Parul and I decided to visit Burma / Myanmar for a vacation in late February 2016. We ended up getting three full weeks to travel the beautiful country. In a country like Myanmar that has a rapidly evolving tourism industry, I intend to fill the gaps that I found while trying to plan a trip myself. That and a first hand narrative of the wonderful experiences that we have had.
This post is for the third leg of travel - Indawgyi Lake (6 Mar 2016 - 11 Mar 2016).
Long Journey to Lonton
We checked out of the hotel the next morning and headed to the railway station. Since we had a little time on our hands, we stopped at a cafe which served breads and premixed coffee and tea. There was something akin to a batura that we had with potato curry and peas curry. It was quite delicious. I passed on the premixed coffee and we resumed our walk to the railway station. It was less than a kilometer from our hotel and we got there with almost an hour to spare. The train was waiting on the platform. The station seemed well organised with a single entrance to the platform. We showed our ticket to the official on the gate and he asked another official to escort us to our coach. We passed by some other sleeper coaches, all of which seemed nice and comfortable. We got to our coach, C1, and our escort pointed to the seats inside. There seemed to be some problem. This coach was unlike any of the other sleeper coaches. This had seats instead of beds!
Our "sleeper" coach
“Sleeper?” I asked skeptically.
The man nodded. “Yes. C1. Seats 3 and 4.”
He pointed to the pillow and sheets on the seats and then pulled one of the seats demonstrating how it could be reclined to make a bed. Then he went away. This might have been an old coach that had been assigned to us. Or it might have been an upper class seater. There was no way to know what had happened that led to us getting such derelict seats. There was nothing printed on the outside of the coach to tell us whether it was a sleeper or an upper class. I went back to the gate to check if there was a possibility to get our seats changed to one of the other coaches. In response, another gentleman came back to my coach and patiently explained how the seats could be pulled to make a bed. It was not worth the effort. A couple of police officers also boarded our coach and checked our tickets for a suspiciously long time before handing it back and leaving. The entire episode was taking a rather perplexing angle.
Myanmar Tip #7
If you are travelling north by sleeper train, make sure you are not allocated the C1 coach. Anything else would be better!
The train departed dot on time, which I was not expecting it to given the chaos we had just faced. It seemed like we had just run into some bad luck with the coach. Perhaps the other ones had been booked well in advance. The seats were dusty, as I realised after I blew up a cloud of dirt while trying to clean them up. We decided to let it be and enjoy the train ride the best we could, despite the circumstances. Our fellow commuters in the cabin were three Burmese, three men and a woman, who were not much of conversationalists. We reclined the seats and set ourselves up, realising that the side table was obstructing the seats further. We had donned a stoic indifference to the condition of the coach by now. Why fret over things that cannot be fixed?
We passed Mandalay by, the railway track going due south before turning towards Amarapura. Innwa bridge passed by and we saw all kinds of vehicles overtake us. Just for kicks, I tried figuring out the speed of the train. It wasn’t more than 35 kmph. Even at this speed the coaches danced around in all directions. The meter gauge lines were long gone in India but these tracks were reminiscent of those days. Even the countryside was playing it’s part in reminding me of times long past. Farmlands went past with oxen ploughing them. Two young bulls locked their horns while a young boy looked on. Small villages lined the tracks at times; at other times there were roads running parallel to the tracks. The coach rocked continuously, putting me to sleep and shaking me awake periodically. The wind was pleasant and the heat of the day did not bother us any.
Sleeping under the watchful eye of Batman
Shwebo was the first stop of the journey. A couple of hours out of Mandalay, we stopped at this station and the place immediately buzzed alive. There were vendors selling all sorts of edibles; food, water, snacks. Some of them jumped and grabbed on to the moving train while they took your order, others hurriedly walked past the windows with their goods on display. I decided to grab some food and asked the fellow passengers how long the train would stop. It was then that I realised that they did not speak or understand a single word of English. I got down never the less, managed to get a box of rice and curry and hop back in the coach well before the train started moving. Parul spent her time photographing the station and it’s people.
