Myanmar Highlights

Fishing on Inle Lake, Myanmar

In 2013 I visited South East Asia for the first time. I remember people asking what were my Myanmar highlights and it was impossible to narrow it down to one specific thing! The best answer I could come up with was ‘All of Myanmar’. It amazes me to realize that I have visited this beautiful, largely undiscovered country before the rest of the world got to it. The experiences and wonderment still feel fresh in my mind.

Take for example the morning that a small group of us did a little photo tour to an area just outside the downtown area of Yangon. We walked for about 15 minutes and were outside of the business district, watching the city wake up and begin bustling with locals preparing a small market. We were there before sunrise and saw the monks lining up for their morning rounds and collection. I’m really not sure who was more curious, them or us. It is so incredibly interesting to go to an area where tourists are so rare that they actually become an attraction in the place they’ve gone to visit. I’ll admit, I was a bit shy, not knowing how to approach or talk to the monks, but soon enough I came to understand that they were happy to see us and happy to practice their English skills.

I wandered around taking a few photographs and then one of the locals invited us in to the monastery to enjoy a local breakfast. A few minutes later the group of us were taking off our socks and shoes and following the kind man into a large dining area filled with locals. Barely with our bums in the seats, local men and women were coming out of the kitchen area with various dishes in hand and filling the table with typical breakfast consisting of rice, noodles, fish soup and then sweet sticky rice came along a little later. They filled our bowls and when we were done, they immediately appeared to fill them up again. They certainly didn’t want us to leave hungry. These were the community members who came together to cook food for the monks at this monastery, but the monks were all out on collection at the time. After we finished our meal, we were surprised as the locals gathered around and wanted their photos taken with us. It was only my second day in Myanmar and I was already learning that tourists were as much of an attraction as the attractions were to the tourists.

Yangon, Myanmar
Yangon, Myanmar

With an open mind, even the simplest of pleasures can turn out to be a highlight of the trip. I expected extreme poverty. After all it is one of the poorest countries in Asia. To my surprise, our overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay was beautiful, high end and even had a hostess on board. It was comfortable, with reclining seats to a much better decline than standard buses. Each of us was given a thick warm, fuzzy blanket and a hostess was available for questions and assistance throughout the night. On top of that, the recently built divided highway was mostly smooth sailing and despite the rain, I didn’t feel fearful or uncomfortable at all throughout the night. I just laid back and slept.

Most of the tours that are offered to Burma / Myanmar, range from 12 – 17 days. Sadly, I was on a shortened version and had to pack as much as possible into only 10 spectacular days. Because of the shortened itinerary, we had only one full day to explore that wonders of beautiful Mandalay. Although the core of the city itself isn’t really a highlight, there are lots of beauties to enjoy on the outskirts. A few hours to half a day can be spent enjoying the beauty, history and culture of the ancient U Bein bridge in Amarapura. Just simply watching the way of life, traveling by boat across the lake and then returning by walking across the 1.2 km ancient teak wood bridge. Along the way you can stop and taste local delicacies, take in the spectacular views and meet a few new local friends selling souvenirs.

Snacks along the U Bein teak wood bridge
Snacks along the U Bein teak wood bridge

Don’t be put off though, despite the fact that they are there to make a living and sell their wares, I found the local kids particularly respectful, friendly and interesting. We only had about an hour to spend, which was far too rushed for this beautiful spot, but in that hour I managed to take a boat ride to the middle of the lake and then return on foot across the bridge. I met a young girl who walked back to the main land with me. We chatted about her family, her schooling and life on the lake. Her English was excellent, she was friendly and she didn’t ask me to buy anything until we were nearly back to the main land. It was at this time that I bargained with her a little and purchased two necklaces … one with jade elephants and the other with amber.

