More temples, “same same, but different”….Mrauk-U, Myanmar

Our journey began with a relatively painless minibus trip to Magwe, the pickup point for the bus to Mrauk-U. We thought is was supposed to take five hours, turns out it only took 3 and we were to arrive at 5. An unusually nice change. We had called ahead to a “fashion shop” in Magwe to arrange our next leg. This involved two motobike drivers meeting us at the bus station in Magwe and taking us a few kilometers to the “fashion shop” where we would meet the night bus travelling from Mandalay to Mrauk-U (but not for 6 hours). So we had some time to kill. There was a great sunset off a bridge and then we found a shopping mall and a place to eat.  Almost every single person driving by waved or shouted “hello” to us with a giant smile.  It was incredibly welcoming.  More enthusiastically than we’d seen anywhere.  Definitely don’t get many tourists.

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We went back to the “fashion shop” and played cards with a fellow American while waiting for the bus. The bus was an hour late and an ominous sign, there was fresh vomit all down the side of the bus. As we boarded, we were told we had been moved to the front of the bus, which is usually better in our opinion. Turns out, the bus wasn’t full and everyone else had spread out to get more room and we were left with the only two seats not occupied by sleeping people. Oh and it was on top of the wheel well. So, no leg room and seats that barely reclined, and the lady in front of me insisted on leaving the window all the way open (probably for her nausea) despite the chilly night air. We had expected better, as a $30 bus in Vietnam would have been the epitome of luxury. But this particular bus route is a new thing, only recently open to foreigners and the “fashion shop” guy seems to have a monopoly on the bus. Riki didn’t sleep, I slept a bit but we were not too happy when we arrived in Mrauk-U around noon the next day.

We took a nap in our bare-bones hotel – shared squat toilet, cold shower and hard beds. But at $5 each, we could deal. We woke up in time to check out one of the popular sunset spots. We ran into a few other travellers and ended up all getting dinner together and comparing plans.

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Riki’s always making little friends

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Mrauk-U is located to the west of Bagan near the border of Bangladesh, not far from the coast, in an area full of ongoing religious strife. There’s a group of Muslims who have essentially been denied citizenship from both Bangladesh and Myanmar, but still reside in the area as they are in limbo. They have been living in Myanmar for ages, but have been persecuted and denied citizenship and put into refugee camps. Until more recently, aid organizations were not allowed in Myanmar, so they received no assistance. There are also some nearby Chin villages where the older women have full face tattoos. But that is not why we came here.

We came to Mrauk-U to see more ancient ruins, temples and such. As if Bagan didn’t have enough. Just kidding, but at this point, I had seen just about enough temples. These temples are different Riki kept saying, so off we went.  And they are different (same, same, but different as they like to say in Thailand).  Mrauk-U is a medieval town of the Arakan Empire, who once controlled half of Bangladesh and the western part of lower Myanmar.  The temples’ architecture is different, more inverted ice cream cones than ringed four-sided cones like in Bagan.

Unfortunately, on our first full day, we were awoken at 5 am by incessant chanting and music over a very nearby loudspeaker. We were getting up to see the sunrise anyway, but knew that this was probably an everyday occurrence. We went to the northern group of temples to watch the sun come up and explored a really amazing temple with supposedly 80,000 Buddhas. I didn’t count, but it didn’t seem like that many. It had a cool spiral interior cave and they lit up a bunch of candles while we were there.

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This monk walked into Riki’s picture and then asked for money, not very characteristic of a monk.
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Where the ticket keeper tracked me down after leaving the 80,000 Buddha temple. He literally ran to catch me – I was sitting still.

Luckily there were some goats to keep me occupied while Riki finished taking photographs. On our way back, we booked a bungalow farther from the main town, hoping it would be quieter in the morning. For $5 more we got our own bathroom, clean towels (with embroidered animals donated by an aid organization) and two very large, hairy spiders. Still better than loud chanting at 5 am. It would be enough to create some religious strife in me.

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Some sort of parade

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Our towels

That afternoon, we woke up the bike rental lady from a nap (have I mentioned everyone naps in the afternoon? Its no wonder if you wake up at 5 am to a loudspeaker everyday, and its too hot in the early afternoon to do anything anyway) and took bicycles back to the north to explore more temples and a tiny, ornate library before heading to some bigger temples to the east. We visited a temple built by the son of the King who commissioned the one with 80,000 Buddhas. He had to outdo his dad and this one is called the Temple of 90,000 Buddhas.

