in Myanmar. The lake is a huge 13.5 mile long, 7 mile wide expanse of shallow clear water no more than 12 feet deep at its deepest point. It’s fringed by marshes and floating gardens, where stilt-house villages and Buddhist temples rise from the water. The Intha fisherfolk work here propelling their boats using an unusual leg-rowing technique and the famous and fascinating long necked women can be seen weaving at various touristy stop off points. There are markets selling local trinkets and shops selling silverware – it was a brilliant day exploring a unique part of the world.

This was the very last thing on our Myanmar to do list, sadly it was now time to pack our bags and leave this wonderful country and its warm and friendly people.

What an experience it had been – from the buzz of Yangon to the stunning Ngapali beaches, from the beauty of the Bagan temples to the serenity of Inle Lake, from the enjoyable boat and train travel to the trekking in remote areas – we’d loved it all.

Where had the last 4 weeks gone?


Goodbye Myanmar – it’s been a wonderful adventure

 


Hello Laos 

(via Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand)

 

 

 

Mandalay, Pyin-Oo-Lwin, Hsipaw

  

Mandalay, Pyin-Oo-Lwin, Hsipaw


Boat-Train-Bus


It was a 5am pick up from our hotel to our transport for the day – a fast boat along the Irrawaddy river, destination Mandalay. It was very early and still dark but we were buzzing with excitment and looking forward to a new mode of transport and the day ahead. 

Our lift to Mandalay

At the river banks we were met by some young men offering to take our bags to the boat, less than a 2 minute walk away. We politely declined, but they insisted, practically taking the packs from our backs. We assumed then that they were part of the crew but just in case not, and remembering our previous experience in Pyay, we very firmly said “no money”. OK they said, trundling off with our stuff. 90 seconds later and aboard the boat they asked for cash. It was early, we were still half asleep and I was sore from our little accident on the e-bikes the day before. This morning they’d picked on the wrong people – there was absolutely no way we were about to pay them a single penny. They wouldn’t leave us alone so we found a seat and sat down with them trailing on behind. Finally, totally fed up with the situation I reported them to the boat crew, with whom I discovered they had no affiliation. The crew didn’t really care about the shananagins, but it was enough to get them off our backs and they disappeared to try their luck elsewhere. We absolutely don’t mind paying for good and wanted service and we tip with the best of them, but there are times when no means no and this was one of them.

We knew instantly that the boat would be one of our preferred modes of transport as we settled into wicker chairs on deck before wrapping ourselves up against the early morning chill. Shortly after setting sail we were served a basic but much appreciated breakfast and soon after that we were treated to a glorious sunrise. As the sun lifted so did the temperature and the spirits of all on board.

The Irrawaddy is a vast, wide river, impressive in it’s scale. The countryside lining either side doesn’t match its grandeur and was generally unspectacular, but even so watching the world and its boats go by was a lovely way to while away a few hours and the trip seemed to pass far more quickly than bus journeys of similar durations.


During Kipling’s time in Burma there was no real “Road to Mandalay” The road he writes about in his poem is actually the Irrawaddy River.

All too soon it was time to disembark and head into the city of Mandalay. A short tuk tuk ride got us to our accommodation, the poshly named Hotel Diamonds. It was a generic Booking.com deal – but the staff more than made up for its lack of personality with their efficiency and warmth and we instantly liked our choice. Better still it was directly opposite the station we were intending to use the following day – that was our plan…

Having been mostly well for our time in Bagan, Steve suddenly became very ill. The stomach bug he’d been wrestling with over the last few weeks had come back with a vengeance so we decided to stay put in Mandalay for a couple of days longer than planned to ride it out and get him back to fighting fitness. With things not improving and his now obvious weight loss concerning me a trip to the hospital was agreed.

The care he received was out of this world. A specialist who spoke English was called in especially to see him and we waited no longer than half an hour in an immaculately clean hospital surrounded by local people eyeing us with interest. The consultant was nothing short of wonderful. She had just returned from a stint in England and the first thing Steve did – unusually for him – was to comment on her beautifully painted nails. She explained they were top of her to do list on her return to Mandalay, going on to say that there was no time for anything other than work work work in the U.K. She did a thorough check on Steve, asking lots of questions and prescribing many drugs. This is all going to cost a pretty penny we thought – not that we worried too much because we’re fully insured – but it didn’t. The consultation and the drugs combined came to little more than £12. We couldn’t have been more impressed with the care we’d received in this swiftly developing country.

We stayed put for Steve to recuperate while the drugs kicked in, getting used to the confines of our room and it’s quirky clear glass divide between bedroom and toilet – not ideal for our present situation!


 

With Steve finally on the road to recovery we boarded our train to Pyin-Oo-Lwin for the next leg of our journey. Travelling by train is an absolute joy especially compared to the often hairy road trips here and we enjoyed a comfortable, relaxed and picturesque trip with none of the familiar overtaking on blind corner scares! The seats were comfortable, there was a trolley service of sorts and you could travel with the windows open to get the best views of the surrounding countryside.

