I’d pre-booked a tour in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) before I left Australia and I managed to convince my parents to join me for this leg of my journey (not that that was hard to do!). I’d asked them for their flight details and booked my flights to have us arriving on the same day…. or I thought this was the case. The day before I was due to leave Thailand I decided to recheck my flights again to make sure I’d gotten it right, I always have such a fear that I’m going to book something on the wrong date or at the wrong time. 3 months into my trip, many flights booked and I hadn’t made a mistake yet. When I was checking the flight details I realised that I had in fact booked my flights to Myanmar for the wrong date, a whole month wrong! I was supposed to be departing Phuket on the 28th of May but I had booked my flights on the 28th of June (so stupid). It wasn’t such a big deal, I booked myself new flights and let my parents know I was excited to see them the following day only to find out they weren’t arriving in Myanmar for another day. Somehow I’d still managed to get my dates mixed up! Thankfully this mistake wasn’t as bad as my first mistake, it just meant I had a day to kill in Myanmar before they arrived.
I was so excited to arrive in Myanmar, to me Myanmar is Southeast Asia in its rawest form. Having only really opened its doors to tourism in 2011 Myanmar has so far managed to remain untouched to the negative effects that tourism can have. The people are genuinely excited to see you, No one hassles you and if they do they somehow manage to do it in a friendly manner. Having just come from Thailand where rowdy tourists are every second person it was a nice contrast to arrive in a place where at times it can be difficult to find another traveller. Being new to tourism does of course mean that there will definitely be some “hiccups” on your visit but as long as you go into it with an open mind and a sense of humour you will find that most of the time these “hiccups” will make for some of your best travel stories yet.
I arrived early in the morning at Yangon airport and headed to the hotel I was staying at in the city. Having spent most of my nights in hostels on this trip it was mice to stay somewhere with a big bed, comfy pillows and a fluffy towel! Don’t get me wrong it was no Maldives but it was definitely luxurious for a backpacker. With a day to kill on my own I went and checked out Bogyoke Market, the central market in Yangon. When I mapped it, it was about 2 kms from the hotel and despite the heat I decided to walk to see some of the city on my way. Turns out walking was a really great decision, the traffic is so bad in Yangon I definitely got to the market quicker on foot than I would have in a taxi! The markets full of beautiful fabrics, lacquer wear, puppets and plenty of other souvenirs.
My parents arrived the next day and I was super excited to see them. It had been 3 months since I had seen mum and a whopping 6 months since I had seen my dad who had been working China when I set off on my trip. We had a couple more days in Yangon before we were doing a short tour to the golden rock and then joining with our group for our 2 week tour. We visited the incredible Schwedagon Pagoda, a defining landmark of Yangon, this important religious site will have you in complete awe. We also took a trip on Yangon’s circle rail. It had been recommended to us on more than one occasion and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The train journey takes approximately 3 hours and starts and finishes in Yangon. It gives you a fantastic insight into local life and the fruit and veggie market that a spills onto the tracks at Danyangon station is absolutely fascinating! We jumped off at this stop with the intentions of quickly checking it out and catching the next train 15 minutes later. The next train never came and we probably waited about an hour for one to turn up, but like I said it’s all a part of the experience and the circle rail turned out to be one of my favourite experiences.
We set off for the golden rock early in the morning. It’s located about a four hour drive from Yangon, we had a couple of stops along the way including the biggest war memorial in Myanmar and in the town of Bago we visited the tallest Pagoda in Myanmar, stopped by a monastery for lunchime and checked out what was on offer at the local market.
We then continued on to golden rock base camp where we would catch a bus up to the top. When I say bus, we actually got into what appeared to be a pickup truck that had been fitted with rows of seats. There were 8 rows of seats that are meant to fit 7 people in each row. This was a bit of a squeeze but we managed to make it work. When we started heading up the mountain I felt like I had boarded some sort of a wild ride that you’d find at Disneyland. It soon became apparent that the way they’d wedged us in was probably a safety precaution. The seats where aluminium and if we weren’t so squished in we would have been sliding all over the place!