We spent the remainder of our day in Mandalay crossing the Irrawaddy river to Mingun, a small community with some big claims to fame. The tiny community hosts the world’s largest bell (over two tonnes of iron), the unfinished, Pahtodawgyi pagoda and the beautiful Hsinbyume pagoda. We spent a couple of hours wandering around, visiting the sites and dodging rain, which came and went in fits and spurts. Although the rain slowed us down a little as we waited for it to stop under the cover of a big leafy tree, it certainly didn’t ruin the experience and I wouldn’t change it for a second and replace it with a mass of tourists. I’d much rather travel in green season dodging a bit of rain than dodging hundreds of tourists. Having said that, it’ll be quite some time before Mingun sees hundreds of tourists at one time.

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Possibly the largest and best known attraction in Burma is the community of Bagan where they boast over 2100 pagodas, temples and structures in 42 square kilometers. The desert landscape dotted with structures of all shapes and sizes is absolutely spectacular. Take the time to see it at sunrise and sunset; it is truly spectacular. You can spend hours biking amongst the structures on dirt roads winding through ancient old Bagan. But, beware of the heat. Make sure you have sunscreen, lots of water and a hat to keep the sun off your face. Although the land is nearly flat, the heat adds it’s own challenges to your physical abilities. Stop often and discover as many of the structures as you can. Each one is unique and the art and architecture will amaze you time and time again.

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After enjoying the beauty of Bagan for a couple of days, we were off for a short visit to the Mt. Popa area. Mt. Popa is a volcano and an area that you can hike, but we simply passed over and twisted around the big mountain with a stop in the community to hear about the spiritual nats that are worshiped at the pagoda atop a mountain. Oh yes, and to meet the cheeky little Macque monkeys that scatter the town. If you have time, you can climb the 777 steps to the beautiful monastery at the top of the mountain, but beware as the monkeys live and play along the way, so I hear it is dirty and smelly.

Our next stop was a lovely lunch and visit to an elephant conservation camp. Hearing the story of how the organization started and how they have retired five or six elephants from the lumber industry to live peacefully and well taken care of until the end of their lives was inspirational. This organization has purchased these elephants, each of their handlers (Mahoot) and the Mahoot’s family. Not only have they given the elephants a respectful home, but also have created a community and schooling for the Mahoots and their families. We had the amazing opportunity to feed the elephants banana snacks and then help bathe them in the river. They are so large, yet so quiet and gentle. I stood mere inches from their mouths, which were big enough to swallow me whole, and I grinned ear to ear with excitement the entire time.

Last, but not least, we visited beautiful Inle Lake, which had different, yet incredible feel. As you can imagine, life on a lake is quite different from life on land. From the local market that we visited to the leg-rowing fisherman balancing on one leg on their flat boats, to the craft industry workshops – seeing the local way of life was eye-opening and incredible. And I bought two of the most beautiful hand-made fine silk scarves! We were a bit rushed as our trip was a condensed version, but we managed to see the highlights and even take in the largely undiscovered and quiet Indein where there was not another tourist to be seen amongst the many hundreds of stupas and structures. Magical is not a word strong enough to describe the experience.

Fishing on Inle Lake, Myanmar

At the end of the trip we asked if it was possible to visit an orphanage or monastery and arrangements were made for our last evening in Yangon. We made a donation to the orphanage and had a tour of where schooling takes place, where the children sleep and the communal areas. Then we had the amazing opportunity to dish out food as the young monks gathered for supper. Young boys as little as four years old walked up to the serving area perfectly mannered. If we gave them too much of something, they politely put a portion back. It was a great lesson in humility and understanding to only take what you need and leave the rest for someone else. Of course, the monks were allowed to come back for seconds, so no need to waste food! Take only what is needed and if they are still hungry come back for more.

It’s simple, every single activity, every single day was a highlight. There was something new, exciting and simply beautiful around every corner and I just couldn’t get enough. 10 days was a great overview and a taste for the amazing destination, but easily I could spend a month exploring just the nooks and crannies of the ‘tourist’ areas, not to mention the lesser visited areas. And, as tourism begins to grow, more and more areas will be open for exploration by foreigners. In my opinion, Myanmar is a destination to be visited now, before it explodes in popularity, and then visited again and again as the economy gets stronger and new areas open up. There’s nothing quite like seeing a destination that isn’t used to tourists and getting an authentic feel for the people, the culture, the food and the beauty without the corruption of the tourist traps. Go see this destination soon to get an authentic feeling for the country. Then, explore it again later as more destinations open up. You won’t be disappointed.

