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.

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 🙂


sri lanka part 1: colombo & the central province

Sri Lanka is (quite literally) a breath of fresh air after India. Aside from its much appreciated cleanliness, the food is awesome, the people are super nice, and from the beach to the mountains, the views are pretty unbelievable. For my first week and a half (ish) in Sri Lanka, my route was: Colombo, Kandy, Matale (and Dambulla), back to Colombo, Kandy, and finally Ella (actually in the Uva province, right next to central). My route was definitely a little wonky, but the country is small, and the trains are (mostly) pretty fun! And definitely worth getting to spend the extra time with my friend Omar who flew in from Dubai to meet me 🙂

The central region of Sri Lanka was one of the greenest places I’ve ever been. It rained almost every day at least some, and I didn’t even mind because it felt even more rainforest/jungly. Another thing I noticed and loved was the diversity of religion. While the country is predominantly Buddhist, there are Hindu temples scattered (and often inside Buddhist temples), as well as Christian crosses, and prayers being sung out loudly from Muslim mosques.

Here are some highlights …

Colombo – Colombo gets a bad rap. Most people just say skip it, and a couple days was plenty for me. The main part of the city is extremely modern (the most “western” feeling place I’ve been in Asia so far). I took a short train ride down to Mount Lavinia (actually I took an express train way past Mount Lavinia on accident and had to backtrack), which seems to be what most people recommend, and stayed near the beach. There are a ton of cute (but expensive) restaurants along the water, and it’s actually pretty nice!

Kandy – Loved it so much, I did it twice! (Kidding, sort of). Sri Lanka’s second biggest city, it is far less western and built up. It’s a cute little town, really green and hilly, with a big white Buddha overlooking the town and its lake. It’s home to a temple holding a tooth relic of the Buddha. We went during one of the daily ceremonies, and it was packed with an odd mixture of devout Buddhists making offerings and receiving blessings, and tourists elbowing each other for the best photo angle. My first visit we stayed a couple kilometers from the city center. In exchange for the cost of a tuk tuk into town every day, we had amazing views, a pool, and peace and quiet. My second time around I stayed right in the city in a tiny hostel. Both were good, very different experiences. Other highlights include a walk through Udawatta Kele Sanctuary with an awesome view of the city from high up on a hill, and the mango juice at the Kandyan Muslim Hotel.

Matale – The train ride from Kandy to Matale was a highlight. We took a local commuter train, and it was slow enough for us to (semi-)safely ride hanging out of the carriage doors. It was so fun, and so green. On a day trip, we went north to Dambulla to visit the giant Golden Buddha temple and cave temples. In the midst of hundreds of Buddhas, there was also one Hindu cave. And so many adorable, alien-esque baby monkeys. After visiting the Hindu Sri Muthumariamman Kovil temple back in Matale, we wandered into a hole in the wall restaurant for dinner and tried Kotthu for the first time. It’s basically rotti (flat round bread), chopped up and mixed with a bunch of veggies and spices. It’s amazing, and I ate it every day for quite a while after that.

The train from Kandy to Ella was a destination in itself. It’s famous for being beautiful, and it did not disappoint.

Ella – Ella is an adorable, very small town surrounded by tea covered hills. There are two main hikes you can do – Ella Rock and Little Adam’s Peak (it resembles the shape of the much larger and more famous Adam’s Peak, also in the central province). I went for the much easier Little Adam’s Peak (because my knees haven’t quite recovered from Everest yet), and walked for maybe 3 hours total through tea plantations with amazing views of Ella Rock. After my hike, I toured a green tea factory and learned about how the tea is made and the difference between the higher and lower quality varieties. That afternoon I took a short bus ride to the beautiful, but incredibly crowded Rawana Falls. I did all of my Ella “sights” in one day, but stayed for about 3 because it’s just a nice place.

Kotthu – a carb-lovers dream/my new favorite food…


More to come on the rest of my Sri Lanka journey 🙂


11 days in rajasthan

To me, Rajasthan is the India of India. The desert, the camels, the style, the food. It’s everything that is my romantic (western) notion of Inda. How and why I left myself only 11 days to experience this magical state I really can’t explain. But to my pleasant surprise, this 11 day itinerary actually kind of worked. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have had way more time here, and in no way encourage cramming all of the state into 11 days. But if you’re crunched for time like I was, here’s an itinerary that gave me a good taste of Rajasthan.

