From Makassar to Manado: Backpacking Sulawesi
January 21, 2019

Sulawesi is all about volcanoes, lush green landscape and paradise islands – and then there are the ever-friendly locals: approachable and fun!

Sulawesi is all about volcanoes, lush green landscape and paradise islands – and then there are the ever-friendly locals: approachable and fun!

Sulawesi is a curiously shaped province within the Indonesian archipelago (that consists of some 17,500 islands in total) – conveniently located just north of Bali and Lombok (Nusa Tenggara), east of Malaysian Sabah and Kalimantan (Borneo), south of the Philippines and west of the Moluccas. It is the planet’s eleventh-largest island (176,600 sq km) – within Indonesia only Sumatra, Java and Papua are larger in territory and only Java and Sumatra are home to more people. That said, Sulawesi (with some 18,5 million) really didn’t feel overpopulated. However, that might easily be due to having spent some time in Vietnam just beforehand.

After Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, Indonesia is the fifth country on the list on this trip and my first time on the archipelago since 2015 when I visited Northern Sumatra. I first came to Indonesia after traveling around Australia for a year in 2006/07 – my good friend Donnie and I spent a month exploring Bali and Lombok, Nusa Tenggara (that includes the islands of Komodo and Rinca, home to the notorious Komodo dragons) plus Java. I utterly fell in love with the country back then and it again delivered this time – I would love to return some time, possibly for discovering Kalimantan (on Borneo) or Papua.

The k-shaped island with the red dot it is – surrounded by Borneo to the west, the Philippines to the north and Nusa Tenggara to the south.

The k-shaped island with the red dot it is – surrounded by Borneo to the west, the Philippines to the north and Nusa Tenggara to the south.

Not the most expensive place to travel in: This is what I paid for in 14 days.

Not the most expensive place to travel in: This is what I paid for in 14 days.

So while I was winding my way up from Southern to Northern Vietnam (December 20 to January 5), cK was already enjoying himself on Bali and Lombok before we finally reunited at Makassar Airport in Sulawesi’s very south west. The unusual overall shape is basically due to the amount of peninsulas (take a closer look at a map, it’s worth it) which makes you reconsider your itinerary thoroughly.

Despite various interesting destinations on any of the island’s legs we decided to start in the capital (Makassar), then head north while avoiding Palu and the rest of the west coast (due to the tsunami that hit the region hard in September 2018) and make our way to the Togean Islands, easily considered Sulawesi’s prime destination due to excellent snorkelling and diving, savage island coasts, an authentic Robinson Crusoe ambience and enchanting surprises like sweet Jellyfish Lake.

The trip couldn’t start any better really when we managed to avoid the usual taxi scam by hitchhiking into downtown Makassar where we booked a guesthouse in advance – however, the address given proved to be false, but our drivers hooked us up with just another guesthouse where we ended up staying instead (after lots of confusion and some fun conversations with Japanese guests).

Especially local kids were more than keen to either interview us or take selfies. Quite the action!

Especially local kids were more than keen to either interview us or take selfies. Quite the action!

Makassar‘s main tourist attraction: Fort Rotterdam.

Makassar‘s main tourist attraction: Fort Rotterdam.

Makassar provided a comfortable base for the first two nights, even though there isn’t overly much to do besides getting lost in back alleys or taking selfies with super-curious and highly approachable locals. The only real sight is centrally located Fort Rotterdam, a well-preserved example of Dutch architecture where you can walk along the original walls and take even more selfies with enthusiastic locals.

After the second night in town we got on a bus north into the rather peculiar region of Tana Toraja, famous for a stunning scenery, elaborately painted houses (originally used for rice storage) featuring boat-shaped roofs plus a once-animist people that has a certain obsession with bloody funeral ceremonies. We were offered to attend one of those, but happily declined since one is expected to pay a rather astonishing amount of money for that (in comparison).

Riding the bus to Rantepao in the Tana Toraja region.

Riding the bus to Rantepao in the Tana Toraja region.

On top of things again: enjoying the views from Rantepao‘s highest hill.

On top of things again: enjoying the views from Rantepao‘s highest hill.

However, we later met a very likeable European couple that was willing to attend the funeral and talk about it: lots of wicked chanting and elaborate dance acts, but also a shocking amount of cruel animal torture and slaughtering – e.g. pigs whose legs were tied together for general amusement, trying to jump around helplessly before being killed. Apart from that it was apparently most interesting to observe the social structure – it basically comes down to: The more buffaloes your family can afford, the better your stand in (the Toraja) society.

We settled in Rantepao and decided to explore the wider area by foot and bicycle (after virtually every scooter rental we turned to had trouble with their machines) – then my bike broke down half-way up a mountain (on the way to a place called Batutumonga) – luckily the only thing we needed to do was turn around and roll down for half an hour until we were back in town, passing cheering school kids and the occasional honking taxi driver.

Curious Toraja architecture: They originally used these houses to store rice.

Curious Toraja architecture: They originally used these houses to store rice.

We booked the bus ticket further north (to a place called Pendolo) at some dodgy backstreet agency whose owner was very keen to sell us a funeral tour. Also, we didn’t get bus tickets (or any sort of confirmation for the money we paid him). The morning of our departure his family told us he’d be in the hospital (did he talk about his own funeral?) and of course no-one really knew about the tickets we bought from him. As was to be expected, though, it all worked out just fine. South-East Asia, I love you for this (incalculable chaos).

After a bumpy 10-hour bus ride we eventually made it to Pendolo, a little village just south of Danau (Lake) Poso, a rather beautiful freshwater lake in Central Sulawesi. We arrived in darkness and picked the Pendolo Cottages to stay at – when following our landlord passing over a wooden bridge towards the bungalows, one of the boards bursted and I sort of fell through it – at least with one leg. Quite the experience. Nothing happened besides some scratches at the leg – the plank actually hit my eyes, but the glasses protected me. After we saw the cottage and negotiated a price our landlord returned with some tiger balm which made me smile big-time.

Having the most enchantable morning after breakfast on the bungalow terrace.

Having the most enchantable morning after breakfast on the bungalow terrace.

Collecting trash at Lake Poso and then enjoying a long lovely swim!

Collecting trash at Lake Poso and then enjoying a long lovely swim!

Since Rantepao I fell in love with a dish called Gado-Gado: basically rice with vegetables, tofu, sometimes tempeh and always peanut sauce. So once we headed out to hunt that down we rather surprisingly stumbled into a proper nightly fairground, complete with “giant” wheel, carrousel and even a spook hall (one guy accompanied us through and made sure we’d have a fun time). We also found some gado-gado that night.

After some great night sleep we awoke in paradise: our caring landlord served us fresh fruits and strong black tea for breakfast and cleared the bit of beach for us as well. I put up the hammock, we smothered ourselves with sun screen and off we went into the sea – only to discover it to be filled with (mostly transparent) plastic trash. Great! We made the best of it and spent the following hour collecting garbage from beach and lake – some dude from the adjacent cottages got his phone out and filmed us doing so (and hopefully makes it go viral on YouTube and his circle of mates).

One of those wooden bridges was rotten and I basically fell through when crossing it at night.

One of those wooden bridges was rotten and I basically fell through when crossing it at night.

More cottages in the sweet village of Pendolo.

More cottages in the sweet village of Pendolo.

The tranquil times weren’t too last unfortunately – when we returned from village (were we had lunch and also acquired for a bus towards the next target) we found the two surrounding bungalows occupied with other guests: two big and rather noisy Indonesian families (after all this was a Saturday we then realized). We didn’t actually mind the company, but it was lovely to have the beach just for ourselves for a change – and, well, they then started a karaoke session that kept on going well into the night. But this is Asia after all!

