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Myanmar (Burma), Jan-Feb 2009

We left "Arctracer" in Penang, Malaysia and took a trip to Myanmar (Burma) in early 2009. We started on January 17 with a ferry to Butterworth and an overnight train to Bangkok. In Bangkok we got visas at the Myanmar embassy. We flew to Yangon, then quickly to Mandalay and up to Myitkyina where we commenced a series of boat trips down the Ayeyarwady (or Irrawaddy) River to Mandalay. We bused to Bagan for five days and then bused to Kalaw for three days of trekking to Inle Lake. We finally bused back to Yangon, flew to Bangkok, took the overnight train to Butterworth, and ferried back to Penang, arriving home on February 19. It was a very interesting trip! Here are more details:

Penang to Yangon

We left "Arctracer" in a Tanjong City Marina slip in Georgetown on Penang Island. Ferries to the mainland depart from the docks next door, so we just walked off our boat and onto a ferry. Our luggage included many books and other school supplies to give away in Burma, and the strap of one overloaded duffle bag broke during this walk. Ferries run frequently and there is no charge for passengers leaving the island. In Butterworth it was a short walk to the train station. We purchased train tickets a few days in advance at the office at the ferry dock in Georgetown. The train left at 14:45 and stopped at the Malaysia/Thailand border checkpoint at 18:00. The officials of both countries stamped our passports and we got back on the same train. Our seats were transformed for the night into upper and lower berths by the train crew. We bundled up and slept well despite chilly air conditioning. We ordered supper and breakfast from a short menu offered by the train crew, but could have purchased food from vendors who came aboard at several stops. We arrived at the Hualamphong Station in Bangkok at 10:15 and walked to the Sri Krung Hotel just across the canal on the edge of Chinatown. Our Thai friend Sunny met us that evening, and we ended up having dinner with him in a mall restaurant. The next morning, Monday, we took the Metro and then the Skytrain to the Myanmar Embassy and applied for (the maximum possible) 28 day visas. Without expediting, these cost 1620 baht (about $50US) and were ready in 3 days.We spent our days in Bangkok relaxing. We did only a little sightseeing since we had been there before. One afternoon we met Sunny for a stroll in a park and dinner at "Laap Paak," an excellent restaurant. Another highlight was watching the inauguration of Barak Obama live on Al Jazeera, the Arabic tv network. Our Air Asia flight to Yangon was scheduled for 7:15am on Friday. We chose to stay overnight at the airport rather than worry about waking early enough and getting there on time. The airport was an uncomfortable place with metal benches and we didn't get much sleep. It was an uneventful flight.

(view map of our route in Myanmar)

Yangon Arrival

We arrived in Yangon at 8:30 local time on January 23. (Local time is different in the three countries involved on this trip. When it is 10:00 in Myanmar it is 10:30 in Thailand and 11:30 in Malaysia.) Yangon (Rangoon) is the largest city in the country and was the capital until a new capital city was built just a few years ago. We have relatives there thanks to Danny, who was born in Myanmar, moved with his parents to Virginia and last year married Erin, Nina's niece. Danny's Aunt Janet, Uncle Steve and Cousin Bryan met us at the airport, took us to their home, downtown to change US dollars into Kyats, to lunch at "Danny's favorite restaurant," and to the "Beautyland II" guest house where we stayed. The next day we walked past the Sule Paya in midtown to visit the Botataung Paya by the river, then back to shop in the Bogyoke Aung San Market. We walked to the Shwedagon Paya, Myanmar's most important religious site, and spent hours looking at its beautiful temples, monuments and images. We walked back to our guest house for showers, and then met Danny's Aunt Miranda, Cousin Hnin, Cousin Yamone and her husband Nay Gyaw for dinner at a nice "hot pot" restaurant. We ended this eventful day walking through the huge street market in Chinatown on the eve of Chinese New Year, a colorful and festive scene.

