Myanmar was immediately and starkly different from the Thailand that we had just arrived from. There were Buddhist temples lining the jungle-covered hills surrounding the town of Kawthaung, itself a bustling port on the muddy shores of the Kraburi river. We made our way down the narrow alleyways, past food carts and open store fronts selling cloth or kwun-ya, which we immediately recognized as paan from our time in India. Motorcycles were flying by at top speed, precisely navigating between pedestrians and other obstacles. We visited the Honey Bear Hotel, a four story affair easily visible from the water, but were not super impressed with their prices, so we headed up to Penguin Hotel up the hill a bit more.
There were a few boys in their early 20s running the show at Penguin, and the prices were a bit better, so we got a room for the night, still not knowing what was in store for the rest of our time in the south of Myanmar.
It is pretty clearly approaching the rainy season here in Southeast Asia, and we weren’t sure if we would be able to make it out to any of the legendary islands in the Andaman Sea. As it turns out, the answer was pretty definitively no. Apparently the several companies that organize boat tours to some of the spectacular islands not far off the coast close down for the low season (between late May and October, typically), and after asking around at a few places, people simply shook their heads. There was absolutely no way we could get out there, we were told. Not only were the tour companies not operating, but permission to get to many of the islands is still a fairly tightly-controlled process, and the government shuts that down at the beginning of summer. We couldn’t even pay a fisherman to take us to one.
The same would probably apply to Myeik, some 400km up the coast towards Yangon, which was to be our next destination, so we were left wondering how much time we should really spend in the south. In the interest of skipping the 14 hour bus ride to Myeik, we threw down on some pretty affordable airplane tickets from Apex Air, one of the domestic carriers in Myanmar.
We headed down to what would be best described as a juottola, in Finnish. Or rather, a space with minimal pretension, whose primary aim is to serve you uncomplicated drinks and eats. We sat down amongst the locals in the dimly lit space and ordered some beers and food. We learned that the establishment’s name is Mark, for unknown reasons. After spending less than 8000 kyat (around $6) on four beers and two plates of delicious, yet basic Burmese fare, we concluded that we like this place.
We rented a motorbike the following day to check out Pulo Tonton, a nearby island connected to the mainland by a very long wooden bridge. The island itself was somewhat depressing, the locals lived in utter squalor, in wooden shacks propped up on stilts, above the brackish tides below; garbage washing in and out with the waves. Despite their destitution, people were surprisingly friendly. The kids ran out to the street to say hello, and the locals pointed us in the direction of the “beach”, no doubt the only thing on the island that foreigners come to see. The beach, as it turns out, is little better. There are a few derelict restaurants lining the shores, and again, garbage features heavily. More ominous, however, were the concrete statues of mermaids and octopi, their paint chipping from decades of wear.
The rain started pouring torrentially as we were on our way back, so we stopped off at a small restaurant in town. We drank tea for several hours, waiting patiently for the rain to stop. It eventually pacified enough to coerce us into getting back onto our bike, only to start up again with equal force once we were out of reach of any shelter. We rode slowly, but eventually made it back to our hotel, completely drenched. Our plans of visiting a nearby temple would need to be canceled, and we were largely confined to our hotel room for the rest of the evening.
We made it to the airport in the morning, which was little more than a faded concrete husk with some makeshift check-in windows; the authorities were very concerned with our status, and meticulously copied information from our passports. We’re pretty convinced they actually had no idea what they were doing though, as one man was copying the digits from Oona’s long-expired Chinese visa, doing his best to look official.
The flight was indeed only 40 minutes or so, cruising high above the muddy deltas of Southern Myanmar. We touched down in a blisteringly hot Myeik, a historically important center for commerce and trade between India and China in the days of old. Its status was evident, with many Chinese-owned businesses and a largely multiethnic population.
Our worries were confirmed in Myeik, that there was no way of getting out to the islands this late in the season, so again we were stuck on land. Myeik is actually a pretty interesting town, with some charming colonial architecture and a couple large temples, but spending more than a day there gets very boring. A vast majority of commerce is down on the pier, just next to the center of town, with fishing boats and longtails coming and going at all hours of the day.
