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A long journey from Hsipaw to Mandalay

Our last buffet breakfast was good though there weren't any pancakes, but some rice porridge to bring back memories of Chengdu where we ate more of it. We thanked the staff for feeding us so well over the past few days and packed up our bags to take the earlier, pricier bus to Mandalay. It was a bit sad to leave the guesthouse as we'd spent quite awhile there and it had been such a welcoming place. The bus stop was just down the street and when we got there a man gave us some oranges. A German woman walked around the street describing her trip into her camera and I wondered if it would pick up any decent audio over the noise of the loud trucks driving by.


The bus was nice enough and we stopped two hours into the trip for a break. We weren't terribly hungry so we just bought rice cakes and chips then wandered around. Five or six identical vendors were set up on both sides of the road but most customers stayed on the bus side.

We stopped again in Pwin Oo Lwin, far from Sun Top burgers much to Ryan's chagrin. We were all asked to leave the bus for another half hour to stand in the sun. The stops continued arbitrarily without much reason. At least at first down the winding road, we'd stopped for a reason like for dozens of watermelon trucks, likely heading to China. I read the book of Burmese short stories the whole time and wasn't feeling as restless as Ryan. The book was quite good and I finished it as the sun went down.

Finally, around six or seven, we arrived at the bus station outside of Mandalay, nowhere near the Yoe Toe Lay Guesthouse that we'd booked. With the help of a taxi driver, we found the main rain to catch a shared pickup. The driver had been far less pushy than the dozen who shoved and crowded near the bus door, swarming all the passengers who dared to disembark.

We watched a bunch of trucks go by with not much of a clue as to what we were looking for. When a local man flagged one down, we jumped or crawled on in my case, trying to duck my giant bag under the roof to everyone's amusement, and rode to 35th street. People helped translate for us. The downside was that we ended up at the intersection of 84th and 35th streets and we needed to make it down to 55th or so.

We kept our eyes peeled as we walked for pickup but had no luck. We tried taxis and motorbikes with prices outside our budget. By 77th street, we decided just to walk, even when the motor taxis drove alongside us to barter much fairer prices. Once our minds were set, we went with it. We stopped in a handful of restaurants, some with pages of dishes with the exact same English phrase or expensive ones. At 57th street, I saw a sign for our guesthouse. I double checked our e-mail confirmation and sure enough it was a touch closer than I'd thought. We had to get a little help to find the guesthouse, but eventually we did. They greeted us with juice, water and watermelon, all very appreciated by two tired travelers.

The dorms were decent with our top bunks and the bathrooms were clean. Again, there was someone sleeping at 8 pm so we hung out in the lobby using the wifi. Hunger became an afterthought sometime during our long walk.

Posted by Sarah.M 04:14 Archived in Myanmar Tagged bus mandalay tuktuk station watermelon hsipaw yoe_toe_lay Comments (0)

Day Two Tungsan to Hsipaw trek

The night was warmer than we had anticipated. We'd brought toques, sweaters and scarves just in case, though the sweater was still necessary. Not many people woke up in time for the 7:30 breakfast so it was pushed to eight to Kham Lu's dismay. Breakfast was filling and again had no meat. We ate a thick veggie omelette, fried fern, lentil, beans and a potato daal dish.

We passed a few schools on our walk out of the village as well as some horses carrying wood up the hill.


As promised, we only went uphill for a little while through some areas which saw less deforestation than yesterday. There wasn't an access road yet so it had some beautiful views. Tea plantations caused a lot of the tree clearing. Kham Lu saw the climate changing a bit as a result, like rain in dry season, and suspected that it would continue to change. One man was cutting logs by hand yesterday and would do so all day. He would only be paid by the builder once he was finished.


We made it out of the nice forested area and down to the valley which almost felt like a desert. We had some tea, snacks and bought expensive water at a little shop. There were more personal photos at religious sites as well as photos of baby twins. The walk back without shade continued until a large truck passed us. It stopped and Kham Lu asked if we wanted to board. Since it was free, we did, clinging onto the metal bars around the sides of the box. It was fun at first to balance while standing and enjoy the passing scenery, but the constant fight to stay upright and oil fumes that were leaking in got to me. My headaches grew with every bump and shake. Ryan asked for me if we could get off and to my luck we had to stop anyway to let other trucks go by and hopped off.