We crossed the much talked about Goteik Viaduct, a thrilling highlight of the trip. Very soon after which we came to a halt at a remote station where we all alighted to sit in the sun and snack on corn on the cob freshly cooked by the track side and some of the sweetest watermelon we’ve ever tasted. We soon discovered that many people take the trip from Mandalay just to cross the viaduct, returning back on the next train travelling in the opposite direction. 



Pyin-Oo-Lwin station

Having passed through more glorious countryside and beautifully cultivated farmland we finally arrived at our destination of Pyin-Oo-Lyn. A short tuk tuk ride later and we found ourselves at Royal Flower Guest House, one of our favourite little guest houses so far. I couldn’t tell you why we liked it so much, maybe it was the affable manager who spoke a little understandable English and gave us a map of the area as soon as we arrived with suggestions of where to go and what to do, maybe it was our large room streaming with sunlight, maybe we were just in a great mood because it hadn’t taken a white knuckle road trip to get there! For whatever reason it was great to drop our bags and settle in to our new surroundings.

Guesthouse Communal Area

We decided that the one thing on our Pyn-Oo-Lwin to do list would be the botanical gardens we’d heard so much about and we decided our mode of transport for the day would be push bikes (we love push bikes, so much safer for us than scooters!). The gardens were stunning and we spent many hours in glorious sunshine exploring its numerous areas. 


 Pyn-Oo-Lwin is full of English colonial buildings, and what was left of our afternoon was spent cycling around the town to glimpse a few of them. It was spooky to be so far from home yet surrounded by such familiar architecture.

Day done we headed to town for dinner after which we found ourselves possibly the coolest lift of our trip so far. Horse and carriage here is the rather regal equivalent of the tuk tuk’s found elsewhere in Asia – it just had to be done. Our driver was super cool as were his horsemanship skills. His little pony obeyed his every vocal command, there was no need for anything more – the relationship between man and horse was touching.

 

Immediately after this photo was taken Steve was dismissed to the inside of the carriage!

Little more than 10-minutes later and we were back in our room where we very soon crashed for the night. Tomorrow was destination Hsipaw – one we were both very much looking forward to.


Guess… Information board at Hsipaw Station-times weren’t always available!

 

It was yet another early start to catch the train to Hsipaw and another stunning railway journey found us at Hsipaw station from where we walked to our guest house. Hsipaw, a town in Shan State is an old colonial “Hill Station” not much larger than our home town of St Agnes in Cornwall and has a bit of an untamed feel about it. Nestled in an upland plain, surrounded by hills, it fringes a river and the railway line from Mandalay to the Chinese border runs through it. This railway was constructed by the British to extract the Teak they used to build their Royal Naval ships in the 19th century. Teak was the primary reason Burma was so important to us at that time.

Hsipaw is a small backwater with just a couple of things going for it. The main reasons for visiting here are the trekking, to visit the Shan Prince’s Palace (which sadly doesn’t look much like a palace) and to spend time at a waterfall. The last option wasn’t for us as we were by now very much into the dry season and our previous experiences of waterfalls had all ended in disappointment and very little water!

Shan Prince’s Palace

 

We arrived early enough to walk to the palace where we were treated to an informative talk from the Prince’s sister-in-law who spoke eloquently about the troubles past and present. There sadly wasn’t a tour of the palace itself, but it had been an interesting visit nonetheless. We bimbled back to the guesthouse via a very cool juice cafe called Mr Shake where we both indulged in the best shake of our travels so far.

 

Mr Shakes!

Back at the Guesthouse we booked our trek for the following day, handed over some long overdue laundry for washing and contemplated our mini adventure ahead. We knew we were now close to the on going tensions in the country and it felt a little unsettling.

Our spacious colonial style bedroom


 A little background info on Hsipaw and it’s surrounding villages:

The Shan are the predominant people in Shan State (which is huge – larger than either Nepal or Greece), they are ethnic Thai and live on the plains in and around Hsipaw.

The Palaung are also quite common in Shan State, they are closer to being ethnic Chinese and live in the hills around Hsipaw.

The Bamar (Burmese) are the largest ethnic group in Myanmar, historically they don’t live in Shan State, although there’s a nice sized army camp in the town that’s full of them!

The three groups all have their own languages and armies, and they don’t always see eye to eye!


We arrived at Hsipaw, aware of the situation, but not quite the detail explained above. Not wanting to be a part of any troubles on our travels we had already checked that the area was considered safe on the UK Gov website, it was, the locals seemed happy too – we were good to go.

Steve and Tun Tun

 

We warmed to Tun Tun our Burmese guide quickly (it’s strongly advised to go on guided treks only here). The advantage with Tun Tun was that being neither Shan nor Palaung made it easier for him to talk about the local situation.

 

Village café/shop

 

About an hour into the walk we came across the first village (a Shan village) and our first shock of the trip – it was guarded with men carrying guns! As we entered there was a young man about 20yrs old in jeans and tee shirt, sitting under an umbrella with a rifle, “Who’s that?” we asked. “He’s the Shan army” Tun Tun tells us. “OK” we say a little taken aback.

“Is the gun real?” “Yes” – “is it loaded?” “Yes!”


  

We climbed into the hills and enjoyed a delicious lunch of local fare at a homestead in a Palaung village before walking a few miles more to the village that would be our home for the night. Here there were yet more Shan army, about a dozen of them, all with Kalashnikovs and some looking no older than 13 or 14.

