Tag Archives: inle lake and shan state

Impressions of Burma

It’s funny think that if I hadn’t walked through a glass door and ended up in hospital I might never have made it to Burma. But doing just that put paid to my plans to spend some time diving on the Andaman Coast, and finally made my mind up to book a flight to Yangon.

Yangon by night

Yangon by night

It’s probably worth saying straight off that for a long time I had been a supporter of the tourism boycott (that interestingly seems to have a far higher profile in the UK than in many other countries), but in the last year I’ve had numerous conversations with other travellers that had started me questioning my stance – and finally this year a friend of mine from back home who knows far more about Burma than anyone else I know talked me into it.

Ultimately the thing that swayed me was the argument that the boycott is damaging the people far more than it is the government (who don’t suffer that much at all thanks to being propped up with cash from lots of Asian governments like China). Sanctions mean that Burma gets way less development aid (about a quarter of the amount per capita) than near neighbours such as Bangladesh, Laos & Cambodia. Visiting as an independent tourist offers a way to give money directly to people running private businesses (incidentally the Lonely Planet is pretty helpful at advising you on how to minimise the amount of cash you spend that goes to the government), and we made a real effort to spread our cash around rather than spend it all in the same place. Furthermore, it was interesting to see quite how much people were willing to open up when talking one to one, about their views of the government – and it seems that the vast majority want tourists to come and see for themselves how the junta keeps the people poor and repressed.

I’m so glad I did make the decision to go, as the country was one of the highlights of the whole year of travelling. It was certainly the most intense experience of the whole year, with some amazing highs interspersed with some of the more challenging bits of the whole trip – most notably the rather terrible bus journeys and food that was often even worse (and had us leaping for joy at the sight of this restaurant in Nyaungshwe, by Inle Lake):

Inle Pancake Kingdom

The best pancakes in Burma

There were times too when the poverty became hard to bear – between the five of us, we tried to spread our money round as much as possible to help as many people as possible – but you have to acknowledge you can’t help everyone – which led to a sadly farcical situation in Inwa, where we decided we’d rather sight-see on foot, and spent the afternoon being followed around by a horse and cart driver desperately trying to persuade us to use his services (and being told repeatedly no). We ended up trying to escape him by taking short cuts across fields, but every time we thought we’d got away he’d turn up again.

No escape

No escape

Luckily though the highs easily outweighed the lows. I’ve already written about how Yangon is one of my favourite cities in Asia, on how Bagan really deserves to rival Angkor Wat in terms of global fame, and on the wonders of trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake.

Bridge over Inle Lake

Bridge over Inle Lake

But there were plenty of other highlights too. Inle Lake itself is absolutely stunning. It’s edges dissolve into a series of floating vegetable gardens and houses on stilts, so it’s hard to see where land ends and lake begins. Even better is taking a boat out early in the morning to explore the area – at that time of day on a clear day even the sky and the lake seem to blur into one.

Inle Lake fisherman Burma

The unique rowing style of the Inle Lake fishermen

Meanwhile around Mandalay it’s easy to spend a day stopping off at the former capitals of Inwa (with its rather amazing leaning tower), Sagaing (and its many temples on a hill overlooking the mighty River Irrawaddy) & Amarapura (with the rather incredible U Bein’s Bridge, at 1.2km long, the longest teak bridge in the world).

The leaning tower of Inwa

The leaning tower of Inwa

In terms of natural beauty and historic interest, the places I visited in Burma rival anything else I saw in Asia, and all with way fewer tourists than in most neighbouring countries (and all still pretty cheap too). Even better is the fact that in many ways its traditional culture is better preserved than many countries in the region. For a start, it’s the only Asian country I’ve been to where people still stick to traditional dress, with the clear majority of men & women preferring the skirt-like longyi over trousers. Equally distinctive is the use of thanaka, a creamy paste derived from a sandalwood-like tree, and which most women and children use on their faces and arms as a natural sunblock.

