Hsipaw & the Gokteik Viaduct, Myanmar

Our last destination in Myanmar was to go to Hsipaw – a relatively quiet village northeast of Mandalay. You’d think we’d of had enough of trains by now, but I had read about this train route that went through beautiful mountains and on a particularly rickety bridge over a deep gorge spanning 300 metres. That particular part of the train route is called the Gokteik Viaduct. It was built by the British and then repaired in 1951 after being damaged in WW2 and was repaired again in the 1990s. With open air on either side it’s breathtaking and terrifying at the same time. The train slows down to eliminate any pressure that could cause more damage and therefore takes several minutes to cross. Lots of time to lean your head out the window and develop a fear of heights. The whole train ride was a highlight for me and an excellent way to spend our last day in Myanmar.

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Crossing the bridge.
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A view of the bridge.
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How I spent most of the 8 hour trip.
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Our seats. The train trip is known for it’s scenery rather than it’s cleanliness and comfort!
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Snacks were always available en route from vendors like this woman selling pieces of chicken.
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A boy sitting in an abandoned train car.
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Kids sell glasses of water along the tracks.
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Just outside of Hsipaw: the joint efforts between a mother and her two daughters aren’t enough to move these water buffalo.
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The eldest daughter hits them with a branch to get them going.
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Young nuns run across the street in Hsipaw avoiding the vehicles.

Inle Lake, Myanmar

It’s a tight race between Bagan and Inle Lake for the most touristy place in Myanmar. Life on Inle Lake is the main attraction and there’s a plethora of boats and drivers ready to tour you around. They stop at several pre-arranged places: a weaving house, a silver jewellery manufacturer, a tobacco factory, etc. First you’re shown how the product is made and then you’re encouraged to buy. We still found the hand-made processes fascinating and the sales pitch wasn’t too pushy. Being paired with a really nice driver and new-made friends from Spain and Mexico ended up being a pretty nice day.

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Our cheerful driver.
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A typical house on the lake, built on stilts.
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Locals paddling through the lake. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the lake ends and the marsh starts.
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On our way to the market.
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Heading home from the market with newly purchased goods.

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Temples popping up everywhere.
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On the last day we took a quiet bike ride outside of town.
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Another traditional meal costing $0.50

On our last day we came across this interesting construction site where they transport the concrete by hand shovel full by shovel full. So different than anything I’ve seen before!

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Bagan, Myanmar

There’s one thing to do in Bagan – look at temples. So that’s what we did! For two days we pushed through the vendors at the most popular temples and crept through the eerily quite ones, occasionally having to seek out ‘the keyholder’ to unlock them for us. Since we were visiting in low season, even the most popular temples had few visitors.

Entering into a new temple you never knew what you were going to find. Sometimes monks would be praying to buddhas, another time an old woman plugged a bare lightbulb in with an extension cord and carried it around the dark temple so we could see the ancient wall paintings. Other times you climbed through musky dark passages and up stairs until you were rewarded with a view of the landscape scattered with hundreds of more temples.

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A view of Bagan from the top of a temple.

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Squeezing through tight spots to get the best views.
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A lightbulb and a few windows were our only source of light to see the carvings on the walls of this temple.
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Jesse biking in his longyi. Our mode of transportation for the day.
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Inside the temples monks and practicing buddhists pray and leave offerings.
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A detail from inside a temple. I think this hand gesture meant to expel negative energy.
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Our lunch of very typical dishes in Myanmar. From left to right (not including rice): Bamboo Salad, a very spicy Tomator Chili Sauce, Cooked Cauliflower and Green Peas, Pickled Tea Leaf Salad, a Potato-y Bean-y Dish, Beef Curry (top), two bowls of soup and a plate of fresh local vegetables. All for less than $3!
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Near the top of a temple – luckily it wasn’t windy that day.
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The fingernails of the reclining buddha. The pigeons give you a sense of it’s size.
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After climbing up some dingy staircases Jesse took a break in the fresh air.

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We both agreed that we could have spent several more days exploring Bagan.