(view photos of Yangon)

Mandalay (first visit)

On January 25 Beautyland II gave us an early breakfast before we flew to Mandalay. The Mandalay airport is 45km south of the city center, but we shared a taxi to the "AD-1 Hotel." The hotel provided an inexpensive clean room with a hot (when there was electricity) shower and breakfast on the roof. From there we walked through the very busy street market and the nearby Eindawya Paya. The next day we took a trishaw to Mandalay Hill and climbed a walkway to the top to see its monuments and the views across the city. Bobo, our trishaw driver used to teach in the Mt. Popa area with a salary of 30,000 KS (about $30US) per month. Then he married a woman from Yangon and they had a daughter, now 3 years old. He could not afford to maintain his family on his teaching salary so became a trishaw driver. He rents a trishaw for 700 kyats/day and gets $3 to $5 on a typical day from passengers. After we climbed Mandalay Hill he encouraged us to climb another walkway to see a nat shrine. Jerry walked more than halfway up the hill again but didn't see anything that looked to him like a nat. Bobo then explained that the nat image was one of the Buddhas. We rode back to the hotel for a rest. In the evening we walked through the market area to the Indian section of town, dined on chapatis at a sidewalk eatery, and returned through the night market. Nina's stomach did not feel right all day.

The next day we took a taxi back to the Mandalay airport and flew Air Bagan to Myitkyina. This is a fairly small town as far north in Myanmar as tourists are allowed. Further north are foothills of the Himalayas, ethnic minorities often fighting against the Myanmar government, and rumored operations involving opium, gold, precious stones, smuggling and other activities which we did not want to get near. At the airport we met Seth (who grew up in South Strafford, Vermont!) and Panya who live in the Yukon Territory. We spent $12 for a room at the YMCA, and walked around town. That evening we ate chicken briyani (but avoided the lettuce) at the Sha Mie Restaurant. Nina gave away pencils, pens, notebooks and other educational books to several people who worked at the YMCA.

Small boats from Myitkyina to Katha

On January 28 we rode a tuk-tuk with Seth and Panya to the jetty and arranged to ride a longtail boat down the Ayeyarwady (or Irrawaddy) River to Sinbo for 8000 kyats each. The boat was long and narrow with 40 seats on each side of a center aisle, all under a roof. Also aboard were Lawrence from Austria, Sevy from Switzerland and many locals. We had to wade to the boat and the morning was foggy and cold. Wearing long clothes and jackets we were still chilly. The boat made 11 stops to take on and drop off passengers and cargo on the five-hour trip. We saw many people prospecting for gold on the riverbanks. Some used simple pans while others used sluices supported by tripods to process larger amounts of sand. Many ducks, geese and cormorants were seen as we wound through the hills on this shallow stretch of the river.

(view photos of Myitkyina)

Sinbo was a very small town which had only one guest house with very basic facilities, but it was large enough to accommodate all six "Europeans" on our boat. The rooms were divided by very thin walls and the path to the outhouse passed a shed where a macaque was tied. We carried most of our school supplies to the primary school and gave them to a first-grade teacher. She had 56 students in her room and practically nothing to teach with except a chalkboard, so she greatly appreciated our donation.

(view photos of Sinbo)

On January 29 we boarded a different longtail boat to Bhamo with only six passengers (all foreigners) for 3000 kyats each. We soon went through a beautiful gorge where the Ayeyarwady River cut through the hills. An exceptional sight was an elephant working to pull teak down a steep bank. There were very few working elephants left in Myanmar so we were lucky to see this one. We had seen very few fishing nets during the previous day, but started seeing more on this day. At 2:00 we had the driver pull over to the river bank and stop so we could all go ashore to urinate. We then started through a narrow, shallow channel which was a short cut to Bhamo. One crew member sat on the bow to help the driver avoid shoals but we still got stuck. We escaped when several men jumped into the water to push while the rest of us rocked the boat from side-to-side.

In Bhamo we walked to the Friendship Hotel by 3:00 and got a room for $14 which included breakfast. This was real luxury compared to Sinbo's guesthouse. We changed a $100 bill for 105,000 kyats at the hotel before we walked around town for an hour, then we sat on a balcony at the hotel drinking beer and rum with the other tourists who had shared our boat ride from Myitkyina (Panya, Seth, Lawrence and Sevy). Then we walked around the corner to the Heaven Tea House for Mong Yee Bat (like very greasy pizza), two Be Bao Si (Chinese dumplings with pork and beans) and Kyet Ou Palatar (fried greasy pastry) for a total of 2550 kyats. Our four friends were interested in walking into the jungle and seeing elephants at work, so they hired a boat with a guide for $35, and paid $10/person to go 3 hours back up the river for a day trip the following day.

