Backpacking Route Myanmar (Burma) Part 1
South East Asian Wanderlust and backpacking Myanmar (Burma) for one month
Transport: flight, bus, taxi
En route Myanmar, I have decided to get there via Bangkok, as it is usually the cheapest and convenient option when you are traveling from Europe to any SE country. I have read lonely planet book for most of the evening flight on the way to Beijing and at the end I have managed to snooze for a little bit as I had a problem to get some sleep. When I woke up we flew over Mongolia. The view at the vast system of snowy mountains was breath taking. A majority of Mongolian land was under the snow.
After passing Ulaanbaatar the aircraft headed towards Datong and then its final destination Beijing at which point is only just under an hour. Estimated time of arrival in Beijing was 11:22 of a local time where I was spending next three hours waiting for my connection flight to Bangkok. It gave me enough time to refresh myself and get onto a connection flight on time. I stayed overnight at one of the hostels close to the airport. Next morning, I took a free shuttle from Suvarnabhhumi airport to Don Muang airport as my next flight was with AirAsia and catching a flight from Bangkok to Yangon was very straightforward. Upon arrival in the country and after passing immigration check at Yangon Airport, I decided to take some cash out of ATM (300k seemed to be a massive pile of money) and arranged myself a taxi to Traveller’s House Chinatown hostel, which was in Chinatown, in a very lively part of the city, and my “Backpacking Myanmar” mission has started. The hostel was clean, it had in-build sleeping units, with a blind at the front of each unite, so the intimacy wasn’t an issue. Plus, I always use earplugs and therefore, I do not normally have problems with noise. As I was checking in, I met Andrew an American guy, a retired photojournalist. We had a little conversation and after which I learnt, that Andrew’s aim is to travel to North part of Myanmar, which was also my initial plan and so we decided to try joining each other’s travels. On a flight to Yangon, Andrew met a Burmese guy called John, who was an evangelical priest and teacher at one on the townships outside Yangon.
John has offered us to show us his village and the school that he was running as well as introduce us to his class. We were delighted that could meet locals. So we set up a day and time. On our first day we went to visit Swedagon Pagoda, which is one of the biggest and most sacred pagodas in the whole South East Asia. Pagoda is covered and plated with a real gold. Some locals say that if the government sold all the gold covering the pagoda, none of Myanmar’s citizens would need to work for a couple of years. Truly, that place is magnificent.
Another stop was Inya Lake, a sort of a socialising spot for young Myanmar people as well as the place, where many important political happenings took place. It’s worth mentioning that Aung San Suu Kyi’s private residence is right in the middle of the lake. For the rest of the day we spent walking through the city, eating street food and drinking Myanmar’s traditional tea at the street teahouses. Teahouses are important social hub for locals who come here to have a chit-chat or discuss current affairs. Drinking traditional Myanmar tea (a black tea with added condensed milk and you will be always reminded to steer your tea before consuming it) is an absolute must, if you desire to get closer with locals. Normally, it comes accompanied with a Chinese green tea, which you can keep endlessly topping up for free of charge. The usual price for a cup of tea is 300ks. Yangon offers vast selection of street food or small family run restaurants.
Another must, is a traditional Myanmar breakfast meal called Mohinga, which is a thick soup with noodles.
It comes in different versions depending on the region. When you first arrive in Myanmar, you will soon find out that guys are wearing Longhi, a traditional skirt-like piece of fabric that is wrapped around their waist, which serves as clothing. I found it very practical, especially during cold evenings, when you can pull Longhi over your shorts, to keep your legs warm during called evenings. Day two, we visited John’s little township, which was two hours drive outside Yangon. We had a chance to meet John’s students at the evangelical school as well as meet local people, who some of them were also evangelists. It was an interesting experience to see this as military government strictly prohibited other religions other than Buddhism and just recently people could freely choose their religion. After spending there one whole afternoon we took a local bus on the way back and we realised that were the only foreigners on board. The shabby bus from 50’s with wooden floor and no glass windows was very lively as passengers were picked up and dropped off in a very chaotic yet organised way. A young guy who seemed to manage pick up and drop off by shouting out loud to a driver who then stopped or began the departure then collected one-way journey fare of 300k and the journey back to Yangon took approximately 2 hours.
On a day three, our final day in Yangon we visited Yangon’s only Jewish synagogue on the 26th Street and then paid a visit at the small fishing village Dala, 10min. away by boat across the river. The boat journey was quite interesting experience, as various sellers carrying their products on trays or baskets and placed on the top of their heads were trying to sell quickly by shouting over each other in frantic fashion in order to be ahead of their competition and win the customers in short 15minutes journey.
