Myanmar itinerary and highlights 2017

I first visited Myanmar in December 1996. We spent Christmas Day on the atmospheric and quiet Inle Lake. In Bagan we road bikes through empty, dirt roads and met few tourists at the (not yet ”restaured) temples. We passed through landshapes where people lived as in the European middle ages. All seemed to follow the same itinerary during the allowed 14 days visit: Yangon-Mandalay-Bagan-Inle Lake-Yangon. I remember it as one of the most special countries I ever visited.

In 2017, I mainly returned to see those parts of the country, which were not open to tourists in 1996: Mrauk U and surroundings in Rakhine. Hsipaw (and the hill tribes) as well as walking from Kalaw to Inle Lake. As always, I travel independently without guide and make arrangements as I go.

Around Hsipaw
Traditional village, Shan State

Itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive Yangon, visit Schwedagon Pagoda.
Schwedagon pagoda is timeless and had lost nothing in the past 20 years. Still the most impressive pagoda I have ever seen and should clearly be nominated a UNESCO world heritage site.

Shwedagon Pagoda
Shwedagon Pagoda

Day 2: Walk around Yangon
Considering  all tourists spend at least a day here, Yangon seems relatively free from tourists. The somewhat touristy Bogyoke Aung San marked is best avoided, but fabulously authentic markets and streetfoods are available on every corner. Of the major cities in South-East Asia Yangon is my favourite.

Eating like the locals
Street food, Yangon

Day 3: Fly to Sittwe, local pickup (5 h) to Mrauk U

Traveling like the locals, Rakhine State
Traveling like the locals, Rakhine State

Day 4: Visit Mrauk U temples

Mrauk U
Mrauk U

Day 5: Boat trip to Shin villages

Woman with the traditional Chin tattoo
Woman with the traditional Chin tattoo

Day 6: Bus from Mrauk U to Kyaukpadang (1 h from Bagan)
The visit to Mrauk U and Rakhine was the highlight of the trip and described in a separate post

Shin villages on a river near Mrauk U
Shin villages on a river near Mrauk U

Day 7: Local pickup to Mt Popa and hitchhike down to Bagan

Mt Popa
Mt Popa

The temple on top of Mount Popa is the most important nat temple in Myanmar on top of an extinct volcano.
Day 8: Visit Bagan temples
The re-visiting of Bagan was the major disappointment of the entire trip. Quite frankly I find the Disney-like restoration of the site very disturbing and with the massive tourist influx in huge  buses moving between the temples, the site has lost much of its charm.

View over the Bagan plains
View over the Bagan plains

Day 9: Plane to Mandalay and visit Mandalay
Obviously the boat trip on the Irrawaddy is the way I´d recommend for traveling between Bagan and Mandalay. However I already did that in 1996, it takes 12 hour upstream and the plane took 20 minutes and cost less than 50 US dollars.
Day 10: Visit Mandalay
Mandalay is as wide-spread as I remember it and the tourists do not seem to take up much space. The obvious thing to do is to visit Sagaing, Mingun and perhaps Innwa on a day-trip. Which I did in 1996 and did not feel like repeating.

Mandalay street food
Mandalay street food

Day 11: Shared taxi to Pyin Oo Lwin and visit to the Botanical Garden
Shared taxis are of great value: From Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin the price was 4,5 dollars, with pick-up and drop-off at your hotel. The attraction of Pyin Oo Lwin are the Botanical Gardens, special in the context of Myanmar but probably not otherwise a major sight.

Pyin Oo Lwin
Pyin Oo Lwin

Day 12: Train to Hsipaw
The 7 hour train ride to Hsipaw passes the famous Gokteik viaduct as well as seemingly untouched villages.

Gokteik viaduct between Mandalay and Hsipaw
Gokteik viaduct between Mandalay and Hsipaw

Day 13: Hike to Pankam Village
An atmospheric village walk described in a separate post.

Around Hsipaw
Around Hsipaw

Day 14: Visit around Hsipaw village and the market
Although Hsipaw is now on the tourist trail, it is by no means overcrowded.

