Northern Myanmar and all the fun that goes with it

Day 1: The road to Myitkyina

6pm: The bus is meant to leave at 3pm from the northern bus station in Mandalay and the bus in the picture on the website Myanmar bus ticket is first class compared to the ‘step cousin that no want wants in the family’ bus that I was put on. They asked us to board at 2:30 for our departure however we sat around until 3:30 without even moving.
We finally took off and headed slightly south to cross the Irrawaddy and then turn back north. While like the rest of Myanmar, the road is bumpy but trying to get any sleep can be impossible when they play local music and a comedy show in Burmese out loud on the only TV in the bus.
We have stopped once for a toilet break just outside Shwebo. Shwebo is a large built up town, quite modern and from the bus looked cleanish but since leaving Shwebo, it has been 1 lane road with us competing with trucks coming the other way and of course the occasional bike. This is also a road that no one other than my bus likes to use a headlight, no matter what size of vehicle it is. Special mention to my bus driver, I know that the Myanmar people love honking, but is guy, he honestly must hate when there isn’t any honking going on. To make more sense of this comment, if this guy entered a competition on how many times can you honk as you pass one motorbike, I’m sure he would win.

12am: I have made it to the ’10 hour left mark’, we have now stopped twice more. Once for dinner where the options to eat where chicken or meat of a pig plus soup, now while I am usually the try everything once type of person, this restraint was in the middle of nowhere and I just wasn’t sure on a meat option so I took the vegetables only and as it didn’t look like there was much source for purified water, I didn’t want to try the soup. I have seen a man recently with bad food poisoning and it wasn’t pretty, at least he had some sort of medical facility near by. Our second stop was for the toilet which consisted of the bus load of Burmese and one foreigner on the side of the road doing our business… Yes l mean women just openly squatting away too.
Thankfully the TV has now been turned off as they moved from comedy to a really bad Myanmar soap opera but I would probably still prefer to watch it over some other long running soap operas that exist, however while the TV has been turned off, the driver has his stereo going. I managed a win because the seat next to me has become free so I have tried sleeping in every position I can try and get myself into but to no luck l find myself wide awake writing this blog.

8am: I have arrived. I made it 2 hours earlier than expected which is a blessing to finally get off the bus after I managed to get some sleep even if it was entirely broken. All I have noticed so far is how genuine the people up here are and that even though I am a westerner, I don feel l have been ripped off in price at all. I have found a bed for the night at the local YMCA, it’s not much but it will do for a couple of nights. I can confirm though that I was unlucky to get the bus I did, twice we came past 2 first class buses that were owned by the same company.. The ones I was told I was on but as they were currently North, l only had the one option.
It’s very green up here, looks and smells like a bit of rain recently however it’s just over 20 degrees which is a pleasant change from the Bagan 40 degrees. Going to get some sleep before I head out exploring but initial thoughts are this place looks amazing and I can’t see what else it has to offer.

Day 2: Myitkyina City

The bed isn’t that bad, considering it’s a thing worn out mattress on a bed frame, I was still able to sleep or maybe I was just that tired that it felt like heaven, anyway on further inspection, my basic room has all I need except my shared bathroom was missing a toilet seat, however I should be grateful, it has a western toilet with toilet paper, plus it is only $10 a night.
I spent the first half of the day walking around my immediate surroundings. I tired to find information on the trains out of here but when all the notice boards are in Burmese and the only person I found to speak to kept saying the only word he knew in English which was tomorrow, obviously I still have had no luck. I will try again tomorrow.
I continued my walk and found the local markets, an ice cream shop (prices cheaper than Bagan for double the portion) and a man who tried selling me a motorbike rather than renting it. I was also on the hunt for a new phone and they are quite cheap here but even if you have an older model as longer as it is bigger, it’s more expensive, that’s just how it works.
I returned to my guesthouse where I asked my amazing local lady on where I can find some Kachin food (a must try if you are ever in the area) and she said it was far but if I took her bicycle, I could manage…… I did but I didn’t.
I got lost not once but twice. On the way there, l kept getting mixed directions from locals until I asked a police man and he had his friend ride in front of me and take me to the actual place. It’s a little sad that I was so determined to try it, because with out knowing the price for 1 person, it set me back k9000.
I spent my time there by the river, just taking it in when I decided to leave, I thought I knew the best way back… I guess I didn’t. I took a wrong turn somewhere and when I finally decided to check my phone because nothing looked familiar, it turns out that I was actually 4kms past my turn off but to end this part of the story, I made it back in one piece.
I have decided not to head far for the night, maybe a light snack but get some sleep early and a shower which I have heard rumours, it doesn’t have hot water. I have a full on day tomorrow. Going to hire a motorbike, head to where 2 rivers meet and create the mighty Irrawaddy and some general exploring, plus I have to try and find out about the damn train times otherwise I will never get out of here

