Three Days in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar
So, what’s there to do in Yangon?! No doubt the biggest attraction is the Shwedagon Pagoda. It sits majestically overlooking the city and is visible from many parts of the city. We visited the pagoda on our first full day of touring through the city. Before heading into the pagoda itself, we got sidetracked into a nearby park where a political rally appeared to be taking place. We immediately got our first taste of how popular we could be with the locals. Many cameras started appearing to snap photos of us as we walked around the park. Things intensified outside the Shwedagon Pagoda where we became nothing less than D-list celebrities. Sometimes Sandra would be the more popular one, and sometimes I received that honour. The local girls (and it was mostly girls) would cuddle right up and link arms with you to have their photo taken by friends. Quite charming, really!
After visiting the “big hit”, we continued to wander around the city to visit Maha Bandoola Garden and the Independence Monument. There’s a lot of really impressive colonial architecture in the city, and I was particularly enamoured with the High Court building pictured. The contrast of the pale red and green foliage on the outside of the building was beautiful.
There are a couple of things we’ve noticed that seem particular to Myanmar. One is the newspaper basket. There are many five or six storey buildings in the city, and elevators are incredibly rare. Instead of having the newspaper delivery people climbing up and down all of these stairs, many people just drop a binder clip or basket out their windows to the street level below. Many are attached to bells, so once a newspaper or other object is placed in the basket, a sharp tug on the rope informs the resident that they have a delivery. It’s a really quirky system. I think it’s a great low-tech solution to a problem, but it also means that there’s rope hanging all over the place. Imagine five levels of small apartment buildings all dropping their own ropes down to the ground!
Another cultural habit that seems Myanmar specific is the yellow face paint that adorns much of the public. It’s called Thanakha. In theory it helps protect against the effects of the sun and improves the quality of the skin. The range of application techniques is very large. Some people prefer small circles on the cheeks, others inverted L-shapes underneath each eye -- my personal favourite. Still others seem to take the ‘more is more’ approach and cover their entire face and arms with the pale yellow paint. Regardless, it’s very cool to see so many locals espousing the same beauty techniques!
One of our favourite locations in the city was Kandawgyi Lake. It was located about a fifteen minute walk away from our hostel, and over the course of our stay in the city we visited multiple times. Sunrise runs were particularly pleasant there. The early light would catch a the massive golden floating structure called the Karaweik causing it to shimmer in the morning sun. We also paid a visit to Inya Lake. It’s a spot frequented by amorous young couples for romantic dates. Perfect. Although we found it a lot less impressive than “our” lake. Kandawgyi had a boardwalk allowing you to walk most of the circumference over the surface of the water, whereas Inya Lake prevents pedestrians from getting to the water’s edge in all but a few locations.
Culinarily speaking, we weren’t blown away by Yangon. However, 999 Shan Noodle House was a real highlight for us. I ate a delicious traditional Shan noodle soup with pork. Total comfort food and incredibly filling for about 2 CAD. What a deal! We also checked out Fahrenheit (a restaurant pioneering a fusion Burmese and Mexican food) and Green Gallery for Thai food (slightly underwhelming taste, but fantastic service and atmosphere).
Our last day in the city had us visiting Botahtaung Pagoda. It’s set up right near the Yangon River, and gave us a chance to walk through the centre of the massive gold-flaked pagoda. The central structure was destroyed by bombing in World War II, but was reconstructed later in a hollow fashion unlike almost all other pagodas. So it’s a bit of a curiosity!
The same night it was time to take an overnight bus to Bagan, Myanmar. It’s been a while since we took overnight transit of any kind, but it really is a great deal when you consider the fact that you save a night’s accommodation and save a day’s travel. Everybody’s a winner except those actually trying to sleep. The first class VIP buses were actually sold out days in advance because we were travelling on a Friday and thus many locals filled up the available spots. Bested by a weekend once again! However, the "second class” bus was still comfortable enough and got us safely to our destination. Bagan -- the land of temples!
Visiting the Temples of Bagan, Myanmar
There are three choices for where to stay when visiting Bagan: Old Bagan, New Bagan, and Nyaung U. Old Bagan is closest to the temples, has elevated accommodation prices, and doesn’t have a lot of restaurants. Nyaung U is a bit of a distance from the majority of temples but has budget accommodation and a bunch of restaurants. New Bagan has the best quality accommodation, but is also not as close to the sites and doesn’t have the same food scene. Nyaung U turned out to be a good choice for us.
