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We left Pyin Oo Lwin via a very cramped pick-up truck for the two-hour ride down to Mandalay. R was all for taking the pick-up for soaking up local flavor, but I had my doubts, which were confirmed as soon as I was squeezed into the innermost seat in the pick-up where the leg-room was taken up by sacks of grain and what appeared to be huge rings of sausage. Other people were making themselves cozy by sticking each foot through a sausage loop in an effort to find a reasonable seated position. The meat bundles in front of me, however, were draped with heavy canvas, so I could only struggle to sit Indian-style, which gave me leg cramps before we even started moving. The stretched tarp roof was positioned to shelter people about a quarter of my size- even the much shorter adults were hunched over to fit inside. Somehow R snagged a seat at the back with all the legroom a man could want and then moved up top to a questionably mounted roof rack where children, monks, and, apparently, Westerners ride. He passed his time chatting with the young guys who crewed the truck and a monk around the same age. He showed them his camera and took some photos and was soon directed to take pictures of cute girls we passed on the road. As we climbed off the truck at the end of the long, hot slog, the monk, who had been reserved until then, asked R for his iPod. R laughed at the request and told the monk ‘Sorry, I’m not a Buddhist’.
The ladies of Myanmar: the monk directed R to take zoomed-in shots of girls as they drove by:
The only reason we came back to stay in Mandalay was to catch the twice-a-week ferry to Bagan that is supposed to be an interesting, if long and hot, trip. After we settled in, I went downstairs to buy our tickets but was told that the ticket office was closed and it was too late to get on the 5am ferry the next morning. I was really put-out because I had hinged a lot of our plans on timing them to make the ferry but didn’t do enough research to make it happen. I sulkily agreed to buy early morning bus tickets to Bagan instead, okay paying a bit of a premium because the bus company they use was recommended in our guidebook and a free shuttle to the bus station was included. But that was sold out, too. In the end, we got early afternoon bus tickets with no shuttle (we folded ourselves into a local pick-up again to get to the station) and arrived to find a beautiful row of gleaming new air-con buses…. and one little broke-down one, which turned out to be ours. Once again we had been overpromised and overcharged by our shifty hotel. We were promised air-con but were loaded onto a bus that looked like it had a former life as a terminal shuttle at a regional airport in 1972 Korea. When the hotel promised us air-con, I think they were using the term metaphorically because they certainly couldn’t have meant the plastic nozzles that emitted just enough warm air to blow dust around. Shame on me, though, for going back to the same well that I knew was bad.
Despite a break-down on the side of the road, the bus did get us to Bagan and ahead of schedule, which has become a strange consistency of bus travel in Myanmar. We had been chatting with an Aussie couple on the bus-ride who had made reservations with a hotel that offered free pick-ups from the bus stop. We asked if we could tag along and were ushered to a cozy little horse-drawn buggy and whisked away to the hotel. We took a room that was a tiny bit pricier than we usually choose, but we were hot and tired and ready to be done with our backpacks. Then the buggy driver started demanding money for the 5-minute ride over and management told us that they only offer transport to people with reservations. It could have turned into a bit of a scene, but Dave, one of the Aussies who had made the reservation, spoke up for us and for Ethical Treatment of Tourists and we cleared that hurdle.
I have identified a theme in my negative experiences in Myanmar and that is that they all revolve around transport. Each destination we see, each activity we sign up for- even food and accommodation, which we had low expectations of- has been fine-to-great, but the getting between has been a trial for me. I like to think that I am an easy-going traveller and can manage less-than standard conditions, especially if they are temporary, like a bus ride. I don’t know if it is just me getting older and fussier or if some kind of injustice is actually being done, but it really does get to me. R has been much more Zen about all these things and I can remember past trips that have seen me share space with livestock, sit on strangers’ laps, and even hitchhike on a busy freeway when my bus broke down on the way to the airport. I know I have been through worse than a bus without AC, but something about the way it all breaks down rubs me the wrong way: misrepresentation, overcharging, being given the hard sell at every turn. Other than that, Myanmar is a delight.
Sorry for the lag in entries, for all our loyal readers (Nick!). We got all caught up in real life but we’ve got the photos and we wrote the blogs entries, so we’re going to keep chugging away at this thing. Hope you still enjoy it. Nick. Because we’re pretty sure you’re the only one still reading.
Pyin Oo Lwin is a little slice of heaven in the dusty expanse of Myanmar. It is called a hill station even though it sits on a plateau as opposed to a hill, but the function is the same: greener land and cooler air. It has been an escape from the heat and chaos of Myanmar since British colonial times and was inherited by the military regime since then. It can be a problematic place to visit for tourists who don’t want any of their money going to the government since the main attraction is the government-owned National Gardens and a good chunk of tourism related businesses like hotels and restaurants are government-affiliated. We decided to visit because it sounded nice in the guidebook and our train ride took us right outside the front gate.