The day after was a Sunday and on Sundays there isn’t much going on in that part of the country (the Christians here take this rather serious), but the promised bus came and off we went to Poso (the city which gave the lake its name) where we changed into a night connection into our target city of the day: Ampana – the gateway town to the long waited for Togean Islands!

Making our way north through Central Sulawesi (passing through Poso and ending in Ampana from where we took the ferry to the Togeans).

Making our way north through Central Sulawesi (passing through Poso and ending in Ampana from where we took the ferry to the Togeans).

We arrived in Ampana basically in the middle of the night, being the only passengers leaving the bus and then making our way straight to the ferry terminal. The streets were pretty much deserted and so was the harbour area, but we did encounter some information giving us an idea about the accommodation prices on the islands: with 225,000 Rupiah (15 euro) per person about three times as much as we were used to from, say, Pendolo. And then there was an additional national park fee of 150,000 Rp. – to be paid for by day.

We would consider our options the following day, but first needed to find a place to catch up with sleep – we ended up at the Oasis Hotel nearby, but the place was as empty as the streets around. After some extensive sneaking around we decided to crash on the lobby couches, switched off the lights, closed the entrance door and fell asleep just when it began to rain heavily (the lobby’s back area was basically open, so some rain drops touched down on my face). Around 06:30 or so the hotel receptionists showed up, so we asked for a room, were given one immediately and kept on sleeping until it was too hot and humid to bear.

cK temporarily working for the harbour administration.

cK was temporarily supporting the harbour administration.

The following day we spent in town to acquire more information about the Togeans and how exactly to get there (and away from), find a wifi spot and then tried to catch as much sleep as possible in order to fully enjoy the island adventure. We were keen.

A local ferry took us to the rather unappealing town of Wakai before heading on to Pulau Kedidiri where we stayed at one of three guesthouse complexes named Leskiri Cottages. That same night we got to know a bunch of fellow travelers who we then successfully recruited for a trip to Jellyfish Lake the following day.

Our bungalow at Kediri Cottages

Our bungalow at Kediri Cottages.

The island dogs: our regular companions – steadily seeking distraction and new adventures.

The island dogs: our regular companions – steadily seeking distraction and new adventures.

I first heard about that funnily named locality from friends who went to the Togeans in early 2018, marked the place on maps.me and forgot about it again soon after. And now here we were – reading about it in guide book PDFs and on ad flyers lying around in the cottage lunch room. A tranquil lake filled with a stingless species of jelly fish peacefully passing through horizontally day by day. We just had to see it!

While sharing some happy hour cocktails at the Kadidiri Paradise bar (one of the competing cottages) we met Kristin and Delio, actors from Hamburg and Zürich, plus Joaquin and Antonella, globetrotters from Buenos Aires (who happened to live in Berlin for a year until recently). The morning after the six of us were on a boat heading to the lake, sufficiently equipped with water, snacks and fins (prohibited while swimming with the jellyfish, but obviously handy for some good snorkelling at a nearby coral reef).

Robinson Crusoe style beach near Jellyfish Lake.

Robinson Crusoe style beach near Jellyfish Lake.

Corals calling!

Corals calling!

The remaining time on the Togeans we spent hanging out on the jetty, at the beach, in hammocks, on comfy couches near the bar and discussing the life at home, the funky pleasures of traveling and what comes with it.

On the morning of our departure day we went inland to explore another beach close-by (called Baracuda Bay) and the bunch of local dogs happily accompanied us as if they were just waiting for some distraction. It’s been playing Robinson Crusoe all the way! Probably one of my highlights on this trip.

Baracuda Bay!

Secluded Baracuda Bay.

From Wakai we eventually got on the night ferry towards Northern Sulawesi and arrived in Gorontalo around 03:30 in the morning. We decided to walk into town (some 4 kilometres away), making several breaks in between, witnessing the sun rising above the usual accumulation of modest, but colourful mosques. It actually proved to be quite the hassle to find a transport to Manado, the last target on this voyage across the island. We went to two bus stations from where we hoped to catch a bus north-east, but we were only told to rent a car instead – that seems like an expensive idea, but this is South-East Asia after all! For 175,000 each (around €11) we squeezed ourselves into a private car with just another tobacco-addicted driver and off we went to Manado.

Unexpected roadtrip interruption due to landslide cleaning work.

Unexpected roadtrip interruption due to landslide cleaning work.

After some 10 hours and an unexpected interruption due to a landslide (the road needed to be cleared with help of chain saws and caterpillars) we finally arrived in Manado, Sulawesi’s second-largest city (with some 750,000 inhabitants). The name means something like “on the far coast” or “in the distance” and originally refers to a volcanic island just off the mainland where the town was originally located. The reason we were heading here (apart from the airport proximity) was another island just next-by: Bunaken. I got to know about it only some months ago, but was quite keen to get there because the marine life is supposed to be just spectacular.

However, we never made it to Bunaken since the ferry times were not in our favor and we didn’t feel like arranging an overprized private ferry for a mere daytrip. Instead, we spent our last full day on Sulawesi inland. A cheap and nicely crowded public bus brought us to a mountain town called Tomohon: fresh and cool air, attractively shaped volcanoes and a small, but highly sulphurous lake that changes colours (depending on the light) was all that we could ask for.

Volcano watching from Tomohon, a sympathetic town some 25 km inland from Manado.

Volcano watching from Tomohon, a sympathetic town some 25 km inland from Manado.

We celebrated our last day with cold Bintang beer, tasty donuts and an even tastier dinner – that included some spicy tempeh – back in Manado (where we resided at the popular Celebes Hotel). The morning after we were on a plane back to Makassar and I’m writing these lines now (January 21, 2019) while hanging out in the Bunk Backpackers close to Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), having Pink Floyd’s Time in my ears (one of my favorite tracks on The Dark Side of the Moon). We’re all excited because later today we’ll be finally boarding a plane to Honolulu on the island of O’ahu – the first time for both of us crossing the vast Pacific Ocean. This new chapter of the trip, however, will be written at another day and another place…

The Togean Islands – this is Pulau Kediri as seen from the Kadidiri Paradise jetty.

The Togean Islands – this is Pulau Kediri as seen from the Kadidiri Paradise jetty.

Hawai‘i already on our mind... the next adventure is coming up shortly.

Hawai‘i already on our mind… the next adventure is coming up shortly.

The Viet Nam Journey
January 14, 2019

Overlooking Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island at New Year‘s Eve 2018.

Overlooking Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island at New Year‘s Eve 2018.

Viet Nam! The one country in South-East Asia really everybody seems to have an opinion about. After so many varying stories I was told, there was much to be excited about and still I was surprised. In the end I really didn’t know what to expect anymore (especially after having seen most other countries in the region (except for China and, well, the Philippines). But for the better!

Some claimed the locals were a lot less friendly and even quite grumpy towards foreigners (in comparison), others weren’t quite as condemning. Many said the food would be noticeably more expensive, others put their focus of complaint on the transport. The latter, however, would be much more comfortable and straight-forward than say, in Thailand or Myanmar. Also, is it perhaps worth booking hostel beds (and rooms) in advance?

Good morning, Vietnam! First day in Saigon (December 21, 2018).

Good morning, Vietnam! First day in Saigon (December 21, 2018).

