Mandalay (part 2)

My time in Myanmar was running out. I got back in Mandalay on the evening of the 27th, and my flight to Bangkok was on the afternoon of the 29th, but I should had so much to organise for Bangkok and New Zealand!

On the morning of the 28th I joined a half-day trip to the so-called Snake Pagoda organised by the hostel. The story goes that when the pagoda was first built two snakes came and settled by the central buddha statue. The monks brought them back out to the forest but they just kept coming. Ever since, two large python are always kept at the temple and taken care of. Every day at eleven, there’s an almost religious ritual where they wash and feed the snakes, an attraction which gathers locals and tourists alike.

Other than the snake bathing and a large number of snake statues (I couldn’t help thinking of Harry Potter’s Chamber of Secrets!)  the Pagoda was like many others I had visited here.

After that our driver brought us to a place known as little Bagan: many temples densely packed in a small area, but no one in sight to visit them or pray there. They were similar to the Bagan temples. The atmosphere was a bit weird, locals nearby were playing really loud burmese pop music, which didn’t quite fit the scenery.

We were back in Mandalay by lunchtime and enjoyed a ridiculously cheap (and oily, like a lot of food here) burmese meal. Mostly fried stuff, from corn to tofu and mango.

The rest of my day was mostly planning my short stay in Bangkok and the beginning of my trip to New Zealand, thanks to the decent wifi at the hostel. So was the next morning: I didn’t have enough burmese cash to pay for an excursion and besides I had to leave for the airport around two. The airport transfer minivan brought me my last little burmese-style adventure: after a while we were moving at a suspiciously low speed, in what clearly was a low gear. Something was wrong with the engine and we started wondering if the van would make it all the way. We didn’t! But they were well organised, another van picked us up in no time and I got to the airport well in advance.

Hsipaw

I hesitated a lot before going to Hsipaw, for several reasons. First of all, I wouldn’t have that much time there, and it wasn’t clear whether it’s a safe area. After quite a bit of research what I found out is that the town itself is fine, but that I shouldn’t wander too far out in the countryside. Without going into any details, the Shan rebel army is still fighting with the governement, the situation can change from day to day and has gotten worse recently. But when I mention this to other tourists, a lot don’t seem to be aware of the situation and still go for treks out in the villages. I didn’t. 

To get there I took a shared taxi, fast and comfortable, I was in Hsipaw by midday. Where I got lunch, I met an israeli (interesting character, but very friendly, I think I recognise him from Laos, he’s two meters tall and sports long, thick dreadlocks) and we visited the Shan palace together. The Shan people are an ethnical minority who are closely relate to the Siam, or thai, people. They physically look more like people in north Thailand and speak a similar language. Hsipaw was an important town in the Shan kingdom, and the royal family even lived there. The actual palace is just a large house, but a lady who directly descends from the royal dynasty explained all about their history.

It was after this visit that I started pondering on whether I should go trekking or not (this was my initial plan). I talked to a guide from Mandalay and the immigration office in Hsipaw. They both told me it might not be safe. I talked to the local guides who sell these two- and three-day treks. Of course they said it would be fine, that they wouldn’t take any risks… Business is business! I then spoke to a few tourists who used the argument that “you probably take more risks while crossing the streets here than going trekking”. Can’t argue with that! I think some of them are just curious and cheeky and that some others just don’t know. Out of “respect” for both parties involved in the conflict, I figured it was best not to go. I reckoned tourists were probably not desired in those areas, they have other things to worry about and don’t want to be watched like zoo animals, plus I definitely don’t have the keys to understand nor judge what’s happening. The fact I was running out of time and the fire and smoke all over the place (it’s burning season…) settled the matter.

Having said that, now you understand why I opted for a short one-day trip around Hsipaw, to at least get a feel for what the area is like. We went to some Shan villages just out of town and our guide was very good at explaining everything about their agriculture and way of life (he is Shan himself).

The afternoon was a boat ride, great to contemplate the surroundings: villages on the river side, locals fishing, and buffalos bathing to stay cool. We stopped at a popular swimming spot full of local people (it was Sunday).

