inle: a day on the lake & a beautiful winery

My last stop in Myanmar (before heading back to the airport in Yangon) was Inle Lake, and it was unlike anywhere I’ve seen. The lake is massive, and scattered with entire stilted villages and markets. Fishermen dot the lake, maneuvering an oar with one leg while balancing with the other, arms preoccupied with various types of nets. I spent a full day out in a 5 person boat with some people from the hostel, visiting weaving factories, a blacksmith, and markets. We stopped for lunch at a friendly family’s house. It was delicious. After applying thanaka on our faces, we went for a canoe ride, luckily with a local woman to help steer us and keep us from tipping over. We all got to try rolling a traditional banana leaf cigar. We walked across a mini u-bein bridge. It was a fun, exhausting day. But well worth it, even if just for the sake of admiring these quaint floating villages.

The town we stayed in was called Nyaung Shwe, and is home to Red Mountain Winery – probably the best wine I’ve had in the last 5 months. They offer a tasting of 4 wines for about $5, as well as tasty food and dessert. Not to mention amazing views for sunset. I went twice.

The town itself is somewhat touristy, with travel agents on every corner and lots of western food places. But it’s cute, and easy to get around on bicycle. The real attraction is the lake, and as with most things in Myanmar, making it out for sunrise is definitely worth it 🙂

biking in mandalay, trekking in hsipaw & the train ride in between

A lot of travelers I’ve met in Myanmar skip Mandalay. Maybe because it’s just another city – more modern, less authentic. But I loved it. Yes, it’s got a definite (small) city feel to it – traffic, stop lights, crowds. But away from the main roads, I found Mandalay to be a quaint little town. And there’s a lot to do and see within the city, as well as in the surrounding area.

Day one in Mandalay my friend and I rented bicycles and cycled around west Mandalay for several hours. We passed colonial buildings, and got lost in busy alleyways. When we called “mingalaba!” to the people we passed, they grinned and called it back cheerfully. We passed small factories producing odd-smelling who knows what. We passed a guy getting tattooed in the traditional tapping method, nonchalantly smoking a cigarette as if nothing was happening. We wandered through a flower market. That afternoon we hired a taxi to the top of Mandalay hill for an amazing sunset and chats with monks. Day two we hired motorbike taxis to U-Bein Bridge for sunrise, and to Inwa (or Ava), an old capital of Myamar, where we wandered around small villages and buildings from the 1800s, including an impressive watch tower (the last remains of a palace). We really felt the off-season struggle for locals who aren’t getting as much business this time of year. There were probably a hundred horse-drawn carriages all parked along the sides of the dirt roads. Several drivers offered us rides at “discounts!” and one especially optimistic woman followed us for a good 20 minutes, despite our insisting that we wanted to walk. Inwa is huge, though, and we would have seen much more if we weren’t on foot. Our drivers also took us over the Inwa bridge and to the top of Saiging Hill, a beautiful cluster of pagodas atop hills (although less impressive after visiting Bagan). We watched sunset from the roof of our hostel, and it was beautiful. If you hadn’t picked up on this yet, I’m obsessed with the way the sun sets and rises over Myanmar ❤ .

The next morning we woke up at 3am to catch the (11 hour) train from Mandalay to Hsipaw. The train ride is especially well known between Pyin-oo-lwin and Hsipaw for the Gokteik bridge (terrifyingly high above a valley). Trains are my favorite mode of transport and I thoroughly enjoyed daydreaming and gazing out the window at the rolling hills, bright blue sky and beautiful clouds, small villages, and the enthusiastically waving children along the tracks.  I also ventured to try some of the food that women sold us through the windows at train stops – my favorite was a pancake type of thing, with bits of coconut cooked into it. Yum.

One common complaint from other travelers in Myanmar is how much time is spent on buses between destinations. And it’s true, the roads are bumpy and windy, the buses are slow. Overnight travel is efficiency wise the best way to get around, but it’s pretty rough. Personally, I ultimately preferred daytime travel. The scenery never got old, and I’m a pretty happy daydreamer. And I can easily say that the train ride to Hsipaw was not only my favorite travel day in Myanmar, it was one of my favorite days period.

