Crossing Castro‘s Cuba
March 14, 2019

After almost three wonderful (and way too quickly passing) weeks in México we found ourselves on a plane from Cancún to La Habana (a/k/a Havana), Cuba’s notorious capital city. So what to expect? We heard about the beauty of the Old Town, saw pictures of impressively beautiful old cars and we knew that there would be two parallel currencies floating on the island: the local Cuban peso (CUP) plus a so-called ‘tourist’ peso, the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC).

What sounded confusing at first turned out to be rather uncomplicated, though: the CUC is nothing but the U.S.$ in disguise, it’s basically the exact same (because its value is bound to it, like the Danish krona is bound to the euro), but they decided to call it Cuban Convertible Peso. Same thing. I just called it “dólar”. One dólar/CUC is worth about 24 to 25 pesos/CUP and you only really need it to pay for accomodation (prices here are always given in CUC) and transport with either the tourist bus company Viazul or a private taxi (the latter being only slightly more expensive, but much faster).

It’s just impossible not to be impressed by the amount of those crazy beautiful old-school cars all over the island.

It’s just impossible not to be impressed by the amount of those crazy beautiful old-school cars all over the island.

Everything else you can pay in pesos really and that is pretty much what we did. If anything, it was actually more confusing for the locals; we sometimes got more many back than we should have. All due to their double currency game. It was fun.

Immigration into the country proved straightforward: We paid some 361 Mexican pesos, i.e. about 16 euro, for our Cuban Tourist Visa just before getting onto the flight in México, then sorted out the money situation in Havana and refused to take an expensive taxi to Downtown (basically everyone else did, but we had time). Instead, we wandered around in the area, talked to some security dudes who wouldn’t tell us about the local bus, but it eventually popped up and off we were, paying a mere fraction: 3 pesos (12 cents) each.

Just about to leave our last “casa particular” in the city of Holguín.

Just about to leave our last “casa particular” in the city of Holguín.

The most common thing to do for a budget backpacker in Cuba is to stay in so-called Casas particulares, basically a homestay. They’re as cheap as a hostel in México, but you get a private room with bathroom and usually enough space to spread out even. Sometimes there would even be space for 4 people, so you’d save more in a bigger group. For Havana we secured one for the first 2 nights online and paid 11 $ (in CUC) together per night.

So there is plenty of cheap accommodation in Cuba and also the street food is very affordable – eating-wise it probably doesn’t get much cheaper than on this island really. Water can be an issue, though – you simply don’t easily find big (1.5l) bottles or even 5l containers. And if you do, they tend to be quite overprized.

Now, the biggest deal on Cuba is transportation. As mentioned above, there are mainly 2 possibilities for foreign travelers: Either you take a Viazul bus for relatively little or you hire a private taxi. The buses are cheaper, but definitely take their time. Also, you have to book them well in advance. Since we only had 10 days, we simply decided to pay for all transport beforehand when figuring stuff out at the Havana Viazul Bus Station. And it actually proved to be a good idea, even if it took away the usual freedom of coming and leaving as one pleases.

Itinerary

So our travel schedule looked like this: We’d spend 3 nights in La Habana, then take a taxi to the city of Trinidad (for 30 $ each), stay for 2 nights, bus on to Camagüey (15 $), stay 2 nights, bus to Santiago de Cuba (18 $) and, after another 2 nights, finally head on to Holguín (11 $) – from there we’d take the weekly flight to Montego Bay in Jamaica.

And that is what we sticked to – we didn’t regret it. Now, we considered to see other cities, of course – Cienfuegos and Santa Clara e.g. were hot candidates – but we just didn’t. If we hadn’t had a flight from Holguín, we might as well have substituted that with Baracoa, but well, one simply can’t see it all. Next life! But, well, Cuba is one of those places that one would is excited to see evolve and revisit in, say, 20 or 30 years. Vamos a ver!

Curious street art in Santiago de Cuba.

Curious street art in Santiago de Cuba.

Ambivalent thoughts

I really didn’t know what to expect of visiting a country that is in many regards stuck in the past due to its Communist approach, especially of economics – so that left plenty of room for surprises and we welcomed them! Both of us were born into a Communist state (the German Democratic Republic or GDR/DDR in short), but it collapsed when we were too young to notice anything (I was apparently sick in bed the day the wall came down and hence my parents couldn’t head out to see it just then).

In many ways, strolling through the streets of Cuba and watching buildings of former glory and grandeur having fallen to pieces made me think of the GDR – it basically was how I always imagined Berlin and other cities like Erfurt and Leipzig to look like in the 1980ies (and 90s). Not enough money left to maintain once beautiful houses and living quarters. Also, close to no commercials and no advertisement. Not a great deal cars on the road (but the ones we saw looked both spectacularly beautiful, but also run-down).

Taken from our shared taxi towards Trinidad.

Taken from our shared taxi towards Trinidad.

The so-called “supermercados” or convenience stores were sparsely equipped, mostly with only one brand per product (no need for competition in a planned economy). As mentioned before, there often wouldn’t even be water bottles left and early in the day people are cueing up in front of bakeries and other shops in order to get their share of bread and (delicious and cheap-as-sugar-hell) cake.

We later learned that under beloved revolucionero Fidel Castro (who died in late 2016) Cubans weren’t even allowed to own computers, cell phones or DVD players (until Fidel’s brother Raúl took over the island’s reigns in 2008).

Turning into Che on the markets of Trinidad.

Turning into Che on the markets of Trinidad.

