Hsipaw to Mandalay

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.

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.

Escape the dust to Inle

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.

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.

Our 48 hour journey to Yangon

Reluctantly we had to leave Coron after an awesome five nights in one of the most beautiful areas I’ve seen so far. We had booked an overnight ferry (with 2go travel) from Coron to Manila (the route also continues to/from Puerto Princesa) and having not been on an overnight ferry up to this point, we were a bit sceptical as to how pleasant the journey would be. Both of us are not particularly strong-stomached when it came to rocky travel and there are various reports online of how tricky the journey can be. Firstly, the ticket says you need to be there four hours early. Yes, that’s right, four hours. That’s longer than waiting for an international flight! Secondly, we had gone for the cheapest option of the Super Value class (which worked out at ~1,200 PHP), and had been told by others that there is no aircon. So going onto the ferry, we were definitely apprehensive.

When we got onto the ferry, the apprehension didn’t go away. We were on the third deck which was filled with small bunk beds with narrow walkways in between. 15 hours on this ferry? I really wasn’t sure how it would go.

A couple of the bunks didn’t even have mattresses or pillow and the owners of these bunks were stealing them from other bunks that were unclaimed at the time. It was all a bit chaotic really.

After we set off though, it did get better. There was a good breeze coming through the deck (apparently the aircon gets too cold in the cabins), we got a small meal included in our ticket and watched a beautiful sunrise as we ate. The main thing that made it one of the best trips we’ve done was that we made friends with two French guys and also a small group of French Canadian people. With them, we drank and instigated the karaoke that seemed to be lying neglected by the Filipino travellers. Once we started though, the requests didn’t stop and soon we had performances from everyone all round. It turns out “Breathless” by The Corrs is very popular in the Philippines…

By the time we sang our hearts out, we went to bed at about 11.30pm and managed to get a half decent sleep. The deck lights don’t get turned off so remember to bring an eye mask but actually it was not the worst sleep I’ve had on the trip.

Once in Manila, we had a short time going around the Intra Murose area of the city (the historical centre full of old Spanish buildings from when it was colonised) which was very pleasant before getting a flight to Singapore for our 11 hour stopover.

When we booked our hostel, our main requirement was that it had hot showers, was cheap and close enough to the airport. Unfortunately, it turns out it wasn’t a good enough requirement, our hostel turned out to be pretty dingy. Kind of like the setting for a horror VR game where the players get murdered. Kind of a derelict unpleasant feel. Since we only had a short stopover we made the decision to just not sleep and stay out all night. Annoyingly because we booked both flights with Jetstar, despite it saying that you need to collect your baggage between flights, it turns out if the flights are on the same booking, they will keep hold of your bags to transfer to the connecting flight even if it’s a long layover. Luckily, I had my rucksack as hand luggage (it’s a nifty Osprey 40l farpoint) so I had all my things and could lend Giada some clothes for the night. It descended into a chaotic night where we ended up in a party bus that had blaring music, neon lights and a fog machine but somehow we managed to not sleep until we got onto the plane to Yangon. For anyone doing that journey, I’d recommend a longer layover time so you can actually experience Singapore!

Coron, Coron island

From El Nido we took the “fast ferry” to Coron. The company was called Phimal and the ferry was actually 4 hours not 3. It’s a smallish boat that carries about 150 people and the journey is super choppy. Both Giada and I were feeling incredibly seasick throughout the journey but the crew only allow 5 people to sit on the top deck. Even when you try and explain that you need fresh air because you might throw up, they are pretty unsympathetic. It was probably one of the less fun journeys we’ve had…

Arriving in Coron on Busuanga Island, we walked to Hop Hostel where we had booked our stay. It’s about a half hour walk, unless you particularly feel like walking, I’d haggle a tricycle down to take you. The hostel was awesome. Newly opened two weeks before our arrival, the building looked like it had been lifted out of Santorini with its pure white walls and arches. The place had been lovingly designed and had a boutique hotel feel but with large hostel sized rooms. There were also king sized bunk beds available. Yes, you read that right. Bunk beds which are king sized. One of the owners Gino was around most days and is very friendly and loves to chat to guests. The staff are also friendly and try their best to help you although not always getting it right with food orders. We dined here two out of our five nights and the restaurant does very good food. The menu changes most days and offers a good value set menu. The rooftop is definitely the highlight though. The sunsets from here are one of the best as the hostel is up a hill. I imagine it’s only beaten by actually hiking up Mt. Tapyas.

