Beautiful stupas, a floating market and a misty mountain lake

I felt someone shaking my shoulder. Opening my eyes, groggy with fuzzy vision I see a Burmese man looking at me. “Inle Lake?” he says to Anjli and I.I look outside, it’s still dark outside. What time is it? I look at my phone and it’s 4:30 am. We’re not supposed to arrive for another 3 hours. The Burmese man says to us “Inle Lake?” Anjli and I look at each other and then at him and nod yes. He points to the door. We quickly exit the bus, it’s freezing outside. We’re in the middle of some village next to a lone tea stall. Everything is closed and just a couple of people huddle around warm cups of tea. Our bags are set on the ground and the bus is gone before we’re even fully awake. Now what?

We had gotten on the night bus from Yangon to Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake’s tourist village) at about 5pm the night before. Everything we read said that it’s supposed to take 15 hours to get there. Somehow we had arrived in less than 12. I start to panic a little. Here I am in the middle of the road in some small village in Burma, a wife in tow with nowhere to go and no one that speaks English at 4 in the morning. Anjli is approached by a man in a jacket and a beanie. He says to her “Inle Lake Taxi?” to which, Anjli replies “Yes”. He says to her “8,000 Kyat”, roughly eight dollars. Luckily Anjli has done all the necessary reading in our Lonely Planet guide and speaking with other travelers, and it turns out that this is quite common. Being dropped off in the middle of the road at crazy hours of the morning, that is. Anjli assures me this is safe and we should get in this guy’s cab. It’s 13 kilometers to Nyaung Shwe, we stop just outside the village pay our foreigner fees ($10 each) and are dropped off at the Primrose hotel. We’d met a German couple a couple days earlier in Yangon that had recommended it to us. Two very smiley girls in their pajamas greeted us at the door and showed us the room. We took the room and the girls said get some rest and we could process the payment later that morning.

Burma is an incredibly safe country. Within 25 minutes of being dropped off on a random street corner, we were safely ushered to a clean hotel and had already crawled in to a warm bed. Anjli and I slept like logs for the next seven hours. For $30 a night, we got a clean room with hot showers and a wonderful breakfast with locally grown coffee. We had found a gem of a place.

After an amazing pancake breakfast, Anjli and I went off to explore the town and to find ourselves a boat for the next day. We wanted to check out the 5 day morning market and get our bearings around town. We spent the day just walking around Nyaung Shwe, a quaint little tourist village with lots of little cafes and restaurants. At night we went to check out a puppet show that was recommended and it turned out to be kind of fun but I think we realized that the intended audience is probably the five to seven year olds that were dancing along with the puppets and not a 30-something year old couple like us. Anjli and I chuckled at how silly we looked surrounded by toddlers watching a puppet show. 😛

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The next morning as our boat pulled out of the pier, a dark, dense fog surrounded us. We could hear the loud diesel engine noises of the early morning boat traffic but we couldn’t see more than a 100 feet in front of us. It was ever so cold and we were wrapped in thick blankets. The wind chill from the boat moving can get quite cold. As our boat worked its way out of the canal and further away from the village, the fog seemed to get denser.

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We worried about how we wouldn’t see the leg rowing fisherman we’d heard so much about. But as we neared the end of the canal, the mist seemed to clear a bit. And then out of the fog, we saw them. The fisherman on their boats and huge basket like nets rowing along.

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The whole scene was something from a fantasy. Speeding through an alpine lake in Burma, early hours of the morning, seeing local fisherman on their skiffs, a mist hangs over the surface of the water, while the lake is surrounded by rolling hills with their peaks dotted with golden stupas. It was incredible. I always say to Anjli that sometimes there are moments in life where I wish I could pause them, freeze them and keep them with me to be able to come back and live those moments again. Being out on the lake that morning was one such moment.

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We spent the rest of the day going around different villages, checking out different hilltop monasteries and ruins. Many of the monasteries and stupas have been around for over a thousand years.

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We had lunch at a restaurant that was a huge house built on stilts over the water, we visited a factory that made scarves from lotus silk and had just all around fun day of exploring the lake.

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When we finally came back in to town at 4 pm, we were ready for some dinner and drinks. Here’s a picture of Anjli enjoying a Lychee martini.