Mandalay, Myanmar

When we arrived in Mandalay we were tired and cranky after being bounced and tossed around on a train for 14 hours. We walked to the first hotel with a/c and crashed for most of the day.

Mandalay feels much more laid-back than Yangon and has more of an urban sprawl. The city is big but doesn’t feel as compact or busy as the Yangon. As usual our first few days were spent biking and walking around, getting a feel for the city.

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A shrine of some sort.
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Young boys fixing a motorbike in a shop.
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Pick up trucks are the cheapest and most popular mode of transport for locals traveling short and long distances. Once the back fills up they start sitting on the roof We rode one for several hours and I can’t say it’s the most comfortable ride I’ve ever experienced.
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The luggage compartment of this bus provides shade on a hot afternoon.

By exploring this way we were able to try out and find out favourite tea shop. There is a very strong tea culture in Myanmar and mostly men sit around with eachother drinking sweet tea, smoking, eating, and gossiping. A pot of weak Chinese tea sits on every table, while you order small mugs of a much sweeter tea. It’s usually about half condensed milk and half tea, with a spoonful of white sugar for good measure. Tea boys run around the shop serving the customers who make kissy noises to get their attention. This isn’t a rude gesture and is practiced around the country.

Being the only white people in the tea shop and often the only couple we attracted a lot of attention. Most days we would wear traditional longyis – mine embroidered and jesse’s checkered – since it’s important to dress conservatively there. I think it was met with some appreciation, but mostly just amusement. Several people attempted to show Jesse how to properly tie his longyi – it’s an art! For most of the time spent at the teahouse we had at least three people standing around our table without saying a word. Jesse managed to joke around with the tea boys quite a bit and they were very interested in his tattoos and our iphones.

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Tea boys are brought to the city from the poor rural areas to work for almost no money. It’s really sad that they aren’t going to school yet they are so cheerful. Seems to be a Burmese thing: no matter how much suffering they have endured, positivity seems to radiate from them.
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The happiest baby alive.
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On one of our bike rides we found the teak monestary, Shwendaw Monestary. It’s roof and walls are covered in carvings depicting buddhist myths.
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These places aren’t just tourist attractions. Monks live and pray here – and something just relax and read the local paper.

We were finally able to see the comedy routine of The Moustache Brothers. They are famous for their risky commentary of the regime/government in Myanmar. The trio includes U Par Par Lay, U Lu Zaw, and Lu Maw. Two of them have served time in a labour camp for their criticism of the government. They are now under house arrest and perform their show in the front of their house with the help of their families.

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A traditional dance.
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Par Par Lay arrested on September 25, 2007.

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On my last day in Mandalay I endured the sweaty bike ride to see the longest bridge in Myanmar, the U Bein Bridge. A picnicking family offered me food and I shared a big ricecracker with small fish in it (not my thing!). I sat and watched the juxtaposition between the tourists that come in busloads and the families that use the area to fish, bath and play in. Besides the people selling things, there’s not much interaction or connection between them!

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My first view of the U Bein Bridge, barely visible in the distance. At 1.2km it spans the entire photo plus some.
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It is the oldest teak bridge in the world built in the mid 1800s.
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A resting spot mid-way across the bridge.
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Local kids play on a beached boat.
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Some boys return from fishing on a very narrow path.
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A man tries to entice tourists to view the sunset from his boat.

Bago, Myanmar

Bago is a city about 3 hours train ride (or 50 miles) from Yangon. We were only there for one day but made the most of it. We rented a motorbike and hired a guide to see many of the local attractions. Besides the plethora of temples, here’s some of what we saw:

