Into the Burmese Mountains

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We had to get out of the cities. We needed space to think and fresh air to breath and most importantly, we needed to get away from the tour buses. This is why we decided to explore the northern region of Myanmar and the beautiful Shan State. Whenever we hear something on the news about Myanmar it has to do with this state. The Shan, the local ethnic group, consider themselves different from other tribes in the country and would like to be autonomous. You can’t blame them, they have their own language (closer to Thai than Burmese), culture, food, and according to the people that we spoke to, they have been bullied by the Burmese government for far too long.

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Myanmar_Pyin_Oo_Lwin_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5152_Simon_Uribe-ConversThe famous Shan noodles

We started our exploration in the city of Pyin Oo Lwin, a small city with a few markets and a botanical garden. The lack of activities was exactly what we needed to recharge our batteries. After a few days of eating, bicycles rides, and sleeping in, we took a train to Kyaukme. The train was very nice and the views fantastic. One of the highlights was crossing the Gok Teik Viaduct, an old rickety bridge built by the British that rattles as if it were going to break! The views again are incredible and well worth the train ride.

Myanmar_Pyin_Oo_Lwin_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5241_Simon_Uribe-ConversTracy gets ready for the train ride

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Our plan in Kyaukme was clear, explore the rural mountains on dirt bikes and visit some rural villages to better understand life in Burma. I, Simon, had never driven a dirt bike or on an uphill dirt road for that matter. It was a challenge for sure but one that I’ll remember for a long time!

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We drove by rice fields, small villages up in the mountains, through narrow bamboo hanging bridges, stopped at temples and met some very interesting locals. For example, we met a man who was 103 years old and had both legs completely tattooed. He lived with his 100+ year old blind wife and people stop to donate some money in return for a blessing. At the end of the day, we stayed in the living room of someone from the village and ate dinner with them. We had a local guide who knew the region and who organized things along the way—no one speaks English around here, it’s awesome!

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Myanmar_Kyaukme_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5536_Simon_Uribe-ConversInside the living room

Myanmar_Kyaukme_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5614_Simon_Uribe-ConversOur hostess getting ready for her day 

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We ended the two days-one night bike trip with a smile and dirt on our faces. We were happy.
If you are interesting in doing something like this, there are two people who run tours: Thura (thuranaing84@gmail.com) and Joy (joy.inmyanmar@gmail.com). Just be sure to specify up front if you are going to be charged for two days or one and a half depending on your return time to Kyaukme. And of course, let us know in the comments if you have any questions!

Myanmar_Kyaukme_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5713_Simon_Uribe-ConversHappy and dirty!

Ancient Mandalay

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We spent three days in Mandalay visiting temples, old monasteries, and small villages. The time went by quickly in our sightseeing marathons but we were able to see and enjoy most things that the city has to offer. From a 4 meter golden Buddha statue to the longest teak bridge in the world, Mandalay offered us impressive sights but it was nevertheless slightly underwhelming.

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Hundreds of monks line up every day at around 11am in one of the biggest monasteries in the world to receive their daily meals. Even though the sight of myriads of saffron robes made Simon very excited, the place has been overrun with tourists who all want to take the same photo. The sight is nevertheless astonishing to see.

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Myanmar_Mandalay_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_4604_Simon_Uribe-ConversAll Burmese try to apply gold leaf on the Buddha at least once in their lives, the second most holy pilgrimage site in the country

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U Bein Bridge, the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world, was built to connect villages to the imperial city. The bridge was built in the 1800’s, measures at 1.2 Km (0.75 mi) long, and is still used by many people. Watching the commute of hundreds of locals during sunset was easily one of the most photogenic times in Mandalay.

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Myanmar_Mandalay_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_5122_Simon_Uribe-ConversA Burmese teaching Simon how to properly tie his longyi, a traditional male skirt

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After enjoying the ancient sights of Mandalay, it was time to head north for some well deserved honk-free environment and adventure. Next stop: Pyin Oo Lwin!