As we were nearing the top we found ourselves welcomed by a thick fog and a light drizzle of rain. This wasn’t making us feel great about our chances of seeing the rock that afternoon but we hoped if not then, we’d be able to see it the next morning. We checked into the hotel we’d be staying in for the night on the mountain and then headed up to visit the rock regardless off the fog surrounding us. Our guide took us to the top and then pointed in the direction of where the golden rock should have stood shining in all of its glory, instead all we could see was fog, fog and some more fog! But as we got closer (about 5 metres away) we were met with the glorious sight of the Kyaikhtiyo Pagoda. A golden Pagoda perched precariously on a golden rock perched precariously on another rock. Although it wasn’t shining in the sunshine with blue skies behind it like I had imagined it was actually magical shrouded in the fog, we were granted moments of clarity when the fog was blown away by the wind. The wind added to the whole effect by setting the hundreds of prayer bells surrounding the Pagoda ringing. And to make it even better we had the whole place to ourselves!
We planned to try and see the Pagoda again the following morning but when we woke to torrential rain we scrapped that idea, donned our rain coats and boarded the bus to head back down to base camp. For some reason the return trip look a lot longer than the way up and by the time we got to the bottom we were so stiff from being cramped up I felt like I needed to be pried out of my seats!
We headed back to Yangon for our last night before we joined our Intrepid tour group for a whirlwind 2 week tour of the beautiful country of Myanmar. I was excited!
We transferred to our Intrepid hotel in the morning and then spent the day enjoying a wander around the city and a look at the markets. We had our welcome meeting for the tour at 6 pm where we were introduced to our guide Josh, a Myanmar local who had grown up in Yangon. The rest of the group consisted of myself, my parents (Kerry and Allan), Kim and Laura, solo travellers from the US, Kate and Kelly, solo travellers from Aus, Geoffrey from Belgium and Ayla and Sharleen from NZ. A good group eager and ready to see everything Myanmar had to offer. During this meeting Josh introduced us to an important term that we’d use throughout the rest of the trip , “Myanmar style ” commonly used to explain anything that went wrong or not quite to plan. For example the circle train taking an hour instead of 15 minutes to arrive… Myanmar style!
We started the trip with a walking tour around the old town of Yangon followed by a sunset visit to Schwedagon Pagoda. The second visit for my parents and I but this certainly wasn’t a problem I feel like you could visit this amazing place 10 times and still not be able to take it all in!
Early the next day we boarded a flight to take us to the ancient city and archeological sight of Bagan. The flight was short and sweet and we arrived ready for adventure. First things first we visited a local village and 3 out of the 2000 pagodas still standing in the region. Bagan was originally home to more than 10,000 temples and monasteries! As with all tourist destinations there’s always plenty of opportunities to pick up local handicrafts and souvenirs, when we visited the first temple I showed a bit of interest in some pants that a lady was selling, I decided I didn’t need them though and politely declined her sales offer. Silly me thought this would be the end of our interaction so you can imagine my surprise when we got to the next temple and she was there waiting for me to get off the bus (she followed us on her motorbike). I again declined her offer because some more clothes to fill up my backpack was really the last thing I needed. When I arrived at the third temple to find her waiting for me again I decided that I couldn’t let her down a third time. I admired that she was somehow persistent without being pushy and I ended up buying 2 pairs of pants off her!
For our second day in Bagan we headed off to explore the temples by bicycle. I wouldn’t say bike riding is a strong point of mine, I think it’s more that I lack confidence than anything so when you put me on a bike I’ll usually freak out and fall off at some point. I was pleasantly surprised when I made it through the day without inflicting any physical damage to my body. My dignity of the other hand was a whole different story. Remember those pants I bought off that lady the day before? Well I decided to wear a pair of them bike riding. Definitely not my best decision. I heard them split in the crutch the first time I boarded my bike. Of course I found this a little alarming but I decided if that was as a bad as it was going to get I would be able to make it through the day….. it got a lot worse, every time I boarded the bike they would split further and by the end of our bike ride the material had all but disintegrated! Luckily I had a scarf that I was able to wrap around to avoid me exposing myself to everyone! Lesson learnt: do not buy cheap pants in Asia and try to wear them bike riding!