Sunset over U Bein's bridge

Sunset over the beautiful U Bein's bridge

Best of all though, yet again were the people. From the moment we arrived at Yangon airport to the moment we left, we were overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people we met everywhere. Everyone says mingala ba (hello) in the street, people regularly stop just to have a chat, and people go out of their way to be helpful, and even when times got a little bit stressful people were always there to help cheer us up. People constantly surprised us with their reactions, like the woman from Inle Pancake kingdom who chased us down the road to try to return the money we’d left as a tip (she thought we’d accidentally overpaid). It’s a great tribute to the people that they manage to remain so friendly and upbeat despite the best efforts of the government, and I hope one day soon that they get to escape from military rule.

You can see all of my photos of Buma here.

Next (and final) stop: Cambodia

Hiking to Inle Lake

Nice as Kalaw was, we weren’t really there to see the town. No, we’d put up with the nightmare bus journey so that we could hike through the hills to Inle Lake, stopping off at various hill-tribe villages along the way.

We’d originally planned to do a three-day hike, but after the little attack of food poisoning that had hit half of our party, we decided it was probably safer to stick to two days. There was still no sign of Tony, who we’d had to leave behind half way to Kalaw, but in his place we were joined by the lovely Nieves from Spain, who I’d spent a lovely couple of weeks with in Indonesia before Christmas, and who happened to arrive in Kalaw the same day as us (backpacking really makes the world feel like a small place).

Sam and Frankie were a bit worried that the hike would be a bit much of an effort as they were still recovering from illness, but luckily we were dealing more with gentle rolling hills than great big mountains, and being slightly higher up, it wasn’t even too hot – perfect hiking weather. It was beautiful right from the start – a wonderfully unspoilt pre-industrial landscape of rolling hills and fields still being farmed by hand, using buffalo-drawn carts in place of anything mechanical.

The local landscape

The real highlight of the hike though was stopping in the villages – these routes still don’t see a lot of tourists, and so we were greeted nervously by the villagers in many cases – although when it turned out our guide could also speak various different local languages in addition to his native tongue, it opened a few more doors and helped the villagers to relax in our presence, and had them asking as many questions about us as we did about them. I felt a little bit sorry for the young children though – in almost every case they burst out crying and ran away as soon as they saw us. Not the best reaction in the world!

Pa-O Villagers

Pa-O Villagers

Unfortunately we had a slightly disruptive effect in another village just before lunch – we happened to turn up on the day of a village festival. As we came round the corner, we saw most of the village on their knees at the entrance of a large hut, celebrating the festival. I’m guessing it must have all been a bit dull for the kids, as these ones came running after us as they were fascinated in us (and our cameras in particular). They insisted on posing for photo after photo (and absolutely loving the results). It was all great fun but I do feel a bit bad for disrupting the village festival. Whoops.

Local celebrities

Soon after that we were invited into another family’s home, where we had tea (and where the matriarch of the house quizzed the three boys about whether we were single or not and would we like to marry her daughters or niece?!). That’s certainly the first time I’ve ever been proposed to.

After a long first day we finally made it to our night stop – where we’d be staying on the floor of a teak monastery. Meeting (and chatting) to the rather deaf Abbott was a rather interesting experience, and yet again we had more fun with some of the local village kids who came round to see who the visitors were.

Pleased to see us

Day two of the walk was much easier – as we headed mostly downhill from the village towards the lake (although we were also slightly nervous about the fact our guide warned us we’d need to look out for poisonous snakes escaping from the controlled burning that farmers were doing just a short distance from the path!).

Water Buffalo

The walk was a magnificent experience – the villagers we met are mostly still living a very traditional lifestyle, and were wonderfully friendly to us. I’d love to go back again though at the end of the rainy season (rather than at the end of the dry season, which is when we there), as I bet the landscape looks even better lush and green, rather than the dusty brown we got to see.

Possibly best of all though was the fact that we’d made it two whole days without major incident!

You can see all of my photos of the trek here.

Only just making it to Kalaw

We packed so much into our first day in Yangon that we decided to change our plans and head straight for the hills the following day – on our first night bus of the trip. Tempting as it would have been to fly, I’d done a fair bit too much of that of late (well, Indonesia & the Philippines being island nations gave me an excuse to be nice and lazy) and so I had no choice but to go for the 17 hour bus – the longest single bus journey I’d taken since Argentina, and I had a sneaky suspicion that Burmese buses wouldn’t quite be up Latin American levels of luxury.

With such a long journey ahead of us, we stopped off to refuel at the bus station. Experienced travellers will already have spotted our mistake there and then – bus stations around the world are hardly noted for their gourmet cuisine, and this one was no exception. Filled up with rather unpleasantly greasy chicken and vegetable curries, we got on the bus and settled in for the long journey north.

Burmese bus station food

The offending meal. The dish in the far left hand corner of the table was memorably described as 'cow's arse soup' by Tony. It may have been his downfall.

The plains north of Yangon are some of the flattest, dullest landscape I have encountered on any bus journey yet on this trip, but I wasn’t complaining, as flat = quick, and anyway, we were kept quite entertained by Burmese pop videos (best of which: a Burmese cover of Britney Spears’ Womanizer) and some rather slapstick comedy.

Soon enough we were to be introduced to one of the unbreakable rules of Burmese bus travel: they must stop every three hours on the dot so that the locals can all have a full meal. As everyone piled out and enthusiastically tucked in, we decided to abstain, which was probably a good move, as it was soon after getting on our way again that the troubles began. Tony started to feel very ill indeed, and after a couple of unscheduled stops, eventually had to be to be let off the bus – and ended up being dropped in the new national capital of Naypyidaw (it turned out to be quite an interesting experience for him – they don’t get to see many tourists, especially american ones!).

Birthday celebrations on the way to Kalaw

The remaining 80% put on a brave face for Frankie's birthday


Our second three hourly stop was at midnight, where, despite the loss of one fifth of our party, we managed a beer to celebrate Frankie’s birthday, before reluctantly heading back on the bus before it wound up into the mountains.

It soon became apparent that the food poisoning hadn’t just hit Tony, for soon enough Andrew and I started to hear groans from am & Frankie in the row behind us. I was worried we wouldn’t make it at all, but luckily, the building of a new road meant that it didn’t take 17 hours after all – but 12, and the bus dropped us off in Kalaw at 3am. By this time Sam and Frankie could barely speak, and only just made it to the hotel. Fortunately a very understanding owner showed us straight to our rooms and allowed us to delay check-in til the morning.

As always, I was very grateful for my iron stomach – and continued to be later that day, as our first meal in Kalaw turned out to be as greasy and flavourless as the one in the Yangon bus station. Burmese food was rapidly becoming the one thing we didn’t like about the country.

Kalaw Paya, Burma

Lovely Paya in the middle of Kalaw


The town itself was lovely, with a beautifully tiled Paya right in the centre, and another collection of golden Payas outside a cave full of Buddhas just outside the town, that all made for a lovely afternoon of walking around the town – well, lovely enough until we realised that Frankie’s birthday, already ruined by food poisoning, had plunged to even lower depths by losing her camera.

We soon fanned out round town to head to everywhere we’d been all day, and in the end it turned up – outside the Buddha cave. We headed back to the hotel to celebrate, with Sam & Frankie beginning to feel better (although still no sign of Tony), and it really felt like maybe our luck was beginning to turn – especially as the staff at the hotel insisted on buying us some food to help us celebrate. We were, understandably, rather wary, but the dish we ended up with, a salad of fermented tea leaves with nuts, garlic and chilli, turned out to be the nicest Asian salad I’ve ever had (and began to redeem Burmese food somewhat)

We had an early start planned again for the next day, so we soon headed to bed for an early night. Just three days in, and Burma was already turning out to be the most intense experience of my travels so far.