December 2016 – January 2017
I know a lot of people were included in my original emails for this trip, but for those that haven’t seen all my photos this is a good place to start.
Myanmar was only reopened to tourism back in 2011, so things are still being set up for us foreigners.
Also, an ex partner of mine was on this trip, so I’ve just called him TP (Travel Partner). There’s no hiding the fact he was there with me and helped make it fun.
Weather: So hot I’d hate to be underpants. Feels like 200 deg after Melbourne’s pretend summer
Accom: The Scarlet Hotel – very acceptable boutique abode
Weight: +5kgs in 3 days
Tan: Sunglasses & singlet still require some work
Massages: 1 brutal, 1 heavenly
Sky deck @ Marina Bay Sands (the wickets), cable car to Sentosa Island, big pretend trees, Ferris wheel, the Merlion, Chinatown, an unnamed quay (only unnamed by me because I didn’t research) on the river offering great views and many eateries, back end of Raffles, Singapore Sling at rooftop bars, night zoo, hop on hop off bus and a stack of kms walked (in thongs/flip flops as usual).. I covered them all.
But nothing will compare to the awesomeness of the $3 dishes produced at the non-touristy wet markets. I was given the heads-up by a client of mine to seek out these incredible delights and boy am I stoked that I took heed.
First wet market was Whampoa over near Little India district to order something that the locals eat. The mission; join the biggest queue and order what everyone else is having. Ok, I chickened out of the fishball soup, but I queued for the carrot cake. Now, you may expect an orangey sweet delight, but not here. Apparently the carrots are actually radish which are somehow gelatinised then chopped into chunks, added to a fresh egg mix and wok tossed with some ketjap manis. Does not sound as delightful as it tastes, but I could have had that everyday.
Another highlight was the chilli crab at Chinatown’s wet market. Should I really bother adding superlatives to this Singapore staple? 🌶🦀🌶🦀🌶🦀🌶🦀🌶🦀🌶🦀 Hainan chicken at Loo’s opposite Tiong Bahru wet market – as directed by a knowledgable cabbie. The Maxwell hawker market as well as inside the double storey Tiong Bahru market also rate a mention for exceptional local vittles.
What you’re thinking is correct.. it was basically a food crawl with some touristic things to look at along the way.
Weather: warm, approx 31 – underpants not under too much strain
Accom: Best Western Chinatown – good location, clean, acceptable
Weight: +1.5kgs in 2 days
Tan: grey brown look, possibly smog
Massages: 1 out of boredom.. kinda hard but necessary
Hotel car forgot the airport collection, include no phone service for Aussie phones = slight nervousness. Outcome: local taxi for 1 hr = $9AUD. Me thinks this turned out super.
Yangon is a crazy, smoggy/smokey, busy city with lots of new buildings appearing amongst many wonderfully old – some rundown, some restored – colonial buildings.
Singapore really are leaders with their huge car taxes and excellent public transport which helps to reduce pollution drastically, hopefully something Yangon can learn in future years.
So many markets! The fish market, consisting of women squatting on the road with plastic tarps showing off their catch of the day. No refrigeration and surprisingly not too many flies. Needless to say I avoided any local fish dishes.
Loads of explorative steps again, a Stupa (temple), many markets and the highly recommended chicken biryani at Nilas was enough for this city visit.
“Somehow” we followed our ears and discovered a KTV (Karaoke TV) place after dinner at Black Hat Burmese Tapas and $5 Long Island iced teas (yes, plural) on a rooftop bar.
What an odd experience having just two of us karaoke-ing in a private room with two of our very own Burmese helpers clapping at our awesome tone deafness. A first for me but my well Asiatic travelled partner in crime a veteran KTV specialist with his rendition of Brittney Spears’ “Oops I did it again”, complete with dance moves – I’ve heard many a tale about this singing marvel, but now it cannot be unheard or unseen.
Yangon to Inle Lake
Weather: a mild 26 – what underpants?
Accom: 81 Hotel Nyaungshwe – simple and comfy
Weight: +1.2kg in hangover food
Tan: too hard to judge from inside airports and plane
Massages: why choose a $60 massage over the usual $16? No Idea. Enjoyed it plenty anyway.
