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Meeting Myanmar

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So the culture shock had finally arrived. I’m not saying that Europe – Turkey in particular – wasn’t a huge culture shock in itself, but we were about to head to South East Asia. Speaks volumes right?

And what better way to baptise ourselves in fire, than to visit Myanmar – or Burma to some – first…and for a whole month.

Yangon

Myanmar is truly a country with little to no tourist infrastructure. We landed in the capital city of Yangon, welcomed by an intense wave of heat and dust, and headed to the Motherland Hostel. Safe to say I wasn’t overly impressed, but had to keep reminding myself where we were.

The next morning we went on our adventures and started walking around the city. First stop was of course the famous Shwedagon golden pagoda. It would be our first! But definitely not the last. Ready with below the knees trousers and shoulders covered, we headed up to the breath-taking structure.

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The Shwedagon pagoda sits atop a hill and is 99 meters high. It can be seen from most places of Yangon, day and night, as the golden roof illuminates the city. According to some, the pagoda is 2,600 years old, making Shwedagon the oldest pagoda in the world. The main gold-plated dome is topped by a stupa containing over 7,000 diamonds, rubies, topaz and sapphires – with the whole thing offset by a massive emerald!

Understandably, you are asked to remove footwear to visit pagodas. But I advise you to take a pair of socks! Due to the heat, the floor tiles were extremely hot, which made getting around a mission! Ever played hot lava?

We then walked around the city a bit more, went to a market (ate some very strange stall fruit) and visited a very odd National Museum. The museum is very poorly laid out, with one exhibit almost 5m from the next – and don’t go in there hoping there is air conditioning! However it did hold some cool treasures like a 26ft-high, jewel-encrusted Sihasana (Lion Throne), which belonged to King Thibaw Min, the last king of Myanmar, and an exhibition about the “Vanishing Tribes of Burma” , photos of 40 ethnic groups that make up Myanmar – some of whose way of life had been practically unchanged for centuries.

Bagan

Let me start by saying in Myanmar, if you want to get around, you are looking at busses every time. It really is the only way to get around. Flights are very, very limited.

We had done plenty of long bus rides in Europe. We knew it was the only affordable way to get around. Better yet, in Myanmar they offer night busses! Meaning you don’t lose crucial exploring time by travelling!

Anyway, it’s safe to say we were ready to leave Yangon. It wasn’t our favourite place. But we were off to Bagan – an ancient city that used to be the capital. During its hay day, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built, of which the remains of over 2200 temples and pagodas are still there!

So, we arrived at Bagan at 5am, got a couple of hours kip, then it was time to go exploring.

Now, I don’t think I have ever had so much fun exploring. In Bagan, you can hire e-bikes – they are like electric scooters, but with pedals. Oh, the fun we had driving around the thousands of temples and pagodas. And of course, we went off roading. but be careful! The bikes’ battery monitors are not exactly accurate. As I look at my notes in my diary, I have written “Had to tow each other because we drained batteries with bad-ass off roading!”

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To top it all off, we researched one of the highest, climbable pagoda’s in the region to watch the sunset. It brings tears to my eyes thinking about it as I type this. It was so incredibly beautiful. It was one of those moments where you sit and think “how many people can say they have done this?”.

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Over the next couple of days in Bagan we did more exploring, walked around town, visited the big pagoda in the town centre and ate at our favourite restaurant – The Beer Station – which offers delicious BBQ’d snacks, cheap beer and WWE wrestling on TV!

Mandalay

I think the next part of our journey is probably my favourite of all time. We were up at 5am because we had a 12 hour ferry ride, down the Malikha river, to Mandalay.

So I had read up on this and I had my reservations – there had been sinkings before, dodgy boats and reviews of not being able to sit anywhere for 12 hours. But  my presumptions could not have been more wrong. We shared the whole boat with about eight other people, it had three decks – one below with comfy seats, one open deck and one rooftop deck with loungers. It was amazing just relaxing, watching the fisherman, pagodas and river life pass us by.

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We arrived in Mandalay and met up with some friends and checked into a fantastic hotel Golden Dream. It was luxurious compared to what we had been staying in the last few nights and really cheap!