Aside from the pants incident the bike ride was magnificent, I swear every temple that we stopped at just got better and better!
We finished up the day with the hope of a sunset at Shwe Sandaw Temple, the sunset never came but the views were still amazing! Then we had dinner with a show… a marionette show. I never knew puppets could be this awesome!
On our final day in Bagan we made a day trip to Mount Popa, a mountain towering above its surroundings, topped with golden temples and stupas. It’s a steep 777 step climb to the top where you are rewarded with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Surprisingly it’s not the stairs that are the hard part of this climb, it’s the feisty monkeys that have nearly taken over the temple that are the challenge. There was one blocking the last set of stairs that I had to climb to get to the top and every time anyone would get to close to him he would take a swipe at them. When I saw him swipe a handful of a ladies hair I decided I needed to find an alternative route to the top! Once at the top the views are incredible but I think I had more fun taking selfies with all the monks that wanted a photo with me.
On return to Bagan that afternoon Mum, Dad and I decided to explore some of the temple close to our hotel in the hope of maybe managing to see as sunset. Again we had no luck with the sunset but we did manage to find an awesome temple that we could explore all to ourselves.
From Bagan we headed into central Myanmar where we would be staying the night at a community project and interacting with the four villages in the surrounding vicinity. I was particularly excited about this part of the trip. We gained a genuine insight into how the people of rural Myanmar live their lives. They cooked delicious meals for us, took us on tours of their villages and even put on a dance performance for us. We did have to ride bikes to get around and the roads were hardly roads so I did feel like I was mountain biking but again I managed to make it out unharmed and this time I wore pants that were much more appropriate!
Our next stop was Mandalay, a 6 hour drive from the community lodge! We stopped along the way for lunch and made a visit to the Sagaing temples. These temples sit just outside the town of Mandalay on hills overlooking the city. Once again I was completely in awe of the beauty of these structures! We asked our guide why there are so many temples and Pagodas in Myanmar because they truly are just everywhere and although extremely beautiful it does seem a little excessive, they must cost a fortune! He simply replied that the people belive that by building these places of worship they will receive good karma for this life and the next.
Mandalay is a bustling city with lots to see and do so we hit the ground running and first took in the local market. Although I sometimes found the smells a little difficult to deal with I found the visits to the markets absolutely fascinating!
Next up we took a boat down the Ayeyarwady river to visit the nearby town of Mingun. Home to Mingun Pahtodawgyi, what would have been the biggest stupa in the world had it been completed, the world’s largest ringing bell and the beautiful Hsinphymae Pagoda.
We headed back on the boat to Mandalay and our never ending day continued… We went on to visit a gold leaf making factory, a lot of people will buy gold leaf to leave as an offering when visiting Pagodas and temples. The process of making gold leaf looked absolutely exhausting! Hundreds of hours are spent pounding the gold into extremely thin pieces, these are then used as gold leaf. We also visited the Sweinbin teak monastery and finished up our day at the top of Mandalay hill to take in the sunset.
From Mandalay we made our way to Kalaw, a beautiful hill region of Myanmar’s Shan state. En route we had a stopover at the incredible U Bein bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world!
The purpose of our visit to Kalaw was to do some trekking in the beautiful surrounding hills and countryside. I love trekking so I was seriously excited about this part of the tour. We hiked for about 6 hours through some absolutely breathtaking countryside, being the rainy season meant that there was luscious green fields as far as the eye could see. We got to see farmers hard at work, interestingly most of this region used to be used for farming opium. Now a days their produce is more legal with pear trees, orange trees and tea plantations being the most common in this area. We had lunch in a village with a local family and only got hit by torrential rain once, not bad considering we were there right in the middle of the rainy season.
Our final stop in Myanmar had us visiting the incredible Inle lake. Infamous for its floating gardens, markets and villages and its fisherman who use a distinctive leg rowing technique to get around the lake. This place is nothing short of incredible! We arrived at Inle lake after a long drive from Kalaw including a stopover at the fascinating Pindaya caves, a cave system full of 8000 golden Buddha statues.