We were up at 7:00 for a shower and the breakfast buffet which featured sweet pastries, fried items, fruit, juice and instant coffee. We bought tickets on the waterfront for the boat to Katha. Our price of 15,000 kyats each seemed to be the expensive price just for tourists. We left shortly after 9:00. The river near Bhamo was so shallow that about 30 passengers on our boat had to take a second boat for the first mile before reaching deeper water. This boat had a toilet on the back and was steered by a rudder. The seats were just boards but the backs had a little padding. We were the only foreigners in the 64 seats. Additional passengers were picked up from small longtails which put out from a few villages. We passed through another narrows and arrived at the large town of Swego about noon. Vendors came alongside in small boats to sell lunches for 1000 kyats. A few hours later the boat stopped near the bank to unload 14 new KENBO motorbikes and shortly after that we arrived in Katha at 3:45.

(view photos of boating to Katha)

Katha was a town known to us primarily as the place where George Orwell was stationed as a colonial police officer in 1927. His novel "Burmese Days" was based on his experiences there. We walked around to see the town and got a room at the Ayeyarwady Guest House for 10,000 kyats. This was not a fancy guesthouse but we anticipated a good night's sleep anyhow. We had dinner on the street (fried vegetables, rice and water for 2300 kyats) and tried to find out the schedule of the big ferry to Mandalay. The officials at the ferry booking office didn't seem to know when the ferry would arrive, but said it would probably be tomorrow. We were preparing to spend the night in the guesthouse when Isabelle, a backpacker from France, told us she had heard that it would arrive tonight. We rushed out to buy two blankets (2500 kyats each) for sleeping on the ferry deck. At 7:30 we learned that it had just arrived so we packed our bags, bought tickets ($7 US each) and boarded the ferry without using our comfortable, paid-for bed.

Big Ferry Katha to Mandalay

The ferry had private staterooms ($54 each) but we chose the less comfortable deck in order to interact with the locals. We spread our blankets and arranged our bags to preserve "our space." An off-duty soldier insisted we use his mat so we gave him a good t-shirt in exchange. We realized later that he drank rum during the whole trip except when sleeping. He became aggressive at one point and harassed Isabelle, but his friends calmed him down. We tried some of Isabelle's local strawberry wine, but we all found it undrinkable. (She left it behind when we left the boat in Mandalay but someone brought it to her, thinking she had forgotten it.) We spent the night sleeping on the cold, hard, steel deck. The ferry didn't leave Katha until the fog lifted about 7:50 the next morning as there was too much danger of running aground to operate the ferry at night.

We got breakfast from the "galley" on the lower deck. Jerry spent most of his time on the upper deck looking at the scenery while Nina interacted with other passengers. She gave away picture books, coloring books, crayons, notebooks, dictionaries, pens, pencils and playing cards. She showed many people how to make origami cubes. She learned some Burmese words, including "lah day" ("beautiful"). We saw two Irrawaddy dolphins. We stopped at some towns for passengers and cargo, so the space available on the deck kept changing. We tried fried fish from one vendor but it was so dry that we found it inedible. About 7:00 the ferry eased over to the shore and the crew put 3 sticks in the sand to which they tied the boat for the night. Two girls came from a small village nearby with food and seemed to sell it all. We played cribbage without a board with very old cards. The lights were turned off at 9:00 and we had another night sleeping on the cold steel deck.

We again had breakfast made on board. Nina had rice with beans and egg and a large mug of coffee mix while Jerry ate a "hamburger roll" with sweet stuff inside. The boat left the bank of the river at 6:15 when it was still fairly dark. Nina met a middle school teacher and gave her two reading books, a mathematics book, a pair of sunglasses and a bag of various reading glasses after noticing she could use a pair of them. Nina tried to give away most of the items we had brought for people so we wouldn't have as much to carry. We borrowed the stateroom of Stefan from Holland to recharge camera batteries and change clothes. Nina read a little of our Lonely Planet guidebook to plan our time in Mandalay and beyond. She was given rice-krispy-type treats by the teacher. At a lunch stop we bought 1 sweet ball and 3 samosas for 500 kyats, veggies and rice for 300 kyats, 4 tangerines for 500 kyats, 2.5 liters of water for 500 kyats, and a fried circle with beans for 100 kyats. When the sun set we were still a couple hours away from Mandalay and the captain decided to continue. We passed Minguin okay, but got really stuck just before Mandalay. Another night on the deck seemed inevitable, but about 9:00 a small boat arrived and took a few of us to the Mandalay landing. We were happy to take a taxi to the nearby AD-1 Hotel where the staff welcomed our return.

