Tag Archives: Myanmar travel

Awed by Kalaw

Published in The Global New Light of Myanmar on 19 November

This railway bridge dates back to the British colonial era.
This railway bridge dates back to the British colonial era.

While Inle Lake and Bagan may be better known to foreign tourists in Myanmar, the former British hill station of Kalaw in western Shan State is getting an increasing number of rave reviews.

Dutch tourist Joost Van Der Velden told The Global New Light of Myanmar that the three-day trek he did from Kalaw to Inle Lake was the highlight of his month-long visit to Myanmar.

“It was an amazing experience – it was the best thing I did,” the 23-year-old said while sipping a Myanmar beer at Yangon’s Motherland Inn 2 Guesthouse on the evening before he flew home.

According to data from the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, a significant number of tourists are seeking out the pleasures of Kalaw – which include a temperate climate, forest pines, a gaggle of colonial buildings and diverse cuisine. Between January and October 2015, almost 13,000 foreign tourists visited the area.  A few years ago, the number would have been but a fraction of that (as admittedly would have been the case everywhere) – however with the latest edition of Lonely Planet (2014) rating Kalaw as one of the country’s highlights, it seems certain to attract an increasing stream of curious visitors.

Having a quick bite of lunch at busy Kalaw market.
Having a quick bite of lunch at busy Kalaw market.

Mr Van Der Velden was travelling solo through Myanmar but he was among a group of five trekkers – three of whom were also foreign tourists, plus a guide called Uncle Sam of Uncle Sam’s Treks, which is a family-run company based in Kalaw.

The three-day trek includes six hours of trekking on the first day, followed by seven hours on the second – and it’s literally all downhill from there, Mr Van Der Velden said.

While it may sound like a lot of legwork, Mr Van Der Velden insisted that the terrain isn’t too tough.

“You don’t need to be super-fit or anything to do it – a regular person could do it, as it’s never particularly steep. The landscape is amazing and the views are beautiful – particularly on the third day, as Inle Lake comes into view.”

Kalaw is the only place in Myanmar where foreigners are permitted to do overnight treks. Uncle Sam’s Treks arranges for guests to spend two nights in villages inhabited by different ethnic minority groups, which in the region include the Palaung, Danu, Pa-O, Taung Yo and Danaw tribes.

Can't say I fancied eel sticks for lunch though!
Can’t say I fancied eel sticks for lunch though!

“Uncle Sam was the sweetest, most gentle guy. He’s quite old, I guess. He said to us, ‘Please stop to enjoy what the locals say and hear their stories,” Mr Van Der Velden said.

Although the Dutch tourist was uncertain which tribal group he’d stayed with, he said the food was delicious and the thanaka on the children was “very sweet.”

However he said one aspect of the trip – which included accommodation and meals and cost just K38,000 – was somewhat disappointing.

“The countryside in Kalaw is very different from the Netherlands, where it’s very flat. I’d really wanted to see a snake as I’ve never seen one before. Unfortunately that didn’t happen,” he said with a shrug.

After arriving in Inle Lake by boat, Mr Van Der Velden caught the bus to Bagan.

Deft fish chopping
Deft fish chopping

“Bagan is already a bit too touristy. The trek was authentic. Mandalay? That was my least favourite place – it’s humid, crowded, a bit dirty and it’s hard to find a good restaurant. Although Yangon is a big city, the people are really friendly and were so helpful to me whenever I got lost,” he said.

For those who still remain opposed to the idea of trekking and sleeping in basic surrounds – or are simply time poor – visiting Kalaw as a day trip from the Shan State capital of Taunggyi is perfectly possible. I set off at around 10am and was ready to catch my flight back to Yangon from Heho airport by 5pm that same day.

My guide and driver was Ko Japan, who charged K60,000 for a day of sightseeing in the comforts of his air-conditioned saloon (which in retrospect, seems a bit pricey). Incidentally, Ko Japan nicknamed himself after his favourite country – though his dream of visiting Japan is yet to materialise. He drove carefully and wasn’t a chatterer, but boy did he have a couple of great tales.

The first went like this…

An abundant array of spices are sold at Kalaw market
An abundant array of spices are sold at Kalaw market

“Back in the sixties – I’m not sure which year exactly – the Russians built a new hospital in Shan State. They gave it to Myanmar as a gift and even staffed it with Russian doctors. One day, the doctors got a call saying that some very important soldiers in Myanmar’s army had fallen ill.

