Yangon, Kyaiktiyo and Hpa-An

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[ultimate_heading main_heading=”Yangon – the city of pagodas”][/ultimate_heading]

On Wednesday, January 3rd, I took a very early flight from Bangkok to Yangon and I arrived in Myanmar at 8AM. Everybody had been telling me so many good things about this country that I was very curious to discover it for myself. At the airport, of course same hassle with taxi drivers as always, but what else can you expect? Fortunately they have Grab in Yangon (an app like Uber) and so I got one of those for a good price to my hostel, the Lodge Yangon Hostel. When I arrived there, I met Iver from Norway who had been wandering around for some time because his taxi had let him out in a different street and his GPS wasn’t working properly… The staff in the hostel was very nice and welcoming, but unfortunately their English wasn’t very good, so it’s difficult to interact and get much information out of them…

After a few very intense weeks with my friends Arielle, Denise, Hannah, Polina, Romi and Tom, I was planning on just relaxing for a couple of days in this hostel before starting to explore the city and Myanmar. Obviously, everything always comes differently than you expect… Iver convinced me to go have an early lunch with him where we met 2 French guys with whom we then went to the Shwedagon Pagoda. This is a huge Buddhist temple complex with a very tall (99m) pagoda in the middle and it’s gorgeous! The various temples have different colors, shapes and decorations and you can easily spend hours there discovering it all. Especially if your travel companion lives to take photos and videos like Iver! It was a fun afternoon and I had a very good time, not even feeling tired although I had slept only a few hours (my flight was at 6:45, I got up at 2:45…).

Back in the hostel, we spend some time on the rooftop, admiring a beautiful sunset and meeting other people and then we went for dinner to “Myanmar secret”, a very good, small, local restaurant where we had some delicious fried noodles wrapped in an omelet. 🤤 That night, we met Thereza from Czech Republic who would continue traveling with us.

Well, so much for a quiet relaxing day…

The next morning, we had breakfast in the hostel, but I was the only one eating. It was noodle soup that I found delicious but the others didn’t really like it, so I got their plates. I really like soup for breakfast…

After breakfast, Ivan, Thereza and I took a Grab to the Railway station (yes, we were too lazy to walk 30 minutes…) and there we got into the famous slowtrain from Yangon. It’s a very, very slow train that stops everywhere in the outskirts of Yangon and goes in a circle back to Yangon (3h). Unfortunately, they were working on the rails that day, so we could only go 1h and then back. The good thing about that was the fact that we could get out of the train and watch some local rugby game and some other competition that were organized there, because of the Independence day of Myanmar. It was a lot of fun, both, the train ride and watching these local games! The train ride was not as cool as the one in Sri Lanka, but it was fun nevertheless.

When we came back to Yangon, we wanted to have lunch somewhere but many places were closed due to the Independence day and so we ended up in a fancy mall having some Vietnamese food…

Walking back to the hostel, we marvelled at the traffic in Yangon. It’s pretty funny, this country is somewhere in between: they have steering wheels on the right, English style, but they drive on the right; they have traffic lights and cars stop, but the pedestrians walk wherever and whenever they want/can; drivers and sometimes co-drivers have to put on seatbelts, but not people in the back. Usually cars drive on the right, but sometimes in the middle of the road, just like they’re not quite sure yet if they should respect the rules or not… 😂

Back in the hostel we went to the rooftop to watch another beautiful sunset with an incredibly red sun and we had some beers with the other people there. I met Gabriel from Marseille who lives in Indonesia at the moment, a very nice guy, and it was good to speak some French for a change!

For dinner we went back to Myanmar secret; this time we had fried rice wrapped in an omelet and it was very good as well.

When we came back, we spent another couple of hours on the roof with the other people. We met Yolda from Iran – a very interesting and a bit crazy guy- who travels a lot although it’s pretty difficult for him with his Iranian passport; there are only 9 counties in the world where he can go without a visa! He usually travels by bike but this is not allowed in Myanmar and so the police stopped him and followed him all the way from Bagan to Yangon. He wanted to sleep in small hotels in villages, but it turned out that foreigners aren’t allowed to stay in these hotels, only locals, and he had to sleep either in monasteries or in police stations! So strange! Well, he has had an incredible adventure in Myanmar…

That night, we learned that night that Yangon has an old abandoned theme park where you can easily get in and discover this fun place. Too bad we didn’t know about this before or we would have gone there that afternoon…

I also learned that Yangon is not the capital of Myanmar anymore! I was so sure that it is Yangon, but apparently they have built a city from scratch to be the new capital, Naypyitaw, but nobody lives there; it’s only the seat of the government. It reminds a bit of Brasilia, except that Brasilia really is used by the government and is at least an architectural masterpiece…

So that was our time in Yangon, very different from what I had planned or imagined but great!

