Myanmar

Yangon

On arriving in the city of Yangon our excitement was high. Leaving behind the ultra-modern city of Seoul we stepped off the plane and it was like stepping back in time. Our “taxi” was older than any of the cars we had ever owned, probably older than us.

We had a plan: spend a few nights in Yangon before heading north by train to the town of Nyaung Shwe on the banks of Inle Lake. After a further few days we would travel again by train to Mandalay. From Mandalay we would head south by boat to the historic town of Bagan and finally finish the loop back on the train again to Yangon. Well that was the plan anyway…

Arriving at night and rather tired we were pleasantly greeted by the hostel staff and shown our more than adequate room. They pointed us in the direction of food and we headed off in a search for grub. The city was alive with smiley happy people and we instantly felt safe with the people, but not so much with their driving!

We spent two days getting lost and found and in our travels we saw many amazing sights; temples, gardens and ate some amazing food. The food, oh the food…our breakfasts were a diners delight with pancakes full of nuts and dripping with honey, fresh melon, bananas, toast with jam and coffee. Yummy! And all free with our room.

The 27 Hour Train Trip

The anticipation had been building for weeks; train travel has that effect on us. We have gotten used to the speed and convenience of the KTX line in Korea which travels up to 300 kilometres an hour. The trains and tracks in Myanmar have changed very little since the 1930s which means that they are slow and bumpy. They meander through the lush landscape of central Myanmar and give you glimpses of have the local peoples life. Our first phase was an overnight sleeper train from Yangon to Shwe Nyaung station with a change at 4:30 in the morning.

We were so excited and could not wait and we gave in and got to the station with almost an hour to spare. We were approached even before stepping inside the station and lead all the way to our room, the people here are so friendly. The room was surprisingly big with a set of bunk beds that even Will’s six foot frame could stretch out in and an amazingly huge sliding window that was almost the same width as the room. Once we had set ourselves up we made a decision (one that we always seem to be making) that a beverage would just complete the picture perfectly. Sam rushed off to find said beer, leaving Will to smile at his surroundings. After a minor search and running half way down the road Sam returned triumphant clutching half a dozen German beers.

As the train slowly rolled out of the station we sat back and enjoyed our cool beer with an amazing view, heads hanging out of the window.

Now as I said the train is rather old, this means that it bounces along at between 15 and 25 kilometres an hour, this makes for a long trip, but well worth it. We sat back and watch the world drift past. The speed allows for time to take in the view and even get a few half decent photos. In an attempt to be awake at the ungodly hour of 4am we made the decision to have an early night. Fail! Attempt the first failed, as soon as Sam lay on the top bunk the full force of the bouncing became apparent with her whole body being bounced high off the bed, followed by shrieks of laughter. Attempt the second, Will lying on the top bunk was even more amusing as he was thrown around like a rag doll. With our first two attempts failing we decided there was only one thing for it and cracked open another beer. We eventually had a fitful sleep squished into the bottom bunk waking at regular intervals to roll over.

Two rather tired kiwi travellers emerge from the train at 4:30 in a station in the middle of nowhere. We purchase tickets for the next part of the journey and ask where to get coffee. We sat sipping sweet coffee and eating cake in little more than a shack, with a dirt floor and wobbly chairs listening to the owner singing alone with her karaoke video. Actually it was very relaxing, despite being pitch black save for a small 50 watt bulb.

Before too long we boarded our next train sitting down in the best seats they have, well bench seats which at one point would have had padding. The carriage is busy with people and we sit quietly and people watch. The journey takes most of the day and stops many times to offload cargo and people. The view is simply stunning as we climb through rainforests into the mountains. The further we go the less people we have in the carriage. At each stop women from the local villages approach the windows to sell their delicious home cooked food, everything from curry to corn and all dirt cheap.

Ok so it was worth it in the end, the train trip with the lack of sleep brought us to an amazing place, Inle lake.

Inle Lake

On arriving at the station our thoughts were “get me off this god damn train, now!” within a meter of exiting the train a young taxi driver approached us if we were going to Nyaung Shwe, we arranged a deal and were off. It is over 12km from Shwe Nyaung station to the town. The taxi shared the unmarked road with motorbikes tuktuks and push bikes and as he approached each one he lent on the horn to let them know he was coming.

My first impression of the town was that I felt very comfortable here. There is a distinct town centre with each shop having big teal doors opening up to the street. There are many small shops selling everything from dresses and bags to beer and tea. There are also many restaurants and bars, nice! The only downside was after the rain, all of the dirt “roads” became mud roads. And as they double as footpaths, we got rather dirty several times.

