KAT // FIN

Dream. Do.

Train travelling over Gokteik Viaduct and motorbike adventures over the hills in Shan state

We decided to do a three days trip to a town of Kyaukme after hearing recommendation from swedish Isabelle. Kyaukme is small town in Shan state between Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw. Train travelling between Mandalay and Hsipaw can be recommended! Landscape is propably the best I saw in whole Myanmar. Train left Mandalay at 4am and went over hills and rural villages. Actually travelling by train in Myanmar is an experience worth having. Train network covers the country pretty well. Trains move relatively slow (you can do the same journey by bus in half time or less!) and ride is bumpy in every direction. (You can imagine Linnanmäki’s rollercoaster now.) There is two classes in the train; the upper and the ordinary class. We took upper class seats as we did mostly 12-16 hour journeys. Upper class seats are wider and upholstered, ordinary class seats are wooden benches. Ordinary class was always crowded of local people travelling with the most unbelievable carriages…sometimes they even had chicken with them. We saw as well how one car was loaded full of goats!

DSC_3589 Train left Mandalay at 4am. When I woke up at 7 landscape looked like this…breathtaking morning light!

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    Vendors selling local strawberries and other foods and drinks through the windows

DSC_3623 First class travelling

DSC_3624 Takeaway coffee

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DSC_3659 Highlight of the train journey between Mandalay and Hsipaw is a bridge called Gokteik Viaduct. It was built by British in 1905. It is said to be second heighest in the world.

As many tourists hit to Hsipaw in order to do trekking we hopped out of the train couple of stations earlier and wished to organise our own trek in Kyaukme. Once again we didn’t have any bookings made in advance but things sorted out well and we got a guide from our guesthouse. Joy is a 26 years old Shan guy who has many years experience as a guide. We were thinking about doing actual trekking but when Joy told about motorbike trekking we decided to go for it instead! We had a 20 year old SaiSai as driver since neither of us knew how to drive motorbike. (I thought though that with one evening practise it would have been possible for us to drive bikes ourselves… :D) Having a driver turned out to be an excellent decision when we headed to the dusty routes and narrow paths which squirmed over the Shan hills.

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DSC_3722 Monastery

DSC_3721 Taking nap in the monastery

DSC_3712There is 37 spirits or ‘nats’ in Myanmar. Buddhists built these shrines so that nats could rest where-ever they want. There is shrines in every village. It is believed that you can see nats only with purest heart.

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We stayed overnight in small Shan village with a local family. Family didn’t speak a word of english nor we spoke Shan (except hi – mae son khaa, bye bye – la lai khaa or thank you – chom jau khaa, which Joy and Sai Sai taught us). We knew these words in burmese but it’s not considered nice to speak burmese in Shan state. Each state in Myanmar have their own language and ethnic minorities still practise their old traditions in each state. They rarely had tourists in that village we stayed and first time I really felt that I was far away from home! There was two families living under the same roof…what we heard – total of 14 people. In Myanmar families are large and it’s common to have two or three generations under the same roof of a two- or three-room house. People don’t have their own bedrooms and same room has many functions; during daytime room can serve as a kitchen and livingroom and bamboo mats are placed next to each other when it’s time for sleep.

We spent evening in the ‘living room’ with the family and two chicken which they treated like pets. It was pretty dark – one dim bulb in the middle of the room. Steam and smoke coming from kitchen filled the air. Most burmese still cook with open fire (also in restaurants) and in homes fireplace is often embedded to floor-level. Since villages are poor they have to control food amounts. Rice is often served with one or two small and bony pieces of meat with many kinds of sour vegetable sidedishes. Especially in Shan state they eat a lot of leaves and our dinner included a lot of rice, soup, eggs and two kind of curries made of these leaves.

DSC_3742 Village where we stayed overnight

DSC_3743 ‘Siskonpeti’ – Joy, SaiSai and Auli

Around ¾ of Myanmar population are rural-dwellers and much of a local life in going on around villages and farming the countryside. Main farming products in Myanmar are rice, corn, tea and opium. Tea is the main income for tribes living in the hills. We saw trucks carrying workers to tea plantations. Joy told that tea pickers don’t get paid in money but in tea. Half of the amount of leaves they pick they can keep.

