Yangon and Back – Circle Loop Myanmar: 11.11.2013

On our final day in Myanmar we woke early and got chatting with another traveler. It was certainly interesting to hear another person’s point of view about Myanmar and great to get some advice and insight into travel in Vietnam – a destination we’re headed to next month.
What I found interesting was thinking about Myanmar as being a country that, at the present moment, can be seen changing, growing and developing so quickly. In some ways, you could “feel” the development and changes around you, so to speak; especially in the tiny town of Hsipaw, for example, where seven new guest houses are currently being built to be ready late 2013, in order to keep up with the demand for accommodation. That’s how quickly tourism appears to be growing and an example of how much more accessible Myanmar will continue to become.

Matt joined us this morning for breakfast and the three of us decided to go together on the city circle loop train around the entire of Yangon today – a different type of tourist attraction, you could say, that offers insight into the different areas of Yangon and a glimpse at life in and around this city.

We walked down to the train station, accidentally stumbling into a fascinating morning market in full swing. There were locals everywhere eating and slurping bowls of noodles, fried goods bubbling away in boiling vats of oil, people sitting drinking tea, people buying and selling and the pungent smell of raw meat mixed with fresh produce floating through the air. If we hadn’t been in a hurry to catch the 10:15 circle loop train no doubt we would’ve stopped for a snack and a few photographs.

When we arrived at the train station, walking past vendors selling slices of fresh watermelon and water, we purchased our tickets and found out the train was now departing at 10:45am. We could’ve spent more time at that little hidden morning market, after all – oh well.
I went off to use the toilet at the other end of the station platform, leaving Jake and Matt with my bag – and my wallet. The platform was dotted with families sitting and eating, food vendors, news paper sellers, fruit sellers, toy sellers… such an interesting sight.
Once I’d finished using the toilet I went to leave and was met with a tiny frail woman making smooching noises at me to get my attention, beckoning me to pay her money for using one of the filthiest, foul-smelling toilets of this entire trip to date. I motioned “no money” to her and walked away whilst she made even louder smooching noises at me. It was quite a comical situation, in my head.
I still don’t really understand this concept that seems to be found all over Asia, where you must pay to use the public toilets. Someone sits all day outside toilet blocks that are more often than not beyond filthy, putrid, foul smelling and covered in urine and shit. Squatting over a poo-covered hole in the ground whilst trying not to touch any surface, contract any disease or vomit from the stench, I wonder why I need to fork out money for someone to do nothing. Seeing as there is no water to flush, no toilet paper to use, and very clearly no cleaner working, I see no reason to pay. Perhaps if the toilets were kept in a useable condition that didn’t pose a threat to my health – and my life – I might be a little more willing to hand over money. Furthermore, whilst I have to pay to inhale toxic waste, men are quite happy to shit freely over the side of the train platform or urinate on the toilet block wall. Rant over.

On the train, which cost us just 1200 kyat ($1.20 AU) for the three hour round trip, we sat back in clean seats and watched the life of local Burmese move past. It was incredibly fascinating to see life around Yangon: little markets set up on train station platforms, religious aspects of every day life, monks riding trains (one monk in particular took a liking to us three), locals carrying all sorts of goods, little children forever smiling and waving at us – and lots of adults too. We took the train to simply see the people and life here and seeing as the train moved at a walking – jogging pace for most of the journey, we were able to get some fantastic views and photos. We really were able to see a great deal and enjoy the slow paced journey.

With the sun shining, I moved to the open train doorway and sat on the steps with my feet dangling out of the train. It was a really amazing feeling – I felt so free and calm; the heat of the sun and the cool breeze from the slow-moving train was brilliant. I’ve never felt so free as during this Asian Adventure, and this moment sticks out in my memory.
From the train steps I was offered a full view of the sights, scenery, homes, villages, markets and people. The locals smiled at me and I waved to the children who took delight in calling out “hello.”

The train ride was great, really, and very unique to Myanmar in my opinion.
Walking back into town, the three of us went to Lucky Seven Tea House where we ordered tea: the “little sweet” tea, not the “diabeties tea,” although we were still under some threat from the amount of sugar.

