We would certainly forgive you if the thought of leaving the sun-soaked array of Bagan’s ancient temples was the last thing on your mind, but the time will come none-the-less.
Getting from Bagan to Mawlamyine via coach is a two stage journey: first via the nation’s former capital and transport hub, Yangon, then catch a second coach from there to Mawlamyine itself.
There are a few ways to get out of Bagan from Nyaung-U, the suburb dedicated to travel in and out of the region just out of town. Air, rail and coach are the three most popular, and as air travel is a little more expensive (and you don’t get to see as much of the country!), and as we’d had our fair share of trains recently, we opted for the bus south to Mawlamyine.
This marked the beginning of our long journey down the Andaman coast by land and sea, all the way from North Myanmar to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. More on this coming soon!
Bagan (Shwe Pyi Highway Bus Station) to Yangon (Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station)
Mandalar Minn Express VIP, air conditioned sleeper coach departs 8pm, arrives into Yangon approximately 6am
Depart 8PM, check in 7.30PM – or whenever your pickup arrives
Duration – Approx 10 hours
First stop, Buy Your Tickets at Shwe Pyi bus Terminal
We found its always best to grab your tickets at the source, rather than through your hotel or an agency – cut out the middle-man and save yourselves the commission (weigh it up though, shop around – smaller guesthouses can be very fair indeed with helping you book). Jump on your electric scooter and head to Bagan’s out of town Shwe Pyi bus station in Nyaung-U. Find the ticket office there for Mandalar Minn Express and get it booked.
Connection from your hotel
When booking your ticket you should be asked where you are staying – these VIP bus companies include a pickup from your hotel.
We went for the 8pm VIP coach. The big red Mandalar Minn Express VIP coaches are quite modern and relatively comfortable. Put your seat back and try to relax, it’s a long, 10 hour journey ahead.
Arriving at Yangon’sAung Mingalar Highway Bus Station
Now this is where it gets really interesting. As the sun gently rises and the soft, almost bluish light starts to flood into the streets of Yangon, you will arrive at the very-much-out-of-town Aung Mingalar bus station.
Prepare yourselves for a little bleary-eyed chaos as you offload and try to find the Mandalar Minn Express ticket office to purchase the next leg of your journey.
Aung Mingalar resembles a small village/complex more than a bus station. Hundreds of coaches coming and going, handfuls of lovely little cafes and restaurants that are open all hours of the day and night. Of course, there are taxi drivers who will be offering you a lift into the centre of town, but that’s not where you are going. We even had a driver offer us a lift to the ticket office (its a 5 minute walk).
Our coach didn’t drop us off at the Mandalar Minn Express ticket office – that was a 5 minute walk to the east. Having a charged phone with Google Maps is invaluable here, and it’s how we found our way there.
Yangon (Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station) to Mawlamyine
Price – 6500 MMK per person (2017)
Depart 8.30AM, check in 8.00AM
Duration – Approx 7 hours
Squeeze your way into the ticket office and grab a pair of tickets – they should look a little like the image below. Their little office is crammed full of people and luggage, so it’s not the most ideal place to wait.
If you catch a similar bus to us, then you will have a couple of hours to kill. Time to fill up on coffee and breakfast. We grabbed a couple of (instant) coffees on a quiet cafe on the corner, before moving ourselves and our bags over to one of the cafe restaurants in the same square as the Mandalar Minn Express ticket office.
Mohinga for Breakfast
We headed over to the local restaurant, တိုကျို, and grabbed a couple bowls of Yangon’s famous breakfast noodle broth, Mohinga. It wasn’t the most visually pleasing example of the dish, but it was a delightfully zingy, fishy delicious dish nevertheless. Our mohinga came with soft youtiao, or Chinese donuts.
30 minutes before your departure time, find a spot to perch in or outside the Mandalar Minn Express ticket office – we watched various coaches come and go, and a delightfully totalitarian ticketmaster/conductor shouting orders through a megaphone and over his rather portly belly at drivers and porters alike.
Time to Leave Yangon, Destination, Mawlamyine
The journey south from Yangon was a pleasant one – we definitely recommend the Mandalar Minn Express VIP bus, mainly thanks to its fully functioning AC. The bus journey from Yangon to Mawlamyine takes you North first via Bago, through Waw, past Kyaikto, the connecting town for getting to see the famous golden rock of Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, Thaton and more, before finally arriving in Mawlamyine.
Arriving in Mawlamyine
Finally you will arrive at the Mawlamyine Highway Bus Station, which is, of course, on the highway and out of town. From here you could negotiate a taxi into town or your guesthouse, or even walk into town if you are feeling fit.
For the latter, there’s a gorgeous walk if you head south to the next junction, then back on yourselves and up along the hill ridge that overlooks the town – there’s some incredible pagodas up here including the U Zina Pagoda, Buddha images, the Bamboo Buddha. Gorgeous sunsets and friendly monks. Just give yourself around 45 minutes to walk into town.
Where to Stay in Mawlamyine
Or do as we did and choose a hotel close to the highway bus station. We stayed at the fantastic Pinlon Pann Hotel – just a few minutes walk from the station (and train station), and the owners are very friendly and will help you with all aspects of your stay and onward travel.
What to do in Mawlamyine
Mawlamyine marked the start of our journey into South Myanmar – and as much as we loved the north, including Inle Lake and Bagan, the South really offers so much more.
Romantic, rustic, dilapidated – yet still oozing with charm, there was a reason that Rudyard Kipling found inspiration in Mawlamyinefor his poem Mandalay.
From its incredible blazen orange sunsets, to Kipling’s favourite Kyeik Than Lan Pagoda, to its myriad restaurants, walks along the messy promenade and the Thanylin River – there’s so much to do here. Visit Shampoo Island, and you absolutely must make time to go to Hpa An from here.
Railways, Village Weddings, Late Night Parties, Delicious Food, Gorgeous Vistas
Quiet Villages, hidden pagodas and beautiful vistas awaited us on our hike, which was definitely one of my top experiences in Myanmar. It’s not the most unbeaten track, with multiple tours leaving Kalaw daily, but we opted for a small 3 day group trek and our experienced guide really made our journey feel special, often taking us a slightly different way to avoid larger groups.
Read on for our experience and a little guidance for trekking from Kalaw to Inle lake…
Choosing a tour
After researching various tour companies we chose A1 Trekking. We walked along to their small office just off of Kone Thae street, Kalaw. We were shown the possible routes, pictures the views in wet season vs dry season (it’s crazy how different it looks).
Inle Hike Price
We opted for a two night three day hike. We paid $53USD (£42.50, 80,000MMK – 2017 prices) each, this included all our food and accommodation.
We were told the group size would be between 2-6 (the price is cheaper the more people there are). Our group ended up having four people. Alex and I and a French couple. The two night three day trek was a good amount of time. There was a lot of miles to cover and by day three we were relieved to reach our destination, having had a great adventure.
Our Kalaw Trek Backpacks – What We Took With Us
As we had to carry everything that we needed ourselves, the less we took the better!
Silk sleeping bag liner
Warm clothes – it can get down to near freezing temperatures
A change of clothes
Sun cream and sun hat
A small amount of toiletries
I wore shorts and a t-shirt and a pair of Keen sandals – which were lightweight, great for crossing through water, though offered little support or protection. I also packed a few cereal bars and some water too, although there would be plenty of food provided and lots of opportunities to buy water.
A1 Trekking arranged for the rest of our luggage to meet us at our hotel in Nyaungshwe, so we thought that less is more.
Mile 0-16, Day temp. 31°c, Night temp 4°c
Our guide Elias met us at our hotel, along with our trekking companions at 8am.
When to Hike Kalaw to Inle – What Time of Year is the Dry Season?
