My 28 days in Myanmar

Myanmar, Burma or whatever you want to call it (the people are Burmese, they speak Burmese but the country is Myanmar) has been on my travel wish list for quite some time. I had heard only good things from other travellers and I was so excited to find out about this intriguing country for myself.

Sunset just past Mandalay.
The Burmese people have had a rubbish time of late, for anyone who doesn’t have any idea of the recent history I’ve poorly attempted to summarise in one paragraph… Burma becomes part of British India in 1886… Burma gains independence in 1948… A military coup replaces the government in 1962… In 1988 the military open fire on demonstrators killing an estimated 5000 people… The leader of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, placed under house arrest for the first time… Loads of shit went down – riots, arrests and much discontent… In 2008 Cyclone Nargis hits killing as many as 134,000 people…  In 2011 a new president is sworn in as president of a new, nominally civilian government… In 2013 I travel there.

First stop was the capital, Yangon. At the airport I was lucky enough to meet a fellow Northerner, Alex, and we pretty much travelled the entire country together…  A nice change to my usual solo existence. The city wasn’t what I expected... new buildings selling the latest LG electronic equipment and bars pulling ice cold draught beer (at very reasonable prices – just 40pence for a glass). After a day our group became 3 with the addition of Cloudy, another Brit who I had already met in India. We were the dream team of Myanmar. 

Here we are getting friendly with the Burmese.
After seeing the sites in Yangon we took an overnight train south to Mawlamyine/Moulmein, the first capital of British Burma with George Orwell connections and immortalised by Rudyard Kipling’s poem Mandalay:

"By the old Moulmein pagoda
Lookin' lazy at the sea
There's a Burma girl a-settin'
and I know she thinks o' me"

Train travel in Myanmar. The wooden benches are hard and the train appears to jump from it's tracks every few minutes, but it's all worth it.
Unfortunately the weather was against us and the monsoon lashed down hard. It was, however, a great introduction to a country with the friendliest people I’ve ever visited. I’m a fan of smiling, it’s fun, and if you come to Myanmar and don’t smile countless times each day then you’re dead inside. My favourite game was to grin like a maniac at the old man on a bicycle or the kids coming back from school and watching the obvious intrigue turn into the widest smile you could imagine. I will never forget Mawlamyine for that.

Nice surprise at the end of a cave. The real excitement here was wading through knee high water to reach the entrance, not having a clue what we would find inside and just exploring.
Next up was Hpa-an and possibly my favourite town in Myanmar. Again the weather wasn’t perfect but that did little to affect the natural beauty of the surrounding areas. There are countless caves to explore, mountains to climb and amazing countryside. It was here that I celebrated my 29th birthday by climbing a mountain and drinking lots of shitty whiskey. Great day with a great group of people.

Food is cheaper than in neighbouring Thailand and although greasy at times there are some gems to be found. 

Birthday climb up a mountain, great views. 
One of the ‘must see’ attractions in Myanmar is Inle Lake and it’s becoming increasingly popular to trek there. The normal route is a 3 day/2 night trek starting from Kalaw, being rock hard and fit as 3 fiddles, myself, Alex and Cloudy added an extra half day and night to see more local villages. I wanted to trek the route without a guide but none of the guesthouses would send my bags (I needed permission from the police or some crap) so in the end we relented and took a guide. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise as our guide, who has parentage from Nepal, was amazing. I learned so much along the way and had the opportunity to ask loads of questions. Usually guides on these trips throughout Asia are piss poor so it was a complete surprise. 

Question... Would you like to take the jungle with leeches or without? Leeches!!

Beautiful views across the countryside. The Japanese occupied this area during the second world war apparently.

They make them cute in this country.

2 Northern monkeys, generally looking as cool as cucumbers.
The trek was easy but the rewards were massive. Beautiful valleys, interesting nature and the most important thing on a multiday trek…. The food was incredible. Food, food, food. There was so much of it, they kept bringing it out… you want another roti? More rice? More curry? Oh yes I do.

