Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Shoving 50 pilgrims and a couple of Americans in the back of a truck: Golden Rock (Kyaiktiyo), Myanmar


Destination:  Mount Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar

Number of days spent: 1 day

Where we stayed:  Sea Sar Guest House - $12

Best Restaurant:  It wasn’t all that great but we enjoyed the mohinga breakfast at the Sea Sar Guest House.  In a town known for pilgrimages prices are high and quality a bit low.  This town probably offered the worst value for food in all of Myanmar. 

Best of:  As the second largest pilgrimage site to Burmese Buddhists the place is filled with pilgrims praying, making offerings,applying goldleaf, etc.  It’s just fascinating to sit back and watch. 

Worst of:    We both ached for days after the ride up the mountain….bracing ourselves on those wooden benches used muscles that probably haven’t been flexed in a decade. 

Most memorable:  I don’t think we will ever forget our ride up the mountain with 60 of our closest Burmese friends. 

Useful Tip:  This place is easy to reach by public transport from either Bago or Yangon.  The bus (K7000 from Yangon) drops directly in front of Sea Sar Hotel which is a stone’s throw away from the truck ‘shuttle’ (K3000 round trip) up the mountain.  The train station can be reached by a shared truck (K500).  If all this seems confusing, the guys at Sea Sar will be glad to help out.  One word on Buses:  never sit in the first two seats.  They think these are the ‘premium’ seats and when you go to book, they like to put you there.  Don’t do it unless you enjoy the loud pitched horn noise – Horns are used here more than not to communicate just about everything.

Perched high atop a mountain a mere five hour bus ride from Yangon sits the holy site of Kyaiktiyo (pronounced Jack-tee-o) or as most westerners call it, Golden Rock.  Legend has it that the rock maintains it’s balance by, yep, you guessed it – a well placed strand of Buddha’s hair.  Nearly every Burmese Buddhist hope to come here once in their lifetime. 

After catching the evening bus from Yangon, we arrived around sunset and prepared for the hike up the following morning.  There are a couple of options when climbing the hill.  The cheapest is to walk all the way – about 4-5 hours each way.  Nearly everyone, however, opts for the truck/hike combo.  A shared truck that does not leave until 45 people have smashed themselves into the back, rumbles down a paved path, stopping halfway to collect the fare plus what I assume to be a sermon to the masses, complete with collection plate.  The phrase “like sardines in a can” now has a picture to go along with it.  After the 45-60 minute bruising ride, it’s still another 45-60 minute hike up to the top, that is unless you suffer from illusions of grandeur.  To avoid physical activity of any kind, four Burmese men will whisk you to the top in your very own sedan chair.  Believe it or not, there was a tour group, presumably from Thailand, that had hired their services.  Of course, it is nice to offer this service to the old or physically handicapped that would otherwise not be able to hike all the way.    


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However you get there, the view is quite stunning.  The gold leaf covered boulder perched precariously upon the side of the hill shines in the distance.  The views out over the expanse are quite beautiful and the morning haze yet to lift adds a degree of mystery and exoticism to the scene.  Women are still forbidden to actually touch the boulder, but judging by the massive bulge of gold applied to the back of the rock, the men are doing their fare share.  Perhaps it’s the weight of the gold that is sustaining the balancing act these days.  



Posing in countless other people’s holiday photos is quite common practice here and half our time spent at the top involved doing just that.

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Other than the rock itself, there is little else to do here so after making the same, sardine-in-a-can journey back down the mountain, we hopped aboard the train to Mawlaymine!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Too early for a festival and disappointing Dalah: Yangon Rehashed



Number of days spent:  1

Where we stayed:  Ocean Pearl - $15/night with breakfast

Best Restaurant:  Du Du all the way – hence forth the Chinese BBQ stand that is actually next to the Du Du Children’s clothing store will always be called just DuDu.  We loved it the first time, and had to come back for more.  Tack on the fruit lady with the freshest papaya and watermelon in the country and we had a delicious three course meal for less than $6 for the two of us.  Monsoon is worth the visit for a look at an old colonial building but it was somewhat of a let down food wise.  Perhaps other dishes are better but give the Pad Thai a pass.

