Backpacking Myanmar

Day 1: Yangon

After a solid nap after arriving in Yangon, I got in touch with Jeff (who I watched the Super Bowl with in Chiang Mai). We had made plans to travel through Myanmar together, along with two Swedish girls. Jeff told me they had already bought bus tickets to Bagan for the next day and booked their Bagan accomodation together. So I decided to book a bus ticket to Bagan for the morning with plans to meet them there. I got a really good Indian lunch and met up with Jeff and the two Swedes at Yangon Yangon sky bar. We had a few drinks there at sunset and then went to a British style pub nearby, where they actually had trivia night. So we got involved, but came second last. I had to head back to my hostel before the building was locked at 11pm, so I got a $2 taxi back with plans to meet them in Bagan in two days (they had booked a night bus).

Day 2: Yangon to Bagan

My bus got into Bagan in the afternoon, so I checked in to my (overpriced) dorm room at Mingalar Hotel. As I was all alone, I got onto Couchsurfing hangouts and made plans to meet up with Lae from Sydney the next day, hire scooters and check out some temples (At this point, I wasn’t overly convinced traveling with Jeff and the others was going to work out). I grabbed dinner at Black Rose cafe (most enthusiastic waiters in Myanmar) and had an early night…

Day 3: Bagan

And also had an early morning! Waking up at 4.30am to Buddhist morning prayers.

I was sitting outside the hotel after breakfast, trying to make plans with Lae and her German friend Merle via whatsapp, when Marvin, a Canadian guy sat down next to me and we got chatting. I invited him to come join Lae, Merle and myself, so he and I hired electric scooters for $5/day and met the others at their hotel. After a nervous start on the scooters (first timers) they decided to share one with Merle driving, and with that we were off temple hopping. What I would say about the temples in Bagan, is that while they are cool on an individual level, most of them are quite similar, so when you’ve seen a few, you’ve seen them all (with exceptions). That said, the beauty of Bagan is that these temples are EVERYWHERE – for me the biggest appeal of Bagan temples is quantity – It’s pretty spectacular to see them on every corner. After a day on the scooters, and losing me once, we all went to our preferred temple for sunset, followed by returning the scooters and going to Black Rose for dinner again. Lae and Merle were heading to Kalaw the next morning, whilst Marvin and I decided to see the temples (including sunrise) for one more day and head to Kalaw in the evening. We all made plans to meet up in Kalaw and hopefully do a trek to Inle Lake together, so Lae and Merle would ask around for a good trek guide when they arrived.

Day 4: Bagan

For our last day temple hopping, Marvin and I woke up at 5am for the sunrise. The temple we visited at sunrise was a little busy, but we got some good spots and watched the 20 or so hot air balloons pass across the sky with the sun behind. For the rest of the day, we went to all the bigger temples we missed the day before, and a few others in between, returning to the hotel to catch our bus to Kalaw at 8pm.

Day 5: Kalaw (Inle Lake Trek)

We both had basically zero sleep on the bus, so when we arrived at Kalaw at 3am, we wanted to sleep, but knowing we had an early start at 7am or so, we didn’t want to pay full price for a room either. We scouted out a few options, some more grim than others (church, pagoda, hotel balcony, 24hr tea shop) but eventually went to the hotel Lae and Merle were staying at and I slept in the lobby on the cold, hard floor (Marvin didn’t sleep at all, I slept for one hour).

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Marvin and I sleeping in the hotel lobby

Around 7.30am the four of us met up and while the girls had breakfast Marvin and I dropped our bags at our chosen trekking guides shop (Johnnys Adventure Treks) and got some Shan Noodle Soup for breakfast for 50 cents. We departed for our three day trek around 9am. For the three days, we had to carry anything we needed from our personal belongings in a small backpack. Our big backpacks would be couriered to our final destination, Lady Princess hotel at Inle Lake. Day one of the hike was to be 23km, day two 21km and day three 17km. The first day we started off walking to the outskirts of Kalaw village, past little farms and families going about their business. We got stuck behind a herd of cattle on a narrow track for 20 minutes, saw a nice reservoir lake for a quick break, and had lunch on a mountaintop viewpoint. We also visited a primary school in a small tribal village where Burmese isn’t even the native language, but the national curriculum dictates that school must be taught in Burmese, so the kids slowly pick it up. The village, and the school was incredibly poor. 15 families had to combine to buy one tea manufacturing machine for $1,000USD.

