“What would you recommend we see?” ask a lot of Myanmar first-timers I meet in Yangon. It’s a very good question because more and more of the country has opened up but most people are still visiting the same few places.
Until the nineties it was only possible to get a seven-day visa, transport infrastructure was super-basic or basically broken and lots of places were very much off-limits.
The Yangon-Mandalay-Bagan-Inle Lake-Yangon infinity loop was the norm.
Bizarrely, it still is, but what made sense then makes less sense now. There is so much more you are permitted to see, much of it trumps the standard tour and rapidly improving transport options mean it’s much easier to get to than ever before.
You are never going to regret getting off the beaten track* in Chin State or down on the Dawei peninsula, roughing it on the train all the way up to Mitkyina and Indawgyi Lake, exploring the Ayerwaddy Delta region by boat or the southern Rakhine coast by motorcycle.
But if you have limited time or no plan to overstay a 28 day visa (you can) then something else is going to have to give.
You don’t have to visit Bagan but if you can’t be sure you are coming back to Myanmar then I’d be sure to go (and to give it plenty of time). It’s a very special place, despite being touristy by Myanmar standards and some temples having been damaged by the August 2016 earthquake.
What of Inle Lake? It’s very beautiful and could well be the highlight of your trip. The best time to go is September to January (ideally twenty years ago), when the biggest local festivals are held and the sky is clear of heat haze, rain clouds or slash-and-burn smoke, making for great reflections, super sunsets and star-spangled nights.
But times have changed the almost lakeside town of Nyaungshwe where you will most likely stay (at email@example.com if you can). Twenty years ago there were just two places to stay. Now it’s so touristy that it’s as great a place for pizza, pasta or a gin and tonic (nothing wrong with that) as it is for Shan food (top tip : seek out the looks-nothing-much lunch spot in the heart of the market).
The one-legged fishermen are a photo set-up, fishing for your dollars. Beside the creek it seems everyone wants to rent you a boat. Unless you make yourself emphatically clear to your driver, every boat trip involves too numerous stops at shops selling tourist products at many times the prices in town*.
And then there are the $400 balloon trips.
The lake has effectively been shrunk to two-thirds of its size by the massive expansion of floating gardens in the last fifty years. Almost every year now water levels fall dramatically as the dry season progresses and no-one seems quite sure where all the ‘liquid waste’ from lakeside resorts and growing villages ends up. Some say there is a significant environmental problem brewing here.
With so much else to see in Myanmar is it worth the effort of trekking (even from Kalaw*) up there just to see a lake, albeit a beautiful lake. Do you come from a country that has no lakes? Have you seen Europe’s best kept secret, Lake Ohrid?
If you’re short of time maybe skip the lake.
See somewhere else instead.
1. It’s November and you have the nerve to visit the Taungyii Fire Balloon Festival.
There is nothing quite like it. Nine days and nights leading up to the Full Moon when many tens of thousands of visitors and Shan locals gather to marvel at the rudimentary but wonderfully pretty hot-air balloons launched by competing village teams from all over the state.
There are three types of balloons, none of them passenger carrying, all of them naked flame powered. In the daytime they are mainly animal shaped. In the night time (it’s an all night thing) there are two types. The first are beautifully painted and decorated with hundreds, thousands even, of small candles in coloured cups. They rise into the air carrying bamboo frames also decorated with candles. The candles might outline an image of the Buddha. They might advertise a motorcycle. Pretty either way.
The main draw, apart from the hundreds of bars and restaurants, live music by major acts and a luminously neon lit, largely person-powered fairground, are the balloons that lift off with a huge cradle of fireworks beneath them.
Once a couple of hundred feet up the fireworks start to spew out (silently, oddly) and continue to do so for fifteen minutes or more as the balloon rises up and up into the night sky. On the ground the team who launched the balloon dance and cheer in a burning coloured rain of falling fireworks. There is no crowd control, you’re free to join them.
Except the balloons don’t always lift off as they should. Sometimes the fireworks start going off when the balloon is still on the ground or the balloon falls back to earth soon after take off. Fireworks fly in all directions, often setting fire to stalls on the ground. It’s like the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Everyone dives for cover. Adrenaline rush amazing. And truly dangerous. People died as recently as 2014.
On the busiest nights the crowds are enormous to the point of being a bit scary. Surely it cannot last long before ‘health and safety’ gets properly in the way. So see it soon. If you can’t get a room in Taungyii basing yourself in Nyaungshwe, exploring the lake in the daytime, and sharing a taxi (ask at Remember Inn) to get to and from the festival is a good option.
