Scratching the Surface of Yangon

The city. Always my least favourite leg of the trip. Everything about it defies my idea of “getting away” because I live in a city. But of course, foreign cities are always different.

Let us reminisce here a bit… Remember our lovely accommodation at Ngapali beach? Well we decided to cut back that indulgence, and booked a budget room at Thamada Family Hotel in Yangon.

We nicknamed the scary washroom the Saw toilet because it looked like a perfect location for a sick Saw game.

The hotel’s lobby already looked dodgy as hell, and we made the mistake of not viewing the room before paying for the night. The worse part was the staircase that smelled like pee. The place looks like an old person’s home, and everything in it felt icky — even though the towels and sheets were clean.

We enquired about a day trip to the Golden Rock at the reception, and found out that the bus journey took an entire night, and the other option, private cars, cost about 150,000k (USD153). Plus, the hotels at the top of the hill there are costly too. So we decided to skip the whole thing, leaving us with too much time in Yangon.

Visiting cities as tourists is often just a series of mediocre stops to me. (That’s why I procrastinated over writing this post for months.) So here’s a quick low-down on the tourist things what we did in Yangon.

Vista rooftop bar Yangon
Went to Vista rooftop bar to enjoy a nice city view while sipping crappy drinks.
Shwedagon Pagoda from Vista rooftop bar
The view of Shwedagon Pagoda just before sunset.
 Shwedagon Pagoda at night
Incandescent against a city where electricity is rare.

Breakfast the next morning at Lucky Seven. It was peculiar how it looked like an authentic Hong Kong char chan teng. And the food was extremely good and unbelievably cheap.

Lucky Seven Yangon
Noodle salad with chicken
Lucky Seven Yangon
Mohinga. Not a big fan of this, but Priya loved it.
Lucky Seven Yangon
Fresh milk noodle

We had all of that, including a drink each, and it added up to a whopping 4,000k (USD4)!!! It was seriously one of the best meals we’ve had the whole trip. Kudos to the Lonely Planet guidebook for recommending this place!

Buddhist monks Yangon
Buddhist monks accepting donations from the locals during their alms rounds.
Strand Hotel Yangon
Made our way on foot through the sign-less streets towards the very posh Strand Hotel.
Strand Hotel Yangon
Cooled down with overpriced fresh juice and a fruit platter at its cafe, and enjoyed the free wifi while admiring the colonial-style interiors.

Since we’re spoilt princesses who cannot take Thamada’s gritty appeal, we decided to forgo the night (even though we’ve paid) and check into Myanmar Life Hotel instead.

Myanmar Life Hotel Yangon
The hotel’s neither cheap nor convenient, but we chose it because it has this wonderful pool that’s perfect for whiling away the unbearably hot afternoons.
Yangon local food
Lunched at a restaurant near the hotel, and had fried rice, watercress, tom yum soup, hot plate tofu, and basil because we are such fatties. The meal added up to 20,000K (USD20).

Then we headed back to the hotel to bask in its comfort and hid from the scorching afternoon sun before heading out for an adventurous night. We’ve booked a night cycling tour with Bike World (it’s a hostel too) for 15,000K (USD15) each.

We set off from Bike World’s hostel on our awesome city bikes, and joined forces with a huge group of expat and local cyclists at another bike shop in the middle of town. I think there were 60 bikes in all.

Bike World Yangon night cycle
Dykes on bikes part 2!
Bike World Yangon night cycle
A local TV crew was tagging along to cover the cycling tour.
Bike World Yangon night cycle
We spotted some cyclists with serious-looking biking gear and got intimidated because we were expecting a leisurely cycle through the city.

And we were right to be afraid…

As soon as the “tour” commenced, everyone sped off. It was an exhilarating challenge trying to figure out the gears, cycling as fast as I can go (up some painful slopes), watching out for the traffic, and trying not to lag behind. Soon the group split into two, with Ade and I trailing the group that was ahead. The local guides were of a big help as they watched out for us and stopped on coming traffic at busy junctions. So I simply rode with a tunnel vision, willing my thighs and catching my breath as I cycled for my life. The thought of lagging further behind and left stranded in the middle of the road was enough to make me go faster.

The only sightseeing I managed to do was during a break, as the only thing I saw while cycling was the tarmac in front of me.

Shwedagon Pagoda
The Shwedagon Pagoda again. Picture taken with shaky hands while barely standing on my wobbly legs.
Bike World Yangon night cycle
Yes, yes… I’m famous.
Jeff Bike World Yangon night cycle
Gross and sweaty after the 2-hour cycle led by Jeff.