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The shoe issue returns. We were out in the hottest part of the day, the tiles surrounding these temples are unbearably hot. Burning, but you have to remove your shoes. And we did, but our visits were truncated as we couldn’t look up to admire the temples without dancing on our tiptoes to keep our feet cool.

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The black tiles here were scorching hot. The white ones were almost manageable.

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That night we visited a small restaurant, where we didn’t really order, just said “chicken” and were brought heaps of food on numerous plates. We felt pretty bad, as we couldn’t eat nearly all of it, and the curries here are all very oily and tough to stomach. All for $2.

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You can’t even see all the plates.

Our last day, we went to the tallest hill for the sunrise. It was a good one, like all the ones we’ve seen recently.

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After, we returned to our hotel for breakfast, which turned out to be as greasy as usual. Riki usually eats my fried egg, but this one was so saturated he didn’t touch it. The rumor why they use so much grease in Myanmar is that it provides a layer of protection from bacteria and bugs when the food is sitting out all day. And that has transitioned into every dish, whether it be eggs or fried rice. Everything we’ve eaten is sopping wet with grease. Except Shan noodles, which happen to be my favorite dish so far.

We bought our bus ticket to Yangon (only $18 for a 20 hour journey) for the next day and then headed to explore the neighborhood to the west of the main market. Here we found a maze of bamboo structures, and loads of curious people watching us from their porches. They must not get many visitors. It’s a tough journey to Mrauk-U, whether you come by bus like us, or by boat, like most people. No busloads of people here, like in Bagan.

We tried to go to the cultural museum, as our guidebook said it was open Sun-Tues. That must mean closed on Mondays though, as it was shuttered and definitely not open. Instead, we rode our bicycles down to the lake for a nice view, but our skin was frying and we didn’t last much longer before heading back to nap away the heat.

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Next stop: Mawlamyine, via Yangon and 30 hours on buses.

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Getting our feet dirty….Bagan, Myanmar

Minibus back to Mandalay featured typical locals vomiting and a rude woman who proceeded to take up two whole seats, smashing me against the window for the winding and tumultuous 5 hour trip. The alternative would have been taking the train back, a grueling 12 hour journey we had already experienced on the way up. We spent the next day planning our trip to Bagan, doing laundry (an outrageous $8 fee, though it was done by hand and dried on the roof) and exploring the hotel’s neighborhood. Riki discovered a very hip mall, a drastic difference from the surroundings and a bakery where one of the staff followed him around “stealthily” taking his picture. Maybe they’ll put him on their next advertisement.  They did give him a massive calendar featuring the shop owner’s daughter on every month.  We left it as a present for the hostel.

Our 5 hour bus to Bagan left the next morning, was uneventful, but dropped us off a 15 minute walk from where it should have. Bagan is one of the four main places to see in Myanmar. It is one of the former capitals, with many temples, some dating back to the 12th century. It is the Angkor Wat of Myanmar, is on the cover of many guide books and is VERY big. It is also very hot, and dry and incredible. Riki tends to do more historical research before we arrive. I prefer to do it when we are there, as I have a hard time grasping things without seeing them first hand. So I had no idea what to expect, having only seen the picture on the front of the guide book and reading the small intro.

To sum it all up: Temples, Pagodas, Stupas and Buddhas, lots and lots of Buddhas. And then there were hot-air balloons. It was so cool (but so hot and dry). Now you can skip down to the pictures, or you can read the more detailed account of our 3 days exploring Bagan.

Day 1:

We rented bicycles at 5 am. $1.50 for my regular bike, $2 for Riki’s mountain bike. Woke up the poor bike shop guy while the stars were still out. Then we rode about 45 minutes to a temple not known to be very touristy, Loukaoushaung, but with a good perch for the sunrise. The stars were still visible, but we claimed spots and waited. Here is my account, as written while watching the sun climb steadily into the sky:

“Not sure we can top this. We’ve watched as the hot air balloons slowly filled with air and jostled for positions in the sky. We arrived in the dark and ascended the steep stairs, barefoot of course, with the key keeper. The mist slowly cleared and the haze emerged as the sun rose over literally thousands of monuments. I’m almost wishing we were in one of those balloons, but remembering the $300+ price tag for such a short trip. I’ll settle for watching them float majestically across the sky. They come so close that we can hear the burners. And then a loud Chinese tourist with the biggest camera attachments starts talking/yelling (and running around) and stands right in front of me. Riki, from his higher vantage point has a better view, but I felt weird climbing up the wall of the temple (and not sure my blistered feet will thank me later). The loud guys leave and take their incessant camera clicking with them, off to ruin the atmosphere for someone else.”