We arrived on the train from Hsipaw the day before and stayed in an anonymous hotel that was not featured in our guidebook, the Queen Inn. It turned out to be comfortable and was remarkable in that it is the first hotel that has charged us in local currency (kyat) instead of dollars. They didn’t seem to get a lot of visitors- at least not Westerners- so they bent over backwards to make us comfortable. We decided to walk the 2km or so to the gardens from our hotel, which could have been hellish in sweaty Mandalay, but was kind of nice here, especially with a bit of cloud coverage. Along the way we stopped for breakfast and again for a little umbrella shopping. This is the kind of thing that R and I are both pretty judgmental about: tourists ‘going native’ and wearing local dress or adopting local customs for the week they are in town. I know it is kind of bitchy of us, but after you’ve seen a thousand pasty British girls in Bintang tank tops and rice paddy hats, its hard to be charitable about their choices. But the umbrella is different. Look at any East Asian country and you’ll notice ladies of all ages sporting an umbrella even (especially?) when there is no rain. It protects delicate skin from sun damage but it is also a completely logical way to provide portable shade in this unbearable heat. I got a small one to see if I could carry it off, then upgraded to a bigger model. Even R jumped on the bandwagon and chose a manly red-polka-dotted number. Thus equipped with our jaunty shade-makers, we strolled along the flower-speckled streets to the gardens.
Let me just say that we are no strangers to Botanical Gardens. We have visited such gardens in cities all across the US (notably, the Shangri-La gardens in Orange, Texas, which we blogged about almost a year ago) and even the world (the Buenos Aires Japanese Tea Garden, Penang’s Botanical Gardens, and don’t even get me started on hill stations and tea plantations), but this one was different. Maybe it was just the contrast of well-maintained, beautifully manicured lawns and flower beds with the barren dust-bowl that surrounds it, but the sense of awe that we experienced walking in was worth the $5 entrance fee. The garden is huge and you could spend a lot more than the 3 hours that we did walking around. We had to streamline our visit since we had already pushed back our checkout time at the hotel by a few hours and we didn’t want to push our luck, so we gave a miss to the bamboo stands, the tower lookout, and a handful of separate gardens, including the orchid garden (is it a bit jaded when one says ‘Eh. I’ve seen orchids before.’?). But we did see a good amount just by walking the main footpaths and stopping at highlights like the petrified rock garden, walk-in aviary, and the Takin compound:
Our afternoon at the gardens was truly one of the most pleasant, civilized experiences on our whole trip. Many tourists give it a miss because it is comparatively expensive ($5 goes a looong way in Myanmar and it is easy to start thinking in terms of local currency) and, more importantly, because it is government-run and the average liberal-minded traveler does their best to keep their money out of the hands of the oppressive military regime. We decided that we’d do it anyway and we were really glad that we did. When we talked to other tourists who made it to Pyin Oo Lwin and didn’t make it to the gardens, they seemed a bit disappointed with the stop, but we loved the compact, vibrant and heavily Indian (great food, English spoken!) town a lot.
Our schedule was fairly tight, since we only had about 16 days to see the whole country, so we were back on the road the morning following the hike. We decided to head back towards Mandalay via Pin Oo Lwin, a hill station along the way. We were taking a train, which promised to be more scenic, less crowded, and much, much slower than taking a bus.
The train was only an hour late, which, from what we hear is pretty good. Our trekking guide, Jojo, advised us not to buy first class seats even though they are a reasonable $6 because the windows are sealed shut (for AC that sometimes works) and our photos of the highly scenic train ride would suffer. We went ahead and bought economy class seats that were alright, but left us all a little squirmy after 7 hours. Of course one of the reasons to ride the train, which is much slower than a bus, is to see local life in action: enormous bags of grain being loaded on and off, vendors selling every kind of imaginable snack, a guy selling what looked like small blocks of wood, but his pitch was all in Burmese so we missed the selling point. People got on and off, made themselves comfortable and tended to steal glances or even outright stare at us throughout the train ride. Sometimes we’d pass small villages where children would spot us in the window and practically faint from all of their waving and screamed greetings: ‘Bye!!!!!!!” (which they inexplicably say instead of ‘hello’- who is teaching these children?).
The most unexpected part of the trip came a few hours into the trip when a clean-cut 20-something year old guy boarded our car and introduced himself in spotless English. He was an English teacher in the town where the train had just pulled in and he had some students with him who would like to practice their English; would we mind if they came to talk to us for a couple of minutes? About 5 teenagers walked up the aisle and busted out the standard ‘hello-what’s-your-name-where-are-you-from-how-old-are-you-what-is-your-job?’- you know, the same stuff we all learned in high school language classes. The four of us chatted with the kids, some of whom had impressive English skills for being pretty removed from Westerners (‘I watch a lot of American movies’ said one). The funny thing was that when the train whistle blew, the whole group started up and hurried to disembark. They were only at the station in hopes of meeting tourists who sometimes ride the train between Hsipaw and Mandalay. I’m not sure how often they do this, but they were just waiting for our hour-late train purely in hopes that some Westerners might be on it and willing to speak with them. It was flattering and clever and a little bizarre, but I guess you have to give the teacher credit for taking an opportunity where he sees one. These kids might have been a select few- clearly well educated and all university-bound- but they also were getting conversational experience with native speakers (for the most part: lots of Europeans from outside Great Britain are all but native with their fluency) that most other English students in the country don’t get.