(Would love to insert pics, but strictly no photographs were allowed)

 

Curious we asked Tun Tun to explain further and he told us that there was nothing to worry about as it had been quiet for a couple of months! The Government (Burmese) army aren’t fighting the Shan any more and most of the conflict is now between the Palaung and Shan armies. We learnt that the Palaung army is about 10 miles away and that the village we were staying in pay protection money to the Shan army. The Palaung army used to be in the village but they signed a peace treaty with the government a few years ago and laid down their arms, this allowed the Shan army to take the village. The Palaung army then took up arms again, retaking some villages, but not the one we were staying in. The Palaung villagers, whilst not completely happy that the Shan army are in town, have to accept their presence and get on with life as best they can.

We both slept soundly.

View to the village from our room

Our bed for the night

Our return trip was littered with many more army men carrying guns, but was thankfully uneventful. The only brief scare was when a field that had been set ablaze (a traditional method of land management here) started loudly popping. For a brief moment Steve and I imagined a firefight had broken out – Tun Tuns face was a picture at our panic! The unsettling noise soon passed as did our shock at seeing the weapons around us. It’s scary how soon you get used to things – all in all it was quite an eye opener.

Controlled fires lit to manage the scrub

Steve made lots of new friends – the children in the village loved him!

Steve felt especially connected to these lads as they were using plumbing pipes to play with!

It had been a great couple of days – tomorrow we would be setting off to Kalaw for more trekking in the hills, hopefully this time without men carrying weapons…


We were invited to drink tea with this wonderfully eccentric lady and her lovely family

Tar Tar

(Burmese  Goodbye)


 

Pyay and Bagan

The Temples of Bagan



It was time to bid farewell to Ngapali beach and head the 10hrs to Pyay where we were staying the night to break up our 20hr journey to Bagan. Our transport for the first half of the trip, a small local bus was not uncomfortable and the hours passed surprisingly quickly. 

We reached the bustling depot at Pyay in daylight and despite being laden with our bags we were very happy to stretch our legs and walk the 3 miles to our guesthouse on the other side of town. Budget accommodation options were limited here, but happily the lodgings we finally agreed on, although a little unusual – pets were welcome, children most definitely were not – were far better than we’d expected.

Spacious and colourful!


Night food market

By the time we’d unpacked and freshened up it was getting dark so we headed off towards the night food market for dinner. Unfortunately this foray was to include the first real hassle of our travels so far. We stopped to have a look at our map (big mistake) and were immediately pounced on (in an unthreatening way) with an offer of help. Great we thought, just before noticing that the offer came with a distinct whiff of alcohol and eyes incapable of looking in the same direction, (probably not so great after all). On noticing his state we attempted to peel away but he was having none of it. We flagged down a tuk tuk which frustratingly, but not surprisingly he boarded with us. We tried our best to politely ignore him and had repeatedly told him “no money,” but his behaviour was becoming erratic. With his demeanour changing and unable to escape from the confines of the tuk tuk we humoured him for the short trip which meant lengthy handshaking episodes between the three of us. We tried to lose him when we got off at the market, but that didn’t work either. “Money, money, money” was all he kept saying as he followed us around the streets. He was going nowhere, his mood was darkening and we were feeling evermore uneasy, so just to be rid of him we gave him a small amount of what he wanted. He staggered off into the darkness and we both heaved a huge sigh of relief.

We try and avoid this now!

Looking back it’s difficult to see how we could have avoided the situation from escalating, it was scary just how quickly a benign situation had turned sour. It’s very easy to become complacent when nearly everyone you meet is so genuinely friendly – we vowed to be more careful in future. Fortunately for us this was the first hint of trouble we’d come across during our time in Asia, not everyone we’ve met has been so lucky.


Too much choice

Dinner in the night market was both delicious and cheap, it more than made up for the hassle of getting there. We enjoyed spending time amongst the townsfolk eating BBQ’d food and drinking local tea before a far more relaxed tuk tuk trip back to the guesthouse, via a pretty illuminated temple, and our beds for the night.

The lovely lady of the house

 

The following morning, just as we were leaving and completely out of the blue, the lady of the house declared her love for me – twice!

Her tripadvisor rating went from 3 stars to 4 stars instantly!

We retraced our footsteps to the bus station for the second 10hr leg of the journey to our next destination – Bagan. Much to my disappointment the bus was in fact a mini van, the first of our trip so far. Wedged into the overcrowded space and with absolutely no leg room and no escape route if anything went wrong it felt extremely claustrophobic. I decided I would read my book for the duration and try not to think about our confinement, Steve, crammed into his tiny space and unable to look out of any windows instantly felt travel sick and the boy next to us had already started throwing up – neither of us were looking forward to the journey ahead. Thankfully though the driver, unlike many of his Asian counterparts, didn’t have a death wish and drove relatively safely, Steve wasn’t sick and me, well I just kept my head down – it wasn’t so bad after all.


We were dropped, as we had been the previous day, a couple of miles from our hotel – it was a huge relief to unfurl from our seats and to stretch our legs for the short walk. When we arrived we were greeted with the below, a lovely welcome after many hours on the road.