Eventually we said goodbye to Matt who left for the airport shortly after – it had been fantastic travelling with him this past week and we had a lot of fun together.

We stopped off for lunch at a street food stall where I ordered a Burmese food known as hot-pot mee shay noodles. I watched as the young boy added various noodles, vegetables, quail eggs, tofu and miscellaneous edible items into a clay pot, added sauces and spices and then bought it to the boil over an open flame. This dish is one of my favourite dishes in Myanmar, as long as it is from a street stall and not a restaurant.

We spent the afternoon flitting about; we tried to find Jacob a barber so he could get a beard trim but no luck – the barber was there, sitting outside his shop, but obviously just didn’t feel like working and put his feet up, telling us to “come back tomorrow.” If we were in India still, there would’ve been several street barbers within a 50 metre radius, all ready to go. Funny.
I like it.

Packing our backpacks for the final time in Myanmar, we prepared for our flight to Thailand tomorrow. It’s hard to believe our travels in Myanmar are now already over and tomorrow we’ll be meeting my brother and mother in Thailand.
It’s going so quickly – too quickly – but I just can’t work out how to slow the time down. Often I remind myself and am consciously aware of how incredible this moment is, this experience is, this adventure is, but I know for some reason I can’t ever fully comprehend what I’m doing and seeing until it’s in the past and I am looking back and reflecting upon ‘that moment from before…’

Already it’s mid-November – next month is December, the last month of 2013! – and I’m already starting to become a little anxious about going home to Melbourne. I have these worries about fitting back into a routine and an environment that will no doubt cause some sort of ‘reverse culture shock.’
Asia has become so normal, so comfortable, so convenient and so continuously exciting and entertaining; it feels so… well, it’s become my every day and I really love the mess, the noise, the smells, the chaos, the hectic traffic and the unorganised-everything. Asia is free spirited in so many ways – disorderly and full of odd and strange things, shocking things and enthralling things… I think – I know – I’ll miss this madness that makes me smile.

I think what I adore most about the life style here is the continual blatantly obvious differences between my own culture and the Asian cultures. I’m always being entertained, educated, thrilled, excited, confronted, challenged, questioned; I am always aware of how out of my depths I am in so many ways yet so conscious of how much I thrive in the different environments I am in. I love the lifestyle I am living currently and how much I am learning and the way my thoughts, opinions and attitudes are forming. I love the atmosphere, the people, the street food stalls and tiny plastic chairs, the six-times-a-day cups of tea, the constant moving and changing. I love our ‘the night before’ packing sessions and dumping our bags in the next destination once we arrive, and I feel completely settled even though every few days we’re on the move again. This part of the world suits me in so many ways and, really, I feel so happy to know that I’ve truly embraced it all.

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Golden Myanmar: 10.11.2013

We’d arrived early into Yangon after an overnight bus from Inle Lake and had shared a taxi back to the same guest house we’d first stayed in on our arrival here in Myanmar. Matt was also staying at the same place so we ended up having breakfast together and made plans to visit the Shwedagon Pagoda this afternoon and evening.

Once we’d checked into our room, showered and started feeling remotely human again after the over night bus ride with little sleep, we ventured out into the streets of Yangon. I was keen to find a certain shop I’d researched so we took a taxi to a mall where this shop supposedly was. No luck.
Another taxi and we arrived at “Scotch Market” – a market that is massive and diverse in what it sells, catering to tourists and locals alike (although, I think they are two very separate areas). It was evident before we even barely walked through the entrance that the prices were highly inflated tourist prices and we were pretty happy to not buy the $300 USD miniature statue of Buddha, nor the antique something a rather for $500 USD. Every sales person wanted us to buy gems or jade stone, gold, silver, antiques, fabrics, clothing, shoes, local goods, everything and anything – and of course, they would promise profusely to give good price and big discount.

