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

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

BURMA DAYS- PART 1 Yangon, Pyay and Bagan

Places we visited in Burma

Our first impressions of Yangon, was that it was like being in India...almost. It’s the ultimate case of same same, but different. Similarities included the old colonial train system, but there are no lines for tickets or shit on the tracks. The streets smell and look the same, but there aren’t millions of people everywhere staring at you. Most of the people look Indian, but they don’t wobble their heads when they talk. The food is Indian, but with a slightly different twist.  There are guys chewing/spitting paan (red betel nut, chewing tobacco) and hocking up gobs of mucus.
But, of course, most people in Yangon are ethnic Burmese, and Buddhist. In the square near our guest house, a number of mosques, churches and a Hindu temple all surround the central Buddhist golden pagoda, Sule Paya. Local minorities, such as the Shan people, and also Chinese and Indian all join the Burmese in an ethic melting pot that rivals Kuala Lumpur. Diversity gone mad!
We took great pleasure in being in a completely new country with much to observe and learn. A pleasant introduction to Yangon was the three hour train trip around the city and into the suburbs/surrounding farmlands we took. Although we were escorted by armed guards, it was a wonderful experience to travel along-side chattering locals with their baskets full of produce.

Locals on a train

Yangon train trip

Yangon train trip

 We also explored some of the city’s beautiful pagodas- the Burmese were more than happy for us to wander around their religious monuments without fuss or hassle.

Yangon mirror pagoda

Yangon Pagoda

Beautiful mural, Yangon pagoda
Kids at pagoda, Yangon

Another day was spent simply strolling amongst the decaying colonial architecture and the accompanying interesting smells and rubbish, feeling happy to be in Burma! The pollution here seemed pretty bad, and we were glad when we left after a few days for Pyay.

Tiny seats, Yangon

Old colonial buildings, Yangon

View from Guesthouse, Yangon
Pyay (also called Prome) was probably the best place on our trip through Burma. It doesn’t have spectacular architecture, great food or scenery, but is just an ordinary town with extraordinarily friendly people. It’s the sign of a welcoming town when we could walk around all day with no particular agenda, and just stop in cafes, chat, have a couple of beers on the riverside, and see a few pagodas.

Buddha statue, Pyay
Pagoda, Pyay

Pagoda, Pyay
River kids

Market woman, Pyay
Cigar seller, Pyay

 Beautiful Buddha, Pyay
Funny snub-nosed Buddha, Pyay
The main highlight of Pyay was a town a few kilometres away where a famous Buddha statue with glasses can be found. We had heard about this Buddha years ago, and I didn’t believe it was true for a long time, but here is the evidence.....

Buddha with glasses, Pyay

Buddha with glasses, Pyay

From Pyay we took an overnight train to the next destination. Many people, including the Lonely Planet, don’t approve of the use of trains in Burma, as the money tourists pay in US$ goes directly to the government and supports the regime. But we found that there is no way to travel in Burma and avoid at least some of our money going to the government. Apparently the bus companies are in the pockets of the generals, who skim money off the profits, and how much of the money we pay to the little guesthouses do the owners actually get to keep? The money from the entrance fees for Bagan, Inle Lake, and any other pagodas or tourists sights that are paid in US dollars.......goes to government. So with this knowledge (and the fact that the bus on the same route was the same price and took much longer), we embarked on the 12 hour train trip to Bagan. It was extremely comfortable, with reclining seats and big, open windows with plenty of fresh air, although our seats near the toilets, combined with the lights that were left on all night bringing in hordes of insects, made it hard to sleep!

Train Pyay to Bagan

Our 'guard"
Train Inle to Kalaw

Bagan is a place we’ve dreamed about visiting for a long time. Along with Borobudur (Java) and Angkor Wat (Cambodia), which we’ve been lucky enough to visit on previous trips, it’s one of the “Big 3” of the ancient sites in South East Asia. It’s so hard to describe the beauty and scope of Bagan. There are 4400 pagodas/temples here, and climbing up one of the many viewing levels inside the temples and looking out at miles and miles of lovely pastoral scenery dotted with hundreds and hundreds of pagodas, was really breathtaking. Almost every pagoda has at least one Buddha image inside (some have dozens of different sizes), and while they are all a similar style (very distinctive Burmese style), they are all quite different, with varying expressions, clothes and positions. I think Richard must have taken a photo of every single one! People try to compare Bagan with Angkor Wat, but they are very different. Both cover big areas, but Bagan can’t compete with the beautiful carvings and jungle appeal of many of the Cambodian temples, and Angkor has nothing on the peaceful atmosphere, soaring views and mural paintings of Bagan. Both are fabulous in their own way. One difference is the sleepy feel of the town of Bagan. For the country’s biggest tourist attraction base, there is surprisingly little English spoken, no touts, only a few sellers at the temples, mostly simple guesthouses, and locals who are not all into the tourist dollar (this may be different in the high season). We hired bikes to get around for three days, after which our bums had had enough, and we were a bit pagoda-ed out! We apologize for the huge amount of photos here- this place is so beautiful, it’s hard to choose which ones to put in!

Bagan Buddha


Bagan temple

Bagan Buddha

Bagan Buddha

Bagan temple

Bagan Buddha

Bagan temple

Bagan temple

Bagan Buddha

Bagan temple
Resting at Bagan

Bagan temples
Bagan Buddha

 Some more Bagan beauty:

  • Lungis (sarongs) are king in Burma. At least 90 percent of people wear one. They are fantastically diverse. Most men wear them with a short sleeved shirt, and women with a blouse, but we saw Muslim robes, suit jackets, singlets, even barrister’s court clothes topping the lungi. We are big fans of the lungi for ourselves as bed/dagging around the house wear, but neither of us was confident about going out in public, and not having it fall down, so we decided against joining in with the lungi fashion in public. Plus, we didn’t want to look like prats.

Lungi man with lollypop

Tiny lungi