(view photos taken on the big ferry)

Mandalay (second visit)

February 2 was a big day for us in Mandalay. We had breakfast on the roof of AD-1, and then started walking south through the city. A young monk named Nando showed us through Shwe In Bin, a teakwood monastery over 100 years old with elaborate carvings on its exterior. Then Nando gave us a quick look at his school where 3000 monks were studying. We walked to one of the main streets and caught a local bus (200 kyats each) towards the Mahamuni Paya. We did not know when to get off this bus and nobody told us, so we rode quite a long way until several monks got off. We followed them until we arrived unexpectedly at Amarapura. This was the capital before Mandalay and still contained old temples plus "U Bein's Bridge," the longest (1.2km) teak bridge in the world. This 200 year old bridge crossed the shallow Taungthaman Lake named for an ogre who supposedly came there looking for Buddha. At 2:30 we got on a bus back to Mandalay, and this time got off near Mahamuni Paya. Craftsmen along the street were making Buddha images and other religious items, and the entrance halls were lined with vendors. The Mahamuni Buddha was the central image in the temple and one of the most venerated in Myanmar. This 4 meter high cast bronze image may be 2000 years old, and was well-covered by gold leaf pasted on by worshippers. In a side room were six bronze Khymer images which were originally enshrined at Angkor Wat but were relocated several times by conquering armies. These ancient sculptures were not being carefully preserved. Jerry was amazed to find a little girl sitting on the back of Airavata and a vendor selling polish and encouraging people to rub the images. Apparently many Burmese believed that rubbing parts of these images would help to heal the corresponding parts of their own bodies. We rode another bus to the end of the line, and then took a taxi (5000 kyats) for a tour to the Sandamani Paya, the Kyauktawgy Paya and to a Nepalese restaurant. Sandamani had an array of small stupas covering 1774 marble slabs erected in 1913 and inscribed with commentaries on the Tripitaka, the Buddhist canon. Kyauktawgy had an 8 meter high sitting Buddha carved from a single block of marble. The original block was so enormous that it took 10,000 men 13 days to move it from a canal to the present site, and the finished statue weighed 900 tons. The Nepali Vegetarian Restaurant was family-operated and we ate delicious thali, nan, rice, curry, beans, hot mango chutney, and puri (fried dough with potatos and vegetables inside) plus water for 4,600 kyats. We were served by Muti, a very nice young woman who could speak Nepali, Hindi, Burmese and English and gave Nina two CDs of her favorite Burmese music. Jerry went to see the Moustache Brothers at 8:30 pm in their home. They were prohibited from performing in public places and have suffered imprisonment for offending the country's rulers. Their show was a sort of traditional Myanmar folk opera which combined slapstick, history, traditional dance and music, and some political satire in English. The show cost 8000 kyats and trishaws cost 1000 kyats each way.

The next morning we got up about 6:00, ate breakfast, and went looking for a taxi to the big bus station which was somewhat outside the city. We found a local bus (pickup truck with benches in the back) whose drivers were very happy when we agreed to pay them 5000 kyats (the usual taxi fare) for a ride to the bus station. They usually spend all day transporting passengers for 200 kyats each, so this was a great start to their day and we got to the station speedily. Getting off, Nina missed the recessed step under the tailgate and fell onto the parking lot. She was not badly injured, but the locals showed much concern.

(view photos of Mandalay)

(view photos of Mandalay people)

Bagan

The big bus was air-conditioned and we paid 6500 kyats each for the 7.5 hour ride to Bagan. There was little legroom, and stools were placed in the aisles for additional passengers. On some stretches there were even passengers on top of the bus with the baggage. We were pretty cramped and it was a bumpy ride over rough roads but we enjoyed the scenes we passed. Away from the Ayeyarwady River the land was quite dry and even had cacti, but we saw crops such as sunflowers too. Many of the rural houses were thatch and bamboo, and we saw many oxcarts. The bus stopped every couple hours at restaurants so passengers could relieve themselves and eat. We crossed several riverbeds which were quite dry. Finally we reached the border of the Bagan Archeological Zone and the bus stopped so we could pay the mandatory fee of $10 each to visit the area.

