Ahhhhhhhhh, Myanmar. “You most likely know it as Myanmar, but it’ll always be Burma to me.”
While I originally planned to go to Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, and maybe Vietnam, I really didn’t expect to go to Myanmar at all. To be honest, pretty much all I knew about it was that line from Seinfeld and that there’s currently a genocide/ethnic cleansing/refugee crisis happening with the Rohingya in the west of the country being committed by the Myanmar government (more on that later). However, I kept meeting people who told me that it was the highlight of their whole trip in SEA. When I had a few weeks to kill before meeting my friends in Vietnam, since I had kind of tired of Cambodia, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
To begin, most of the country (that most people see with limited time) can be separated into the south (around/accessible from Yangon) and the north (surrounding Mandalay). As an aside, there are definitely other cool areas (the far north, near the Himalayas, the west, like Mrauk U, etc), but those have to be very specific destinations, I think. Originally, I planned to spend a decent chunk of my three weeks in the south, but I realized after getting there, talking to peolpe, and reading a bit more, that there was only one destination I wanted to see in the south aside from Yangon. Most of the juicy good stuff is in the north around Mandalay. However, despite there being international airports in both Yangon and Mandalay, flights in or out of the Mandalay one are literally 2-3x more expensive for some reason, so a lot of people fly into Yangon and then get a night bus to the north even if they plan on spending no time in the south.
So the moral of the story is that I flew into Yangon. Yangon itself is kind of a big dirty Myanmar city, but I ended up liking it a lot. I stayed at Little Yangon hostel, which is in a good spot in the city. The area is not touristy at all, and most the buildings in the area/on that street are locals living their lives and looking at you a little curiously. When I pulled into that street the first night, I was a little spooked because there were no streetlights on and I wasn’t sure I wasn’t going to get stabbed. However, in the morning I immediately got a better vibe and started liking it. One of the first things I noticed is that our street was really narrow (maybe 20 feet from building to building?) while the buildings themselves were pretty tall (~8 stories?), which reminded me a lot of when I visited my friends in Geneva.
A lot of the buildings had this “faded colonial” look I really liked, typically yellow or white buildings with city grime collected on them. I dunno, it just felt very “old world”, like a peek at the era when the British had colonized it. Another thing I immediately noticed was that everything about the place seemed to be much closer to Indian culture than the other places I had been before, which I guess makes some sense because it is geographically much closer. The people looked more similar, the food was definitely similar, and I dunno… I haven’t been to India, but the city felt “Indian” for some reason, which I really liked.
Anyway, one of the first cool experiences I had was when I was sitting outside of the hostel with a Luxembourgian (?), putting my shoes on, when a couple of Myanmar guys came up to us. They invited us to their English class that was held nearby, in pretty good English themselves. The Luxembourgian, said that he had gone yesterday (alone!) and it was cool if we wanted to check it out, so we did. I think 3 or 4 of us followed them. They were young (in college), but I had assumed they were actually the teachers because their English was pretty damn good, but I guess they were just affiliated with the place or maybe also took classes there. When we got there, we went up several narrow flights into one of the buildings off those narrow roads, and there was a full (30-40) classroom. When the teacher (an older Myanmar man) saw that we were there, he split the class up into groups so we could just talk to them. I was paired with around 10 Myanmar girls, who were all staring at me while I’d say 2 of them actually led the conversation with me.
It was a little awkward, but also pretty fun! It’s weird for people to be giving you attention for a “skill” you didn’t work for or choose to have, but I was happy to oblige and they were happy to practice. We mostly asked each other questions about our cultures and stuff. A couple things I thought were interesting. At one point, one of them, meaning to ask if I had a girlfriend, accidentally asked if I had a boyfriend, and she and the other girls all burst into laughter when she made the mistake. I told them that it’s actually not crazy to ask (though it was obviously a mistake), some guys in America do have boyfriends. They seemed puzzled, so I asked them if that wasn’t very common in Myanmar. They didn’t seem to get it, so I don’t know if it’s not an accepted thing there, or maybe it was just lost in translation. I also asked them, how common are arranged marriages in Myanmar? I was kind of expecting a depressing answer, but they said that they’re actually not that common, maybe like 20%, but the rest were what they called “love marriages”, like dating I guess.
So, I wasn’t there for this, but the Luxembourg guy told me later that when he went the day before, he had gone alone, so instead of breaking the class up into groups, he was basically plopped up there in front of the class with a microphone to talk to them! That alone is kind of funny (and would have been intimidating to me), but there’s more. Apparently, he asked them about the Rohingya killings in the west, and how much they knew of what was going on. For context, I’ve heard that the Myanmar press is fairly controlled by the government, and from what I’ve read there aren’t great feelings towards the Rohingya from what they do know. So he’s apparently up there, frantically telling them all the crimes their country is currently committing, and they’re apparently just kind of puzzled or haven’t heard of it. I was…impressed, because in a sense that’s probably the moral thing to do, but I thought it proooobably wasn’t the best idea. Myanmar has a strong military presence, and several times we saw heavily armed military guys around the city.
