The Myanmar highlights of Inle Lake and Bagan

Now online: our Myanmar pictures, including some snaps by our friend Janneke Verhagen.

We quickly settle into our Nyaung Shwe home. It is an amazing place, simple, spacious and light. We have our first home cooked European breakfast extravaganza since forever which makes us feel like kids playing house, set table and toasted bread and all. We even like doing the dishes. The house is a couple of kilometers from Nyaung Shwe centre, set in a quiet village-like surroundings with herds of cows plodding by our sand path in the early morning and at sunset. A sweet Nepali family lives on the grounds and friends of Patrick help us out with settling in and finding our way around. Home.

Boating Inle Lake

One friend of Patrick is Zaw, aka Mr. Sugar. He takes us on a two day tour of Inle Lake. We settle into a couple of big comfortable chairs in a large longboat and veer out onto the gigantic lake. Seeing the landscape glide by without having to make any physical effort is quite a treat. Mr. Sugar tells us a lot about life on and around the lake, and takes us to see a village where his grandfather used to live.

Traditional Inle Lake house on stilts
Traditional Inle Lake house on stilts

It is a touristy place but traditional life goes on as it has for the last few centuries, with fishermen and craftsmen working and bringing their wares to the markets around the lake by boat.

With a surface of 116km2 Inle lake is large but shallow, with a maximum depth of less than 4m in the dry season, and only 1,5m more in the wet season. It is a busy place with longboats motoring to and fro, transporting Intha villagers, tourists and goods. There are fishermen who use small shallow boats, not much bigger than a surfboard, with one oar. They have an incredible technique where they balance on one leg on the stern of the boat, curl the other leg around the oar to navigate the boat and simultaneously throw their nets in.

Inle Lake fisherman
Inle Lake fisherman

Other lake labourers are harvesters who drag up weeds to use as fertilizer for the floating gardens. There are many different crafts being practiced around the lake; we visit blacksmiths, silk and lotus weavers, cheroot makers and small village factories where crispy rice pancakes are made. We visit a market where hill tribe women are selling their vegetables. Zaw tells us how king Alaungsithu founded the Hpaung Daw U pagoda by the lake and transported craftsmen and -women from the coast to here, so they could produce all that was needed to keep the monks in robes and the pagoda with all its rituals functioning.

Shan hill tribe market lady
Shan hill tribe market lady

We visit a few notable Buddhist sites. One is the Hpaung Daw U pagoda, home to five venerated Buddha images that have been so thickly covered in gold leaf they now resemble five big golden boulders. When we are there it is not just Buddhists who are covering the images but also many tourists, scrambling to get close to the action with their cameras. Later on we visit an older and much more serene monastery, with beautiful 16th century Buddha statues.

Another impressive place is Indein. This is a large collection of stupas, first commissioned by King Narapathisithu in the 12th century CE. They are in various states, some crumbling but many heavily restored by private donors from all over the world. The mix is nice, historical ruin as well as a very much alive religious site.

Indein
Indein

The floating gardens are very impressive, banks of green held in place by bamboo poles and being tended to by farmers on boats, producing tomatoes and rice for the surrounding villages. When I read up on it I discover this is actually not a very sustainable practice, as the floating gardens eventually solidify and reduce the lake surface ever further. The fertilizers encourage weed growth, and all around us we see the water hyacinth encroaching on the lake. Other environmental issues are for instance the lack of proper sanitation in the stilt houses, with toilets dumping directly into the lake. Another issue is excess run off from the surrounding mountains into the rivers that feed the lake, due to lumber felling and slash and burn farming, causing the lake to become even more susceptible to weeds and fill up with silt.

Boating Inle Lake with Mr Sugar
Boating Inle Lake with Mr Sugar

Our guide is one of the local people concerned with environmental issues and sustainability of life of around the lake. He supports poor students in a neighbouring village and wants to do something about all the plastic strewn around. It will be difficult to effect much change when the primary interest of the military leadership is not so much in the people and the environment as protecting their own interests. Let’s hope that the change symbolized by Aung San Su Kyi will happen, slowly but surely. Later on we meet another concerned Burmese who tells us about his ideals, his dreams for the country, and what he does to effect local change. We get the impression that many people are doing what they can to help each other in these politically difficult circumstances, possibly motivated by Buddhism which encourages merit making.

