The fog was finally starting to burn off as we rolled into Shwe Nyaung, scrunched up in a minibus without another foreigner in sight. Colourful woven blankets had kept the chill out for everyone else, but we’d had to opt instead for every item of clothing we owned. All the way down from Kalaw, the cold mountain air barely got a chance to heat up before the door was thrown open to let someone else out, or pluck a small family from the side of the road. I got very familiar with the sight of my own breath.
At least a dozen backpackers had got out of our bus from Bagan a few days earlier, but none had joined us on the van ride to Inle Lake. A three day trek was the preferred method, but with Lauren still fighting bouts of mono, we’d opted for the motorised option instead. A few dollars had got us to the intersection with the main road, some light-hearted negotiation and a few more notes got us the rest of the way to Nyuang Shwe in a taxi. We could have saved a bit by waiting for a shared pickup to fill up, but with just one night in town before we headed back to Yangon, time mattered in a way it hadn’t during the rest of our time in Myanmar. We needed to get moving — and the first item on the agenda was breakfast.Continue Reading →
“Not like that!!”
I yelled again, drawing a raised eyebrow from the elderly couple walking past. “Lauren! Slow down!”
Seconds earlier she’d been alongside me, the pair of us standing awkwardly astride the least-comfortable electric bicycles in the world discussing how they worked. Now, she was hurtling along the rutted dirt alongside a busy road, bouncing out of control towards a cluster of nearby trees. I’d envisaged spending our time in Bagan cruising along deserted trails, finding out-of-the-way spots to explore empty temples for a few days. Now a trip to the nearest hospital seemed more likely. I had a feeling the architects of this ancient kingdom hadn’t been big on wheelchair access.
Screeching to a halt in a cloud of dust and tears, a dejected figure slumped forward over the rickety basket. “See? I told you I didn’t know how to ride a bike properly!”
In that moment, it was hard to argue. Were we destined to walk or take taxis everywhere, I wondered? Or even worse, be confined to one of the enormous tour buses that rumbled past every few minutes?
I seriously hoped not… but what other options were there?Continue Reading →
It took far longer than it should.
I’ve been talking about going to Myanmar for years. I remember listening to Tony Wheeler of Lonely Planet fame talk about the country at a travel writing expo in 2010, explaining in typically blunt terms why independent travellers should visit the country regardless of politics and conventional wisdom. By the end of his speech I knew I’d go there, but a procession of excuses and changed plans meant it was over four years until I finally did. In that time, the Myanmar of Wheeler’s experience changed almost beyond recognition.
The bulky generators on the streets of Yangon remain largely silent, power now a semi-reliable commodity in the country’s biggest city. In a nation largely cut off from the outside world for decades, Internet access — while still cripplingly slow most of the time — is readily available in the tourist hotspots. Locals openly talk about life under military rule in a way I doubt they would have in the past. Tour buses and a steady stream of backpackers now fill streets that were largely devoid of foreigners. The trains are as slow and bumpy as ever, but VIP buses ply the route between Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake on upgraded roads with a surprising degree of comfort. Hotel prices have escalated rapidly, traveller lore suggesting they now provide some of the worst accommodation value in the region.
As a result, Lauren and I didn’t quite know what to expect from our time in the country, and decided to opt for a short, two-week visit to get a sense of what was on offer. If we didn’t like it, if it just wasn’t for us, we didn’t have to spend long there. In, out, tick, done.
Not so much.Continue Reading →