2. You see all the lakes and Loikaw too. Then back to Kalaw by train.
There are three connected lakes (one’s a reservoir but let’s not quibble) and all are beautiful. It’s possible to travel by boat, in a day, all the way down the lakes, and the rivers that connect them, to Pekon (no foreigner licensed accommodation here in November 2015; Immigration soon found out I was in town and ‘helped’ me move onwards toute suite). It’s just an hour by bus (or train*) from lovely Loikaw in little visited Kayin State. Loikaw is worth a few days in itself and the countryside around – especially along the old road to Taungoo – can easily gobble up a few more (though try to avoid the human zoo stuff).
In November 2015 authorities in Nyaungshwe would not allow foreigners to board the boat that makes the journey to Pekon. The trick is to hitch a ride to Kyaing Kham* with tourists heading to Sankar Monastery on the second lake and to get on the boat you could not get on in Nyaugshwe when it passes through there. Kyaing Kam to Pekon took about six hours and cost me 2,500 Kyat.
From Loikaw onward travel to Nay Pyi Daw or Taungoo by bus is simple but the better option is take the great super-slow day-long train trip back up to Kalaw via Aungban. After a very early start and a climb most of the day is spent crossing farmland at about 4500 feet. It’s wonderfully, colourfully pretty during harvest in late November. The train passes through Panglong where in 1947 General Aung San held the conference of ethnic leaders that created the Union of Burma.
* Getting off the beaten track is easy. Opportunities abound without heading to far flung parts of the country. Just get off the bus or train at any in-between town. When I first visited in ’95 it took two days by pick-up to get from Bagan to Inle Lake meaning a stopover, most likely in Meiktila or Thazi. I like both towns. They’re both more worth a visit than ever and yet they don’t get many visitors now that the express bus from the temples to the lake takes only seven hours. I’d also recommend stop-offs in Pyay, Ye, Pakokku and Pathein if you’re passing through or nearby.
* Shopping in Nyaungshwe? Check out the hand-made Shan paper and bamboo products at the Trinity Family Shop at No.10 Lan Ma Daw Road. Lovely people. Lovely prices. 081-209152 firstname.lastname@example.org
* Switching boats in Kyaing Kham? There is a sort of request stop system working in the villages the boats pass through. Flags are put up to let the boat driver know he needs to stop. In Kyaing Kham I was dropped at a bus-stop-house (marked by a green sign with a white bird on it – see bottom of page) with a few hours to wait. I was made very welcome, given a bite to eat and taken to the fab local pagoda on what turned out to be a festival day.
* Kalaw trekking. Nothing says you’re on the same holiday as everyone else like trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake over anything from one to five days – depending on the route you take. Many people love it. The countryside is beautiful. The villages are interesting and the villagers are hospitable. But what was once a true wander around and through out of the way and not much visited tribal villages is now something of a pedestrian super highway.
It’s a biggish business now. While you might feel alone on the trek, at rest stops and overnight stays you’ll have plenty of young westerners for company. Some Kalaw based guides may promise you a route that hardly anyone uses but that’s an unlikely story. If you’re looking for a truly testing trek then this is not it; last year I met a four year old Korean boy who had managed the five-day walk without complaint. There are other trekking options around Kyaukme and Hsipaw and for the truly adventurous there are the very out of the way Chin State trips led by Uncharted Horizons Myanmar and new routes being established around Lashio by Myanmar Adventure Outfitters.
If you’re looking for a place to stay in Kalaw I recommend Richard’s Inn at 38 Pyi Taung Road. 081-50417 email@example.com. Richard is a ‘repat’, not long back back from the USA, and a dude.
* Train to / from Loikaw. Loikaw station is big. But there’s just the one – slow – train in and one – slow – train out of town each day. Slow but cheap. First Class (there is no Upper Class) from Loikaw to Kalaw was 2050 Kyat.
The 148 leaves Loikaw at 05.45. It calls at Pekon at 07.53, Panglong at 11.24, Aungban at 16.21 and Kalaw at 17.18. The next day it reaches Nay Pyi Daw at 04.26 and terminates at Pyinmana at 05.00. I think the early Pekon arrival gives enough time to get to the jetty for the boat to Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake) but I cant be 100% sure. Let me know if you are.
Heading the other way the 147 leaves Pyinmana at 21.00 and Nay Pyi Daw at 21.33. The next morning it calls at Kalaw at 07.41, Aungban at 08.21, Panglong at 14.07 and Pekon at 17.46 arriving in Loikaw at 8.15pm. On the day I made the journey it would have been possible to get off the boat from Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake) in time to make the train from Pekon to Loikaw.
In Loikaw I stayed at Nan Ayar Inn 09 494 000 42 / 083 21306. It’s not the best but it’s good enough and the wifi was very good. 15,000 Kyat for a double. Moon Joy Inn 09 428 004988 is grubbier but cheaper. If you need a place to stay in Aungban try the Yangon Garden Guesthouse which is handy for the slightly out of town station.