After the students filed off, more vendors filed on and we bought cheap noodles and warm beers. I’d say that the trip was more comfortable than some of the buses that we’ve had the luck to find ourselves on, but the scenery was head and shoulders above the views from the road. We passed by lots of farmland and small villages and through some short pitch-black tunnels and over a very creaky old bridge which just about sent Pavel into convulsions of joy; he had worked for a time as a train driver and took a professional interest in the quality of the cars, the tracks, and even the toilet (‘Not so bad’ was his conclusion). At times, the rocking of the train was so wild that I was justifiably convinced that the train was about to heave itself right off the tracks; looking from our car’s open door into the next car was like looking into a funhouse doorway- the cars would lurch violently in opposite directions to such angles that are not appropriate for passenger vehicles. Right around the time we were all starting to feel a little weary and stiff and the ambient dust blowing around the car was reaching fever pitch, we arrived in Pyin Oo Lwin. The station was not significantly bigger than the many others that we passed, but there was a lot of activity, loading and unloading, and some signs in English. We stepped onto the platform and into the swirl of things. People greeted us in English and in languages we didn’t understand. A brief pow-wow ensued where Pavel and Lena decided to press on to Mandalay and us into town to find a place to stay for the night.
No one offered us a taxi ride or pressed us to come to their hotel. In fact, we were a little at loose ends from the fact that we had no one to bargain prices with. We decided to take advantage of the pressure-free situation and walk into town. The air was cool and everything felt calm- totally different from almost all of our arrival experiences. Despite our bulky loads, we stopped for snacks, to chat and take photos. People looked amused and happy to see us, but there was absolutely no pressure to go somewhere or another or to pay for transport or a tour or anything. It was thrillingly civilized and friendly. We stopped in the first hotel we saw along the main drag and got a great price on a pretty basic room, went out to dinner and paid an outrageous price for some standard food, and called it a night.
R mentioned on the train that he was finally settling into Myanmar and that the place was growing on him. I agreed that the experiences we had at Bago, Inle Lake, and trekking with Jojo have been memorably delightful, but that the difficulty of getting around and the frustration of too-high prices, sub-standard facilities, and long transfers between places of interest were still wearing me down. But I’ve got to say at the end of the day that this was the first time I enjoyed the journey and arriving in a town with a friendly reception and zero pressure to buy anything from anyone was refreshing. I feel like today was a kind of benchmark for both of us in appreciating this country and maybe that is because it is the first time that our goal was just enjoying being here and experiencing the journey rather than focusing on a destination or activity. We have not not been having a good time, but something fell into place today that may well set the tone for the rest of our time here.
The hillside village trek is the reason why we came to Hsipaw. It is one of the most northern towns that a tourist can reach without government guides, special permits, and a lot of spare time and money. We had hoped it would be a bit cooler than other parts of Myanmar, but it seemed to just get hotter the longer we were in the country, no matter where we went.
We stayed in the only hotel in town that is licensed to house foreigners, Mr. Charles Guest House. We signed up for the only tour they offered, with the only guide on staff, JoJo, who appeared to be somewhere between 60 and 100 years old. I was apprehensive, to say the least. The fact that we couldn’t comparison shop or choose our own guide was bad enough, but the fact that our guide looked like he might not make it past the first hill made me wonder how much fun the trip would be. (NOTE: there were other hikers leaving our hotel with other guides, so we must have just had limited options because we signed up so late in the evening the night before).
All concerns were laid to rest within minutes of starting our hike. We were joined by a pair of travelers, Lena from Germany, and Pavel, from New Zealand via the check Republic (although he learned English in Scotland, making for some hilarious misunderstandings over his unique accent). They were traveling together, but seemed to have only met days before. We couldn’t quite peg whether they were just travel buddies or more cozy than that, but figured that we really didn’t care. Lena was a little off my wavelength; she was a pretty blonde 20-year old who had just come from India and was equipped with wide-eyed enthusiasm and about half a wardrobe. I was shocked by her lack of awareness in terms cultural sensitivity and propriety, especially since she liked to talk about learning new cultures and treading lightly. But I guess I’m just getting a little less charitable as I get older. R identified with her idealism and reminded me that we were all 20 once. The difference is that he used to wear hemp overalls and I’ve always thought that hippies needed a big dose of reality. Despite our differences, our little group got along just fine and JoJo turned out to be the absolute MAN!