Best of:  Walking through the rare A/C in the Strand Hotel and the peaceful walk along Kandawgyi Lake.

Worst of:  The Shwedagon Festival that we were told repeatedly would be happening was not for another 5 days making this one day stop in Yangon virtually pointless.  

Most memorable:  Say’s the Dalah rickshaw driver in hushed tones to me, “next time leave wife at home…K30,000 all day with nice Myanmar girl,” that just about sums up our disappointment in the boat ride across the river.

Useful Tip:  For the best views of Shwedagon reflected in Kandawgyi Lake you have to go by the government owned Karaweik barge.  Strangely and annoyingly the park has one entrance fee and the small part, with the view, has a separate entrance and camera fee.  

After taking the morning flight from Inle and getting checked into our hotel, we hit the streets of Yangon once again.  We checked out the afore mentioned Monsoon restaurant as well as the Strand Hotel.  Both are set in beautiful colonial style buildings, giving a glimpse an era long since past.  Stepping across the threshold of the Strand transports you back in time about 70 years when tea time was still relevant in this part of the world.  All around these two standouts lie hollow shells of buildings left to the elements of time.  Squatters outnumber tenants and it’s this stark contrast that makes Yangon such a unique destination.

We made the return trip to Yangon for primarily one reason – to catch the Shwedagon festival.  Before leaving the temple the first time we asked several people when the festival would be and they all responded with the same, 6 day time frame.  Thinking that festivals are almost always the best on the first day, we planned accordingly.  When we arrived at the gate however, they told us it was not until this weekend, 4 days away.  Bummed and a little upset with ourselves, we decided to check out a couple of other things in the area instead. 

Just across from Shwedagon sits Maha Wizaya, or as locals call it the People’s Pagoda.  Built in 1980, its no where near as impressive as it’s neighbor, but is still a shimmering paya all the same.  Despite one of the military leaders involvement with the building of the paya, it was almost entirely built with donations by the public, hence the moniker of People’s Pagoda.

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Down and across a congested highway from Shwedagon lies Kandawgyi Park.  This natural lake in the heart of Yangon provides a nice reprieve from the city, despite the fact that it is ringed with one of the busiest streets.  A nice wooden bridge winds its way along one edge of the lake passing gardens, a temple and even a hotel.  Visiting in the afternoon reveals the slightly more affluent of Yangon.  Joggers are out, mothers are taking the kids for a stroll and young couples find a quiet corner.  At the opposite end of the lake from Shwedagon sits the government owned Kareweik – a reproduction of a royal barge.  Since we had already paid to get into Kanwadgyi Park, we felt it was a bit of an annoyance to have to pay the government again just to see the last 50 yards or so of the lake so we opted out of the ‘prime’ spot for catching the Shwedagon reflection in the lake waters.  There are still a couple of places along the way that almost work as well.

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The next morning, we had a few hours before we had to catch the bus so we headed across the river to Dalah.  Lonely Planet recommended it as a nice way to see river life in a village.  Ok, so if you only come to Myanmar and see Yangon/Mandalay/Bagan and never venture beyond the main sites, then this may be a passable look at life in a Burmese village….but I call that a stretch at best.  The $2 ferry ride takes literally 10 minutes and little can be seen other than a few commercial boats.  Once upon the other side, rickshaw drivers vie for your attention.  After settling on one driver he bicycles down the road and tells us that he can only carry one person and here is his friend, conveniently enough, waiting at twice the price.  Refusing to support such dishonesty, we walked back and found two other rickshaw drivers to do the same route for just a little more than the agreed upon price of the initial crooks.  Since we only really had an hour or so, we only wanted to check out a couple of temples, the market and head back to the jetty.  The temple was nice enough and the market we found interesting, but neither were more impressive than others we had seen elsewhere in the country.  What of the village life that was supposed to be seen?  We found it to be just more of the sprawl you find in Yangon, only without the crumbling colonial charm.  It was probably the most hassle we encountered in Myanmar.  The topper came with the offer of a prostitute…no thanks.  