Anyway, this same guy invited me and a few others to do something called the “circular line”, which is basically taking a local train that starts and ends in Yangon, going around the outskirts. It truly is local, and you’ll see barely any other foreigners. Another good sign that it’s very local is that it cost 200 MMK (about 16 cents) for the whole ride, which lasted several hours. It was really, really cool. The train has seats all along the windows, and it goes pretty slow, so it’s perfect for just staring out the window and getting a sense of the place (and taking photos!). It was really interesting, and went through some areas that were so poor they were a little shocking to me; somehow despite knowing places like Laos and Cambodia were really poor (Myanmar has about the same GDP per capita as Cambodia, half of Laos’), I guess I hadn’t seen it up close yet. It was also the garbage everywhere: some people were living in shacks that were literally surrounded by trash, which I really hadn’t seen before. In a few places, there were these shacks right next to the train, and then a tiny bit farther, you could see what looked like pretty nice houses, surrounded by high walls with razor wire and glass shards embedded in the walls. What it actually reminded me strongly of is a Sam Harris line he likes to reuse a lot (he reuses a lot of lines if you listen to him…) about a possible outcome of automation in which the rich get ultra rich and live in mansions surrounded by razor wire to keep the poor hordes surrounding them out. This was pretty damn close to being that.
Somewhere along the circular route, the Luxembourg guy and I got off at a stop to check out something called the “wet market”. It was a fairly typical Myanmar/SEA local market, though pretty huge. We wandered around for a while and got lots of looks (all friendly though). The kids absolutely loved his tattoos. Anyway, we stopped to try and get Longhis in the market, which are basically a skirt that Myanmar men wear. It’s not even like a traditional thing, just most men and boys wear them daily. We wanted to buy them because they’re pretty convenient if you’re wearing shorts (it was hot there) and want to visit a pagoda, which requires knees and shoulders being covered. When buying them, the woman seemed really intent on telling us something, kind of waving her hand over some of them as if to say “you don’t want these ones.” But, she spoke no English and we were stubborn, so we got them. I got one that seemed pretty reasonable, being black with some flowery pattern.
SO, later when we got back, we went to check out the Shwedagon pagoda, which is the “postcard” pagoda in Yangon. As we got to the top, where we had to cover up, a Myanmar guy trying to sell his services as a guide talked to us, and while I was putting on my “Longhi”, he said “you know that’s for women, right?” I was like, what? Why? It’s the same? But he insisted, saying that actual Longhis had a bit more slack (they’re basically a tube of fabric) that allows men to tie them differently, and as a result they look different when worn. I waved him off, thinking he was making a minor point that no one would notice. But…as soon as we started walking around the pagoda, everyone was looking at me. And I really mean everyone. Literally constantly I’d hear giggles, and turn around to see a group of people (of all ages) laughing or taking pictures. I even got a monk to laugh. WELL, I’m glad my self inflicted humiliation brought them some joy at least. Suddenly, the flower pattern and the woman at the market all made sense…
Anyway, the pagoda was cool, but I guess I’m not that into pagodas or temples. Something I thought was a little weird (and I’d see much more of in the future) is that, despite this being some ancient, holy monument, the pagoda had a ton of smaller buddha shrines that had…gaudy animated neon lights around them. Usually it would be something like, the halo/crown/whatever thing behind his head, but animated so it was radiating out. I mean, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but back home neon lights are pretty universally a little trashy, so it was unexpected to see them here. But it made me wonder if maybe, since they don’t have that association already, to them it’s just something cool that they’d want to adorn their Buddha with. I’ll admit, it did look a little cool if you separated it in your mind.
Anyway that’s about all for Yangon.
I wanted to check out the south a bit before going north, but to be honest I hadn’t done as much research as I maybe should’ve. I had read a few guides about the region, so I had the names for a few cities (Kyaikto, Hpa-An, Mawlamyine) to go to, but not what to actually do once there. After talking to some people in Yangon, I kind of realized that a few of the ones I had looked at probably weren’t worth spending the time to get to them, settle in, etc (for example, there’s this “Golden Rock” near Kyaikto, but someone told me that it was…basically a tourist trap that’s a big golden rock). I probably would’ve checked them out if I had a whole other month, but with my time, I decided to skip them. That left one place left in the south I’d actually go to, Hpa-An. Funnily enough, my friend Chris, who I had talked to about travel before I left, had gone to Myanmar years ago and told me about getting dropped off outside some small town, and hitching a ride into town. It turned out H-A was that town!
I had met a German girl in the hostel in Yangon named Jamila who was also interested in going there, so we took a bus there together, which was a fairly unpleasant night bus that got us in at some crazy hour like 4AM. H-A is far from unknown, but it’s definitely way off the typical Myanmar tourist track (though it’s all relative blah blah blah etc). Most days there I’d walk around and not see another (obviously) Westerner, which is always neat. H-A feels less like a “superstar” place like Bagan or Inle Lake, but it definitely has stuff to do.
One day we rented scooters and did this hike known as the “4000 steps”. I didn’t count them, but I’d buy it. At the base of the mountain, there’s this really cool field of hundreds of concrete Buddhas in rows and columns. They were various levels of faded, and different styles, which was really cool.
