A Travellerspoint blog

August 2016

Gokteik Viaduct

Myanmar's highest bridge

We arrived at the train station just before eight to stand in a long line of foreigners buying tickets. If there was one train journey that guidebooks recommended in Myanmar, it was the Gokteik Viaduct over a deep river gorge, the longest railway trestle in the world upon its completion in 1901. At 102 metres high, even today it is the highest bridge in Myanmar. The viaduct stretches 698 metres from end to end. The bridge was built during British occupation by the Pennsylvania Steel Company.

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It took about ten minutes for the line to start moving, but it moved quick enough. We'd debated catching the train from Mandalay, but the price wasn't terribly different and if we caught the train in Pyin Oo Lwin, we departed at a gentler 8:20 am compared to 4:00 am in Mandalay. The train was an hour late anyhow. Once it arrived, something got lost in translation where we were mildly worried that our train was bound for Mandalay and not Hsipaw. But the staff assured us this was going to Hsipaw and that we'd be fine. The couple in front of us asked to switch to the left side, the one recommended by Lonely Planet to get the best views en route to Hsipaw. We asked if we could switch too and they obliged. The downside was a far more worn out seat cushion. The price to pay for photos.

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The train crawled along like a horse carriage in the beginning and gradually worked up more speed. We stopped in small towns where the stations consisted of only a small ticket cabin and locals would hop on and off.

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Eventually, we made it to the Gokteik Viaduct, a gleaming silver bridge across from the plunging gorge and river below. More than a century old, you can only imagine how well maintained the bridge has been, a bit of an eerie thought. The train inched its way down the winding path to the bridge. The long tracks gave us time to take photos of the bridge, peeking out between the trees, and then observe hill as we switched sides about three times. Locals were used to us crazy foreigners jumping around and let us take pictures out their windows too. The final approach had spectacular views of the reddish rocks and viaduct.

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Soon we reached the end of the safe views and headed for the bridge. Luckily, it didn't quite look its hundred plus years old and it had been restored recently enough to inspire confidence. The creaking wasn't as ominous as described since the train had done that the whole time. Below us, the river meandered through forested landscape. Large hills were visible from either side. Out the windows, elbows and hands stuck out attached to smart phones and cameras. An unmarred shot was almost impossible.

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Soon we reached the end of the spectacular gorge and viaduct views. We travelled through a few tunnels. As we neared Hsipaw, more rice terraces dotted the relatively flat landscape.

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We arrived late afternoon. Lily the Home guesthouse was there to pick up its guests so we grabbed a ride to check out their $10 per person rooms with private bathrooms. We pulled up to a hotel-like building and double checked the price. Typically the places we stayed were a little more toward the bottom of the barrel. The room they showed us was nice, clean and had facilities to do laundry, a never ending task for us. Once that was out of the way, we set out to find food since our cinnamon bun and Oreo train lunch hadn't quite filled us up.

At the end of the street, near the river, there was a quaint park. After going inside, we noticed bridges over calm ponds, a children's structure, decaying paddle boats with panda faces. There were plenty of trees for shelter in the area. There were some people but not a whole lot. We left down the main road and saw the digital clock tower.

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We ventured down a street with a few restaurants and settled on Sein restaurant which had a barbeque and cheap enough food. I ordered a skewer of potatoes and one of okra. Ryan had fried rice, a frequent choice of his. The food was tasty and came with teriyaki and spicy sauces. The portions were affordable and a good size. The man working there was friendly and funny too, poking fun at the grumpy tourists walking by without acknowledging his greetings. "Why you come to Myanmar?" He'd jokingly ask. "So angry, why can't they smile?" He was from Southern Myanmar and had just started working at the restaurant a few days earlier.

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Posted by Sarah.M 04:20 Archived in Myanmar Tagged train rice terrace myanmar hsipaw gokteik_viaduct pyinoolwin lily_the_home Comments (0)

Impressive Anisakan Falls

We spent the morning relaxing outside at the guesthouse until Ryan got wet paint on his jeans, a nice bright green. We headed back to our room soon after. We debated whether to move on from Pyin Oo Lwin or stick around and check out the waterfall. It was supposed to be nice, but given our luck in Thailand, we weren't so sure dry season was waterfall friendly. In the end, we booked another night and went for it since we liked the city.