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We stayed at the first temple for about two hours, then headed on to explore some more. There are over 2,000 monuments and we wanted to avoid the touristy ones as much as possible. We went to Shwesan Daw Pagoda, Dhammayangyi Temple, North Guni and some un-marked ones in between. I’m sure they all have names of some sort and I am probably butchering the translations. We then rode to Old Bagan, where a whole town used to exist. They kicked all the people out when they decided to make the area an official archaeological park and moved them south to New Bagan. The old walls are still present and surround a handful of monuments. We saw Thatbyinnyu Temple and Gawdawpalin from the temple next door. We made a quick stop at Bypaya to have a look at the Ayeyarwady River and then took a long lunch just outside the walls. It was incredibly hot. We lingered as long as we could at the restaurant, just ordering more and more cold water, waiting for the heat of the day to recede some before biking on.

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Our next stop was the Myinkaba village, where they are known for their lacquer ware. There are workshops there where they will show you the whole process, which is really impressive. Layers and layers of lacquer over bamboo or wood and then intricately carved and painted. The end of the tour is inevitably a stop at the their shop, where we ran into two couples who had lived in New Orleans for 30 years, but were presently in Bangkok. Small world. Our tour guide had convinced them to exchange an old $100 bill (“small head money”) for him (something we weren’t comfortable with and not able to do anyway). American dollars were used more frequently in the past, but the kyat (chat) has taken over mostly and this poor guy couldn’t exchange his old bill anymore. It looked real, and he only wanted $70 or $80 for it, in new bills. Exhausted, we rode our bicycles back to our hotel for a quick nap and then a very slow dinner (we’re talking an hour wait for fried rice).

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Day 2 started much like the day before, except that we got an e-bike. More electric than bike, as you can’t actually pedal these things easily. We wanted to go a bit further and the heat really drains you on a regular bicycle. They promised it would last all day, but we were skeptical after our experience with them in Angkor. I hopped on behind Riki and we set off to see the sunrise at North Guni, one of the temples we had seen the day before. And it was just as spectacular as the day before. Balloons, mist, pointy spires dotting the landscape as far as you can see. We then rode to the central plains, with me getting off frequently, as the goat paths got too sandy to safely traverse. Well that got old, so I made Riki walk sometimes and I took the bike. Because man it was hot. And there is little to no shade. Plus its hard to take pictures when you’re driving. And Riki takes a lot of pictures (I haven’t checked yet – but I am guessing there are a few thousand pictures from just Bagan).

We stopped at Sulamani Temple and Pyathada Pagoda, where we were accosted by pilgriming locals. I was sitting at the top of a large open area, with a great view, minding my own business, taking in some shade and waiting for Riki to take all his photos. An old man walks by, sees me and then beckons his granddaughter to come over. Motioning and asking to take a picture with the little girl, I oblige and even manage to smile, despite how sweaty and dirty I feel.

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And that was fine. But then a whole gaggle of women, in their Sunday best see this and come over to do the same. But they don’t ask and I stand there awkwardly as five or six of them stand next to me to get their picture taken one at a time, or get really close so we can take a selfie (no selfie-sticks here). I felt bad, I must have smelled pretty terrible, but they didn’t seem to mind. I was getting annoyed until Riki came around the corner. In the middle of taking pictures with me, they spot him and run off in his direction. Yes, run. And they are giggling and yelling at each other, obviously delighted that there is another one! And this just makes my day. He didn’t see it coming. Everyone takes a photo and then I have to join and by the end, we had to get a shot with all of them as well. Pretty hilarious.

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Riki looks so tall!