Next evening, we paid Yangon’s most important attraction a visit.

Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon
The Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s hard to imagine its scale from pictures… It’s MASSIVE!

It’s pretty amazing to stand at the foot of this ancient structure and admire its grandeur, but part of it was taken away by the swarms of tourists buzzing around.

And the entire place is gilded in gold!

I still feel it’s inappropriate to have a place so unnecessarily decadent  when most of the population is in deep poverty. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. In my (perhaps ignorant) eyes, wealth is extremely misplaced here.

And we’re finally down to our last meal in Myanmar. So I decided to make it extra special with…

Myanmar fried grasshoppers
Fried grasshoppers!
Eating grasshoppers in Myanmar
It didn’t taste nasty. More gritty than gross.

But the rest of the dishes at on 19th street in Chinatown was pretty tame.

19th street Yangon Chinatown
Skewered BBQ snacks and local beers to end it all off!

What an amazing trip it has been, with lakes, mountains, ancient pagodas, dessert lands, beaches, and great food. I left Myanmar feeling like I barely scratched the surface because there’s so much more to explore, and I should really make it a point to return before it turns into another tourist hub.

Bumming on Ngapali Beach

Ngapali beach
The wonderfully empty Ngapali beach.

The road from Bagan to Napali was rough. And foreign. The last time I’ve felt like such a vulnerable outsider on a holiday was in Liverpool, when we were lost (and looking very lost), and a group of skinheads made eye contact with us and began approaching. To our relief, they just wanted to help us find our way. But I was scared as hell as I thought they were going to beat us up.

So. Flights from Bagan to Ngapali (Thandwe airport) don’t run on a daily schedule, and we had to transit in Yangon. Lyn (our Mt Popa guide) gave us some rough directions, and we were confident that we’d find a direct bus from Yangon to Ngapali beach easily.

Boy, were we so very wrong.

In Yangon, we once again found ourselves unloaded off the bus during chilly pre-dawn hours, right into a swarm of hungry taxi drivers. The only direct bus to Ngapali from the nearby bus station departs at 2pm, and we wanted to avoid potentially wasting the entire day. Furthermore, we booked a pricey room at the beach for that day, and was pressured to arrive as early as possible in order to make the most of it.

We were passed on from one confused non-English speaking cab driver to the next before we finally got into a cab that will take us to the Hlaingthaya bus station that Lyn suggested. The sun hasn’t risen, and most of the roads were in complete darkness. A thick fog has also started to settle. (Seriously, this country has threw us more unexpected weather conditions than we can ever hoped for.) We spent the long drive digging our fingernails into the back seat as the driver speed through the darkness and made sharp turns that were only visible to us 1 second before he made the turn.

He tried to tell us a couple of times that the bus station we’re heading to didn’t have a bus to Ngapali. But we were sceptical about being scammed, and insisted that he take us there. When we arrived, he pulled into a crowded square, and random people who were walking beside the cab started sticking their heads into the car to speak to the driver in brisk Burmese while throwing us cold stares. We, on the other hand, were nervously whispering to each other: “Why so dodgy one!!!” After sitting through such a nerve-wrecking ride, we were completely despondent to find out that there really is no bus to Ngapali. Then the taxi broke down. What more could go wrong?!

There were only a handful of backpackers spotted at this bus terminal, and most of it was very rough. It’s miles away from the touristy areas, so it was quite fascinating to sit in the broken down cab while the driver tried to get us another car, and observe the hustle and bustle in a part of Yangon that most people don’t see.

Yangon bus terminal
Stuck in a foggy, unfamiliar land.

During that agonising wait, we decided to take a risk and head to the airport instead. Finally, Yangon Airways comes to our expensive rescue with a USD104, 3-hour flight to Thandwe (Ngapali’s airport), and our holiday is back on track!

Thandwe airport Ngapali beach Myanmar
We finally made it to Thandwe airport, bitches!

We were greeted with a lovely surprise at the airport. We found a staff from Diamond Ngapali Hotel already waiting to pick us up, even when we hadn’t told them about our arrival details. Hooray for luxury hospitality.

The short drive towards the hotel was very revealing of the effects of tourism on this sleepy town. As the development is still in its infancy (they’re still in the process of building tarmacked roads), it’s jarring to see huge resorts standing just across the street from village slums.

As our hotel was last in the long line of beach front resorts, it stood right next to a kampung-like area made up of raised huts and farm animals. Yup, there was a large pig lying under a tree about five steps away from the entrance of our USD106/night resort. It really sets you thinking about how many locals they’ve forcefully evicted so that they could create an experience that people like us would pay for.

