We take the overnight bus from Yangon to Hpa-An (pronounced pa-an), a small town about two hours from the Thai border crossing we need to get to in a matter of days. The annoying thing- this overnight bus arrives in town at 4am. And we know we're going hiking this same day, meaning we don't need a room to stay overnight. So what do you do? You proceed to the one hostel you've been recommended and knock on the door to wake up it's staff. Completely full with no where for us to even relax for a few hours. Then what?

We wander town, contemplate napping on the sidewalk for a few hours, and then stumble across another hostel. By now it's about 4:30am and so we wake up another staffer. Though she spoke barely any english, she was thankfully much friendlier. We managed to communicate that we only needed a place for a few hours, and she led us a large open room on the top floor, for a very cheap price. This was basically an attic space. They put mattresses on the floor and gave us blankets - perfect - we could nap until the normal morning hours. But I barely slept. I kept hearing noises in the storage areas of this open room...mice. I'd dealt with worse, so there being mice didn't really bother me. But the idea of a mouse possibly crawling on top of me in my sleep. Absolutely not. I made a cocoon out of sheets and tried to sleep fully enclosed. It worked well enough for a poor morning's nap.

Some food before we take of on the hike. (left) maple-glazed donuts sold on the street; (center) a delicious tomato hors d'oeurves at a nearby street kitchen; (right) the mohinga - a traditional Myanmar fish-based soup - we ate for lunch

Waking up late morning, we each soak up a bit of wifi as we all had plans to be made for the coming days of transition. Then it's off to Mt. Zwegabin - a nearby landmark with a monastery sitting at the top, overlooking the town of Hpa-An. We plan to hike the mountain and spend the night at the monastery.

The hike itself was tough. Gorgeous, but quite steep. Our driver had given us the option of taking the west route - longer, but a bit easier of a climb - or the east route - faster and more steep with lots of steps. We collectively decided to take the smoother route up -west- and the steeper route down -east. (By observing the location of sunrise/sunset, we later come to find out that the driver had dropped us at the east route. That explained why it was so challenging of a climb even though we had been told it wasn't :) )

We get to the top and it's serene. Find one of the monks and 'check in' for an overnight stay. We're expecting mats on the floor of a dormitory setting. What we're led to are two private hotel rooms. Individual beds each in a private wing of the monastery. Turns out we just got lucky and all the other visitors were staying on mats on the floor. But I'm ok with that.

Monkeys. yep. I learned early into my travels in Thailand that the sweet adorable monkeys we think of are not so sweet and adorable. They're greedy and somewhat vicious. The monkeys scattered the landscape along our hike up - a stray dog even followed us to protect. We named her Ruby, and she made sure we hiked past the monkeys without being tampered. Once we got to the top of the mountain, monkeys were still everywhere. They're even creepier than rats in the NYC subways.

Anyways, we go to watch the sunset not too long after our arrival. It was beautiful. We found a little monkey-free nook to enjoy the brilliant colors of the setting sun.

Sunset atop Mt. Zwegabin - (left) check out that crescent moon top/center; (right) can you spot the monkey...tail?!

Bright and early the next morning, we wake for sunrise. I had been told by others that this is one of the most magnificent sunrises they've ever seen. It was beautiful, but it wasn't phenomenal. Why? Because of the 'controlled' fires taking place all along the west side of the very mountain we stood atop.

That morning, we woke to crazy smoke. The people in Myanmar (and a lot of Asia) will light fire to their crop for a turnover into the next crop. I can only assume that is what was taking place here. Except it was much bigger than any other controlled fire I'd seen to this point. It wasn't scary - knowing that we were at the top of a mountain surrounded by only concrete. So, for that reason it was eerily beautiful. It did create quite a hazy atmosphere, though. These pictures show a bit of the scene we witnessed. And lucky for us - the sun rises in the east meaning it was less hazy watching this view.

After sunrise, we hike down. We had to return the way we came because the other route - the western side - was consumed by smoke, ash and continued flames. And therefore, it was nearly as tough going down as it was going up. Those steep declines hurt your knees! How did the group of men, one being at least 75 years old, manage this climb up and down? It's empowering to see - if they can do it, I most certainly can. Along the way down, we passed loads of Myanmar high school kids heading up to the monastery. Per usual - they gawked and giggled in an endearing way as we passed. This group of boys was particularly giddy and asked for a photo... why not, we thought.

The local boys hiking up while we're hiking down - very excited to snap photos of four western girls, and one western boy

From there, it took some time, but we found a taxi-truck to bring us around to the remaining sites in Hpa-An. This started with Kyauk Kalap, a beautiful pagoda atop a shocking rock formation on an island, and was followed by the Sadan Cave, an entirely natural temple. These were gorgeous and made us wish we had more time to see the remaining area sites of other caves and landscapes.

But, our visas were up. It was time to hit the road and head to the Thai border. Overstaying the Myanmar visa as an American means $$$. As wonderful as this country was - I just can't cut that.