We didn’t find out most of this until later, but JoJo’s wife is half British, half Burmese and speaks English fluently. Jojo learned English as a younger man and the pair of them taught their children English as well (a rarity in Myanmar outside the tourism industry). He was funny, irreverent, and well versed in village life, modern Burmese culture, and kept up with Western ideas and customs. He was informative, but always tailored his spiels to our questions and interests. We felt totally comfortable asking him how to behave appropriately and he would constantly come up with scraps of information to explain or enhance a meeting or view or just generally give us a sense of place. We couldn’t have asked for a better guide and he was a riot of fun, too. On our way out of town, he stopped so that we could stock up on water- very necessary in that kind of heat- but he, himself, picked up 2 liters of what he called ‘medicine’, but we discovered was rice liquor as he plied us with drink after drink later that night.
The hike was longer and more challenging than I had expected, but I think that the difficulty lay mostly in the incredible heat. We frequently passed villagers on their way to and from Hsipaw to the various hillside towns and we took plenty of breaks in the shade to rest. JoJo was 100% up to the task, but was aware of our limitations. I was definitely ready to call it a day by the time we arrived at the village of Pankam, especially after an out-of-nowhere rain storm soaked us all to the bones.
We stayed with the village chief, who can’t be much older than we are (early thirties) and his wife and two children. They regularly host backpackers coming through with guides and the chief even works as a guide for Mr. Charles Guest House when he is not busy tending to his crops, proving village chiefs are just like us! This whole set-up is listed in the Lonely Planet guide and we were a little nervous that it was going to be just another check on the tourist list, but we found that O Maung (the chief) and his family were gracious, fun-loving and fantastic cooks. We never got the sense that we were just the latest visitors on the conveyor belt and they were completely willing to answer our questions (in English!), something that we would not be able to find in a more remote village.
There was no running water, although a UN team had come to the village to build a well several years before, so there was at least a steady source of clean water. There was also no electricity, which lead to an atmospheric dinner by candlelight. O Maung’s wife set out a solar panel once the sky cleared up, which the family used to run simple lights, although they didn’t have them on during our stay, which was fine with us. R and I started to wonder about the practicability of powering a house on solar panels. We have heard of eco-minded homeowners in the US paying tens of thousands of dollars to trick out their roofs with solar paneling, but there was no way these villagers were paying any kind of premium for the panels. We were half-way tempted to pick up a few for ourselves in the market as we passed through Yangon, but we sobered up and realized that we as of yet have no home to power.
Our arrival happily coincided with the new moon, which is one of two days these villagers take off from working their fields each month (the other being the full moon). There is a religious significance to the moon phases and all villagers (except the handful of Christians) head to the Buddhist temple in the early morning for prayers. The chief’s house just so happened to be right next door to the temple, so we woke to hear sounds of old women making their way in ones and two to the temple, loaded down with baskets of offerings. R got up super early to take photos (we were assured over and over that this was okay, even though we were both kind of uneasy about photographing what seemed like such an intimate ceremony. The chief put our fears to rest by saying that most villagers considered it ‘good luck’ to be photographed by visitors. Whether or not that is strictly true, we were greeted with nothing but smiles and waves and never felt like we were intruding, especially when the kids arrived in packs and practically smothered R and his camera with their photogenic antics.) I had a harder time getting up after the late-night karaoke session at the neighbor’s house (we just watched), but at least I beat JoJo getting up- he had so much ‘medicine’ the night before that it practically cured his ability to walk straight.
We spent a good chunk of the morning taking photos and visiting with villagers as they passed by on their way to and from the temple. We were all totally bowled over by the hospitality of the whole town. I hope that the villagers are all sharing in the profit of these tours, since we were never once asked for extra money or pressured to buy souvenirs (there was no such opportunity in town, even if we had wanted to!). R and I opted to split off from JoJo and the Europeans when they headed to the waterfall, since we had already visited the day before and we were looking forward to a shower and doing some laundry (by hand, naturally). Pavel and Lena caught up with us later that night to tell us that a group of Chinese tourists had visited the waterfall the day before and one of their party had drowned. It was surreal, since the water seemed shallow enough to push off the bottom, but it was so murky with mud that it is impossible to see more than an inch below the surface. It was sobering news and a reminder to watch out for ourselves in a country that is still learning how to host tourism.
Sometimes we write these blogs out of order, so I don’t know if we’ve already covered just how hot it is here. It’s so hot that it makes you wonder whether you’re a part of some Buddhist parable where a person with bad karma is forced to wander the earth, sweating, for the rest of his life. Definitely well over 100 degrees and humid.
We headed up to Hsipaw (pronounced ‘see-paw’), where we are right now, because it’s a “hill station” which is the term that the British gave every higher altitude area in their tropical colonies where they could go to cool off. Actually, though, there’s no hill here. It’s just a higher altitude plain, but the point is that we thought we’d be able to cool off here. Sigh. It’s still hot here.