We were back in town quite early so I could get some more photos just before sunset (they’re on Flickr). And after that I found myself drinking burmese whiskey and pina colada with my new Israeli friend: fun times, but hangover guaranteed! Which was fine because I was going to spend most of the next day sitting on the train back down south.

The train was actually one of the reasons I went up to Hsipaw: it’s supposed to be a very scenic journey. Such a shame that they’re burning everything down at this time of the year… I got an upper class ticket, which offers comfy seats and a lot of leg room, but some travellers were sitting in the ordinary class coach (where you sit on wooden benches) so I joined them there for a while, just to blend in with the locals a bit more. The train was travelling at a maximum speed of about 40 kph and was swaying back and forth quite a bit. The windows had no glazing, so you could stick your head/camera out to take pictures. At some point we had to stop because there was a fire accross the train tracks, a few people left the train to try and put it out or deviate its trajectory, the wagons filled with thick smoke and we were to a halt for about half an hour. But the big highlight of the trip was Gokteik bridge: a 300m high viaduc, about a kilometer long. Really impressive and a little bit scary.

We arrived in a town called Pyin Oo Lwin around five. This is where I left the train, although I was travelling all the way to Mandalay: the rest of the journey takes one and a half hour by shared taxi and about five with the train! I shared a cab with two other tourists and we were in Mandalay by evening, back at my previous hostel, Ostello Bello. It was a short trip, but definitely worth it. I really liked the fact that I got to talk about politics with people there, which hadn’t happened in other more stable regions of the country.

 

Mandalay (part 1)

In a short four hour bus ride the day after Mathieu left I was in modern Mandalay, the second largest city in the country. I was travelling on my own again, so I chose to stay in a trendy backpacker’s hostel to meet other travellers. I was barely there ten minutes when a group of people suggested I join them for the sunset on Mandalay hill. Perfect! The Pagoda there is modern and shiny, and they have escalators leading to the top. A first since I started travelling! I was kind of unimpressed by the view from there, but at least the temple itself is worth visiting, and quite empty since everyone is gathered on the west side to see the sun go down.

On the next morning I got a very slow start, I liked the vibe in the hostel common room. Free coffee, and they were playing Groundation, my favourite reggae band! Finally I got a move on and rented a bike to see some of the city’s landmarks. First stop: the royal palace. This is where Burma’s royal family lived in the 19th century, interesting to visit, but probably not a must see. Plus, foreigners can only visit the central part of the grounds, the rest being a military restricted area (and this is to be taken very seriously). After that despite the heat I powered on to Kuthodaw pagoda, boasting the “the largest book in the world”. What this means is that they actually carved the entire Tali Canon of Theravada buddhism on marble slabs, one placed inside each of almost a thousand stupas arranged around the main central pagoda.

It was still early but I was alredy tired of cycling around-it was 39 degrees-so I cycled back to the hostel to rest a bit. In Myanmar they make a huge deal of sunrises and sunsets, and sure anough with a new friend from the hostel we went to the well-known U-Bein bridge at the end of the day. It’s supposedly the longest (1.3 km) wooden bridge in the world and looks like it could collapse any time. To admire the sunset from the river we shared a boat and all three of us were snapping pictures like maniacs, I wonder what the boat driver thought of that. Now I’m only missing the largest bell in the world and I’ll have seen all the most-something curiosities the region has.

I’ll be back in Mandalay in a few days time but meanwhile early the next day I was leaving for Hsipaw, a destination slightly off the beaten track.

Bagan

Bagan is kind of overwhelming. Imagine the Angkor temples. Now imagine them without the crowds. That’s Bagan: a few thousand temples, disseminated in a 70 square kilometer plain, built between the 10th and the 13th century, mostly buddhist, witnesses of the founding kingdom of what is now Myanmar, and not (yet) as famous as other sites in Asia.

I stayed three and a half days here, Mathieu flew back to Yangon on the afternoon on my third day, to catch his flight back to France. It would be impossible and probably really boring to tell you all about the temples, so I’ll be concise and focus on some fun facts.