The hike is up this karst mountain, overlooking an otherwise pretty flat landscape, so you can see an insane distance. We saw monkeys in he trees while going up! I was a bit worried because I had read some blogger saying how they were kind of aggressive on this mountain.
On the way up, some Myanmar teens happened to be hiking parallel to us, stopping to rest at different times than us, so we took turns overtaking each other. They were pretty friendly and each wanted to take pictures with us in turn. They were wearing very typical streetwear-y stuff that wouldn’t have been out of place in a major US city, and they also stopped a ton to take selfies of themselves. We thought it was funny that you can go way out to a rural place in Myanmar, and teens still do teen stuff.
At the top there’s a monastery, which my friend Chris apparently spent the night in. There were also a TON of monkeys up there, and they were not shy. They provided some pretty great photos though, posing, looking over the landscape.
At some point I saw one of the monks take a full garbage can, and just dump it over the side of the monastery wall, down the steep hill. This kind of indiscriminate littering wasn’t surprising to me at this point in SEA/Myanmar, but it was still kind of jarring to see a monk do it, but I guess culture and habit are powerful. Actually, now I wonder if there were so many monkeys there because they just dumped so much food waste all over, at the top…
Another day, we rented scooters and went to this buddha cave. The ride there was beautiful, through these amazingly green rice paddies, and almost the highlight of the day itself.
Driving through really rural areas, a few times we saw packs of (wild?) dogs frolicking, which was pretty cute, until I realized that they could 100% tear us to shreds if *they* realized they could.
The cave was filled with some traditional Buddhas, but also a lot of silly neon stuff. Still, any huge natural cave is always gonna be cool, and there were a ton of bats you could see sleeping. One annoying thing is that they made us take our shoes off to walk through the cave, and it was not an especially soft walk. I wondered if they were subtly trying to impart some message about suffering. One cool part was that you could walk *through* the cave so you came out on another side, and then from there you could get a rowboat back, under part of the cave, and then through some rice fields, to where you had started. That was pretty serene and cool too.
One of the coolest things I did in H-A though, was another cave. That same day, after the cave, we hurried back to right outside of H-A, to see the bat cave. Apparently, every day, at sunset, millions of bats flew out of this cave, to some other (apparently unknown?) locaion. We went there a bit early, climbed to a pagoda with a pretty scenic view, and then went back down to near the cave entrance. You don’t actually go into the bat cave, there’s just a large crack they fly out of. Right around sunset, on the minute, first a couple bats came out, flying erratically, and then flew back in. Then a few more flew out, and in. And then, suddenly…this massive geyser of bats flew out, shrieking. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
It was difficult to photograph because, you know, fast moving objects in really low light. One of the cool things was that, as they went farther out, you could really see a well defined stream of them. Eventually, after a surprisingly long 15 minutes or so, they petered out.
Jamila left the next day to Bagan, because she had limited time, but I had another day. I mostly relaxed and checked out some local things. I really actually liked H-A. It had stuff to do for sure (we didn’t even do a bunch of caves and stuff you can go to!), but was also really laid back and doing its own thing. I woke up early for the morning market once, and, I know I’ve said this a bunch, but was really getting looks there, since I was definitely the only westerner there. A bunch of people gave me free samples of what they were selling when I looked, and I got a delicious breakfast of my favorite Myanmar dish, Shan noodles, for something like 50-70 cents.
Those last two nights I had stayed at Soe Brothers guest house. If you look on google, or booking.com or whatever, you’ll find a Soe Brothers II gueshouse, which I think is owned by the same people. But, it’s more legit, and closer to a hotel (we stayed there the first night), and a little more expensive. Soe Brothers (original) isn’t to be found on any legit website (except maybe a phone number somewhere?) and feels very dingy and grungy, but…kind of in a delightful, backpacker-y way. I got a private room for about $7, with the cheapest hard cot mattress, and it had some pretty low tech bathrooms, but it fit very well with the aesthetic I had come to expect from H-A (H-A isn’t popular enough (at the time of this writing) to support actual hostels).
Next I went to Bagan, which, if you know one thing about Myanmar, you’ve probably seen. It’s the place with the seemingly endless plane of pagodas, with hot air balloons flying over them at sunrise. It’s super duper touristy, but still really cool, and pretty much a place you have to visit if you’re in Myanmar. Because the actual area of the pagodas is so large, as opposed to a distinct park, they basically just charge you a hefty $25 to enter the “Bagan archaelogical zone” from any of the few main roads. I guess you could probably sneak across the border to avoid it but you’d also then have to walk a ways…
Anyway, when you go to Bagan you basically have two options for where to stay. You can stay in New Bagan, which is definitely the more touristy, or Nyaung Oo, which still definitely has some tourist infrastructure, but also way more of a local vibe. For example, the main restaurant I kept going to would usually be 90-100% locals, despite being on the main strip. I chose Nyaung Oo (except for one day, which I’ll get to).