We got to Nyaung U at 3:15, had a cup of tea, and then walked to the Golden Village Inn where we got a room for $8 per night including breakfast. We hired trishaw drivers Ninine and Momo to take us to a good place to watch the sunset and then bring us back (4000 kyats total). The ride out was interrupted when Momo's trishaw tipped over in soft sand and Nina fell onto the ground for the second time that day. Again she escaped without a major injury and we enjoyed the view from "Pagoda 394." On the way back Nina insisted on pedaling the trishaw for a little way, which horrified the drivers but she managed OK. The drivers took us to the center of Nyaung U to find a replacement for Nina's camera strap which broke on her first fall, but she didn't care for any of the straps for sale. We bought a bottle of local rum (700 kyats), then ate tofu curry with watercress and eggplant curry with rice at the Aye Thaha Vegetarian Restaurant (4600 kyats.) Jerry checked our email at a place which charged 1000 kyats per hour when the government-supplied electricity was available and doubled the price when they had to use their own generator.

The next four days followed a fairly regular pattern. We ate the complimentary breakfast at the Golden Village and rented their bicycles (1000 kyats for each bike per day) to explore the temples and other sights of the Bagan area. Bicycles were quite practical since the area was fairly flat and even the sandy roads were good enough for bicycling. Many tourists hired horse carts, which was more expensive, traveled more slowly, and also resulted in their itinerary being strongly influenced by their driver/guides. We eventually saw all the major sights and many of the lesser ones too. By mixing exercise, temple visits, photography, shopping, sunsets and eating we avoided boredom and enjoyed every day. We had frequent encounters with vendors and ended with our full quota of souvenirs. Every day we ate lunch at the San Thi Dar Restaurant in Myinkaba and became very friendly with the proprietors. In the evenings we usually had a "happy hour" relaxing with rum and water on the veranda of our bungalow and then walked to a restaurant in Nyaung U or ate leftovers from lunch. It was a very satisfying five days, but by the end we felt we had seen enough of Bagan's marvels and were ready for new experiences.

(view photos of Bagan major sights)

(view photos of Bagan people)

(view more photos of Bagan)

Kalaw

On February 8 we woke early and had breakfast before the bus picked us up about 4:00 am. After the cramped ride from Mandalay, Jerry purchased two seats for this longer ride so he would have some legroom. Our three seats cost a total of $30 US plus 1500 kyats. At first there were empty seats, but eventually the bus filled and there were people even sitting in the aisles and on top. This bus was not air-conditioned and many windows were open so it was dusty inside. We stopped frequently for passengers, and every couple hours took 20-minute breaks at restaurants. We met Eeva from Finland during one of the breaks. She was also going to Kalaw for trekking. The bus was climbing fairly steep hills before noon on a narrow, twisting road which had much traffic including large trucks. We passed one truck which had broken an axle and turned on its side. In some places we crept around corners which could not accommodate vehicles going in both directions at the same time. Twice we stopped to cool the engine by throwing pails of water at it. We were happy to reach Kalaw safely at 2:40 and get off that bus.

We met Tony and Harri, 25-year old twins, who walked with us to the Golden Lily Guesthouse (goldenlily@mandalay.net.mr). Their mother was Lily's sister and the Golden Lily Guest house was opened in October 1994. It had been run since then by the same Sikh family. We paid $10 for one night's stay, and $36 each for a 3-day trek to Inle Lake with Harri as our guide. The trek fee included transport of extra luggage by truck, meals, lodging for two nights, a boat from Indein to Nyaungshwe and guide services. It started getting cool so Harri showed us the market in Kalaw where we bought more warm clothes. Then we walked up nearby hills to see a golden-topped monastery, a small temple and the sunset. We walked to the recommended "7 Sisters Restaurant" but it seemed expensive, and Nina's back was really hurting so we didn't stay. Jerry got take-away chicken and potato with no rice for 4000 KS, but they did throw in some papadams. We had Mandalay rum with water and crackers too. Jerry checked our email at the guest house. We started packing for the trek and went to bed. It was VERY warm under the thick blankets the guest house provided.

(view photos of Kalaw)

Trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake

We got up about 7:00 for breakfast at the Golden Lily and finished packing. Jerry went to a colorful street market in the village where "hill tribe" people came to sell their wares. Our group started walking up into the hills before 10:00 and was at the panoramic "Viewpoint" for lunch by 11:30. All the other trekkers were less than half our age and we felt good that we had no trouble keeping up. For lunch we had greasy chapattis, very good pumpkin curry with cabbage, avocados and oranges. We started getting to know (and exchanging electronic addresses with) the other trekkers. There were 12 trekking tourists who were officially divided into two groups, but since we were on the same route and schedule we got to know everyone. That first afternoon we walked to the train station and on to Ywa Pu Village. We shared some rum and water, then dined exceedingly well on fish curry, vegetables, tomatoes, peanut salad, green mustard leaves, chayote and garlic, lentil soup, papadams and grapefruit. We slept comfortably on mattresses spread on the floor of a private house in the village. For breakfast, most people ate small greasy chappatis with pouri (vegetable curry), fruit and tea or instant coffee. Nina carried her big plastic mug and had lots of coffee every morning. On the second day we walked to Konehla Village for lunch and then on to the Titain Monastery for the night. On the third day we walked down to Indein Village for lunch, and then took a boat up the lake to Nyaungshwe where we said goodbye to Harri.

