A Travellerspoint blog

June 2010

Ngwe Saung Beach: Burma

The Highs and Lows of Travel

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We arrived after a bumpy six hour bus ride from Yangon. The beach on the Bay of Bengal is wonderful. Warm clear water, smooth bottom, and enough waves to be fun without being scary.


There is some development , though surprisingly the primarily upscale hotels are tastefully set back beyond the swaying palms. This is not a beach for locals, except perhaps for the generals and their ilk. Luckily, at this time of year the beach is practically deserted and the hotels are empty, except for ours, Shwe Hin Tha, one of the cheapest at $20-$30 US. Though not full, it had a good crowd, primarily Europeans of various ages. There is a restaurant nearby where the food is reasonable, if not especially good. Better food is to be had in some of the places closer to town, a rather longish walk of 45 minutes. If you get lucky someone may offer you a scooter ride for free if you eat in their restaurant. Otherwise they want to charge an exorbitant $2 a person.

Our bungalow, right on the beach, was a good place to stay, despite the rather lumpy beds. Our immediate neighbors were a delightful couple from Frankfurt, on a year long round the world trip.


There is absolutely nothing to do here except sunning, reading, and swimming. It is perfectly suited for unwinding from the rigors of traveling in other parts of Burma.

A walk to Lover's Island, at low tide, provides a nice diversion.


On the bus ride over we met Hugo from Portugal, who had just been at a silent meditation center for a week. We spent much of our time at the beach with him, as he happened to be staying in the same hotel. Over the course of several days, he told us most of his life story. His parents divorced when he was quite young, and he was raised by his mother and his abusive stepfather, until Hugo kicked him out when he was 15. His father is a simple, poor man with left wing politics living in the Algarve, and mother is now a successful businesswoman, married to a wealthy attorney from an old, conservative Portuguese family. Hugo has had a lot of responsibility for many years, and seems to be a natural at running his guest house in Lisbon. Having a business partner gives him the freedom to travel half the year.

One entire afternoon was spent talking, as well as listening to Fado on his tiny, but pretty damn good, Ipod speaker. After a while I put on some of my own music, Otis Redding.

Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,

Watching the Tide Roll in and Away.

Indeed, we did just that, while taking swigs of a bottle of Mandalay Rum. The music was accompanied by the ever present sound of the surf, as well as the occasional oxcart, huge wooden wheels, laden with bamboo from the nearby forest. What a juxtaposition of sights and sounds, East and West. Modern technology and stone age transportation. I burst out laughing at the thought of it all happening simultaneously.


Other days there were fishermen.


A Good Segue into THE LOWS:

Around 3 PM a local woman came by selling barbecued fish. Delicious, or so we thought until a few hours later. Nanette was the first to get sick. I thought I had escaped, but it was not to be. In my fantasy, the indomitable, spy, Dr. Myint had struck again, this time going for broke by poisoning our intrepid travelers. GOTCHA. We should have known better. While the fish was cooked, we didn't see it cooked, and who knows how long it was baking in the hot sun. Or perhaps it was the sauce?


Shitting and vomiting all night long. Nanette especially, was weak as a kitten for almost a week. Both of us had aches, pains, and then extreme lassitude for a good part of our stay at Ngwe Saung. Yes I suppose it was a good place to be if we were going to be sick, but it was BADDD for several days and then on and off after that. (More on than off). Hard to keep anything down, we each lost weight in a hurry. It was mostly tea, the occasional piece of toast, and half a banana.

So the rather melancholy Fado music was an appropriate prelude.


At one point, slightly recovered from our near death experience, we took a long walk along the beach with Hugo. We were trying to find the only internet in town. By the time we got there, we were both exhausted, but we wanted to book our hotel back in Bangkok, where we would return in a few days. There was a rather bizarre email from our ethnobiologist, Dr. Myint, asking where we were. It seems there was no escape. We paid the price the next day, once again being laid low by our stomachs. Gradually, we improved with papaya and ginger tea, and the warm sun and perfect waves were just what the doctor, and I don't mean Dr. Myint, ordered, or would have ordered had their been one.


One afternoon we got to chatting with Anna, a Paraguayan born Korean, who grew up in Vancouver and now teaches English in Seoul. She seemed excited to hear about our own Korean adopted daughter and was full of travel stories to places like Iran, Syria, Egypt, etc. I was again reminded of the special quality of "travel friends."No past, no future, only NOW. Each moment has an intensity to it, as does so much of the travel experience. It feels unique to be in Ngwe Saung with Hugo, and to have met and talked to Anna, Lisa and Oliver, our Frankfurt couple. Yes, this place is a bubble, mostly populated by adventurous Europeans. And yet, last night, still somewhat sick, we were at a restaurant in town being serenaded by the owner, strumming his guitar while singing Myanmar love songs. So the bubble is far from complete.