The market was okay; we ran into Matt – we keep running into him – and had a quick chat before deciding we’d had enough of the touting and jade scams. On exiting the market we came across a lady selling some sort of street food snack – a local sweet – that involved some sort of sweet bean in a rice covering. It was half-decent.
Whilst I think some Burmese food is really incredible (like Shan Noodles and Shan Tofu Salad), I’ve noticed the food in Myanmar as a general rule is lacking something, and more often than not, a little bit more on the bland and ridiculously oily side…

We soon left the market area and walked through the streets, navigating our way to a famous Indian curd and sweet shop. We found the shop and ordered ourselves a lassi each which was probably the closest we’ve come to finding authentic Indian food/drink outside of India.
Although it was boiling hot outside and we were quickly drenched in sweat, it was a pleasure and a joy to walk through the streets of Yangon. I feel safe here and I like the old, weathered buildings. I like the people and the traffic, the food stalls on the streets and the miniature chairs. The streets are easy to navigate too – they go by numbers such as 19th, 20th, 21st etc.
It’s nice to end in the city we started in after travelling throughout other areas of Myanmar – I feel we’ve returned with a different view of the city and more of an understanding.

We stopped by a noodle shop that was supposed to be one of the better places (according to our almost useless guide book) to eat at but the food was just barely okay; I ordered something and was bought out something completely different and five times the price, meanwhile, the owner didn’t understand any English when I said it might not be what I ordered, but then very fluently tried to sell me her amazing guide services… We decided again, after countless times previously, we are ditching the guide book and it’s outdated and unreliable information.

Late afternoon we met up with Matt in our guest house lobby and caught a taxi to Shwedagon Pagoda together for the evening to watch the sun set. Previously when we’d first arrived in Yangon we’d decided to ask other travellers if this pagoda was worth paying to visit; seeing as there are thousands upon thousands of pagodas in Myanmar and we were also going to Bagan, we wondered if it was more spectacular… as it turns out, our three hours spent there has become a true highlight of our time in Myanmar. It was pretty spectacular sight – especially as day turned to night and the massive golden pagoda shined and glowed in the changing light and lit up when the sky turned a royal then dark blue.

Our bare feet soaked up the heat of the sun through the tiles on the ground as we walked throughout the pagoda grounds. The area was just so massive and the pagoda was just so spectacular and impressive. The gold was shining from every angle in the sun light and surrounded by so many other religious statues and areas for people to worship.
Whilst we didn’t understand the religious ceremonies, rituals, practices and monuments, it was fascinating to watch everyone practicing their religion and spirituality. It felt very special to be able to witness and be surrounded by this religion that is such an integral part of the local’s lives.
Watching monks meditating, people praying, people offering gifts and volunteers spending their time to ensure the areas of the pagoda were kept in good condition was very humbling.

What I especially loved seeing was the locals and families who had come to the pagoda with large containers of food, blankets to sit on and plates to eat on. So many families were sitting in groups eating in the surroundings of the pagoda, the social family and community aspects of this pagoda really stood out to me and it was really quite a beautiful part of our experience there.

Watching the sky turning from daylight to a royal blue to dark, and the pagoda go from a shining gold to being lit up against the night sky was spectacular, and we were grateful for the opportunity to see this sight at this time of the day.

Once the sky had turned to dark and after more than three hours at the Shwedagon pagoda, we left and walked a few kilometres to 19th street, a street famous for hawker and street food stalls and open grills.
The entire street was packed with people eating and grilling, every eatery had a stall of fresh skewers and touters keen for business.

It was enjoyable for us to be out in the fun and bustling night-time atmosphere and a cool experience with good company. It’s Matt’s last night in Myanmar as he returns to the UK tomorrow evening.

Late evening the three of us took a walk from 19th back to our guest house on 54th street. After little sleep on last nights bus ride and a full on day today, we were in bed and asleep by 9pm.

Tomorrow is our final day in Myanmar and it’s hard to believe; our time here has been incredible and time has flown…

Cheers to Myanmar: 9.11.2013

The serene sounds of boats and their diesel engines chugging and spluttering on the canal outside our bungalow woke us early on our final day in Inle Lake.