Burmese Buddha
Burmese Buddha

Despite the environmental concerns the lake is incredible and we enjoy spending two days out and about on a boat with Mr. Sugar. We wander around the market, smoke an aniseed cheroot and have lunch in a restaurant built on stilts in the lake. The Golden Kite restaurant is owned by Patricks friends and later on in the week they invite us for a delicious dinner. As everywhere in Myanmar the people are the biggest draw, waving and smiling at us from passing boats or lake houses.

The rest of our days in Nyaung Shwe we spend in supremely lazy languor. We meet up again with Janneke, who made it all the way up North by bicycle. She did run into the police multiple times and got escorted back and forth to places where she was allowed to stay, but she also got a real personal insight in everyday Burmese life, invited into the home of people, staying in temples and far away from the tourist trail. An epic journey. She is a great photographer, you can find her work here and we have included some of her pictures from the days we cycled together in our collection of photos from Myanmar.

Bagan

We rent a couple of wobbly wheels to explore Bagan by bicycle but we miss our own rock solid work horses on the sandy tracks.

Riding Burmese roads
Riding Burmese roads

We had high expectations of Bagan and we are not disappointed. It is difficult not to make a comparison with Angkor Wat but the sites are really quite different. Where Angkor has beautifully preserved temples which are each a gem on their own, Bagans beauty lies in the overall view of the landscape, with thousands of pagoda spires rising above the dusty plain. Funnily enough here mass tourism has enhanced rather than destroyed the beauty. Every morning hot air balloons glide over the plain, a beautiful and romantic sight, silent apart from the burners throwing flames every now and again.

Balloons over Bagan
Balloons over Bagan

Bagan was the capital of the Pagan kingdom between the 9th and 13th century. In its heyday 10.000 pagodas were built on the plain, but many were devastated by earthquakes. A big one hit in 1975, 8 on the Richter scale, and destroyed much. Still, much remains and even if the individual temples are not in a great state or not well restored the overall view of the stupa-dotted plain is wonderful. One morning we get up at around 4am and cycle out into the dark to look for a spot to witness the sunrise. Unfortunately many of the 2229 remaining temples are in repair, enveloped in scaffolding and not accessible due to a 2016 earthquake. We therefor miss out on a temple top sunrise but we find a small knoll and watch the hot air balloons floating by.

We are staying in Nyaung Oo, the budget friendly village a few kilometers from Old Bagan which is more upmarket. Here we meet three German and Swiss cyclists and have a great evening sharing inspiration. Andreas is a young guy from Switzerland who made a spontaneous decision to do a bike tour in Bangkok. He bought a $200 bicycle (way too small for his size) and fitted it out with two simple wire baskets acting as rear panniers with his backpack on top. He made it all the way to Myanmar and picked our brain for future bike travels. I really loved his low budget set-up, proving bike touring is accessible for everybody and any kind of budget. German Katharina and Lukas are now in turmoil because they never thought about going to China and now, because of our enthusiastic stories, they are tempted to include it in their travel plan. It was great to see their poor brains swirling with all the possibilities.. so many places to go, so much to see!

Andreas' low budget bike touring set-up
Andreas’ low budget bike touring set-up

In Nyaung Oo we also met Pipyo, the owner of Leo, a great little restaurant. He told us a lot about nature and traditions in Myanmar and his dreams for the future. He is from a small village where traditions are still observed and he told us all about the upcoming full moon festivities, with special candy being made and shared by everybody in the village.

New directions

From Nyaung Oo we set off on an epic three day bus journey which takes us back to our bicycles in Bago, across the border to Mae Sot in Thailand and up to Chiang Mai. Here we will stay for almost a week, waiting for a new Chinese visum for Vera.

Yes, I am going back to China. This is not what we planned when we left, but unfortunately our relationship has stranded, and we are making new plans for the future. This happened a good few weeks ago so we have had some time to process this and share with family and close friends. We are fine and have decided to continue traveling together as friends. We will finish the trip together as we planned, in Tokyo. After that we will go our own way. I will move to Kunming to work as an English teacher and to focus on my writing practice. Cyril will cycle back via Korea, Rome, Corsica and Sardinia, crossing the Alps into Switzerland and eventually back home to The Netherlands, visiting old and new friends in Europe.

