Latest Posts

Myanmar: Mandalay to Myitkyina by train

This journey definitely deserves a post to itself. The previous evening had been spent drinking with river-workers in a local bar, so i was feeling a touch groggy as I made my way to the train station to take the 05:15am train from Mandalay to Myitkyina. I’d bought my ticket the previous day and already scoped out where the train left from, so i was able to board half-asleep. I was questioning my decision to travel third class for a journey that is scheduled for 24 hours but is known to frequently take longer.

The train set off promptly, and I made myself as comfortable as I could on the hard plastic bench to enjoy the ride out of Mandalay as daylight approached. I had the bench seat and the one opposite to myself, so I could stretch out and watch the passing rural scenes through the window. The window itself is wide open, i.e. the glass is raised up, which I was thankful for as third class does not have fans to move the air around inside the carriage.

The scenery is generally rural scenes that probably haven’t changed in centuries. Farm labour is mostly carried out without modern machinery, with oxen pulling wooden ploughs and carts.

20160323 Train Myitkyina-9768

20160323 Train Myitkyina-9790

Food vendors walk through the aisles – and also outside near to stations – selling a variety of meals, snacks, and drinks. You certainly do not need to pack food for this journey.

20160323 Train Myitkyina-9786

We’d been travelling a few hours when the train stopped at a town with a very full platform. New passengers rushed into the carriages, and sacks of rice and baskets of vegetables were passed through the open windows to be stored under seats, between seats, and in the aisle. Suddenly the carriage was not sleepy, but full with chatter and laughter. I received a lot of smiles and nods, and food was offered to me as the train set off once again. You can never say the people of Myanmar do not make you feel welcome.

20160323 Train Mandalay-0672

20160323 Train Myitkyina-9804

I looked at my GPS occasionally to see where we were, and noticed the train’s speed ranged from approximately 35kph to around 50kph. We appeared to be making good progress. When approaching the higher speeds, the carriages would start to sway violently from side to side, requiring the driver to slow down again. It’s also the bumpiest train journey I’ve ever been on, and there were times when passengers were momentarily airborne, before returning to their seats with a bump. The two children sat nearby had a great time, and thought it very funny to be sliding and jumping around with the movement of the carriage.

20160323 Train Myitkyina-9782

20160323 Train Myitkyina-9793

To relieve the boredom I gave my compact camera to the children to take photos. They loved this and we had a lot of fun as they photographed me and each other. The parents were really happy to see their kids having fun with the foreigner, and filmed us for a while on their smartphone. After this, the children lost a lot of their shyness, and sat next to me occasionally to peer out of the window.

20160323 Train Mandalay-0659

Rubbish generated on the train is disposed of by throwing it out of the window. The lady opposite helpfully explained this to me, stating that I do not need to keep rubbish under my seat, but simply throw it outside. It’s quite bizarre to watch adults teaching their children to through plastic bags into the environment. The sides of the tracks are littered with various plastic and polythene receptacles, which increases in density with proximity to stations.

At stations we would often wait for a train coming the other way, and end up ‘parked’ alongside. It gave good opportunity to look and smile at the people on-board.

20160323 Train Mandalay-0679

20160323 Train Myitkyina-9771

As the journey progressed, the trips to the toilet – which is just a hole in the floor – were faced with greater reluctance. With the rocking carriage, it was quite difficult to use with accuracy, and the odours were getting rather unbearable. The fact there was no running water did not help matters. I was very glad my seat was exactly in the middle of the carriage, and only infrequently did the odour reach me there.

20160323 Train Mandalay-0673

20160323 Train Myitkyina-9810

As darkness fell, so did the temperatures. I opened my bag to retrieve clothes to stay warm. The family who I sat with were very organised, and set out sleeping mats with blankets for their children. I was getting aches and pains from the cramped sitting position and the hard plastic seat. I knew that the cold temperatures and bouncing train were not going to help me get to sleep. We pulled into Nebo in darkness (many towns have no electricity other than generators and so lighting is very limited). I wondered if there would be any food vendors. I needn’t have worried as dozens of women, balancing plates filled with food and lamps or candles, looked for sales through the carriage windows.