Hsipaw market
Hsipaw market

Day 15: Shared taxi to Lashio, visit market and plane to Heho, overnight in Pindaya
Lashio is very close to the Chinese border. Almost no English is spoken here, however a small bakery right next to the market served the best caffé latte I had on my entire trip.

Yazegui village
Yazegui village

Day 16: Hike from Pindaya to Yasegyi village and visit Pindaya caves
The Pindaya Caves are a highlight of any visit to Myanmar and the hike up to Yazegui village is lovely.

Pindaya Cave Temple
Pindaya Cave Temple

Day 17: Pick-up to Kalaw and visit town
Kalaw village really is not much of a place to visit, the attractions are the hills outside town.
Day 18:  Kalaw-Inle Lake hike, stay overnight in village

Kalaw-Inle Lake
Kalaw-Inle Lake

Day 19:  Kalaw-Inle Lake and stay in Nyaungschwe
Walking from Kalaw to Inle Lake was another highlight of the trip and described in a separate post.

Kalaw-Inle Lake: On the trail
Kalaw-Inle Lake: On the trail

Day 20: Visit Inle Lake and overnight in hotel on the lake
Inle Lake has also developed into something of a tourist trap: Thousands of boats ply the lack, hundreds of craft-shops are set up for tourists around the lake and the former stilt-town of Nyaungschwe has developed into a nightmare of concrete and construction.

Traditional fisherman on Inle Lake
Traditional fisherman on Inle Lake

Day 21: Visit market and overnight in hotel on the lake
At the far Southern end of Inle Lake, where fewer tourists come, more authentic villages may be visited. But the time is long gone where Inle Lake was an unspoilt destination.

Kayan woman (Long Neck Tribe), Inle Lake
Kayan woman (Long Neck Tribe), Inle Lake

Day 22: Plane to Ngapali Beach
The most developed beach resort in Myanmar. The beach itself is great, lined with small shops selling grilled fish as well as big resorts.
Day 23: Ngapali Beach

Ngapali Beach
Ngapali Beach

Day 24: Plane to Yangon
Again, the plane takes less than 1 hour and costs less than 70 dollars. The bus takes more than 20 hours.
Day 25: Yangon
Day 26: Leave Myanmar

Highlights:

  • Mrauk U and the Chin villages
  • The hill tribe villages around Hsipaw
  • Walking from Kalaw to Inle Lake
  • The Pindaya cave temples
  • Schwedagon pagoda
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Independent hiking in Myanmar

Open any Lonely Planet edition of Myanmar, or talk to any tourist or local you meet, and everyone will tell you that to hike in Myanmar you need a guide: Maps are non-existent and trails are unmarked. Nothing, however could be further from the truth: Myanmar is in fact a superb place to hike without a guide. But you´ll need a GPS. In fact, hiking may be a grand word for the trails commonly frequented by tourists, with hill-walking being a more appropriate term.
This is not the Himalaya, it is not even the foothills of the Himalaya, but the top walks of Myanmar are great cultural walks.

I walked in three areas: Around Hsipaw, around Pindaya and the multi-day Kalaw-Inle Lake. Entirely uncomplicated and all by myself. Several times I would meet other tourist with their guides on my way navigating the quaint paths traversing rice fields and cattle enclosures and they would ask with astonishment how I could possibly find the way? Then I would point to my GPS and say ”electronic guide”..

For this trip I downloaded the tracks from wikiloc, and quite simply followed them. As hiking in Myanmar seems to cater to those not really accustomed to walking, I would normally walk what is labeled a 2-day hike in 1 day and the Kalaw-Inle lake trek (normally labeled a three-day walk) I walked in two days.