On every traveller to Myanmar’s to do list, Bagan is a full on tourist destination and so accommodation here is quite expensive. In fact the cost of accommodation in Myanmar had taken us by surprise. Every hotel, hostel or guest house offering rooms to tourists here must have a government licence.  This process we were lead to believe has been open to corruption by local officials withholding licences from those not willing or able to grease their palm.  Luckily though general living costs are cheap so tight budgets can be kept to.

Wanting to get everything done before relaxing we booked ourselves e-bikes for the following day, the recommended way of exploring the area, and arranged our boat trip to Manadaly for the day after that. Everything organised we plunged into the pool for a cool down. Yes I did say pool! A cracking deal made Bagan Emerald Hotel one of the best options available in the area and we jumped at the chance of a little luxury. Despite all its pros though, including an amazing breakfast included in the price, we actually didn’t fall in love with this hotel. It felt impersonal, generic and a little bland. It’s likely a perfect choice for the package tour masses visiting the area, but it wasn’t really our cup of tea – that didn’t stop us having a bit of pool time fun though!


Top speed 10 miles an hour – it’s a beast!

Following a great breakfast it was time to pick up our e-bikes – yikes! Our requests for helmets were poo pooed, this is Asia after all, and stupidly we didn’t push the point – but with a top speed of around 10 miles-an-hour what could possibly go wrong?! Following some simple do this, don’t do that instructions we set off. My thought worm for the day started almost immediately, it went like this – “If something happens to us how, exactly, are we going to explain why we’re not wearing helmets?” and “if our kids ever do anything like this I’ll kill them!” With this in mind we slowly bimbled around being overtaken by just about everything else on the road.


Bagan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in central Myanmar and is one of the world’s greatest archeological wonders. The backdrop for the temples is a verdant palm and tamarind covered 26 square-mile plain, it’s a visual feast that’s said to rival Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat. 

Rising from the canopy of green are hundreds of temples that were built by the kings of Bagan between 1057 and 1287, when their kingdom was swept away by earthquakes and Kublai Khan and his invading Mongols. Some 2,230 of an original 4,450 temples survive, a legacy of the Buddhist belief that to build a temple was to earn merit.

Climbing for a bird’s eye view

Bagan is captivating and our day was easily filled exploring it. We climbed as many temples as we could to get the best possible views and were always rewarded with stunning panoramas of the otherworldly lanscape all around us. This is a unique destination that has to be experienced first hand to be truly appreciated and if ever there was a place for a hot air balloon ride this is it! 

 


Steve had done lots of research on where to go and what best to see, it was a great guideline to have, but we soon found ourselves peeling away from suggested temples to explore less visited ones instead. We found lots of quiet hidden gems by heading off the beaten track a bit.

One of the little temples we stumbled across housed an artist who lured us in with his wit and repartee. We were not in the market for buying anything, he knew that but having asked what days of the week we were born on, he cleaverly painted our respective animal symbols, mine a dragon snake, Steve’s a rat. It was fascinating to watch him work and he gave us the little finished pieces to keep. He didn’t ask for any money, but of course we gave him some and were very happy to do so. We now have personalised keepsakes and great memories of the charismatic Burmese man who painted them for us.

Steve’s Thursday rat

My Saturday Dragon Snake


The area is too large to fully explore on push bikes in one day and so our e-bikes turned out to be the perfect solution. We were getting the hang of them, everything was going well until…

Lunch

A little after lunch my handlebar grip fell off making acceleration nigh on impossible. Now I didn’t want to go fast, but we did want to go somewhere. A call to the hotel for help was made and a while later a replacement bike was bought out to us. Great we can at last get on with our day – oh wait, no we can’t because less than an hour later that bike too broke down! Another phone call, another wait, no replacement bike. So two people, one bike it was. Me upfront – Steve behind map reading, or so I thought…

I thought it had gone quiet back there!

With Steve on the back, my newly learnt scooter skills started to suffer and we wobbled more than was desirable. Despite being a perfect pillion passenger – his patience deserved a medal – his weight made a huge difference to the balance of the bike and I didn’t much like it. We briefly considered the only other option of Steve upfront and me as pillion, but for Steve the idea of me barking orders from the back was too much to contemplate so we stuck it out as we were.


A must do here is to watch the sunset over the temples and there are various suggested places to do it. The faffing with our bikes however meant we were too far away from any of these points and left us looking for an alternative. The spot we found was amazing. From the dirt track we were ambling along we could see people with a perfect view in the not too far distance. Bingo we thought and headed in their direction. We ascended the temple – a tricky little climb – found ourselves somewhere to sit amongst locals and travellers and watched a beautiful sunset over the surreal landscape of Bagan. It was a magical moment for everyone sat watching and a beautiful end to an eventful day.

Sunset over Bagan


Not wanting to drive in the pitch dark we picked our way down to the safety of terra firma and our bike..