Unsuccessful trip to Kanteplet, Chin State
Transport: bus, freight bus, back of the truck, mini bus, van
Our next destination was Kanteplet in Chin State, as our initial plan was to visit surrounding villages and stay overnight at people’s houses if possible. Taking a night bus, leaving Yangon behind, our next stop was Seik Phyu, where we arrived around 4:30am, next morning. It was cold and way too early. Fortunately, there was a little family restaurant close to station setting up a food stall and so it didn’t take me too much of hesitation to get some hot green tea and Mohinga for my early breakfast. As I mentioned before, Mohinga differs from region to region and so did mine too. It was thicker, and it didn’t contain fish stock as the one I had in Yangon. It was delicious. Just few hours later the little town started to wake up slowly, shops opened up and soon after it filled up with people doing their day-to-day business. When the kiosk selling bus tickets opened, we purchased bus tickets to another destination called Saw a little town of Saw Township in Gangaw District in the Magway Division, with departure time at 8am. We later learnt that the bus was actually delayed by approximately two and half hours. Sooner or later everyone traveling in Myanmar will learn that public transport can be very unreliable, so it is better to get used to it at the start of the trip. Whilst waiting for the bus, a lady who sold us the bus tickets introduced me to her daughter Daw,who was teaching English in the local school and was very keen on practising. I have managed to learn few phrases in Burmese. It was fun and also opportunity to interact with locals.
Around 10:30am our transport finally arrived and to our surprise we found out that our next five or six hours would spend in 8 seater van, which had already few local passengers on board. The journey itself was interesting as we have been going through narrow rocky rough roads uphill and through numerous 180 degrees turns with magnificent mountain views. Even though I thought I won’t survive this journey, I didn’t have any other option other than to put up with it and let the driver to get us to our next destination intact and safe. We had a few stop overs and on one of them we stopped by a family restaurant who also run rock crushing business. The members of the family and other workers were crushing large blocks of rock using handheld hammers and then further crushing those into smaller pieces. The processed material would then be loaded onto a track and sold to building companies for about 40k KS per load. All labour is done by hand. I have offered myself to help them and “relieved” a female worker from hammering away. Locals were delighted by my offer and also had a little fun to look at a western tourist clumsily breaking blocks of rocks. I had a fellow worker helping me with holding, positioning and assisting in pointing out where to effectively hit the hammer so it could break into desired pieces of a smaller size. There was a mutual trust in between the worker and myself as he put himself into situation where whilst holding a rock firmly with his hands, I could anytime miss the rock and hit him by accident instead. I can tell you that it was very elaborate and hard work and especially for women who did this for several hours daily. That made me think of how many things in life we take for granted but don’t appreciate them in life. After that I had a meal with rice and accompanied with steamed vegetable and before our departure we took a few group pictures with the owner of the restaurant. We then moved on and continued our journey through rocky narrow road uphill. During our journey we had a few more loo breaks and as we were passing through the villages, we had a chance to meet local villagers who never met any western foreigners before and therefore we became a little rarity for some of them. Myanmar people are extremely friendly and they will always use the opportunity to talk with strangers.
When we arrived in Saw it was already 14:30 and we tried to find out about our connection bus to another township, however there were no more busses for the day, which meant we would have to stay overnight, but after finding out that there was no licensed hostel or hotel in the area and no private house or local Buddhist temple would not allow us to stay overnight (they would risk and face very tough punishment, due to severe restrictions to host foreigners in their private houses), so we were left out with two options; either pay a hefty price for a private transport to Kanteplet, which was out of question due to our budgets or take an alternative route to Bagan.
On the way to Nyaung-U, Bagan, Mandalay region
Transport: bus, sleeping bus, back of the truck, bicycle
We made a quick mutual decision on an alternative route and so another mission was to find out a connection bus that would take us to Bagan via Pakkhoku. In order to catch a bus on time we had to be transported to a neighbouring village called Kyakhtu, which was only about 30min away, and then swiftly jump on the main bus heading to Pakkhoku. This journey added up another eight hours on the top of hours we already travelled for past two days. As it couldn’t get even worst, the bus that we were taking to Pakkhoku, was an old shabby bus from 50’s and stuffed halfway through with animal feed, corn, sacks of peanuts and fruit and as well as long wooden trunks of wood placed in the middle of aisle as well as other stuff belonging to local fellow travellers. We were the only foreigners amongst three members of the crew and other three passengers on the bus. On the way to Pakokku, a bus driver drove us through deep countryside and the rough dirt roads and after far too many jumps and hops and swings from side to side, I decided to forget all this and left my life in driver’s hands and enjoyed stunning local scenery. Around midnight, we finally arrived at the bus station in Pakkhoku, which it’s only 40mins away to Bagan. Having been so late, there we no more buses going to Bagan and so we ended up looking an alternative transport to get us there. In theory, we had two options; either paying quite a lot of money to stay in the local place for overnight or try getting a taxi (which ended up being as expensive as the hotel) or try talking with the bus drivers negotiate and pay them a little bit extra on the top of what they would charge normally during standard operational hours. After endless attempts for conversations in English and fishing words out of Burmese dictionary we finally sealed a deal and got us a transport on at the back of a truck for about 20k KS. Despite our exhaustion, it was a relief for both of us to have found a solution. Andrew managed to book a room online in Bagan and after our arrival to the hotel; we went to sleep straightaway and even though finding out that the hotel was pretty rundown and its hygiene standards were outrageous comparing to its cost, we realised that it was way too overpriced. Next day, we moved to the hotel opposite, called Eden Motel 3, which was cleaner and much cooler than the previous one. Bagan was a pretty chilled place to what supposed to be very touristy and busy area. We stayed in Nyaungoo, which was about 6 km outside the temple zone.