[ultimate_heading main_heading=”Kyaiktiyo – the Golden Rock”][/ultimate_heading]

The next morning, we had to leave Yangon very early to get the 8AM bus to Kyaiktiyo where we would visit the famous «Golden Rock». Legend has it, an hermit carried a hair from Buddha to a king as a gift and he carried it on his head where it was perfectly balanced. He ordered the king to find a boulder that looked like his head and to build a pagoda on it in which the hair would be enshrined. The king – who had magical powers – found a boulder that looked like the hermit’s head somewhere in the ocean and put it on top of the mountain in Kyaiktiyo.

I doubt this story is true, but the rock is huge, round and it stands in a very strange position on the cliff of the mountain. Despite some earthquakes and other natural events, the boulder has never moves an inch and, I quote, «we have no freaking idea how it still stands there». Crazy! 🤣

When Iver, Thereza and I arrived in Kyaiktiyo, it was already lunch time and so we decided to eat something before going up to the golden rock. The food was absolutely awful! Fortunately, this restaurant allowed us to leave our backpacks (against a fee) so that we wouldn’t have to take them with us up to the rock. There are lots of vans driving up and down there, especially now in the pilgrimage season and on the weekend of Independance Day. We only had to wait like half an hour before our van started it’s roller-coaster drive up the mountain and it really was like being in a roller-coaster, especially on the way back down: the road has lots of bends and it goes up and down all the time. I quite enjoyed it!

I must say, the golden rock in itself is nothing special, much less impressive than I thought. The most interesting think were actually the local tourists and pilgrims there ; they had build tents and camps up there on the temple ground, they were laying around, eating, chatting and praying and since that’s something you can’t see in many other places, it was a quite interesting experience.

Iver was taking lots of pictures and this slowed us down considerably, so at one point I left them to walk around on my own until I realized that it was already quite late and that we had to leave immediately if we wanted to have a chance of still getting our bus to Hpa-An. So we basically ran back to the vans but, of course, we took the one van that left last and we reached the bus station late. Fortunately, they had been waiting for us and we managed to jump into the small van that would bring us to the bus station. It was not a very big or very comfortable bus and it took 3 hours to get to Hpa-An. I was super hungry and tired and – therefore – very cranky. The others were okay, but if I don’t get food when I’m hungry, I become insufferable…

We walked the 5 minutes to our hotel and then immediately went out again to get food. It was already 9:30PM and so most places were already closed and we had no other choice but to go to a Thaï place close to our hotel. This was actually a good thing, because there we met Vartan from Russia who would spent the next days with us.

After a beer and some food, I felt much better and the others did too. We got to know Vartan and decided to go see the sunrise together the next morning.

In Hpa-An, there are not many hostels and everything was fully booked because of the Independance day, so we had little choice but taking a hotel. Fortunately, we found one that had a 3 bed room and so we could share and the price was quite good. The Hotel “Angels Land” was nothing special, but the staff was super friendly and the room was clean enough. Breakfast was pretty basic, but there is worse.

The next morning, we got up early again and went to the lake only a few meters from our hotel and we waited there on the bridge for the sunrise; it was absolutely gorgeous! Vartan joined as well and we stayed there until 8AM admiring the beautiful nature: from the bridge you have a view over the lake and the mountains still half covered in mist and illuminated by the rising sun. ❤️

Once the sun was quite high up, we went back to our hotel to get breakfast and then we went looking for scooters. In Myanmar, tourists are not officially allowed to rent scooters or bikes, but in some cities authorities are not very strict (like in Hpa-An or in Bagan) and you can actually rent them. That’s also the only way to get around and otherwise there would probably not be much tourism in those places… It took us some time to find scooters, but in the end, we got 2 scooters (Iver and Thereza shared one) in the Soe Brothers Guesthouse 2 where Vartan stayed. Finally, we were ready to leave and explore Hpa-An! Hpa-An is famous for it’s mountains and for it’s caves, so we went to the Saddan cave, one of the most famous ones. On our way there, Iver’s and Thereza’s scooter suddenly started smoking, but it was because he drove very fast – if you can consider anything as fast with these shitty scooters – and they were 2 people using it, so Vartan changed scooters with them and afterwards it was okay. Since it was a) Sunday and b) the weekend of Independance Day, it was very crowded there. The cave was very big and beautiful, but at the entrance, they had built a huge reclining Buddha and some other Buddha statues that are completely illuminated by colourful LEDs that completely destroy the atmosphere… Usually it’s not like this, it’s dark; it was just because of the national holiday that the cave was illuminated.