Clearing up the Basics

Now, so what actually proved to be true? I’ll come straight to the point in a little bulletin list before getting into spicy details plus explaining my little 16-day itinerary from south to north.

  • Yes, I also found the food substantially more expensive than in, say, Indonesia, Myanmar or mainland Thailand and even more so than in Malaysia.
  • Buses are very straightforward and they are also quite comfortable (and relatively fast). Most buses (especially when traveling overnight) are sleepers. Just make sure you get a lower bunk bed. Not only is it a lot shakier up there, it’s probably also better for your phones. (Never before have I seen smartphones raining down in that high a frequency. Some didn’t survive.) Price-wise, buses are not considerably more or less expensive than anywhere else in SE-Asia (imho). For a sleeper from e.g. Da Lat (in Southern Vietnam) to Hoi An (in the centre) I paid 300,000 d (around €12).
    Accomodation is possibly the cheapest I’ve ever came across. Like, seriously cheap. If you’d pay more than, say, 120,000 Dong for a night in a hostel bed (about €4,80) that would already count as luxury for some. Rather expect to pay between 60,000 and 100,000 for a comfortable bed (between €2 and 4).
    Yes, I did make the acquaintance of quite some real nasty and almost heinous individuals and definitely more so than anywhere else in Asia (so far – maybe they shoot travelers on arrival in Papua New Guinea?). However, those unpleasant encounters almost always occurred in areas that were more or less spoiled by tourism. Still, some behaviour left me quite speechless. Even if there are language barriers, there should always be a way to make yourself understood in a peaceful way, even if only with gestures or just a little patience (something many Vietnamese seem to lack in general). Still, I met so many wonderful locals, no-one can claim that there wouldn’t usually be a smooth way out of things if one wanted to.
Food in Vietnam tasty – no doubt! It‘s also considerably more expensive than e.g. in mainland Thailand, Myanmar or Indonesia.

Food in Vietnam tasty – no doubt! It‘s also considerably more expensive than e.g. in mainland Thailand, Myanmar or Indonesia.

Concerning Cash

The local currency is the Vietnamese Dong (VND) and €1 buys you approx. 26,000 Dong (d) and a bit, hence I roughly calculated: 100,000 are about €4. Differently put: Multiply the price in dong by 4 and you get the right amount in Eurocents, e.g. 7 (thousand) Dong (d) times 4 would be 28 cents (and so on).

Overall I have spent some €220 for 16 days traveling through the country, having 7 major stop-overs (see below), that makes an average of about €13,75 per day.

Overall I’ve spent some €220 for 16 days traveling through the country on 7 major stop-overs (see below), that makes an average of about €13,75 per day.

The prices for transportation, food, etc. in the graphic above are given in Euro, but I exclusively paid in VND (the exchange rate for Euro or U.S. $ would be worse for you virtually all the time. It also (always) feels a bit awkward to see them use price tags given in dollars even when it comes to a bowl of noodles or a fruit juice. Didn’t they fight yankee capitalism to the blood still some mere decades ago…. ah, yes, I know – money rules the world and likely always will. 🤑😲🤮

Inside Saigon‘s touristic, but certainly beautiful old Post Office.

Inside Saigon‘s touristic, but certainly beautiful old Post Office.

The Visa Situation

The major reason (apart from time) for not getting into Vietnam already back in 2013 when cK and I were already on the Pancake Trail was the more expensive visa of (I can’t remember precisely now) some € 50 or so. All this has changed: Most Westerners can now stay in the country

  • for less then 15 days without a visa (for free!)
  • for up to one month (via e-visa, $ U.S. 25 (to be paid by arrival – if you pay in euro it’s also 25, but you’ll get some U.S. dollars back)
  • for up to 3 months (via e-visa, $ U.S.)

Travel Itinerary

So I arrived at Saigon Airport on the evening of December 20, paid for the 1 month visa (since I’d stay slightly longer than 2 weeks) and made my way to the city centre with bus nr. 109 for a mere 20,000 d. First thing I noticed about accomodation: You’re usually better off booking a bed in advance at most places – you’d actually pay more when just walking up to a place. Also, the desired hostel or guesthouse might quickly fill up. I never paid more than that very first night in Saigon, however: 110,000 d for a bed in a room shared with 5 other lads.

The Communist flag flying high above Saigon‘s town hall.

The Communist flag flying high above Saigon‘s town hall.

So what is it about the name? Well, the communist North won the war and ever since they marched into Saigon in 1975 they decided to rename the country’s largest city to honour their great leader Ho Chi Minh (who was already dead by then). It remains questionable if he liked a city to be named after him (he also explicitly wanted to be buried, but the communist leaders thought differently and today you can stare at his decaying body in a mausoleum in Hanoi (the capital), Lenin-style (I didn’t actually do that).

In various ways: Saigon is intense! – and I didn’t mind it, but found it quite sympathetic even. However, it probably didn’t hurt to have expected the worst right from the start (generally not being a huge fan of motorcycles). So I arranged myself right from the start and, in fact, found it quite amusing how busy everyone appears while utterly frantically (and recklessly) rushing through the alleys, honking around like there would be no tomorrow, coughing and spitting, but never really yelling (at least not on the street) and often enough transforming the foot path into an additional biking lane, too.

You should indeed always be prepared for the worst. Nothing ever happened to me, but I repeatedly heard stories of travelers having their cell phones snatched by some sneaky prick riding his bike on the foot path just when one would be checking directions. So keep your eyes open!

Having said so much: Most locals are not only honest, of course, they’re real fun to communicate (and sometimes even hang out) with. Walking along Tôn Dúc Tháng (a big alley at Saigon River) I got enthusiastically welcomed by a friendly “Good morning, Vietnam!”, reminiscent of the occasional war movie.

Street chaos in Saigon (Ho-Chi-Minh-City/HCMC) – you gotta dive into it and arrange yourself!

Street chaos in Saigon (Ho-Chi-Minh-City/HCMC) – you gotta dive into it and arrange yourself!

Places you shouldn’t miss in town:

  • Saigon’s (hyped-up) version of Bangkok’s Khao San Road: Bui Vien Street, an alleged “walking street” filled with everything the casual traveler would crave for (funky street food, dodgy massage offers, commie style T-shirts and LOTS of bars), just below 23/9 Park – obviously, “walking street” does not mean that you aren’t sharing the experience with your fair share of honking bikes and cars
  • the Museum of Fine Arts (feat. a fine selection of local art in three buildings
  • the Museum of Ho-Chi-Minh City (with some sweet views over the skyline)
  • the War Remnants Museum (being the biggest and most popular museum in town: touching photo exhibitions with lots of explanation on 3 floors plus a wide selection of tanks and airplanes just outside
    Taking some time out at Tao Dan Park and Le Van Tam Park
    the historic Saigon Central Post Office plus the Notre Dame Cathedral (just opposite)
    feeling like a proper tourist inside Ben Tanh Tourist Market (I at least had a real lovely fruit shake inside)
  • relaxing at the Botanical Gardens to the north of the city
  • getting lost in some back street and randomly talking to some kids or making conversation with curious locals

Two full days in vibrant, lively Saigon were enough for me, but the city has surely more to offer, especially if you feel like hitting the dance floor or get seriously wasted in some bar late at night – just take care of your cash, it easily starts growing legs (as Lonely Planet would phrase it).

Da Lat’s delightful and modern “city centre”.

Da Lat’s delightful and modern “city centre”.