We followed the Kalaw-Mandalay train line for a few km’s and finished our day at our homestay for the night, which was with a minority Pah Oh family. The family was very friendly, a grandmother and grandfather who had 12 children, 27 grandchildren and 39 great grand children. There was a mix of a few of them around while we were there, but it was mostly the grandparents and their granddaughter, and her pet kitten. We couldn’t communicate very well without our guide Johnny, but the grandmothers laugh was absolutely infectious, and Johnny had known this family for 20 years so it was an awesome experience. With no running water, we had a brief scrub at the water drum, a nice dinner and an early night.

Day 6: Inle Lake Trek

On day two we took off after breakfast at about 8am. We had a break in another hilltop village with an old local woman who spent her days weaving (I bought a bag from her). It’s worth mentioning that throughout the trek we would visit a few different ethnic groups, and Johnny spoke all their native languages, which definitely gave us an insight that other groups with other guides didn’t get. After a midday lunch, and as we neared our second homestay, we passed by some local women in traditional dress who were walking home from the village after a wedding – their walk home would take three hours!

We arrived at our homestay around 5pm and indulged in a cold bucket shower and normal toilet for a change, a rare sight out here. By this point my feet were blistering nicely, and I was dreading the third and final days 17km. But for the time being we celebrated Valentines Day with a beer at the bar/only shop in town, went back home for dinner and a game of cards and then to sleep.

Day 7: Inle Lake Trek

The final day of the trek to Inle Lake started with breakfast at 7am. The village was buzzing with kids on their way to school who were thrilled to see and say hello to some foreigners, which was a pretty common theme for the Trek and Myanmar in general. A few km’s into the walk, we paid the Inle Lake reserve entry fee ($10) and continued the hike along a combination of dirt roads and narrow walking trails.

By this point we were seeing a lot of other trekking groups converging on the Lake. Most of the other groups stay in a Monastery on the second night which is infamous for bed bugs. By now my feet and legs were not interested in the hike, and it was such a relief to find our restaurant on day three which was our finish line. After lunch we paid the tour fee ($40USD), said goodbye to Johnny and got in our longboat which would show us the sights of Inle Lake and then take us to our hotel.

Unfortunately the weather made a turn for the worst and for the four hours in the boat with no roof, it was probably raining for two and a half. The boat trip took us to a silversmith, textiles mill, Padang long neck women textiles shop and a cigar shop. All of these places were swarming with tourists and it was a far cry from the places we’d seen on the trek, it was a little disappointing to finish it this way. On the way to the town where our hotel was we passed some traditional fisherman, standing on their boats on one leg and steering their paddle with the other. I think the boat driver stitched us up and didn’t show us the floating gardens or go into the floating villages, or show us our hotel, which he was supposed to do, and this is my only criticism of Johnnys trek (I emailed Johnny to tell him about this – he responded with an apology and said he wouldn’t use this boat operator again). It was really nice to check into our hotel after the trek. We didn’t do much in the town after that, aside from laundry, visiting the market the next day and booking a night bus to Hsipaw.

Day 8: Inle Lake to Hsipaw

I actually met a group of four people who I shared the minivan with from Myawaddy to Yangon in my hotel, and we were all booked for the same bus too. The night bus arrived in Hsipaw at 3am, and the four of us went to the hotel we had booked, Evergreen. The gate to evergreen was locked, and it had spikes and the fence around was topped with razor wire. The four people from my Yangon minivan were staying at the same place, also standing out the front wondering what to do. I can’t believe what happened next.

Me: “Does anyone have a Myanmar SIM card so we can call them to let us in? We have the number”

One of the other group “I have a SIM card. But anyway, the gates locked so let’s go to the 24hr tea shop”

And the four others gave up just like that. I turned to the others in our group and said “did that just happen?” I still can’t comprehend why they didn’t call, and why none of them protested the tea shop idea. I wasn’t giving up that easy. I called out through the gate but got no response. So I climbed over the gate, impaled my thong (flip flop) and nearly foot on a spike, but made it safely inside the compound. I went up to the door with a stick in hand to guard against any dogs that might be around, and knocked, waking up the night shift worker. With that, he let us in and we went to bed. 30 minutes or an hour later I wake up to the “tea party” out at the gate calling out “hello” and also finally calling the hotel number. It took them a while (at least 30 minutes-1 hour) but I think they got in eventually.

Day 9: Hsipaw to Mandalay (via Pyin Oo Lwin)

We got up early and we’re on the move again, down to the station to catch the train over the famous Goteik viaduct to Pyin Oo Lwin, where we’d get another ride to Mandalay (bus or taxi, much quicker than the train). Our ‘upper class’ train tickets cost us $3 each for the 7 hour journey, and we got our preferred right side for the best view of the viaduct bridge (sit on the right side of the train in the Hsipaw to Mandalay direction, on the left for the reverse). The train ride through the countryside was nice, whenever we saw kids they were waving at the foreigners on the train, and safety was pretty lax, we could hang out the window at any time. The Goteik viaduct itself was really awesome. When we arrived in Pyin Oo Lwin, we got a taxi for $6 each to Hotel Mahar in Mandalay, 1.5hrs away.

