I’d booked three days at the Yaga youth hostel before getting to Yangon and because of their cancelation policy I couldn’t get the money back for my last night, that’s thirty bucks down the drain but on the plus side it meant that, still feeling ill, I could chill out in my room later than the midday check out time. As I checked out I asked the girl working on reception to call a taxi for me. She looked a little confused at first, which confused me, then walked over to a girl who was sat in the lobby and said that she had a ticket for the same bus going North to Bagan. It made much more sense to head there together and split the fare.
The taxi turned up with about two hours to get to the bus station, allowing for traffic and check in time on the bus which gave me plenty of chance to chat. Karishma was from Hong Kong and after deciding to quit her job as a recruiter for a law firm, she had spent the last couple of months travelling, going to Australia, Sri Lanka and India to visit her grandmother. She had arrived a day earlier for her first time in Myanmar, where she was planning on staying for a week before meeting a friend in Chang Mai. We got chatting our travel experiences then we got onto our plans for the next week, finding out that we had randomly both booked the Blazing hotel in Bagan.
Bagan was 10 hours away and we were due to arrive at 5am. I’d booked a ticket on the ‘VIP’ bus up to Bagan which I knew wouldn’t be much more luxurious that the standard bus, but for an extra one pound fifty I was will to risk it for a few extra perks. I take it as given that the buses over here will never have any inkling of accessibility, but I’m happy enough to lift myself up the steps to the front seat and the staff will give me a hand with the stuff I take on with me, which usually includes my chair cushion, pillow, jacket and small rucksack. Spending the extra money on the ‘VIP’ bus ticket was definitely worth it, I got a reclining seat with a footrest that didn’t have another seat next to it, there was a neck pillow and blanket hanging over the seat.
It was a fairly smooth bus journey and I managed to get a couple of hours kip before we arrived at Bagan early the next morning. I waited with Karishma for a taxi that the hotel had organised to pick her up from the bus station, after twenty minutes we decided it wasn’t coming and started to haggle with local taxi drivers to get a good deal to get to the hotel. We got to the hotel around 6am and talked to the receptionist about the possibility of an early check in. The rooms were empty and we paid an extra twelve dollars to check in early – this was money well spent as with a few hours sleep the next day was going to be a lot easier. I got a free upgrade from the standard to superior room as it was located on the ground floor.
Over breakfast the next morning, Karishma and I decided to go and visit some of the pagodas and maybe take a look in town later on. Instead of paying for each individual taxi ride as I’d done in Yangon, it made more sense to hire a taxi for half a day (ended up being more like seven hours) which was going to be twenty five dollars, split by two it turned out to be a real money saver. The pagodas in Bagan were brilliant; they were smaller than the ones I’d seen down in Yagon but looked less restored and more authentic – there were a lot less tourists which a more comfortable environment to explore in.
After looking round a couple of pagodas we decided to use the taxi to have a look round the town, as it turns out Bagan is quite a small town and there wasn’t much to see. It was mid-afternoon by now and realising that we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, decided to go and get a late lunch and a couple of beers. Looking at the map, there was a place called Sunset Garden that looked like it would be a good place to go as it was on the side of the river. We got some noodles at the restaurant then drank until the sun went down. It was an amazing place to watch the sunset from, after the tourist group had left the place was silent and you were able to hear birds calling from the distance. The clear, still water of the river that appeared not to move, reflecting the fiery colours of the sunset as they slowly disappeared over the mountain skyline. It seemed like a shame to leave but the taxi driver came in and we realised that we’d gone past the seven o’clock cut off point. Back at the hotel I managed to get my head down for an hour before we went to a local place for more drinks. I got a couple of drinks down me before I hit the wall, my head started spinning and I was feeling really fatigued – this doesn’t happen very often, if at all, so I went back to the hotel to crash out.
The next morning I was feeling a lot better as I ate breakfast, then out of nowhere my head started spinning again. The only thing that I could put this down to was heat stroke from the previous day when I’d spent a lot of time out in the midday sun, done a lot of work transferring in and out of the car and probably not drank enough water. I wouldn’t have expected to feel like this the day after but here I was. This put me in a bit of a predicament as I really wanted to go to Inle Lake before I left Myanmar and I had a flight booked for the following Monday meaning that the only way I was going to fit this in was to suck it up and take the bus that night. I was feeling like shit and had heard that it wasn’t the most comfortable ride to Inle as there was a mountain pass that could get a little rough. I lay on my bed and tried to get as much rest as I could before I checked out and would have to make my decision on what to do.
I took all my gear to reception still feeling like crap and checked out. I still wasn’t 100% what the best thing to do was but I wanted to make the most of this trip and decided to just go for it. I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? Even though I knew it meant I would be cutting it close with my flight out of Myanmar, I booked my (regular) bus ticket and sat in reception where it was a bit cooler and I could get a bit more rest. I must have looked really sick just sitting there, falling asleep on my arm because they kindly gave me my room back until the taxi came later on. I took advantage and went straight back to bed. After some pizza and fries in the afternoon, six o’clock rolled round and while I still wasn’t feeling great, I was much better than I’d felt first thing that morning.
