I had to do a little research on the aircraft we flew on from Heho to Ngapali and Ngapali to Yangon as it seemed similar to an old Soviet aircraft we thought we were going to die in on a flight in Cuba several years ago. The Cuba plane was dual prop and rear loading but had no windows while the dual prop plane in Myanmar was rear loading but did have windows and an air conditioning system that didn’t spew fog and freak everyone out thinking the plane was on fire. It was a much nicer plane, an ATR 72, built in France and Italy. We had never flown in one of these so this was a first and second. It took off, it flew, it landed so a very good airplane as far as we’re concerned. Yangon has a sparkling new airport but maybe it only sparkles in the International arrival section. It is small and nice in the domestic area and there is no hassle when you leave the arrivals area. The taxi guys are nice and non-pushy, typical of this country so far, and the drive to our hotel was pleasant, The roads in Yangon are good. There are traffic lights that people respect. They don’t blow their horns, they drive in their lanes and it is oh so civil. The city, what we have seen so far is clean and litter free. There are next to no motorcycles, only cars and a few bicycles. The air is clean but traffic jams do seem to be a bit of a problem from the little we’ve seen so not fair to lay judgment just yet.
So, we had a late lunch at Hard Rock Cafe, Yangon. Who would a thunk. Located in the great big new Myanmar Plaza, Yangon’s first international retail shopping centre, we decided it was time for a burger. A quite expensive burger. Two burgers with cheese and bacon, fries and a shared Caesar salad, about $58.00 CAD. Ouch, but we haven’t had a beef burger since the airport in Male airport (Burger King) in the Maldives and I think it cost pretty close to the same. Moral of the story, don’t eat junk food, especially American chain junk food. It’s expensive but it fills this little craving that you get from time to time and then sits as a great big lump in your stomach and you want to go to sleep and your thirst keeps you awake and then you want another one. Hmmm.. I see a pattern here.
Tomorrow we will set out to explore this city of close to 8 million people, the largest in Myanmar. The city boasts the largest collection of colonial era buildings in SE Asia and is home to the gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist pagoda.
Today is our last day at Ngapoli Beach before heading to Yangon tomorrow to what we’re told is a busy and congested city. We shall see. We’ll have spent 6 nights and 5 full days here and we were lucky to find a great place at a reasonable price. The beach here is pristine, palm-tree-fringed white sand with crystal clear waters lying on the Bay of Bengal and apparently has the reputation as Myanmar’s premier beach getaway but through either luck or time of year there were very people here so all we could hear on the beach was the birds, waves, wind in the palms and the very occasional boat motor. Local women (and a “lady boy” in the women’s words) occasionally stopped by to sell us fresh fruit and coconuts and were never bothersome or insistent if we didn’t want any. They always had a poise and grace and happy smile and you just couldn’t help but to be happy and smile along with them. This is actually the description I’ll use in my Myanmar summary so please excuse the repeat when you see it because this is what stands out in this country. The people. All ages, all walks of life, all so very warm and welcoming with their beautiful happy smiles. They are lovely people and it was so refreshing.
We didn’t really do much here except chill on the beach, swim, eat, drink and watch the sunsets and then eat again and crash after a very tough day of walking 100 metres from our hotel to the beach, getting up from our lounge chairs for a dip, slowly meandering back to our chairs, flipping sides, snoozing a little and then repeating but hey, somebody has to do it!
We stayed at the River Top Lodge which we would highly recommend. It is located across the main road from the beach which is about a 100 metre walk. The staff was all fantastic and obviously well trained. The housecleaning staff was impeccable, everything worked perfectly in the room, and the restaurant served up a very nice buffet style breakfast which was included in the room price. We could honestly say that this hotel is the best run establishment we have stayed at in a very long time. It may be rated as a 3-4 star hotel but it is definitely rated a 5 star in our books due to the high level of service and attention to detail. My only negative is everything was priced in US Dollars and the price of a beer was quite expensive at $4.00 except during happy hour but this was offset by the very affordable food pricing although still in US $. In Myanmar, all hotel pricing is in US dollars and they charge you US dollars or the equivalent exchange rate of the day. Maybe these places are foreign-owned but I’m not so sure. I can understand if their currency is being ravaged by inflation but outside of the hotels at the local establishments the prices are quoted in Burmese Kyat (pronounced “chat”) and prices are definitely cheaper. We need to dig a little deeper into this to find out why. My only warning to the business people of Myanmar is, be careful. Don’t price yourselves out of the middle class and backpacker crowd. They are your bread and butter tourists and if you cater exclusively to high-end tourists and charge high prices you will soon see your idyllic beaches and villages ravaged by foreign hotel operators who will build big ugly resorts, filled with big ugly people who have no respect for your way of life and you will soon be very upset and regret the way things have changed. We have seen this time and time again.