And so, we (along with our Argentinean friend we'd met atop Mt. Zwegabin) hire a cab to drive us the 2 hours to the Thai border. Great - westerners paying me money to drive them 2 hours...I'll take my friend and pick up another along the way. That must have been what was going through our drivers mind. Well, we were willing to keep our mouths closed as they shoved 4 girls into the backseat and another man in the trunk amongst our bags. But we (well, I) can't stay quiet when that trunk-dwelling man spills a cup of betel spit (the red spit from the betel many Myanmar men chew) all over our bags, and then proceeds to swap spots with a woman we pick up on the side of the road. Oh, and he tries to then sit in the middle of the driver and passenger in the front of the car. I wouldn't have it. I got out of the car and told the driver that NO. We are paying for this ride and already uncomfortable and fairly unsafe. Adding a passenger to the middle of the front seats is not acceptable. It's entirely unsafe. About 5 minutes later after my blow-up, and my friends backing up the same argument... we are on our way without the middle-seat-sitting man. We still have the lady in the trunk with out bags... Most uncomfortable 2 hours.

They sleep - I'm shmooooshed. And it's so hot - hence the crazy hair from open windows on the highway. And say hi to our trunk-lady friend...

And ahhhhh. We hit the border. Let's figure out this bus system and get to Bangkok. See ya there!

Move your blog to Nouw - now you can import your old blog - click here!

Likes

Comments

After the beach, we continued to make our way down south and hit up Yangon for the Tet holiday, the Chinese New Year. We planned this timing knowing that Yangon has probably the largest population of Chinese throughout Myanmar, including a Chinatown, and that there was bound to be fun goings on around the city because of this. Sadly, there wasn't as much new year celebrating as I'd anticipated, but it was still a great place to be during the holiday.

Yangon's architecture is distinctively British from an era not all that long ago when the British ruled Myanmar. Yangon (formerly called Rangoon) was Myanmar's capital up until 2006 when Myanmar moved the capital north for no apparent reason. But, the history of the country's capital is so apparent as you walk about. Yes, the streets are loud and dirty, and yes, cars are honking to no audible beat. But Yangon's architecture really makes the city feel unlike any other in Myanmar, at least from what I saw. These photos don't quite do it justice.

The city is also unique in that motorbikes are not allowed. Every other city throughout all of Myanmar and most of Asia is motorbike saturated. Here you'll see only a few rebels every hour. What I was told is that a former political leader was involved in a motorbike accident and he up and banned motorbikes from the city. The result: far far too much traffic since all former motorbikes presumably up-sized to a car for their mode of transportation. It's a silly, silly rule.

The coolest pet of the Tet celebration in Yangon was an annual dragon dancing contest we'd stumbled upon...not that it was difficult to stumble upon this massive gathering with lovely music and cheering in the middle of Chinatown.

Dance groups or clubs of sort from all over Myanmar practice year round for the final national competition during Tet in Yangon. Over the course of a few days, groups get about 30 minutes to showcase their skill. And holy moly, they are so talented.

There must be about 15-25 kids, ranging from a young 8-ish to high schoolers, per team, but they all have different roles. The most visible of the roles are the two kids who are inside the dragon costume and dancing up and down the platforms. One kid is in front controlling the the front two legs and face/moving the mouth, while the other stands in the back controlling the rear legs and bum. They enter and jump up onto a series of small platforms atop poles sitting at different heights. The amount of coordination and balance it takes is incredible.

The other team members are a part of the band playing traditional Myanmar music at s rhythm for the dragon to move to, or from what I could tell, just part of the cheering squad. It seemed to me like it is a big honor to be selected as the dragon dancers and that all the kids (mostly guys) would want that responsibility.

I was all around amazed- by the talent itself, but also by the energy of the community who came out to support what I imagine is such a deep rooted tradition. It's probably evolved over the decades, but the foundation of this dance probably goes back to their ancestors!

Check out how small the platforms are- that's some amazing balance and footwork!

On a quick side note- I got hit by a car in Yangon... ya. Totally my fault and because of the fact that I was completely unscathed, it was totally embarrassing. I went for a run in the morning and had to cross a very large and congested intersection that also happen to be very confusing with streets coming from diff directions. I thought a particular street was a one way (and let's be real, was also likely distracted by so much stimulation of the hustle and bustling culture all around me), and turns out it was not. Next thing I knew, I'd been smacked by a minibus taking a right turn. Let's just say I got up and ran really fast away from there our of embarrassment.

Taking a local train loop around the city of Yangon- the look takes you to the surrounding suburbs of Yangon

Yangon has amazing food. We'd traveled for nearly a month at this point and sampled a lot of food from many different regions. But, Yangon had all this street food that kept on surprising. Of course there were pastries, but also fruit, salads, soups, noodles, rice, concoctions of all those things, and so on. Mmmmmm just thinking about it.

Guess where I went in Yangon?! A synagogue! It was consecrated in 1896 and is Myanmar's only synagogue, and t replaced an earlier smaller, wooden structure built in 1854. The synagogues members are mostly of Sephardic descent from their ancestors who came over from Iraq and India during the colonial era. I'm reading here that the remaining number of Jewish residents is under 20 people- knowing that teeny community can maintain a place of worship that's so beautiful is pretty awing! There's more info here if you're interested.

