Hpa An, Myanmar

Hpa An is the capital of the Karen State in Myanmar, however it is largely undeveloped and is surrounded by beautiful countryside. It is much more scenic than Northern Myanmar with vibrant rice paddies, towering limestone karsts and several impressive caves. We weren’t planning on visiting Hpa An, but after hearing good reviews from fellow travellers we decided to add it to our itinerary.

We booked a tuk tuk tour with Soe Brothers Guesthouse which took us to several caves, temples and viewpoints. Our first stop was at Ya The Byan cave. The cave entrance was surrounded by large Buddha statues and cute little monkeys playing. Inside the cavernous chambers were huge stalactites, stalagmites and columns.

Our next stop was at Kyauk Kalap Pagoda which is perched on top of a rather precarious looking rock formation. The pagoda is surrounded by a lake and has a spectacular view of Mount Zwekabin. Here we were befriended by a young group of monks who wanted a photo with us, we were more than happy to oblige and even managed to get a snap for our photo collection too!

The highlight of the day was Saddan cave, which is the largest cave at 800m long and up to 30 meters high. The cave is filled with thousands of squeaking bats which can be seen hanging overhead. After walking for a good 10 minutes through the cave’s chambers we emerged at a grand opening. At the cave’s exit is a beautiful lake surrounded by lush rice paddies. We took a small rowing boat around the lake and to a small path which led us back to the cave’s entrance.

Although we only stayed in Hpa An for a couple of days, I’m really glad we added it to our route. I think we saw a different, more scenic, side of Myanmar by venturing further south.

Next stop: Palawan, Philippines

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Inle Lake, Myanmar

Inle Lake is a large freshwater lake in the Shan State of Myanmar. It is home to around 70,000 Intha people, many of whom live in towns on the edge of the lake, whilst others live in stilt houses on the lake itself. The fishermen of Inle Lake are well known for their unusual rowing technique which involves standing at the front of the boat on one leg and rowing with their other leg.

We arrived in Inle Lake after our longest bus journey of the trip so far. The overnight sleeper bus from Hsipaw was supposed to take 14 hours, but due to gridlocked mountain passes it took us a grand total of 30 hours, with only 1 official food and bathroom stop. We could have flown to England and back in that time..  it’s a good job the destination was worth it!

Once we had recovered from our long bus ride, we took a full day boat trip around the lake to see the local fishermen, the floating villages and gardens. We started early and I’m so glad we did; the sunrise was spectacular. It was so peaceful on the lake, with only a couple of other tourists in sight and a few dancers/fishermen playing up for the camera!

Afterwards we saw some real fishermen maneuvering their boats with their leg wrapped around the oar, leaving their hands free to pull in the fishing nets. An unusual technique, but it seemed to work quite well. We then passed through several floating villages where the houses are all built stilts, there was even a floating school and monastery. We stopped off at a few craft shops including a Lotus Weaving factory. It takes around 2 weeks and 4,000 lotus stems to make a small scarf. It is one of the most expensive fabrics in the world, more expensive than silk, and is used to make monks’ robes as well as products to sell to the public.

After visiting the villages we cruised through the floating gardens which the villagers have built by condensing lake-bottom weeds into strips of floating beds and anchoring them using bamboo poles. The floating gardens produce many vegetables including tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines and beans.

Once we were back on dry land we tried some wine tasting at Red Mountain Estate Winery. Although the wine wasn’t much to shout about, the view over the hills and out towards the lake was really pretty.

Inle Lake was one of our favourite places we visited in Myanmar, it was so interesting to see how the locals live on the lake and although the town is well geared for tourism, it didn’t feel too touristy. We also found some great Indian/Nepalese restaurants which made meal times very enjoyable.

Next stop: Hpa An, Myanmar

Hsipaw, Myanmar

Hsipaw (pronounced see-paw) is a small town in the Shan State of Eastern Myanmar. It is a great place for organising trekking to nearby minority villages. We took the incredibly bumpy, but enjoyable, train ride from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw. The journey takes 7 hours and passes over the Gokteik viaduct which was built in 1900, during the British colonial period, and stands at an impressive 100 meters high!