It was very chilly indeed when the train pulled into Myitkyina at around 5am. Remarkably, the train was not late. I wandered out of the station in darkness to find my GPS did not have the street map for Myitkyina loaded. A motorbike taxi driver asked me if I wanted to go to the YMCA and quoted K1000 as the fare. I knew the YMCA had cheap rooms so jumped on. The ride lasted around 1 minute, as it turns out the YMCA is just a around the corner.

Would I recommend taking the train from Mandalay to Myitkyina? Well, there are other options available including bus (foreigners are now permitted), boat, and airplane. The bus journey may be a little quicker, but will surely be less enjoyable than a crazy train-ride. The boat journey is much better to do on the return, when you travel with the current, and flying is convenient but you will have no great memories. If you can take a little sleep deprivation and use an unpleasant smelling toilet then I really recommend travelling third class on the overnight train.

A couple of tips for your journey:

  • Buy the train ticket before your day of travel. You can then brave the early morning knowing your seat is secure and don’t risk delays at the ticket office.
  • Consider taking a cushion if travelling third class, as you will suffer many hours on a hard bench seat (second and first class seats are more comfortable)
  • Take a blanket or warm clothing for the night-time
  • Look around for an immigration desk when you arrive at the Myitkyina train station. If there is one, I missed it, which led to a small problem when leaving Myitkyina a few days later, which i will detail in a later post.
  • Book your accommodation beforehand, and consider asking if you can check in early. I was lucky that someone at the YMCA let me in and gave me a room in the early hours of the morning.

Myanmar: Mandalay

To some people, the mention of Mandalay can summon all sorts of feelings. Although this is probably specific to people brought up at the end of the colonial era, when the road to Mandalay hinted at all sorts of unspecified adventure and exotic experiences, modern-day Mandalay is sadly very different indeed. I had spent a little time reading about Mandalay and – although there are certainly plenty of historic and cultural sights worth seeing – I knew that i would prefer to be elsewhere in Myanmar. I decided to skip the sightseeing and leave Mandalay as soon as possible. Mandalay was therefore simply a location from which to catch a train to Myitkyina.

The train wasn’t departing until early next morning, so i had the afternoon to look around.  After checking into the new Nylon Hotel, – which i highly recommend, unlike the old Nylon Hotel just around the corner – I caught a taxi to the river. I thought i’d take a few photos with my little compact and try stitching them together. It was surprisingly easy to do in Photoshop and, now i know that, will be something i will try again.

mandalay-river

My guide book recommended to take a drink at one of the tourist hotels overlooking the water, and i thought this might be a nice way to waste a couple of hours. Before doing so, I walked past workers unloading boats. There was plenty of ‘shanty town’ type dwellings, and it was clear there isn’t much money to be made in this type of work.

mandalay-0644

Considering drinks at the hotel would probably cost more that a day’s wages for the workers at the river, I was suddenly not in the mood to follow the guide book’s recommendations. I’ve always been more comfortable with ‘the workers’, and luckily for me i somehow got invited into a local pub. I was suddenly the focal point for everyone, and the table filled up with people to meet the foreigner. Although Mandalay has a constant stream of tourists, i was told that this little local pub received none.

Myanmar is a stark contrast to my experiences in rural Kenya where, as a white visitor, you would be expected to buy (lots of) drinks.  Here, I had to negotiate hard before they would let me buy a round. We drank a locally brewed drink that tasted strongly of honey.  I had a great time with these guys, and i had to promise that i would come back and see them one day. I would quite like that.

mandalay-0645

It was getting late and i was getting quite drunk. I had a train to catch at 5:15am and so it was definitely time to go. The guys called a motorbike taxi friend to take me back to the hotel. I left Mandalay with great memories, and hadn’t visited a single tourist sight 🙂

Myanmar: Ywangan and the Blue Lake

Although I really enjoyed my day out on Lake Inle, it was definitely time to leave. I was keen to make my way to the small town of Ywangan (also known as Yawangan and Ye-Ngan), which is half-way to Mandalay. Ywangan had been recommended to me by a Burmese tour guide in Kengtung. Apparently, it had an unusual small blue lake, and a very large cave.