After a few days in Yangon, we have to face the realization that our month is nearly over. It's off to Hpa-An for two days before having run out our visas and needing to leave the country :(

Likes

Comments

Finalllllllllllly we get some sun! It's been a long few weeks in mostly cold-to-cool temps. Any remnants of pigment in my skin from earlier beach days have completely faded. And so before Yangon we still have a few days to fit the western beach town, Ngwe Saung (pronounced way-sawn) into the trip.

Ngwe Saung is a perfect example of how prepared Myanmar is for tourism, but a bit like a sitting duck waiting for movement. There are lots of hotels, great seeming restaurants, bars, daytime activities, local transportation, etc., but the town was maybe at 40% capacity. It was great for us as we had the beach nearly entirely to ourselves and were able to post up at the yacht club (which oddly had no marina anywhere in site) without any questions. I can't help but feel s little bit badly for the economy in a tourism-based town like this. Though I know it will change soon and that the tourism will boom just as they're expecting.

We had looked at hotel options ahead of time and realized that cheap options are pretty limited. The more affordable options are a few miles down the south side of the beach and that's where we panned to head. But, upon arrival, we are somewhat stalked by a man on a motorbike trying to get our business as a tour guide. We are very adamant that we do not need his services, but he's relentless. Turns out to be the most beneficial local to ever hound us in this way, as he guides us to a new hotel which has opened just a few minutes walk from the beach. And it's only $5/night per person which is by far the cheapest in town and right on par with our budgets.

That evening, we went to find dinner and hit up a local street kitchen. When the staff couldn't communicate with us, they hunted down (as has happened to us before) the only person who could speak English to translate. Turns out it's our tour guide friend from earlier who seems to just appear out of no where! Once again to the rescue.

More telling of the state of tourism in this country... In such a small town, we went to one of the two chilled out and backpacker friendly bars in town. It's called The Lotus if you're ever in the area!8 They've only been open for a few months, but this place is bound to do well. There was the most solid crowd there compared to anywhere else in the town, but still not crowded in any way. But, the beach town tourism grows, so will they.

The owners are Myanmar guys who spent years in Thailand working on Koh Tao and other islands at bars and as dive boys on scuba tourist boats. After so many years of feeling the need to live outside of Myanmar in order to make a decent living, it was amazing to see these guys able to return to their home country and open their own business. In just talking to them for a couple hours it is very apparent the passion, drive and energy they have, which translates into developing a solid business based on tourism. Not to mention they had so much charisma and energy which made them fun to hang around!

We laid on the beach one day and rented bikes to explore a bit on the second. I walked way down the beach one evening to discover miles of very quiet beach, which was quite peaceful. The one tourist attraction we did was check out an island located just off the beach called Lovers Island. At low tide, you can walk to it across the sand bar. Locals even motorbike out there to sell snacks and goods to tourists- shocker that they don't go anywhere including the beach without their bikes ;) At high tide, that access disappears. You could hike up to the top and check out some pretty gorgeous views.

Overall it was a super relaxing few days- more than welcomed after so long in the cold weather!

Next stop is Yangon- more to come on that!

(Left) our bus from Bagan seen hours later posted up in town. We'd broken down for about 30-minutes on the way there. And thank goodness that was all, because the bus clearly had bigger issues...; (Middle) a little beach welcoming on behalf of myself!; (Right) local fisherman rallying together to haul the ridiculously heavy wooden boat onto the shore to give it a good cleaning and fresh coat of what I think was some type of sealant

More epic sunsets in Myanmar

(Left) a local coverband playing at The Lotus; (Middle) mid-bike selfie; (Right) see, the beach was truly empty!

Ahhhhh, the (lack of yachts) yacht club

Views from and in Lovers Island

Likes

Comments

After an awesome 4 days in Mandalay, it was time to explore the most recognizable place in Myanmar, Bagan. Up until now, we'd done a pretty good job avoiding touristic spots. Even a city as big as Mandalay, where there were tons of tourists, we managed to stay in a non-touristic area, and check out only a few of the biggest tourist attractions. But, Even though Bagan is probably the most widely visited destination in Myanmar, it is definitely a must-see.

I feel pretty lucky visiting Bagan when I did. Only a couple weeks later, they enacted rules prohibiting tourists from climbing onto all but 5 of the temples and pagodas. I had free reign to explore and climb atop any and all of them- and the views were incredible.

There are a few towns to stay in while in Bagan- in order of proximity to most of the temples/pagodas and therefore price- Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung U. We stayed in Nyaung U which was about 25 minutes bike ride to most of the temples. It was more therefore more affordable and in turn a bit less touristic. I actually really liked it and didn't feel like we were in any way too removed!

We woke up two mornings in a row and hopped on bikes at 5am to see Bagan's notorious sunset. Many people rent e-bikes (scooters are not allowed to be rented by tourists in Bagan), but we opted for the pedal power of our legs. Riding about 30 minutes, we came to a secret pagoda location known amongst travelers via word of mouth alone. A friend we'd met after our Kalaw to Inle trek had previously been to Bagan and shared this intel. Like many backpacker tips, all it takes is pinning the locale on your google maps and then you can take it from there.

