18. - 25.02.2014: Hsipaw - Yangon

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Tue, 18.02.2014: Pyin Oo Lwin −> Hsipaw, cloudy/rain, 25°C

We thought they were late with the breakfast as they were just setting up as we arrived at 6-50am. We didn't realise that breakfast isn't until 7am - and Kirsten was telling them to hurry it up! At least we got hot fried eggs - they had literally just brought them out!

We had a 20 minute taxi ride to the bus station and then a 40 minute wait for the bus to arrive for it's 20 minute break here. When we got on all the windows were steamed up so we opened a few of them. But when the other passengers got back on they complained that it was too cold.

It took just over three hours to get to Hsipaw and we got the first and only view of the Gok Teik viaduct after 90 minutes. The viaduct was built in 1901, is 318 feet high and 2257 long. It was the second highest railway bridge in the world when it was constructed and is Myanmar's longest. It stretches across the Gok Teik Gorge which is a very steep ravine.

We had seen a documentary on the flight to Myanmar where the reporter takes the train across the ravine. The tracks looked as though they would give way at any moment and, although the train travels really slowly, there is only a one foot gap between the train and a very steep ride down into the ravine!!!

The bus route took a steep, serpentine route down into the ravine and back up the other side. No wonder someone got travel sick - unfortunately it was a man sitting next to Kelvin! Yuk!

We arrived at Mr Charlie's guest house and were welcomed by Mr Charlie himself - nice touch. We had a very nice en suite room and wandered around the town for a couple of hours to see Maham Yat Muni Pagoda (closed), went down to the river and also found some banana cake!

Wed, 19.02.2014: Hsipaw −> Pang Kam village, foggy then sunny, 27°C

We trekked to Pang Kam, a small village in the hills with 700 inhabitants. It was a 15km walk that took 6 hours including stops and 700m of ascent. So nothing to sniff at! We would be staying overnight in the village so we took as little as possible with us and left the rest in storage at the guest house.

We were joined by Jasper from Holland and Tom from England and our guide Jo-Jo who is 66 years old and has been guiding for 16 years. We walked from the guest house and within five minutes had to stop because Nigel had forgotten his scarf, or thought he had - it was in his backpack the whole time! It gave the rest of us time to put on sun cream because, although it was foggy when we set off, the sun would soon burn through it.

The first three hours were fairly easy going through agricultural land - bio diesel plants, tea trees, sesame trees and plums are the main crops - but then the path got steeper and went up into the hills. Kirsten nearly got run over by a moped along one of the dirt tracks!

We arrived in the village at 3pm - we were staying in the Chief's house. The Chief himself wasn't there but we were looked after very well by his wife, San Ou. The others all had a snooze and at 4-30pm we went out into the village to walk around.

The people live very simply here and live off the land. We saw women carrying large baskets of wood across their shoulders, a tea leaf crusher and steaming pot, and were allowed into a local house. It was very large (3 families live there) but very smoky inside from the fire as they cook indoors. Not good for their health.

At the village school we met all four of the teachers. The 70 pupils had already gone home for the day. I made them laugh by trying to read Burmese writing and Nigel wrote his favourite equation on the blackboard - e^{i \pi} + 1 = 0 (Euler's Identity). The teachers all understood his explanation!

Back at the Chief's house, we went up to our room - we are sharing with Jasper, Tom and Kelvin and sleeping on the floor. So we put down a number of blankets as a type of mattress and saved a couple to put over us but it was still like sleeping on the floor!! Well, they don't have beds but at least they have a toilet and sink outside.

Our evening meal was rice, a sweet pumpkin dish, cold green salad that our stomachs wouldn't have been able to cope with and some green tea leaves as one of the dishes. (No one liked those!) Afterwards, we sat outside but it got so cold we had to fetch blankets from upstairs.

Later, there was a dance in the village hall. Young people were doing aerobics style line dancing so we joined in! It turned out that they were practising for an upcoming event - 16 other villages will be coming here for a Buddhist celebration.

Thu, 20.02.2014: Pang Kam −> Hsipaw, sunny, 28°C

After very little sleep and no small amount of hip pain (!!), we went down for breakfast - rice, tofu sausages which didn't taste very good, egg and tomato omelette which everyone ate and some kind of green leaf dish.

We left on a slightly different route out of the village and then joined up with the same path we had come in on. It was very hot and sunny again and took us 4 hours to get back to Hsipaw. We stopped for Shan noodle soup just before Hsipaw (very spicy) and then got a tuc tuc back to the guest house.

