Yangon is a city I explored mainly on foot. People don’t usually spend too much time here, but a very good friend is living here and I very much wanted to spend time with her.
While she was at work I wandered and got lost in the humid and hot Yangon, alternating with work days when I’d find a Café with internet and spend hours looking at the computer screen.
Shwedagon Pagoda is a must see. It’s the most important temple in Myanmar. Entrance fee for foreigners is 8000 kyat – a bit less than US$8. If you ever go and find the “Saturday corner” – you’ll understand once there – let me know; I was super disappointed I could not find it even after going around it three times.
After visiting the Pagoda, it’s worth checking Vista Bar, where there’s an impressive view of the temple, and the lemongrass lemonade is quite delicious. 🙂
Kalaw to Inle Lake trekking is one of the main attractions for foreigners. I usually try to avoid touristy things but I’m happy I did the 3-days trekking through villages (45000 kyats per person in a group of 5+). There I learned a few words in Burmese, such as choré and laré, both meaning beautiful or full of beauty. I got to ask locals about their lives and answered their questions mainly about 1) my age and 2) my country, then if I’m traveling alone, why, if I’m married or not, and so on.
As far as I can tell, the trekking is organized in a way that local villagers benefit from the tourism in the region. They host groups for tea, lunch, and for the night. If you are rested enough to wake up early you can enjoy a beautiful sunrise and witness the whole village coming to life in the very early morning. First getting water for tea, then letting the cattle out and laying the chilies to dry outside; you can smell the wood burning in the cook stoves, see the kids running outside. By 7:30 the streets were busy and full of people.
Again the landscape reminded of Brazil. This time it took me to the Serra da Mantiqueira and to my grandparent’s ranch where I spent part of my childhood.
The trekking ended on a small river where we took a boat towards Inle Lake. The lake is very scenic and I couldn’t resist and jumped in the water for a quick swim. So refreshing!
Finally in Nyaungshwe I struggled a bit to find accommodation because the place was FULL due to the festival in Taunggyi – one of the largest, if not “the” largest, festival in Myanmar. Luckily I was able to find a hostel (10000 kyats) AND transportation (8000 kyats) to check out the last day of the festival.
Myiktyina is Kachin’s capital, 20 hours by train (8500 kyats, upper class) from Mandalay and 2 maybe 3 hours by car from the China border. I was the only foreigner on the train to and from Myiktyina, a city without much tourist attractions, a huge Christian – mainly Baptist – community, and a serious drug addiction problem among the youth. Because of the proximity to China, business with that country is an important source of income to most of the local families, being the trade of teak and jade, among other natural resources, the main economic activity.
While in Myiktyina, I visited one of the IDP (internal displaced people) camps that receives people who flee conflict in their villages. There I talked to a woman who’s been living in the camp since 2011. When asked how she deals with the uncertainty of being or not able to go back to her village she replied that she prays to God, that He is the only one who knows what her future will be like.
A beautiful day trip from Myiktyina is the place where the Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwady) River starts, at the confluence of the Maika and Malikha Rivers. If carrying a large camera beware of a 1000 kyats “photography fee”. The Irrawaddy is the country’s main river and has enormous cultural importance to the Kachin people. More about the challenges linked to it can be found here.
First time I visited Mandalay it was only for an overnight, on my way to Myitkyina. On the way back I decided to spend more than only a few hours and was quite happy with my decision.
I rented a bicycle (3000 kyats/day) and rode about 25-30km, from Mandalay Hill to the world’s longest teak bridge, stopping at Zay Cho market – where I couldn’t resist the fabrics and got myself two longyis – and making my way to the bridge by the riverside road. The sunset from the bridge was beautiful, and there I had a pleasant chat with a smiley monk. On my ride back to the hotel I thanked my years riding my bike in the Boston area – known by its very aggressive drivers – as I was riding confidently enough to make myself seen by trucks, buses, cars, scooters, other bicycles, and pedestrians despite not having bike lights, riding on occasional sand banks, and crossing dark streets. (don’t worry mom, I’m still alive and have all my body parts with me)
After spending the day exploring Mandalay I boarded the night train to Bagan (1800 kyats, ordinary class only) where I arrived at 3:30 in the morning, right in time to get an amazing spot at the White Temple to watch the sunrise. I‘m still looking for words to describe Bagan. All I can say is that this place will leave you speechless. Don’t give up after going to the most famous and busy temples. Rent an e-bike (I paid 5000 kyats/day) and allow yourself to get lost among the thousands of temples and you’ll find places to appreciate a quiet sunset or sunrise.
Bagan was also the place where I had two “first time” experiences. It was the first place I missed having a travel partner to share impressions, talk about the different temples, discuss which direction to take at a crossroad, and decide the best location for next day’ sunrise. Not that I did not enjoy it, I did! But I couldn’t help but think it would be nice to have company.
Not as romantic as the former, I had my first food poisoning experience in Southeast Asia. Not sure if it was the beer, the local food I had for lunch and dinner, or what. I just know it was not pleasant at all to wake up every 2 hours and climb down from my bunker bed in the middle of the night. Thankfully there’s Imodium, but I wouldn’t say I fully recovered yet.
From Bagan to Yangon I took the morning bus – not before enjoying one last sunrise (e-bike was 1900 kyats just for the sunrise). The trip took around 8-9 hours and once again I was transported to the Brazilian Cerrado as I watched the landscape through the bus’ window. The bus was super comfortable (13000 kyats) and I slept a good part of the way, hoping my stomach would behave.
Back in Yangon it was time to head to Mawlamyine for a Burmese wedding my friend was invited to – and I tagged along. Mawlamyine is the 4th largest city in Myanmar, something I could never tell. My impression was of a quiet town by the river where George Orwell lived, and that serves as stopping point for travelers arriving or leaving Myanmar through the border with Thailand. From there my first idea was to head south to Dawei, but the food poisoning is still bothering me, so I decided to head back to Yangon and enjoy having a “house” to stay for a couple of nights before hopping on a plane back to Bangkok.
Skills acquired throughout my life – and current highly valued by me:
- Regular trips to the Amazon region from 2006 to 2010 >> ability to survive heat and humidity and to explore Yangon on foot
- House/dog/cat-sitting during my last year in Boston >> ability to pack light, fast, and organized. Less is more.
- Bicycle as main mean of transportation in Massachusetts, home of the worst/most aggressive drivers in the USA >> ability to ride extra confidently among trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, and dogs without falling or being hit.
- A childhood eating dirt and a variety of weird bugs >> ability to avoid food poisoning for 2 months while eating a lot of street food in SE Asia.
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