We spent our time wandering around town, exploring the neighborhoods and the central market. We climbed the stairs to the Theindawgyi Pagoda, overlooking the town. We ate at an Indian restaurant –not the sort you’d see in the west though, the sort catering to generations old Indian families in Myanmar, many of whom have never even been to India. A distinct ethnic group, a people and cuisine neither fully Indian nor fully Burmese. An older man, mostly skin and bones dressed in the traditional garb, came over to our table after our meal. He asked where we were from, repeatedly shook our hands, and insisted that we were welcome in his country. The whole family bade us farewell, standing in a line, shaking our hands in sequence on our way out the door like the end of a football match.
We spent our nights dining at the night market along the quay. It’s a series of wood-fired woks with tarps over some informal seating areas. The food, from what we could gather, is largely the same from place to place. We got fried noodles (much like pad thai) both nights from different vendors. The busy road next door was a constant stream of people yelling “hello!” to us from their motorbikes. We spent about $1.40 to feed both of us, which we concluded may be the cheapest meal we’ve ever bought, even trumping our greasy bowls of plov from Khujand, in Tajikistan.
The following day we headed back to the airport, and hopped on our flight (following similar bureaucratic steps that we had gone through in Kawthaung) towards Lashio via a stop in Yangon, some hundred kilometers from the border with China in the Shan state.
When we landed in Lashio we spoke with the only other westerners on the flight, Sara and David, as we were waiting for the officials to finish copying down our passport details. They were heading straight to Hsipaw by taxi, which was our next destination. We had originally planned on spending the night in Lashio, taking the train down the following day, but we ended up all pitching in on a shared taxi. We were able to talk the driver down to 40,000 kyat total, or just about $7 per person.
After about 90 minutes on the highway, we made it to our guest house in Hsipaw and checked in. The town itself was charming, a small crossroads in the mountains, steadily becoming an important destination for shipping on the highway to China. We got dinner at Mrs. Popcorn’s Garden, which was reportedly a good place. The sign on the front read Mr’s Popcorn Garden, so we weren’t sure if the owner was Mr or Mrs. Nevertheless, nearly all the hospitality establishments in Hsipaw follow a similar format: Mr Shake, Mr Food, Mr Charles, etc. A small boy of no older than 8 came to take our orders. He wrote down nothing, but miraculously got all four orders (drinks and food) right. It took a very long time to arrive, and did so in a very strange order, but it all eventually got there.
The following day we all rented bikes and headed out to the Nam Tok waterfalls, six or so kilometers from town. Up through the farmlands we went, making it to worse and worse roads, eventually getting to a point where we ditched our bikes in favor of walking. The last kilometer of the trail was beautiful, with the falls in all their glory visible in the distance. The foreground was a lush green farmland, highlighted with ridges of red soil. Several farmers were tilling their fields as we walked by. We spent some time swimming in the pool underneath the waterfall, until Oona spotted what may have been a leach. We concluded that it was fun while it lasted, but headed back to the trail just as it started raining. Fortunately the rain let up after not too long, and we decided to try to find the hot springs everybody was talking about. We didn’t end up finding them, but we must have gotten close. Hunger was closing in, and we were all pretty over it, so we headed back to town for some lunch.
Our friends were taking off the following morning, so we went to Mr Shake for some pre-dinner cocktails. As it turns out, Mr Shake makes up some pretty fantastic ones. They are basically fresh fruit shakes, with things like mango, pineapple, passionfruit, and coconut all blended up together. They can add in a hefty pour of Mandalay Rum at your discretion, all for about $1. After several rounds of those, we went to Mr Food for dinner. When asked about the difference between two items on the menu, the proprietor responded with “this one no good, this one good.”
The following day we went on a hike in the mountains surrounding Hsipaw. Hsipaw is a center for that sort of thing, so a vast majority of travelers to the area go on some sort of a trek there. There are dozens of tiny ethnic minority villages around Hsipaw, and a common destination for trekking is Pankham, a Palaung (an Austroasiatic ethnic group in Myanmar) village nearby. We took a motorbike up the badly rutted dirt road, only navigable by motorbike or foot, to Pankham, climbing higher and higher through the farmlands into the mountains. We walked back without a guide being that the route is pretty straightforward, and marveled our way through nameless villages and farms, being tended to by locals of all ages. We gathered that this route is inordinately popular for tourists in the high season, as the people we ran into along the way were far less interested in us than those in say, Myeik. After 16km we were back in Hsipaw, ready for some dinner and a good night’s sleep.