Next on for me was Da Lat, a hill station being built by the French colonial rulers in the 19th century. By bus it’s some 7 hours up to the north, conveniently located in the much fresher South Central Vietnamese Highlands. It features an abundance of old French villas, surrounded by nature and a bunch of waterfalls. A very likeable place! I spent most of my time here wandering around and can highly recommend the following things:

  • walking to the old Train Station, passing by the city square (feat. funky buildings) and then surrounding Xuan Huong Lake, either checking out the Flower Park in the north or enjoying the tranquility of the island just below
  • visiting the so-called Crazy House, a fairytale-like gem designed by a famous Vietnamase architect named Đặng Việt Nga, who happens to be the daughter of some Communist official (which saved her long-time project from being attacked by the rather backward-oriented party dictatorship). You can also book a night in of the extraordinarily designed rooms here as the place also serves as a guesthouse, then having the whole fantastic construction (almost) all to yourself at sunset or sunrise
  • enjoying street food and being interviewed by excited locals and Asian visitors alike at the Night Market (around the city centre)
The fairy-tale-like “Crazy House” by Vietnamese architect Đặng Việt Nga serves also a guesthouse.

The fairy-tale-like “Crazy House” by Vietnamese architect Đặng Việt Nga serves also a guesthouse.

Kate and I out and about on a rainy day in Da Lat.

Kate and I out and about on a rainy day in Da Lat.

I stayed at a place called An Hostel and Café and ended up sharing a bottle of sparkling wine with a fellow traveler called Kate at Christmas Eve, a wonderful companion (and congenial converser) – the only problem being that she would be heading south towards Saigon while I was on my way up. (However, quite some travelers wouldn’t be deterred from Vietnam’s rather straight-forward geographic shape and instead travel up and down as the winds would carry them – provided they had the time.)

I sadly had to leave Kate (plus another like-minded traveler) behind already the following day. The two of them, though, would eventually team up and spend New Year’s Eve together in the big city (after having been to the coastal town of Mui Ne that I would have liked to see if it wasn’t for the limited schedule).

Next on was a night bus to Hoi An in Central Vietnam and I opted to stay somewhere rather off-centre in a place called Beautiful Moon Villa/Sky House (the owner is called Sky). Hoi An is basically most traveler’s darling since the city is so very approachable and charming at the same time. What people come here for is the Old Town (listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site) consisting of Chinese-style shophouses, offering everything from postcards and posters to food and clothes mingled with a dozen interesting temples, art galleries and tailor shops.

Chinese style lanterns in enchanting (if somewhat kitschy) Hoi An.

Chinese style lanterns in enchanting (if somewhat kitschy) Hoi An.

The already likeable atmosphere almost turns over-the-top kitschy by sunset when hundreds of multi-coloured Chinese lanterns are being lit up, various small boats start shifting romance-seeking tourists around, bumping into one another from one shore to the other. It’s quite the spectacle to watch really!

Just some 4 hours north of Hoi An (hence still very much in the country’s centre) lies the former imperial capital city Hue. While the tourist area just east of the city’s centre (across the so-called Perfume River) is not exactly appealing, it’s not a long way for escaping the tourist trap shops and restaurants (which feature ludicrous price ranges).

Vietnam’s last emperor Bao Dai, who abdicated when Ho Chi Minh rose to power, was reigning right from the former Imperial City (basically a citadel within a citadel that was incorporating a third citadel called The Purple Forbidden City) which has been heavily bombarded by the U.S. Americans during the war (that officially only ended in 1975 when the last Marines left the country). The reconstruction is far from being finished, but the place is still very much worth visit.

Inside the Imperial City of Hue.

Inside the Imperial City of Hue.

Shortly after arriving in Hue I got to know a Polish traveler from Gdansk (who was sitting in the same bus coming from Hoi An) – she told me about an abandoned water/amusement park that she heard about and wanted to visit. I was completely down by the time she mentioned the word “abandoned”, so we agreed to team up with another traveler and share a Grab (basically Asia’s Uber) to the place which was well-signed in the offline map app maps.me. We were eventually joined by just another curious adventurer called Shalom, a Mexican girl who I shared a dorm with in Hoi An’s Sky House.

So the four of us showed up at the old park entrance which was guarded by a dude in uniform who told us somewhat firmly that the park would be closed. After we were (sort of) pressing him for an “exception” he rather unexpectedly blinked at us, indicating to walk around the former entrance and try it from another side. We understood, backed off and found our way through some village lanes until approaching the first indicators of the old water park, overgrown statues and some sort of platform.

In the distance we saw some other people climbing along the abandoned stadium part and just when we were setting off to join them we noticed another uniformed dude on a motorbike coming for us instead. After some wild discussing we bribed the dude (paying some 10,000 Dong each), promised not to climb anything, “just taking photos” and off we went to the see the famous dragon statue and, some time later, the water slides and pools.

The dragon’s foot alone would have been worth the adventure.

The dragon’s foot alone would have been worth the adventure.

Taking photos at the water slides, some 15 minutes walk away from the dragon construction.

Taking photos at the water slides, some 15 minutes walk away from the dragon construction.

I later learned that the park allegedly closed down only in 2004 after being an economic disaster – the locals claimed that the whole thing was doomed to fail from the start as it was erected on top of an ancient grave yard. Then there was a series of lethal incidents during the construction work and, finally, one newspaper article reported that the area was, in fact, plagued by crocodiles (having escaped from the aquariums and now attacking the local population of water buffaloes). We were joking around about that, of course, but finding the aquarium tanks beneath the massive dragon statue dismantled certainly helped to arouse an appropriate ambience. We loved the place and I have no difficulty imagining it as a setting for a fun (trash) horror film.

That same day I was leaving Hue behind already and almost missed to get out of the bus when arriving in Ninh Binh, some 90 km south of Hanoi. First thing noticeable was how very much colder everything was that far up in the country’s north. I was still wearing short trousers, sandals and a wifebeater shirt when jumping into a metered taxi taking me to neighbouring Tam Coc (some 9 km away), often being referred to as Vietnam’s inland version of Halong Bay: vast limestone cliffs being surrounded by numerous rice paddies and delightful water ways, much more accessible and also much less touristic; I was keen.

Spectacular view over rice fields in the Tam Coc area (near Ninh Binh).

Spectacular view over rice fields in the Tam Coc area (near Ninh Binh).

That night it was raining heavily and I already feared for the worst, but the clouds were clearing up in the morning and after a lovely breakfast with my 2 room mates from Japan (Michita) and Israel (Martin, who arrived at the home stay just minutes before me), Michita and I decided to rent out bikes and explore the area. I was certainly not to be disappointed, especially not after having been on top of Mua Cave, that allows fascinating panorama views of the surrounding area (despite a rather smacking 100,000 d entrance fee).

You can also rent out a boat in Tam Coc and make your way to Trang An (and return), but the weather wasn’t inviting enough plus I felt that being on the limestones was a much more rewarding experience. At night it was drinking beers and playing chess with Martin before heading to bed and getting up early the following morning in order to catch the bus to the island of Cat Ba.

Overviewing the dozens of limestone islands at Halong Bay from Cat Ba’s Cannon Fort.

Overviewing the dozens of limestone islands at Halong Bay from Cat Ba’s Cannon Fort.

Cat Ba is situated just south of world-famous Halong Bay (some 170 km east of Hanoi), popular for its sheer endless amount of limestone/karst rocks popping out of the sea. Beautiful, I’m sure – but also overfilled with Chinese tourists and frantic locals trying to suck out ever dong of every traveler approaching (this is at least how I imagined it to be), so I was opting for the largest of the 1,969 islands instead, Cat Ba.

