To begin to understand Burma, or more recently known as Myanmar, one has to understand the delicate situation the country is currently in. I could simply reword the history section of Myanmar on Wikipedia for you, but you know where to find it and there is a certain insight gained from seeing Myanmar through the eyes of a foreign traveler and not a scholar. To put it simply, Myanmar is a sort of final frontier for many travelers. If you ask someone why they decided to travel to Myanmar, they will usually reply with something like, “It was recently opened up and I want to be there before tourism strikes”. And it’s true, for many years Myanmar was a very difficult place to travel to, requiring government permits and extensive preparation. Even just a couple of years ago you would have great difficulty finding an ATM outside of the major cities, but today it is as simple as walking down the street. These days the reasons Myanmar travel gets complicated is because of two factors: A reliance on hotels for accommodation and a restriction of travel due to fighting between the government and rebel factions.
The Myanmar government, in an effort to monitor and control tourism, has made it law that tourists may only sleep in registered accommodation. To more upscale travelers, this just means that prices are a tad high in comparison with other countries in Asia. To backpackers, it greatly limits your freedom of movement since you lose the fall back options of guesthouses, staying with locals, or camping to spend the night. If you find yourself in areas without a large tourist infrastructure you may need to spend much higher than planned on a place to stay. Somewhat redeeming, there is also the option of sleeping in temples along your journey, costing only a nominal donation. But as a friend of mine put it, it can feel like you are abusing the kindness of a religion you likely aren’t a part of.
The other issue is the continuing struggle the Myanmar government is having trying to quell violence and war around the country. In the north-east, different groups fight each other over land claims. In the west, Muslims are rounded up into internment camps if they are lucky, or outright murdered if they are not. This creates a series of military enforced “No-Go Zones” that limit where you can travel. These zones change fairly quickly and you may at times find that an area you want to go to can only be reached by plane. There have been only a few very rare instances of the violence ever harming a tourist, usually only by accident as well. None of the parties involved want a tourist harmed, they aren’t involved and will only bring negative attention and retaliation. Overall though, I would describe Myanmar as one of the safest countries you could travel to as long as you obey the laws of the land.
The safeness of Myanmar is entirely due to the OVERWHELMING kindness of the Burmese people. Predatory taxi drivers and clever scammers still exist in the big cities and tourist spots, but none of this negative energy has spread to the normal populace. Walking down a quiet village street, every person you pass will greet you. Children will run up and practice whatever English they know (usually just hello). If you are in need of assistance, asking someone for help will net you a small army of volunteers eager to help. This can complicate things when you just need to know what bus to take and you have 10 people trying to help, but the enthusiasm is endearing. Getting invited to spend time with a local isn’t all that rare, especially around meal time. Hearing stories about the Myanmar Government makes you wonder if the people in power are even Burmese. I’ve heard the same said about America as well though.
Besides the kindness, Myanmar has many quirks that separate it from other countries. Betel nut is a common drug that Burmese men use. Chewed in the mouth, it gives a sort of nicotine high that many taxi and bus drivers use to stay awake on long shifts. This is the source of the staining red spit seen on the streets and the terrible teeth of many locals. Another fun quirk is how to call a waiter or waitress over. Some countries may snap fingers or wave hands, but the Burmese make a quick *kiss kiss* sound to order food or get a bill. Just make sure not to bring this habit with you when you leave the country. The worst quirk would be they lack of hygiene of the country. You’ll rarely find soap, people cough and spit everywhere with no regard to where you are, and cooking conditions can often be questionable. Germ theory hasn’t hit Myanmar yet, and it can be a shock to the system for the unprepared. Filthy in more than one way, the environment of Myanmar suffers greatly from their negligence too. On one hand, the people have little care for littering or sustainability, and will quickly toss their wrappers into the river, the road, or the forest when they are finished. On the other hand, the government of Myanmar hasn’t created the proper infrastructure for garbage disposal yet, so most people have to burn their garbage onsite. This creates an all too common, sickeningly sweet smell of burning plastic that permeates much of the country, and a constant haziness ruining otherwise good views. Litter is the most obvious, but sewage also flows right into the local water (common throughout Asia) and I don’t believe the cheap Chinese cars and factories in the country have very strict air quality standards.
In Myanmar’s recent history it was colonized by Britain, whom greatly developed the countries infrastructure. British architecture can still be seen today throughout the country. In World War 2, when Japan swept through South East Asia, Myanmar was a heated battle ground between East and West. Both countries left their influence and many tourist sites are based around the battles of the Second Great War. These days it is China who has the most influence on the country, controlling it through economic, not military, might.
I crossed the Friendship Bridge early in the morning on January 9th. I remember the date because it was 2 days after my Thailand visa expired. After paying my 1000 baht fine and crossing the bridge over a small, polluted river, Arnoud, Wijnand, and I moved through Myanmar Immigration with ease. I had met the two Dutch brothers the night before and we had agreed to travel over the border together over a slice of atrocious pizza. As we left the tiny building by the bridge, music began to play and everyone working began to face the flag. We joined them, as every good, culturally sensitive traveler should. We were thanked for our service. A young man working at the office helped us find a minibus to the nearest destination, Hpa-An. We got in and immediately left, since our larger party had finally filled the van. Having waited hours for the van to fill, the three other travelers were excited to finally leave. Traveling with us was a solo traveler named Ludiwein, and a father/daughter pair from Thailand. The father was a kind and educated man from the United States who had moved to Thailand where he found love and now works in the environmental field. We had much to talk about, not only because we shared similar passions, but also because he had an extensive knowledge of Myanmar. He traveled the country many times and even knew the language, thus he became our impromptu tour guide. His daughter seemed nice, but she was a teenager and behaved more like teens from her fathers’ country than her mothers’. Our drive took us along a section of mountainous road that had only recently gotten two lanes. Before, every day would alternate between one direction and the other. Several times we had to stop at military check points to have our passports checked. At one point we passed a flipped over truck blocking half the road. At another point a military jeep filled with soldiers rode past. I was a good American and got excited at any sign of armed men. Along the drive I learned a lot about the country, the local area, and the things to do in Hpa-An. This wasn’t a particularly difficult thing, since I had done no research what-so-ever on Myanmar besides on how to get in. But learning is always funner while immersed. When we got to town, the brothers had decided they would only spend the day in Hpa-An and would take a night bus for Yangon, the largest city of the country. Ludiwein had booked one night. Both parties only had two weeks to spend in Myanmar, but I had four, so our speeds of travel weren’t aligned. Not a fan of night buses, or of rushing, I accompanied Ludi to her hotel and was able to get a nice, cheap room. For the rest of the day Ludi and I had decided to rent a motorbike and visit the nearby cave systems the town is famous for. The brothers on the other hand left us to arrange their bus and perhaps take a boat ride along the river. We agreed to try to meet up for dinner. Due to my experience with Asian motorbikes, and my male pride, I drove us to the caves outside of town. The dirt roads took us through some quiet village areas where I was first exposed to the warmth of Burmese children, whom chased after us with smiles on their faces. The caves themselves were small temples with Buddhist images intricately carved throughout the limestone walls. Immediately the images felt different than the temples I had seen in Thailand. The Buddhas were depicted with a strong white color and the walls of the complex had interesting engravings that were nothing like I’d seen before. After, I gave Ludi a quick lesson on how to drive a motorbike, something she had been wanting to learn, and she drove us successfully to our next cave. Towards sunset, we raced to our final destination, the aptly named Bat Cave. We made it right on time and got to watch thousands of bats pour out from the cave, something you can see throughout South East Asia at many spots, but this was my first. For a half hour they flew out towards the river to feed and at every camera shutter or loud voice they would wobble in their flight. Flying in waves, their movements would mimic the sinusoidal shape of a sound wave whenever their delicate ears picked up a loud noise. During the show we made a new friend, Drew, whom we invited to join us for dinner in town. He had rented his bike at the same spot as us, so I joked that we should race to town. I don’t know if he agreed, but I kicked his ass. After trying, and failing, to meet up with the Dutch Brothers, we ate some lovely noodle soup in town. During our meal, a local woman that Drew had met earlier came and spoke with us. She had the hair of a mental patient and acted in suit. She was rather obsessed with Drew, whom she thought was Danielle Radcliffe, and he had great difficulty ending their conversation. But eventually she let Harry Potter leave and we all went back to the hotel for a good night’s rest. Or so I thought.
At approximately midnight, patient awoke with an intense pain in his right eye. Assuming he had a foreign object in his eye from motorbiking the previous day, he spent the morning cleansing his eye with water and eyedrops. When the situation failed to improve, he walked to the nearby Hpa-An Hospital, clutching one eye as it leaked a clear discharge. As a tourist, he was quickly admitted ahead of many other waiting patients. In the eye care department, the highly educated doctor and English speaking nursing staff gave him a routine eye exam, which he failed. They also wiped his eye of any foreign objects, which failed to improve his condition. A thorough examination of the eye revealed the patient had signs of conjunctivitis, or more commonly known as pink eye. He was prescribed anti-bacterial eye drops and was instructed to apply the eye drops every four hours and return the next day. That night, the patient slept very poorly due to extreme discomfort in the infected eye. The following day he returned to the hospital for another examination, where bacterial conjunctivitis was ruled out. The patient showed signs of viral conjunctivitis, which is self-limiting but can not be quickly cured with eye drops. He was recommended to go to Yangon if he desires further treatment. Patient reportedly spent the next several days in his hotel room resting, listening to audio books, and working up the courage to leave for food.
