South to Dawei

The town of Dawei and the surrounding area is earmarked for major development over the next decade or so, with projects such as a major deep-sea port, a 4-lane super highway direct to Bangkok, and a straight rail link to China. Fortunately, none of these have quite got off the ground yet, and have been further delayed by the elections and the uncertainty surrounding the (hopefully!) new government.
As such, we headed down south to a part of Myanmar with stunning coastline and idyllic beaches. Sadly, the region even further south and the islands of the coast that are famous for untouched high quality diving are off-limits to tourists (well, those who don’t want to pay a fortune to the military government in permits anyway). However, the beaches near Dawei itself were supposedly the stuff of fairytales, and so they were our target for some chill out time before the inevitable chaos of the Return of the Beaut in Bangkok.

Buses to Dawei from Yangon take 9-10 hours according to the guide book, but we didn’t manage either journey in much less than 16, and it was complicated by regular police checkpoints where all foreigners needed to have their passports photocopied.

The town of Dawei itself isn’t much, although there is a nice coffee shop (Dream Journey), and a few restaurants. This made it even more important for us to get to the beach! Transport options are a bit limited however, so we hired scooters for a couple of days and went exploring! The main ‘tourist’ beach (we saw two Frenchmen there), Maungmakan Beach – to the north of Dawei, although nice enough, didn’t quite have the feel we wanted, so we aimed our bikes further south the next day onto the peninsula.

We had been warned that some of the off-road tracks to the beaches were tough for those inexperienced on bikes, but we still were unprepared for what awaited us! We went to two different beaches, both of which were utterly idyllic and so beautiful, but it is the drives there that will remain etched in our minds for evermore!

The first day, we headed about 25km down the peninsula before following a sign (helpfully labelled “Beach”) that led over the hills and into the dunes, arriving in a fishing village right on the beach – after you’ve negotiated a way round the waist-deep tidal waters of course…! Think villagers repairing their narrow wooden boats on the beach; nets hanging out to dry and to be fixed; and gorgeous expanses of golden sand and you’ve got it about right! Well worth the drive!
I’m not sure that we would say the same for our second beach attempt the next day…! We decided to go further down the peninsula and see what else we could find. This was a mistake when we still didn’t know the Burmese word for ‘beach’! Two and a half hours later, with particularly numb bums, we saw another helpful sign (Beach – 10km), and went for it! What the sign should have read was: ‘Stunning beach in secluded cove, 11km away, though sand, gravel, dirt, forest, villages, mud, marsh and more sand’. Yeah – an adventure! It took ages, and more than once we were tempted to turn back as it just looked so unlikely that the path, as it got narrower and narrower, would ever end up at a beach! But we were stubborn, and eventually stumbled across a series of beach side bungalows ($30 per night if you’re interested) set in a stunning location. We were however, almost completely unable to appreciate it, as it had taken us so long to get there that we had a mere hour or so to regain our mental strength for the ride back – neither of us felt capable of that track after dark!

The thing that struck us the most from riding for miles and miles up and down the peninsula was the incredible happiness of the local people. Everyone, and I mean literally everyone, smiled and waved and shouted a greeting as we rode past. There was music in the streets, and an almost carnival atmosphere. We also had one of the nicest meals of the past few weeks in a roadside stall/restaurant – the lady only cooked one dish, but it was beautiful! And it was vegetarian – so it must have been really really good!!

All told – a lovely part of the world – but not the relaxing time we had pictured!

Bagan

Landing in Bagan, Kat instantly fell foul of the cheapest tourist scam in Myanmar, and ended up with war paint (AKA thanaka: the general-purpose paste worn by pretty much all women and children as an all-in-one make-up, sun cream and insect repellant). We then had to pay the standard $20 (or 25,000K) tourist entrance fee to the Bagan archeological zone – utterly unavoidable, but at least now we could console ourselves that the money might soon be going to a legitimate government.
For exploring the myriad of pagodas and temples that literally litter the 70sq kilometres around Bagan, we had decided on hiring little electric powered scooters. First however, we needed to find some cash, which was more challenging than expected, with an 80% rejection rate from the ATMs that morning!
A lot people could spend days exploring here, but we didn’t want to burn ourselves out, (as we did a few years previously in Eygpt), so headed for nowhere in particular, planning our next target by picking an interesting looking shape in the distance. Miraculously we still managed to hit most of the recommended sights, including the Sulamani Paya, Shwezigon Pagoda and watching the sun go down on the top of Shweleiktoo Pagoda. We didn’t just pick the ones that started with ‘s’… Honest! With a day filled with beauty and culture, it seemed only fitting to dine on a Western style diet, including a pancake and creme caramel in an ‘Asian-French fusion cafe’, and a pair of delicious dirty bee burgers in the Bagan Weather Spoons (Yes – really!).