Diamond Ngapali Hotel
The cute little reception area hut.
Diamond Ngapali Hotel room
Immediately changed into our bikinis after checking in to our nice, clean, and large room. The extra mattress provided was terrible though.
Diamond Ngapali Hotel chalet
Got a hut all to ourselves.
Diamond Ngapali Hotel sea view
Got upgraded to a sea view unit since the one we’ve reserved wasn’t ready.
Diamond Ngapali Hotel pool
After our rough journey, Diamond Ngapali Hotel’s empty pool was exceptionally welcoming.

There was just 1 thing that was amiss in this paradise. The entire area reeked of fish! It was a thick, stifling blanket of a stench. The local fishermen were drying their catch on the beach next to our hotel, and the smell was the result of millions of small fish strewn across large nets. I won’t sugar coat it and say that it was nice to be able to experience this aspect of the local culture. It smelled terrible.

But it was worth it because right on the same beach is this magnificent view…

Ngapali beach panorama

You don’t find the bluest waters or the whitest sands on Ngapali beach, but its biggest draw has got to be how untouched it is. There are only a handful of tourists here (mostly retired Caucasian couples), and you can get miles and miles of empty beaches to yourself.

This place is on the cusp of being developed into a tourist spot, and I’m glad I got to witness its serene beauty before the deluge of tourists. (Such a travel snob, I know.)

Ngapali beach village
The kampung village right behind our resort.
Ngapali beach village dirt road
The soon-to-be-tarmacked main road.

Took a stroll down the beach, and marvelled at the unpolluted village life. Saw the local fishermen fussing with their smelly fish, kids running around collecting shells, a young couple watching the sunset on their motorbike, dogs frolicking on the sand, and sprinkles of tourists walking unobtrusively through all this. Wonder how much will change in 5 years.

Ngapali beach village kids
The kids trying to imitate the hand signs tattooed on Ade’s pelvis.
Ngapali beach Myanmar sunset
We can never tire of Myanmar’s sunsets.

After a tranquil stroll on the beach, Ade and I (Priya was down with a terrible case of food poisoning) cycled to Best One for dinner.

The food was impressive. Fresh, tasty, and all round satisfying. We had lobster, squid, and fried rice for only 28,000k (USD29)! And the cycle back felt great too. There’s something extremely therapeutic about cycling through enveloping darkness and silence.

Day 2

Ngapali beach view
Good, splendid, beautiful, wonderful morning to you Ngapali beach!

Snorkelling was up first. We booked a boat which will carry us and the local guide for 4 hours to a few snorkelling sites. All for a wonderful price of 25,000k (USD 26) in all. The waters were mediocre, and so were the marine life. But it was still nice to be out in the open waters with the sun on our backs.

Ngapali beach
Private beaches that don’t come with premium charges.
Ngapali beach massage
Having a massage with the sound of waves in the background was complete bliss. Did a 1-hour oil massage session for 7000k (USD7).
Ngapali Beach
The view at lunch.

We enjoyed ourselves a little too much. The holiday mood was in full swing as we had the breeze in our hair, our toes in the sand, and the ocean in front of us as we lunched, causing us to gobble down more than what our stomachs were made for. The hearty meal, along with 2 cocktails, cost 25,000k (USD26).

We also indulged in free time, reading on beach chairs to while away the afternoon and evening, and admiring yet another gorgeous sunset at dusk.

Ngapali Beach sunset
It’s a lovely pink-red one tonight.

As we were still stuffed to our throats with lunch, dinner was a casual affair at the Pleasant View Islet restaurant. What’s cute is that it’s perched on a small island nearby that’s only accessible on foot during low tide. It seems like the entire beach descended on this romantic location, and it was funny how out of place we looked. Every one else was 1) white 2) middle aged 3) with a romantic partner.

And that’s all for Ngapali beach! After my experience here, I’ve learnt to really appreciate the peace and quiet of non-touristy spots. I’m encouraged to believe that hard to get to places are worth the extra trouble, and I’m more encouraged than ever to avoid popular travel destinations.

Although I did feel a bit of a pinch when we had to fork out almost USD200 for the flight to and fro from Yangon to Ngapali…

Ngapali Beach flight
On the flight back to Yangon (again -_-), all of admitted to have gotten really sick of flying already as this will be our 3rd flight in a week.

Mount Popa and more of Bagan

With three full days to spend in Bagan, we needed a day trip out of the area to break up the monotony of temple hopping. So we booked a driver and a guide with the hotel that we were staying at to take us to Mount Popa, for a total of 70,000k (USD73).