Our trek began on the 27th November
We were incredibly lucky with the weather, Elias explained, as we had started our hike on the first day of the dry season, this meant not only would we experience stunningly blue skies and cloudless days but the landscape would still be verdant and lush before it dries to faded browns within weeks.
We shouldered our packs, and began our trek. 30 minutes outside Kalaw, the road opened out onto lush rolling hills scattered with tall fir trees.
There was something very European about Kalaw. Elias quickly explained that this was because the British brought a great number of fir and pine trees when creating Kalaw.
Then, we descended into our first rice paddy. After scrambling across small streams bridged by even smaller planks of wood our path began to weave in and out of forests. At one point Elias stopped to shave some bark off a menthol tree, (a major part of Tiger Balm) the bark smelt strongly and the tree’s fragrance lingered faintly on the air. Shortly after this some excited Burmese tourists from Yangon asked if they could take a picture with us – after which Elias explained that it is seen as lucky (or at least, a good bit of fun), to have your picture taken with a tourist.
Ye Aye Lake – Our First Stop
After a few hours we came to a collection of dams at Ye Aye Lake, where we stopped for our first break. Elias handed out tiny sweet Chinese clementines and locally made peanut brittle. After which Elias advised us we might want walking sticks for the next part of the day. This was not understatement; minutes after leaving the dam we were faced with a slippery scramble up a steep slope, the sticky clay-like mud making it a challenging ascent.
Passing more lakes and winding over and under fallen trees, the terrain began to change into lush jungle.
Up and up we climbed, until we were rewarded with one of many awesome views – a rugged hill-line laced with fruit bushes, and in the distance a hill top meditation temple.
Day 1 Lunch Stop – Ko Mont Tee View Point Restaurant
On top of one of these beautiful hills was our lunch stop at the Ko Mont Tee View Point. I really didn’t need to pack any cereal bars, we were incredibly well fed throughout our trip. Freshly made chapatis and pumpkin soup complemented Elias’ freshly made guacamole, which he proudly proclaimed, was only made by a few guides, so we were lucky. Even though he was worried he had oversalted it, it was delicious. After more fruit and as much guacamole as we could manage, it was time to re-trace our steps back to the path to continue the trek.
After a few hours we passed a local village and stopped to visit a school and meet some local children.
In the golden afternoon sunlight the path opened out onto a grassy verge. We stopped to do a bit of bird watching.
As evening drew in, we were surprised that our route took us onto a train track, Elias assured us it was quite safe, no more trains would be running today, we began to walk along it.
15 minutes later we met some local boys playing by the side of the track, and we stopped to talk to them. We also had an extra trekking companion at this point, a dog had been walking with us since the last village, Elias thought he was probably walking to the train station, where his owner’s family lived.
Local dogs are very wary of children (who tend to terrorise them) so he was sticking with us for company/protection. Sure enough, he made himself scarce when we met the boys but once we had said goodbye to them we saw him waiting for us a little way up the train track, a little more than a stones throw away (intentionally).
We all fell into step, one behind the other and continued hopping along the railway lines. Suddenly the dog’s ears pricked up and he ran into the bushes on the side of the line, we then heard the sound of a train slowly making its way towards us. Not phased, Elias lead us to the side of the track, where there was a space big enough for us all to stand as an engine towing a single carriage passed at a leisurely speed, it wasn’t a scheduled train – most likely delivering luxuries or even money according to Elias
I felt slightly less relaxed walking along the train track now. At least the trains move very slowly around here. Our doggy friend came back once more and we fell into line again.
As we continued along the track I noticed how, had we not stopped to talk to those boys, we would have made it to this point – if the train had passed us here, there wouldn’t have been any gaps either side of the track for us to avoid it. Ten minutes later, we finally arrived at Myin Daik Station, and I was very relieved to step off of the railway sleepers and onto the platform.
From Myin Daik Station it was still an hour’s walk to our first homestay. Feeling weary, we put one foot in front of the other in the going darkness. Just as it became hard to see in the failing light, we arrived at our wonderfully rustic home for the night, complete with outside squat toilets, a large outside basin to ‘shower’ from and a delicious dinner.
Our beds were set out on a wooden platform, in a large room that housed the family shrine. Part of Buddhist etiquette is to never have the soles of your feet facing a shrine, so our pillows were set up so we would have our feet facing out towards the door.
All very weary from the day’s exertions we called it a night, agreeing to get an early start and be on the road again before 7am the next day.
Mile 16- 30, Day temp. 29°c, Night temp 3°c
The nights get COLD! The early mornings get even colder, as 6am approached the thought of leaving the comfort of our beds seemed daunting.
Luckily we all shared this view and slowly but surely, after a delicious local breakfast of rice and egg (steaming in the cold morning air), we were all ready to leave by 8am. We said our goodbyes as we thanked our host family and set off. Leaving later meant that the route would be busy, so Elias set a quick pace up the hill and out of the village.
Just as we were beginning to feel we had left the main roads well behind we came to one! We stopped at a small shop for some refreshments. A delivery of snacks arrived and we marvelled at how much you can fit on a motorbike!
We left before too may more groups arrived, Elias ever keen to beat the crowds.
It wasn’t long before it felt like we were miles away from main roads again and back amongst beautiful farmland.
We passed lots of men and women harvesting the rice, fruit and chillies. We came across Alex’s dream, on the left a whole field full of chilli plants and on the right a field of crimson chillies, left in the sun to dry.
We hadn’t covered that many miles when my left heel had began to hurt. I’d strained my Achilles tendon once before on a long hike and was worried it was happening again. Keen to take the strain off it, I switched to my flip flops. I managed OK despite the the path being pretty uneven, muddy and steep at times; but this was more favourable than aggravating my ankle.
We soon came to our second rest point of the day (I could get used to this!), where we were offered tea and snacks got a chance to see some traditional weaving.
The bag the lady was weaving would take her 3-4 days depending on the size and complexity and she sells each bag for around £2 each.
A Traditional Shan-Burmese Village Wedding
Before we had a chance to leave this village we came across a wedding. Elias spoke to some locals who explained that anyone from the neighbouring villages were free to come and go as they please as the two day celebration unfolded. We were then invited to rest and enjoy some tea salad with the wedding guests. Today was to be a day of many breaks and snacks! We sat ourselves in the shade of tents erected especially for the occasion and got talking to some of the serving women, dressed in beautiful traditional formal clothes. The colour of their head scarf represented their tribe.
It was very humbling to encounter such generosity in a place where everyone lives a very simple, humble lifestyle.
Reluctant to leave but aware there were still a lot of miles to cover today, the pace quickened once more.
Our path took us over a rickety bamboo bridge and through fields filled with the thrum of honey bees and the flutter of tiny white butterflies which feasted on the nectar of mustard flowers.
Through fields of corn and yet more chillis we finally spotted a village in the distance. It was extremely hot by lunchtime and we were pleased to get off the path and have another glorious rest. After our food it was time for a short siesta. After a brief encounter with some tiny puppies…
…we were finally on the road again. Climbing a particularity steep hill, we came across a coppice of trees that opened onto a small collection of beautiful, crumbing old pagodas, which Elias fondly termed a ‘Mini Bagan’.
I loved this place (and actually preferred it to Old Bagan, when we did visit that later). As we left, we passed some of the oldest and most stunning banyan trees that I’ve ever seen.
The countryside slowly grew more rugged, the suns golden reflection lit the limestone rock of the mountains ahead of us.
It turned out that the village we were heading to was found through a valley in these mountains, up a steep path. As we began the trip up, we met a bit of local traffic, as many tour groups converged with farmers driving oxen carts back from the fields.