In this case, you arrive before sunrise and take a dirt path towards you're not quite sure what. It ends up being a private home and the owner greets you with a flashlight to guide you to the pagoda which sits on his property. He walks you up the pagoda steps and helps you climb atop where you sit and wait for the sun to rise. The first morning there were about 20 people, the next, no more than 10. There are few spots in Bagan which you can witness views nearly unscathed by loads of tourists. And this is one of them. It's one of those insider tips you hope never spreads to the outside... because it's that good!

Anyways- this post is best seen in photos- so enjoy all the below!

Multiple sunrise images from two early mornings at our 'secret' location. These views were truly the definition of epic

(Left) the 'secret' pagoda we climbed to watch the most amazing sunrises; (Left Middle) Ananda Temple; (Right Middle) Thatbyinnu Phaya temple; (Right) a smaller pagoda on the bike route back to our hotel in Nyaung U

(Left) views from atop a pagoda, looking out at its neighbors; (Middle) handmade painted umbrellas being sold outside the Ananda temple; (Right) biking around Bagan

Sunset at Bulethi Pagoda (well, the smaller of the two, as we did not want to purchase the unnecessary $20 tourist ticket they were checking for, for the very first time in two days. Tourist tip- don't buy it. Even if they check for tickets, you can go to a nearby pagoda that has just as nice of views or come by at a later time)

Coming back here a few days after writing the original post- I wanted to add in some history of this iconic destination. So here's a bit on what I found-

First off, there is a difference between a temple and a pagoda/stoopas. The temples are the bundlings you can physically go inside. A stoops or pagoda you cannot enter. In totally there were over 10,000 temples and stoopas at one point, but now are 2,200 remaining due to earthquake damages over the many years. The structures were built by 55 kings during the 11th-18th centuries before the capital was moved to Mandalay. That explains why there is such a variety of gorgeous architecture represented. Here's some additional info: http://www.go-myanmar.com/the-temples-of-bagan

Likes

Comments

As I mentioned in my last post, we met Honey, a local school teacher while out touring the Royal Palace with DD. She had so wonderfully invited us to visit the school and interact with the kids. And so at 9am on the day we'd arranged the visit, we set out on bicycles to the monastic education school in the cities Aungmyaetharsan Township.

This fell on a Sunday, so we knew it would be a much quieter day, but it was a good chance to see the school, speak with some of the teachers and even the principal, U Nayaka, who had founded the school twenty three years ago in 1993.

The foundation of the school is established on the belief that education should be accessible for all children of Myanmar, and in turn offers free tuition for children who nearly dropped out of school forever due to the financial status of their families. The school is entirely funded through NGOs, private donors and the American embassy, actually.

In 1993, the school employed 10 teachers and staff to educate 394 students. In a short twenty three years, the school has massively expanded to over 8500 students enrolled in 2015. And I'm told they have to turn hundreds of students away each year. Many of the students have left their families and villages to move to Mandalay and gain an education. Most of the students are boarders, but some live locally in Mandalay. It's another eye opener to the privilege we are automatically given as Americans and how it is just that- a privilege.

As the country advances, its population is becoming more and more aware of the importance of education. And it's quite apparent from what I've seen here in Mandalay along with the small villages is visited.

When we arrive at the school on Sunday, we are greeted by a few young teachers. We get a brief tour of the facilities and meet a few of the boarders who are roaming the campus. From there we end up sitting with the teachers and just making conversation. This is where I learned so much about the politics of education in Myanmar and the school itself.

I learn that the school enrolled kindergarten through high school, along with a college prep year. They have two programs, one is called bridging which is a fast track, all English program designed to prepare students directly for university. And foreign university if they so choose. The other is taught in Myanmar and provides a solid education to students who may otherwise have no opportunity for such.

I also learned that the school has an affiliation with Indiana University in Bloomington. One of the teachers I'd been talking to is spending the summer at IU taking leadership courses. It's her first time outside of Myanmar. How cool!

Being at an educational institution just after Myanmar's first successful open election was very interesting because, as you can imagine, the more educated typically hold greater stock in the status of their government and how it affects their lives individually.

I spoke a bit with a few teachers about the current government and their outlook towards the future. I was shocked to hear 'thank yous' to me as an American for what the Obama administration has done for their government. As I was explained, Obama has made a big effort to see Myanmar succeed as a democratic country. Not only through guidance, but monetarily as well. America has particularly invested in instilling new programs to promote education and relevant funding.

The government currently is all over the board when it comes to eduction. More often than not, family's are required to pay for their children's education. Or even if the government is offering free schooling, the families need their children to work for extra income. This is especially prevalent in the village communities of ethnic minorities where they have very little governmental support.

I learned that one of the biggest group of students housed here are from the northern Shan state and Kachin state. These two northern states have been in a place of civil war for many many years. And because of this, education (not to mention safety) has diminished. The school works with these state's governments (as best as they can) to bring children from these areas to the school. This may be the first time these students have ever been educated. We visited one of the classrooms with many teenage Shan state students and it was clear their level of education was behind others of the same age. Pretty interesting to see how and hear how politics can both positively and negatively affect the educational landscape on such a local level. It so makes you appreciate the opportunity you were given by just being born American.