It is hard at this point in the trip to be in the moment, as we were before when we were just rolling along and experiencing day by day. We haven’t cycled for a few weeks now and we sorely miss the freedom of camping and cooking our own breakfast. While we are waiting in Chiang Mai we are planning ahead, booking flights, looking at whatever lies beyond the end of the trip. On 30 March we will fly to Japan, to start 6 weeks of cycling in Kyushu and Hokkaido before traveling into Tokyo, our final destination. We are eager to satisfy our cycling addiction one more time, and super excited about Japan. It is the last country on our list, and possibly the most alluring.

Our first haircut in 7 months - exciting stuff
Our first haircut in 7 months – exciting stuff

Towards Thailands border

We left Chiang Mai about a week ago, this time on our bicycles, to start our last week of cycling in Thailand before we enter Myanmar. As always it feels really good to be back in the saddle again, even if the first 100km heading South out of Chiang Mai are on a straight and very busy road. We make one interesting side trip to a museum dedicated to Ganesh, the Hindu god with the elephant head. A somewhat eccentric Thai believer has collected all kinds of statues, masks and other depictions of Ganesh from all over the world and put them on display in a garden.

Ganesha, god of obstacles, study and prosperity
Ganesha, god of obstacles, study and prosperity

After this stretch things quickly get more interesting. From the small town of Hod we turn West, towards Mae Sariang. We climb over a range of hills but the gradients, the road and the traffic are altogether doable. We enjoy a couple of nights of camping and roll into the border town of Mae Sot where we will relax for a couple of days.

Cyclists paradise Prathet Thai

Thailand is, apart from the steep climbs, one of the easiest countries we have cycled around in. Almost too easy, and where’s the challenge in that? We would definitely recommend it as a country for a first time bicycle tourer, as you can experience a different culture while not really missing out on the creature comforts from home. There are great bike shops that stock good components. You can put up your tent just about anywhere, and there are perfect (free) camping spots with cold showers and toilets next to gorgeous waterfalls, maintained by kind park rangers.

Camping life
Camping life

The gold and glittering wats are beautiful. The people are super nice, and many speak English. Shops and restaurants stock food that we know from home. Despite the ubiqitous 7-11 and other Western brands there is a strong Thai cultural identity, and there is much on offer in natural and cultural sights. Most people think of Thailand as super touristy, but it is very easy to get away from the beaten path.

Here are our Thailand pictures

The most beautiful spot we found in the last few days is the Mae Um Long Luang hot spring, just before reaching the town of Mae Sariang. We don’t find much info online apart from that there are two tubs with hot water. We make our way down a small road, then a dirt track, and end up at a rickety bamboo bridge over a river, with a real hot spring paradise on the other side. It is a large garden area built upon the hillside, with outdoor pools, bamboo huts, a cafe with cold beers and pot noodles. A local family runs the place and they make us feel right at home. The old man of the family looks a bit like a wandering monk, with orange elephant trousers, a wispy white beard and a line of dots tattood on his forehead. We can walk our bicycles through the riverbed so we don’t have to take the bouncy bridge across. There is a huge hot tub in a bamboo house just for us and a nice little camping spot overlooking the river. We spend the rest of the afternoon soaking our feet in the outdoor pools with Thai families. Hot springs are our favourite stopovers!

Myanmar in our sights

Before getting to Mae Sot we conquer one more climb, over a range of hills that brings us down to the river that separates Thailand from Myanmar. This last climb is a lot tougher than expected. Some climbs hit 20% gradients which are impossible (for me at least) to pedal up. We hitchhike a short distance after we have climbed more than 1500m and the midday heat is burning us up. But, at the end of the day we sit at the verandah of a simple wooden hut, looking at Myanmar on the other side of the river. Life there looks different from life in Thailand, even from a distance. It is no longer just the women who wear the sarong (htamein in Burmese), the men don similar long skirts. People from the village across wash in the river, which looks like fun until you realize this is probably because they have no running water in their own home.