Damn, that sounded like my summary of Myanmar. I’m sure I’ll think of much more to say.
Beach time then the never-ending blog updating time.
Today was our final road journey before flying to Ngapali Beach tomorrow for 5 full days of beach time. We had a short day which started in Kalaw where we headed East then North to the village of Pindaya. There is a small lake in town where we did a pit stop to have a look and then proceeded up into the nearby hills to visit the Shwe Oo Min natural cave temple.
Before driving up into the mountains we stopped at a local craft shop where they make beautiful umbrellas, writing paper, envelopes, light shades and a multitude of other paper oriented products. The paper is made from the bark of the Mulberry tree. The bark is dried and then soaked in brine for 12 hours. Once soaked the pulp is well, hammered to a pulp for about 15 minutes and then put into a small pot and then stirred. They then take the pulpous sludge, spread it onto a screen submerged in water, spread it around evenly and then drain the water from the screen and set the resultant mash in the sun to dry. The result is Mulberry paper which they peel off of the screen and use for a myriad of applications. One very talented man works in the corner preparing bamboo to use as the umbrellas support and locking mechanism. It’s hard to describe but we were wowed! A very simple procedure to make paper yet so foreign to us.
The Shwe Oo Min cave temple is the same name as the Shwe Oo Min temple we saw outside of Kalaw. It is the She Oo Min Temple Pindaya. It is a huge natural cave that hosts thousands? of Buddha figures in a cavernous mountain cave that stretches probably about 750 metres into the mountainside. Buddhas everywhere! We spent at least an hour in the caves and then caught some fresh air and a view of Pindaya from the cave entrance. I will probably say it later but the people of Myanmar love their Buddhas.
After a long day we arrived in Kalaw where we will we spend two nights. Nestled in the Shan Mountains, the town is like every other village we have seen. Clean, organized and relaxed. We have said several time to each other that we are amazed by the difference between this country and India. I know, two different countries, different populations etc. but when you invoke an image of Burma, Myanmar for us anyway, we imagined far less development. It has been a very pleasant surprise. The next morning we headed out to explore two cave temples and a visit to the Nee Paya where a 500-year-old bamboo Buddha is housed.
Shwe Oo Min Cave Temple
Hnee Paya and a 500-year-old bamboo Buddha
Myin Ma Hti Caves
Kalaw by day and night
Today was a lot of driving but worth every minute. The beauty of driving versus flying is obvious. You get to see the real Myanmar and we headed off from Nyaung Shwe over the Shan Mountains to the hills East of Inle Lake. The Kakku Pagoda site is believed to date back to the 3rd century BC and is one of Asia’s largest and most spectacular ancient monuments. There are 2,478 pagodas at present but many were damaged by a tornado in 2016 so repair work is underway. Our guide Robbin explained that there were at one time more than 7,000 pagodas but earthquakes and time have taken their toll on this magnificent site.
The Aythaya Winery was established in 1999 by a German expat. The area is perfect for grapes and the white Sauvignon Blanc was exceptional. The wine industry in Myanmar has nowhere to go but up. They have quality soil, temperature and elevation so keep your eyes open for some good vintage wine coming out of this area in the future.
Yesterday we spent a full day on a narrow longboat cruising the lake and myriad canals that finger out in the south-western area of the lake. Fisherman dot the waterways but there were also many who were not fishing but clearing the water hyacinth that is seriously invading the lake. Like many other fresh water lakes in the world this rapid infestation is caused by farming on the surrounding land. Fertilizer and livestock poop runoff feeds the plants to the point that the lake is being choked and if not controlled will probably lead to the destruction of the small fishery that exists on the lake and the eventual death of any life save the hyacinths. This is not exclusive to Myanmar. Where I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Lake Winnipeg, among the largest fresh water lakes in the world is now severely threatened by the same cause. It doesn’t matter if you are 1st world or 3rd world, developed or not, this is a serious world-wide issue that needs immediate attention and probably radical solutions to reverse this course of destruction. Sorry to sound so gloomy.
