When my ex girlfriend came back from a long trip through south-eastern Asia, I was surprised one of the places she loved the most was the country formerly known as Burma. Not Thailand, Vietnam, India or any of the surrounding countries with a well-established reputation among visitors and tourists. Whenever we mentioned Myanmar, she was so enthusiastic, I put it in my bucket list of places to go. But it didn’t stay there for long.
Perhaps, Myanmar is not as popular as most of its neighbors: we all have friends who have been to India, Vietnam, Thailand or Cambodia. Unfortunately, Myanmar has recently made headlines for the persecution of ethnic minorities by the military junta. I had no idea what to expect trying to plan a journey, considering how difficult it had been trying to arrange a visit from Nepal to Tibet (a plan that eventually failed).
Still, many temple areas and sea resorts seemed to have an excellent reputation, motorcycle rentals were not impossible to find around the country and applying for VISA on the web page of the ministry of foreign affairs was incredibly easy. It didn’t look like a difficult place to visit!
Royal Enfield, again!
I’m one of the lucky persons who has the chance of choosing his period for holidays. As usual, I did some research on one of my favorite websites for planning holidays in south-eastern Asia. February looked definitely like a great month for visiting Myanmar!
Despite the military junta moving the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw (rumors say after the suggestions of an astrologer) the two main cities seemed to be Yangon and Mandalay. Among the long list of weird decisions taken by the generals there was one that completely forbade motorcycles and scooters to circulate in Yangon. Someone told me that this came after one of the generals was run over by a scooter. So, no wonder why almost all motorcycle rentals were in Mandalay.
I contacted a rental shop that had something different than small Honda CRF models, definitely too small for a long ride. Once again, the best deal was the familiar Royal Enfield Himalayan. I wasn’t too enthusiastic about it after Nepal. But in the end, it’s a decent bike – it was probably just Nepal that gave me hard times: it has ABS and it’s probably the best two-wheels you can find in south-eastern Asia.
Before the Storm
Getting to Mandalay is a matter of going through a fairly long flight that most probably includes a last change in Bangkok. I remember it was Februaury, the covid-19 disaster was beginning to spread around China and the whole world had no idea what was about to come. Heading out of the arrivals gate, just before the immigration desks there was a colorful group of people: clerks, policemen, nurses and a medic with a laser thermometer that he was randomly pointing at people passing by. Nobody had an idea of what was about to come.
I must admit I never heard of Mandalay before going there. I took a taxi from the airport to the hotel I had wisely chosen just one block away from the rental place. The first impression was somehow familiar: a big, messy, chaotic city, smelly enough but after all much better than similar cities in south-eastern Asia. Traffic, tuk tuks, swarms of asian-style scooters, street food kiosks, ramshackle cafes, but also, hotels, offices and the impression of a lot of buzzing business constantly going on
The next day I met with the nice people of the motorcycle rental shop around the corner. Another thing I learned about Myanmar, not many shop have the aspect we would expect. A few motorcycles were parked right in front, but the place itself looked more like a small warehouse or convenience store rather than a garage or anything connected to bike tours.
The father of the owner, a nice American man, gave me a lot of much needed hints on where to go and what to do. I intended to make the best of my stay in Mandalay before leaving toward Bagan, and in a minute I was riding southwest on the dusty Myo Patt Road.
Every guide will describe Mandalay as large, busy, chaotic etc. It’s true, though I have seen a lot of worst places (ever been to Kathmandu?) but it’s also true there are a lot great places to visit. Having no time, I had to make a choice and limit my stops to a couple: my first destination was an area that just across the river, but you can access it just by crossing it through a bridge in the outskirts of the city. The one you see on the left in the picture below.
Turning right immediately after the bridge and following the river upstream, there was a place definitely worth taking a stop: Sagaing hill. Sagaing is a small town by the river, at the foot of a hill where a series of stairs lead up to the Soon U Ponya Shin, a temple hosting a giant, bronze Buddha statue, decorated with images of frogs and rabbits. The hill was all but giant, but path leading up was a covered stair of hundreds of steps. A pleasant walk despite some stray dogs and the omnipresent stains of Betel leaf spits on the stairs. Stairs that according to the Buddhist religion you had to walk bare foot!