There’s not a lot to do in Bagan aside from the pagodas, but luckily the area is so massive and tehre are so many of them that you can spend days exploring. Because sunrise and sunset over the pagoda plain is such a sight, pretty much every day I was there we did one or both. It’s cool because you have a different view for each, with different pagodas being highlighted. In addition, you can choose different viewpoints. There are the obvious big ones that everyone goes to (and do have great views), but at some point the crowds end up being such a barrier that it’s not worth it. So a few times we found great ones (using maps.me) that were completely empty, so that you literally couldn’t see another person.
And I’m glad I did go every day! Because after the first day or two, it got cloudy and started raining. The views were still pretty of course, but you’re not going to beat a sunrise where you can, you know, actually see the sun. To see it for sunrise, you’d have to get up around 4AM, either find a place that rented electric scooters (they only rent e-bikes to foreigners here! I’m not sure why… one reason I heard is so they can’t be stolen, another is to “keep people within some radius”. I think it could also be so that it’s not noisy on the pagoda plain? Because they really are pretty quiet.), and then drive about 15 minutes to the place, and then locate your temple among a ton of windy little sand paths. It was pretty fun, because they weren’t at all marked and some were barely on the maps. Also, the e-bikes were so weak that if you had to get up a slight sand hill, the person on the back would have to get off and walk.
The pagodas themselves were really cool. Some were ones you could just look at, others were ones you could actually climb up, and some were ones you could go inside, with pretty cool Buddha statues. They have such a distinct look, too, compared to other SEA temples. Going to ones that were not well known felt awesome, because you’d step inside some ancient pagoda, completely alone, and just be poking around in the dark. Cliche, but it felt real Indiana Jones-y. A few times, we knew there was a roof area we’d want to get to, so we’d go inside and be looking around, trying to find a staircase, and when we found it, it would be tiny. Like, maybe not even as wide as I am and definitely not as tall, so you’d almost have to crawl up it. It was reaaaally cool.
Because it’s kind of a bummer not being around friends on New Years Eve (right around when I was going), I wanted to wake up for the sunrise over the pagodas, to at least do something special for it. Actually, let me give some background. I had spent two nights at the slightly dingier, but very friendly and authentic hostel in the town Nyaung Oo, but before coming there had booked one night at this one in New Bagan called Ostello Bello. I had heard the phrase “flashpacker” used to describe this hostel (they’re actually a small chain in Myanmar), meaning that it’s still a backpacker place with dorms and stuff, but it was a bit pricier and way nicer. So, I wanted to check out what a “really nice” hostel was like. I shelled out the $18 or so it cost and…it kind of sucked. I mean, it was okay, but I see what they were going for. It seems like they were trying to sell the “backpacker lifestyle” to people who don’t actually want that or something. Everything there felt like part of a bigger operation to make money. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I know every hostel is in it to make money, but they did lots of sleazy crap most hostels just don’t do. For example, they had a rule that you couldn’t bring in outside alcohol, which might be fine…except that they also had a bar charging ~3x more than it costed anywhere else. Most hostels I’ve been to charge a normal amount for a beer or food to just pay the cost because their actual business is the hostel, but OB was basically trying to milk people for all the money they could. They offered free coffee and tea all day but…cmon, instant coffee is cheap as hell. And like all “free” things, it’s not actually free. Anyway, I guess it worked, because the place was very crowded. So I went there the night of Dec 30th, and I think what I paid for that night was actually a spiked price because of the closeness to the new year. What really put a bad taste in my mouth was, on new years eve, they spiked the price up to ~$30something a night. They also threw a party in the hostel…but charged everyone, even guests, an extra $25 to go! It just felt so opportunistic and sleazy.
Anyway, because I didn’t really want to be there, I went back to my old hostel in Nyaung Oo after one night. Since a bunch of friends I had met there also didn’t have plans for that night, we decided to throw our own party. It was tons of fun and had a really good vibe. The hostel owner joined in with us, and around midnight, when we were counting down, he shoved this enormous roman candle into my hands. I lit it as people were counting down and SOMEHOW managed to time it perfectly to start firing as the clock struck 12! I was only about 70% sure I had it facing the right way, so it was extra terrifying. I’ll have to track down the video my friend April took… edit: found it!
We ended up going to bed around 1 or 2, but that’s because several of us decided to wake up for sunrise the next morning. What a hilarious but fun trainwreck that would turn out to be. First of all, it was cloudy and lightly raining (which we knew would probably happen), but we had all pinky promised to get up, which was extra hard because we had only gone to bed ~3 hours before. Nevertheless, we all got up and headed to the bike rental place we had before in the dark, around 5AM. Aaaaaand…it was closed. I don’t know because of new year or the weather or what (definitely not the hour though, cause that was the normal time for people to rent bikes for sunrise), but it seemed hopeless. There was a taxi truck parked right out in front of the place though, and we noticed that it wasn’t empty, but the driver was sleeping in it. Normally we wouldn’t have woken someone, but we were desperate and also figured he’d probably be happy to charge us extra for the weird hour. So, we tapped on the window, he woke up immediately, and…we quickly realized that he spoke zero English. So we figured we were back to square one, until a Myanmar guy in a car pulled up and offered to help. He spoke enough English, and we managed to convey that we wanted to get to a certain temple by sunrise. The guy agreed, and we were off! It was kind of amazing that it actually worked out. We got there, the weather very foggy but not quite raining, and climbed the temple in very little light.