The food came neatly packed in a thermocol container. Our co-passengers had also bought a few boxes and ate theirs, dumping the empty boxes out of the window once the food was over. The results of such unmindful garbage disposal were evident along the tracks for a long distance out of Shwebo. Myanmar is facing the same problems we were a few years back. Fortunately the population is way smaller than ours, making the problem less horrible. I guess they will get there in some time, they do have other things to worry about right now.
We saw another nice sunset through the windows of the train. We were travelling due north and the setting sun presented itself in the left hand side window of the coach.
Sunset through the train's window
The lights came on soon after and with it came the few insects. We took our cues from the locals and closed the ventilated window panes. We had no idea whether crime was a regular occurrence in the Burmese countryside and we were not really willing to find out. However, this was not really a concern. Burma is as safe as a country can be. There is hardly any crime or cheating that we personally encountered except for a couple of isolated incidents of being overcharged.
Parul and I spent the night stuffed into the single-seat-wide “bed” that we managed to put together. The upper berth was so dusty that neither of us was willing to sleep in it. The night was spent in a surprisingly comfortable sleep, except at times when the coach shook so hard that it woke us up. The next morning we were once again surprised at not having gotten a terrible backache on those broken seats. Hopin arrived around 9 AM in the morning. The train rolled up to the single platform and stopped long enough to let us alight without haste. We walked towards the ticketing office amid a crowd of touts who were asking us whether we wanted a transport to Indawgyi Lake. We did, but we wanted to book the return tickets first. We had decided not repeat the unnecessary adventure of last minute bookings.
A young man approached us who spoke a decent amount of English. He took us to the ticketing counter where we “reserved” our tickets without actually buying them. For some reason, these people seem reluctant to give tickets in advance. Anyhow, we asked our friend where we could get the pickup and he used every trick to lure us into taking his bike taxi till Lonton instead. When we insisted, he took us to the pickup station and waved down a pickup. It stopped, took our luggage and went away saying they will be back to pick us! The luggage did not have any valuables so we did not freak out immediately. Plus we had our English speaking friend with us. We sat in another cafe near the pickup station, waiting for the vehicle to come back while our friend still tried to sell the bike ride to us. Eventually he told us that he would be on his way and we needed to wait. I wasn’t letting that happen! I insisted that we get our luggage first. He and I went back to the pickup station to wait together. I was trying to vent out my frustration at them taking our bags away but it was all lost in translation and he understood something completely different from what I was trying to convey. The pickup returned in a while, packed with passengers and goods. I was told that we would be sitting up on the top. I liked the idea and went to consult with Parul. She liked the idea as well. There was a considerable fare difference; the pickup would charge us 5000 MMK per person and the bike would charge us 11,000 MMK per person after a “special discount”, but we still went ahead with the bike taxi for some unknown reason.
The bike stopped at “immigration” first, where a man on a Manchester United bike clicked the photos of our passports. Then we started our ride towards Lonton. Our riders were pretty cool and rode well despite the bags being weirdly balanced on their bikes. I am not accustomed to riding in the passenger seat and tend to freak out if the rider is not riding to my liking. But I had no such qualms with this one. The wind was still cool and the road crossed a hilly patch. There was not much of a view to be had though. The traffic was heavier than I was expecting and four wheelers were being morons as usual. There was one SUV that almost brushed my leg to avoid a pothole!
Anyhow, we made the journey to the other side and the lake came into view briefly. It was a huge lake; this being the largest one in Burma. There was, however, a layer of white shrouding the lake. I thought it was haze due to the distance. We reached Lonton in less than an hour since departing from Hopin. I was really hungry. It was mid day and I had not had a proper meal as yet. We sat down in a restaurant and ordered some rice and curry. It came with the standard accompaniments of vegetables, soup, some scrambled egg, salad, etc. The food was good, though definitely a step down from the amazing flavours of Mandalay.
Rice & Curry in Lonton
After Hopin I had lost mobile network. Ooredoo did not work in this area, though I saw people use MPT and Telenor. I did not mind because I was not in any dire need of network and it was a nice change to not have anything to do (even the daily Instagram) for a few days. But if you want mobile coverage or are planning to stay in Lonton for a longer duration, I would suggest to go for a MPT connection. Ooredoo sucks in general.
