Tag Archives: Trekking

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)

Various Observations by Riki….Nepal

Pictures at the bottom!

On the plane from KL to KTM – they don’t have any more beer so they bring me half a cup of vodka (barely any ice)…. Hmmm, thank you I guess?

Nepal First Impressions (Kathmandu):

– Flying into the city was awesome (at 10pm), with colorful flashing lights dotting and blinking all about the skyline (we got lucky with our timing, because we came during the midst of Tihar, festival of lights (the Nepali equivalent of Diwali)

  • Airport is old school and crazy, lucky we didn’t arrive when it was too busy, otherwise I dunno…
  • At the baggage carousel, people be thinking, if I push my cart right up there then I will have so much space to get my bags and it won’t be in anybody’s way… not
  • Dusty drive in. Couldn’t see much but the blinking, colorful lights draped from the buildings. DUI checkpoints everywhere (instead of breathalyzers, the driver just kind of spits in the cops face, or says something in such a way that if you’ve been drinking the cop can definitely smell/feel it…
  • The egg yolks are yellow again!!! They were more neon orange in Thailand and Vietnam
  • Super dusty main streets make for cool pictures
  • These stray dogs are great at crossing the street without getting killed, they must have a lot of practice
  • The shopping (or potential to buy stuff) is the best I’ve ever seen. I want to buy everything, but I don’t have the money, or even a place to put the stuff if I did (here or anywhere)

Tihar (Dipwali) evening observations – colored powder, marigolds, candles (wax and oil), firecrackers, kids going door to door singing for money, lights everywhere…

Nepalese people are amazingly diverse, the kids are really cute, the women are beautiful, and the young men are all “cool dudes”

In general, the cars and bikes in KTM are the worst we’ve seen (most old school and full of awful drivers). Julie was almost hit more times in 4 hours of walking around Thamel than during the rest of our entire trip (and we’ve been around a lot of cars/bikes in Vietnam & Thailand)

Bus trip on the way to Pokhara

This bus is crazy bad @ not causing a traffic jam, along with the other 50 buses trying to get gas at the one gas station on the busiest street around

  • Back seat – we got air at least 10 times (air: whole body lifting off the seat by an inch or more…)
  • They were playing 50 Cent @ a lunch spot, great food, but weird vibe with the music
  • Saw a hemp plant growing on the side of the road, somebody in the bus shouts out “marijuana!”

Festival in Pokhara – great music, and people dancing all day and night (alone, in groups large and small, brother and sisters, etc…)

Cow in the Road – really can do whatever they like – tourists taking photos – one big old German guy tells another, of course, “Holy Cow!”

Me “I think all the dust is finally out of my mouth.” – Julie “They have paved roads here.”

On walk up to Peace Pagoda – we saw monkeys, a whole tribe of them (also we got lost again…) the baby’s were really cute, but there was a moment when we were surrounded, and a couple of the big guys were chasing each other, and it was pretty scary (like the gorillas in that movie Congo), but then I realized I was being a baby…

5 day Poon Hill Trek

  • Brutal if you don’t have a good pack (and shoes cause it gets “slippy”) and if you have a wicked cold (literally woke up in Ghorepani @ 2874M and my lungs hurt when I took deep breaths)
  • Sapa don’t have nothing on the rice terraces here… Btw, I love rice terraces
  • Little kids in towns we pass asking “chocolate” or “photos (for money)” is a little cute, til you think of how many people must be actually giving them chocolate… But when a kid says “medicine?” and is pointing at a lil infection on his leg, it’s a little depressing (we didn’t have any medicine… left it all in Pokhara)
  • So many porters, or just random teenagers/young adults were the friendliest people I have ever encountered (!!), just asking where you were from, how long in Nepal, etc… w/ huge smile, super friendly. Wish I could hang out w/ them more than just a pass on the trek
  • Water Features! Everywhere, just walking up and down little streams that have taken over the paths, must get awful during the monsoon.
  • While trying to fall asleep when it’s nearly freezing in our room: Julie: “Are you comfortable?” Me: “No! I’m wearing a f@#$ing leotard!”

Back to Pokhara

While having dinner, Busses full of students (or just lots of young people) pass us by & they are either singing or yelling happily. They do this as they pass each restaurant down the road.