DSC_3692 On the way to tea plantations

DSC_3747 Tea plantations

There is constant internal conflicts in Myanmar many of them taking place in Shan state. Joy was talking with the father of our homestay about recent conflicts between burmese soldiers and Shan rebels. Fights between burmese soldiers and ethnic minorities have been going on already 67 years and it seems that there is no end to them. Previous week rebels had killed burmese soldiers just 30 minutes drive away where we stayed. Joy’s previous trekker group had accidentally overstayed at the same place with 60-70 rebels. There hadn’t been any problem though, they had been smoking cigarettes peacefully together with the rebels. Conflicts are common in Shan state, almost every week either soldiers or rebels get killed. Situation is even worse near China border where opium is widely grown. Joy told that rebels are good for these villages…they protect their peoples’ rights. Before there were any rebels burmese soldiers came to these villages and forced villagers to give whatever they wanted, if it was food, women or money, they didn’t care. Joy told that if a Shan family has more than one child, one needs to join the rebels. Even many peace agreements are made in management level between rebels and soldiers, it seems that in the grassroot level fights can’t be stopped.

Joy’s dream was to have his own guesthouse. He had made some actions towards it already. He had bought a land for 4500 dollars last year. He wished to build 12 authentic bamboo houses there. We visited a couple of villages where Joy went to ask about the building costs of villagers’ houses. He wished to build a small summer house for himself first. Simple bamboo house could be built in Kyaukme for 1500 dollars including materials and carpenter’s salary. In Myanmar basic salary is around 200 dollars a month. I wish to be back in Kyaukme after 5-10 years to see how’s it going with Joy’s business. As determined as he seemed, I’m sure it will be a success!

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DSC_3781 Joy’s land – to be continued…

- Katariina

Bagan and Pakokku

Bagan is a huge ruin city located on the banks of the Ayeyarwady river on the south side of Mandalay. Bagan is home to approx 2500 Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins with many dating from the 11th and 12th centuries. For many tourists Bagan is the main attraction in Myanmar and the area is well prepared for tourism. There is many dusty paths connecting temples and it is pretty easy to go around by bikes, e-bikes or by horse-cart. Watching sunset and sunrise is popular attractions during early morning/evening. After travelling 5 months in Asia, we started to be pretty full of temples especially after spending three intense days in Angkor, Cambodia. The most impressive thing in Bagan is that temple area is so huge that when you’re watching it from above it just seems to continue over and over. This time we allowed ourselves not to go to see too many temples inside and instead we enjoyed e-bike rides on the dusty roads between the temples for a couple of days.

DSC_3384 Thatbyinnyu temple

DSC_3390 Horse-carts

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DSC_3518 Seeing the sunrise in Bagan is the thing…many people pay for seeing it from hot air balloon

DSC_3449 E-biking in Bagan

DSC_3394E-biking in Bagan

DSC_3450 Local traffic jam

After Bagan we travelled to the small town of Pakokku for a couple of days after hearing recommendations from other travellers. We travelled there with local transport, with these small pick-up trucks which won’t leave until they are packed to their fullest! Normally they are loaded so full of people that some need to travel on the roof! Travelling is practical like that in almost every transport vehicle. There aren’t any seats or other free space which wouldn’t be full packed at least with luggages. In buses they place ‘secondary’ seats to corridor between the actual seat rows so every inch is in use.