Biking in the Sun
After lunch, we set to arrange our accommodation. We chose to stay in Indaw Mahar guest house. Some online forums list it as the only guest house in Lonton but there are at least two other guest houses in the village. Lonton is the only village where foreigners can stay overnight around Indawgyi Lake. Indaw Mahar was our preference because it overlooked the lake. Like all the other guest houses, Indaw Mahar was rather simple. A bed cost us 10,000 MMK per person for a night; there was a shared bathroom in acceptable condition; the common area was the balcony with an excellent view of the lake. Everything in the village is a two minute walk away.
Indaw Mahar Guest House
We were greeted by a big board announcing the restricted areas around Indawgyi. There was a precious stones mine to the north and a gold mine to the south. Plus there was the ongoing civil unrest in the Kachin state (Kachin Independence Army). All these contributed to the restriction of movement for foreign nationals. There were stories of a couple of French tourists who had tried visiting the mines in disguise and were deported by the authorities. Either they were extremely stupid to have thought they could pass themselves as Burmese or the story was a far fetched fabrication to warn the stupid tourists from attempting something similar.
We unpacked, freshened up and left to the Inn Chit Thu (Lovers of Indawgyi) office a few buildings down the road. These were a community based organisation that promoted eco-tourism in Indawgyi. They offered bicycles and kayaks for rent along with any information that you might want for the area. It was also possible to organise hikes and bird watching tours through them. We rented out two bicycles for seemingly steep prices. It was 7000 MMK per cycle for a full day! We were later told that this was because of the problem of arranging good bicycles in the area. Everything was supposedly imported from China though I highly doubt that justified the price. Anyhow, they offered bikes for half days as well and we took two bikes and started off towards the southern route.
Countryside around Indawgyi
It was not much of a ride. The road was mostly a well tarred one that catered to the heavy traffic of cars and trucks. Myanmar has the jungle’s law on it’s roads. The bigger vehicle has the right of passage. The youngsters who we saw pass us by on motorbikes were dressed in very punk clothes. This was quite unlike what we had seen in the rest of the country so far. There were alms collection spots on the road at regular intervals. People stood with metal bowls ready to receive money that was flung out of moving cars. This money was crowd funding the construction of new pagodas in the nearby sites.
Alm collection booths
We had mixed experience with people. Most of them passed us huge smiles and waved as they passed us on the road. A boy tried his luck trying to tell me that I owed him money. He was unable to come up with an exact amount though and went away laughing. Just before we took a u-turn, a young man flagged us down and expressed his desire to be clicked with us. A shopkeeper rudely dismissed us while we were trying to explain that we wanted water.
We stretched ourselves quite a bit and the ride was not really worth it. The highway spoiled most of it. And by the time we hit the track to the east of the lake, we were quite exhausted and were running out of time. We enjoyed the scenery a bit, watching the green farmlands with the lake on one side and a hill on the other. Then we turned around and pedalled back to the guest house. By my estimate, we had done more than 30 kilometers during the afternoon. We took a much needed shower after returning the bicycles and went and sat in the common area.
Farms and hills
The common area had started filling slowly. People were returning from their day’s excursion and everyone shared stories over cups of green tea and premixed coffee. There was a group of German girls who had been out kayaking. Then there was an extremely socialising Dutch girl who had quit her job and was planning to travel for a year. There was a German, Frank, who was based in Yangon working for a British NGO. He and his colleagues were at Indawgyi working for environment conservation (I think he was associated with Inn Chit Thu in some way). His partner, an Indonesian fashion student, had flown in from Berlin to hold workshops for the local women. There were birdwatchers as well, some recreational and one that left us awed. Richard was an Englishman who had been chasing the shadows of the pink headed duck for 15 years now. The last verified spotting of this bird was back in 1940’s! His story was truly inspiring.
We sat and talked to everyone for a bit. Then we headed out to the local hot spot for some Myanmar Beer. There was already a big group of tourists sitting on one table so we decided to grab another. The locals on the next table started initiating conversations. When we told them that we were from India, they immediately responded with a smile.
“India! Salman Khan!”