We spent our morning collecting our washing that we’d strung up on the balcony, backpacker stye (so fresh and clean again!) and packed our bags at a leisurely pace.
Eventually we headed to the local market where we discovered a local black smith selling pairs of hand made scissors and other items.
We’ve seen these scissors everywhere in Myanmar – the Burmese use them for everything it seems, especially cooking and food handling/cooking/cutting/miscellaneous chopping/slicing/dicing/shaving/grating/everything. (What’s that, you need that boiled egg still in it’s shell chopped in half? Here are some scissors...) We ended up buying a few pairs for ourselves and as gifts for our mothers; we felt this was a true Myanmar product and really special.

We found ourselves sitting at a tiny counter inside the market feasting on beautiful freshly prepared tofu salad with both fried and fresh beancurd, cabbage, chilli, oil, corriander and unpressed bean curd. The locals seemed shocked that these two foreigners would even give this little stall a second glance, let alone sit down and eat there. For me, this meal was a highlight dish amongst the meals we’ve eaten in Myanmar.

Back at guest house we hired bikes with the plan to cycle out to a morning market near by (part of the rotating market) however the staff failed to tell us that morning (“Oh yes it on all morning”) that it finished by 9am so we missed out completely. Oh well.
Instead, we cycled straight out to the near by Red Mountain Winery, about a 20 – 30 minute ride along some pretty nice and some pretty rough roads, over construction sites and through beautiful scenery.

As was common in Myanmar, we arrived at the Winery to find a massive tour bus of elderly French tourists who had taken over much of the indoor area. Our luck – we chose a seat next to the window to do a very fancy wine tasting for 2000 kyat ($2) each before running into Matt yet again, and then moving outside into the open air and beautiful weather for a few more hours of nothing but pure happiness. It was surreal; yet again a reminder of how lucky we are and how wonderful this trip has been and is. I’d never expected to be sipping reislings and roses at a winery in Myanmar, but here we are… and it’s amazing.

We cycled back into town around 2pm and stopped by a small photography exhibition by a local artist. His photographs of tribal villages and local people were pretty impressive.

We had a late lunch at two different places – whilst I stuck to Shan noodles from a little restaurant, Jake decided against my warnings to be adventurous and order curry from a filthy hole in the wall. The meat curry had no doubt been sitting out in the heat all day and as I watched him eat I knew there would be consequences for eating such a meal…

The rest of our afternoon was spent quietly – we were leaving for Yangon this evening and had no more plans for the rest of the day. I spent time catching up on my travel journal and we relaxed in the sun and the shade of our guest house until our pick-up arrived at 6:30pm to take us to the bus stop. Our time in Inle Lake was now over.

Funnily enough, we were taking the same overnight bus back to Yangon with Matt; we all boarded our luxurious VIP bus (again, these buses in Myanmar always amaze me – they are so luxurious!), reclined our seats, accepted our bag of Myanmar cookies given to each passenger as a welcome gift, accepted the cans of cold soft drink, tucked away our little toiletries packet for later and located the on board toilets…

…so that Jake could spend the entire journey vomiting that dodgy curry up into the sink.
Shit. He’d been struck down.

After almost 12 hour spent on our cushioned recliners and some ridiculously bumpy, rough and dangerous roads, we arrived into Yangon around 6:30am.

We’d now reached our final destination here in Myanmar.

Unexpected Myanmar: 24 – 26.10.2013

The alarm went off at 2:45am on the morning of the 24th; with our eyes feeling as though they were hanging out of our heads and our bodies heavy after only three or so hours sleep, we hauled our packs onto our backs and walked out into the dark, empty streets of Kuala Lumpur in an attempt to find a taxi.
The taxi dropped us at KL Sentral Station, where we were instantly able to board the bus bound direct for the airport – one hours bus ride meant one more hours sleep, and I woke as we pulled into the International Departure Drop-Off area. I didn’t feel ready for Myanmar in so many ways, but I guess, as per usual, the unknown was the scariest part. With out knowing what the country would be like and with so much conflicting information, it was hard to know what we were heading for… an odd mix of hesitation and excitement began.