On arrival we checked into the hotel, went for a quick tour of Nyaungshwe, the town we were staying in and then hit the pub a cross the street for an enjoyable afternoon beer. As we were sitting there a G Adventures bus pulled into the same accomodation as us. My friend Laura that I met at dive school in Thailand was on a G adventures tour in Myanmar but we’d already figured out we wouldn’t see each other as her tour started 8 days after mine did. To my delight she jumped off the bus! Her tour was similar to mine but going in the opposite direction so Inle lake was one of her first stops. We had a big hug and organized to catch up over some drinks the following night.
The best way to truly experience life on Inle lake is to board a boat and spend the day exploring and that’s exactly what we did! This was definitely one of my favourite days of the whole trip! We visited local villages, watched the fisherman, floated by the floating gardens and learnt about the local handicrafts of silver making and weaving.
After a long hit day on the lake we were all ready for dinner and and some much needed rehydration. I had dinner with my parents and then met Laura for some drinks. It was at this point that I started to feel quite unwell. So I said goodbye to Laura and headed back to my room. Once I got myself into bed I was hit with a fever and chills and I found myself shaking uncontrollably for about 45 minutes. So I messaged my parents to come over and make sure I didn’t die, thanks mum and dad! Not long after their arrival I was struck with the realization that I might have malaria. Shakes and a high fever are common side effects and I knew if I had somehow picked up malaria I would need treatment right away. We knew our guide Josh would be able to help but the problem was it was nearly 11pm by now and we had no idea what room he was in. The only thing we had was a phone number for him but none of us had a phone that had been able to get signal in Myanmar. So dad headed out to reception to see if he could call from there. He found the reception was closed but was able to communicate to the security guard, despite the language barrier, that he needed to get into the reception. He let him in and woke up one of the staff who gave dad a phone to use. He tried ringing the number but had no luck because it turns out they’d given him an in house phone to use, not much use when we didn’t know Josh’s room number. In the end they gave him a phone that worked and he was able to call Josh who then came rushing to my room. He assured me that I couldn’t have malaria but due to my high temperature thought it was best that I see a doctor right away. He headed off to arrange this for me and returned about an hour later. Turns out finding a doctor at that time of the night is a tough thing. He called 3 doctors who just said no and then finally the 4th doctor agreed to see me but he had a small child at home so we would have to go and see him. This meant that we would need transport to get there. Josh called someone to come pick us up only to have him turn up on a motorbike! He sent him away and eventually he came back with a van… Myanmar style!
We arrived at the doctors place and were ushered into a small concrete room, a bit different to the kind of doctors we have at home. He took my temperature only to find that I was sitting at 102°F, generally a healthy temperature is about 98°F. But he seemed sure I didn’t have malaria and was able to give me a number of antibiotics to fix me. I have no idea what I took but they seemed to get rid of my high fever almost right away and that was the main thing I was worried about. Luckily we had Josh with us to translate otherwise we would have had no idea what was going on!
We’d hired bikes for the following day but after my little midnight ordeal I opted put of this activity and mum stayed to keep me company as well. Whatever the antibiotics were that I’d been given really did seem to work wonders and I was feeling almost normal again by the afternoon. So I decided to join the rest of the group and we visited a winery for sunset… who knew Myanmar made wine!? I didn’t join in on the tasting because I still wasn’t feeling 100% but I was told that the wine wasn’t great. Regardless the winery itself was beautiful and it had a crazy good view overlooking the lake.
We flew back to Yangon the following day (the only flight I’ve ever been on that didn’t have assigned seating… Myanmar style!) where our time in Myanmar was sadly coming to an end. This also meant that I had to say goodbye to my parents 🙁 I had the best time travelling with them and I can safely say they’re definitely the ones that I blame for my crazy love of travel, thanks guys!
Not only did I get some ridiculously good photos on this this trip but I also got some incredible video footage so make sure you check out my youtube video too!