Our accommodation a beautiful guest house which has a long deck with rooms off it. Our room was simple with two single beds and lots of space, which was made to feel bigger by the very high ceilings.

Tired and a bit smelly from our travels we showered and put on some much needed clean clothes ready to explore.

We wandered around and found ourselves in a local pub for dinner. We could get used to the amazing food here, so nice and so cheap, our dinner chicken on noodles, sweet and sour pork and a plate of fries, along with a couple of mandatory local beers was the princely sum of 7,900kyat about 8-9 dollars.

By 8pm we had eaten and were sitting on the deck outside our room drinking tiger beer and listening to music, ready for bed.

We slept 11 hours we were so tired, we woke and headed for breakfast; toast, coffee and an egg. What more could you ask for!?

Our first day in Inle lake we spent the day exploring the backstreets of the town. In doing so we came across many amazing sights. The people here live in very basic houses, which make a lot of sense. The houses are made of wooden frames on stilts with woven bamboo walls, the roofs range between corrugated iron and thatch and each house has shutters over the windows.

They really like bolt locks, they are on everything from windows to train doors. When you go to use the squat toilet on the train the way to see if it is in use is if the door is shut but the bolt on the outside is unlocked then there is someone bolting it from the inside.

Anyway, during our explore we walked down by the river where we were approached many time with the offer of boat rides. Our initial thoughts were we didn’t want to spend four hours on a boat. The third guy who approached us, further along the river we asked if he would do a one hour trip, he agreed for 10,000 for the two of us. So after a nice curry for lunch we returned, in the rain to find our boat man.

By the time we got onto the boat it was raining rather heavily, Will was wearing his jacket and we both had umbrellas. Have you ever tried to hold an umbrella on a boat going at speed and see at the same time? It is not possible. In the end we both ended up with our umbrellas covering our body with our heads over the top. Oh what a sight we must have been, with our colourful umbrella bodies and grinning wet faces!

On the lake we watched the fishermen fish. They used a rather unusual technique of standing on the bow of the boat on one foot while padding using the other leg. They must be so strong and have good core muscles. They did this so that their hands were free to pull in their nets. We watched a little confused as two fishermen smashed the water with large sticks almost four meters in length, they brought them up vertically before smacking them back to the surface of the water. We realised after about 10 minutes that they were scaring the fish into their nets. After all their efforts we saw the pair pull in half a dozen small fish, hardly worth it.

After careful thought we decided not to take the train to Mandalay as it was just too long and too tiring. So our choices were to fly for what we thought would be $90 per person and would take a couple of hours with taxis to the airport and into Mandalay , or bus at $9 per person but would take about 9 hours. We established that flying was about 50 per person and with time in the equation seemed like a worthy option… Little did we know. We left the guest house at 1.30 and arrived at the airport nice and early at 2.15 only to be told that our flight was delayed an hour and would now leave at 4.50pm, oh well. We sat and chilled for a bit listening to the rain. We finally decided we needed a beer. We slipped out of the airport and across the muddy car park to a wee shop that had beer signs everywhere. We ordered the local drop and the owner offered us a seat. We sat and barely had time for a sip when the owner started massaging Wills hand, then arm and then the other man started the same with Sam, this is a great ploy sell foreigners a beer then give them a massage and they will throw money at us. Well not a heap in our case but in theirs, we paid about $5 each for a totally relaxing massage, well worth it I say.

Well 4.50 turned into 6.05pm when we finally took off for the 25 minute flight. The flight was rather uneventful, but in the end we ended up waiting for our bags longer than we spent in the air.  And then we went out and were harassed into getting a taxi (we needed one but wanted one for just us) we ended up in a van with four others and the driver and it took them nearly 30 minutes to sort out who owed who what money, by which stage we both were ready to kill someone. What should have taken roughly 2 hours ended up taking 7 hours, but hey that’s what happens sometimes! Finally after about an hour and a half we got to our hostel. It had good reviews and we had a warm welcome, but the first room was two single beds we had asked for a double so they changed but then the shower didn’t work. We were both capable of murder at this point, we both held back the frustration in our voices and changed back to the room with the single beds, and once we got the air con working, some towels and some sheets we were ready to chill.

Mandalay

Our first day in Mandaly had a rather frustrating start with over an hour looking for a booking office for the boat to Bagan only to be told there was only the slow boat and we could buy tickets on the day. Back to the hostel for a cold shower. Asked at reception if they could ring another company for the boat. “Oh yes we do that boat, but not on Sunday!” frustration. Had a great lunch and a wonder through the huge indoor and then outdoor markets. Wandered into another pagoda area, amazing how many there are. Then back for the third shower of the day.