(Left) School founder and princi, U Nakaya; (Right) posing with one of the teachers, Mary, and her younger sister and another high school student. We're wearing our new longyis, the traditional Myanmar garments worn by both men and women in slightly different designs. Along with academic education, the school also teaches practical skills like sewing and wood shop, because reality is that many of these students will go on to their villages and need to work in a trade with such skill. Our longyis were beautifully crafted by teenagers at the school and the proceeds are from our purchases go directly back to the program.

(Right) I found this sex-Ed pamphlet amongst other health-education materials outside of the on-campus doctors facilities where students are given the opportunity to see a doctor and dentist as needed. I was pleasantly surprised to see this topic so openly educated in such a modest country. Though, I must say, the delivery and illustrations of the material is pretty humorous! But it's still education!

We decide to come back the following morning while school is in session. One day just wasn't enough to at this place! We spent time in the kindergarten classrooms with the most incredible kids. They are all learning English and already quite impressive with it. They can understand most everything we say, and ask us questions like 'what is your favorite color?'. They grab at our hands and drag us around the classroom to show off their artwork on the walls and share stories about what they're learning in school. My heart melted over those few hours. I didn't want to leave.

As I was leaving, I find myself walking alongside a very precarious young girl who immediately strikes up conversation. She has been attending school here for the past three years when she bravely committed to leaving her family and small village of only 500 homes (actually, a mid-size village in Myanmar) by way of following her dreams through gaining a better education. Now she sees her family only once a year on summer holiday. While school is free, she still needs to afford small living costs and so she works each morning doing admin in the office before class. She's graduating from the bridging program and currently applying to university. She dreams of becoming a lawyer some day- and from the 10 minutes we spent taking, she's going to make a damn good lawyer. That girl has determination.

If anyone is looking for volunteer options abroad, this is truly a great organization to be a part of. You can teach English to students of whatever age you wish, and bring any other experience to the school. Accommodation and some meals are provided for volunteers, and they will help to arrange your visa. Here's information of the volunteer coordinator who can provide more info: Monica- mdymonica@gmail.com or at. 09-799464860

a little school humor- I thought this was pretty clever! 

Likes

Comments

Mandalay became on of my favorite stops in Myanmar. It's a pretty cool city, but it is crazy busy and a bit dirty. So it wasn't the atmosphere that was so amazing- it was the people we met along the way.

Arriving in town in the evening, we set off to splurge a little for a fancy rooftop cocktail (which turned into alcoholic milk shakes ☺️) before finding a nearby street kitchen for dinner. It was there that we started chatting with a local guy sitting down the way. Our new friend DD was interested in practicing his English and before dinner was over, we had arranged to meet the next morning to tour around the city together!

We rented two motorbikes from our hotel and met DD and one of his friends outside to start the day. Quick lesson on driving a semi-automatic bike (first timers here...) and then we hit the road!


First stop- Royal Palace. This compound where the king's palaces and royal halls lay, sits in the center of the city and is surrounded on all sides by brick walls and a moat. It was built between 1857 and 1859. DD, being so thoughtful, had brought along a book written in english of the palace's history. I learned that in 1945 all but the surrounding walls and moat of the palace was destroyed by Allied bombings of WWII. The royal Palace has since been restored to its original stature for visitors to explore and learn about. The main halls were reconstructed by referencing original photographs, pictures, palm-leaf manuscripts about the Royal apartments and a mini model of the grounds. The final construction of the grounds and Mya Nan San Kyaw - the Golden Palace -was completed in 1996. The history is actually pretty interesting (as is most of the deeply rooted history throughout all of Myanmar)- so if you're interested in more info, check out the wiki page here.

At the top of the watch tower, we posed for some photos and ended up meeting another new friend, Honey. Honey is a teacher at a local school and graciously invited us to visit and work with the kids for a day. It's like the fates aligned because this is exactly what we were hoping to do! We lined up plans to visit in two days time.

(Left) the Royal Palace grounds; (Right) atop the watch tower, chatting with Honey about visiting her school

(Top) the palaces of Mandalay; (Bottom) our crew!

Next stop, the Atumashi Monastery. A little history via Wikipedia- The Atumashi Monastery is a Buddhist monastery located in Mandalay, Myanmar. It was built in 1857 by King Mindon, two years after the capital was moved to Mandalay. The monastery was built at a cost of 500,000 rupees.

Walking into such a massive gilded temple was pretty amazing. The photos don't quite do it justice.

Just down the street is the Shwenandaw Monastery, another historic Buddhist monastery built in 1880 entirely of teak wood. The carved detailing of this monastery was truly awing. I can't imagine the amount of fine skill it must have taken, and it's been kept quite well over the years. Fun fact- the Shwenandaw is the single remaining major original structure of the original Royal Palace today.

(Top) inside the Atumashi Monastery and the gilded doorways leading into it; (Middle Left) more detailing of the beautiful architecture; (Middle Right) the Shwenandaw Monastery; (Bottom) teak wood carvings at the Shwenandaw Monastery lining the doorways and walls

We closed out the day with an incredible sunset behind the UBein bridge just outside of Mandalay. The bridge is built entirely of teak wood and is used daily by locals traveling to and from the villages on either side. Aside from the sheer beauty of this bridge at sunset, it was nice to relax after a long day of touring around. We sat back and enjoyed the company.

