Monthly Recap: Month 9

Another great month! We’re really starting to feel like the end of the trip is coming and we’re feeling more and more rushed to get through everything that we wanted to do. It’s funny how you can plan to be traveling for almost a year, but still end up feeling like you don’t have enough time =) However, we did take time this month to meet up with Della’s parents again a couple of times. They decided to have a big trip for themselves and as we write this update, they’ve been out for about 5 weeks and plan about 2 more. We haven’t stayed together the whole time, but have sort of met up and parted as our schedules allowed. We saw a lot of great things and explored a lot of new places this month. Our only complaint is that it is hot season here in SE Asia and we are REALLY hot all the time. We only have about 2 more weeks in this part of the world before we fly again to explore different parts of Asia.

Here are our stats for this month.

Countries visited:  3 (Laos, Thailand, Vietnam)

Beds Slept In: 13 (We only stayed one night in two towns on the slow boat journey to Thailand and then we went quickly through a couple of places: Sukhothai and Ayuthaya)

UNESCO Heritage Sights Visited:  3 (Historic Town of Sukhothai and Associated Historic TownsHistoric City of AyutthayaHoi An Ancient Town) Total on RTW: 40

We traveled by 3 planes this month.

We traveled by 2 boats this month.

We traveled 5 long distance buses/minibuses.

We traveled by 2 trains this month.

Top Moments:

~ We had an amazing time interacting with elephants at the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary outside of Chiang Mai!

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Runners Up for Top Moments:

We had a bit of a hard time coming up with this list, because for the first time we had slightly different opinions of what to choose!

~ At Kuang Si Waterfalls outside of Luang Prabang, we took in some amazing scenery, got to watch some cute moon bears play, and took a refreshing swim.

Eric's jump

~ Also in Chiang Mai, we took an excellent cooking class in which we learned all about how to each the different yummy Thai dishes that we love!

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~ In Mae Sot, we meandered through a lively market which brought back great memories of our time in Myanmar.

Lively colorful market

~ We struggled for a long time to choose a Thai beach to go to. We had seen some really neat pictures of white sand beaches with large limestone karsts in the distance and longtail boats near the shoreline, and hoped that we could find a scene like that. The island we chose, Ko Lanta, doesn’t have those characteristics, which was a bit disappointing… but some nearby islands do! The last stop of our snorkeling tour was at Ko Ngai, and when we pulled up to the white sand beach we realized we had found just what we were looking for!

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Items Missing, Broken, Discarded, or Added:

Discarded/Broken:

  1. Old toothbrushes
  2. Our large bottle of sunscreen that was new in January
  3. Our large bottle of bugspray that was new in January

Added:

  1. New toothbrushes
  2. New insect repellent

Packing Update:

We feel like we’re a bit of a broken record here: we’re still happy with the contents of our bags. In the hot, humid weather it would be nice to have more shirts, but it wouldn’t be worth carrying them. We’ve also found that we probably could live with fewer socks and underwear because it is quite tempting to rinse them out in the shower or sink often (almost every night). Still carrying unused cold weather gear, but it’s still in hold for Nepal. We haven’t used our tupperware very much here in Asia. We find we don’t pack our lunches very often as food is plentiful and cheap (and really good!)

Books Read: (Have you read any of these??)

Della has read UnSouled by Neal Shusterman (4), A Place Called Freedom by Ken Follett (3), The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (3)

Eric has read All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy (4), Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (4)

Eric and Della have BOTH read The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell (4), Saigon by Anthony Grey (5/4.5)

The rating system is for Della’s mom who is refusing to look at Goodreads. It is 1 to 5, 5 being the highest.

Make sure to catch up on all our monthly recaps: Monthly Recap 1, Monthly Recap 2, Monthly Recap 3,Monthly Recap 4, Monthly Recap 5, Monthly Recap 6, Monthly Recap 7, Monthly Recap 8

Making Links to Refugees from Myanmar in Mae Sot, Thailand

Most people only head to Mae Sot, Thailand for a visa run from Thailand or as a border crossing into Myanmar, but we had different reasons for heading to this border town. Mae Sot is located near some of the larger refugee camps on the Myanmar/Burma and Thailand border. Because such a large percentage of Della’s students are refugees from this area, we thought we would come see if we could make some connections that would help her better serve that population back home.

Originally (before we left home), Della had hoped to visit the camps herself. However, after a lot of unanswered emails, and research, it seemed unlikely. We had read that Mae Sot was a good place to meet NGO workers who might go in and out of the camps. We had hoped we could meet someone who worked in the camps who might be able to give Della a little bit more of an idea of what schooling for refugees might be like.

Unfortunately, we didn’t really succeed in our goals. However, we still really enjoyed our time in Mae Sot.

Where We Stayed

We found the excellent Pha Nu House in Lonely Planet and online. We booked via phone and were very happy with the place. It was a good location in town and the rooms were spacious, lovely, and had nice ensuite bathrooms. We really felt like we got a lot for our money.