Our hotel (quite fancy, by the way: air con, swimming pool and all) was about 5 km away from the temples, and given the afternoon temperatures in this particularly dry region we preferred to rent an electric scooter rather than bikes. They’re fun to drive but can’t go faster than about 40 kph (notice Mathieu is wearing a longgyi!) . We just had a little fall in the sand, when I was driving (but I blame Mathieu for being heavier and sitting in the back, making it hard to compensate if the bike starts skidding, can’t be my fault, I’m a very good driver ;)) 

All usual sight-seeing days follow the same schedule. Get up early (five) and directly head off to a nice spot to see the sunrise over the plain. This can be a temple you can climb on, or the ugly viewing tower (the reason why Bagan isn’t a UNESCO world heritage site), or, if you have 320$ to spend, a hot air balloon. Get crazy taking pictures.

Then, if hungry, head back to your hotel for breakfast (this is why the e-bikes are great, for once I defend the lazy option). After that, while it’s still cool, head back to the temples and explore the massive surroundings by browsing the sandy paths connecting the temples. Some are very famous, for there size, architecture, wall paintings or buddha statues. They are definitely worth seeing although sometimes busy. Others are little hidden gems, with dark narrow steps to climb to the top and admire the view. If you’re lucky you can experience these smaller temples entirely on your own. They are sometimes locked but the locals have the keys (and they maintain the temples, to some extent) and they’re usually happy to show tourists around for a small tip (or even better, if you buy a souvenir…).

By midday, hunger, tiredness and mostly the heat call for a long lunchbreak: so back to the hotel (there’s a swimming pool, remember?).  Finally, set back out around three or four, to catch a couple of other temples before settling down somewhere (favourite temple, or viewing tower) for sunset. 

This is mostly what we did, except on the first day, where we went for a short boat trip in the afternoon. Most temples are concentrated in the plain but a few were built along the Ayerawaddy river. It was just the two of us with a burmese couple to show us around. One of the temples is connected to thode further down in the plain by tunnels. As we headed back down to the boat just before sunrise a storm started picking up and it started raining. We had to wait for things to calm down before going back, so they removed the shelter from the boat and we huddled underneath on the beach with other stranded villagers for a while, drinking tea and eating fried cashew nuts. Our little adventure didn’t last long though as the storm calmed down fairly soon.

I know I haven’t written much details about the temples, we saw dozens, but Bagan was definitely a highlight of my travels so far.

Inle lake

I’ve heard different impressions from travellers on Inle lake: some were that the place was completely deformed by mass tourism and that it was not worth seeing. We decided to follow the classic itinerary and spent two days there: one day on a boat, the other on a bike.

During our one-day cruise we really enjoyed being driven around to discover Inle’s many traditions and landmarks. A lot of the stops were handicraft workshops: a silversmith, weavers, woodworkers, cigar makers, blacksmiths and paper umbrella makers to name a few.

As the various sites of interest were far apart, our boat driver took us through villages on the way, built on stilts. We passed by locals who use their small boats to transport everything, and they have a particular leg-paddling technique to cover large distances (if they aren’t lucky enough to have a motor).

And we observed the locals fishing, using their iconic cone-shape nets.

For a change, we also stopped by a couple of temples, some in the style of Bagan, as an appetiser for our next destination.

On our second day we were ready for action again, so we rented bikes and cycled around the lake. We were even brave enough to cycle uphill, in the heat, to a small monastery hidden in the trees, built against the hillside. There was a peaceful yet energy-filled feel to the place: the young monks had just eaten their only meal of the day, and were happily chatting and teasing each other, and the top offered a view on the lake, our bonus for making it all the way up.

After we headed back to our hotel, Mathieu started feeling sick. Turns out our lunchtime restaurant got us food poisoning… We were supposed to take the night bus to Bagan but decided against it and stayed another night at our hotel. It was a close call. I started being sick myself in the evening and I couldn’t imagine myself riding that bus on a bumpy road for ten hours. In the end we flew to Bagan in the evening the next day: expensive, but really comfortable (and safe! Now I’m convinced that Burmese airlines can be trusted). We already had a hotel reservation and Mathieu couldn’t afford to miss another day of sightseeing-he’ll be leaving on Wednesday, so we were glad we didn’t have to take the night bus on the following day.