During the drowsy late morning car ride towards the site, Lyn our guide dished out trivia about Myanmar in pretty good English, while the taciturn driver simply looked straight ahead and drove with an unshakable concentration. Lyn told us how he rides on the top of an overcrowded truck for three hours every day to get home: “Very dangerous. Ha ha.” And we just can’t help but love the Burmese’s laidback attitude.

He also mentioned how Bagan’s tourism only lasts for about 6 months every year during the dry season, and ceases as tourists avoid the area during the wet months. We also quizzed him about the lack of electricity in Myanmar, and he told us frankly how he thinks it’s ridiculous how the government continues selling electricity to China and proclaims publicly that most homes do have access to it. I still find it unbelievable that something as basic as electricity is only accessible to 30% of the population, as reported by the the International Business Times.

Anyway, we soon arrived at our first stop, a made-for-tourist village where they showcased how the locals lived off palm trees. They made use of every inch of it — leaves for thatched roofs, trunks for pillars, and palm sugar for candy and toddy (potent alcohol).

Mt Popa day trip ox
Made friends with this ox, and this was taken a few seconds after it tried to lick my face.
Mount Popa Myanmar
A glimpse of Mount Popa at last!

After disembarking at the foot of Mount Popa, Lyn led us into a Nat shrine. Nats are spirits that some Burmese worship, and each character came with an elaborate tale that Lyn proceeded to explain in great detail to Ade and Priya while I wandered around to take photos.

And then we began scaling the 777 steps up towards Taung Kalat, the Buddhist monastery that sits at Mount Popa’s peak. We were very pleasantly surprised that the entire way up is sheltered, making the journey way easier than we anticipated.

Mt Popa pilgrims
Pilgrims descending a crazy steep flight of steps.
Mt Popa views
Sweeping views of the surroundings.
Mt Popa monkeys
The guide books totally made too much of a big deal out of the monkeys. Look how chill they are!
Mt Popa
Perched on the edge.
Mt Popa view Myanmar
More amazing views from the monastery.
Mt Popa Bagan
The descent to earthliness.

We were back on ground level just in time for lunch, and we asked Lyn to recommend a place where the Burmese would eat. So we made the winding way back down the mountain, and made a stop halfway down at a little village market.

Mt Popa Bagan day trip

And I just love the colours of local markets…

Then we ate at a place called Yangon Restaurant, which is a short drive away from the village. It’s run by an elegant lady boss, and we had a local feast.

Mt Popa Yangon Restaurant
Fish curry with peanut salad, pumpkin, and spicy and sour soup.

The heat has sapped away most of our consciousness by the time we arrived back at the hotel, and we drowsily picked up our backpacks and headed to our next hotel. We wanted to try staying in the Nyaung-U region of Bagan since many forums and sites recommend it, so we decided to spend our last night in Bagan at Hotel Blazing (USD80/night for a 3-bedder).

It was 2pm by the time we settled into the new room, and the prospect of heading out into the merciless sun paralysed all of us. So we just stayed in to watch some mindless TV and enjoyed the room, which was far cleaner and nicer smelling than the last one.

When the heat abated, we ventured out and realised that the hotel’s just a walking distance from a whole stretch of restaurants. So we popped into one that had local beers with a local view, before heading off on bicycles to do more sightseeing.

Mandalay and Dagon beers
Mandalay and Dagon beers to cool us down.
Bagan sunset Shwezigon pagoda
Time again for Bagan’s celestial golden sunset… this time at the Shwezigon pagoda.

Without throngs of tourists circling the pagoda, I had the privilege of soaking up the shimmering splendour in its full glory. With just a few locals milling about and a few of them meditating around the temple grounds, it was really quite a lovely scene. I felt like a fly on the wall, trying to observe the country’s sacred beauty with as much respect as I can muster.

Hungry for a different view of the sunset, we were drawn to The Beach Bagan Restaurant & Bar. The entrance is tucked away in a very quiet street away from the hustle and bustle of Old Bagan, and we had to walk past abandoned houses and cars before reaching the eerily quiet restaurant.

The Beach Bagan Restaurant & Bar Bagan
The decrepit but still charming (and mosquito-filled) entrance walkway.

Well, it was worth it because the restaurant was perched on the banks of the dry river bed, giving us a panoramic view of yet another spectacular sunset.

Beach Bagan Restaurant & Bar sunset view

After the sun set, we made the dark journey back towards our hotel, had a quick dinner at a very mediocre restaurant, and was in bed by 9pm. Scenic walks, siestas, sunset watching, and early nights… Yes, we’re old folks like that.