What We Did

We had read a couple of blogs that mentioned hanging out with NGO workers at the “Canadian Bar” in town and at the Exppact Café. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we found out that the Exppact was closed. We had also heard about the BorderLine café and store which sold crafts made by refugees.

After an afternoon arrival, our first stop was to head to the Borderline. We enjoyed perusing the crafts, books, and documentaries about the situation in Burma. We chatted with one of the workers, asking if they had any information about schooling for refugees. She indicated that her boss would be there the next day and that we might be able to talk to him. We agreed to come back at 1 pm the next day.

Our next stop was the Krua Canadian restaurant in the main downtown area. This place is run by a Canadian immigrant and we had heard that it might be a good source for local information. We first started with drinks while we tried to decide if we would eat there. The wine was pretty cheap so we split a carafe with Peggy. The menu was a gigantic book, so we had a hard time deciding what to eat. We split a “Maesot” poutine for an appetizer and then for dinner we both got Mexican food since it had been a while! Eric got enchiladas and Della got a quesadilla.

We eventually talked with the owner and while he didn’t know much about education, he was able to give some general information about the camps. One of the more interesting things he mentioned was that he thinks the camps will be shutting down by the end of the year. He mentioned that because some of the world leaders (including President Obama) have given a sort of “all clear” relating to the current situation in Burma, that the money for the NGO support and camps is drying up. He didn’t know what might happen to all of the current refugees. He also told us that Thai school was out for the semester and he believed that the camps probably followed a similar schedule, so we began to doubt whether we would necessarily find someone currently working at the camp schools.

We headed home feeling slightly bummed that we hadn’t met anyone from the camps, but optimistic about our meeting at Borderline the next day.

The following morning, we headed out and went to the local market, which we had heard was quite lively. And that turned out to be true! It felt like we were back in Myanmar – almost everyone seemed to be from there, with lots of thanaka face paint and plenty of Muslim people. There were all sorts of food, clothes, and other goods. It stretched on for multiple blocks. At one point, we were excited to find a stall that sold Burmese/English dictionaries and some posters with Burmese/English letters. Della bought some! We went through some large market buildings and also down some small side streets. Finally we reached a point where it felt like it was ending so we turned around and made our way back through. We took a slightly different route to get out and thought we had found a dead end until we saw a local squeeze through a narrow alley to get back to the street! Overall, this was one of the more exciting street markets we have ever been to!

We then headed back to the Borderline. Unfortunately, the time we had been given was wrong and the boss had come by earlier that day so we missed him. We were bummed, but there wasn’t much we could do. Instead, Della struck up a conversation with one of the other workers who was, herself, a Karen refugee who had grown up in the camps. Della learned a bit more about the schools and the curriculum used, though not a lot that was hugely helpful. The most fun part of the encounter was when the woman agreed to help Della add to her new posters with Karen lettering. Now the posters have Burmese, Karen, and English. Della thinks her students back home will enjoy them! We bought a few souvenirs and then headed back to our hotel.

Where We Ate

Our favorite meal was actually at the Borderline where they serve vegetarian Burmese food. For a drink Eric got Burmese iced tea with lime and Della got ginger juice. We shared a wide variety of dishes: ginger salad, pickled tea leaf salad, potato curry, fried noodles, Mandalay noodle salad and curried chickpeas. All were good.

 

For dinner we decided to try another Burmese restaurant we had seen listed on TripAdvisor called Wadee. This was in the other direction and about a 15 minute walk away. The menu was much less interesting unfortunately. We got mango smoothies for drinks, then Eric got a chicken curry and Della got a big plate of fried noodles (she even had some leftover).

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We also enjoyed the Krua Canadian listed above for something a little bit different.

Final Thoughts

We didn’t exactly meet our expectations of magically connecting with a teacher in the refugee camps, but we really ended up enjoying our travel there anyway. It was fun for us to relive, ever so briefly, our trip to Burma. We had a lovely place to stay, met a few nice people, and ate good food. The market was one for the most interesting we’ve ever encountered, so that was worth a lot.

 

Budget: Myanmar (Burma)

This is one of our Budget series of posts to give you an idea of how much we spent traveling around the world. Here we will look at Myanmar. Check our posts to see what kind of activities we did and where we stayed!

In Myanmar we used the kyat. We converted to US dollars using the current conversion rates at the time of our visit. It was approximately 1000 kyat to 1 dollars. Businesses used this as a flat rate, though the real rate at the time was more like 1,300 kyat to $1.

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Total Spent (18 days): $1304.72

Accommodation: $495.32

We stayed in a variety of accommodations: some hotels, some hostels, one dorm room. Everywhere we stayed included breakfast and drinkable water.

Activities: $202.59

Activities are quite affordable in Myanmar. We did several day tours, both in boats and cars. This included entrance and camera fees to all pagodas as well as a few museums. We also did a puppet show!

Alcohol: $28.65

Overall, beer is quite reasonably priced in Myanmar. You can normally get a large bottle of beer for under $2. We also visited a winery and had a couple of glasses of wine!