We had managed to learn a few words in Shan, Burmese and another dialect. We had really enjoyed the trek and thanked both Jo-Jo and Kelvin. We spent the rest of the afternoon doing all our washing, sorting out our stuff and trying to think of a gift for Kelvin who was doing an excellent job.

Fri, 21.02.2014: Hsipaw, sunny, 30°C

Over breakfast we chatted to someone who had just been to Nepal (our next destination) and got some really good tips about trekking there. Then we met up with Jo-Jo again who would be our guide for our trip along the Dokthawady River in a long boat.

The boat engine was very noisy so we made ear plugs out of rolled up tissues! It was a nice gentle ride for an hour and then we got off to walk up a steep hill to Lonkow Monastery where we were served green tea and very sweet pineapple. We were joined on the trip by Karen from England who has been a Buddhist for 30 years who told us about the different types of Buddhism.

She had already spent two months meditating in a monastery near Yangon and we found out that the Burmese version of Buddhism means that they do not believe that women can reach Nirvana unless they are reincarnated as a man first! Karen's version does not agree.

We got back on the boat and stopped at a village that used to be famous for orange trees until a really bad flood killed all the trees. Now they grow orange corn for China!

We asked for a schedule change when we got back. We were due to go on a pagoda tour after only 30 minutes break but asked to postpone it to tomorrow morning when it would be cooler. We went out in search of a present for Kelvin and a Longhi for Kirsten but the women's version is just a piece of cloth that has to be sewn. The men's is already sewn and therefore ready to wear.

Sat, 22.02.2014: Hsipaw −> Yangon, sunny, 30°C

We went on a 2.5 walking tour to see Madahya Monastery built out of teak wood in 1853 and Maha Nanda Kantha Monastery that had a bamboo Buddha now covered in gold. The Eissa Stupa was interesting because it has a tree growing out of it!

We went to the 1924 Shan Palace Villa looked after by the nephew of the last Shan Prince who vanished when there was a military take over in 1962 and is believed to have been murdered. Mr Donald, the nephew, was arrested in 2005 for being an unlicensed tour guide as he let tourists in to the house but was released in 2009. His wife allowed us in and gave us a very interesting talk.

The documentary we had seen on the plane on the way over also showed the palace and it was one of the things we wanted to see whilst in Myanmar.

We went back to the hotel to pack and check out by noon and then walked to a local convent and saw all the novices wearing pink and orange being taught in classes. We had been to so many monasteries that we wanted to take a look at a convent and found that the only difference was the colour of their robes! We were warmly welcomed - I don't think many tourists find their way here.

Our next adventure was a 14 hour bus ride to Yangon. The bus was very comfortable with reclining seats, headphones (if you are into the local music!), pillow, blanket and even a small toiletry kit with a towelette, soap, toothbrush and paste.

The bus left Hsipaw at 5-45pm and we arrived in Yangon at 7-45am the next morning. There were several toilet/drink stops along the way but we got caught up in a huge traffic jam at the serpentine road down into the ravine. A truck had lost it's load on one of the many bends, meaning one way traffic at that point. It took an hour to get past.

After the final stop we tried to get some sleep. I ended up being able to sleep for about 3 to 4 hours but was woken up several times in between, the last time by blinding lights switched on at 5-30am!

Hsipaw hike and back to Yangon

Sun, 23.02.2014: Yangon, sunny, 34°C

We arrived at the bus station in the far north of Yangon at 7-45am. Nigel and Cynthia were getting another bus to go further south for a few days and we wouldn't be seeing them again. We got on really well with them which was extremely important seeing as there were only the four of us on the tour!! It certainly made a big difference and we had a great time together.

But sadly, it was time to say goodbye - they got on another bus, heading for a different adventure and we drove through the traffic and got to our hotel at 9am. We couldn't get into our room until noon so we had some breakfast in the restaurant, went to get some passport photos done and found a superb bakery to stock up on goodies!

After checking into our room we took a local bus - an old battered vehicle where the conductor hung out of the open door shouting to get passengers to come onto this bus rather than the myriad of others. There isn't really a time schedule, the buses just run on a continual loop. Undoubtedly, the locals understand this system and know where to stand for the right bus.

All we had to do was get onto the right road, on the right side and then ask each bus. It only took a couple of minutes and we were off to the Sule Pagoda that Kirsten had already seen but I had missed after trying to knock myself unconscious on the hotel floor just over two weeks ago!

We also hunted for a gift for Kelvin and then walked back to the hotel to do some washing. Kelvin picked us up at 2-30pm to go on a 3 hour train ride around Yangon which we had both missed the first time around.