DSC_3535 We left Bagan with style…first by horse cart…

DSC_3536 …and next by local pick-up truck

Pakokku is one of those places where you don’t meet many western people and which doesn’t seem to be affected at all by tourism. Local people are super friendly and you hear ‘min-ga-lar-par’ and get smiles from every direction. People don’t try to overcharge you and actually we were invited to taste burmese food from local peoples’ plates in the streets. Most impressive experience in Pakokku was still the humble and hospitable guesthouse Mya Ya Ta Nar Inn with it’s charming owner Mya Mya. Mya Mya had kept her guesthouse since 1980 and it was the oldest in town. We felt like living with our grandmother… Mya Mya lived in the same house with her daughter, with her grandchildren and with many cats. Sleeping in this guesthouse felt like living in a burmese family, so welcoming and hospitable they were! Mya Mya is one of those persons whose presence calms you down immediately. She also spoke very good english and also taught english to other people in Pakokku. At the moment we stayed at her place, she taught money exchanging phrases to local bankers so that they could communicate better with tourists. Mya Mya took us to buy longyis in the local market and we invited her to tea afterwards. While sipping burmese sweet tea Mya Mya shared many stories about her life and about Myanmar with us.

DSC_3537 Buying longyis in the market with Mya Mya

Mya Mya was worried about the effects of tourism in Myanmar. Money earned from tourism goes mostly to the pockets of government since many tourism services including tourist agencies, fancier hotels and guesthouses are owned by the government. It’s difficult to know as a tourist which places are owned by families and which by the government. Especially when we asked for room in some of the more authentic looking guesthouse in Bagan they said it’s only for locals. What can you do then…go to the ‘only tourists’ accepting guesthouse. In Mya Ya Ta Nar Inn there were both tourists and local people staying and Mya Mya said it’s the same prices for both of them. Mya Mya told that authority from Ministry of Hotels and Tourism is regularly visiting her guesthouse and asking her to renovate her premises. For example she had to replace her old traditional wooden entrance door with a glass-door because of their order. We were making jokes that soon they will ask her to put wifi to her guesthouse. I can truly recommend this place in Myanmar! It was nice to know that you were supporting directly this family instead of Myanmar government.

DSC_3547 Bulls at work, Pakokku

DSC_3553 Pakokku

DSC_3550Pakokku

We went to this lovely coffee shop for a couple of times during our stay in Pakokku. Family lives in this same room where they have customers during daytime. Propably they all share this one big bed. People bathe themselves and wash their clothes in the streets or in the river nearby. Food is many times cooked with open fire. People use bulls for farm work. People don’t own much, children don’t have too many toys but people seem to be very happy. Many of them are singing while working and they really seem genuinely happy when seeing that foreigners are interested in their country.

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-Katariina

Nyaung Shwe and magical Inle lake

Our trip to Nyaung Shwe/Inle lake started with chaotic rush to the bus station in Yangon. Even we had left 1,5 hours earlier to make a trip which should have taken 30 minutes, our taxi driver had to call to the bus company and tell that we would be late. Luckily we made it to the bus only a couple of minutes late. Bus travelling in Myanmar is propably the worst in South East Asia. Even landscapes are beautiful, local people have terribly sensitive stomachs and bumpy roads cause a lot of vomiting. Many buses between the main tourist towns (Yangon-Inle-Bagan-Mandalay) are nightbuses. We arrived to Nyaung Shwe, a city near Inle Lake, in the middle of the night which is not the most practical time if you don’t have any hostel booked in advance. We relied on our good luck and luckily met a nice guy working for a guest house at the bus stop. We took a pick-up to a Palace Nyaung Shwe Guest house which was a little bit farther from Nyaung Shwe centre but turned out to be excellent and peaceful guest house.

It was our first day in Nyaung Shwe and during lunch we were already invited to a birthday party of a local restaurant keeper’s son. That’s a good example of Burmese hospitality. They didn’t expect any presents from us (we asked if there’s something we could give) they just wanted foreigners to accompany their celebrations. They offered us food and cake and didn’t expect anything back from us. We gave a ‘present’ though, later we were singing ‘happy birthday’ in finnish, english and korean with korean traveller Han and japanese Shunsuke who we met in our guest house. Locals were videotaping our singing!

