As far as trips through Myanmar go, the region between Yangon and Bagan is often overlooked. We wondered what interesting destinations lie in the stretch and set out to explore the 600 kilometers forgotten. Part of the fun in exploration is the path trodden and we opted to use public transportation as much as possible, combining trains and buses, motorbikes and boats. Overland travel has the added bonus of engagement with locals and learning about their daily lives: the enthusiastic Ayeyarwaddy fisherman; aunties tending to their shops; children running around in green and white school uniforms.
We hoped that stepping into these hidden oases, traveling slowly and consciously, would yield interesting insight into this rapidly changing country. In our must-sees, we listed Pyay(a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the sleepy town of Salay, a homestay in the village of Magyikan as stopping points en route.
Our journey began with the heat of mid-day, on a North-West train from Yangon Central Rail Station bound for Pyay. On our bumpy way, the countryside of Myanmar passed us by as we took in the scenes of colorful seasonal plantations, and farmers working their water buffalos, toiling in the paddy fields. 8 hours later, we arrived in time for a quick meal of la phet htamin thoke – tea leaf salad with rice – before hitting the hay. It’s always a surprise how exhausting sitting on a train “doing nothing” really is!
The following day, we rose early to board a local wooden boat headed downstream to Akauk Taung – home to intricate Buddha statues carved into the towering cliffs done by the sailors of the mid-19th century as their prayer while passing through a mandatory tax point. The rest of our afternoon was spent in tea shops chatting in broken Burmese about life in the small town, and visiting Shwesandaw Pagoda before our 7h night bus to Yenangyaung. Expectedly in the more rural parts of Myanmar, the bus was sufficient but not flashy like the ones with the mini LED displays.
Thankfully, the warm welcome that awaited us at the Lei Thar Gone guest house made up for a bumpy night. Retirement brainchild and community project of Eric Trutwein, the guesthouse started alongside the “Light of Love Private High School” as a community-based tourism project for orphans and children of the area aiming for a future with more possibilities. The boutique guesthouse was cozy and charming, with lovely stone walls and blossoming flowers abound. There was always a gentle breeze as we were perched on top of the hill, wine in hand, watching the colours of Myanmar’s iconic sunsets over the Ayeyarwaddy river.
The next morning we went for an adventure on the river and to test our patience. Ms Ya Min met us bright and early after breakfast for our walk to the river. We passed through Sharr Pin Yoe village where we amassed a crowd of curious and giggling thanaka-smeared toddlers. They gathered along the shoreline to watch why foreigners were clambering into a shallow wooden boat. This early morning was also “bath time” and we observed, just as curiously, as farmers dragged large grunting pigs down the banks and started a scrubbing battle, with soap and suds flying.
We chugged towards the middle of the river, our motors scaring flocks of swallows & egrets into a sudden flight. The waving children and water buffalo numbers reduced as the river widened, and 30 minutes later we stopped in a spot that really looked no different from any other. Ms Ya Min turned our engine off and put a finger to her lips. With a few experienced swings, she showed us how to delicately ease the large nets over the surface of the water, spreading them out carefully. We attempted, at best, and Ms Ya Min came to our rescue. Here comes the most difficult part – kanalay, – waiting–with no cell signal.
The first hour was challenging, but soon the peaceful river and the rhythmic rocking of the passing waves soothed, calmed and hypnotised us. The 3 hours we spent lazing on the boat went by far more quickly than we had expected. Ms Ya Min suddenly woke from her nap and started pulling in the net, neatly folding it layer upon layer, expectantly looking for wriggling silvery flashes, which we gently unravel from the net and pop into a small bucket of water. Our morning was very fruitful – 2 medium-sized fish for lunch, and a handful of bite-sized beer snacks for the evening pint! We figured a busy morning justified our lazy afternoon and the Lei Thar Gone quiet pool couldn’t be more inviting. Our afternoon was spent idling on the lounge chairs, nibbling on our fresh catch.
On day 4, 2 motorbikes waited at reception for the next leg of our trip. We hung on tight for a bumpy 5h drive through the dry zone towards Salay. Travelling along the sandy tracks running parallel to the Ayeyarwaddy, we passed a colourful and seemingly never-ending procession of people about their daily tasks. The fields with farmers wearing khamauk – a typical conical bamboo hat-; women balancing heavy loads on their heads; herds of goats and cattle unaffected by honking traffic; children with mini book bags slung over a shoulder; ox carts squeezing their way past oncoming truck and bikes – such brilliant photo opportunities along the way.
The next stop is Pakannge village which was set-up by people originally from Bagan. The first king of Bagan enforced Theravada Buddhism upon them but they continued following a different branch of Buddhism, the Heravada one, and some others continued with their animist beliefs. The village ladies were awaiting our arrival with a delicious picnic lunch with fried rice. After a hearty meal, we continued riding to Magyikan Village for our local homestay.
The Magyikan village community-based tourism project started with 3 houses, two long-legged ones built of wood and bamboo and the third of brick. Primarily, the villagers are the host to the visitors while organizing some of the activities in and around the village. They introduce local day to day activities to guests and help them appreciate the culture of the people in the area.
On the next day, we got up early (along with the locals) and had sticky rice, bananas and green tea for breakfast. The eager villagers later lined up to say goodbye and waved our bikes off into the dust. We continued our journey to Salay, a collection of Colonial-era buildings, in a dilapidated but enchanting condition. One highlight of the area is Yoke Saung Kyaung – a magnificent Konbaung-period, carved-teak monastery, which were both intricate and impressive. Our drivers lead us to the Bagan-esque temples with wall paintings intact, some with Mahayana motives. They remind us of a quiet Bagan, untouched by modernization, free of hawkers, selfie-sticks and “do not touch” signs.
Our drivers dropped us off at Salay House for ice-cold lime sodas as we waited for our boat to Bagan. The 5h journey allowed us a quiet afternoon after the last days, which were brimming with activity. We gazed along the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy in quiet contemplation, reflecting on the genuine hospitality and warmth we experienced on our wonderful journey.
Melissa Tan is the General Manager of Khiri Travel Myanmar and has shared her experience traveling within Myanmar in a monthly column.