The track to get back to the road was sandy, very sandy. We had seen people struggling to ride along it from our temple viewpoint, but had thought little of it at the time. Steve was remarkably relaxed as the terrain got more tricky to negotiate, I though was not and soon the inevitable happened. We hit a bank of soft deep sand, the bike did its thing and we fell both off. At about 1 mile-an-hour and with no other traffic on the track it was mostly my pride that was hurt. Being in no doubt then that sand and scooters don’t mix we chose where to ride and where to push very carefully for the remainder of the way. We were very pleased when we reached a tarmacked road, but by the time we got there it was in chaotic rush hour spate and to make matters worse it was now completely dark. Slowly, slowly we made our way back and thankfully our little mishap was to be the one and of the day. Since then we’ve heard stories and seen the scars of many tourist scooter accidents which seem to happen most often with two up on one bike. If there is to be a next time for us it will most definitely be one bike each!

 

We also now strictly stick to “If you wouldn’t do it at home don’t do it abroad? “

 

      and shy away from “when in Rome…!”

There will be no more helmetless adventures on our trip!


Very glad to be back safely we jumped in the pool and pondered the events of the day. I was hoping that no one would ever find out about our helmetless antics, little did I know that the photographic evidence was already out there. Thanks Steve!


We packed our bags ready for an extremely early start to catch our Irrawaddy river boat to Mandalay the next day. We were both excited, we both slept well. I was a little bruised, but thankfully everything was intact – I couldn’t help but feel we’d had a lucky escape!


 

Ngapali beach

Ngapali Beach


Sun-Sand-Sea


The night bus, a journey of around 13-hours, wasn’t nearly as bad as we’d been led to believe. Accompanied mainly by local people it was pretty clear that most tourists do indeed fly, but determined to explore SE Asia overland it was absolutely the right choice for us. Adopting the travelling mindset of enjoying the journey as much as the destination has helped us overcome some of the following on our numerous lengthy trips:

The downsides of bus travel in Asia:

  • No toilet facilities – dehydration tactics are necessary to avoid long periods of leg crossing
  • Very little room to cross legs
  • Aircon so cold you freeze
  • No aircon so you roast
  • Smelly blankets on night buses
  • Completely numb appendages for hours at a time
  • Sore coccyges
  • Travel sickness
  • Erratic driving on dangerous roads
  • Sharing space with chickens, goats and other agricultural produce 
  • Children unceremoniously dumped on your lap and left there
  • Luggage transported on the roof exposed to dust, rain and thieves
  • UNBEARABLE MUSIC BEING PLAYED IN A NEVER-ENDING LOOP FOR HOURS ON END – We actually liked the bus music of Nepal, but earplugs at the ready for Myanmar!

 

The upsides of bus travel in Asia:

  • It’s cheap
  • It’s more environmentally friendly than air travel 
  • You meet like minded travellers and friendly local folk (who all think you’re completely mad)
  • You travel through beautiful countryside, pretty villages and charming towns
  • You see amazing sun rises and sunsets from the (relative) comfort of your seat
  • You form a greater overall picture of the country you’re travelling through
  • You have stories to tell

Cheer up Steve – only 13 hrs to go!

One of our many buses, all different, most uncomfortable


We were dropped at a desolate crossroads a little after 4am. It was dark and we had little idea of where we were in relation to our guest house but there was a glimmer of daylight dawning, the tiny street stalls were already creeping into life and the sound of the ocean was ringing in our ears, it was comfortably warm and despite the hour and our lack of sleep we were buzzing. We picked a cafe that was up and running to rehydrate and wait for the sun to rise while we found our bearings on our new best ‘navigational’ friend – maps.me.

Steve indulged, rather bravely I thought at this hour, in the Myanmar breakfast fare of fish soup, noodles and egg – I wasn’t about to join him! 

No thanks…

I did however join him a little while later in a cup of 3 in 1 coffee, another Myanmar treat that takes some getting used to.


Our Accommodation


With the aid of TripAdviser and Booking.com our guesthouse choice turned out to be a gem. Ngapali Beach is a relatively expensive destination by SE Asian standards making good, budget accommodation hard to find, but after months of basic living conditions and freezing weather in Nepal we were happy to treat ourselves and compromise a bit on price. With this in mind we raised our budget a little and settled for The Villager Lodge. Set amongst ramshackle local dwellings and a mere 2-minute walk from a stunning beach it ticked all the right boxes and couldn’t have been more perfect. Breakfast (included in the price) was plentiful and delicious, there was free bicycle hire available on site, unlimited wifi access and best of all there was an amazing shower with a continuous supply of hot water – needless to say we upped the once a week wash we’d become accustomed to in the village and shamelessly used copious amounts of (solar) hot water for the first few days!


Ngapali Beach, part of Rakhine State, is a series of glorious beaches stretching along the central eastern edge of Myanmar.


Rakhine State

Our initial plan whilst travelling Myanmar was to go to Mrauk U, (pronounced mrau-oo), to visit its temples, and other archaeological and cultural delights. This would have involved two boat trips, one by sea the other by river, taking us from the southern to the northern part of Rakhine State.

Rakhine State is separated geographically from the rest of Myanmar by the Arakan  Mountains and for much of its history has also been separated by politics and culture. This has led to conflict over the years, which is still ongoing. Knowing of its troubles and not wanting to put ourselves in the firing line of any of the worlds wars whilst travelling we sought advice from the locals we’d befriended. Having heard what they had to say we decided not to make the trip opting to extend our stay at Ngapali Beach instead.