As we trod the dusty red path – lined thickly with bamboo either side – towards the village, the descending darkness began to blanket us once more. We noticed how much colder it had become already. When we reached our home-stay, hasty ‘showers’ were on the cards before it grew much colder.
Pat Tu Pauk Village – Party Central For Tourists
We walked up through the darkening evening, and the smells of wood fires and hot meals rolled past us, urging us on to get to our homestay for the night. We were expecting a quiet little hilltop village – but in fact we were greeted by a group of young tourists hanging out of a Myanmar beer-clad hut shouting “Welcome to the party in Myanmar guys!”.
Elias later told us that Pat Tu Pauk had turned into a bit of a spring board for hiking in the local areas, and it now hosted big parties of travellers who stayed up until the wee hours drinking and singing – all the while villagers and monks alike are trying to sleep ready for a hard day’s work.
It’s a fascinating blend of old Myanmar – an isolated farming village and monastery with no power and no running water – filled with tourists from across the world, and a huge cell tower loomed across the horizon. A sign of things to come for these remote parts of the world.
There were no hot showers on the trek, just cold water from barrels to wash with. As it got down to 6°c at night, 4°c the previous night, I definitely didn’t brave washing my hair or washing that much at all! As quick as could be and bent double behind the low concrete wall shielding me from the houses opposite (the walls around the washing area were certainly not built to hide a tall woman), I washed, dried and hastily put on all my warmest clothes!
A little cleaner and very much refreshed we enjoyed another relaxing evening and another delicious meal, accompanied by a kitten that fell asleep on Alex’s lap and a few cold beers. Perfect.
Day 3 mile 30-43, Day temp. 34°c, Night temp 5°c
By day three my ankle was painful with every step I took so there was no way I was wearing my Keens. Elias was worried I was choosing to wear flip flops, explaining that the path would get even harder today. For our half day hike, cramming 13 miles into half a day, on the hottest day so far… this was a daunting statement, and he wasn’t exaggerating.
We were extremely relieved when we stopped after the first couple of hours, when we finally came to a road again.
We watched as the group behind caught us up, then got picked up in the back of a truck, I was envious! A little ways down the road we we made it to the ticket office, where we were to buy the Inle lake entrance fee (tourist tax) of around 15,000MMK (£7, $10USD), which is meant to go towards preserving the lake and developing the community in the Shan State.
We walked along the road for a while, stopping for a break at a small collection of roadside shops.
Despite being incredibly foot sore, my injured ankle, the tough hiking and the heat it was all worth it. The views on day three were the best yet.
Spectacular mountains covered in dense, lush jungle contrasted with red earth which reminded me of the Australian bush. how amazing that we had seen landscapes akin to European pine forests, dense jungle and the bush! What beautiful country Myanmar is.
Looking out at our route and descent towards Inle, we had one final challenge: a steep scramble down a muddy rocky maintain path, complete with giant mosquitoes hungry for fresh blood!
After a walk with a few lost cows, we finally made it to the point were we had to say goodbye to Elias (after an exquisite lunch at Green Gold, G&G Restaurant, of course)
We walked down towards our boat and began to see the beautiful wetland fields that surround the lake.
It was finally time to say goodbye to the excellent and knowledgeable Elias, who had seen us through this incredible sunny adventure.
We boarded our small longtail boat and were soon on the water, cruising past beautiful floating gardens…
…houses on stilts and incredible wildlife including kingfishers, greebs and trees filled with stalks.
Out on the lake we passed the famous paddle boat fishermen (although he wasn’t the real deal, we later fund out, just someone posing for tips!)
…and after an hour came to the town of Nyaungshwe, our destination and rest. What a way to arrive! Many days of R&R are in order and a nice hot shower.
We truly recommend A1 Trekking and especially Elias – what an incredible adventure.
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When it comes time to leave and you are wondering where to go next and how to get there, check out our Inle to Bagan via bus post.
Getting from Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake) to Bagan via Bus on a Budget
No matter how accustomed you get to easy going life in Nyaungshwe village, with its criss-cross of quiet golden sunlit roads, and the eternal lapping of the azure waters of Inle Lake, there comes a time when all who visit must leave. But where to go next, and how to get there on a budget?
For many, it’s Mandalay, but we decided to skip the former royal capital and head over to the gorgeous Bagan, and its myriad sunbathed temples.
Nyaungshwe to Bagan by Bus or Train?
With our mostly happy memories of the Yangon to Kalaw train behind us, and the fact that we would have to connect from Nyaungshwe to Shwenyaung, back to Thazi, then up to Mandalay and eventually Bagan, it’s considerably cheaper and more convenient to just catch a coach.
Information at a Glance
VIP Sleeper Bus from Nyaungshwe to Bagan
Cost – 16,000MMK per person – Dec 2017 (Likely to be more expensive now due to 2018 update)
Inle to Bagan Cheap Bus Tickets – Book Via Hotel or DIY?
In many situations in Myanmar, booking onward transport via your hotel is often your best and only option (usually the smaller guesthouses give the best deal as they aren’t trying to make money off you), but it certainly is worth researching all your options…
We checked in with our hotel for prices for a bus from Inle to Bagan and they quoted us 60,000MMK each (£31, $40USD) – a little expensive considering we got from Yangon to Kalaw for a fraction of the price.
We wanted to go on a VIP sleeper bus, as we heard that they were the best chance we had of having a comfortable journey and night’s sleep, and save a little money on the accommodation.
A quick check on 12goAsia revealed the price of the ideal bus at 30,000MMK each, a little more reasonable, but once again we knew that we could avoid the website’s booking and agent fees by just finding the tickets ourselves. Fortunately the 12goAsia website tells you which company the coach is run by, so with a little more research we found the company, Bagan Minn Thar, had a ticket office in town.
Where to Get Inle to Bagan Bus Tickets
We booked our tickets direct at the ‘Bagan Minn Thar Bus Station’ on Yone Gyi St near the corner of Kyaung Daw Anauk St (look for the big red sign saying Bagan Minn Thar Bus Station on the front). It shows up as ‘Bagan Minthar Express’ on Google Maps. An attendant helped us who spoke great English.
You need to inform the attendant where you are staying and they will arrange pickup for you – they will write the pickup time on your ticket.
Our arranged pickup time from the lovely Princess Garden Hotel in Nyaungshwe was at 7.30pm. Evidently we were the last to be picked up as our very full tuk tuk arrived around 15 minutes late. We managed to squeeze in and were outside the bus very shortly afterwards.
The Bus, and the Journey from Nyaungshwe to Bagan
Get on board and get yourself comfortable, as it’s going to be a long and winding ride through the mountains.
There were plenty of reviews online about this route that slated that their driver was a little too enthusiastic and drove too fast, and that the constant curves in the road will make you sick, but we found that not to be the case.
The bus itself was a fairly modern, comfortable Japanese Kōnan Coach. The lights are dim enough for you to doze off if you sleep well whilst on the move (we struggled).
The coach takes you up to the main highway via Shwenyaung (Nyaungshwe’s nearest rail station), He Hoe, Aungpan and through Kalaw – where after a lengthy climb up through the mountains we stopped at a cafe/services Shwe Yee Oo, The Golden Highway Tavern. Here I got off the bus whilst Ruth slept and I sampled some somewhat stale curry and rice from the canteen.
The coach carries on up through the Shan Hills and down across the hot plains of Northern Myanmar for around 7 hours – with a few stops along the way for a few locals to jump on and off – before eventually arriving at the Bagan Shwe Pyi Highway Bus Terminal, in Nyaung-U, just outside of Bagan. Though our coach must have made good time as we arrived a whole hour early at around 4.30.
Now the potentially awkward timing of this sleeper coach comes into play. You could simply catch a taxi into New Bagan and find an early morning cafe, or like us, arrive early at our hotel (our hotel very kindly allowed us to check into our room very early indeed).
