News: The UD Travel Blog
Posted: 8 March 2016
Burma – A Journey through the Golden Land - Mark Huggins
Travelling out of Bangkok can seem like a whole trip in itself but there was much to look forward to and once out of the chaotic Bangkok traffic my guide and I have a nice drive to the Myanmar border which takes around 3 hours on good roads. The border formalities are straightforward on both sides and I am pleased to meet my effervescent local guide Samuel for my short exploration of the Dawei region of Southern Myanmar.
The first noticeable change from the journey from Bangkok to the border is the condition of the roads. The route to Dawei is largely unpaved and the going rather bumpy, although Samuel informs me plans are in the pipeline to improve the road to increase trade between Thailand and Myanmar, with financial assistance from Japan. The good news is that despite hazy conditions the scenery is very pleasant and increasingly green as we venture further from the border. For much of the route we follow a river which adds to the scenic element.
After a couple of hours we reach the paved section of the road which leads us into Dawei. Samuel stops short of the town to show me some natural pools with a small cascade around an easy 400m stroll from the main road. Samuel enthuses that the water is perfectly clean for swimming, but as my trip is short and I'm traveling light, the swimming gear didn't make it into hand luggage! He says this place is always quiet and a worthwhile stopover en route to Dawei for a picnic and/or a swim.
As we descend from the hills the land flattens out with paddy fields now a prominent feature. We cross a railway track and Samuel informs me that the line was built in the 90's and there is just the one train a day which heads north to Yangon. Railways are sorely underfunded in Myanmar and largely in a state of disrepair. Journeys especially away from the main hubs such as in the south are desperately slow and so hardly anyone uses the trains.
We arrive in Dawei in the late afternoon, and after dropping my bag off with the ultra-smiley staff at the pleasant Golden Hotel, I meet Samuel for some initial exploring of his home town. He explains that he is the only guide in Dawei which is testament to how many visitors actually make it down to the far south. His English is relatively good and he tells me about his family and speaks joyfully of his kids.
Dawei is a town of around 200 000 people and immediately one gets the feeling of a laid back vibe. A highlight for many will be walking the streets and exploring the colourful old colonial period buildings, usually 2 storeys, and many with attractive balconies and intricate window designs. There is also an old Baptist church dating back to the 1920's. We pass some kids charging around in the searing heat playing football and we stop for a while to watch the game.
We then head down to the river as the sun dips and a warm glow shimmers on the water. The river is surprisingly wide set against a backdrop of green hills and we stop to watch the sun disappear behind the hills. As is always the case in South Asia the twilight is short and soon the lights have been switched off on the day. The highlight of the day however is still to come as Samuel takes me to an exquisite local house with a lovely open balcony where I meet a delightful lady with her daughter and niece and we chat over a sumptuous dinner. Samuel tells me that everything we are eating is just what local Dawei people enjoy with fish being a staple part of the diet given the proximity to the Andaman Sea.
The next morning we head out of Dawei around half an hour towards the coast. We walk the last half an hour to San Lan fishing village along the dusty road. The surroundings are lush and green despite this being the height of the dry season. On the outskirts of the fishing village we are joined by a bunch of local kids who march enthusiastically alongside us laughing and joking all the way as we practice English with them. The fishing village of San Lan is a really authentic experience. The locals are genuinely surprised to see me but warm and friendly nonetheless with countless Mingalaba greetings as we pass each hut. People are busy with their everyday routines. Fish of all shapes and sizes are being prepared for sale or in some cases to dry out in the sun. At the ice factory kids on school holidays help to hack away at huge hunks of the white stuff. We walk to the end of the peninsula and are rewarded with fine views up the coast and across the bay where dozens of fishing vessels jostle for space to land their catch. We linger at the end of the pier enjoying a cool breeze that sweeps inland up the estuary offering welcome respite from the heat.
Later we head back to Dawei for some lunch and spend the afternoon visiting some points of interest including the bustling central market and a wood carving business where the intricate skills on show are quite something to witness. Samuel then takes me to some family friends who have a pottery workshop and we sit and watch a lady effortlessly shape jugs, bowls and pots. Two of the more bizarre places visited were the train station of Dawei, curiously isolated out of town with just one very slow train a day heading north to Yangon. The station building is an unwelcoming looking green structure but I wander onto the platform to study a couple of old carriages seemingly left to rot on a stretch of unused track. We also stopped at the Dawei body building club built in the 40's where local men come to train. The equipment is of course fairly primitive but the old building and atmosphere is fascinating, and highlights the fact that the unexpected and unusual are often encountered, when you get off the beaten track.
After leaving Samuel for the day I walk to the river and am beckoned over from across the street for a kick about with some local kids and oblige for a few moments whist other kids play badminton in the street. After a hazy but peaceful sunset by the river I head back to the hotel admiring the old colonial era architecture.