Arriving into Myanmar, we flew over several golden pagodas emerging from the landscape below and glistening in the morning sun. We were here, finally, in “the land of a thousand pagodas.” Somewhere amongst the sheer exhaustion and uncertainty of what this country had in store for us, I felt excited.

With our bags collected and clinging to our pristine, clean, new US dollars, we headed for immigration – past a very large – empty! – VISAS ON ARRIVAL counter with several customs officers sitting, waiting… Flash backs of the absolute ordeal that was getting our Myanmar visas in Kathmandu, Nepal, were suddenly entering my mind – but it didn’t matter; the lady stamped my passport and ushered me through. We went directly to the money exchangers at the airport; regardless of what the guide book says, the best exchange rate for USD to Myanmar Kyat was surprisingly at the airport; confusing – yes, but true!

Feeling suddenly very rich with a thick wad of thousands of kyats in our hands, we headed towards the exit and walked out into Yangon’s morning heat. Headed for our guest house in the city centre, we hopped into a car with right hand side steering wheel, with a driver that drove on the right hand side of the road… and sometimes the left… and sometimes in the centre…or anywhere he really felt like, or fitted, really…

The city centre was an hours taxi ride away and as we rolled towards our guest house we tried to take in the sights and sounds of a new country whizzing past our eyes. We were instantly reminded of Laos and the fact that we were absolutely not in Japan any more. Pagodas shimmering in the sunlight were dotted amongst buildings and greenery. The roads were filled with traffic that was still hectic compared to say, Japan or Melbourne, but nothing like what we’ve experienced else-where in Asia. We immediately felt a sense of calm here. The cars on the road were older, some rusting, lots of Japanese models… it was quickly obvious that one classic style of transport found everywhere else in Asia was missing… where were the motorbikes? Turns out, there are none: motorbikes are illegal here in Yangon.

When we eventually arrived at our budget guest house – which we’d paid a whopping $45 US dollars for (yes, that is for just one night in a basic room with shared bathroom) – we were at first a little (and by a little, I mean, a lot) taken back…We’ve not paid more than about $17 for any accommodation this entire trip and when we have (which has been very rarely) we’ve gotten absolute luxury in return. From our past experiences in Asia – particularly in South East Asia – we recall paying around $5 for a decent room or dorm room with a bathroom, so it was a very rude shock to our budget to find out that $25 – $35 per night is pretty standard for budget accommodation here in Myanmar…
So, our first impressions? We needed to make a bit of an adjustment to our budget (and our mindset), which we’d been expecting to sit around the $35 per day mark. Shit…

After sleeping away the morning, both of us woke feeling groggy and run down. We ventured out to find a place to eat and ended up walking through the streets – passing so many friendly and curious faces, avoiding large gaping holes, rubbish, upturned rubble and uneven ground on the footpaths, breathing in car fumes and delicious smelling street food.

Yangon seems quieter than other Asian cities we’ve been to but still full of traffic, people and life, buzzing with activity, little shops and street carts, open air food stalls, men carrying large bird cages full of birds on their backs, women cooking on ancient stove tops fueled by hot coals and fresh fruit for sale that is always so tempting… so much is happening and it feels great to be back amongst the grungy, homely Asia that I fell in love with…

Street food lined the roads and footpaths we walked by – the main foods seemed to involve varied noodle dishes or big pots with a boiling stock, surrounded by bits of skewered meat that looked very much like organs of some description. Vendors were mixing noodle salads by hand under the shelter of their tiny carts or under larger tents set up like make-shift restaurants; people were everywhere eating on tiny child-sized colourful plastic seats. The food all looked so interesting, so delicious (although maybe not the organy looking things…) and it smelled beautiful and fresh; at the same time I felt the need to proceed with caution – I wasn’t ready yet to dive into the street food scene here. Maybe tomorrow…

The Burmese, it seems, are crazy about tea – sweet, milky tea which can be found almost everywhere. Every second building seemed to be a Tea House; complete with concrete floors and child waiters with cigars behind their ears, wooden seats or tiny plastic ones, and people everywhere, sipping tea and making smoochy noises to get the waiters attention.