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Once it got a bit warmer, we shed our winter attire and went for a walk into town. We looked for circular road but never made it after forty minutes of walking. However, we found the Purcell clock tower, based on the on in Malaysia. There was also a nice building as well. Pyin Oo Lwin didn't really have a Burmese feel to it, not many temples, since it was formerly a British summer capital and much of the influence remained. We turned back to get lunch in before a tuktuk ride to the waterfall.

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The restaurant we found was called Sun Top and it attracted us with their fast food sign. Inside it was a bit like a diner with wifi and a ton of hamburger buns on the middle table. Their prices were decent too so we ordered an egg burger and a chicken burger. They were a generous size with tomato, cucumber, lettuce, mayo and tomato sauce that blended into a magical combination. Best burger in Myanmar and I didn't even have to invent or negotiate with them to create it as it was right on the menu.

When we got back to the guesthouse, we went out to wait for the tuktuk which wasn't there. We asked the guy painting the rest of the furniture (and maybe re-painting the one Ryan sat in) who also worked at the guesthouse and he called for us. A German guy, Sven, had just arrived and decided to join us. He'd just come to Myanmar five days earlier and had been studying in Singapore before that on an exchange. He'd also visited Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia.

The bumpy ride was short enough, about twenty minutes, and we arrived at the top of Anisakan Falls. Sven picked up some bread and moon cake for the walk down. The views of the mountains in the back were quite stunning and the descent was fairly steep as well. It took a good forty minutes to get to the bottom past the pagoda under construction.

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Anisakan Falls were stunning and flowing quite freely. Trees grew in some of the uneven enclaves behind the falls. There was a vendor and some tables set up, but we passed them to get a closer look at the falls. The water crashed from 122 metres above into a large pool the flowed into successively smaller ones. Any pool would have been great to swim in if it were a touch warmer this winter.

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We explored the other side to take some photos, but mainly to climb the rocks and feel the mist. I explored one lower section that had a smaller tiered falls slowing away. It was beautiful with all the trees nearby.

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The walk back up took just under an hour. There was a small area at the top where we explored to see a small falls and a generator. The steps were made of old tires.

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Back in the city, we went to visit the reddish brown All Saints Anglican Church that we'd seen on the drive in. It was pretty deserted but the gates were open so we could go closer and get some pictures. The church was built in 1912 but had since been restored with beautiful stained glass windows. The tower, built in 1927, was quite impressive too. During British colonization, this was the church of government, but today they offer most services in English with a few in English ever other week.

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For supper, we walked back to SunTop for an egg burger, okanami (fake meat) Indian pancake and a chicken and egg burger for Ryan. The artificial meat was like a veggie patty. Our walk continued to find some sweet treats after supper. On a wide quiet street, we walked past a few stores selling tons of items. I found myself a soft-lined toque that was ironically made in China. The temperatures dropped the further North we went in the country, plus Nepal was on our list to visit. At one of the big shops selling everything but real groceries (those were at the market), we found some snickers bars a few months past fresh, but we could understand why. Who would buy a chocolate bar when they cost the same amount as a meal? Just us crazy foreigners.

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Posted by Sarah.M 04:17 Archived in Myanmar Tagged paint vegetarian burger lwin oo pyin anisakan_falls sun_top okanami all_saints_anglican_church purcell_tower Comments (0)

Pyin Oo Lwin and Lovely Kandawgyi Gardens

After some instructions from the front desk staff, we set out to find the bus to Pyin Oo Lwin. We walked down to 82nd street and 27th to find pick-up trucks with wooden bench seats, not quite what we imagined when we pictured a bus ride to the next city. We chatted with those drivers and the shared taxi drivers before we went back to the hotel to see if there was a legitimate bus station we'd somehow missed. This was Mandalay after all. They confirmed those were the two options or we could book a taxi with them for 7,000 kyat, higher than the 4,500 we'd been offered at the 'bus station'. I was not in good spirits by the end of the discussions and told the woman at the front desk frankly that she shouldn't be calling them buses when they were trucks. I should have handled it better, but it was frustrating to get misinformation when there wasn't decent enough wifi to do research.