I am currently reading The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, a book about the recent history of Myanmar as told through the eyes of different generations of one family. It is hard to comprehend that Myanmar once was the richest and most developed of the South East Asian countries, until the British colonization and subsequent political mess plunged the country into poverty. Myanmar is a construct, an uneasy federation of different tribes who speak different languages and have different cultures and beliefs. They only formed a country to shake of British rule together, with an option to step out of the union ten years after it was formed. This option was conventiently scrapped by the Burmese government who sought to consolidate their power, with or without the consent of the different tribes and their states.

One of the results of this ongoing state of internal conflict is a huge number of displaced Karen people who live along the Burmese border in Thailand. I had read about them before, in the well researched and poignant book The Invisible Ones by the late Dutch author Karel Glastra van Loon. Currently the Rohingya people are in the news because the Burmese army is blatantly harassing them in an effort to rid the (mostly Buddhist) country of this muslim minority. The story of the Karen people is equally sad but not so widely reported in the media.

Teak trees

Back to The Glass Palace book. In the beginning of the book there are some beautiful descriptions of the tough life at teak logging camps some 100 years ago. There are English overseers and elephants and the wood is being transported to Yangon by wild mountain rivers in the wet season. The teak trees are true jungle giants that can rise straight up to 40m or more. It is a tree that loses its leaves in the cool season, and as we are cycling along the huge dry leaves are coming down around us, like big rustling brown paper bags falling out of the sky.

Teak tree leaf. Cyclist for size
Teak tree leaf. Cyclist for size

It is strange to experience this falling of the leaves, which for us is so strongly associated with autumn and cooler weather. Here the leaves are falling but it is still well over 30 degrees.

The Karen of Mae La

The leaves are used to make a traditional roof covering of the bamboo huts we see in villages along the road. The roofs look somewhat flimsy with their cover of brown leaves but they blend in nicely with the hills and tropical foliage. When we get close to Mae Sot we spot a large group of houses with these typical roofs. We stop to take some pictures and notice the houses are grouped very closely together, unlike the houses in the villages we have seen before. There are only narrow winding lanes between the houses and only tiny patches of vegetable gardens, it looks more like a rabbit warren than a village.

Mae La Karen refugee camp
Mae La Karen refugee camp

We notice more as we cycle on. The ‘village’ stretches alongside the road for miles and miles and up onto the hills on our right. Mae La is huge, the biggest place we have seen since Chiang Mai, but built entirely of basic bamboo huts with teak leaf roofs. We notice it is closed off all around, by a simple bamboo fence with barbed wire. Every 500m there is a gate with Thai guards who wave at us and give us the thumbs up as we roll by. We see a sign that says ‘temporary shelter area’ and realize this is one of the Karen refugee camps.

As Glastra Van Loon describes in his book, some of the people here have been here all of their lives, having been born in the camp. It was established in 1984. The Karen people can not go back to Myanmar for fear of prosecution by the government. In Thailand they are not allowed to work or study, so they cannot build a meaningful existence. They can only wait for change, which might not come anytime soon. The gross injustice that allows us to cycle by as we please and keeps them in limbo is unbearable.

Someone asked us the question, but what are we going to do about it? Well, reading and writing about it and raising awareness is one small thing. We are on holiday but we are not closing our eyes for the less than pleasant things in the world around us. There are options to volunteer with the families in the camps here but also back home. I can recommend volunteering with Stichting Vluchtelingenwerk for instance and helping the Amsterdam refugees with language and integration into Dutch society.  There are many small ways to reach out and let them know they are welcome, they are not invisible.

Goodbye for now, Thailand

The seasons are turning and the teak leaves are falling, even in the tropics. We recently booked our tickets to Japan, meaning that the end of the trip is coming closer. In little over a month we’ll land in Fukuoka, in the South of Japan. Another two months of cycling in Japan and we’ll be in Tokyo. We are in a contemplative mood and tentatively making plans for what happens next.

But first, Myanmar. A friend of Cyril has generously offered us his home close to Inle lake, and we are eagerly looking forward to our time there. A home away from home, a place and a little bit of time to stop and think about what comes after this trip.

China photos part I

The photos of the first part of our China trip are now online, you can find them here. Pictures from the Kyrgyzstan to China border crossing, cycling into Kashgar with our friends and then the train trip via Turpan and Xi’an, on to our extended stay in Chengdu. Enjoy!

Pushbike panda
Pushbike panda