We wore open sandals on this trek, which was a mistake. The dry heat and dust conspired to dry the soles of our feet so much that they began to develop painful cracks. It was many days later, after many applications of cream, before our feet were entirely healed. Wiser trekkers wore sneakers with socks or other closed shoes so their feet did not dry out.

The countryside through which we walked was mostly agricultural land with much of it terraced for rice cultivation during the wet season. The people we saw were mostly members of the Danu and Pao tribes, subsistence farmers without modern equipment. They raised some cattle and buffalo, plus wheat, fruit and other crops. Their primary vehicles were oxcarts and most of their work was done with simple hand tools. Education was too expensive for many of them since elementary schools cost 5000 kyats per student per month while high schools cost 30,000 kyats per month plus 5000 kyats per subject per month for a tutor (which Harri said was necessary if a student was to succeed). Utilities such as piped water, sewers, electrical service and telephones were almost nonexistent and wood was their primary fuel. There were no medical facilities outside the major towns. The children were delighted to receive our empty water bottles because they could be used by their family or redeemed for a tiny sum which was significant to them. One of the trekkers donated some notebooks, and Harri distributed some of those to children along the way and some to the head monk of the monastery where young monks received some education. Harri had a very good understanding of the economic, social, ecological and political realities of the area, and worked to improve the lives of the tribal people. He was an outstanding guide who answered our questions in excellent English and taught us a great deal. We highly recommend him (aung.harri@gmail.com).

(view photos of our trek)

(view photos of people seen on trek)

Inle Lake

We arrived at Indein about 12:30. This town saw many tourists since it was included on many boat tours around Inle Lake. After a lunch of good vegetable/ramen noodle soup, group photos were taken of all the trekkers. We boarded a boat for a fast hour's ride up the lake to Nyaungshwe. From the landing we walked into town to the Aquarius Inn where we had reserved rooms and where our luggage had been delivered from Kalaw. After paying the Inle Lake Zone Fees of $3 each to an official Harri called, we rinsed off and relaxed with fruit and Chinese tea before we registered. The proprietor gave us a map of the lake area and suggested activities such as a sunset canoe trip, boat tours, bicycling, and more trekking. This small inn was peaceful and friendly and we enjoyed three nights stay for $12 per night including breakfasts. We had some laundry done there, including Jerry's white bag and Nina's backpack, to get rid of the trek's incredible red dust. Dirt continued to come from Nina's sandals even after several scrubbings. We bought "cracked heel cream" at a pharmacy and used it for several days while our feet recovered. On our first night in Nyaungshwe we ate at the Indra Indian restaurant, but service was slow, the food was mediocre, portions were small, and the bill was a bit high. On the next two nights we ate at the Lotus Restaurant which we liked much better.

The next morning we had a complimentary breakfast of fruit, toast, egg, a cookie, and coffee. Nina didn't like the Inn's instant coffee so made her own with "coffee mix" packets. Inle Lake is 22km long, about 11km wide and very shallow. The shoreline is swampy in many places and it is nearly impossible to approach the shoreline in some sections. We rented bicycles ($1 each) and rode down the east side of the lake to Maing Thauk Village. We passed the fancy Inle Princess Resort, one of several which cater to big spenders who don't mind giving money to the Myanmar government. We went down a causeway and then a long bridge which extended towards a stilt village. At the end of the bridge we got into a canoe which was leg-paddled by a young woman to her restaurant on stilts nearby. We relaxed here for more than an hour, lunching on Shan tea, fried vegetables, rice, fried noodles, fruit, cookies and rice cakes (total $2). We enjoyed watching the locals pass by in their canoes. It was a wonderful place for photography. We pedalled back to the Aquarius Inn by 4:45 where we were given tea, fresh strawberries, salted soybeans and fried chick pea flour "crackers." The owner of the inn reserved seats for us on a bus to Yangon which he assured us was more comfortable than the one we rode from Bagan. We called Yangon to reserve a room there and to tell our relatives that we would arrive in a few days. We ate catfish with lemon grass, fried vegetables, and an avocado/banana/lime "lassi" (somewhat like a thick milkshake) at the Lotus Restaurant with trekking friends Eeva, Claudia, Ludwig, Jacky and Gilles. Back at the hotel we had rum and conversation with Eeva, Graeme from England and Kathy from Holland.

