Lightfoot Travel’s Melissa discovered the beauty of Myanmar for the first time in March 2013 and ever since, she has been antsy about getting back to this mysterious land. During her second trip, she revisited some of her favourite places and uncovered new ones.
How has Yangon changed since your last visit? What makes it appealing?
It was unfortunate to see that traffic in Yangon is following the same route as Jakarta’s, minus the motorcycles! So planning your day and sightseeing wisely with your guide to avoid rush hours is a necessity.
The city’s main pull remains the famed Shwegadon temple and the old town. Festivals are quite common and add to the excitement of visiting Yangon. For example, December is the month of the sticky rice competition where each district of the country competes for the title of yummiest sticky rice.
Trains aren’t necessarily the most comfortable means of transportation in Asia. How did it fare in Myanmar?
Yangon Circular Train is quite established, passing every 20 minute for a 3h journey in a loop. For an extra 100 kyat, you can get a seat in the A/C compartment. However, it is quite unreliable and does get cancelled every now and then. We recommend doing part of the journey aboard the train and then driving back.
Train ride over the Gokteik Viaduct was the most spectacular and heart-stopping journey I’ve ever experienced! Suspended 250m over the ravine and forests, this bridge was an architectural marvel during its construction in 1900 and is still an incredible structure to behold. The rickety train between Mandalay and Hsipaw winds round the cliffs then slows over the bridge for picture-perfect moments. The exhilaration as I stuck my head out the window, wind whipping through my hair, with the rattling of the wheels below is one I’m going to remember for a very long time.
You travelled to a more off the beaten track destination, Hsipaw, tell us more about this place. What is the trekking like in Hsipaw?
Definitely one to explore before it explodes with accommodation options and tour buses, Hsipaw (read “See-paw” or “Ti-bor”), is a charming little town in the Shan state brimming with underrated sights and natural beauty. Small Shan communities and minority villages lie tucked away in the hills surrounding Hsipaw and trekking through and between them is a great way to see rural Myanmar – many of these villages still have no running water, limited electricity and rely largely on agriculture to sustain themselves. The difficulty of trekking varies – you could embark on a simple half day loop through paddy fields and roads or be adventurous with ascending 2 days 1 night alternatives with overnights in extremely local accommodation. Aside from trekking, we highly recommend a private audience with the Shan Princess – listen to her bring to life the turmoil that plagued a nation and how the political reformations have influenced the livelihoods of the Burmese.
Gender roles are very well-defined in the Shan state; women are not to ride buffalos and the “real, strong men” ought to be inked in great detail to demonstrate true manhood.
Food is an important part of a trip to Asia. Describe Burmese food to us, how does it differ from its neighbouring countries?
Burmese food changes as you cross states and are often varieties of curries with different bases, accompanied by side dishes with a small heap of rice. Meat is expensive, so the Burmese are very creative with their vegetables, fruits, nuts and spices – I’d say be adventurous – how their food looks is often remarkably different from how it tastes! Their close neighbours – Thailand and China – have impacted their cuisine especially as you get closer to the borders and with the fusion, there is something for even the pickiest of palates. Definitely have a bowl of mohinga (their noodle fish soup breakfast staple) before leaving the country!
The Burmese love their teas, and you’ll find far more casual tea houses than bars in the smaller towns. That being said, local “moonshine” at these tea houses go for as little at 50p a measure and often come with (the obvious choice of) warm potato soup to line the belly.
Bagan’s beauty is quite evident: what did you discover the second time around that you did not notice during your first trip?
Bagan can be overwhelming – over 2000 temples is a lot to take in and Round #1 was very much about taking in the spectacular environment, trying to etch each little peak into my memory along with the superficial history and religious titbits, ticking off as many pagodas as I could manage and battling the intense heat.
Round #2 – I was ready! I wore the right shoes and my conservative longyi for speedy temple hopping, had more appreciation than awe for the distinctive landscape, and delved into the world of Buddhism and Burmese tradition with more meaningful questions. October is lusher than May – my photos showed pagodas sprouting out trees rather than sand.
Sadly, 18 months ago, the children of Bagan hadn’t yet learnt to plaster their little faces slapped with thanaka to your car with postcards in hand, asking for “1 dollar, Miss!” in 6 different languages by the age of 10 – as one of the least developed nations in the world, it’s something Bagan had coming, but still saddened me to see that.
Tell us what makes Inle Lake so special? In the right seasons, Inle Lake has warm sunny days till sunset when temperatures sharply plummet and jumpers come out. Throughout the day, expect beautiful blue skies and white clouds mirrored perfectly on the lake, the serenity broken only by fishing water-birds and your boat. Even the most amateur photographer’s pictures are on average, stunning. Lake village life is unimaginably complex and the land-dwelling Burmese have a lot of respect for the tough tribes that thrive without electricity, running water and with limited food supplies; they are the “people that need to learn to swim before starting to eat rice”. Life on the lake is very structured, the men are mainly fishermen, boatmen, farmers and the women run the households or work in workshops on the lake producing silverware, lotus-woven fabrics or cigars – each individual has their role and perform very specific and skilful tasks which are very interesting to observe and try to understand. Because of the nature of their livelihoods, visiting Inle Lake is “touristy” and there is little variety in options if you’re touring the villages. We would also highly recommend visiting the Day 5 Market which is a colourful local exchange and a great way to see the minority tribes gather in their vibrant traditional head-dress and ethnic costumes. You visited an elephant conservation site whilst in Kalaw. Did you enjoy it? Founded by a couple and their uncle who’s been a professional elephant veterinary with the government elephant camps, Green Hill Valley is the only elephant care facility in Kalaw. It’s essentially a small family set-up fuelled by a passion for caring for elephants and creating a safe, sustainable environment for them. The conservation only has 7 elephants, takes up to 35 visitors daily by appointmen only, and if your flight arrives early, it’s good fun to trek 2h through the forest in time for the elephant bathing sessions. After a delicious lunch onsite, it’s about time to feed the elephants sliced pumpkins and banana tree trunks. Wrap up the day with tree planting – with active reforestation, the gentle giants will have more of a home in the future. Lightfoot Travel is very cautious about elephant centres in South-East Asia and work only with the operations genuinely reliable at elephant welfare. This isn’t a place you will watch elephants paint and dance, nor will there be howdahs (wooden chairs) on their backs for amusement rides.
Harvesting fail. #harderthanitlooks #bagan #Myanmar #villagewalks #lightfoottravel #traveltheworld #instatravel #fail Une photo publiée par Mel (@mellittletan) le