By: Susan Bailey
The Ministry of Hotel and Tourism likes to boast that 4 million ‘tourists’ will visit Myanmar this year and expats love to complain that Bagan is overrun these days.
But the reality is that the country is still blissfully unscathed by tourism, especially when you compare Bagan’s 400,000 annual foreign visitors to Siem Reap’s 5 million.
But who can resist the feeling of being the first outsider to visit a remote village or a hidden beach? In 2011, on my first trip to Kyauk Me, it felt like that. We spent five days on motorbikes going deep into the mountains and more than once were told ‘you are the first foreigners in this village’.
Going back nearly six years later I was not sure what to expect. I knew some travel companies and tour guides were taking visitors to the region but Hsipaw seemed to have developed into the backpacker hotspot rather than Kyauk Me. I almost dreaded seeing the town, imagining the transition from sleepy trading town to a bar-filled city with barefoot tourists milling about. Thankfully my fears were unfounded. Aside from a few shiny ATMs and a new hotel not much had changed. The market still overflowed with fresh produce, tacky but warm winter clothes and enough electronic equipment to host a massive rave party. The beer station seemed to contain the same guys huddled over a bottle of Grand Royal and the bus station remains a dirt lot.
Our plan was a two day trip, looping back to Pyin Oo Lwin on the Mogok road, a relatively new road that we had heard was spectacular. We had obtained permission to go to Mogok- even though we had no intention of actually going to the town we figured it was worth getting just in case. (note: as of 26 Dec 2016, permission for foreigner travel to Mogok is no longer being issued but is expected to be possible again soon)
The first morning we hit the road at 07.30, bundled up in layers of clothes as the temperature was in single digits. The day’s ride was nothing short of spectacular. The road shifted from dirt track to sealed road to packed dirt and back again. We had miles of views where nothing man-made could be seen. We stopped in villages for tea and indulged in a homemade lunch that was cooked in one pan over an open fire yet was bursting with flavor. And, of course, our guide stopped us for a few token group-fies along the way.
We did, as well, see soldiers on the road and in the surrounding hills. Often just sauntering with a load of firewood or a basket of food. From time to time we saw guns, but casually laid aside while a soldier took a nap. Although the media has been intensely focused on the situation in the Rakhine State, these sightings made us realise just how close and how real the ‘world’s longest civil war’ is to our door step. In every village- whether consisting of five households or five hundred- our guide would double check to make sure the road ahead was ok and that no fighting had occurred in recent days. It was in one way unnerving, but on the other hand reassuring that he was going to such lengths to protect us and himself, as both a guide and a family man.
Around 16.00, covered in dust, we decided to call it quits for the day. We stopped at a small shop to wait while our guide went to chat to the village chairman about our overnight stay. As there are no licensed guesthouses in the area, foreign visitors are allowed to stay in monasteries and local houses with permission from the village authorities. While our guide took care of this ‘official’ work, we grabbed a room-temperature beer and enjoyed the view over the mountains
Just as we finished the beer, our guide popped back in to tell us we would be staying at the chairman’s house so we drove a short distance down the road to his tidy two-story abode. We sat down for a cup of tea on the ground floor, huddling over the small fire while chatting to the family. The father had lived in Thailand before and told us his daughter was now there selling noodles and ‘getting very rich’, he said with a smile.
I planned to have a bucket shower but as the sun had dipped lower in the sky, the air was already chilly. I managed a few splashes of ice-cold water to get the dust off and managed to feel semi-clean before my teeth started to chatter. My friend did not fair much better so we headed up the hill for a few more beers to warm us up.
We were joined in the ‘bar’ by a few locals who were hitting the rice wine at an impressive speed. They raised their glasses more than a few times, toasting us with a loud ‘Gan-bai’. One man in particular took a liking to us and would occasionally pop over to show us music videos to which he would spastically-dance along to.
However at around seven they started clearing out and the owner began to shut the doors. She gestured at us to go home and made a military salute. We figured soldiers were in the area so we quickly paid up and walked down to the house. Our host and guide were sitting outside by a camp fire drinking tea. The chairman disappeared into the house only to return with beer, apologizing that it was not chilled. It was not a problem as we were transfixed on the sky which was so clear we could even spot the Milky Way. Our host and guide then disappeared to watch a football game at the neighbour’s house, leaving us to enjoy the views before nestling down for a good night’s sleep.
Given our 9pm bed time, it was not surprising that we found ourselves wide awake at sunrise the next morning. The village was also up and moving, keen to make the most of the winter’s minimal daylight hours. We said farewell to our hosts who were worried we had not been comfortable the night before. We joked ‘it’s not a 5-star hotel, but it’s a million-star hotel’. Once translated the family’s smiles were huge and they asked the guide to write down the saying so that they could explain to tourists again in the future. Hearty handshakes were exchanged before we took off on the motorbikes.
The next day we headed out for the Mogok-Pyin Oo Lwin road, a relatively new road that motorbike-enthusiast friends have raved about. After two hours, and several stops to ask directions (turns out our guide had never been as well!), we approached the Chaung Ma Gyi River where the road splits- north to Mogok and southeast to Pyin Oo Lwin. The road lived up to the hype. It is one of those rare Myanmar roads that is both adventurous and safe. We saw a handful of other motorbikes and cars but not a single truck. We had miles of winding, smooth tarmac mostly to ourselves and stunning vistas all around. There were ample chances to stop for photos but I can’t remember ever seeing a tea shop or a restaurant the entire time. While we certainly were not the first foreigners on the road, it certainly brought back the old feeling of being a pioneering tourist.
We rolled in to Pyin Oo Lwin in time for a late lunch. Although we had passed through there just 48 hours it felt like we had been away for weeks: two days in the hills proved to be the perfect escape. Jaded expats, over-worked tour guides and intrepid travelers need not worry: Myanmar still has plenty of beautiful, tourist-free places to discover. Sure, it takes a bit of effort, but the rewards are endless.
One Love Hotel- Best hotel in town; 30,000-40,000 MMK / night
Northern Rock Hotel- Guesthouse with charm but slightly over-priced at 25 USD per room per night.
Ay Yone Oo- A variety of rooms from basic, shared-bathroom singles to larger en-suite family rooms.
Guides: The hotels can arrange guides but for the best guides, it is better to book in advance. Joy ([email protected]), Thura ([email protected]) or Naing Naing ([email protected]) are all good, experienced guides.