On our last full day at Inle Lake we took a boat tour from 10:30 until 5:30 (seven hours). Eeva went too so there were three of us on cushioned seats in our private longtail. We took the usual tour and saw the floating gardens up close (Eeva even walked on one) and saw how they were made. We visited a silk weaving shop where we watched threads being made from lotus stems and saw a weaving made with a mix of silk and lotus threads. We visited the Phaung Daw Oo Paya where we saw the five small Buddha images covered with gold leaf. Ceremonial boats which carry those images around the lake once every year were seen in a nearby covered shelter. We ate lunch across the canal from the big temple at the Ngwe Zin Yaw Restaurant where stir-fried vegetables and hot&sour soup cost us a total of $3. Eeva and Nina did some souvenir shopping as Nina wanted to get gifts for our relatives in Yangon. We visited Nga Hpe Chaung, the "Jumping Cat" monastery, where we saw the cats jump and also saw some old (cobwebby) Buddhist images. Eeva and Jerry took a swim at Inleh Bo Teh, a tiny island in the middle of the lake, while Nina bought a kyauk nga fish to cook later for dinner. It had been kept alive in a net in the lake. When we arrived back at Nyaungshwe we paid our driver, Aung Aung, the agreed price of $4 each plus a tip because it was such a good experience. We were given watermelon slices at Aquarius upon our return and ate with Eeva at the Lotus Restaurant where they cooked our fish for free. We ordered an eggplant dish which tasted very good the night before, but it was not as good this time and we didn't have to pay for it. Jerry checked our mail at an email cafe and we went to bed.

(view Inle Lake photos)

(view photos of Inle Lake people)

The 14th of February was Valentine's Day, but we certainly didn't have a very romantic day. We started with a thick "potato omelette" with toast, fruit and coffee. We were given parting gifts by the people at the Aquarius Inn, small "green bamboo" baskets. They provided two trishaws to take us with our luggage to the local bus stop on the other side of town. There we paid 1000 kyats each (locals paid 500) for a ride 45 minutes to the main highway at Shwenyaung where we waited at the side of the road until our bus picked us up about 12:25. The tickets ($17 each) with seat assignments had been given to us at the Aquarius Inn. Once aboard it was an eighteen (18!) hour ride to Yangon, including two hours for food and toilet stops. The total distance was approximately 400 miles, so we averaged only 25 miles per hour when the bus was moving. That is an indication of how bad the roads were, because the bus was quite modern and more comfortable than the other buses we rode on in Myanmar. The scary section over the hills beyond Kalaw was very slow because our driver discovered that we had a flat tire and it could not be fixed until we arrived at a town beyond the scary stretch. As soon as it got dark the movie "Marine" was shown on the bus with the volume so loud that we had to cover our ears at times. It was violent, of course, and reinforced the stereotype of Americans as violent and dangerous. We stopped at two passport checkpoints and the bus filled up with fuel once from barrels beside the road. Most of the trip was at night, and we did sleep a little.

Yangon (departure)

We arrived at the big bus depot on the edge of Yangon about 6:00 in the morning. We pushed past a throng of eager taxi drivers and had a cup of tea before hiring a taxi (6000 kyats) to the "Motherland Inn 2" where our room with breakfast was $13 per night. They fed us breakfast immediately: fried eggs or an omelette, toast and jam, and bananas with coffee or tea. We contacted our relatives and made plans to meet them for dinners. We used the hotel's computers to check and send email. They ran a generator whenever the government-supplied electricity failed (which was often) so the Internet was available all day. We took long naps and showers. We were picked up by Janet's family at 5:30 and taken to a noodle restaurant recommended by her brother Eric. We met Eric there with his good friend Terry and Terry's wife, Nini. Eric and Janet's mother, Rose, was there too and we enjoyed meeting everyone and spending time with them. We had a delicious dinner which included fried prawns, greens, cauliflower, pork stew, sweet and sour pork, fish ball soup and rice as well as noodles. After a very nice evening, we exchanged presents and said good-bye to these wonderful people.