We walked the rest of the way back. Earlier we'd been talking about the Netherlands including its beauty and biodiversity. Three hours was a really long journey for them travelling to university North fomr the South. We also compared notes on tipping and taxes in both countries. Taxes were included in their prices and they didn't have the distinction on fresh or processed food taxes, although they may introduce it in the future to promote healthier living. We shared about Canada's size, diversity and how a three hour trip was almost a requirement to get anywhere from our part of the country. We also talked a bit about residential schools and out not so pretty past, also the differences between us and the states. They had noticed that most Americans took shorter trips and tended to volunteer. We attributed our long trips to winter escapism.

For lunch, we had Shan noodle soup. To the others' delight, there was finally a meat option with the veggie option for myself as well. It was quite tasty and the noodles had a slightly sticky characteristic that the ones at the tea shop had as well.

The tuktuk picked us up from there and we rode back to town. Kham Lu talked about these sticky rice and palm sugar treats that the Dutch women had tried a version of in Vietnam and loved. We said our goodbyes and went to relax in the room.


Ryan and I rested until supper where our aching bodies made the journey to San for more barbequed okra, potato and Ryan's not so appetizing chicken stuffed with vegetable. We went to the corner that Kham Lu pointed out for a purple dessert patties. The woman steamed them with palm sugar and wrapped them in a bamboo leaf. We also got two green ones with nuts that the lady in front of us was buying. 3 pieces for 300 kyat or 30 cents.


Back at Lily guesthouse, we asked what exactly we'd bought and the young lady laughed. It was a sticky rice dessert well known to the area. They may have been described in our guidebook as well.


Posted by Sarah.M 06:18 Archived in Myanmar Tagged trek san school hike hot truck dessert hsipaw tungsan deforestation Comments (0)

Trekking to Tungsan

After delaying our trek a day, we were finally ready to depart, not until after one more tasty breakfast buffet. They had veggie tempura this morning to add to their selection. Five of us set off on a trek with our guide Kham Lu who was from a nearby Shan village. One man in our group was from Edinburgh, Scotland and the other women were from the Netherlands.

Kham Lu explained the shrines once our tuktuk reached the rural roads. Every village had a Buddhist shrine and a Nat shrine. Nats were spirits and could be guardians of the village. People worshipped there twice a month and to the Buddhist shrine twice a day. The nat shrines often had horse and elephant statues because the nats also liked to travel.


We passed a fair amount of agriculture including corn, soya beans and tomato grown by the Shan people. Two woman picked herbs by the stream for cooking. Some farmers would rent out their land to Chinese farmers so that they could grow watermelon to ship back to China. Some village women would get married off to the Chinese men and move to China. Some visited afterward but Kham Lu couldn't tell if they were happy or not. Another foreign initiative was an oil pipeline that stretched from China to the Yangon area. It was still under construction, going through the fields and near the road.


Kham Lu taught us hello (mày sǔng khaa) and thank you (possibly: sǔng khaa or ngín cóm) in Shan which both ended in ka like in Thai. The two languages were similar as Shan people (known as Tai elsewhere) also resided in Thailand. There are also some faint similarities to Cantonese because it's a Sino-Thai language.

As we passed the villages, we noticed small hydro operations to power a few houses. They also had cheap Chinese solar panels they'd connect to a car battery to power their lights and maybe one other device. For a country many claim is like a time vacuum, they're using alternative energy well enough.


The road we walked on had just opened and Kham Lu expected it to be paved one day. The bridge was new as well. The villagers had collected enough money to finance it, likely using profits from selling a big teak tree whose trunk we saw. There were few regulations on cutting them down unlike in Thailand where you needed official permission.

We stopped at a small shop and shared spicy chips, some kind of corn puffs and dried noodles. In the home/store, the owner had pictures of her visits to important sites like Shwedagon in Yangon and Golden Rock. A kitten came to sit on our laps and was quite reluctant to let me leave.

There was quite a bit of uphill trekking in the harsh sun that followed. We went through plenty of water and took our own breaks since no one else was stopping. It didn't help that I was feeling a bit sick like I was catching a cold. Ryan offered to carry my bag for part of the trek.

Finally we made it to Pankam village for lunch in a wooden home/homestay that Kham Lu said that Mr. Charles hikes used a lot. He also had a few negative things to say about them that we weren't sure we believed.