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We then went to some more, you guessed it, temples. I’m pretty much done with them at this point, as most are very similar. But Riki is always up for climbing something and exploring, so we continue on. I skip some, wait in the shade and watch the goat herders go past. We visit Phya Phat Gyi, Shin Phu Shin and many in between. We leave the sandy paths and find a concrete road we discover we are across from another village, Minanthu. As we are taking a short break under a tree and looking at the map, a woman runs (yes runs) across the road and invites us to tour the village. Her English is pretty decent and we follow her across the road. She shows us some old workshops, weaving, peanut oil, cigars, silversmith. We have the obligatory tea, even though it is scorching hot and hot tea is the last thing I want. In the end, we offer her some small bills and continue on for a late lunch and long break in New Bagan. We continued to explore the central plains behind Dhamayazika and found some cool murals and a cool spot to return to for sunset the next day. We ended at the same temple we had started with the first day, but this time, with Riki’s help, I scaled the temple and had a more amazing view.

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Day 3 started slowly. We opted to sleep in and skip the sunrise. We took another e-bike in the early afternoon and returned to the northern and central plains, taking goat trails and going nowhere fast. The northern plains temples were some of my favorite. We were the only ones there and some had incredible carvings, murals and oddities.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur final stop for sunset, just behind Dhamayazika, where we had been the day before has cool paintings inside and was deserted. We hoped it would stay that way, but others saw us at the top and came up to investigate. Two girls we shared a boat with in Phong Nha were among them, and remembered us as the cookie people, as we had shared some Oreos with the group back in December. Small world.

Some general thoughts:

Bagan is really an incredible site, and sight. It’s teeming with tourists though. Big buses go to the major points, probably just spending a day or two in town. You could spend weeks here, if you are really into temples, and still not see everything. We did a really good job avoiding other people, even managed never to be asked to pay the entrance fee (which is $20, goes to the government and not to preserving any of the monuments).

We found that exploring the smaller temples was so rewarding. Seeing the key keepers living right up next to the monuments, with 100+ animals (cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, dogs, cats, etc) was really interesting. They have little bamboo huts with a single solar panel (often times half shaded by something) powering a few light bulbs and a little TV.

It is a desert, dry and very hot. We were told over 100 degrees. And it felt that hot, not the humid heat we are used to. We managed to find some Australian sunscreen (not whitening like most sunscreen here) and didn’t get burnt, except for that little line on the top of my head where my part is. Always forget about that.

No socks or shoes in temples. I could probably write a book ranting about this, and Riki is sick of me talking about it, so I will keep it short. I will cover my shoulders, wear pants, and even remove my footwear to go into temples. But its not just the temples where you take off your footwear, its the whole area around the temple, which is outside and gets extremely hot and dirty. That’s not the worst. Many of the temples are full of bats and pigeons, so you are traipsing through shit and guano in your bare feet. And then you climb the narrow stairs and there is a giant snake skin on the step. And little rocks are getting stuck in your toes and in the bottom of your feet. Then you step on the little thorns that have blown in, curse avidly right in front of Buddha (hopefully he doesn’t speak English) and hop along until you can get them out. So you leave this temple with black feet, bruised and bloodied and burnt. And if you are Riki, you are lucky enough to step on the 1 inch thorn just as you’ve put your sandals back on. It still goes through, but could have been worse. Did I mention I already had blisters on the bottom of my toes? And that was the short version.

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That’s not a tan line. You should see the bottoms of our feet too, but that was tougher to photograph.

Next stop: a more remote archaeological site near the west coast, Mrauk-U via a horrendous bus ride.

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Trekking in Shan State….Kyaukme, Myanmar

Our train to the remote northeast was scheduled for 4 am. It didn’t leave that early, but it was only half an hour late. We could have taken a bus a bit later, but decided on the train as it was much cheaper and we heard it was a beautiful ride. It was a beautiful ride. But it was oh so slow. We had paid $3.30 for our Upper Class (as opposed to Ordinary Class = wood seats) tickets and were grateful for the soft seats as we bounced down the track. Apparently, the trains they use are slightly small for the track, allowing lots of wiggle room as the train jostles along.

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Getting excited for the train

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The highlight of the train ride is the Gokteik Viaduct, a 1901 American-built structure. We stopped for about half an hour right before the bridge and thus were granted lots of time to take photos. Then we creeped along the bridge. It seems they must be very careful because the trains are already pretty loose and they don’t want to loosen anything on the bridge either. So you go very slow. Lots of photo time. The gorge below is beautiful, which stone walls and a gushing stream at the very bottom.