Agra –> Udaipur
Overnight train, 3rd class AC sleeper, about 1,200 rupees, 12 hours

I spent 3 days and 2 nights in Udaipur. A quiet (quiet for India) lakeside town, Udaipur is clearly made for tourists. Food and shopping was a bit on the expensive side, and in terms of sights there aren’t THAT many. I found Udaipur very relaxing, and enjoyed somewhat lazy days. A few activities I’d recommend: have an Ayurvedic massage (I paid 900 rupees for 70 minutes), take a yoga class, watch the sunset from City Palace (30 rupees to enter the sunset point, just south of the palace), and take and art class! The last was probably my favorite activity. I went to Ashok Arts and had a great experience! My instructor was patient and a good teacher. One of the shop employees read my palm as we all took a chai break. And 3 hours later, I had a one of a kind silk painting, that (imho) looks pretty legit 🙂

I stayed at Bunkyard Hostel, and highly recommend it. I met a lot of cool people, the facility is beautiful with a ton of open space, and it’s very centrally located. I paid 300 rupees per night for a bunk room.


Udaipur –> Jaisalmer
Overnight AC sleeper bus, 750 rupees, 13 hours

I spent 3 days in Jaisalmer, and 2 nights (including one sleeping under the stars in the desert!). Jaisalmer is easily one of my favorite places in India. This may be in part because I’m a born and raised desert girl, but to me there’s nothing better than a desert rain and sleeping under a black sky filled with stars, to the sound of crickets chirping. The skyline of Jaisalmer includes tan desert, tan buildings (including palace-like Havelis that rich families still live in), and the huge tan fort which rises high above the city. I spent one day just wandering around the fort, getting lost in alleyways and admiring the views. The highlight of Jaisalmer, though, was the overnight camel safari. We drove about 30 minutes out of the city and met our camels and guides. For 1,600 rupees we had 2 meals, our bed under the stars, and a few hours of camel riding in the afternoon/evening and the next morning. So much fun!


Jaisalmer –> Jodhpur
Non-AC bus, 350 rupees, 5 hours

I spent 2 days and 2 nights in Jodhpur (the 5 hour bus ride unfortunately took the better part of one of the days). I could have definitely stayed longer. The shopping is cheaper than anywhere else in Rajasthan; at Sardar Market you get the local experience and the local prices. I spent half a day just shopping – the clear highlight was M.V. Spices, one of the oldest spice shops in Jodhpur, and it’s run by all women! The spices come along with emailed recipes, and the best customer experience I’ve had in India. And it was totally reasonably priced, with 150 or 300 rupee bag options. There’s no reason to leave the market for food, as there is a ton of awesome street food. My favorite (not quite street food) was at Shri Mishralal Hotel, just inside the gate. They have one lassi option (the classic Rajasthan flavor) – Makhaniya, which is plain with saffron and cardamom (YUM), and an amazing Jodhpur specialty, Mirchi Bada, which is a pepper stuffed with potato and deep fried (double YUM).

The other major attraction is Mehrangarh Fort and museum. It cost 600 rupees to enter, and you have to purchase a museum ticket to get to the top. For a museum, it was pretty good. But the real reason to go is for the views of the blue city from the top.


Jodhpur –> Pushkar
AC bus, 450 rupees, 4 hours (the bus actually goes to Ajmer, but my hotel picked me up for free)

I only spent 2 days and 1 night in Pushkar, and that was enough for me. I bought awesome, funky, and most importantly fairly priced jewelry at Vikas Silver Walla. The shopping is definitely good in Pushkar, but a lot more expensive than in Jodhpur. I wished I’d bought the funky leather pointed slippers in Jodhpur, because they had way nicer and cheaper ones there. I skipped Brahma temple (the only Brahma temple in all of India), because the crowds were overwhelming. What I did not skip was Savitri temple. For 90 rupees a cable car takes you to the hilltop temple, and it was more than worth it for the views of all of Pushkar! Pushkar in general is a bit expensive, especially if you eat at the more “western”/tourist places, shop along the main road, etc. The best deal? Street cart lassis 🙂


Pushkar –> Jaipur
Cab from Pushkar to Ajmer train station, 400 rupees. Non-AC train to Jaipur, 2 hours, 250 rupees

I spent 1 day and 2 nights in Jaipur, and it was my least favorite of all of the cities I visited in Rajasthan. The Amber Fort was pretty spectacular, but Jaipur is a big city, and big cities in India come with an entire set of their own difficulties. Urban poverty was the most obvious here. The noise and traffic was the worst. And more than anywhere in India, I couldn’t walk more than 10 seconds anywhere without being yelled at by a shop owner, food cart guy, tuk tuk driver. I was more than happy that I only gave myself one day here. After a long day of sightseeing (exhausting!), the day was saved by an amazing hole in the wall restaurant right outside of my hostel (Zostel). The food was yummy, the people were nice, and best of all I walked to a nearby bakery afterward and ate a delicious, chewy, coconuty desert. I have no idea what it was called, but it was amazing.