Lunch was pretty good and vegetarian friendly after I asked about the dishes. There was an egg dish, green leaf dish, mixed fried veggies and some dried and spiced soy bean that wasn't my favourite. The rest and tea were nice to have.

We explored the town including the tea steaming and drying area that most farmers used as it was the Palaung's primary crop. They could harvest each plant every fifteen days then process it. Dry tea fetched the highest price, but during wet season they couldn't dry it and it fetched a lower price. The average farmer earned about 3,000 kyat a day, equivalent to $3 US, which is sometimes the price we pay for a meal out here.


At the school, we greeted some children with another greeting we'd learned "Chumsa!" In the small rectangular room, four teachers occupied the corners with their uniformed students. One taught English vocabulary, another Math and Burmese. They had white boards and paper booklets to write in unlike the slates of the South. There were a few English posters on the walls too.

The children ran up to question us with stock phrases: where are you from? Are you happy in Burma? How old are you? Kham Lu brought me over to speak with one of the teachers who had moved her classroom outdoors. When I asked her if she was from this village or another one, she froze up and couldn't speak. I should have just asked a simple question. Kham Lu translated for me and explained they got quite nervous.


Kham Lu insisted that I teach the students something. The Scottish man jumped in with Ring around the Roses which had a different tune and lyrics than the one we grew up with in Canada. I got an idea and taught the students If you're happy and you know it as well as head and shoulders, which they'd done before. Interacting with them, it was easy to see their learning had be rote as they didn't respond to questions or prompts, just repeated what I said. It was still fun and they kept wanting to repeat the songs.


The afternoon walk was shorter and we arrived in Tungsan before nightfall. Another group including the German and French guys from the waterfall were there. We even got rooms to sleep in with floor mattresses, walls and a door that we could lock, no lights though. The wash station was a bucket but it was still nice to rinse off a bit.


We went on a walk through the village to the monastery. Many homes had metal roofs and some thicker walls. At the monastery, one American man quite adamantly defended his belief that road lines created inefficient and worse drivers. He wanted the freedom to pass when he wanted no matter any of our arguments.

The Dutch women gave their cameras to some of the village children to take photos with. They said that they'd done it in Vietnam and it was great. One of the woman had done her international development studies placement out there, working at times as a teacher. She'd travelled Vietnam after that too.

Supper was tasty with two pumpkin dishes, one regular and the other white and a touch more bitter. We also had some kind of tofu chip with tasty tomato garlic spice dip and tea leaf salad that had more crispy goodness than bitterness. Of course we had tea as well.

We played cards the rest of the night with Kham Lu, the guide from Mr. Charles guesthouse and a man from the house we were staying at. Kham Lu didn't like losing and some funny rules would pop up only to be vetoed by logic. It was still quite fun. The guides were a bit sad when they realized they wouldn't be able to purchase Uno games in their country. I almost wanted to pick one up in Malaysia and mail it back to them, if only it would get to them.

Posted by Sarah.M 08:44 Archived in Myanmar Tagged trek village china school shan pankam hsipaw pipeline tungsan Comments (0)

Nam Tok waterfall and Shan Palace

Ryan was pretty excited for breakfast and feeling better today. The buffet offered a similar spread except they had rice instead of noodles and fried veggies. We though there were no pancakes until another guest commented on it and we found out they were made and available by request.

We rented bicycles, talking to a French girl doing the same. Our first stop was the Shan Palace so Ryan could hear the story as well. I enjoyed hearing Fern's story a second time. In the discussion that followed, once we were joined by people from Singapore and the Netherlands, Aung San's role was discussed. He was as a man in charge before independence. He had to seek help from the Japanese to throw out the British during the Second World War. The Japanese occupation was quite brutal so Aung San went to the British for help and joined up with the allies. He spoke with ethnic groups after the war to try and get them on board with independence. After ten years, he told them they could re-evaluate their choice and be independent.

We also discussed the current political situation which was essentially all for show. Those in charge were the same military personnel but just without uniforms. It was all an act for international investors to get off the blacklists. Politics in place forbid Aung San Suu Kyi from participating in the upcoming (March 2016) election left people having less faith in a freer Burma. Candidates like Aung San Suu Kyi can't participate because of having foreign family members, i.e. her British born sons.

