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Gone walkabout


MYANMAR | Sunday, 28 October 2012 | Views [1530]




Myanmar Blog

The Malaysians are so organised. We need to find some US dollars in pristine condition to take to Myanmar as the first lot we had was stolen. Of coarse there is a money exchange right under the transit hotel we booked. Our taxi driver even insists on buying us a drive through McDonald ice cream on the way to the airport. He was so sweet. I can't stress enough to anyone coming to Myanmar there are no ATMs  and they can be very fussy with the notes. The big difference recently  is the exchange rate at the airport is one of the best and no hassles with unscrupulous characters. This has only just happened as all other advice  tells you not to change at the airport. Our guesthouse picks us up from the airport and we grab a quick Chinese meal on the street whilst trying to learn Our first two phrases Hello - Min gah la ba and thank you- jus a be. The Burmese men wear a long sarong called a longhi and the women have an unusual cultural tradition of putting yellow paste on their faces made from sandlewood.We are told it is a sunscreen, cooling and also a sign of beauty. Later we discover children and men also wear this.
We hit the ground running the next day leaving the guesthouse before 9am and not returning for 12 hours. We walk the streets admiring the decaying colonial buildings and also those still in good condition. The Burmese are generally quiet, gentle and curious. Yangon is not an overwhelming capital by any means. 
Treading warily as we do in any new country we gradually relax as we interact with more and more people. Enquiring about a train ticket gets us an escort to the correct office with a behind the scenes tour and another escort to a local bus to our next stop. A monk approaches us at the major site, the magnificent schwedagon stupor, awe inspiring, gobsmackingly beautiful. we are given a tour of well over an hour including finding the day of the week temple we were born at so we could make our offerings. I am born on Friday ( a fortune teller told me in Thailand) which is the same day as Buddha so an auspicious day and Paul is born Saturday. Santa ( the friendly monk) did however ask for a donation at the end of the tour but it didn't seem unreasonable. The sunset on the stupor is incredible. A tour of the Bogoyote (Scott market) inspires me for a final day shopping before we head home. The prices seem low and it is a really lovely calm beautiful market. 
We decide to leave Yangon early next morning by train south. When we alight from the train 3 hours later we realise we should have gone all the way south so get on a bus to Moulamein. 
Arriving at 6.30 pm makes me a little nervous but a tuk tuk for $2.50 and we are at Breeze Hotel. $ 12 get you a share bathroom coffin size room with a window opening onto the main foyer and no curtain. Lol we heard accommodation at the budget end is hit and miss. It is on the river and includes breakfast. For those of you who have travelled south east Asia you know this is the high end haha. Everyone else is calling us cheapskates right now. The next night we are upgraded to the hospital bed room fully tiled and no window but every noise from every room can be heard. 
We hire a motor bike for 8,000 kyat (chat) and head off to seek enlightenment. Now Myanmar has no signs written in English but there do seem to be a few people who can speak passable. The guesthouse wrote the name of where we were going and we stopped every 5 km to show and confirm directions. Finally we overshoot the mark and turn back. Success!!!. Leaving the bike at the tea house and drinking our 4th cup of the day we are assured no bikes can go up the mountain and we must walk 2.5 hour uphill. Of coarse half the way was a rough concrete path that we could have easily ridden on but hey we are off to seek enlightenment. What we found were incredible 360 degree views of flooded river deltas, majestic karst mountains and of coarse the sweltering heat we set off in turned into monsoon rain half an hour from the top. Lucky we had our raincoats and brolly we sloshed onward and upward passing no more than a few rubber tree workers. Finally at the top a tea house with just the mama and papa and then a couple of tree loppers walk out of the forest. More tea then the rain finally eases in time for us to take off our shoes and ascend the final few steps to this amazing stupa balancing on three boulders. The boulders are precariously perched on each other and we wonder how long before they topple from the mountain. The whole thing is partially covered in gold leaf. We are escorted by the resident Monk and caretaker who talk away in limited English and point out landmarks from the viewpoint. They insist on taking  photos for us and are absolutely delighted to have theirs taken also. There is no entrance fee yet but they charge 500 kyat or 60cents for the camera.
It only takes us 1.5 hours downhill and is hot and steamy again. We look around town a bit then head to Grandmother/grandfather restaurant (the proceeds support the old age home in town) for a great prawn tempura and veggies meal while enjoying a spectacular sunset.
We get the bike again the next day for the worlds largest reclining Buddha @ 560 metre surrounded by so many Buddhist monuments we are overwhelmed. We hop on the afternoon bus to Hpa an (silent H) for a spectacular trip through rice paddies and mountains. 
This is a true gem of a town. From the food to the scenery to the sights we absolutely love it. A short boat ride across the river to the small mountain called Hpan pu offer spectacular views across the town and surrounding countryside. We are followed by children chatting away to us in Burmese. Everyone says Mingalaba.  