While in Mandalay we organised a taxi through the hotel to take us on a bit of a day tour. We visited:

  • Sagaing Hill: this was full of monasteries and the Buddhist Monk training academy. We even made friends with a young monk – about 16yrs old – who couldn’t get enough photos with us!
  • Inwa: a very short boat ride over to Inwa where we jumped into extremely rickety horse-drawn carriages and saw more temples and rice paddies.
  • Amarapura: this is where the famous U-Bein bridge is, a 1.2-kilometre crossing that was built around 1850 and is believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world.

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We then finished the evening with tickets to the Moustache Brothers show – a comedy show hosted in the front room of which pokes fun at Myanmar’s military junta. As funny as it is, the messages are sad and disturbing. Two of the brothers (actually cousins) went to prison to do hard labour for performing for Myanmar’s most famous political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, cracking jokes about the dictating military. It’s definitely a show not to be missed.

Hsipaw

It was then time to catch an early bus through the snaking mountains and valleys of Myanmar to Hsipaw – another true highlight of this entire trip.

Hsipaw (pronounced see-paw) is a great little time to spend a few days recouping in. The biggest tourist attraction is the guided treks you can do through the mountains.

We were lucky enough to run into Ikeday – a guide who wanted to take us off the beaten track, away from where all the other tourist groups would be going. So essentially, we were walking tracks that ‘white’ people hadn’t walked since the british were settled there. How cool!

After six hours of hard graft, snakes on the road, and laughs with Ikeday we made it to our overnight pit stop – a tiny village of no more than what seemed like 20 people. A lunch of noodles and tasty broth was prepared then we walked a couple more hours to reach the top of the mountain at 1,700m. The views were stunning – i’d never seen so much green!

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The next day it was time to descend, but this time we went really of the beaten track and through the jungle. It was so adventurous and fulfilling, walking across mountain tops, through farms and amongst tea plantations.

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Finally, we topped of our Hsipaw experience with bike rides exploring the town, out to an amazing waterfall which we swam in and finishing off with a £0.35 noodle dinner from a street stall. What could be better?

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Inle Lake

This time, the long night bus from Hsipaw to Inle Lake was the worst experience ever. It was just like your normal local bus, the air conditioning was freezing and we broke down for two hours! Nightmare.

But we did finally make it to Inle Lake – a very chilled out and relaxing town. Thank god! The best thing you can do here is hire bikes and boats. We grabbed a couple of bikes and began adventuring around one side of the lake, then hired a boat and driver to take us (and our bikes) across to the other side of the lake. What an incredible experience, zipping past fisherman and through floating farms. Once on the other side, we began making our way back to town, stopping at Red Mountain estate – a vineyard with terrible wine, but amazing views over the lake.

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The second day we then hired a boat as a group for the whole day and did a tour. This time we went to different floating villages on the lake. We saw the one-foot fisherman, the lotus weaving, cigar making wood carving, markets and the ladies with the rings to extend their necks. As touristy as it was – as in we were expected to buy things everywhere we went – it was still unmissable.

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Bago

There is no reason to Bago except to pass through. We had caught another overnight bus to Bago from Inle Lake – my partner in crime was incredibly ill, from what we can only presume was the fish we had for dinner the night before – and then in Bago, I became ill myself.

But we did manage to a quick scour of the town – and there was nothing of interest at all. Use it only as a place to break the journey on your way to Kin Pun.

Kin Pun

By the time we reached Kin Pun, we were in our third week of roughing it – and were pretty much over it. We booked into a stupidly expensive – and ridiculously crap – hotel and collapsed.

Both recuperating from food poisoning, we made our way up to see the Golden Rock – which is said to be being held up by a strand of Buddha’s hair. The ride up was so much fun! Sight-seers were all crammed onto the back of open top lorries and at a rollercoaster’s pace, driven up the mountain to the rock.

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The rock itself, and the views that surrounded it, were stunning to say the least. While I am not a spiritual person, you couldn’t help but get caught in the religious significance of it all.