Day 3: The surrounds of Myitkyina

Woke up after a very rough sleep, maybe it was to do with the fact I slept a bit to much during the day from the bus ride or maybe it was the 2 Mosquitos in my room having a feast on my body or from the bed being to hard but either way I still found the energy to head out on things I had planned.
I hired a motorbike for k17,000 (it’s usually k20,000) but the guy said if I put my own fuel in, then that was the price. I ended up putting k3,500 in where I saved k500 on the normal price….. Winning! (K500 is about equivalent to 50c). I rode off to a place called Myitsone. It is where the rivers Mali Hka and N’Mai Hka meet to make the start of the mighty Irrewaddy river. It takes about 1 hour by motorbike where the first 30 minutes is just straight roads passing through rural villages, but as I’m a foreigner on a motorbike by myself, everyone wanted to wave or say hi to me however I did find an amazing pagoda hidden in the hills where it was a world globe surrounded by Bhuddas. The second half of the ride is bliss, bends every 30m and winding through the mountain side following the river.
I headed into Myitsone where l had to pay an entrance fee of k500 (it says k1000 on the ticket but I’m not one to argue the ticket man if he gives me money back). The river meeting point is huge, where you could even take a boat out onto the water but after watching one of the boats get a little crazy on the strong current, I thought better of it so I stayed on dry land and had some lunch.
Once again, I failed to find out the price of lunch before l ate it and if l thought yesterday’s lunch was expensive, today’s set me back k12,000. There wasn’t much more to do out in Myitsone, so I headed back to Myitkyina. I finally sorted out my train ticket where I bought it by literally getting a seat in the ticket office while everyone queued up outside. The ticket only cost k1,750 for an upper class seat on a 4 hour journey. I then decided it was to hot and I deserved ice cream, I mean, I probably didn’t but I went for ice cream anyway. I found this newly opened Italian ice cream place and it only had strawberry and chocolate to choose from however to challenge the lady I asked for an ice cream shake, she had never made one but attempted it and did exceptionally well. She sat with my and we spoke, her name is Beauty Shen from a small town across the border in China. She has been here for 1 year and said she came for work, however I fail to see the point of coming here for work when there is some major cities in China to choose from but she is happy.
I headed back to the YMCA to rest a little but the power was out which I am not surprised at all in Myanmar anymore and then given it started to rain so it was cooler to sit outside. The local staff member sat with me and watched me play candy crush and laughed we I kept losing. I needed to get out and make sure I have seen everything and he told me about a place called prayer mountain which wasn’t to far away. That rain had died off a little so l jumped on my bike and took off. I found it after a little bit of asking around but that was mainly because I had to cross a bridge with pillboxes on the shoreline and policemen all around. This is entirely to the fact that when you come off the bridge, if you turn left you head to prayer mountain, but if you turn right, you end up in a town where you need a permit which I obviously don’t have and I really didn’t feel like going to jail.
Prayer mountain, while it isn’t a high as I would of liked, it still gives a nice view. I was told sunset is good here but once I arrived, I don’t think it would be much of a sunset view considering I was in Bagan. I headed back to the guesthouse where I currently sit writing this, going to get an early night as I have another long day being on the move again tomorrow.

Day 4: Myitkyina to Indawgyi Lake

You know those days when you wake up and everything goes smoothly by train leaving on time etc etc but you just know it can’t last all day, well the day was one of them. As I mentioned everything just worked in the morning, checked out of the YMCA, had some eggs on toast before the train, train left on time and I even snuck in some more ice cream on the ride and then I got to Hopin. Hopin is where anyone going to Indawgyi Lake needs to disembark the train and find a ‘pick up’ truck service to take you 1.5 hours to the lake (remember I said 1.5 hours).
I leave the train station in Hopin and for the first time in Myanmar, I am not hassled for a taxi or in fact really spoken to at all. I ask around where I can find the pick ups but no one has a clue what the foreigner is saying so I continue to walk and find a bus ticket shop but all I get is “no bus to Indawgyi, pick up that way”, thank fully that way is only another 200m where I get yelled at that a pick up truck is available. Now when I say truck, it’s probably more of a shell of a car that looks like it’s been through multiple wars on top of some moving parts, but like always in Myanmar, the driver and friends put as much stuff on the back and in the car as possible before we headed for the lake at 1:30pm.
All is going well and the route gets very beautiful as we climb and turn ever so slowly over to mountains to get to the lake when as we enter the Indawgyi region and I am only a 10 minute (more like 30 in this truck) more drive and the driver turns off the main road, now that’s all fine as I think, he is just going up the road to drop some things off, however just up the road turns into an hour later and we are still going however we have now turned and driving away from the lake.
I am worried as I don’t know where I am and I still don’t have a bed for tonight but then I get excited, standing gracefully in the field, just munching away on food is a very large elephant however the driver just nods his head and continues to drive but only for another 10 minutes because he goes through some soft sand and he get stuck.
Fast forward 2 hours, time now 6pm and we are still in the same hole and after attempt number 50 we finally move……. 5 meters. I start trying to explain to them we need another car to pull us out by drawing pictures or even going as far as saying lets get the elephant but they proceed to dig, an attempt that has failed already numerous times, but then the driver runs off leaving me alone in the middle on no where with a bunch of Myanmar locals and not a single one who speaks any amount of English.
Time is now 7pm and what do you think the driver comes back with but a tractor. It has only been 4 hours but finally some smarts. As we get the car out, the elephant decides to walk past with his handlers, amazing sight when I am that close away from a elephant conservation park.
We proceed to take off and now it’s dark and he has been stuck once, the driver is more cautions and even pulling over for bikes to over take us. It’s now 8pm and we are half way down the road we originally turned off the main road too and l start think this is ok, I will hopefully be there by 9. 9pm come and we are still on the road. 9:30pm and we finally turn back onto the main road. We continue that 10 minute drive left which was actually 30mins and we pull up next to the guesthouse. I walk in just as he is closing the doors and he has a bed. Once again a bed is pretty much a non existent mattress in a small room and an outside toilet but is the best option I have and for $10, I’m not arguing. Showered and in bed and just outside there is a rather large gunshot and in northern Myanmar, the best option is to just stay inside and see the night out.