The sunrise was… well, to be blunt, a little underwhelming, compared to the ones we had seen before there, anyway. The clouds and fog made it so there wasn’t much of a distinct “sunrise” moment, but more of a continuous lightening. There were also no hard shadows of the temples, because of all the light scattering. But, it was dead quiet, partly because of the temple we chose, partly because it was new year’s day, and probably mostly because of the weather. So while we didn’t get the most picturesque new year’s sunrise, we took solace in the general metaphor we decided on: we promised to do this thing, it turned out to be much harder than anticipated with less of the reward expected, but we still decided to push through and make it happen. I think that’s a pretty good metaphor for starting a new year.
Anyway, after a few more days I had both had my fill of Bagan (given my time constraints), but it was also still kind of raining, so I wanted to get to somewhere with nicer weather. My next stop was Kalaw.
Kalaw isn’t really much of a town itself, being just a small mountain village type thing, but people go there because there’s a pretty popular multi day trek people do from it to Inle Lake, which is a huge tourist destination that I also had to see. I asked a couple friends I had made in Bagan about their expeniences ith it and read some blogs, and found that Uncle Sam’s trek company was a good one. Now, I didn’t really want to spend a whole day in Kalaw, since I’d be told that there was no reason to, but also didn’t want to spend basically a whole day on a bus. See, buses in SEA have this annoying scheduling thing. If a bus ride is 3 hours long, I guess I don’t really care what time it is. But if it’s 6-10 hours long, I want it either early enough (5-8AM) that I can have part of a day when I get there, or late enough (11PM-2AM) that I can basically sleep on it and then just drop my bags off at the hostel or wander around until then. But the buses tend to either leave in normal morning hours (killing the whole day), or leave at like…9PM, which really screws you if it’s 6-8 hours long. So, that’s what happened here. The guy I booked with told me it would be something like 7, which I figured meant more given their typical timing, which would’ve gotten me in at like 4. I had emailed the trek company and they said they’d open their doors at 6AM, when I could come in and hang out.
Buuuut… the bus ended up getting in at like 2.30AM somehow, and it was lightly raining, which really derailed my plans. I had figured there would be somewhere to stay and huddle, even if it was just the bus station roof. But they basically dropped us off at some random spot. I decided to make my way to Sam’s, thinking that either I’d find a roof, or they’d be open, or something. LUCKILY, and I think this is a good example of how kind the Myanmar people were, these two guys closing up their bakery for the night across the street, saw me. They first gave me a chair to sit on under their overhang (which I already would’ve been grateful for), but then they went further, inviting me into their shop, and laying out a blanket on some of the chairs they were putting away. I ended up getting 4 very solid hours of sleep, which was pretty much th polar opposite of how I had expected the night to go at that point. They never made any remote insinuation at wanting payment, and in fact, when I tried to give them some money in the morning, they wouldn’t take it (I went back later and bought a bunch of pastries, though).
Anyway, when I woke I checked into Sam’s. The price was a ludicrously good deal, about $30 for a 3 day/2 night trek. This included something like 7 amazing meals, a guide, two nights accomodation, etc… Anyway, while waiting for the trek to get on, I met the people I would be traveling with. One was a guy who turned out to be from Boston suburbs, so that was pretty great! In addition, there was a French guy (who lived in Taiwan and I’d later see there!) and a Taiwanese girl. It was a small and good group.
Our guide was a Myanmar girl. We could tell she was young, but I think it’s hard for us to tell exactly how old they are sometimes (and I suck at guessing ages in general), but she told us she was 20! She was just so capable for being so relatively young, and I think in the US they wouldn’t let a 20 year old lead a group of adults on a multi day trek where they could get hurt or something. I guess it also made me realize the typical trope that in poorer places, people are considered adults at a much earlier age.
Anyway, we headed off. It was raining lightly, which wasn’t a great start. The town quickly turned into little farms, and it was soon just a path through the forest. The rain was coming down much harder now, and the path was basically just one big mudslide.
The two other guys had either hearty sandals or hiking boots, and I was in my running shoes, which were fine for grip, but were pretty much soon buckets for the water. The girl had worn shoes that were pretty similar to cheap flip flops (why?!?), and about 10 minutes in, one of the straps broke. We all sighed, thinking that this would definitely mean having to go back into town. I forget what happened, but I think the French guy had a spare pair of shoes? and she borrowed them (though they really didn’t fit), untli we got to the next village where they actually sold some fairly convincing Nike knockoffs.
The hike quickly got out of the forest and into these big hilly fields, overlooking a huge valley. I was a little bummed that the clouds were decreasing the visibility, but it actually made it look pretty beautiful too, with the fog rolling off the hills into the valley.
I was taking lots of photos of the fields, but was a little annoyed that there were these big red squares in the fields in the distance, that looked kind of unnatural, all over the place. I assumed they were big red tarps or something, until I realized… we were walking through chili pepper fields, and those big squares in the distance were piles of them lying out to dry!