Nonetheless, that wasn’t a problem at all as getting there by bicycle was very easy. The whole place reminded me Siam Reap, although perhaps more chilled and cool and not at all pretentious or busy with nightlife. After discovering town’s food market, I instantly fell in love with it. It was a place where day-to-day life affairs would take a place and often creating some sort of logistical issues and resolving them instantly in their own merits. What a great spot to observe lives of the local people.
One of the reasons why one would visit Myanmar is to experience magical stupas and temples in Old Bagan. If you have been previously in Cambodia’s Angkor Wat then the site itself may not interest you as much, however the magic happens during the sunrises and at the dusk. If you are lucky enough you can get a great spot at one of the pagodas (though it comes with price of waking up at 4am and cycling 6km to get there), however the experience is a worthwhile. The stunning views will take you to a dreamland for next 20mins of observing mind-blowing sunrise with over dozen air balloons floating effortlessly in the air and blending into perfectly set scenery of hundreds of stupas in the background. A next-door hotel to ours was offering bicycle hire for only 1k KS, which was cheap as peanuts, so getting around was never an issue. Old Bagan has also few outskirts villages and rural life can be easily observed from the saddle of a bicycle.
On our last day, Andrew and I visited site, where the balloons were departing from. It was another great experience to see balloons being blown with air and then floated into the sky.
In Nyaungoo, I discovered my favourite teahouse and so every day I would go there for a cuppa of Myanmar’s brewed tea. There was only one café that had fully working WiFi and they also served the best smoothies in the town. In Nyaungoo, there are plenty options for tasty local street food and family run restaurants and they all come very cheap. I was quite sad to leave Bagan, as despite being touristy, I found it being very calm place to be.
On the road to Inle Lake, Nyaungshwe Township of Taunggyi District, Shan State,
Transport: bus, sleeping bus, back of the truck, boat, bicycle
We took a night bus from Bagan (on which we came across another backpacker an Italian guy Domi, who then later joined us) to Inle Lake, where we were supposed to arrive at 6am, however as we learnt upon our arrival, we got there 2.5hours earlier, which obviously spoiled our plans on saving some cash on hostel and as it was freezing cold outside the only rational solution for us was to finding a hostel and get some sleep instead. We were approached by a couple of tuck-tuck drivers offering their services and that’s when we came across a character known as Mo. He started with the usual selling tactics as his fellow tuk-tuk drivers apart from fact that he promised to take us around all possible guesthouses until we find a room and all this at no additional price. That was a good deal. We were roaming around for about 10 minutes until we finally found a place where they could host us. Mo then gave us his number and told us to call him whenever we need tuk-tuk or organise trips etc. Next morning, after the breakfast (breakfast and coffee as well as fruit smoothie were included, which was a big plus) we hired bicycles and ventured out into downtown. Our first stop was a local market, which was typically a place, where you could find a little bit of everything as well as a lot of yummy and cheap street food. Where is the best place to snap up a few pictures of local people than at the market?
The town itself wasn’t much interesting and even-though seeing quite a large number of tourists and backpackers it didn’t feel being packed or touristy at all. The streets were pretty “airy” and local people were friendly. There were few houses from British colonial era and the town centre was boosting with local as well as western eateries. In general, it was a pleasant place to hang out for a day or two. There is also a café-cinema-bar, owned by French expat, in where they were showing independent movies for free.
Our next mission was to find out about how to get to Inle Lake and how much it will cost. We already knew that all trips to Inle Lake are sold through tour agencies, which also meant, that we would have to stop in several tourist traps on the way there and therefore we were trying to find some independent boat drivers, who could deliver us to the main lake, but also beyond, As we were three of us we were trying to negotiate bat an affordable price, as many tour agencies were asking excruciatingly overpriced charges.
