Kalaw and the Start of the Trek to Inle Lake

Kalaw and the Start of the Trek to Inle Lake

After a lovely time in Bagan, Mark and I took the morning bus to Kalaw and surprisingly arrived in the early afternoon. We ascended to the mountain village of Kalaw. Mountains in South East Asia are not that high in altitude, but at 1,300 meters Kalaw was significantly cooler than anywhere else we’d been in Burma. We checked in to our room at the basic, but pleasant Eastern Paradise and spent the better part of the afternoon looking for our trekking guide to take us on the 3 day trek to Inle Lake. Although guides at Ever Smile were lovely, there was a traveler who we’d have been trekking with who made some racist comments and was anti-everything. Because of her, not Ever Smile, we sought out other options. We ended up going with Sam’s Trekking, who were also kind and informative. There, we met an adorable French couple with whom we’d be trekking and that sealed the deal.

After that, it was time to explore the town and figure out how to creatively wash and hang out laundry to dry. (I add this mundane detail because clothes washing in sinks and other basins, then hanging clothes to dry on any string, wire, nail, chair in front of a fan, etc. is such an integral part of travel that isn’t ever mentioned in the guidebooks.)

Temple in Kalaw

Temple in Kalaw

Mark wanted a haircut and was happy to go the Fashion: Hair and Make-up Saloom, but alas, it was closed.

Mark wanted a haircut and was happy to go Fashion J Hair and Make-up Saloom, but alas, it was closed.

This is how clothes are ironed in Kalaw.

This is how clothes are ironed in Kalaw. Yep, that’s an iron with hot coals inside and a hand cranked fan to heat them up.

For dinner we feasted at Myanmar Food Place. Plenty of plates were served after ordering only 2 dishes. When there was a power outage, no one blinked an eye (well, they might have and I wouldn't have been able to see them), but rather pulled out flash lights and continued dining and working as usual.

For dinner we feasted at a restaurant with the uninspired name – Myanmar Food Place. Plenty of plates were served after ordering only 2 dishes. When there was a power outage, no one blinked an eye (well, they might have, but I wouldn’t have been able to see them), but rather pulled out flashlights and continued dining and working as usual. With power outages a common as they are in SE Asia, we’re all used to it.

At before heading back to our hotel, we wanted to get a beer. The was a bar called 'Hi' with some kind of rough looking local characters. It was really the only place in town so we walked in. Mark saunters up to the bar and orders a beer in Burmese. The bartender looks stunned, then Mark looks at the hard rock video on the TV and asks, "Iron Cross?" The men at the bar smile. We're in. Thank you Mark for your incredible linguistic abilities and ability to remember random details. Iron Cross is one of the most popular bands in Burma. In case you're ever in a similar situation, fell free to name drop Iron Cross.

Before heading back to our hotel, we wanted to get a beer. There was a tiny bar called ‘Hi’ with some slightly rough looking local characters inside. It was really the only bar in town so we walked in. Mark saunters up to the bar and orders a beer in Burmese. The bartender looked stunned. Next, Mark glances at the hard rock video on the TV and asks, “Iron Cross?” The men at the bar smile. We’re in! Thank you Mark for your incredible linguistic skills and ability to remember random details. Iron Cross is one of the most popular bands in Burma. In case you’re ever in a similar situation, feel free to name drop Iron Cross, it seemed to help.

The next morning we left Kalaw and started our trek through the rice fields...

The next morning we left Kalaw and started our trek through the rice fields…

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...and up the mountain.

…and up the mountain.

This didn't look good.

This didn’t look good.

We stopped with the guide to see if they needed help, but they claimed to be fine. Hmm, looks pretty stuck to me.

We stopped with the guide to see if they needed help, but they claimed to be fine. Hmm, looks pretty stuck to me.

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Orange trees?

Orange trees?

Here was our first rest stop.

Here was our first rest stop.

Me resting with a view.

Resting with a view.