Now, what does and did all that do with the Cuban people and what do they think of their country and the general situation? I happened to have some interesting conversations with some people (mostly our hosts) and their opinions were are pretty much unanimous: “We’re anti-imperialist, what the U.S. do is wrong, what Putin does is right (the E.U. is basically Trump’s wagging tail and can’t be counted on); there is lots of violence in countries like México and Colombia and our kids are safe here in Cuba”. There is something to all that, of course, but I don’t want to dig too deep at this place (it’s a travel post after all). It makes one think, however.

There seems to be a general tendency of painting things black and white – it’s either/or. We also noticed an unequivocal tendency to reduce the country’s history to basically two events: the fight for independence from Spain (under heavy influence from beloved national hero José Martí, political theorist, writer and poet – similarly idolised like Abraham Lincoln or México’s Benito Juárez) that was finally achieved in the late 19th century. And then, of course, the notorious revolutionary struggle in the 1950s that led to the abdication of the corrupt military (and U.S. backed) government under authoritarian leader Fulfencio Batista and its 1959 replacement with a socialist-turned-Communist regime headed by the Castro brothers Fidel and Raúl plus a 31-year old doctor and revolutionary from Argentina named Ernesto “Ché” Guevara (who finally died on just another attempted revolution in the Bolivian jungle in 1967).

cK hanging out in just another wonderfully old car on some Havana side street.

cK hanging out in just another wonderfully old car on some Havana side street.

From 1965 on, Cuba has been governed by only one political force, that being the Communist Party of Cuba, under factual rule of only two individuals (until this day), one of them becoming a world-wide icon for the anti-imperialist cause, beloved by many, despised my many others.

Having said all that, Cuba is a very interesting place to travel to and the more Spanish you speak the better (as is probably true for anywhere in Latin America) – we met people of all kinds and characters, some of them being seriously annoying and frustrating; others absolutely enchanting (like our last host in Holguín). We met the sweetest and most charming people, e.g. in a food stall in a small village near Playa Ancon (south of Trinidad) or in the Museo Histórico 26 de julio in Santiago de Cuba.

For various reasons we at one point decided to answer the ubiquitous question to what country we’d be coming from with: “Suecia!” (Sweden) — here you see us indicating to a photo of famous Swedish prime minister Olof Palme (inside the “Museo Histórico 26 de julio”).

For various reasons we at one point decided to answer the ubiquitous question to what country we’d be coming from with: “Suecia!” (Sweden) — here you see us indicating to a photo of famous Swedish prime minister Olof Palme (inside the “Museo Histórico 26 de julio”).

There were people with a great amount of wit and humour and then there were some lads who lacked all of the above completely, but nevertheless giving us an interesting insight into a generally still deeply conservative society. And that was probably to be expected from an island that deliberately ignores calls for gender equality and, generally, a more relaxed and laid-back view on things – among other things being isolated by the U.S. travel embargo that seriously needs to be removed (something sadly not bound to happen under the current mean joke of a president in the White House).

One last word about the bookshop situation: it was depressing! Communism definitely does not make for well-sorted bookshops – you might still want to check out how a Cuban bookstore looks from the inside. In case you’re already oversaturated with stories about Fidel Castro, Che and the glorious 1950s, you’re unlikely to linger for long.

A better title might have been: “Fit in old age! – with Fidel Castro”.

A better title might have been: “Fit in old age! – with Fidel Castro”.

City reflections

While the capital, La Habana, was by far the most interesting place to explore, it was also the most touristic and that had consequences for the locals’ attitude: it wasn’t exactly laissez-faire. Also, everything from fruits to snacks was much more expensive in the Historic Quarter than at the more local area we stayed at (west of the Paseo del Prado/de Martí).

Trinidad turned out to be equally filled with tourist groups (considering its compact size), hence we were happy to rent out bikes and spend a considerable amount of time at Playa Ancon, some 12 km south of town. In case you happen to end up here and read this: Make sure you don’t miss on the Loma de la Vigía viewpoint (we sadly did).

Street art in La Habana Vieja.

Street art in La Habana Vieja.

The friendliest and most sympathetic places to us were Camagüey and Holguín, both situated on the island’s Western side. Our host in Holguín confirmed: “Oriente es lo mejor. También, todos los presidentes son de aquí.” – well, it’s true: the Castro brothers have been born some 70 km west of Holguín, in a village named Birán,

Finally, Santiago de Cuba was an interesting mixture of everything. Even if it sometimes says, it would be in competition with the capital – it’s not; Havana is much bigger and plays on a completely different level. However, Santiago was an essential stepping stone for Castro’s Communist revolution (it is also here that he first attempted to overthrow the Batista regime on July 26 in 1953).

A real Cuban vaquero!

A real Cuban vaquero!

Costs

Cuba can be an expensive place to visit, but it absolutely doesn’t need to. Accommodation and especially street food are incredibly cheap and even transport doesn’t have to be an issue if you plan accordingly (and are okay with paying a little more for a taxi in case you missed the bus). Stay away from tourist places and eat where the locals eat. There is e.g. pizza for 5 to 10 pesos (less than 50 U.S. cents).

Transportation costs in Cuba were highest due to the relatively long distances. Other than that: Nothing to worry about accommodation and food costs (as long as you don‘t crave government-run restaurant food!).

Transportation costs in Cuba were highest due to the relatively long distances. Other than that: Nothing to worry about accommodation and food costs (as long as you don‘t crave government-run restaurant food!).

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.