Of all the places in the world! They sang Hindi songs and introduced us to their friends. They even gifted us a can of beer! We sat there for a while and then left for the guest house. There was no electricity in the village and the street lamps were out. We enjoyed the short walk on the dark road. The sky looked beautiful and we spotted Jupiter near the moon.
We fell asleep to some loud music emanating from the tent in front of the guest house. It went on till midnight and started again early next morning. We got to know what the festivities were all about when we woke up. It was a wedding and we were invited! Once we freshened up, our guest house manager took us to the wedding. We and the Dutch Girl (ironically no one knew her name; everyone just called her “The Dutch Girl”) were the last ones from our guest house to go to the wedding. We congratulated the bride and the groom and sat for some rice and chicken. This seemed more like a reception than a wedding. We shared our table with three more foreigners who were putting up in another guest house. They seemed American, two girls and one guy. They were making plans to go kayaking that day. The Dutch Girl started socializing with them and we left the table once we were done. We had a bicycle ride planned for the day today and we needed to hit the road while the wind was still cool.
Attending the wedding
We rented out the bikes, a couple of city bikes this time, better suited to the tarred roads. We rode in the hot sun and cold breeze. We turned from Namde for the Shwe Myitzu Pagoda, better known as the floating pagoda. It looked fascinating and we decided to go down the walkway till the pagoda. People were feeding the gulls and fishes in the lake. Boats were lined up to take you to the pagoda though one could very well walk the short distance.
Shwe Myitzu Pagoda
As we went around the pagoda, a family of locals caught hold of us for a picture. A little kid was thrust into Parul’s arms and both of them seemed uncomfortable with the arrangement. After the pictures we resumed our walk around the pagoda and clicked a few pictures ourselves. The pagoda was neither very big nor very crowded. It was too bright and hazy for a good picture of the lake though. As we walked back towards the exit, we ran into the same family of locals who had caught us for the picture. They tried giving us gifts and although we refused, they were extremely persistent! Giving gifts in order to express gratitude or happiness seems to be a norm in these parts. We took the cookies and turned down the pack of cigarettes. We were now officially paid models! :P
Parul turned back to the guest house from here. She was not feeling too well. I continued further alone, riding on the roads. The traffic was slightly less than what it had been yesterday. It was earlier in the day as well. The northern route was definitely better than the southern one. After Namde, the villages had gotten picturesque and I was enjoying the ride, but for the heat. I barely stopped and kept at it. I rode through Lwemun and then to Nammilaung where I saw the famous Cane Buddha.
Cane Buddha at Nammilaung
I turned back after this village and started pedaling back. The heat was getting unbearable and I would later realise that the two days of biking would leave my arms sun burnt. I ate some noodle soup and drank a BIG coconut at Lwemun. Then I pedaled all the way back to Lonton and returned the bike.
Midday meal at Lwemun
The people of Lonton were, in Parul’s words, brutally honest. Due to lack of coordination, Parul and I had ended up paying twice for my bike to two different people at Inn Chit Thu. When we went back to check about the mistake, the girl whom Parul had paid, Su, immediately returned the money without being asked for it and apologised for the mix up. I also found my jacket in the restaurant where I had left it the previous night while we were having beers. Despite the poverty, the people of Lonton, and Burma in general, were extremely honest and hard working. I rarely came across vendors who charged us a premium for being tourists. I heard some stories, but even those were limited to the usual swindling for services. Nothing in Myanmar had a fixed price tag to it and nowhere did I seem to have paid an unreasonable sum of money for anything, no matter how remote the location.
Myanmar Tip #8
Myanmar is one of the safer countries. Despite the poverty, the Buddhist philosophy coupled with the immensely strict punishments, even for petty crimes, tend to keep crime at bay. Even common swindling and overcharging is rare to encounter.
The Common Area of Indaw Mahar
That evening there were more stories about Richard’s adventures looking for the pink headed duck. Emul, the designer, was holding his workshop the next day in the Inn Chit Thu office. We hung around and talked and did our things. Parul coloured in her colouring book, I read Amitav Ghosh’s “The Glass Palace”. There had been almost no power for the entire day. Towards the evening the guest house manager turned on the generator for a bit. Electricity was not reliable in Lonton. We dined at the same restaurant as the last night. The noodle soup on this side seemed slightly bland and I did not care much for it. Rice and curry seemed a better option in Kachin.