And to add to the relaxation, DD ordered us a local Myanmar drink of Toddy Palm Sap- a fermented beverage made from the Palm tree. He kept giggling before we tried it, because apparently many locals think it's nasty. I personally thought it was just fine and tasted like flat Fresca!

What a day! I definitely slept well that night.

(Top Left) our motorcycle gang; (Top Middle) a woman wades in the water during the evening fish; (Right) me at sunset!; (Lower Left) the fishermen form a semicircle while holding a huge net. They then dive down and catch the fish with their bare hands; (Lower Middle) the evening catch being poured into large bags for transport. After diving down in the water, the fishermen store the caught fish in a pouch on the front of them. If you look at this photo, you can see the large load of fish this girl has caught.

(Left) a monk makes an evening commute across the bridge; (Right) locals and tourists crossing the UBein

(Left) the crew once again; (Middle) a fleet of ducks makes their evening commute under the UBein to where they'll sleep for the night; (Right) Toddy Palm Sap

Another day (I can't remember the order of events between the touring and the school, ha) we rented bikes and visited a few remaining tourist sites. A few temples and pagodas- gorgeous as always. It was in general a very low-key day of touring the city.

One of the popular attractions in Mandalay is climbing to the top of Mandalay Hill where a few pagodas and monasteries reside. It is known as a pilgrimage destination for Buddhists, but also happens to have an amazing view over the entire city. The climb up takes about 45 minutes -so you can imagine how amazing the views must be.

Unfortunately, Mandalay is quite a big city and the haze of heat and pollution interfered with the supposedly epic sunset. I guess this is common during the winter months and not as much in the summer/rainy season. So, we didn't see much more than something nice.

Because it's such a popular tourist site to visit at sunset, locals will take the opportunity to practice their English. They will wait on the side of the stairs and then merge in next to you to strike up a conversation as you pass. This is all done with good intentions, but sometimes you just don't want to talk to strangers. That's how the 3 of us (Kim was sadly sick and back at the hotel) felt. But they are persistent and you feel obligated to converse. I got lucky and was approached by a monk who spoke great English. Our conversation was great and carried on throughout the entire climb. Jasmin and Sofie did not get so lucky. They each were approached by very awkward guys who it was like pulling teeth to try and make conversation. Luckily, they were able to sneak away and join in on what was happening with me and the now few monks I was speaking with.

I actually learned quite a bit from this monk- about Myanmar's people and its politics. I learned that there are 135 different ethnic cultures across 8 national states. Most of these ethnic minorities speak their own dialect that is completely different than their neighboring ethnicities. Having so many different peoples in one country is a major reason there's been so much affliction throughout the years.

We also discussed the election that took place last November and how the population feels about the future of their government. Overall, everyone is very optimistic. He (along with others I've met throughout the month) actually thanked me as an American because of the guidance and support of their democracy Obama has given Myanmar during his presidency. It's pretty much the only time during my travels anyone has actually positively reacted when I say I'm American. Usually there's a preconceived notion of American and American backpackers that's not so great.

At the top of the hill, we pretty much ignored the views and kept speaking with the monks. He asked kindly if we'd mind speaking with some of the monasteries female students who are also learning English. At this point, of course we didn't mind. Slowly, more and more students gathered round until we had a full posse. They were so curious about western culture and how we live our lives. It was fun to talk to such eager girls!

Wow, I didn't even realize how much I got out of the short hours spent at Mandalay Hill until I got to typing this. I'm now regarding it way higher in my memories than I did 5 minutes ago :)

(Top Left) the gorgeous stoopas at Sandamuni Paya pagoda; (Top Right) the monks and students we made conversation with. They're all learning to speak English; (Bottom Left) the entrance of Mandalay Hill; (Bottom Right) my new monk friend, Ven Vadaka. All monks have two names- their birth name and the one given to them by an elder monk once they join the monastery. They go by their monastery name from there-on

After sunset, we raced down the hill and rode back to the hotel where we had plans to meet DD. His mother so ridiculously kindly invited us to a meal at their home. I feel so honored to have been invited in, let alone dine on the amazing feast she cooked. All traditional Myanmar dishes, of course! The tea leaf salad- yes. The prawn curry- mmmhhmmmm. All of it! This gesture was incredibly special- as if DD hadn't been generous enough toward us!

I must say my favorite course was the dessert. Shocker. It's called sanwinmakin and I have no idea how to describe it other than it's delicious. Don't worry- I found a recipe and will be attempting to recreate back in the US.

His mom didn't speak a word of English, so our thank yous and conversation were all translated through DD or in a game of charades which I like to think I was getting really good at!

(Left 2) A surprise of traditional Myanmar sweets left at the hotel for us from DD. So unnecessary and sweet of him to thank us for a great day of touring and new friendship, when we were the ones who felt lucky that he wanted to spend the entire day touring us around. However, that dessert he dropped off. Mmmm; (Right) DD's mom, the amazing chef. And our delicious feast

So, I've completely forgotten the order of how we spent our days in Mandalay, but not what we did. It was really a great leg of the trip.

I mentioned the teacher we met and my next post is totally dedicated to the two days we spent at the monastic school! Coming soon.

Likes

Comments

And we're off! Knowing how frequently locals travel between the two cities, we decided to hitchhike the 2 hour drive to Mandalay. Well, that was the plan.

