April 8, 2016 1:48PM (JST)
Source: Blair Bourassa
It was a long trip to Hsipaw from Bagan. The minibus we rode from the hostel in Bagan to Mandalay lasted about 6 hours, from 8PM to 2AM, with a 15-minute food break and two bathroom breaks along the way. When we reached the train terminal in Mandalay and off we got off the bus, there were tons of taxi drivers trying to give us a ride. It was a hassle. I took us awhile to get past these desperate drivers. We quickly walked to the train terminal. We were 2 hours early to catch the first train that was destined to go to Hsipaw, a not-so touristy town known for trekking.
As we were waiting, I noticed that the train smelled foul. There were pigeons walking around and some were flying about. I was wondering where they were coming from. I looked up and found out that they were roosting above the lights. It was quite cold outside, since it was north of Yangon and central area of Myanmar, so it was very understandable that they preferred warmer areas to live, just like any other pigeons from other parts of the world.
There were only a couple of people at the train station. One of them was an Israeli backpacker from our bus. His destination was somewhere else, a place unfamiliar to all of us. Lucky that he had time to travel in his youth, because if I recall, he said he had several months of travel time. We set off our belongings at the seats and some of us watched over our backpacks while some of us went off to a filthy washroom that happened to be located outside the parking lot and it smelled terrible. I could not resist the smell since I am very sensitive to smell and I could not go into the washroom, so I had to go off and did it somewhere secret. Lucky it was early morning because no one was there! This is how crazy I am while I am travelling.
Once we got back to the bench area where we left our backpacks, there was a large family (or were they separate families?) with a couple of mothers and several children wearing traditional clothing with bright head scarfs and traditional dresses wrapped around them. Rita was interested in taking photos of traditional culture so she spent several minutes taking photo with close ups of children and women. I also took photos of them but just a couple of shots and that’s it. If I had my DSLR, I would have taken many photos as well.
While waiting for the train to depart, Geoffrey booked a room of a hotel in Hsipaw for him and me. Rita was to book the room when she arrived at the hotel, determined that she could book upon arrival. Fabian and Marta also booked their room. We all booked last minute since it was last minute decision to travel to Hsipaw.
There were several ticket counters. Since we had no idea how to read Burmese and some of them were in English with names that we did not recognize, we had to walk around the train station to look for Hsipaw. We asked others but it was difficult to find those who could speak decent English and some of them didn’t know where to buy the tickets themselves. Finally, we found a young man who could speak English and he led us to the ticket counter and told us to bring our passports. Not all of us had to be at the ticket counter, so we passed our passports to Fabian and Geoffrey so they could buy the tickets for us.
Once we got our tickets, we were ready to go. We bought economy tickets. There were three different types of tickets. Once we reached the train, we saw the cheapest section of the train had hard wooden seats. Ours were couches with soft linens. Expensive part had air conditioning. Pricing was not very different between the three types of tickets but nonetheless, we picked the most reasonable and we needed to save money for the rest of our trip.
The couple Fabian and Marta sat together while the rest of us solo travelers had single seat of our own. We were close to each other and it was not difficult to start conversation. Since it was very early in the morning, we quickly fell asleep. I couldn’t fall asleep quickly because the train was moving very slowly and dawn came very soon, in less than two hours or so, and rooster was calling. It was new land and I had never been there. Since it was very dark outside, I had no idea what it was like outside the window. I felt an urge to have a peek but there were only grasses and yellow flowers and I could not see beyond. I quickly fell asleep.
Once I woke up since it seemed that the train was slowing down, I realized that the first train stop was soon. I took a look outside and it was a relatively local village (or city?) with traditional Burmese buildings that were built from wood. I saw local adults and children having their daily life milling around. Some little children waved at passengers on the train and we, the foreign travelers, happily waved back with big smiles. It was an amazing experience travelling on a local train seeing local life flourishing with quiet lives that we don’t normally see in our home.
The first station where we stopped were packed with people waiting to get on the train, people who were there to pick up passengers, and food sellers. It was something that I have always wanted to see during my travel in a less travelled country in Southeast Asia. We had about 15 min to get up and stretch while the train stopped. Most of food sellers were women. Some of them carried huge flat baskets containing freshly made vermicelli with various flavors in plastic bags. Unfortunately, I did not have appetite at this time and did not buy any. However, Fabian and Geoffrey bought them and let me try the noodle. I must say it tasted exactly like the regular Chinese food that I ate in Chinese restaurants back home.
After finishing the breakfast noodle, I had to go to toilet. It was difficult to find the toilet. I had to ask someone working at the train station. He spoke decent English and so did the most of the people selling food and goods. After getting out of the toilet, I wanted to take a photo of the train station with the train in the middle of the track. I excitedly walked onto the track and asked for a local woman to take photo for me. It seemed that she did not know how to use the camera (it was just a digital camera) and so I passed the camera to a man nearby who I believed was working at the train station. Quickly shooting shots here and there, I quickly walked back to the train. Having being refreshed and ready to have the trip continue, I stayed awake for the rest of the morning and early afternoon. Every train stop was the same – toilet, food, and stretching breaks.
Once we reached the old style bridge in the untouched nature, the sight was very beautiful. Away from civilization, it was something that I have always to see during this trip. I am not a city person and would prefer enjoying my solitary time in nature, and perhaps with several people who also share similar value as me. (I later learned that my travel group did not fit into my definition of enjoying the nature and I had to separate from their trip, which they probably also have noticed that I was being too quiet and boring for them).