Food: $170.95

Food was wonderfully inexpensive in Myanmar. You could get a good meal with drink for under $10. You can also do it even cheaper if you are a little braver than we are: if you ate street food from stalls then it would be even more affordable. We didn’t as almost every person we met who had was sick. Though, we did hear of one friend recently who had no problems!

Miscellaneous: $40.02

This included a several souvenirs, several bathroom fees, a laundry, and a few exchange transactions.

Transportation: $267.19

This included a variety of taxis and buses. The biggest cost was a boat ride from Mandalay to Bagan which was $80!

Visas: $100

We purchased visas online prior to arriving using the new online purchase tool for tourist visas. It was more expensive than it would have been in person in Bangkok, but a fraction of the time.

This divides out to $72.48/day which is under our $100/day budget. It is not as low as we were hoping for time in Asia, though we knew Myanmar would not be the cheapest country in Asia due to the visa fees and the relatively high cost of accommodation. 

Saying So Long to Myanmar in Yangon

Our final stop on our trip through Myanmar was its largest city (and former capital), Yangon. We had initially only planned to spend a couple of our last days in the country in this city, using it as a base for a trip to the “Golden Rock,” but in the end we decided to just spend all of the time exploring the different things the city had to offer.

Getting There

The main option to get to Yangon from Inle Lake was an overnight bus. We had to choose between the “normal” and “VIP” class buses, and we went with the VIP option with the hope that it would make sleeping easier. The seats were quite large, and had a good recline feature and a footrest. We also got a snack box and a toothbrush to use at one of the rest breaks. During the first part of the trip, they played music videos and one movie on the overhead tv, but for most of the journey the cabin was pretty dark and quiet. It really was quite comfortable,  but even so, we didn’t actually end up getting too much sleep, so after checking into our accommodations in Yangon at 7 AM, we took a nice long nap.

Where We Stayed

Finding a cheap but well-reviewed place in Yangon turned out to be quite a challenge, as there were many cheap places but almost all with average ratings. In the end we found the Hninn Si Budget Inn and ended up generally enjoying our stay. We had a small double room with a shared bathroom down the hall. The rate included breakfast, although it was the least interesting of any breakfast we had in Myanmar. The staff was very kind and helped us with transportation a few times.

Our room at Hninn Si

Our room at Hninn Si

What We Did

Explore Downtown Yangon – The city has a lot of interesting sights to see in its downtown core, a lot of it left over from when the city was called Rangoon and functioned as the capital of the country during the colonial occupation by Britain. We ended up exploring this area twice: the first on our own using a self-guided walking tour in Lonely Planet, and the second time on a free walking tour led by Free Yangon Walks. The highlights included the Sule Paya – a large pagoda which now sits in the middle of a traffic circle, Mahabandoola Garden – a very pleasant park where we relaxed in the shade and made conversation with locals wanting to practice their English, and many examples of colonial-era buildings, from the City Hall to old banks to the fancy Strand Hotel.

Even more interesting that the architecture was just observing life on the streets of this bustling city. There were food vendors of all sorts, and many people making new packs of the betel nut concotion that a good chunk of the population chews (the effect is supposedly similar to chewing tobacco). There were also vendors selling everything from SIM cards to clothes to even a large selection of used books, including many random English-language textbooks. We were also fascinated to observe the bus system: buses of all ages and conditions would go up and down the street, pausing briefly where a worker (usually a young male) would holler out the back (presumably announcing the destination) while pushing people off and pulling them on. We never worked up the nerve to get on one of these!

Ride the Yangon Circle Line – Yangon only has one commuter rail line: the Yangon Circle Line, which makes a slow loop around the city and its surrounding residential areas. Since it is a loop and costs so little ($0.50 per person), it has become a popular tourist activity. Some reviews made it sound pretty hectic, but we actually found the three-hour ride to be quite relaxing. Maybe it’s because we went on a weekend during the middle of the day; there was never too much of a crowd. We were quite interested to see life outside the train, including lively markets at some of the larger stops. Also, we enjoyed watching some of the people who hopped on the train midway through use the rest of the train ride to change their large collection of produce into sellable bundles.

Shwedagon Paya – Many people consider this to be the most important Buddhist site in all of Myanmar. We planned our visit to have us arrive by sunset since the color was supposed to be the best then. The temple complex includes many smaller shrines, but the highlight is the massive central stupa. Unfortunately, a lot of it was covered in bamboo scaffolding during our visit (although you could argue that the scaffolding itself is interesting to look at). The entrance fee was the most expensive of any payas we visited in Myanmar, although we were happy that we got a detailed map with labeled narration for many of the smaller shrines.

Botataung Paya – Much smaller than Shwedagon, but Lonely Planet recommended it, and it was just a few minutes’ walk from our guesthouse, so we checked it out. We went on a Sunday, so it was busy with worshipers coming and going. The most unique feature was that we could actually walk inside the large stupa – in all other cases this was closed to the public. This one had a maze-like interior with walls gilded with gold and a few different relics, including a few hairs of Buddha that we had to get in a line to see.