Note to self: stop playing up the night before a bumpy flight. Every. Damn. Time. (I think a new Swear Jar scenario is required for the amount of times I’ve thought this)
In the land of many curry eaters, it seems unfair to place us all in the small, propeller driven tin can, 17,000ft above sea level without aircon. (Yes Ma, another little plane that survived)
Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery was visited on the way into Nyaungshwe.
Sensationally smiley, fun and caring staff at 81 Hotel. Can I keep ‘em?
Nyaungshwe, a relatively quiet haven – almost completely surrounded by many treed hills (or are they mountains? Really large hills perhaps) – has narrow streets, most of them dirt, lined with tin sheds or wooden, stilted, open air places with a majority either offering food and happy hour drinks (avoided that evil trap today) or touristy attraction visits. With only two sets of traffic lights, I’m happy with the lack of car traffic and pollution. Most people on foot, bicycle or scooter. The town reminds me of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, but with an Asian twist and about 2,990 mts closer to sea level. It’s possible the backpackers own this town already.
Food highlight here so far is the tea leaf salad, a Burmese staple.
Weather: need thermal underwear when the sun isn’t around
Weight: ugh! Why is it necessary to order so much every meal
Massages: no time for that shenanigans
Tan: I was wrapped up in a granny blanket in the boat therefore sunglasses tan only. Dust also a factor, tan may wash off.
Awake at 5am thanks to the disco lit pagoda across the road and the sheer curtains in the hotel room – oh, and my eye mask sliding up the expanse known as my forehead, as per usual.
Out onto Inle Lake, in our water Harley, by 8:30am.
Inle Lake, you’re stunning, diverse and fun to explore.
The boat; a larger, motorised version of the Okavango Delta mokoro (alright, more like a Thai long boat, but what I initially thought sounds way cooler) with only my Travel Partner (TP), myself, our exceptionally skilled boat driver, along with our kind, English speaking guide. Let’s not forget to mention the few hundred other tourists in their boats buzzing around us like flies with Harley Davidson exhausts.
Too much to see, do and photograph around Inle Lake – and she’s super large. My camera certainly had a workout on this part of the trip. So many perfect reflections of stilted houses on completely settled and glassy water.
Boat through tight canals, under narrow babmboo bridges and around wooden stilted houses on water really shows how skilled these long boat drivers are.
Fishermen using their leg to paddle an oar whilst dropping fishing nets into the water incredibly fascinating to watch – famous for this region/country. This really needs to be experienced to gain the appreciation it deserves.
Long necked Paduang Tribe women wearing gold ringed neck braces, of which every 20-something years they gain extra rings to stretch their necks further. These gold neckbraces are apparently to stop tigers attacking their necks. A regional occurrence, yet it’s only the women who are possibly attacked by tigers? Me thinks it’s an excuse to wear loads of gold.
Pagoda ruins and already tourist-ised kids requesting money after showing us around (or following rather) at In Dein hopefully not a sign of things to come for the whole lake region.
Silver smiths; Watching the silver being melted then pounded by 3 men with Thor like hammers in unison to create everything from swords & knives to more intricately detailed jewellery is mighty impressive.
Weaving of lotus plant was interesting to watch and to buy a basic scarf is triple the price of silk.
Inle Lake continued..
Weather: Very comfortable 26-30 degrees – underpants only ever under threat during bike ride
Accom: 81 Hotel Inle still
Weight: -5kg in sweat and possibly a mildly shady curry
Tan: avoided sun with long sleeved shirt & hat – I must be maturing
Massages: 90 mins of bliss
Shwe oo min cave with 8,000 gold Buddha statues varying in sizes was fascinating. Heading there with only a brief understanding of what to expect helped us truly enjoy this gold, cavey phenomenon. The hour and a half drive to Shwe oo min provided us with an appreciation of local village life – ox drawn wooden wagons, patchwork cultivated & nutrient rich red land, old MASH style jeeps with exposed engines, many scooters, sugar cane fields in flower, field workers wearing conical hats sharing lunch in the shade, banana & avocado trees, women carrying heavy loads on their heads, heaps of puppies & chickens trying their hardest to be squished by traffic – a true step back into simple life.