Nanette, Hugo, Yours Truely

On this evening the sun is going down and the pink sky contrasts with the low clouds that seem to form every night. At this time of year, they bring no rain. The waves are quieter now, though the sound soothes as always, as the cooling breeze blows off the water. Only a short time left. Despite the stomach problems, it will be hard to leave.


Posted by jonshapiro 11:45 Archived in Myanmar Tagged postcards Comments (3)

Inle Lake

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Nyaungshwe is a tourist town on the end of a canal leading to Inle Lake. Strolling or biking along the bustling canal is quite enjoyable. It is a laid back place full of international backpacking types, but this is Burma after all, so their presence is not overpowering. There are good restaurants, including an Italian place that serves homemade pasta. When we first went there, the owner, perhaps sensing our skepticism about the "homemade" part, showed us the kitchen and the piece de resistance, the pasta machine.

"How did you learn how to make Italian food?" we asked.

As it turns out, several years earlier an Italian visitor came to their restaurant and showed them how to make it. She later sent them a pasta machine directly from Italy. It has changed their lives. Now there are three different restaurants all run by the same Burmese family, and they appear, understandably, to be doing well. Needless to say, there are not many places in this country where you can get real gnocci, ravioli and thin crust pizza.

The Canal

It takes work to keep it free of weeds.


The water buffalo, however, don't seem to mind.


Day two was spent touring around the lake by motorboat, like many tourists. Hiring our own was cheap enough, and that gave us the freedom to stop where and when we liked. The fishermen often paddle their boats in a unique way, with their feet. Or rather with one foot.


But not always.


Unfortunately several of the villages and small factories seem to cater primarily to the tourist trade, and there were tacky souvenir shops and pushy sales people in a few of them. We escaped by climbing up to a pagoda on a hilltop overlooking the lake and valley beyond. However after we gave a small donation to an old monk, a few of the younger ones harassed us for money. Very un-monk like behavior.

We went on to another village, and told our boatman that we wanted to walk around places without tourists.


He arranged for a local man to take us further into his village. While we walked, we talked to him as he had a bit of English. He said he used to be a silversmith, but was too sick now to do it. All he could do now was run a betel nut stand.

"What made you sick?" I asked.

"I went swimming too many times in the lake, and it was cold."

"So what kind of problems are you having?"

"I have nightmares every night."

"Oh really," I said. "What kind of nightmares?"

"I dream that my girlfriend doesn't love me. That she is going off with another man."

Hmmm. This man needs a therapist, I thought. "Have you been to see a fortune teller?"

"No. Not yet, but I don't seem to be getting better.Perhaps it was a nat (spirit)."

I nodded.

Believing in nats is not at all unusual here, but I didn't quite know what to say after this. We continued on our walk as he pointed out other shops and the headman's house.

From there, we headed off to yet a different village for lunch,


Our favorite place was the floating village of Nampan, where everyone lives on stilt houses in the lake. Quite charming, it felt like the Venice of Burma. We slowly motored up and down the narrow channels and waved to friendly and not so tourist jaded locals.



We got out at one spot to witness the boat building and carpentry.


On the way back we stopped at a weaving workshop where thread is made from lotus root as well as cotton and silk. The scarves were beautiful, and Nanette could not resist. We spoke to the owner, who told us the business was started almost 100 years ago by his great grandfather, who traveled to Cambodia and Laos to learn about their complex weaving patterns. The teak house where we stood was also the same age. A total of ten villagers are employed in the factory. In the past they sold their goods to other villagers, but now it is mostly tourists.

Part of the weaving village was also built on stilts, though incongruously, a few houses had satellite dishes despite the fact that there is electricity only two hours a day.

The finale was the Jumping Cat Monastery, where the monks have trained cats to jump through hoops, though it was really the ride home that was spectacular, sun setting on one side, moon rising on the other.


We spent other relaxing days hanging out with travelers we met at The Aquarius Inn, where we stayed. It lives up to its top billing in The Lonely Planet. Owners and staff are wonderful, bringing tea and fruit whenever you come and go. Book ahead if you want to stay here.

There was Jazz, a thirty something, cosmopolitan Indian man from London, traveling more than 2 and 1/2 years, and Simona, also thirty something, effusively Italian, sometime tour guide, who spent three years in New York. There were two young Chinese women traveling alone, very unusual for people from their country, and also a French couple with two young children, who we happened to meet on the bus to Mandalay, two weeks earlier.

On one of the days Simona and I biked to a village on the other side of the lake, while Nanette returned to a nearby winery to paint.

To get there we first had to walk across the bridge.