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Approaching the gorge
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On the viaduct

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We arrived in Kyaukme only an hour after the scheduled time – around 2:30 in the afternoon. This is a town just one over from the main town, Hsipaw, where most people go trekking. Upon a recommendation from someone we met in Laos, we opted to go to Kyaukme (pronounced ciao-may) instead. There are only a couple of guesthouses in this town and we walked to the one we had been told about. Luckily, they had room and were able to contact the guide we wanted for our trek.

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Approaching Kyuakme
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Downtown Kyuakme

The next day, with Riki on a rented motorbike and me on the back of our guides’ bike, we set out for some Shan and Palaung villages in the mountains. We stopped for provisions at the town market and then set out. About three hours up windy and terrible roads, we stopped to leave our bikes at that village’s (Hu Kuat) chief’s house. From there we walked to Ban Hone and through Nuang Pyget (please excuse if misspelled – the map is a bit blurry). The villages have roads, but they are dirt and mostly suitable for dirt bikes and trucks in the dry season. We took the more scenic route.

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Part of the road
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Cool tree
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‘Give me some rice puffs!’
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Village outside Kyaukme
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Riki makes human friends

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The villages are not very old, but the people speak different languages. Some people speak Shan and some speak Palaung. Some speak Burmese too, some do not. So we didn’t expect any English. The houses are mostly metal roofed bamboo thatch, which looks liable to go right up in flames, as they have open fires in every home. The villages we visited all had monasteries and we visited a few, where we sat on the floor and drank tea. Have I mentioned there is a ton of tea? No? Well, we walked through numerous tea farms, which are set on very steep mountains and are everywhere. Which explains why they drink so much tea. Though maybe the British had something to do with that too. At one school, we were bombarded by children who all wanted to shake our hand and say good afternoon. It was a bit overwhelming.

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Village outside Kyaukme
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“Good afternoon!” “How are you?” and shaking our hands vigorously all at once
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So many kids
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We were dragging them away at the end – they wouldn’t let go.
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Great fun
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Village outside Kyaukme

Our last stop was Ban San, where we met the local brother and sister monks, had tea and a tour. There are only three monks in this village, but they have a huge building to worship in. We stayed with a family, who cooked us delicious vegetables, rice and chicken and let us sleep on their floor for the night. The open fire makes for a smoky house and it was cold, so many of the windows were shuttered. Not a good combination. At night, the family huddled around their portable DVD player and watched a movie, which must have been hysterical as they were laughing so much. We played cards with our guide, with a few family members observing our rendition of the game Jenga.

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Indoor fires!
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Clearing weeds around tea plants

After an early awakening from the family rooster, we were again treated to delicious vegetables and rice before setting out for a few more villages. We really enjoyed learning about Myanmar and particularly the Shan culture from our guide. It was a great insight into a country where there are still so many conflicts. We were particularly close to some areas of unrest, but were lucky not to hear or see any rebels.

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Village outside Kyaukme
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Removing fermented tea leaves that have been in this well for a year
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Another reason the fermented leaves smell – packed by foot

We set out for two more villages, Don Heik and Kyein Lau, where we ate lunch with a cute family and befriended two young kids who were not the least bit shy.

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We brought some dual colored pencils for the kids we met – big hit.
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Lunch spot kid #1
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Lunch spot kid #2

We reached our bikes and headed back down the same road, slightly delayed due to some intense road construction. Lot of ladies carrying baskets of rocks, which were covered in stinky tar and then more rocks. Quite a process, but will make travelling to this area much easier once its finished.

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We stopped at a cool bridge on our way back and saw rice being planted.

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Planting rice
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Planting rice

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That evening, our guide invited us to his home for dinner, where we ate more delicious vegetable and rice. All in all, a great glimpse of a new culture.

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Next up: Bus to Mandalay for a day before heading to Bagan (spoiler alert: bus is so much faster than the train, but costs more and contains vomiting locals)

On the road to….Mandalay, Myanmar

The bus ride from Inle Lake to Mandalay went pretty smooth. Except for the poor kid in front of us who was puking on the floor during the very curvy ride out of the mountains. Felt really bad for him, but it is so common for the locals to get car sick. Every mini-bus is equipped with plastic bags and the roads can be so bumpy and curvy its no wonder they get sick.