The view from the top of Sagaing hill was amazing, despite the fact the landscape always looked a bit foggy, apparently because of the dust whipped up by the wind. Not far from Sagaing, the road lead to the village of Min Kun, most famous for two great temples: Mingun Pahtodawgyi and the Mya Thein Tan Pagoda.
The area around Mingun temple was scattered with what looked like the ruins of an ancient past. A giant bell, stone pillars, statues of animals and shrines that looked much more ancient than most temples you could find in Burma. The main temple itself, dated 1312, was impressive: a massive palace entirely made of brown bricks, with a single entrance, pierced by giant cracks from the top to the base. The entrance lead to a small room with a shrine. A long stair to the right lead up to another entrance on a side, that was closed. Though not as elegant as many others, it was definitely fascinating.
A much more recent and totally different temple was located not far from Min Kun: the Mya Thein Tan Pagoda. An amazing one, totally open to visitors: the building reminded me of something like a wedding cake, made of cream and meringues, with all its wavy, white decorations encircling the white shrine on top.
One the way back from Min Kun, there was enough time to see one of the places my guide described as a must-see in Mandalay. The special advice was not losing the chance of watching a sunset from the famous U-Bein bridge.
I read the bridge was meant to be a temporary passage for people and materials to reach Amarapura, the old capital.
The beginning of the bridge was at the end of a dusty road going down to the lake through a small village with a few huts, food and souvenir kiosks. I parked the motorcycle right under the first stretch of the bridge, before it jumped into the lake.
It was amazing to notice how things were easy in Myanmar. No entrance fees, gates, warning sings, queues, people bothering tourists. The bridge was simply there for everyone to enjoy!
Being there at the right time of the day made it perfect! I heard the bridge was all made of teak wood planks and had over a thousand pillars. Some of them were worryingly moving as people walked along it. The bridge was something like 10m from the ground with no railing, this should have felt worrisome, but in fact it felt really nice walking on it. The view was simply great as it crossed ponds and branches of the lake.
Bagan, the valley of temples
The next day was time for leaving Mandalay and for my first long journey towards what was maybe the most famous place of the country. The road going to Bagan was initially the same I took while heading to Min Kun then afterwards turned into a modest, straight and dusty road running more or less along the large Bagan river. Dust and bad smell coming from burning or piled up garbage on the road side were an annoying constant.
I have to say, contrarily to my Nepalese experience most roads in Myanmar were quite decent and driving didn’t feel particularly dangerous. Though the traffic flow was a bit chaotic, most of the times there was a fairly regular line of scooters close to the right margin of the road while trucks and cars were running along an indefinite center of the road.
Be ready to be templed-out!
Bagan is a giant area that was once the center of an ancient realm, the Pagan kingdom. Through the years, hundreds of big and small temples had been built in that stretch of river valley. The map I got at the hotel was showing plenty of temples and ruins of all kinds scattered across a vast area around the small village of Old Bagan.
Something absolutely great about Bagan was the fact I could ride to almost every place with my motorcycle, park it and easily walk to the temple ground. And with a single ticket I could access the few temples that were not free to visit. Once again, unlike many other touristy areas in the world, I had the impression everything was easy and relaxed in Myanmar.
One of the most popular temples, the Shwesandaw Pagoda, used to be one of the favorite places for tourists to watch sunrises and sunsets over the valley. Short before I came to the country however, walking up or climbing temples had been forbidden to tourists.
Even though watching the sun set from the terraces of a temple would have been fascinating, I was happy people were not allowed to jump around the monuments of this UNESCO site. Moreover, if not from a boat on the river (as local guides were offering) there were other chances to frame a beautiful sunset.
