Myanmar - Kalaw: Trekking in the Myanmar Hills

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Vivid Green: Rice kissed by the rising sun

Rising before the sun, seeing it rise over the hills, covering all it touches is golden highlights is amazing at the best of times, couple that with the brilliantly vivid scenes of gently glistening dew covered rice growing in the field – its simply magic – simply Myanmar.

 

While in Kalaw, staying at our early 1900’s bed and breakfast, we could not turn down a change to walk in the rural countryside. What better time than early morning.

English houses in the Myanmar Hills

Our guide assured us the night before that the terrain would be ‘gentle’ and ‘down hill’.

 

I think today must have been Opposite Day since 7 of the 12km was up hill rising to 1404m above sea level at the high point. By not means was the walk hard, just unexpected.

 

The villages that we passed and their inhabitants live a truly rural existence. Every second house had a water buffalo in the front yard, who received a loving pat as the families departed, walking their a small children heading off to school.

Local tractor

 

During our visit, the children were heading off to school on the last day before a 10 day break. Which means after cleaning the school grounds they were free to go home which they were doing when we dropped into the local school at around 930am.

 

As the villages are totally devoid of mains power, every house had a solar panel for lighting during the dryer months and a mini hydroelectric setup in the local stream for during the monsoon season.

 

Our guide even showed us the roadside local herbs that the farmers use for first aid – one to stop nose bleeds, which when burnt also keeps the squadrons of local mosquitoes at bay, another that you put the sap on cuts and scratches to seal against dirt.

 

Frankie and our Guide

 

During out time in  Kalaw & Inle Lake a number of internal bombings occurred throughout Myanmar,  the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) has emailed me a few travel advisory updates informing us that a number of explosive devices have been found across the country. Detonations have been confirmed in Yangon and Shan state ( the state we are in now). While the information is most welcome, it will not be effecting our plans, but I will be keeping a ‘weather eye’ on the situation.

A massive 6 months!

SAMSUNG CSC

Starting around Sept 2013 I finished a 6 month rotation to Darwin, where I found a new found love of jogging and exercise.  I was lucky enough to meet great friends and go  to places I never would have the option of going to if it was not for work .

 

Read more about my time in Darwin here

Almost as soon as I arrived back in Canberra we were off again. Thanks to my  amazing partner lead me on a tour of his incredible country – Myanmar. We spent an unforgettable 3 weeks traveling the lengths and breadth of this nation. Even after all the sights and experiences his FAMILY was the true highlight for me. His mother’s warmth and care, his father’s intelligence and willingness to share and ask questions about my life too. 

A more in-depth write up of our time in Myanmar is here
 
Then the “ experience “ of meeting my parents in Kuala Lumpur and catching up with my good friend Ron who then joined the four of us traveling to Redang Island (Palau Redang) off the north east coast of Malaysia. It was the second time Frankie and I had been to the Lagoon Redang resort. After the ferry ride from Kuala Terraganu on the mainland over to the resort (where my father’s sea sickness came to a head) and check in, the island is really just a water sports playground. 
All expenses paid apart from alcohol and diving services. After snorkelling every day and also trying SCUBA I was HOOKED. The resort is a PADI accredited resort which means they have instructors and Dive Masters who can facilitate everything from the minimal training ‘Discover SCUBA’ right through to your ‘Dive Master’ qualification. Frankie, Ron and I decided finally we would try the ‘Discover SCUBA’ – which is essentially being kitted up and thrust under water. 
 
Frankie and Ron could not get get more than 10cm under the surface before pulling the pin. I managed to get all the way through the experience – roughly 15mins getting to a depth of 5.5m. I was so excited to be doing it I forgot to actually take my GoPro3 from the dive bag on the beach before getting in the water. 
 
Back in KL the ‘experience’ of travelling with my parents again reached crescendo with the all important family yelling match in an international airport. Don’t be shocked. Its rather common for my family. We get over it faster than our words echoing around departures. 
 
  
 
A more in-depth write up of our time in Malaysia is here
On return back to Canberra I started in a new role with a new team in the a new office. 
 
 Not long after our return from our big overseas adventure we decided to start thinking about buying a house. When I say thinking, we looked at one and brought it. A 2br, split level east facing townhouse. Requiring 5% down in Nov 13, and the rest in around Nov 2014. Perfectly suited for what we needed. Also keeps my NBN dry. 
 
 
 So because I am swimming in cash *COUGH COUGH* I then booked my PADI Open Water Dive Course. 
 
 I nearly didn’t get to do the course! 
 