The next morning, we had really bad luck with the electric bikes that the hotel rented us, which resulted in poor Adeline making multiple trips back to the hotel as 2 of the bicycles ran out of battery too quickly. The kicker was when we settled the battery problem, and the tyres of both the new bikes busted while we were navigating the rocky dirt paths of Old Bagan’s temple grounds. So for half of the way back, we had to control our bikes so painfully slowly as it fishtailed in the sand, while getting our asses assaulted simultaneously by the bumpy road.

But here are some really lovely pictures of that shitty afternoon to make us forget about the incident.

Bagan dirt roads
Riding around Bagan really felt like a reenactment of Indiana Jones.
Ancient Bagan Myanmar
Bagan is just magical.

We go back to Yangon next (where another surprise awaits), before hopping over to Ngapali Beach!

Ngapali Beach

Enchanting Bagan

We got unloaded onto Bagan at an ungodly time of 4am, right smack into a desperate swarm of taxi drivers. Sleepy eyed and freezing (yes we were once again under-dressed for the early morning 15°C chill), we found our groggy way through the throng of aggressive touts to collect our backpacks, and shuffled away from the chaos towards a closed shop front to gather our wits.

Armed with a dog-eared piece of paper that only listed our potential accommodations, and not reservations, our only option seemed to be to wait till the hotels opened. After rejecting a series of “where you go?”, “new bagan? old bangan?”, and “hotel reservation?”, we were finally persuaded by a kindly young chap to consider his offer. Zayzay was his name, and he proposed that since we had no reservations as yet, he could take us on a horse cart to a tea house for breakfast, and then to a pagoda to catch the sunrise view. We accepted it, and were soon piled onto a cosy cart pulled by a big bottomed lady horse named Marsut.

We traversed through the dark, silent streets towards the tea house, with nothing around us but the occasional street light and Marsut’s consistent clop clop clop. The shuttered shops that flanked the empty roads were still shrouded in the morning mist, and I half expected to see the silhouette of a cowboy form in the distance, with his head bowed low and his hand by his side, ready to draw his pistol.

After the forgettable breakfast, Marsut pulled off the tarmac and led us into the pitch black grounds of ancient Bagan. Dramatic scenes of robbery went through my head at this point, as Zayzay our carriage rider could have easily led us into a gang of hoodlums to ambush us since there wasn’t a soul in sight. But the surreal situation we found ourselves in transcended further thoughts of any potential danger. It was a spellbinding experience, getting pulled by an age-old mode of transport, passing shadowy figures of the pagodas, and enveloped in the stark silence under a night sky sprinkled with stars.

Bagan before sunrise
We had to climb this steep flight of stairs in darkness to get to the viewing spot.

And here’s the magic that we witnessed… I bet even Indiana Jones would be jealous.

Bagan waiting for sunrise

Bagan sunrise

Bagan sunrise

Ancient Bagan sunrise

It has gotten quite bright at this point, and there were many doubtful remarks of “that’s it?” amongst the tourists. We soon spotted a few hot air balloons in the distance only just beginning to rise, and thought that they completely missed the gorgeous sunrise view.

Bagan hot air balloons

Bagan Myanmar sunrise
Then the main character appeared.

Breathtaking in every sense, the little yolk chased away the greyness of the surrounding plains, revealing the land’s jaw dropping extensiveness. It stretched out into the horizon in all directions, and the tips of hundreds of tapered stupas started to take shape as the day broke. I’ve never seen anything like that, and fell in love with the whole romanticism of this time-worn site.

Bagan hot air balloon sunrise
It costs approximately SGD500 to sway in that little basket, and we were way too poor to afford it.
Bagan sunrise
By now, you can already predict how angry the afternoon sun is going to be.

Things looked just as beautiful on ground level…

Bagan sunrise

Bagan sunrise
The pagoda which we admired the sunrise from.
Bagan horse carriage
And so begins our hunt for a place to stay for the night…

Now, one thing about winging your holiday as you go is the risk of “wasting time”. Marsut had to toil hard that morning to bring us to about 3 places before we found a suitable accommodation, but we did have a lovely sightseeing tour of both old and new Bagan during the search.

Bagan monks
Someone buy my print already.
Bagan accommodation Umbra Hotel
After a 23000K (USD24) horse ride, we settled on Bagan Umbra Hotel for its USD70/night room.

It was still only around 9am after we checked into our room (with a stinky toilet), so we headed out right away to make most the day before the blistering afternoon heat bogs us down. With our free tour guide (aka Ade), a 1000k (USD1) map, and a 8000k (USD8) geriatric electric bicycle each, we sped at the speed of light to one of the 2,000 temples that dot the vicinity.

