Tag Archives: budget travel myanmar

Chasing a Lonely Planet cover in Shan State’s Inle Lake

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 24 April 2014

An Intha fisherman on Inle Lake
An Intha fisherman on Inle Lake

For the younger generation of world travellers, there is one item they cannot do without – a Lonely Planet guide. Although Myanmar still lacks a reputation as a budget destination as compared to its Southeast Asian neighbours, the country is nevertheless attracting an increasing number of backpackers who are keen to visit a country which was closed off from the world for so many years. Few of these self-respecting young foreign tourists doing the rounds in Myanmar would be seen without a copy of this trusted guide – particularly as online information is relatively scarce and can be time-consuming to access due to slow internet speeds. And which image was considered alluring enough to be featured on the cover of Lonely Planet’s 2011 edition? A fisherman standing on his traditional boat on Inle Lake. Its allure makes it impossible to travel to Inle Lake without trying to snap a shot of this symbol of life in Shan State.

A floating home on Inle Lake
A floating home on Inle Lake

The lake is one of Myanmar’s top tourist draw cards – so much so that if I had a kyat for every time I’d been asked whether I’d been there, I’d have at least a thousand more to my name than I do right now. Over time, the omission became something of an embarrassment, particularly after admitting I’d been living in Myanmar for more than 18 months. Envy also kicked in: I’d heard story after story about the lake’s scenic splendour, the fascinating cultural mix of the area’s indigenous groups and the laid back vibe of Nyaung Shwe, where everyone but the high-end travellers stay.

So finally, in January this year, my husband and I booked flights to the “Big Two” – Bagan and Inle Lake, Lonely Planet guides in hand. 

Obviously my expectations were extremely high – to the point of thinking it inevitable I’d be let down. After a few dusty but enchanting days zooming about Bagan’s temples on electric bicycles, we somewhat nervously boarded an Air KBZ flight to Heho Airport, which is located about an hour from Nyaung Shwe. The airport is notoriously difficult for landing because it’s located in mountainous terrain and the landing strip is short – factors considered attributable to Air Bagan’s fatal accident on Christmas Day 2012. However I was comforted by the fact that the aircraft, which carries around 70 passengers, was obviously a far newer model than that which we’d travelled to Bagan with Air Mandalay (it had ashtrays in the toilets). Nevertheless it was still something of a relief to step off the plane in Heho and breathe in the cool, crisp morning air – which I soon discovered drops to a downright chilly 14 degrees Celsius at night in the peak season of December and January.

Tourists zoom back to Nyaung Shwe after a day out on the lake
Tourists zoom back to Nyaung Shwe after a day out on the lake

Most trips to explore Inle Lake begin around 8am, but it’s also possible to hire a boat at any time of day, for as many hours as you wish. Having arrived around noon, our first venture on the lake took place just before sunset. Our guides were a friendly Intha father and son – although their English was limited, the teenage son was able to communicate the basics – and most often the scenery spoke for itself.

The Inthas are a predominantly Buddhist Tibeto-Burman ethnic group and are thought to have migrated from Dawei to Inle Lake back in the 14th century. Legend has it that two Intha brothers were summoned to serve a Shan chieftain, who was so taken with their work ethic that he invited another 36 families to follow them. Today the Inthas number around 70,000 and speak a Burmese dialect. “Intha” translates to “sons of the lake” – along with fishing and tourism, tending floating gardens is a common form of livelihood for the Intha people.

Be prepared to bargain hard if you'd like to own something as beautiful as this!
Be prepared to bargain hard if you’d like to own something as beautiful as this!

As the sun’s rays slowly turned into shades of muted pinks and mauves and we donned the woollen blankets offered to guard against the chilly winds, our guide pointed out half a dozen fisherman on boats a hundred or so metres away. The Intha’s unique rowing style involves wrapping one leg around a paddle (creating a silhouette that bears a slight resemblance to a wooden-legged pirate), and it has become one of Myanmar’s most iconic sights. An Intha fisherman is also featured on the cover of Lonely Planet, which must be at least part of the reason why virtually every tourist visiting Inle Lake is determined to take home some of their own photographs of the famed sight. Sure enough, we saw about 40 tourists in motor-powered boats snapping away with glee.

“If you want to get closer you’ll need to pay [the fishermen] a tip,” said our guide, before hinting that posing for pictures has become so lucrative that for some, it’s trumped the pursuit of fishing itself.

As if on cue, a handful of the fishermen lifted their cylindrical nets by their legs and extended the oars in perfect unison – but held the pose for less than five seconds.

The incredible floating villages of Inle Lake, Shan State
The incredible floating villages of Inle Lake, Shan State

The following morning we returned to the lake for a full day excursion with our guides – which is great value at a little over $30 for two people. We sped along the vast waters, which are 22km long by 10km wide and flanked by mountains either side. We slowed down to navigate through the narrow spaces left by fertile reeds and I gazed in amazement at the communities of stilted homes, most of which are fragile structures of thatched bamboo and others of more robust but rusted metal sheeting.