Getting into Bagan from the Bus Station
Bagan’s bus station is located well away from the centre – about 10 minutes drive or so. But don’t fear that you will be stuck for transport even in the wee hours, as we were quickly surrounded by many taxi drivers a soon as we disembarked.
Bagan’s bus station has a bit of a reputation for its taxi drivers trying to overcharge. If saving money means a lot to you then stay smart, don’t feel rushed. A good bargained down rate for any taxi ride from here is meant to be around 10,000MMK.
Personally, we chose the wonderful Emerald Bagan Hotel, due to its closeness to the bus station. It is just a 5 minute walk away, but as it was so late/early we decided to grab a quick taxi hoping it would be cheap – but they did charge us a (relatively speaking) large amount for a 30 second drive up the road.
Update – As of November 2018, it is now mandatory for coach companies dropping off at Nyaung-U Bus Station to provide a drop off service to their guesthouse. Even with this new rule, taxi drivers have still tried to scam travellers by stating that this service is not for foreigners. Ignore this – look for your minibus with the Bagan Minn Thar branding.
It makes sense that they have introduced this rule as clearly the overcharging taxi drivers were becoming a problem!
Let Us Know
Please let us know if this guide for getting from Inle to Bagan by bus was useful for planning your journey in Myanmar in the comments below.
We were warned by a few locals that it wasn’t common for westerners to take the trains north, “take the coaches, it will be much more comfortable”, and “why would you want to do this?”, were just some of the reactions we got as we tried to source our tickets in the hot streets of Yangon.
18 hours of total travel time later, profuse sweating, and a pretty rough ride, it was easy enough to look back on those words of warning and see the truth in them.
That said, find out how to get from Yangon to Kalaw by train (and eventually Inle Lake) was one of the most rewarding experiences of our trip. All our apprehensions dissolved away as train slowly trundled out of Yangon at 15mph and the wider, golden sunrise-bathed Burmese countryside opened up around us. We travelled how the locals do, and saved a little money at the same time.
After all, why else do we travel but for adventure?
The Destination – Kalaw – Why Go There?
Walking down the streets of Kalaw, with its Victorian-era hotels, cool evenings and mornings, you might be forgiven for thinking you were in a British seaside town (it’s the large and pretty dangerous potholes in all the pavements that give it away).
The hilltop town of Kalaw was often sought out during British colonial rule as a place to escape the stifling heat of the plains, and is today the perfect place to begin a guided, multi-day trek to Inle Lake – which is exactly what we did.
There’s plenty of cheap accommodation, good eateries and choice of reputable trek companies to choose from. Most trekkers will pick up your luggage from your hotel in Kalaw and deliver it to a hotel of your choice in Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake’s main town) so you can travel lighter when you hike – so best to book your Inle Lake hotel in advance.
Which Train to Get?
There are a couple of options for getting the train from Yangon to Kalaw
If you are a glutton for pain, then you could take the direct slow 141 train from Yangon that leaves at 11am and arrives the next day in Kalaw at 1.15pm (this train has no sleeper compartments).
Or do what we did, and take a faster ‘express’ (still 13 hours) train and stop overnight at the crossroad town of Thazi, before catching the slow 141 train as above .
We went for option 2.
Yangon to Kalaw Train Itinerary
Day 1 – 12 hrs, 12 minutes
5.30-5.45am – Arrive early at Yangon Central Train Station to secure your seat on board (best to book in advance, see below)
6.00am – Depart Yangon Central Train Station on the 11 Express Train
6.12pm – Arrive in Thazi, stay overnight in a hotel, we highly recommend the Wonderful Guest House
Day 2 – 6 hrs, 15 minutes
6.15am-6.30am – Arrive at Thazi Railway Station to purchase tickets. Ask for help from hotel if possible with booking
7.00 – Depart Thazi on the 141 slow train to Kalaw
1.15pm – Arrive at Kalaw
Getting Tickets for the Yangon to Kalaw Train
There are a number of ways to grab your ticket in Yangon, we think the best is to go and do it in the person. Take your passport and cash of course. There are online options for grabbing your tickets, but as the website take a cut, along with the local agent that needs to deliver your tickets, the cost effectiveness of travelling via train is soon negated.
Picking up your tickets between 1-3 days in advance? You need to go to the Advance Booking Office, which you can find on Bo Gyoke Rd near the Sakura Tower. It’s open 7am-3pm.
Booking same day, or the previous day after 3pm. Go to the main train station. The large, British-designed station is unmistakable, and you want to enter the entrance on the left side. Head to the kiosk that is first on the left, near the entrance (not the one in the middle of the entrance) with the green signage – this kiosk is for trains that go north to Mandalay and Bagan – see the pictures below for reference.
We booked the day before, after 3pm, so we had to go to the main station. The gentleman we spoke to on the kiosk spoke English so we had no problem. We asked for the Upper Class ticket, but I’m pretty sure they would assume that foreigners would want this class rather than the Ordinary Class.
Ticket cost – Yangon – Thazi – 7350 Kyats per person (2017)
There are ordinary class tickets available for 3700kyats too, so if you really want to save and don’t mind hard seats and being squished in with a few more locals and their baggage, then go for it.
Getting on the Train
Arrive on the morning of your departure with some time to spare so you can find your train and compartment. Remember you are grabbing the number 11 train.
Check the compartment and seat numbers on your ticket. Get comfortable and settle down for a long, hot adventure ahead.
Myanmar Railways operates on the old British railway system that was created in the 19th century, and hasn’t been much maintained since. Therefore, expect a pretty bumpy journey throughout, and low speeds. The 13 hour journey ahead will be hot, so you can open your window and keep plenty of water available.
Although not as exciting as tomorrow’s journey, there’s plenty to see as the rickety train grinds and bumps through rice paddies, little villages and fields, all the while you can spy distant gleaming gold pagodas and the wheels of Myanmar’s economy slowly turning as everybody goes about their everyday lives.
The train makes plenty of stops at stations along the route, where a myriad of locals will efficiently board the train with drinks, beers, snacks, water, local produce and fruit, before quickly jumping off as the train rolls out again. There are some pretty delicious and simple dishes to be had, often rice with some form of sambal and dried fish served in plastic containers or even banana leaf. Don’t be afraid to grab something if you desire – the prices are very cheap.
To be honest, the toilets in Upper Class are fine, just a hole in the floor of the train – a much better experience than we had on some of the more expensive upper class sleeper berths in Vietnam. Just don’t use the toilet in the stations out of respect!
Arrive at Thazi – 6.12
Arrive in Thazi with the setting sun. Always worth having some charge left on your phone to make sure you are getting off at the right stop.
When you disembark you can either get on a horse and cart to your chosen hotel, or just walk – it’s a 15 minute stroll – but it may be a walk in the dark depending on the time of year.
Where to Stay in Thazi – Accommodation and Hotels in Thazi
As of 2017, there are only two guesthouses in Thazi with licenses for foreigners. The Moonlight Guesthouse is the most written about, but we stayed in the ‘Wonderful Guest House’, which comes highly recommended!
Booking a room in advance may be possible, but you would have to give them a call as they don’t have a website or email address. Google lists their number as – +95 9 793 969068. You shouldn’t have to book in advance however – we were the only ones staying here apart from one other person.
Unfortunately, we can’t remember the price we paid for the room, but it wasn’t expensive. We had an issue with our hot water, but the young chap came up immediately and fixed it for us. The room was spacious, had air conditioning, and we were provided with a takeaway breakfast box complete with sandwiches, fruit etc the next morning.
The lovely guesthouse organised a horse and cart to the station and the son of the owner even helped us book our tickets for the onward journey.
What to do in Thazi?