The plan was to meet up with a friend I got to know on a roadtrip through Southern Europe in 2015 and who now happened to travel through South-East Asia as well – then somehow squeeze in a visit to the rice fields of Sapa (close to the Chinese boarder) before spending my last day of this trip in the country’s capital. Obviously everything turned out just slightly different (just what I love about traveling, though).

An apparently abandoned hostel near the National Park.

An apparently abandoned hostel near the National Park.

The friend I was looking forward to meet made it to Cat Ba Island (together with her travel companions), but they felt like spending New Year’s at a more urban (and not quite so fresh) place, so they left Cat Ba Town before we were able to meet up. However, Shalom, the Mexican girl I got to know in Hoi An (viva la Pancake Trail!), meanwhile made it into town and stayed at my otherwise vacant hostel dorm.

Also, while exploring the remnants of Fort Cannon (including some abandoned lookout points and paths) I met a bunch of traveling Brits whose company was quite… refreshing). We all ended up dancing and sipping happy hour cocktails in some bar just on the town’s main road when 2019 kicked in. And that was it! May the new year bring even more unexpected twists and turns and – especially so – exciting and stimulating new input in the shape of inspiring human beings…

Celebrating New Year’s at some bar in Cat Ba Town.

Celebrating New Year’s at some bar in Cat Ba Town.

Bicycle discovery tour on New Year’s Day: verdant views all around.

Bicycle discovery tour on New Year’s Day: verdant views all around.

On New Year’s Day, Shalom and I were renting bicycles and exploring the actual treasures of the big island, passing by apparently abandoned (but beautiful) guest houses, lots of view points over inland limestone hills and caves (e.g. a place called Hospital Cave that was used as such during the war against the Americans).

On January 2nd we finally headed off to Hanoi and I scratched all plans of going further north: January simply isn’t the right time to see blooming rice fields in sunshine on multiple-day treks, so I opted for spending all my remaining time in the capital – and as mental as the people behave in traffic: it’s clearly been a worthwhile visit! I recommend doing (or seeing) the following when in town:

  • exploring the Temple of Literature – the country’s first university (est. in 1076)
  • the Hoa Lo Prison (nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by U.S. American POWs), built by the French around 1900 to imprison and execute Vietnamese freedom fighters in a brutal colonial regime, later used for keeping American soldiers – the photos shown have a twisted aftertaste of Commie propaganda and should be taken with a large dose of scepticism
  • the area around Truc Bach Lake, especially the Tran Quoc Pagoda – there is well-sorted, but quite expensive English boom shop called Bookworm
  • reading a book in the tranquility of Bay Mau Lake (south of the Old Quarter) or inside the (small, but sufficiently charming) Botanical Gardens
  • discovering the backstreets around the B52 Lake, a pond in which a U.S. American B52 bomber was downed and is now slowly decaying (there is also a museum further south, named accordingly)
  • enjoying colonial architecture and more museums east of the Opera House
  • strolling around Hô Hoàn Kiêm, shooting time lapses of the Red Bridge and getting lost in the mad market frenzy between there and the Dong Xuan Market hall
The Tran Quoc Pagoda in Ha Noi, the country’s capital.

The Tran Quoc Pagoda in Ha Noi, the country’s capital.

Colonial architecture in Ha Noi.

Colonial architecture in Ha Noi.

I stayed in Hanoi for 3 days and nights and finally met my old roadtrip companion from 2015 – she and her friends were renting an Air B’n’B close to the opera and I spent one night there at a game night. Beer is cheap in Vietnam (compared to predominantly Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia), so we enjoyed our fair share. On my last full day in the country I got fully absorbed in the tourist market hole, making myself a present for some rather sweet 15 days in the shape of brandnew purple-coloured shoes. On January 5 I jumped on a shuttle bus to the airport and left for Kuala Lumpur (where I spent one whole night writing and editing). The day after I finally reunited with my good old travel companion cK in Sulawesi, two full weeks of island and jungle adventures ahead of us – but that’s another chapter.

The easy life in Tam Coc.
The easy life in Tam Coc.

Late Night KL Airport reflections
January 6, 2019

Writing elaborate travel blogs while hanging out at South-East Asian airports (instead of catching valuable sleep) really is the most enjoyable thing I could possibly imagine…

Writing elaborate travel blogs while hanging out at South-East Asian airports (instead of catching valuable sleep) really is the most enjoyable thing I could possibly imagine…

So I’m writing this while sitting (almost lying down now) next to my backpack and camera bag plus a dodgy power outlet at the departure hall of KLIA, short for Kuala Lumpur International Airport. It’s the middle of the night, I’m listening to Pink Floyd’s remastered version of The Wall, watching bunches of people either sneaking or rushing by (mostly the latter, though).

There is this slow moving (and slightly overweight) kung-fu master with a stylish Confucius beard and a comic print shirt looking at me while passing by the second time (that I notice him). There is this blond Western girl running along one way and returning another. A bunch of frantically excited Indians. Some hardcore muslims featuring a pasha male and his (at least to outstanders) subordinate wife almost being completely covered in black veiling. A happily smiling couple, possibly Japanese? Wherever they’re from, their mood is contagious. And Roger Waters sings: Why are you running away…?

24 hours earlier I was still deep asleep and snuggled up inside my hostel bed in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. I already knew I’d need as much sleep as I could possibly get before that day at the airport, doing nothing but write, write, write – all night long. Getting some food in between, a toilet break and a water refill. Noudle soup, cookies and a soup. Still tired. (I wonder how I possibly manage to survive 7-day long electro festivals in summer. Repeatedly. No real sleep for days!) 4 more hours until the bag drop counter opens; I better keep on writing.

So cK and I temporarily parted ways in Kuala Lumpur (KL) City pretty much 16 days ago, on December 20 last year. While he went on an early morning flight to Bali, Indonesia (to meet his girl), I was leaving the same day, but heading to Saigon (a/k/a Ho-Chi-Minh-City instead. I could have also opted for discovering more of Malaya, but I already saw most of what I was looking for in late 2015 (when escaping to KL from loony Indian madness). Back then I went up north on to the enchanting island of Langkawi and all the way south again to charming Melaka, but I couldn’t go to Pulau Tioman, a snorkel/diving island paradise just off Malaya’s east coast. It just wasn’t the season, the seas were too rough on that side of the peninsula. Well, guess what? It’s that time of the year again. So that is on the list still

Evaluating options: While I‘ve been to places marked red and orange (plus green and blue), purple marks the ones I still want to see some time in the future if I get the chance.

Evaluating options: While I‘ve been to places marked red and orange (plus green and blue), purple marks the ones I still want to see some time in the future if I get the chance.

I could have also gone down to Singapore and fly over to Java – finally seeing Anak Krakatau with my own eyes (before it would finally blow itself to pieces again just as it did before – the last time, infamously, in 1883).

Just some weeks ago Krakatau’s child (or “Anuk” in Bahasa Indonesia) caused a heavy landslide (and a follow up tsunami) that led to the death of some 300 people who were just doing their thing at some popular beach places right at the Sunda Strait (i.e. between the islands of Sumatra and Java). So probably not a good idea to head there right at this moment which is a shame really since I was always quite interested in seeing that particular volcano of which I heard and read so much when still being a child, devouring comic books that dealt with actual geological (and political) history.

The eruption (and consequent self-destruction) of Krakatoa in 1883 as depicted by one of my all-time favorite comic artists Don Rosa in the Scrooge McDuck story “The Cowboy Captain of the Cutty Sark”.

