Our next stop on our Myanmar adventure was Kalaw, the small and sleepy mountaintop town enveloped in an intoxicating scent of pine and jasmine.
We booked a night bus through JJ Express and departed Mandalay at 10pm. The ride was long and bumpy as we wound our way through the mountain passes. Only a few aboard managed to slumber off into a deep sleep during this trip. Unfortunately, we were not one of those fortunate souls. We arrived in Kalaw at 3:30am feeling sleep deprived and slightly ill from the ride. Even in the early hours of the morning, the taxi mafia had been awaiting our arrival. As we got off the bus and collected our bags, the calls and offers of the taxi drivers swirled our heads. Our accommodation was only a 20 minute walk from the bus stop so we expected to only pay between 2000 to 3000 Kyat. The first offer we received was actually 2000 Kyat! We were shocked that we were being offered a fair price. We accepted the driver’s offer only to realize a few seconds later that there was no car. There was in fact only a scooter. The deal was clarified; 2000 Kyat per person, 2 scooters were needed. The cost then doubled to 4000 Kyat. No thanks. A second later, another driver stepped into the light and offered us a car transfer to the hotel. The price? 7000 Kyat! I would say daylight robbery but the sun was not up and we were in no mood to entertain these ridiculous offers. We offered 3000 kyat but the driver laughed at our offer and told us it would take 45 minutes to walk. We showed him our lovely piece of futurisric technology called a smart phone with Google Map’s estimated 20 minute walking time, and called BS on his statement. We both knew that it was pointless trying to negotiate. The more time wasted meant the later we would arrive at our accommodation and the less sleep we would get. We strapped on our backpacks and let Google lead the way.
🚌 Mandalay ▶️ Kalaw Tip: We booked the JJ Express night bus through our hotel, Hotel Apex. The tickets cost us 12USD. We got a Grab tuk-tuk to Mandalay bus station. Ask the tuk-tuk driver to drop you outside the bus station entrance so that you don’t have to pay the extra 3500Kyat vehicle entrance fee. You can just walk in.
Just 2 minutes into our walk, the taxi driver pulled up next to us and magically his price started to fall rapidly. 6000, 5000, 4000. We weren’t interested. We had no time for someone who tried to first scam us and then come down on his price. He wasn’t getting a cent from us. After about 20 minutes of walking (thanks Google for your honesty), we arrived at our accommodation. We booked just one night at Gloria Motel but they were kind enough to let us check in at 4am so technically we got almost 2 nights of sleep.
We woke up groggy and dazed around midday on the same day and headed out to find some lunch. We found a very cute restaurant called New Simple Life which we highly recommend. We ended up speaking to the owner and chef who studied in France and worked in Malaysia and Singapore. It was very refreshing to listen to her views on Myanmar and the problems with food handling, preparation and cleanliness. We both agreed that it starts with educating children. We were also impressed to find out that she has been teaching cooking classes to young Burmese students and teaching them the importance of proper food handling. After a wonderful meal and chat, we bid her farewell and headed down into Kalaw town center to explore.
The town center of Kalaw is about a 200 meter stretch of shops, tea houses, beer houses and a market. There isn’t a lot going on at all. We walked up to a view point on the top of a hill located next to Thein Taung Monasteryand could see the entire beautiful little town and the surrounding pine-covered mountains.
It really was a charming place. After the view point, we walked down to the train station and followed the road heading up into the mountain. Up there, we found beautiful British colonial houses set in lush gardens echoing a different era that once existed in Myanmar.
After exploring the town and surrounds, we had a delicious dinner at Everest Nepali Food Center and then returned to our hotel to get an early night in preparation for our early departure to Inle the following day.
A lot of people just use Kalaw as a rest stop before heading to Inle. Honestly, we really liked Kalaw and deem it worthy of a couple days for relaxation. It is a charming town in the mountains that should not be overlooked.
We were up at 7am the following morning. We quickly ate our rate-inclusive breakfast, paid for our room and walked into town to get our ride to Inle. We had reserved seats through a tour company the evening before. But honestly, we had no idea of what the travel situation would be besides that it we would be traveling on a mini-bus. Once we arrived, we saw the chariot that would haul us over the mountain. The mini-bus was old and nothing special. For 3USD each, we really couldn’t complain. Bags were thrown on the roof with a tarp tied down over them to keep them dry and to prevent them from flying off. The taxi wasn’t too packed but we soon realized the driver was determined to pickup as many fares as he could along the way. We played a game of human Tetris as he tried to squeeze as many people in as possible.
After 2 hours of bumpy mountain roads, we arrived in Shwenyaung. From there, we paid a taxi 6000 Kyat to take us 20 minutes south to Nyaungshwe, the town just north of Inle. This is where all the restaurants and hotels are located. On the way into Nyaungshwe, we had to stop at a checkpoint to pay a tourism fee of 10USD per person. There is no real way to avoid this fee but, as opposed to the Bagan fee, it was considerably less.