Here we are all packed up and walking a little ways outside of town to start our transportation search. If we'd tried in the center of town, we'd only find drivers looking to charge us too much money.

I've said it before, and here it really rings true. The Myanmar people are so genuinely friendly. In this case it's the man with the bike in the top right of the below photo. He didn't quite understand the concept of four girls trying to hitchhike for free transport.

What he did understand is that we were looking for a ride to Mandalay and he took it upon himself to get off his bike and walk alongside us in order to help flag down people. But this just made it more difficult because he'd start speaking with anyone who pulled over and incorrectly explain to them what we were looking for.

In the end, it was either pay a nominal amount for a ride or figure out how to rid of this man. The latter wasn't happening, so we decided to give in and pay. For 1,000 kyet each (like 25 cents) we hopped in the back of a taxi-truck and headed out. Much cheaper than anything we'd find in town.

We technically failed at hitchhiking, but the next 3 hours unexpectedly turned out to be physically so uncomfortable, but ridiculously entertaining.

The ride was crazy bumpy for 3 hours straight- that blurry photo below was how most of my pictures turned out when we were in-motion.

We soon realized that this was far from private taxi service. The driver turned out to be the father of the two guys who stood on the back hollering to people on the street, asking if they needed a ride. Simple logic- the more people you recruit to drive, the more money you make.

We must have stopped at least 10 times- either to wait in a busy area and see if anyone needing a ride turns up, or at a quick halt to load up someone we'd been driving past on the highway.

This type of transportation is incredibly cheap in comparison to other options, so locals stand on the side of the road and wait for these trucks to pass. In what seems like a blink of an eye, they've told the driver where to let them off and they're loaded in the back of the truck. It always seems like magic to me when an hour later the driver pulls over at the most random spot on the side of the road and a passenger gets out- I literally never see any communication being had about where to stop, but they always know.

Another entertaining and uncomfortable aspect- you can bring literally anything into these trucks. 10 bags, no problem. 6 children, no problem. Live chickens, no problem. (You smell like dirty feet, no problem...)

The four ladies who we picked up had not just one, but three of these massive bails of who-knows-what. And no one batted an eye when they needed to strap 'em down to the roof. Except for us westerners.

Later, the driver comes to a quick halt. His sons run to the side of the road and start picking things from the trees. They come back with handfuls of res flowers and give them to their dad. I still have no idea what they were for, but assuming they must hold some value by the rushed important way they went about this.

In the end, we spent 3 hours sitting on wooden benches, squished in like sardines, and accompanied by some very interesting people. It wasn't quite hitchhiking, but was quite the experience.

And we made it to Mandalay!

Likes

Comments

Remember how slow I mentioned the trains in Myanmar are? Well, that is why we decided to get off in Pyin Oo Lwin instead of taking the train all the way to Mandalay. The trip between Pyin Oo Lwin and Mandalay takes less than 1.5 hours by car. But by train, you're looking at an added 8 hours to the journey. Ya, I don't get it either.

Pyin Oo Lwin is a medium-sized city with a heavy Indian influence as its closer to the Indian border. There isn't too much in terms of tourist attractions, but that only allowed us more time to explore.

We walked miles and miles around the city only to discover gorgeous suburban neighborhoods (seemingly pretty wealthy), a teeny village that spit us out onto golf course, the bustling market, and more.

Check out the photos below for a taste of this city! Next stop Mandalay.

Some of the amazing fruit sold at the local market

Pyin Oo Lwin Golf Course- win 100,000 kyet (about $110) a hole in 2 on the 7th hole, check out the winners in the 3rd picture. Names are a bit different than what we see in the states, huh?

Gorgeous British influenced architecture

(Left) the raddest men in town; (Middle) local market vendor, a bit disturbing seeing birds for sales like this and unfortunately this isn't the only time I've seen it; (Right) I think this cow may have a bit of a drinking problem

More British colonial influence in the horse-drawn buggies and architecture

(Left) we met this man at a cafe. Like many others, he was interested in talking to us to learn more about our cultures and practice his English. He has been an English teacher for the past 40 years and had incredible stories to share from living through decades in a country that has changed so much politically in his lifetime. He also gave us information of a school to visit in Mandalay where he knows the headmaster. We weren't able to visit, unfortunately, but this gesture was beyond kind; (Right) because of the Indian influence, these Indian sweets shops were all over the city. So good. So dangerous.

Likes

Comments

After the train arrives 40 minute after its scheduled and leaves an hour late, we finally get moving. Let's just say punctuality is not necessarily expected on these trains. It's also the worlds slowest train (which I've heard from others). But the reality of that doesn't actually sink in until you start moving and have the though, "oh shit, we are never going to get there."

Despite the painfully slow pace and crazy bumpy ride, the views are worth it.

The most remarkable point of the journey is as you go over the Goteik viaduct via the Goteik Bridge. It truly is breathtaking. Here's a bit of history for ya- the bridge was built in the late 1800s by a Pennsylvania railway company. They shipped steel from New York to build the bridge, and at the time, it was the largest bridge project in the world.