Not far from Bagan, another very special place was on the way to my next destination. An ancient volcanic mountain was standing against the surrounding valley that was also a national park. Guess what? A huge stupa was on top of it!
Mount Popa seemed to be very popular among Burmese people and a little less set up for tourists. When I got to the village a group of children was playing football right next to the entrance where a few monks in red robes were about to make the climb. As usual, no shoes were allowed and I can’t remember how many stairs and platforms I had to go through to get on top of it.
To make the climb even harder, apart from the usual red Betel spits, several monkeys seemed to hang around the stairs, doing “monkey things”. The platform where the stupa was built was amazing, windy, sunny and offered a beautiful 360 degrees view of the surrounding region.
Some areas of the Country were still forbidden to tourists or needed special permits difficult to obtain. Nonetheless, most of the land was accessible and it was quite easy to move around.
On my way to my next destination there was a town popular for trekking. I stayed there one night and reluctantly had to give up on any idea of doing excursions to the surroundings: I was dead tired, distances appeared to be larger than I thought and I started realizing it would have been hard to complete my journey plan to the very south of the country, close to Thailand.
Look, I’m not a fan of eating Italian food abroad. I’m not part of the Italians Mad at Food club, but I love trying local food, while I can have pizza and stuff at home every day. Nonetheless, I read in my guide one of the most popular place in Kalaw was the Red House Italian restaurant. I fell to the temptation. It was not only a nice restaurant: a “Toto” movie was shown on a tv inside, while I was having a mushroom pizza. Well, cheese was not exactly mozzarella but who cares, the food and the atmosphere were very nice.
The next day, after a quick visit to shrine in a cave, I had a familiar inconvenience. Some nice guys at the local fire station brought me to the closest mechanic: a nice guy who didn’t speak a word of English and had no tubes for my bike but somehow perfectly patched the hole.
The area of Inle Lake is second only to Bagan in terms of popularity. Inle is a long lake that once hosted a large community of fishermen and villages completely built on stilts.
Nowadays, with the raging tourist business many moved to the lake shores and not many work as fishermen. The big floating market, a large building in the middle of the lake that historically served as fish market, was closed for years and seemed to serve only as a tourist attraction. It was a massive wooden building, that felt sadly empty as I was walking around it.
I spent most of the morning enjoying a boat tour around the lake. From time to time you were coming across fishermen busy with their nets, or paddling with their foot. The boat went through a green carpet of floating vegetation called the Floating Garden. I never got to know what kind of crops they were, but posts at regular distance made it look like a real cultivation.
Some of the guys in pink you meet across the lake pose for tourists in exchange of a donation, balancing with their baskets on their small boats. Well, they do not look too much like real fishermen (notice their always empty nets). Tourism gives a lot to communities but also brings irreversible changes.
Inle lake area was rich and interesting. There would a lot of places to visit: lake villages with their markets, a traditional cigar factory, Kayan women selling handicraft and the omnipresent temple area. My ambitious travel plan didn’t let me time for all those, though at lunch time I decided to stop for a visit to an intriguing place.
Red Mountain Estate Vineyard
Right next to the lake, the hillside was strangely covered with vineyards. A pretty popular winery, by hearsay owned by some European was one of the must-stop places. Besides visiting the vineyard and eating at their restaurant, you could taste some of their excellent wines from a terrace overlooking the lake. I have to say that the green European-style vineyard transplanted on a lake shore in Myanmar didn’t feel out of place at all. It was perfectly matching with the place and offering an indescribable feeling and a certainly rewarding moment.
Nant Mon Gyi
From Inle lake, my plan was heading south towards Rangoon, the Golden rock and the beaches of the Coral sea. In the afternoon I accidentally met a German woman on a bike who had been living in Myanmar for some years already. According to her, I should have absolutely stopped for a visit to a place that happened to be perfectly along the way: the Nant Mon Gyi waterfalls. I surely wouldn’t have regretted spending a few hours there.
