A few friends and I camped in Moab, near Klondike Bluffs, under a full moon, over Easter weekend. Here are a few photos from that trip.
After Hsipaw, Trish and I headed to Lake Inle, with Beth, the Australian girl we met on our flight to Yangon and with whom we trekked around Hsipaw. Lake Inle is apparently Myanmar’s most popular tourist destination and the town at the northern part of the lake, Nyaungshwe , was the only place in Myanmar that had a backpacker feel to it, as the streets were lined with travel agencies, bookstores, internet cafes, massages, and restaurants. Lake Inle sounded beautiful and I was curious about this method of leg rowing that I had heard that the fishermen use. We arrived in Inle Lake/Nyaungshwe in the middle of the night and were given some mats to sleep on on the floor as no room was immediately available. The next day, we wandered around and ate at the Pancake Kingdom, which was a delicious respite from rice and curry! We interneted, ate street food, and I got a one hour long four-hand massage, for only $5.
The next day, we hired a boat (a very long boat) and the three of us cruised around Inle Lake, which was great! In the morning we saw fishermen. The men stand on the bow of the boat and with one leg wrapped around the paddle, paddle the boat forwards. It’s an unusual method, but apparently helps them to see over the reeds in the water, since their view would be obstructed if they were sitting.
Our boat driver took us to a number of touristy shops on the lake – a silver shop, a fabric shop, a monastery, etc. While designed entirely for tourists, each stop afforded us the opportunity to watch craftsman practicing their craft – be it designing silver jewelry, weaving fabric, or building a delicate umbrella.
Aside from stopping at touristy little shops, it was fun to cruise around on the boat and pass by floating gardens (made from copious amounts of reed from the lake), or entire villages of stilt houses – built entirely over the lake. Instead of a school bus, children were transported home on a boat. Houses had electricity despite being located entirely on the water.
As daylight waned, we watched sunset over the hills beyond the lake before returning to town.
We spent one more relaxing day in town – more interneting, massages, sitting at a coffee shop reading, etc. It was a great way to end our time in Myanmar.
We eventually made it back to Yangon, enjoyed a very brief afternoon there, walking around, breathing in that familiar, but slightly sickening aroma of betel nut. Yangon’s sidewalks are stained with red splotches of spit – and the poorest of the locals teeth are stained red from the betel nut that they habitually chew.
After departing Yangon, Trish and I sadly parted ways in Bangkok. I rushed to enjoy my final night of my trip, only to discover that my flight was cancelled. I re-booked my flight for a day later and spent an entire day in Bangkok getting 3 massages, eating well, and relaxing by reading and sipping a cocktail.
All-in-all, Myanmar was a great trip and a fantastic country. The borders only recently opened to tourists, so its not a very developed country, despite the fact that wealthy speculators from Singapore and China are building developments. The people were consistently very friendly, genuine, not jaded by tourism, and not pushy, which all contributed to a pleasant traveling experience. The food was good, even if rice and curry three meals a day got a tad repetitive. We spent about 10-ish days in Myanmar and while I think we could have spent a few more, it was the perfect two-week trip (including our time in Bangkok obtaining our visas. Myanmar is beautiful, historic, and a bit of a hidden gem!
After we left Bagan, we headed via overnight bus (such was our primary way of transportation – we had limited time and it quickly allowed us to get places without losing precious days) to Hsipaw. I immediately liked Hsipaw – it’s a small hill town and not overly touristy. Once we arranged a 3 day, 2 day overnight hike, we spent the rest of the day relaxing on the balcony of Mr. Charles Guesthouse. There, we were pleased to run into Beth, a Australian girl in her early 20s who was on our flight from Bangkok to Yangon. She decided to join us on our trek and we also got Jordy, also an Australian who we met on our bus ride to Hsipaw to join us as well. After a day of relaxing, Beth, Trish, and I walked through “the suburban part” of Hsipaw and visited a monastery, and stopped to play with children along the way. We ate a delicious dinner of Shan noodles and went to bed.
The next day, we woke up and began our trek. We hiked up and up and up into the mountains, and finally arrived at our first village. We stayed at our guides’ parents’ house. This trek was probably my favorite part of Myanmar, if only because it’s fascinating to see how others live. Their homes are designed with a raised roof (above the main roof) over the fire, so that smoke can escape. There was no running water, in fact, the UN’s development program had only built a central water spigot a year ago – prior to that, villagers had to walk down to the river to get water. All food was prepared from scratch (of course). We dined on rice and a delicious assortment of curries and tea leaf “salad”.