DSC_3145 Birthday of ‘Joshwe’ at Mee Nge’s Gardenia Restaurant

DSC_3146 Mee Nge and Shunsuke

On the next day we headed to Inle Lake with this same group. To me, seeing Inle Lake was one of the most impressive places during our travels. Inle lake is home for 70 000-100 000 people of an ethnic minority group called Intha. Inthas have built their village above the lake. It is said that the local Shan chief (otherwise it is Shan people living in this area) refused to grant rights to Intha to land around Inle and that’s why they started to built their stilt houses on the lake itself. Inthas’ way of life is very unique with their floating gardens and one-legged rowing system.

Our long-tailed motorboat left early in the morning. It’s not the main tourist season now when summer has just started and temperature goes up to almost 40 degrees during the daytime but there were many tourist boats though. Still the impression of Inle Lake stayed pretty serene and peaceful. Inle lake is one of the main tourist attractions in Myanmar and tourism is well developed in Nyaungshwe and Inle area.

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DSC_3239Intha village above the lake

DSC_3274 Intha village above the lake

DSC_3210 Inthein market

The main income for Inthas are fishing, farming and hand-made goods like tools, carvings and other ornamental objects, scarves made of lotus and silk, silver jewellery and cheroots. Inthas have developed a lot of tourism around their lifestyle and as a tourist you will be taken to see many workshops where they produce these goods. We got to see silk and lotus weaving, scarf and cheroot making for example.

DSC_3217Scarves were made by long-necked women. We learned that they start to put rings to girls’ necks when they are 8 years old. They start with 10 rings. They add them (I don’t know how often) until they have reached the maximum of 25 rings. It’s Inthas tradition and they think it makes them more beautiful. Rings are made of bronze and I got to hold them…they were so heavy! Rings actually make your shoulders and collarbones go more down. That’s what gives the impression that your neck is very long.

DSC_3264Cheroot making workshop was our another stop. Cheroots are cigarettes produced in Myanmar. Inthas produce cheroot by wrapping tobacco mixed with anis and other flavors inside an indian cherry leaves. Natural filter is made of corn leaf.

DSC_3170Leg rowing/fishing

DSC_3177 Leg rowing/fishing

DSC_3304Leg rowing/fishing

Inthas unique rowing style evolved for the reason that the lake is covered by reeds and floating plants making it difficult to see above them while sitting. Standing provides the rower with a view beyond the reeds. However, the leg rowing style is only practiced by the men. (Wikipedia)

Atmosphere on Inle lake was just magical. It was great to see how Inthas have adapted their lifestyle so beautifully on Inle Lake. We saw schools for example, people bathing, fishing and carrying things on the lake. It felt funny…to notice that Inthas have all services they need just there, they don’t necessarily have to go to the mainland. They have succeeded to built even gardens above the lake where they grow vegetables. Imagine living so close to the nature.

DSC_3309 After day spent on the lake we rewarded ourselves with some rose wine in the nearby winery.

DSC_3314 Red Mountain Vineyards and Winery

Last day in Nyaung Shwe we rent bicycles and cycled to the hot springs nearby. On the way back to the town we stopped for dinner to tiny bamboo house which served as a small restaurant. We were the only customers. They had three rooms, first room for customers which had three tables and a small snack shop. Behind this ‘common room’ they had small kitchen where they cooked with gas stove and behind kitchen a small bedroom. Everything was made of bamboo. Beautifully detailed bamboo furniture were made by owner lady’s father. She told us that five men had built this house in just one week but even that she had built it with her husband it belonged to the government and that government could ask them to leave anytime.

DSC_3316 Having coffee break on the way to the hot springs. Local family was so welcoming even we didn’t share the same language.