Of course the Russian doctors went there without delay – and all four were kidnapped by a Shan rebel group who were dressed as government military personnel. The rebel group said they would release the doctors if their warlord was freed from prison after being arrested by government police. After about a month, the warlord was released from prison and the Russians were freed. They went back to their country after that.”

Coincidentally, on the day I travelled to Kalaw, a pair of bandits were on the loose after escaping from police in a style not dissimilar to a Hollywood Western. After being sentenced for drug trafficking the day before, the two men were being driven in a police van to the cells that awaited them. The vehicle was ambushed by members of their gang brandishing weapons and the police had no choice but to set them free or risk losing their lives.

Mingalabar sir
Mingalabar, sir

Police checks lined the roads every few kilometers or so (which were lined by an outrageous number of Ooredoo and Telenor posters), although Ko Japan told me he suspected the duo had already made it over the border to Thailand.

When I looked at him incredulously, he said: “It would take a long time [to reach Thailand] by road, but though the jungle it’s not far at all,” he said.

We stopped by the side of the road as our timing coincided with the passing of a train across a bridge. We could hear the diesel train chugging for minutes before it came into view from a side bend and may its way across a skinny bridge surrounded by lush jungle.

“It has to be the world’s slowest train,” muttered Ko Japan.

His comment seems fair – the journey from Yangon to Mandalay takes a full 24 hours. For some it’s the only viable route if they cannot afford to fork out on a more costly bus ticket.

You won't be hard pressed for photo opps at Kalaw market
You won’t be hard pressed for photo opps at Kalaw market

As soon as we arrived in Kalaw, I went camera-in-hand to the central market, which teems with life and colour. Live eels squiggled on wood-worn tables, chunks of meat were diced into tiny pieces by women dexterously wielding machetes, and the array of spices, flowers and fresh produce was mind-boggling.

I strolled around the pretty and quaint streets for 45 minutes or so before my appetite got the better of me and I returned to Ko Japan’s car. On my request, he dropped me out of the front of Everest Nepali Restaurant – which is right opposite Uncle Sam’s Treks (which also has a restaurant).

Slippery little suckers
Slippery little suckers

The restaurant isn’t as out of place as it sounds. Kalaw was founded as a hill station by British civil servants fleeing the heat of the plains during colonial rule, and while the Brits may have left, there remain a significant number of Nepali Gurkas and Indian Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims, who were brought to Kalaw to build  roads and the railway line during the British colonial era (which ended in 1948 when Myanmar regained independence). Fortunately, their culinary traditions have been well kept, with recipes handed down from generation to generation. I had high hopes for my meal as I’d been to Everest’s ‘sister’ restaurant in the tourist town of Nyaung U in Inle Lake. In short, it certainly didn’t disappoint, although the décor could have done with a few less buckets of bright orange paint. Or perhaps it was right on the mark, as my lasting impression of my fleeting visit to Kalaw is one big riot of colour.

Taking a peep at Mt Popa

Published in Mizzima Weekly on 27 August 2015

Nats in temple complex at the summit of Mt Popa
Nats in temple complex at the summit of Mt Popa

For those intrigued by the practice of nat worship in Myanmar, a trip to Mt Popa is a must as it’s the most revered place in the country for this fascinating, millennium-old form of spirit worship.

Mt Popa’s name is derived from the Sanskrit word for flower and this rocky crag contains a complex of monasteries, shrines and pagodas at its summit. It’s mind boggling to contemplate how they got there (divine intervention perhaps?!). Mt Popa is located just 50 kilometres southeast of Bagan, which means it’s possible to explore it by taking just a half a day out of the more touristy temple hopping activities on offer there. Booking a minivan or shared taxi is a cinch from Bagan’s tourist town of Nyaung Oo and costs around K45,000 per person, however it’s worth investing a little more to hire an English speaking guide because the area is rich in stories of legend, history and mysticism. It is said, for example, that a person who gathers an army at the slopes of the mountain is guaranteed of victory. I doubt the claim has been tested for some years though…

Worshipping nats (‘spirits’) predates Buddhism in Myanmar: the institution of the official 37 nats was made (albeit later amended) by King Anawrahta of Bagan, who also founded the first Burmese empire during his rule from 1044–1077. When Buddhism arrived, the nat worship system was merged without so much as a hiccup – although it cannot be said that all Buddhists subscribe to the practice of nat worship in contemporary times. It does, however, remain immensely popular in rural areas.

Not one, but two Mt Popas

Mt Popa - how is it even possible?!
Mt Popa – how is it even possible?!