If you are interested in visiting Myanmar, please get in touch. I would love to help you plan your next adventure.

South East Asia – Chapter 20 – One day in Mandalay – U Bein

Next up was a short, but sweet visit to U Bein Bridge in Amarapura. This bridge connects an island to the main land, spanning the Taungthaman lake at 1.2kms long and is made from salvaged teak wood posts (or columns) from an old palace that was being moved from Amarapura to Mandalay. It was constructed in the 1850’s. It is the world’s longest teak bridge. The surprisingly sturdy teak-wood bridge is beautiful to look at and is of daily importance to the locals as they walk to and from the main land for work, school and markets.

It is best known to tourist for it’s beauty at sunset and is one of Mandalay’s most photographed destinations. Unfortunately, it was only a short stop for us, so I did not get to see it’s beauty in the setting evening sun, but none-the-less, it was still amazing and full of life, functional and very active with locals. It was one area where we did see a couple of dozen other tourists, which is still incredibly miniscule.

Several of us opted to take a boat ride to the halfway point and then we walked back along the bridge (4000 kyat for 3 – 4 people). The heat was nearly unbearable, but the breeze on the water was refreshing. Along the way we saw people fishing from the bridge and from the water, as well as people swimming / bathing in the water.

On our way back each of us was approached by a child selling items. These children have been trained to ‘make friends’ with one tourist each rather than surrounding and bombarding all of the tourists at once. They love to practice their English with you and I found that the girls who ‘friended’ me were very polite and not pushy. They certainly told you about the items they had for sale, but they weren’t demanding that you buy them. They were hoping if they had a chat with you, that you would be nice enough to buy them. I suppose this likely makes it harder for tourists to bargain as hard as well. At least for me, once I feel like I know someone a little, know about their family, their schooling etc, it is harder for me to offer them only half price.

I chatted with a young girl named Ehtoo for the walk back along the teak bridge. She spoke really good English, told me about her family and that she goes to school in the mornings, but has to work in the afternoons. She showed me the jewelry that she was selling. I wasn’t interested and try really hard not to buy things if I’m not interested. But, the simple fact that she was trying to have a discussion and offering her items, but not pushing them on me … in the end I bought two necklaces from her for 12 000 kyat. She tried to get me to buy three for 15 000 but I simply wasn’t interested. Sometimes I can just walk away, especially when I’m being swarmed and hounded. But, when I’ve had one-on-one time with someone, I find it much harder to say no.

I asked her if she made the jewelry herself, but she did not. She simply buys (or borrows) it from one of the larger stores on the teak bridge and then she gets a cut of what she sells. Although I would have much rather bought something that she actually made, or known that the money was going directly to her, but in the end, I guess she was making some money rather than no money and she was a really sweet kid.

South East Asia – Chapter 18 – One Day in Mandalay – Working Hands

After our overnight bus ride, we had a short time to freshen up and then we were back on the bus for our one-day adventure in Mandalay. Our guide told us that often tourists don’t like Mandalay because the city is spread out with no real ‘centre’ district. All of the attractions seem to be in different directions. It isn’t really a great city just to have a stroll in. Having said that, the attractions in the area are fantastic and I wouldn’t want to have missed Mandalay. In fact, if you are open minded and want to explore, I’m sure that 3-4 days would be time well spent in the city and surrounding area.

We headed off for a quick stop at a gold leaf workshop where the process was demonstrated and explained. On one side of the workshop, the men were hard at work pounding the materials to flatten them and increase their size. The methodical and melodic steady pounding of the metal would likely drive me crazy after any amount of time, but these folks work and sweat through it for hours every single day. On the other side of the workshop there were women busy laying gold leaf over various items that were for sale. This gold leaf is also used in most of the temples and pagodas throughout Myanmar.