We both decided we didn’t really like Mandalay at first. It was too busy, there was nowhere to walk but on the road with about a trillion bikes, motorbikes, tri-shaws a few cars and buses. In short it is hard to get around and because you are constantly worrying about being hit of tripping over you don’t see a thing – compared to Yangon where bicycles and motorbikes of any description are illegal!

We decided to admit we needed to give Mandalay one more chance. We headed off in search of the moat or channel around the palace and have a wee look. Well, this certainly was the right decision. It was stunning, and the wide even footpath with the water to your left and a neat line of trees to your right was a breath of fresh air.

Well rested and with many a plan for the day we left the hostel early on the second day. A man with a bicycle approached us and asked if we wanted a ride, ok. We gave him the address to the bus ticket place and he started off with Will facing forward and Sam facing back, using each other as back rests. The rate he charged changed within a block from 4,000 to 5,000 I think he had a sudden realisation of how far we wanted to go and how heavy we were. We booked and paid for our tickets then grabbed a coffee and bun on the side of the road. Here they have a great way of doing things, you order your coffee, and usually get a cup and saucer with hot water in it and you add your coffee mix and stir. While you are doing this a pile of bread or pastry or whatever is placed in front of you. You then pay for what you eat. It is so cheap the two of us can usually have a feed and a coffee each for between 1,000 and 1,300 kyat (that’s like a dollar).

After eating we headed to the palace, entry fee was a hefty $10 US each but oh well we are only here once. The ticket office lady said the fee covered a number of the other sites we wanted to see, that improved our attitude. We wandered through the palace, amazed at how such a big area stood so empty and unused. The palace was bombed in the Second World War and a large area has been restored, but then seems to have been left to the elements, strange. There are very few restrictions on where you can explore inside the palace, but outside the palace in the walled city we could not take photos and were not allowed in some areas. We did see a lot of military personnel, but most of them just smiled and said hi, even the ones with the huge guns.

After leaving the palace grounds we walked back to a cafe we had spotted and grabbed an early lunch and had a well-deserved respite from the heat.

Walking back along the moat we started spotting lizards, some with amazing blue coloured heads, on the trees. Almost every time we tried to take a photo they shot up or around the tree, it began to become a game.

We stopped in to have a look at the biggest book in the world. All 1700 plus pages of the sacred text carved in sand script on large marble slabs.

One of the places we both most wanted to see was the monastery, the building was moved from the palace site before World War Two and the exquisitely carved wooden building is the only original part of the palace. We felt so honoured to be allowed to enter the building. There would be no way in New Zealand or Europe that Jo public would be allowed to enter such a valuable building. As we walked around and through the building in bare feet (as we have often this trip) we both felt moved by beauty and detail in the carving and the building itself. The exterior has thousands of ornate carving, carved in teak with the interior gold gilded.

From the monastery we walked a few hundred meters to a giant hall built in 1996. As with many other building here in Myanmar once it was built it looks like no maintenance has been done. There were birds nests in the fans and everything from the marble stairs to the floor needed a good scrub. After the monastery it was a little bit nothing. We debated whether or not we should walk and in the end a taxi up the hill and a walk down felt the best option for our sore feet. The view was stunning and the walk interesting as it was under a covered concert walkway with hundreds of steps all down the hill with many small and large temples.

Bagan

Bagan, the city of 4,000 of stoned paya or pagoda. Our initial plan was to get the boat from Mandalay to Bagan but as you know things change and we arrived bright and early to catch our 8.30am bus. As we stood waiting with a hoard of tourist we were approached by a couple in their sixties. As soon as she opened her mouth I knew she was a kiwi, as it turns out they left New Zealand about 12 years ago. He was the principle of a school in Walkworth in Auckland and she was a teacher also. Long story short they have lived and taught in China, Papua New Guinea and now at an international school in Phuket, Thailand. Living the dream. Funny thing is their daughter Pipper Grey works for Beca in Auckland (Will’s old work).

Well as we have come to expect the bus was late, at about nine not the expected 8.30 we all climbed on only to find a number of us booked into the same seats. We sat and waited and by 9.15 we were moved from our original seats and the bus bounced away from the station.