At this point, all the friends I had made in Myanmar had left Hpa-An to continue traveling. Due to their tight schedules and the circuit-like path many travel the country with, it was unlikely I would see them again. However, I was just happy that my prayers had been answered and I didn’t lose my eye. I don’t think an eye patch would suit me. My eyes still hurt when exposed to sunlight, but I could keep them open now. Before, any light would cause me to reel away, like a vampire from the crypt. The infected eye could actually read some writing, if it was close enough, and I knew this was the sign I needed. I got the first bus I could out of town and straight to Yangon. I was sick (ha) of waiting around, and while there was more I wanted to do in Hpa-An, I couldn’t handle spending another night there. I spent the ride with my eyes closed mostly, but it felt good to be moving again.
Yangon, formerly Rangoon, is an interesting combination between Thai, Indian, and Chinese cities. The city is filthy and chaotic, but I like it more than Bangkok. But I still don’t like it. My first night I walked around the waterfront and Strand Road, famous for its British architecture, and found a nice food stall in the night market. If the noodles had been warm, it might have been one of my favorite dishes in Asia. I also tried several food items on a stick, which ended up being a mistake when I bit into a cold, leathery piece of liver that I thought was some kind of beef jerky. I would pay dearly for this decision in the future. My second day in the city I met a friend at breakfast, Leon, and we agreed to travel the city together for the day and board the local train for a ride around the area. We started off looking for China Town, but failed to find it exactly, much to my Chinese-Australian friend’s dismay. To both our dismays, we also struggled to figure out where the train station was. In the grueling heat we finally caved and got a taxi, barely making it onto the hourly train that does a circular loop around Yangon and its countryside. We were both hungry, but everyone online said you can get meals on board when locals hop on to sell their goods. There was plenty of food, but no meals to be found. We had to rely on corn and fruit to tide us over. The ride itself was three hours long. I found the first and last hour to be rather dull, since it went through the city and it all looks the same to me. In the middle though we rode through the countryside and enjoyed lovely views of farm fields and quiet villages. After the train we made our way to Shwedagon Pagoda, a major tourist spot in town famous for its sunsets. When we got there two little girls ran up and handed us plastic bags, so we could carry our shoes better when we climb the temple steps. Upon accepting the bags, they continued to follow us around expecting payment for their unwarranted gifts. Eventually we finally gave (threw) them back the bags and got some food, but my stomach has been upset all day and I ate little. The pagoda was crowded and not particularly unique except for its size, but the sunset was nice. That night I slept early as my stomach and mind joined forces against me.
The next day I booked a night bus to head to Kalaw, a popular trekking point I had heard about that leads to Inle Lake. During the day I walked around town and found St. Mary’s Cathedral, a beautiful church that I spend a while at enjoying the views and praying. The rest of the day I spent finishing the audio book I had started while in Hpa-An, The Gunslinger by Stephen King. My hostel helped me find a cheap local bus to take me to the bus station, which arrived with only minutes to spare. The bus was comfortable though, and I slept well.
That is, until I was awoken at 4 am to get off the bus. I had thought the bus arrived in Kalaw at 7 am, giving me the rest and sunlight I would need to explore town a little before checking-in to my hotel at 2 pm. But my information was wrong and I arrived in town at night, to almost freezing cold temperatures. I put on all the clothing I could and it was still not enough, but I followed a couple other travelers to a nearby 24 hour tea house. I had rarely drank tea before, but with my body freezing and the tea boiling this is where I started. I spent several hours here waiting for the sun to rise, drinking tea and eating warm rice in the corner of a dingy tea house. When Helios finally decided to ride by, I made my way through town to my hotel where a lovely woman greeted me and checked me in. I waited there for an hour or two until a bed was ready, but I was just happy to be warm. When I finally got to my bed I curled up in the blankets for some time. I tried to take a hot shower, but once I got used to the water I realized it was merely lukewarm. Around this time I met Brandon, whom, like everyone there, was looking to do the Inle Lake trek. We went out for lunch (a delicious local dish called Shan Noodles) and afterwards browsed around town for a hiking guide. Kalaw, you see, was absolutely crawling with different trekking companies. Looking out over the town from our hotel we got this ominous feeling that the already-too-touristy town was only going to grow as more and more people like us wanted to visit the area for treks. We ended up choosing a 3-day hike with 6 other people (it’s cheaper with more hikers) with the Eversmile company. For the rest of the day, Brandon and I walked to the nearby cave system filled with Buddhist statues. I started feeling ill again and when we finally got back to the hotel I sat and agonized on my bed for a while. This would be my first case of the dreaded Traveler’s Diarrhea. After a fun couple hours, I wandered out to get more water and the owner of the Golden Kalaw Inn I was staying at gave me some rehydration packets and made sure I was okay for the night. She was truly one of the most helpful people I met. I was feeling a tad better, but was really just hoping it would pass in time for the trek.
In the morning I was cautious, but I felt fine. We quickly ate breakfast at the hotel, everybody getting ready to head off to different treks. Afterwards we rushed to our meeting point, stopping quick to purchase some warm clothes (off brand Adidas sweatshirt!). Once payments were sorted out and bags dropped off and arranged to travel to their correct destinations in Inle Lake, our group got together to introduce ourselves. In the group was Brandon and I, a young woman named Julie who we knew from our dorm the night before, a couple from Germany and Britain, and a couple from Columbia and their friend. The Euro couple were Karin and Matt, whom had met eachother while on working holiday in Australia and proved to be lovely conversation throughout the trip. Our Colombian friends were Natalia, Sofia, and Diego, and while also great people I must admit that the tendency for them to talk among themselves in Spanish made it quite hard to join the conversation. To lead this band of merry adventurers we had our lovely guide Soe. He was only a year older than myself and was raised in one of the local villages but now lives in Kalaw. I was very eager to spend most of my time talking to Soe, since I wanted as much information about the local area as possible. Through him I also learned plenty about Myanmar culture, education, business, conservation, and disasters. We started our trek in town and as we walked we lost more and more civilization and gained more and more of the outdoors. What was once a town, became countryside, which became farmland, which became forest. For some time we walked through the forest, a protected area where the town received its water from, until we got to the source of that water. A small dammed lake, collecting rainwater and groundwater from the hills around it, slowly trickled fresh water downhill to where we came from. The water was treated on site for pH control, but I never asked about whether it was treated for bacteria. A quick break at the dam and we continued uphill to the tops of what seemed like small mountains. Finally leaving the forest, we arrived to the tops of the large hills that overlooked the farming region. Soe pointed out the crops and the people, and we took picture of the gorgeous vista. Continuing on we walked through our first village, a small collection of houses following the ridge of the hill. We passed by a small school being built, with children playing soccer outside. Or at least trying to, since their ball was a tad deflated. We walked by a woman in the traditional outfit of the region, whom was hard to miss, considering our guide walked us up to her, she struck a pose with a basket on her head, and he began to tell us about the locals. Here I was standing with several other tourists gawking at a villager as people took pictures and she sat in the same damned pose. Uncomfortable, I slinked away to look at some plants growing in a garden. Looked like hemp. We continued out of the village, through some beautiful countryside, and into another village where we stopped for lunch. On my way into the village I took great pleasure in watching a line of chicks jump (roll) off a foot high cliff to follow their mother. We ate lunch in a local villagers’ house. Characteristic of the region, the lower level of the house is used for storage and the upper level has maybe one or two rooms that serve all functions. Food cooked by local villagers, to nobodies surprise, is absolutely delicious. Fan favorites were the avocado salad and the fresh fruit. After we ate we lounged around for a while, building up strength for the hike to come. Well rested, we set out from the village and worked our way downhill to the nearby railroad. The train in this region only comes by once a day and is these days rarely used. We used the train tracks as our path, much to our lamentation, since you constantly had to look down to watch your footing. The sights were still gorgeous, but took more bravery to behold. After some hours we arrived at our last village for the day, Soe’s village. He took us through, waved at his niece that was playing on a hilltop, and brought us to his family house. Here we got to meet his mother and brothers, eat another lovely traditional meal, have some beers, and watch the stars. The sky was beautiful, but if you are a huge fan of stargazing (ie: Taylor) perhaps a tad disappointing since there were less stars than that of Northern Minnesota. Once the sun set, temperatures plummeted and everybody ran to bed to throw on layers of clothes and the wonderfully thick blankets provided by the household. In the protective cocoon it was easy to stay warm, but less so when your traveler’s diarrhea strikes again in the middle of the night, thrice. On the bright side, after braving a Burmese village squat toilet that many times, you stop getting picky about toilets. Eventually I found the rest I needed.