  

Boat trip down the Ayeyarwady river 

Kat and Tom had caught the afternoon bus to Mandalay the day before, and, with time limited until we had to collect the Land Rover from Bangkok, booked an immediate boat out the next morning for Bagan. Oversleeping again, we broke the all time Mandalay record for shortest time from bed to boat and boarded just in time, although a phone call from our hotel to the boat company may have helped!
The views were quite cool, but as a mode of transport from Mandalay to Bagan, whether it was worth the $40 is up for debate. Certainly don’t hold out much hope for the complementary food. It was a good experience, and definitely worth doing if money is not an issue.

Trekking around Hsipaw

After a hasty breakfast of noodles (why are we always running slightly late?!), we met up with our guide (Aike Thein – email: trekkingaikethein@gmail.com or ring +95 (0) 936186367) and John, the Frenchman who we had met the day before, for a two day trek into the northern Shan mountains. Most treks around Hsipaw take a (fairly!) well trodden tourist trail to the villages and forest area to the west, as detailed in the guide book. However, Lily, our host at Lily the Home Hotel, had astutely realised that we might be a hard sell for a standard trek, and as a result had chosen Aike Thein as our guide. He is originally from a village in the mountains to the north of Hsipaw and he was one of the first few who pioneered the idea of taking tourists trekking in the area. Routes available are very much restricted by what your guide actually knows, so having an experienced guide is vital. It also helped that his English is excellent, which really added to the experience as he was able to point out and explain lots of things of interest, both in the villages and the forest. Our first morning consisted of an uphill hike with regular tea breaks in different Shan villages, followed by an authentic lunch in the homestay where we were to spend the night (which helpfully turned out to be the village restaurant!). We ditched our bags, and went exploring in the forest around the village in the afternoon. Returning to the homestay later on, we were amazed when we learnt that Aike Thein had bought a haunch of venison (hunted earlier in the day) from the villagers for us to devour for dinner! The food was so good and again utterly authentic – venison pieces, venison soup, rice, omelette, cabbage salad (crunchy and slightly spicy), green beans and rice – and a beer for those who wanted! We were all impressed. We slept on mattresses on the floor above the restaurant – pillows, duvets and blankets provided – and pretty much all got a solid 10-11 hours of sleep!
A breakfast of Shan noodles (sticky noodles in soup) and unlimited tea greeted us in the morning, and we were back on the path by 8. The evening before, Aike Thein had asked us whether we wanted a longer, harder and more remote trek through the jungle, or to follow the more common route back to Hsipaw. Our response was predictable, and he had arranged for an additional guide to help us find new routes through the mountains. The scenery was varied, with thick banana and bamboo forest, mingling with pine and birch on the steeper sections. In places, the villagers had cleared areas to grow papaya, limes and mangoes, as well as their main sources of income: tea and corn. The additional guide who was with us was a local buffalo herder, and even Aike Thein was excited by some of the paths we were taking – although at this stage we didn’t realise that he had arranged that we would have lunch in a distant Shan village where his sister lived. On route, he collected some pickings for lunch: stone ginger and banana flower, as well as an unsuccessful attempt to take down a parrot with his catapult! The day was a lot more fast paced, and after only one break mid-morning in a buffalo herders shelter, we were tired and ready for lunch by 1pm when we walked into the Shan village where his sister lives. They only see each other every two months or so, and we felt very privileged to be there, as we were invited into her house made entirely (walls, ceiling, stilts and floor!) from bamboo. The lunch was wonderful and very needed! Boiled vegetables (a cross between a potato and a parsnip that had a faint taste of Brussels sprouts!) appeared for us to snack on as a wide spread was cooked for lunch. We were almost certainly the first Westerners to visit the village and it made the morning’s trek so worthwhile.

The trek finished with a much more sedate two hour walk back down to Hsipaw and tea with Aike Thein’s wife and family.