Htilominlo temple Bagan
Htilominlo temple, which was built around 1211.
Bagan electric bicycles
Scooting around in the arid desert-like landscape.
Bagan local food
Lunch at a joint recommended by a random local! They had no menus, and this was their omakase meal.

It was also our first taste of a typical Burmese meal, especially of this area. Our lunch at “Golden Myanmar Myanmar Food” came in tasting-sized portions of grilled fish, chicken, veggies, pumpkin, different types of sauces and chillies, and curry (pork, chicken, and mutton). Some of it was greasy, some pretty acquired, but it was a grand experience all in all. And it only set us back 13,500k (USD14) all together.

At this point I found myself a little bit bored with the monotony of the temples, so I will also do away with identifying some of the less significant spots. Just riding amongst the pagodas was a wonderful experience in itself. To an uncultured derp like me, it really doesn’t matter which are the “important” temples because honestly, they all look the same after you’ve seen 2. But there’s no denying that all of them are gorgeous.

So here are more chio pictures of us frolicking around.

Tourists at ancient Bagan in Myanmar
One for the album.

In this dry heat, covering up is the best solution. Since you hardly sweat, long sleeves and pants are really comfortable as they save your skin from sizzling.

Bagan evening sun
After a siesta, we headed out again to admire Bagan’s sublime evening.

Bagan Golden Palace was a tourist site that we weren’t too keen on; and since it had a USD5 entrance fee, we sent Ade, the best photographer amongst the three of us, in to survey the grounds. And these are her shots:

Ayeyarwaddy river sunset
Made a quick stop at the Ayeyarwaddy river for a glimpse of the sunset.
Shwesandaw Pagoda Bagan
Shwesandaw Pagoda, THE temple to watch the sunset.
Sunset viewing at a random pagoda in Bagan
We skipped that spot and headed to a random pagoda for the sunset instead, but the view of the flocks of tourists perched on Shwesandaw was far more amusing. Our private little stupa was way better.
Bagan sunset
The unexciting sunrise. We’ve truly been spoilt by the one we saw at Inle Lake.

For dinner we headed to an oddly named restaurant recommended by our Lonely Planet guidebook. It’s called Be Kind to Animals, and it serves Indian and Mexican-ish type dishes. We had zatziki with popadum, chapati wrap with vegetables, tamarind curry, and a gaspatchio (the only thing I didn’t fancy), and the entire meal only cost 14,900k (USD16).

Then we rode back in the dark (the lack of electricity in this country is downright incredulous), and turned in super early.

Next morning, we scale Mount Popa just so we could mock other tourists’ photogenic poses.

Mt Popa

Into Inle Lake

When the morning alarm went off, I crept out of bed and slipped out to our small balcony, hoping to see a sunrise that was as magnificent as the sunset the night before. The sun was no where in sight, and the sky was just a mass of dull shades. But before I could register my demise, the sharp chill hit me, and I had to run back in to announce, “OMG guys it’s fucking cold.” It is of utmost necessity that I make a big deal out of the cold weather because I’m Singaporean, and anything below 25°C is something to shout about. It was 15°C that morning, and we were just so bemused because we didn’t do our research at all, and was expecting a hot and humid climate throughout Myanmar.

After a lavish breakfast of eggs, toast, a platter of mixed fruits, and tea served by the scurrying girls that run Hotel Brilliant, we were lead into the mini van that would  take us to the edge of Inle lake to begin our boat tour. The open-air ride through the foggy morning made us shudder, and overhearing the other American passengers pronounce the names of Burmese cities with their overtly American accent made us snigger.

Inle Lake Myanmar
The rather ignoble jetty.

We got a longtail boat to ourselves, as did the rest of the tourists, and we only forked out 20,000k (USD20) in all for ours. The tour package also came with a dashing captain, who would be our tour guide for the day.

Inle Lake Myanmar
Towards Inle Lake!

Our handsome and skilful captain navigated us out of the tight artery, and we soon made it out onto a wider stream and into the arms of mother nature.

Inle Lake Myanmar
Amongst a flock of seagulls.
Inle Lake Myanmar
Occupying a pole each.
Inle Lake Myanmar
The fuzzy blankets saved our frigid asses.

It took us about an hour to reach the mouth of the lake, and we were soon greeted with a sight that we’ve seen a hundred times while researching on Inle Lake.

Inle Lake fishermen
The famous fishermen of Inle Lake.