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Dissapointed in Dalah and no Shwedagon festival to show for our efforts, we boarded the bus and headed for the South of Myanmar.  Next stop: the glimmering and holy Golden Rock of Kyaiktiyo.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Paddling, Puttering and Peddling around Inle Lake, Myanmar


Destination:  Inle Lake (Nuangshwe), Myanmar

Number of days spent: 6 days

Where we stayed:  Mingular Inn – A little gem of a spot, their breakfast was our favorite in all of Myanmar (bananas, avocados, oranges, eggs, toast & banana pancakes along with coffee, tea or juice).  The rooms start at $12 for a double and go up to $16.  We felt like a bit of “luxury” so opted for the $16 balcony room.  It was enormous.  It’s ideally situated between the  market and the jetty on the road leading out to the bike trail for the villages & winery)  The family that ran this place was really wonderful, very kind & full of helpful information.  If I had to fault the place for anything it would be that they don’t have milk for coffee & they only have hot water when the government electricity was on (though the tank did store up enough to last a few hours).  Even so, it’s a wonderful place to stay.

Best Restaurant:  On the cheap side, the chapatti stand at the market (only at night) was pretty good and the stand next to it serves up a decent Shan noodle salad as well as Khao sway.  Star Flower, ran by the brother of the undeservedly popular Golden Kite, has a nicer atmosphere and the food was a bit better even if the menu was exactly the same.  Unique Superb Food House has an excellent pumpkin curry and Aurora (across from Golden Kite) also serves up excellent Shan and Chinese dishes with the cheery owner often throwing in freebies.

Best of:  Watching the fisherman fish with their unique style of rowing, ‘illegal’ gaming at the rotating markets, a canoe ride along the canals of Maing Thauk

Worst of:  Wrong time of year for the floating gardens – low water and nothing in season.

Most memorable:  The canoe ride in Maing Thauk (below).

Useful Tip:  You won’t find it in any guide books, but you can bicycle to Maing Thauk and walk across the long bridge to the ‘jetty’ where an entrepreneurial boat owner will paddle you around for about 1500K ($1.50) for an hour.  It makes for an interesting, crowd free look at life in stilt homes.   

Up the hill from the dusty plains of central Myanmar lies the quiet and peaceful Inle Lake.  Its calm waters are fringed with small villages, fisherman huts and a surprising number of birds.  The lake’s bottom is comprised of a vast field of grass and weeds – ideal conditions for small fish to thrive and providing enough nutrients for plants to grow.  The lake also serves as a highway connecting the numerous villagers coming to trade goods, catch up on gossip or snack on tasty treats in one of the five market locations that rotate around the lake.  The town itself, Nyaungshwe, is a relative hassle free haven compared to the busy cities of Mandalay and Yangon or the tourist heavy Bagan area. 

The quintessential Inle Lake experience is the one day boat trip around the lake taking in one of the markets, a stop at a couple of important temples and, as always, a few shopping stops.  The boats are typically decked out with five chairs in a straight row down the middle of a low sided, narrow boat.  The vessel is powered with one Thai style longtail motor; essentially a car motor mounted on a single axle turning a propeller at the end of a long shaft.  Though noisy and disturbing the tranquility of the early morning air, the boats make their way around the lake in relative good time.  Expect to pay anywhere from 12,000 to 16,000 ($12 - $16US) for the boat depending on where the market is that day.    Bring along friends and you can share making it a cheap day trip.


Probably the most iconic site on Inle are the fisherman and their unique style of rowing.  Sans motors, these salt-of-the-earth men (and boys) propel their vessel by means of a single oar.  They wrap one leg around the shaft and kick back while pushing forward with their free hand.  How they stay balanced must take a lifetime of practice and learning.  It seems to be a matter of pride as well.  Every village has at least one large boat that is manned by over 100 men using the same technique in a competition after the monsoon season when the water is highest.  The fishing itself has two styles.  One is a normal net spread out over a distance and drug in.  The other is a cone like basket that is dropped into the water to the ground accompanied by a trident like spear being jabbed repeatedly through a hole in the top of the basket.  Both methods seem to work about as well as the normal hook and line as we didn’t see too much being caught the couple of times we stopped to watch. 

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After watching the fisherman for a few minutes, we made our way down to the Taung To Market.  The furthest market from Nyaungshwe of the 5 markets, Taung To is one of the smaller, more local markets that don’t get as many tourists as the closer ones do.  Stacks of thanakha (a local wood used for sunscreen), cheroot (locally rolled cigars) and baked rice cakes share space with typical household goods as well as the standard tourist trinkets.  