The next day we ate a good breakfast and began the day with yoga. Julie, as it happened, was a yoga teacher that worked in Vietnam and led all willing participants through our daily exercise. Nervous about the hike, I mentioned my woes to Soe and his mother ground up some turmeric for me and mixed it with honey. I ate the paste and sipped down some warm water, which apparently helps with upset stomachs. For the rest of the day I was fine. We hiked through much more hilly terrain now, with constant ups and downs that really gave us a work out. Passing through the countryside we eventually made our way to a major road, where we were going to pick up 3 more hikers who had signed up for a 2 day hike (a.k.a. wimps). As a party of 11 now, Soe led us through more of the countryside where we got to see chili fields and disgruntled water-buffalo. Some of the chilies were laid out in the sun on mats to dry, making small red squares on the distant hilltops. Soe took us to a temple area and enlightened us on Burmese Buddhist practices. Outside the temple he showed us a Bodhi Tree (Ficus religiosa), a sacred tree in Buddhism that the Buddha gained enlightenment under. Soe also told us a story: a boy was foretold that he would die within the week by an astrologer, but the astrologer kept it secret. The boy ended up lost while traveling home and took shelter under a Bodhi Tree, where he meditated on life. In his meditation, he gazed upon the long branches of the tree and wanted to help the tree that helped him, so he took some loose sticks and propped up the heavy branches. The boy returned to the astrologer later, whom was shocked to see the boy alive. The astrologer said he survived because of his actions to the Bodhi Tree. Now it is seen as good luck to copy the boy. The Burmese, you see, believe very heavily in astrology. For example, the king of Myanmar was foretold that he would die in a scooter accident, and thus banned all scooters from the capital. Even the values for the currency of Myanmar are chosen because they are good luck. The Bo Tree shouldn’t be confused with the Banyan Tree, which is even more sacred and can not be touched in any way by a human being, only by nature. The only way to tell them apart is by the shape of their leaves, Bodhi trees are heart shaped. Also of note, the Bo Tree is great for climbing, as I experienced on one of our breaks. I’m sure the Banyan Tree is too, but you probably don’t want to offend an entire country. The rest of the hike was long and hard, but very enjoyable. At least, for me. Two of the girls we picked up for the 2 day hike had to leave early by scooter, since one was having bad reactions to her malaria pills. Her friend joined her. This is why I don’t take the stuff. Julie and Karin were complaining of bad blisters too. We made our way to another village to spend the night. Before another delicious meal, I walked around town with Julie, Matt, and Karin. Some of the villagers were the usual friendly Burmese we were accustomed to, but many seemed very cold and stand-offish. We soon found out why, as it appeared that almost every other house had a group of trekkers in it to spend the night. These people were probably outnumbered by westerners, in their own village. Every single day after 5 pm during peak season, their village would become filled with tourists eager to walk around town and take pictures of every little facet of their lives. I don’t blame them for behaving coldly. For dinner more local food…and also french fries. We fought for the french fries. That night I slept much better, but it was now Brandon’s turn to battle the Burmese village squat toilet.
Another nice breakfast and a round of yoga later, we set out again for what was supposed to be an easier day of hiking. It ended up being our hardest, when we hadn’t been warned to prepare more water than usual for a certain stretch of hike in the blistering sun. We also greatly felt the difference in hiking experience now, where the slower hikers were often quite far behind the fastest hikers. I did my best to move between the groups, not out of kindness, just because I like changing conversations and finding peace on my own. We walked through more sprawling countryside and eventually made our way next to an extremely fancy resort. There was nobody staying there from the looks of it. At the top of the hill the resort resided on, we were forced to pay a 10 dollar Inle Lake Region tax. Apparently these taxes are required in Inle, Bagan, and Mandalay to enter. When we paid the tax and rounded the hill, we finally got to see our first shot of Inle Lake. It just looked like water. But from that view the rest of our hike was downhill, and began to get more shaded, so we were happy. We finally arrived to our final village and got food, this time at a restaurant. At the end of this trek, we had started as 8, became 11, and were now 9. Some had considered giving up due to blisters or foot pain. But we made it nonetheless. It was time to part ways with Soe, and we all frantically said our goodbyes, took a last picture, and exchanged contact details. You see, our final reward for the journey was a boat trip across Inle Lake to Nyaung Shwe. We dispersed onto our two boats based on where we were staying and set off from the village, waving fondly to Soe as we floated away. The boats were longboat style, with enough space to fit only one person per row. With five seats and the driver we cruised through the village and got our first look at the amazing floating villages of Inle Lake. The boat crept under wooden-plank bridges and zoomed past houses built on stilts. Eventually all the buildings around could only be reached by boat, the entryways were merely docks. I was ecstatic, I had always wanted to visit somewhere that could only be navigated by water. Longboats of all sizes zoomed by, some larger with different trade goods on board, others filled to the brim with locals, and some just tiny single man boats being paddled slowly down the waterway. And also boats with tourists, like us. Lots of those. Along the way out of the village, we stopped at a couple workshop tours, free of charge. That seemed like an awfully nice thing to do. The first workshop was a silversmiths shop, where we learned how the locals traditionally prepare their silver goods. The whole time I was just thinking about how my father was a silversmith early in his career, and likewise, how he could certainly make better items with his eyes closed. I left the small room we were in to the other part of the workshop and finally found why the workshop visits are free. Ten times the size of the workshop, the rest of the building was a salesroom. All the overpriced, poorly made silver goods you could ever want. One of the Colombian girls got a cutlery set. We finally left that workshop…only to still visit two more. One was paper and the other I can’t even remember. I passed the time waiting for the others to finish by playing with rusty swords and Asian xylophones. Finally we finished our free tours and left the village, passing through a boat corridor that gave us views of some of the floating gardens the lake is famous for. Eventually we hit the open water at the center of the lake and everybody got to stretch out and relax in the evening sun as we enjoyed the views of the lake and the mountains that held it. We got to the dock at Nyaung Shwe and, strange enough, there was a taxi waiting for us even though we were the only boat there. Our Colombian friends boarded, Brandon and I walked, and the others had floated to a different dock. We got to our hostel, Ostello Bello, which proved to be one of the best hostels I’ve stayed at. That night we met Julie, Matt, and Karen for dinner at an Indian restaurant that was as delicious as it was late to give us our food. We all went to bed that night happy to have returned to civilization.
The hike the days before had exhausted me, so the next morning I really just wanted to do something relaxing. Brandon had suggested a bike ride and I decided to join him. What better than an easy, relaxing bike ride? We ate breakfast and found somewhere to rent bikes from. It was a bit late in the day, so our options weren’t the best. We found the best ones we could and began riding out of Nyaung Shwe and around Inle Lake. We knew the bikes were in poor condition, but we really felt it as we started going up a very, very slight incline. My bike seemed kind of rusty and needed a lot more work than it should to move. Brandon’s bike had no brakes and his seat would routinely fall down to midget levels. I found the latter to be more amusing to watch. We biked through a lot of farmland, which we noted as having more advanced equipment than what we saw on our village hike. We made a couple stops, one at a temple that we didn’t bother to climb and another at a local hot spring. The hot spring was neat, but we were already hot enough. Eventually we reached the farthest the bike route recommends and started looking for a ferry that would take us across the lake to the other side. I assumed ferry meant a larger boat and a more defined dock area. What it really meant was you wander into the village and somebody will run up to you and offer to ferry you over on their boat. We threw our bikes on board and hopped into the longboat to enjoy another ride on Inle. We were dropped off on a very long dock and started looking for food. Everything on the dock was a tourist trap, so we made our way inland. Here we ended up running into Matt and Karen again, whom were taking the same bike trip but in reverse. We warned them about the boating situation and left to get food on dry ground. After lunch, we made our way to the Forest Monastery which overlooked Inle Lake. The monastery was on top of a very large hill, but we weren’t going to let that stop us. We rode our bikes up, for about 30 seconds, and walked our bikes the rest of the way. It took a solid 40 minutes. At the top was a very peaceful temple grounds with a pretty solid view of the Inle Valley. The temple was a bit unkempt, but had some interesting murals inside. We walked around the area for a bit and eventually stumbled into the monastery itself where we saw the young child monks getting ready to go shower. We walked around the grounds a bit and then left to grab our bikes. It took me and Brandon a solid 15 minutes to figure out how to unlock his bike lock, but afterwards we got ready to roll down the steep hill back to the main road. I was excited, but Brandon was a bit scared considering he had no brakes. Needless to say, I zoomed past Brandon pretty quick and enjoyed a wonderful ride going perhaps the fastest I’ve gone on a bicycle. At the bottom I had to wait for some time until Brandon appeared again, I was a tad worried he had gotten hurt somehow. But eventually I heard the deafening screech of his brakes as he tensely rode down the last part of the hill. Having survived the hill, we decided to ride for the local vineyard to view the sunset, which was fast approaching. We didn’t end up making it in time, but enjoyed the sunset near a nice farm field anyways. After that we rushed back to town, grabbed food, and then Brandon had to depart for his night bus. We said the ignorant, naive goodbyes of friends that may never meet again.