Next stop was a silk weaving workshop where women were hard at work on their weaving looms. The amount of physical labour that these people do for mere dollars a day is absolutely astounding.

I believe in supporting not for profit organizations and the people that they assist, so I bought souvenir items at both of these locations, knowing that the money was going back into the community rather than being handed through several channels, such as a kid selling something at a market, to their parents, to their boss etc.

I enjoy buying items that I’ve seen the process behind and paying for an artisans work rather than buying souvenir items from a market where they have likely been mass-produced for pennies a day rather than dollars a day. I support fair labour where I can.

We also visited a weaving and marionette shop. I really wanted to bring marionettes home for my nieces, but they were large and made of wood, so I decided not to. I didn’t want to take the chance that they would be confiscated at the border. And they would be difficult to carry for the next two and a half weeks.

Besides the vast array of unique marionettes, the shop had all kinds of interesting ironworks, weaving and decorative wall art. Even such things as opium weights, animal skulls, and statues.

South East Asia – Chapter 17 – Overnight Bus

One of the things that I was worried about before arriving in Myanmar was the fact that it was monsoon season. I hadn’t read very much on the internet, but enough to know that I’d likely see some heavy rains and those heavy rains could affect the road conditions, sometimes making them impassable. I was a little concerned about this … until I got on the bus.

Even at the bus station, I was impressed. Although it was a tiny little room and the squatter toilet wasn’t the best, the staff were dressed in nice uniforms and even served us a complimentary beverage while we were waiting. Really? At the bus station?

Our overnight bus from Yangon to Mandalay was the nicest coach that I have ever been on. Now, I wouldn’t call it luxury, but it sure was nothing like what I expected. We climbed up the stairs to the upper level and got comfy in over sized seats that had an unusual amount of reclining ability. Considerably more spacious than flying Air Asia and still more spacious than Thai Airways! It was clean and air conditioned. One of my favourite parts was that they gave us each a fuzzy pink polar fleece blanket to cover up with through the night. Generally speaking, they kept the air conditioning at 18 or 19 degrees. Through the night, that’s pretty chilly.

We took off on time and after navigating through the streets for only a few minutes, we set out on the highway. I didn’t even know that a highway existed! Here I thought we would be driving along back roads, getting washed away by mud slides.

Sure enough, it rained pretty much the entire time we were on the bus, but the roads were good and the driver seemed to be very careful. Not only was it a highway, but it was a four lane highway with a median in the middle pretty much the entire way. Apparently it has only just been completed in the past couple of years. It was in really good condition and only a few big bumps when crossing over bridges.

Throughout the night, the bus had pulled over a couple of times because of accidents on the highway and to switch drivers. After all, it is a really long drive, late at night on a straight, boring highway in the rain. I slept through most of the stops, but one long one (about 45 minutes), they served everyone snacks (a piece of cake and a cinnamon bun type thing). Can you imagine? I didn’t wake up for that either! I got mine early the next morning.

We left late in the evening and arrived in Mandalay the next morning around 6:30am. Apparently that was an hour or so later than normal.

The bus tickets were included in our tour, but I think the overnight bus was $20 US or less. If you are considering the trip between Yangon and Mandalay, I think the bus is a great cost effective way to go. Much cheaper than flying and you save on a night’s hotel room.

All in all, the bus ride was uneventful and a pleasant experience. Who would have thought that in Myanmar I would have a better public bus than anywhere else I’ve ever been!

My summer adventure in Asia

Earlier this year on social media I spent some time talking about how much I wanted to do a cycling trip in Vietnam or Burma. I even joined the gym and started biking. Yay me! You know … until it wasn’t YAY me anymore and I fell off the work out train just like 75% of people who join in January.

Well, I’m still going once or twice a week … I guess that isn’t horrible. And, I’m trying really hard to get back in to it for the next 8 weeks before I head out on my first ever trip to Asia.

So, why Asia?