Each breakfast (consisting of local spicy Shan noodle soup – definitely one of my top five favourite travel meals ever) at 81 Hotel whilst I watch young monks walk past on their way around town to collect donated food from street vendors. It’s such a beautiful, giving culture here.
Bike ride around the lake, incredibly bumpy and well potholed road. Actually it was smoother on the dirt beside the bitumen. Stopped at natural HOT (damn hot!) mineral springs where there are 4 steamy pools (yes, steamy in 28 degree weather) – One of these pools I couldn’t even dip a toe without melting a toenail. Felt refreshed afterwards even if these springs attempted to turn me into human soup. Now I’m mineralised & revitalised… until the climb up to the Forrest Pagoda and monastery in the heat. Too steep to ride all the way up so the bikes were pushed for a gruelling forty-five minutes or so all the way to the top but the way back down was over in a brief few minutes – which tested my noisy, almost non-existent, brakes. To get across the lake to above mentioned Pagoda one must find a trusty boat driver. It’s funny buzzing across the lake and cutting through the ‘highway’ of other boats like playing frogger.
Decided to live it up for Xmas lunch at a lakeside resort – first average meal in Myanmar.
Winery up on a hill overlooking Inle Lake and surrounds to watch the sunset a highlight.. the wine not so much. Not even adding Sprite helped some of the wines – Cab Sav most acceptable out of the few tested.
The bike ride back home on the bumpy roads, in the dark, dodging puppies and with an injured TP (after slight bike, hill & road altercation) was surprisingly fun. Made friends with Alex & Tom at the winery and discovered not only are our names similar, but that our bikes are from the same hire place. The ride home was like a scene from BMX Bandits! (For my non-Aussie buddies; BMX Bandits is an average Australian ’80’s movie with a young Nicole Kidman riding BMXs in gangs). Approx total of KMs ridden: 40
Weather: Summery weather that Melbourne dreams of – swimming attire only and not under too much strain
Accom: Jade Marina Resort – it’s the usual resort with all the mod cons
Weight: -2kg from hours swimming and inability to eat too much seafood
Tan: Local Burmese man asked if I was a local because of my skin colour
Massages: best Myanmar massage and on the beach
It doesn’t take long to figure out that flight times are a guesstimation only – Plane already delayed by 3 hours so far, apparently this is normal. All this sitting around not helpful after hard bike seats and bumpy road biking. Need soft seat donut right now.
Next stop Ngapali beach where I can practice kayaking for the Rottnest Island (Perth) channel crossing, plus some swims with the fish = happiness.
This fishing village is a beach lovers paradise – crystal clear salty expanse, whitest and clean sand surrounded by coconut palms and not too many people, even if it is peak season.
Due to the flight delay there was really only time for a little street meander then off to the Green Umbrella beachside restaurant for seafood. Even the 2.5hr wait for food ended up surprisingly worthwhile. Even through a substantial hangriness the seafood here was very tasty and fresh.
Organised a boat to take the two of us snorkelling for the day. 3 locations and a seafood spread which could have fed a small army – all for a measly sum of $80AUD (for both, not each).
The snorkelling locations provided us with plenty of little fish and some really healthy coral. Visibility was like nothing I’ve experienced previously, it’s so clean and clear here. One of the reefs I found mesmerising because when you first jump in the water it was cooler than previous locations and I’m guessing there’s less saline compared to other locations because buoyancy was very minimal. And whilst swimming around I could feel a big rise in temperature. The heated water was even visible to the naked eye! You know when you’re driving a long road and look into the distance and see that fuzzy mirage? That’s what it was like under water. When you dive deeper the water warms even more.. In my experience, it’s usually the opposite.