We rent a motorcycle from our guesthouse (Soe Brothers) with a photocopy map which is always guaranteed to help you get lost! Our mission for the next 6 hrs is to find some of the awesome caves and Buddhist shrines in the area.
We need to stop often and ask locals for directions..not easy with language barriers. After riding through lots of mud back roads we reach Saddar cave. We had read that for a small charge they will turn lights on for you, but we find the place pretty much deserted except for a local man and his 2 kids, who kindly took us through the cave with their torches. No words were spoken. They had nil English. The little boy held Leeanne's hand as we slipped and slid for the next 45 mins through darkness and bat shit passing limestone stalagtights and wading through underground rivers. At the end the cave opens up to a glow of natural light and there before you is a magic mystical lake dotted with palm trees and more limestone caves in the distance. At each end of the cave you are greeted with shrines and stupas which take your breath away. We head back the same way through the cave and thank our new local friends for their help. Lots of smiles and shaking hands. We are covered from head to toe in mud after a couple of slides along the way, and head off on our bike back to town. It is nearly sunset, and the light and the views as we ride through rice padis is unbelievable. Farmers heads down planting new season rice, plains flooded from the long wet season, golden stupas dot the landscape in all directions. Myanmar is certainly a beautiful country, and the thousands of golden stupas against the green landscape make it feel a very spiritual  place indeed.
Mount kyatyiyo is another most sacred site in Myanmar. We arrive in the afternoon and look around town. Sea sor seem to have a monopoly on tourism here. Best room we have had but paid 17. Get up early with plans to head up the mountain but it is pissing down eventually we  Make our way up the mountain by truck where they jamm you in for the 45 min uphill trip in the rain. Torrential at the top so we sit in a tea house and wait it out. After an hour the rain eases and we complete the 45 min uphill hike. Locals can go all the way by truck but they feel this is too dangerous for us foreigners hehe. The Golden rock is shrouded in cloud which makes it look like its floating above e mountain. People are meditating and men are rubbing gold leaf on the rock. We wander around the top of the mountain and within another hour all cloud has disappeared and we enjoy incredible views down to the river and beyond. The countryside dotted with pagodas. As we have the afternoon to fill we decide to walk back down the mountain not to save the $1.60 but to fill in time. 3.5 hours later we stumble into town having missed the trekking path and so followed the road the whole way. We saved paying the government the $6 entrance fee when someone passed us their pass and due to the rain the guards didn't bother to check although we tried to pass the tickets to another couple they were caught out. At least get the name of the person who gives you the ticket.
A night bus to Mandalay and we are seriously underwhelmed for the first time. Big city lights hits again. Overpriced ordinary rooms, traffic noise we stay one night and book a 4 am train to Hsipaw but after spending several early morning hours at the station we are finally informed the train derailed somewhere so we head back to the guesthouse and check out some sights of Mandalay. Beautiful teak monasteries, incredible long teak bridges and Buddhas with so much gold attached they have a bad case of cellulite. Next morning we try again at 4 am for the train and success. There is a train waiting. We are joined by a carriage full of young army boys retuning from leave. They have good English and after lots of photos, food sharing and stories, they are beside themselves when Paul entertains them on the uke.
The train journey crosses the infamous Gokteik viaduct, a 700 metre gorge crossing structure that proves to be a great hit for all. Built over 100 years ago so you can imagine how careful the train driver is as we crawl across. The train cuts a path through the rest of the journey through jungle and scrub...literally cutting a path. Don't look out the window or you'll end up with a branch in your face! Lots of smiling faces as we make our way to Hsipaw. We spend 3 nights at Mr Charles guesthouse. First night in a $20 room, so we downgrade to a cheaper $14 room for the remaining nights. Trekking is all the rage here, but we opt to do our own trips on foot, finding a great waterfall after passing rice padis and village life. We rent a motorbike on the second day and check out the surrounding places like the old teak monasteries, the bamboo Buddha, and Mrs Popcorns organic garden. She is the friendliest lady you could imagine and has set up a great little business on her front yard serving the best cold drinks and nibbles, mostly grown on her garden.
Another 5am bus trip back to Mandalay which only takes 5 hours as opposed to the 12 hours the train took haha. This time we stay at AD1 and they book the ferry trip for the next day for us to Bagan. Yes you guessed it a 4.30 am pick up.  We fill in the day walking around town and make the long climb up Mandalay Hill to witness on of those perfect sunsets you find in Asia with the orange sun burning into the Arawaddy River whilst the millions of golden pagodas glisten in the twilight. 
Sunrise brings a repeat of the sunset with a magnificent vista on board the Ferry, jam packed with locals and foreigners alike. Nabbing a birds eye view on our plastic chair, river life unfolds before us. Firstly hundreds of golden pagodas at the ancient city of Saging are passed. 
