Wednesday, 25 May 2011

BURMA DAYS- PART 2 Inle Lake and Kalaw

To get from Bagan to Inle Lake, we had a long bus trip. The system of pricing bus and train tickets for foreigners was a problem we found travelling in Burma. We are not fans of long bus journeys- we never have been. Our luxury of plenty of time means we never have to rush, and we always make a point of breaking up long journeys (especially on buses) with a stay in another town over night, if not for a few days. This slow travel method ensures our sanity, patience with each other, saves our bodies the unnecessary pain of being squashed up for hours on end, and has lead to some memorable experiences in small towns not often visited. Unfortunately in Burma, the bus companies often insist on charging a ticket price for an entire route- whether you are going the whole way or half way. For example, to get from Bagan to Inle Lake was a 12 hour bus experience we wanted to avoid, so we decided to break it up and stay half way for a couple of days. However, on discovering the bus company was going to charge us $15 each whether we went half way or the entire journey, caused us to change our minds and settle back all the way to Inle Lake! This seems to happen on tourist routes more. We could accept being charged 10 times more for a train or bus ticket because we are foreigners, but this aspect REALLY pissed us off!

We have to admit Inle Lake was a bit of a disappointment for us. It was a classic case of a place building up in our minds over the years, through talking with other travellers, only to find it doesn’t live up to its reputation. For some reason we thought the guesthouses would be... on Inle Lake. We were very disheartened to find the accommodation in a dusty little town three and a half kilometres away, where we couldn’t even see the lake itself, without going on a boat ride. The US$5 entrance fee to the lake area was a nasty shock too. Nonetheless, we still enjoyed our time here, with bike rides to villages around the lake, and a touristy, but completely relaxing and lovely day trip on a little boat on the lake. The best part was cruising through the “floating” stilt villages watching people canoeing around their “floating” veggie gardens, and going about their daily routines. Another highlight was the jumping cat monastery where monks have trained cats (I know, sounds impossible) to jump through hoops. Not quite sure how it all started, but it was very cute. Along with the Buddha with glasses, it’s a” must see” bizarre sight of Burma!

Inle Lake

Floating garden, Inle Lake
Pig on board, Inle Lake

Afternoon delight
Local wine and cigars

Classic fisherman, Inle Lake

Inle Lake

Market, Inle Lake

Inle Lake

Cigar making, Inle Lake

Weird steering style, Inle Lake

Inle Lake girl

Kalaw was a wonderful revelation. Unlike Inle Lake, we hadn’t heard a great deal about this little town, and were very pleasantly surprised to find a welcoming place with a diverse population including many Nepalese, Indians, Shan and various other minorities, and a cool climate. It reminded us greatly of northern India and Nepal, with its charming small cottages with flower gardens and rolling hills. Most tourists come here to spend days trekking to outlying villages, but we simply enjoyed many gorgeous days walking in the nearby villages and hills (mostly visiting pagodas-they are present on almost every hill top!), and the evenings pigging out at the best restaurant we found in Burma- the Nepalese Food Centre, which served delicious curries. The kindness of the people was as evident in Kalaw as in Pyay, with shopkeepers at times not letting us let us pay for small items (“it’s a present”), and one little girl rushing to pick us flowers from her garden when we stopped to say hello in a village, being just two examples. The Burmese are such thoughtful, hospitable people, and I’m afraid we became used to being doted on!



Kalaw cottage

Market day Kalaw

Market, Kalaw

Market day, Kalaw

Loaded up, Kalaw

Heading back to Yangon, it was once again impossible for us to stay overnight half way..... this time for a different reason- the lack of government approved guesthouses in small towns. Unlike other countries, it isn’t always possible to stop off anywhere you like for the night, as there may only be one place in town tourists are allowed to stay at- and that might be a US$50 hotel, or no-where at all.  It’s hard to obtain information about such places, even on-line, as not many people get off the track. There are also a lot of restrictions on which areas you can travel in, but that didn’t affect us, as we pretty much stayed on the main tourist route- wanting to see the main draws of Burma for our first visit. So, we legged it back to Yangon in one go, forgoing a visit in a town where the one guesthouse only had accommodation out of our price range. The up side of this was a few extra days in Kalaw, which was great, and then back to Yangon KL and continue onto our next adventure.

Money- Guesthouse/hotels, trains and entrance fees are all to be paid in US dollars. This in itself is no problem- we’ve experienced this in other countries. But in Burma the dollars must be in absolutely pristine condition, with even a small tear or blemish not being acceptable. We became used to this quickly, and actually wasn’t as big a pain as we’d initially thought it might be.

We found guesthouses in Burma poor value for money compared to the rest of South-East Asia.  Rooms around the country varied between US$8 and US$15. This got us a very simple room, mostly with shared bathroom and a fan. (On the upside, most rooms come with towels, toilet paper, soap, and hot water). This compares with other cities and tourist centres in South-East Asia, where we rarely pay more than $10 for a better standard room.
Special mention here must go to the first guest house we stayed in in Yangon. It must have been a beautiful building years ago, but it was sadly run down. We gave it a go for the $7 price, but after a sleepless night due to extreme traffic noise and some roof plaster falling on our heads in the night, we moved to less “atmospheric” digs!

Our Kubrick-like guesthouse in Yangon

Inside our "atmospheric"guesthouse, Yangon

Outside of the grand old building
Typical guesthouse set out, Bagan

Entrance fees are another killer for the budget traveller in Burma. The US$10 entrance fee to see Bagan was well worth the money, but US$5 to see Inle Lake seemed abit over the top, and there were many other minor sights we didn’t see that were also $5 or $10 to enter. Food and drink, however, were a real bargain. Shan noodles are the most common street snack, and they are cheap (about 60 cents a bowl) and quite tasty. A cheap restaurant meal rarely cost us more than $5 including drinks for the two of us. Draft beer is 75 cents a glass, and local “wines” about $1.50 a bottle.

We loved most aspects of Burma, and we found a few areas to be frustrating. Overall, it’s a very rewarding country to travel in, with unexpected kindnesses occurring at random times. We probably will hold off on any follow up trips until things have changed here politically, and more freedom is allowed for the traveller, but for the moment, difficult travel means less tourists and more genuine local people. This will no doubt change when the country becomes easier to travel in. We will remember Burma as an engaging, welcoming and sometimes challenging experience.

  • ·         Women in Burma apply a very strange paste on their faces after bathing- more of a fashion statement than a whitening product, we decided. One woman tried to tell me it was cooling, but when I tried it, I worked up a sweat very quickly, and decided not give it a go again. The patterns get very creative!

This is the stuff they apply to their faces

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