It’s been an eventful week and a bit since we arrived in Indonesia. When we first arrived, I have to admit I really wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy my time here. The idea of being somewhere where it was the Australia’s answer to Benidorm really didn’t seem appealing to me. I also wasn’t quite ready to be back amongst the normal holidaymakers having been amongst climbers for nearly a month.
We stayed in Sanur for two nights whilst we waited for my dad to join us for a week. Unless you are heading to catch a ferry, I would avoid Sanur. There’s nothing outstanding about it and it’s festering with locals who pester you to offer their services. Once we landed on Nusa Lembongan, it got much better with the island providing a much more relaxed atmosphere. We originally booked for four nights and ended up staying seven as Ed wanted to do his advanced course as well as his open water. The island (and the neighbouring two islands) are beautiful and are so good for watersports. If you like diving, surfing or just beaches under a blazing sun, this is the place to go.
The islands are stunning, I would highly recommend renting a scooter to explore the island as well as crossing over to the smaller but no less spectacular Cennigan. Although I would not recommend what my dad did which is drive his scooter off the edge of a 2.5m drop… If you do have any mishaps, the East Medical Centre on Lembongan is very good. The treatment rooms are clean, they have good equipment and it’s sterile. Luckily my dad only escaped with scrapes and the need for a couple of stitches for a particularly bad cut. Do take care! Some of the roads on Cennigan are particularly steep and in bad condition and certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Having already done my Advanced PADI, I spent my days mainly surfing and doing admin bits. I’m a complete noob at surfing so it was quite amusing to take on the beginner surf lessons with Thabu Surfing and get absolutely spanked by the waves. The lessons were really good and in my last session I could stand up on most of the waves I caught. At 450k IDR a lesson it’s almost worth doing the lesson just to catch Thabu and his instructors catch waves themselves. The names for the surf spots did make me chuckle though, they were Razors, Lacerations and Playground with the last one being the least friendly so I’m told.
The highlight of our stay on Lembongan was definitely the day of fun dives I did. We went out with Blue Corner Diving who were super great from day one. I saved my day of fun diving for a day with less swell so we could go out to Manta Point. We went out early at 8am and saw dolphins playing in the water as the boat left the reef. The boat trip was fantastic to showcase the beauty of the Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Cennigan and Nusa Penida. We arrived at Manta Point being one of the first boats there and got in the water without delay. Within less than a minute of descending, we saw mantas. Not just one, but about eight to ten of them all together feeding. Throughout the dive, every so often a manta would just zip past you nonchalantly, it did not get old! Considering they were between 3-5m wide, it was definitely a little intimidating at first! What a thrilling first dive of the day. After that we dived at Crystal Bay where I finally saw my first turtle and then at Sen Tal where I had my first proper experience of drift diving. It was a fantastic day.
We’re currently on our way to moving on having spent 25 days at Green Climbers Home in Thakhek. Having only planned to stay for 16 days, when it came to the leaving on our original end date, neither Ed or I felt ready to leave. The climbing was good, but so was Kalymnos and Tonsai. What really makes Green Climbers Home special is the people who turn up there. It felt like an adult summer camp where the days are spent throwing your efforts at the wall and nights are late hanging out with your friends you’ve made. Out of the people we met, I don’t think there was a single person who actually left on the day they had planned to leave which is real testament to the way the place is run. If you go, you will find that you have an entire valley to play with – a climber’s paradise. What was also really surprising was the proportion of people who arrived having never climbed and were there to learn.
I do think some of the grading at the crags are a bit off. Even the 5s and 6as proved to be challenging, more so than at other places we’ve climbed. Also, since I’d travelled for the prior two months with no training or climbing, it really whooped me the better half of the first week we were there. The climbing didn’t get easier, but I did get more comfortable and could climb harder.