The doctor was worried my lungs were almost not up to the minimum capacity. But don’t worry, I managed to get over the line. 
 
 The first weekend was half theory and half practising in the pool! I don’t know about you but I am never lucky when it comes to being partnered up in anything sporty, usually picked last. Well there was this one mega cutie on our group – and for once guess who I was partnered with!! JACKPOT! He was a great guy, sweet and innocent of the ways of the world. It wasn’t until the pool technique practising that my inner filter turned off. I couldn’t stop giggling when our instructor was inadvertently saying things with MASSIVE innuendo such as “ right team lets get under water, get on our knees and have some fun’ I looked at our assistant instructor with my ‘trying not to laugh’ face – which is hard in full mask and regulator in your mouth’ Sadly his mouth was level with the water and it caused him to inhale and cough with the biggest smile. The laughs only continued.. 
For those that are not divers, there is a requirement to learn how to tow your buddy should they become fatigued or injured, this cryptically is called the ’Tired Diver Tow’ which involves you laying on your back and your buddy laying between your legs face up, you hold their tank and kick – pushing you both forward. I simply said ‘ I don’t open my legs for every one this easy, buy a boy a drink first sailor’ He too could not control his giggles The second weekend was the in water component, unlike the current Australian government immigration policy, as it was under water rather than on water I can talk about it. The first day was 3 dives at 6m practicing skills we learnt in the pool. The second day was at a site called Toll Gates – read about that bit here
 
 
 

All was going well, a little too well.

 

I was getting ready to finally sell my maxi road scooter – 500cc – on consignment with a local dealer.
 
 
 
 
The fates intervened again. I was crossing an intersection with a green light, I stopped as a cyclist crossed my path and was collected right in-between my passenger front and rear doors. Causing $6000 worth of damage. I am insured however the insurance company is still ‘determining fault’ hmmmm. 
 
 
To top of a roller coaster of emotions. I was voted by an overwhelming majority to lead my employers Gay & Lesbian Network. A total of 1/2 of the overall votes came to me. A lot of pressure is now on me – some will say ‘its just a volunteer thing, no extra pay, why bother’ – It is important to make changes, drive the changes. You can’t do that from the outside.

 

If this was the last 6 months, I wonder what the next will bring.

Hopefully you will also see some changes on the site coming soon. I hope you will enjoy.  As always, please like, comment or subscribe.

 
 

Myanmar - Kalaw: An English village in the Shan State Hills via limestone caves of Pintaya

A journey into the hills

 

After leaving the banks of Inle Lake we headed up into the hills of Shan State.

On the steady climb up winding roads to the limestone caves of Pintaya we passed through some of the densest farmland in Myanmar. We passed small family farms growing cauliflower, pumpkin, potatoes, beans and cabbage all grown organically to be sold at local markets or if lucky, regional wholesalers.

 

Pintaya

 

Pintaya limestone caves, just like every other caves I encountered in Myanmar, have been converted to a Temple with every surface and grotto adorned with Buddhist imagery.

Every square centre metre is covered in icons

 The real highlight of Pintaya is the legend that surrounds the cave. Allegedly in mythical times, a number of princesses sheltered in the cave to escape a storm.
Little did they know a Nat [pre-Buddhist spirits] in the form of a giant spider was in the cave and proceeded to hold them hostage. A huntsman (a hunter, not of the spider variety) was nearby and heard the princesses’ screams. He used his bow and arrow to kill the spider. Why princesses were roaming the country unprotected the myth does not say. 
 
To remind all and sundry of the story there is a reenactment in Disney style large stone characters at the entrance to the cave. 
 
 
From Pintaya we stopped and had lunch at the lake where Kainnari & Kainnara (the flying lover gods as previously mentioned ) were rumoured to live. 
 
Not a bad place to spend a day. 
 
Onward, ever onward we moved to Kalaw – if the English gardens at Pyin Oo Lwin was freakish the English cottages and large homes of Kalaw are other worldly, topped off with Pine trees make this place look like an English village deposited in the Myanmar hills.
 
 
 A true highlight for me included a visit to the Kalaw markets during Market Day! All the farmers were out selling their wares – from veggies to batteries, dried fish to clothes - it was all there. We spent most of the morning wandering around the stalls and looking at odd parts of animals.

Yangon to Bagan

  After a night on the town with Frankie’s former school mates it meant another early start with minimal sleep. This time a domestic flight on Myanmar’s newest airline AirKBZ, owned by KBZ bank. The new airline also has new aircraft – the new ATR 72 600. Perfect for short haul flights in comfort. With a clever stroke of marketing genius the logo for AirKBZ is the Burmese mythical couple Kainnayi and Kainnyar. Who according to legend area flying couple who were so I love, when they were separated while flying though a thunder storm for 1 hour to the lovers it felt like years.

