Myanmar Part 3: the Shan State

March 9, 2016

If you haven’t read them yet, part one is here, and part two is here.

We arrived in Pyin Oo Lwin early in the morning. I was tired from a semi-sleepless journey on the night bus, but we decided to hit the ground running after an incredible breakfast and my first non-instant coffee in weeks. Pyin Oo Lwin was a nice change from tourist-centric Inle Lake and Nuangshwe, and it was a really pleasant surprise. We showed up to find that our little guesthouse was maybe the most adorable place we’d stayed in Myanmar. It was full of plants and hammocks and great big trees. The town itself provided a unique taste of the British occupation from years’ past, with colonial-style buildings (including a clock tower in the center of town). For such a small little place (and an afterthought for many tourists), I found Pyin Oo Lwin incredibly charming.

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We spent a good chunk of our day in Pyin Oo Lwin at the beautiful Dat Taw Gyaint Waterfall. After hitching a ride from our hostel, we hiked from the main road for nearly an hour in the heat until we finally reached an oasis of clear water. At that point, we were faced with the decision to jump in with our bathing suits, or to swim in our clothes, which is essentially what Burmese women do, for modesty reasons, I can only assume. We chose the latter, and proceeded to swim for the next four hours before making the long, arduous hike back to the top. That night, I had some of the best Indian food of my life and spent some time exploring the town’s markets and streets with Anja and some new friends we’d made at our hostel. The next day, it was off to Hsipaw — by train.

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I’d heard and read a lot about trains in Myanmar before coming here. Just two weeks before I left Omaha, I watched an Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown episode that features Bourdain and his cameraman bouncing around a Burmese train from Yangon to Bagan. I remember thinking, “there’s no way I’m taking the train there.” Yet here I was, getting ready for a 7-hour train ride to Hsipaw, which I could easily get to by bus in just five hours. But if you’re going to take a train in Myanmar, this is the one to take, because it goes over the incredible Goteik viaduct built by the British more than 100 years ago (yeah… going over a hundred-year-old bridge in Myanmar is considered “fun,” and, you know, a little terrifying, too). But aside from the viaduct, which was absolutely incredible, I really enjoyed the ride to Hsipaw. I listened to my music and read my book and watched rural Myanmar rush by me – well, kind of rush by. We were going pretty slow.

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On my first day in Hsipaw, some Europeans convinced me that I should quick learn how to ride a motorbike and go with them to a nearby waterfall, so I did. Motorbiking was surprisingly easy – until we got off the main roads, of course. But I held my own and managed to not burn my leg on the exhaust or to crash into a stream or get attacked by a water buffalo. We biked through beautiful farmland with the waterfall, our destination, fully in view in front of us. After hiking to the foot of the falls, I jumped in, only to realize that my phone was in the back pocket of my jean shorts that were still on me. And that’s how I broke my phone by jumping into a waterfall. At least it’s a good story, I guess.

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Our next few days were spent drinking smoothies, walking around, and eating good food at places that begin with “Mrs.” And “Mr.” – whether it was “Mr. Charles” or “Mr. Shake” or “Mrs. Popcorn.” We went on a day-long trek that was more like a walk around the outskirts of the city, but provided the best soup I’d had on my trip. We explored “Little Bagan,” a clearing that had a few small Bagan-like temples with trees growing out the tops. And we spent one evening watching the sun set over Hsipaw at Sunset Hill.

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On my last morning in Hsipaw, I woke up to a thunderstorm — the first one I’d seen since being in Asia. It was lovely sitting on the balcony of my hostel watching the rain, but it also put a big damper on any plans we would have had outside. For Anja, that meant canceling a three-day trek she had arranged and getting the next bus out of the city. We took the bus headed toward Mandalay that morning, and I got off early in Pyin Oo Lwin to relax at the guesthouse we had already stayed in. Something about that place made me fall in love with it, and I wanted to spend more time there.

After a long, puke-inducing bus ride down a mountain from Hsipaw, I arrived to find that it was just as gloomy and cool as it had been in Hsipaw. I found myself staying wrapped up in the wool sweater I’d bought in Kalaw the entire time I was there. I also spent most of my time inside, writing and dealing with a small stomach bug that hit me just as I had been patting myself on the back for having made it nearly three weeks without any problems — a nearly impossible feat as a tourist in Myanmar.

Stomach bug and gloomy weather aside, I still had the nicest time in Pyin Oo Lwin. I spent an afternoon with Elle, an Australian girl who’d been living in Myanmar for three months, and with Nik and Daniel, two American guys I had met way back in Yangon. It’s funny how you run into the same people on the backpacker trail.

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After a couple of nights, I took a shared taxi two hours south to Mandalay, which was hot and busy, quite the opposite of quiet little Pyin Oo Lwin. From what I’d read and heard from blogs and other travelers, Mandalay is nothing interesting. It’s flat and spread out and the buildings aren’t exactly aesthetically pleasing. I stayed at the most adorable little art-space-turned-hostel near what was maybe close to the center of the city? I never got a good handle on where I was, but it was busy and loud and, in my opinion, interesting. I spent my first evening wandering through the back streets.

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Maybe it was because I hadn’t been in a proper city for a few weeks, but I ended up really enjoying my day and a half in Mandalay. I hired a motorbike driver – a lovely 50-something year old man named Min Oo — to drive me to the main sites on my second day there, since I didn’t have time to really explore the city on foot. We went to a few temples with impressive Buddha sculptures and to some gold leaf shops and little stores where tourists can watch and see how things like Burmese puppets and other tourist trinkets are made. And we spent a good hour at the U-Bein Bridge, one of the more popular tourist spots in Mandalay. I wasn’t all that impressed with the bridge, but really loved just riding on the back of Min Oo’s motorbike and watching everyone live their lives throughout the city.

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At the end of my long, hot day exploring the city, I found myself at the airport, ready to fly to Chiang Mai. I also found myself not wanting to leave. I was excited to explore northern Thailand, for sure, but I realized that I’m really going to miss the people and the spirit of Myanmar. I could talk about so many moments when people stopped and smiled and helped and gave of their kindness for absolutely nothing in return. It’s hard to find that kind of human genuineness in places where people are poor and are inundated by wealthy white tourists spending money on anything and everything. As one of the last places in Southeast Asia that hasn’t been completely changed by tourism, it’s possible Myanmar just hasn’t had enough time to become that, but I’d like to think the people there are just that wonderful.

Myanmar will certainly have a special place in my heart both because of my love for the actual place, but also because it’s the first place I explored alone. And I did it! And I did it well. And I feel so ready to take on the next two months.

Onward.

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