My sport climbing goal for 2018 was to do my first 7a. I managed 6c+ in Tonsai in January before running out of time to project a 7a route there. Knowing how relatively weak and out of shape I was when I arrived, I didn’t really have any expectations of being able to climb hard. But after throwing myself continuously at a climb called Schwitzerland, on the eleventh attempt I finally made it. It’s a route with lots of lovely flowy technical moves, something I’d normally be really into but for some reason the climb was very intimidating to me. I’d managed to get to the last few moves about five times before I managed to send it. And even on my send try, I still didn’t quite believe that I could do it. My biggest weakness is currently and has been for quite some time a mental hurdle. Physically the moves actually never gave me too much trouble, my endurance was perhaps lacking a little but I could perform all the moves without trouble. I never felt quite comfortable on it to fully commit though. Whereas on a 6c route I’d projected a week earlier I could happily go for moves and fall without holding back. The emotions when I finally clipped the anchor was undeniable. Nothing else puts me in such a state as climbing does. What made it even better was that the friends I had made were climbing at the crag right next door so some could see me and cheers accompanied my pathetic sobbing. It was the best way to repay their belief in me throughout the days I projected the climb. Now I have the evidence to prove to myself I can do this, hopefully I can climb more confidently in future.
It’s only been two days since we left and already I miss the place, the lifestyle and most of all the people. Every single person who left before we did, I missed them and now I miss everyone like cattle misses their herd when they’re lost. I would definitely like to go back, although it’d be incredibly hard to replicate the time we had. Nevertheless, the 25 days has made my life and memories infinitely richer.
From Inle we got a day bus to Hsipaw which is a little mountain village. For how touristy Bagan and Inle were, Hsipaw is still very much a small hiking town. We stayed at Mr Charles’ which was listed as the only hostel on hostelworld and also booked a two day trek with the travel agent based there (Ko Pee travel).
We had had a lot of recommendations for Mr Bike, however with the fighting in the area, the jungle tree house trek we wanted to do was unavailable and the only one on offer was one including tubing which we did not want. The two day, one night trek with Ko Pee travel was a mere 25,000 mkk as well which was by far the cheapest price we found for a two day trek.
We ended up with an amazing guide called Phyo who was so friendly and funny and absolutely made the trip. The hiking is harder than the Kalaw trip with a lot more ascension on the first day. We did also come across some local militants complete with rifles so had to come back via the same way to avoid the more intense conflict. Otherwise though it was a great trek. The homestay family that we stopped overnight at were so welcoming.
After the trek we got the train from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin which has got to be one of the most pleasant train journeys I’ve ever done. The train continues to Mandalay after but takes another 8 hours to get there when you can take the bus which is much quicker. We got the ordinary class tickets (which were roughly 65p for the journey) which gave us seats with the locals. The ride was smooth and went through some lovely countryside as well as the amazing Gothiek Viaduct. It’s definitely worth a ride!
From Pyin Oo Lwin we took a shared taxi (hitchhiking is also an option) to Mandalay.
Whilst most of the people I met say that Inle Lake was much more touristic than Bagan, I have to say I thought it was more the other way round. Yes there is a tourist town that caters towards tourists and also the boat tours take you to places that no local would dream of going, it all didn’t feel too contrived. The cigar making places, the weaving places they were all trades and practices that do exist in Myanmar and are very much still used by the local people. I also enjoyed the rotating market where you could experience a real marketplace experience.
We ended up extending by an extra night and stayed in Inle Lake a total of three nights. We arrived in the afternoon and had to take a whole day to recover from the exertion and previous sleep deprivation. We did however go on the free cycle tour to a local winery for the sunset. Burmese wine, is not a thing. The sunset view however was very nice.
The third day we rented a private boat for the day (25,000 mkk for up to 5 people) and went around Inle Lake. We bought some very nice flavoured Burmese cigars and various items of clothing. The floating gardens were beautiful and the Indein village was definitely worth the diversion for.
Overall, I had a cracking day going around Inle with some good friends. We stayed out long enough to have watch sunset on the lake which was spectacular.
We stayed at the Ostello Bello and ended up meeting a really good bunch of people. The happy hour here is also cheaper than their Bagan and Mandalay counterparts thus fueling some very fun nights.
