Category Archives: Burma (Myanmar)

Inle Lake

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Our trek led us into one of the hundreds of finger-like canals that feed into Inle Lake.  It is a stunningly beautiful place, with homes on stilts over farmland that somehow grows right into the lake. The lake is fairly large at 44 square miles but the average depth is only five feet.

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We saw men up to their chests in water tending to the crops. Women were rowing long sleek canoes filled with vegetables. Inle Lake is known for the “leg rowers,” where men hold a single paddle with one leg, standing on the other leg at the back of the boat, gyrating their body rhythmically to row. It keeps their hands free for fishing and farm work.

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While there were certainly some tourists around, Burma kept its “untouristy” streak going strong at Inle Lake. It is serene, unique and still feels relatively untouched.

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We stayed at the Golden Island Cottages 2 which was fantastic. It was our “splurge” in Burma at $80 a night. It is centrally located on the lake and all the rooms are private cottages on stilts over the water, with open lake views on one side and the bordering hills on the other. An amazing place to stay.

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Unfortunately… Inle Lake was the only place I got sick during our three months on the road (I think my large intestine was trying to eat my small intestine but only for 24 hours). Nonetheless, the place was still unquestionably a highlight of the trip.

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Trek to Inle Lake

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After temple touring in Bagan we headed to Kalaw, a small mountain town in Central Myanmar, to start our three-day trek to Inle Lake. This trek is a must-do for backpacker travelers in Myanmar, and since we had transformed into super tough and rugged backpackers over the past two months (see “modified backpacking” in Chile, 16 porters on Kili, and a very tearful summit) we signed up right away.

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Dan had organized our trek with a local guide, Toe Toe, months ahead of time — her company was recommended in Lonely Planet and she had rave reviews on Trip Advisor, so we were excited that she had two spots on a trek that worked with our itinerary.

As planned, we showed up at Toe Toe’s Kalaw office the day before our trek, but the door was padlocked shut with a sign that said “Closed — come back at 12 or 4:30.” Not a good sign.

We were so devoted to the elusive Toe Toe that we waited in front of the office at noon and again at 4:30 PM, hoping this 5-star trip advisor guide had not forgotten about us.

She had. Or, as we later learned, Toe Toe’s trips leave when six trekkers show up ready to go, email ‘confirmation’ or not. Welcome to Burma!

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As it approached 6 PM we realized we needed a Plan B. Our hotel recommended Sam’s Trekking, which was also Lonely Planet approved, so we walked over to Sam’s office hoping we could sign up for a last minute trek.

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We were in luck! Sam has 22 guides and fit us in on a trip leaving the next morning. Each trekking group can have up to six trekkers, so we joined up with a group of four awesome travelers from Ireland, Estonia, and Germany.

The total cost of our trip for three days/two nights, plus all food and lodging included, plus a guide and dedicated cook — was a whopping $40 per person. Welcome to Burma!

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The trek turned out to be our favorite Burmese experience. We hiked through remote villages and beautiful countryside. Our chef (below in the hat) made amazing traditional Burmese meals — the best food we ate in Asia, all cooked over a tiny little fire.

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The first night we slept in a family’s home, on the floor with mats and blankets. No toilets, no running water — just a bucket for washing located next to the buffalo trail (see me below).

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The second night we slept in a similar setting, at a small one-room house that Sam’s trekking company rents out along the route.

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Our 22-year-old guide Chau Xu (“Cho Sue”) was awesome, and insisted on holding every baby we passed along the way.

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Our trekking family — Yasmin and Paul from Ireland, Kristiina from Estonia, and Alex from Germany — was the best. The long, hot hiking days passed by quickly as we all shared travel stories. And as always our list of must-see destinations grew by the minute.

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By the end of the three day adventure we were completely exhausted — intense heat, blisters (I missed my Kili boots!), dust and more dust. We all had a newfound appreciation for showers and beds and agreed however primitive our next guesthouse was, we’d be grateful!

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We finished the trek at the base of the mountains, on a small river leading into Inle Lake. After lunch and fresh coconuts we took a little boat down one of the hundreds of canals leading us into Inle Lake, passing floating gardens and villages along the way.

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In the end, we were thankful that our plans had fallen apart and Toe Toe had stood us up. Our new guide and group could not have been better. Another travel fiasco turned blessing in disguise…and now, onto Inle Lake!

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Bagan’s 4,000 temples

From Yangon we went to Bagan for some premium temple viewing.

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Beginning in the 11th century and spanning the next 2,500 years, over 10,000 total temples were built, of which over 2,200 still remain. It is truly a sight to behold. There are dozens of temples that could each be a major destination in a more developed tourist market.

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Bagan is quite flat so renting bikes — at fifty cents an hour or $3 a day — is the way to go. We biked all over the three main corners of the city and stopped at a number of temples that caught our eye, leaving our bikes unlocked outside for an hour or two (along with our shoes), no problem. It’s an extremely trusting culture.

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One of our favorite restaurants from the entire two months so far was a vegetarian Indian joint in Bagan’s Old City, called “Be Kind to Animals the Moon”…which was also the coolest name of any restaurant we’d been to.

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We took a sunset boat ride one evening and then climbed the steps of the famous sunset-viewing temple, the Shwesandaw Pagoda, where you can see hundreds of temples dotting the horizon in all directions. That hour alone was worth the trip to Bagan.

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A great few days in what we’re sure will soon become a tourist Mecca for temple viewing.

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Yangon, Burma

We flew from Kilimanjaro to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) where we had a hellish five-hour layover before a hellish redeye to Bangkok. After a brief 36 hours in Bangkok to get our visas for Burma/Myanmar, we headed to Yangon, which was Burma’s capital city until 2006.

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Burma is at an interesting inflection point in its history. Even after a week in this country, we still have no clue what it’s really called. And apparently neither does our President.

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The historically oppressive government has been liberalizing, and after being shunned by the West for decades, it is finally opening up to tourists. Obama is the first sitting US President to visit this country of 50m people. They just got their first ATM in November, they don’t take credit cards yet and you have to exchange crisp US $100 bills. The people are enjoying their first sips of Coca Cola in 60 years. Tourism is on the rise but is still under-penetrated, which we really grew to appreciate on this trip. You can walk around Yangon (4.5m people) for half an hour without seeing another tourist. And Lonely Planet considers it the safest city in Southeast Asia.

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Yangon is typically just a stopover city en route to Burma’s more spectacular sites such as Bagan, Inle Lake and [from what we hear] Ngapali Beach. Prices are still insanely low in the city — take a cab anywhere for $2, or have a great meal for not much more. Foreign investment has started to pour in, so you’ll see old decrepit buildings alongside brand new apartment complexes.

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Yangon’s biggest attraction is the massive Shwedagon Pagoda, a sprawling hilltop Buddhist temple that is best experienced at sunset to see the dome caps glow in the orange light.

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So we exchanged a few hundred bucks for about $10 billion Burmese Kyat (see below for our Scarface-sized mountain of Burmese cashola) and were on our way.

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