Tag Archives: myanmar

Mrauk U, Rakhine and the invisible Rohingya

I visited Rahkine as part of a one-month trip around Myanmar in January 2017.

Once in Yangon, I simply booked a flight to Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, an uneventful 50 min flight away. Arriving after midday in Sittwe, I walked through a lazy sea-side town, where various hotel staff tried to charge me 150 dollars for a private boat or car to Mrauk U, the remote temple sight and main touristic draw of the Rakhine State.

Traveling like the locals, Rakhine State
On the way to Mrauk U with the locals, Rakhine State

I politely declined, walked to the bus station, and arrived in Mrauk U after 5-hour drive in the back of a local pickup, crammed with locals who eagerly touched my skin, impressed with how white it was. In fact, all the markets are crammed with all sorts of skin whitening products.

Mrauk U
Mrauk U

Mrauk U is the name of both a village with about 50.000 inhabitants and a wide-spread temple. Still off the beaten track, being occasionally deemed off limits to tourists depending on the political situation in Rakhine, and with locals still living between the ruins as they did 40 years ago in Bagan.

Mrauk U
Mrauk U

There are no Rohingyas here, I was told. They are all up by the Bangladesh border. There is no trouble here. Considering that I had read that the Rohingyas of Mrauk U had been expelled to a camp approximately 8 km south of town, I silently wondered but left the subject. I traveled by boat up the river and visited remote Chin villages, only accessible by water, where the elderly women still wear the characteristic facial tattoos, a practice abolished 50 years ago.

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

The woman who made them suddenly died, and then no-one knew how to make them, my boatdriver told me. However somehow there seems to be more to this story. I asked again about the Rohingya. I was told that all the tourists asked about them, and many had decided against coming due to the perceived unrest (and to the British Foreign Secretary´s general advice against all non-essential travel to Mrauk U).

School in a Shin village, Rakhine
School in a Shin village, Rakhine

However, upon insisting, I was also told by my boat-guide that there was indeed a Rohingya camp located 8 km south of Mrauk U, but ”it is more like a village, they are fine, they live just like us with markets and everything. No problems”. On the contrary ”the problem is the Rohingya who tried to cross the border from Bangladesh to Myanmar, because Myanmar is a richer country than Bangladesh”. The rural villages I passed in Northern Rakhine state were by any standards very poor though.

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

I then travelled by bus from Mrauk U to Kyaukpadang (1 hour from Bagan), an overland route only opened for foreigners within the last year. Another uneventful overland travel in Rakhine State. To the ordinary tourist in this area the Rohingya are invisible and those locals involved in tourism tries their best to make them stay that way, knowing well that travel restrictions to this part of Rakhine State will severely impact their business.

Mrauk U
Mrauk U

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

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.

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