Myanmar: Kalaw

After a 7hour bumpy bus trip (with 3 people that had stomach bugs) we finally made it to Kalaw. Kalaw is a hill station and is located 1320m above sea level and a nice peaceful place. We arrived in the afternoon and had a bit of a stroll around. This was only a stop over town for our trip to Inle Lake so there wasn’t too much for us to do in the short time we had here. There are a lot of hikes you can do around here including hiking from Kalaw to Inle Lake which is a 2 day trek. You can even opt to visit the Green Hill Elephant Camp which is only a 40min taxi ride away, however I would recommend you book in advance.

As I said we didn’t have long here so it limited our exploring options quite a bit but luckily for us the big Kalaw market was on while we were here. For 5 days every week, people from the hill tribes come down to sell produce. This market is mainly produce with some souvenir stores which are permanently there but I would recommend going about 7am ish to watch them setting up stores and to get in early before it’s crowded by foreigners.

Stay tuned for our adventures on Inle Lake.

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Myanmar: Mandalay

It was time to move on from Bagan, starting with a 6am ferry ride to Mandalay. Again, this was not a short journey but 11hours on a smooth sailing ferry sure beats that train ride! With nothing else to do but read, I decided to start on the cheap book I bought – George Orwell, Burmese Days. I have been meaning to read this book for ages and it just seemed fitting to read it while in Myanmar. The reason I bring this up is that I would like to point out that George Orwell seemed to have documented some Burmese twerking! So look at that, it seems twerking has been around for quite some time…

Anyway…

The first thing you will notice about Mandalay is the gold tips of all the pagodas and monasteries as you arrive. We docked and had to jump over a couple of boats to get to shore and battle our way through a mix of merchants and taxi drivers to get to our bus that awaited us to take us to our hotel.

Our first full day in Mandalay we jammed it packed full of the top things to do starting with the Mahamuni Buddha Temple which is located southwest of Mandalay. While here male devotees can opt to place gold leaf on the statue of Buddha for a small price but females are not allowed to do this.

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Our next stop was to the Monastery which was a bit of a weird experience. We arrived at 10.30am not sure what to expect and it was an absolute tourist mecca. The monks were all sitting down eating while tourists with their massive cameras took photos of them. I suppose I found it weird mainly because of the amount of tourists there just watching monks eat and the monks just kind of accepted it. I know I wouldn’t like people taking photos of me eating – but while in Myanmar I suppose…

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Next it was on to the U-Bein Bridge. Now I would actually recommend coming here for sunrise. We saw it during the day but we (or rather I) was quite determined to come here for sunrise so I got a little group together for the next day. We got into our seatless truck and braced the cold for our 40min truck ride to the bridge. The sunrise itself was quite amazing but coupled with monks walking over the bridge and the locals setting up their shops and starting their day it was quite an unforgettable morning.

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We had a few quick stops at some workshops (gold leaf, silk weaving and wood carving) before we stopped for lunch.

After some old fashioned western food and cocktails we were ready to go again! Our next stop was at the Mandalay Palace. Once you have paid your foreigner fee you can enter into the Palace grounds. There is a short drive through the mini city that is within the palace gates before you reach the temples where you can take photos. It’s worth a stop just to walk right around and go up the tower for some nice views of Mandalay. You can even have a bit of a nap on the grass under the shade but we were on a tight schedule so our nap had to wait!

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We were off to the Kuthodaw Pagoda which holds the worlds biggest book and it’s not exactly what you are thinking (ie: just some big book on a pedestal). It’s actually written on stone and each page is kept in its own little housing. I would recommend stopping here as it’s quite incredible to see this.

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Our second last stop was to the Shwenandaw Monastry which is built entirely of teak. It’s not an active Monastry just a tourist stop and if you have your Mandalay card you can show it here otherwise there is a foreigner fee.

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The last stop for the day was to Mandalay Hill to watch the sun set over Mandalay. There is also a beautiful pagoda up here with markets along the stairs. To avoid all of the tourists, I’d recommend heading down the stairs to the next little bit of the pagoda and away from the main one. We got to sit on seats in peace without people pushing us to take photos and we got to take it all in.

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I must admit, it seems like we jammed a lot of sight seeing in but it just shows that you can do it.

Stay posted for our time in Kalaw!

Myanmar: Bagan

We finished off our last day in Yangon with an amazing Burmese buffet for lunch and prepared ourselves for the 19hr train journey to Bagan that awaited us. Being typical Westeners we stocked up on enough food to feed a small army as the concept of being hungry for a few hours scared us.

We boarded our Upper Class carriage which consisted of somewhat comfortable seats that turned into uncomfortable beds, no air conditioning and a metal toilet with a wet floor and prepared ourselves for a 19hr journey fearing that the train would come off the tracks at any point with its constant swaying. We did however see some amazing countryside and you will be happy to know that we arrived in Bagan a little smelly and tired but safe nonetheless.

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We caught a bus to our guest house accommodation with no idea what lay ahead and immediately set on a trek to Taung Kalat Temple which is on top of a volcano plug. By this stage we all thought that was pretty cool, until we were told we had to walk up the volcano plug to the top barefoot. To us, we were thinking we would have to walk barefoot on some hot gravel path in the sun to get to the top… but it all became clear when we got there. There are 777 steps that lead to the top and it’s all undercover. As it is considered a sacred site you do the hike without your shoes but don’t worry because the tiles feel nice on your feet. There are some steep vertical stairs and some random big ones (to get the exact 777 steps) but it’s quite doable. There are a lot of monkeys on these steps as well so be careful because they seem to like shiny cold things (aka coke cans) so they will cling on you or jump on you but just push them off (hopefully I haven’t scared anyone off! There were only two incidences on our round trip). This is definitely worth the trip and the hike up. The view from the top is amazing and you can see Mount Popa (the volcano) not too far away.

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After a beautiful lunch and some relaxation at the Mount Popa Mountain Resort (yes we treated our stinky selves to a nice lunch) we ended the day by visiting one of the temples and watch the sun set over this ancient land.

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You can opt to do a hot air balloon ride over Bagan for sunrise (which is exactly what we did the next day). These flights are only available from October to March and will set you back $320 US but it is definitely worth it. Bagan is home to 3,000 ancient temples and when you are flying over them you can see just how true this is. It’s quite a magical experience to say the least.

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After our balloon ride we grabbed a bicycle and started on a tour around some ancient temples but with a stop at the Nyaung U markets first. These markets are probably one of the more crazier markets I have visited in Myanmar. As soon as our bums left the bicycle seats we had ladies putting Thanaka on our faces and trying to get us to buy things. As you make your way through this bustling market, people will follow you all around the markets trying to sell you items and they don’t give up easily!

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After our market experience, where we all seemed to have left with at least one item, we made our way on our bicycles through the ancient temples before stopping for lunch. If you ever make your way to Myanmar make sure Bagan is on your list of cities to see. There is something magical and relaxing about cycling through an ancient city and having all these ancient temples pass you by. Just make sure you end your day by finding a nice quiet temple to watch the sunset over.

I also recommend you to buy your lacquerware in Bagan. Head to one of the many family run workshops to buy the good quality items. The ones you buy in the markets are of poor quality and will crack easily, whereas if you go to a workshop in Bagan they are made of the highest quality and can take months to produce a finished product as it is all naturally made.

However you choose to spend your time in Bagan, I can assure you it will be a city that stays with you forever.