After resting our weary heads on the morning of our arrival, we wanted to check out a sunset from one of the temples. This is definitely a “thing to do” in Bagan. The game is always to find the temple with an incredible view that nobody really knows about. In a sense, that’s not as ridiculous a goal as you might think because there are hundreds of temples in Bagan. They dot the landscape in mind-boggling numbers. It’s actually hard to NOT be in sight of one! So we headed out in search of a lovely sunset spot. We hadn’t sought out any insider tips, so I was blindly headed towards one of the larger and more famous temples. This will surely work.
We rented some electric scooters from our hotel and headed out. We made it not ten minutes down the road when we encountered a watery scene indeed. You see, Myanmar is in the midst of some terrible flooding. We actually had no idea until we attempted to cross a road that looked more than passable on the map. Except that now there were about fifty people swimming in the road and having a grand old party. Looks like we have to take another route! We backtracked onto the main road and made our way to Ananda Temple. It seemed big enough to have a great sunset presence, right? Big old temple, famous in the area. We arrived and entered... but you can’t go upstairs. So instead of admiring the sunset, we were admiring golden buddhas facing four cardinal directions in quickly failing light. Buddhas are great and everything, but at this point in time they weren’t the prime target. Needless to say, sunset didn’t work out flawlessly that first night. We would try again another day.
The next morning we headed out on a big temple run. We planned to rent our little electric scooters for the duration of the day and really take a chunk out of the local temple scene. Off we went bright and early in the direction of Shwezagon Pagoda. Not Shwedagon, like in Yangon, OK? Shwezagon. Completely different. Upon approaching the complex we were waved aside by two ladies promising they knew the proper parking location. We dutifully followed their lead. After parking, they happily showed us the “temple entrance”. Funny: it looks a lot like a bunch of stores... we walk briskly past in search of the temple itself. Upon returning from the temple, we walk again past the shops. Not because we want to: we realize that they just told us the entrance was close to their shops to force us to walk past them. On the return journey, Sandra walks past a shop and notices her sandals have been placed in front of the shop. Likewise, mine have been moved another twenty metres away to face a separate shop. This is some dirty business these ladies are up to! Surreptitious shoe relocation just to bring people by the storefront! We were unimpressed and walked off without checking out the wares. Serves them right for using such underhanded tactics!
We continued on our way and visited a wealth of temples. Much like Siem Reap, the names all run together. However, Bagan, Myanmar really feels like a fun do-it-yourself Siem Reap, Cambodia. You just rent a bicycle or a scooter and move around at your own pace. The crowds are thinner and the temples are far more numerous if not quite as imposing as their Cambodian counterparts.
Here’s a short list of the temples we found ourselves at:
- Shwezigon Pagoda
- Thabeik Hamauk
- Dhammayangyi Pahto
- Shwesandaw Pagoda
- Ananda Temple
- Thatbyinnyu Temple
- Tharaba Gate
Not bad, eh? Our next evening yielded a hot tip from a lovely German couple (Eike and Christian) we met on the overnight bus to Bagan. They had heard that Sinbyushin Temple was the place to be for sunsets. And they were right! Sandra and I headed over and watched the sun go down -- just the two of us. The temple was a bit difficult to find, so our German buddies showed up on the tail end of the sunset. No worries -- we still had another evening to check it out the next day! We capped off the evening with draft Myanmar mugs at 70 cents a glass. Tough day!
Our last day was a bit of a scooter disaster for me. I’d been having troubles with the bikes the day before, specifically the battery not maintaining the charge overly well. I returned the bike prematurely when I felt like the acceleration just wasn’t what it was supposed to be. Nobody wants to have their significant other blasting by them on the roads. I was completely unable to race! Unacceptable!
The next day I was given a new bike. Good -- shouldn’t have the same bum battery. A had just made it out of the driveway when the rear tire collapsed and sent me wobbling all over the road. I guess it’s better that something like that happen before I’m out in the middle of nowhere, right? Back we go to the hotel. I swap out bikes and receive the same lame-o battery bike from the day before. But I was somehow convinced that a good night’s sleep and recharge would help my little electric buddy along. Unfortunately we barely made it to Old Bagan and back before my poor baby was lifeless. These are bikes that will “go all day!”, so we were promised. It’s a good thing we didn’t try anything ambitious in the morning, because the sucker completely died about 100 metres before returning to our hotel entrance. I was reduced to turning the key off and on to try to eke out every last bit of juice from the battery. Frustrating!