On the third day we decided to chill out in the guest house and do nothing in particular. I read the book and worked on my laptop a bit. The balcony had a really serene view of the lake.
Common area of Indaw Mahar
The lake was huge and blue. It was said to be the home of numerous species of birds. We saw a kingfisher, a few ducks and gulls without having to move a muscle. The ones who had been to the bird watching tours claimed that they saw over forty different species! Indawgyi certainly is a bird watcher’s paradise. The far side of the lake is always hidden by a white mist. No one could tell me for certain what the reason for that white cover was. Some said that it was due to the weather getting hotter and the water evaporating. Others said that the mines nearby were contributing to the pollution in the area. Numerous boats plied on the lake. It was an easier and faster way to commute between the villages on the opposing sides.
We went to see Emul’s workshop towards mid noon. It was a huge success. Lots of women had turned up and he and Su were teaching them to make sling bags and hats.
Emul giving instructions at the workshop
We returned to the common area and hung around reading or working. Parul took some photographs.
Parul acting spooky for no good reason
Towards the evening people started pouring in as usual. Emul was the first. He was taking a breather from the workshop that was still going on. The Dutch girl came with some snacks and told us about some Kim Kardashian nude that made twitter go bonkers. Thankfully the conversation was broken by the beautiful sunset colours in the sky. Then the Germans came, tired from the day’s work. Richard came in last with another exciting story as usual.
There were a couple of new people who were staying in the nearby guest houses. Max, the smiling Dutch (there were a lot of Dutch and Germans in Lonton!) and Monika, the Austrian designer. Max had been travelling for quite some time now and had recently done a bike ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. I took notes for my upcoming travels. I suggested the Ladakh road trip to him and he seemed thrilled about it. He had not been to India yet. Monika had been to India. She had found Ladakh beautiful and Rajasthan overwhelming. She was a designer by profession but took some photography projects every year with some NGOs. This gave her access to areas that were off limit to tourists otherwise. In Burma she had been photographing in the region that had been affected by the ongoing civil war.
Parul had been talking to Emul all this while who had returned from his workshop. They were discussing fashion which was all Greek to me. Max, Monika, Parul and I went to grab a couple of drinks and have something to eat. The electricity was back and people quickly took to the charging points. The others did not come to dine. They probably stayed in and ate the packed food that Richard had brought in abundance. It is times like these that I am happy to be Indian. While the others were having spells of stomach infections and being wary of the food they ate, I was able to eat anything and everything with utter trust in my digestive and immunity system! Anyway, we went to our standard beer bar and had some beers and fries. Then we went to the place next to the guest house for some food. We talked about varied things all the time. At times beer, or music, or ski slopes, etc. After dinner we said goodbye and went to our respective guest houses.
From One Lake To Another
We woke up early and packed up. Today was the beginning of another long journey. We were planning to go to Inle Lake next. This was a more touristy lake south of Mandalay. We were taking the train back to Mandalay and were planning to take a bus thence. The pickup stopped outside the guest house around 8:30 AM. We were all packed up and ready to go. The three Americans that we had met at the wedding reception were also leaving Lonton in the same pickup. Monika and Max crossed us on their way to Inn Chit Thu and we said goodbye again.
Taking the pickup out of Lonton
The ride back to Hopin was not as comfortable as the bike ride but the price difference was considerable. It took one and a quarter hour to reach Hopin and the pickup dropped us right in front of the ticket counter. We walked up to it and asked for two tickets in the sleeper train that was due later in the day. Griffin, the guy in the other group, said that he would also take a ticket in the same train. He was Canadian and the girls were American. The girls took the 12 o’clock train to Katha. We got our three tickets in the sleeper coaches, making sure that they did not assign us the C1 coach this time! Then we parted ways with the other group telling them that we’d see them around. Then we went looking for the batura like bread that Parul seemed to have developed a craving for.