At one point I was so entranced by the coral and fish that I didn’t realise that I was in the path of a long boat – who possibly shouldn’t be driving through this reef. If it wasn’t for the people on my boat screaming at me to “LOOK OUT”, I could be typing this from a not so safe hospital bed. It appears that an urgent scream from TP caused me to pull my body from horizontal to vertical and when I turned to look for where the yelling came from there was a boat so close to my nose I could smell the paint. Possibly even have a paint graze on my nose.
So, here we are; 3 decent snorkelling swims in and a seafood feast in the belly, sitting on deck chairs only surrounded by water, reefs, coconut palms, the quiet chatter of just a few locals, some cute fluffy puppies, a cloudless sky, TP gently snoring beside me and I start to imagine this as my new meditation happy place… until out of the corner of my eye I see something moving pretty quickly across the sand.
It wasn’t a big snake by any means, but I slapped TP to wake up just as this slithery friend reached our feet. Snakey slightly hesitated as I first moved, then came straight at us! Eeeeeeeeeeekk! I stood up on my chair and leaped as if I was in the Olympics doing a mix of long jump and high jump. TP, not so lucky as his chair collapsed in the panic. Snakey didn’t seem that fazed by us and continued under our chairs, past us into the dried out coconut shells a few metres away. We had the nervous giggles for a while afterwards and our antics amused the locals. (Ma, stop panicking.. I survived it all and were rewarded with plenty of amusement). Back onto the boat not long after this little encounter.
Poolside for the arv and the usual dusk cocktail as the sun disappears in a spectacular fashion over the Bay of Bengal’s horizon.
Dinner at Minh Thu – roadside, not beachside – lobster with a fresh garlic & chilli sauce, green tea salad and veg tempura are worthy of a mention.
Lazy day of beach walks, swims and beach deck chair reading whilst sipping fresh coconut water straight from the coconut and eating tasty little bananas. Too relaxed to make any decisions.. other than I’m still not coming home, Ma.
Then the last day at Ngapali Beach (sadly) was spent kayaking, swimming, walking, being massaged and eating.
Shwedagon Pagoda (Yangon)
Only about a half hour flight delay this time.. I’d call that on time.
Back in Yangon so decided to meander along the lovely Asian looking, wooden boardwalk around Kandawgyi Lake (Accom: Kandawgyi Hotel – huge). The boardwalk must have been built back in 1734 because it’s in absolute ruin! At some stages TP would stand on a wooden plank that would almost catapult me over his head and into the lake. Other times I’d stand on a plank that would move the “safety” barrier. It’s pretty to look at, but wouldn’t recommend walking on it.
Off to the famous Shwedagon Pagoda for the afternoon (aptly named Sweatygon by my well travelled Wisconsin friends because of humid heat – not a good day for underpants). Crossing the crazy busy streets with a little more confidence too (usually being shepherded by locals). I’d say traffic was similar to Vietnam, except pedestrians appear to have no right of way here. At least in ‘Nam you can confidently just walk across the road and traffic dodges you, not here I’m afraid… although I did test the theory a couple of times and escaped unscathed.
Shwedagon Pagoda is a very large golden conical beacon atop what appears to be the only hill (more like a large mound) in Yangon. She’s big, she’s bright, she’s hot and she’s busy.
Appropriate attire must be worn here; women covering up arms and legs, men in skirts. Ok, they’re called Longyi (pronounced “long-ghee”)- traditional clothing for the majority of males anywhere in Myanmar. They’re similar to a sarong, being tied at the waist or lower than my TP’s ample belly. Yup, TP is in a skirt and he’s loving it.
The whole surrounding tiled grounds are substantial and having to walk it in the heat plus being barefoot slightly tiring, but nothing will stop the admiration of this large golden place of Buddhism. With numerous and varied places of worship here – all of them being used in the midday heat, we appreciate the Myanmar people’s love and kindness towards everything.
Buddhism has a plenty of positive things to answer for. Lots of young monks meandering between Buddhas and giving thanks by pouring water over the statues shoulders along with fresh flowers, another beautiful cultural reminder.