The island hopping here is superb, we did Coron Island Tour B. The area is stunning and worth the hype. But tourism is on the rise so it’ll be interesting to see how long it can keep its charm for.

I also did my Advanced Open Water whilst being here which was awesome. I chose to go with Reggae Diving Centre who were brilliant. Very professional with well run courses. Most of the instructors and divemasters are cheeky Filipinos who are all very well spoken and friendly. Lunches were included which were super tasty and they even give you a beer at the end of the day.

What attracted us to Coron to dive in the Philippines was the wreck diving. Being pretty new to diving, I really wanted to go see some cool shipwrecks and Coron is famous for the 10 WWII Japanese imperial navy wrecks here. And I was not disappointed, they are so cool. The coral that is on top is also stunning with a good range of fish and lots of them too. Sadly I didn’t get to see a turtle at all during the entire trip. It turns out they’re very elusive!

Coron was an awesome stop and I would recommend anyone to go if beautiful beaches, divespots and snorkel sites are their kind of thing.

El Nido and Nacpan

Having to play catch up a bit now as we’ve been so busy I’ve had very little down time to write.

El Nido was spoken quite highly by quite a few people we’ve met on our travels so far. But having now been there and other places, I would say it’s on its way to being too touristy. The town is very small, the main centre consists of two parallel streets and one perpendicular one. Even whilst we were there we saw so many construction sites as they build more accommodation to meet demand (book in advance if you’re going in peak season as it does book up very quickly). There is not much of an actual beach to relax on in El Nido, the beach there is mainly used as a mooring site for island hopping boats and not that pleasant for relaxing on. The town itself is probably 99% tourist driven. Most buildings here fell into one of the following: restaurant, bar, travel agency or accommodation. Although traditional Filipino cuisine is not really all that memorable (in my humble opinion), it doesn’t justify the copious amounts of Italian and Mexican restaurants in the centre. As with my rant about Thailand being too touristy, I think El Nido is definitely heading towards that direction.

The island tours are good, we did A and C (out of A to D) and thought A was the better one with the lagoons we went to and the option to hire kayaks to explore these with. The lunch on these tours were definitely a highlight. A simple grilled lunch of pork, fish, seafood (squid, mussels or shrimp), rice and fruit prepared by the crew on board. I’m salivating at the memory. The Philippines are beautiful and the boat tours only provided more evidence of this by showing you white beaches with intense blue skies and sunshine as well as turquoise lagoons that are bordered by sharp, jagged grey stone rising impressively out of the water. With over 7,000 islands, you are not short of stunning scenery here.

In terms of price, El Nido was much more expensive compared with Thailand. That’s not to say it was expensive, you could have a decent meal out for about 300 pisos (about £4) but obviously when you compare with Thailand where accommodation and street food are much more in abundance it is definitely a marked difference.

One place that we really enjoyed going to was Nacpan beach. It’s a gorgeous long white sand beach that lies 16km up the coast from El Nido. You can get shuttles up there 350php one way or 600php return. We stayed up there for one night and would definitely recommend it. It’s currently 5km of a quiet beach but in future will definitely be developed into a tourist hotspot.

We enjoyed our stay in El Nido but definitely looking forward to Coron.