Myanmar Tip #9
When taking the train on less popular routes, make sure you get your days right. On the northern route there is just one sleeper that runs on alternate days. It is basically the same train that goes up and down the route.
We did not get the coveted batura but had some noodles to eat. Then we resumed wandering and ran into the American-Canadian group again. This time, when we parted, Griffin joined us as we went looking for some beer. We sat in a dingy place next to the railway station and had a couple of beers. Then we picked up some snacks for the train and had some delicious coconut pancakes and dosa like snacks.
Delicious snacks in Hopin
Parul bought a huge knife that was typical of Kachin people. They used it to cut bamboos and wood but why Parul wanted it, I have no idea! We even sat in a restaurant and caught some part of “Hollow Man” playing on a TV. There was a power cut right at the climax scene and the small crowd of idlers, us included, dispelled in disappointment.
We went back to the station to spend the remaining hours. Richard was there. He was taking the same train as us and had got here on a motorbike; a much more judicious use of time.
With Richard : Parul's claim to fame
We sat inside the railway office which was buzzing with mosquitoes. I read and worked a bit. Min Aung, our motorbike driver, had made an appearance and he and Griffin were watching movie clips together. At long last, the arrival of the train was announced.
We were escorted to our coach once again. It was C5 this time around. We were given a cabin that was suitable for four. The seats were way better than the ones that we had on the journey in. The train departed quickly and we settled in. My phone was back in network and I caught up with my Instagram’ing. We talked with Griffin and played Monopoly on his iPad. Parul destroyed Griffin and that was the end of the game. We got some food at a stop that the train made after dark. We ate the food and closed the shutters before falling into a pleasant sleep.
In the morning we stayed lying in the berths long after we had gotten up. We got some breakfast at Shwebo and soon after, the train was pulling up in Mandalay’s railway station. We had reached by 12 noon, well before we had thought we would. We got our luggage and left the cabin. I realised much later that I had forgotten my jacket in the cabin buried in a corner with the blankets.
Pro Tip #4
Do not unnecessarily keep things handy. Anything that you do not require immediately, put it inside the bag.
We parted ways with Griffin. He went to arrange for his onwards journey to Yangon. His visa was about to expire and he was planning to cross the Thai border to Chiang Mai. We had to arrange our our travel to Nyaung Shwe, the township on the northern side of Inle Lake. We booked our tickets from a dealer near the railway station. The main bus stand was towards the south of Mandalay and we would have to take a cab to get there. Plus, there was no guarantee that we would get the tickets to Nyaung Shwe as we wanted. Most of the buses, like the one we had booked, passed through Shwenyaung, a crossing 12 kilometers before Nyaung Shwe, on their way to Taunggyi. We preferred to remain in the city and kill time. We had familiarised ourselves with these parts during our extended stay in Mandalay. We got our bus tickets (15,000 MMK per person) and went to the cafe where Parul finally got her batura.
We killed time till 5:30 in the evening hopping from one place to another. We had some good barbecue, drank some beer, had some dessert and ice cream. We were also running low on cash and I tried the KBZ ATM nearby. There seemed to be some “connection problem”. Around 5:45 PM, a cab picked us up at the booking office and took us to the main bus stand : Chan Mya Shwe Pyi Bus Station. This was a huge bus station and we immediately regretted our decision against coming here earlier. We might have gotten a direct bus to Nyaung Shwe after all.
Pro Tip #5
If you do not have reservation, try booking your tickets from the main station. You get more options and it is not that big a task.
The KBZ ATM near the bus station had the same connection problem. We calculated that we had enough to see us till Nyaung Shwe so we let it be. The bus arrived at last. It looked much less comfortable than we had expected it to be. Turned out that we had been given a rather bad deal. The bus started a little after it’s scheduled time of 7 PM. The air conditioner barely worked and Parul felt a little suffocated. We opened the window a bit and that helped her fall asleep. We broke once for some dinner. When the journey resumed, both of us slept quite peacefully. I woke up once and the map told me that we were crossing Kalaw. The next time I woke, we were a few kilometers outside our stop, Shwenyaung.
All bordered images are credited to Parul.
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Previous posts in this series :
And here is the complete album of the Indawgyi leg of our trip.