Jaipur –> Delhi
AC train, 6 hours, $750 rupees

Rajasthan really exceeded my expectations in a lot of ways. There were times when it was really hard (like a lot of India), but the colors, the tastes, the scenery, the forts, the camels, the jewelry and the shoes and the textiles and the sarees… So much beauty crammed into 11 days 🙂

chitwan to varanasi in 22 hours

In my (almost) 3 months in India and Nepal, I’ve had some very intense travel days. Getting around India I spent up to 17 hours on local buses from place to place. But getting from Nepal to India overland was the longest travel day I’ve had yet. It included an overnight train, a tourist bus, 2 local buses, a shared cab, a tuk tuk, and a bicycle rickshaw. It also included a ~2 hour or so stop at Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace. To my surprise, this was one of the easier and more enjoyable travel days I’ve had.

7:30am – left hostel in Chitwan to walk to the bus stand (a little over 20 minutes)

8:00am – arrived at bus stand for the 9:30am bus (this was unnecessarily early, since the bus wasn’t even there until 9; during on-season you’d buy your ticket ahead of time, but I had no problem buying on the bus when it arrived). 600 rupees.

9:30am – 2:00pm – bus ride from Chitwan to (near) Sonauli, a border crossing for Nepal/India (about 4.5 hours); compared to the bus ride into Chitwan, this one was much smoother. The ride in was so bumpy I was flying out of my seat every other minute. This bus ride was much more crowded, though, as it acted like a local bus. We stopped several times, letting locals on and off. The bus will filled almost the whole way. I’m so thankful it wasn’t too hot of a day, and an early rain cooled us off even more.

2:00pm – from where the bus let us off, I took a shared cab to Lumbini, which was about 20 minutes. I spent about an hour in Lumbini, I walked to the temple at Buddha’s birthplace, but decided not to go inside. It was 200 rupees entrance, and I was in a hurry because I’d left my backpack in a random travel booking office. The shared cab was 500 rupees 😦

4:00pm – took a local bus back to the bus stop for only 50 rupees (apparently this bus runs every half hour or so), then switched to another local bus to get to Sonauli, 15 rupees. About 30 minutes total.

4:30pm – arrived at border crossing, hired a bicycle rickshaw for 100 rupees to take me to the Nepal immigration office for my exit stamp, the India immigration office for my entrance stamp, and then to the bus stop. About 30 minutes total.

5:10pm – 8:20pm – local bus from Sonauli to the train station in Gorakhpur. About 3 hours, 97 rupees. When I arrived at the train station, I skipped all of the lines because I’m a tourist. I got one of the last two seats on the overnight train to Varanasi, and had to pay for 1st class. I was lucky because it’s off season in this part of India too, during on season you’d be extremely lucky to get a train ticket only a couple hours before departure I think. 

10:45pm – 4:45am – 1st class AC train from Gorakpur to Varanasi. The train station was extremely confusing. At around 10:40, I was still waiting for my train at the platform listed on my ticket and on the electronic departures board. I looked back at the opposite platform and noticed a tiny sign on the side that said “Varanasi.” For the next 5 minutes I ran frantically down almost the entire length of the train looking for my car. There were no conductors or train station employees. Luckily people were really helpful, even though almost no one spoke English, several people looked at my ticket and pointed me in the right direction. I finally found my car, and my sleeper bunk. I was exhausted and slept like a baby. Setting an alarm for 4:35 was absolutely necessary, as there were no announcements, the lights stayed off. I definitely would have slept until the end of the line (wherever that is). 1,160 rupees.

4:45am – arrived in Varanasi; it took about 10 minutes to walk out of the train station, and from there took an 80 rupee tuk tuk to my guesthouse.

5:30am – arrived at guesthouse!

Total time on the road from hotel to hotel was about 22 hours. The stop at Buddha’s birthplace was completely unnecessary, but I would have just spent the extra time at a bus and/or train station. I was really intimidated by all of the bus and train changes, but it was actually kind of nice to break up the trip that way. I got really lucky with the timing of all of the buses too, I never had to run after one, but I never had to wait that long either. All in all, not a bad travel day, and definitely not the miserable and confusing trip that I’d read about online.