Early the next morning I return to the riverside to experience the food market. It's an incredible experience. Markets are often great places to explore and this was one of the best I've been to. The hustle and bustle and the vast array of fruit, veg, flowers and fish on offer were amazing. I spent a good hour or more wandering the myriad of narrow alleys through the market taking in the sights and smells watched by curious but smiling locals.
Then it's time to head to the airport and head north to Yangon after thanking the charming Samuel for his company in showing me around his homeland. The South of Myanmar that I have experienced certainly feels very off the beaten track and ready to be explored.
I arrive in Yangon and after meetings with our local colleagues we take a rickety local bus uptown to 19st for a lively evening of street food and Myanmar beer. The atmosphere in Chinatown is vibrant and is certainly the place to be at night in the city. I chat to some international students who are spending the next month in Myanmar as we tuck into delicious barbecued meat washed down with the local brew. It was then time to head back to the hotel to rest up before a 6am journey back to the airport in the morning for an adventure into Eastern Shan state.
Touchdown at Heho in Shan state is around 930am and I promptly receive a warm greeting from my new guide Naung. We climb board our robust looking 4wd for the next 2 days of adventure through a remote part of Eastern Shan State which will be my exit point eventually from Myanmar back into Northern Thailand.
The first hour of the journey involved retracing old steps towards magnificent Inle Lake but this time with a slightly heavy heart we bypassed Inle and continued to the capital of Shan state Taunggyi. We had a long journey ahead so there was little time to linger and we weaved up into the mountains as I chatted with Naung about his guiding experiences and his upbringing on Inle Lake. Naung was also the guide or 'fixer' for the Top Gear crew who travelled this very same route a couple of years back. The route that now myself and the infamous trio took requires a special permit to travel on but Naung informs me this won't be necessary for much longer so it is unlikely that Eastern Shan will stay relatively undiscovered for long. The road is almost immediately stunning with infinite twists and turns and hairpins affording great vistas even though the landscape at this time of year is very dry. September - November are the optimum times to travel this special route when emerald rice paddies shimmer in the sunlight and Shan’s vast array of fruit and veg is at its peak. Naung informs me that his state provides nearly two thirds of the fruit and veg for the rest of Myanmar.
After a few hours on the road we stop for lunch in the small town of Namsang and I am treated to a table full of traditional Shan food which I am told is influenced by Thai and Chinese food. The dishes are delicious and fresh with steaming rice and green vegetables with pork and chicken and a fragrant veg broth. After lunch the road flattens out piercing its way through an enormous valley, but the interest is held by clearer air and a bluer sky than I have been used to so far on the trip, as well as the routines of village life to observe and motorbikes carrying impossibly large loads.
As the late afternoon sun dips we stop at a traditional Palaung tribal village and I am incredibly lucky to be allowed to visit a family long house. It feels like a real honour as the first westerner to visit the house. I climb the steps into the stilted longhouse above a family of pigs grazing underneath. We are able to linger with some of the family members for a while as sun beams stream through cracks in the bamboo walls. I am told that the whole family all sleep in the same longhouse with men at one end and women and children at the other and the tribe are only permitted to marry within their own families. The air inside is thick and smoky as a stove heats on a crackling fire adding to the atmosphere. Eventually we must bid farewell and continue for the last hour arriving at our overnight stop Kunhing as dusk advances. Dinner tonight is more local Shan fare washed down with a Myanmar beer. Accommodation tonight is a cosy and welcoming guesthouse and I go to sleep in anticipation of more of this exciting journey tomorrow. Naung tantalizingly informs me over dinner that the scenery gets even more spectacular!
I wake the next morning at 4am to a chorus of noisy jungle fowl. Just after 6am I stroll to Kunhing market which was just getting into full swing. Naung chooses some tempura, tofu and sticky rice for a traditional Shan breakfast back at the guesthouse which is already getting a makeover in order to host a wedding later in the day.
We are off on our travels again just after 730am this time in poor visibility as a blanket of fog laid heavy on the nearby river obscuring the views. As the fog started to lift we stopped at a small village near Takaw. The reason for pausing here was to see where the Top Gear team stayed on their way through a couple of years ago. Naung points out the water hole where Jeremy Clarkson had a shave! For travellers who do not need a bed the village is a good place to pitch a tent for the night, overlooking a small monastery and stream.
As the mist lifts we head into some wonderful scenery of rice paddies and limestone peaks. Before long we are in bright blue skies looking back down onto the heavy blanket below and weave higher and higher with a sharply carved gorge to our left. We stop at some small villages as we climb to meet friendly locals and then we zig zag down the other side to our lunch stop. Mong Ping is a small and attractive town set on an attractive river with the mountains looming large behind it. After lunch we stroll around the town to admire the shabbily tiled roofs and colourful facades, many with balconies.
