Mingalaba Mandalay & HsipawJuly 28, 2018 in Myanmar
My flight to Mandalay was probably one of the nicest sort distance flights I’ve gotten. I flew Bangkok airlines and even though it was only an hour flight I got a free meal (vegan of course), along with the ten other people on the plane. Very nice indeed. After landing in Mandalay and making my way through immigration (with the only pre approved e-visas I’ve got on my trip) I found one of the shared taxis to take me to the city centre. During the journey I met Shia and Yifat a lovely couple from Israel who were travelling around Southeast Asia. Unfortunately we were staying in different hostels/hotels so I had to say goodbye when I reached mine. By the time o checked in and got myself organised it was almost 6pm so I decided to head straight out for dinner. I found a nearby Indian restaurant on happycow and made my way there. First impressions of Mandalay downtown area is that although something may seem close, the blocks are really big so walking actually takes a while. Eventually I made it to the small restaurant and found a free seat by two expat teachers (one Irish and one American) and ordered a “non spicy dish”. While I ate my dinner of rice and okra (very simple but very nice) the teachers gave me tips on what I should see in the city. After dinner I bid them farewell and headed back to the hostel for the night.
On recommendation by two Dutch girls in my dorm room I booked the hostels scooter tour of the main tourist sights of the city. My driver/tour guide for the day picked me up at at 9am and we headed to the first of our many stops of the day. The first stop was a gold leaf workshop where I had a brief tour of the production (and let me tell you it’s a long process - 5 hours of which is spent repeatedly pounding it with a sledgehammer). We then drove past the marble Buddha street where dozens of workshops line the road with workers carving intricate buddhas out of different sized blocks of marble (unbelievable how intricate some of them were). We headed south out of the city to Mahagandhayon monestary where we joined the rest of the tourists lining the streets to watch the monks line up for their lunch procession. This ritual happens every day at 11am and the hundreds of monks of varying ages line up with their bowls and then proceed to food stations where volunteers serve them (all with donated food as is the Buddhist custom). They then head into their open dining areas, say a prayer and then eat their meal. All while tourists watch from a distance. To be honest I found the whole thing a bit invasive and only took a few pictures to please my tour guide before we returned to the bike. The next stop was the one I was most looking forward to, the U Bein Bridge. The bridge, which spans the Taungthaman lake (1.2km) is the oldest teakwood bridge in the world, built in 1850. I enjoyed walking along the entire length of the bridge, passing the various lady’s selling drinks and mango slices. After my leisurely walk I met my driver again and we visited an embroidery workshop and I watched the local girls weaving lungis on a loom (the pattern they followed was just a series of numbers on a sheet corresponding to the colour and number of strands to use, seriously impressive). We then visited a number of temples and pagodas which to be honest started to merge into one for me, all I can remember is having to keep taking off my shoes, and at one point nearly burning me feet of as I walked around one monastery in the mid day heat (much to amusement of my tour guide, which you’ve probably guessed by now that I cannot remember his name - I asked him a couple of times but didn’t catch it so just nodded along...). Now back in the city we stopped for lunch by one of the main temple clusters and had a much needed rest. After lunch we visited my second favourite site of the day, Kuthodaw Pagoda, home to the largest book in the world. The “book” is actually a collection of stone tablets, 730 to be exact, each housed in its own cave-like structure, which surround the pagoda. The double sided tablets make up the 1430 “page” book of the Tripitaka script and is a seriously impressive sight. We then visited yet more temples and pagodas on our way up to Mandalay hill to watch the sunset from the Su Taung Pyae Pagoda. Even though we had visited practically the whole city it was only 4pm when we reached the summit. Which meant we had a two hour wait for the sunset. We had a tea brake in the nearby cafe and then took a few pictures around the site. Finally it was sunset time, and I’m sad to say that I’m not convinced it was worth the wait. Being a slightly cloudy day I didn’t get the typical sunny pictures. Oh well. Finally it was time to head back to the hostel. Absolutely templed, pagodad and monestaried out I was exhausted by the time I got back to my room, but satisfied that I could now leave Mandalay having seen EVERYTHING. Just before I fell asleep for the night I overheard one of the girls in my dorm talking about getting the train at 4am the next morning to Hsipaw, what I was planning to do. At least I know I don’t have to do the journey alone now.