Women have a major role in farming, in fact they probably do more work than the men.

You stay in homestay's along the way and a monastery on the final day. This is the sort of luxury I like - a wonky toilet with a door that doesn't close. 

Beautiful farm land.
The trek finishes at one end of Inle Lake and our accommodation options were on the other, cue a boat trip. It’s a great way to finish a trek, you lay back in a traditional long wooden canoe (with a not so traditional engine attached) and power through the estuaries which eventually merge into the giant Inle Lake. 

Transporting goods on Inle Lake.

Fishermen use a paddle on their legs to steer the boat, Inle Lake is the only place in the world this happens. 
After reaching our final destination, Nyaungshwe, we said our farewells to a great guide (I’ve forgotten his name and he never added me on facebook!) and hit the 2 4 1 cocktails. Along the trek we had a running total to see who  fell over the most, the loser buys the beers. Thankfully the equally wonky Alex and Cloudy shared the bill and my short arms didn’t have to stretch into my deep pockets to hunt for money. Cheers guys.

Winery in the hills of Nyaungshwe. The wine tastes even better when you've cycled there.
If you like pagoda's then Bagan could be your idea of Disneyland. Myanmar is pagoda crazy anyway, they are literally everywhere in the country but Bagan steps it up a notch. I just don’t know why you need to build so many, but it does make for a great day cycling around and finding your favourite. From Bagan I wanted to head west to Mruak-U and then up to some Chin villages where the women’s faces are completely covered in tattoos. Unfortunately the latest forum post I read suggested the area was forbidden for tourists due to the conflict between Rohingya Muslims and the Buddhists, that might not have been true but I didn’t want to risk wasting precious time.

My favourite pagoda in Bagan, a great place to relax and escape the heat. Maybe that's why there are so many.
Sunset over Bagan. Over 4000 temples I was told.
Hsipaw was great little town made even better by the superior skills of ‘Mr Shake’, a Chinese Burmese with the ability to churn out some unbelievably tasty fruit and ice cream based shakes. Believe it or not there is more to Hsipaw than shakes and trekking the surrounding area is popular. I was kept busy with other activities like motorbikes, super strong Chinese beer, hangovers and not getting soaked but the treks looked good.

Crossing the Gokteik viaduct on route to Hsipaw.  Paul Theroux mentions it in The Great Railway Bazaar: "a monster of silver geometry in all the ragged rock and jungle, its presence was bizarre"
I was lucky enough to step inside the palace where the last Shan Prince lived before being abducted by the Military, he was never seen again. Up until last year it was not possible to visit the palace as Donald, the nephew of the last Prince, was jailed for speaking with foreigners. The palace grounds are in a dilapidated state which was very sad to see, but Donald’s wife does a superb job of making the whole story come alive. I sat with her for 2 hours listening to countless stories about their family history and all things Burma. It was so interesting and a wonderful experience.

The Shan Palace in Hsipaw. It was a beauty.
My final destination and port of exit was Mandalay. I was a little apprehensive about this city of over 1 million people, most comments weren’t favourable but it was well nice. I had the good fortune to stay at an amazing homestay (Yoe Yoe Lay) run by a super generous lady with a very infectious laugh. She made Mandalay extra special and helped me have an amazing day exploring the cultural sites nearby. Leaving the country with a hug and a present from Mama felt like a fitting way to exit Myanmar. 

The leaning clocktower of Mandalay, one of the many worthwhile things to see around the area. Walking up this thing was pretty funny, you could really feel the tilt.

It's always nice to arrive at your guesthouse and find a message waiting for you, or is it?!

If you had to visit one country in the next 2 years, make it Myanmar. This country is in the process of huge change, hopefully most will benefit the people but some changes may be negative. Give it 5 years and most of what I remember might not be there, I just hope the generosity I encountered and those smiling faces are still there to greet me.  

A big thanks to everyone I met along the way, especially Alex, Cloudy, Will, Diana, Ori, Sarah, Barbara, Roxy and so many more.


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