The beauty of Bagan

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Bagan is undoubtedly one of the highlights of any trip to Myanmar. The city is the largest and densest concentration of Buddhist temples in the world and the complex housed more than 13,000 temples in the 12th century. Nowadays, we are left with ‘only’ 3,000 temples that are sure to keep us busy and in complete awe during our visit.

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We spent our days riding an electric scooter (regular scooters are not allowed for tourists) and wandering around in almost no order through a myriad of temples. Some are small little stupas not bigger than a one room house, while others are massive structures rising five stories high from the ground. There is something for everyone and you are guaranteed to find yourself standing alone in many of them. Because there are so many temples and it is very unlikely to visit them all,  you have a sensation of freedom and peace contrary to the anxiety of ‘must-see-everything’ that many might experience in places like Angkor Wat.

Just relax, enjoy the scenery, and be sure to climb some temples at sunrise and sunset: the views are like no others.

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Given the large area of the complex, a fairly popular activity is to take a hot air balloon ride at sunrise. Unfortunately for us, or most any other backpacker, the price of the ride ($280US per person) was prohibitive. This however, didn’t impede us from enjoying the wonderful scene of hundreds of balloon flying over thousands of temples. Waking up for sunrise if definitively a must for everyone, you won’t regret it! A small piece of advise, avoid the main sunrise and sunset temples as they are overcrowded with tourist buses. Remember that there are 3,000 temples to chose from!

Myanmar_Bagan_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_3643Birds turning into hot air balloon, only in Bagan

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Myanmar_Bagan_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_4358Simon enjoying the sunrise view (photo by Emil Kastrup Andersen)

Every main temple has a family who lives besides it and is in charge of keeping it clean and of opening the door early in the morning. During our first sunrise we met ‘EE-EE’ (a very phonetic way to write her name) and spent three hours with her and her siblings playing football, taking photos, and enjoying cups of teas. As we mentioned in our last post, Burmese are one of the most friendly people we have found in Asia—’EE-EE’ and her family were an example of how wonderful everyone is in this country.

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Myanmar_Bagan_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_3821Simon busting out his South American football ‘skills’

Myanmar_Bagan_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_3767Tracy, ‘EE-EE’, and her older sister

Myanmar_Bagan_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_3512Goodbye for now Bagan, we hope to see you again soon

New Country, New Adventure: Yangon, Myanmar

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Myanmar, or Burma depending on who you ask, has become the new and ‘exotic’ destination among travelers. Opening its borders to travelers somewhat recently, the country has seeing a flood of tourists to its main cities and attractions. The strong and repressive government that we all have heard about allows tourists to move freely within a designated area, while controlling which hotels can host foreigners, the bus companies that connect the cities, and the entry fees to cultural attractions. All of this results in elevated prices with a low ratio of comfort to money. For example, a standard double room in Yangon is at least $25 USD while an equivalent room in any other South East Asian country is $12 USD. Nevertheless, the country, and mostly the Burmese people, are wonderful and definitively worth your time.

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The Shwedagon Pagoda, otherwise and obviously known as the Golden Pagoda, is a beacon for thousands of pilgrims who attempt at least once in their life to make it to Yangon and see/pray in person. For the people of Myanmar, the day of your birth holds a very spiritual significance, which is why there are 12 planetary posts conforming to the days of the week around the stupa’s base, where locals find their appropriate place and begin to worship. The rest of Yangon might not be as bedazzling as the Golden Paya, but it holds an intriguing history where the government saw local adherence, violence, backlash and resilience of the Burmese people.

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We spent our days walking around the markets and temples of the city but one of the most rewarding experiences was taking the circular commuter train around Yangon. The ride takes around 3 hours in which you see the whole city, farmlands, villages, and many many smiley people. It’s a great way to spent the afternoon and to see how the real people live in the city.

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Myanmar_Yangon_Viaje_Asia_2014-2015_IMG_3202 Tracy making friends whilst waiting for the circular train to take us on a journey through the city by the railways

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