Hsipaw is in Shan state, which, like every other region of the country that is on the border, has its own ethnic minority, in this case the Shan. The Shan once ruled an area reaching into Laos, China, Thailand and Cambodia, and remain very proud of that tradition. In fact, after independence from the British, the large Shan state opted for rule by its royalty, the Shan prince. There’s a lovely story about the last Shan prince who went to study in Europe. He met an Austrian woman there, they fell in love, married, and then he took her to Myanmar. When they reached Rangoon, crowds of delighted Shan people saw him and started a large parade because their prince had come home. His wife was confused and suggested to her husband that some famous person must be nearby. It was at that point that he told her that he was, in fact, a prince and the ruler of his people. Sadly, during the military takeover, the prince was killed. His wife, who had learned the Shan language and is still loved by her people, moved to Colorado where she lives today (she’s 82 years old). Her children, who live in the USA as well, are not considered royalty, so the thousand year old Shan royal line is broken, with the last living member an Austrian living in Colorado.
We arrived in the early afternoon with Dave and Laura, our very easy-going Kiwi travel buddies. We all agreed to take an afternoon hike to a waterfall, which proved a tiring and sweaty walk, but was rewarded by a very cool (and very muddy) swim. By the time we hiked back to the town of Hsipaw, night had fallen and it had cooled off enough for us to be truly comfortable for the first time since getting to Myanmar.
Tooling Around Mandalay – Mandalay and the ‘Ancient Cities’ (Amarapura, Innwa, Paleik, and Sagaing), Myanmar
We chose to take the overnight bus from Inle Lake to Mandalay, thinking that we’d save the cost of a night’s hotel room- that and night buses are kind of the only thing going. Imagine our surprise when the bus pulled into the station at about 3:30am, well before dawn. Within seconds of our arrival, we were swarmed by the Taxi Cartel. All the taxi drivers in the country, it seems, have formed a union to set the price charged for tourists, which has gotten out of hand with the rise in tourism. We were appalled at the prices they were trying to charge us, but were stuck at the bus station, well outside of town in the middle of the night with all of our stuff. Since we were still hours away from sunrise, we didn’t have much of a leg to stand on and finally agreed to share a taxi with Dave and Laura, the Kiwis we met in Inle Lake, for a slightly lower price that we managed to negotiate after a nearly hour-long deadlock with the taxi cartel.
Dave and Laura had a hot tip for a reasonably priced hotel that a friend directed them to, so at least we were able to get into a hotel without the usual hassle. We slept for a couple hours, but forced ourselves up in time for breakfast so that we wouldn’t waste the day. Mandalay is even hotter than Yangon and Inle Lake and especially dusty- like Old-West-tumble-weed dusty. We tried to do some sightseeing and made it as far as the market where R bought a pair of flip flops (to replace his pair that we accidentally left at a lake-side monastery in Inle Lake) before we called it a day.
The next morning, we arranged to get up at dawn with the Kiwis to tour around the ancient cities surrounding Mandalay. We rented one scooter per couple (roughly $10 per scooter) and took off around 5am, which was already much lighter than we thought. We made it to Amarapura just in time for a really lovely view of the ‘longest bridge in Myanmar’, which is a not very impressive looking footbridge that serves alms-begging monks and locals on their way to the market, although the early morning scene with the silhouettes of people heading over the bridge, going about their business is pretty evocative.
We tooled around all day, making requisite stops at the Snake Temple, the ‘Leaning Tower of Innwa’, the Bagaya Monastery, and the charming hill-side town of Sagaing, which is stuffed to the gills with temples and monasteries. We also made some unscheduled stops at a roadside tea stand (where we sipped on beverages that were about 70% condensed milk and 30% tea) and a road-side shack that functioned as an auto body repair shop. The Kiwis had hit a rough patch on a dirt road and dropped the scooter, breaking the taillight. They were worried about some kind of extortion from the guys we rented the scooters from, so we figured we’d just stop and try to get it fixed. We found this little shack on the side of the road, where there was a crowd of twenty-something year old men and their rides. When a quartet of Westerners rolled up, we got some funny looks, but Dave grabbed a teenager that appeared to be working there and pointed to the broken taillight. With no common language, we managed to get the taillight fixed (glue and a Bic lighter) and the kid even spotted an errant piece of plastic dangling in the ether, which he was able to set back into its rightful place. Total cost of the whole stop: less than $2.
Our last stop of the day was at Sagaing, the hillside town along the river that looks a little bit like a Buddhist Disneyland as you approach it. The place is home to dozens of monasteries and temples, plopped colorfully all over the hillside. We crossed the bridge and rode a short way into the hills. We had heard of other tourists just wandering into whatever temples they came across, as the guidebook doesn’t recommend any one in particular, so we saw a set of stairs off the side of the road, parked our bikes in the shade, and started climbing. We caught some great views of the river along the way, then came to the top of the steps where a pair of young monks were hanging out. They saw us coming and scrambled to get the gate open for us, pointing at our shoes to come off, then allowed inside the gate. We had found our way into a monastery school for young boys. There was an old woman who looked like she was a sort of house-mom, and a handful of boys in their red robes, none of whom appeared to be over age 12. It seemed a little strange that they let a group of tourists in unsupervised, but I guess that’s the Buddhist way. We found a balcony with more great views and took our leave after a few photos. We weren’t sure if we were supposed to leave a donation, as many temples geared towards tourists (and locals) feature prominent donation boxes, so we slipped the house-mom about $5. She didn’t seem to be expecting it, but we figured that she’d put it to good use, one way or another.