DSC_3323 Small restaurant on the way to the hot springs…everything was made of bamboo

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    Charming owner in her kitchen…notice the floor construction

DSC_3321 Watching sunset in settings like this…not bad…

-Katariina

Pilgrimage to Kyaiktiyo Golden Rock Pagoda

From Yangon we took a 6-hour nightbus to Kinpun. Kinpun is a small village 160 kilometres from Yangon. After finding accommodation in the middle of the night and sleeping there maybe three hours it was time to start trekking to Kyaiktiyo Golden Rock Pagoda in a nearby hilltop. Kyaiktiyo is a holy site to Buddhists, third important in Myanmar after Yangon Shwedagon Pagoda and Mandalay’s Mahamuni Temple. It is believed that a hair of a Buddha is secreted inside a pagoda standing on the top of the rock. Speciality with Kyaiktiyo is the fact that that it’s defying gravity. Gilded rock is balancing above another rock and it seems that it might flip over the edge any minute. It is said that it’s possible to pull a string between these two rocks. Buddhists believe that it is the weight of the sacred hair which prevents the boulder from toppling into the ravine below.

Most of the people are transferred to Kyaiktiyo by trucks from Kinpun. Truck platform is crammed full of narrow benches that are loaded full of people. Trucks drive up and down winding roads terrible speed. We decided to do like the most devouted pilgrims do and hike up the mountain. We thought it would have been a nice couple of hours hike but actually it took us five hours to trek up 15 kilometres of serpentine roads surrounded by the jungle. We started at 6.30 and were on the top by midday totally exhausted. It was maybe 37 degrees when we reached the top. Many trucks were passing us on the way with people waving, showing thumbs-up and even videotaping us. We saw two monks doing the same route except that they were coming down. Another one of them walked without shoes. There is always someone more hardcore than you!

DSC_3087Kinpun village was very peaceful and had only a handful of other western tourists.

DSC_3089 Loading trucks

DSC_3070Trucks leave people 15-45 minutes before the top so everyone needs to walk at least a bit. There is an option though for those who aren’t able to walk at all. It is possible to hire sedan chairs carried by four men to carry them up. We saw a couple of those carriages.

DSC_3047 Only men are allowed to enter the boulder through the narrow causeway. They were applying golden leaves to the rock. Women can admire the rock from farther viewing pavilion.

DSC_3050 Buddhists were offering fruits, flowers, incences for example.

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DSC_3068 Mountaineous scenery through which we had walked

DSC_3083 We took a truck back down. It was like being in amusement park’s rollercoaster!

-Katariina

Days in Yangon

When we arrived in Yangon, the biggest city and the former capital of Myanmar, it was already dark. Traffic was pretty chaotic. Even local people didn’t seem to know how to cross the street, they were randomly running amongst cars. Cars didn’t necessarily slow down when they noticed a person crossing. There was some fluorescent tubes performing as street lights but otherwise city felt way different than other capitals in South-East Asia. Couple of hours later we went to search cheap street dinner. I noticed some familiar things; scent of betel nut and men wearing longyis made me feel like being back in India. Street vendor woman selling us a typical burmese style salad was very friendly and taught us how to enjoy these new flavors even we didn’t share the same language. People were telling ‘hello’ or ‘min-ga-lar-par’ to you from many directions. Friendly people and indian influences were my first impressions of Myanmar.

DSC_2875_edited_2 Yangon street view

DSC_2904 Trishaw taxi

DSC_2902_edited Locals living in the central

DSC_2897_edited Locals living in the central

DSC_2928 Local eatery on the street

There is many British colonial-era buildings in Yangon. Everything is little bit shabby but that’s what makes it charming. Even guesthouses have this authentic feeling. Our guesthouse, Mahabandoola GH, was situated in typical colonial block. Rooms were mint green with no-smoking signs written on the wall, floors were covered with flower-patterned, soft vinyl and rooms had claustrophobic feeling since they had no windows. Our hostel-keeper was smoking through window when he had free-time and his employees (three young guys) were reading buddhist prayers or studying. Mahabandoola didn’t have any air-con (during the day-time it was almost 40 degrees in Yangon central!) but lousy-working fan. I hadn’t been swetting this much during our travels so far. It was as if my face was melting!