And the cutest part of the journey was all the kids waving from the side of the road. Every village and every track-side home we passed was lines with kids screaming "Ming La Bah" (hello) and waving excitedly. These kids, get me every time!

8 hours later, we're in Pyin Oo Lwin! More on that to come.

Check out all the photos below!

(Left) buying our train tickets, no computer system of course. Probably why they assigned two people to my seat- I happened to have gotten there first and got to keep it; (Middle) woman selling fresh oranges on the Hsipaw platform; (Right) the view looking down the viaduct from Goteik bridge- we were so high up

(Left) proof of the bumpy ride. Had to strap on my backpack... For good reason; (Middle) the traffic hold up as we pass by a village; (Right) the train

Goteik Bridge in all its glory

(Left) a woman sells snacks through the train window during a quick station stop; (Middle) hey there!; (Right) heading through a tunnel before the bridge

Our charming departure and arrival

Likes

Comments

Just to note- we spent a couple days in Nyuang Shwe at the top of Inle Lake for some much needed recovery (and a bit of wifi when working!). There was pretty much nothing about this town aside from being a hub to explore Inle Lake, and the uber cute hotel we stayed in for $5 a night called NK The Little Inn. So, nothing to warrant a full blog post ;)

And with that, we took the (bumpiest ever) overnight bus to another mountain town called Hsipaw (pronounced see-paw). I'd heard from many people that this was a great place for trekking and a cute smaller town. We pull into town at 4am and get dropped off who-knows-where in the dark. There are taxi drivers waiting for you trying to get your business, they won't leave you alone even when you say no need. Annoying, but at least the last one to hang around was entertaining--see photo-- and helped show us where the "cheap cheap" hotels are. Turns out there's one right nearby!

Travel tip- no need for a taxi in this town. There nearly nothing more than a 10 minute walk!

Arrival in Hsipaw at 4am- the taxi driver nearby took our photo, then since I was the one who asked him to take it, pulled me out of the photo and made me take one of him with the group. Nothing like a little 4am bonding with the locals

For only 3,000 Kyet each, roughly $3 night each, we got two rooms- that we were able to rearrange the furniture to open the adjoining doors and make 'team room'. We had picked up a new friend who'd been in a different hiking group from Kalaw to Inle, and it worked out well to all stay together.

Like I said, cheap cheap. But this hotel, the Royal Rose, was great due to its significant quirks. We were staying the the hotel annex with less rooms and seemed to be the only ones there. The shower and sink were downstairs outside behind reception and the toilets were downstairs through a working construction site. Quirky- but quite clean and it had reliable hot water which was proving tough to come by (and so wanted in the cold temps).

While we wanted to go trekking, our bodies were screaming no. So we explored town on the first day and checked out the bamboo Buddha at a local monestary. Since its such a teeny town, it was nice not to feel any pressure to go-go-go not to miss anything. We relaxed, grabbed shakes and guacamole at a cute place on he main stretch called Mr. Shake and enjoyed each others company.

Carrying on with the relaxation theme, we decided to have a team room movie night- Pirates of the Caribbean. And with ever pirate movie, you need to have a pirates night! So we dressed in our finest pirate bandanas and got some funny looks at dinner. I'd never seen any of the movie series, but -shocker- I fell asleep about 30 minutes in. I was just far too tired to stay awake. Woke up in the middle of the night disoriented and look over to find the others sleeping soundly next to me, like ducks in a row :)

At and around the Bamboo Buddha

In and around Hsipaw

(Left) making bamboo fences; (Middle) teenage girls riding around town; (Right) a local boy frying up some 'long bread', or delicious donut like pastures, at his family's restaurant

(Left + Middle) our hotel construction zone- yes, you walk through here down the way to use the bathroom. Ha!; (Right) Team Room does pirate night

My favorite moment in Hsipaw came walking back to the hotel from the town center one afternoon. It was just two of us at the time, and we came across a school with tons of kids playing outside of it near the sidewalk. We stopped, said hello, and then were inundated by kids wanting to speak English and talk with us. The kids were only about 10 years old, but spoke really well. We hung around for a good 20 minutes with the kids. It put such a smile on my face for the rest of the day... there it is again, Myanmar people making this travel month incredible.

The kids posing for us outside their school - series of photos shows a few kids, then more and more running up to join in. And kids being kids, pushing each other, not looking at the camera bc they're yelling at each other, etc... it was great

The final day, we decided to check out the morning bazaar and woke up at 5 am. It's best seen before 6am, we were told. The entire town is dark and deserted, shops closed up, a few are beginning to open their doors and prepare for the day ahead. But we can't find this allusive bazaar. We keep looking and walk another 15 minutes in the direction we think the market is, turn the corner and all of a sudden this still asleep town is bustling as local vendors are selling mostly food- fruits, veggies, rice/noodles, meat, fish, and so on- to local merchants for their daily needs. Market opens at 2am, so people were well into their day already. It was cool to see the behind-the-scenes of a small town prepping for the day ahead!

The morning bazaar- check out how he transports all his purchases - impressive, right?

While we missed out on trekking, and even renting bikes (it sadly rained the day we were planning to do this!), I still fell in love with this town. It just gives off good energy. Definitely a must-visit next time you're in Myanmar 😋

Likes

Comments