Initially it started with an interest in Vietnam. Funny enough, not the history which is what Vietnam is often noted for. I was interested in the amazing photo opportunities and I had heard that cycling through the countryside in Vietnam was breath taking. So, Vietnam went to the top of my wish list.

Then, through work at The Adventure Travel Company I began to take an interest in Burma. It’s a country that has only opened up it’s borders in the past few years to tourists and is just slowly gaining enough stability for people to want to travel there.

Near the end of March, I found out about a great opportunity to go Burma on an agent trip. It’s not free, but it is discounted and it sounded like an amazing adventure to a place that is little known and not well traveled. I put in my application and was immediately accepted and my place was held.

Then I took off to lead the Peru Through the Lens photo tour for two weeks and didn’t have time to think about my ‘next’ adventure because I was busy living an adventure. Tough problem to have don’t you think?

As soon as I returned from Peru, I confirmed my spot on the Agent trip to Burma with Tucan Travel and a few weeks later, booked my International flights. All the while, trying to figure out what else to do in Asia! There was NO WAY I was doing 24 hours of travel time in each direction just for a 9 day trip in Burma. Despite how fantastic those 9 days are going to be … I wanted to make the most out of my international air fare and excruciating travel time!

Since Vietnam was at the top of my list, I decided I would go there as well … and the hunt was on for the perfect trip that would fit within my dates.

I searched high and low … Tucan Travel, G Adventures, Intrepid, Travel Indochina … Nothing seemed to fit my dates and my desire for Vietnam. Through all of the searching, repeated trips including Cambodia came up and I started looking more closely at them because I wasn’t having much luck with just Vietnam. And then, I fell in love with the idea of visiting Angkor Wat. After a lot of searching through trips with different companies and trying to match them up with my dates, here is my itinerary for my super South East Asia trip this summer.

August 14 – Depart Halifax in the morning.
August 15 – Arrive Bangkok, Thailand close to midnight.
August 16 – Transfer from the International airport to the regional airport for my early morning flight to Yangon. Check into my hotel and sleep. Hopefully I’ll have enough energy to explore a little as well, but mostly, sleep.

August 17 – 25 – Blissful Burma – Tucan Travel – Agent Trip
August 17 – No planned activities – Explore at leisure.
August 18 – 19 – Shwedagon Pagoda / Overnight bus to Mandalay. Mingun / cruise up the river. Yadanabon market.
August 20 – 21 – Guided bike tour of the Temple ruins of Bagan. Optional hot air balloon ride at sunrise or sunset. (This is not optional for me … it is the part I am most excited about. I may even pay to do it at sunrise AND sunset!)
Aug 22 – Visit local villages and the Elephant Conservation Centre where I’ll get to wash and feed the elephants. EEEEEEEEKKKKKK! I’m super excited about this. There’s also opportunities to ride the elephants and trek into the jungle with them.
Aug 23 – Inle Lake visiting floating gardens and sampling local tea. Visit markets and a cheroot factory.
Aug 24 – We fly to Yangon and spend time exploring the markets, colonial buildings and the Yangon river. We also return to the Shwedagon Pagoda to see it illuminated at night.
Aug 25 – I will depart Yangon and fly to Bangkok. After several hours layover, I’ll be on my way to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam.

Aug 26 – 27 – Currently I have no specific plans. I suspect I will spend some time in my hotel blogging and catching up with friends and family back home as I expect to be without internet and cell service for most of my stay in Burma. Other than that, I might try to do a Mekong Delta home stay, a city tour or cycling tour in the countryside.

Aug 28 – Sept 5 – G Adventures – Cambodia Experience (this is for myself. I will simply be traveling with a group, not leading it, not responsible for anyone, just seeing the sites for me!)

Aug 28 – No planned activities. Sight seeing in Saigon.
Aug 29 – Mekong Delta, Vietnam
Aug 30 & 31 – Phnom Pen, Cambodia
Sept 1 – 3 – Siem Reap / Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Sept 4 – Bangkok, Thailand
Sept 5 – Departure day
Sept 5 – Arrive home in Halifax late at night.