We got up fairly early the next morning and prepared for our departure. We were going to take the train to Pyin Oo Lwin, on the basis that this particular train trip is regarded as one of the best in the world, crossing the iconic Goteik Viaduct in the process. We showed up to the Hsipaw train station at 8:45, an hour before the daily train’s departure, and were able to secure tickets (on the right side of the train, as that’s apparently the most scenic when heading west). The train station is an adorably quaint affair, with no power, but a battery-powered long wave radio to call to the next station.
The decrepit old train came rumbling up to the station right on time, on battered and ancient rails that were hardly suitable for the job. All the windows on the train were wide open, and after 10 minutes or so we lurched to a start, livestock and people and rickshaws clearing from our path like the Red Sea before Moses. The trip took nearly seven hours, but was just as spectacular as billed. At every unknown crossroads that the train stopped at, vendors would board and hawk whatever they could to the passengers. We bought a few ears of corn and a plate of fried noodles for less than $2, and were thoroughly impressed with the corn, concluding that it was among the top five ears of corn we had ever consumed. We plowed steadily onward, through mostly farmland, with local farmhands taking a break from the monotony to wave to us from afar.
The famed Goteik Viaduct soars over 100 meters above the floor of a gorge near Pyin Oo Lwin. The creaking behemoth groaned under the train’s presence, reminding riders that it has been there, unwavering, for more than 100 years. Its construction was commissioned by the British to an American company in 1899, connecting otherwise difficult to access regions of the Shan state to the rest of Myanmar.
We, along with a handful of other travelers, opted to disembark the train at Pyin Oo Lwin and take a taxi the remaining 50 or so kilometers to Mandalay. The train does continue there, but it takes nearly six hours to navigate the rickety switchbacks down the hill into Mandalay. A taxi ride makes the journey in less than an hour. All but the hardiest of railfans would skip the last leg in the interest of shaving five hours from the trip, with the added luxury of arriving in Mandalay before nightfall to boot.
Our friends from Hsipaw had gone to Mandalay the day before us, but Sara was still in town when we arrived, so we all pitched in on a room together in town, which ended up being considerably cheaper than the alternative.
For our one full day in Mandalay, we spent our time wandering the considerable cityscape. Mandalay looks a lot smaller on the map than it does when you’re walking, so we ended up walking a lot. We visited the Royal Palace, the Atumashi and Shwenandaw Monasteries, and the Kuthodaw Pagoda. We were thoroughly impressed by them all, with the exception of Atumashi Monastery, which wasn’t that great. To add to the splendor, there were very few other people there with us, as Mandalay doesn’t seem to be a popular spot on the tourist trail.
The following morning we set off to Amarapura, a neighborhood of Mandalay, with the intent of checking out the famous U Bein bridge. It’s the largest and oldest teak bridge in the world, but is much less of a tourist attraction as it is a means for locals to get across the river. We walked over it and back, and were generally in awe of the goings on there. A man in a boat (a duckherd?) was herding ducks below. A fisherman standing on the shore was casting his net, trawling for whatever fish he could. The bridge itself feels a bit rickety, and there are basically no safety precautions taken at all; probably very similar to when it was built in 1850.
Later in the afternoon we took off by minibus to Bagan. The road became steadily dryer, with reds and muted pastels defining the landscape. We finally arrived in Bagan after six or so hours on the road.
If Mandalay was not on the tourist trail, then Bagan most definitely was. Bagan is the home of all those photos you see online of millions of temples dotting the landscape with hot air balloons drifting gracefully above, with an orange sun just peeking above the horizon. Our plans were foiled again by the rainy season though, as the hot air balloons apparently don’t operate outside of winter, so we were left observing from the ground. Nonetheless, we witnessed some pretty brilliant views, with a lot less people than winter as well.
We wanted to see the sunrise from one of the temples, so we asked one of the hotel staff to recommend us a good spot for the following morning. Our boy Scott at the front desk ensured us, through hardly intelligible English, that Pyathetgyi Pagoda was the place to be at sunrise, and that it was suitable for one to take one’s girlfriend there, or at least that’s what we got out of the conversation.