Ywangan is not in the guidebooks and does not appear to be well visited; no-one I spoke to knew anything about it, despite it being less than 200km away. Travel companies in Nyaungshwe had no idea on how to get there, or even where it was. I had a break when yesterday’s boatman said he thought there may be minibus transport. The lovely staff at Joy Hotel called a bus company in Taunggyi, and they confirmed that minibuses run from Taunggyi to Ywangan via the Shwenyaung junction, which is 30 mins north of Nyaungshwe.
I left Nyaungshwe early and made it Shwenyaung at 07:40. The minivan leaves just opposite the bus station (outside a shop called ‘UK’). I was in luck, as one was waiting and I took the final seat. The price to Ywangan was K10,000, which seemed a little steep, but I had no way of knowing if it was correct or not. The journey took just over 3 hours.

Ywangan is a very little town and not a lot seemed to be happening. I walked up the main street to see if I could find a guesthouse. The only obvious one was $30 per night, which is more than I cared to spend. However, the staff there pointed me to a little place nearby with rooms for K7000. I’m not sure what it was called, but here is a photo and the location (21.162925, 096.440070).

ywangan guest house-0634

I wanted to visit the blue lake and the cave. The owner of the guesthouse arranged a guide with a motorbike to the lake for me for K15,0000, but the cave was apparently difficult to get to. I hadn’t loaded the location of the cave onto my GPS so had no way of knowing where it was. I decided to settle on the lake and to find the cave ‘next time’.

Our first stop was a restaurant approximately halfway from Ywangan to the blue lake. The place was busy and my guide was obviously a regular. He bought some betel and coffee, and I got stuck into some great food with cups of tea. The owner spoke unusually good English and really made a fuss of me, so yet again i was well looked after. I asked her about the cave and she told me it was a long way away and the tracks there were very rough. Full to the brim and feeling very content I settled the bill, paying for my guide also, and set out on the road again. [NOTE: since returning home i have found out the Padalin Caves are amazing but are now closed to visitors to protect the rock formations and the ancient artworks within].

The beautiful small blue lake (a pool really – see first photo, below) is located in Taw Kyal Village, Ywar Ngan Township (20.97405, 096.52704). It is next to a bigger, ordinary lake, so if visit make sure you the right one. It appears that groundwater emerges and flows down a stream and into the lake, which is the reason the water is incredibly clear. The spot is very popular with locals, so you’ll be looking at the lake with lots of others, who are all smiling and happy to see you there with them. We couldn’t get too close the lake as this is a sacred lake and home to spirits, and a barbed wire fence keeps mortals from entering the water. However, it was a peaceful place to visit. My guide – who spoke not a word of English – then took me around the back roads to find the source water, which flows through a lovely and less-visited area (second photo, below).

ywangan blue lake-0597

ywangan blue lake-0603

Instead of returning to town my guide took to Main Ma Ye’ Tha-Khin-Ma Mountain (20.91718, 096.56354), which I had spotted earlier from the minibus as it travelled to Ywangan that morning. Again, locals are visiting and are very keen to talk to you, or at least flash you a big smile. A young man at the top told me that the site itself was very old, but renovations had taken place in recent years. Judging by the signs around the place, the renovations appear to have been funded by various corporate bodies. Main Ma Ye’ Tha-Khin-Ma Mountain is a great place to visit, although doesn’t compare to Thailand’s Wat Chaloem Phra Kiat Phrachomklao Rachanusorn. You are very likely to be the only foreign tourist and visiting the area is a great way to break up the journey to Mandalay.

Main-Ma-Ye-Tha-Khin-Ma Mountain

The next morning i packed up early to travel to Mandalay. This would be tricky, as I did not know when minibuses departed. At 6am I walked to the main street in town, to the location where i had been dropped off the day before. I was only there a minute when a friendly couple took me back up the road to the roundabout and flagged down a minibus for me. The minibus cost K5,000 and took around 4 hours to get to Mandalay. The driver asked me to sit up in the front with him, and we ate breakfast together at a restaurant on the way. On arrival at Mandalay the driver located a motorbike taxi to take me to a hotel and, just before we set of, ran into a nearby shop and bought a bottle of water for me. The people of Myanmar are so wonderful 🙂

Myanmar: Lake Inle, Takhaung Mwethaw and Samkar

Entering the long waterway that connects Lake Inle to Samkar, you really start to notice the birdlife. The area is teeming with egrets, herons and waterfowl. Kingfishers can be spotted and I saw two different types, although I could not identify the species. I was wishing i had a long lens with me – and sufficient time and money – to photograph the lcoal avifauna. It was also really interesting to watch how the locals were spending their day. For those living here, the lake really is their life.