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Continuing our theme of drinking, Anjli and I decided to bicycle down to one of Myanmar’s only two wineries, Red Mountain Estate. At breakfast that morning, we met Francis who happened to be from Seattle. Francis, a recent UW graduate, is travelling through Asia on a fellowship studying and writing about, among other things, ethnic minorities in Southeast Asian countries. He’d been on the road (if I recall correctly) for five months and planned to be travelling for another six or seven months. WOW!

So after breakfast, Francis, Anjli and I hopped on our bicycles and had wonderful bike ride through the village to the winery. We passed through open fields and beautiful countryside yelling ‘mingulaba’ to the villagers who all yelled it back with huge smiles and waves. We sampled wines and Francis and I decided to share a bottle of the Shiraz – Tempranillo while Anjli got a glass of their late harvest which was similar to a Riesling. Best of all, the bottle of wine was only 10 bucks. No markups. We met some other interesting travelers there, a professor from Finland and a couple from Holland. Between the wine and the conversation, nearly five hours had passed. Anjli and I stumbled back to our bicycles, smiling and just happy about the wonderful time we’d just had. Travelling has been fun but it was nice to just sit, relax and have a bottle of wine over sunshine. It felt like a bit of home drinking on the rooftop of our condo back in Seattle with friends.

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We rode back to the hotel on the bicycles watching the sun go down of the valley excited for our next adventure. The next morning we were to be off to Bagan, the land of a 1000 temples.

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Rudyard Kipling: “This is Burma. It is quite unlike any place you know.”

We had been planning our six months of travel for a long time. It was something we were so excited about! We knew we wanted to go with the flow and not plan the itinerary ahead of time, but we couldn’t help day-dreaming and discussing about which countries we wanted to visit. Burma, the second most isolated country in the world, had both of us intrigued. We didn’t know very much about the country other than the general population wanted democracy and both Obama and Hilary Clinton had visited in 2012 to support this view.

We arrived to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) International Airport, a beautiful open air building of glass. Anjli and I quickly made our way through immigration as we had procured our visas a couple days earlier from a visa service in Bangkok. Just $10 each and it saved us a whole day plus a trip to the Myanmar embassy. We grabbed our bags and after a quick stop at the duty free for a bottle of scotch for me :), we made our way to the exit. Two pretty young Burmese girls were standing near the exit with a sign that said “Downtown Taxi $5”. After a few minutes wait for the taxi and loading our bags, we were on our way to downtown. The streets were nice and broad and there wasn’t very much traffic. There were a couple of tall buildings but the landscape was mostly flat with houses and offices scattered along the sides of the road. I commented on how the city seemed more developed than I had expected and couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed. We got dropped off near Bogyoke Aung San Market and ended up at this wonderful guesthouse just outside of downtown near the Ayeyarwady River.

We dropped our bags and immediately went out exploring. Up until a few years ago, people were required to wear the traditional longyi (like a sarong) and pants are apparently a fairly recent phenomenon. We walked through busy markets with lots of street side stalls with people selling all manner of things. There were tons of street side food stalls where people sat in child size plastic chairs and stools around pots full of curries, noodles and vegetable dishes. Other street stalls had tons of interesting looking street meats that the vendors would cook for you on demand. I am a vegetarian and Anjli’s tummy had been upset so we decided not to partake. We did buy interesting looking fruits including bite size oranges and something that looked like small green tomatoes but tasted crispy like an apple but had the flavor of something I’d never tasted before. It was refreshing to see independent restaurants and stores, no McDonalds or KFC, no billboards for Coca-Cola or Pepsi.

Shwedagon Pagoda

After exploring a little bit, we hopped in a cab and made our way to Yangon’s highlight: Shwedagon Paya. I don’t think one can say that they’ve seen Shwedagon Paya. It’s probably more appropriate to say that they’ve experienced it. A 322ft (a little more than half the height of the space needle) tall gold gilded stupa that is surrounded by a compound of temples, Buddha statues, a museum and so much more. We arrived about an hour before sunset and started the hike up the west entrance to the compound. Along the steps, vendors sold bright and beautiful Buddha statues made of bronze, wood and stone. The ceiling above the shops held hundreds of frescoes that displayed images from the life of Buddha. We were overwhelmed by how beautifully constructed the whole place was.