The eruption (and consequent self-destruction) of Krakatoa in 1883 as depicted by one of my all-time favorite comic artists Don Rosa in the Scrooge McDuck story “The Cowboy Captain of the Cutty Sark”.

So what about skipping Java alltogether and hitting Bali and Nusa Tanggara (the islands east of Bali that also include Lombok) instead? Well, I’ve been there as well (back in 2007 – at prime season, too!) and kinda didn’t want to overwrite my fading, but still utterly stupendous memories of very youthful and innocent adventures. Some day I will surely return to that (hopefully) still blissful island, trying to figure out how much I will still recall of Ubud and the monkey forest, personal encounters with exciting human beings, celebrations of friendship and bonding.

About the other surrounding regions: Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan) is too big, too spread out and simply too intense for traveling alone at this point. Southern Sumatra: ditto. The Philippines I’d like to save up for something (and someone) special. And Sulawesi is up next already: The sole reason for spending all those hours at KLIA is me waiting for the “connection flight” to Makassar, Sulawesi’s capital – reunion with cK is approaching! About the real chance of there being earthquakes, a volcano eruption and even a tsunami: I was happy to hear that the first aid kit is still being unused, even untouched.

Having considered all of that, going to Viet Nam really seemed to be the best option to spend my 16 solo trip days at. Now, after having returned to where I headed off from I can thoroughly agree (to myself in some funny ego-perspectice twist): Time well spent. Read about the Viet Nam Journey in my next blog!

This giant hand belongs to the gigantic dragon that is the major attraction in an abandoned water park in the Central-Vietnamese city of Hue.

This giant hand belongs to the gigantic dragon that is the major attraction in an abandoned water park in the Central-Vietnamese city of Hue.

Why You Should Visit Myanmar Now
December 3, 2018

Short answer: Because it’s almost too late for experiencing the country in its innocent freshly democratized state – it’s about to lose its roughness, so-to-speak.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, though. One example would be the steady decline of opportunities to ascend the hundreds of temples in the Bagan area for just another superb sunrise spot. As frustrating as this might be for the individual traveler (“But where is the adventure?!”), it’s actually good news for the in-numerous temples, pagodas/payas and stupas that are now being protected from curious backpackers and locals alike. One could erect viewing platforms instead, being fully aware that this will take away the Indiana Jones sensation. One thing is clear: The ‘golden’ and/or savage days are over.

Cycling around Bagan, steadily seeking a temple to climb up (for sunset views...).

Cycling around Bagan, steadily seeking a temple to climb up (for sunset views…).

Is it still worth visiting?

Absolutely! Myanmar remains the next big thing on the South-East Asian banana pancake train (possibly with Timor Leste and Papua New-Guinea to follow in the coming decade or so).

On a side note about that idea, Wiki-Travel remarks the following: Tourists in East Timor are [still] a rare breed. Simply traveling from village to village, you’re likely to hear choruses of “malay” (the East Timorese word for foreigner) and folks will want to engage you in conversation. One could spend several days just enjoying the feeling of being a very welcome stranger.

However, traveling in Myanmar is not only much more comfortable and convenient now than what it used to be maybe some years ago – it’s also cheaper. We talked to some guys who went there in 2015 and according to them accomodation was still much sparser (and more expensive). They also had to use U.S. dollar notes for higher expenses and these had to be in pristine conditions. All that has changed by now and Myanmar Kyat in basically any condition are the way to go!

Playing chess with cK while waiting for the pick-up for Pyin Oo Lwin to depart.

So it certainly seems, Myanmar remains to be your best bet to witness what a rather unspoiled place Thailand could have been like some 20+ years ago. I would describe it as a fascinating mix between the general chaos and insane honking theatre of India (but with a much lower population number) and the Buddhist serenity of Thailand (just as one would expect given the location).

Apart from various top destinations (as listed below) that can easily compete with Northern Thailand or even Angkor Wat and Tonle Sap Lake (in Cambodia), what stands out most is the people’s apparently infinite amiability towards foreign travelers. We received help when looking for shelter during rain, seeking vegan/veggie food options and also when the rental bike’s chain popped out. And whenever we encountered kids on main or back streets we’ve been waved at like in Cambodian villages. Highly enchanting!

Temporary moments of fame wile being photographed by lots of young locals in Mrauk U.

Top destinations

  • The temples and stupas of Bagan
  • Yangon: Shwedagon Paya, People’s Park and Kandawgi Park
  • Inle Lake and surroundings
  • The temples and villages around Mrauk U
  • The train ride between Mandalay and Hsipaw
  • The caves and fields around Hpa’an
  • The Myeik and Dawei Archipelago in the south (we missed on that, however – people we met were super-enthusiastic; this seems to be the next big thing when it comes to South-East Asian island hopping! Forget the Gulf of Thailand, one would love to shout out

Shwedagon Paya in Yangon for sunrise.

One of the larger temples in the Bagan area.

The village of Inthei/Indei near Inle Lake.

Also in Inthei: A whole bastion of stupas. They just can‘t get enough.

The visa and boarder crossing situation

It couldn’t be much easier these days – you need to apply for your visa online (hence it’s an e-visa) and it shouldn’t cost you more than $ 50 (if the page states more, you’re on the wrong one; this is the one: https://evisa.moip.gov.mm/noticetotourists.aspx).

Traveling in and out via land used to be a hassle, but is rather straightforward now; just make sure you got your visa approvak with you, at best printed out in combination with a passport photo. There are 4 entrance points from Thailand (but none from Bangladesh or China; India should also be open):

  • Mae Sot/Myawaddy
  • Mae Sai/Tachileik
  • Ranong/Kawthaung
  • Phunaron/Htee Kee

Cruising over the waters on Inle Lake.

Accommodation, food and travel costs

Myanmar’s currency is the Kyat (pronounced: chat) and 1,000 Kyat are around 60 Euro cents. Conversely, € 1 buys you approx. 1,750 Kyat.

We spent three weeks in the country and spent around € 370 (each) for everything (!) included, that is approx. € 18 per day. The average cost for a double bed with or without a private bath room was about 18,000 Kyat, hence some € 5 per person.

All this food for under € 2 – lunch at a highway restaurant.

Accommodation costs are still a bit higher than in Thailand, Cambodia or Laos, but the food is about as cheap: We usually spent around 1,500 to 2,500 Kyat for some fried rice or noodles with vegetables, sometimes served with peanuts and an additional soup (or brew).

Transport-wise the cheapest option is surely the train. For the bit between Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw we paid about 1,200 Kyat (even though it is slow). Pick-up trucks are almost as cheap and buses most expensive (but still a real fair deal!). The bus connection between Mrauk U and Bagan e.g. was around 30,000 Kyat each (some € 17) and therefore rather pricey.

Opting for fruits and odd rice options when there would be only meat available.

Finally, how much is the booze? Clearly the most significant question because a cold beer at the end of a hot and sweaty day really can make all the difference. There are two major beer brands in the country: Andaman and Myanmar (motto: Brimming with Optimism) and we clearly opted for the latter. Now, a 640 ml bottle usually doesn’t cost more than 2,500 Kyat (€ 1,50), sometimes only 1,800 (when you’re lucky).

In Bagan and even more so in Nyaung Shwe (the major town and backpacker hub near Inle Lake) you’ll find cheap (and funky!) selections of cocktails, too – and the happy hour can be rather long!

cK watching over the Golden Rock at Mt. Kyaiktiyo.