Lea (my new german travel buddy) and I were up at the ungodly hour of 3am the next morning to make sure we didn’t miss the train (the only train to Hsipaw). We quietly packed (Lea having significantly more stuff than me, more on that later) and were downstairs checking out by half past. We were pleasantly surprised when we were sent on our way with a packed breakfast for the train (only two jam sandwiches but very much appreciated). As it was the only train to Hsipaw, and the journey is both scenic and extremely cheap (£1.70 for 11 hours) we were not the only tourists boarding bright and early. The train was quite full when we left Mandalay and me and Lea were separated by a few seats so unable to chat. As it was still dark outside the train I sept for the first few hours, waking up in time to experience the train navigating the mountainside by doing a zig zag routine of going back and forth a few times before continuing on again. Pretty cool I must say. At around 9am we pulled into Pyin Oo Alain station and about half the passengers got off. Lea and I took advantage of the additional seats and spread out now in our own section. We slept again for a bit, now able to lie down on the plastic seats, and woke up a few hours later. The main highlight of the train is going over the Goktwik viaduct, a real Harry Potter moment. We dared to snap a few pictures out the window and wondered how many phones have been lost to the 100m drop. After the excitement me and Lea spent the rest of the journey getting to know each other. A main topic of discussion turned into the contents of her backpack. As I mentioned before she had quite a bit more packed than me. And by that I mean an extra 20kg! We spent over an hour having a sort of intervention were she listed all of her belongings and I’d constructively advise her what to keep and what to get rid of (something like: Lea: “I have two pairs of jeans”, me: “it’s too hot for jeans get rid of them”; Lea: “I have three Spanish books, one grammar, one dictionary and one workbook”, me: “Lea you have your phone and the internet, you can keep the workbook but get rid of the rest). She was only three weeks in to an 18 month trip so every kg counts when you’re having to carry it around for thy long. Luckily she would be visiting her dad in Hong Kong after Myanmar so she could leave all non essentials there instead of simply throwing them away. All in all i think she appreciated the help (I hope...). Finally we reached Hsipaw at 3pm and were treated of the train by someone from or guesthouse with a tuk tuk. We bundled into the back (me laughing at Lea struggling in with her elephant load on her back) and headed to our home for the night. After checking in and dumping our stuff in the room we went to explore the town and get some food. Hsipaw is pretty small, with only a few streets, so after just 10 minutes we’d covered most of the area and found a cute local cafe were we had a simple curry dinner. Once refuelled we headed back to our guesthouse to plan tomorrow’s activities. While we were talking about what to do we met David, a Spanish backpacker and we decided to do a self guided walk/hike tomorrow to a nearby waterfall and hot spring. As we were planning on doing the Kalaw to Inle lake three day trek in a couple days we didn’t want to do anything too strenuous. We planned to meet early so that we could then catch the night bus at 5pm to Kalaw.
We were up at 8am for a nice breakfast of pancakes and fruit. At breakfast I ran into Shia and Yifat who had opted to take a motorbike to Hsipaw instead of the train. We caught up briefly before heading out. We started our hike just after 9am and estimated that the whole route would take us around five hours, with a break at each spot. As usual I found myself in tour guide/map reader mode and led our small group through the surrounding nature. On the way to the waterfall we walked alongside rice fields, through a Chinese cemetery, past a rubbish tip (as directed by maps.me), and through many local farming fields and houses. We saw fields of aubergines and past a group of locals harvesting corn. After about an hours walk we reached the waterfall. This one, although not tiered like the Kuang Si falls in Laos, was huge and cascaded straight down the cliff edge. We were able to stand right at the base and marvel at one of nature’s creations (while trying not to slip and fall in the pool at the bottom). After a brief intermission we headed to our next stop, the hot springs. Unfortunately we had to walk almost back the entire way we had walked before turning onto a new road after the Chinese cemetery. This was more of a paved road and passed through a small village on the way. After an hour we reached a river which the road disappeared under. There were a couple locals bathing and they indicated that we had to cross through the river. Who were we to argue. Off with our shoes and bags strapped tightly we waded across the river. Although not deep, only about knee height, the river was flowing quite fast and the bed was covered in rocks making it slightly tricky to cross. We made it across in one piece and got a few congratulatory smiles from the locals on the other side. Shoes back on we continued on our route to the hot springs. Unfortunately after another ten minutes walk we reached another barrier. The river again, but this time deeper and faster. A passing local told us that the hot around was on the other side. I wasn’t convinced it was worth the effort. The river was beside a quarry which meant that some of the rocks at the bottom were sharp so we’d have to wear our shoes to cross and I didn’t much fancy doing the Inle Lake trek with wet shoes (it takes ages to dry things here). David had on waterproof rubber shoes and wanted a swim anyway so volunteered to brave going across to see if the hot spring was worth it. He found a stick for support and waded across, the water quickly coming to waist height. After a brave effort, with Me and Lea cheering him on, he made it to the other side in one piece and continued along the path to the spring. After ten minutes he returned and shouted across that he couldn’t see any “hot” spring. He waded back across the river and showed us the video he ingenuously took (his phone was in his dry bag). He was right, the river just came out of some rocks but no steam was visible so the water would be cold. Unless the spring was somewhere else. Either way I was convinced it was not worth getting soaked for. David enjoyed his swim nonetheless. We had a snack break by the river before starting our hike back to the town. The return route was took us through yet more farming fields and across a small river eventually bringing us into the north of the town past their small temple. We reached the guest house just before 3 and had an amazing lake lunch of savoury crepes from a street food stall conventioneer located across from us. They were so tasty and cheap we had about five each! We then headed inside to shower and pack for the bus. The staff were nice enough to give us a lift up the road to the bus stop were we waited for the overnight bus with fellow backpackers.
So there you have my first few days in Myanmar. Next stop the much anticipated Kalaw to Inle Lake trek!