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!

Kyaukme (Shan State)

We arrived to Kyaukme by train and saw very few other foreigners. I took the opportunity to rest my ankle while nick continued on and trekked north, a trek highly recommended by a French couple we met in Laos. I spent the majority of my time going stir crazy in my guesthouse (good thing the metal bars kept me in). During my first night, while eating chapati and curry, a local girl abruptly said, “Come here, tomorrow at 5, we eat at market together.” And just like that it seemed as if I made a friend. The next night night we ate at the local market and finished the evening eating chapati at her tea house. On my last day, I ate with her father, sister, stepmother, and stepsister. The Burmese, Shan and Pakistani family made rice, cauliflower, cabbage soup, chicken curry and shrimp curry. They liked watching me eat with my hands as I was obviously less familiar. Overall, I was bummed to miss out on an amazing trek, but the rest was necessary.

“(Stacy) Are you mental?” -Wayne Cambell

Nick’s Trek North

While Stacia was resting in Kyaukme with her foot up and crutches ready, I went on a 3 day trek/motorcycle ride with a group from Germany, Singapore, Belgium and Holland led by our amazing guide, Thura. It was a very eclectic group with some having more experience and motivation for trekking than others. Overall, we had a good time making fun of American politics and admiring the untouched culture of the Shan State.

First, we motorbiked for 3 hours to a small village in mountains outside of Kyaukme. The surrounding countryside was primarily occupied by Pulong peoples 1 of the 150 ethnic minorities in Myanmar. Ever since Myanmar became independent from Britain these people have been fighting for autonomy from the government. In the first village, we had a lunch of traditional tea leaf salad and toured a couple local worker’s shops. The first shop was for rice whiskey (100 proof) which Thura bought for later that night. This shop also had pigs to eat the by-product of the whiskey. Next, we visited a bamboo paper mill where “gold paper” is made for new year. Before heading off Thura bought us all beetle nut, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Making Bamboo Paper
Pigs eating rice whiskey by-product

After another hour of driving, we stopped to hike to the highest point in the region which offered great views. On the way down, we stopped to meet some ethnic Nepali, whose grandparents were brought to Myanmar to fight the British. Next, we drove to the village where we would spend the night. On arrival, Thura pointed and said, “look insurgent army” and laughed very heartily. On the hill and the main road were men in camouflage, holding rifles. At first I thought he was joking, but he insisted, yes it was the Shan State Army. Although currently an insurgency, there is a year long ceasefire that has enabled access to the area. I think this detail was purposefully left out of the itinerary. We soon were shaking hands, meeting and laughing with the soldiers who were enthusiastic to meet us, but not to be photographed. That evening we wandered around the town as soldiers turned into fathers and sons going home for diner or catching horses from the field. Our homestay family were friends of Thura’s grandfather, a nice older couple with a beautiful wooden stilted home (as all are in the region).

Shan State Soldier

Feed honey to a dog for sterilization, put it on a woman’s forehead for a quicker delivery, slap the stick on a penis for enlargement.

The next morning, we left the motorbikes and continued on foot into the tea fields lining the hills in every direction. We hiked for a few hours before stopping in a home for tea and a rest. There were only women home and they were happy to cook us some fried peanuts. After another few hours of hiking we arrived at another home in the tea fields with a man making a bamboo basket. At first we thought it was just another special shop tour but then the man retrieved an old musket from the home. As usual with Thura it was another surprise, target shooting!

Soon after, we walked into a small village (maybe 25 homes) where school was in secession. With angry teachers looking on, we took pictures with the kids and went through the English alphabet. Our homestay was in another beautiful wood stilted home with indoor (no chimney) open fire and a very welcoming family with two young boys. That night before dinner we swam in a small pool that doubled as a small hydroelectric facility for the village lights.

In the morning, we relaxed and watched the village wake up as kids went to school and fog lifted from the valley below. We then took the fast way back to our first village to retrieve our motorbikes. Thura then took us down some adventurous trails to a small village with a beautiful view next to the school. However, we were quickly off again to make it back in time for my 4pm bus. Just before Kyaukme we stoped for a traditional lunch of raw beef mixed with sticky rice (Stacia would have been thrilled) and then I wheeled in just in time to meet Stacia to head back to Mandalay.