The day was brutally hot, as usual, but the breeze we got on the bikes made the day bearable and we were able to spend the whole day zipping from sight to sight in relative comfort. I’ve got to point out to anyone thinking of visiting Mandalay that a scooter rental is not only super economical, but way more comfortable than bumping around in the back of a taxi and horse-drawn cart. We also got to measure out our time however we felt like and never ended up at a cafe or souvenir stand that offer commissions to drivers.
We heard that the ‘ancient city’ jaunt is underwhelming, especially if you’ve already been to see Bagan, but it was one of our favorite days so far- I think mostly because it is so fun and freeing to be able to get around on your own transport. We chose to spend only one day around Mandalay and were geared to leave the next morning to head out to Hsipaw for some hiking and cultural enrichment. I think the town of Sagaing is worth a half-day trip alone (we only had about an hour there because it was our last stop) and we didn’t make it out to Mingun at all, which seems like it was worth a look. Nevertheless, we had plenty of snakes and monks and temples to fill our day and headed back to Mandalay satisfied with our adventure.
We had heard and read criticisms of Inle Lake for being too touristy and lacking authenticity (eg, busing in long-neck women to weave colorful shoulder bags for tourists to buy) and we were a little hesitant to spend some of our precious little time at a lackluster tourist trap. We decided to visit primarily so R could get some of the photos he had seen of the aforementioned long neck women and famous foot-paddling fishermen who plied the lake. I was kind of prepared not to have a good time, but a good attitude changes everything.
In this case, the good attitude was contributed by Toby, a friendly young Kiwi who was sightseeing in Myanmar for about a week while his buddies were debaucher-ing it up in Thailand. He’d rejoin them for the rest of their Southeast Asia trip, but he was traveling in Myanmar alone and thus was looking for people to share the cost of a boat tour on Inle Lake. Together with Toby and a pair of Israelis (more on them later) we chartered a boat for about $4 per person and proceeded to have a delightful day on the lake. We hit it off with Toby right away and his enthusiasm for seeing temples, meeting local people, and determination to have a good time was infectious. Sure, we were taken to all kinds of shops, craft ‘factories’ prominently featuring gift shops, and even a monastery who trained cats to jump through hoops for the benefit of tourists (although that might have been for their own amusement as well), but it was kind of fun. Afterall, we were being puttered around a lake seeing all kinds of beautiful birds, pretty temples, interesting fishing villages and traditional fishing boats, all for less than $5 for the whole day. Some people might have thought it was inauthentic or overly touristy, but I thought we saw an interesting slice of daily life on the lake (like seaweed harvesting, spear-fishing, and cargo-ferrying motorized canoes that sat only inches about the waterline) as well as more of the kitschy stuff. There were plenty of other tourists making the rounds in their own little boats, but they were mostly pleasant and it never felt overrun since the lake is enormous.
We only spent one day at Inle Lake, deciding not to do the Kalaw-Inle hike that many tourists do in favor of freeing up more time to visit more far-flung places off the usual tourist circuit. The classic tourist route takes in the ‘Big Four’: Yangon, Inle Lake, Mandalay, and Bagan, which is doable in about 2 weeks. We had 3 weeks and were willing to condense our visit to allot more time to visit places that tourists typically don’t go, but this proved tricky since ‘off the beaten path’ often means completely ‘off limits’ by the government and even towns that are not strictly out-of-bounds may not have government licensed guest houses or hotels which are the only places that foreigners can legally stay.
We scheduled an overnight bus the next day for Mandalay and met more Kiwis along the way. Dave and Laura were a few years younger than us but already married for a few years, making us feel like teenagers. We shared a cab to a hotel in Mandalay that a friend of theirs had scouted out the day prior and then arranged to tour around the ancient cities around Mandalay after realizing that we had basically the same itinerary for our stay.
We have been guilty of keeping to ourselves on this trip with the exceptions of our time in Xela, Guatemala and our repeated (although sometimes unplanned) travels with Shawn in Central America. It was hard to meet other travelers when we were on the bikes and after a while on the road, we kind of developed a closed-circuit unit even when traveling the backpacker route. We have joked about it: we are just crotchety and old-at-heart and we can be snappish in judgment of younger travelers or when meeting travelers for certain countries (specifically, Israelis), but our barriers have lowered a little and it turns out that meeting like-minded travelers is a ton of fun; we have especially enjoyed meeting other Americans, Canadians, and Kiwis.
The people that we have had the most problematic interactions with on this trip have been Israelis. Maybe it is unfair to make generalizations about a whole nationality, but it has proven true time and again. I’d like to make a disclaimer and say that we have met some truly lovely Israelis, especially Moran and Kfir in Rio Dulce, Guatemala, and a group of four wonderful Israelis in Monteverde, Costa Rica. But R has some strong feelings about some of the less positive meetings we’ve had with Israelis which have been reignited by the pair of Israelis we shared our boat trip with in Inle Lake and the complaints we have about Israelis in general can certainly be applied to jerks of all nationalities.