We walked back to the station, passing more expensive taxis and a pick up keen on boarding us asap. The 4,500 driver was waiting and took us right away. He made a few stops to make phone calls and to pick up two other customers plus cargo. The road was quite windy and bumpy, making us quite grateful that we paid for the car instead of wooden seats. We managed to arrive in only an hour and a half. Our driver also pointed out the town amenities, market, and hospital as we drove in. There was a neat historic druggist shop. Our driver dropped off at the guesthouse we requested too which saved some time.

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Grace 1, our guesthouse, had a nice outdoor seating area, big rooms and warm blankets. After turning our room into a laundromat, we rented a couple of bikes and set off to the gardens for the afternoon.

Finding appealing vegetarian food was no easy task. If they had anything, it was a side dish and the tea shops unfortunately weren't serving food anymore. We found one place where I could order a very light tomato salad and Ryan had egg fried rice. We biked on past quaint horse drawn carriages and a lake.

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The Kandawgyi Gardens had a $5 admission and 5pm closing time for the staffed exhibits. As we entered the park, small colourful flower beds lined both sides of the road. Soon we entered the area with the bright flower displays and a bridge leading to pagoda island. White and black swans swam around and occasionally lounged on the shore. We kept walking the lakeside to see the orchid and butterfly gardens.

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The orchids were beautiful in purples, oranges and light white with colourful centres. They continued to decorate the trellised walkway leading to the museum. Inside thousands of butterflies were on display from bright blue South Americans to the big moths you could find in Indonesia. Most of the butterflies were native to Myanmar. They were white and brown, some resembling leaves and other had more colour. Some of the exhibits were organized in a way that made a symbol or a letter. The bugs with pincers and giant moths were a bit unsettling especially if you were to see them in the wild. The rest of the orchid garden wasn't really in bloom.

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We backtracked to the aviary to see pheasants, peacocks, parrots, cockatiel and even a great hornbill. He came to snatch corn cobs from other visitors and we got a great view of his bill. It was bright and extended over his head with a flat section. The bird even swished as it flew back into the trees. Ryan spotted a gibbon off in the distance behind the fence, too speedy to photograph. There was a cute dog in the grass as well.

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Crossing the lake again, we made the fossil and wood museum our next stop. We passed the floral display that spelled out Pyin Oo Lwin in vibrant colours and the rock garden.

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The fossil museum had many ancient teeth, some skulls and tusks from prehistoric animals. Some of the tusks were as long as I was.

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The petrified wood was described as far superior to any other in the world. We couldn't help but chuckle about the very proud nationalistic sentiments. They had polished most of the wood so it looked very smooth. Although the texture and colour appeared to be wood, to the touch it felt like stone since it had been preserved that way.

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We crossed the teak plot, a bit unsure which trees were actually the teak ones. We hadn't seen them up close before, just once they'd been converted to table form. Then, we made our way over to the Takin enclosure. It was quite zoo-like and the animals stayed as far back as possible. They were hairy brown creatures with small horns which came from the goat and antelope family.

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The orchard was a bit disappointing since we were out of season. The creton garden was alright. We continued through pine forest until we found an ice cream vendor closing up shop. They still served us taro and strawberry ice cream which was quite tasty.

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The only thing that we hadn't seen was the Nam Myint Tower, at least not from up close. We crossed our fingers that we could still get a nice view of the surrounding area from the winding wooden staircase after five pm. Sure enough we got a stunning view of the lake and countryside hills, even with the city in the distance. A bride was finishing up a photo session at the very top.

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After a bumpy bike ride back to town where the sun thankfully hadn't set just yet, we headed to the market for supper. We didn't have much luck there for meals, but found cheap coconut pastries and fried dough before we had supper at Ruby restaurant. It was like a fancy Asian diner. I had Yunnan fried rice and Ryan had some Kung Pao chicken.

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Posted by Sarah.M 18:03 Archived in Myanmar Tagged gardens tower black fossil orchid wood butterfly swan petrified pyin_oo_lwin hornbill kandawgyi takin nam_myint Comments (0)

Mandalay Temples and Stunning U-Bein bridge

We rental half decent bicycles and got the tires pumped up. Then we headed for 62nd street. We passed the walls and moat that now hosted a military/government activity as well as a museum. We enjoyed the teak Shwenadaw Kyawk from the outside to avoid giving all our cash to the government. There was a white and gold pyramid-like building behind it too with a tuktuk full of Burmese people going inside.