The existing troubles in Rakhine State is primarily between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. The Buddhists get the backing of the state and majority of the Myanmar population, also mainly Buddhist. The Rohingya have often been described as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. According to the United Nations, the human rights violations against Rohingyas could be termed as “crimes against humanity”. The Rohingyas say they are indigenous to Rakhine State, while others claim that the group represents a mixture of precolonial and colonial immigrations from Bangladesh (Bengal). The official stance of the Myanmar Government however, has been that the Rohingyas are mainly illegal immigrants and refuse to call them Rohingya, calling them Bengali instead. The Nobel peace prize winner and de-facto prime minister of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi is facing international criticism for her government’s handling of the crisis, where soldiers have blocked access for aid workers and are accused of harming civilians.

Myanmar is in many ways a blossoming country, opening up to the rest of the world and in the process is trying to heal old and deep wounds with its many minority ethnic groups. Its ability to reconcile the Rohingya conflict will be the acid test of the country’s ability to do this. It won’t be an easy road, we encountered overt anti Muslim sentiment from some of the intelligent, friendly and educated Burmese people we spent time with.

In the words of one western lady we met who’d been working for an NGO in the country for many years, “In some respects the country needs to grow up a bit!”


The Beaches


The resort of Ngapali consists of at least 4 beaches, all of them called Ngapali Beach and all with beautiful golden/white sand. The southern beach is the most developed with a plentiful supply of resorts, stalls and restaurants to choose from. A small, quiet, palm lined cove, which we called Kipling’s Bay after a pretty lodge on the road leading to it, lies just south of the golf course. Here you have a choice of a single tiny beach bar (when the bartender isn’t in the sea) at one end and a couple of smart lodges including Yoma Cherry Lodge at the other. The next beach, north of the golf course and south of the airport, was where we were staying and the most northerly beach was the largest, the least developed and possibly the most beautiful.  Housing only a 5-star resort – Amara Ocean Resort – and one beach cafe that we could see it was nothing short of a deserted paradise!



The pristine expanse of white sand, just a stone’s throw from our guesthouse was enjoyed by both locals and tourists alike. Happily it was quiet whilst we were there in March and it wasn’t unusual to explore large areas with only a few, if any, others in sight. Best described as a beach of two halves, the southern stretch, lined with local cafe shacks and vibrant stalls, was brimming with energy and colour. This was were the locals hung out and was the part of the beach we gravitated to. The northern stretch was equally as pretty, but being fringed by small resorts it had a more touristy feel and so lacked some of the charm of its next door neighbour. Beach-wise there was something for everyone here, all of it clean and all of it beautiful – a lovely flavour of Myanmar by the sea.



Geography in Action (GIA)

Crab in Action (CIA)!

 

How many shells?

Sand penguin


But this idyll we think is all about to change. The country was opened to tourism in the 1990’s and has seen a huge growth since various political reforms, introduced from 2010, led to the lifting of sanctions against the former military junta. Building works are evident everywhere and we fear that the coming influx of tourist dollar will dull this vibrant community and taint its warm, genuine people. It’s in danger of becoming yet another generic tourist bolthole, but for now at least it’s a raw, naive and beautiful country full of infectiously happy people and largely respectful travellers who want to explore Myanmar for what it is and long may that last.

Fresh coconut juice

Beach food shacks

 

Children with traditional Myanmar makeup which protects against the fierce sunshine

We thought it impossible to match the kindness and warmth of the Nepali people, but the Burmese have not fallen short. During a stroll along the beach a group of young lads came up to us with a very large and very pretty shell wanting to give it to me. I politely refused thinking they were surely after money. I explained that I didn’t want to pay for it. “No, no they said, we don’t want money, we just want you to have it”. With a lump in my throat I gratefully accepted the shell.

Such is life in Myanmar at the moment and just like Nepal it’s refreshing and beautiful.

 

Shell we were given

Coral we found

 

 


We soaked up the sun, lounged on the beach and frolicked in the sea, we exposed our lily white bodies to the elements and we did that very British thing of complaining about the how hot it was – briefly. The warm, clean sea offered a perfect escape from the heat of the day. It was bliss!

We took up the offer of the guesthouse bicycles and spent days on them exploring the area and its many beaches – all were beautiful, all were different.

With the countryside relatively flat our gearless bikes were great for getting around.


Our first 2 trips took us south. First off we visited the stunning main Ngapali beach. Here the large curving area of white sand is fringed with local cafes serving excellent food, craft stalls, massage beds and unassuming locals selling boat trips and the like. The (lifeguarded) swimming was calm and safe and looking inland from the sea was a beautiful backdrop of palm trees. The beach had a relaxed vibe that we loved and we visited it more than once to soak up the atmosphere.


We visited Kipling’s Bay which is sandwiched between our beach and the main beach. Kipling’s Bay is a secluded paradise, a picture perfect spot away from it all. At one end is the upmarket Yoma Cherry Lodge and at the other is a small beach shack offering drinks and snacks where you can relax in bamboo reclining chairs and look to the horizon over turquoise waters. 