Train to Kyaukme

From Mandalay, Nick and I headed northeast, to Kyaukme (Shan State). We boarded the local train at 4:30 am and began the journey. Within 10 minutes our seat mate, Las Ihio, handed us a large bag of small fruit (most comparable to apples). This was the beginning of unique friendship and fun journey.

Throughout the next 10 hours Las Ihio would buy us water, tea, coffee, fried vegetables and Burmese snacks. Our favorite was a plastic bag that contained raw ginger, raw garlic, a chili pepper, fermented tea leaves, roasted peas and oil.

He would point out which train station we were at, our elevation and where we could finally repay him and buy him breakfast (burmese pea chipatte). As he didn’t speak English, Nick showed him our collection of foreign currency and after, he showed us his jade collection. He ended up giving Nick a piece of his jade which was too generous. He massaged my ankle with tiger balm while trying to read Nick the news in Burmese. His facebook feed made our hearts heavy, as he showed us photos of those who have died in the civil conflict.

Las’s Jade Collection

Las Ihio physically looked, hard. He had paint stained pants, he didn’t smile and when he wasn’t chain smoking he was chewing betel nut. But his heart was enormous. The people of Myanmar are extremely special, their curiosity and compassion are eye opeing. They give, when they don’t have the means to give. My travels have taught me to be more open, accepting, trusting and giving.

Condensed milk can, turned coffee mug, turned ash tray.

Oh, did I mention our train crossed the the Goteik viaduct? When construction in 1899, it was the largest railway trestle in the world. It was constructed by a Pennsylvania and Maryland architect and the components were made by a PA steel company. Our train ride included some beautiful views, fun people and delicious food.

Goteik Viaduct


Myanmar’s second biggest city, Mandalay, felt slightly less modern than Yangon. The streets were chaotic and stop signs could be added to every city block intersection. Although my inability to walk limited our activities, Nick and I still felt like we left seeing the sites of the city. Like in most Asian cities, we enjoyed the local markets, ate street food and took in the sights around us. Nick didn’t even get sick after eating pig parts from a communal boiling pot. And, he wasn’t charged, as the locals were so impressed by his appetite!


Mandalay Market

In the evening, we saw a popular comedy act by the Mustache Brothers. These brothers are best known for their criticizing voices against the government in a nation silenced by fear. 2 members of the comedy trio served 6 years of hard labor after joking about the government in 1996 during a performance in Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. Par Par Lay (who is now diseased) stated, “You used to call a thief a thief; now you call him a government servant.” Since their release, the brothers have been banned from performing in their native language, Burmese, and from performing anywhere but in their home theatre. This comedy show and cultural performance was an interesting and entertaining experience.

On our second day in Mandalay, Nick and I drove 11 km out of the city to explore U Bein’s Bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge, 1.2 km long and 200 years old. We continued south to stupa-covered hilltops overlooking the Ayeyarwady River. With over 500 stupas and monasteries, Sagaing felt like a small temple town with windy backroads and rewarding views. From Sagaing, we headed back to Mandalay to see the unique Starving Buddha.

For sunset, we headed to a lookout point 2 km from the city center and our guesthouse. We looked to the left and saw where the sun just dipped below the hills. We looked to our right and saw a river village, something we’d never expect to see so close to the city.

As, we took in the view, a local man pointed to a boat on the river. He simply said, “Buddhist.” We watched the boat, but didn’t exactly know what we were watching. Next, the man pointed to my foot, acted out crutching and we thought he too hurt his foot. We said, “Ah, yes” and pointed to his foot. He left eagerly. After sitting for 30 minutes the river began to glow and although we didn’t understand the meaning, we learned that every full moon a Buddhist boat lines the river with candles. As we sat observing, the local man returned, out of breath, after running to his home to fetch tiger balm. He reached for my leg and without and hesitation started to massage my swollen ankle. As I watched candles sparkle on the river, I sat in awe, reflecting the kindness of the Myanmar people.

Monkey skull necklaces made by the head hunters in the West (tribes that hang human victims skulls).
Nick climbing at Waterfall Hill. Local fireman were fascinated with our climbing and repelling gear.

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

Bagan & Pyinma

Nick and I arrived in Bagan on a sleeper bus at 4:30 am, our guesthouse was only a mile away so we decided to walk. The road was dark but paved. I tripped off the edge of the road and twisted my ankle in the gravel, going down hard. Unable to remove myself from the road, nick dragged me to the sidewalk as cars passed. It quickly became clear I wasn’t walking the last half mile and nick moved me and the gear to the other side of the highway to catch a cab. At the guesthouse, it felt like the end of our trip until the local doctor confirmed there was no fracture through an x-ray.