Nigel and Cynthia had told us that Kelvin had got off the train at some point and it had left without him. He'd had to get a taxi to meet up with them again. This time with us, Kelvin said he was going to get off to get a drink and managed to get back on before the train left without him!

The train goes on a loop around the capital city, out into the suburbs and then agricultural land before returning into the city. We chatted to a number of tourists who had just arrived and "pretended" to be experts - well, we had seen such a lot on our 17 day tour that we were able to give them a number of tips.

But then we lost Kelvin! We were coming into, what we thought, was the final station - no Kelvin! We got off, hoping that we were back where we'd started and that this was indeed where we needed to get off, and headed for the car park where Kelvin's car would be parked. Just as we got there, Kelvin came running up, red faced and stressed, because he'd got off the train a second time to go to the toilet and it had left without him!! He had to get a taxi and thought he might have missed us!

Not a problem, we would've just waited by his car. Anyway, he took us to a local American style restaurant called "Fatmans" where we had spring rolls and barbecue chicken. We gave Kelvin his present - a small tripod for his camera which he really appreciated and an alarm clock with a very annoying "cock crowing" sound to get him up in the mornings! We also gave him US dollars as a tip.

He drove us back to our hotel and we arranged a time for him to pick us up on 25/2 (Kirsten's birthday) to take us to the airport. We were both really tired because we hadn't slept much on the overnight bus and had had a full day today, but I still managed to get all our hand washing done and hung out in the room whilst Kirsten watched a programme on the TV about the Columbian football team in 1994.

Mon, 24.02.2014: Yangon, sunny, 34°C

Kirsten went to get a haircut at a hairdressers next door and came back a real shorty! She decided it was too hot to go back to the Shwedagon Pagoda for a second visit, so we used the time to write on the computer and get some of the thousands of photos and videos done for the website. We also had to get all our papers sorted out for the flights tomorrow.

No more holiday for us - we will be back on our own again, backpacking and sorting ourselves out. Off to another new country for us - Nepal, here we come!

Conclusion about Myanmar:

Myanmar is a wonderful country with wonderful people. It has only just opened up for tourists which has both positive and negative effects but they have come a long way in a very short time. We would highly recommend Starfish - the tour was superb and it enabled us to see a great deal in a short amount of time.

About Starfish:
Website: www.starfishvolunteers.com
Contakt: Joe Stromanis (Sales Executive & Special Projects) or Dan Moore (Founder)
Email: joe.stromanis@starfishventures.co.uk, dan.moore@starfishgroupasia.com
Phone: +66 (0)819008758
Skype: Starfish_Joe

Kelvin was a very good guide and took away all the hassle of having to arrange everything ourselves - we had been on the road a long time and certainly appreciated all the hard work he did in the background. We know just how frustrating and time consuming it can be.

We had a wonderful time. If you get the chance, go to Myanmar. You won't regret it.

Tue, 25.02.2014: Yangon, Myanmar via Kuala Lumpur to New Delhi, sunny, 34°C to 19°C

For Kirsten's birthday, she would be flying to three different countries! Kelvin picked us up from the hotel in Yangon and took us to the airport - an extra service that we greatly appreciated. We thanked him again and said goodbye. We will definitely be returning to Myanmar!

We flew to Malaysia where we had a two hour wait and then on to New Delhi. We didn't want to return to Delhi but we had booked this flight at a time when our plans had included another 4-6 weeks of travelling around India. That plan had been scrapped later on but we still had the flight and decided it would cost too much to try and change it. Hopefully, one more night wouldn't kill us!

Another problem was that last night we had seen an email telling us that our Jet Airways flight to Kathmandu on the 26/2 had been changed to a much later time which meant that we wouldn't get to our hotel until after midnight!

So when we got to Delhi airport, (no problems getting through immigration for a second time on the same visa), we went to the Jet Airways counter and got the flight changed to an earlier one. The pre-paid taxi rates from the airport were too expensive so we decided to get the metro underground. It meant we had to carry our bags down (and back up) various flights of steps and we got the last train out of the station.

It was only a short journey but at the other end a tuc tuc wanted more than the pre-paid taxi from the airport to get us to our hotel. We certainly won't miss the cheats! Anyway, we dismissed him and decided to walk for 10 to 15 minutes to get there. The tuc tuc driver followed us and gave us a more reasonable price but by then we were almost there so he got dismissed again. They will have to learn not to cheat the tourists!

We checked into our hotel at midnight and actually got a clean room with clean sheets!!!!! Wow! Our last night in India and they finally get it right! We're still not coming back though!