They rowed the boat by wrapping one leg around the paddle, and waded the pole around like it was part of their body. The action made them look like hobbling captain hooks though. Found a video that depicts exactly how they do it:

Inle Lake Myanmar
Misty mountains in the backdrop of the serene lake.

The lake stretched out for miles in all directions, and if you drifted off into a reverie, you would’ve thought that you were out in the open sea. Despite Inle Lake’s reputation for being overcrowded with tourists, we still felt like we were the only ones on the waters sometimes because the lake was large enough to give every tourist a genuine sense of tranquillity. Without tourists walking into the frame every few seconds, capturing gorgeous photos was pretty easy here.

Inle Lake Myanmar fisherman
A private moment in this tourist spot.
Inle Lake Myanmar
One of the locals heading off with his seaweed harvest.

We then came alongside some floating tomato gardens (not in season though), and our handsome boatman tried to charm us into stepping onto the floating vegetation to no avail. One reason we decided to stay put is because the moment he set foot on it, something like 50 mosquitoes arose and started buzzing around in search for their newest victim.

Inle Lake floating villages
Floating towards the floating villages.
Inle Lake Myanmar floating village
Waterfront residences, bitches!

The first obligatory tourist stop was a silversmith showroom. We listened patiently to their sales pitch, and then completely bypassed the phony showcase and headed straight for…

Inle Lake long neck women
I felt extremely uncomfortable witnessing this set up, where a couple of long neck tribal women were displayed like animals in front of a bunch of photo-hungry tourists.

Tourist stop number 2 is a little place in land called Indein village.

Inle Lake peanut sauce noodles
And then we had the most delicious peanut sauce noodles at the market for 500k (USD0.50).

It was high noon by now, so our boatman led us to our lunch spot at the kelong-style Shwe Yaung Inn for a seafood meal.

Shwe Yaung Inn lunch

Everything tasted really fresh, especially the simply-made yet succulent grilled fish. The stir fried watercress and soya bean paste chicken didn’t disappoint either.

After lunch, we decided to skip all the other stops as they were all tourist-catered workshops which we had zero interest in, and asked our captain to cut short the tour and send us back. The afternoon heat was getting quite unbearable, so imagine our relief when our captain presented each of us a large umbrella to hide under. In this scorching dry climate, outfits that cover up as much skin as you can really proves to be the most effective and comfortable. Lulled by the gentle sways of the boat, I fell into deep sleep in no time under the drowsy heat, waking only halfway through the journey back to take one last glance at the gorgeous lake.

The day before, when we had just arrived at Inle Lake, we too hurriedly booked a night bus to Bagan for today and regretted immediately after seeing the gorgeous sunset at the winery. But it was too late to change plans as the efficient staff of Hotel Brilliant had already booked the seats. If I could edit the trip, I’d definitely spend another day or two at Inle Lake to either do the Kalaw trek or just cycle around the many other villages dotted around the lake.

But oh well. We had to pack up and jump aboard the 9-hour overnight bus towards Bagan, which we each paid 13,000k (USD14) for. I’ve always loved bus rides, but this one was blasting country music and Celine Dion. But even with that, I managed to be lulled into a good night’s sleep.

Inle Lake to Bagan coach
The night bus to Bagan was not too shabby at all!

Next, magical Bagan.

Bagan sunrise

An Introduction to Myanmar

Going without a plan wasn’t part of the plan. For months we egged each other on to do more research, only to be set back by the lack of — and outdated — information available online, especially for the bus schedules. Even the official flight schedules were hard to make sense of, so we soon gave up and decided to just arm ourselves with a very rough idea of the places we wanted to visit and a list potential accommodations, and wing the rest of it. It was all very exciting because being Asians, we feel safe when there are plans to follow. Without any direction, I was expecting to waste time and money. But nothing prepared us for the heightened sense of adventure that not making plans could bring.

I was elated to travel with my best girlfriends Priya and Adeline again, who are the easiest people to make travel plans with. We allocated 10 days for four places: Inle Lake, Bagan, Ngapali Beach, and Yangon. We had to fly to the capital first, and our SGD150 return flight by budget airline Jetstar served us well. We landed early in the morning, and planned to hop on to a domestic flight to Heho (Inle Lake) via Air Mandalay which Adeline had reserved through email. But the Air Mandalay booth was empty when we arrived… So begins our unpredictable journey.

There wasn’t an overall flight schedule that we could refer to, so amidst the chaos in the domestic terminal, we had to go to each airline’s booth to ask for the next available flight time, and its price. It was a great relief to find out that all the staff spoke immaculate English. In fact, I was very impressed by their crisp and accurate diction.