I don’t hate lakes, but I was ready to skip this one. We had been given half-hearted recommendations by other tourists and on travel blogs, most of which said that Inle Lake is nice enough but that there is not a heck of a lot to do aside from evading souvenir vendors. Of course, there is the lake tour boat rides, but then the vendors just chase you in boats. I had perfectly nice experiences on our two previous lake excursions (Lake Atitlan in Guatemala and Lake Toba in Sumatra) but both were laying-low kind of stays and we are too fresh into Myanmar to need a break. I was ready to pass Inle by in favor of making room for other, less trodden paths but R saw a picture that changed everything.
Our friendly guide in Bago was horrified when I suggested that we might just skip Inle Lake. He immediately ushered us to a bench where he sat us down and showed us his snapshots from Inle Lake circa 1985. The photos were nice, but nothing unexpected until he got to one that looked straight out of National Geographic: the long-necked ladies from Kayah state. These are the women that I’m sure you have all seen at some point in geography class or clicking through cable channels. They belong to a tribe that straddles the border of Myanmar and Thailand and their marked characteristic is their long, stretched necks, supported by a stack of gold rings. I think that they are called the Karen, but a few different people we asked gave us different answers as to what tribe these women are from. Anyway, R saw a picture of these women at some point in his childhood and he decided that he had to go see them for himself. We were guaranteed that we’d have a chance to meet and photograph these women if we went to Inle Lake and took a boat tour.
So here we are in Inle Lake and we found out that the women are actually bussed in from their home state to Inle just for the tourists. We are going to do the tour and get the photos, but now that R discovered that the rest of the tribe lives not here in Inle, but in the Kayah state, he wants to go chasing that dragon. The only hurdle is that Kayah state has been off-limits to tourists until very recently. Even now, we are required to hire a government guide and private taxi and get permits for several hundreds of dollars. And this only gets us one night in Kayah state. We can’t pull out money from any ATMs, so we are working with a very limited budget. We’ll have to do some figuring, but it is just another trial and tribulation of traveling in newly ‘opened’ Myanmar.
We ended up opting not to visit Kayah state. For us, money was the primary issue: the taxi alone for an overnight trip would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $200 and the expenses piled up from there. A little internet research suggested that even these tours are confined to OKed villages and that the villagers we would see still might be dressed up for the cameras and not going about daily life, as we had hoped to see. Another issue that keeps many tourists away is that the money we’d be paying for permits and guides goes directly to the government and constitutes financial support of a repressive and violent regime- the very reason why Kayah state is off-limits in the first place.
We did see the ‘long-neck’ women in Inle Lake and they appeared to me to be wearing temporary brace-like necklaces made to resemble rings, not the permanently worn individual rings that women traditionally wore. Allegedly, once their shift is over, the girls remove their ‘rings’ and put on normal clothes just like a Disneyland Cinderella putting on her UCLA sweatshirt for the drive home to her apartment. The girls are part of the Padaung tribe, but are brought in for tourism only and don’t practice traditional customs that are now found almost exclusively in the elderly population of the tribe.
I got a little off-topic with my money rant in the last post, so here is a bit more on our impressions of the actual pagoda:
The Golden Rock is a rock painted gold. It is also one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Myanmar. The legend of the rock’s creation has to do with some supernatural influence and the placing of a Buddha hair in the stupa balanced on top of the rock. The sight is very impressive- not only is the precarious balance of the huge boulder a feat of nature, but the man-made plazas and stupas surrounding the rock is a sight in itself.
We are not Buddhists, so the actual trip to the rock was not as weighty as it may have been for families who have saved for a long time to be there, although the atmosphere was not at all what I would have expected of a sacred pilgrimage. First, we were herded into the back of a large flatbed truck- the kind that seems better outfitted for a bunch of pigs. There are about a half a dozen rows of wooden benches and six people per bench. This gets everybody nice and wedged in, which is necessary so that nobody falls out as the truck whips around hairpin turns and flies over the hills leading up the mountain. The initial jerk of the truck pulling out of the parking lot nearly had me on my ass (had there not been three pairs of knees tucked directly underneath it) and everyone started giggling. With each new bone-shuddering pothole and dramatic swerve in the road, we were thrown against each other and laughing like hyenas. The black-toothed man next to me indicated that if I need some support, I should feel free to grab onto the 12-year-old boy in front of me. When I did so at one particularly spine-tingling turn, the boy dissolved into giggles and started chattering animatedly at his mother.
