Inle Lake – A Calming Contrast from The Dirt and Dust

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.

Bagan – the city of Temples

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.

Yangon – beautiful chaos

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.

Chiang Mai Adventures: Wat Pha Lak and Doi Suthep

We ended up spending two and a half days in Chiang Mai before heading to Pai for two nights (currently on the minibus heading back to Chiang Mai). Even at first sight Chiang Mai is so much more relaxed and friendlier than Bangkok. The airport is only 15 minute drive away from the downtown square. There is a shuttle bus available for 40 bahts per person. The counter for this is at the very end of the airport near door 12 (by the international side) however this has limited capacity and when we went we were told there would be a 40 minute wait. There are lots of counters that offer taxis for a fixed price of 150 thb to get into town which isn’t too bad particularly as we were sharing between two.

We chose a hostel at the east edge of the main downtown Square to stay called Thunder Bird Hostel. In fact we’re staying there tonight on our one night stopover. The hostel wouldn’t look out of place in Shoreditch with its scandi inspired decor with lots of minimalist metal work. It’s clean, good toilets, hot showers, has a small rooftop and a comfortable chill out lobby where they serve the included breakfast as well as have a piano and guitar for those musically gifted to have a strum (or even those who just fancy a tinkle). Prices are not extortionate, a bed in a 6 bed mixed dorm is 315 baht per night. The hostel is a little hard to find but just use the GPS on Google maps to navigate your way there. There is also a lovely food market right outside the hostel with plenty of fresh fruit that you can devour.

The first full day we were there we set off on a self-trek to Wat Pha Lak and Doi Suthep. If you’re up for a day of adventure in some stunning sceneries and seeing some awesome temples, it’s definitely worth a go. We followed the directions in this article as well as used the GPS on Google maps. Whilst the first bit is useful, the directions for the actual trek was a bit foggy and we got lost multiple times so ended up taking all day to trek up to Doi Suthep. I don’t know how much has changed since that article but the path is certainly not as easy as following the trees with the monks’ markers as there were multiple routes that had it. My main advice would be:

  1. Follow the trail, it doesn’t suddenly turn off at a 90 degree angle
  2. One thing the article really didn’t make clear is that the trek to Doi Suthep continues FROM Wat Pha Lak. Don’t walk back out to try and find the area with the plaque that suggests you sit down before continuing the journey. It’s just misleading.
  3. Once you’re through the grueling hike after Wat Pha Lak and have hit the second road and near Doi Suthep, walk on the main road. We ended up going up a smaller road which we thought was a pedestrian road and I think ended up trespassing on alot of people’s village/properties!

Make sure you arm yourself with some sustenance and water – it can get hot and if it takes longer than you planned you don’t want to get caught out. There are stalls up at Doi Suthep so it’s easily to fuel up when you get there so only take enough to ease any hunger or thirst on the journey. And despite monks doing the trek in flip flops, I would definitely recommend trainers as a bare minimum as there were a lot of mild scrambles and steep dirt tracks.

Wat Pha Lak is definitely worth seeing with its beautiful waterfall setting. We ended up staying for quite a while just enjoying the serene sound and quiet. It is significantly less busy than Doi Suthep as it can’t be reached directly by transport so tour groups don’t stop there. There are also good toilet facilities there.

Doi Suthep is also worth the 30 baht entry fee, with its ostentatious gold circle and also insane view of Chiang Mai. This is the point where you feel an amazing feeling of accomplishment when you see the radio antennae where you first started the hike and realised how far it actually is!

There are plenty of songthaews (red taxis that hold up to ~10 people) up here which offer rides back as far as Tha Phae Gate (the east gate of downtown) for 80 baht per person so that’s a good option if you’re not wanting to do the hike back down.