Thazi isn’t a town a tourist would normally aim to visit. It’s a simple, noisy crossroads town for rail and road. Time and energy-wise, there’s probably the opportunity to grab something to eat, get a shower and go to bed.
We asked our guesthouse about food options, and they said there were a few Chinese restaurants around. We found a rough and ready Myanmar beer sponsored place that we wouldn’t recommend (see the green noodles above!). There are probably some other options around if we would have looked harder, or maybe you could stock up on food before you leave the train.
Day 2 – Thazi to Kalaw – Slow Train 141 at 7.00am
We got down to the station early, as you can only book tickets on the day. It’s definitely worth asking your guesthouse if they can help you book the onward tickets, otherwise you should be able to book in the person (just don’t expect the kiosk attendant to know any English).
Remember that this train is the slow one from Yangon that left 11am the day before.
When we boarded we found our seat to be occupied! Fortunately the helpful train attendant managed to ask the rather disgruntled gentleman who was in our seats to move (we later figured that this guy was some kind of high ranking officer, as members of the Myanmar military kept coming on board and saluting him).
The slow train begins its ascent up the mountain range roughly 1 hour into the journey, and quite honestly, this part of the trip makes the whole escapade completely worth it. The old diesel train roars up through slowly ascending bamboo forests, making a series of switchbacks and ‘zigzags’. The air becomes slowly cooler and the vegetation more temperate. You can lean out of the window and take in the whole curve of the train as it struggles up the track.
We were told that the railway is an integral part of the local region, and we could see why. At each and every beautiful stop, we would see lots of locals, many with different varieties of bananas, fruits, foods walk beside and through the train.
Arriving in Kalaw – 1.15pm
Finally, you will arrive in the township of Kalaw. Jump off and talk to a taxi driver – we grabbed a tuktuk to our hotel.
Take the time to enjoy this incredible place! Walk the streets, take in the very welcome cool evening air. Grab a meal – we sampled the up-market Thirigayha 7 Sisters, the cheap bar Emerald Restaurant for lunch and the fascinating Thu Maung restaurant, which will allow you to sample a local, Shan-style platter (there’s some weird stuff in there!) with your chosen dishes.
Find a Trekking company and hike to Inle Lake – we went with A1 Trekking, our guide Elias we would highly recommend.
Is the Train Worth It?
Flights from Yangon to Kalaw or Inle Lake’s nearest airport, Heho, come in around 140,000 kyats, plus the taxi fee of around 15-30,000 kyats to Nyaungshwe – total 170,000 kyats (£86/$110USD)
VIP buses cost 20,000-27,000 per ticket (£13/$17USD)
The train costs around 9,200 kyats (£4.50 or $6USD)
Cost wise, the train obviously comes out on top, with the VIP coach not far behind, with the flights considerably more expensive. In terms of luxury, of course it’s the other way round. We argue that the train is the best way to experience your surroundings – it stops regularly and you get views that you just can’t on a coach – and it’s the best way to immerse yourself in the country whilst trundling along at 30mph.
A big shout out to Mark over at Seat61, whose expert information in the field made this journey possible!
Hike Length – Roughly 11km round trip, Hike Time – 5.5 hours including 1.5 hrs rest at the bay Entry Fee – Free, but permission ticket required from National Park Office Provisions – Take water and lunch/snack
Con Dao Hiking – The Đầm Tre Walk
Easily one of the most beautiful and secluded Con Dao Hiking options, it’s worth going up to the north side of the island for this walk, which will have you stomping along beaches, hiking through dense jungle with giant black squirrels and crab eating macaques, then finally rewarding you with a serene coral filled bay all to yourselves.
Get an Entry Ticket at the National Park Office
You need to get a permission ticket in order to enter the hike to Đầm Tre. This is still the case at the time of writing in 2017. We went on this hike without one as we were incorrectly instructed by our guesthouse host that we did not need one, but upon arriving the ‘Ranger station’ at Đầm Tre, we were checked for the tickets. Fortunately, they took pity on us and let us go through, but we don’t recommend that you try your luck.
Grab the tickets for free at the office on Vo Thi Sau road just north of the main town. Search for ‘National Park Department’ on Google Maps.
Check the Tide
The timing of your walk will be dictated by the high tide. This is due to the airport’s runway, which struts out into the sea on Bãi biến Dong, the beach that you will be walking across before starting the hike into the jungle. At high tide this section of beach will need to be swum or waded across – not recommended especially in rough seas. Check this website for the tide times on Con Dao.
Aim to start an hour or so after the tide starts going out.
Where to Start The Dam Tre Hike
You can park your motorbike close to Poulo Condor Resort. If you are coming from town there is a right turn close to where the beach begins, it’s a dirt track that leads down to a rocky path to the beach on your right. We parked our bike at the top of this rocky path. It was safe here. See our map for reference:-
Bãi biến Dong Beach – 2.5km
Walk down the rocky path onto the start of your journey to Đầm Tre. You will have to cross a stream on your left to get onto the main beach. Walk along the beach for around 2.5km and take in the sea air, watch locals searching for shellfish, and you may even see a plane landing or taking off.
When you eventually get to the far north side of the beach, the entrance to the hike is on the top left side – look for the park singage.
The Jungle – 3km, roughly 2 hours
Now begins the steep upward climb up the hill and into the jungle. This route is paved all the way – watch your step on some of the stones, as it can be slippy. There’s only one path so it’s impossible to get lost.
Keep an eye out for giant black squirrels and lizards. There are also occasional jumping stinging insects on the walk. They bite through clothes – and hurt just as much as a mild wasp sting – so watch out.
Towards the end of this section of the walk, we came across a few shy crab eating macaques, but they weren’t disturbed by our presence.
Arriving at Đầm Tre
You eventually begin your descent, and when you see buildings, chickens and people you have arrived at the ‘ranger station’, though it looks a great deal like someone’s family home. Here you will have to present your tickets – they will ask for them. You can use the toilet facilities here, and the people are friendly.
Walk through the ranger’s area and turn left before you get out into the field. If you start walking towards the cliff and into fisherman’s shacks you have gone too far!
Swim and Snorkel to Your Heart’s Content
Setup on the rocky beach and go for a swim out in the corals. The water here is quite shallow at the low tide, make sure you bring some footwear as there is plenty of sharp coral and oyster shells to cut your feet. Get out towards the mouth of the bay to find the coral that is alive and teeming with fish!
We spent about 1hr 30 in the bay – though we were chased out by a storm so you may find yourselves there for longer.
Back – 2 hours again
Have your lunch, say goodbye to the rangers and chickens, and head back into the forest. If you have timed it right, you should arrive back in time to walk past the runway section of the beach. If not, then it’s time to get a little wet!
All done. Why not celebrate your adventure with a nice beer or some food at one of the restaurants on Bãi Đầm Trầu, which is the beach on the other side of the runway.
Found south of Ho Chi Minh City, this isolated yet highly accommodating island showcases some of Vietnam’s most pristine and untouched tropical waters, beaches and quiet roads – all steeped in hundreds of years of fascinating history. As a way of celebrating our recent visit to the island, we’ve put together a quick summary of why you should visit one of Vietnam’s final tourist frontiers.
1. It’s off the beaten track
With return airfares over the 4 Million VND (£126, $176USD) mark, flights going on small turboprop planes a handful of times a week, and the only alternative an infamously rough ferry, getting to Con Dao isn’t as convenient as most destinations in Vietnam.
2. A relaxed way to get into motorbiking in Vietnam
Con Son’s roads are quite smooth and relatively free from potholes, and more importantly – quiet. A world away from the insanity of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, it’s a great place for those who want to get to grips with riding a motorbike in South East Asia. Just watch out for snakes! Make sure your insurance covers you, and it might be best to get an international driver’s license – our UK readers can find out more about that, here.