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Making an offering to the Burmese python. It is believed to be over 100 years old and a reincarnation of an important abbot. It’s over 5 metres long and feeds on whole chickens!
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Two figures representing nats – natural guardians of the snake. People leave many offerings including placing lit cigarettes in the (burnt) fingers of the left figure.
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Women working at a tobacco factory rolling cigarettes.
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A mother and her child at the factory.
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A woman making a selling betel nut. Everybody is constantly chewing and spitting this red juice on the sidewalk. The Burmese call it kun ja.
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A close-up of the contents before it is wrapped up in a leaf. The nut is actually a seed and is a reddish white colour. The betel leaf is dipped in lime (calcium hydroxide which releases the stimulant from the seed – not good for you! The white stuff might be coconut cream (not sure though), the other contents are tobacco and cardomom seeds.
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You tuck the betel package in your cheek and chew it for several minutes to an hour, spitting out the red juice every so often. Keep chewing betel and your teeth will stay red like many people here.
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At the monestary our guide acted as translator between the monk and ourselves. He told us he was very happy for this life and thought he was lucky to have so many other monks as his friends.
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In his room with his school books in his arms and all of his possessions behind him. Since monks aren’t supposed to own anything he probably views these things as essentials for living rather than having ownership over them. One monk sleeps in each corner of this room.
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The monestary (pictured) and temples are kept in very good condition and cleaned often.
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Mya Tha Lyaung, a massive recling buddha built in 2002> It’s so big, birds kept flying up its nose. To get a sense of it’s size look at the black dot on it’s shoulder – that is a bird!
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Here’s another size comparison.
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On our way back to the hotel to collect our bags for the long train ride ahead of us.

The day ended in heat exhaustion in the Bago train station while we waited for our overnight train. We’d heard this was a bumpy train ride from hell. We did not anticipated 14 hours of this:

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Yangon, Myanmar

I felt the excited energy that runs through me everytime we enter a new country. The setting sun and pounding rain didn’t seem to slow down the bustling streets of Yangon. We were entering the wet season, but the rain was providing little relief from the humidity. I put on my raincoat and stood out like a sore thumb. It was way too hot to wrap yourself in rubber and we quickly bought a cheap umbrella. As we tried half-heartedly to stay dry we were floored by the many different faces of Yangon. Burmans, South Asian & Indian, as well as large groups of Chinese occupy the downtown neighbourhoods. Here’s a brief summary of a very complicated history.

So I say this a lot, but Myanmar is really unlike anywhere I’ve been before. The men wear longyis (sarong-like wraps), the women and children are adorned with a white paste called thanaka, and everyone is chewing and spitting betel nut on the sidewalk before flashing you a red-toothed smile. Most of the buildings are left over from the British colonial era and the friendly attitude of strangers makes you feel like you’re living in the past.

We were offered so much help and generosity with nothing asked for in return that it left us suspicious at first! We realized that the Burmese wanted to befriend us, talk to us, eat with us, learn about Canada, and teach us about their country without any sales pitch or expectations. We were grateful to be able to let our guard down and make genuine connections with people.

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The view of Yangon from our hotel window.
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Staircase up to the market. Some streets here were reallllly dirty as you can see.
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Communal water jugs are found all over the city.
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We saw these strings hanging from each apartment window with clips at the end of them. Turns out the are ‘doorbells’ as well as a delivery system. This man sent up a newspaper and got a loaf of bread in return.
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Mohinga – rice noodles in fish soup. The national breakfast in Myanmar.
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It wasn’t so easy navigating through the narrow sidewalks.

As the plane began it’s decent we started seeing scattered golden dots before we could make out any roads or houses. These are the many temples that are frequented by the faithful population, the biggest and most important to the buddhists is the Shwedagon Pagoda. It contains relics of the past four Buddhas enshrined within: the staff of Kakusandha, the water filter of Konagamana, a piece of the robe of Kassapa and eight stands of hair from Gautama, the historical buddha. (Thanks wikipedia).

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The Shwedagon Pagoda by day…
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…and night. A totally different experience.
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Looking through the binoculars at the top of the pagoda. This part of the structure is called the crown and is tipped with diamonds and rubies.

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A small detail from the pagoda.
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Waiting for the rain to let up.
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Night life at the pagoda.

The circle train in Yangon circles the city transporting rural commuters to the city. For us it was a chance to see the countryside outside of Yangon. The people coming on and off the train were just as interesting as the landscape. Even more fun was sticking your head out the window at a stop and trying to buy a snack.

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A family at the train station. The girls are dressed in monastic nun robes and have shaved heads. This is a very cute account of how these young girls live.
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Our neighbour on the train wearing thanaka on her face and arms.