Kalaw-Inle Lake
Kalaw-Inle Lake

Hsipaw:
There has presently been some unrest in the hills around Hsipaw and the walk  most seem to do is from Hsipaw to the hillsite Pankam Village, and then return to Hsipaw by car. I downloaded this GPS track, and ended up walking both up to Pankam Village and back in one (though long) day: 32 km, 890 asc/desc. The entire walk, apart from the initial few km´s is along the gravel road between Hsipaw and Pankam Village, located well up in the mountains. Several traditional Shan villages are passed on the way and a man has even set up a Nepalese style lunch-place directly on the road. This is a trail where you almost do not even need a GPS, just follow the road. On the way down from Pankam I met several groups of tourists with guides on their way up, after their obligatory long lunch and morning coffee breaks. The land shape around Hsipaw is very beautiful but I imagine, in more peaceful times, that more interesting trails could be explored than than up (and down) this gravel road. However the villages right at the beginning of the track are fabulously atmospheric.

Around Hsipaw
Around Hsipaw

Pindaya:
The most popular walk around Pindaya is a circular two-day walk from Pindaya up to the modern Shan village of Yazegyi and back. I downloaded this circular track and decided to follow it up and make my own way down, making it a day-walk. The first km out of Pindaya are on gravel road, but soon you follow paths between rice fields and in between mountains until you reach Yazegyi village, fabulously located in the middle of several hilltops and houses painted in bright colour. The nearby mount Yazegyi is clearly visible from the village, an estimated 3 hour return hike, which I estimated I would not have enough time to do. As Yazegui is app. 14 km from Pindaya I decided to follow my own way back down, aided by the GPS via various gravel trails on my way back to Pindaya. A total of 28 km, followed by a visit to the spectacular Pindaya Caves, a highlight of any visit to Myanmar.

Yazegui village
Yazegui village

Kalaw-Inle Lake
For me, the top walk in Myanmar and described in a separate post.

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Kalaw-Inle Lake trek, independently, no guide

I walked from Kalaw to Inle Lake from February 3-4, 2017. Solo and independently, ie. without a guide. You will however need a GPS, as this is not a standard marked hiking trail, rather a trail following foot-paths through pastures.

Kalaw-Inle Lake is the top walk in Myanmar and also the best of the ones I walked. Several trails are available for download on wikiloc, and to be on the safe side I downloaded several as I could not find any specific information about where to sleep, apart from info saying that a guide would be needed to communicate with villagers… Not true, in fact.

Kalaw-Inle Lake: On the trail
Kalaw-Inle Lake: On the trail

I finally ended up following this trail as a wikiloc commenter stated that he had walked it recently without problems. Being 51 km, and seeing that the land shape was only moderately hilly, I decided I would walk it in two days. Finally, I ended up walking 35 km the first day and 17 km the second day:

The trail is very beautiful, a superb cultural walk where fields, cattle and unspoilt villages are passed along the entire trail. The initial 5 km out of Kalaw is on gravel road, then enters into pine forest until you exit the forest and walk along a ridge with superb views passing chili-plucking women, and men guarding their cattle. After 17 km the descent to the road starts (some pass the night in the nearby village at this point), all the time passing villagers working in the fields. The road is reached at 20 km and I considered resting here, but it turned out only a handful of villages in the region are authorized to accommodate foreigners, and this was not one of them. As I was carrying a sleeping bag I was not really in any trouble. With temperatures not below 10 degrees at night I could easily sleep outside if I had to.

Kalaw-Inle Lake: On the trail
Kalaw-Inle Lake: On the trail

I continued to walk on, closely watching my GPS, criss-crossing in between rice fields and crops with many locals saying ”only one”, clearly not used to seeing someone walk entirely alone and without a guide. At around 5 pm I spotted a group of tourists with their guide at the other side of a rice field and I knew I must be close to a tourist-approved village, as the sun sets at 6 pm. Rightly so, and at 6 pm I entered what was a major stop-over village on the Kalaw-Inle Trek. I then found out, that all the guided tours do the Kalaw-Inle as a tree-day hike, choosing various villages for staying overnight the first night, but most staying at this village on night two, unless continuing 2 km to a large monastery.