A little girl waves hello
A little girl waves hello

Inle Lake has a countless number of floating villages, floating gardens and markets, the latter of which offer everything from stunning silver jewellery, Shan parchments, parasols, ox bone spoons and spices – but be prepared to bargain because trade is largely geared towards tourists. There are also monasteries and atmospheric stupas, such as Shwe Inn Thein Paya, which has hundreds of densely packed stupas, both ruined and vigorously restored.

Nga Hpe Kyaung Monastery is made entirely of wood and has a huge meditation hall featuring Shan, Tibetan, Bagan and Ava style statues. It was built in 1853, four years before the construction of Mandalay Palace began. In recent years the monastery gained fame for its cats, which were trained by a monk to jump through hoops (and were amply rewarded for doing so). However according to our guide, the monk passed away last year and the unusual spectacle is no more, as the other monks aren’t as keen on cat tricks. Nonetheless the monastery has retained its plentiful feline population and it’s amusing to watch scores of tourists avidly taking their portraits.

A Pa-O woman at a spice market
A Pa-O woman at a spice market

Most boat trips return to Nyaung Shwe around 4pm, so a pleasant way to pass the time before an evening meal is to try a traditional Intha massage at Win, which is on Shwe Chan Thar Street and costs just K5,000 for an hour. It’s family-run and massages are performed in a breezy bamboo hut, with Shan tofu crackers, coconut cookies and green tea served afterwards. Intha massage is quite gentle in comparison to the traditional Burmese style, although those who prefer a firmer touch need only request it.

Having read in Lonely Planet Myanmar that “Nyaung Shwe’s culinary scene doesn’t quite live up to its atmosphere,” it was a pleasant surprise to stumble upon a Japanese restaurant located just around the corner from Aung Mingalar Hotel ($50 per night). The chef is of Japanese descent and the ramen was as good as I’ve ever tasted. With the exception of an Italian restaurant called Golden Kite (which boasts authentic wood-fired pizzas), every restaurant we dined at was established too recently to have been listed in the 2011 edition ofLonely Planet. Two establishments stood out among the rest – the first was Everest 2, which is run by a family descended from Pokhara in Nepal. While its biryiani was disappointing, the thali was memorable and the chai divine.

Cute!
Cute!

The French Touch is located on a side street called Kyaung Taw Shayt Street, but its bright orange outside decor is impossible to miss from the main road of Yong Gyi, which leads to the canal from where boat trips are booked. It boasts a bakery, restaurant, free wifi and even a spa. The pizzas are large and its host of cocktails, including its trademark “Frenchtouchtini”, makes it an excellent spot for a sunset cocktail, which will more than likely morph into an after dark dinner. When I accidently dropped my third martini, the shards of glass were swept up with an understanding smile and a fresh replacement was delivered to the table before I could even offer a proper apology.

Padaung tribeswomen weaving silk
Padaung tribeswomen weaving silk

Although there’s no longer a shortage of options serving international cuisine, sampling Shan food is a must. Aurora Restaurant on Yong Gyi Street serves up delicious, hearty meals which often feature a base of stewed tomatoes, which I chose to have accompanied with chunks of potatoes and melt-in-your-mouth slices of eggplants. It’s also perfect if you’re on a tight budget, as prices are about K3,000 for a main meal.

As an ever-increasing number of tourists visit Inle Lake, some are concerned that it will soon lose some of its charms and become far more commercialised than it is today. Personally, I have my doubts, as the area itself is so vast and the sights so plentiful – but regardless, anyone who hasn’t yet been is missing out – just as I (eventually) discovered.

Writing the travellers’ Bible: An interview with the coordinating author of Lonely Planet Myanmar

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 30 May 2014 

Simon Richmond at Naung Daw Gyi May Tha Lyaung Reclining Buddha in Bago.
Simon Richmond at Naung Daw Gyi May Tha Lyaung Reclining Buddha in Bago.

Simon Richmond is the coordinating author of several editions of Lonely Planet guidebooks on Myanmar, including the most recent edition of 2011, as well as the upcoming edition, which will hit bookstores on 1 July. The British-born writer talks exclusively to Mizzima Business Weekly about what it takes to produce the world famous guidebook in Myanmar, which is a country that has swiftly emerged from being an isolated pariah state to one of the new “it” destinations for travellers.

You’ve written or contributed to 50 Lonely Planet titles since 1999 – how did you first get this much coveted job?

Actually, I’ve lost count of how many Lonely Planet books I’ve worked on! I first contacted the company about working for them when I was working in Sydney as a freelance journalist in 1994. I had to do a writing test – which is still the case for would-be authors today – and having passed that I was then eligible to pitch to editors for guidebook gigs. However, soon after I started working for Rough Guides (writing the first editions of their guides to Japan and Tokyo, where I’d lived previously) – so I actually didn’t do my first job for Lonely Planet until 1999, which was covering Kazakhstan for their Central Asia guide.

Monk praying inside the Botataung Paya. Photo: Simon Richmond
Monk praying inside the Botataung Paya. Photo: Simon Richmond

Can you please explain what’s involved in being a coordinating author, the sections of Myanmar you researched for the upcoming edition, and how many other writers were involved?