The Mandalay to Bagan boat trip is a great experience. It is public boat carrying approx. 200 passengers. Foreigners get to use plastic chairs, locals sit on the floor amongst all their belongings, food, and anything else needed to be transported down river. The river is really wide and flows quickly after the rain season. Lots of villages we pass are barely above the water line. The boat slides up along the bank and a gangplank is put out. alot of the village ladies come aboard with their huge baskets balanced elegantly on their heads selling everything from fresh fruit to samosas and all the fried snacks they love here. once the bell sounds the prices are dropped dramatically it is alot of fun and everyone is happy and smiling. unloaded from the ferry is tonnes of goods such as bags of cement, rice and bamboo matts. The bullock carts stand patiently to be loaded whilst the ladies take their bath in the river. The people must be grateful to see the start of the dry season and have dry feet for a few months. 
Arriving at Bagan ferry stop we are asked to pay the $10 
foreign visitors fee, which allows entry into all the temple sites Bagan has to offer. And there are plenty on offer. Bagan is one of those surreal experiences. Over 4000 temples dot a sandy plain alongside the Ayerawaddy river. We hire bicycles from our guest house and spend 10 hours exploring the Pagodas. Some of them still functioning some are almost derelict. The light is beautiful and generally the local hawkers are good humoured but you do get tired of "where you from? Oh kangaroo koala, I need some Australia money" I can see the area rapidly turning into the Angkor Wat of Burma. 
Next stop is Kalaw a beautiful hill top town where once again our bus and a truck collide mirrors in another near miss on a hairpin turn. The Golden Lily is a well run guesthouse probably the best value we have had here and we had chapati for breakfast and not the horrible sweet cardboard Asian toast. 
We organise to trek to Inle Lake. 3 days and 51 km's later we spent one night in a Pa O village where we drank local rum played guitar with the local boys until the village elder told us it was bedtime at 10.30 pm. The next evening after a marathon 8 hours we slept in a beautiful monastery set among the trees. Our meals were superb prepared by our cook Among. I gave him a spare cowboy hat we had and his smile was enormous. Needless to say the hat never left his head. Our trekking mates were an Austrian living in Vang Vieng, a Scottish lad and his American girlfriend who have been in NZ for a year and an English lad. All great company and walking at a similar pace. It was a muddy trek but the trails were drying quickly in the hot sun. Passing through sesame fields, tamarind, ginger, garlic and chilli grown abundantly. The children would come out to say hello and sometimes I would give them toothbrushes that I had collected.
The final day we had a beautiful boat trip into Inle Lake where we passed the incredible boats decorated for the festival. The stilt houses and floating gardens where the villagers manage to hydroponically grow tomatoes and gourds in the river water. We boycott the longneck ladies who are used to lure tourist like animals in a zoo.
Nyaung swhe is usually a sleepy backpacker town but during the festival it is teeming with thousands of Burmese celebrating their major Buddhist holiday. They  parade the 4 Buddha images from village to village and have boat races and fireworks. It is manic here but has a lot of energy
. We leave town just before the famous supergroup "Iron Cross" blast their hits from the makeshift stage set on the footy field packed with thousands of local fans willing to spend 3 days wages for the chance to see their Myanmar idols. We are relaxed and happy after a day spent riding in the countryside, hours at the hot springs and the piece de resistance a winery to watch the beautiful sunset.
Our overnight bus trip to Yangon is long, bumpy,windy and not all that comfortable. The bloke in the aisle next to me chewed on sunflower seeds for probably 4 hours leaving a nice pile of debris on the floor before he nodded off to sleep resting on my shoulder. The TV screen on these buses are huge. The driver has one corner in his face, the other corner almost blocks the doorway, so you have to duck when you get in, especially with your backpack on!
We arrive in Yangon at 6.30 am after a 13 hour trip and make our way by free ferry ( small shuttle truck) to down town Yangon. We check into a cheapie called. Pyin OO Lwin.. @$15/nt (this is cheap in Yangon). We both feel happy and grateful after 6 months travelling, and try to enjoy our last night in Myanmar mixing it with the locals. Some more shan noodle soup, shopping for family presents for the first time since we left home, watching the local boys play street soccer, and sip on a homemade whiskey/coke with Leeanne as we play another game of Chinese Checkers on the iPad. (frustrating bloody game!!)
I say farewell to Myanmar and promise to return again one day. This country is so fascinating and captivating. Golden Pogodas are simply everywhere! They dot the green countryside in all directions and play such a major role in the spiritual connection to the Myanmar Buddhists. The people are inquisitive, yet proud. I will miss their great sense of humour, not so much the spitting of orange betel nut at my feet. I will miss their honesty and trust. Never have I felt the need for personal security ( although after travelling through other SE Asian countries you become very much guarded...and rightly so!)
I get the feeling Myanmar is on the change, maybe faster than we would like. But, if life improves for the people, and they are happy, then that's good. We say thank you Myanmar for the many smiles we shared!


Tags: bagan, golden rock, hpa an, hsipaw, kalaw, lake inle, mandalay, myanmar, yangon

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