Julie’s calves are wicked swoll right now after the trek

KABADDI (Wave World Kabaddi League)? – some crazy sport on Indian TV that looks like a mix between red rover and wrestling (w/ awfully depressed looking white cheerleaders)

Back to Kathmandu

These trucks are awesome – they just say whatever the drivers favorite thing is: Sports, Playboy, Lionel Messi, Bob Marley, Road King/Viking, Titanic (complete with Kate & Jack painting) – sometimes they have beautiful pictures painted on them (mountain scenery, gods & goddesses) and sometimes just kittens and puppies…

I’ve been offered Hash (in varying discrete ways) an average of 5 times a night every time we walk through Thamel (the touristy area)

The Three Durbar Squares around KTM:

Patan: coolest, most compact, pretty

Bhaktapur: old school, quietest, most quaint

Kathmandu: lived in, busy, most ornate decorations on certain buildings

This one song that is playing @ every music shop will now forever be in my head & Julie hates it (really just me singing it…). I find out later that it’s just Tibetan monks chanting for hours on end.

The dust is completely overwhelming, @ the end of the day, I use a tissue, and everything that comes out is grey/brown/black. TMI.

And the traffic is nuts here, no traffic lights, or even stop signs. These traffic cops must have balls of steel

Also, driving a car here (or bus) is like playing chicken (crazy scary chicken in the mountains), it’s all about who flinches first…

Final Observations:

Bus Travel – one highway b/w the major cities, going through crazy steep hills (what we would call mountains, but they call them hills, because the mountains here are the real deal…)

-On the way to Chitwan, saw a bus with its front section completely blown out, no windows, nothing, and the top half of the bus was leaning @ a 45 degree angle, and they were driving this thing…

-From Chitwan to KTM, saw a minibus fall off the cliff (we didn’t see it actually happen just the aftermath), luckily some dense trees saved it from going all the way down. Also, Julie saw at least 1 almost accident and the others said they saw three

-@ least the busses (for an 8 hour trip) are more comfortable than all the airplanes I have taken this year, and those busses are old school

Scooters Vs. Motorbikes:

Nepal does it right when it comes to motorbikes, real motorcycles (Royal Enfields, apparently these are real cool) w/ protection for your legs & plenty of exhaust. But compared to SEA (where they have scooters or fancy new motorbikes) they are bad ass…

Pollution in Kathmandu:

The dust is intolerable! I love the city, but c’mon! these road widening projects & all the construction for the SAARC summit (which happens Nov 26 & is nowhere near ready) puts so much dust in the air you can’t breathe…

-and I haven’t even started on all the trash they burn (literally, all of it) and the smelly river…

Leaving for BKK @ KTM airport:

The airport is old, so old, like Cuba w/out the organization (especially the domestic terminal where we left for Pokhara)

In the departure terminal: I’m pretty sure it was 95% men in there (mostly Nepalese migrant workers, likely going to Malaysia or the Middle East to be exploited as cheap labor) & I’m pretty sure many of them were about to board their first airplane b/c they were like little boys @ the airport (faces pressed up to the glass, watching the planes go about their business)

Stroll through the Himalayas….Pokhara, Nepal

Nepal has many options for trekking. We only had about a week before my parents arrived, so we chose a 5 day Poon Hill trek out of Pokhara that promised great views and easy trekking. Easy is a relative term. We found a great guide, Raju through an agency and decided to carry our own equipment rather than get a porter. For complete details on accommodations/food/guides/etc throughout the trek, see below.

We left Pokhara with our guide at 8 am Monday and took a taxi for about an hour and a half to Nayapul (elev. 1070 m / 3510′) .  The trek begins walking through a small town’s dirt road, across a flag engulfed bridge and up a rocky dirt road.  It was initially very hot and we probably brought too much stuff with us.  We climbed up a very steep dirt road for a few hours before stopping for lunch.  After lunch, the road stops and any jeeps that have made it up the steep slopes, load their goods onto donkeys for the rest of the journey along a rocky trail.  There were lots of people, porters and donkeys.  The donkeys carry anything from mattresses to rocks and propane.  The porters pretty much the same.  4 hours after we started, we reached Hille (elev. 1500 m / 4921′) where we stayed overnight at a teahouse.  They have these small lodges along the trail for trekkers.  Most are very simple, with very thin walls, shared bathrooms and luke warm showers.  They are very cheap and range from $3-6 a night per room.  You’d think camping would be cheaper, but its not because you have to hire a porter to carry the tent and any cooking supplies as well as sleeping bags and other gear.  Despite the warmth we encountered during the day, our first night was very cold and we were grateful for the thick blankets provided (though we still slept in two layers of clothes).