The term Mt Popa can be a little confusing due to it being duplicated. Mt Popa is now the official name of the famous Popa Taung Kalat, which is a 740 metre volcanic plug with 777 steps leading up to its gilded Buddhist temple complex. The 1500 metre volcano that was previously known as Mt Popa has been renamed Taung Ma-gyi (‘Mother Mountain’) and is nowadays home to the luxurious Popa Mountain Resort and Popa Mountain Park, which offers excellent hiking environs. There’s a bit of debate as to when the volcano last erupted: some say it was 250,000 years ago while others contend it was 40 million. Either way, both estimates are distant enough to be sure the volcano is well and truly (and safely) extinct.

A sesame-grinding oxen
A sesame-grinding oxen

Do make sure that your driver understands which of the Mt Popas you wish to visit – the assumption would likely be that it’s the temple complex you’re seeking. En route you’re very likely to stop by a toddy ‘brewery’ because the region is well known for producing palm wine (in fact I believe everyone stops at the same road-side place, which also features an interactive mill where oxen slowly turn sesame seeds into oil). Toddy is made from the fermented sap of certain types of palm trees – including coconut palms – the same trees also produce the non-alcoholic jiggery, a type of candy loved across the region. Both are available to buy at the little shop, but do watch your toddy intake: drink enough in the morning at you’ll be out of it by lunch…

Play by the rules

A word of caution: according to local superstitions, visitors should avoid wearing red, black or green while visiting the area (so forget your favourite football jersey). Swearing or saying nasty things about others is also ill-advised (as it should be in general!), as is packing meat-based snacks. Pork is a definite no-no. There’s a bunch of restaurants serving up hot meals and refreshing drinks along the base of the temple steps, so there’s no real need to bring anything other than possibly a bit of trail mix. Those who breach the aforementioned rules risk offending one of the 37 extremely powerful nats, who may retaliate by inflicting dramatic ill fortune. Nats aren’t to be messed with: they have a reputation for being far less forgiving than the Lord Buddha. Whether this is because almost all of them met a violent death during their lives as humans is an un-established but plausible reason. A violent death in Myanmar is known as ‘sein’ – a ‘green’ death, whereby green means ‘raw’. ‘Nat sein’ is another term for nats. There’s a book called The Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe that makes for wonderful pre-departure reading. The memoir begins by describing the author’s childhood in a remote Burmese village, where nat worship is part and parcel of his mystically infused upbringing.

Drunk Nat and Flower Eating Ogress

Drunk Nat
Drunk Nat

The most popular Kyawswa in Myanmar spirit history is Lord Kyawswa (‘Drunk Nat’), who was himself born at Mt Popa. He is famously claimed to have said, “If you don’t like me, avoid me. I admit I’m a drunkard.” He’s the guardian of gamblers and drunks and sits on a horse decked in rum and whiskey bottles. Pilgrims leave unopened bottles of whiskey, beer and rum as an offering – not just to Drunk Nat but to a variety of the male nats. Lit cigarettes are also placed on their mannequin-like hands. When the ash of a cigarette remains unbroken to the filter, a blessing is considered to have been bestowed on the donor. Meanwhile, female spirits are sprayed with perfumes and decorated with scarves by devotees.

Before embarking on your journey up the 777 steps, it’s worth paying a visit to the tiger-statue shrine in the village at the foot of the mountain. The display inside begins from a dark inner hallway containing mannequin-like figures representing some of the nats, as well as Hindu deities. This shrine contains nats excluded from the principal group of 37, including the Flower-Eating Ogress and her two sons, Min Gyi and Min Lay. There’s also the Pyu goddess Shin Nemi (Little Lady) who is a guardian of children and receives a bounty of toys during Myanmar’s exam season. Locals pray to Shwe Na Be (Lady with Golden Sides) when a snake enters their house. Unsurprisingly, you’ll note that she’s the one grimly holding a serpent.

Monkey mayhem

A mischievous baby monkey
A mischievous baby monkey

An abundant population of Macaque monkeys also call Mt Popa home. They’re completely brazen and some are so well fed that some are the size of a small child. Keep your belongings safely tucked away in a bag as you climb the steps – despite being fed loads of bananas which hawkers sell to tourists and pilgrims, they won’t hesitate to rob you of the water bottle you’re clutching. I saw this happen to a lady walking a few steps ahead of us – and I heard several others let out squeals of terror during a close shave. A number of Myanmar workers have been tasked with the unfortunate job of clearing the steps of the prolific monkey poop and will approach you for a donation; sometimes a little aggressively. It’s your call either way. And be on the lookout for hermit monks known as yetis: they’re dressed in brown robes and sport conically peaked hats.