We cycled to the southern most point of the area where we visited a large standing Buddha situated on a hill overlooking Fishermans Village. This was an area where locals were getting on with their daily lives, it was interesting to see the community busying themselves with traditional work.

 

 


 

To the North we found our favourite spot and enjoyed a great day of exploring the area. We cycled past the little airport next to the coast road where planes come in to land and take off directly overhead – we stopped a while to gongoozle before heading on.  A little further we took a left down a dirt road before picking our way along a vague track headed to the beach. Hard to ride on the soft sand we dismounted and pushed our bikes along the most perfect, deserted spot imaginable. The beach stretched for miles ahead so we took the opportunity of refreshments at a posh resort for an overpriced but much appreciated drink before a quick dip and some body surfing in the lively sea. We dried in an instant whilst pushing our bikes onwards where our tenacity to continue was rewarded with the most unbelievably picturesque and secluded beach cafe we’ve ever come across. We were accompanied by one other couple who also enthused about the beauty and tranquility of the spot – we all promised to keep its whereabouts under our hats! We ate, we swam, I sketched, Steve read, we played cards. This utopian spot was nothing short of paradise. We could have stayed for so much longer, but with a longish ride to our guesthouse ahead of us and the day slipping away we headed back. It had been a stunning day in Myanmar.

Our perfect beach Shack


Our intended 2 or 3 days in Ngapali beach had grown and become 7 days of pure joy, it had been everything we’d hoped for and so much more besides.

Our only disappointment was the food served at the many beach cafes close to where we were staying. We were excited about the seafood expecting it to be super fresh –  it wasn’t. Being a little out of high season and very quiet we suspect the produce was hanging around longer than ideal in the heat and despite our best efforts at being careful with what we ate and drank we both suffered upset stomachs here – myself for the first time of our entire 5 month trip. For Steve this was to be the beginning of a long drawn out on/off illness which would later include a visit to a Mandalay Hospital. Begrudgingly we opted for restaurnts aimed more at the tourist market where the local dishes served were both tasty and, more importantly, safe. Sadly it all came with a higher price tag, our budget was starting to suffer.


Snorkelling at Pearl Island

There was very little to see!


And so our beach time fun had come to an end. With Steve well enough to travel we were ready to head inland for some culture.


Goodbye Ngapali Beach

It’s been fun!

 

Yangon

Our adventure continues…


On the 27th February 2017 we sadly left the Himalayan mountain village of Melamchi-Ghyang, Nepal, our home for the last 5 months, to set off on the next leg of our adventures.

Destination Myanmar

On the 5th March 2017 we boarded our Air Asia plane bound for Yangon  via Kuala Lumpur.

Feeling a little concerned that I’d agreed to a low cost asian airline I was relieved to find that not only did it have 2 engines, both apparently working, but it was also rather plush inside. None of the Qatar airline trappings we’d become accustomed to such as inflight entertainment or free food, but at a fraction of the price it was perfect for us and our budget backpacking pockets!


The reasonable price tag came with an overnight stopover of 9 hours in Kuala Lumpa airport, which as it turns out is also rather plush. Just as well because flashpacking days behind us meant a suitable area of floor was to be our bed for the night. Having chosen our spot, after much umming and ahhing from me, we secured our bags and settled down for the duration – only one of us slept!

Morning dawned, I was feeling tired, Steve was feeling stiff! But our next Air Asia plane didn’t disappoint and was equally as smart as the previous one. With a shortish flight of a little under 3 hours ahead of us we were starting to get excited – we were very nearly there.


The first flying hiccup of our travels happened on this leg the of the trip. All was going well, the weather had been perfect, the landing gear had been lowered and we were almost at rubber touching tarmac point when the engines suddenly roared into life and the plane ascended steeply back into the sky!  Everyone was anxious – everyone that was apart from the hostess who, being sound asleep in her seat at the rear of the plane, was blissfully unaware that anything untoward had happened… Soon after our rapid ascent and with terrifying thoughts of faulty landing gear and the like in our heads the captain announced an apology over the tannoy, explaining a thick band of fog had obscured his sight of the runway at the very last minute. With thoughts of what happens if the fog doesn’t lift now going through our minds we circled for a further 20 minutes before attempt number 2 which, to the relief of all on board, was textbook.


And so, with feet firmly on the ground, it was time to work our way through the obligatory visa and passport controls, before arranging local SIM cards for our phones, drawing out local currency and sorting a taxi to our hostel. Thankfully everything was far less painful than either of us had expected and all was managed with relative ease. There was efficiency at the airport, the ATM worked first time – which rarely happened in Nepal – and we were fortunate to meet a great taxi driver who didn’t take us for a ride in anything other than the transportation sense. Even through our sleep deprived haze first impressions of Myanmar were good.


It was HOT!

Yangon was, until reletively recently, the capitol city of Myanmar. A far cry from the bedlam of Kathmandu that we’d become accustomed to, it wasn’t what either of us was expecting. The roads, although busy were tarmacked and felt like proper roads. Motor bikes are banned from the main streets, meaning less traffic chaos, the taxis are smart, as are the drivers who mostly wear uniforms consisting of the local longyi (a sarong type skirt) and a white shirt, the streets are clean and there is little dust. We liked what we saw.