After breakfast, including delicious fried bread, we left Hille to climb 3,280+ steps.  And we’re not talking your normal house steps.  Some were tall, some were loose, and some were wet.  It took about 2 hours.  And then there were more steps.  We took it pretty slow though we even passed some groups.  After lunch, which is generally Dal Bhat (rice with lentil soup) we trekked through an oak and rhododendron forest, where it started to rain.  Luckily, we had our rain covers and jackets (though Riki’s leaks).  We took cover during the worst of it and after some more steps and 7.5 hours total, we arrived in Ghorepani (elev. 2874 m / 9429′).

On Wednesday, we left our bags in the teahouse and started climbing Poon Hill at 4:45 am.  It was pitch black, but we had lights and so did the 300 other people climbing up to see the sunrise.  There were more stairs and we arrived about an hour later at the top (elev. 3210 m / 10531′).  The view was incredible and we were luckily that it was very clear.  This was the highest elevation we encountered on our trek and it was frigid.  We each wore three pairs of pants and most of our other clothes.  After taking a ton of pictures, we descended the mountain back to Ghorepani to eat breakfast and pick up our bags.  Our trek continued up a steep ridge that was engulfed in clouds and pretty chilly.  There was a bit of snow too and the whole thing was pretty eerie.  After about 2 hours it starts raining as we trek through incredibly lush forests.  More Dal Bhat for lunch and more rain.  We tried to wait out the rain, but eventually gave up and headed through more forest and along a creek that lead to an incredible waterfall.  The rain let up following a very steep and wet descent through moss  and fern covered forests.  Our day wouldn’t have been complete without more steps and the final segment was a steep uphill out of a valley to Tadapani (elev. 2590 m / 8497′).  Only 6 hours trekking.  Tadapani is mostly just teahouses, not many people besides those running the trekking-related businesses.

The fourth day was a short one.  We began at 9 am and trekked through beautiful rhododendron forests, with light red flaky bark.  It was cool and moist and also covered in moss.  For a change, we went downhill the whole way and arrived 2.5 hours later in Ghandruk (elev. 1940 m / 6364′).  After eating lunch with great views of Annapurna South and Fishtail mountains, we headed to the Gurung Museum to see some local artifacts.  Ghandruk is a much larger town, as it is only an hours walk from the nearest real road.  They even have a small brightly painted monastery.  We played cards that evening with our guide and tried the local liquor made from millet seeds.

Our last day trekking started with a downhill walk out of the forest and into more open rice terraces and scattered houses.  Then we reached the dirt road where there is a bus that we could have taken back to the beginning of the trail.  We opted to walk and had great views of rice terraces and even saw some monkeys playing in an area that had a large landslide last year.  After 6 hours we reached Nayapul (elev. 1070 m / 3510′) where we picked up a car and drove back to Pokhara for 1.5 hours.

We spent Saturday resting our sore muscles (surprisingly we were more sore from the downhill than the uphill) and doing laundry.  The place we sent our laundry managed to lose 6 of our socks.  Notice I don’t say pairs of socks, because that’s not what happened.  When you only each have 4 pairs of socks, losing 6 socks is devastating.  The hotel reimbursed us for the socks (kind of) and now I have one set that just doesn’t match.  Oh well.  So we are down 10 socks so far as Riki left two pairs drying in the bathroom in Hanoi.  Otherwise, we haven’t lost anything else (that we’ve noticed).

Sunday we took the 7 hour tourist bus back to Kathmandu to meet up with my parents for the rest of our Nepal travels.

Check out our pictures below.

Trekking Info:

We had a great guide – Raju – who is based in Pokhara and does longer treks and day trips/tours in Pokhara.  Contact me for his info.  He was very knowledgeable and kept us at a perfect pace throughout our trek.