On we travel back over another mountain and another sharp descent into Tontar. This was one of my favourite stops on this amazing journey. The reason for this is that as we pass over the bridge I noticed a game of football taking place on the riverbank with makeshift bamboo goal posts. What was great about this particular encounter was that most of the players were young monks! It is too good an opportunity to miss so we wander down the riverside track past some girls splashing away mid-stream before entering the arena!
The monks welcome Naung and I onto the pitch and the game recommences. I am amazed at their strength and skill as the young monks are mostly very slight in build, and we huff and puff around the pitch until I get my chance and nestle a low shot into the bottom corner. I have no idea who is in my team but everyone seems to cheer! It was a brilliant experience and had we not still had some ground to cover I would have loved to have played for longer. As we drove off I couldn't help but think that football really is the world game.
We had another 2 hours to travel today and it was the most spectacular of the journey, climbing up to nearly 2000m. There are dozens of switch backs and although conditions are hazy the views are utterly outstanding and the temperature briefly drops to an almost chilly 17 degrees as we negotiate the highest pass. One last mazy downhill before rolling into Kyaing Tong which is known as the capital of Eastern Shan State. Dinner tonight is spent in a relaxing lakeside local restaurant where we tuck into fresh grilled fish before heading back to the hotel and wondering if I was staying in the same room as any of the Top Gear trio had!
An early start again on my final full day in Myanmar and I was looking forward to doing some trekking around Kyaing Tong to see some tribal villages around an hour from the town. To start though I enjoy a good stroll around the central market. Early mornings are so atmospheric in food markets with all manner of sights, sounds, and smells to heighten the senses and this is no different as soft sunlight glows on the faces of buyers and sellers.
I set off today with a new local guide to the area. Francis speaks an incredible array of languages and the dialects of a number of the tribes that I will see today. The first part of the journey takes us by road through beautiful rice paddies unlike the terraces in the hills I have travelled through which do not have the water available at this time of year to show off their emerald qualities.
Our first village stop is with the La Hu people at Pin Tauk. These people are a Christian tribe that originate from China. The next village stop is at Wan Pin village home of the Akha people who again are Christian but have until only recently held animist beliefs and have been converted.
Next we start our walk and it is largely uphill for around an hour although mostly shaded in cool forest. We eventually reach Pan Lea village which is the spectacular home of the Ann people who are very traditionally Animist - the women wear a black costume and have black teeth from a long held addiction to chewing some kind of tobacco mixture. We are invited in to a stilted house and most of the village kids follow! On the veranda of the house there must be more than 30 kids eager to meet us. My guide pulls out some small gifts for the kids from his bag but makes the children go into the house and come out one by one to get a small toy as he says if he laid them all out at once there would be carnage! Once they all have something they head down from the house to play while we drink tea with women from 4 generations of the family. I am also allowed to look inside the house. After the tea we leave the house and stroll around the village in amongst pigs and chickens greeting villagers from different houses. This village has a mesmerizing view clinging to the mountain side adding to a memorable experience. Francis tells me this is the only place in the world you can find this group of tribal people. They came from China many centuries ago and now only live in Eastern Shan State. The visit feels very special.
We walk around 40 minutes downhill past more rice terraces to another village this time of the Wa An tribe. Some ladies and their children are peeling some fruit collected from the forest while they chat together happily. After another hike largely on flat ground we get back to the vehicle having felt quite privileged to glimpse life in these tribal villages where visits from westerners are extremely rare. On the way back to main town I visit a small scale rice alcohol distillery and am persuaded to try a drop.
Back in town we visit a beautiful monastery and the huge Buddha keeping watch over the town and enjoy a stroll around the lake where locals are relaxing or exercising in the late afternoon. I have dinner again by the lake and reflect on what a pleasant feel there is to Kyaing Tong, perhaps a little akin to Luang Prabang in Laos. It has been an unforgettable and wonderfully tourist free experience in Eastern Shan State.
Mark Huggins visited Myanmar in February/March 2016. The areas Mark visited can be seen on our small group tour Burma - Through the Golden Land https://www.undiscovered-destinations.com/holidays-guided-tours/myanmar/BUG/ and goes overland from Bangkok into the South of Myanmar and then up through the country and back into Thailand at the border near Chiang Rai. At present when you travel to Myanmar overland a visa is still required through your nearest embassy. The e-visa is not acceptable. The tour or tailor made versions of it can be arranged also on a private basis. A special Permit is currently required to visit Eastern Shan state and this is included when booking with Undiscovered Destinations. The best time to travel for this tour is September - December when the land can be enjoyed at its most vibrant and temperatures are pleasant. Views also tend to be clearer. From February to April conditions are often very hazy at the height of the dry season and temperatures hotter. Eastern Shan state and also the South region of Myanmar is much more underdeveloped in terms of tourism so a level of understanding is required that some flexibility may be necessary when traveling in these regions.