We spoke of the ethnic conflict and how its existence helped justify the military recruitment and expenditure. Currently, their army was the second largest in Southeast Asia after Vietnam and they hoped to expand from 400,000 to 500,000. Opium production and underdevelopment were theories on why foreigners were barred from entering some areas of the country. Once again, it was a wonderful opportunity to sit and chat with the woman who had so much to share.

We biked over to Little Bagan, much easier to find this time. We went inside the Bamboo Buddha Monastery, Maha Nanda Kantha, to see the Bamboo Buddha this time as well.


Since neither of us was hungry after the monster breakfast, we took a short rest then continued our ride to Nam Tok waterfall. To get there, we followed highway number 3 and turned right after a bridge. The guesthouse had given us a map to help find it as well. We biked past an impressive Chinese cemetery with hundreds if not thousands of graves ranging from Burmese cement caskets to fancy Chinese shrine ones. They continued up and down the nearby hills. A few people worked on new sites as we rode by.


Just past the cemetery where the road forked again, we saw a group of foreigners including Sven and the French guy from the last waterfall we visited in Pyin Oo Lwin. The others returning from their walk said the falls were mostly dry but the walk was nice. We locked up the bikes and set down the steep trail. The other two guys decided to turn back partly there as they'd rather just rest. We continued through fields of watermelon covered in plastic, rice and the occasional water buffalo resting. Most of the path followed a stream and we went through a couple small villages with thatched roofs rest houses, animals and transportation like motorbikes.


By the time the uphill portion started again, we were burnt out and feeling the sun's destructive heat. We made it eventually to see water trickling down the tall mossy rock walls. Thank goodness we'd made it to the ones at Pyin Oo Lwin. We rested further down in a shady pond area with our sad water supply. At least the town was close enough. The walk back was harder toward the end as thirst, hunger and exhaustion took over.


After a rest and some water, we tried Pontoon Cafe but I wasn't too big on the vegetarian menu so we went to a teahouse instead, La Wun Aung. I tried samosa salad, Shan noodle soup and Ryan had fried rice. I really enjoyed my salad as it was something different but Ryan was put off by the fried dough stick we'd had as an appetizer. We didn't do much else that night except buy bananas to serve as my vegetarian meal option for our trek as another patron said there'd be mainly rice as a non-meat option.


Posted by Sarah.M 04:24 Archived in Myanmar Tagged la waterfall hot dry myanmar ñam hsipaw tok wun aung Comments (0)

Shan Palace and Little Bagan

Exploring Hsipaw

Ryan was feeling pretty sick this morning and didn't want to go to breakfast. I took the elevator up to the fourth floor for the breakfast buffet that I'd been excited for since last night. They had fried noodles, fried veggies, tomatoes and crepes in addition to the standard eggs your way and toast.

There were even tasty brown baguette-like slices that were delicious. The highlight was the crepes with jam and I knew Ryan would enjoy them so I went back down and talked him into coming up for breakfast. He managed to eat a little and loved the crepes too. The view from the rooftop was a bit foggy this morning but we could still see other rooftops and trees.

We rested in the room for awhile after breakfast. For lunch, I ventured out to the street for some mediocre fried rice that I couldn't finish after the marathon breakfast. I came back to check on Ryan who still wanted to rest so I rented a bike so he could do so without me shuffling around the room.

My destination was Little Bagan, but it was far harder to find than I'd anticipated even with the hotel's hand drawn map. I passed the railroad tracks and kept going past some uphill construction to find nothing but trees, fields and sunrays. I turned back and headed for another temple but that road had a dead end. Riding up and down the street one last time, I spotted a couple foreigners and followed them to Mrs. Popcorn. I continued down the little trail to find Little Bagan.


Near a monastery, there were white and gray stone chedis with vegetation growing out of them. There were around a dozen all together near the gates. One outside that area called Eissa Paya had cracked down the middle as a result of a growing tree. Behind were nice terraces and a few woman working in the fields.


Further down the road, there was the Bamboo Buddha Monastery, Maha Nanda Kantha. A small pagoda sat near a seated Buddha on an island reached by small bridge. The monastery was mainly wooden and not very busy. Across the street there were more chedis of a similar age to those in little Bagan. Some had loud speakers attached and others were newer. They were all together in a courtyard area, different than the spread out and endless nature of Bagan.


I biked maybe five minutes back down the main road to reach the much easier to find Shan Palace. The gate was locked and closed so I pulled out the travel journal and prepared to make the most of the wait. The resident dog was not so happy to see me so I began to walk away. Luckily, the grandson of the owner was more friendly and invited me inside as he and others drove off to work.