We were told to spend as little time in Mandalay as possible. But we discounted that advice the first afternoon. Mandalay surprised us. We rented bikes the next day and proceeded to roughly do the bike tour as outlined in our guide book. We stopped at the train station to buy our $3.30 ticket for the next day and then rode all the way to the river to see the boats. And laundry. It was fascinating to see all the ladies along the riverbank scrubbing their clothes and then hanging them on the boat lines or laying them in the grass to dry. Along the way, we crossed a cool long, low pedestrian bridge. We stopped at a few monasteries, where we got many stares, and many barks.

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So many bananas
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Crocodile bridge
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Pedestrian bridge
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Boats and laundry
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Mid belly flop

After roughly following the bike tour through un-named alleys and unmarked roads, we headed north to Mandalay Hill. But first we stopped at the post office, where I dispatched two postcards to my brother and grandmother for their upcoming birthdays (this is proof that I did not forget – whether they arrive or not). We circled the palace walls, which are basically just a reconstruction of the original enclosing a reconstruction of the main palace area. Something we decided to skip based on the reviews and the price.

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Wall and moat

Along the wall, we stopped for lunch at the Golden Duck, mostly because it was on the map and I was starving, and I am not too fun to be around when hungry. We instantly felt out of place when the valet offered to take our bikes, our push bikes and ushered us into an elevator. This is not our normal restaurant. We’re used to open flames and dogs eating the scraps under our feet. Much to our surprise, they had reasonable prices and we ordered three small dishes for less than $8. And they were HUGE. We couldn’t finished them, though we gave it our best shot. And then when we asked for the bill, they brought us some sweet gooey coconut things, which I devoured, despite being full.

We continued onto Mandalay Hill, parked our bikes and removed our shoes and socks. That’s right. AND socks. This is something I cannot get behind. I will remove my shoes, no problem. But please let me keep on my socks. I currently have massive blisters on three of my toes. And then they make you walk 30 minutes up concrete steps to the top. And the stairs are covered in bird poop and red betelnut juice spit. I just don’t understand. Its not clean. Its gross.

But along the way, I befriended some cats. And since I was already dirty, I petted them, which I don’t normally do (except for all those other pictures you have seen). At the top, we were rewarded with a splendid view of the city and tons of tiny mirrors inlaid in the columns. We meandered around the top before returning the same way, barefoot to the bottom and riding back before it got too dark.

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My feet weren’t too gross yet
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Another friend
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Mandalay from above
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Near the top of Mandalay Hill
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You can see the semi-circular prison (?) top-left
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So many mirrors
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More mirrors
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This one the lady tried to get me take with me
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Puppies are cute too

Next stop: Train to Kyaukme for trekking

Floating villages….Inle Lake, Myanmar

Our night bus, which by no means was a “sleeper” bus, arrived around 7 am to the town along Inle Lake, Nyuangshwe. We shared a taxi with a British journalist living in Yangon. He initially came over for a short period of time and decided to stay. It’s been three years. Having slept very little on the very windy road, we decided to nap for a few hours before renting bikes with another girl from our bus.

Refreshed, we hopped on decent looking bikes ($1.00) and rode to the west side of the lake. The town has obviously been gearing up for more and more tourists. There is lots of construction and lots of foreigners, bus loads. On our way south, we ran into an American who has been travelling around the world for the last 8 months. She tagged along as we continued down around the lake. It is a pretty flat ride and the roads are decent. But my bike was not cooperating. I stopped along the road to put air in the tires twice on our way down. Lots of bike pumps readily available. Must be a common occurrence. Little villages and a hot springs line the lake on this side. The road is mostly shaded with a particularly scenic tree-lined section.

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Riki and I turned around a bit before the last viewpoint, as I wasn’t too keen on taking the bike any further with so little air in the tire. We stopped to eat lunch and the other two caught up to us. It wasn’t long after we left our lunch place that my tire just completely gave. Riki, the true gentleman, offered to stay behind with me as I tried to hitch a ride back to town. We walked along for quite awhile, waving at all the passing trucks. Most were already full and didn’t give us a second look. A guy who had a boat offered to take me for $8 back to town, but I declined and finally told Riki to go a bit ahead and let me see if I could flag down a ride alone. Not ten seconds later, a big red dump truck comes rumbling by. The driver and his other passenger speak no English, but he helps me hoist the bike up onto a pile of dirt in the back and I hop into the cab. I pass Riki and the other two girls and get let out on the opposite side of town from our hotel. I walk the bike back and arrive just before the others.

