What a change of pace it's been coming from our family reunion to a place that was not really what we expected, in a good way of course. We felt as if we were back in India. Flying into Yangon we instantly got the Indian vibe due to all the British colonial architecture and extremely diverse local population. We arrived at our guesthouse and the owners were amazing, welcoming and incredibly friendly. Realizing that Myanmar is touching Laos, India, Bangladesh, Thailand, and China, it’s no wonder that there is such a mixed group of people in the region. We really had no idea what to do when we got there so we figured the best thing would be to go explore the city and new cuisine. We landed in an Indian, Burmese fusion joint that was absolutely amazing! It was strange being back in a place where you become the center of attention with every corner you turn and only 10 percent of the population speaks English.
After venturing around town for a couple days and seeing the local tourist spots such as the Shwedagon Pagoda, we were ready to get out of the city and make our way to the small town of Hpa-An. This town had little to offer, but after signing up for a full day tour of the surrounding area, we were blown away with what we saw. Our group of 8 people loaded up into a small tuk-tuk and headed out into the countryside. The tour consisted of visiting the many Buddhist monasteries and cave temples, which ended up being one of the highlights of the whole trip.
The caves were MASSIVE! Never before had we experienced such places! We were astonished to see the intricate carvings throughout the high temple ceilings and the natural brilliance of these humongous caverns. After a full day tour in 100+ degree heat we were ready for a nap and a shower!
The following day we decided it would be cool to climb the tallest mountain in the area which turned out to be about 3500’ ft. The hike ended up being quite the challenge. It had a staircase nearly the entire way up but every foot forward was 3 feet in elevation. Once our group reached the top it became immediately clear that it was well worth the hike. What a view!!! After snapping some good sunset photos and taking a quick break, it was time to make our way to the bottom to avoid a night time trek. When reaching the bottom we realized we were stranded. There wasn't a soul around to take us the 30 min ride back to our guesthouse. Luckily we started walking back home and found a man with a car looking to make a quick buck, which we were more than happy to pay.
The next day we took a short bus ride to another small town called Kinpun (Golden rock) known for a massive boulder barely balancing on the edge of a cliffside monastery. There is a cool history with the rock as each Myanmar citizen must make a pilgrimage to see the rock in person once in their life. Therefore, there were thousands of people at the top of this mountain praying, eating and just hanging out. It was pretty uneventful for the high price tag but the ride to the top of the mountain was definitely exciting. We were packed into the back of a small dump truck with 30 other people on the tiniest benches riding up the steepest, windiest roads I’ve ever been on. The ride down the mountain was even more fun as we were crammed into the back of the truck with some Cambodian monks who sang the whole way down the mountain!
With Thingyan (The Burmese Water Festival) quickly approaching we had to make some serious moves to get to the city of Bagan before the whole country shut down for the 4 day festival. The cool thing about Thingyan is that every form of transportation stops and all the restaurants and stores shut down, which makes eating quite the challenge. So we took 3 hellish bus rides to get to Bagan before the festival. To no one's surprise, our bus adventure was awful and consisted of us being dropped off in the middle of nowhere at 2am! It got even better (worse) when we had to pay an outrageous amount of money ($10USD) to catch a ride (on the back of mopeds) to the bus ticket office at this ungodly hour. Turns out the ticket office was really just a local man's shop and the moped drivers had to wake the man up so he could sell us our ticket. BUT turns out the bus didn't leave for 6 more hours. So we were left to sleep in this man's ticket office/house in bamboo chairs until the next onward bus arrived to take us to Bagan. But finally, we made it!
We spent 4 days in this awesome little temple city, and it was well worth the trouble to get there. In 1044 the ruler of this once thriving city commissioned thousands of temples. Over the next 200 years around 2000 temples were built and still stand today even through massive earthquakes and natural disasters. What a feat of engineering and a sight to behold! In order to tour around the 16 square miles of temple sites, we decided to opt out of the more expensive E-bikes and go for your good-ole peddle bicycles. This was a bad choice, with the temperatures upwards of 105 degrees we were limited to a 6am-11am & 4pm-6pm regimen for fear of dying from heat stroke. But is was so great to be able to explore these extremely undeveloped temples, in which we had free reign to climb up and get some amazing photos!
On our 4th day in Bagan, we learned that we needed to make a choice whether to stay in Bagan for 5 more days while Thingyan was going on, or leave that same afternoon and catch the last bus to Mandalay, a nearby city. It was an easy decision for us, being templed out and ready for a change.
