Relaxing on Ngwe Saung Beach

I’m sitting here on the veranda of my own bamboo hut with an unobstructed view of the bay of Bengal. I’m reading my seventh book in less than three weeks, the rather appropriately titled ‘ Lonesome Traveler’ by Jack Kerouac, and life is good. I rarely know what day it is or even the date.

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It wasn’t my intention to come to the beach while in Burma – my plan was to go South-East to Bago, The Golden Rock and Moulmein, but things change while you’re on the road and other ideas pop into your head. My decision came after illness and a certain feeling of fatigue that comes with always thinking about where to go next and how to get there, which can be tiring when you’re a first time lone traveller, though I think it’s something that will start to come naturally soon.

I’ve had 4 days on the beach of sleeping, eating, reading (a lot!), and chilling in my hammock drinking green tea which is constantly being topped up by the staff as they walk by. It’s amazing that $22 got me a sewage-smelling hell-hole of a hotel room in Yangon, but $25 gets me my own big bamboo hut on the seafront here in Ngwe Saung.

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All this time to myself has given me space to reflect a little about life, the universe and everything. I realised that I really do need to be working on something all the time so I’m really glad I started this blog. I also realised that a year is quite a long time when it already feels like I’ve been away from home for ages. I wonder how my plans will change over the coming few months… I suspect a lot.

I’m looking forward to the next challenges and adventures, and will soon be in Kuala Lumpur for the transit to Japan. The hunt for the cherry blossoms begins in 5 days!

Practical Information: It costs 8,000 kyat to get from the centre of Yangon to the bus station. The bus to Ngwe Saung leaves at 6.30am and costs around 9,000 or 10,000 kyats. A bamboo hut at Shwe Hin Tha Hotel cost $25 and the motorcycle taxi is 1,000 kyat from Ngwe Saung town to the hotel.

 

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Cycling Around Inle Lake

I’ve just got back from the most wonderfully unexpected day full of surprises. I hired a bicycle with my roommate and we set off initially to some natural hot springs not far away from Nyaungshwe (the town most people stay in for Inle Lake). The lady at the hotel gave us a map, circled some towns and drew a path across the lake and sent us on our way.

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When we imagined the hot springs we imagined some volcanic rocks and a small pool somewhere in the countryside, but when we arrived it turned out to be a spa, complete with mountain views, beautiful gardens and three natural mineral pools with big padded sun loungers.

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When we left the spa a boat driver led us to the lake and as we waited for his brother to bring the boat, two boat loads of locals came by and mobbed us for photos. We were like celebrities again. Crowds of people were grabbing onto our arms and smiling for the camera.

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At the other side of the lake we took a walk down a long bridge that looked like a smaller version of the U-Bein Bridge, and at the end a man from a restaurant the other side of the channel waved at us and told us to come over, so we hopped on a little boat paddled by his son and glided over to the restaurant, where we ordered grilled fish and a mystery menu item called ‘fried water convolvulus’. It was the most delicious meal – huge, tasty and way cheaper than all the other restaurants nearby. Convolvulus turned out to be a little like spinach and they cooked it with garlic and tomatoes.

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The channel between the restaurant and the bridge

By the time we walked back across the bridge we were astonished to see that a building had been erected by the river while we were at lunch, and a skilled digger driver was carefully moving the machinery from a river raft onto the ground beside it.

Noticing a group of ladies in the rice fields sitting down for lunch we approached them to ask if we could take a photo. Immediately they called us over, signalling for us to sit with them, and gave us heaps of rice crackers, garlic fried tofu and peanut oil dip, along with cup after cup of green tea. They were the most lovely bunch of people, teaching us Burmese words, complimenting us on our beautiful (“ladday”) white skin and insisting we eat more.

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Me (left) with the lovely ladies

I left the ladies with some English coins as souvenirs and we pedalled back towards Nyaungshwe, passing lots of little villages where everyone shouted “mingalaba” as we went by. Not long before reaching town we came across the Red Mountain Winery. The signpost said it shut at 4pm and by that point it was 5.15pm but we ignored the sign and went up anyway – it was still open and we got prime seats on the veranda, overlooking the vineyards and facing west for a perfect sunset over the mountains, glass of wine in hand.

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It was the most perfect end to the most perfect day.

 

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Trek Day Three – Inle Lake

We got up fairly early this morning after yesterday’s stop in the village, to finish the trek before the sun became too strong, so the village was bathed in beautiful soft light as we left. The mornings and evenings are my favourite for taking photos so I’d much rather be up early, which seems to be the Burmese way too. They go to bed early and get up early, living by the daylight hours.

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The last part of the trek was largely downhill through a rocky dry riverbed which was just dying to break our ankles. It was tough going but we knew we were almost at the end; eventually we could see the lake on the horizon and kept on going.

Inle Lake is far bigger than I imagined it to be. As we skimmed across the water the landscape was vast – miles of floating gardens, open spaces, villages, all surrounded by the mountains I’d trekked along for the last few days.