From here, we trekked on to our next village, which was interesting if only because most tourists do a one night overnight trek or a day trip and so these villagers were more in awe of us tourists. The children would stare while their parents encouraged them to wave at us. Jordy was smart and brought balloons in town to hand out to the children. Walking with him through the village was a slow, but very adorable process, as for those children, he was akin to Santa on Christmas Day.
At this second village, we girls decided to shower, since we hadn’t at the first place. Showering was in public, of course. We put on lokis (a tube of material that is worn as a dress or skirt) and bathed by dumping bowls of water that came from a large barrel on ourselves.
The most interesting thing about our trek to Hsipaw was simply experiencing a different way of life. Our meals were delicious, but consistent: rice and curries and veggies (usually tea leaves). My rough estimation is that each meal took about 3 hours to prepare. Privacy is fairly non-existent, as many people from one extended family will live under the same roof. From talking with our guide, it seems that 10-15 people living in one house is fairly typical. Houses are practical – a year’s supply of rice and wood take precedence over individual bedrooms, specific beds, and certainly privacy. All members work, including children – normally their job is to take care of livestock (boys), or help with the meals (girls). The people were incredibly kind and very hospitable.
At the end of our hike, we stopped by a sugar factory, which was fascinating. I love seeing work in progress for something which is foreign to me (I’ve never been to a sugar factory before), when it’s in its natural, non-touristy, environment. One of the men offered us sugar cane juice and some candies and when our guide offered money, he declined, saying it was a gift for the visitors. Genuine generosity is such a much-appreciated gift.
We spent 4 very relaxing days on Lake Toba. One day, five of us rented a large boat and went “rowing”. The next day, we rented bicycles and rode to the northern end of the island through Batak villages and saying hello to every single child that saw us pass by. Indonesia has to be on of the most smiley and friendly countries I’ve ever been to. Everyone says hello when I pass. Oftentimes, I/we will get stopped dead in our tracks for an English conversation. The majority of conversations go like this:
“Hello miss! My friends and I would like to practice our English with you.”
“Of course; no problem. Hello!”
“What is your name?
“My name is Erin. Your name is? … Nice to meet you.”
“Where are you from miss?”
“I am from America.”
“What are your hobbies?”
“I like to travel, ski and cook.”
“OK miss, thank you! Can you please sign my book? May I have a picture with you?”
And that’s literally every conversation, although now I can say my name and where I’m from in Indonesian, so I do that.
After our long day of bike riding (we probably rode for 25 or 30 miles), we had dinner, watched a local Batak dance performance. Niki’s birthday was the next day, so we ended up celebrating it a day earlier and went to the one bar on the island with a bunch of local guys from our guesthouse, where I probably smoked about 3 cigarettes worth of second-hand smoke and listened to 90s rap.
While in Lake Toba, we added another guy to our group, Koos. He’s really cool – also Dutch and is on his way back to Holland after spending 5.5 years living in Papua doing water projects. It’s really interesting chatting with him about his experiences working for a NGO. Our nightly routine has been playing cards or the game Mafia – we’re always looking to recruit a few more people to make the game more interesting. And the locals every night play songs on the guitar and we all sing along. Their ability to pick up western songs and so quickly is really amazing.
After Lake Toba, we headed to the jungle, to Bukit Lwang. We’re staying right on a river, the other side of the river is a national park. The major activity to do on the river is tubing. So, the first day we got here, we rented tubes and floated down the river for nearly 3 hours. It was a perfect mix of rapids and calm stretches, but just stunningly beautiful and really, really fun. It was my favorite activity that I’ve done thus far. The next day, we went on a full-day trek through the jungle in hopes of seeing orangutans in the wild, as orangutans are now only native to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. We saw some spiky-haired gray monkeys immediately who got very close to us – at one point I was bending over trying to take a photo and a monkey jumped over my back! About an hour later, we spotted a mother and baby orangutan. And after lunch, yet another mother and baby. It was really, really cool! It was great being so close to them and seeing them in their nature environment. Plus, any sort of monkey or ape is my favorite animal to watch, so I was really happy with our experience.
The next day, we decided to go tubing again – it was so much fun the first day. Tubing is fantastic – you float along and pass water buffalo and women doing laundry and children playing. At one point, 3 buck naked boys come running towards the river and jump in and swim alongside us for a bit. We really got local and starting bathing in the river too. The “shower” in our guesthouse left a lot to be desired and the bathroom constantly reeked, so we took to bathing in the river like the locals. It’s a very efficient, if public, way to bathe. And after a few days playing in the jungle, we headed to a hill town, Berastagi, where tomorrow, we’re going to climb a volcano! Hopefully we’ll actually make it up this time…