Trekking in the Shan state

Before Christmas we trekked in Myanmar’s Shan state, from Kalaw to Inle Lake over 3 days. Starting in the small mountain town of Kalaw, the temperature was a bit colder than we’d been experiencing on the beach!

We explored rural Myanmar through villages and fields of chillis, walking around 15 to 20 km per day.

The first night we stayed in a village home stay and the second night in a Monastery.

We had amazing locally made food and some questionable home-made rice wine.

We had 2 lovely local guides Kayla and Nana from the local Pa-oh tribe, who taught us so much about local life, took us to meet their family and made sure we had ‘Thanaka’ on (the signature Burmese yellow face paint made from bark to protect from the sun and mosquitoes).

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We were lucky to be trekking with the best group of people, who made each other laugh and got on very well (even when people were tired with blistered feet!) We both agreed this was one of the highlights of our Myanmar trip…

 

Our visit to Myanmar’s “Ghost City”

We had read about Nay Pyi Taw (NYT) the capital of Myanmar; how it was built in secret and declared the capital in 2005, how it is 4 times the size of London with a population of less than 1 million. We had heard about the empty hotels, museums and roads, and got mixed reviews from other travellers; so we decided we had to see it for ourselves.

We arrived in NPT at around 9pm, after driving on a motorway for hours through fields and not much else, suddenly large neon-lit roundabouts appeared, followed by massive hotels. The bus station was pretty empty but there were a few motortaxis hanging around, we showed them the name of our hotel and we were ushered into a cab which drove miles back the way we had come to the “hotel zone”.

The hotel looked practically asleep when the taxi driver beeped his horn and a tiny Burmese lady came out to take us to reception. There are no hostels in NPT, but 60+ hotels which, due to the lack of visitors, have extremely reasonable rates; you can get a 3 or 4 star hotel for $30 a night. The large foyer was silent, filled with carved wooden statues and chandeliers, we didn’t see another guest as we were shown to our room on the 3rd floor.

We decided some of our favourite querks from the hotel were the fact that the lifts had random days of the week on the carpet, and that there was a large window between the bathroom and the bedroom!

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Just us at brekkie

Breakfast was a large buffet affair, with 5 staff waiting attentively on the 5 guests eating. The manager came to recommend some things to do in town. We hired a motorbike for the day (this cost 25,000 kyat (~£12.50) which is very overpriced, but we guess that’s the hotel cashing in on the fact you are literally miles from anything).

We visited the Uppatasanti Pagoda, a beautiful gold plated dome on the horizon. It was silent walking round this huge monument with just a handful of other people, very different to the experience we’d had in Yangon walking around a replica pagoda a few weeks earlier. The pagoda is free but women cannot wear trousers, so there are women dutifully waiting at the entrance to lend you a longee (traditional wrap for men and women), in exchange for a donation. The pagoda was stunning, with white marble floors that stayed cold in 32 degree heat, and carvings told stories of Buddah’s life (with neon lighting, it wouldn’t be Myanmar without some neon lights!)

There are also albino elephants at the right hand side of the temple, but they are sadly kept chained in awful conditions so we didn’t stay to look at them as we really didn’t want to encourage this.

Following this we rode on the famous 20 lane highway, which is what it says on the tin, what’s bizzare is that you are sharing this monster motorway with 1 or 2 other vehicles. Rumour has it that it’s built so wide so that it can be utilised as a military runway at short notice.

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Motorway opens into 20 lanes in front of us

Next up we drove to the National Museum: an extremely grand building full of displays about the ASEAN alliance, traditional artifacts from Myanmar and a display showing fossils found in Myanmar of our primate ancestors from 40 million years ago. The museum was, again, empty; we felt like we were waking the guards up from their naps as we walked through the exhibits, and we were the only people who had signed into the foreign visitors book that day.

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For lunch we tried “Café Flight”, a disused plane that had been turned into a restaurant. In true NPT style, as we entered the plane and saw no one there, we turned around assuming it was closed, staff ran from the building and Ella asked “Open?” Which was met with lots of nods and smiles and they basically opened the cafe Just for us, a good iced coffee and lunch on our private jet!

Driving from one place to another in NPT took up a large part of the day, the city is more like multiple “zones” connected by clean, well kept highways. An accidental detour through the suburbs revealed NPT in a different light; as the sun went down people appeared, teenagers playing football, families eating street food, school buses drove past and night markets appeared. We returned to the Pagoda to see it lit up (featuring more neon lights) and there was quite a bit of rush hour traffic on the roads. Maybe Nay Pyi Taw is not so much of a soulless ghost town but a vastly spread mega city in the making…

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The Mekong Delta

At the end of March we were in South Vietnam looking to cross the border into Cambodia. We had heard good things about tours of the Mekong Delta, which is where the Mekong river (which starts in China, goes through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia) eventually ends through Vietnam and into the South China Sea.

We managed to combine a tour with crossing the border, so this worked out well for us.

The first day the tour drove from Ho Chi Min City to the Mekong. We were taken by boat to the islands that sit in the Vietnamese Mekong. Here we visited a large sitting Buddah, a honey bee farm, we’re taken in tiny banana boats to lunch at a crocodile farm (crocodile menu optional) before the group split.

One group went to the hotel and 6 of us were taken on a tiny motor boat (so tiny we didn’t think it would take us + our bags!) along the river at dusk to a lovely home-stay. It was amazing to see how the local people live on or right by the river, their houses only have 3 walls – completely open to people passing by on the water.

Top Tip: Really shop around for your Mekong Delta tour, this is an extremely popular tourist activity, and we didn’t visit anywhere that wasn’t busy with other groups. When in Ho Chi Min we were quoted from 400 thousand up to 3 million Dong (~£14 to £100) for pretty much the same itinerary, and might be even run by the same company! The home-stay option is normally more but was so worth it! We chose our tour because the agent offered us the option of going straight from the Mekong to the border, instead of coming back to Ho Chi Min city, which was perfect for us.

After our home-stay we woke up early the next morning to go out of the tiny boat again, we were taken up to the floating market. Unlike the popular floating markets in Thailand which mainly exist now as a tourist attraction, the Mekong Markets are fully functional wholesale markets used by locals who come down from the cities. It was incredible to see boats full of pineapples, watermelons and coconuts and the people approach the stalls by boat to purchase large quantities (often 10 kilos minimum ) of fruits and veg; watermelons flying through the air as they were thrown to the next boat. Boats hang up what they sell from high masts above the river, so you can see what seller you are aiming for! After this we went to see rice noodles being made, walked round a beautiful fruit farm and visited a candy factory, where we saw how the coconut candy is still hand made by the Vietnamese people in the Mekong.

Following this we actually missed our bus to the border (the bus was running uncharacteristically early) which ended up with us taking a high speed taxi to chase down the bus which kindly pulled over for us in a motorway gas station! The tour agents here will do anything to help you out as a tourist, our agent from Ho Chi Min even contacted the bus driver when we didn’t reply to her WhatsApp and he confirmed we were on the bus by sending the photos below!

With that excitement over, we were on our way to the border town of Ha Tien and over into Cambodia the next day.

Love Ella & Isaac xxx