On my second morning in Inle Lake, I felt like getting back out onto the water. My hostel had a signup board for people that wanted to go on different boat rides, so that costs could be shared and friends made. I signed up for one that goes to Samkar Lake, a smaller, peaceful lake just south of Inle Lake that supposedly has less tourists. Also signing up was Kassia, a very sweet British girl, whom I ended up spending the day with after we failed to drum up more people to split the boat with us. We found people to go to Samkar, but they wanted to wait until tomorrow and thus we changed our plans from Samkar Lake, to Indein. Indein was a temple area that could be reached from Inle by taking a boat upriver. We ended up haggling for a cheap boat together and rode off just the two of us, which made for a very peaceful ride. Kassia wanted to stop at some of the workshops, specifically the cigar one. I was a tad bored at them again, but I didn’t feel scammed since at least we asked to be there. After the workshops we began our boat ride up river. My love for streams, the beauty of the countryside, and the sweet jumps we made over some dammed water made this ride one of my favorites. When we got to the Indein temple complex our boat driver followed us to show us what path to take. I was a bit worried he was going to try and play impromptu tour guide, since the path was obvious, but he left us once we found the stairway filled with shops that lead to the temples. The complex itself was beautiful, filled with old pagodas and crumbling temples. It didn’t take very long to explore, but time was added as Kassia practiced her photography and I practiced my spelunking. Eventually we got hungry and grabbed food near the river where we were dropped off. The ride back down the river was just as fun as going up, and back on the lake we stopped at a couple more workshop spots and then cruised the center of the lake back to our hostel. That night I brought Kassia with to meet up with Julie, Matt, and Karen for some Dim Sum. The three trekkers were avid animal fans and had that day visited a temple known for its abundance of cats. Walking back from dinner they even showed us an especially large and loving stray dog. I’m hesitant to pet stray animals, due to fleas and disease, and was accused of not being an animal person when I didn’t show as much affection to the strays as my friends did. This deeply insulted me. Thankfully my three trekking friends were leaving Inle and they could insult me no more. We said our goodbyes after nearly a week of seeing each other and went our separate ways.
On day three at Inle, me and Kassia woke up early to go to Samkar Lake with the three people that had delayed our original plan. We hopped in our boat and drove out of Nyaung Shwe, where our boat slowed down near the ‘fishermen’. This happened on every boat ride, and became increasingly aggravating as it was merely another dumb tourist scam. If you google Inle Lake, you’ll probably see the image of the Burmese fisherman with large basket in hand, balancing on the boat with one leg and the other leg holding a fishing paddle. This is how the fishermen traditionally catch a meal. The crowd of idiots outside the docks aren’t traditional fishermen. They wait until a boat comes by and slows down, they do their dumb pose, and then ask for a ridiculous sum of money if you take a picture. They aren’t even fishing, why would you fish at the busiest boat path on the lake? I’ve even heard they are just taxi drivers hustling some extra money. Nobody fell for it, and we rode on south to Samkar. Slowly, Inle Lake became quieter and quieter as we moved south. Eventually it stopped being lake and became marshland and stream. We floated by quiet floating villages, passing by a boat only very rarely. The marshlands we rode through were gorgeous, and filled with all sorts of interesting birds. I would have loved to just stop there and bird watch all day, but we continued downstream to…another workshop. This one was on land though so I got to walk around a small village. Traveling further south, our boat stopped for lunch at the village of Samkar. When we got off, our boat driver immediately pointed us to a very fancy looking restaurant right on the water. We walked around the village for a bit, but could find no other restaurants and decided to trust our driver. We sat down and were immediately shocked at the prices, but ordered ‘cheap’ dishes because we were all very hungry. I ordered the Shan Noodles, which seemed like a reliable dish to get while in Shan State. The first couple bites I actually enjoyed, but then I discovered how under cooked most of the noodles were. Far beyond al dente, my dish was inedible. One other person in the group couldn’t eat hers either because the pork had peculiar spots on it. The rest just got extremely small portions, but were still edible at least. It became clear that this restaurant was just another scam, somewhere to take the tourists when they were hungry and had no option but to eat the overpriced, disgusting food. I normally hate being that person, but I had to complain in that situation. The waiter was nice and I didn’t have to pay. I ended up finding a small snack stand to fill my belly instead, but many remained hungry. We got back on our boat and headed north, this time stopping at temple area that could only be reached by boat. The temple and pagodas were very beautiful, similar to Indein. A lot of them seemed to be donated by Signapore, who seemed to do a lot of work in Myanmar. Strolling through the complex I wandered into the main temple, where Kassia and another member of our group had been invited to share a meal with the locals that care for the temple. I too was invited and the food proved as delicious as you’d expect. In better spirits thanks to the kindness of the common man of Myanmar, we hopped back on our boat and began our journey back home. I still wished we could have stopped more at the wetlands, it would make for an excellent ecotourism spot if properly ran (which it wouldn’t be). Once we got back me, Kassia, and Suki (one of our boatmates) grabbed some dinner, where I caved and bought my first burger. It was delicious.
The next day I bought a bus ticket for a night ride to my next destination, the temple haven of Bagan. For the rest of the day I took it easy and relaxed. Here is also where I finally took the time to write about my travels in Northern Thailand. I seem to be perpetually three weeks behind on my blog updates. I contemplated how much I enjoyed Inle Lake too. Even through all the stupid scams and the hordes of tourists, I deeply enjoyed spending time on the lake. The villages on stilts were amazing, the lake was gorgeous, small islands of vegetation floated by on the water. It was magical. It also reminded me somewhat of home, having enjoyed Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes so much in my life. It was a good place to recharge. Later, I went out for one last meal with Kassia before I left, and then we said our goodbyes. It of course included the common “If you’re ever in my home country you’ll have a place to stay!” line that travelers always promise. I don’t know when I’ll go England, but I know I’ll have to.
The night bus, as is typical, dropped us off in Bagan at around 4 am. A small group of travelers formed that were going to the same place, and we haggled a taxi together. One of the girls in the group was smart enough to arrange for the taxi driver to avoid the Bagan Tax checkpoint and also arrange for us to be dropped off at a temple for sunrise before we actually go to our hostels. The plan worked well, and we enjoyed the sunrise at a fairly quiet temple near where the famous hot air balloons take off. The goal in Bagan, you see, is to find temples that have stairways that lead to the top of the temple so you can watch sunrise or sunset. The stairway is usually off to the side and up a small corridor. You get an Indiana Jones feeling exploring a lot of the temples, at least the ones not filled with tourists. Another person at the temple showed us a blocked path to get even higher up the temple where the view was better. The path was blocked with spiked sticks, put there by someone else. We enjoyed the sunrise and took a lot of pictures, but eventually the sun was up and somebody came up and yelled at us for going up the blocked path. We went back down and couldn’t find our taxi, and got a bit worried he ditched us and took our stuff. Eventually we found him nearby, in a different taxi car than we arrived in. We rode on to New Bagan, the area where most of the accommodation is and checked into our hostels. I was staying at the Ostello Bello of Bagan after having such a good experience in Inle. I took a nap on the roof while I waited for my bed to be ready and when I awoke I moved my stuff and went out to get a bike for the day. When I went outside, there was a parade of some kind going on. Young boys were dressed in brightly colored traditional outfits, with makeup on their faces, some being led around atop equally well adorned water-buffalo. Music blasted and dancers danced, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it was for. Eventually the fun ended and I had to figure out what to do with the rest of my day. A friend I had made earlier invited me on a group taxi ride to Mount Popa, a famous temple that is perched atop a mountainous outcropping. It seemed like a fun thing to see. The taxi ride took about an hour, and I grew pretty hungry, but thankfully I brought some snacks. When the taxi dropped us off we set out for the bottom of the stairs to Mount Popa. I saw some monkeys climbing the mountain, so I felt it was smarter to eat my snacks at the bottom, in the town, before beginning my ascent. As I munched away on a bag of peanuts, my food suddenly disappeared from my hands. I looked down and a monkey was swiping my food. I quickly yanked the bag back and shooed away the monkey, losing only a couple nuts in the process. This all happened in about a second. I made sure to step on the nuts that had fallen, while of course making eye contact with the rotten beast. I finished my snack, this time more guarded, and finally began the climb. It was a pretty easy climb, but was made a lot more unpleasant by the horde of monkeys along the way. Step over some laying monkeys, dodge some monkey scat, traverse a pee puddle. This wouldn’t be so much an issue except for the fact that you must be barefoot when entering temples, even when climbing up to one. I made it to the top fine, but those scared of monkeys certainly had a tougher time. The view was pretty good and I got to see my first sunset. I also met some interesting people that rode with us in the taxi. But as it became dark we all headed back to town for a good nights rest.
I went to rent an electric bike the next day. Motorbikes were banned in Bagan for tourists, so everybody had to use e-bikes to explore the 2,000 temples in the area. Most temples could only be reached through small dirt paths too, so it was very common to wipe out here. As I left my hostel one person was getting a rather large bloody scrape cleaned on his leg. Anyways, I got my bike for cheap and rode off. But then I went back and grabbed a helmet. I spent the day hopping around different temples. At one of the first stops, I got stopped by a local man who talked with me a bit and eventually invited me to a festival his village was having. He showed me where it was going to be later in the day and I told him I would go, not sure if I was telling the truth or not. For now though, I still had more temples to view. There are a lot of temples to choose from when exploring Bagan, some people choose the most popular, others the closest to them. Talking to other people, directions to some temples can he really difficult. Most temples are known only by a number and there’s no perfect map of them all. I had a couple temples recommended to me, but besides that I just rode around Bagan and tried to hit cool looking temples in every area. Some had huge Buddhas inside them, some looked almost Aztec in their architecture, some had beautiful murals on the interior. My favorite one though wasn’t any of the big, beautiful, popular ones. My favorite was a small, square looking temple that resembled a part of a fort. I originally strolled in its direction just to take a leak. When I peaked inside, the square walls and open roof seemed a bit bland at first. There was some trash here and there and a lot of plants growing in the center. But then I noticed the small opening in the wall that needed to be climbed up into. I crawled up and found myself on the interior of the walls of the temple. I followed the path as it wound its way around the center. I climbed up and down different stairways, eventually popping out on top of the walls. The view was okay, but the temple was a blast. There was another dark corridor I could go down, and so I did. It wound around some more until the path ended at a sheer drop. Confused at first, I then realized I made a complete circle and was now nearly right above where I started, so I leaped down and explored around some more. The temple felt like an obstacle course or something out of a videogame, it was wonderful to climb. There was another entryway going into the lower sections of the wall, but the rats and spiders scared me off. I probably missed out on some rare treasure, but oh well. A couple more temples after that, and it was time for me to go back to the village and check out the festivities.