Enter Myanmar: From Yangon to Bagan and down to Mawlamyine
December 1, 2018

We’re sitting in the air-con lobby of the Sandalwood Hotel in Mawlamyine, Southern Myanmar, and this is our last day in the country. Time to look back to those last 3 weeks traveling along bumpy dirt roads, fair beaches with redeeming ocean waves and stunning Buddhist temples.

Like most of South-East Asia, Myanmar is a relatively cheap country to travel with (more about that in another blog entry: “Why You Should Visit Myanmar”). 1,000 Kyat are about 60 Euro cents.

The last city we will have visited in Myanmar: colonial-era Mawlamyine, filled with memories of George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling.

We started in Yangon, the (by far) biggest city and former capital of Burma (the new one is called Nay Pyi Taw and was artificially erected in 2005 in a more central location, but there didn’t seem to be much of interest, so we skipped it). Contrary to what one could think (e.g. when comparing it to Bangkok), Yangon is a rather welcoming and easygoing city (with about 5,3 million inhabitants) – there are no motorbikes allowed in the centre which definitely made me happy.

We stayed for 3 nights (Okinawa Guesthouse, 25,000 Kyat for a room with one big bed and private bath), walked around for hours, saw e.g. Shwedagon Paya for sunrise (that’s the country’s largest temple area and a must-see (entrance fee: 10,000 Kyat), got lost in markets, ate funky fruits, jumped on the city’s dead cheap and wrecked-up circle line train filled with fun locals to chat with and bunches of other curious foreigners.

Yangon‘s Shwedagon Paya with its giant stupa and a bell-shaped dome.

The single one rainy day we experienced helped to get a glimpse of just how friendly the locals are: one house resident organized paste board for us to sit on when we were looking for shelter, a taxi driver offered us an umbrella and one random dude made sure we’d stay dry and jumped around in puddles to ask upcoming taxis to pick us up. We watched the scene in astonishment.

Our guest house was located close to Sule Pagoda, the central downtown paya, a roundabout with shops and food stalls, so that place was home for us for the time being. We soon figured that the most efficient (and filling) food option would be (of course) fried rice and/or noodles, at best at an Indian place (between 1,500 and 2,500 Kyat, remember: 1,000 Kyat are 60 Euro cents).

Erm, what?! 😲

More fun and interesting things to see are the train station (funky light installations at night), the British-built Minister’s Building (massive!), the splendid Kandawgi Park for sunset views of impressing Shwedagon Paya and the other side of the river (even though the people around the ferry terminals can become quite a hassle: Indian-style “Where from, sir?”), the town there is called Dala and you’ll be able to find some peaceful spots to relax.

Trying to figure our the Circle Line situation.

To get away from Yangon we booked a night bus at some agency near the train station and then took a taxi to the far-away Aung Mingala Highway Bus Terminal. Next on the list was the Westcoast town Ngapali Beach.

The bus started relaxing, but turned out to be quite the nightmare, as you would expect when used to traveling through India: bumpy roads, tiny seats, randomly switched-on light, noisy and spitting passengers and worst of all the ever-yelling sounds from a not-at-all-funny Asian comedy movie and/or accompanying tunes. Hell on earth. Well, we survived and finally made it to Ngapali (in early morning darkness), found a guest house to relax at and were promptly approached by one of the managing girls who really did everything to make us stay with them and we finally succumbed (after checking out other guest house/hostel prices): 25,000 K proved to be unbeatable.

Playing chess at Ngapali Beach while starring into the Gulf of Bengal.

One super-smooth day at the beach with some chess games were followed by a wonderful night’s sleep and another bus ride to Mrauk U the day after. That place name can apparently be translated into “monkey egg” and is being described as the country’s “second-most-famous archaelogical site” (after Bagan). It also said, we’d have them all for ourselves (with only about 5,000 foreign visitors per year). Sounded tempting to us.

This place, situated rather close to the Bangladesh boarder, was the last great Rakhine capital (between 1430 and 1784) and also one of the wealthiest cities in all of Asia, once serving as a free port and trading with the Middle East and much of Europe. 17th-century visitors even compared it to Venice, London or Amsterdam. However, you wouldn’t think any of that nowadays. The temples are scattered between fields and villages with friendly locals and smelling backroads.

Locals in front of Mrauk U temples.

We stayed at the Golden Star Guesthouse and paid 15,000 for a night (however, they didn’t charge us for when we arrived in the middle of the night). Nothing golden about that place. We rented bicycles and discovered the area, our favorite temples being Lay Myet Hna and a sunset viewpoint hill north of Mong Paung Shwe Gu.

Finally, Bagan. We again arrived in the middle of the night, but of course not right in the place, but somewhere outside, being dependent on a tuk-tuk. We decided to walk instead until the driver offered an acceptable rate and we jumped on. Entrance fee to the archaelogical zone was a massive 25,000 Kyat, valid for 3 days only (until recently: 5 days still).

One of Bagan‘s major temples.

Now, what is Bagan? Short answer: a former Burmese capital and now a huge flat area (26 sq miles) filled with lots and lots of temples and pagodas/payas/stupas of all sizes and various shapes! Also, it’s one of Myanmar’s main attractions and rightly so.

Travelers either stay in Old Bagan (closest to the temples, but not so cheap), New Bagan (south of the area and rather filled with resort places) or Nyaung U, a transportation hub and rather dirty (and dusty) town east of the temple area featuring many hotels, guest houses and bike rentals. That was our pick. The “Burmese-only” guest house we picked (and stayed at for 2 nights) – Linn Guest House – again only charged for one. We invested the money in brilliant and delicious Thai-style food plus water melon and avocado fruit drinks at our favorite food stall called “you & me”. We absolutely loved that place.

First sunset spot (see coordinates!).

Now, the temples – this is what you’re here for! We rented bicycles (which is perfectly doable), but most people opt for electric scooters instead and just dive into the massive maze of pagodas. You’ll find your way. Our favorite picks were the following: Ananda Temple (crowded, but beautiful and recently renovated) the area around Tha Beik Hmauk Hpaya plus Su Taung Py in the south (where we did some work-out, having the whole thing for ourselves.

We recommend the following two spots for sunset: a rooftop next to Myinkaba Temple (in the west) plus these coordinates: 21.176725, 94.873109).

The best sunrise spot we could come up with – leaving us quite satisfied.

However, the most exciting time to be in Bagan is at sunrise. Why? Because there are up to two 30 colourful balloons flying near-by the temples and make for an exciting atmosphere (and some sweet shots). The vast majority of temples and pagodas used to be open to the public, but were mostly closed in recent months. Several locals know some remaining spots, they won’t be secret for much longer. We met a French girl who recommended us the spot above (see coordinates). These places here are also worth it:

  • 21.176803, 94.881453 and
  • 21.168128, 94.884204

From Bagan we went on to Mandalay, Myanmar’s ‘cultural capital’ – however, don’t necessarily expect anything overly exciting. To us the city (with 1,1 million inhabitants and also the capital once) seemed rather dull. Our personal two highlights besides walking around and watching other Westerners doing their thing were:

  • our accomodation (a huge with room with a sweet private bath for 18,600 including a breakfast buffet – Nylon Hotel. Very friendly staff.)
  • getting up rather early and taking a tuk-tuk to Mandalay Hill (760 feet high) – you will need to take off your shoes when climbing up the hill for some 30 to 40 minutes. Probably lovely for sunset.

Inside our second guest house in Nyaung U while waiting for the bus to Mandalay.