Kalaw-Inle Lake: On the trail
Kalaw-Inle Lake: On the trail

As I entered the village I immediately knew that I had entered the tourist trail, as a group of 10 walkers yelled ”welcome, you made it” from a table where they were having beers. I walked further into the village, approached some villagers, made the sign for sleeping and was immediately pointed to the house right next to me. Mats on the floor upstairs, bucket shower, toilet, dinner with beer and breakfast: All 7000 Kyats. Incredibly friendly hosts, clearly used to having walkers stay overnight. Almost no English was spoken apart from ”son” ”grandson” ”daughter-in-law”. Family is important here.

Homestay: Kalaw-Inle Lake
Homestay: Kalaw-Inle Lake. Sleeping on the floor

The next day I was clearly on the tourist trail, meeting about 100 other walkers on the way down to Inle Lake. The trail I downloaded, stopped in a village with no road access close to the lake, where all the guided tourists take a boat to Nyaungschwe. I am sure I could have negotiated a boat as well, but I chose to walk back 2 km to the main road an negotiate a motor-bike to Nyaungschwe. So close (17 km) to Nyaungschwe and yet the villages on the Western shore of Inle lake are virtually untouched and the motorcycle driver and his mother clearly had not dealt with tourists before as they had no idea what to charge for the motorbike ride to Nyaungschwe.

Kalaw-Inle Lake
Kalaw-Inle Lake: On the trail
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Sri Lanka 2 weeks individual itinerary

When given the choice between beach or mountain, I´ll always chose mountains. So my two weeks travel in Sri Lanka focused mainly on the Hill Country and the Ancient Cities. As always I travel independentely, without a guide or driver. I traveled between December 8th-21th 2016.

Day 1: Arrive Colombo and train to Kandy
I arrived on a Qatar Airways at 9 am, took the local bus to Colombo city center, a dusty place which I left a couple hours later on the local midday train to Kandy.

Dambulla Cave Temple
Dambulla Cave Temple

Day 2: Kandy (Temple of the Tooth), bus to Dambulla (visit Cave Temple), tuk-tuk to Sigirya (visit rock)
The Dambulla cave temples are quite wonderful with beautiful reclining Buddhas lining the caves which are reached by walking a couple of hundred meters up a rock. Even more so is Sigirya, the iconic Sri Lankan site, with a temple-ruin on top of a free-standing rock and magnificent views all around.

View from Sigirya Rock
View from Sigirya Rock

Day 3: Local bus to Polonnaruwa and visit of the ancient site.
It really is very easy traveling on local buses here: Distances are relatively short, it is very cheap and I don´t think traveling would be much faster in a private car. This time I sat next to a man who traveled between Sigirya and Polonnaruwa every two weeks: He was a hotel manager of the top Polonnaruwa hotel and had gone to hotel school in Switzerland. As for the UNESCO heritage site of Polonnaruwa, it is definitely interesting: A classic outspread area of ruins, interesting, but perhaps not as remarkable as Sigirya or Anuradhapura.

Day 4: Local bus to Anuradhapura and temples
The Anuradhapura temples are wonderfully alive and in full use, predominantly by locals. I saw very few tourists here. Interestingly these rural destinations in Sri Lanka are devoid of restaurants and nightlife: Sigirya, Polonnaruwa and now Anuradhapura. Sri Lankans obviously prefer to eat at home and most tourists seem to head for the beaches or national parks.

Anuradhapura pilgrims
Anuradhapura pilgrims

Day 5: Local bus to Kandy, train to Nuwara Eliya
I had booked the tourist open view carriage on the Colombo-Badulla trail, where lunch is served and seats are assigned. Honestly I did not find the town of Nuwara Eliya very atmospheric, plenty of construction is going on here, though there are clear remnants of the colonial-era getaway it used to be.

View from a guesthouse, Ella
View from a guesthouse, Ella

Day 6: Tuk-tuk to Horton´s Plains, walk to World´s End, train to Ella
Quite frankly I found Horton´s Plains and the walk to World´s End overrated. It is a 7 km (GPS) circular walk through tussock and pleasant mountainous landshape, but nothing out of the ordinary, especially for those familiar with mountains. Rather, this is something of a local attraction, obviously being quite different from the jungles and coastal landshapes elsewhere.