The first day was actually really beautiful, despite the rain and cold, and definitely made us appreciate the rest of the trek more. It stopped raining fter a bit, and after a few hours (mostly pretty easy walking, really), we were at the first village!
It was really small, but overlooking valleys on both sides, which was pretty great. We were staying in the house of this old couple, who looked too old to work but probably made some extra cash from hosting trekkers. Our guide and the old woman made us dinner, which was just…incredible. I thought I had a somewhat decent grasp of Myanmar food by that point, but they were these incredible dishes that I had never had or seen yet. It’s possible that it’s because it was in the Shan state. Like many countries/areas, foreigners don’t know that Myanmar may be one country, but really probably shouldn’t be — it’s another typical “vastly different ethnicities crammed together artificially partly due to colonization” situation. The area was Shan, which is much more Chinese than most of Myanmar.
The next day we went off again. It was through more beautiful rice terraces, these huge empty valleys, and through many tiny villages where water buffalo were still the most widely used farm equipment. The weather was perfect by this point, to the point where we were partly in our t shirts. The second night, we ended up in another village, though this one was definitely larger. We were treated to another amazing meal.
The third day, we were all sad that it was coming to a close, but also a little ready to not be walking for 6 hours a day and also excited to get to Inle lake, which I’d heard great stuff about. We saw it from a distance through a valley, and started going down in elevation towards it.
Near the very end, we went through this beautiful bamboo forest, before having our last meal in a little restaurant near the water.
We said our goodbyes to our stoic guide and got on a boat!
It was really, really cool. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out to be a huge, beautiful lake set between mountain ranges. One of the big “photo” draws is that it has (or, more likely, had) a large community of locals who lived on houses out on the lake, on stilts. They grow produce in these really long rows, that the boat navigated through on our way there.
By far the most Inle Lake cliche photo is the fisherman. See, apparently, traditionally, they would have these big net trap things, and for some reason, row with their leg wrapped around the oar somehow. I’m sure they did do this at some point, but now I was told that the fishermen you see out there are all just there for photo ops; they’ll pose for you and stuff, but if you take a photo, they row their way up to your boat to ask for money. Fair enough I guess, but it made me realize how aware they are that their image itself is a commodity. Apparently real fishermen use more modern/less ethical methods to fish, like electric nets or something.
We ended up taking about an hour ride to get from the trail end to the main city, but to be honest, I was pretty happy about it. The weather was amazing and most people spend a day doing a boat tour on the lake, which is both a little expensive, and I realized that after an hour, I didn’t really need to spend a whole day on the lake. When we got to the city, my trek pals and I said our goodbyes (since we had already planned different places) and made vague plans to meet up again.
I stayed at Ostello Bello, which I had decided to give another try since it was actually one of the few and reasonably cheap options in Inle Lake (it was much cleaner and had a generally better vibe than the Bagan one). The town most people stay in isn’t actually right on the lake; it’s a city called Nyaung Shwe, a fair boat ride from the lake via a channel. During the day, the city was actually fairly vibrant. There were a lot of eateries, you could rent bikes, and there was just stuff to do. However, at night (even by 10PM), it was pretty dead. There were a couple night markets but…let’s just say that they were pretty scarce.
Here’s an illustration of this. One night, I went out with one of the trek guys, and a girl I met at the hostel. We were basically wandering around looking for stuff to do, and it was really dead. We decided to try finding this Burmese puppet show we had heard about. There were at least 2 imposters on maps.me, which appeared to just be random storefronts… Eventually I found it. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was pretty funny. Some puppet shows can be pretty impressive and big, but this was one guy, using old puppets, with some pretty ancient recorded songs. There were 10 or so songs, each having a different theme and puppet.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, his puppeteering was pretty solid but… it became very clear to me why puppets died out as a dominant source of entertainment right around when movies were a thing. What was extra sad/funny was that, at the end, he talked about how puppeteering had been in his family for generations, but his nephew (?) just wasn’t that into it for some reason. I guess we’ll never know why…
Another day, at the suggestion of the hostel, I went on a bicycle trip around the lake with the French guy and Taiwanese girl. It was a pretty ambitious circuit, with lots of sights to see.
We also made plans to try and get to this winery (yep, Inle Lake is apparently kind of famous for wines?) for sunset, on the other side of the lake. We also left after lunch, which definitely limited what we got to see. Our first stop was this place I had read about online called the “tofu palace” where a Mr. Yam could apparently give you a tour of his village and show you the process of how tofu was made. We found it and it was one of those slightly confusing “do we pay?” things, because they immediately gave us a bowl of fried tofu while we were waiting for the previous tour to finish.
The guy was apparently a leader of the village or something, and took us around to a ton of the houses. First he showed us the tofu process, which was really cool, but it turns out tofu’s really a pretty small part of what they do. It seems like the bulk of what they do were these INSANELY sweet sugar-carb explosions. It was pretty cool though, since we kept going into the huts where people were making them, he would grab a couple fresh ones and give them to us. I had eaten lunch before I came, but really wished I hadn’t by the end, since I basically ate another meal in sugar.