I parked my scooter near a soccer field and timidly approached the house I had been directed to earlier. There was a small stage set up, seating arranged, and a dining area established. A couple people were milling about as some Burmese music played over some very large speakers. I walked in, looked around for a bit, and was then approached by a man that looked about my father’s age. His name was Aung and happened to be the brother of the man I had talked to earlier. He lived right next to where the festival was taking place and took me to his house, where we sat at his entryway and discussed the coming festivities. Apparently the festival was for one of his nephews who was going to become a monk soon. In Myanmar, as well as other Theravada Buddhist countries, you join the local temple and become a monk for some time during your boyhood years. Some people choose to go for only a couple months, but others may choose to stay for years, or even life. This is all up to the individual. When asked, most people said they enjoyed the monk life but eventually could not control their desire for the pleasures of life: Food, rest, fun, women. Speaking of women, there are also female monks that you commonly see around Myanmar, but it is not expected in the slightest for a woman to join the monkhood. Anyways, it is traditional for the village to throw a large celebration whenever a boy is about to put on the robe, which explained the parade earlier in the day. Tonight they would party, and in the morning the whole village would go to the temple for the official ceremony. There they would say goodbye to their son, brother, nephew, friend, for an unknown period of time. I was apparently very early for the party, but Aung helped me kill a lot of time. First he offered me tea, then peanuts, then finally a late lunch. The meal was fantastic, my favorite item being some sort of leafy vegetable dish cooked in fish broth. I ate cross-legged on the floor of his kitchen area, with a short table to eat on. As it turned out, Aung and his family also had a family of cats with them. One mother cat and three kittens, they seemed very desperate for my attention (or food). I let them lay on my lap, until I discovered they had fleas, so I spent the rest of my meal pushing them off me when they crawled up. The meal was still delicious though, but Aung very stereotypically kept piling more and more food onto my plate. Meals aren’t as enjoyable when you have to worry about eating the right amount so as to not offend your host, but I survived. Eventually I escaped the dinner table and sat back on my chair at the entryway with Aung. Here we talked about his life a bit. He told me about his family. I learned that his daughter worked at the hostel I was staying at. He told me about his job, he ran one of the hot air balloons that Bagan is famous for. Eventually he pulled out a box and began to show me one of his favorite hobbies. Aung collected money and other interesting things that washed up to the surface of the soil during rainy season. His money collection even had bills dating back to World War 2, when Japan occupied Burma for a period of time. He also had some interesting jewels, but they were tiny and hard to know if they were rare or not. I recall a friend telling me once that people that can’t travel to explore the world, collect things to explore it instead. This held true for Aung, as he also seemed very interested in my life in the United States. After more discussion Aung took me for a tour around his village. I didn’t know what to expect, but it ended up being mostly a tour of the craftsman workshops. His village apparently made the finest lacquerware in all of Bagan. I don’t know if that was true, but watching them spin the wood to cut it, glaze it with the deepest black I’ve ever seen, and delicately carve into the piece definitely made me appreciate their craftsmanship. Aung also took me to an old man’s house, whom ended up being a painter. Some of his work was gorgeous and he even gave me a nice small watercolor painting to take home. Unfortunately there was no way I could travel with it, but I gave it to a friend at my hostel who would be able to take it home soon. I appreciated it nonetheless. After the tour we went to the soccer field, where all the young men had gathered for a game. A few were playing sepak takraw instead, which is a popular ball game that can be summarized as volleyball with kicking. While watching the game, I talked with some of the other villagers whom seemed just as amused as Aung by my presence. Eventually the game ended and we went back to the festival, where things were starting to get fully prepared. The stage was growing and even larger speakers had been set up. The music began to play at a deafening volume, so my time was mostly spent sitting quietly and enjoying the sights. Aung offered me dinner, which was the same exact meal as lunch, but colder now. It was still pretty good. After more waiting, eventually a band showed up and began to set up on the stage. By now a crowd had gathered, and Aung gave me a nice plastic chair to sit on. Finally the festivities began and the seven man band began to play. I was especially impressed with a young boy who was very talented and fierce at playing the drum. The music was great, but hard to describe. I think there was a bit of a comedy routine there too, but my funny bone isn’t multilingual. At some point during this I noticed another group of foreigners. One of the men turned out to be the owner of the Ostello Bello Hostels that I had been staying at, and the rest were a family of four. I presume the family was invited here after a sunset balloon ride, but the hostel owner was well known in the village for his charity work. I sat and watched, but also cringed a bit at the family taking excessive selfies and being the only people in the entire crowd that clapped to show amusement. It got late though and they left, just in time for the next act to arrive. The main attraction for the night was a traditional Burmese female dancer. She was beautiful, as Aung kept telling me, and performed a difficult to describe dance that featured sharp-angled arm movements, stiff postures, and quick pose changes. It was certainly an interesting show. Eventually it was getting too late for me, as I still had to ride back in the dark, and I said my goodbyes to Aung and his family and he helped put me in the right direction to get home. I slept very well that night after Aung’s wonderful hospitality.
The next day was a tad duller, but I continued exploring some temples and collecting the ever-coveted sunrise/sunset pictures of Bagan. It started to feel silly after a certain point, since I don’t particularly care for sunrises and sunsets, and I had explored most areas of Bagan, so I decided to leave the next day for Mandalay to work my way to Hsipaw. At this point I realized how quickly my visa was running out, so I really had to sit down and plan things out for a bit. One of the things I wanted to do was take a slowboat down the Irrawaddy River, which would take a couple days. I didn’t have time for that though, so I opted to take a faster boat up the Irrawaddy to get to Mandalay. I booked the 12 hour boat ride for the next morning. I awoke at 4 am to get on board and found a nice spot on the upper deck to wait for sunrise. The boat set out from the small docks with only about a dozen people on board. I waited for the sun to rise and enjoyed our provided breakfast. Once the day had broken through though, I felt exhausted and went below deck to nap. A couple hours later I awoke, grabbed a cup of tea, and went back to the upper deck. There was a lot of time to be spent on this boat, but the views were great. We rode past impromptu beach shanty villages, fishing boats, cargo boats, transportation boats, and gorgeous bridges. My hunger was unquenchable, and when they offered egg-toast as a snack I think I ate ten. But at least I waited to see if anybody else wanted more first. I spent most of the boat ride either thinking, reading, or working on music. It was quite fun to play the ukulele while atop the highest part of the ship and the wind blowing through my hair. Towards the end though, the hours began to drag on and I was glad I hadn’t signed up for a longer boat ride. When we finally docked in Mandalay I was eager to jump off the boat, shove my way past the taxi drivers, and begin the hour walk to my hostel. What hostel, you ask? Why Ostello Bello Mandalay of course.