You can walk all the way through the cave and go out on the other side where you will find a small lake. There were lots of touristic boats that took people from there across the lake to the other side of the mountain from where we then had to walk another 15 minutes or so to get back to our starting point – and to our shoes that we idiots had left at the entrance of the temple instead of taking them with us so that we would not have to walk outside of the temple barefoot…

After visiting this cave, it was already around 1 or 2 PM, so we stopped at a small local restaurant next to the cave to have lunch. The food didn’t look too promising, but we were afraid of not getting anything else before dinner – I had the impression the others were a bit afraid of my cranky mood if I didn’t get any food 😅 – and so we ate some steamed rice and some soup. It wasn’t a great meal, but it was all right and better than nothing…

Iver wanted to go from there directly to the famous bat caves, because he was afraid we would miss the sunset if we visited something else. In the end he conceded to stop at a lake on the way – Vartan insisted that seeing just 1 place a day is not enough. What none of us knew was that this was not just a lake, but there were also some temples and a monastery with a pagoda built on top of a high rock and the place was absolutely crowded! So there was no bathing, but more visiting… It was a very nice place though and it looked actually pretty new; one of the temple is only just being constructed. We spent around an hour there, but then we had to leave to the bat cave.

In Hpa-An, one of the things you absolutely have to see is sunset at the «bat cave» where half a million of bats (more or less) fly out of their cave at sunset to go hunting for food. I have never seen anything like it; very impressive!

For dinner, we went into the centre of Hpa-An, close to Vartan’s hostel (he had changed hostels, because he didn’t like his hostel). The restaurant, “Lucky 1”, had very good food and we watched part of the movie «Life of Pie»; this movie is absolutely ridiculous! We had a nice evening and then we went back to our hostel to go to bed early because we wanted to go see another sunrise the next morning.

And that we did! We went to a place called «Mount Taung Wine», a mountain in the middle of nowhere – in Hpa-An there are many mountains that just seem to stand alone in the middle of nowhere – where you can climb up to see the sunrise. It was very hard for me, because all the way to the top, there are steps and my poor legs still remember the steps on Adam’s peak in Sri Lanka and they were absolutely not happy… Still, we made it up in around 30 minutes and we were just in time for the sunrise – we had underestimated the time it would take us to get there by scooter so it was good we were good hikers…

This sunrise was definitely worth all the effort and the early wake up: it was absolutely amazing!!! ❤️ The sky showed itself in the strongest pink I have ever seen and the mountains and the mist around made it look like in a fairy tail or in «The lord of the rings»! ❤️❤️

We stayed there for a couple of hours, taking lots of pictures and enjoying the fact that it was only the 4 of us on this mountain. When other people started coming up, we decided to leave and to get back to town for breakfast. Sind we hadn’t booked any breakfast in our hotel that day – we had thought we would probably be back too late for breakfast – we decided to get breakfast at Vartan’s hostel where it was much cheaper and very good! There was lots of food and it was delicious – and exactly what we needed after such a morning climb!

We then went back to our hotel to take a shower and to pack our stuff because we had to check out. The hotel granted us a very late check out and so it was 1:30PM by the time we were ready go out and meet Vartan again. We went to the Yathaypyan cave, but we couldn’t stay too long as our bus to Inle lake was at 6PM and we wanted to have a late lunch/early dinner first. So we went back to town, ate some of the delicious, fresh and huge watermelon that Vartan had bought and we gave back the scooters before having lunch at the Thaï place where we had met Vartan on our first night. I was a bit sad to say goodbye to Vartan, it had been a very nice and fun time with him but who knows, maybe we’ll meet again some day.

When we went back the hotel to get our stuff, we learned that the bus might come at 6 or at 7 or at 8, nobody really knew, so we were a bit stressed out. On our way to the bus station, our van passed Vartan who was walking back to his hostel and we gave him a lift. He waited for a while with us at the bus station until we were sure that we were waiting on the right spot and that our bus would be coming soon(ish). So we said goodbye again – this time for good. Finally, our bus came at 6:30 and we left at 7PM.

Hpa-An is a very nice place and I can definitely recommend you to go there if you have time enough. The mountains and caves are very nice and the sunrises are gorgeous! Just book your accommodation early since there are not too many options (yet).

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