National Museum – We spent an afternoon exploring this large museum dedicated to Myanmar’s history and culture. There were many different exhibits scattered over the five floors, including displays on royal artifacts, fossils, traditional arts and crafts and the different cultures within the Myanmar. We felt the most interesting exhibit was the Lion Throne, one of the eight such thrones used by the king for ceremonial purposes (which looks more like a door). We weren’t even allowed to take cameras into the museum, so we don’t have any pictures of the interior.

The National Museum

The National Museum

Kandawgyi Lake – We spent an afternoon in this park just to the east of Shwedagon Paya. The boardwalk on the southern edge provided scenic views, but some of the boards could have used some serious repair! It was pretty hot and sunny, so we followed the lead of the young local couples we saw and found a spot in the shade to relax and enjoy the view.

People’s Park – This was one of our highlights in the latest monthly update!

Where We Ate

The most interesting places to eat would have been the different street food stalls all over the place, but we had met enough fellow travelers who reported getting food poisoning that we decided to stick to restaurants. In doing this, we discovered that in most cases, especially near our guesthouse, the restaurants were more expensive in Yangon than they were in other parts of the country. At the Malaysian place across the street we both just got fried rice since everything else was twice what we had been paying for entrees elsewhere, and then at a Chinese/Shan place down the street Eric was downright shocked when the bill came and his dish was $7 (we had been paying in the neighborhood of $2-$3 in other places).

We did find some nice cheap restaurants elsewhere in the city with the help of Lonely Planet. The first was Aung Thukha near the Shwedagon Paya. This was one of the standard curry places where you chose a main meat and got to enjoy it with a soup, rice, and vegetable side dishes. Della got a pork curry and Eric went with catfish.

Catfish curry plus all of the sides

Catfish curry plus all of the sides

Near the National Museum we ate at Feel Restaurant. The menu was quite overwhelming, with 20 pages of choices, and none of the descriptions in English. We both pointed at pictures that looked good and hoped for the best. Della ended up with a noodle dish and Eric ended up with a soup with the consistency of egg drop soup with a meat that tasted like chicken. We crossed our fingers as the bill came, and were very pleasantly surprised that each dish was only $2!

Final Thoughts

We think it was the right decision to spend our last five days all in Yangon. There were plenty of things to do, and we enjoyed getting to explore the city at a leisurely pace instead of rushing between sights. The city was also a great way to get a good last glimpse of the people and culture of Myanmar. As we flew out of Yangon, we were a little sad to say goodbye!

Monthly Recap: Month 7

It is a little surreal to be writing a monthly update for month 7! That means we are more than halfway through our trip… Feels very strange. In some ways it feels like we’ve been going forever! In others it feels like we’ve barely started… And when we think about our long break at home and then heading off to a brand new continent, it almost is like we really just started!

Here are our stats for this month.

Countries visited: 5 (USA, Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Singapore, Indonesia) Though, Indonesia hardly counts because we just arrived on Jan 31.

Beds Slept In: 11 (This is a particularly high number in part because we had 3 different beds in Mandalay… all in the same hotel, but three beds all the same!)

UNESCO Heritage Sights Visited: 0  Total on RTW: 34

We traveled by 6 planes this month!

We traveled by 0 trains this month.

We traveled by 2 long distance buses.

We traveled by 1 long distance boat.

We traveled by 2 shared taxis.

Top Moments:

~ We arrived in Mandalay not entirely sure what to expect. We had heard that it might be difficult to travel in Myanmar… However, the minute we arrived at our very first guesthouse we were overwhelmed with the kindness of the people. “Mama” at Yoe Yoe Lay guesthouse treated us as if we were family and was kind, generous, and fun to be around. Every other staff person there seemed unbelievably kind. The accommodations were also quite lovely and at a good price. It also didn’t hurt that the moment we walked in, we started talking to another couple who we really enjoyed and hungout with multiple times thereafter. The guests at the guesthouse were great and the staff was even better. It made Mandalay particularly enjoyable for us!

Della with "Mama" - the head of our amazing guesthouse - Yoe Yoe Lay

Della with “Mama” – the head of our amazing guesthouse – Yoe Yoe Lay

Eric enjoying breakfast at Yoe Yoe Lay

Eric enjoying breakfast at Yoe Yoe Lay

~ We knew we were going to take a boat tour on Inle Lake. It was a “must do.” However, we had read some conflicting accounts about the tours. Some people said they were canned and that the guides kept taking you to shops and trying to get you to buy things. Others complained about the limitations of being on a tour, feeling constricted in their freedom of where and when to spend their time. Some of those things were true on our boat trip, but somehow it didn’t matter. We spent hours floating through the lake. The destinations on the lake actually hardly mattered – we thought just being on the lake and observing the beauty and the way of life was wonderful. The day was gorgeous and we spent the time on the lake in quiet contemplation, enjoying our ability to do this trip and explore new places.