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Tea leaves out to dry

Tea leaves out to dry

Obligatory shot of chickens and chicks for Wendy.

Obligatory shot of chickens and chicks for Wendy.

Kalaw and the beginning of this trek reminded me a lot of Nepal. It came as no surprise that the people here were Nepali.

Kalaw, and the beginning of this trek, reminded me a lot of Nepal. It came as no surprise that the people here at this rest stop were Nepali.

Making chapati.

Making chapati.

Our trekking companions Than and Tomas.

Our trekking companions Than and Tomas.

Ode to Portland

Ode to Portland

And we were off down the trail

And we were off down the trail

Hill tribe village

Hill tribe village

Happy children

Happy children

Piggies

Piggies

Sifting the tea leaves

Sifting the tea leaves

lunch

lunch

Tea leaves being gently roasted

Tea leaves being gently roasted

Another hill tribe village

Another hill tribe village

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Amazingly, for I think the first time ever, I captured a butterfly in flight on film. It was the size of a small bird.

Amazingly, for the first time ever, I captured a butterfly in flight on film. You can see the wing as it’s flapping. It was the size of a small bird.

The clay pots filled with drinking water were available even here.

The clay pots filled with drinking water were available even here.

The train passing through

Train passing through the rural landscape

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Children walking home from school

Children walking home from school

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I don't think I'll ever tire of looking at terraced rice fields. So vibrantly green!

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of looking at terraced rice fields. So vibrantly green!

The best way to carry a basket.

The best way to carry a basket.

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Arriving at the train station

Arriving at the train station

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Zoom out

Zoom out – I love this shot!

Zoom in...

Zoom in.

Amazing face

Amazing face

Aha. This baby saw me, and who knows why (maybe the blonde hair and blue eyes), but he couldn't stop laughing.

Aha. This baby saw me, and who knows why (maybe the blonde hair and blue eyes), but he couldn’t stop laughing.

He laughed and laughed.

He laughed and laughed. It was absolutely adorable.

How cute is that laugh?

There's just something special about trains, isn't there?

There’s just something special about trains, isn’t there?

I think these guys think so too.

It seems these guys think so too.

Tightly wrapped baby

Tightly wrapped baby

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Than and Tomas eating the delicious cake that, sadly, we'd never find again in Burma

Than and Tomas eating the delicious cake that, sadly, we’d never find again in Burma

Friendly dogs

Friendly dogs

Back to the rice field

Back to the rice field

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I forgot to mention that Mark decided to do this 22 kilometer day of trekking with no shoes. Then it started to rain and we all began to slip and slide through on the muddy trail.

I forgot to mention that Mark decided to do this 22 kilometer day of trekking with no shoes. Then it started to rain and we all began to slip and slide through on the muddy trail. The no shoe option might have been better at this point.

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Lovely rice terraces

Lovely rice terraces after the rain. Don’t worry, I’m aware that I have a slight obsession with rice fields.

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Temple in the distance as the sun began to set.

Temple in the distance as the sun began to set

Bridge and rice field to lead us to our destination for the night after a 22 kilometer trek.

Bridge and rice field to lead us to our destination for the night after a 22 kilometer trek.

After dinner, despite the large spiders in our homestay, we fell asleep immediately just after the sun set. We still had 2 more days of trekking to go.

Beyond Yangon

Beyond Yangon

After a day of walking around the bustling streets of Yangon, taking a ferry to the town on the other side of the river seemed like a good option.

It started with the postcard vendor that remembered that Mark and I were from Spain, as we’d told him the day before. Turns out he knew some Spanish. Lesson – don’t lie about where you’re from to touts, they’ll outsmart you.

When we headed to the ferry, we met up again with Jennifer and met her friend Elizabeth. They said they would take us on a trishaw tour on the other side of the river in Dalah.

This is what is was like on the ferry on the way over:

We disembarked the crowded ferry and then were taken to our trishaw drivers. It was a bit chaotic:

Amongst all the people, vehicles, noise, and chaos, the cow just sat there quietly.

