Irrawaddy Cargo Ferry

Before Nick and I even left the United States, Nick heard of a local ferry that takes passengers down the Irrawaddy river from Bhamo to Katha and stopping in Mandalay. He was set on taking this ferry and I think the main reason was because passengers sleep on the deck. In order for this to work out, our timing in Myanmar had to be perfect. Nothing could go wrong or not only would our visa expire, we would miss our flight to Bangkok. The likelihood that Nick and I actually made it onto this ferry was slim. When our Lonely Planet Guidebook was written buses were forbidden to take foreigners to Katha and Bhamo due to civil conflict. Would it be possible now to take a bus? Would the ferry be running the exact day we wanted to catch it? How long would the ferry take? There were so many pieces to the puzzle.

Nick bought bus tickets to Katha without a problem in Mandalay. The bus company said we would leave Mandalay at 4 pm and arrive in Katha at 5 (this probably meant we would arrive at 1 am). We didn’t want to arrive in the middle of the night, so Nick changed our tickets to Bhamo, just north of Katha by 80 miles. This way we would leave Mandalay at 4 pm arriving Bhamo at 6 am and catch the ferry the following day. We boarded the night bus but little did Nick and I know this would be the worst bus experience we have had yet.

Although our seats reclined 1-2 inches this was a far cry from a night bus. As a Burmese comedy show played loudly throughout the night (which Nick and I had already seen on another night bus), the lights turned on every 30 minutes and passengers were car sick (which is extremely common in Asia), we tried to rest. At 2 am, we were told to get off the bus. We checked our map app and we were not in Bhamo. The driver insisted. We eventually got off and walked a few blocks to another bus. It took us 12 hours to drive 215 miles. There was no way we were making it to Bhamo. Okay, change of plans, we were 17 miles away from Katha, we would get off there. The bus drove north on windy single lane dirt roads. This was the opposite direction of where we wanted to go! The bus eventually took us 27 miles (1.5 hours) in the wrong direction. We got off, ate breakfast and waited an hour for a transfer. Eventually, we jumped on our third bus which took us back to where we had originally transferred buses. We were still 17 miles from Katha and it was now 8:30 am. Ahhhh, it clicked, the bus station sold us tickets, assuming it would take us 24 hours to go 275 miles. What!? Silly us for assuming am, not pm.

After 17 hours and little sleep, we arrived to Katha. We checked into a small guesthouse with nice accommodations. It seemed as if Nick and I have lowered our standards as our rodent roommate, non-functioning squatter toilets and pigeons living in the ceiling, didn’t seem to phase us. We explored the small colonial town, home to British police officer and author, Geoege Orwell. Nick and I later visited the market and ferry office. We learned that the ferry would not run tomorrow. Bummer. Okay, we’d double check again tomorrow then take the train back. The next day, we walked around town and it seemed like Friday morning was dedicated to hair cuts, bucket bathing and drying fish. We enjoyed a traditional burmese breakfast of bao and tea (burmese black tea, evaporated milk, condensed milk, water and salt) at a small teahouse. Initially, Nick and I found the local food to be extremely oily and greasy, however have come to adore the cuisine. The silver pots full of curries, fresh peanut and vegetable salads, fermented tea leaves, fish pastes, and rice line the streets. Bamboo baskets full of fried treats and shan noodle stalls will be missed.

Breakfast Bao & Burmese Tea
Burmese Tea House
Fish Drying

After breakfast, we returned to the ferry office. To our surprise, a ferry would be running at 5 pm, however for 30,000 k. Everyone told us the deck should only cost 10,000 k. We tried to haggle but left to mull it over. After hours of a simple misunderstanding we returned to see written, the amount due of 13,000 k. We said, “Ah, thirteen thousand k.””Yes, thirty thousand khat,” the man responded.

So we had arrived to Katha and purchased ferry tickets. Now all that was left was to find the ferry. Needless to say, Nick and I ran around town for 2 hours looking for an “unmissable” jetty and ferry. My ankle was sore, Nick was carrying all of our gear and no one seemed to know where we were going. After asking directions from about 20 locals we found the obvious jetty (photographed below) among other dozens of boats lining the shore.