Day 10: Mandalay

The next day in Mandalay, the four of us walked to Mandalay Palace, which was ok, then to an overpriced western restaurant for lunch. After that it was back to the hotel for a rest and to U-Bein Bridge for sunset, the longest Teak footbridge in the world. We had been discussing hitchhiking together in Myanmar since Inle Lake, and decided we would try to hitch from Mandalay to Napyidaw the next day. Napyiadaw is the new capital of Myanmar, it is a planned city revealed by the government in 2005, but it is effectively a ghost town, built for 20million but with a population under one million. It’s appeal is its emptiness, with 10 lane highways and no cars. We would hitch to Napyiadaw, stay one night and then bus or train to Yangon.

Day 11: Mandalay to Yangon (via Naypyidaw)

In the morning, I felt really sick. After a quick spew, a lie down and a couple of Advil I was on the mend though, so we got a taxi to our hitchhiking spot south of the city (we would have preferred a public bus but we were still really unsure how we’d go hitching in Myanmar as a group of four, so wanted to maximise our time waiting at our preferred spot).

One minute after getting dropped off and holding up our signs, we were surrounded by three locals (one who was an army soldier) wondering what we were doing, trying to get flag a bus or taxi for us. We were deliberately not showing our signs to buses and red plate vehicles (red plates = taxi or hire car), but after only 5 minutes, one red plate taxi saw us and pulled over. I explained in English and with the basic Burmese phrase ‘pitesan mashi’ that we had no money, and he said, “ok no problem, I’m driving to Yangon anyway”. And with that, we had scored a lift all the way to Napyiadaw with Kuawkyaw, a Burmese Air Force technician and part time taxi driver, who was off duty and heading back to Yangon where he lived. We stopped for lunch at a roadside stall where he would not let us pay despite our protests, then he asked us to come all the way to Yangon with him. We only wanted to see the ghost city of Napyiadaw for a few hours, so he agreed to drive to Yangon with a detour through Napyiadaw! Awesome! It couldn’t have gone any better!

Napyiadaw itself was a bit surreal. The roads really wide and well kept but empty, the city seemed non-existent, a few elaborate ministry buildings but no high rises, and bamboo villages on the outskirts or in partially hidden areas. I think Kuawkyaw was a bit unsure what we wanted to see there, we just wanted to detour through it, not stop at any particular attraction, but he was trying to find the Buddha statue, so after a bit of confusion we were on our way back to Yangon, having experienced the empty highways.

Kuawkyaw ended up taking us to his house. But his wife didn’t like the idea of bringing foreigners around so late, because after sitting down inside for one minute he told us we must go, so he offered to drive us to our hostel. We exchanged email addresses at the end and I’ll send him an email to say how thankful we are. The four of us checked in to ‘The Vibe Inn’ at around 11pm and called it a night. (I did email him a few times, but it bounced, there must have been an error in the email address he gave me).

Day 12: Yangon

In the morning, Marvin and I visited Shwedagon Pagoda before meeting up with the girls for lunch. Lae was taking the circular train to the airport, so Marvin and I joined her as the circular train is apparently a tourist attraction in its own right. When Lae got off At the nearest station to the airport, we did the same, to catch a taxi back to downtown Yangon as the circular train wasn’t really doing it for us.

 

I stayed in Yangon for two more nights, and left late on the final day, getting a bus to the border at Myawaddy at 9pm.

I paid $18 for the 10 hour bus, it was a VIP bus with a movie touch screen on the back of the seats, plenty of space and perfect for sleeping. I didn’t sleep at all. I don’t know why I keep getting these night buses and putting myself through the pain.

As we approached the border around 6am, we passed another bus from the same company that had been in a head on collision, the front was completely caved in, which would have been disastrous for the driver. Happy that wasn’t my bus, we continued to the bus station in Myawaddy, arriving at about 7.30am. From there I walked the 1.5km to the border, exchanging Myanmar currency for Thai Baht on the way at a guys dodgy roadside stand with 1,000kyat-note stacks.

Crossing back into Thailand again took only about 20 minutes. The immigration officer seemed to think Australians don’t get 30 days visa free anymore but thanks to the recent visa changes I politely reminded her. Once back in Thailand, I gots songthaew to the Mae Sot bus station for 20baht. There I bought a ticket to Sukhothai in a minivan.

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One response to “Backpacking Myanmar

  1. Pingback: Central Thailand (Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Bangkok) | Jimmy Eat World·

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