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Making friends
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My ride

The hotel staff swear they can fix the bike, but we opt to not risk it and hire a tuk-tuk to take us up the east side of the lake to the local winery, where they have 4 samples for $2. The view was beautiful and we watched the sun set over the lake, or at least until it disappeared behind the haze above the lake. The wine was alright, though the red was borderline undrinkable. This is not a country known for its wine and its the first wine I’ve had since Christmas, so I may not be the best judge.

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That evening we met up with the British journalist from the taxi and his girlfriend, a French journalist for dinner. They had interesting things to tell us about Myanmar and about the projects they are working on around Inle Lake. The area around the lake has been changing rapidly and the water level has dropped. We had already arranged for a boat tour the next day and were excited to see all the spots they mentioned.

Very early the next morning, our boat driver met us at the hotel and walked the four of us to the pier. We boarded a long, thin canoe with a motor on the back and set out for our “special” tour around the lake. We must have left before most people because there were many boats waiting for passengers. Our first stop was a silversmith and we watched as they made little elephant rings. The jewelry was pretty, but we weren’t really in the market for anything. Other boats of tourists were arriving as we left and we continued onto the “floating” market, which only floats in October apparently. And maybe not even then if the water level keeps going down. It was full of touristy stuff and we were unimpressed with it. The villages are a lot more built up then I had imagined. Hundreds of people live in wood huts over the water, or on land built up in the water. There are intricate walkways between the houses in some places, others are only reachable by boat. Our next stop was an umbrella shop, which we cruised through and then a cigar rolling shop, which was fascinating. Ladies sit on the floor with a flat basket of tobacco in their lap. They have stacks of leaves and a stick and they roll little cigars so, so fast. They use corn husks for filters and some are flavored like licorice and honey.  We also saw a weaving center, where they make cloth out of lotus silk, as well as imported silk and cotton.

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Boat taxi
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Weaving on the water
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Seaweed boat
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“Floating” Market
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Long neck woman
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Umbrellas, which apparently inspired the little drink umbrellas
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Village on the lake
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Silversmith
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Harvesting seaweed to use in the floating gardens
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Fishing
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Rolling cigars

Another stop was a recommendation from the French journalist, who happened to be there at the same time. The Inthra Heritage House is a complex of nicely maintained buildings, that just so happens to run a Burmese cat sanctuary of sorts. Of course we had to see that. They also have a restaurant and some other buildings that we didn’t explore. But we went to see the cats. And it was incredible. They have 35 beautiful cats that have their own island and little huts to lounge in. It felt kind of like a little kids’ playplace.

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SO excited
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Cat island

From there, we headed back towards town, through the floating gardens, also incredible. They have tiny canoes that they use to get between the rows of built up earth. We saw flowers, vegetables, and even vines growing up trellises.

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Street along floating garden
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Gourds in floating garden
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Putting the seaweed around plants in the floating garden

One of the villages we went through felt so much like a normal town. The “streets” were laid out in a grid with giant floating bamboo, just like curbs. The biggest downside to these places I think is the bathroom. Little outhouses sit just off the raised house. Not much privacy, but also, 20 feet away, the women were bathing and doing laundry in the lake water. Not much sanitation, either.

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Fishing baskets
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Street scene

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Our last day was a rest day. Time to catch up on blogging, buy our bus tickets to Mandalay and eat as much avocado salad as possible. And by avocado salad I mean guacamole. But served with rice chips. And so cheap.

A new country….Yangon, Myanmar

I’ve had a tough time writing this one. I’ve started over a few times and it still isn’t right. So bear with me – it may be a little slow, as is the internet here.

Myanmar is not like the rest of southeast Asia. It hasn’t been open to tourists as long and it is way behind in catering to them. It makes for more difficult prep work, which so far has involved more word-of-mouth than anything else, as the internet is slow to non-existent. This also makes it more expensive compared to the other countries we have visited. Apparently, this is because hotels have/had to be licensed by the government, which is/was difficult. I haven’t figured out the current situation, hence the slash (/) marks.