Waiting on the other side, somehow knowing we would show up, was a woman with a sampan who, for 1000 Kyat a piece ($1) , was eager to take us on a tour through her floating village. It was similar to the others, also charming, but far less touristy. She pointed out her house and the tiny restaurant her family owned. We noticed a bigger boat with a motor tied to one of the nearby posts in the water and asked if she knew anyone who might be able to take us back to Nyauangshwe with our bikes. Most of this conversation was accomplished with pantomime. Yes, she indicated, and it turned out that it was her husband, who said he could take us back for 8000 Kyat. First he wanted to show us his restaurant, aka his house. We had a beer, feeling somewhat sorry for him since there were obviously no other customers.

"Have any fresh fish? I asked.

"Yes. We catch everyday."

He looked like he was going to make it right away.

"No, no. Not now. Another time."

Simona and I got to talking. How would it be if we came back here in the evening to have dinner. It seemed like a great idea to both of us

"Can you come to town at 6 and bring us back to the restaurant?"

He nodded.

"How much?"

"16,000 Kyat"

"Both ways."


"12,000," we said in unison.

"14," he said. "You eat my restaurant and I take you back."

"That's right."

"Hokay, hokay. 14,000.

We agreed and asked what his name was.

"Tun Naing."

"Nice to meet you."

In the end, it seemed silly to have him take us back and then have to return a few hours later, so we decided to bike home. When we returned, the Chinese girls and the French couple were nowhere to be found, but everyone else, including some people I didn't mention, seemed excited by the idea. As Nanette's birthday was only two days away, we decided to make it an early b-day celebration.

The Crew with Simona in a Party Mood and Tun Naing in Back

The ride over was an event unto itself. We sat on the floor of the narrow boat as there were no seats, and managed to polish off that bottle of rum en route. With representatives from five different countries, we arrived as the sun was setting just below the mountains on the western side of the lake.


The Restaurant

It went down quickly as it always does in the tropics, and dinner was eaten by candlelight.


The fish was delicious, and the beer relatively cold, thanks to the lake water and the nats. Our hosts were overjoyed that we were there, and introduced us to their entire family, from the grandparents to the grand kids. We sang songs in several different languages, gazed at the moon, and even discussed how they might try and get other guests out to the restaurant for dinner, as we appeared to be the first. In one somewhat inebriated moment, we all stood up and joined hands with Tun and his relatives to chant OM together. They are Intha people, or lake dwellers, as opposed to ethnic Burmese. What they thought of this I cannot say, but with smiles all around, they appeared to get a kick out of it. Eating, drinking, and chanting with our new friends was magic. Where else could you be with such welcoming people, in a house on stilts, in the middle of a dark, silent lake, in a country that was so completely screwed up?

As a postscript, I later got an email from Tun asking if I wanted to be an investor in his restaurant as he tried to expand. Perhaps, I thought, some of the other travelers I told about his restaurant actually did show up. He offered to split the profits 50-50. I declined, but made some other suggestions and offered to make a small donation. I wasn't sure a 50 seat expansion was in order I wrote to him, and suggested he not do anything until after the "election," given the possibility of more political instability.

Posted by jonshapiro 07:44 Archived in Myanmar Tagged postcards Comments (6)


And the Return of Dr. Myint

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We took a long car ride to the airport, and then a short, cheap flight to get here, saving us many hours on the bus. In this most famous of Burma's ancient sites, we were met by Yu Yu's cousin, who we first thought was her brother. Yu Yu, for those just tuning in, is one of my English students in Rensselaer, New York. Through the efforts of her cousin and several of his colleagues, all of whom work on a 10 year hotel construction project near the ruins, they had borrowed a company car, and took turns showing us the pagodas. As each of them gets a total of one day off a month, this was no small sacrifice, and yet they acted really pleased that we had come to see them. Bagan is huge, much like Anchor Wat, and takes several days to see. It is comprised of hundreds of pagodas, and temples, many of which date back 1000 years, as it was the site of number of ancient empires. The buildings are mostly made of red brick and stone.

In the morning and early afternoon we viewed some of the oldest, though they didn't always look it, because many had been restored after a major earthquake hit in 1975.


A Sense of Scale

Not appearing very impressive at first, the ruins really come alive as the sun settles lower in the sky, and the bricks reflect the warmer oranges and pinks of the afternoon sky, instead of the white heat of mid-day.


Rebuilt and Old Pagodas
Photo by Nanette

It is dry here, even more so than Mandalay, and dusty in this period before the rains begin in June. Bagan has had a serious drought during the last several years, and the Irrawady lies low on its banks. We were told it increases in flow and size many times during a normal rainy season.


In the afternoon we took a dip in our hotel pool. It is a relatively upscale place with air-con, a welcome change after the rigors of the monastery. Late in the day we were again picked up by our new friends to look at more pagodas, and also the construction site, of which they all seem very proud. When it finally opens, it will be the fanciest and most expensive place to stay in Bagan. It is hard to imagine that it doesn't have some government connection, though they told us it was privately financed.