 
 

Arriving in Bagan starts the preplanned part of our trip that Frankie arranged with a local tour agency here. He provided the locations and the dates. They did the rest. We were booked into the Bagan Thande river side hotel, constructed for the British royal visit in 1922 by the Prince of Wales.

Our room had full river frontage to the Irrawaddy river. We often sat watching the river ‘push’ boats moving up and down the river with their loads of teak and other cargo.

First thing I must point out that Bagan has more pagodas than I have numbers. They are every few metres in some cases. The first we visited was built in the 11th century. Hosting four large images of standing Buddha. Two, the north and south are original 11th century magnolia wood. These two are built in the Indian style of Buddha’s image – meaning, they are smiling and their earlobes do not touch their shoulder. The east and west images were either damaged and or stolen along with their many jewels by the Mongol hordes that invaded Bagan at this time.

 

Original 11th Century Original North and South Magnolia Wood Buddha’s image

East or West Replacement Buddha’s image following the burning and looting by the Monguls

 

 

 

Myanmar: Kyaiktiyo to Yangon via Bago

  Sadly the time to leave Kyaiktiyo and head back to Yangon. But first to get down the mountain. We packed back into the converted dump truck with 30 or so of our closes unknown friends and all their belongings before rumbling to life setting off down the mountain. While the trip up was 45 mins of roller coaster action, the trip down was faster ( hey who needs breaks anyway). I managed to set the gopro up on top of the truck, and using the wifi remote mode was able to capture the trip down to show you.

After arriving at the bottom of the mountain - formerly referred to as base camp. Our driver was waiting to take us back to Yangon. The trip back was via the town of Bago with its colonial era town clock tower and coming together of the rural traders on the main road to Yangon to trade their wares with wholesalers who sell in turn in Yangon.

The scenes of rural life, without reliable electricity, without permanent housing structures ( currently built of palm fronds and bamboo with the odd tarp thrown in) by the mighty Irrawaddy river as it makes it's way down from the hills to the Myanmar delta to flow in to the Bay of bangl are the images of the REAL Myanmar for me. The untouched. The uncorrupted every day life really resonates with me.

Dinner in Yangon tonight with some of Frankies school friends, then another quick turn around out to the Temple city of Bagan again at stupid o'clock

Mt Kyaiktiyo – Myanmar’s Golden Rock

Golden Rock by Night

Mt Kyaiktiyo

The Golden Rock of the Golden Land

 

Golden rock at night

 

Getting there

 After leaving Yangon by the newly constructed multilane concrete hghway the former capital with the new capital Nay Pyi Daw located towards the centre of Myanmar it struck me – we are one of only a handful of cars on this road. It soon struck me as to why. Toll booths – paying the few kyats at each the toll gates located as close as 20km apart was simply beyond the means of many Burmese. They simply found less maintained paths.

Turning right at the big fork in the road heading towards the mountain the landscape changed from the rice producing flat lands to the fertile hilly region of Mon State where Mt Kyaiktiyo (to my ear it is pronounced Mt Jie Tee O) is located.

Some 6 hours after leaving Yangon we arrived  at the bus station at the base of the mountain. I say bus – really a tip truck with wooden planks for seats. Hey – if it was easy to get to, it wouldn’t be a pilgrimage site.

Taken from Wikipedia


The season that we are  in Myanmar is the period between the end of the monsoon season and the start of ‘festival season’. (Early October).

Most of the religious sites appear to be forgotten, unrepaired and abandoned. This is a good thing – no other people around, locals or tourist.

During ‘festival season’ all the sacred sites are polished, painted, swept and thus crowed with not only foreign tourists but also Burmese pilgrims coming to pay homage.

Why See It

Mt Kyaiktiyo, with its famed Golden Rock is one of Myanmar’s 3 most holy sites. :

• Swedagon in Yangon
• Mt Kyaiktiyo’s Golden Rock; and
• The Maha Muni Buddha image in Mandalay.

Where to stay

We stayed at the well named “Hill Top Hotel” which really couldn't be any closer to the Rock if it tried. It is also the most expensive place to stay costing between $100-150AUD per night. For the cost conscious you can always stay at the bottom of the hill in the local village and day trip up the mountain.

3 Days in Yangon

Early riser?

Our first full day in Yangon was Sunday; Sunday is donation day for the local Buddhist monasteries.