Shan noodles are a must try here as there were some really good renditions of the dish. The little “night market” near the Ostello Bello was good for Shan noodle soups. There is also a very tasty Indian called Dosa King that we tried.
From Inle Lake we took a day bus up north to Hsipaw. The day minibus took 8/9 hours compared with the night bus which goes to Mandalay before heading to Hsipaw for a total of 15 hours. The road, as we found out, gave the overall ride something of a roller-coaster feel. We even caught several cms of air at certain points! More on Hsipaw in the next post.
So we got a night bus from Bagan to Kalaw which was scheduled to arrive at 4am and we organised a two day trek that started at 8am. Now that we’ve done it, I wouldn’t recommend it haha. Our bus ended up arriving at 2.30am to Kalaw which does not have much facilities open at that time in the morning apart from a makeshift cafe. The only places which seem to have toilets are hotels (genuinely, the cafe had no loo and they didn’t seem to know what a public toilet was). The temperature at night also plummeted to 4 degrees which we were a little ill prepared for. So with very little sleep we started our two day trek walking 16-17km a day with a company called Jungle Kings. The first day we were little more than zombies ambling through the dry fields and valleys. Our guide Simon was not the most talkative, although he did show us a few plants like garlic leaf and wild coriander (if you’re one of those weird people who doesn’t like coriander, Myanmar might prove a little troubling for you). Despite the low energy, we still saw some incredible sights.
It made me really curious as to what the countryside would look like in rainy season.
One thing that kind of really put a negative spin on the trip was that there was a French woman with her three year old son. I have to start by saying that I am all for female empowerment. I do not think that women should be limited and prohibited from things like travelling just because biologically they’re able to reproduce. However, if you do choose to travel with a child, you have to make sure you’re able to show them boundaries as well as all the amazing sights. This little boy of three was an absolute nightmare. He was aggressive and violent at every possible opportunity. For example he threw a rock at me, and then at lunch threw a small wooden at me whilst I was dozing. He also throttled another guide at dinner as well as hitting people on numerous occasions. And what did the mum do? Little more than calling his name when she sensed that people were looking at her wondering why she wasn’t disciplining him. Single mums who travel, go you. And I can only imagine how hard it is to look after a child on your own particularly if you’re travelling but it’s no excuse to let them run wild and not learn when they do something wrong. Rant over.
So overnight we stayed at a monastery. A few people we’d met travelling opted to go with a homestay instead as there were rumours of bed bugs but we didn’t seem to be bitten by any on our stay. The food was delicious and a definite highlight of these trips. The Burmese people are very generous with the food and on events like these they will more often than not refill the dishes for you to eat to your heart’s content. The worst thing about staying in that monastery was the toilets. Full of spiders and just full in general, if you catch my drift. Squat toilets aren’t the most pleasant thing but even out in rural Myanmar I’ve come across some that, despite being quite rudimentary, are clean and don’t smell. Overall though it’s an experience, just not necessarily one that I would repeat.
One advantage of starting the hike on very little sleep was that I managed to a great sleep in the monastery despite monks running around on the wooden floorboards. The second day was done with a lot more zeal from our group. The activity highlight of the trek was the boat ride at the end from lusciously green farmlands up across Inle Lake to the town at the top. The lake looks small on the map but is so vast that I could almost believe it was an ocean.
Inle is a very nice respite from the dry and dusty climate we’ve come to associate with Myanmar.
Arriving at 5am on a night bus is disorientating. The bus journey, despite every effort being made to ensure you get some sleep, is very hard to get any meaningful shut eye on. So by the time you arrive, it’s still dark and you’re tired from the journey. The first thing that will happen when you get off the bus is that you’ll be swarmed by taxi drivers. You’ll try and negotiate and realise how extortionate taxis in Bagan were compared to Yangon. Using Grab we paid ~9,000 mkk to get to the bus station from Scott’s @31st St which was an hour and a half ride whereas in Bagan the taxi drivers had formed a syndicate so they offered you a ten minute ride to new Bagan for no less than 5,000 mkk per person. They hold a monopoly particularly for that time in the morning as Grab and Uber doesn’t cover Bagan and there certainly no buses at that time in the morning (I’m not sure about later on) and it’s a bit too far to walk. Once you’re in the taxi, they make a stop at a checkpoint going into Bagan for you to pay the mandatory tourism fee of 22,500 mkk per person. By the time we arrived at the hostel I was already less than impressed with Bagan, it all seemed like a giant tourist trap to me.