A much needed rest and some fluid replenishment in order, another stop at one (of hundreds, possibly thousands) of Myanmar’s traditional tea houses. This one under a tin roof with grandma perched on her comfy banana lounge barking orders at her not so young sons and grandsons; the ‘chef’ barefoot and bare chested only wearing his longyi with a lit cigarette hanging from his mouth; many older longyi wearing men sharing pots of tea over handmade, well worn, wooden tables and squat stools; cats and dogs meandering through the tea house (Dept of health would love this place); all to enjoy the strongest and sweetest tea EVER! Strong black tea with sweetened condensed milk could be my new drug. Such a big buzz from a tiny cup, I think I now finally understand coffee drinkers.
Dinner time was a little less of a Burmese feast by going fusion style at Rangoon Tea House. Nothing like aforementioned tea house by the way, very restauranty and a slight break.
Weather: Toasty warm 31-34 degrees – all clothing under threat from sweat & dust
Accom: Yardanabon Hotel New Bagan
Tan: Looking local still. Although not including untanned patch under mouth where only one chin used to reside
Weight: Pfffft! Forget about it, it’s holidays – food too good to worry about weight
Massages: 0 (too busy templing)
Another half hour flight delay only, still acceptable.
Checked in at hotel and straight onto E-bikes. What fun! Electric scooters, in dusty traffic on the opposite side of the road dodging puppies, chickens, people, horse & carts, herds of goats & oxen and potholes… couldn’t wipe the grin from my dusty face.
First afternoon is spent on a reconnaissance mission looking for best temples and sunrise/sunset location.
Oh geez.. I don’t even know where to start explaining these incredible and numerous ruins. There are big temples, little temples, medium temples, big pagodas, medium pagodas, little pagodas, big payas, little payas, medium payas, monasteries, Old Bagan, New Bagan, Nuyang U… you get the idea. There’s nearly as many individual places of worship as there are bus loads of people making their way to the biggest sunset watching location – nearly!
Personally, my feelings towards the restoration of these ruins are a little torn. I know they use the original bricks but seeing some of the temples looking almost shiny and new leaves me feeling slightly empty. I can’t explain it entirely, other than I’m not sure whether I prefer them all run down or fixed. I’ll figure it out eventually.
Also I do understand that restoration was required after a nasty (apparently not global news worthy) earthquake measuring 9.5 on the Richter scale in August 2016.
Without trying to go on about this place too much: there are LOADS of places to visit and three and a half days wasn’t near enough. Thousands of temple options in fact. Not that you really need to see them all, but more time is needed to travel from place to place and explore as many as possible because everything is well spread out. There are a few different modes of transport; horse & cart, bus, taxi, e-bike, bicycle and on foot. As much as there was the want to try the cruisey horse & cart, time and distance between them all didn’t allow this luxury so it was e-bike and bicycle all the way.
Highlights in Bagan
Hot air ballooning over the smoke hazed temples at sunrise was breathtaking. The serenity of floating through the sky silently, coupled with the hazy view above ALL the ruins is something to cherish forever. The 20-something year old Aussie girl beside me (no, not TP) was completely overwhelmed by the experience that it brought tears to her eyes – I think she summed it up perfectly without any words.
Also cruising over a local village that houses their animals (because fields are used for food growing not grazing) and learning that this village received electricity only 12 months ago makes one appreciate some creature comforts we have.
Finally locating a temple high enough to view all the temples at sunrise and sunset where we didn’t have to jostle for position well worth the scratches and bruises bush bashing our e-bikes and bodies. I’m a tad concerned about TP’s biking abilities though, considering many previous triathlon completions; he had yet another bicycle, sand, bush altercation. I wouldn’t be surprised if his girlie screams were heard globally after I suggested putting Dettol hand sanitiser on the open scrapes. Hmmm, this could explain why I’m now single. 😉
The last morning in Bagan – up early to watch a cloud shrouded (non-existent) sunrise at a quiet location that still did not disappoint. Just the two of us sitting atop our temple, watching the balloons silently rise and listening to monks chanting at nearby temples was the most serene experience. I could have sat there forever. Another addition to my happy / meditation places list.