Apart from me, there were four other authors working on the guide. My role, aside from covering Yangon and Around Yangon destinations, was to refresh the “Plan Your Trip” inspirational and planning front section of the guide and the “Understand” and “Survival” sections at the back. These latter two sections provide background information on topics such as politics and culture, general transport details and practical bits and pieces. I collaborated with the destination editor to create the initial brief, which we refined as went along, depending on what as a team we discovered on the ground. There’s often quite a bit of change to negotiate, as some researchers find that the areas they’re covering need either more (or sometimes less) space within the guide.

Is it fair to say that updating the previous edition was a mammoth task due to the political and economic changes that occurred since the December 2011 edition was published?

Yes, that’s pretty much true – large sections of the guide have been rewritten. Because the guide has been selling so well, we also had the luxury of being allotted more pages – areas that had been cut out of previous editions of the guide (because travel to them was either impractical or not permitted) have been reinstated.

What do you consider the biggest changes for travellers in Myanmar now as compared with the past, whether it be an increase in the number of more affordable hotels, the introduction of ATMs, new destinations that were previously off limits or providing better value for money?

I don’t think there was much so much of a problem with affordable hotels in the past – they were affordable but pretty basic (if not hideous to stay at!). In Yangon and Bagan we noticed that a few more decent hotels are opening up (though not nearly enough to meet peak demand). The introduction of ATMs and the ending of the black market for currency exchange is a real benefit, as is the government’s loosening of restrictions on where travellers can go – although there’s a long way to go before this really will make a difference due to a general lack of tourism infrastructure in these places. Overall, I’d say the biggest change has been in the atmosphere of Myanmar – the sense of fear, lack of trust and nervousness about everything in daily life that I’d witnessed on previous trips has dissipated – particularly in Yangon. Not to downplay ongoing human rights issues, but the change of atmosphere is truly wonderful and makes the country a much more pleasant place to visit.

Boy selling palm frond hats on Chaung Tha Beach. Photo: Simon Richmond
Boy selling palm frond hats on Chaung Tha Beach. Photo: Simon Richmond

What challenges remain in terms of Myanmar being able to attract a greater number of budget travellers?

Actually, as long as people don’t mind roughing it – that is, staying in the cheapest hotels, using buses to get around, or eating at street stalls – Myanmar is a breeze for budget travellers. The main problem at present comes during peak travel times, when demand for accommodation outstrips supply in the four main tourism hot spots of Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay. But there are plenty of other equally interesting and less busy parts of the country to visit instead. Myanmar isn’t great either for those who are looking to party late into the night – although the influx of expats and returning Burmese to Yangon is shifting the dynamic there.

Lonely Planet writers in the previous edition wrote under aliases, whereas the 2014 edition will include your real names. Could you please explain the reason for this?

When we researched the 2011 edition, Myanmar was just beginning the process of moving away from a military dictatorship that had ruled the country for decades. Applying for a visa back then took a month and saying you were a journalist of any sort would have meant being rejected. Although there were signs that the country was opening up and becoming more liberal, we couldn’t be sure that this process would continue in a positive direction. So we took the decision to write under aliases so that if the political situation did deteriorate again, we’d still be able to safely apply for visas in the future.

Today, Myanmar is thankfully in a position where the likes of exiled media groups such as Mizzima can now operate within Myanmar. International news organisations such as the BBC have also set up. It took just two days to get my visa this time and I had no fear about writing on the form exactly what my profession was. There is thus no need to use alias this time around.

What’s the best and worst part of being a travel writer?

The best is that I get to spend a lot of time in places I really love and can deepen my knowledge through meeting many interesting people – it’s an ongoing education and a huge amount of fun.

The worst? Having to trudge on with the daily demands of on-the-ground research regardless of the weather or my physical state – I really do try to pace myself these days, but we only have a limited amount of time and budget to work with and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about the monsoon rains or scorching heat!

Cook on Yangon to Pathein ferry. Photo: Simon Richmond
Cook on Yangon to Pathein ferry. Photo: Simon Richmond

What do you love about travelling in Myanmar?

The people are Myanmar’s greatest asset – they are kind, friendly, gently curious about the world and outgoing. I’m a great foodie so sampling all the different kinds of cuisine here is also a pleasure. Some of the temples, which are so central to the nation’s spiritual life, are amazing and I really love the lingering historical legacy of the British Empire in downtown Yangon – there’s nowhere else like it in Asia.

Where do you predict will become Myanmar’s “hottest” new destinations?

Actually, after years of advising people to visit Shwedagon Paya and then hop quickly on from Yangon, I’d say that the city is certainly now a place to linger and experience – there’s a great buzz about it. Southern Myanmar is really opening up with overland access to the Tanintharyi Region and the beautiful islands of the Mergui Archipelago, and Mawlamyine deserves more attention from travellers. Trekking possibilities in Eastern Myanmar are also opening up as more of that region no longer requires travel permits. And using Pathein as a base to explore the lush Ayeyarwady Region is also worth a look – especially as a new railway line between Pathein to Yangon is set to open next year.