Top Tips for seeing Myanmar

1. Yangon, schmangon

I really didn’t rate Yangon. While it’s good to say you’ve been there, and you no doubt will have to fly into the city, spend as little time there as possible. There are much better places around the country to see.

2. E-Bike in Bagan 

Do not contemplate any other way to see the temples and pagodas of Bagan, than on an E-Bike! It was such a highlight of my trip. Just keep an eye on that battery. Make sure you check its full before hiring it.

3. Tricky taxis

Taxi drivers in Myanmar charge per person not per ride. So when you think you are getting a cheap deal, double it.

4. Bitterly cold bus rides

The night busses, as convenient as they are, can be a nightmare. While we had a luxury bus to Bagan, most of the time they will be just normal stagecoach-like vehicles. So be prepared for that. But if there is one thing you can do to make it more comfortable is layer up! It sounds crazy in a hot country like Myanmar, but the bus driver really ramp the A/C up and it becomes freezing! I swear one bus ride we shivered the whole way.

5. Hsipaw’s taste of home

Definitely check out Black House Coffee Shop not only for banana bread like Mum used to make and nice coffee, but for an awesome relaxing spot right on the river.

So that was Myannar! An incredible, informative, eye-opening experience. As much as I loved being somewhere so different, so so lacking in tourist infrastructure, I have to admit I was relieved to jump on the plane at the end of it. Not only to move onto a new and exciting adventure, but because we were heading to a family favourite of mine – Thailand.

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Adventuring in Montenegro and Albania

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After two weeks in Croatia, the next leg of our trip seemed short in comparison, but none the less memorable. We were continuing our way through southern Europe by visiting Montenegro and to my Father’s “but why?” confusion, Albania!

Montenegro

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It still fascinates me that in Europe you can hop on a bus for a few hours and find yourselves in a completely different country. That’s like getting on in Auckland and finding yourself in Hamilton… not quite the same. This time, we boarded a bus in Dubrovnik and got off in Kotor, Montenegro.

Here we only had a couple of days, but had high expectations. We had heard people sing its praises and read about all it had to offer. Maybe we were doing something wrong, but we weren’t exactly impressed. Yes, the old town was ‘nice,’ but we had just come from the incredible old town of Dubrovnik! (So, really, me being underwhelmed could be more spoiled than anything).

But there was nothing outside the old walls, the harbour was really quite scummy and it was incredibly expensive. I say “incredibly” – i’m a backpacker so our budgets may differ, but we thought it was overpriced. Also, as I mentioned in my ‘Tips for Croatia’, it’s nice when a place has a bit of atmosphere. Kotor had none. We went for drinks on our first night and everything was closed. It was Friday! Time of season maybe? It only chirped up a bit when a cruise boat unloaded a few hundred all-inclusive golden oldies. And I was happy they were there! Who would have thought I’d ever think that…

Some kudos it deserves is for its castle ruins high above the town, and the view you get if you climb up there. Kotor is situated at the end of a bay, nestled amongst big mountains with a beautiful, blue body of water in between. While the fort ruins were cool (albeit unloved) the view from up there was incredible and ideal for the panorama setting on your iPhone.

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Leaving Kotor for our next Montenegro spot, our expectations were low. So arriving into Budva was a pleasant surprise. Sitting on the coast the old town was larger and buzzing. Our spirits lifted instantly. We had a nice little room in the middle of town and enjoyed cheap food and cocktails for the duration of our time there.

But, it could be because we had seen very similar places in Croatia, didn’t have enough money, or are actually well versed in criticising destinations fairly, we didn’t think Montenegro was ‘all that and a bag of potato chips.’

Albania

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After researching how to get to Albania from Montenegro, it was disappointing to realise just how difficult it would be. Buses are long, you have to take three of them and it is very hard to get through the border. Luckily, we found out our Hostel (Montenegro Hostel) offered a chauffeur option, driving us all the way to Tirana. Even better was the fact that the driver, Dean, was actually the owner of the Hostel group!

Dean was so interesting and chocked full of information about Montenegro and its surrounding countries. For example, if you visit Albania and notice that most of the houses and buildings don’t have actual roofs, it’s because there is a roof tax there! So builders seal the top of the building without technically giving it a roof to avoid the tax!