Look at the engine. Actually, look at the whole thing. What is it?

More peaceful cows, just hanging out in the road with vehicles whizzing by.

I was glad to be exiting the traffic and getting out of city and more into a small town atmosphere.

Mark and our guide Elizabeth in their trishaw.

I loved the color scheme of this temple. The bright blue sky didn’t hurt either.

Elizabeth and Jennifer at the first temple

This golden embalmed monk supposedly opened one eye posthumously.


There is a pilgrimage site called Mt. Kyaiktiyo in Myanmar that has a golden rock that looks like this.

This used to be a marketplace. Elizabeth told us cyclone Nargis made everything broken.

Thanaka root for sale. This is the root that makes the paste that people wear on their faces.

A reservoir where the people go to get their water.

Water buffalo and egret

Chicken anyone?

Lovely ladies in their longyi

Lunch with our guides and trishaw drivers. The guy with the surprised expression on his face had never eaten in a restaurant before. Glad we shared his first restaurant experience with him.

Fishing amongst the garbage

A little girl getting water from the reservoir

 

A big buddha makeover

Always sweeping in Asia

Books are treated with reverence

Visiting the local school

Making merit by donating to the monk who helps run the school

Monks robes hanging to dry

Even though Burma is predominantly Buddhist, there is still an occasional mosque here and there.

The end of the trishaw tour

stormy skies ahead for the trip back across the river

Jennifer, Mark and two Elizabeths

Vendor on the ferry back to Yangon

The day felt like a glimpse into the lives of the people of Dalah. It was evident that people lived in poverty. Most likely many people had their homes or livelihood destroyed by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Everyone we met was kind and friendly. This goes to show that not government, poverty, nor natural disasters can break the human spirit.

Smiling in spite of hardships – this exemplifies the people of Burma

First Impressions in Yangon

First Impressions in Yangon

Travel bans in Burma, which have been on and off since the at least the early 1990s, have eased. This has opened the country to travelers, and there has been a boom of tourism in the past year. This means prices of accommodation are often triple what they were even a year ago. We found that places to stay listed in the guidebook from December 2011 had at least doubled, yet the quality had not. It is clearly not the cheapest country to travel in, especially in SE Asia, but it is fascinating.

It is also not the easiest country to travel in. First of all, you cannot use credit cards, or travellers cheques, and there are no ATMs for any foreign account. Not only that, you need to bring clean, crisp $100 bills, post year 2006, if they are torn or bent, they will be worthless in Burma. Essentially, this means you need to arrive in Burma with all the cash that you hope you’ll need and carry it around with you. Good thing theft didn’t seem to be much of an issue there. Careful planning prior to travel is required.

Mark, my colleague from Panyaden School, and I read up a lot, met and planned our itinerary, got our visas (obtaining a visa is fairly simple from Thailand), and generally got ourselves sorted before going. We met up in Bangkok and took our quick Air Asia flight to Yangon.

Mark looking stern on our bus from the airport to our guesthouse.

On a busy street in the center of Yangon a man reading the paper next to his goat, naturally.

This photo was taken close to Motherland 2 Guesthouse – a busy and basic guesthouse that cost $30 a night. It was similar in quality to something you would pay 200 baht (about $6.50) for in the center of the Old City in Chiang Mai.

A trishaw driver in Yangon. Roads were rather bumpy just about everywhere.

Apart from money, internet is slow and isn’t everywhere as there is only a small percentage of the country online. This meant it was a facebook-free, and almost internet free holiday, aside from a few e-mails sent from slow internet cafes. Very few people have cell phones. Yes, it definitely felt like going back in time.

After a midmorning breakfast, Mark and I set out walking in Yangon. Here were some things we saw:

Family, democracy, and life preservers in Yangon

Neatly organized rusty tool parts

Just a typical street scene in Yangon

One immediate difference between Burma and Thailand are that the men all wear longyi. A longyi is a piece of fabric sewn together in a tube shape and then wrapped around the waist. It is worn in the same way women wear sarongs, but the men’s fabric tends to be checked patterns, while women’s is often a floral motif.