Day 5: Indawgyi Lake and the last minute decision to leave early

I met Jake and Emma quickly while at dinner in Myitkyina and as it happens we were all heading the same way however they left a day earlier. When I arrived in Indawgyi it was good to see a familiar face after all I had been through but they proceeded to invite me on a boat to the top of the lake and head for a hike along a trail filled with Pagodas, Monks, beautiful nature and land mines. Luckily we didn’t come across any of the latter.
I found out later as well that the gunshot was probably due to cat fish hunting in the lake, so all a big climax from probably nothing, but still best to have stayed indoors. On the boat ride, which takes an hour to the other end, I have decided if I make it back in time, I am going to get back to Hopin and get the night train back to Mandalay. The hike is about 8kms long and while being very hot morning was awesome, saw a bear cat or gibbon (this is still yet to be confirmed), talked to some locals and stepped in some very disgusting mud while a cow just looked at us thinking ‘idiots’.
We find a little place to eat food after the hike and we get treated like royalty however Lon Ton (the only place in the lake where foreigners are allowed to stay) is a 20 minute drive away and we were not walking any further so we hitch hike. A large truck pulls over, we climb into the back and find some locals hiding under a tarp already in the back. The bumpy but quick ride back to Lon Ton was comforted by rice sacks and many photos were taken by the locals of us.
It’s now 1:30pm and l decide I can get to Hopin, I head down the road to find a pick up which the local policemen help for me but no one is going to Hopin, only Mohnyia which is further south but still on the train line. I see it as my only option and jump in. The driver is mad but I get to my destination and in one piece. Into the train station I go and ask about a ticket but all I get is no which is not really the best thing to hear, however he then proceeds to tell me to follow. He asks his friend, there is no sleeper train that stops here, so upper class it is. His friend makes a phone call and no upper class available where they then say all they have is ordinary class, now upper class for 14 hours plus is one thing but ordinary class on wooden seats, it was my turn to say no.
He takes me back out front and gets me on a motorbike taxi after I explain to him any buses. Another person is making a phone call, I’m on a motorbike taxi and we are weaving through the streets to where we pull up next to a bus. It already has people on it and ready to depart, luckily they have waited and they find me a seat to where I sit and write this entry around betle nut chewing locals, spitting up and the ladies being sick but some days you just have to do.

Final word: Northern Myanmar is a must. Get away from the big 4 (Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake) for a few days and go. It is beautiful and I found it to be a whole new world.

Important information that might help you along the way:

– People in Myitkyina are Kachin people and speak a slightly different language to that of the South. Don’t be to worried though, a found a few of them really want to speak English

– There are not many places to stay in Myitkyina. The cheapest being where I stayed is the YMCA at $10 per night for very basic accommodation (no hot water, not a very comfortable bed) however room was cleaned everyday and they have 24 hour electricity and western toilets. The staff are lovely as well. Any other accommodation will start probably from somewhere of $30 a night when I was looking. Pre booking the YMCA is recommended.

– No restaurants that I found had prices on the menus, so always agree price beforehand.

– Orient restaurant is highly recommended. Great food, great staff and reasonably priced. It’s next to the YMCA.

– Motorbike hire will be about k20,000 for a day in Myitkyina. I got it for k17,000 but to put my own petrol in, which will still be cheaper that k20,000 if you use it a lot during the day.

– When you get in your pick up from Hopin, make sure they will take you first to drop off or at least directly close

– There are only 2 places to stay in Lon Ton in Indawgyi Lake. Both don’t have a phone number to call and limited space. I stayed at the ‘better’ one called Indaw Mahar and once again offers basic accommodation but great staff, western toilet and only $10 a night.

*all experiences and opinions are of my own and not a representation of any other person or any employer, past or present. Travel dates 6/5/2106 – 11/5/2016. All guesthouse information correct as of travel dates.

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