Mandalay is one of the big tourist stops in Myanmar, located in the central region close by to Bagan and Inle Lake. Why is it one of the big tourist stops? This isn’t a rhetorical question that I’ll use to deliver you information, I am literally curious. Many of the people I met in Myanmar told me that Mandalay was simply a working city. There were a couple of places to visit, but nothing very interesting. Many recommended me to skip Mandalay all together. I tried to listen to them. I just wanted to spend a night there and leave for Hsipaw in the morning. But I was highly recommended a trek guide from Ludiwein that, when I contacted him to arrange a trek, needed a couple days since he was just about to leave on a two day trek. So I ended up having a full day to kill in Mandalay and so I tried to give it a chance to redeem itself. One of the big places to visit is the Mandalay Palace, the last palace of the Burmese Monarchy. Seems interesting, right? Well, it also took some heavy damage during the World War 2 bombings of the region, and when it was restored it pretty much lost all of its cultural charm, so says reviews from others at least. It also costs money, so I skipped that. Instead I did a nice (free) hike to, and up, Mandalay Hill. At the top is, of course, a temple and viewpoint. A very nice taxi driver tried to get me to pay for a ride to the hill, but I completely baffled him when I said I actually desired to walk instead. This isn’t really uncommon, as it seems only westerners have a taste for hiking here. I think it has to do with the fact that we live such luxurious lives that we can enjoy a good walk, where as if you have to walk all the time to survive you desire relaxation more instead. Anyways, the walk there was nice and I even wound up finding the Sandamuni Pagoda as well, which was a fascinating pagoda complex with 17,774 slabs chronicling the Buddhas teachings. The hike up Mandalay Hill was a standard affair. Many steps, many mid-temples. But there weren’t a lot of other people hiking up, which was nice. Most people just drive to the top. There were, however, a lot of young couples sitting at various spots along the path. Some sort of Burmese make-out-point perhaps. I also really enjoyed the change in the trees as I hiked, as the vegetated areas started to look like Minnesotan forests in the fall. I got to the top after many flights of stairs, only to be rewarded with a tollbooth right before the viewpoint area. I tried to politely sneak past, but they were persistent in making me pay. I wished I hadn’t, because the view wasn’t anything special. Just a sight of the city. I hiked back down and enjoyed that more. When I got back to the hostel, I relaxed for a bit and then went and got a scooter taxi for the other big spot to visit: U-Bein Bridge. U-Bein Bridge is a photogenic teak bridge that spans over a lake just south of Mandalay. It is the longest bridge of its kind in the world. But its still not very long. The bridge was made from the remnants of the former royal palace in the region and is used by the local villagers as a major crossing point. When I arrived at one end of the bridge, I took a couple steps forward and immediately ran into Aubrey, my friend from Chiang Mai. We both laughed at the coincidence of the situation, but apparently Aubrey thought that he would run into me on the bridge, since it’s a tight space and he knew I was in the region. He’s probably just a soothsayer though. We took some time to catch up on each others travels. I told him my stories, he told me his. Aubrey was still a hobo extraordinaire, and still hitchhiked and camped even though Myanmar tried everything in its power to stop him. He had to spend some nights in police stations, not because he was under arrest, but because the police needed to give him a place to stay since there were no legal areas for him to spend the night. I applauded his dedication. We walked along the bridge, which was crowded with tourists and locals alike. I read online the bridge would be super narrow and that a lot of people were afraid of falling off, but I could have driven a car over it. Don’t trust online reviews. The water at the lake was low enough that you could take a stairway down in the middle and walk about the lake bed, which was currently farmland. We went down to take some sunset photos, but were interrupted by a group of Burmese teenage girls wanting to take photos of us. I was flattered, as this was the first time something like that happened. Apparently this is common place for Aubrey though. He probably just gets off the beaten track more than me, but I try not to think too much about the subject, lest I bruise my ego. We enjoyed the bridge some more and then split up, each walking our separate directions along the bridge. We would meet for dinner later in the night though. On my way back I was approached by some young Burmese guys who I chatted with for a while and then exchanged Facebook details with. One’s name was Tulum, and he invited me to join him and his friends on a trip they were about to leave on. Unfortunately, I had bought a bus ticket earlier in the day and already had my trek scheduled. Sometimes you have to say no to adventure. I didn’t get to travel with him, but I still chat with Tulum every now and then online. Anyways, I traveled back to my hostel and texted Aubrey to come meet me so we could go eat. While waiting, I talked with a girl sitting next to me whom ended up joining Aubrey and I for dinner. Our intentions were to find Mandalay’s Chinatown, since yesterday was Chinese New Year, and see if there were any festivities still going on. We wandered for a bit, and eventually found it, but there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary happening. We still had fun stopping by a street restaurant and eating some delicious Chinese food. After eating we stopped for some beers at the local beer station (the closest Burmese equivalent to a bar), where we got free fruit and nuts with our drinks in celebration of the new year. After boozing up, we went back to the hostel and played some monopoly that we dragged two girls into playing with us. I lost miserably. I blame the girls, whom one refused anything but the most one-sided trades and the other just refused trades completely. It made me miss playing board games at home. It made me miss the people I played them with more.
The next day was a travel day. I boarded a bus for Hsipaw that would take about six hours. There were three other foreigners on the bus and I befriended them all. A nice French man, about my father’s age, his friend, a German man somewhere in his thirties, and a french backpacker similar in age to myself. The ride was boring, but we were entertained by a German documentary on the Goteik Viaduct, a famous bridge from Mandalay to Hsipaw that was built by the British when they ran the country. It was so entertaining even, that we got to watch it four more times. We got to Hsipaw after dark, but the hostel I booked ended up giving me a free taxi ride, which was nice. They also tried to sell me a trekking guide, but I had to refuse since I already had one: Mr. Bike! I gave him a call and he drove to my hostel to meet me and discuss what the trek the next day was going to be like. He was very high energy, spoke good English, and always seemed to be smiling. He even gave me a ride to an ATM and gave me directions around town. I paid him in advance so he could purchase supplies, and then left him for the time being to grab some dinner. I ended up running into the older French gentleman from the bus ride, and ate and talked with him. I went to bed early though, because I had a big day ahead.
I ate breakfast quickly, packed my bag with my trekking supplies, and waited for my pickup from Mr. Bike. While packing for treks I always ask myself if I should bring the ukulele, which seems like a fun idea. But then I get scared about damaging it and always opt out. Mr. Bike arrived right on time, and I hopped into the back of the taxi truck. Here I said hello to the other trekkers, whom Mr. Bike had gathered after I had told him I wanted to take part in his three day, two night jungle trek. With me were three Israelis: Zvi, Tal, and Gai. Gai and Tal were a young married couple, and unaffiliated with Zvi. There were also two Americans: Zach and Matt, whom had been working in Australia for a while before traveling together. With the Americans was a Canadian girl, Carrie, who owned a shop in Germany where she sold items she bought while traveling. Also with us was an older Korean man that I can’t quite remember the name of. He was fairly quiet, but friendly. We mingled a bit on our taxi ride, where we drove to the outskirts of the local villages. Along the way we drove by military training camps, some that looked abandoned for years. The obstacle courses looked fun. When we arrived at our drop off, we all hopped out, suited up for hiking, and then properly introduced ourselves. We began our hike and Mr. Bike wasted no time in beginning our outdoor education. He talked about everything we walked by, from flowers to Bodhi trees to little birds in the sky. After a fairly quick hike we ended up at our first, and only, village. It was a quiet village atop a hill that concentrated mostly on agriculture. We walked in any Mr. Bike said hello and joked with everyone he saw. He taught us some greetings in the local Burmese dialect to practice on our hosts. It sounded like Monsoonta, but I’m completely lost on how to spell it. Everyone was super happy to see us, which was a nice change of pace from the Kalaw Inle trek where I didn’t feel entirely welcome at some villages. This, as it turned out, was because Mr. Bike was the only person that went through this village, and really this entire area. He only hired people from the village and did various charity work for them too. Likewise, the villagers helped him in any way they could and refused to work with any other guides from town. We trotted through the village until we approached a school with some orphaned children, now adopted by the temple, playing outside. I hadn’t known, but Carrie and Zvi had bought some coloring books and pencils to hand out to the village kids. It was a very sweet gesture. They seemed thankful, but a bit confused too. I tried to show them how to use the one pencil sharpener they had, but then I didn’t. Our group moved on up into the village, just as another group of kids showed up on the scene with eager eyes. The early bird gets the worm, boys. We got to the top of the hill and Mr. Bike began to gather his porters for our trek. I took this time to stroll around and bully chickens, but Carrie was great with children and was taking pictures with a young girl. They used both their smart phones. Zach had a talent for juggling, that he practiced for dexterity and concentration training, and gave a little show for a mother and her three kids. It seemed like a fun and light weight way to entertain new friends. Before we left, I noticed the trash fire pit a family was using had some batteries in it. It’s one thing to improperly dispose of your batteries, it’s another to put them into a fire where they can explode and douse you in battery acid. I mentioned something to Mr. Bike, but it didn’t seem high on his priorities right now. We left the village, now with four porters in tow carrying all of our food and camping supplies. The first part of the trek was very easy, with gentle slopes and countryside scenery. We walked through several small farming areas, some very picturesque. Eventually we made our way to the outskirts of a grazing area, where we crossed a small river. This was apparently our last sign of civilization for our trek. We stopped here for lunch. Some of us took a dip in the water to cool off a bit. At one point, some military men showed up from the hills and sat with us. They were apparently not on duty, and were hunting jungle cats. I wanted to take a picture with them, because they had a really old and beat up AR-15 and AK-47, but that is for some reason frowned upon. The nerve! I settled for a picture of one of the non-military hunter’s firearms, a home made rifle. Eventually they trotted towards the direction we came from. For lunch, my previous experience held true and the trek food proved to be as delicious as I expected. Afterwards we prepared for the more difficult uphill trek, while the porters cleaned up. I watched them do the dishes in the river, but also watched them throw the plastic and trash into the river too. Perhaps this wasn’t the best spot to swim. I was now really feeling the lack of environmental consciousness. Even on our uphill hike, in the pristine forested hills, they still threw our plastic wrappers like it was nothing. Even our Korean friend would often forget his trash in spots. I did my best to clean up for them, but it feels silly and pointless when the root problem is in their thoughts not their actions. Anyways, the hike proved to be pretty straining on everybody. It was a difficult and steep path, but it provided some nice views at various spots. We stopped to cool off and eat some oranges near the top. Most people ditched their peels right onto the trail, which normally bugs me (yes its biodegradable, but I don’t go hiking to see your compost pile), but there were bigger concerns for an environmentalist. Eventually we finished our tough uphill hike and began to go downhill a bit to where our camp was. Tonight, we would be sleeping in the treehouse Mr. Bike had built just for his treks. I was first on the scene, and climbed the stairway up into the treehouse where I took a seat and enjoyed the amazing view he had built next to. I saw a flock of what our guide called Prince and Princess Birds fly by. The boys were solid red and the girls solid yellow, I think. I’m not sure what their actual name is though, but I appreciated the rare sight by myself. Eventually everyone arrived and we all marveled at the splendor of the building we would sleep in. The stairway lead to a small porch area, which went to the central live/sleeping/eating area. There was a stairway that continued up into another sleeping area, much smaller and walled in. Opposite the entryway was a sort of back porch, with seating and no roof. This room was being built into a dining room, which was being worked on by a couple of villagers when we arrived. The main floor had open walls with railings and the view stretched out for miles and miles into the hilly jungle. Away from camp, there was a toilet, and farther away and downhill a bit there was a drinking water/shower spot. We all relaxed from our hike and enjoyed the view for a while. Our porters began to cook our dinner, and I strolled off to find the watering hole to fill up my bottle. It was a steep hike just for water, and when I got there I accidentally interrupted my Korean companions shower. I walked around the jungle for a bit while he finished up and when he left I filled my water bottle and marveled at the contraption they made to create a shower out of a small steam. At this point I realized I was alone in the jungle with a crazy bamboo shower at my disposal, so of course I took a shower. Nothing like being nude in the middle of nature. The water was cold, but refreshing. The real struggle came with drying myself without a towel while also not getting myself dirty again in the mud. But I succeeded and marched back up to camp, a little cleaner. I checked out the bathroom spot too, which was just a basic squat toilet outhouse. It seemed like a good set up, but then I began to think about where the drinking water area was. With the way the toilet was set up, higher and uphill from the drinking water (fed by groundwater), rainfall would slowly push sewage in the direction of the drinking water. I asked Mr. Bike about it, and both were more recent constructions. I tried to explain that his drinking water is going to end up contaminated unless he moves things, but I think the idea was beyond his grasp. A problem for another time, then. After my shower, dinner was almost ready and we all gathered around for a scrumptious meal of fried fish, barbecue chicken, and vegetable dishes. Afterwards the alcohol came out and we sat around to drink and talk until the stars were shining. I learned a lot about Israel from our three Jewish friends. We went to the porch area to enjoy the view and eventually people started drifting off to bed. Some went to the upper sleeping area, but I chose my sleeping spot as close to the valley view as possible. My bed was right up to the edge and I could roll to my side and watch the stars and stair at mountains. I did so throughout the night whenever I woke up.