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Behind the main rows of the market sit the barber shop and the decidedly more popular gambling huts.  Seeing a crowd of people and yelling going on, we knew it was some sort of game or sport happening.  Fully expecting to see a cockfight or some other vicious blood sport, we approached the tents with apprehension and were shocked by what we saw.  A man with a string tied to a pole…  In front of him, there were six spaces on which to place bets.  The man pulled on the string and a rumbling noise was made.  The crowd gasped;  some cheered while others jeered.  What did he unleash?  Three oversized children’s wooden blocks with innocent symbols painted on them like cheery goldfish and wide eyed turtles.  Despite the innocence of a simple dice game, they were very paranoid of us taking photos and kept a constant eye on us and other foreigners attempting to snap a shot thus the best we can do is give you a look at the crowded tent (and the local barbershop as well).  

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Ok, so I know we take lots of pictures also, but these guys were falling all over one another to take the same picture of the one lady dressed in traditional attire.  We always get a kick out of the Korean tour groups with their tripods and massive, multiple lens bags.  You know what they say about the size of a man’s camera…Click, click, click!


Set atop a hill overlooking the chaotic market below are a set of Shan stupas reached via a covered walkway.  Not the nicest stupas or views we have seen, but it is a pleasant enough stroll to the top giving a bit of respite from the handful of hawkers below.

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After the market, it was off to see the weavers.  Pulling into the stilt village of In Phaw Khone, the sound of the boat’s motor is replaced by the chook-a-chook of the sliding looms coming from all around.  Sure it’s a sales pitch, but not a hard one and its interesting to watch the men and women working hard on hand woven goods.  Made by extracting the fibers from the stem of the lotus plant and wrapping several of them together, the weavers are able to produce unique lotus shawls – a bit pricey due to the amount of plants it takes to produce one piece.     They also import silk from Mandalay and weave both that and native cotton.  


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The next stop of the shopping portion of the program involves the controversial Paduang ladies.  These ladies are native to the Kayin state of Myanmar (near the Thailand border) and are employed by shops around Inle lake to attract tourists.  Their necks are stretched by adding rings one by one until they can no longer support the weight of their own heads without wearing the rings.  While their tribes are native to Myanmar, many of these women are smuggled across the border into Thailand where they are kept as something of an exhibit for tourists; similar to this.  Faced with this ethical dilemma we chose not to support the shop that employs them or buy their handicrafts; but we can’t say that’s the best answer either. 

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You wouldn’t know it just by looking at them, but the four golden blobs housed in the middle of the Phaung daw Oo Paya are actually ancient Buddha images that have been covered in gold leaf applied by faithful followers for centuries.  The temple is the holiest in the Inle lake region and next door is an impressive boat used to shuttle around the holy blobs during festivals.


The famous floating gardens of Inle Lake are little more than floating piles of grass this time of year, but it’s still interesting to take a spin through.  Held in place by long bamboo poles and nets holding the sod, the gardens provide a way to water crops easily and extend the available farmland.  The poles allow the ‘islands’ to adjust to the rising and sinking water levels of the lake.  Everything from watermelons to tomatoes are grown, we just had to use our imagination a little.

The last stop on the boat trip is the infamous Jumping Cat Monastery, or Nga Hpe Kyaung.  It’s a rather unassuming structure with basic furnishings and shrines, but it’s the feline inhabitants that bring this place to life.  About every 15 minutes, or until someone donates a little, a woman comes over, shakes the treat jar and has the cats jump through a small hoop.  It’s a rather harmless and amusing parlor trick; it did give us another opportunity to watch our Korean friends in action at least. 

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As the setting sun approached the hill studded backdrop, the fishermen were back out on the lake trying out their luck.  Here is a better sequence of the basket and spear fishing style.

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As a bonus to our trip back we saw a little boy riding his buffalo (and urging him on with blades of grass)!


The next day we rented a couple of bikes and took to a couple of areas around Inle.  Just north of town lies Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung.  This teak wood monastery is well known for the famous pictures of novice monks studying in the massive oval windows.  We also befriended a scruffy looking kitten for the short time we were there as well until a cheeky novice monk came out and chased it away; proof that no matter what they wear, boys will be boys.