We asked a few boat drivers who hanged around alongside the riverfront and who were effortlessly selling their services to passing by tourists. When we told them our intensions, they all refused to do it, as according to some sort of regulations and agreements, they had to pass through all tourist traps as they were getting commissions from each of the shop on the way as well as free food from the pre-arranged expensive restaurant. After speaking with at least a dozen of boat drivers, we didn’t conclude anything and thought to give up the idea completely. As it was getting dark already, we decided that it was time for a dinner. We found a small local family restaurant, where we ordered some nice traditional Myanmar’s curry and after the dinner we headed down back to our hostel, cycling in pitch dark. At the hostel we ended up having few beers and were joined by a French/Portuguese couple, Elsa & Nuno. Only, then we realised that we had Mo’s number and so we gave him a ring. Mo spoke English, which meant that our telephone conversation was very clear and we expressed what our intensions were. We arranged with him to meet us in 30min at our guesthouse and so he did. We told him what we want and after some time of negotiations, we came up to a deal for all day trip for five people to the first as well as the second Inle Lake. He gave us a good price and we would be avoiding all tourist traps as well as being able to stop a boat at any time if we decide to snap some pictures.
Next morning was very cold and so we all dressed up appropriately, with taking into account that during the day it will get hot, and so be able to take off the layers of the clothes easy and with no fuss.
We were all very-very excited and once on the boat, we observed the lake’s day to day live and lives of ordinary local people and fishermen. Morning mist was covering the whole lake and somehow it looked very mystical. The sun was lazily sticking out through the misty patches and before we realised, the sunrise blinded our horizons and together with the blend of sounds of the boat’s engine and screams of flying birds somehow juggled this Jing-Jang scenery into well-balanced symbiosis between the nature and humans. Getting into the first lake was quite scenic as passing through different floating villages could allow us to understand how the villagers live.
Locals were minding their own business; some were just chilling in the hammocks, some were washing laundry in the lake, some were washing themselves and their children in the lake, some were cooking in front of their houses, some were fishing or fixing their fish nets or some were just working around the house. It was somewhat very calming to watch all this, and try to comprehend such a simple life on the water. Some of the houses or rather hats were built of bamboo, wooden planks and palm leaves to create a roof and some houses of slightly fortunate families were built of wood and sitting on the concrete slabs.
When we entered main Inle Lake, I was dying of excitement to see the fishermen and the local fauna. The lake was waking up and at far I spotted silhouettes of fishermen which was a proof that we arrived just in time and 15mins later we have finally spotted three fishermen boats in our horizon as we were closing in. To my surprise from a short distance I could not really see any action but as we were getting closer and closer all three man suddenly stood up and performed some sort of fishing in action. All three of them held a bamboo vessel as well as some sort of round fishing basket and carefully lifted one of their legs in the air as well as holding a bamboo vessel in between an armpit and supporting it in between legs. It felt somewhat weird and unnatural, almost like they were performing a circus stunt. They did this until the point when our boat met with theirs and soon after they stopped performing. One of them even pulled out a dead fish as they have just caught it in front of us. We all were snapping photographs since the beginning of the whole stunt.
As the whole thing wouldn’t be enough, it was getting better after one of them found a courage asking for money. Honestly, I felt disappointed; well at least for at that moment. My whole excitement and enthusiasm burnt down and I thought that the whole Inle Lake idea was just a waste of money and time. I was simply not ready for a stunt and I felt betrayed. Anyway, after that we carried on in our journey.
It was still nice to observe of shore landscapes and birds and fishermen hats and the rice fields. I have realised, that gotten myself in a rather negative mood, I had to unwind and let it go. Perhaps, all bad was for something good, as when we passed the main lake and entered a second one, which has later proven to be more authentic after all.
There was somehow more life. There were farmers working on their fields deploying water buffalos, there were real fishermen throwing nets and paddling around. There were young guys bathing water buffalos and their livestock. At some places the lake was covered with water lilies so densely that it was challenging for the boatman to pass thought almost impassable waters and at some point of our journey we even got stuck. There was something about our trip to the second lake. Having seen only the reality of what was taking place at time we were there, it placed me on the scale of trusting the nature of this beautiful place. Seeing simple fishermen without superficial inauthenticity doing what they would do to exist and make them and their families to survive just that one day out of 365, gave me an assurance that a simple life comes as beautiful as the complexity of our lives in the West. Finding out that just one boat journey can twist my thoughts to desire for a life that can be beautiful as it comes. It was hard for me to say bye to Inle, but we had to move on.