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We continued to Kuthodaw Paya which contained 729 marble stone slabs from the Tripitaka texts, featuring Buddha's wisdom orally passed on for hundreds of years until they were transcribed around the 1st century BCE. In 1859, King Mindon had this temple and Sandmuni, which contained double the stones, built. He also had monks recite the books non-stop and it took them six months! Later the British would occupy this site until a Burmese appeal to the Queen's promise to respect religions under her rule had them moved elsewhere, and then much of the gold and significant items would be discovered looted.

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Inside there were slabs encased in bright white mini temples and dispersed in rows that surrounded the whole golden pagoda. We weren't able to visit all the stones, which was alright given that we couldn't read the Burmese script.

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We stopped at Sandmuni temple which was quite similar to Kuthodaw except the book housing temples were much closer together. The area was also much less busy. We found a few cute kittens with big gremlin eyes I just had to photograph. They were hiding out on the cool floor near the shade. The gray one wanted the most attention and it wasn't we received by its siblings.

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We skirted another parking lot fee by going elsewhere and then just walking up to the stairs to Mandalay Hill. The climb featured temples, shops and obscured turns that led us to believe we'd arrived several times before we actually did.

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The view of the palace moat was really neat and from further up, we spotted a golf course of all things. The view, which they charged foreigners to photograph, was really quite average. Luckily if they only charge at the very top and if you don't use your camera, you don't have to pay. With so many steps on the way up our free vantage points weren't terribly different.

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On the way down, we took a wrong turn which we should have noted seeing the unfamiliar heart and garden photo studio. But we got to see the lion guardians in the end. The walk to the bikes was short enough even at the wrong entrance.

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A longer ride to Marie-Min, an Indian vegetarian restaurant, followed. It had a cozy second floor balcony. We ordered coconut milk curries, potato and tamarind for Ryan and veggie for me. I also splurged on a tasty papaya shake.

Sri Ganesh Hindu temple was closed when we went but we could still see the bright Hindu influence. We continued to the monasteries. Ma Soe Yein Nu Kyuang had a clock tower and a taller tower by the river. Some of the supporters of ethnic clashes and suppressing minority rights in Burma stayed here. We didn't stay long and found Shwe In Byin Kyaung, a teak monastery under renovation. There were many beautiful carvings in the doors, eaves and roof.

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With our clock ticking, we steeled ourselves for the long ride to U-Thein bridge. Riding on the main highway was quite intimidating, but after twenty minutes, a miraculous separate bike and motorbike lane appeared. It was wide and separated by a boulevard. That ride was far more enjoyable.

Using Google Maps in Amarapura, we found another road leading to the bridge. The road cut off partway, but a woman directed us past the railroad track and garbage patch to a paved road.

Along the road, the stunning green fields stretched to the beautiful river. We turned toward the bridge near a town and shops to find our way to the bridge. We parked underneath it, grabbed water from a vendor and began our walk across.

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The plan was to walk the bridge and back and take off before sunset. We marvelled at the fishermen in knee deep water, children splashing and playing and the general calmness of the bridge patrons.

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We met a monk along the way who wanted to practise his English. He was from Bhama but had been living in Mandalay for ten years. He was twenty one and enjoyed soccer. At the monastery they would play every day and they even had teams and a league to play other monasteries.

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When Ryan asked about his orange robe, different than the red ones which were common in Myanmar, he explained that Buddha said that they could wear any colour they liked. Right now he had the weekend to go out and visit sites like U-Bein to find foreigners to practise his English with. His English teacher was Burmese.

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We sped walked to the end before retracing our steps. There were certainly more foreigners at the opposite end, some in high priced boats that looked nice in pictures and others running to the middle island for their sunset photos. We joined the latter right as the sun made its grand escape between the pillars of the teak bridge.

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There was still some light to bike along the shore and rice fields, past soccer games and to the main road. Even with street lights, the ride back was stressful and long. Spring rolls and Star cola relaxed us when we could finally eat supper.

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Posted by Sarah.M 06:18 Archived in Myanmar Tagged mandalay mandalay_hill u-bein_birdge marie_min shwe_in_byin_kyaung kuthodaw sandmuni Comments (0)

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