A (much too long) pick-up ride (for real cheap) brought us to Pyin Oo Lwin, a former hill station founded by the British in 1896 as a summer capital for the colonial administration (until 1948). There really isn’t much exciting about this place, but one thing (and we missed it): the National Kandawgy Gardens. From the description it sounded to me very much like the Botanical Gardens in India’s Udhagamandalam (better known as Ooty and that place was astonishing and lots of fun!). Back to the Burmese equivalent: The Gardens feature orchids, a butterfly museum and 480 species of shrubs, trees and flowers – also wooden bridges, small gilded pagodas and some “bizarre tower” that we never saw. If you make it there, please visit and let us know what we missed!

Having a break on the Mandalay-Lashio train.

Having a break on the Mandalay-Lashio train.

Now, there was one more reason we went to that (otherwise rather unexciting) place: to catch the slow, but absolutely wonderful Mandalay-Lashio train that is riding right above the mighty Gokteik Viaduct, built in 1901, then the second-highest railway bridge on the planet (at 318 feet) – still being the longest in the country. The ride isn’t expensive at all, the views are amazing plus you’ll get easily into contact with locals. Also, the creaky sounds when crossing the Gokteik Gorge are amusingly scary.

Crossing the Gokteik Viaduct.

We jumped out in the town of Hsipaw (pronounced ‘See-paw’), famous for hill-trekking and popular among foreigners to simply escape into the surrounding nature, including Buddhist oddities like a tree that grew out of a pagoda and a Buddha statue completely made of bamboo. Most foreigners seem to end up at Mr. Charles Guest House (probably inside a pick-up truck right at the station), but the place is overprized and a bit off. We opted for the much cheaper and more central Ever Green Guest House.

One fun thing to do while in town is visiting the former Shan palace where a so-called sky prince was reigning over the region. We actually met the grandson of “Mr. Donald” who is the nephew of the last prince – he is awaiting visitors at the front gate to the palace that is actually a mansion. Find out more about the story once you’re here!

That tree that grew out of a pagoda.

That tree that grew out of a pagoda.

Hispaw probably was the northern-most point of our journey and we took another night bus all the way down to Nyaung Shwe at the Northern top of famous Inle Lake. Next to us were to girls from Iceland and France who already got out at Kalaw which is another popular place to do hiking towards the lake, but we wanted the direct way.

Now, what is so exciting about Inle Lake? There is a certain magic about this 22km long and 11km wide water: a combination of absolute kindness among the locals, a vast selection of guest houses, Indian, Thai and local restaurants, bars and cafés and an enchanting amount of fellow foreign travelers.

Nyaung Shwe harbour at sunset (Inle Lake).

Nyaung Shwe harbour at sunset (Inle Lake).

We spent three days in the area:

    Cycling along the western shore all the way south to a place called Inthein/Indein, passing by wonderful view points, waving schoolchildren, smiling farmers, stunning temple areas. On the way down we made the acquaintance of two girls from Bavaria who we were to share s boat with the following day.
Posing fisher man on Inle Lake.

Posing fisher man on Inle Lake.

    Really everyone and his grandmother is trying to sell you a boat trip around the lake, so that is what we eventually did, sharing the 24,000 Kyat (€ 13,50) among the four of us and discovering a whole variety of places on and around the lake, e.g. handicraft/weaving/silver/tobacco workshops, markets with fancy clothing and art and many, many more pagodas of all kinds. Ended the day having a huge Indian meal at our favorite place – it’s called Dosa King and we can only recommend it!
Our two “boat men” - these kids were trying their best to tell us stories about the lake surroundings.

Our two “boat men” – these kids were trying their best to tell us stories about the lake surroundings.

    Strolling along the town that could one day look a bit like Bangkok’s Khao San Road; it’s certainly filled with little sweet oddities (I seem to like that term), e.g. an Indian restaurant “Eminem-style” (the owner plastered the place with album covers, posters and so forth. Lovely. Before leaving the place behind we went into the local Shan palace which is a local museum now. Inside we couldn’t help it but started singing: “Here we are now / Entertain us!” but we certainly helped ourselves. Notice the type of hooks they used for hanging up pictures of serious-looking kings and their wives. So much for entertainment.
Cycling along Inle Lake: Lunch break in Inthein/Indein.

Cycling along Inle Lake: Lunch break in Inthein/Indein.

Another night bus (which was the best so far since we got upgraded to some sort of “VIP bus”) brought us to Bago (north of Yangon) from where we changed into a local bus and we eventually ended up at Mt. Kyaiktiyo which is best known for the Buddhists made of (or on) it: the Golden Rock.

Local legend claims the rock would be kept in place by a single hair of the Buddha (and there were actually quite some Buddhas, not just one, but that’s another story) – well, of course – a hair! The photos speak for themselves, I dare-say. Note the sign that says: “Ladies are not allowed to enter here”. What to make of it? Well, religion is by definition, it seems, a patriarchal mess, ethically (similar laws apply in Roman Catholicism as well as in Protestatism, the Orthodox Church, in Judaism and especially in Islam – Buddhism clearly is no exception).

The Golden Rock - and classical religious discrimination (here against women).

The Golden Rock – and classical religious discrimination (here against women).

That same day we made it to Hpa’an, a bit further south (pronounced: “Pa-an”), the riverside capital of Kayin State. While couchsurfing in Marburg earlier this year I got to know someone who just recently happened to be in that place and recommended the Soe Brothers Guesthouse. We happily followed the advice and didn’t regret it (do not accidentally end up at ‘Soe Brothers 2’, however).

There isn’t actually much to do (or see) in the city itself (though the Ye Pagoda is worth a look!), but the surroundings are absolutely stunning and worth at least one full day of attention. We spent that day cycling around the landscape, discovering caves filled with dozens of Buddha figures, look-outs, endless green fields and, true thing, even more amazing pagodas, e.g. on top of limestone rocks. We also let a bunch of monkeys devastate our bikes.

The front entrance of Yathaypyan Cave.

The front entrance of Yathaypyan Cave (near Hpa’an).

Best places on the list:

  • the view point near the so-called Bat Cave
  • the ‘hidden’ backsite near Yathaypyan Cave
  • the Chan Thar Gyi Temple
  • the Saddan Cave

We seem to fancy restaurants to return to and so far we always discovered a place that was worth it – in Hpa’an that happened to be a Chinese/Shan restaurant that simply prepared the best curry imaginable. It’s called Yadanah and you’ll find it here: 16.889868, 97.635328.

The Chan Thar Gyi Temple.

The Chan Thar Gyi Temple.

Finally we arrived at the very town from which I’m writing this travel blog now. Mawlamyine is famous for its colonial-era buildings and inspiring two rather well-known writers: George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling (the author of ‘The Jungle Book’).

Just last night (I’m writing this on December 2, 2019) we ascended the half-rotten stairway from Kyaik Than Lan Phayar Street leading up to Kyaiktjanlan Paya, the city’s tallest pagoda which happens to be quite wonderful for watching sunsets. Kipling once commented on the very walkway: “I should better remember what the pagoda was like had I not fallen deeply and irrevocably in love with a Burmese girl at the foot of the first flight of steps. Only the fact of the steamer starting next noon prevented me from staying at Moulmein forever”.

There is one more night bus to go: We’re heading to Yangon Airport and tomorrow morning already we should be arriving back in Bangkok. More adventures (and lots of Padthai) to follow.

Getting ready for Thailand: Having our first Padthai (while cycling around the limestone mountains near Hpa’an.

Getting ready for Thailand: Having our first Padthai (while cycling around the limestone mountains near Hpa’an.