I was a bit miffed about this perceived injustice, so I asked if it was possible that I receive a complimentary upgrade to the bulkier electric scooter for the second half of the day -- capable of carrying two people! The staff reluctantly agreed. Later in the afternoon when it was time to head out for our last sunset experience, I reminded them of the deal. I was begrudgingly given my shining steed.
I had high hopes. I couldn’t wait to open up the throttle and let it rip. With a forceful flick of the wrist my every muscle tensed in anticipation of pure, unadulterated acceleration. It was during this time that Sandra calmly passed me. “Is your bike alright?”. My top speed could only be described as “puttering”. How in the world this junker was expected to carry two persons I will never know. But I’d fought hard to get her and I wasn’t going to trade her in. She’ll make it to this sunset daggummit!
This time the Germans met us at our agreed-upon temple with plenty of time in advance. We had another magical sunset over Bagan. Although it’s not the season for hot air ballooning, I can’t imagine there are many better places in the world to do it. It must be incredible!
Of course the road back from the sunset was a disaster. We’d driven less than a kilometre before my frail pony proved herself incapable of ascending a grade not exceeding ten degrees. I was reduced to riding it like some kind of pseudo-skateboard, thrusting out occasionally with my feet in an attempt to maintain forward momentum. By the three kilometre mark I was in full-on skitch mode. Drive with one hand, and grab onto the back of a friend’s scooter with the other. And hold on for dear life. This is not a safe way to drive a scooter, and it also required an immense amount of upper body strength to handle any changes in speed. As we all know, upper body strength is something I possess in droves. But I digress.
This bike now had only one thing to offer me: the pedals. Yes -- this is a backup plan! You can pedal along to move the scooter manually. So now we have our little crew of four people heading back to Nyaung U in the dark of night. We’re sporting headlamps with the goal of making ourselves seen to fellow drivers. And there goes Ian, pedalling with his knees up to his chin and legs splayed out like he’s strapped into birthing stirrups. Lo, laugh as his sandals catch on the ground. And on the body of the bike. Watch in merriment as the sweat drips down his face while he struggles madly to maintain pace with his friends. And finally burst with laughter as you observe him careening back and forth, completely unable to manage the abrupt changes in resistance brought about by the scooter’s unwanted attempts to “power assist” with the journey.
We made it back alive. We ate tasty pizza. And we couldn’t exactly go a whole day without revisiting our local 70 cent draft beer watering hole, right? Right.
Goodbye Bagan! Hello Kalaw! It’s time to trek!
Hiking Around Kalaw, and a Three Day Kalaw to Inle Lake Hike
We got really lucky on the weather for the one day hike. Not too hot and not raining. We headed up into some villages surrounding Kalaw to visit various ethnic groups.
One of the most interesting things we encountered was a group of two kids playing a game based on elastic bands. Each had an elastic which would be laid on a flat surface. The object was to be the first person to blow on your elastic such that it came to rest touching the other person’s. If you succeeded, you took your opponent’s elastic for your own and started again. I believe the game likely ends when one person has taken all of the elastics. It was really entertaining to watch! We’ve since encountered more kids playing with elastics. It’s neat to see how resourceful kids can be when searching for entertainment.
During the 20km day hike, we also came across a common sight in the region: a vehicle with a completely exposed engine. We’ve seen tons of these. Some have bodies more like trucks, but many are glorified trailers with a big motor strapped to the front. It’s obviously a major safety hazard as there are many completely open belts whirring around within easy reach of children, animals... you name it.
All charged up from our day hike we embarked on the three day hike to Inle Lake. This time around we definitely didn’t have the weather gods on our side. The first day was actually quite nice. The sun was out! We were a bit worried when we arrived at the homestay and noticed a starfield of holes peppering the tin roof we were sleeping under. Hope it doesn’t rain. And it didn’t! Although the beds consisted of a mattress the thickness of a slice of bread sitting on top of a wooden floor. Rustic! Many of us had to shift around a fair bit during the night to relieve soreness from laying on a hip. Makes you appreciate a nice bed! Sandra also wasn’t too pleased about the fact that the outhouse was about a 60m walk away from the room we were staying in. Oh well -- it makes for a great story? Right? Kind of?