I took several pictures on the bridge, with me leaning against the opening, and asked a foreigner who was also taking photo from the window beside me. I also took photo of her in exchange. There were not many foreigners on the train by this time and some of them got off the stations earlier. The remaining non locals had same destination and goal as us – to trek in Hsipaw.
After getting off the old but well maintained railway bridge, I noticed that there was a small child at an opening of the rock outcrop. It was a rare sight and so, I immediately took photo before losing the sight. It was basically a home in a small cave and it was probably unique in that area, though that was the only unique home I saw during the trip on the train.
Finally, about 10 hours (around 4AM – 2PM) after we departed Mandalay, we reached Hsipaw. Just like any other earlier train stations, it was not developed and looked very local. I loved the sight. We got off the train and immediately found the man holding the sign with the name of our hotel. We followed him to the Tuktuk that can hold at least six passengers and belongings on the rooftop. There were two other travelers with us as well. The ride was bumpy and not comfortable as the road was old and underdeveloped. Fortunately, the ride got better over time.
It took us about 20 minutes to reach our hotel – Mr. Charles Hotel. It is probably the most known hotel to tourists and majority of tourists go there. It was definitely not cheap, at about $25 US per person, or rather per room. This is quite understandable because Hsipaw is not a very touristy city and most tourists would travel to Inle Lake for trekking (actual place is called Kalaw) as that is recommended online. As backpackers, we talk to people and we learn from other people’s experiences and we pick the best option out of all the options we hear. Inle Lake, according to most people we talked to, is far more known to tourists and it is not a good place to enjoy surrounding nature as there are too many foreigners. Inle Lake is more for people who are less flexible with their travel time since Inle Lake is much easier to get to from Yangon, as it is located between Yangon and Mandalay, with far more options to visit other seemingly interesting places in-between. Due to the fact that Fabian and Marta had to fly to Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, for a wedding party of Fabian’s friend in four days, we made our ultimate decision. I, on the fact, was more flexible since I decided to go to Hsipaw and my original plan was Inle Lake, and I eventually decided to cancel the flight out from Mandalay to Hanoi, Vietnam, my next planned destination, which I even booked a 3-day tour in Ha Long Bay…which I had to call them once I reached Hanoi but that will be another blog post later on.
After dropping our belongings in the locker room of the hotel, we explored the city and went looking for Mitch Michael (his nickname in English and you can find him on Facebook), a local trekking guide that was recommended by someone known by Geoffrey (or Rita?). We went to a restaurant to look for his contact. We had no idea what he looked like so we asked the people of the restaurant and were told that there was business card on the wall with reference to Mitch (we called him Mitch). The people of the restaurant, well the people in Myanmar in general, were very nice and keen to listen to our concerns and helped us even though they might not know the solution. One of the restaurant employees lent us a phone and we called Mitch by the phone provided on the business card. Mitch immediately picked up the phone and told us he would be there in 10 mins. At this time, a girl about the same age with us told us that she went on a solo trekking trip with Mitch and just came back that day. She was Dutch, I believe, as Dutch and British were very common in Hsipaw, and some French. Americans and Asians were unheard of, during our stay there, at least. She highly recommended Mitch to us before leaving the restaurant.
Source: Trip Advisor
Mitch arrived and we discussed our plans and price. There are three options of trekking: moderate, difficult, and extreme. According to Mitch, moderate is actually easy for most people and it is just walk on the flat. If he categorizes it as easy, then no one would go. We picked difficult. Since I had never trekked before, I felt it was probably too tough for me, so I said my concern to my friends but they insisted that if I didn’t like it, I should join a different group. However, I still wanted to go on the trek with them, so I stayed. It was not a mistake – I actually was the most fit of the girls, which was quite a surprise.
Mitch mentioned that he talked to a German couple earlier that day and this couple had to think about paying fee. He said that if we agreed to pay fee on the spot, then we were set to go. The price was not so bad, from the westerners’ view. For five people, it was $60 US per person for three days. For two people, it was $90 US per person, and $150 if solo. It was something around this range. Money included accommodation, food, fee for villagers, and of course, for Mitch himself. Geoffrey, impatient as usual, insisted to pay it on the spot. Marta, a critical thinker, agreed and the rest of us also agreed to pay on the spot. With our mind on travelling, no wonder we made our decision so hurriedly. Fortunately, the German couple was still deciding by this time, because none of us wanted a group consisting of over five people. I personally didn’t mind because I would probably have preferred more people. I later realized this was a huge mistake because my group were too busy in their own world and talked nonstop and so, I couldn’t enjoy being myself and of course, the pristine nature that I always wanted to see in Southeast Asia, especially the first SE Asian country that I had ever been to.
The German couple who seemed to be in their mid-thirties looked very disappointed when Mitch later told them that we paid and we took their spots. They eventually found a different local guide that we saw the next day. If I had an option to pick the two groups and both would accept me, I would have probably gone with the couple because they were much quieter and they were in their own lovely world so I would also likely have my own space and time to enjoy the trekking experience all by myself.
We quickly found a local Chinese restaurant and ate…well Burmese Chinese food. The restaurant’s name said it was a Chinese restaurant but its food was terrible compared to the ones in Bagan. I ate everything except the chicken for my dish. They seemed to enjoy it, probably because they didn’t know the ‘real’ Chinese cuisine. After quick dinner, we quickly went back to our hotel and slept – feeling exhausted of our bus trip, too excited to start the journey.