The bus ride to Inle Lake from Bagan was due to be ten hours and after setting off an hour late it meant we should get there for 6am. This was easily the worst bus journey I’d been on in a long time. The best comparison I can draw is the overnight bus I took from the Nepalese border to Kathmandu a couple of years ago which was a mess. It was clear that the driver had done the route to Inle a couple of times before and knew he could put his foot down, a lot. We were overtaking everything possible and getting bounced around like we were in a maraca . I remember looking at the other buses that we were passing and being envious of what a smooth ride they were having. After chatting to some of the other passengers later on, it seemed like everyone had managed to get a bit of sleep, but because my balance isn’t great, every time he slammed the brakes on, turned left or right I’d slide in a different direction which meant I had to stay awake and holding on for the duration.
Thanks to the drivers eagerness/fearlessness we got to Inle lake at 3am, this didn’t really help me as I hadn’t booked anywhere beforehand. Luckily, I wasn’t alone in my lack of planning and had spoken to a couple, Chris and Maggie, from Australia earlier on who had nowhere to stay either. Jan and Bastion were Swiss students who were in the same boat so we all decided to jump in a taxi and start going round the hotels seeing if there was any space available. The first two we stopped at were a no go, the first was too far out and the second one had no rooms available. The third was looking good, they were near the centre of town and had rooms on the ground floor for twenty dollars – the only problem was that they didn’t have any rooms available until 8am. We all felt this wasn’t a major issue and stopping here for a while was preferable to trekking round more hotels in the hope of finding something better.
The Golden House appeared to be a family run business and they were incredibly accommodating from the moment that we arrived. Straight away we given Wi-Fi access and the best coffee that I’d had so far in Myanmar, exactly what I needed as I was really starting to flag at that point. A couple of the guys asked if there was a toilet to use, the chap on reception invited them in to his flat next door to use his bathroom. His dad later came through offering us his room to rest while our rooms were still unavailable – this generosity was something that I found to be symptomatic of the Myanmar culture.
It was 5am and we were all wide awake after the coffee earlier on. Chatting to the family we were told that today was the floating market, something that was on only once every five days and it was going to be starting at 6:30am. The rooms weren’t going to be ready for another couple of hours and one of them would only be ready at midday so we all decided that it made more sense to head to the market first thing and that way we could get away early as well before the hottest time of the day. The hotel organised a boat for us to go out in that would cost $20 for the day and could fit five people on which was perfect as it meant we would only pay $4 each for the full day on the boat.
We arrived at the dock and saw it was a small, flimsy wooden structure and was only accessible by two shaky looking ladders. Luckily I had help from Chris, Jan and Bastion who lifted me onto the dock and from there it was an easy transfer down into the boat. I sat in one of the wooden seats on the boat and my chair slotted in front of me nicely. Everyone jumped in, the motor started and we were off.
It was instantly clear that we had chosen the right time of day to go to the market because despite being a bit chilly, especially for me sat at the front, the morning mist that was still lying on the river added an element of mystery and looking over to my left I could see an amazing sunrise that was just coming over the mountains in the distance. The river led to the vast expanse that is Inle Lake, this early in the day it was empty of other tourists, just boats transporting food and fishermen that would pose as went past. Despite the last few days that had been trying, I already knew that pushing myself to come here was going to be worth it.
It took us a good 20 minutes to cross the lake and on the far side we joined another river that led us up to the market. We docked the boat and I clambered up a couple of giant steps then started to explore the market. The market was set outside a pagoda and lines of stalls formed a covered circuit to walk around and filled with the kind of things that you would expect to find there, little nik-naks like bits of jewellery, Inle Lake t shirts and statues of Buddha. It was great to hear that all the people on the stalls had picked up a little bit of English that they’d say to you as you went past, “Just looking?” they’d ask. I found the same thing with the kids selling post cards, they would come up and ask where I was from, and when I told them England every one of them would say “England? BBC. Lovely jubbly!”.
We had to cross the lake again to get to our next destination and on the way we passed through a village built on the lake, the houses were all on stilts and the only way of getting about was by boat. It’s quite an incredible thing to see and I wondered how the increase in tourism would affect what must surely be quite a delicate infrastructure, it could help them build it but it could equally be taken down quite easily.
It was impressive to see different parts of the culture that had been reserved for so long as was our next stop to see the Kayan women. These women are from the Kayah region, south of Inle lake and they still practise the tradition of placing brass rings around the necks of young girls so that they get stretched, most people are with familiar with the giraffe women in Africa but the Kayan women have been doing this for 200 years and it is symbolic of the dragons from ancient times. The rings are placed on girls in their early teens and start with a weight of around four kilos; they only get changed another two times up to a weight of seventeen kilos.
The last couple of days have been nonstop and a lot of effort with throwing myself about so much but easily some of the best time that I’ve spent travelling so far. The people in Myanmar are really friendly and bend over backwards to help you out, there are some absolutely stunning locations that are packed with history and culture. I can definitely recommend this place and feel lucky to have got here before the increase in tourism has managed to change it too much.