Hi everyone! So we finally have strong enough Wi-Fi to post about the first little bit of our time in Myanmar! To start, the original plan was to stay in Yangon for one night and then head up north and complete a loop before returning back to Yangon. We usually do not book buses too far in advance, but we heard the overnight VIP bus tickets go fast and are worth it so we needed to purchase further ahead than usual. Well somehow we goofed and accidentally booked bus tickets online for the wrong date……we were off by 5 days! Not sure how we (read: Hoch) did that! So instead of eating the money for the bus and heading up north on an earlier non-VIP bus, we decided to explore a few cities east of Yangon before returning for our bus, 5 days later.
Yangon (Rangoon) is a port city in the south of Myanmar. It is a big city, but not as overwhelming as I was expecting. There are only vehicles in the city, motorbikes are banned which is a pleasant surprise. We stayed in an area close to Yangon River and the Sule Pagoda. There were blocks and blocks of old colonial buildings. Our first evening there, we were able to walk around quite a bit and tried some local food as well. Myanmar food mainly consists of rice, a meat, and some vegetables, so though it is good, it is also very basic. Hoch – I find the Burmese palate to be strikingly similar to Korean’s; lots of similar spices, shared dishes, braised meats, and usually an accompanying bowl of soup. The popularity of local soup noodles also add to that effect.
After dinner, we were walking back to the guesthouse when we were stopped by a local asking us where we were from. He was an English teacher and spoke English very well. He was super friendly and ended up talking to us for about 45 minutes on Myanmar history, places we should go visit, the Burmese language, and even offered to meet us the next day to take us around Yangon. We were a little hesitant about someone so friendly (especially after the tuk tuk scam in Bangkok), but after some time, we realized he really was just a nice guy. We had heard that the people were warm and friendly in Myanmar and he proved that to us on our first night in the country.
Our one full day there, we had a little bit of rain to deal with but were still able to visit the busy and popular Bogyoke Aung San Market (where I bought myself a longyi), the famous Shwe Dagon Pagoda, and Kandawgyi Lake. The Shwedagon Pagoda is the holiest Buddhist site in Myanmar and has been around for over 2,500 years according to legend. Hoch – they say a lock of Buddah’s hair is enshrined inside the main pagoda. This is about the fourteenth pagoda with the same story, so he must have been one hirsute dude. We probably should’ve paid for a tour guide to take us around the site and learn a little bit more about the history, but we winged it and saw everything based on the map alone. The pagoda itself was impressive, but some of the other shrines were a little gaudy in my opinion. They had flashing lights that made them seem a little cheesy. However, I think that is how they like it. Hoch – also they have “corners” for each day of the week, and since we were there on a Friday the Saturday corner’s buddah was busy with people washing it and making offerings. Just the sheer amount of cash we have seen being donated to monks and pagodas has been astonishing.
Shwe Dagon Pagoda Photos:
Kandawgyi Lake Photos:
Train Ride Experience:
Some of you may have already seen my facebook post or snapchats of our train experience. It was supposed to be a 9-hour journey, but it ended up taking closer to 11 hours. We had reserved upper class seats which meant soft seats (that is the only difference, the others have hard seats). The seats were comfortable, but there was no A/C. This worried us at first since we know how hot it can get, but luckily for us, it was a cloudy day and the temperature stayed cool. We also had the windows open the entire trip to enjoy the breeze.
At one point in the beginning of the journey I looked down and saw a small mouse scurry by!! I freaked out! They had these foot platform things that I placed my feet on for the remainder of the trip. I think there were only 2 mice that kept running back and forth around the train car. Every time I saw one, I would jump. I don’t think I will ever get used to them, but we will see. There were also restrooms on the train, I went and used it once and ended up with a squatter that opened out to the tracks. Supposedly they had western toilets too, but I was able to avoid going to the restroom again.
Last thing to note, the train was very bumpy! Some parts of the track felt like a roller coaster. We were laughing during those stretches of track along with a small boy who was sitting near us. There were women walking through selling beverages and snacks, many of them were carrying large platters on their heads! I am not sure how they didn’t drop the platters or fall over as the train was so bumpy. I had trouble walking straight when I went to the bathroom, let alone with a large tray on my head.
Anyways, it sounds worse than it was. I was actually very productive and worked on a blog video and post, wrote a couple of post cards (hopefully legible), read, and napped. We also were able to see the Myanmar countryside which was the entire point of taking the train!
There is not much to do in Mawlamyine, it is more of a stop-over to get to Hpa An. Our guesthouse there was pretty nice. The room we had was a newer one that was added on recently, we actually had a TV and could watch the summer Olympics in our room, and the staff was friendly and helpful. The only cons were that the location was a little further away and there was no Wi-Fi. Oh well, somethings gotta give.
We did not see much of Mawlamyine since we arrived in the evening and left the next morning after breakfast, but one thing I did like about it was that we did not see one other tourist in the short time we were there. We also had our first motorbike taxi experience there. We both rode on the back of motorbikes while carrying our baggage to our destination. I was worried it would be difficult to balance while wearing my very large backpack, but it ended up not being an issue. I hopped on one bike, Hoch on the other and we soon sped off in the direction of the bus station. My guy was a little speed demon, but it was actually kind of fun and we got to a see a little bit more of the town before leaving. We saw the bus coming our way and instead of taking us to the station to wait for the next bus an hour later, my driver flagged down the bus driver and he pulled over on the side of the road. We paid our moto-taxi drivers, the bus driver, and before we knew it, we were on our way to Hpa An.