Once at the temple there are breathtaking views of the Myingyan Plain. The summit is a rocky crag crowned with a complex of monasteries, stupas and shrines. It shouldn’t take more than 20-30 minutes to reach the top – but it’s worth stopping along the way to take in the views. Those who visit on the full moon month of Natdaw (which occurs in December) are in for a treat – not only is the weather discernibly cooler but it’s when the annual festival takes place at Mt Popa, which is a riot of colour and costumes. During either May or June, there’s an arguably larger festival during the full moon of Nayon.

Heaven in the hills

Published in the September edition of Myanmore InDepth Magazine

A weekend at Aythaya Winery in Shan State can rejuvenate and restore

Lucky the retriever in the vineyard
Lucky the retriever in the vineyard

When Yangon becomes too wet, hot or just plain busy, take comfort in the knowledge that a serene weekend retreat awaits in the cooler climes of Shan State.

While the wine produced by Myanmar 1st Vineyard is ubiquitous throughout Myanmar under the Aythaya label, the accommodation at the winery, for now at least, remains something of a well kept secret among those in the know. The Monte diVino Lodge’s three luxurious, timber and glass paneled bungalows were designed by SPINE Architects’ Amelie Chai and overlook the rolling mountains and the winery below. The bungalows flow seamlessly into the side of the mountain and each is shrouded in a riot of tropical flowers: visitors at the winery’s restaurant could be forgiven for missing them altogether. Each bungalow is equipped with a king size bed, indoor and outdoor showers, vast balconies, a well-stocked mini-bar and chic furnishings. Mr Leiendecker said that plasma TVs and wifi are coming soon. Whether you’re looking for a romantic weekend away or a secluded spot to polish off that manuscript, the Monte diVino Lodge is hard to beat in the tranquility stakes.

The lower decking of Aythaya's Sunset Garden Restaurant
The lower decking of Aythaya’s Sunset Garden Restaurant

Nowadays, the winery itself attracts up to 300 visitors a day: however things weren’t always so rosé. When the 100 percent foreign-owned vineyard and winery first opened in 2004, Taunggyi locals were reluctant to even approach it.

“Myanmar was a completely different place eight years ago: Myanmar people actually seemed scared to come to a foreign business. So I said to myself, ‘Okay, if they won’t come inside, I’ll go outside and show people what we have to offer.’ We actually put tables and chairs on the side of the road – that’s how our business began,” said the director of technical operations Hans Leiendecker.

Despite initial doubt from Aythaya’s founder, a fellow German called Bert Mosbach, the experiment worked and the pair haven’t looked back since. Although they initially assumed that the winery would appeal more to foreign tourists than locals, today the latter far outnumber the former. Mr Leiendecker said that locals comprise around 80 percent of all visitors – a fact he attributes in part to a sizeable population of wealthy Taunggyi residents and Yangonites who are keen to escape the heat and bustle of the commercial capital.

Le lodge
Le lodge

As for the foreign clientele, they too have changed over the years thanks to the end of the tourism boycott led by a UK-based rights group and the lifting of EU and US sanctions against the former pariah state in 2012.

“The nationalities visiting Aythaya have changed quite bit over the years. In the beginning we used to get a lot of Austrians and Germans, but nowadays they are outnumbered by the British, Americans and French,” said Mr Leiendecker.

Last year Aythaya recorded an impressive 8,000 foreigners, while local day trippers totalled 25,000. With its Sunset Wine Garden Restaurant starting to overflow, its owners have decided to build a café and a second bar. Along with an enormous menu that features Myanmar, Chinese, Shan and European culinary treats – as well as a Mongolian-style barbeque on Friday nights and daily specials – guests can sample Aythaya’s wine varieties for K2,000 and take a free, 30 minute, guided tour of the vineyard and winery. Mountain bike hire is also available, and stand-up paddleboards will be coming soon. The winery is located just 25 kilometres away from Inle Lake, which means there is lush hiking in the nearby surrounds.

The outdoor shower
The outdoor shower

From October, Aythaya will open a spa and sauna retreat, which will be managed by Thin Thin Yu, a licensed acupuncturist and certified holistic healing practitioner with 10 years’ professional experience in Canada and the US.

“The idea is to add a wellness spa to the wine country visit to make it like Napa Valley in the US,” she said.

Rates per night at Monte diVino Lodge start from US$120 a night from September until April.

For more information and to inquire about weekend packages, visit www.myanmar-vineyard.com.mm or email lodge@myanmar-vineyard.com.mm