Bagan Radiology

Bagan stretches over a 16 sq mile area with over 4,000 temples and pagodas scattered. Construction began in 1044 when the king introduced Theravada Buddhism to the area. In 1287, the kingdom collapsed from the Mongol invasion. As I stayed back to rest my ankle, nick was able to explore. He said the temples were larger than Sukhothai but less detailed than Angkor Wat. Come sunset nick would return to the guesthouse, put me on the back of a motorbike, carry me up the temple stairs and enjoy sunset.

Shwesandaw Paya

Although years of erosion, neglect, bad restorations and an earthquake (1975), the temples seemed in decent condition. The one temple I visited, Ananda Ok Kyaung, was remarkable. It was large, detailed and lacked the guadiness I’ve seen throughout SE Asia. The 4 large buddhas at each entrance were decorated with detailed paint and facing large beautiful golden doorways. Small buddhas were placed into window like carvings in the wall.

On the 8th, we decided to celebrate my birthday a day early and visit Pyinma, the small village where Gung Gung (my mother’s father) was born and raised until the age of 8. The only information I was working off of was Uncle Bob’s biography and cousin Jen’s interview.

Hong Chon Chin

DOB: 02/07/1925

POB: Pyinmar (Mandalay District), Myanmar

-He lived in Burma for 8 years before moving back to China

We hired a taxi and drove 26 miles south of Bagan, taking an hour and a half to Pyinma (Although pronounced Pyinmar, the only map we could find had it spelt Pyinma.) I wasn’t sure what to expected, to drive to a small town, get out, take a photo and head back. However, the experience I gained was unforgettable. As we drove, we passed palm farms (palm oil), sandy flats, horse and buggies, and ox carts. Our driver was constantly popping his head out of the window and asking for directions.

Driving through sandy flats

Eventually we arrived to a small village square with 1 local shop and 2 locals standing outside. The dirt roads were dusty and thatched homes made up the village. With google translate I was able to convey my grandfather lived in this village. They were obviously confused and directed us to the local pagoda. It later became clear that anyone returning to the village would first pray at the pagoda. We observed the small and unmaintained pagoda and enjoyed the view overlooking the Irrawaddy River. We interacted with some kids that were playing soccer with a small bamboo ball and rolling tires with sticks. As we headed back down the dirt alley to the village square, the 15 kids followed us. We looked like a parade. It was a funny sight assuming no foreigners have ever visited this village, let alone on crutches.

Pyinma’s main road
Irrawaddy River
Pyinma’s Pagoda
Local Pagoda

Now there were more people at the square as our visit was causing some camotion. I tried once more to convey that my Chinese grandfather was born here 90 years ago. Many of the elders had poor eyes and the kids read them our translations. Ah, they understood. Through google translate, cerades and our taxi driver, the locals conveyed that a few Chinese families did once live in this village, however they either all moved or died. Only 1 family remained and they lived in the neighboring village, Chauk.

Village Square

My grandfather once said 400-500 people lived in his village, and only about 5 families from China. Besides anyone being Chinese this still seemed accurate. Although it felt like 30 thatched homes made up this village, it was expansive, and the locals said Pyinma consisted of hundreds.


One man said his 98 year old father may remember my family and he jumped in the taxi and we headed to his home. It was obvious that this man had never ridden in a car before as he didn’t understand, how to open the door, close the door and hit his head getting in. We arrived at a thatched home with cows and chickens. We exchanged smiles and laughs with the elderly man. I said my grandfathers name and his parents names, however he did not remember and may or may not have understood why I was there. He was bundled up and the loft smelt of urine. I wasn’t expecting to get anywhere from this the encounter as it’s been generations since my grandfather last lived here but meeting the locals and being invited into homes was a gift. After, the man took us to his daughters house just to show us off. We dropped off the man and thought we were headed back to Bagan.