DSC_2917_edited Yangon blocks

DSC_2921 Mahabandoola Garden…famous hangout for locals

DSC_3013 Mahabandoola Guest House

DSC_2927 Mahabandoola Guest House

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    Rules in Garden Guest House

Luckily during our first day we came across very burmese relieving thing against the heat. They call it thanaka. A girl in the street stall made thanaka to us. Thanaka is a natural plant-derived paste that Burmese women (sometimes men as well) use as natural sunscreen or ‘make-up’. Other burmese thing we did during our first days was buying longyis. Longyis are long skirts both men and women wear. We bought ours in the main market, Bogyoke Aung San.

DSC_2870 Thanakas

I would rank Yangon high what it comes to characteristics or uniqueness of a city during our travels so far. Compared to metropols like Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, Yangon is way behind. It has zero percent westernized atmosphere. You need to do some effort to find a pharmacy or a decent mart for example as they are more difficult to notice in Yangon’s busy street view where you don’t understand a thing about the signs as they are mostly written in burmese letters and shops are not branded. It was funny – my phone broke during one night. I spent the next afternoon searching a repair shop. I had to go to three places before I found a right one. Luckily people are friendly here and they come to show the place to you themselves if they can’t advice you in english about the directions. Local young guy who didn’t speak any english dismantled my phone to bits and pieces to solve what was wrong. After one hour my phone was working and I was 10 dollars poorer. I felt like hugging that guy!

Our third day started desperately. We both had been sleeping like nothing in Mahabandoola. We felt no hunger and even a thought about eating more rice or noodles gave us shivers. After dodgy breakfast of sweet and sour potato (because we just felt like having potatoes and that was the option we came across) enjoyed in a chinese restaurant, we decided to go to see Shwedagon Pagoda in the afternoon. Shwedagon is the most sacred buddhist shrine in Myanmar. According to the legend the shrine encloses relics of four buddhas, including eight hairs of Buddha Siddhartha Gautama. We booked a guide which turned out to be an excellent decision. Our guide pointed out many things we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise and told many interesting stories about the pagoda. Especially interesting was to see and participate worshipping of deities in planetary posts which corresponds with one’s day of birth. In Burmese astrology there are 8 days (Wednesday is divided into two, morning and afternoon). In each planetary post, there were a Buddha statue with a larger guardian spirit statue behind it. Each day is associated with different animal and this animal is represented beneath the statue. I am born in Wednesday so I worshipped Wednesday’s planetary post. Animal for Wednesday is an elephant, with tusks for morning and without tusks for the afternoon. You worship by offering water, flowers, paper umbrellas or incents to the Buddha statue. Most people pour water to the statues, different times for Buddha, for the guardian spirit and for the animal. (Our guide was excellent and also told that he is living in a monastery and welcomed us to visit for a night or two in case we wanted.)

DSC_2933 Local bus to Shwedagon Pagoda

DSC_2967 Shwedagon pagoda

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    Worshipping at wednesday morning planetary post

DSC_3001 Shwedagon by night

Our last day in Yangon surprised us. We were walking aroung Sule Pagoda which is situated in the very centre of Yangon. In fact, the main traffic circle is formed around this round shaped pagoda. Suddenly a monk started to talk to us. Monk was 27 years old A Shin Candimar, who had been a monk since he was 20 years old (before he had been a novice since the age of 13). After maybe 10-minutes smalltalking he told us that he was going to his english lecture and asked us to follow. We followed him with excitement to a narrow stairway which led to the second floor of a shabby block. There were maybe 10 students in the classroom, half of them monks. Most of the students were between 20-30 years old and had already finished their studies. Teacher Uma advised us to talk with students as he thinks talking to foreigners is important part of their english learning. Students told that they pay for these lectures and that they come almost everyday between monday and friday after their other duties (school or job) to study with Uma. They think it’s important to know english now when their country has become more open to the world. (Before that Myanmar was led by communist military junta who basically isolated the country from other countries in the world.) We were talking about our countries and cultures, how education system works, about our jobs and families and about buddhism for example. We told about our journey in Asia. Many of the students wished to travel or work abroad in the future but they also seemed to be very content and happy being Burmese. Auli asked some monks to come to Finland during winter and learn to ski!

DSC_3026 Uma’s english class

-Katariina