Families zipping through the waterways

Families zipping through the waterways

People working their fields

People working their fields

Beautiful Inle Lake

Beautiful Inle Lake

Runners up for Top Moments:

~ Our second town in Myanmar was called Pyin Oo Lwin. We had heard that the town wasn’t really worth the trip, that it was only blah. However, we were interested in visiting because Della’s parents had visited on their rtw trip 35 years ago. They had many great memories of the beauty of the town, the old colonial buildings, and of the people out strolling the gardens under their parasols. We wanted to see what they remembered. We spent a whole day chasing the past in Pyin Oo Lwin! We ran into some troubles finding some of the places, but ultimately succeeded and really enjoyed the time biking through town. In additions, the gardens were absolutely gorgeous. We again had a lovely day!  Unfortunately, we didn’t see any parasols.

The pagoda in the beautiful gardens of Pyin Oo Lwin

The pagoda in the beautiful gardens of Pyin Oo Lwin

The beautiful colonial house Candicraig - where Della's parents stayed when they visited 35 years ago

The beautiful colonial house Candicraig – where Della’s parents stayed when they visited 35 years ago

~ Our final day in Myanmar was in Yangon. We spent several days in Yangon, probably more than we really needed to, but it allowed for some relaxing days. Our last day, we headed to the National Museum and then to the nearby People’s Park. It is a lovely park with some strange attractions, like an old plane, trees with hanging bridges between them, and giant banana statues. It also has great view of the Shwedagon Pagoda. But the most fun part was that they decided to blast music throughout the park. When we first heard it, we thought it must be some sort of performance or event, but it turned out it wasn’t. Della was, of course, tempted to dance, though she didn’t because no one else was even moving to the beat. We enjoyed the music, the views, people watching, and the sunset as our time in Myanmar wound to a close.

Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset as seen from People's Park

Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset as seen from People’s Park

The sun sets on our time in Myanmar

The sun sets on our time in Myanmar

Items Missing, Broken, Discarded, or Added:

Nothing!

Packing Update:

See our posts on both Della’s and Eric’s packing update!

Books Read: (Have you read any of these??)

Della has read Snuff by Terry Pratchett (3), Animal Farm by George Orwell (4), The Fault in Our Stars by John Green (3), I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (4), Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (4)

Eric has read Wild by Cheryl Strayed (4), Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind (3), Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling (3), No Birds Sing by Jo Bannister (3.5)

Eric and Della have BOTH read Burmese Days by George Orwell (4), Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (4), My Sister’s Bones by Cathi Hanauer (3.75), Hearts in Atlantis by Stephan King (4)

The rating system is for Della’s mom who is refusing to just go look on Goodreads. It is 1 to 5, 5 being the highest.

Make sure to catch up on all our monthly recaps: Monthly Recap 1, Monthly Recap 2, Monthly Recap 3,Monthly Recap 4, Monthly Recap 5, Monthly Recap 6

Exploring the Past in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar

Most people visit the town of Pyin Oo Lwin in the hills to the north of Mandalay to revisit its past history as Maymyo, a “hill station” founded by the British to escape the heat of the lower elevations and later the location of the colonial summer capital. While we were interested in visiting the sights associated with this history, we were also interested to visit because Della’s parents had visited Maymyo on their RTW trip as well. When home for the holidays, we had come across a few pictures of their time in town and wanted to try and see how they had changed in 15 years.

Getting There

On the advice of our guesthouse, we took a shared taxi to get to Pyin Oo Lwin from Mandalay. This is basically the same thing as a normal taxi, in that it picked us up at our guesthouse and dropped us off at our new one, with the only difference being that there were two other passengers that were in the car at the same time. It wasn’t too expensive ($10) so we were happy with the service. The road to Pyin Oo Lwin is narrow and windy, so we definitely held on tight as our driver passed the slower-moving trucks.

The road with no lanes, passing the slow trucks up the hill!

The road with no lanes, passing the slow trucks up the hill!

We also took a shared taxi to get back down to Mandalay after our stay was over. This time we noticed something interesting: halfway down, the driver pulled over to the side of the road and poured buckets of water over the brakes, which produced a good amount of steam. Guess the brakes were in danger of overheating!

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Can hardly see, but the driver is pouring water over the back brakes!

 

Where We Stayed

We found the Royal Flower Guest House on tripadvisor and called them from our place in Mandalay to make a booking. We got a double room with an ensuite bathroom for $30 a night (breakfast included). The room was nice, and the staff was very friendly and helpful. Also, it had a very nice patio on the roof where we could watch the sunset.

What We Did

Most of the activities we chose to do were driven by our desire to try and see how the places had changed since Della’s parents had visited them. But, these were also the most popular activities so we didn’t go too far off the beaten track.

Pwe Kauk Falls – Our first day in town we rented bicycles from our guesthouse and rode in the direction of these small waterfalls that we thought Della’s parents had visited. This was about a 5 mile ride along a highway, which was a little scary but we were able to hear big trucks coming and get over in time. We had gotten general directions from our guesthouse for the turn-off to the falls, but almost missed it because there is no English sign. If you are trying to find the falls, make sure to take this road:

Turn down here off the main road!

Turn down here off the main road!