I awoke the next day to the sound of morning birds. I groggily opened my eyes and spent the next half hour watching the sunrise as it rose across the valley, incidentally my bed being the perfect spot to watch. This sunrise I really appreciated, as the colors were perfect, the sun moved about through different clouds, and I got to lay in bed, snug and cozy, the whole time. Top notch. Once everyone arose we had a nice breakfast, packed up, and set out towards the morning sun. Today, it was the first part of the hike that was the most difficult. We climbed down a very steep path, rooted only by small vegetation, giving us very little to hold onto. Many butts were dirtied. This path was quick though, and we continued upward to the top of another hill. Here the path became a very dangerous downhill struggle. We now had trees to use, but the ground was extremely weak and uneven. Routinely I would hear the sound of earth giving way, as somebody slipped or slid down the hill. There was a very real understanding by everyone involved that this was no place to take lightly. Some people chose to rely on sliding from tree to tree, others just took the sore butt. I opted for the delicate and careful approach, creeping between different handholds. We finally made it to the river at the bottom, my ass unscathed, where we regrouped and enjoyed some fresh stream water. We hiked along the river for a couple hours, hopping between river beds and skipping across rocks. It reminded me of hiking in River Falls. Along the way, Mr. Bike pointed out some more nature interests. At one point he pointed to a beautiful tree with a flower on top, which turned out to be a banana tree. He shocked us though by immediately chopping down the tree and cutting off the flower for us to eat late. It seemed a tad wasteful. Eventually we reached an open area where we set up for lunch. I took another dip in the river and then we ate my favorite dish I’ve had in Myanmar, tea leaf salad. Tea leaves, some oil, and a variety of nuts, all made fresh by a local. We even ate some of the tea leaves used to cook it and that was delicious as well. There were also veggie dogs. After lunch we hiked uphill again, a fairly tough path, but then began a very long and gradual decline to the main river of the area. At one particularly long stretch of view, Mr. Bike pointed out to the distance and informed us that all before us was now a no-go-zone for tourists. It didn’t seem so threatening to me. We continued our last bit of hiking and ended up at the Myitnge River, the major waterway for the area. Right next to the river we began to set up camp at a clearing in a bamboo forest. Instead of a tree house, we would be sleeping in hammocks. I impressed Mr. Bike by bringing my own hammock, which he still gladly set up for me at a brand new clearing. Once camp was made, everyone took a hop into the river to cool off a bit. It was freezing cold, and the current was too strong to go farther than a couple feet, but it was lovely to finally wash off the sweat of the day. We had some time before dinner and some people took naps or read books. I think I just spent the time talking with others. Eventually our last supper was ready and we all chowed down on a meal of fried fish. We also had the banana flower, in a soup, that everybody said tasted great but I can’t say I would agree. I preferred a salad made with caterpillar root (not actual caterpillar). Afterwards we sat and drank again, discussing the things travelers discuss. Once everyone sloughed off to bed, I took a bit of a walk around the river before finally lying into my hammock for the night.
We all arose excitedly for our final day of the trek. I remember it being a tad chilly, but some people had to move onto the ground by the fire to warm up in the night. Others complained of difficulty in the hammocks. I slept great. We had a light breakfast of the last of our food and then skipped off to the river, our bags and bellies fully packed. We hiked a bit downstream, past some major rapids, and then finally met up with our boat. Here we said our last goodbyes to our porters, whom we all tipped on Matt’s request (to my confusion), and packed our bags onto the boat. We quickly changed into our swimwear and grabbed our inner-tubes (you didn’t think we were excited for just a boat ride, did you?). We all pushed off from shore together to enjoy the rest of the day tubing down the Myitnge River back to town. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you the fun of inner-tubing down a river, but there is a special sort of charm when that river is surrounded by untouched jungle. Spring fed waterfalls rolled off short limestone cliffs. The thick, green vegetation of a tropical world all around you. I would swim my tube into the waterfalls, which froze me to the bone. Mostly, I would just sit back and watch this peaceful, untouched world drift by me. An excellent time to think. Occasionally we would hit rapids and the peace would be met with some violent thrashes and a redrenching of the body. For fun I would sometimes swim my tube more into the direction of the rapids, but they were never very intense. Until, of course, I wasn’t paying attention to the rapids and all and I went down a particularly fierce section. There was a large rock in the river that I was slowly drifting towards. I paddled away slowly at first, but more hurriedly as I advanced upon its hold. The current was intense under me as I finally hit the rock, but I had thankfully turned the right direction and was able to brace and reflect the force with my legs. The tube still hit the rock hard, but it, and I, remained intact. As I floated away I thought of the time I nearly drowned in the great Mississippi. But I survived that too, so I laughed at the absurdity of it all. Our float continued and many of us began to think how wonderful it would be to have a nice cold beer right now, as is customary for the activity. We had already drank all that we brought though. All that we brought. From the heavens Mr. Bike’s voice rang out “YOU WANT BEER?”. Maybe he said some other stuff, but that’s all I heard. Our boat floated by and we grabbed onto a stick they held out to reel us in, as Mr. Bike one at a time delivered us his bounty of sweet, sweet Chang Beer. All negative thoughts cleared our mind as we let the sweet goddess Chang take hold. Our prayers answered, Mr. Bike zoomed ahead on his aquatic carriage leaving us mortals to bask in the river once again. Relaxation increased tenfold after our supply drop, but it did bring the problem afterwards that we had nothing to do with the cans. We could have played it Burmese, but we held onto our cans for later disposal. I lost mine in some rapids and felt great shame, but mother nature took pity on me and I found it later on. Me and her have each others’ backs. After many hours of great peace and joy, our tubes floated by the first signs of civilization we had seen in days. Shortly after that, we reached our stopping point. Part of me was sad to have it end, but the other part of me was severely sunburned. We walked into town, had a quick lunch, and then skedaddled back to town on a truck blaring club hits. Before we were dropped off, Mr. Bike had to make a quick stop in the center of town, which was weird because he could have dropped some of us off on the way. But when he returned, he surprised us each with t-shirt with a printing of a group picture we had taken at the very start of our trek. Mr. Bike was full of surprises it seems. We all thanked him extensively as he dropped us off at our hotels and we said our goodbyes. It was tough to let such a good guide, nay, man, nay, hero depart from my company. All good things must come to an end though. Later that night, after I moved to Matt, Zach, and Karen’s guesthouse, we went out for dinner and discussed the fun of the past couple days. We all loved it, but had varying ideas of how it could be improved. Mr. Bike has a magic about him and his trek that will hopefully lead him and his village to prosperity, but nothing is absolutely perfect.
The next day I boarded the train early in the morning. I had only come to Hsipaw to trek, and with that completed I was ready to leave as soon as possible to make the most use of my last days in Myanmar. The train ride would take much longer than the bus, but the view of the Goteik Viaduct would make it all worth while. And trains are fun. I was glad I paid the extra dollar for a seat with a cushion, because the ride was very long. There was plenty to look at and I got to enjoy my book, but 12 hours is a long time sitting. Time was broken up by talking with others, getting off at stops and grabbing food, and walked the train to other carriages. Eventually we got to the viaduct and everybody frantically got ready to take pictures. I sneaked off to the rear carriage where I found a seat for myself on the proper side of the train, with a window, and alone. I took some photos too, but I mostly just enjoyed laying with my head out the window chewing on the view. An old Chinese women came up to me and asked if she could take a photo out the window and I obliged, but there is no Chinese word for quick so she took her sweet time as I patiently watched the view zoom by me from afar. But I’ve certainly had ruder encounters with them. After the viaduct, there wasn’t much to do but wait for the train to get to Mandalay, many hours later. That night, I was just glad to finally lay down after such a long ride.