The lake is 22 km long and 10 km wide and is located in central Myanmar. It is fringed by floating marshes and floating gardens. Stilt house villages rise above the water and along with fishing, handicrafts, silk and lotus weavers and silversmiths add to the lake based economy. Our first stop after about a 45 minute ride through the lake and then a winding twisting canal was the village of Indein which is famous for it’s crumbling groups of ancient pagodas, Nyaung Oak, and Shwe Inn Thein Paya noted for the 100’s of densely packed stupas.
Shwe Inn Thein Paya Pagoda
Our final stop before heading back to our departure jetty was Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery. At over 200 years old, it is the oldest and largest in the Inle Lake region. It is built on wooden stilts and is set among floating gardens.It is also known as the “Cat Monastery”. The monks trained cats to jump through hoops when boredom set in but apparently this tradition has faded and we didn’t see one cat. The wooden monastery houses a collection of Buddha images in Shan, Tabetan, Bagan and Inwa styles. On our way we navigated through a mesh of canals passing Shan and Intha villages on the banks.
We reluctantly left Bagan today and made our way by car through plains and the Shan mountains to the town of Nyaung Shwe. We actually stayed about a 15 minute drive from the town and the jetty in a very nice colonial style hotel near the town of Shwe Nyaung. As has been the case so far in Myanmar, the staff were over the top friendly and helpful and within 5 minutes after checking in we had our next day planned to tour the lake, villages, monasteries and ancient pagodas all dotted around the second largest lake in Myanmar. The Shan Mountains shadow the lake and reach a height of 2,000 metres and offers a beautiful contrast to the views on the lake. Tomorrow we’ll leave the hotel early and spend the day on the lake. Before departing Bagan we set up a plan and arranged transport for our next 5 days of exploring Shan State. The map below shows our intended route.
Yesterday we rented an electric motorbike and toured around the greater Bagan area. We also rented one the day before after our balloon ride so I’ll lump both days in together. These bikes are great. Quiet and a maximum speed of about 45 km/hr and you definitely need one to get around but the daytime temperature is so hot that you really only want to spend half a day touring around. After 1:00 pm it is like driving though a very hot hair dryer so if you want to spend a full day an air-conditioned car is a must. We were told three nights in Bagan was good enough but we beg to differ. There is so much to see that you really need at least three full days to get a taste and probably a week to see many but certainly not all of them. The terrain is surreal with temples and pagodas dotting the landscape as far as the eye can see and each and every one of them, big or small has one or many unique Buddhas inside. We may have to have a section of “Buddha only” pictures.
If you’ve watched travel shows on TV then you have probably seen a segment somewhere on hot air ballooning at sunrise over the thousands of ancient temples and pagodas that are scattered around Bagan. We were up very early this morning for a 5:15 am pick up to take us to the launching fields where we were met with fresh croissants, Danish pastries and fresh hot coffee. After a short debriefing the balloons were first filled with air with two large high power fans and then a few bursts of high intensity flames. There were ten people in the main compartment which was split in two and a separate compartment for the pilot. The wind was calm and the air was hazy. A few more bursts of flame and we gently started our ascent. Our company was the “Golden Eagle” with three balloons along with two other companies which brought the count to ten balloons that filled the airspace. Our top altitude was about 2,000 feet where we saw the sunrise over the horizon albeit through a fairly thick haze which unfortunately didn’t lend itself to the best light for photography. Joyce was nervous at first but quickly relaxed once we took off. There is no wind (you move with the wind) and the ride was smooth although we would be lying if we said the thought of the balloon blowing up in flames and crashing to earth didn’t cross our minds. We flew a little lower later in the flight and with more sunlight the details of the temples and pagodas became clearer but we didn’t see the colours of the early morning sunshine that you see on any brochure or travel show but the experience was still a “once in a life-time”. Upon touch down we celebrated (our safe landing?) with a chilled glass of champagne. This is a ritual after all balloon flights and the reason why as the story goes is in the 1700’s a French man-made the first manned hot air balloon flight and landed in a farmer’s field. Not being up to date on manned balloon flights the farmers figured he was not from this world. I’m not sure if they tried to stone him death or not but on his subsequent flights he carried a bottle of champagne with him to prove to whoever’s field or house he crashed into that he was in fact from France and not the moon or some other place where hot air balloons wouldn’t work anyway. This flight was definitely on our bucket list so we can now cross this off and move to next one, space travel!