Once there, we paid our entry fee and camera fee and then explored the different small falls. The infrastructure around the falls makes it feel like it is a nice local getaway, with different restaurants and souvenir stands, and concrete paths and bridges between the different parts. We were the only foreign tourists there for a while as well. We wandered through both the lower and upper part. We think we found the area in the upper part where Wayne swam, but aren’t sure. We also purchased some local wine: both strawberry and something we had never heard of called damson.

Candacraig Hotel – This former British guesthouse is actually where Della’s parents stayed when they visited Pyin Oo Lwin. Our guesthouse listed it more as a local attraction than as a place to find accommodations, but the Lonely Planet does say it’s possible to stay there. We again rented bikes and set out to find it and see how much it had changed. A word of warning to anyone else trying to do this: make sure you know where you are headed! We trusted a map given to us by the guesthouse, and where that map put the Candacraig was wrong and where the owner told us to go was wrong. We investigated multiple old colonial houses in the general area before finally asking a few locals who pointed us in the right direction. (Looks like the location on the Lonely Planet map is correct but we didn’t have that along…).

Finally found it! Phew!

Finally found it! Phew!

The hotel had a very mysterious and slightly abandoned air about it. There didn’t seem to be anyone else around and the garden was somewhat overgrown. It definitely feels like something that would have been built during the colonial era. We took a few pictures of the outside and then headed on.

National Kandawgyi Gardens – This large botanic gardens surrounding a lake also dates from the colonial era and is the main highlight to be seen in Pyin Oo Lwin. After finding the Candacraig, we rode our bikes down to the park and spent the rest of the day exploring the different areas and just relaxing. There are quite a few different areas to visit, so we followed the map to make sure we didn’t miss anything. The highlights included the town name spelled out in flowers, a petrified wood and fossil display, an elevated walkway through a swamp, a bamboo garden, a pine forest, an aviary, an elevated walkway through a forest, an orchid garden and a butterfly museum. There was also an observation tower, where we climbed 201 steps to an observation deck for views back over the park.

Also in the middle of the lake was an island with a pagoda which we think was in one of Della’s parents’ pictures. It doesn’t look exactly the same as before, but we think it has to be it. We were disappointed that we didn’t see anyone strolling around the lake with a parasol either like there was before.

Where We Ate

Our first night in town, we ate at a place on the main road very close to our accommodations called the Seezar Bistro. They had a huge menu so it took us a while to figure out what we wanted. Della got her standard fried noodle plate and Eric ordered a “Seezar” fried rice which ended up coming with an omelet wrapped around the fried rice – pretty neat!

Our second night in town we decided to branch out from Myanmar food and check out a South Indian restaurant called Aung Padamayar that had been recommended in the Lonely Planet. There was no menu, just a choice between chicken or mutton for a curry. The meat (we both chose chicken) in the spicy sauce came with rice, a lentil soup, curried vegetables and freshly made papadum. We were plenty full by end! It was a little more expensive than the previous night, but not so outrageous, so we were pretty annoyed to hear the tourists at the next table over loudly complaining to the waitress about “how expensive” it was (the meal cost $4 each).

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Our expensive meal!

 

Final Thoughts

Pyin Oo Lwin was a pleasant place to spend a couple of days! We had a lot of fun on our “scavenger hunt” for items from Wayne and Peggy’s trip, but even beyond that enjoyed the vibe of what this former colonial town had to offer.

 

Our First Taste of Myanmar in Mandalay

Out first stop in the country of Myanmar was the city of Mandalay. When originally planning this part of our trip, we had assumed that we would start in Yangon, but when we found out it was possible to get to Mandalay we figured it would be better to start up top and do a one-way trip down to Yangon. The guidebooks and fellow travelers didn’t rave about Mandalay itself, so we wondered a little bit if it was going to be that much fun to visit.

Getting There

The key to our decision to start in Mandalay was figuring out that there was a cheap flight from Bangkok to Mandalay every day on AirAsia (technically the same airline as the one that just crashed, but there are different subsidiaries in each country and this one on the Thai version). The flight left from Bangkok’s secondary airport, Don Mueang, which we had to take a taxi to get to. The flight itself was delayed for an hour because of a military airshow, so we were there in plenty of time and were able to enjoy a bowl of noodles at the gate.

The Mandalay airport itself was a bit small but getting in and getting our bags went smoothly. It is located 45 minutes outside of the city, but AirAsia provides a free shuttle to the city center. We caught the shuttle and then at the dropoff point were able to get a taxi to our guesthouse.

Where We Stayed

We can’t rave enough about the Yoe Yoe Lay Guesthouse. If you are going to Mandalay, you should stay there, no question. The level of service is amazing: everything is done with a smile, the provided breakfast is large and you have to fight to keep from getting extras and the facilities are nice, clean and commodious. The owner, who everyone calls “Mama,” is amazingly kind and generous, and will go out of her way to make you feel at home. Also, this place seems to attract a nice crowd of like-minded travelers, and we made a lot of fun connections just hanging out in the common area each night. Yoe Yoe Lay set a very high bar for the level of accommodations we are going to expect in Myanmar.