Back in Mandalay, I spent my morning trying to figure out how to go to Monywa, a town a couple hours northeast of Mandalay. It was a pain in the ass, but I got a taxi driver to finally take me to the right bus station. I was immediately herded into a minivan with a bunch of Burmese people and we sped off around town, picking up a couple more people. When we were full, we zoomed off on the highway for a couple hours of driving. We stopped for lunch somewhere at one of the traditional sort of places where food is cheap, good, and buffet style. I got a quick rice and chicken meal, which also comes with several other plates to eat with it. I scarfed down the spiciest dishes they had, much to the amusement of all the restaurant staff. Just because it looks like I’m dying doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it, okay? After more driving, we finally got to Monywa where I hopped out of the van and was immediately hounded by several taxi drivers, as I was the only foreigner. I granted them none of my attention however, and began walking down the road towards what I heard was the cheapest place to stay. The main road was too noisy, so I started to wind my way through the back streets of the town. Here is where I had one of my more genuine moments with Myanmar. Truly and completely, once I started walking every person I came across would say hello, mingalaba, or at least smile. Several different times little kids would walk with me and attempt conversation. People would walk up just to start a quick chat and ask me how I was. I could feel the attention on me, which made me a tad uneasy, but the entire atmosphere was overwhelmingly loving and friendly. I felt a bit sad once I finally reached my hotel. I checked in after only taking a quick look at the room, but when I sat down in bed I started to realize what sort of hell hole I had just purchased for the night. The room smelled of smoke and when I opened the window, there was no screen and many pigeons. The walls and ceiling had holes in them. A lizard crawled out of one and, startled by my presence, darted across the room and into another. I’m pretty sure that is the most stereotypical way to know you’re in a shithole. None of this was as bad as the bathroom though, which was constantly wet from a dripping pipe. The toilet should not be discussed beyond the fact that it probably could have killed me if it wanted. Suffice to say, I was a bit dissatisfied. This was the cheapest place I could find though, by a long shot. And it still cost double what I could find in tourist areas. There were other cheap and nice areas nearby, but they could only have Burmese guests. I sucked it up and survived though, and it didn’t prove to be too stressful. It was getting towards sunset, so for the rest of my day I took a walk along the river front. It was fun watching people go about their days in an area with very little tourist activity. I spent a long time watching the river boats get loaded with supplies, as the workers prepared for the next days ride. Along the street I watched some men play Carrom, a eastern game where you flick pucks at other pucks to shoot them into pockets, like a finger based billiards. I also watched some guys play a really fierce game of sepak takraw. On my way back to the hotel, I passed by a group of teenage Burmese girls. They said a shy hello and then burst into girlish giggles and ran off together. I had finally done it. I had finally gotten the ever coveted giggling pack of Asian schoolgirls. Life was good. That night I went into town to enjoy the rather large food market available in Monywa. I tried a variety of foods, from banana spring rolls to chocolate crepes. On my way back, I felt like spoiling myself and bought a bottle of Mountain Dew. I hadn’t drank pop since I had left nearly two months ago and wanted a little taste of home. It was heavenly. God save my soul, it was heavenly. I worried for my sleep in the room from hell, but I slept fine incidentally.
I had a full day ahead of myself. I ate the free breakfast at my hotel which, for having the worst room of my travels, ended up having the best breakfast. I hunted around town for a taxi driver to take me to two spots in the area: the Phowintaung Caves and Bodi Tataung. My hotel wanted 20,000 kyat (15 usd) for both, but I knew I could get it cheaper elsewhere. I found a taxi scooter on the main street of town and was able to talk him down to 12,000 kyat for both sites. I thanked him and hopped on the back of the scooter as we drove for over an hour to get to the Phowintaung Caves. It was completely worth it though. It began as an inconspicuous temple complex, but once you climbed the fifty or so steps to the hilltop it became a mystical and ancient ruins that surpassed even Bagan for me. Everywhere you turned was another small cave you could enter, with Buddha images inside. That didn’t interest me nearly as much as the extremely beautiful murals drawn onto the sides of the cave. Each one told a story I didn’t know, chronicling the Jataka tales of Gautama Buddhas many lives. Throughout my travels so far I realized that the one ancient piece of art that I appreciate most in Buddhism is their murals. Perhaps it is my love of storytelling. I spent two hours roaming throughout the caves and enjoying the pictures and artistry of generations passed. When I was finished I went back to my ride, whom said I made him wait too long and should pay more. But he never gave me a time limit, so I refused. With that sorted out, we rode off again. About halfway back to town my driver stopped to ask me if I wanted to take a ferry back to town instead, which would cost a little extra. I told him that wasn’t necessary and that I just wanted him to take me to Bodi Tataung next. He said okay, 10,000 kyat. I got excited thinking he was giving me an even bigger discount than before, but then I realized he wanted 10,000 for just the second stop. After more difficult to understand discussion, I finally realized that I agreed to 12,000 kyat for both my stops, but he agreed to 12,000 for one stop. This created quite the predicament, as I was far too cheap and prideful to pay him more for a miscommunication, and he wouldn’t agree to a lower price. Not budging, I even offered to just pay him 7,000 and to hitchhike back to town on my own. The translating became difficult and he even got the local gas station involved in the situation. The owner of the gas station was very helpful with us, and even offered to pay the extra amount I refused to pay, but I vehemently refused his offer. After some more discussion, everybody around me began speaking completely in Burmese. There was a silence, and then the taxi driver finally agreed to the original offer. I thanked the gas station owner for his help, and my driver went inside with him to probably do the same. When he came out, we refueled the scooter, hopped on, and rode off. It was when we were refueling that I understood what just happened, but there was nothing I could say without being rude and insulting to all involved, so I swallowed my pride. We rode back to town, I got some lunch, and then we continued on to Bodi Tataung. It was a nice ride, going through a large Bodi forest and past a major university. From many miles away I could see Bodi Tataung in the distance. Bodi Tataung is the second largest standing Buddha in the world, with one of the largest reclining Buddhas nearby too. I hiked up the hill top both were on and basked in the shear size of human constructive power. Inside the reclining Buddha was a zoo-like storyboard of common Buddha tales. Inside the standing Buddha was 31 floors, standing for the 31 planes of existence, with many different murals depicting heaven and hell drawn onto the walls. A fine day for a mural lover. I couldn’t reach the top before the site was closing, so I had to rush down the stairs with a Burmese family I had mingled with. Back to my taxi driver, we drove back to town and stopped at Thanboddhay Paya. It was filled with tourists, but I didn’t see why because it just seemed like any other temple to me. I wanted to stop by the giant Bodi forest nearby, but I misjudged the direction it was in and we ended up too far into town to turn back. A visit for next time, perhaps? That night I enjoyed the night market again, returning to some of the same spots I ate at before. My loyalty was rewarded with some extra food and some extra conversation. I walked around a bit with my food and began to hear some louder music coming from school. I wandered in and there was a sort of school talent show going on. The first show was a five part female song and dance with Burmese music. One song in particular really pulled at my heart strings when I heard it. Unfortunately, it is a song doomed to be one of my favorites and to be only heard once. But that makes it more beautiful in a way, does it not? After that performance was a series of young men singing either Burmese songs or catchy pop tunes. I hope some ladies swooned for them. I grew tired and retired back to my hotel, in the morning I would head back to Yangon for a flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The next day was a travel day and completely uneventful.
In Yangon, I stayed in Chinatown. This proved to be a much more exciting area than I had been at during my last visit. Here I made my last friend of Myanmar, Loulia. She was a friendly, artistic type that reminded me of the kind of woman my first crush ended up growing into. We enjoyed the food and sights of the city together for a bit. She was a vegetarian, but that was fine because Yangon is one of the better places for that. On my own, I wandered back over to Saint Mary’s Cathedral and enjoyed the peace there once again. Overall I spent my last days in Myanmar relaxing, enjoying the food, and working on music. Before I left I made sure to dispense all of my knowledge of Myanmar to Loulia, who had just arrived. I spent two nights here and then drifted off to the airport to finally leave the country. I love airports, especially when I have no luggage to check in. I strolled about the mall-like interior until I finally flew off on my four hour flight to Malaysia.
Now, over two months since I first arrived in Myanmar, I look upon the country fondly as the most interesting area I have been so far. I’ve highly recommended the country to any traveler that asks about it, but I feel I still know so little about the country. I wish I had more time there. Time to venture to the quiet, secluded beaches of Southern Myanmar. Time to see the politically tremulous west. Time to see the quiet areas like Monywa where people were still barely touched by the hand of the West. But you can never see everything in a country, and at least I know what I missed for when I someday return, which I hope I do. What of the future of the country though? Even recently there has been worry about China pulling a land grab on Myanmar over recent conflicts in the north. Will the country ever stabilize and become a united nation? How will tourism affect such an impressionable country? Will the country be the next Thailand? Or the next Syria? Or can it hold together and stay the Burma that I’ve fallen in love with? I have no answers, but I wish all the amazing people I met in Myanmar, both local and foreign, a safe and prosperous life, as the kindness shown to me has given me an unquestionable faith in the love of my fellow man.