When we arrived in Hsipaw, at Mr. Charles hotel (the only hostel type accommodation that I know of in Hsipaw), we booked a 2 day/1 night trek for the following day, and then went for an amazing banana-coconut-oreo at Mr. Shake. Yum yum.

We were incredibly lucky with the weather for our trek, it sprinkled for about 45 seconds on day one, but otherwise we had partly cloudy skies. It was of course hot and humid too, but by now that’s just normal to me. The trek was moderately difficult, the first day we trekked for about 6 hours with some decent uphills. The scenery was beautiful and green, with long stretches of corn and tea fields (and the occasional cluster of sunflowers). We stopped in a Shan village for a tea and snack break, and then stayed at a homestay in Pankam Village for the night. The meals they prepared for us were the best 2 I’ve had in all of Myanmar. All of the ingredients were freshly picked and concocted into amazing salads, soups, and vegetable dishes (all vegetarian!). That night we watched how they steam and then hand grid tea leaves every day. We ended our second day (a bit shorter, but still not easy!) with Shan noodles and a pretty waterfall. The amazing food, the friendly people, and the playful, excited children made the whole experience wonderful.

I didn’t do the more popular trek between Kalow and Inle Lake (3 days), and heard different responses regarding “which trek is better?” from people who did both. I can only guess that they’re both amazing. Even though this experience was all planned out by a guide and paid for as a package, it felt authentic. It didn’t feel like a staged village, or host family, or like the food was made specially for us (as opposed to what they would eat themselves), and the kids seemed 100% just curious and excited to play with us. This trek is definitely one of my favorite memories from Myanmar.

scooting around bagan

From Yangon, I took the night bus to Bagan, and arrived at Ostello Bello hostel at about 4am. The hostel was amazing, one of my favorites over the last 5 months. They had beds on the roof for all of us night busers to relax. And that evening they offered a relatively inexpensive sunset boat ride.

The hostel was great for making friends, and by the second day I had found a great group to explore Bagan with. Attempting (and failing) to successfully get around in Thailand via scooter, I was nervous when I got to Bagan and it became clear that e-bikes (electric scooters, which are lighter and slower than regular scooters) were by far the best way to see the vast, temple-filled landscape. My first day I chickened out and hopped on the back of an Italian’s e-bike (total generalization but I thought he’d probably be a good scooter driver). But after the first day I decided to be brave and try again. I kept my scooter on the lowest gear (with a max speed of 35 km per hour), and luckily was with a group of friends who were nice enough to go slow with me 🙂 And success! Scooting around really is the best way to go, and while the hostel offered almost daily tours of the temples, it was fun to just get a little lost on the winding dirt roads, wandering into empty pagodas and laughing with new friends. And it’s tough in the moment, but waking up at 4am to make it out for sunrise is 100% worth it!

As a half-day trip, we took a van taxi out to Mt Popa, a temple/monastery perched atop a tall, flat hill. The climb up was a lot easier than expected (20 minutes compared with the 45 we’d been told), and the view from the top seemed endless. A highlight (for me anyway), were the monkeys – they were everywhere, and not shy about stealing anything and everything from you! We decided that sunset from Mt Popa Resort, on an adjacent hill with views of Mt Popa, would be better for sunset, and we definitely made the right choice!

 

 

wandering in yangon

I arrived in Yangon by train just as the sun was beginning to set; the transition from grassy fields and wooden huts to multi-story housing buildings and chain-link fences seemed to happen in a matter of seconds. But I love cities just as much as I love the country, and the pink-yellow-orange sunset, as I walked from the train station was just as beautiful over the city skyline as it was over green hills.

I spent just 2 days in Yangon. The first morning I walked around the city, an interesting mix of new and old – colonial era buildings, the modern city hall, and in the middle of an always crowded round-a-bout, a flashy pagoda (Sule Pagoda) with signs for astrologers and other random businesses all around the outside. I ate street food and walked through Bogyoke Market. And yes, I went into the fancy and new looking mall (Parkson), mostly to escape the heat for a little while 😉 Later in the afternoon I grabbed a taxi to Shwedagon Pagoda. It was packed with people, tourists both from Myanmar and foreign, but also with many locals. I was stopped by several people – old and young, mostly monks – who just wanted to chat with me to practice their English. Everyone asked where I’m from, and exclaimed with huge grins “Obama!” It was nice to wander and people-watch. I did a few laps just observing. I made a stop at the Sunday corner (because I was born on a Sunday, which matters a lot here apparently), and watched as other Sunday ladies, and one young boy, poured water over the Buddha statue’s head, waved incense, and offered flowers. I stayed for sunset, and watched as they lit up the temple with lights shining on the gold against the darkening sky. After the pagoda, I went for Indian food and a lassi at Nilar Biryani (which was amazing!).