I love this tea culture we seem to always be following regardless of what Asian country we are in. Although, it’s safe to say I have a severe sweet tea/sugar addiction after the copious amounts of tea we have been consuming in the past 4-odd months and the threat of diabetes is starting to worry me ever so slightly. Asians seem to love their tea SUPER sweet – if you can taste the tea, it’s not sweet enough apparently – and we’ve gotten somewhat used to wincing away the teeth-pain every time we take a sip.
Whilst funny, it wasn’t all that surprising to find a menu in a tea house displaying a number of different options for tea:
Little sweet
Sweetened
House Special (more sweet)
Diabetes

“…aaah, yes, I’ll have the diabetes, thanks…”

We walked gladly through the streets, watching and observing. It’s nice to be surrounded again by a new and different culture yet, oddly it feels really familiar. We keep being reminded of Laos and other areas of South East Asia… and then something new or different is discovered or revealed.

The boys and men here mostly wear lungis – much like the ones the men wear in Sri Lanka, India and Nepal – and it’s quite normal to see people (men and women) with faces and skin smeared with a cream coloured powder – especially all over their face; the traditional make-up of Myanmar that has been worn for thousands of years.

The people here are friendly and curious; their stares are warm and no one tried to cheat us or bother us – apart from one man who offered us a very generous exchange rate on the street – a little too generous – but he was polite when we said no thanks… we knew his tricks!

We eventually found a very local looking restaurant packed with people, took a seat on the tiny red plastic chairs and ordered Burmese tea and a bowl of Shan noodles; our first Myanmar meal. The verdict: delicious.

Our second day in Myanmar was spent doing not a lot at all; it rained heavily in Yangon for most of the day; thunder clapped and the roads and footpaths – even some shops – began to flood.

Feeling so unwell from a nasty coldy-virusy-thing that took hold overnight, venturing out of our room to the downstairs restaurant (that doubles as a strange mobile phone shop) to simply get our breakfast was an effort in itself. The pouring rain meant we spent a lot of time resting today and I didn’t have to feel so guilty about not being outside exploring and sight-seeing.

When we did venture out around lunch time it was still drizzly weather and we were amazed to see roads flooded with brown water, people driving through massive puddles that had become small rivers, men hiking up their lungis to wade through the water and women scooping water out of the shops with dust-pans and stick brooms.
We spent some time just walking along the accessible bits of footpath and taking photographs.
Unable to cross any roads, we were limited to where we could walk without the threat of falling into a flooded pot-hole. We found a little local eatery nearby our guest house and experienced some local food: fermented tea leaf and rice salad and another type of Shan noodle soup.

Our afternoon was quiet as the rain continued to fall. We spent some time trying to plan out our rough route and itinerary. It was quite difficult to plan a route for some reason: I think we were not sure what the best options are, what is available and what we should/must see/do. Furthermore, we were wondering if we need to start booking accommodation now: it’s getting into peak season and it’s become quite clear already from what we’ve seen and heard that there are many tourists in Myanmar and not enough guest houses. This is absolutely something I wasn’t expecting nor planning for – I think the both of us were expecting to be able to travel here like we have done previously in Asia – just show up and take it from there, plan nothing and see what happens… I’m not sure that’s possible here – at least not in high season…
The standard of accommodation also seems to be either very good at a very high price, average to good at an affordable price (although still WAY above our backpacker budget) or horrible (think horror film scenes) at a budget, but still over-priced price. Seeing as I refuse to sleep in a grimey prison cell, we decided we need to at least book ahead a place before we arrive there.

When we were researching Myanmar before we left Australia we used our guide book as a rough guide. $7 – 12 rooms seemed reasonable-isha and we imagined it to be quite easy to get accommodation. Amazing how the latest guide book is already SO out of date. This country is obviously changing rapidly and I certainly didn’t expect the level of tourists that are here to be so many. I think it’s safe to say that both of us grossly underestimated Myanmar; the guide book information has now been deemed pretty much useless – besides the maps – and we have not much else to rely on besides word-of mouth.