3. The near-pristine wildlife and snorkelling
For those looking to go snorkeling in Vietnam, the main island of Con Son has an abundance of shore reefs which are still thriving. Just grab a snorkel and get out there – the left hand side of Dam Trau beach next to the airport is a good snorkeling spot. Dam Tre Bay, at the end of the Dam Tre Hike is another good and isolated area.
You can also see the giant black squirrel, crab eating macaques, turtles (which use some of Con Dao’s beaches to lay eggs), dolphins and sometimes dugongs. Make sure to only leave your footprints behind on the island – don’t leave waste and rubbish behind.
If you want quiet tropical beaches, then Con Dao is your place. Not all are quite the quintessential, turquoise watered tropical beaches which you might find in Phu Quoc or South Thailand, but gorgeous ones none the less. Con Son has six accessible beaches. Our favourites are Bai Dam Trau in the north and Bai Lo Voi in the town.
5. Local cuisine
There is street food to be found along the promenade (banh mis and vegetable fritters). There are plenty of restaurants in town, and lots of cheap, fresh fish.
6. The history
Like Phu Quoc, Con Son used to be a prison island. Hosting political prisoners during the French colonial era, and then North Vietnamese during the American (Vietnam) War, it was home to the infamous Tiger Cages, which you can still see today in the museum on the island (free admission).
All in all, Con Dao is a rare beauty, ideal for those who seek peace and quiet, wildlife with a fascinating lick of history. Its remoteness makes it all the more charming. So what are you waiting for?
Con Son wasn’t originally part of our Vietnam itinerary. After booking our flight to Thailand for the 17th October, we arranged to link up with friends in Vietnam 11 days later. This suited us, as we never intended to stay in Thailand for very long, but use it as a stepping stone for our onwards travel. We ended up spending days 1-4 in Bangkok before flying to Ho Chi Minh City. The plan was to find a nice beach south of the city for a mini holiday before our friends arrived.
Before doing much research we thought it would be easy to head to Vietnam’s south coast from Ho Chi Minh City. Unfortunately, we soon discovered that there were not any holiday style beaches south of the city. With our flights to Ho Chi Minh already booked and over a week there until our friends flew in to meet us, we needed to come up with a plan.
Looking at the map again I noticed Con Son. After a little research we were intrigued. However, at over 3.5million VND each for flights (GBP 120), it wasn’t looking like the cheapest option and this almost changed our mind. But, I’m definitely glad we went, as the extra bit of money we spent was definitely worth it, and I’d go again for longer next time.
We visited Con Son as the weather was beginning to become more changeable (the start of the low season), we had a mix of rain and sunshine on our visit.
As our tiny plane descended into Con Dao airport, it felt a bit like we were entering Tracey Park Island from the Thunderbirds!
The runway takes up the entire width of that section of the island and nothing but a concrete wall separates it from the beach. There were few western tourists, and most of these seemed to be staying at the Six Senses, which was way above our budget at £360 a night!
We had been told we could rent motorbikes from our hosts at the Airbandb homestay we had booked, but we hadn’t anticipated being picked up from the airport on a motorbike!
Our host, Hue, spoke very little English and her French husband Lionel was away on business when we arrived. She introduced herself as we came out of the tiny arrivals room and asked if we rode motorbikes.
“Errrrrr…” Alex looked at me, shrugged and said “Yes?!”.
She loaded my small carry on case onto her own bike and kindly carried my 36 litre rucksack on her back, Alex loaded his 65 litre rucksack onto his lap and I got on the back (after helmets were handed out). Luckily, their place was five minutes from the airport and our first motorbike journey was an easy ride.
Thus began our introduction to driving motorbikes. If you are planning your own trip, get your international driving licence before you go to avoid voiding any insurance you might have. UK residents can find out more about getting theirs, here.
We didn’t know it at the time but Con Son would would turn out to be our highlight of Vietnam. The cheaper flights often sell fast and it is a popular destination of many Vietnamese holiday makers, keeping the island a path less travelled by western tourists. We discovered this is rare in Vietnam, especially if you head to any of the top destinations like Ha Long bay or Hoi An. I’m not sure if it will remain so, as we saw lots of roads being built to more secluded places.
After dropping our bags off and eating some of Hue’s amazing and very reasonably priced food I decided I needed to give driving the motorbike a go. Learning with someone on the back isn’t the easiest way to learn, however, I managed OK (apart from when I ran over a snake).
We spent our days driving round the island, exploring local beaches and sampling local food. The main town has a long promenade with crumbling French-style streetlamps – where you can see turtles and rarely dugongs. You can also pick up some amazing street food here including Banh Mi.
There’s also a lovely little beach that we swam in at dusk one evening.
We did an epic trek one day which involved walking down the beach on the north side of the island. The walk to Đầm Tre needed timing correctly with the tide, or else we would be stuck wading through the sea around the airport’s runway wall. The walk along the beach took an hour or so, followed by a jungle trek. For more information about this walk, click here.
The wildlife on Con Son is amazing and included giant black squirrels, crab eating macaques, not to mention the turtles, and possibly dugongs and dolphins.
After a long slippy walk through the jungle, we arrived at a Rangers Station, and despite not having a ticket, they let us through and we swam out into the coral reef. We didn’t venture far out enough to the deeper reef that was in a healthier condition, but there was still some amazing snorkelling.
I sat on a rock and watched Alex swim out further as storm clouds began rolling in.
We made a dash for shore and got caught in the start of a wonderfully tropical rain shower. There was nothing for it but to recline in a hammock and see if it would pass, but as time ticked on we became increasingly aware that we needed to make it back along the beach before high tide, and that we had a two hour hike ahead of us.
So we slipped and slid back along the forest trail, through newly formed streams that cascaded across our paths, before eventually navigating along the beach and back onto the bike.
Driving along Con Son’s coastal paths was such a delight, and we were often joined by one or two white herons, who took flight as we passed.
On our second to last day Lionel arrived home and he recommended a good spot on the local beach to snorkel, which was wonderful, despite the poorer visibility due to the rain.
You know you’ve fallen in love with a place when you really don’t want to leave, and that’s how we felt on our last day, when we finally did have to say goodbye. In fact, we nearly didn’t leave as we almost missed our flight, only realising when we double checked our departure time during a leisurely lunch on the beach, and then having to make a mad dash back to pack and then rush to the airport, but maybe that’s another story!
We arrived into Ho Chi Minh City after sunset, a steady tropical rain drummed the roof of the arrivals terminal at Tan Son Nhat.
As our Airbandb host was no longer able to help us with our pickup, we ordered an Uber. Normally, Uber removes any worry about a language barrier – you just put in your destination, the driver accepts it and you are on your way. Unfortunately, this was not the case here, as our driver kept repeating “Map”, and even pulled over outside the airport until we could convince him of where we needed to go. After some confusion, we eventually showed him our Airbanb’s location on Google Maps, he seemed satisfied enough, and finally set out into the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City.
Nothing prepares you for the hustle and bustle of traffic in Vietnam’s busiest city – all the more chaotic in the evening tropical downpour – scooters, blaring horns and bumper to bumper cars.
It had been raining a lot. As we neared our homestay, the taxi driver slowed to plough through great puddles of water. We finally arrived, and waved goodbye to the driver, who, bless him, was waiting to make sure we got in OK. We quickly gathered our bags, bracing ourselves against the the rain, and fumbled about trying to find the entrance to our homestay. We rang a few doorbells, and finally someone called us in through a gate. Here we met the charming Uncle Nam, who ushered us in out of the dark wetness and into our room.