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Heading east out of town about 12 kilometers sits one of the only vineyards in Myanmar.  The nutrients in the ground make it an excellent place for growing grapes; the weather, however, is a slightly different story.  The views from the top of the hill are well worth the trip out here and it’s an OK wine, just don’t expect anything on par with better, more established wine growing regions of the world.

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Maing Thauk village is also reachable by bicycle from Nyaungshwe and makes for an excellent half day/day trip.  The village is also part of the five day rotating market selling the normal wares, vegetables and quick eats.  Also available in the markets are barrels of diesel, gas, water and cooking oil that villagers pump out of and fill their own 1 liter bottles.  Just in case you don’t have an empty liter bottle lying around, they sell those as well.  They might not have figured out the recycle part yet, but as far as Asia goes they do a pretty good job reusing those plastic bottles.    

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While the market and half of Maing Thauk resides on dry land, the other half is a collection of stilt homes over the water.  The stilt village is reached by a 1/2 kilometer long ‘bridge’ that ends at a small dock where canoe ‘taxis’ await to carry locals to and from their homes.  Aside from one small shop selling soda, 3-in-1 coffee and an equally tiny menu for food, the village of 1000 is void of any shops.  About the only outside influence occurs once every 5 days along the main channel where the buzzing motor boats whisk tourists to and from the market.  Hopping on a canoe and being paddled around town was a great way to really see a bit of normal stilt-village life.  Nearly all of the inhabitants are either fisherman or farmers eking out an existence from the floating gardens.  Children race from makeshift window to makeshift window in their thatch hut abodes just to get a glimpse and yell out “Mingalaba!” (hello) and wave.  In one corner of the village, a large group of men sit around chatting, taking a break from building a new house for a family whose old one was on its last legs…literally.  The feeling is one of a peaceful calm that so rarely is found along normal tourist circuits.


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Deciding that it was more cost effective to just take the boat tour with several others instead of getting our own, we signed up to go on the day the market was in Indein.  Indein is located up river from Inle via a series of makeshift ‘locks’, essentially small dams that force the water to converge into a small gap just wide enough for the boats to motor through.  Despite its distance from the main town, the market was by far the most touristy, with literally hundreds of vendors set up selling anything from t-shirts to toy wooden guns.  Aside from the tourist crush, the market itself was also one of the largest, attracting many of the villages that lie between Kalaw and Inle Lake. 

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Aside from the market, which other than size is quite similar to all the others, the hill behind the town boasts a stunning collection of stupas and pagodas in varying states of decay or restoration.  The age of the stupas are largely unknown, but some date back to the 2nd and 3rd century.  After running the souvenir gauntlet, literally every step of the way to the top, you come to the Shwe Inn Thein Paya.  This shimmering complex of over 1000 zedi was built over several years between the 17th and 18th centuries and has great views from the back of the surrounding hills and forward to the lake in the distance.  

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The rest of the day was more or less a repeat of the first boat trip – Weaving, Paduang ladies (we didn’t even go in this time), silversmith, etc.  We also requested a stop at the boat making and cheroot making places; both interesting but nothing to get too excited over. 

The best unadvertised part of the boat trips are the couple of kilometers between town and the lake.  In this small stretch lies several varieties of birds , children splash in the water and the water buffalo also jump in to cool off.  There always seems to be stuff going on in this area and it’s a shame the boats just fly past as fast as the can.  Apparently there are canoe tours of this area so it might be worth checking out.

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Not part of the rotating 5 day lake markets, Nuangshwe Market is more permanent, but also bursts out the seams on a separate, 5 day rotating town market.  I took a pass, but Tracy walked up there and took a few photos – including the fly covered chickens.  Perhaps vegetarianism isn’t so bad after all!

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Not looking forward to a long, 20+ hour overnight bus ride, we booked a flight instead back to Yangon.  As with everything in Myanmar, you can only pay in cash as credit cards are virtually non-existent.  Add to that the fact that the largest bill is worth $1, and you get a picture of just how many bills you have to carry around all the time.

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After checking into the shack of an airport, we boarded the plane and headed back to Yangon for round #2!