After spending a mind boggling six hours in Hanoi airport (and, believe me, it’s not an airport that’s worth six hours of your time) I finally arrived in Bangkok ready to meet Lorna. Even though this was my second trip to Bangkok I still managed to see and do exactly the same amount of stuff as on my first visit, i.e. nothing. We would be spending a few days in Bangkok the following week, but at this moment it was just a way station on our journey through to Myanmar. Visiting Myanmar was something Lorna and I had been planning for quite a while by this point and, as we only had 9 days, we were determined to fit everything in.
It turned out that that was a bit of a struggle, especially when you factor in travel times and the fact that the infrastructure in Myanmar isn’t as good as in some other Southeast Asian countries, but, despite this, and thanks to some serious planning, we managed to squeeze in all the sights and have a few days left over for me to suffer with some serious blisters. One thing we didn’t do very well in Myanmar was cities. Even though we spent our first day in Mandalay and our last in Yangon, two of the biggest cities in the country, we actually saw barely anything of either of them. We didn’t arrive in Mandalay until mid afternoon, and after a very leisurely lunch and what turned out to be a very long walk we ended up arriving at the Royal Palace after it had closed, and wandering back in the dusk meant there was no time left to see or do anything else, except eat again. Yangon seemed to be all planned out. Our night bus, which was the poshest bus I’ve ever ridden on, but which still managed to make us both feel sick by spending half the night winding through horrible mountain roads, arrived in Yangon at 6am. Our flight wasn’t until after 6 in the evening so we presumed that we’d have all morning to see the city before heading to the airport. However, we hadn’t factored in three important things. The first was that we would be exhausted after our bus ride. The second was the little fact that the airport was considerably closer to the bus station than either were to the city. And finally, we didn’t realise that by the time we arrived in Yangon, after 8 days of being constantly on the go, neither of us would actually want to do anything. So after arriving in Yangon stupidly early we ended up heading straight to the airport and spending eleven hours hanging around before we could finally fly to Bangkok. I don’t know how but I managed to spend an awful lot of my trip just lingering in airports.
So anyway, we failed at big cities but had an amazing time with everything in between. My ultimate Myanmar highlight, and I’m probably not unique in this, was Bagan, for so many reasons. I’d of course heard about the amazing pagodas that cover the countryside, and spending an afternoon exploring these really didn’t disappoint. We visited some of the famous pagodas, Shwesandaw, Thatbyinnyu and Dhammayanyi but also stumbled across a few that seemed almost abandoned. One of the first we visited was just outside of town and came complete with a very nice local man who told us about the temple and even showed us up onto the roof to admire the views. It was pretty unbelievable to both of us that Bagan wasn’t busier. Yes, there was quite a big crowd at some of the bigger temples, particularly as sunset approached, but it was nowhere near what I was used to from places like Angkor Wat. It was almost eerie how quiet some of the pagodas were, but the emptiness definitely added to the atmosphere and made us feel a little like explorers discovering some sort of lost world. Getting around Bagan was another particular highlight. We decided to opt for the traditional form of traveller transport and hired ebikes (which were actually more like electric scooters than the sorts of bikes you’re probably thinking of) to get us from our hostel to the spread out temples. Not only was it great fun to ride the scooters, it was also hilarious to watch Lorna fail to ride one successfully. I don’t know what it was but somehow she was just unable to do it. She even managed to get stuck in the sand at one point and just fall over from almost stationary. And it’s fine to laugh because she’s ok and didn’t do any damage to herself or the bike.
Most people visit Bagan in order to see sunrise, and we knew that we couldn’t leave without having seen it ourselves. Despite an 8am bus we diligently got up just after 4 in order to be at Low Ka Shang temple, a smaller pagoda popular for sunrise, but nowhere near as busy as some of the larger ones, to see it for ourselves. What makes a Bagan sunrise particularly special are the balloons. As the sun goes up dozens of hot air balloons take to the sky above the pagodas and the sight is truly spectacular. We stood there for quite a while watching the sky lighten and the balloons float across the landscape, and only dragged ourselves away because we had a bus to catch.