After being woken at an‘unholy hour’ by the 'donation truck’ - a van with speakers calling out for donations of money and food for the local Buddhist monasteries and temples, we were treated to  what would, I later discovered, was a daily procession of the local monks in their crimson robes. Walking house-to-house barefoot accepting donations of food in their earthenware pots held in a sling over their shoulders.

Frankie's family, his father in particular, are devout Buddhists, along with running the family business that has been selling religious supplies such as robes, incense and fans for over 120 years.

Frankie’s Parents always offer rice and drinks of cool water to the full robed monks in the rapidly heating Yangoon morning.

Some of the monks could not be older than 5 years old.

Young Burmese Buddhist Monks on donation day

Each Burmese child at some stage of their life is attached to a monastery where they undergo ‘live in’ religious instruction and teaching. This is usually only for 1 week.

Frankie was telling me that the reason you do not see people begging for food and money in the streets in Myanmar is that if you truly are in need, the Monks will share their food and lodging with you.

FOOD!

Today's food highlight was at a huge Chinese Dumpling House - we polished off 50 plates of dumplings between 5 of us - coming to a total of less than $50 aud.

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Quick Yangon tour by car

Frankie's parents took us on a short driving tour of Yangon including a drive past Aung San Suu Kyi's now famous residence that also served as her prison following her home detention.

The rest of the day was spent with Frankie's college friends eating, being massaged to a pulp and eating some more - massage cost less than 4 dollars for 2 hours.

Myanmar: Gay Scene

After traveling for close to 24 hours, the last thing I expected to be dragged off to was a gay bar! After unpacking, and sprucing ourselves up, one of Frankie's Facebook friends from Yangon invited us to a 'gay' night that is held once a month in Yangon at a local club. Let's just say fun was had by all. Less than 2 dollars a shot of vodka with unregulated Thai style redbull.

Home in bed by 3am local time, 30 hours after we started traveling oh and throw in a few timezone changes.

Myanmar: Getting there

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Leaving Australia

Departing Sydney at 2100hrs arriving Kuala Lumpur (KL) at 0400, flying flew both legs, SYD - KUL then KUL-RGN with Malaysian Airlines. I'm glad to see that most of their fleet now offer in seat USB to charge devices now. Their A330 and B737 that we have both had them with the standard inflight fit out entertainment wise.

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Transiting

Anyone who has been to Malaysia's KLIA knows that's it's a pleasant airport to spend time in, as airports go. Free wifi, air conditioned and these cool chairs that you can sleep in.

Since our longest leg of 8 hours was overnight, the traditional sleeping times it did make the longer legs more bearable.

Arriving in Yangon

 

Welcome to Yangon!

Initial impressions of Yangon reminded me of a cross between Bali's Denpasar Airport (DPS,  before their new renovation) and Bangkok's newly renovated DMK. Our B737 was the only plane that had an aerobridge attached. Air Bagan and Air KBZ (formerly Air Mandalay) both had ATR's sitting on the aprons ( sorry that's plane nerd stuff - basically they are flying very safe and new aircraft that are similar to the ones that Virgin Australia are now flying the Sydney - Canberra route along with the regional areas- the ones with the propellers).Air Bagan and Air KBZ mostly offer internal domestic flights.

Customs and entry requirements were easy to clear, as we had a pre-approved visa  ( issued by the embassy in Australia) prior to arriving. The usual stack of forms - customs declarations, quarantine, arrivals cards etc were all in English and easy to follow.

Frankie's parents also met us at the airport so the process was pretty stress free. No taxi arguments. Bags were collected and off we went.

The quick 30 min drive through the city to Frankie's parent's home looked like most developing countries (I say developing, actually it's exploding with development at the moment). Myanmar is wrestling with itself - maintaining it's cultural heritage and expanding to maintain need. Frankie pointed out a large plot of land that used to be a large cemetery that now happily had buildings on it. Like any city the past needs to be balanced with the future.

New Toys

Since our last holiday a few new electronic toys have been added to my pack.

  • We sold our 2 x GoPro 2s
    • Replaced them with 1 x Go Pro 3 black and 1 x Go Pro Silver.
  • Sold our Spot Tracker
    • Replaced with a Delorme InReach 2 way GPS tracker / communicator
  • My underwater point and shoot was lost during our trip to Penguin Island, off the Western Australian Coast.
    • Point and shoot replaced with a combination of my iPhone 5 (now in waterproof LifeProof Fre case) and my new Samsung NX1000 Mirrorless 2/3rd DLSR
  • iPad 2 given to my partner as I updated
    • Updated to iPad Mini