He also showed us his rice liquor still and made us take a swig of it, and it may have been the strongest thing I’ve ever tasted. But, the light in the still room was amazing, coming through the slats and smoke from the still.
There was also the cutest fucking piglet.
At the end, he asked us where we were going, and we mentioned that we wanted to get across the river. He apparently knew the circuit people tended to do, because they had a boat at the ready. We paid a pretty small amount, and they loaded our bikes onto the boat, and across we went.
There were a handful of things to do on the other side, but we wanted to make it to this winery for sunset, so we didn’t have much time for them. Going to the winery, it suddenly seemed like it could’ve been in Italy. The place was definitely trying to market itself as an upscale, fancy place. The other guy from our trek also joined us there, too, which was cool. We each got some wine that was Myanmar-expensive, which means US-super cheap. We watched the sun set over Inle Lake and felt pretty fancy, sipping faux-expensive wines over a vineyard that looked like it could’ve been in Europe.
The next place I wanted to go was Hsipaw. The city of Hsipaw itself isn’t really known for much, but is another popular trek spot. Funny backstory, I had been told by a friend that the Kalaw-Inle trek was cool, but getting saturated, and another one that was starting to get popular was the “Cipo” one, and that it was harder too (the Inle one was mostly walking, with a bit of uphill). However, I had only heard people say it, so googling “Cipo trek Myanmar” was giving me nothing, and asking my friend, she had only heard it spoken as well. So it took me a while to figure out that they were saying Hsipaw, which has a kind of aspirated (?) H at the beginning but is basically said “see-paw” or “see-puh”, I think.
Anyway, I really wanted another trek after the Kalaw-Inle one had been so cool. I had heard that the Hsipaw one was a bit harder, more out there, and less popular. I guess it kinda was all of those things, but it was still pretty easy (just a bunch hillier) and our group actually had 11 people compared to the 4 at Kalaw. It seems like, while Kalaw-Inle is popular enough that there were a bunch of different trek companies, usually there had really just been one in Hsipaw, Mr. Bike, but recently a few others had popped up. Still, I ended up with Mr. Bike, cause his seemed to be the classic and most well organized. Side note, it seemed like in Myanmar in general, but especially Hsipaw, businesses really liked the English “Mr.” thing, cause half the businesses were called something with Mr. Off the top of my head, I remember going to “Mr. Bike”, “Mr. Shake”, and “Mr. Food”.
The trek was another 3D/2N trek. The first day’s hike was mostly through forest that wasn’t too distinguishable from an American forest. The first night we stayed in this treehouse that Mr. Bike had built up in the mountains, that had a pretty incredible view over the valley, where we watched both sunset and sunrise from.
Similar to the K-I one, the food was pretty incredible, especially for being way out there. It was very apparent that bringing food for 11 hungry people for 3 days was no easy feat, and it was the job of our poor porter to carry it the whole time. At night, we played that game where each person writes a word or phrase on a piece of paper and puts it in a bag, and then a person has to draw one. In the first round, they have to describe it without using the word, in the second round, they have to draw it, and the third, they act it out for their team to guess, or something. It was pretty funny because I was the only native English speaker, and some clown decided to put in words like “blockchain”. Trying to describe blockchain to someone who speaks your language fluently is a challenge. Trying to get someone who doesn’t speak much English to guess the word from a roundabout description is hilarious.
The second day was much more jungle-y, as we descended from the mountains. Way more banana and palm trees, and everything was much wetter and warmer. We walked through some amazing bamboo forests.
As we got into the camp that evening, one of the first things we saw were a bunch of human looking limbs and hands over the fire.
Some people were a little freaked out, and Mr. Bike (who was at that camp) apologized, saying they were monkeys that the village hunters (who worked for him) had hunted, and had smoked over the fire. That night, we saw the hunters go out with their guns, dressed looking kind of paramilitary-ish in green fatigues. Mr. Bike said they really only had WW1 era guns, which I believed, from the looks of them. As we were sitting around, we heard gunshots off in the jungle night, and they came back with some birds. Apparently they’re wild chickens, and they made our dinner with them that evening. They were pretty small, so apparently they just diced up the whole bird, bones and all I think, and made kind of meatballs in the soup. It was interesting and tasted good, but if I’m honest, crunchy bone bits aren’t my favorite texture. We were also served… MONKEY BRAIN, which was definitely an experience. I know cow brain is actually fairly common in the west, but I had never had it, so this was my first brain experience. Like the chicken, the flavor wasn’t bad, but the texture was a little weird. Definitely what I’d describe as “brain-y” though.
The “highlight” of the campsite was that we “got to” sleep in hammocks, which I had never really done. It was pretty nice falling asleep, looking up at the huge bamboo our hammocks were strung up between with the sound of the nearby river, but, in my opinion, hammocks are a terrible way to sleep, especially if it’s cold. I think we even had sleeping bags, but with all your weight pressed against the hammock, there’s really not a lot of material between your back and the cold. So, I think most of us got pretty bad sleep that night. The next day, another “highlight” was that we would take inner tubes they had there back to town on the river. In theory this is a great idea, but it was still honestly fairly cold. It was pretty cool going down the river, but by the end I was purple lipped and freezing and happy to get out. It’d probably be really great closer to the summer.