The bus to Hpa An (the h is silent) was filled with locals, there was no A/C (but the windows were open), and we had the entire back row to ourselves. We snacked on hardboiled quail eggs that we purchased from one of the ladies at one of the stops and after a 2-hour ride, we arrived at our destination. Hoch – I gave the lady a 1000 kyat note hoping to get some change – instead she gave me about 30 eggs. I got really good at cracking quail eggs.
Hpa An is a dusty little town that does not have a lot going on within the town, but is in the middle of beautiful countryside and has several caves and hikes that you can do nearby. When we arrived, it was beautiful and sunny. We checked into our not-so-nice guesthouse (but hey the Wi-Fi was OK) and then walked around the town. We stopped and had some coffee and tea and people watched for a bit. Across the street was a barber shop and a tailor shop. It looked like a scene from an old movie.
There were daily power outages in Hpa An and so the people that could afford it, would run generators during that time. We could hear all the generators running as we strolled through town. We decided to take it easy that day and the next day were going to rent bikes and explore the area. We ate dinner at a small local restaurant and since everything seemed to shut down early, we headed back to the guesthouse for an early night.
The next morning looked like rain. We decided to walk to the market for breakfast and then would see how the weather looked. We ate breakfast at a small shwe taung stall. The woman was very friendly and as soon as we made eye contact, she urged us to sit down and try it. It is a Burmese version of cereal and noodle soup combined. It included noodles, but also had dried corn for a little crunch, along with herbs and spices. It was pretty good and we liked it enough, we went again the next day! Plus, it only cost 1000 kyat (pronounced chat and 1200 kyat = 1 USD) for both of us!
Sure enough after breakfast, the sky opened up. It was raining too heavily to try and rent a bike, so we tried to wait it out by treating ourselves to some ice cream and then we went back to the guesthouse and watched a few episodes of GOT (we are finishing season 2!). Several hours later, it was still raining, but we were determined to do something with our day so we asked the lady at the front desk if we could still get a tuk tuk to go see the popular bat cave, a nearby cave in which thousands of bats flock out at sunset. You cannot enter the cave, but several people go to see the bats. She asked around and sure enough it had rained too much and flooded the path entrance to see the cave. 😦
We then decided we wanted to at least find and try a hot pot place for dinner that Hoch read about online. Of course when we get there, they were closed and we learned that they are only open for lunch so we ended up eating at a different restaurant. Needless to say, we were a little disappointed that we could not see more of what Hpa An has to offer, and I was mad since the first day we arrived was beautiful and sunny and we should’ve gone to explore that day instead of taking it easy. To top it off, we left our universal charger in that guesthouse and didn’t notice until we arrived in the next city. Whomp whomp.
Kinpun & Kyaiktiyo:
Kyaiktiyo is home to the famous Golden Rock that is hanging on the edge of a cliff attached by a strand of Buddha’s hair, of course. It is the 2nd holiest site in Myanmar (after the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Yangon) and is a popular tourist destination, especially for Buddhists. We heard it was a bit underwhelming, but since the city was at a midway point between Hpa An and Yangon, we thought we would break up the trip and check it out anyways. We stayed in Kinpun which is a 20-minute ride away, but is much cheaper than staying on the top of the mountain.
The verdict: the ride up the mountain was fun (see video clip below), but we probably could’ve skipped it. It was underwhelming to us, especially not being Buddhist (big surprise huh, it’s a big rock), and there was so much fog, we couldn’t enjoy the mountain views either. At the same time, since the rain messed up our plans in Hpa An, we were happy to have something to do other than hide out from the rain. 🙂
(they waited until the truck was completely full, 6 people per row, before driving up and down the mountain….it was a tad tight)
One highlight for me was our 20-minute motorbike taxi ride from the bus station to our guesthouse. We were able to see a lot of the countryside and the drivers were super nice. When they dropped us off, we went ahead and made arrangements for them to pick us up to take us back to the bus station the next day. They arrived promptly with a gift of bananas for us before we all made the journey back to the bus station.
Yangon Bus Terminal:
The ride back to Yangon was painless, but once we arrived at the bus terminal, it was the biggest clusterf*ck I’ve ever seen. I am not quite sure how to describe it. It felt like we were walking through a large complex of several strip malls that had a mix of bus companies, restaurants, vendors, muddy parking lots, and buses (old and new). There are so many different bus companies, we walked through asking about 7 different people where ours was before we found it. There were no uniforms so you weren’t sure who was working or waiting on a bus.
We waited for several hours for our 8pm bus and watched as workers loaded other buses with what we think was packaged seafood (based on the leaking packages and the accompanying aroma) amongst other items. Luckily the bus company we used had a TV in the waiting area and a few movies were playing, so that kept us entertained as well. Hoch – but the volume was low so I still have no idea what the fuck happens in Ex Machina. Finally, our VIP bus arrived, which includes a snack, water, soda, and comfortable reclining seats. It was an overnight bus, so we tried our best to get some sleep and woke up in Bagan. 🙂
Well that’s all I’ve got for this Myanmar post. I will be back with our adventures in Bagan and Mandalay ASAP!