After taking an obligatory selfie with Uncle Nam, and exchanging a few words on Google translate, we set out once again into the chaos, navigating rivers of motorbikes and cars, to go find ourselves some sushi for dinner – and we found it in the form of a fantastic busy little restaurant which had their kitchen on the street, fantastic sushi for pennies!
Day 6 – 22nd October – The Motorbike Tour
After a good night’s sleep marred only by a fight with our first cockroach, and the screeching meows of the hostel’s cat, we woke up and prepared ourselves for the motorbike tour that Ruth had organised the night before. Only $9 each, this ‘not for profit’ tour was led by students from Ho Chi Minh’s University of Medicine who wanted to learn a little more English, and we were to see all the sights of the city from the back of a motorbike!
After whipping up a improvised dragonfruit and rice cracker breakfast, and waiting for another deluge of rain to pass, our guides appeared outside the hostel. We had a guide each, plus an extra who wanted to learn the ropes. The group was led by Duang, who spoke amazing English and really put us at ease with her conversational tone. Jumping on the back of the motorbikes, we set off into the city.
We were led through Districts 7, 4 and 1 to the famous Ben Thanh Market.
Our guides parked the motorbikes with one of the many parking officers around the square, and the bikes disappeared into the system.
Glorious colours, sweets, and trinkets awaited us in the market, although we were advised not to part with our money here as it is a very overpriced place to shop (it was great to have local advice like this).
We found the bikes and resumed the journey to Bến Nghé and the very French Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica, and Saigon Post Office, with pretty Parisian street lights outside. Ruth cracked up here as she found some ‘Ruth’ lip balm (a Vietnamese-American brand, also lots of people think that the name Ruth is either a man’s name or surname here).
Then we scooted over to the Independence Palace. The building’s grand facade, including tanks and jet fighters, sweeping lawns and an impressive fountain, invited us in to learn more.
Also known as the ‘Reunification Palace,’ the current building was a product of the Vietnam war, re-built from scratch in 1966 after the previous palace was destroyed by two members of the Republic of Vietnam Airforce who rebelled and diverted from their mission of bombing the V-C (Viet Cong).
The architect designed the building in the shape of a Chinese character meaning ‘good fortune’, and it featured many floors hosting stately meeting rooms, bedrooms and the fascinating bunker, the latter of which still had plenty of war maps and diagrams of the Republic of Vietnam’s final movements. Another highlight was the roof section, featuring a Huey helicopter and an open space for the South Vietnamese president to use as a ‘relaxation area’ – but he ended up using it as a party space.
After the palace, our guides whisked us through more traffic to the eerily deserted south of District 7, home to the richest residents of Ho Chi Minh City. High rises and fast food chains, it was a world away from the bustling, compact neighbourhoods throughout the rest of the city.
We finished off the day with a visit to a noodle restaurant of Duang’s choice. With her assistance, we ordered two To Lon (large) Phở Bó, Vietnam’s iconic noodle dish with beef.
Duang opted for the Bun Bo Hue, a delicious prawn-based broth with thick udon noodles, beef and sausage. All very delicious and made delectable with lashings of hot sauce, dried chilli and lime. We also had the nuoc sam to drink, a sweet and cloudy ginseng cold tea.
Unfortunately, there was a little confusion here as we discovered we were expected to pay for the girls’ meals. Duang explained that they were only given an allowance to cover parking and petrol by the organiser.
Turns out that that this ‘not for profit’ organisation pocketed a great deal of the $9, and there was no communication to us about paying admission fees and food etc for our guides. Nevertheless, we settled up with no hard feelings (towards our guides) and headed home for another rainy night at our hostel.
The motorbike tour was fantastic – a great way to see the city, just as the locals do everyday. On top of this, we made a great friend in Duang, who we were to see again in just a weeks time.
It was time to pack up and get ready for our journey to the island of Con Dao.
Phew! After 24 hours of travelling, including a 6 hour layover in Cologne and an 11 hour flight, we finally touched down in Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport. Thailand are 6 hours ahead of GMT, so even though our watches were set to the local time of 9am, this felt more like 3am to us!
We made our way through the pristine airport, abuzz with staff and attendants sweeping the floors, wiping works of art, and planting impressive orchid floral displays, and quickly realised that there was something special in the atmosphere here in Bangkok.
We grabbed our main luggage and quickly made our way down to the Airport Rail Link and set off into the very impressive Bangkok public transport system.
There was a slightly eerie, sombre and repetitive jingle playing over the train’s speaker system, along with screens showing black and white images interspersed with people dressed in black being interviewed that looped with the music. As we looked around the cool, spacious carriage we notice that the majority of locals were also dressed in black and white. Then, as we skimmed the skyline of Bangkok on the Skytrain we saw the first billboard dedicated to the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadej Rama IX of Thailand; the jingles, displays and dress were all because the date of his cremation, one year after his death, was fast approaching.
After four trains, plenty of sweat and many friendly, helpful guards helping us on our way, we finally jumped off our BRT bus at Wat Pariwat, where we very quickly became confused about which way to go to reach our homestay. Fortunately, (and unknown to our host as we discovered later on), the security guard for this BRT stop had hand drawn a map with directions to the Fahsai Homestay.
This was our first introduction to a local neighborhood in SE Asia. On first appearance, with its crumbling buildings, mazes of head-height electrical wires, staring locals, dogs barking aggressively and rubbish everywhere, a uninitiated western visitor could be forgiven for thinking this was a run-down and intimidating place to be. But we soon learned that this was not the case at all!
Trundling our backpacks and wheelie suitcase through the hot, potholed streets we eventually found our turning, which followed a path alongside a very stagnant stream (with the help by way of some useful pointing from a friendly local) – here, finally, was our Fahasai Homestay.
Sliding open the front gate, we finally entered our little slice of paradise after 24 hours of travelling.
Nittaya, our host, came and greeted us “Sawasdee!”. She showed us to our room, which was a gorgeous traditional style wooden Thai bungalow, complete with our own ensuite, shower, TV and air conditioning, the latter of which we put on immediately as it was beyond hot in this little wooden sauna!
The lovely Nittaya and her family offered us some delicious lunch, as our airplane food had finally worn off. It was a sort of glutenous soup with chicken and vegetables, followed by a rather potent sweet ginger and miscellaneous root vegetable dessert – “food is medicine”, as Nittaya said, and this food would be good to settle our stomachs after so long traveling.
24 hours with barely a wink of sleep finally took its toll and we slept for 3 hours as thunderstorms rolled overhead, before awaking momentarily not knowing what day or time it was.
We made ourselves get up and get acquainted with the local area, resolving not to sleep again until that night.
Wandering out into the stunning garden, surrounded by fruit trees of varying types (jackfruit, papaya, noni fruit), Nittaya recommended that we take a look at a local night market, which fortuitously took place on Wednesdays.
Back in the alley that linked our homestay to a more main road, what had been a quiet, still, stagnant stream was now alive with bats swooping low to catch the insects that swarmed from the waters. And so we strolled out into the fading evening, with the remnant puddles and pools of water from the storms under our feet, and after a little searching based on Nittaya’s instructions, we finally found the market.
Located in an alley nestled within Wat Dok Mai (literally called Wat Dok Mai on Google Maps), this long sprawling market had it all! Steaming piles of fresh hot food, vats of various stocks and stews bubbling away, fruits of all colours shapes and sizes. It was great to experience a place that was frequented by locals (the first of many truly authentic experiences which have come to be the holy grail which we seek in every new place we travel to).
We finished the night off with a trip to a local restaurant which came highly recommended for its seafood. As we sat on the shores of the Chao Phraya, feasting on squid, prawns and other vibrant and colourful dishes, we toasted to the end of our first day, and to the very beginning of our travels!