Once again, I’ve found myself in a location where I doubt photography will do any justice. The expanse, quantity and intricacy of pagodas in this place was too hard to capture on camera. So, just get your butt over there ASAP.
If I haven’t said it enough already; the gorgeous, smiley people of this country are worth the visit alone. Seeing those not-so-toothy, red (red due to beetle nut leaf chewing highs) grins every time you even looked their way is delightful. The world would be a MUCH better place if everyone was like these ever peaceful and giving Burmese souls.
Hired a very warm and kind taxi driver (who drove from Mandalay to Bagan at 4am just for the return trip) to take us from Bagan to Mandalay via Mt Popa (nickname: Mt Monkey Poopa) – a high castle like monastery on its own shard of rock with lots of monkey poop covered stairs, of which you’re not allowed to wear shoes on. It was on the drive to Mt Popa that those monkey poop words of wisdom reminders came screaming back at me from my Wisconsin friends. Luckily there are now stair cleaners, which were tipped as thanks for a (relatively) good job.
Weather: A touch cooler, but still a wonderfully warm 24-30 degrees
Accom: Yardanabon Hotel Mandalay – Suite room very comfortable. Well, had any time been spent in there it would have been better appreciated
Weight: Attempted weight loss through food poisoning by eating from street carts and dodgy BBQ places – no luck
Tan: Fading. Nearly as quick as my happiness due to pending home time
Massages: 0 (will make up for it in Bangkok)
Arrived Mandalay late afternoon and decided to try squeeze in the Royal Palace visit. Turns out she’s not as close as anticipated. PLUS, the grounds are 2km x 2km x 2km x 2km.. entrance approx an added 3km after our 3km walk there. Too late for opening times anyway, but now I have an appreciation for the enormity of this place.
Up and at ’em early to fit in as much as possible before leaving this peaceful country.
Places of interest: Inwa, U Bein Bridge at sunset (pics below), the worlds biggest book made from marble, world’s second largest operating bell, teak monastery, pagodas pagodas pagodas, HUGE ruins, Mingun, Ava, the very low but still large Irrawaddy river, Sagaing, Mandalay Hill.. yup! Fit all that into one day.
Up early again to try capture images of Buddhist monks receiving food from the street markets (more fun than Pokemon) and tried gastritis looking eating venue – I’m so confident now because it’s nearly hometime.
I know I mentioned the Burmese tea houses before but they’re so much fun. This morning I even tried the local churros looking, non sweet, fried donut with the super sweet tea.. loved it.
FYI – my heart rate before tea was about 62bpm – after tea 92bpm. Wicked stuff this tea bizzo. Who needs exercise?!
Bangkok bound now and I’m looking forward to a slight change in curries. 😏
I believe you can tell a lot about a country by how they operate on their roads; In this case I suggest that Myanmar drivers are ever courteous, in a hurry but not in a rush, helpful and communicative. The fact that they will do anything to avoid running over any of our planets creatures proves just how thoughtful they are. The ox and horse drawn wagons, herds of animals, scooters, trucks, walkers all have their turn and have a place on the roads, another reminder of the ability to keep things simple and go with the flow without anger or frustration. Drivers appear to only look at the current situation and not look further up the road is like an old saying “deal with today, don’t worry about tomorrow as tomorrow may never come”. (Or something to that effect). Even all the bumps and potholes along the way don’t seem to worry them. A truly wonderful nation of peace loving and happy people that I have fallen for.
It’s a sleepy, no rush, peaceful, fascinating country that feels like a step back in time. I couldn’t be happier with this chosen destination and would recommend a visit from travellers that don’t expect the usual western service or creature comforts but love kindness, smiles and fascinating ruins. I don’t think I have ever felt safer anywhere else in the world than I did in Myanmar.
All this Buddhism makes me feel the need to be kinder to my fellow humans… However, if the person behind me on my Air Asia flight to Bangkok coughs and sneezes into the back of my head once more, they may find a red travel pillow lodged in their mouth and nostrils.. yeah, you’re right; I’m not happy about going home.
It’s all about education of the mind, body and spirit…. and eating too much sensational Burmese food and buzzing from tea drinking.