The Road to El Nido

Having spent the last few days in Puerto Princesa, currently in a van on our way up to El Nido. We’re on the island of Palawan in the Philippines for two weeks. First impressions, I have to say I really like the Philippines. The country is made up of numerous islands which offer lush, green and dramatic landscapes. The water is clear and gorgeous and the climate is hot and humid as you would expect from a tropical country. The amount tourists in Puerto Princesa also is a lot less than Thailand which was a welcome observation. I would imagine this will change dramatically in the next 5-10 years.

Puerto Princesa is the largest city on Palawan although I think it’s better described as a vast urban sprawl. Most buildings are a couple of floors high with lots of lots of unpaved roads. It’s quite laid back and because most of the touristy things are concentrated in the centre, it’s really easy to walk everywhere. I wouldn’t say there’s much to see in the city itself but there’s certainly good bars, restaurants and cafes. We spent the first full day just sorting out admin and milling around and yesterday we booked a day trip to see the Underground River which was worth a see. It’s a large river network housed in a cave in a national park. We also had the option to pay 550 pisos (it’s £1 to 73.50 pisos at time of writing) for a short cave hike and zip line which was really good fun. The tour also offered us our first look into the Philippines countryside which is just gorgeous.

The people are also friendly with lots of smiles and “hi”s said to us. One thing we’ve noticed is that Filipinos can dance!! On the night we arrived there was a dance show in Chinatown where local groups of kids and teens performed hip hop routines. We also had a fun night out at the Tiki Resto Bar and again saw the vivacious dancing of the locals. They certainly aren’t shy about throwing a move or two!

We flew into Puerto Princesa as we wanted to visit Palawan but flights to El Nido from Manila are much more expensive. The van has aircon and takes six hours roughly. I’d say so far it’s been a good journey. The countryside is so beautiful that armed with some good tunes and a couple of naps, it’s been pretty relaxing. We went with a company called Camarih Transport who offered the transport for 600 pisos. We also saw a couple of others that offered anywhere between 735-1,400 so do shop around. Camarih had an easy to use online booking system and includes hotel pick up.

Excited to see El Nido! We’ve been told a lot of good things about it. The plan is to spend a few days there and Nacpan Island hopping and doing water sports before heading to Coron further north which is famous for its WW2 wrecks dives.

There are already things I’ve heard and seen about that I want to come back to the Philippines to do already.

HK – some words and thoughts

Sitting at the airport waiting to board my flight to the Philippines leaving HK yet again. I’ve lost times of how many times I’ve been through this airport. Being born here and growing up abroad has always been a bit of a somewhat conflicting experience. There are two very strong cultures at play but I’m proud to have both within who I am.

I’ve always viewed Hong Kong, as with many places with a tempestuous past, as having many different facets. You have the colonial part of HK island, there is the modern super rich side and the what I experience the most, a slightly more modest life led by the indigenous residents. There are many things I’ve missed out on having never really lived there. But I did see something that really troubled me yesterday. There is a smaller quite popular island called Lamma island. You can get there by a 20 minute ferry from Central and it offers a bit more of a slower paced rural escape from the city. In the past when I visited as a girl and teenager, it was some residential flats and buildings in the middle of wilderness. On this visit, it has changed so much and not necessarily for the better in my opinion. There were a lot more tourists, western as well as Asian. So much so that the narrow walkways were a nightmare to walk on. There were also quite a few new additions to the high streets and catering establishments that shocked me. Western bar/restaurants that serve brunches and have a mostly western clientele, an Irish pub, a pizza restaurant, an incredibly posh hotel that wouldn’t look out of place on the French marina. There was even a building that hosted a cafe and a co-working space. Some of the local shops now sold sea salt flavoured cookies and baked goods, there was even a bloody churros stand!! The traditional stands selling douhua (a sweet dessert thing made with tofu) and some of the more traditional restaurants still remain, but it leaves me wondering if they’ll last. I’m all for diversification but like a lot of places in Thailand that sold avocado on toast and Belgian beers, it leaves you wondering whether the loss of cultures through tourism and migration is a good thing.