The teahouses seemed to be pretty similar and the rates were pretty fixed in the Annapurna region.  This is where we stayed:

Hille – Dipak Guest House (thin walls, but decent beds and thick blankets)

Ghorepani – Super View Guesthouse (good view, but gross toilets and very low ceilings)

Tadapani – Himalaya Tourist Guesthouse (pay shower, smoky common area, excellent view in the morning)

Ghandruk – Heaven View Lodge (warmish shower, VERY clean, private bath available)

Pokhara – New Annapurna Guest House ($20, very clean, but if you do laundry make sure they do it in house because if they are busy they send it out and that place is terrible – not clean and lost our socks)

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Straight Vodka….Bangkok to Kathmandu & Beyond

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We spent our last few days in Bangkok researching about Nepal and wandering some neighborhoods we missed last time. We also switched hostels, from an interesting place on the water with a lot of character, but noisy toilets and questionable structural integrity to a place we had stayed before we went to Ayutthaya. We sacrificed windows and character for a/c and cleaner bathrooms.

We took the river ferry down to the skytrain and over to the commercial center full of shops and hotels. We didn’t have much success shopping for hats, but Riki found a smaller tripod so he can swap out his larger one when we meet up with my parents next week. The next day, we took the river ferry across to Wat Arun. The Thonburi neighborhood is one of the older ones and has lots of little side streets, as well as walkways along the water. And unlike Ayutthaya, the cats rule the streets here, not the dogs.

Good bread has been very hard to find and we have been craving it for awhile. Not far from the backpacker’s area in Bangkok, we found a great bakery with real bread run by ladyboys. And they have wifi. We went every day, even twice one day to eat fresh bread and research for Nepal.

On Wednesday we flew through Kuala Lumpur to Kathmandu. We were unimpressed with Malaysia Airlines, mostly because of the service. They ran out of chicken meals and brought me a vegetarian meal, but an hour later. And they brought Riki a tall glass of vodka when he asked for a beer, without anything to mix with it. So that was weird.

We arrived very late in the evening in Nepal and luckily the power was on and we got our visas pretty quickly. Getting our bags was a trip, just as we had heard. It is very hectic around the baggage claim. People with carts crowd the belt and it’s almost impossible to get to the front. But as soon as Riki had sent me off to check another belt, our bags arrived. We made it to our hostel and spent the next day wandering around Thamel looking for a trekking guide and supplies.

And this is where it gets awesome. Very conveniently, we arrived in the midst of Dewali/Tehar/Dipwali (known by a variety of names here), which is a big four day festival. For this festival, everyone decorates their buildings with lights. When we flew in, we could see all the lights, on almost every building. Incredible for a place known for its power outages. They must have saved up their power for this festival because we had no problems with power outages during these days. They also make incredible rice/sand pieces to invite the goddess of wealth into their homes. We walked around for hours looking at these and watching little kids go around from house to house asking for money.

Very early the next morning, we took a bus to Pokhara, the second largest city in Nepal. This 8 hour trip cost $7 and travelled along the highway, which was more high then way. It was barely two lanes (one each direction) and really bumpy. Sometimes we were very close to the edge. Other times, it was so bumpy we were actually bounced completely off our seats. Luckily they were soft and we didn’t hit any traffic jams. We have heard horror stories of people trapped on the highway for hours because of accidents. And it’s the only road.

We checked into a really nice family run place in Pokhara and spent the afternoon checking out the trekking agencies. That evening, still during the festival, the sidewalks were filled with people dancing. We stopped at numerous places to watch individuals and groups dance in front of the gathering crowds. Riki really enjoyed this and there are probably a hundred pictures from this night.

Because of the festival, the permit office was closed and we were not able to leave as early for our trek as we had hoped. This was fine by us, as we had plenty of time and wanted to see what the festival was all about. Saturday we did a short trek uphill for two hours to the World Peace Pagoda. We only got a little lost and ended up finding a troupe of monkeys. They were fascinating and we also probably have a hundred pictures of them. They were drinking from a small pond and had tiny babies with them. Eventually we made it to the top and had an excellent view of the city. The clouds even cleared a bit and we could see the Himalayas.

In August, there was a large landslide right under the pagoda and a few people died. The remnants are still very visible. We walked down a ton of steps (for practice for our trek) and found a boat at the bottom to take us back across the lake to Pokhara. That evening we found a ton more dancing on the sidewalks.

On Sunday, we returned to one of trekking agencies and arranged for a guided 5 day trek to Poon Hill for the next day. We spent the afternoon shopping for hats, gloves and provisions (including Snickers bars, which are big with trekkers).

 

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Note the initials. They knew I was coming.

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