The next day, I took the ferry across the Yangon River to Dala. It was a rainy day, and we hired a taxi to drive us around the quaint villages, as well as to the snake temple – which is exactly what it sounds like, a temple filled with snakes!

Yangon was an interesting mix of a modern feeling city, with people in traditional dress (longyis), and thanaka (off-white paste made from tree bark that all children, most women, and even many men wear as a natural sunscreen). It was both old and new, traditional and modern, and felt at the same time authentic and tourist-friendly.

why you should travel overland into myanmar if at all possible.

After an overly touristy 3 weeks in Thailand, I was so excited for Myanmar. Everyone talks about how off the beaten path it is, how different it is from the rest of Southeast Asia (which is basically overrun with partying backpackers), and how you just have to go soon before its “ruined.” I thought about flying into Yangon, but 5 months deep into traveling, I was a.) confident in my ability to navigate the potentially confusing and long journey, and b.) unwilling to pay a whopping $180 just for the sake of convenience. My journey began on a bus in Chiang Mai at 8:00am. I arrived in Mae Sot at around 3:30, took a taxi to the border, walked across, and rode with a taxi driver who was driving home to Hpa-An for the night, and a local girl we picked up in a village about 45 minutes into the journey. The sunset was unbelievably colorful as we wound through the bright green hills, spotted with small roadside huts and longyi-clad locals. I arrived at a Guesthouse that my taxi driver picked for me based on my only requirement of “cheap,” at around 8:00pm.

At one point I thought I might go from Chiang Mai all the way to Yangon in one go, and I am so glad I didn’t. The journey to Yangon was amazing in itself.

I spent the next day in Hpa-An with a motorcycle taxi I hired for the day. He took me on a full day tour of caves, temples, and swimming holes. Ya-The Bien and Sadan Caves go all the way through to amazing views, and after the long walk through Sadan you can pay for a small boat to take you back to the front (which is an experience in itself and so worth it!). Kaw Goon Cave isn’t spectacular, but there is a small pagoda you can hike up lots and lots of stairs to for great views. My driver also took me through several small villages, to a monastery for lunch (right by the Kyauk Ka Lat pagoda, which sits in the middle of a lake), and took me to see fabric being hand woven on old fashioned looms. I skipped climbing up Mount Zwegabin (a half-day activity at least, although many people even spend the night in the monastery at the top), but Lumbini park at its entrance is filled with over 1,100 Buddha statues and it’s a beautiful sight in itself. I was so glad I hired “Mr. John” (probably not his real name). I couldn’t have seen nearly as much on my own. Plus, aside from 3 other tourists in my guesthouse, he was the only person I met who spoke English.

After my long day in Hpa-An, I hopped on a bus to Kyaitko. The next morning I took a truck taxi (a pickup truck with benches in the back that they fill with people) up to Kyaikhteeyoe and the Golden Rock. The ride up to the rock was like a roller coaster. They crammed about 30 of us into the back of an open semi truck and sped up a winding mountain road for about 40 minutes, stopping at villages and monasteries along the way. Unfortunately by the time we got to the top the clouds had rolled in, so what was probably spectacular views below the seemingly floating gold rock was just grey. Still a fun day activity.

I took a 6 hour train from Kaitko to Yangon the following day, and enjoyed amazing views of people, animals, and villages propped upon stilts (to protect against flooding) out the window, and ladies selling all sorts of food from trays balanced on their heads inside the train. I arrived in Yangon just  in time for yet another amazing sunset.

As authentic as Myanmar feels compared with a lot of other countries, there’s still a definite “route” that most people take, and traveling overland forces you off of that, offering a bit of an (almost) local experience. It’s worth noting, however, that many of the border crossings into Myanmar are closed to tourists, and you do need to have your visa in your passport already, so make sure you do your research before heading to the border 🙂