We ended up staying at Yoe Yoe Lay for four nights, and in three separate private rooms. We only booked two nights in advance since we weren’t sure we would like Mandalay, but almost immediately we decided we wanted one more. But by the time we asked them, our room was already spoken for, so we had to switch to a different room. The new one had a private bathroom instead of using the shared facilities, so it wasn’t too much of a sacrifice. We also stayed one more night in a different room after spending two nights in the nearby town of Pyin Oo Lwin (separate blog post coming soon).

What We Did

Ancient Cities Tour

The taxi driver who took us to the Guesthouse on the first day also told us that he would offer his services for the day to drive us around to sights in the three “ancient cities” near Mandalay: Amarapura, Sagaing and Inwa. All three were the capital of a kingdom at some point in history and have remnants left over from their glory days in addition to active Buddhist sites. The cost for the day was $35, which our host told us was reasonable, so we decided to accept.

The day started out bright and early with our driver picking us up at 8:00 AM. Our first stop was actually within the city of Mandalay: the Mahamuni Paya, the main Buddhist temple in the city. He dropped us off at one of the lesser-used entrances. We put our shoes in lockers (everyone must be barefoot within the sacred area) and walked into the complex. The main attraction is a 13-foot tall seated Buddha, made of gold and believed to be 2000 years old. Male worshippers may approach this image and apply gold leaf, but women have to sit outside or watch on one of the TV monitors. There were quite a few people visiting this image on the day we were there. In the buildings surrounding the courtyard, we also went through a gallery of paintings describing how the Buddha was moved to Mandalay and a room with some bronze figures from Angkor Wat.

The next stop on our tour was at a shop that did traditional wood carving. It was pretty interesting to watch the male workers chisel away at the pieces of teak wood. We were tempted by a smaller piece but didn’t want to have to figure out how to get it home. Inside there were some ladies working on pieces of embroidery. We did buy a smaller piece of this which had an owl on it.

We then headed onto Amarpura and into the Maha Ganayon Kyuang Monastery there. Our driver instructed us on where to stand to watch them get their lunch at 10:25. We had a little bit of time before to wander around the grounds. We made it back to the spot by the road in time for them to line up. Unfortunately, there were a ton of other tourists there, so it was kind of a strange experience, with everyone snapping pictures of all of the monks as they stood in line. It was interesting to watch the process of how they got their food: volunteers were standing just outside the dining hall, and the monks would file past and get a large serving of rice, some cake and a drink.

We got back in the car and drove on south. We paused before crossing the big Ayerarwady River on the new bridge to take in the sight of the river and our next destination: Sagaing Hill. We could see the large hill with many sparkling pagodas covering it. This was the site of a capital of a Shan kingdom in the 14th century but now is mainly known as a big site for monasteries and temples.

We were dropped off at the base of the hill and shown the path to take to get to the top, through One Lion Gate. The path up took a while – Lonely Planet says it was 350 steps. Once we reached the top, we took off our shoes and explored the Pon Nya Shin Pya, with its shiny gold stupa and a big Buddha image. The platform surrounding gave nice views of the surrounding area. We stopped and sat for a while just to relax.

We headed back down the stairs and found our driver. We drove back over the river on the old bridge (much smaller) and went to the dock to head to the dock for Inwa. We found out that the driver doesn’t actually take you there – you have to take a boat across. Inwa has been the site of a royal capital four different times from 1364 to 1841. There are a few ruins and old temples spread about. The way they expect you to see the sites is by horse cart. We weren’t sure we wanted to pay for this, so we started walking past them, declining numerous offers. We had just turned the corner when we gave in to one persistent driver and took the cart. This caused some sort of argument between him and other drivers, which left us feeling a bit awkward.

The ride in the cart down the narrow dirt/sand paths was fun but quite bumpy. After a little while we were dropped off at our first stop, Maha Aungmye Bonzan, also called the “Brick Monastery” since it was built from brick covered in stucco (in 1822). It felt quite older than the other temples that we had thus far seen. There weren’t a lot of other people around. As we were first circling, a teenage boy came up and started talking with us in English. We think he just wanted to practice, because he never asked for anything. We had to pause where a Burmese family basically insisted that we take a picture with their infant. Della held it while the rest of the family tried to make the baby look at them. We then took off our shoes and entered inside the upper level, still accompanied by our conversation friend. He followed us until we left to head back out to the horse cart.

We then stopped at Nanmyin, the “leaning tower of Inwa”. This was a watchtower for the palace of King Bagyidaw. The staircase to go up into the tower was closed for safety reasons so we just briefly walked around one side of it.

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Back on the cart, our driver cut through a banana field and took us to the Bagaya Monastery. This temple is built out of dark teak wood, and definitely had a different feel to it. This was probably our favorite of the different things we saw in Inwa. It was also the most crowded with tourists. We took our time strolling around the buildings, making sure not to damage our bare foot with any nails.