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It takes around an hour and a half to go straight across from the south west to the north east, but we paid a little extra for the driver to take us to some places of interest. The first was a silversmith where they showed the process of jewellery making. I had a nice chat with the woman there about business and exporting (all that stuff interests me) and she asked me all about my trek and said she could never do it because she’s scared of animals. It was a nice chat but also good to distract her from the fact that none of us actually wanted to buy anything.

Next we went to a weaving factory where I was genuinely interested by the process involved in making the traditional longyi (skirt-type garment). They showed us how they take a lotus stem and extract strands from it, then blend it with silk to create the patterns. The work looked really repetitive and I was fascinated by the footwork and coordination needed to work the machines for 8 hours a day.

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The boat delivered us straight to our hotels where we picked up our big bags that had been sent over by the trekking company, then we finished the day with a delicious indian curry in town.

 

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Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake Day Two

Much to our relief day two was on mostly flat land after yesterday’s uphill battle, and some cloud cover made the temperature much more pleasant.

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The landscape was different today –the rolling hills reminded me of parts of Europe, though a little drier. It was lovely to be able to be out of the big towns or cities and to see rural life.

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We walked through many villages where we were greeted along the way, and we got to see more of the average Burmese working day.

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The village we stayed in for the evening was a little larger with a few other trekking groups, but we had another family home to ourselves like last night – our beds were on the floor and the toilet was in the garden. This one had a lovely raised area outside where we could have dinner and play cards by candlelight.

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Our trekking guide

Before dinner we asked our guide Goji if there was anywhere we could watch the sunset, and his 12 years of trekking experience led us to a secluded spot in the mountains with a breathtaking view of the countryside. I’m afraid my photo doesn’t do it any justice at all so I’ll just have to keep that memory alive – beer in hand, deep breaths of the fresh moist air and watching the sun rapidly disappearing on the horizon.

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The trekking group
The trekking group

Tomorrow is the final part of the trek; a downhill final few miles to Inle Lake.

Practical Information: The trek cost 36,000 kyat each based on 6 people, including accommodation, meals, a guide and a chef, plus the 1.5hr boat ride across the lake to Nyaungshwe, but didn’t include the $5 government fee for Inle which was collected before we boarded the boat.

 

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Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake Day One

I was up bright and early for the trek to Inle, having chosen a company (Sam’s Trekking Guide) and decided on the length of the trek (3 days). My ‘burma belly’ was still playing up and I almost cancelled the trek but in the end decided to just go for it and hope for the best.

The trek consisted of around 6 hours walking a day, and day one was tougher than we’d imagined (partly thanks to Lonely Planet saying it was more of a cultural experience than a true trek). There were some steep inclines as we headed for a walk across the mountain ridge in the hot sun.

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Lunch was a real treat as we stopped at the house of a 76 year old toothless man with a keen interest in geography, politics, playing football and local dancing and martial arts. He was a real character and kept us entertained for a couple of hours.

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As we walked through the countryside we were able to see people going about their business; farmers working the fields, men walking for days to sell their cattle in the towns and kids walking to collect water.

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When we arrived at our accommodation for the evening it was in a small village away from the other trekking groups, in fact we didn’t see any other groups on this day. A small corner shop ensured that we had a beer to end the day, and we went and sat on a little patch of land which turned out to be the feeding pen for the buffalo.

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All of the village kids surrounded us, some shy and timid, and some a little more confident, and we had a lot of fun taking photos and letting them use our cameras and have a go at it themselves. They taught us the word for buffalo (“banaa”) which we immediately turned into a jokey insult and started calling each other a banaa much to the kids’ amusement.

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The chef served up some incredible food and we played cards until an early bedtime to rest our weary selves. As I stepped out into the back yard to brush my teeth I looked up in awe, astounded to see more stars than I’ve ever seen in my life. It was something quite special.

Click here for day 2.

 

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Market Day in Kalaw

Well, I made it through the night without anything untoward happening and ended up quite liking my little cabin once the mystery creature had stopped moving.

Being in Pyin Oo Lwin where nothing much happens, then having to stay extra nights in Mandalay and Kalaw due to illness, it’s given me a bit too much time to think and I’m getting restless.

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Hotels in Burma aren’t typically the social hotspots that hostels are in other countries, so since Bagan over a week ago I haven’t had the chance to talk to many people and it’s made me realised how valuable internet access is. It also made me realise that it’s not a bad thing to seek out wifi when travelling, especially when I have a blog to write and when all my interests revolve around websites, stats and anything else to do with being online and connected to the world.

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It’s market day in Kalaw today where I get to see fly-covered meat that will probably be served up to me in a restaurant later. The flower stalls are pretty though and everyone seems excited that the market is in town. There’s a nice atmosphere here and I suppose it’s more what I was expecting Pyin Oo Lwin to be like: cooling breezes, relaxed and less dusty than everywhere else.

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Tomorrow if all things go to plan I’ll begin a 3 day trek to Inle Lake. I finally managed to get accommodation so I don’t have to worry about what will happen when I arrive anymore.

 

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