Thursday, January 22, 2015

Solo Backpacking trip- Starting in Yangon

Myanmar. Burma. Rangoon. Yangon. The place I'm to step Into for the next week. These ran through my thoughts as I embarked on another work-leisure trip that coincided with Labor Day a public holiday. 

Spotted some cheap ticket to Myanmar,Yangon and decided to take the plunge and explore this country while its still not fully invaded by the external influences. Having not done developing countries for quite some time, I was filled with fearful thoughts of what may happen specially so when I'm in a foreign land without any grasp of the local language.

Thankfully my friend reminded me that a visa was necessary. That got me worried because I didn't know how long it would take. My friend went 3 years back and the visa took here multiple trips to and fro the embassy. Surprise surprise. I did mine within the day. Just go online fill in the necessary details book and appointment to submit your documents and you can collect the visa on the day itself at 430pm. Amazing. My only qualms it's not cheap for a single trip 28 days visa. ( note for any extra overstay you need to pay $3usd per day) and I'm wasting it on a 4 day trip.

The day arrived. Packed a small bag with my office clothes and my leisure clothes. After a 3 hour flight I arrived at the airport on the grounds of Yangon into proper procedure at the airport quick queues and changed money at the money changer. Exchange rate was 1 USd to 958kyats. ( if you change it on the streets I saw the rate to 960kyats which isn't much diff and it feels safer changing at the airport) oh the good thing you can change sing dollars there too 1 sing to 764kyats if I didn't remember wrongly)

Entered into hordes of taxi drivers who begin their bargaining. In a friendly way. No forcing. Which I appreciated. Managed to get 8000kyats into the city center to my hotel. ( was caught in a dilemma whether to get to aung minglan bus station but was quoted 6000 kyat which was later offered 4000 kyat and so I decided to go to my hotel first and probably get it from the hotel or something - that was a great choice- aung minglan bus station later I got to was messy I would have been able to get around with the ticket stands which were all in Burmese and there were probably 200 stores or more but it would take lots of time)

Yangon (previously known as Rangoon) is a former capital of Burma (Myanmar) and the capital of Yangon Region. Yangon is the country's largest city with a population of over five million

I stepped out of the airport swarmed by taxi drivers who asked me where I was going. I tried eyeing  the roads if there were tourists just like me who knew where to go. But the heat was crazy and I decided to just get the taxi from one of them. Showing the address of my hostel where thankfully I had also printed the roads leading to the hostel (which had Burmese words on it) , they quoted me exorbitant prices and I started walking away. And only 1 driver persisted and I decide.... to believe him. So we decided on the price and we made our way across the road to his taxi.. which ermm... looked like it was gonna fall apart anytime soon. Imagine those kind of turning knob method of winding down the windows.

After sitting in the taxi for a very very long time, I realize we were lost. Thankfully, he didn't just leave me on the side of the road. But decided to help me ask around. Called the hostel and Found the hostel. I was so grateful!

Stayed in Agga Youth Hostel No.86th, 12th Street (Middle Block), Lanmadaw Town, Yangon, Myanmar - as that was the only Hostel I could find on Hostelworld.
But it was worth the price. A room to myself with air con and a toilet and a TV. Awesome refuge where the sun shone like nobody's business out there.

The problem was that Hotel didn't sell bus tickets to Inle Lake my destination for this trip to Myanmar and directed me to the travel agency outside who didn't sell me tickets but directed me to aung min lan stadium ( opposite the railway). The reason was because it was labor day the next day and they didn't work - weird because later I met a girl who got hers through the agency

Anyway I walked while exploring the town and finally managed to get to the railway ( actually it's quite easy to spot just need to get up that bridge and it's opposite the railway) and the stadium area is filled with bus companies. I was quoted 15000kyats for the express bus from Yangon to tauggyi ( to Inle lake) and 17500 kyats for the vip bus ( where I heard you get a private seat and get served with cookies cakes and tea). Tempted by the extras I wanted to get the VIP but was told only the last back seat was available hence I rejected and got the express bus where I was told and shown last second seat ( a lie. Because when I got into the bus it was the last seat) - You know the last seat kind where every bump will be quite an impact to the passenger, Urghh...