We opted to get out of the roller coaster about 45 minutes from the top so that we could get some ‘hiking’ in. Lord knows that we need to introduce more activity into our lives, which consists primarily of sitting in hammocks in between afternoon beer hour and evening beer hour, but this was kind of a drag. There is an honest-to-God trail that leads from the town below all the way to the top, taking between 4 and 6 hours and probably offering amazing views, although people tend to start before dawn to get to the rock at sunrise or at least before the sun gets too high in the sky and starts roasting anything not under an umbrella. We decided to get the boost almost to the top and then walk the rest of the way, but this is apparently something only silly white people do. From the drop-off point, the trail becomes a road and just switchbacks up the hill to the top. Vendors yell at you to stop for a drink (sweat-streak red faces must make them think that all Westerners are on the brink of a heart attack) or at least a t-shirt. About 5 minutes after we started walking, we came across this awesome signboard that showed the cheerful, flip-flop wearing Buddhist pilgrims walking to the top (plus the wealthy Chinese in the sedan chairs) and two American tourists walking along with their cameras slung around their necks, hiking boots on, and spaghetti-strapped tank tops over short shorts (this is a disrespectful attire for visiting a temple, as a sign at the entrance to the pagoda announces to tarty tourists like the ones in the painting). I looked at R snapping happily away and then down at my own hiking-booted feet and felt a little disgust at myself; we really are all alike, aren’t we?
At the top, we found the rock still there, still gold, and a bunch of Burmese people milling around or picnicking. There weren’t any other tourists there when we arrived, although we saw some on their way down as we were heading up; not doubt the kind of overachievers who got up at 3am to hoof it to the top by sunrise. Buddhist men (not women) can walk across a small bridge to the side of the rock and place a square of gold leaf on the face of the rock. That is how is stays so golden. We watched people pray and took in the view of the valley below and then realized that we had seen all there was to see and headed back down in the cattle car.Back in town, we went straight to the bus station and started haggling for tickets to Bago. All of the bus companies were trying to charge nearly twice as much as we had paid to come from Yangon, even though now we were only traveling half the distance. We tried bargaining at each place and walked away when we were told ‘That’s the tourist price!’, but eventually agreed to pay the same amount (3500 kyat or about $4.30 each) that we had for the longer journey. Luck was on our side when we got off the bus. We had declined the services of a couple motorcycle taxis and were trying to figure out how to get to our hotel when a small, wiry man on a scooter pulled up along side us, asked where we were going, then produced a business card of the hotel we mentioned and told us that he worked there. He convinced the two of us to climb on the back of his scooter (yes, that is three adults, two of us much bigger Westerners) and our backpacks on one little 100cc scooter. He didn’t charge us anything, but did give us a soft sell on taking a tour from him to the local temples. Happily, that is what we had intended to do in the first place- the Swiss couple we met in Yangon recommended we take a tour with Mg Hla of Myananda Hotel in Bago (as do we- he’s terrific!). So that’s what we did!
We had arrived so late that I thought the tour would be rushed or maybe cut short, but our guide did a great job of keeping up the pace, but still allowing us enough time to walk around and take all the photos we wanted. We visited 2 reclining Buddhas, 4 pagodas, and the ‘snake monastery’, which had an enormous python laying about (I’m not sure how she was because she was all curled up and digesting her monthly meal of 5 chickens, which we could identify as 5 lumps along her body). The snake is supposedly the reincarnation of the daughter of one of the head monks at the monastery, who has since died. No word on how a monk came to have a daughter, which we found more puzzling than seeing her reincarnated as a python.
The whole tour took a little under 4 hours and we enjoyed every minute of it, even though our guide insisted on ferrying the two of us together on the back of his bike (better than him having to share profits with another driver). We didn’t mind; we had a fantastic time and he even set us up with bus tickets the next day to Inle Lake that were probably more expensive than we ought to have paid but still cheaper than what our hotel was trying to charge us. The bus ride was the best that we’ve had so far, but also much longer than any other we’ve had in Myanmar at 12 hours. We were promised air-con and by God, we got it! By the time we finally fell asleep over the blare of low-quality Burmese movies playing from the flatscreen at the front of the bus (why?), we were so cold that we were literally huddling together for warmth. We both brought our standard bus gear: a fleece and sarong for me over long pants and two thermal shirts and long pants for R. I can only imagine how the bare-shouldered monks in front of us fared. Still, it was a comfortable enough ride, even though it dropped us off at our junction a little after 3am with no onward transport starting til 7:30am. We stopped for coffee and then bargained with a taxi driver t take us the remaining 11km to Nyaungshwe, the hub town for Inle Lake tourism. Each time we take a taxi, or bus for that matter, I debate whether we have overpaid, what is the correct price, and what the alternatives might have been, but it is a fruitless effort. Prices are high and it seems that everyone is in on the game. It’s not the price itself, which is typically pretty reasonable, but the limited choice and sense that we are being taken advantage of is a bit unsettling. Anyway, it all worked out fine and we even took our cab driver’s suggestion on a place to stay, which we found was a better bargain than surrounding hotels once we had the chance to go out an comparison shop.
We are really packing in the activities- all the better for seeing as much as we can in 3 weeks- but there are only so many places we can afford to go on our budget and many places that we’d like to go are off limits to tourists or require a government permit or a whole lot of money to get to. We are making a conscious effort to slow down a bit and take in a bit more of where we are.