Mark buying his first, but not last, longyi

Another obvious difference is that many people, especially women, wear what looks like a light yellow powder on their faces. This is called thanakha, and is actually a paste from bark. People wear it to help cool the skin, as sunblock, and also as a form of beauty.

A boy wearing thanakha

Though the country is predominantly Buddhist, several other religions are present: Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and we even saw Jewish temple.

Detail from a Hindu temple in Yangon

Since Burma has basically been cut off from the modern world, a refreshing change is not seeing any corporate logos, fast food chains, or chain stores of any kind. There are no McDonalds, no KFCs, no Starbucks, but the most marked difference in the urban landscape of Thailand and Burma is no 7-elevens.

This is how ‘corporate’ logos appear in Burma: Asahi (which is a Japanese beer) with no mention picture of beer, but oddly a Lacoste alligator.

Electrical engineering Yangon style

Thanakha faced Burmese children.

While the stunning photos of golden temples in verdant rice fields piqued my interest in wanting to travel to Burma when I was in my 20s, Mark had wanted to come Burma since childhood for one reason much closer to him – his people. Mark’s last name is Burman.

It was a big moment when Mark found the photocopied book of ‘his people’ – the Burmans.

Herbs and spices anyone?

A few touts asked us to buy postcards, or take tours, but they weren’t overly aggressive. To avoid them we tried speaking Spanish. Amazingly, they could say a few words back in Spanish. When we switched to Thai, no one ever understood us.

While we were on our improvised walking tour, initially I was alarmed because I thought I saw a blood stain on the sidewalk, followed by several more. I was relieved to realize it wasn’t blood, but rather the red juice that comes from chewing betel nut. Lots of people chew it and spit out red liquid. It also turns the mouth and teeth red. Although I considered it, I couldn’t bring myself to try it.

Betel nut prepped and ready to chew

A girl we would soon come to know as Jennifer with thanakha cheeks and betel nut stained teeth

After all our walking around in the heat of the day, and the chaos that is Yangon, Mark and I decided to duck in to the famous colonial Strand Hotel. With rooms starting at $500 USD a night, we obviously couldn’t afford to stay there, but were happy to have a margarita for $7 in a classic hotel. We planned to return for the 1/2 off happy hour on our last night in Burma.

The Stand Hotel – exorbitantly priced rooms, great colonial bar for happy hour.

After our drink in the luxurious air conditioned Strand, it was back to the real Yangon by strolling through a local market:

not hugely different from a local Thai market…

…though I have no idea what that is.

A different kind of flower offering

Mark’s Thai language is close to fluent. My Thai is still fairly simple words and sentences, but we both feel it’s important to try to learn at least little of the language of any country you visit. We learned and immediately used a few Burmese words – Mingalaba - hello, Jesubay – thank you. Burmese is nothing like Thai, so we had no base. One funny thing I read was to get someone’s attention Burmese people make a kissing sound. While trying to hail a cab without much success, Mark tried the kissing sound and a cab pulled right over. Cultural assimilation at its finest.

We took that cab to the Shwedagon temple, which was the main attraction for Mark and me in Yangon. It is so big, it gets its own post. So, I will fast forward to several hours later…

I don’t think there is such thing as a small meal in Burma. For our first Burmese dinner we ate at a popular restaurant called Feel Myanmar. We pointed to order a variety of somewhat unfamiliar looking dishes and this is part of what we got…

Dinner at Feel Myanmar

Myanmar beer. Good and strong.

To top off our full day, this was our cab ride home. Are most taxis in Burma like this? No, they are not.

Our super cool taxi

We split a second Myanmar beer back at Motherland 2 Guesthouse while our young, mellifluous waiter serenaded us with Justin Bieber songs. These sweet melodies acted as an untraditional lullaby to end our first day in a land called Burma.