Fern, the owner, came out to greet me and invited me to explore the yard. I went back to the 90 year old prayer house, a two story wooden building that hadn't aged so well. There were three smaller shrines in front of it as well.


When I returned to the European style house, Fern kindly explained the history of the Shan Palace in the sitting room. Sao Khun Seng was the ruling Shan prince or chief in the early 20th century. His son, Sao Khe went away to school in England and was even knighted at one point. He finished his studies and upon his return, he wanted to embrace western life and had the current Shan Palace built as a home to live in separately from his family. There was already a Shan Palace not far from there which housed his family. When his father passed away, Sir Sao Khe used the original palace for administrative purposes. He had no children but his uncle had two sons, Sao Oo Kya and Sao Kya Seng.


The eldest was invited to Taunggyi to be the secretary for all of the Shan states. The youngest, Sao Kya Seng, left for Colorado to study where he met an Austrian woman on a full scholarship. They fell in love, got married and moved back to Hsipaw. His father passed away, leaving him as chief. Inge, his wife, learned Burmese and Shan as well as adopted Burmese and local dress. The local people liked and accepted her for that reason. She stayed along with her two daughters for 10 years.


Post World War II, Burma went through political change and independence. Sao Kya Seng served various roles such as the Mp for Burma's house of Nationalities, a member of the Shan State Council and secretary of the Association of Shan Princes. The military came into the area where some Shan rebels seeking independence resided. The rebels would be arrested, go missing or be tortured. Sao Kya Seng maintained his position as prince, saopha, while others were giving up theirs. In 1962, ethnic groups were planning on asking for federation. Ne Win knew this and also planned to take over the country. A coup occurred and he seized power.

The heads of Shan state were all arrested including the two brothers and Fern's father. The family were able to write to them so the families relocated to Rangoon (now Yangon). Inge stayed until her mother in law confirmed that the Hsipaw prince, her husband, had also been arrested. Then Inge moved to Rangoon and sought assistance from the British and Austrian embassies and friends. They found out that her husband had been killed but the government would not confirm this. They wouldn't even confirm that he'd been arrested anymore.

Since she wasn't a Burmese citizen, she chose to move back to Austria and then America for her family's safety. She wrote to the government, asking for information on her husband but this earned her a spot on the black list. To this day, he is still considered missing. Therefore, by Buddhist tradition, they cannot hold a funeral for him. Her blacklist status has been lifted but she has grown older and is not well enough to travel. She wrote Twilight Over Burma twenty years ago about her experience.

Biking back to the hotel, I was quite happy with the experience. It was very special to have someone share such a fascinating family history to such a small audience. It was one of my highlights of Myanmar so far.

Ryan was feeling better after a good rest so we decided to tackle sunset hill. The walk to the river was nice and straightforward. A water buffalo was grazing on the boulevard. The first hill and temple we saw, we attempted to climb, but it wasn't the right one. Further down, the hill had a sign and quite the climb, even after a few ambitious short cuts. The climb wasn't too long, maybe 15-20 minutes. Many took a tuktuk to save time and energy.


The top had a great view of the Dokhtawady river and Hsipaw. The sun was still up, illuminating a statue with monks kneeling around their teacher and Thein Daung Pagoda. The sunset soon painted the sky in pinks and oranges.


We made good time on the way down, passing others on our way to find supper. We went to Mr. Food to have a Chinese meal. I had an omelette and Ryan had tasty fried tofu. Sharing the table with us was a Canadian man from Newfoundland and his Canadian/Thai wife. He was 85 years old and they came to see the viaduct then return. They also met other Newfoundlanders earlier in their trip who were twins. Another man joined us from Germany and he'd been trekking for three days with the guides from Mr. Charles guesthouse. They slept in hammocks and ate a monkey that their guide shot. I hoped when we did the trek that there'd be a vegetarian option or that he was exaggerating.


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I've done my best to try and make sure the details are accurate, especially with the history. If you're interested in further reading on the Shan prince situation here are a few articles:



Posted by Sarah.M 19:17 Archived in Myanmar Tagged palace breakfast burma pagoda myanmar shan sao buffet lily prince hsipaw inge kya seng little_bagan thein daung sunset_hill Comments (0)

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