So we got managed to secure a flight for USD92 (+ 1000k airport tax) each to Heho with Myanma Airways in the end, and I was very amused that they didn’t rely on a computer to do their bookings. Everything was done manually, and the cash that we handed over for our tickets were stuffed into a laptop bag.

Myanmar travel domestic flight
Domestic flight booking with a pen, paper, and cold hard cash.
Myanmar Inle Lake travel
Propelling on towards Inle Lake!

The plane was the smallest commercial flight I’ve been on, and it smelled funky. But it was a short 1.5h flight, and I was knocked out for most of it. I wasn’t even jolted awake when the plane bumped and bounced onto the Heho airport runway.

Myanmar Inle Lake travel
Loving the warm afternoon sunlight in Heho airport.

Heho airport had two casual immigration counters, and the officer tending it wore slippers. I love this place already. The place has the familiar cool breezes and languid silence synonymous with mountain towns, and I was immediately seduced by its drowsiness.

We chose to stay in Nyaung Shwe, which is away from the lake itself. (We’ve read that it can be quite noisy to stay near it). The cab ride there cost us the standard 25,000k (USD26), including a USD10 tourist fee into the main town, which had a “Take care tourist” campaign signboard opposite the toll booth. The movement surely worked, because everyone we’ve met so far have been genuinely jovial and happy to assist us.

It was also very interesting to survey the arid, dusty landscape during the drive — nothing like the lush tropics I expected.

Our stay for the next couple of days is at the aptly named Hotel Brilliant, where we enjoyed a large, clean room with a large, clean attached bathroom for USD55/night. We didn’t make any reservations, so it was a relief that they had a room for three. But Nyaung Shwe is populated by clusters of hotels, so we could’ve easily searched for another place on foot if this one was fully booked.

Hotel Brilliant is located a short ride from the main town in the quiet village suburbs, and the place was run by a clan of incredibly sweet and polite  young girls. We were so impressed by the place and how smoothly our first unplanned day was running along that we decided to coin this trip #holidaybrilliant.

The lady at the reception told us in fluent English to visit the nearby Red Mountain vineyard to end the day off, and we did a double take — a winery? in Myanmar? What’s going on??? Apparently it was pretty popular. We obviously didn’t research well at all.

So we hopped on the bicycles that the hotel lent us for no charge, and cycled for about half an hour through the surrounding village. A gorgeous cloak of golden sunlight covered the entire place, and for a few hours, the dirt paths and bare fields turned into dusty golden lands.

Myanmar Inle Lake travel

People we passed along the way waved at us politely, flashing us some big smiles as they did so. I was also surprised and delighted by the cool and dry climate of this area.

Myanmar Inle Lake travel
Chasing the sunset.

We sped on, resisting the urge to stop for photos lest we miss the sunset view at the winery. We soon spotted the little house at the top of the hill, surrounded by the estate’s Sauvignon blanc grape vines. It sounds lame to say that the golden sunlight that was cast upon this place was much more magnificent in reality, but it was truly so. Here are some lame photos that don’t justify its glory at all…

And the view that greeted us when we reached the hill top left us completely flabbergasted. It was a scene taken right out of the vineyards of France or Italy, something we did not expect to find in South East Asia at all, let alone rural Myanmar.

Red Mountain Myanmar Inle Lake travel
Potential photo for a Tuscan wine tour brochure.

We took an alfresco seat next to a chill Swedish couple, who told us that we’ve just arrived at their favourite spot in Myanmar. (We’re going to be so spoilt by this amazing first day!) We ordered a sampling set of their red, white, and dessert wines, and snacked on tofu fries while admiring the massive sun descend beyond the never ending mountain range.

Red Mountain Myanmar Inle Lake travel
Sampling wine amidst the mountains that cradled Inle Lake.
Myanmar Inle Lake travel
The magnificent sunset view
Myanmar Inle Lake travel
One of the most memorable twilights of my life.

Most tourists leave before the night falls because the roads leading up to this estate are not lit, but I think it’s way more exciting to stay and then tread your way back in pitch black darkness. With our iPhone torch lighting the way feebly, we managed to cycle slowly back into town, and stepped into a local eatery for dinner. The shack seemed to be the place where the local workers gathered after a long day because the place was filled with men knocking back whiskey and shoving down rice.

The meal cost us 8,000k (USD8) in all including beers, and I really enjoyed the soup noodles even though it wasn’t particularly spectacular. I guess I was just basking in the holiday mood, grateful to be back in nature again, thriving on simple pleasures and being away from it all…

Next stop, a proper visit to Inle Lake.

Inle Lake Myanmar travel

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