Now here comes the shady part. With my years of experience in traveling and due to work, I can 'sense' the trustworthy people and those not, and I always believe in observing before deciding. So while the guy which I assume the boss was talking, I approach the girl at the counter who was assisting the man who quoted me wrote the ticket without thinking and I saw she wrote 11000 where the man immediately told her to cancel the amount. But I saw the amount. And though I agree its usual to get cheated as a foreigner I am not gonna allow the amount to be exorbitant.
So I told the man with a straight face that I wanted a discount and I will offer him 13000.
He took it.

But continued saying to make own way to the bus station which was outskirts of town. How would I know how to get there. And not knowing the language, I knew it was not a risk I would want to take, I was abit flustered and keep persuading? Pleading?  and after some time, he offered me a ride there. Great! Else I'll be really lost in this land  where not many people speak English. The only thing was that I had to be at this shop at 245pm- not a problem for me.  Oh yes the express bus was at 5pm while vip bus was at 7pm. Many would consider VIP bus because arriving in an unknown place at 4-5am would be quite scary but I had no choice. It was a concern for me. But I had no choice... Another experience to add on to my backpacking adventure.

Anyway spent the rest of my day doing some work and grabbed some street food and fruits and went back for an early rest in my nice room.

And for my days in Yangon, I did it all by foot which was fantastic. Could stop by and eat with the locals, Take pictures and all. The only thing was ( I was hungry most of the time because there were few who could speak English, and few menus that showed what they were selling etc etc)

But for sight seeing, it was easy, Always identifying the Sula Pagoda and all is well.

As for the food, due to my inability to speak their language, I used 'eye power' to spot what could fill my hungry stomach

The street pancake - i think they call it Mon Pyit Ta Let

And the next day before leaving for Inle Lake, I did some exploration in the area and boarded the 1020am circular train ride. Once you reach the train station, there is a board that says circular train ride. Just go to the train master and pay the money.

Went with some tourists up the middle class seats. Once up I kind of regretted it because there was no peddling of food and the locals there were more middle class. Anyway the cost for the non- aircon ordinary class ticket was cheap only a few hundred kyats if I was not wrong. Really took 3 hours. You get to see morning markets spread out at some stations, see slum areas etc it's exactly like india.

Brought back memories for me. ( if I return to Yangon I'll get out some stations and do some exploration) anyway at the 3 hour mark it came back to yangon station but I didn't know I boarded at that station and I had assume It would the last stop but the train continued on, thankfully a station master caught sight of me and told me it's Yangon railway station and I quickly jumped off the train) -

with this I made my way to aung minlan stadium for my ride to the bus - before that I walked ahead to the city mart to cool myself down and got some milk shake to chill. And my ride to the bus was in actual fact a pick up that was helping the same store that I booked the bus from delivering parcels so the store person told the guy to drop me- wonderful and thankful he could have just ignored my pleas - God is good :) he picked up a few random passengers along the way as well.

Arrived at the aung mingalar bus terminal- after quite a distance away- at 330pm and he showed me to the area where my bus was and I had to register at the counter with the lady who thankfully spoke Little English and I showed her nyaunshwe and had hoped she will tell my bus driver where to stop me - but she didn't - but instead announced me in front of all the locals in the bus that I was a foreigner when I boarded the bus at 430pm.

*Note: Its quite chaotic at the Aung Minglar bus terminal. Make sure you remind the bus conductor where you will be going else where the bus might go without you. 

But everything is a blessing in disguise. Because she announced I was a foreigner. There was a family that took care of me and the daughter could speak English because she worked in Malaysia before. She helped direct me to the washroom during the dinner stop and offered to order food for me and most importantly helped me tell the bus conductor that I wanted to go to shweyaung which was the junction to stop to get a ride to nyaungshwe. 

Oh yes I forgot to mention, this bus I sat was very comfortable. Thein oo . They gave toothpaste and toiletries and a bottle of water each. Only problem. Aircon was freezing and no blankets provided. They also had English announcements which made me more assured as to when they stop. 