Horton´s Plains
Horton´s Plains

Day 7: Ella
Something of a tourist trap, in my opinion. The town itself is quite simply ugly, full of concrete buildings and ongoing constructions and entirely without atmosphere. The surrounding tea plantations are quite lovely, though touristic, as is the famous Demodara train bridge.

Demodara bridge
Demodara bridge

Day 8: Train to Haputale, walk up to Lipton´s seat, visit Dambatenne Tea Factory
The walk up the original Thomas Lipton tea plantation is very interesting, encountering the Tamil teapluckers and their villages on the way and is described in a separate post. Furthermore Haputale is vastly more interesting and atmospheric than Ella.

Tamil tea pluckers on Dambatenne estate

Day 9: Train to Hatton, tuk-tuk to Dalhousie
The train line stretch from Haputale to Hatton lovely, and driving through tea plantations on the way up to Dalhousie is quite spectacular. Dalhousie is the entry point for the walk up to Adam´s Peak, the highlight of my visit to Sri Lanka and described in a separate post.

Puja at Adam´s Peak at sunrise

Day 10: 3 am start up to Adam´s Peak, descent to Ratnapura, local busses to Galle.
The Adam´s Peak hike was the highlight of the trip and is described in a separate post.

Adam´s Peak at sunrise
Adam´s Peak at sunrise

Day 11: Galle
Spent the day searching for wifi in a couple of cafés and recovering from the Adam´s Peak walk.

Day 12: Taxi Galle-Negombo (close to the airport)
Day 13: Leave Sri Lanka in the morning

Highlights:
The walk up (and down) Adam´s Peak.
Walking in tea plantations near Dambatenne Tea Factory.
The living temples of Anuradhapura.
Sigirya Rock, a major site and just as impressive as it looks on photos.

Tea plantations in Ella
Tea plantations in Ella
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Adam´s Peak via Dalhousie and Ratnapura

Named Adam´s Peak since this was allegedly the first place of earth on which Adam sat his foot after being thrown out of heaven, this is probably the major pilgrimage site in Sri Lanka. The season runs from poya day (full-moon) in December and until May. During this time hundreds of pilgrims ascend the more 5000 steps through the night passing hundreds of teashops and temples on the way, arriving at Adam´s Peak at 2243 meter in time for sunset. Most arrive at the top well before sunset and sleep on mats on a concrete floor inside a cave right next to the top temple. This is a walk where you are never alone.

Ascent through the night towards Adam´s Peak
Ascent through the night towards Adam´s Peak

The closest village is Dalhousie, about an with tuk-tuk  from  Hatton on the main Colombo-Badulla train line. Most tourists start the ascent from their Dalhousie guesthouse at around 2 am and return by the same way after sunrise.

However, to avoid backtracking, and since there are in fact two ways up the Peak (from Dalhousie and Ratnapura), I decided to descend to Ratnapura, thus I bringing my entire backpack with me. This descent, though technically very easy,  is really tough on the knees: 1700 meters straight descent on steps.  I started out from my guesthouse in Dalhousie a little before 3 am arriving at the top (with luggage) around 6:30, including several stops at temples, tea-shops etc. on the way. A wonderfully atmospheric experience with myriads of people, shops and glittering statues as well as all kinds of paraphernalia. At the top, I arrived right on time for the puja, again a very atmospheric experience with fabulous views.

Adam´s Peak at sunrise
View from Adam´s Peak at sunrise

By descending the steps towards Ratnapura I immediately left the tourist-track (though tourists make up less than 1% of those ascending Adam´s Peak) and for the next five hours I met nobody except a couple of locals. There are tea-shops on the Ratnapura route as well, however it is significantly longer (both in terms of length in km and descent, as Ratnapura is lower-lying than Dalhouse) than the track from Dalhouse. It passes through wonderful forests, though the eternal steps equal anything I have experienced in Nepal. Finally down (the trail does not end in Ratnapura itself, but about 40 km outside), I took a tuk-tuk to Ratnapura bus station and then a local bus down to Galle on the Coast.

Pilgrims on their way up Adam´s Peak
Pilgrims on their way up Adam´s Peak
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