We arrived at our hotel, the Immana Grand Hotel. We received a warm welcome from the reception and were shown to our room. The room was great but we soon encountered the same problem we had at a few hotels in Myanmar – smelly shower water. We informed the front desk of the problem and they said the water tanks had been cleaned so we should run the water for a while until the smell disappears. That worked only once. Besides that, the room was comfortable. As for all hotels in Myanmar, forget about fast or reliable wifi.
We trekked into town and had some dumplings for lunch, then headed back to our hotel, grabbed two bikes and rode out to the Red Mountain Estate Vineyards & Winery. We sampled their Syrah and cheese platter. The wine was bizarre with a burnt charcoal flavor and the cheese platter consisted of 4 sticks of previously frozen mozzarella, a few cashew nuts, a small chunk of blue and two pieces of toast.
Fortunately, it wasn’t too expensive and the view, as always, made up for it. We then cycled back into town and decided to try out a barbecue restaurant for dinner.
Now, before I go on, we had planned to do the Inle Lake tour the following day. We knew that the long boat we wanted to book had a set fee of 18,000 Kyat and 4 seats available. So, the more people on the boat, the cheaper the per person rate. We had asked our hotel earlier in the day if any other guests had inquired about the tour but we were out of luck.
Back to dinner. Seated across from us were two Korean sisters who we ended striking up a conversation with. This led to us asking if they wanted to do the Inle Lake tour together and lucky for us, they were in. Mission accomplished! We now had a full boat and it would cost us only 4,500 Kyat per person. We booked the tour through our hotel reception after dinner and called it a night.
The next morning, the boat driver arrived. We set off on foot, with him leading the way. Our first stop was to pick up our new Korean boat companions. We then proceed to follow our guide, whose English was non existent around Nyaungshwe, in the rain for about 10 minutes.
It felt like a wild goose chase. We followed him to a gas station so he could get gas for the boat, down streets filled with vendors, over a small bridge until finally we stopped at a small stream off the main river where 5 or 6 boats were tied up. We loaded up and set off down the river. It was cool, overcast and raining but it was too late to turn back now. We headed out over Inle with our umbrellas in hand.
The first stop was a Silversmith/Jeweler factory where they showed us how silver is extracted from rocks. It was interesting to watch and see how the jewelers crafted such fine pieces. They then showed us around all their merchandise expecting us to buy something, but unfortunately for them, we had just got married and bought all the jewelery we needed for the time being.
Stop two was a local market but due to the rain, most of the stalls had already closed or hadn’t even opened that day. We did get to see a few of the famous long-neck women weaving items to sell.
Stop three was a Lotus weaving/textile factory. To get there, we made our way through a town comprised entirely of houses on stilts. The town was pretty amazing and it was very interesting to see how differently some people live their lives.
The only thing that grossed us out was the fact that their toilets opened up straight onto the water. The same water they bathe, wash clothes and dishes, swim and fish. Will I be eating lake fish? No thanks.
At the Lotus factory, we learned how garments are manufactured from the tiny threads of the lotus stem. Expect to pay top dollar for any lotus item. A simple scarf was anywhere between 200 and 500USD!
Stop four was an extremely over-priced restaurant. In retrospect, we should have done some research prior to the tour and found a decent restaurant to eat at but we just went with the boat drivers choice. I am sure he also earns some sort of commission for bringing customers to the restaurant.
Stop five was a Burmese cheroot rolling factory. The smell inside was amazing. We sampled a range of Burmese cheroots with different types of tobacco flavors including honey, mint, anise and banana. The banana was our favorite but I couldn’t smoke a whole cheroot without possibly throwing up and then passing out. They are strong.
Slightly light headed, we made our way to stop number six – a rather unimpressive pagoda. We didn’t even go inside as we were not dressed appropriately.
We then made our way through a floating garden to our seventh and final stop – a monastery.
After exploring the monastery, we made our way back to Nyaungshwe. We shared an afternoon tea and snack with our Korean friends and then parted ways. That night, we grabbed an unmemorable dinner in town and went to bed.
The next morning we were up early to catch our bus from Inle to Yangon. We booked a VIP day time bus for 20USD. The bus company was called Lumbini and for the price we paid, we expected the same facilities that JJ Express offered. But as soon as sat down, we realized that there was no on board entertainment besides the hard-rock Burmese band blaring over the speakers. Needless to say, it was a long day sitting and staring out of the window. We eventually arrived in Yangon in the evening and caught a Grab over to our hostel, which was next to the aiport. It was cheap and simple which was all it needed to be. The next morning we jumped on our flight to Luang Prabang.
In summary, Myanmar was by far one of the best countries we have visited so far. Each city and town offers something different. The food is right down our alley – except for fermented bamboo (avoid that stuff like the plague!). The JJ VIP night buses are extremely comfortable, making the long journey times around Myanmar less painful. The raw beauty of Myanmar is more than often breathtaking. But the thing we loved most about Myanmar were the people. We felt so welcomed everywhere we went and loved speaking with people from the different places we visited. They are so interested in travellers and learning where you are from. Everywhere we went we were greeted by smiles from people of all ages. If you are ever contemplating travelling to Myanmar, mark it down as a solid must-see.
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