The view from the road going up into the hills was amazing. According to the lady, it was probably one of the most beautiful stretches of road you could enjoy as a motorcycle driver. Despite the usual “dusty” look, the view of the valley and its river was great.
Here and there you were coming across some really incredible stuff, like golden stupas built on top of some “unlikely” place. And of course, the usual inconveniences, like landslides (that were promptly been cleared) or processions, with dozens of people and an elephant in the middle of the National road.
It was already afternoon and my destination was a motel by the National road, close to Naypyidaw. But I didn’t want to miss the waterfalls. As per indications, I stopped by a large bridge (the Paneli bridge FYI) on what looked like a lake, but was a river in fact. There was no sign of boat excursion so I asked a tiny bazaar by the only house you could see in miles. The family was very kind, they promptly called a fisherman that didn’t speak a single word of English and in a few minutes I was going up the Paunglaung river.
I remember paying something like 40 dollars, a fair price considering the place was not exactly around the corner. Going up the river was fascinating, it really looked like a lake, also considering we were going through a lot of dead trees that seemed to have been submerged by the rising level of the waters.
After one hour ride I got to one of the cutest places I’ve been in Myanmar. Nant Mon Gyi waterfalls were incredibly missing from my guide, online maps or web pages. The stream was running through a forest, going through a series of waterfalls and sinks that created several natural swimming pools. The turquoise color of the water was simply incredible. I spent there all the time I could, taking some pictures with a nice party of children and their teachers.
Bye-Bye southern beaches
Unfortunately, the time to leave that place came quickly. I still had to cross the deserted hills area and believe me: you don’t want to drive on a mountain road alone, at dark without a single light or village in miles.
I was low fuel and it was getting dark, but I made it through the mountains just before sunset.
Not that the National road felt much safer at night: apart from the aforementioned procession blocking the road, there was no public illumination at all. I was riding towards Naypyidaw in the dark, in constant company of a bunch of scooters that seemed to be present at any hour of the day. Almost none of them had lights and was barely visible. On the other hand, the left side of the road was invaded by trucks equipped with the most bizarre lights: green, red or blue leds, blinking rear lights, Christmas-tree lights on the bumper seemed to be a common replacement for the normal running lights.
That night I decided to change my plan of visiting the Golden Rock and the southern beaches: with just a few days left it would have been almost impossible driving there then back. It looked like I kept on underestimating the fact Myanmar is a large country. I finally decided to head back to Mandalay and flying to one of the most popular sea places in Myanmar: Ngapali.
Ngapali is a village on the west coast. I read more than once a urban legend that claims Ngapali was named by a nostalgic Italian who moved there and decided to make it sound like his hometown: Napoli.
Legend or not, Ngapali seemed to be a place that was almost unknown and undeveloped up to ten years before. A lady who went there at that time told me the only road running along the beach was unpaved, the airport was just a sheet metal building and a bare airstrip in the forest. Very few hotels and two fishermen villages were the only sings of human presence.
Since those times, things seemed to have evolved. By the only road connecting the two fishermen villages, you could find small hotels and family run restaurants, one after another. The dimension was not yet the one of mass tourism: the place seemed to resist to its inevitable corruption – even the fishermen villages, located some km out of the restaurants and hostels area – seemed to have lost nothing of their original soul. I asked myself how long this would have lasted and what would I find if I was to come back in a decade.
The beach in front of the hotel was just one of the many you could visit going north or south. No crowds, loud music or bars, just a large and empty beach with some free umbrellas and chairs and an amazing view of the ocean, especially at sunset, when all fishermen were coming back, parking their boats by the beach and unloading their baskets full of mackerels and other kind of fishes.
The one of chosing Ngapali for a relaxing end of my journey was a lucky choice. Despite being considered “touristic”, everything seemed to be easy, relaxed and friendly at Ngapali, exactly as it felt in the rest of the country.
I have to agree with my friend: Myanmar was a great place to be. For its beauties, its golden temples, its nature and especially for its nice and authentic people and its quiet and relaxed atmosphere.