Boat Jetty

Although 2 hours late, the double decor cargo ferry arrived. We walked past the goods which included bags of rice, star fish, recycled cardboard and bamboo furniture. We went upstairs past the more expensive cabins and arrived to the deck. There were about 15 other people sleeping on the deck with us including families and soldiers. We had some snacks and feel asleep. It was cold and the bright lights stayed on all night. At one point I woke up, stuck my head out from the covers to see thousands of moths attracted to the light. Disoriented I quickly put the cover back over my head and five moths were trapped inside fluttering around. Although, we passed some horrific smells we had a relaxing night.

When you wake up to thousands of these guys…

The next morning we woke to a beautiful sunrise. We enjoyed the slow river life and eventually explored the boat. We had a delicious lunch of rice and vegetables prepared by the boat restaurant (photographed below). We chatted with some locals and watched a Bollywood film. After, an American movie played on the screen that captured everyone’s attention. A porn, cannibalist, gore movie that made nick and I crawl in our skin. We couldn’t watch and couldn’t imagine who decided to play this and what the locals thought of it. Overall, this ferry seemed more like a cruise ship with a “cinema”, “dining hall”, sleeping quarters, but you know, the type of cruise ship you get for $10.

Sunrise on the Irrawaddy River
5:30 am

After 25 days spent in Myanmar, Nick and I are not in a hurry to leave. This country is changing fast and it was our pleasure to observe. People were happy to describe a more democratic system that is trying to provide a better life for everyone. However, we are worried by some of the ways in which this is happening, including, massive amounts of pollution, speedy migration to metropolitian areas, and a far from eco-tourist friendly system. We hope the very special people, rich culture, unique food and inspiring landscape is preserved for generations to come. We learned more everyday.

Click here to watch our Myanmar video!

Inle Lake & Nyaungshwe

From Bagan, Nick and I took the bus to Nyaungshwe to visit Inle Lake. The drive was spectacular and the landscape was our favorite we’ve seen in Southeast Asia. The view was dynamic, both dry and mountainous. Desert plants in red sandy soil and water buffalo lined the side of the road. The mountains in the distance reminded us of the foothills in Colorado as we zigzagged down passes.


The next day we arranged a tour on the lake with boatman, Ko Lay. We were on the lake by 5:45 am and it was extremely chilly. As we reached the middle of the 45 sq mile lake, the motor shut off and we waited for the sun to pop over the mountains. The haze began to lift and the water reflected the sky. As we soaked in our surroundings we saw a dancing fishermen in the distance. Inle Lake is known for fishermen that paddle with their feet. It seemed too early to fish. As the boat came closer to ours we noticed he wasn’t actually fishing. Ko Lay soon told us that this man was not fishing for fish but for tourists to photograph him for money. We soon saw another tourist boat with a single middle-aged man with serious camera equipment. His boatman called over 2 fishermen and the tourist directed them as he snapped away. The photo shoot lasted a few minutes and the tourist proceeded to pay both fishermen.

This left me puzzled. Fake fisherman? At first I thought, tourist trap! And, of course, Inle Lake is an extremely touristed area, however for a good reason. From a photography perspective, sure, this was cheating. From a tourist’s perspective, this was not an authentic experience. However, from an economic and opportunity point of view of the locals, what was wrong with this? Tourists get their photos, the fishermen aren’t bothered when they are fishing, the local culture is preserved and locals make money. Later in the day, Nick and I passed real fishermen. However, what we couldn’t figure out was if the tourist fishermen and real fishermen were one of the same. Did fishermen pose for photos to make some extra money in the morning when they weren’t catching fish? We also couldn’t figure out if it was still the norm to fish with the cone shape baskets. We passed by a handful of fisherman fishing this way, however we also passed fishermen using nets. Although some things were left unclear, the way that fisherman and local boys paddled with their feet was elegant and unlike anything I have seen.

Tourist Fisherman
Authentic Fisherman

Ko Lay proceeded to take us to a local market where an ethnic minority group sold a variety of produce and Intha’s sold fried breakfast goods. Nick and I walked up a hilltop to Inthein where we viewed pagodas overlooking the lake. We visited the Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery and various floating villages. The homes were made of bamboo, however newer houses were built with wood. Neighbors all helped in the construction of new homes and an outhouse was attached to the exterior (some homes even have attached pig pens.)