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After about a twenty minute hike up the steps, we arrived at the top. Coming over those last steps just as the pagoda came in to view was amazing. The sheer size of it is something that’s difficult to comprehend until you actually stand in front of it and look up at it. Anjli and I just sat at the entrance for a good ten minutes just staring at it…speechless…motionless. We took a few pictures and lingered at the entrance for another ten minutes before moving on. The sun was on its way down and the light was starting to change. The way it reflected off the bright gold pagoda, gave it hues of purple, red, yellow.

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We walked around the compound viewing it from different angles while checking out hundreds of smaller stupas and Buddha images around the compound. There was a small museum that had pictures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries along with some history of the pagoda. Anjli and I are not at all religious. In fact we border on atheist/agnostic. The lonely planet guide accurately said that experiencing Shwedagon Paya could make you “question your inner atheist”.

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After literally five hours there, we descended down the north entrance and hopped a cab back to our hotel. We finished off the night at an Indian restaurant over some dosas and ice cold Myanmar beers.

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Yangon Walking Tour

The next day we decided to follow the self guided walking tour around the city center. We started off at Sule Paya, another beautiful gold stupa that is housed in a traffic circle in the center of the city. From there we made our way to a traditional Burmese Café where we had some tea and snacks.

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We walked around for about thirty minutes checking out many impressive buildings including city hall, port authority, the supreme court, etc before walking past The Strand Hotel ($550 per night!), we met two little girls outside that were trying to sell us postcards. Anjli started up a conversation with them and before we knew it we were at a restaurant having lunch with them. Shakuntala and Kara were friends that lived across the river in a small village. Each day they would camp out outside of the Strand Hotel trying to sell postcards to tourists. Both of these girls were smart, bright eyed, with huge smiles and so full of life. We talked with them about Myanmar and the recent changes, what they wanted to do when they grow up, etc. Myanmar has a troubled past where military rule has been the norm for the better part of the last fifty years. Only recently has a semi democratic government been installed and the country has opened its doors to tourism. With a per capita income of a mere $435, the country is in dire need of investment and support. Shakuntala was 14 years old and spoke almost fluent English that she had learnt from her ‘foreigner friend’. She also spoke some German, French and a handful of other languages. She quit school when her father passed away in the 2008 Cyclone Nargis and started selling postcards so that her mother didn’t have to work. She wanted to open up a shop selling jeans – smart girl since the majority of Yangon’s population still wore longyis and a trendy few had started to wear trousers. It just broke our hearts to see such smart kids, clearly with so much potential not being able to realize it. Still, the country is full of hope and after decades of suppression, the people are excited about the future. Tourism and other industries are now booming in Myanmar. Investment from China, India and other surrounding countries should also help to make things better here.

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After a fun lunch with the girls, we continued on our tour. After a few more buildings, we walked over to Little India where immigrants from the south of India have a small community. We saw Indians, Burmese, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus, sitting in and outside their shops talking, smiling, making transactions and just living together. All of them, men and women wearing the traditional Burmese longyis. It’s quite a sight. Anjli and I sat down outside a lassi shop (yes, you can get lassis in Burma :)) on a pair of child size plastic chairs and enjoyed a couple of cold strawberry lassis just people watching, chatting with locals and hanging out. We had more than a couple people start up conversations with us in Hindi. The first time it happened, we were so surprised. An elderly Muslim man put his hands together and yelled out Namaste to us! The diaspora that Indian immigrants have created while mixing with Chinese and Burmese cultures is truly unique and just delightful to experience.

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We finished our lassis and finished our tour back at Bogyok Aung San Market, where hundreds of vendors are selling jade jewelry. We walked in to one shop where stoneworkers were grinding away extracting beautiful jade Buddhas, bracelets, earrings from huge rocks. Anjli and I walked back to our hotel just people watching, enjoying random street snacks, loving the experience of being in Yangon. Our first couple days in Myanmar had been amazing but there was much more of the country to see and we were to be off the next day.