Trekking from Kalaw to Inle lake

This trekking itinerary is probably the most popular in Myanmar, but also one of the only existing trails. After our short rest at our hotel in Kalaw, we signed up for the longest available option: 65 km in three days, with two nights spent in local people’s houses in small villages on the way. In our group there were four other French, about our age, and we were accompanied by a young twenty-one year old guide. She was dressed in traditional clothing and walked the whole trek wearing flip-flops!

On the first day by the time we left Kalaw (after 8:30) the sun was already quite high. We set off at a fast pace up the hills surrounding Kalaw, through pine forests and agricultural areas forming patchworks of small terrace fields. Here they grow chili, oranges, coriander, garlic, sesame and tea.

The area is populated by many different tribes or ethnical minorities, each with their clothing, architecture and agricultural traditions (different tribes grow different crops).  The walk was very pleasant throughout the day, adding up to about six hours in total, with frequent breaks with food and tea. A lot of locals were out in the fields working, without any machines, ploughing the fields with carts pulled by buffalos, and planting, watering and picking everything with their bare hands. 

As we arrived in the village where we would spend the first night we witnessed their very simple lifestyle. Our room was under the same roof as our host family, and very simply furnished except for the heavily decorated buddha shrine. The food is cooked using fire, the only power source is a small solar panel (each family seems to have one) and there is no running water, so the bathroom facilities are as basic as can be. Dinner was amazing: rice with all sorts of traditional Myanmar dishes. Despite the (very) thin mattress I slept well, but others had more trouble finding sleep.

At six o’clock sharp the next day, we were woken by our guide who had kindly prepared breakfast for us (when did she get up?). By seven, we were already walking through the hilly landscape, even more beautiful in the soft morning light. 

But in the afternoon, we all suffered from the heat, in a particularly long stretch on a dust road in an arid area. There wasn’t a tree in sight for more than an hour but finally we got to a river where we enjoyed a nice swim to recover. Local children were fishing and there was even a woman washing clothes, just beside tourists sunbathing in their bikinis! By then, there was only an hour’s walk to the village, the landscape gradually became more interesting (mostly terrace fields, but with different crops), and the heat had dissipated to a more pleasant temperature. In the second village, the house where we stayed was very much like the first, but with even thinner mattresses! The family had their cart and buffalos parked in their courtyard. They are Pa O people, a mountain tribe living in a vast region around Inle lake.

Our last day also got an early start, and up we walked, to a nice viewpoint overlooking the valley where we had just spent the night.

A large part of the morning’s trail was along a road, so we were just looking forward to our arrival at Inle lake. It was shortly past eleven when we got to a nice restaurant on the lakeside for our lunch. Our arrival point was Nyaung Shwe, a town located on the Northeast side of the lake. It took us more than an hour on a motorboat to get there, but the crossing was quite pleasant, and we got our first glimpse of the famous Inle fishermen.
We now have more than two days to discover what the lake and its surroundings has to offer.

I’ll try to join more pictures to this post when I find a good internet connection.

Kalaw

Buses in Myanmar are faster and more comfortable than the Lao ones, from my experience. But they get carried away with their air-conditioning, and they have the same habit of playing music videos, but not all night (I probably would’ve gone mad, the pop stuff here isn’t any better than in Laos). We got to Kalaw at about 5am, without having slept, because the last four hours of the journey were on winding, shaky mountain roads. We were very grateful to be handed our room key as soon as we got to the hotel, without being charged an extra night (earliest check-in ever!). 

After a short rest it was time to explore this small, hilly town about 1000m above sea level. Everything here revolves around tourism: the place is mostly hotels, restaurants and trekking agencies. This is what we are after too: we signed up for a three-day, two night trek departing the next day. The idea is to walk to another main tourist attraction: Inle lake. But more on that later 🙂

The temperatures are more pleasant than in packed Yangon; a nice 26 degrees this afternoon, perfect to set out for a walk to explore the area. One sight of interest is Shwe Oo Min pagoda: hundreds of buddha statues along the tunnel maze of a large cave.

There are also two catholic churches in the area. I wasn’t exactly expecting to see a statue of Mary today…

I’ll write more about what the area is like after our trek!