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.

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