We awoke at the unholy hour of 4:30am, with surely enough time to get to our destination before the sun rose. We picked up some e-bikes (electronic scooters available all over town) from a shop down the street, and took off in the direction of Pyathetgyi Pagoda. Not long later our entire morning descended into chaos. First, navigating the dirt paths that lead to a majority of the temples is very difficult, especially when its still dark, so we were having trouble locating Pyathetgyi from the mess of other temples this way and that. Sara’s e-bike inexplicably broke down at one point after we turned off the main road, so the three of us piled onto one woefully underpowered bike as we went bumping down the dirt road. At this point it started raining fairly torrentially, but the sky still looked light enough to entice us into continuing our search. We eventually found Pyathetgyi right around sunrise, only to discover that it was closed for renovation, and had been since February. Scott was decidedly not our boy anymore. With time running out, we decided to head to the much more popular Shwesandaw Pagoda in hopes of salvaging some of the morning, but we could not make it all the way there with only one scooter, so we stopped at Sara’s broken down one to attempt to revive it.
We ended up calling the e-bike shop, and they brought out a replacement for us some 30 minutes later. At this point the sun was definitely above the horizon, but we still had narrow hopes of catching some good glimpses, that is until Sara’s second e-bike inexplicably broke down. At this point we were cursing just about everything from Scott to our e-bike shop to the unrelenting clouds that refused to steer clear. Given that we had certainly missed sunrise, and we wouldn’t have another replacement bike for another 30 more minutes, we conceded to heading back home, maybe getting some sleep, and aiming for a sunset photoshoot instead.
We headed out later in the day, once the weather had cleared up a bit, and explored the countryside. There are countless temples in Bagan, and one can spend several days just visiting all of them, although after the 15th or 20th one, they start to get a little boring. The sun was shining during the day, and we visited Shwesandaw to vet everything before we committed to it for sunset. Climbing the steep stairs of the beautiful structure totally sold us on it. There was not another soul in sight, and the views during the day were absolutely stunning.
We rode around for a few more hours exploring more and more temples, and finally headed back to Shwesandaw for sunset. It turns out pretty much everybody else had the same idea, at this point it was a far cry from our visit during the day, and the peace had been shattered by loads of tour buses. The top level was packed, with the lower levels sparser and sparser, but the clouds to the west were dense, and sunlight was hard to come by. We sat around for awhile with the throngs of tourists, wondering what this place would be like during the high season, and eventually gave up right around sunset, concluding that the view was not going to change.
We bade farewell to Sara the following day and headed to Yangon on the morning bus.
After about nine hours on the bus, cruising through the dry highlands of rural Myanmar, we arrived in a sopping wet Yangon. The humidity was nearly 100%, but at least it wasn’t raining at the time. Our bus stopped at a station north of the airport, and it took almost an hour by taxi to get to our guest house in the city center.
We had only two nights planned for Yangon, but we were very pleasantly surprised, so we decided to stay for a third, partially to recover from the fast pace with which we had gone through the previous towns.
Yangon, we concluded, was a pretty cool place, for a practically unknown sprawling city in Southeast Asia. Colonial architecture is everywhere from when the Brits ruled the land, and it had a feeling much like a large city in India.
Unfortunately, this time of year is not a nice one to spend in the lowlands of Myanmar, and it continued to pour down rain for most of our time there. On our second day in town, we embarked on a trek to the Bogyoke Aung San market, armed with an umbrella from our guest house. The Bogyoke market is a staple of life in Yangon, and we spent several hours perusing the various shops there. These days its pretty touristy, and many of the shops run on money brought in by souvenirs for tourists. For this reason it can be difficult to bargain with the vendors, and many times they’re simply unwilling to budge much on the price, confident that they can sell to the next unwitting tourist for a greatly overblown sum. Nevertheless, some cool stuff can be found, and we did end up buying some souvenirs.