Oh, and then there were the showers. We were luckier than some in that our shower had a tarp covering the door. This was bucket showering in its purest form. Dip the bucket in the freezing water. Dump it down your back. Gasp wide-eyed in shock. Repeat. We saw other groups standing out beside a well in their boxers doing the same. So we were thankful for the tarp. Nobody likes showing in their undies!
The next morning things definitely took a turn for the worse. We picked up an Aussie named Jarrod and added him to our crew. Sorry Jarrod -- you were a bad luck charm. The skies clouded over and the rain started in no time. It followed us for the rest of the day. And since Myanmar is experiencing some of the worst flooding in years, many of the roads are already big mud-fests. Soon enough we were walking around in hikers-cum-moonboots. They accumulated stacks of mud and gained weight like boxers after the weigh-in. We’d stop to clear off some gunk on the edge of a rock, but in another ten seconds we found ourselves back in the same pickle. Lots and lots and lots of mud.
We ended up walking somewhere in the area of 50-60km over three days. A marathon hike! We finished up on the southern tip of Inle Lake, where we were treated to a boat ride across the length of the lake. We made it!
Inle Lake, Myanmar
We got lucky in that we encountered very early on the “big thing to see” in Inle Lake: the fisherman who stand-up paddle with their feet while bringing in the nets. It’s really quite mesmerizing. They rhythmically S-stroke with a paddle hooked around a foot while balancing with the other foot on the bow of the boat. Their hands deal with the fishing nets. This is multitasking!
The day after our arrival, Sandra and I had a 16km run to the next town and back. Blech. After four days of hiking the legs felt a tad sore. But we persevered!
After breakfast, we headed out to the Red Mountain Winery in Inle Lake with a bunch of friends in gang of bicycles. It was a short ride out of town, and I felt very lucky to experience an amazing optical phenomenon: my first "22° halo”! It was crazy!
On the ride, we noticed a bunch of people staring up at what appeared to be power lines. Taking pictures? I thought maybe there was an animal up there or something. Then Sandra noticed this crazy halo surrounding the entire sun. I’ve never seen anything like it, although I don’t think it’s particularly rare. It has to do with ice crystals in the atmosphere. And then some hand-waving science. But it created an amazing halo that lasted for hours. During the bike ride to the winery, I couldn’t stop looking up at the sun. Not good for my eyes, but what an amazing thing to see!
The winery didn’t get fantastic reviews from our crew (it tasted fine to me!), but the views were lovely. We grabbed a late lunch at the night market. Sandra fell in love with both the lemon salad and the tomato salad. They’re both covered in a peanut powder/paste that makes them taste incredibly rich. She’d mix them together to make one super-salad to end all salads. She’s still talking about that one.
On departure from Inle Lake it was an overnight bus back to Yangon. This time we managed to get ourselves on the VIP bus courtesy of JJ Express. We thought this would be a huge upgrade from the “second class” bus we took up to Bagan, but not really. A bit more room in the seats horizontally, but they were still crammed in there front-to-back. We had a stewardess take our food orders after the journey started. By about 9pm, only an hour and half into the trip, we pulled off to the side of the road to eat at a restaurant where our orders had been phoned ahead. It was smooth sailing after that. I made sure not to look out the windows too much, but Sandra took a few peeks and was horrified by the sights. Racing along mountain roads -- buses ripping by each other at high speed. We both managed to catch some sleep, though. We arrived back in Yangon just under twelve hours after starting the ride.
We only spent one full day in Yangon before flying back to Bangkok. I picked up a nice Myanmar ballcap souvenir I had eyed during our previous time in the city. Sandra and I played bad cop/good cop during our price negotiations. I liked it. I could just genuinely say, “You know, I really like this hat but my wife says I can’t spend more than 6000 Kyat on it.”
“No no, 7000! It can’t be less than 7000!”
“Sorry, buddy. I love the hat. But my wife makes the rules. I can’t spend more than 6000 on it.”
“... OK, 6000.”
We stopped by 19th street in Yangon to check out the drinking scene. Dinner at KOSAN 19th St. Snack & Bar, and I was really impressed! They made a lovely guacamole and burger. Miraculous for the area, really! And you could get a gin and tonic for under a dollar. I love travelling when we visit places like this!
We’ve since returned to Bangkok and await the arrival of our buddy Robin. With her, we’ll be touring for a couple of weeks around the country. Safe travels, Robin! Let’s party!