We visited a weaving facility, where we watched woman spin and weave cotton, silk and lotus fibers. It takes 1 month to make a 6-inch x 3-foot lotus scarf. Ko Lay mentioned that 30 years ago there was only 1 weaving shop, however now that there is so much money in Inle (from tourism) there are 7. There are also a variety of black smith, jewelry and wood working shops located on the lake. Nick and I ended our 12-hour tour by visiting the floating gardens. These gardens take up 25% of the lake. Intha farmers grow flowers, cucumbers, gourds, tomatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, other fruits and vegetables and it is all sold at local markets. Although fascinating, we learned that the chemical fertilizers used were damaging the lake’s ecosystem.

Lotus Weaving
Floating Gardens

Nick and I stayed in Nyaungshwe, the closest town to Inle Lake. Nick biked me around and we visited the night market, The French Touch (beautiful photography) and found the best ice cream in asia at a small bakery. We celebrated my birthday with a nice dinner and had a candle to blow out!


Anyone interested in an excellent boatman at Inle Lake, contact:

Ko lay, Boat driver

Hpa-An & the Golden Rock

From Myawlamyine, Nick and I took a 5 hour boat ride along the Thanlyin River to Hpa-An. We passed by fishing boats and thatched homes as village kids ran along the shore waving hello. Golden pagodas sprinkled the landscape and we stopped at U Nar Auk Monastery. This monastery was built in 1888 and the buddhas pictured below were each made from 1 whole piece of wood. As we continued up river toward  Hpa-An we were greeted with mountains.



Behind the scenes at U Nar Auk Monastery


One of our favorite activities in Hpa-An was visiting Linno Cave. As we walked to the cave we spent some time playing with local children and the toothbrushes we handed out were an absolute hit. We sat and waited for sunset in anticipation to see the bats. Linno cave is home to millions of bats from over 10 different species. These bats eat huge numbers of agricultural pests and provide guano that is harvested by local villagers (30 kg per week). Each evening the bats leave the cave to feed and we watched a steady stream of bats fly out of the cave for at least 15 minutes.




Millions of bats leaving their cave at sunset

Nick and I’s favorite restaurant in Hpa-An was called San Ma Tau, where we each ordered a small curry and rice. With most traditional burmese dishes, tea, cabbage soup, fresh vegetables and sides come with every meal. These sides included: boiled fish paste, fried fish paste, pound fish paste, fried chopped fish paste, fried onion with shrimp, soya beans, fried chill + garlic + peanut, fried sesame with garlic, pickled tea leaves, and mango chutney.

Traditional Burmese Cuisine

On our second and last day in Hpa-An, Nick and I drove a motorbike 32 km (20 miles) to Bayin Nyi Pagoda where we sport climbed. Although the routes were relatively short and dirty it was a unique experience climbing to the sounds of morning prayer. Our approach included walking through buddha caves and past monk’s bathing springs.

Nick climbing Monet’s Rising Sun
Climbing at Bayin Nyi Pagoda

We left Hpa-An and spent the night in Kyaikto. We woke up early and caught a ride to Kinmun. Here we began the 11km (7 mile) hike to the golden rock. We hiked along an empty trail and were asked for many religious donations along the way. We passed by bamboo stalls that sold warm sodas, noodles and doubled as family’s homes. Every stall we passed reaked of human feces, which was a smell that would continue to follow us throughout Myanmar. As we continued up the trail we began to get a beautiful overlook of the valley. We assumed that because we only passed 4 foreigners and 30 locals on the trail that there would only be about 100 tourists at the top.

When we arrived, we were bombarded with thousands of local tourists that arrived by bus. Food vendors, souvenir stalls, napping pilgrims, picnicking tourists and monks all added to the chaos. Although the golden rock was extremely impressive we were more entertained by the scene around us. As many things in Myanmar, the pagoda was divided by gender. Men were aloud to place gold pieces of foil on the rock while woman prayed in a separate area. We have found that metal detectors, hot springs and various other activities are all separated by gender. Nick and I decided to take the bus down  to the bottom of the mountain rather than hike and was it an experience worthwhile! 10 buses of 45 people all left at the same time. We were packed into the back of a large truck and down we went. It felt like we were on a roller coaster, as we speed through bumps our stomachs dropped and as we rounded corners we were whiplashed into one another. We sped past every other bus heading down and were happy we made it in 1 piece.

11 km hike to Golden Rock
Golden Rock / Kyaiktiyo Pagoda