He also had a personal story that is scripted for the silver screen. A Serbian, growing up in Croatia, he and his family had a beautiful house, a holiday home, a business, and an all round good life. When things grew hostile in the country, he and his family had to flee to Serbia almost overnight, leaving everything behind. Then, his brother joined the “People’s Army” and Dean explained, they didn’t know who they were fighting until they became close enough to see the “enemy’s face” – where often they’d be recognised as old school chums. What’s more, Dean’s brother fell in love with a Muslim woman (obviously a big no no). To escape, they approached the Australian embassy who flew them to Australia within two weeks! They now live happily there. What a story!!

When we arrived into Tirana, I was blown away. It was not at all what I expected. The city was absolutely buzzing! And it was so, so colourful. Dean had told us that this is because the Mayor (now Prime Minister) of Albania ordered the old communist buildings etc to be painted with bright colours, to boost morale of the people (and because communist buildings are so heinous to look at). A great place to get a 360 view of the city is up the Sky Hotel Tower. You pay a small fee to go up, then sit down and grab a beer. Little did we know, it is a revolving bar, and we had to convince ourselves that the floor really was spinning and it wasn’t just the three pints.

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As we explored the city, its unique vibrancy became even more apparent. There are quirky bars and cafes everywhere. Colour, atmosphere, music and lot’s and lot’s of young people. It came across to us as a university town. This could be because over 50% of Tirana’s population is under 30 years old! (Thanks Dean).

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The other thing I loved about Tirana was the food – (“of course it was” says Mother). Huge portions of deliciously grilled meats, tasty salads and mouthwatering, freshly baked breads. So, so cheap as well. The meal in the pictures below cost all of around £6 – and no that wasn’t just for me!

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Accompany that with some of the best coffee I have had since leaving New Zealand, and for a cost of about £0.35,  I think I have found my ideal second home.

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Sadly, the truth hit home about the politically ‘mental’ state of the city when Albania’s football team went to Serbia for the first time in 65 years for a match. We were awoken by car horns, firecrackers and singing outside our window. I jumped on the internet and found out the match had been cancelled because a drone carrying the Albanian flag was flown over the pitch which sparked anger in the crowd and on the pitch. So, a match cancelled and the city erupts in celebration. It again highlighted just how deep-seeded the hatred is…still.

The next day, we decided to take a day trip out of the city to the town of Kruja. There, we explored an old castle and visited an interesting museum, which turned out to be a four-floor shrine too George Kastrioti Skanderbeg – an Albanian hero who defended Albania from Ottoman invasion for two decades. It was very interesting, however not a lot of it was in english unfortunately.

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As interesting as Kruja was, the best part was the bus ride out there! Finding the first one from Tirana proved so difficult. There is no bus depot. We had to walk to a big traffic island and hope that a bus with Kruja on the front drove past, which we then had to flag down. From there, it was fantastic people watching. All the locals would stand at any point on the road and hail the bus. Some would even jump in while it was moving! Also, if you are a woman, don’t bother trying to give your seat to the elderly – chivalry certainly has not died in Albania and a 90 year old man will give up his seat before allowing you to.

Tips for visiting Montenegro and Albania

1. Skip Montenegro

This is obviously, hugely personal opinion. But, if you only plan on visiting Kotor and Budva, and are going to see Croatia first, then I truly don’t see the point. I found, what we saw of Montenegro, as a slightly smaller version of a Croatian town. However, if you are on your way to Albania, then it definitely is a nice route to take.

2. Spend more time in Albania

I will forever regret not spending more time in Albania and seeing more of the country. We dropped another (very strange American) passenger off in Durres before our Tirana stop, and even that city looked like it could be worth one or two days exploring. I shall return in the future I believe!

 

Finishing this particular stint in Albania was perfect. Getting that one last hit of Croatian/Montenegrin/Albanian culture (while obviously different, all are quite similar) it was time to move onto another, one on which the modern world was based on… finally it was see to hit Greece…a large portion of it too (be prepared for a mammoth blog post!)