In Bagan we stayed in the Ostello Bello Bagan, there is also Ostello Bello Pool down the road which as its name suggests has a small pool. The Bagan one has a bar though which opens until 11pm whereas the pool one does not. The chain also has a hostel in Inle Lake and also in Mandalay so if you end up staying at those you will inevitably bump into people you met earlier on in your journey. Most travellers tend to end up along roughly the same route and with the pool of tourists still relatively small, it’s very easy and quite nice to bump into familiar faces.
Bagan in general is more pricey than other parts of Myanmar like Yangon or Inle Lake. Expect to pay a minimum of 3,000 mkk for a main dish. The food is very delicious everywhere we went though. In particular a vegetarian restaurant called The Moon stood out. Their aubergine salad and glass noodle salads were super tasty and their mango lassi was perfect during the peak heat of the day.
Whilst in Bagan we did tours organised by the hostel. We did the sunrise boat tour which yielded some beautiful photos, we did the mount popa visit (which was climbing up stairs to a temple rather than any actual hiking like we had hoped) and the free Bagan tour which you zipped around Bagan on e-bikes that you rent separately. Our tour guide Christopher was definitely one of the best guides I’ve ever had. He was friendly, open, fiercely intelligent and passionate about what he was talking about.
One of the best things was zipping around on the ebikes. For 3,000 mkk a day you can have the freedom to go explore the area and get lost visiting pagodas.
From Bagan we booked another night bus to Kalaw as well as a 2 day 1 night trek to Inle Lake. We booked this all through the hostel easily for 50,000 mkk in total. The bus was scheduled to arrive at 4am and the trek was scheduled to start at 8.30am… I’ll let you know in the next post how that went.
My first impression of Yangon was surprise at how large it was. Not that I was expecting a dirt village for the former capital but it’s a rather sizeable city. And after a short few days there, I decided I quite liked it. It’s very diverse in culture and cuisine all compacted within narrow streets. There are no high rise buildings so you don’t get the overwhelming feeling that large cities like Singapore or Hong Kong can give.
We didn’t stay long as we were wanting to head north but whilst in Yangon we did do a food tour with Yangon Food Tours (very creatively named). It was a great decision because none of us really had much prior knowledge as to what Burmese cuisine consisted of or whether we’d even like it. Our guide Phone was very knowledgeable and gave bits of history as we walked around the downtown from place to place to try all the delicious food. As with any large country that spans a large land area, there are many influences and specialties that hail from specific areas but if I had to encapsulate Burmese food into a simple summary I’d say it was mainly noodles (sometimes with soup, sometimes without) and salads. By salads, I don’t mean the pitiful western notion of a salad with its limp leaves and thick dressings. Burmese salads are kind of like their tapas, or at least that’s how we’d taken to eating them. We’d order a few dishes like tomato salad, aubergine salad and glass noodle salads and share. It was mixed in light sauce and seasoned with varying mixes but peanuts and coriander features often. These are great for lunch particularly when it hits mid to high 30 centigrade. I am very taken with Burmese food. Hopefully it’ll get more international recognition and restaurants will open back home!
The other thing that we did in Yangon was go to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar and historians pinpoint its construction back between 6th to 10th century AD. It is a very impressive structure that can be seen shining from a distance.
We got up early to catch the sunrise unfortunately, possibly due to the time of year, the atmosphere was too hazy to get a clear sunrise. Nevertheless it was humbling to see the young monks already praying when we got there at 6am and still praying when we left an hour and a half later.
Later that day we caught the night bus to Bagan. If you ever want a bit more luxury it’s worth getting the VIP class. You get more leg room as well as reclining seats and will be well looked after by the steward or stewardess on board.