After yet another bus ride we made it to the big city of Mandalay just in time for the festival. The festival is a 4 day water fight!! Every single person in Myanmar is partying in the street and throwing water at eachother. The city of Mandalay had built massive stages for music, dancing and throwing water over the past few weeks and it was utter mayhem when we walked out of our hotel the next day. It was an extreme awakening when we took our first four steps outside of our hotel and were greeted with a bucket of water in the face from a moving truck. The rest of the day followed suit and it seemed that being a foreigner painted an even larger bullseye on your back! Not to mention that a 1,000,000 people were wanting, no, DYING to get you to say hello to them. Every which way you turned it was, MING-A-LA-BA!!!!!! (hello) and then immediately followed by another bucket of water. We quickly learned that we needed to buy a squirt gun to exact revenge on the little monsters of the streets! The water fights we got into were pretty epic and there was no mercy!
Going out at night to get food at the few remaining open restaurants was still not entirely safe because when these kids would see you walk down the street, it was the single greatest joy of their lives. They immediately went into strike mode with only one goal in mind, ATTACK!!! Soaked, yet again! It felt like walking outside in a zombie apocalypse, if you didn't watch your back you got smoked.
In the wake of 4 days of getting wet, we were relieved to find the festival coming to a close and were more than ready to reach our next destination, PyinooLwin (what a mouth full)! The day before leaving Mandalay we randomly ran into our friend Anna from Hpa-An and decided to spend the next few days traveling together. PyinooLwin was a nice little pit stop to break up the trip and we were able to rent a moped and explore around the city for the afternoon. The main sights to see were a small waterfall with 12 million people swimming underneath and a massive botanical garden from the British colonial days. Two day was enough for us and we were excited to move onwards to the town of Hsipaw (See-Paw) via the high speed mag-lev train. Just kidding! This baby was a real gem and quite the experience to endure. It was 6 hours of rocking, shaking, and hopping. It was enough to drive a person crazy, but the scenery really made up for the rest.
Once we arrived in Hsipaw we booked a two day trek for the next day into the far off mountains. The plan was to visit several Shan villages and spend the night with the locals in one of the villages. It was so nice to be back in the countryside away from all the hustle and bustle of the city. We ended up covering 20 miles and 6,000’ of elevation in the two days and got to see what it really meant to be a citizen of Myanmar. Our group (Mikaela, Me, Anna, our German companion and our guide, who had very little English skills) started off trekking through gorgeous paddy fields and Shan villages gaining more and more elevation as the day progressed. It was interesting to see that the farmers had completely decimated the countryside to make room for the endless corn fields which they do not even consume! Half the corn grown is dedicated solely to farm animals and the other half is exported to China.
After around 4-1/2 hours we had made it to the village where we would spend the night. Our homestay was a traditional bamboo house with a large open upstairs loft for sleeping. The amazing family who hosted us cooked an amazing spread of food and showed us how they lived out their days. We took a little nap upon arrival and stuffed our faces with a huge traditional meal, then decided to take a little stroll with our guide to check out their main source of income….tea. It was really cool to see the process used to steam, grind and dry the tea and we even got to take part in the operation with a huge family! We spent the rest of the night chatting with the group and drinking some very strong homemade rice wine. In the morning we ate another amazing meal for breakfast and were back on the trail. Upon arrival back to our guesthouse in Hsipaw, it was time to book our final bus ride of the trip (back to Mandalay) where we would fly out!!!! Whoop Whoop!! Bus rides are one thing we will NOT miss!
We made it back to Mandalay the following morning and the city looked completely different from the place we had been just one week before during the festival. We couldn't believe how many shops and restaurants were open, hustling and bustling. It was a quick stay for us but we did manage to get some final souvenir shopping done and lose a slipper to a seriously angry escalator! “cough” Mikaela “cough.”
We have just one week left to go where we will spend our last days in Chiang Mai, Thailand! Saying goodbye to Myanmar was tough but we were ready to take on Thailand, yet again, to try and get some sweet redemption out of her. Ready or not here we come!
Sadly Myanmar has some seriously bad things going on in their country- concentration camps and ethnic genocide. Here is a really good, short documentary made a year ago on the Muslim Rohingya group that is being persecuted...the more people that know about it the better chance they have...