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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Myanmar: Lake Inle’s Five Day Market

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Lake Inle was not teeming with thousands of foreigners as i expected, although there were still plenty around. I was lucky to be offered the final seat in a boat chartered by four French girls who were staying at my hotel. To do a full day tour of the Inle Lake including Samkar (south of Inle Lake, at the end of the long canal) costs K50,000. By filling the boat costs are reduced to K10,000 each. I was interested to see ‘life on the lake’, so didn’t have any particular destinations in mind. The girls chose to visit the five day market, Takhaung Mwetaw Pagodas, Samkar, and then stop of at some more touristic places on the way back, and that sounded just great to me.

We set off very early down the narrow canal from Nyaungshwe, where we passed locals starting their day. As we entered Lake Inle we didn’t pause as we passed fishermen. They were being photographed by some other early-birds with long lenses, but I was content to grab just a few shots as we zoomed through. We didn’t hang about as we wanted to get a head-start against other tourists who would be going to the market. I’m was suspicious that the fishermen – in full traditional outfits – were employed for the sake of the tourists.

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The market runs five days per week, and changes location each day. Today it was at the southern end of Lake Inle at Thaung Thut. Setting off early turned out to be a wise move; the market was up-and-running, the sun was coming up, but other tourists had not yet arrived. We were covering large distances so our time in the market was limited to 30 mins. I could have spent a couple of hours there at least! I had a good look around, ate breakfast at a market stall, and then returned to the boat after taking photos. As we set off for our next destination a few other tourists were arriving. Judging by the amount of souvenir stalls being set up, it would be inundated by tourists later.

Photos below show locals arriving by boat from other villages around the lake, and various stallholders. I liked watching the blacksmith at work (last photo).

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