Inle Lake-9690

Inle Lake-9698

Inle Lake-9703

After a while we arrived at Takhaung Mwethaw Pagodas. Many tourists do not venture this far south, as the ‘standard’ tour includes Inle Lake only and not this southern waterway. Due to it being low season, and our early start, we shared the place with just two other westerners. The caretaker of the temple was wonderful. Giving a warm welcome, he showed me around and invited me to photograph the Buddha effigy. He then invited me to take tea with him, and the others to join us as they walked in. Considering he spoke no English and we spoke no Burmese, his hospitality was very generous. This is typical of the people of Myanmar, and I have nothing but admiration for them. After quickly photographing the pagodas, we were again on our way south.

Inle Lake-9717

Inle Lake-9735

The village of Samkar was my highlight of the day for me. To stay on schedule we were given 30 minutes but, again, i could have stayed so much longer. Ancient, unrestored pagodas line the track from the boat to the village. After the rains, these would be standing in water, but at this time of year you can walk between them. In the village a ceremony was in full swing. It was one of those moments I had to just enjoy, and the camera stayed in my bag. The whole village seemed to be out to enjoy themselves. There was music and food stalls, as well as lots of activity in the temple. I was asked enter the packed temple and sit with the people, and i watch the events as young ladies performed a traditional dance. A young man with a camera talked to me for a while and, through very broken English, he told me that it was a Buddhist ceremony and he was filming it for TV. Everywhere I looked were smiles and greetings. By this time I had separated from my boat companions, and so i took a drink at a stall and wished to stay longer.

Given our 30 mins were up and we were on a tight schedule, I made my way back to the boat. I was a little sad at this as the villagers asked me to eat with them, but I reluctantly declined as I didn’t want to hold up the tour. After getting back to the boat and I waited with the boatman but the girls did not turn up. After around 20 mins the boatman went to look for them, and then came back alone. He asked me to go and look for them as he was getting worried about the time. I found them walking out of one of the building, where they had joined locals for food, but obviously hadn’t thought to tell me or worry about the time.

Whilst waiting for the girls to arrive at the boat in a shady area, I had been talking with a local man also sitting there. He told me that 10 years ago Inle Lake was in much better condition, with higher water levels and cleaner water. He believed there were simply too many people relying on the inflowing river, and upstream farmland practices must be to blame. I know that northern Thailand has had very poor rains lately, so I wonder if rainfall has also been diminishing.

Inle Lake-9738
On the way back through Lake Inle we stopped at areas more heavily visited by tourists. These included the network of canals bordered by ‘tourist attractions’, including a fabric shop, a silversmiths, and a handicraft store/cigar store that had obviously been installed for tourists to visit. The waterways were very busy with boats, as tourists were transported from one place to another to buy local produce at highly inflated prices. I normally give places like this a wide berth, but it was quite interesting to watch it all in full swing.

After the tourist shopping area, our boat travelled through the floating gardens where crops are grown on on wooden trellises floating on matts of weed. Cultivation and harvesting is completed by maneuvering boats up and down the rows of vegetables. It was an impressive operation and i’ve certainly never seen anything like it before.

Inle Lake-9748

We returned back to the Nangshwe at around 4pm, feeling tired, sunbaked and very hungry after 11 hours on the water. It was a great day out and I am glad I visited Lake Inle. I was very glad to have visited in low season where tourist numbers are lower, and to have had the opportunity to visit the southern regions where fewer tourists venture. Of course, with tourism comes associated problems, and many of these are quite visible. The erosion of the waterway banks from increased boat traffic – and attempts to stop it – are particularly apparent. Decreasing water levels and water quality from farming practices are also big issues.  I really hope that at least some of the K12500 entrance fee that tourists pay to enter the Lake Inle Biosphere Reserve goes to protection of this wonderful environment.