At sunset we climbed up the narrow stairs of a nearby pagoda to watch the sun set over the river.


Then it was back to company headquarters to meet the family. They served us cold drinks and Burmese appetizers.

Left to Right: Cousin, his Daughter, Work Colleagues, Cousin's Wife, Another Spouse

We switched to a company van so that everyone fit in, and drove to some of the other pagodas and zedis that were lit up at night. It felt quite special.


On day two we took a horse drawn tuk-tuk because the company car was not available. Once again the engineers took turns acting as tour guides. It was an adventure, as the narrow dirt roads were rutted and bumpy, and the cart was small for three people. At one point I lost my grip and almost bounced out.


Power Rangers appeared out of nowhere and ran after us, grabbing hold of the back of the buggy.


We narrowly escaped by ducking behind some of the many Buddhas.

Above by Nanette




Cousin's wife had prepared a lunch of mohinga after we said how much we liked it. They served us in their simple home at the construction site, and in typical Burmese fashion everyone sat around and watched while we ate the bowls upon bowls of spicy noodles, and then more bowls of fruit. They seemed grateful to us for our interest in them, and for the opportunity to talk to foreign visitors about their lives and culture. We too felt grateful for their incredible generosity and openness.

After lunch, more pagodas.


Inside Mural

Temple Detail

At the end of the day, we clip-clopped on the paved road to town, in order to deliver the third and final letter from our Burmese student at home. We were told it was for someone fairly well known locally, but were it not for the efforts of our engineering friend, we never would have found Ki Ki. He seemed a bit suspicious when he saw us, checking up and down the street to see if anyone was watching as we handed him the envelope. As it turned out, his suspicions might have been justified. When we returned to our hotel, Dr. Win Myint (our erstwhile spy,) was talking to someone in the lobby. Oh no, we thought, not him again. We were hundred of miles from Yangon, and so this could hardly be a coincidence. We became more convinced than before, that he was a government agent.

"Dr Myint, what a coincidence. What brings you to Bagan?"

"Oh, I'm here to meet a Swiss tour group," he said nonchalantly.

"I see."

"When do you return to Yangon?" he asked. "Nanda (the Burmese monk we had met in Bangkok) wants to know."

Hmmn, I thought, why wouldn't Nanda email us directly, as he had done in the past? I was deliberately vague with my answer. " We're not sure about our itinerary, so I don't really know."

We rambled on with small talk, and then I realized that Dr Myint obviously had his own ways of finding out where we were. I should have asked to take his picture, but didn't think of it at the time. It would have been interesting to see his response.

The next day we rented bikes on our own to explore more of the nearby ruins, and spent much of the day relaxing by the pool. Luckily, we did not run into Dr. Myint again. In the end, I suspect luck had nothing to do with it, but we were thankful nonetheless.

When we left at dawn, our Burmese friends insisted on driving us to the airport, and once again, we were showered with gifts and souvenirs. How could we refuse? Of course we didn't, knowing full well we would have to leave some of our stuff in Bangkok and buy an extra bag to to lug it all home.

Posted by jonshapiro 06:03 Archived in Myanmar Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)

Pyin U Lwin: A Military Town

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We took the V E R Y S L O W train back toward Mandalay and got off at the ex-British hill station of Maymyo, now renamed Pyin U Lwin. It was an interesting ride for the first few hours and reminded me of the trains in India, no doubt a similar vintage.


Sitting directly across from us, was this interesting character, an itinerant fortune teller.


The most thrilling part was crossing a deep gorge on the old, more than 100 years, British built railroad bridge. As the train inched along, creaking on the ancient tracks and swaying in the breeze, I stuck my head out the window to get these shots.



We breathed a sigh of relief after we made it across, having heard the Burmese government refused a British offer to come and make repairs to the bridge a few years earlier.

Maymyo, or May Town, was delightfully cool, located high in the hills. It was full of an odd assortment of British buildings and bungalows such as this one.


The old press building had clearly seen better days. The only English language newspaper still published, by the current government, The Myanmar Light, is also known as The Myanmar Lice, according to JoJo, my trekking guide. This is for the clarity and openness of its reportage.


Unfortunately the town is now home to several military colleges, so it is full of young soldiers who seem to take themselves rather seriously.



Except for this guy, who asked where we were from and then insisted on posing for us. I'm not sure he was really in the army, or just wearing the shirt.


We did enjoy the relatively expensive botanical gardens, now maintained by a Singaporean company, and the young nuns who also posed for us.


But after a night, we decided we had enough of seeing earnest young cadets, and took a shared taxi back to Mandalay. This took less than an hour compared to the train which would have taken three or four.

Posted by jonshapiro 09:33 Archived in Myanmar Tagged train_travel Comments (5)

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