Fresh faced and somewhat refreshed, we headed out to the tropical garden, where we joined other travellers for breakfast (it was a soup similar to that we had the day before, with a side of rice and prawns this time and a few cowslip creeper flowers in the broth).
Shortly after breakfast, Pop (Nittaya’s husband) passionately introduced us to his home brewed coffee, and told us its story, from bean to cup. His coffee plants grow on his own plantation in the south of Thailand. Pop explained that coffee isn’t commonly grown in Thailand, as many farmers believe that the final payout is not worth the effort. Pop has done the maths however, and realised that coffee really does sell quite well when it finally reaches the cup.
Pop ran us through a demonstration of how to roast the coffee beans by hand. With only a little stove and a small brass wok, Pop meticulously stirred and blew on the beans as they curled and squeaked in the heat, sending paper thin husks of the beans’ skin soaring high on the acrid smoke. We all had a turn of course, before grinding the roasted beans in a special grinder, then percolating them.
The taste was quite unlike the slow roasted varieties we are used to back home, much stronger and bitter to taste – fortunately Pop had some honey made by bees from his own coffee plantation – knowing the bees pollinated the coffee that we were drinking was just extra special! A highlight was tasting the naturally caffeine-free coffee flower tea, and learning how this had to be carefully picked as not to disturb the normal coffee harvest – it tasted delicious too.
Afterwards, Pop opened the doors to his family home, much of which he keeps as a museum. He informed us that over 100 years ago his Brahman family served at the palace, eventually becoming musicians in the later years. Pop proudly showed us his family’s treasures, asking us to guess what items were used for and letting us handle many trinkets.
Amongst the myriad of gifts and memorabilia from his family were silverware, intricate furniture, wardrobes and chests, a working gramophone and telephone, and weapons such as an WW2 English navy knife (this interested Ruth particularly, as her Grandfather served in the navy).
Donning our hats and suncream (it was a scorching hot 32 degrees day), we made our way into the centre via the trusty BTS bus to Silom. Here we walked through the bustling commercial district to Lumpini Park, where the midday sun blasted back into our faces thanks to the wide, sprawling plazas. We found a spot of shade, where we could see little igrits hunting tiny little fish, and even the park’sinfamous resident monitor lizard.
We then began a sweltering and long walk past china town, towards the Golden Buddha, stopping only for an overpriced phat thai in an air-conditioned restaurant (worth it). The Golden Buddha, sitting peacefully atop Wat Traimit, is actually made from 5.5 tonnes of solid gold and is the world’s largest golden statue.
This solid gold Buddha – or the Phra Phuttha Maha Suwana Patimakon, to give it it’s full name – was a hidden treasure for may years. In the 1800s it was swaddled in plaster to hide its true wealth. It was only when it came time to move the Buddha in 1955 that the true value of the Golden Buddha was revealed within its casing.
It was back on the street, outside Wat Traimit, that we learned our first lesson in ‘scams’ and looking after ourselves. As we looked at our map (tourists alert!) a man who seemed to be in charge of the Tuk Tuks approached us asking if we wanted a tuk tuk ride to the river (which by coincidence was our plan).
We had a vague idea that we needed to get to a specific port to head up the river to Wat Pho. From our map, we could see that we could pick up a river taxi from nearby N4 stop. This man explained that the river taxis wouldn’t pick up in that direction of travel and that we needed to go to N1. He offered us a tuk tuk for 20baht. Having not yet ridden by tuk tuk we couldn’t really gauge if this was a cheap scam (we’d read about infamous 10baht tuk tuks in our lonely planet… but Alex had miss-remembered this as 2baht) or genuine, but we decided to give it a go.
We didn’t get dropped off at the N1 river taxi stop at all. Where we actually were, it transpired, was a private boat ride company. We were offered a seat and the lady quoted us 1300 baht for our own boat. We had to laugh at this, whilst this was only £30, this was way over our daily budget. She wasn’t helpful in explaining where we needed to go to get to N1 (we were close) but she didn’t push us into a sale.
We walked away, our tuk tuk driver was keen to take us where we needed to go (we assume because his friend that offered us the ride wouldn’t be getting his commission). It took about 20 minutes to walk to the right place. The official, government taxi boat ended up being 30 baht for us both (35p each) and we got a longer ride as we were further south, so no harm done and we could tick ‘tuk tuk ride’ off our list!
After this we decided no more tuk tuks. It seems like the going price for a legitimate one that won’t take you to a friend’s shop or service is between 70-200 baht, depending on who you ask and how much they are willing to bargain. One driver told us he wouldn’t go to less that 70 baht, as under this price he wouldn’t take us straight to our destination.
Having no real idea how much was too much (and no real way of double checking the price indicated in our Lonely Planet) we decided to go back to using the very reliable public transport system for the rest of our trip (this did involve some long walks as some parts of the city aren’t connected to the public transport system yet.) Oh yes, and Ruth is calling total BS on what the guy leading this scam said about the N4 taxi boat only going south, we stopped at N4 going north on the way to Wat Pho.
It’s when people say stuff like that, which makes no sense when you think about it logically, that you sense is crap but as you are unsure you go along with it, it’s only in hindsight you realise what total crap they have told you, but at the time it didn’t sound right either.
Wat Pho, or the reclining Buddha, is very impressive! I had visited when I was in Bangkok 10 years ago. As we entered the main temple Alex was wondering where it was and I casually pointed to the huge head (it’s so big you can only see parts of it at a time), his reaction was brilliant. We wandered around the surrounding gardens, peaceful in the late afternoon sunlight, the scent of frangipanis carried on the river’s breeze. The grounds were expansive and we even stumbled upon some monks at prayer, unperturbed by our presence.
From Wat Pho we headed towards the palace. Because of the impending cremation plans for the late king, the palace was closed, as we meandered past women in formal black attire and men in official military uniforms, we saw many black and white drapes being erected.
We eventually made it to Khao San Road, and there ventured for dinner – not a peaceful experience. Here we found nothing but peddlers pushing their wares of scorpions on a stick, cigarettes and annoying toys. What was once a place enjoyed by locals as well as travelers has become a sticky tourist trap, and in my eyes is not the real Bangkok. This is the only part of Bangkok that many backpackers see. We went as Alex hadn’t been before and I am in no rush to go ever again.
The next morning I woke early to offer food to the monks as the pass by the house barefoot to the local temple. Pop is devoutly religious and we couldn’t offer food the day before as it was Buddhist day and pop spent the day in his meditation room praying and offering gifts for his late mother and other spirits. We gave rice and refreshments which they collected in a basket, following pop’s lead we then knelt on the floor to be blessed. It was a touching experience and one I’m pleased I woke up early for.
Pop explained that Monks do not buy food, but rely on donations. It is also a great honour to have a man enter into the priesthood and many do so for a few years or so. Before Alex awoke I had the chance to practice some yoga on the veranda outside our bungalow. Despite being breakfast for a large family of mosquitoes, it was worth it.
Once Alex was up and about we asked our host about somewhere good locally to swim, she gave us an address and we braved the local motorbikes for the 2km ride to the swimming pool. I sat side saddle as that is what I’d seen the local women do. I would not recommend this! The Olympic pool was quiet and totally off the tourist track, they were still setting up so we sat sipping a cold can of drink in the shade away from the midday sun. The pool was blissfully cool and deserted, save a few local boys playing in the shallows.
After our swim the coolness didn’t last long. Back in the heat of the city we got a taxi back to our homestay and stopped by the local temple Wat Pariwat to feed the fish by the river. Later we visited the local restaurant again and toasted our last night.
We departed early on 21st October and made our way back via the trusty public transport system, more people dressed in black and white now in the last few days before the King’s memorial day. Bangkok it’s been fleeting but we are ready for Vietnam….