The country has a troubled history. It’s lengthy, confusing and is still yet to be determined. I won’t go into too many details, as I’m still trying to understand it myself. One thing I do know, there are places we are restricted from going because there is still unrest and fighting. I had wanted to try to go as far north as we could. We have been discouraged from doing this as it will take an incredible amount of time due to inadequate infrastructure, and because of rebel groups that are fighting the government and killing each other. So we won’t go there. That’s enough to persuade me. Like Cambodia, I highly recommend reading a bit about Myanmar. It had many kings, with many ethnicities “united” and then became part of colonial British India. The British set up many towns to facilitate trade of local products, such as teak. Since being free of Britain, Myanmar has been struggling to find peace amongst themselves.

We booked two nights ahead of time in Yangon at a popular place that has free airport pick-up. We wanted to be sure to run into other travelers to get a feel for where we should go. We didn’t buy a guidebook ahead of time because we had heard that everything that is written about Myanmar is obsolete almost as soon as its published because the country is changing so rapidly. Also, as I said, because of fighting in certain areas, a few places are closed to foreigners, but this changes rapidly and can only be ascertained from the locals.

Although Yangon/Rangoon may be the most well-known city in Myanmar, and the largest, it is not the capital anymore. In 2005, the military moved the capital to the center of the country. For a cost of upwards of $4 billion, Nyi Pti Taw was constructed. But we are not going there. Supposedly, it’s just 8-lane highways and crappy construction. It gets 2 pages in the guide book we ended up getting. Yangon and Mandalay each have their own sections.

Anyway, back to Yangon. We arrived by plane at 8:30 am, went through immigration at a snail’s pace and were at the hotel before 10 am. In time for breakfast. And then we took a much needed nap as we had woken up at 4 am in Bangkok, which is half an hour ahead of Myanmar.

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Painted buildings
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Playing rattan ball in skirts hiked up around their waists – did I mention all the men wear skirts (longyi)?
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Street scene

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That afternoon, we walked to Sule Pagoda and then up to Shwedagon Pagoda. It took quite awhile, but walking a city is really the best way to get a feel for it. That, and its easier for Riki to take a million pictures. We arrived at the pagoda in time for sunset, which is the most popular time to go. We encountered more tourists than we had seen all day. The incredible complex costs $8 to enter but is definitely the highlight of Yangon. We wandered around as the light slowly faded and the electric lights came on. I discovered the pagoda has free wifi (something we had not been able to access at the hotel very well), so I did some research while Riki continued with the picture-taking.

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Lots of people, lots of gold
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Cleaning the floor – though my feet were still black when we left
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Sunset
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Monk at sunset
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All lit up
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Making friends

The next day we walked to the train station and got on the local loop. It costs $1 for foreigners and you can hop off anywhere you like. We opted to do the whole three hour loop in one go. Almost as soon as we took off, we stopped again. And it continued like this. Stop, go. Slowly. At one of the first stops, a Burmese woman living in New York sat down across from us. She was delighted to find out we were Americans. So delighted, that she gave us three of her oranges. And then some packets of chocolate goo that she insisted we eat right away (but that we could also put in water). And then, when a man selling a different kind of oranges got on the train, she bought us three of those too. Because they were better, she said. The next lady who took her place, spoke no English. But we smiled and she smiled, like most people do here. And then, she took a hot ear of corn out of her bag, split it in two and gave it to us. Without saying a word. So within an hour, we had acquired 6 oranges, 6 packets of chocolate goo and an ear of corn. Without even leaving our seats. Lovely. The scenery was lovely too. Riki stood with his head out the door most of the second half. We travelled at a snail’s pace, but we passed some market towns, where the people heaved baskets into and out of trains, as well as some farmland.

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Railyard
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Jumping on and off we were going so slow
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Canal
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Trash along the rail line
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Farming
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Kids playing in the water

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On our last day, we had decided to take the night bus to Inle Lake. We checked out of our hotel, stored our bags and walked into the city. We went to the market, which had tons of handicrafts, but also some local goods. It obviously is catering to mostly tourists already. We also went to Chinatown, where there were tons of decorations, as it was their New Year’s festival.

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Neighborhood monkeys
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Yup.
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Betel Nut wrapped in leaf slathered with lime (not the fruit) to be rolled and sucked on and then spit as a bright red-color into the street
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Lady with typical Thanaka on her cheeks
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Pigeons are in every country
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Streetscape

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We returned to our hotel, shared a cab for the hour ride to the bus station and boarded our “sleeper” bus (just a little extra reclining) to Inle Lake.