The first part of the trip was on the motorway, it was nice and flat, and even so the bus seemed to have a top speed of 70km. So after about half an hour the bus turned off the nice road to a small road with about one lane of seal running down the middle with dirt on either side. How it seemed to work was the young man standing beside the driver would call out something like “motorbike with four people coming then big corner to the left”. I have a feeling the driver was focused on missing potholes and watched the road only five meters ahead. The bus was comfortable inside but the mechanics of it were a bit had it. The suspension was shot and every stop they either threw water at the radiator or fed a hose into it.  We enjoyed the ride.

At 2.30ish we arrived into the bus station near Bagan, we grabbed a taxi, well the drivers call them a taxi, we would probably call them a ute with a mattress in the back. We climbed on in and hung on for the ride. I think if you took a photo of us you would see our mouths open with shear ore. Every few seconds one or both of us would point out another great paya/pagoda.

Sam had chosen the accommodation here in New Bagan and at an exorbitant thirty five US dollars a night, it was amazing. A real resort with a pool and large room with everything we could ask for, well except Internet, but there were computers on site with access. We decided to throw our stuff down and grab a quick bite before exploring the town.

One thing we have found the hardest is that there are lots of people haggling here. We were asked by half a dozen drivers if we wanted a horse and cart. Many children some as young as six try to sell you postcards or their own drawings, and Will’s attempts to throw them off by speaking a little bit of French and pretending not to know English failed miserably as the children immediately responded in French.

In our efforts to escape the clutches of a couple of small girls we headed down a dirt road towards some smaller paya. We were shocked at both how many there were and how they all were very similar.

We continued our walk and grabbed a few mediatory beers for consumption by the pool. Dinner was well needed and we gorged on Chinese before wandering back through the dark on the dirt roads, to a comfy bed and the air con on cold.

We woke the next morning rather tired as a group of mosquitos had circle us all night, we both have clusters of bites, Will even has one on his head. The decision was made before breakfast that we would chill this morning by the pool and in a few hours cycle to old Bagan.

The one thing that both of us love here is food. I for one have always loved food, in Korea we often find that there is a lack of diversity of flavours. Everything is covered in red gochujang sauce and after a while all tastes the same. Here we have found so many flavours, it is really enjoyable.

As Myanmar boarders so many countries and is close to do many you have a real mix of flavours. Chinese, Indian, Thai, and they also do really nice fresh pasta and pizza.

We had a Myanmar lunch, a buffet with an amazing number of sides. There were four or five different curries and about ten side dishes, some we didn’t even touch as there were so many. They serve their curry cold and there is a lot of oil in it do many people might not like it, but we do. It is really nice to be able to taste the flavour of the vegetables.

The food in Myanmar is relatively cheap. A coffee and some food for two is usually not much more than $1. A Chinese style meal could be anywhere from $1.50 to $3. Our most expensive meal so far was lunch on day two in the gardens, and was $16 but included a tiger beer each. Water is 300-500 kyat a one litre bottle. Beer is 1000-1500 kyat in the shop for a big glass bottle but can be up to 2500kyat in a restaurant. A can of coke can vary in price from 600-1000 kyat.

We haven’t seen a taxi yet with a meter, the thing to do is ask how much to get you to where you want to go. We have made the decision not to barter with people (Will passionately detests bartering and refuses to ever do it), we do realise they always give us a high price and expect us to negotiate but we like the fact that we are giving the people of Myanmar a bit more to live off but it is still cheap for us. Besides, the most we paid for a taxi was about $4, so there is no point in bartering down and saving $1!

Ok, cycling sucks! By the time we had a swim and were ready to have a few lazy hours cycling all of the good bikes were gone, that is presuming there were any good bikes. The two left were older than us and looked pretty well used. We got the seats adjusted Sam’s down and Will’s up. Then tested them, oh boy this is going to be hard going. We left the hotel and cycled to the main road along a dirt road, already the seats were moving, rocking back and forward. About ten minutes into the ride Will’s knees were closing in on his chest and Sam’s seat had positioned itself into an awkward angle impossible to sit on without the feeling that shortly you would slide of the back of the bike and onto the road. Plus it was a rather warm 42 degrees.

There were three options before us; number one – go back to the pool, number two – keep going and hope we don’t die, or number C swap bikes and keep going. Will kindly offered to swap bikes and hope that the seat wouldn’t impale him.

We made it to old Bagan, holding back our swear words and headed for a shady spot in a vegetarian restaurant, we dried off the sweat from our faces and had a couple of tropical fruit drinks to help us cool down. The lunch was simply scrummy and well deserved. After a good relax, with our bellies full we headed back. For some reason it seemed a lot longer on the return.  Oh, happiness is lying by the pool to warm up and jumping in to cool down all afternoon.

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