Our final stop was a small complex called the Yadana Sinme Pagoda. The highlight of this area was the ruins of an old chamber (with columns arranged like a Christian church) with three Buddha statues at one end.

Our horse cart driver then returned us back to the dock. We hopped right on a boat and returned to the other side where our driver was waiting. He drove us back to Amarapura, this time to the U-Bein Bridge. This famous bridge is made out of teak wood and is over 1 km long, making it the longest teak bridge in the world. It also seems to be quite a popular destination in the evening, with many people strolling back and forth over it. We walked all the way over to the other end of it, then returned to about halfway and waited for the sunset. Eric went down off the bridge briefly to snap some pictures of the bridge from below on an island.

As it got dark we returned to our accommodations, arriving at about 6:30 PM. Quite a long day of sightseeing!

Sandamuni Paya and Kuthodaw Paya

The next day we decided to stick to sightseeing within the city limits. We rented bikes from the guesthouse and braved the Mandalay traffic (just stick your nose out there and people generally give you a wide berth), heading in the general direction of Mandalay Hill. We rode past the large fortress walls and moat but did not go inside.

This was one of the quieter streets we rode on. Otherwise we couldn't have taken this picture!

This was one of the quitter streets we rode on. Otherwise we couldn’t have taken this picture!

Our first stop was the serene Sandamuni Paya, which contains rows upon rows of white stupas (1774 to be exact), each of which holds a marble slab inscribed with a page of writings from one of the teachings of Buddha. There were few people here, and we enjoyed relaxing and listening to the tinkling of the bells attached to the tops of the stupas. While we were wandering, a monk approached us and struck up a conversation in order to practice his English.

He directed us towards the nearby Kuthodaw Paya, which has 729 inscribed marble slabs of its own. Its temple complex was more brightly colored that Sandamuni, and there were many more people visiting, so we didn’t prefer it quite as much.

Mandalay Hill

We rode to the base of Mandalay Hill, parking our bikes in a dedicated area next to the entrance with two big stone lions. We knew this would be a long hike up, so we were sad to see that we had to take our shoes off at the base! Reluctantly we followed the rules and started hiking up the hard concrete barefoot.

After long flights of stairs, we went through a few different small pagodas and one with a large statue. We made it to a landing with a pagoda with a large golden Buddha pointing back at the city. We thought this must be the top so we stopped and gulped some water.

But then we walked around the back and saw the stairs continued upwards. We kept going, and realized that it seemed like it would never end. We passed more small pagodas, a really steep staircase that led to what felt like an abandoned warehouse, and a flashy temple with a Buddha footprint. Then, we finally reached the top! We walked around the outside railing, enjoying the views in all directions of the area below. We also sat own and rested our aching bare feet.

But we knew we couldn’t pause for too long since it was almost 4:30, and we didn’t want to be riding bikes home too long after the sun set at 5:30. We started back down the hill at 4:50. Our feet were really killing us but we pushed on as fast as we could. It took us about 20 minutes to get down. We hopped back on our bikes and rode home as fast as we could, making it back just as it started to get dark.

Where We Ate

We had heard that Myanmar food left something to be desired, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect. As it turns out, we were pleasantly surprised by the meals we received.

Our first night in Mandalay, we headed with some fellow travelers to Win-Win 35, a restaurant/beer station/live music venue within walking distance of Yoe Yoe Lay. Each of us got a variation of an “iron plate”, which turned out to be an iron skillet with a meat of choice sizzling on top (kind of like fajitas). It was very tasty and filling – we probably could have shared one between the two of us.

Iron plates at the Win-Win

Iron plates at the Win-Win

On our Ancient Cities day trip, our driver directed us for lunch to a restaurant near the Inwa ferry landing. It felt pretty touristy but was a nice introduction to some of the traditional dishes. Della tried some of the fried noodles, which she enjoyed. Eric ordered a chicken curry, in which the meat itself was definitely mildly spiced, but the best part was that curries traditionally come with multiple side dishes, including a sour vegetable soup, noodles, and a few different sauces plus vegetables for dipping.

Eric's curry came with a lot of side dishes

Eric’s curry came with a lot of side dishes

The day we rode our bikes to Mandalay Hill, we stopped for lunch at Too Too Restaurant downtown, recommended by both our guesthouse and Lonely Planet. Here we each picked a curry from a selection of trays near the front. We enjoyed eating our selected meat with the similar spread of all-you-can-eat side dishes and rice.

Lunch at Too-Too

Lunch at Too-Too

 

The day we returned from Pyin Oo Lwin, we ate lunch at a simple noodle house next door to Yoe Yoe Lay. We thought our noodles were great, but that may have been because “Mama” came over and made sure the cooks knew not to make them too oily (a common complaint from tourists)!

Our noodles, as supervised by Mama

Our noodles, as supervised by Mama

Final Thoughts

As it turns out, we are really glad that we started our trip in Mandalay. We enjoyed the sites that we saw, and we got to experience a great guesthouse. If this is a destination that some people think is skippable, we can’t wait to see what the rest of Myanmar has in store for us!