We also visited Augustine’s Antique Shop, far north of the city center. We had read great things online, so we decided to give it a look. If we thought things were expensive at Bogyoke, we had hardly scratched the surface of the Yangon antiques trade. Augustine’s is a very well-established shop, and it’s clearly not strapped for cash. It’s outfitted with security cameras and dazzling lights, and most of the wares sell for European prices. Some of the pieces were stunning, and some of them are clearly historic, but it seems to be a stop on the professional antique hunter’s map, and we concluded that we were quite certainly out of our depth. The proprietors were clearly not interested in selling much, and eyeballed figures in the thousands (US dollars, mind you) for most things we enquired about. One such item, a beautiful wooden dresser from the Shan state, was a firm $5000, and shipping through their company was another $1500 on top of that.
That night, we spontaneously decided to get a kwun-ya from one of the innumerable streetside vendors. We approached an Indian fellow, deftly spreading slaked lime onto betel leaves, in preparation for some unseen onslaught of customers, and motioned for two. He looked confused, and sought to confirm that we knew what we were getting ourselves into. We stood firm, and motioned again. He double-checked that we actually wanted tobacco in there, unfathomable as it may be for our western palates. Apparently convinced, he whipped up a few in under five seconds, and handed a bare one to Ian, followed by another, wrapped in plastic, also to Ian. We lodged them into our cheeks like greedy chipmunks and asked how much we owed him. Evidently impressed by our chutzpah, he insisted that we have them for free.
Sara made it to Yangon the following day, so we met up with her again and explored a bit of Yangon’s Chinatown. We were fairly disappointed, as it was not nearly as “Chinese” as we were expecting. After walking around some of the blocks there, we settled on the Rangoon Tea House for lunch. Judging by the name, we were expecting a traditional spot in some dank old building, imaginably catering to the British higher-ups of a bygone era. We were greeted by a fashionably modern affair, with a hipsteresque colonial touch. The menu, decked out with craft cocktails and contemporary versions of traditional Burmese cuisine, was fairly intimidating. We decided on a handful of items, but we were clearly outgunned, and left completely devoid of any space in our abdomens. The food and tea was fantastic; the Rangoon Tea House should definitely be a stop on any visitor’s agenda.
Next up was Yangon’s, and indeed Myanmar as a whole’s crown jewels, the Shwedagon Pagoda. One of the world’s oldest Buddhist temples, Shwedagon stands tall against the Yangon skyline, and glitters in shining gold after dark. The grounds are particularly peaceful, despite the crowds of people it always draws, and the constant ringing of bells provides a soothing backdrop for the meditating masses. The stupa itself is particularly humbling, and stands over 100 meters tall.
We ended up back at the Rangoon Tea House for dinner, for lack of a better option at that hour, and because it was just so danged good. The cocktails proved to be not that great, but the food again was delicious.
Our bus to Hpa An was leaving the following morning at 8am, and our guest house proprietor insisted that we get in our taxi by 6am to make it to the bus station (which is on the northern fringe of the city) on time. The trip took us 32 minutes, so with an hour and a half to kill we got some Shan noodles for breakfast in the sprawling bus station.
We arrived in Hpa An by early afternoon, and were dead set on seeing a bit of the countryside before our departure the next morning, so we had only a handful of hours with which to do so. We bee lined to a local scooter rental place and picked up a couple for the paltry sum of 3000 kyat per bike to run around the local area with.
We managed to get a good look at things in the limited time that we had, but two nights probably would have resulted in a more relaxed itinerary. Our first stop was the stunning Kyauk Ka Lat, a pagoda on a narrow spire of rock reaching skyward from a lake.
We took the scenic route back to the Kawgun and Yathaypyan caves. Both of which were interesting, replete with scores of Buddha statues reaching back into the depths of the mountains. The highlight of the trip, however, was the bat cave, for lack of a better term. As the name implies, this cave is home to nearly 10 million (!) bats, and right around 6:20 (we were told) they come flapping out for a night on the town. We showed up just after 6:20 to see a swath of darkened sky originating from the mountainside. As we neared, we bore witness to hundreds of bats per second absolutely pouring through a narrow opening above us. The stream never thinned for the 20 or so minutes we were there, as the screeching bats went careening into the night. They maintained surprising consistency, and you could see their colony staining the night sky for miles towards the horizon.
It finally came time for us to leave Myanmar, so we piled into a shared taxi to the Thai border at Myawaddy on our way to Chiang Mai. We concluded that Myanmar was pretty awesome. To us, it felt a lot more Indian than it did Southeast Asian, and again reminded us of fond memories from India.