The minivan to Inle Lake was super late, but packed full of super fun people! We met Hugo, Jose, and Andrea from Columbia who packed their own beers and hilarious conversation. Hugo even gave us our very own Spanish/Asian fusion names :) And then Freddy from Ecuador. The Columbians got off at Kalaw to begin a 3 days trek, and we traveled on to Nyaungshwe, a small town near the lake. We scoped out some potential treks to do from the lake up to Kalaw in the mountains, but decided against it once we realized the number of assembly line tourists they shuttle on the treks, and opted to rent bicycles instead and cruise around the countryside around the lake.
The lake itself is pretty large, but very shallow so you could never quite get to it or definitely not swim in it (all the chemical run off from farming has been killing the fish so we opted not to swim or eat fish). While on our ride, we happened upon a really weird random subdivision of streets, equipped with large street lights, but no houses. Very eerie. Food was great at some of the local eateries and we took a couple trips out to one of the only 2 wineries in all of Myanmar, where we met a cool couple from Seattle, Kristen and Jeff. (See you guys soon on the bike trip!) Wine was as good as the ice hockey in Kenya, but a fun experience all the same. We spent a couple fun dinners with Freddy hearing all his exciting stories about guiding trips all over South America and even his harrowing experience hiking Mt. Mckinley in Alaska.
After a few days in Nyaungshwe, we headed up to Kalaw by bus to get a couple days in the mountains. It was much cooler in Kalaw and it made for some fun hikes up to surrounding hills and hilltop temples. We had a tasty local rum in a tiny local bar and met some really fun locals. While wandering in the hills, we stumbled upon a great family run restaurant in the hills where we chatted with a sweet old lady who grew up in those hills and told us of what it was like before anyone else was there. Also of when the military moved in and began taking the houses they wanted and even the wells. Her knowledge of the local elections was very impressive and the last day we were there Aung San Suu Kyi (or her partner was swarn into office) and began work in the actual capitol of Naypyidaw. If you don't know the history around this, it's worth a read. Also the old government decided that the capitol would be moved from Yangon in the south, up to the middle of the country to be more centrally located. They dumped tons of money into building a giant capitol, chalked full of large hotels and freeways, and once finished, most dug in their heels and refused to move to Yangon so the capitol has sat mostly vacant and resembling much of a ghost town for years. Only now, the new government is moving there and the guess is that slowly the rest will follow.
With only a couple days left in Myanmar, we got a posh nigh bus back to Yangon where low and behold, who do we see on it but Andrea and Freddy! Always fun to see people you know again on the travelers trail. Once in Yangon, Ville got bulldozed by his 3rd and worst bought of food poisoning and hardly left the hotel room. We had met a great couple in Inle Lake who were from Germany and we spent a couple days sightseeing together while Ville hugged the toilet.
Reflections on Myanmar. Even though the country is large, restrictions of travel for tourists (and ever changing as I'm writing this) has made the country feel much like a tourist attraction. You really have to spend quite a bit of money and a lot of work to get off the tourist path. But even the Lonely Planet can't keep up with how quickly even restaurants and hotels are constantly changing, so it's worth a visit before it's all commercialized like everywhere else. The people are incredibly kind, the food is amazing (but plan on getting sick at least once, it really is just part of the fun), set aside a decent budget, it's not very cheap, and go!
If it was hot in Yangon, Bagan was worse. Wide open, no shade, and we rented bicycles to ride all over and check out temples all day. The amazing part about it, was that it hasn't gotten quite the attention and tourist attraction as Angkor Wat in Cambodia so you can still wander anywhere and still lose yourself in temples without seeing anyone.
Of course, since travel in Myanmar is limited for tourists, this is probably the largest tourist attraction in the country and endless streams of A/C bused tourists with their matching Balloons Over Bagan hats were everywhere. We ate at a great local food joint and by evening I was sick as a dog. Where I spent the next couple days in an overpriced crappy dark hotel room lacking windows where I didn't leave bed, and sipped on coconuts (the cure all for making it through travel bugs). After seeing most of the temples in a day, we had originally planned to leave, but Ville rented more bikes and puttered around spending more time in the temples where he actually met some Finnish tourists, while waiting for me to rebound.
Once back on my feet, three days later, we headed over to the other tourist allowed vacation spot of Inle Lake.
There was quite a bit of excitement and anticipation for our travels in Myanmar. I, Kristen, lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2007-2008 and during that time was able to follow some of what was going on in Myanmar (of course no one knew the extent of it unless you lived there, but a visit to the refugee camps at the boarder and Burmese friends tried to keep us informed). In the last couple years, Myanmar has opened it's boarders and some areas inside to tourists and Ville and I really wanted to see the country before the tourism changes it like so many other countries.
Friendliest people we have met so far, incredibly tasty food, and landscape similar to Thailand make this country a great place to travel. All it took was a moment looking at a map and we inevitably had a person stop to ask if we needed any help. Then they went as far as walking us in the opposite direction than they were heading, to walk us to where we needed to go. Or even make some personal phone calls to find out the answer or book a ticket for us. For no other reason than to be kind. It was beautiful. And tea leaf salad, avocado salad, fried rice, noodles, fermented everything, the food was delicious everywhere we went.
Yangon has seen some very challenging times, but is starting to attract some investors and travelers alike allowing for some much needed polish and shine to begin to see it's sparkle. Sadly, Ville and I hit Myanmar end of March where things were heating up and it was unbelievably hot! We spent our days wandering around the city, walked to the river, to and around Kandawgyi Lake, to Inya Lake and Aung San Suu Kyi's home (where she spent nearly 20 years under house arrest).
Myanmar is also the most expensive place we have traveled. The hotels are not geared at all for backpackers and we never found a room under $25 a night. Food however was around the $2 mark, so it was a challenge to justify spending so much on accommodation. But we managed thanks to India and Nepal having less expensive accommodation, so it leveled out. Food seemed to have the same price no matter if we ate in a restaurant in the city or headed out to the villages. Also very different than most places we have been. But a beautiful country with very kind people and off to Bagan!
K.G. & Ville
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