10 minutes later our taxi driver said, “Out. Chinese.” We arrived in Chauk the neighboring village where we walked through a crowded market. We saw familiar sites of woman with painted faces, carrying large loads on their head and selling unique produce. Our taxi driver asked a handful of locals and all I could imagine was him asking, “I hear a Chinese family lives here. Where do they live?” Although doubtful, it was a funny. We passed the market and arrived to a small home where two women in their 50s were sitting. Their faces were painted and they spoke Burmese but there was something extremely familiar and comforting about them. They had puffy under eyes, single eyelids and plump checks. They were Chinese. Although their family moved to Burma many generations ago, they were of Chinese decent. They didn’t remember my grandfather as they would not have yet been born when he lived there. We tried to ask why Chinese families moved to Burma but couldn’t get a clear answer. After exchanging some smiles and saying thank you we headed back to Bagan.

Chauk’s Market

At the end of the day nothing is certain but the probably that my grandfather too stared at the same vast Irrawaddy river and spent time at this village’s pagoda was moving. It wasn’t hard to imagine what this village looked like 90 years ago because I doubt much has changed. I think it’s important to hold onto you roots because it’s a part of who we are. It makes us unique. So I am thankful for Gung Gung’s stories of riding water buffalo, seeing snow for the first time and praying to the Buddhist banana tree gods. I wish I knew more and asked more questions but am thankful for those who did.

After a successful day, Nick and I spent our last morning in Bagan watching the sunrise. We watched from the top of Pyathada Paya, as 30 hot air balloons floated through the sky.


Yangon (Rangoon)

After running with our bags to catch the 12:35 train to Yangon, Nick and I boarded the car covered in sweat. It took 6 hours to make the 107 mile journey topping out at 31 mph. Although it felt like we could run faster, it gave us time to soak in our surroundings. Nick and I have been constantly stared at in Myanmar, but the stares quickly turn to smiles and we befriended a handful of local passengers on the train. Men and woman walk the cars selling quail eggs, oranges, grilled fish, peanut brittle, cigarettes, powdered coffee, and betel nut until their baskets are empty. Woman balance these large baskets on their head and jump from car to car. Our new friends bought nick and I corn which was the favorite snack among the locals. The huge yellow cob of corn was sweet and juicy. We also tried white and purple corn which had hardy kernels that were extremely starchy and filling. Nick and I watched kids from every town come to the tracks to wave as the train passed. It seemed like it was their daily form of entertainment. Young boys would bike their sisters down and they would just stare as we passed by. As we approached Yangon we gazed out our windows speechless as we passed by fields of garbage and dilapidated inner city complexes.



Yangon was an interesting colonial city. Unlike Phenom Penh, there were huge side walks, parks, railways and relatively organized traffic. I could imagine a time when this city was thriving but now it felt as if there were few updates since British rule. It was undeveloped, but in a different way than Cambodia or Laos. The smell of human waste and fish oil seemed to follow us. Betel nut stations were found on every corner. Locals watered the street in front of their homes and storefronts every evening to reduce dust and vats of public drinking water could be found every hundred feet. Somehow we had amazing luck with the public bus system. Although we had no information before getting on any bus, somehow we were able to predict the routes based on major city roads. We were clearly an uncommon occurrence for the locals.




Betel Nut

During our time in Yangon Nick and I visited Shwedagon Paya, Myanmar’s main stupa which was part of a larger complex (82 other buildings). We visited a St. Mary’s Cathedral and the large Bogyoke Aung San Market. We celebrated Myanmar’s Independence Day at People’s Park with a chocolate milkshake (powdered chocolate milk, shaken) and on what appeared to be the country’s only rollercoaster. Although this may have not been the safest decision we’ve made on our travels, we laughed at the scene. Hundreds of locals watched in fear, gasping, as the cars flipped upside. There seemed to be a line of 10 people so we patiently waited our turn. When we were next, somehow 30 people pushed and shoved in front of us and we had to wait 3 rounds. We also lost at the pushing game while riding the city trains, Nick and I will have to improve on this before India!

Favorite Yangon Eats: Indian Chief, Aung Thukha and Lucky Seven.

Independence Day Celebrations
Dragon Boat Pagoda
Quail Egg Street Food

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

Transitioning Countries & Genders

Nick and I entered Myanmar through Mai Sot, which has only been open to foreigners for a year. We found this border crossing to be the least regulated and least developed we’ve experience. As we left Thailand, I was surprised that no one checked the first page of my passport to make sure that it was mine. As we walked across the bridge over no man’s land, we observed a homeless family and watched boats illegally (and obviously) take people across the river. As we entered Myanmar immigration there were no ques, no other foreigners, unexperienced workers and my passport was stamped upside down. Although, the process seemed unorderly for foot traffic, the truck loads of produce, motorbikes, toys and other goods seemed to be more regulated.