  

Over the Gokteik Viaduct

Our overnight bus to Pyinoolwin arrived at 0600 and we rather helpfully got dropped outside the train station. Cakes were produced from both our bags and a nearby Frenchman and (awful) coffee/tea mix (“chai latte”) was provided by the station cafe. The ticket office (upper class tickets 2,750K; ordinary class 1,200K) opened half an hour before the train arrived, which was dead on time, and the goods carriages were uncoupled after their slog up the hill from Mandalay, and more passenger carriages were added – primarily to cater for the gaggle of French tourists who were clearly here to do exactly the same thing as us!After 4 hours of bumping along at a crawl through stunning scenery and lush farmland, with people of all ages working the crops of sugar cane, rice and fields of pale blue flowers, we arrived at the viaduct. The train paused briefly, perhaps to allow the driver time to collect himself, before inching onto the bridge. The views were staggering, and the drop down took your breath away – particularly after Coby discovered that you could just open the door for a better view…!

Through the tunnel into the rock face on the other side, then slowly onward towards Hsipaw (pronounced See-paw). We stopped frequently at stations, first to let off the majority of tourists who had just come for the viaduct and were returning to either Pyinoolwin or Mandalay, and then to allow women on the platforms to sell noodles, drinks and rice based snacks through the open windows.


Inle Lake

We caught an overnight bus to Inle Lake (technically a bus to Shwenyaung then a taxi to Nyaungshwe -8,000K for everyone). Awful TV on all night, crying children (OK – one child that wouldn’t settle for an hour or so, mainly due to it’s mother being violently travel sick). A note on overnight bus travel in Myanmar: every 3 hours or so, the bus will stop for about half an hour for a toilet/food break. Make your decision if you want to get off the bus, or stay on, as the driver disappears pretty quickly and locks the door, which is a great idea from a security point of view, but not so great if you wake up halfway through to discover yourself alone on a blacked out bus with a full bladder, unable to get out!

Holy Moley it was cold!! (6 degrees at 6am which felt much much colder in flip flops!!).

The Princess Garden Hotel ($31 for a double with ensuite) allowed us to check in immediately at 06:30, and we went straight to bed until the sun came up!

Hired bikes from the hotel and cycled to some hot springs (an interesting choice in 30 degree heat!), which was a nice spot for the first beer of the day. A boat ride across the lake followed, then up the east side to the Red Mountain vineyard for lunch, wine tasting, and simply fabulous views.

Myanmar curries for dinner in a sweet cafe/stall on the side of the market which resulted in the obligatory can of coke on the way home and the conclusion that you might as well just go to the Indian next door, although the fried samosas and veggie fritter type snacks were delicious.

Why had people warned us that the complementary breakfasts in Myanmar were a bit on the rubbish side of life? 4 courses of fruit, pancakes, eggs and toast later…

The day was spent on an incredible boat trip around the lake – and an opportunity to wonder about responsible tourism. Stopped off at a silversmith, a half tourist/half local market (which rotates through the 5 villages on the shores of the lake), some very old pagodas, another lunch in an obviously tourists only restaurant, a hand weavers, a blacksmith, then to jumping cat monastery. A highlight was half an hour watching some fishermen catching fish (!) with nets and spears.

  

Myanmar! 

After nearly a month apart, our team reunited at Yangon International Airport, Myanmar. To say that this was an exciting moment wouldn’t quite do it justice, as Myanmar was pretty much top of everyone’s list. Despite having only really reopened up to tourists in 2011, the visa process was about as easy as it gets (either a $50 evisa which arrived in less time than advertised; or a trip to a consulate – in Hong Kong for Tom and Kat, which only cost $15 and was a next day service).
On arrival at our hostel (Chan Myaye Guesthouse), we had our first real experience of the wonderful Myanmar hospitality, as cold orange squash was pressed into our hands as we were checking in and hostel staff insisted on carrying our bags up the (admittedly five flights of) stairs to our rooms!

Other things of note in Yangon:

999 Shan noodle

India-town and the cheapest curry ever

ATMs all charge

Breakfast (pineapple, and a fried rice dish not dissimilar to Plov!)

Shwedagon Pagoda – Massive golden pagoda; wonderful tour guide was well worth the extra 5000K per person to actually learn something rather than just wander aimlessly! Words don’t really do it justice – come and see it for yourself.