Our first day in Hsipaw was dampened by rain, making trekking seem a lot less appealing. Thankfully when we awoke the following morning the sun was shining, so we booked on to a 2 day 1 night trek through Mr Charles’ guesthouse. We joined 6 other travellers and trekked through the countryside passing several traditional Palaung and Shan villages. Each tribe speaks a different language, so learning a new ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ for each village soon got quite confusing. The cute village kids played games such as ‘throw the flip flop’ while the women continually went back and forth collecting heavy loads of fire wood. Not an easy task!

Our guide was quite concerned about the presence of Shan Rebels in the area. At one point we even had to backtrack to avoid a village where the rebels may have been. When we arrived at our homestay at dusk, the owner didn’t seem too keen to let us stay. After shouting at our guide for a good few minutes (possibly over how much she would be paid) we were finally given the approval to come in. We spent the evening sharing stories and jokes around the campfire before retiring to bed for a well deserved sleep.

The second day was much easier walking, we hitched a ride on top of a logging truck for most of the way. Maybe not the safest form of transport, but it was pretty fun. Our final stop was at the hot springs which was great for relaxing our aching muscles before heading back into town.

Next stop: Inle Lake, Myanmar

Bagan, Myanmar

The ancient city of Bagan is possibly the most iconic place to visit in Myanmar. The arid plains are scattered with over 2,000 Buddhist stupas and temples, many of which date back to the 11th and 12th centuries. It is estimated that, during the kingdom’s height, there were over 10,000 religious monuments on these plains.

The pagodas and temples vary dramatically in size and design, many have hidden staircases which allow you to climb up to a vantage point to look out over the plains. For me, this was the best part about exploring Bagan. The stupas are nice to look at individually, but it’s far more impressive seeing them collectively from a height.

Whilst riding around Bagan and the surrounding villages on our electric scooter we felt like we had travelled back in time to a bygone era. We witnessed the traditional life of the local villagers, from berry picking and goat herding to traditional farming methods such as using bullock carts to plough the fields. Not a tractor in sight!

Most of the temples house 4 large Buddha statues, one facing in each cardinal direction. A few of the temples have impressive wall paintings dating back hundreds of years. The best murals we saw were at Payathonzu temple which is kept dark to help preserve the paintings.

Our favourite (almost private) sunset spot was at Thisawadi temple. To get to the top level we had to climb up 2 sets of staircases and squeeze through some very narrow passages. Only a few people seemed to know how to get to the top, and those that did couldn’t always fit! The sunset was so much more enjoyable in a peaceful setting, away from the bus loads of tourist jostling for position at the popular Shwesandaw temple.

Only a few days after we visited Bagan, the government decided to ban tourists climbing all but 5 of the temples. Unfortunately, if this is enforced, it means visitors will no longer be able to climb numerous pagodas in search of their own sunset spot. I feel very lucky that we visited Bagan just before the ban!

Next stop: Hsipaw, Myanmar

Yangon, Myanmar

Yangon is Myanmar’s (formerly Burma’s) largest city with a population of over 5 million people. Although it is no longer the capital city, it remains both the cultural and financial heart of the country. The buildings are a mixture of high rise jam-packed flats and crumbling 19th century British colonial architecture. It has a very different feel to the other Asian city we have visited. The strong Indian influences were certainly a delight to our taste buds!

Many women and children (occasionally men too) wear Thanaka which is a yellow paste, made from tree bark, that is painted on the face. It is mainly used for cosmetic purposes, but also has sun protection and anti bacterial qualities.

One of the first things we noticed about Myanmar is the exceptionally friendly people. Countless smiles have been exchanged and several people have greeted us in the street,  not to try to sell us anything, but simply to say hello. Whilst walking around the city we saw a group of men stirring a huge bowl of sticky rice with oars, yes rowing oars. We watched on intrigued and it wasn’t long before they came over to offer us a taste and even gave us a free meal to take away.

In the evening we visited Shwedagon pagoda which is thought to be the most sacred pagoda in Myanmar. The gold plated pagoda stands at 99 meters tall and is topped with over 7,000 diamonds and rubies. It is certainly quite dazzling up close, but I personally thought it looked more impressive from a distance.

The following day we took Yangon’s circle train which costs 12p for a 3 hour loop of the city. It was a great way to get an insight into the daily life of the locals and to see some of the surrounding countryside. The train even waited while James had a quick pit stop at one of the stations..not the kind of thing I can imagine a train back in England doing!

Next stop: Bagan, Myanmar