                   
                                          


Our taxi driver Aung Aung  (hold your nose and say “On On”) deftly talked us into a tour with him the following day. Generally we shy away from guided tours, preferring to find our own way round, but making the most of our 1 full day in Yangon was important and so it made perfect sense on this occasion to take him up on his offer. Besides we liked Aung Aung and were happy to spend more time with him – daily budget blown!

Steve and Aung Aung


He was surprised at our hostel choice, pointing out the more glamorous hotels his guests usually stay in, but Shannkalay turned out to be a great decision. With no windows in the bedrooms and shared bathroom facilities it shouldn’t have been nearly so cool as it was, but with murals painted all over the walls, funky, loud, flowery, (clean) bedding, hot showers and much welcomed air conditioning it was a quirky little bolthole and one of our favourite places of the trip so far. 

For dinner we found a small street cafe packed with local people, usually a pretty reliable indicator of a safe bet, we immersed ourselves in the buzzing atmoshere. The food was both delicious and cheap, the local brew was every bit as good as the Nepali beer and the locals were very happy to have us crash their party. It was a fun evening.

Cheers!

 

Following a great nights sleep in a very comfy bed, we enjoyed our simple breakfast of eggs and coffee before downing our (Malarone) malaria pills which, after much consideration, we’d decided to take. Heading to a high risk Malarial area next we thought better safe than sorry – if we suffered adverse reactions from the medication we’d resort to plan B, which was not to take them! We met Aung Aung our friendly taxi driver at the agreed time for a whistle stop tour of Yangon.


First to Sule Pagoda, an amazing Burmese stupa bizarrely on a roundabout surrounded by main roads. Tardis like, it was far more impressive on the inside than it looked from the outside. Aung Aung told us a neat little fact about the temples here having birthday corners dedicated to different days of the week. The idea is to find your corner and carry out a little ritual. It’s snippets of information like this which make having a guide worthwhile and we now find our corners everywhere we go. 

 
 
 
 
 
Each day of the week has an animal associated with it.
I’m a Saturday which is a dragon snake, Steve is a Thursday making him a rat!

Next stop was Shwedagon Pagoda which was huge and simply stunning. It was the landmark we most wanted to see and it didn’t disappoint. At around 2,500 years old Shwedagon Pagoda today stands close to 100 meters high, it’s covered with hundreds of gold plates and the top of the stupa is encrusted with 4,531 diamonds; the largest of which is around 70 carats! Shwedagon Pagoda consists of hundreds of colorful temples, stupas, and statues painted in vivid colours and with beautiful glass and mirror mosaics everywhere the reflecting light from the bright sunshine was blinding. It’s clearly one of the wonders of the religious world, but whatever your beliefs you can’t help but be impressed with it’s magnificence – we savoured our visit there. 

 

 


Following a lovely lunch at a bustling local cafe we visited Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda which houses a vast reclining Buddha. At 66 meters long it’s an enormous visual delight and my favourite destination of the day. There’s so much more to this statue than it’s staggering size. It’s beautifully carved from stone and the face, especially the eyes, emanate lifelike emotion which sent shivers down my spine. With birds flying in and out of it’s nostrils the shear scale of it was incredible.

 


Our next stop was Nga Htat Gyi Buddha Temple. A splendid seated statue of Budha which paled a little into insignificance having just seen the vast reclining one. But it was beautiful in its own right and its birthday corners kept us amused – little things…


Bogyoke market, otherwise known as Scott market, was next on our hit list. Catering for the tourist trade it was interesting enough, but not wanting to carry nik naks around with us for the foreseeable future and with Steve’s hands tightly on the purse strings a quick scoot around was all we needed.


Via beautiful Kandawgyi Lake our last stop was the National Museum. Closing at 4:30 we only had an hour and a half to wander round it, but we could easily have spent much longer exploring its 5 floors. Beautifully laid out with great displays it was somewhere we could happily have spent more time.

The Lion Throne of the Burmese kings.


Our day was done and with only farewells left Aung Aung tried to convince us one last time that flying by (expensive) plane to our next destination of Ngapali Beach rather than by our chosen (and already booked) method of roading it by (cheap) bus would make for a much more comfortable trip – he hadn’t been on our last flight! We politely stood our ground and with him for the second time in 2 days bemused by our travel choices said our goodbyes. We were happy, today had been money well spent, we’d done everything on our Yangon to do list.


We did follow one piece of Aung Aung’s advice and visited China Town on 19th and 20th street for dinner. He told us that the food would be delicious, plentiful and safe and he was right on all counts. With the streets bustling with far more locals than tourists and stalls everywhere selling a huge variety of goodies to eat and drink we enjoyed a memorable evening soaking up the atmosphere and filling our bellies. We ignored Aung Aung’s final piece of advice which was to take a taxi (not because he thought it unsafe to walk, but because he thought it a long way) opting to walk there and back instead. We were very glad for our decision, not only did we experience Yangon at night, but it also gave us a chance to digest our food babies…


Off to our funky room for bedtime – we both slept soundly.


Breakfast eaten we explored the local area and stocked up on bus biscuits in preparation for the 13 hr long coach ride ahead of us later that day.

 


Ngapali Beach, you’d better be worth it…


 

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén