Kalaw to Inle Lake Trek: Blisters, Leeches and Laughter

The bus ride from Bagan to Kalaw was motivation enough to walk to my next destination (8 hours in a minibus that I wish to forget). I came to Kalaw only because it is the start point for the treks to Inle lake, otherwise, it is a fairly non-descriptive town. The trek featured pretty high on my Myanmar bucket list and wanting to maximise on the experience I opted for the 3 days, 2 nights option over the shorter 2days, 1 night. The rain that poured down as we arrived into Kalaw made me question my choices, but some things are simply uncontrollable, so I would just have to hope for the best – after all you are more likely to regret a missed opportunity than one ventured and failed, right?

I chose to do the trek with a company called Eversmile, which my friend had used recently and recommended, and it seemed most of the people from the hostel in Bagan had made the same choice so there were plenty of familiar faces as we waited to start at 8am the next morning. There were a lot of trekkers that day so the guides split us into smaller teams and somehow we ended up with 12 girls in our group, whom our guide Phyo, referred to as his ‘princesses’ for the next three days.

Things started positively on day one as we headed up the mountain in the dry, sunny weather past some incredible mountain vistas. Arriving at lunch early we felt positive about what was to come and tucked into delicious chapati’s and vegetable curry. We had been given the choice to walk either on the mountain road or through the jungle that morning and all opted to stick to the road to avoid the mud as far as we could. We later found out that the jungle also had a lot of green leeches that get inside your clothes by jumping from the trees and were thankful for our collective decision.

The afternoon brought rain which I think we all new was inevitable at some stage, and we walked in colourful ponchos with wet shoes feeling a little more somber but determined nonetheless. When we reached the railway, Phyo told us we would walk along the tracks for one hour, but to be careful as there were a lot of leeches (we hadn’t escaped them entirely), so we all moved so fast that we made it in just over 30 minutes with four leeches joining the team en-route (I’m still thankful that they missed me this time). Shoes checked and tea drank we moved on to our homestay for the night, a beautiful family home with amazing views, buffalo and pigs in the yard and a cute little boy strapped to his grandma’s back! My main motivation for joining the trek was to see the villages and this was exactly the type of experience I had hoped for.

Day two was set to be the most challenging, we left at 7:30am and walked for almost six hours before lunch and another three after. It was exhausting but the weather was kind to us and we passed through so many interesting villages seeing chilli’s drying, bamboo basket weaving, traditional bag weaving and more. The locals were friendly, smiling and returning our greetings of ‘Mingalabar’ as we passed. Each time we stopped for a rest Phyo got us tea and snacks to keep us moving and our meals in between were always delicious. At one stopping point I looked down to see a sneaky leech climbing through one of my shoe lace holes but fortunately got to it before it got to me – there are plenty of things to be aware of in the countryside, you always have to be on guard! After a long day we reached our second homestay, very similar to the first and just about 30 minutes before the rain set in. The conditions were basic with bucket showers, squat toilets and mats on the floor for sleeping, but we had all we needed and were enjoying it greatly!

Day two however had been hard on my feet as blisters started by the rain on day one had opened up and I was concerned about how I would manage the last day with raw heels. As we set out on the final day bright and early I found myself struggling, my shoes rubbing and my patience wearing thin. I stopped to try to bandage them up better and realised that the covers I had put had already rubbed away. Unsure that I could do another five hours I looked to Phyo for advice and he suggested I try to finish in my flip flops…so all that training on previous unplanned expeditions in flip flops finally came to use. I was so incredibly grateful to the other trekkers who helped to clean and cover my sores, and deliriously happy to find I felt no pain at all with the flip flops. So I was able to get to the end of the trek without further problems, leeches or injuries and much more comfortable!

Our three days took us through amazing places, mountains, villages, past buffalo ploughing fields, farmworkers growing rice and chillis, cows, pigs, chickens, interesting bugs, so much life and intrigue that I would never have seen if I had not been prepared to walk. I am so grateful to have had such a fantastic insight into rural Myanmar. The adventure ended with a boat trip across Inle Lake to the small town where I would spend the next couple of days. If you’re going to Myanmar, I highly recommend a trek as part of your trip – such an awesome way to see the country!

 

Bagan: Real life temple run

The theme of this portion of my travel seems to be rain and as I arrived in Bagan after an 8 hour bus ride to yet more of my despised travel companion, I prayed for a brighter tomorrow to allow me to get out and explore the temples.

Staying in the Ostello Bello hostel offered me a chance to connect with lots of other travellers staying in the area whom I would later find myself spending more of the trip with. The first evening was spend prepping for Halloween by carving pumpkins which offered a nice distraction from the downpour and a great way for everyone to get to know each other.

The following morning it was at least dry and I headed out with some of the other guests to see the temples. There are over 2000 temples in Bagan so really you can never see them all (unless you are very dedicated). What’s more interesting is that they are simply dispersed all over the place, so we were able to just stop whenever we wished to see something. It took us a while to get into the rhythm but after lunch the sun came out and we finally found a stupa which we could climb for panoramic views of the surrounds.

One day was not enough for me and I spent the next day continuing my exploration, feeling that I had seen much of what Bagan has to offer but hadn’t been completely templed out. On day two we also headed out onto the river for a beautiful sunset boat ride to appreciate the area even more.

Bagan delivers in a way you can’t describe, it is like a lost world and being so large, with (relatively) few tourists, you can find yourself almost entirely alone in certain parts. The temples are intersected with countryside and small towns as well, so you get to see more of the local culture as you explore.

 

Yangon: First Impressions of Myanmar

I arrived into Yangon airport from Bangkok late on Wednesday evening and had 2 thoughts as I exited the arrivals hall:

  1. This feels more like an African airport than an Asian one.
  2. My taxi driver speaks impressively good English.

[I’ll later learn that the level of spoken English amongst older people in Myanmar is generally good as a result of the British education system implemented during the colonial period.]

My driver deposited me at the corner of a busy street pointing up to the third floor where a neon sign identified the location of my hostel, my next thought of ‘so how do I get up there’ proved irrelevant as a friendly local directed me to a dingy looking stairwell.

Checked in, my next priority was food and I only hesitated momentarily about the Indian restaurant next door before ordering a Paneer Masala and Roti and taking a seat. The food was delicious and with that it was time for some sleep so that I would be fresh to explore the next day.

I woke up to torrential rain but incredible views of the charming street outside that had been engulfed in darkness upon my arrival last night. I’m always eager to dive in as soon as possible on arrival to hit the ground running, so, undeterred by the weather, I walked down to the railway station and took the circular train to tour the city’s surrounds. At only 200Kyat this journey isn’t going to break the bank, but you do have to commit three hours to make the full loop.

Along the way I had time to soak up the culture with some fellow backpackers whom I met on the platform, as vendors got on and off selling tea, corn on the cob and betel nuts. Almost everyone wears the traditional longyi sarong and paints there face with a pale yellow powder that is mixed with water to offer protection from the sun, adding intrigue to this mysterious culture. The betel nuts are chewed by most men and spat out in a pool of red, leaving most of their teeth stained red as well. Amongst this colourful mix there are monks adorned in maroon robes and nuns in pink to add even more flavour. I am astounded but infatuated with each turn.

I took lunch with my new friends from the train at the Little Rangoon Teahouse – a step up from my usual dining standards but so worth the extra cash as I tucked into the most delicious, and generous, vegetarian biryani. The dish is served on beautiful china and baked with a roti break on top adding further to the charm.

For the afternoon I opted to hit up the unmissable Shwedagon Pagoda which is around a 30 minute walk from the centre of town, feeling lazy, I took a taxi. I spent around 1hour exploring the temple and couldn’t pull my eyes away from the dazzling gold stupa which seemed to get more beautiful as the sun dropped in the sky. A rainbow arced across the Eastern side as well, adding further charm and beauty to something already so magnificent.

Next I will move onto Bagan as I will return to Yangon at the end of my trip, but as far as first impressions go, I have high hopes for what lies ahead in this mysterious and magical country!

Falling in love with Sapa

So after the traumas of Ha Long to Hanoi traffic and missed night buses, and the incredible helpfulness of the Flipside Hostel staff, I was on a bus to Sapa. Being that my time was limited I booked two days of trekking and a homestay through the hostel, so as to save time on organising activities once I arrived. This meant that life was pretty easy for a couple of days as I travelled with just a small day pack and let the guides do all the thinking.

My first surprise was my trekking guide, a tiny little H’Mong lady who was waiting for me in the bus station in Sapa. In the hill tribe villages women run the households, control the finances and are also more educated than the men, speaking more English, so are generally the main guides as well. I hadn’t put that together in my mind before arriving, but was delighted to hear that I would be spending the afternoon with her and her friends walking back to their village, along with a group of 9 other trekkers.

The weather stayed reasonable for me and I was relieved not to have rain (mostly because my lack of coordination combined with mud would certainly lead to some slips). We walked from Sapa town for several kilometres out to the villages in the valley. There are no words to describe the scenery in Sapa as it really is beyond anything else you can imagine, with huge mountains, rice terraces, local hilltribe villages, buffalo, pigs, ducks, chickens and more. I was blown away and meandered happily through the fields snapping photos and just soaking it in.

We arrived at the homestay around 6pm after 4hours of walking and settled into a huge local feast. I was surprised by how many guests there were but enjoyed chatting with the other travellers over a shot of rice whiskey before an early bed time.

Day 2 was a longer hike of around 12km and for this one we were accompanied by guides from the Zao tribe. Less than 30 minutes in Zo, our lead guide, offered us an easy or a hard route and we unanimously opted for the difficult walk, heading up the mountain for more incredible views. Accomplishing this with minimal trouble was a sweet reminder that “you are stronger than you think” and to always give things a go, no regrets! We finished up at a waterfall before heading for some steamy bowls of Pho and back to town.

Sapa stole my heart completely with its scenery and culture and I am so delighted that I ended my time in Vietnam with this incredible experience. With aching legs I boarded the bus back to Hanoi and felt pure happiness that I had gotten such a great experience, challenged myself and proven my capabilities in another environment.

Hanoi and Ha Long Bay: Making my own dreams come true

I have wanted to visit Ha Long Bay for as long as I have known that Ha Long Bay exists (which is probably more than 5 years but less than 10, if you want to be somewhat specific). So when I arrived in Hanoi I was set on making this happen ASAP. With the typhoons still rumbling on I checked the forecast and elected to head straight to the bay the next day as it seemed the most promising on that front.

By this stage in my trip, my time left in Vietnam was limited and I wanted to maximise on the few days I had, so opted to visit the bay in just 1 day, freeing up the rest of my time to head north to Sapa. This meant leaving the hostel around 8am and returning around 9pm, there was a night bus to Sapa at 9:30, so this all worked well for me (like I said, I was really cramming to maximise my time).

The drive from Hanoi to the bay is around 4h which is hindered somewhat by the amount of time spent picking everyone up and then the 30minute rest stop en route. We eventually arrived around 1pm and even the bus ride couldn’t put a damper on the undeniable beauty that is the bay. We tucked into a generous lunch on our ‘junk boat’ and set out for a closer look.

The bay itself is nothing short of stunning and you could probably spend days just cruising around staring at the scenery. We took some kayaks out into some of the smaller caves to explore a little bit closer which was great fun and also disembarked at one of the islands to go inside some of the bigger caves. It was an amazing experience and something I had wanted to do for so long that I had very high expectations, and they were certainly fulfilled.

The journey back did not go quite so smoothly however, as we got stuck in a huge traffic jam and didn’t arrive in Hanoi until almost 10pm…yes you guessed it, I missed my bus to Sapa!! After a wonderful day I was so disappointed that I might miss out on the other Northern Vietnam adventure I was craving. Fortunately for me, I had organised everything through my hostel, Flipside, who were incredible. They got me a beer and set about rearranging my plans, then gave me a free bed for the night and told me to be ready to leave at 6:30am – I was going to make it to Sapa after all!!

It was a long day but definitely a worthwhile one, my advice to others visiting the bay would be to stay one or two nights as the day trip was really brutal, that said, if you’re short of time you don’t want to miss it!