After Bagan our other must do activity in Myanmar was a trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. By this point I’d already done all my walking in Australia and my three day trek in Vietnam so I was feeling pretty confident in my walking abilities. And, well, they do say that pride comes before a fall. What I hadn’t really taken into account was that, unlike Vietnam, we actually had to cover the whole distance because we were going from one place to another. So that meant walking a distance of over 50kms over the course of three days in temperatures approaching 35 degrees. Yep, it was much more difficult than any of the walking I’d done before and I wasn’t particularly surprised that I came out the other end with more than a few blisters on my feet. Despite the heat and the pain walking for three days through the Burmese countryside was amazing. We climbed a mountain through thick jungle and ended up with some amazing views, before ambling through rice paddies and little villages, and resting on the steps of monasteries to take in the peaceful surroundings and learn a little of the local buddhism. Now, of course, trekking for three days isn’t something you can really do by yourself, and being in a group means that you will undoubtedly meet some characters. And we really did, to the point where I think we spent a good few hours on the evening we arrived in Inle discussing everyone we’d spent the last few days with. No one was particularly annoying or awful, except maybe with the exception of the snorer. Both the nights of our trek were spent in homestays. I’d been pretty surprised by the homestays in Vietnam, we had running hot water, actual mattresses and even wifi on one occasion. The homestays in Myanmar were far closer to what you would expect from village houses in the middle of Southeast Asia. The people were lovely, and staying in someone else’s house, and eating their food, especially in somewhere as poor as Myanmar, always makes you feel incredibly grateful, but we were faced with a few challenges. The first was the dreaded bucket shower. Now I’m not against bucket showers in principle, but it got very cold in the mountains at night and I was not prepared to shower from a freezing bucket of water in the dark, and so went two incredibly sweaty days without washing. The second was the squat toilet. I’d already had a few incidences with these during my trip, including the one I nearly fell down in Mandalay International Airport, and I wasn’t particularly keen to repeat the experience. Squat toilets hold a lot of challenges as it is, but having to do all your business in a squat toilet that’s basically just located in a corrugated iron, roofless shed outside can be even more difficult. I was pretty glad I had a head torch, at least up until the point where, mid squat, I spied a massive spider on the wall just beyond my head and had to finish up and escape as quickly as was physically possible in case it attacked me or, even worse, moved. The final homestay issue we faced was the bed situation. I’ve already said it was cold, which caused its own problems when all you have is a thin blanket and a very limited number of clothes. It also didn’t help that our beds were just bamboo mats on the floor which are really not comfortable and, it turns out, almost impossible to sleep properly on, no matter how tired you are. But the bed problem was made even more awful by the fact that one of the guys in our group was the worst snorer I have ever encountered, and that’s saying something after four months of hostel life. I think my lack of sleep on the second night was pretty much solely down to him and the ungodly noise he made all night, starting about 20 seconds after he lay down. So, as you can imagine, by the time we got to Inle we were ready to sleep for about a week.
Despite all these issues the trek was amazing, and seeing local life outside of the touristy areas and big cities was a highlight of my time in Myanmar. We also got the opportunity to cross Inle Lake at the end of the trek, on the way to our end point of Nyaung Shwe something that’s a must do for any Inle visit. I wasn’t so sure about visiting the ‘workshops’ on the lake, which seem to be set up solely for tourists and are probably the opposite of traditional life on the lake, but sailing through the amazingly complex floating villages and seeing the famous dancing fishermen on the lake was still pretty special. By this point we’d already got pretty used to boat life, rather than getting a bus from Mandalay to Bagan we decided to take the scenic route and boat down the Ayeyarwady River, something that was surprisingly cold but provided great views of some lovely little towns, and stunning pagodas on the river banks.
By the time we arrived in Nyawang Shwe our trip to Myanmar was almost over. We had great plans to explore the lake and cycle out to the nearby vineyard whilst we were in town, but our exhaustion and the state of my feet (and the little fact that Lorna and I are both pretty averse to bikes) more or less put paid to that. Instead we decided to do the thing we both enjoy the most – eating – and signed up for a cooking class with Bamboo Delight. Tripadvisor puts them pretty close to the top of things to do in Nyaung Shwe and we weren’t disappointed. We made a ridiculous number of dishes between the two of us, including curries and some really amazing salads, and both ended up absolutely stuffed by the end of it. Before our cooking class Leslie, one of the teachers and proprietor of Bamboo Delight, took us to the local market to source ingredients and teach us about the local ingredients, and it was pretty eye opening. Normally when you get taken to a market it’s one that seems set up for tourists, and has more of us around than it does locals. The market in Nyaung Shwe is definitely a local market. We saw women selling and preparing fish on bamboo leaves at the feet of stalls selling all sorts of vegetables and spices. There was also a butcher who hung his meat any old where and a chicken shop which was, rather disturbingly, filled with dead, featherless but otherwise intact, chickens. It was quite an uncomfortable place to visit in some ways, particularly with the state of some of the produce we saw, but it was incredibly interesting to see where local people go to get their food, and what sorts of things they eat. Of course, like much of the rest of Southeast Asia, the market wasn’t complete without a stall selling spices and the obligatory vat of MSG, the wide availability of which I just couldn’t get over. The whole local experience was topped off with a ride to our cooking class in the back of a horse drawn cart, which we both nearly fell out of more than once. Bamboo Delight is a cooking school run out of the home of Leslie and Sue, a local couple who are also currently building a summer school for local kids in their back garden, and funding it with the profits from the class. I was amazed and horrified to learn that school isn’t compulsory in Myanmar, and many children are pulled out at a young age in order to earn money for their families. It was a privilege to be able to see the school Leslie and Sue are building, and to know that our gluttony contributed to being able to fund their venture. I was only sad we weren’t spending another day in town so we could volunteer.
After being stuffed from our cooking class we boarded the aforementioned plush but awful night bus to Yangon and began our mammoth journey back to Bangkok. We still had a couple of days together in Thailand before Lorna flew back to the UK but we were both pretty sad to be leaving Myanmar so soon, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we find our way back there one day.
Leah Out X