Illegal border crossings

After crossing the border, Nick and I arranged a ride to Mawlamyine in a car full of bananas. During the 3 hour ride we must have stopped 10 times to grease some hands at military checkpoints. We drove past water buffalo, pagodas, and thatched homes (these homes used large dried leaves to construct the roof). My first observation was the drastic difference between Thailand and Myanmar. It’s was night and day. It’s unfathomable how one day someone decided to draw a line on a map, call it a border, and now it changes the way people live. The amount of opportunity and development in Myanmar lacks without hesitation in comparison to Thailand. Myanmar is dirty, poor, the roads are outdated and there is civil conflict. However, what this country lacks in development makes up for in generosity and curiosity among the people.

We arrived to the small town of Mawlamyine (Myanmar’s 3rd largest city) just in time to observe the sunset over the river. We didn’t know what to expect, some people said traveling in Myanmar was off the beaten path, while others said it felt like the rest of the Southeast Asia tourist loop.

Here were some of our first impressions:

–  Woman and children wear white paint on their face which is made from ground bark (Thanaka). It is believed to be fragrant, cosmetic, contain natural spf, is an anti- fungal and helps to promote smooth and blemish free skin. Some wear it as makeup and it’s painted on in designs (large circles on their checks and forehead, lines under their eyes, or swirls) while others simply paint their entire face.

– Men and woman (most commonly the older generation but also seen among young adults) have stained black teeth. This is from chewing betel nut which is a dark red nut mixed with other spices wrapped in a banana leaf and provides a similar buzz to chewing tobacco.

– We’ve seen traditional skirts worn by women throughout Southeast Asia, however not only does the majority of the population  in Myanmar wear them, the majority of men wear them. They are called Longhis and are quite stylish. Locals more freely express their individuality through their dress and hairstyles in comparison to any other Asian country we’ve visited.

– There is an enormous Indian influence as the British brought people from Indian to Myanmar to work during colonialism.

– The older generation (mostly males) can speak English, due to American’s presence during WWII.

– The locals are interested in discussing politics (when they feel it’s safe) and will pull over on their motorbike to ask you about Trump, Putin, etc.

– Woman carry goods on their head, and as in the rest of Asia, seem to do all of the work.

– Pagodas cover hill tops and every poor town will have a large gold pagoda peaking out above the trees.

– Nick and I question our choice to travel in Myanmar. By traveling here we are financially supporting the government. Should we have skipped the country entirely? The local newspapers are a constant reminder of the darker issues at hand.

– Everything is done by hand in Myanmar. We’ve watched woman and children create, asphalt and pave roads and sidewalks.

Manual Labor

Th next morning we walked around the market while locals smiled, waved or simply stared. Although there are a handful of tourists in this city, their presence is extremely low. We walked around town and watched horse and buggies transport goods or people. We observed a mosque located directly across the street from a Buddhist temple and children monks collecting their daily offerings. Later, we loaded onto a large canoe with 20 locals and headed to Ogre Island. Here we experienced how locals made rubber bands, coconut rope, coconut mats, bamboo hats, and wooden pipes. We returned to Mawlamyine to enjoy some delicious dollar Indian food.

Mawlamyine Market
Handmade Pipe

The local ethnic minority group, Karen’s, celebrated their New Years a week earlier and Nick and I were unsure how we’d celebrate our New Years, if at all. We saw a slip of paper at our guesthouse that was printed in English, “You are cordially invited to our New Years celebration!” and listed some details. We didn’t know what to expect. Maybe there was a small expat community or maybe it would be a small local party? We arrived at an extremely wealthy gated home that doubled as a fitness gym, salon, custom dress design and modeling agency. What was this place? We were greeted with excitement by some local women in extravagant dresses and told to eat, drink, dance and enjoy. There ended up being 5 other foreigners and after about a half an hour, it clicked. We were among Mawlamyine’s transgendered community watching a talent show in the yard of a home that catered toward women in the industry. We were baffled as we did not think the people of Myanmar or government would be accepting, however because we were so close to the Thai border maybe they were more open to it. We rang in the new year with the largest fireworks in town, ate freshly made dosais and danced on stage with 15 ladies. It was a fun, funny, and an unique experience that I will never forget. Here is to a 2017, a new year, hopefully full of world peace, compassion and environmental improvement.

New Year’s Party!