It was an interesting contrast, the Hsipaw trek vs the Kalaw-Inle one. The K-I one seemed to be more just about being in pretty places, while the Hsipaw one seemed more about these features and highlights (the treehouse, monkey meat, inner tubes, etc). The Hsipaw one also seemed like much more of a planned business. The Hsipaw one definitely got us farther out there though; the K-I one was mostly between villages, and we stayed in villages both nights (which was really cool of course), while the Hsipaw one was all in the jungle.
From Hsipaw, I didn’t have much time left in Myanmar. One of the remaining things I definitely wanted to do was to take a train that goes over this famous viaduct, the Gokteik viaduct. The train went all the way from Mandalay (the capital) to Hsipaw and beyond, so I figured I’d take the train from Hsipaw to Mandalay, where I’d be flying out of.
The train was really cool. It was very, very low tech, as I’d been told, and very much a thing locals take as well as tourists who want to see the viaduct. The viaduct is actually a very small stretch, but the trip there was pretty great as well, just watching the country slowly roll by, seeing lots of places that tourists never go. Oh, and it was slow, really slow: you could probably outrun it most of the time, and judging from van/bus times between cities, it was maybe literally 10x slower than driving anywhere.
The viaduct was awesome too of course. When we got there, the train was suddenly abuzz with everyone leaning out the windows to get the iconic “train going round the bend” photo. I can’t act like I’m not guilty of this too.
I could’ve taken the train all the way to Mandalay, but that would’ve taken literally something like another 16 hours of travel, and I had gotten my fill by then. I had planned to stop in this city named Pyin Oo Lwin, which was apparently a summer retreat for the British colonizers back in the day, and where the Queen’s supply of strawberry wine (a Myanmar/British thing) came from. Pyin Oo Lwin would turn out to be the type of place where there were no tourists, despite its relative size. I think I may have not seen a single other westerner there the entire time. It was the type of place that’s on lists of places you can visit, but it becomes apparent pretty quickly that the things to see there are mostly kind of obscure historical sites. I stayed in an old English summer house hotel/complex thingy way outside the main city, and I’m pretty sure it was haunted, despite me not believing in that stuff.
There were a couple buildings, and I stayed in a room that had a few beds, and I’m pretty sure I was the only person in that very large building, which was kind of creepy at night. The grounds were pretty, but in that faded, sad way. Did you ever read The Secret Garden? I think it was like that, if I’m remembering the book correctly. What I’m saying is, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if I had turned a corner to find two little girls holding hands and telling me to come play with them.
Pyin Oo Lwin was interesting, but mostly because of its lack of actual stuff to do; it felt very much like a medium sized city doing its own thing. I went to some “botanical gardens”, which were… nice, but a bit sad. They were definitely trying to make them nice but they were ultimately a little crappy.
Still, I had a pretty great time walking around the grounds and listening to podcasts. I had a mild epiphany there though, realizing that I may have been judging the place unfairly. Like, obviously not every city in the world is really a tourist destination; it’s not POL’s fault that travel bloggers or books or whoever had put it on lists of places to visit and hyped it up too much. I thought about how Providence might appear to some tourist coming to it. I mean, there are a couple things you can check out… there’s the RISD museum, Brown is nice, and we have some good restaurants, but… I could see a tourist being pretty disappointed if they came to Providence. So that kind of put it in perspective for me, I was visiting a Myanmar version of Providence and expecting too much.
The next day, I had considered taking a train to Mandalay, but decided to get a “share taxi” from the hotel. While it would’ve taken me some absurd length of time for the train, it was something like 90 minutes in the share taxi. Share taxis are a kind of cool concept, it’s basically a taxi, but for longer distances than you normally take a taxi. It’d be probably more than you want to spend if you’re alone, but if it’s a common enough route (like from POL to Mandalay), the hotel desk person would call around and find a taxi that had a few other people, so it was cheaper for everyone. So I ended up riding to Mandalay in the backseat of a taxi with a couple old Myanmar ladies.
Mandalay was…eh. I mean, it was basically another big (it’s the capital) city. Honestly, this might be a good indicator of my travel-jadedness. At the beginning of the trip, just being in a city that foreign would’ve dazzled me and been enough. I still explored it a ton and had fun, but it didn’t impress me as much as the same thing had before. I stayed in “Ace Star Hostel”, which was okay, but very large and nearly completely empty. I saw maybe 3 other guests my entire time there. Mandalay has a few things to do, but I guess I was a bit exhausted and didn’t do the main tourist things people do there. I went to the Chinese night market a few times and bicycled around a ton, which was fun.
I flew out from Mandalay. It was a tiny airport, and had a hilarious list of disallowed things and limits on items you can’t take out of the country (like only up to 6 VHS tapes hahahahaha). I really enjoyed Myanmar and it was definitely an unexpected gem. I was excited for Vietnam, which was next, because, like Myanmar, many people had told me that it was their favorite place in Asia. See you then!