Our second evening was spent at the local night market which was alive and full of people. I adore Asian wet markets and never tire of seeing them in action – they always have something new, exciting, interesting and often foul-smelling on offer. It’s so impressive and fascinating to see bare footed women and men sitting on – again – tiny plastic chairs, cutting open animals on the ground with massive knives in one big chop. Chickens are displayed – beheaded and befooted(??) – right next to the massive river fish sitting alongside tied-up crabs, flicking prawns and the organs and heads of pigs.
The colour at this night market was intense and I loved it – it could be seen in the countless types of fresh fruit and vegetable as well as in the coloured clothing that everyone seems to be wearing. Black-clad fashion conscious Melbourne would go into shock with all these wild colours and patterns.
There were no tourists at this night market, no tacky souvenirs on sale or people pushing us to “only looking – looking is free.” We wandered about enjoying ourselves in the cool night air, finding serenity in the loud buzzing and pumping of generators and the harsh light of the powerful fluorescent lamps.

I seriously love Asia.

On our final day in Yangon – for now – we had good intentions to visit the famous Shwedagon Pagoda… but it never happened. Whilst the weather was better today, both of us were still run down with a nasty cold and decided to spend a decent portion of our day planning out and organising the rest of our trip.
Whilst I usually hate planning in advance and would much rather just ‘wing it’, judging from what the guest house owners and other travelers have said (one couple told us it was virtually impossible to find a room on arrival at some of the bigger tourist destinations they went to), it seems pre-booking accommodation in advance during high season was pretty much a must.
With the assistance of the incredibly helpful and generous staff at our guest house, we were able to call and reserve accommodation. I was amazed to discover how difficult it was to reserve a room at even the most basic of guest houses; at one point we had to try five different guest houses before we could find one with availability for our visit to Inle Lake in two weeks time.

We booked ourselves seats on the night bus to Bagan for the evening and requested VIP seats on the “best bus;” we handed over $18 each and wondered what standard that would result in – memories of our “Ultra Deluxe Bus” in India that was in reality much more like a prehistoric rust bucket sprung to mind…

At around 6pm we left our guest house to take a taxi to the bus station, which was more than an hour drive away from the city centre. It took a while to find a taxi that would even take us  there– apparently none of the drivers felt like sitting in traffic or driving us that far…
Eventually – thankfully – one agreed to take us and the next hour and a half was spent stuck in traffic jams, hectic traffic and near misses. Our taxi driver kept phoning the bus company and confirming that we’d be there on time – I think he was worried we’d miss our bus which was making me a bit nervous, but we made it there at check-in time at exactly 7:30pm (that was after our driver stopped twice to casually urinate on the side of the road) – what a guy!

Arriving into the bus station was like driving into a mini city with a thousand buses and people and cars and taxis all trying to move through a small space. Our taxi driver took us right up to our bus company station where he then got out of the car, took our bags, took us to the counter where we handed over our tickets, passports and luggage, helped us with whatever we needed and then made sure we got on the bus and waved us goodbye – again, what a guy!

Stepping onto the bus, we found it hard to believe this was a bus in Myanmar. All those horror stories about “some of the worst buses in the world”… prffft. This was the most luxurious bus I have honesty ever been on. We were greeted immediately by a female staff member who turned out to be the bus stewardess, and smiled and welcomed by the portly bus driver. The bus was clean, new and had only three seats across each row: the seats were massive, comfortable, they reclined and had foot rests. I know this is a lot of detail to be giving out about a bus, but it needs to be understood that we were all in a state of shock – this type of luxurious transport has been non-existent during our travels to date and we were not expecting to find it here in Myanmar – we were overjoyed.. Even more so, there was no neon deities adorning every section of wall and ceiling and no loud tacky karaoke. Holy shit – we might actually get some sleep tonight…