The next morning we were eating breakfast by 8:00. We got on a yellow bus across the street from our guest house for 300 KS each and rode through town until we were dropped off right in front of the Chaukhtatgyi Paya where we saw the spectacular, huge reclining Buddha. Then we walked across the street to see the "five-story" sitting Buddha in the Ngahtatgyi Paya. We walked back to our hotel, a long walk through Yangon streets in the middle of the day, then relaxed and read. At 7:00 we were picked up by Miranda, Yamone, Hnin and Nay Kyaw and taken to the Golden Duck (Kan Taw Min) Restaurant. This was an elegant restaurant with a great view of the Shwedagon and its reflection in a small lake. We had a memorable meal with several courses, including a whole duck, pork, fried catfish Thai style, chicken, shrimp, vegetables, "12-kind" soup and a big fruit plate. We exchanged presents and enjoyed two hours of good conversation before saying good-bye to another wonderful family.

When we started our last full day in Myanmar neither one of us felt really well. Jerry had an especially bad stomach, probably from the salad he tried the night before. We had breakfast with Eeva who had tried to arrange a trip to see working elephants from Taungoo but dropped that plan when she learned it would cost $170. Eric called and wanted to see us. Jerry was too sick to leave the room, but Nina had lost a filling in a tooth, so Eric and Terry took her to Dr. Tin Yu at the Myint Myat Kyaw Dental Clinic. He smoothed the tooth and said she needed a crown which would cost $50, but Nina was leaving the country the next day so there was not enough time for that. The dentist was very nice and charged her nothing. From the dental clinic they went to Eric's and Rose's house where Nina met Ikan who lives with them and helps around their house. They looked at many albums of photos and Nina explained who the people were in her family at Danny and Erin's wedding. Nina went to the Bogyoke Aung San Market in the afternoon and bought a few souvenirs while Jerry rested all day.

Return to "Arctracer"

On the 18th of February we woke at 6:00 and Nina had breakfast. Jerry tried to eat but was still feeling ill. Motherland put us on their free van to the airport at 7:00. We paid the airport departure tax ($10 each). Our Air Asia flight got off the ground about 9:10. We set our watches from Myanmar to Thai time (from 9:10 to 9:40) and landed at 10:45 in Bangkok after an uneventful flight. By 11:30 we were in Gard Sirichan's taxi headed for Hualamphong Train Station. The metered ride cost 341 baht, which was considerably less than the driver's original estimate of 600 baht. We were able to buy tickets (1135 baht each) on that afternoon's overnight train to Butterworth, so we bought food to eat on the train. Fortunately, Jerry was feeling much better. The train left Bangkok at 2:45 pm and we arrived in Butterworth at 1:45pm on the 19th. We paid 1.20 ringgits each for the ferry to Penang, and were back aboard "Arctracer" about 2:30.

(view all Myanmar photos)

Read “Mandalay” by Rudyard Kipling (plus Jerry's notes)

Expenses

Some people are interested in the costs of travel. Listed below are most of our expenses for this trip. The dollars are US, converted at rates current at the time of our visit. All numbers are totals for both of us, so divide by two if you are interested in the cost per person. Inside Myanmar many charges (including rooms, airlines, and entrance fees) had to be paid with US dollars which we had to carry into the country. It was critically important to use dollar bills which were perfectly clean, since those with creases or marks were rejected. We usually acquired Myanmar kyats at hotels where we stayed, and used kyats only for small expenditures such as meals and souvenirs.

  • Train Butterworth to Bangkok 215 Ringgits = $60
  • Train Bangkok to Butterworth 2270 Baht = $64
  • Myanmar Visas 1220 Baht = $45
  • Bangkok hotel (4 nights) 2600 Baht = $73
  • Bangkok food and drink (5 days) 3094 Baht = $87
  • Bangkok transportation and misc. 1295 Baht = $36
  • Air Asia Bangkok to Yangon and return 9758 Baht = $274
  • Flights inside Myanmar $344
  • Myanmar food and drink $142
  • Myanmar lodging (26 nights) $253
  • Myanmar land and water transportation $250
  • Myanmar entrance fees $49
  • Trek Guides $30
  • Myanmar Departure Tax $20
  • Miscellaneous Myanmar Expenses (including souvenirs) $264
  • Total: $1991
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