On the dot at 415am I was dropped out at shweyaung. Where I was swarmed by men . Ok motorbikers who were charging for rides into nyaungshwe. I decided to wait till the sun comes up and where I'm more certain of the direction and I was thinking maybe a few busses would come by where I can caught a ride with the other foreigners. In the dark at nowhere and with big Mosquitos at every direction and only men, it was truly an experience. But I told them I was waiting for my friends in the next bus and they were so nice still offered me a chair. Daybreak finally came but still no tourist. I saw a tuktuk and he offered me 2000 kyats and at this moment when I was pondering I saw a pick up and when asked offered 1000 kyat. I immediately picked up my bag and left in it. And great choice. The pick up dropped me directly at May guesthouse. 

May guesthouse didn't have a room for me and I was told to wait till 12noon when people checked out.  So I made my way to explore the area while waiting for time to pass.
Sitting by the side of the lake, I closed my eyes to the sound of the wind and the breeze caressing my face, it felt like freedom, away from everything,  now to just rest.

Suddenly, a 'thunk' sound and I opened my eyes. Oh my goodness, I dropped my phone and before I could react to pick it up, it skidded and fell among the planks. OH MY GOODNESS. I exclaimed aloud. Ran to the entrance and grabbed some locals to help me. Such kindness. Some young teenagers quickly took out their top and jumped into the lake to rescue my phone which was thankfully trapped among the weeds. I thanked the boys with many many thanks and tried to run back to the hostel to dry it under the fan.But silly me! I tried to switch it on! And yes you guessed correctly, the whole phone was damaged.

anyway there was nothing I could do. And thankfully despite this bad incident, I was glad I managed to get a room.

Not wanting to waste time, I rented a bicycle from the boss and started making my way to explore the area. The good thing about hostels are that there are always sole travelers like me. And while riding, I found a mate from the US who was teaching in Thailand. Really thankful that God sent someone because its always scary to be in a country where you don't know the language and the exploration requires you to go deep into forest treks (to see the villages etc)

And guess what it did  rain. And we had to find some dilapidated old house to hide in while the rain subsided.

Oh yes, most of you should be curious by now. Riding to where. The main purpose of the long ride is the supposed famous self-made wine in Myanmar by a french couple. And its really worth it. Not because the wine is extremely nice, but imagine, sitting on a hill sipping wine in a rural country. Awesome! * The roads are quite well-paved for this route though so its a good leisure ride.

The next day, of course we joined the tour to Inle Lake just as all tourist do. In actual fact, I find the beauty of Inle Lake is lovely just by itself. To constantly be on the move with the tours just disturbs that tranquility.

For the tour, the good thing is you just have to pay and meet at their shop and they will get a vehicle to bring you to the port and have a boatmen ready.
For some who are willing to take the risk, you can check out the travel agency price then go directly to the jetty (which is some distance away but walkable) and bargain with the boatmen there.The good thing about this method is that you can stop and dictate where you want to go.

For us , we visited the Floating Market (which we had less interest in as they were selling fruits and vegetables) and there was no bartering -

Next The floating gardens where we were told to spot the fruits/vegetables growing.

Jumping cat Monastery Nga Hpe
The monastery is famous for its cats, that were trained by the monks to jump through small hoops.
Ermm.. but when we visited, the cats were just lying there. That's it.

Phaung  Daw Oo Pagaoda
The center shrine in the main hall of Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda houses five small golden Buddha images.

The best of this pagoda was the Shan Noodle that I tasted at the festival market happening there
(I miss it so much)
Taste like cheese with noodles. Delicious!

More of the Ywama market

We also visited some shops - Cigar making and cloth weaving and of yes, silver

Cloth weaving Lotus extraction

As it was a rainy day, on our way back, we were trying to shelter ourselves desperately with our umbrellas against the tides and rain from all angles. It was hilarious yet dangerous.

All in all, Im glad I made my way to Myanmar, before it changes due to globalization.

* Going back to Yangon from Inle Lake, I bought my ticket from a tourist agency and just waited alongside of the road for the bus with the locals who are all very kind to let you know when the bus arrives and will give up their seats for you.

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