Backpack to Phu Chi Fa

This is an overdue blogging on one of the best places in Thailand for a relaxing getaway. Although this place was getting more attention, thanks to the internet, Phu Chi Fa was still relatively freer from the tourist crowd. In fact, most of the tourists here were locals. There were less foreigners.

Phu Chi Fa means ‘The Hill that Points to the Sky’. It is located around 3 hours drive away from Chiang Rai. I came across it when I was looking through TripAdvisor on things to do in Chiang Rai, other than Wat Kong Run. When I saw writings on Phu Chi Fa, I knew I had to go there. But how? It was not easy, unless one was willing to pay for an expensive tour package from Chiang Rai. I traveled alone. So, tour package was out of question. Luckily, with a bit help from here and there in the internet, I managed to reach Phu Chi Fa the town near Phu Chi Fa before sunset.

I wrote quite detailed explanation of my ‘adventure’ in TripAdvisor. This is what was written back then.

Here are the tips on going to this heaven from Chiang Rai and stay there for less than 1000baht.

Go to Terminal 1 Bus Station Chiang Rai, which is within the town. Ask around for Phu Chi Fa. You will be shown to a counter, where a hand-written signboard is hung above a desk. Tell the lady who sits behind the desk that you want to go to Phu Chi Fa. The return tickets is 300 baht (at this time of writing). The van will come to pick you up at 1pm. The journey takes more than 3 hours. The same van will pick you up the next morning at 9am, at the same spot of the van station at Phu Chi Fa.

I reached the Phu Chi Fa station around 4.15pm. Without any reservation of a accommodation, I was confident (blindly) somehow that I could find a place to rest. At the van station, there was a lady who held out a cardboard, written in English telling me she had a place for 500 baht only. So, I took it. The chalet came with free wifi and hot shower. It was just alright.

Some travelers opted for a tent. This costs 300 baht.

After checking in, I took a quick walk up the steep tar road to view sunset at the top of Phu Chi Fa. The road stretched a long 2.5km and it was really difficult for me, who was walking faster than my normal pace, as I was trying to reach before the sun set. That 2.5km distance brought me to the car park near the view point. There was another 760 meter to continue on. However, these 760 meter was not so taxing as the earlier 2,5km.


The reward was worth it. There were less than 20 tourists at the top, leaving the view point almost empty for quiet time, and appreciation of the wonderful sights of the mountains and surroundings, of Thailand and Laos.

I came back to learn that there were pick up trucks to bring anyone up (or down) for a fee of 30 baht each way. My guest house arranged one to pick me up at 5am. That would give me an additional hour to sleep in, as I was planning to get up at 4am to walk up.

Do bring torchlight. At the top, there were more than 150 tourists already taking their seats on the ground, awaiting for the sunrise. However, the better spot to view the landscape is not on the peak of the view point but to the left. A few steps further, I was able to avoid the crowd and enjoy wider landscape view.


Another good place to take photo is to walk back down the trail, and stop at the nearby spot where the cliff can be seen. As the sun rises, but still below the height of the cliff, the view is simply breath-taking.


Internet articles will tell you that the place is really cold and one can suffer hypothermia. Not true. You should have your jacket with you but the temperature is not that bad. The guesthouse thick blanket is already good enough to provide warm sleep.

The articles will tell you that there are hardly any eateries there. Time has changed. There are several places you can enjoy your dinner and breakfast the next morning. However, I brought some snacks up to the cliff, since that I knew I would be spending hours there. I was hungry. Thankfully I had something to keep the hunger away.


There are the tribal kids, all dressed up, singing for any amount of money donation. Support them, if you want to. They do look adorable.

 

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Native child

Be prepared to have a sleepless night. During the peak season (Nov to Jan), many locals would head there. They must have been really excited to see one another that they would stay up all night, just to chat and laugh. In a high volume. My German friends told me they suffered in their thin tent. As for me, in the chalet, I could hear my neighbours talking into the late morning but it was not that loud to disturb my sleep.

I am planning to go back there again. And this time, maybe I will stay for two nights. The life there seems so easy and relax, some thing that this aching old body of backpacker would wish to enjoy longer, just to get away from the crazy city life.

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A secret gem of Thailand – Phu Chi Fa.

*I was told Phu Chi Fa was best to be visited between Nov to Jan.

Backpacking in Laos

When it comes to Laos, I have only two places in mind to visit – Luang Prabang (World Heritage Site) and Vang Vieng (tubing town). There are other tourist sites – Vientiane (capital city), Pakse, (Si Phan Don) 1,000 Islands and Phonsavan (Plain of Jars) in Laos but since that I have limited days, I have settled for these 2 main choices.

There were ups and downs in my Laos trip. Generally known as the lay-back country or backward environment where almost anyone is expected to enjoy a life away from city buzz and hectic schedules, a trip in Laos demands patience and tolerance. And bargaining power. Here, I would just state the highlights of my trip.

1. Sunset Hill, Vang Vieng.

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All the tiny houses and green fields, viewed from the top of heaven.

Somewhere 4 km away from Vang Vieng town, across the Nam Song river, onto the path that leads to Blue Lagoon, nested a hidden gem (not listed in Tripadvisor or almost other online guides). Heading from the town, look out for the signboard that states ‘Pha Ngeun’. On this signboard too, the word ‘mountain view’ and ‘school’ are listed. Head in the unfamiliar path and shortly, a hut/booth appears. Pay 10,000 kip to the friendly teenage gatekeeper who speaks no English and you should be heading your way up the hill.

To the villagers here, this is their Pha Ngeun Mountain. Don’t let the word mountain scares you. It was really a high hill, that offered great view from the top. The signboard also says 500m. I have learned my lesson to take anything shared with me with a pinch of salt. The journey up was definitely more than 500m, demanding but still doable. I hiked up the hill, wearing sandals. Some slopes were tiring but the reward was magnificent.

There were two shelters built on the hill. The first shelter gave a reasonable view of the paddy fields in the valley, trapped between mountains. Catch a short break and then continue.

Around 10 minutes later, with another nice view along the way, I reached the bottom of rocky peaks. The path up these peaks was easy to be found. I realised later that I was stepping on broken pinnacles, to hike up to the top of the pinnacle peaks. At the top of the peak, I saw heaven.

There was a shelter built at the top, offering a majestic view of the whole green, luscious paddy field, surrounded by proud mountains. Tiny houses could be seen scattered along the red earth road that I had used earlier, heading to Blue Lagoon.

The hike got me huffing and puffing but the view at the top kept me breathless. I was alone at the top and yet, I could feel the world was with me. I was alone up there, enjoying this wonderful, beautiful view, and it was all mine, for those hours I spent there on my own.

It was cooling. The breeze was welcoming me. The joy was pure.

This site is good for sunrise/sunset view, if only one could negotiate the path when the light is not favourable. It took me 40 minutes to hike down. The whole journey was so worth the time and the money. It did not matter to me if I had hiked up a hill or a mountain. What did matter to me was that I hiked up and found my little heaven.

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As much the heart yearned to stay and watch the sunset, it was too dangerous to walk alone in the path, without any light.

 

2. Kuangsi Waterfall, Luang Prabang

Kuangsi waterfall is situated at a distance of 40 minutes car ride from Luang Prabang. There is much hype over this waterfall that I have to witness it for myself. Instead of taking the shared or private tuk tuk from the town area, I booked for a shared van tour ride to Kuangsi waterfall at the price of 50,000 kip. The entrance fee to Kuangsi cost me another 20,000 kip.

Unlike the other waterfall sites I had been to recently, Kuangsi waterfalls are felt along the river where the river flows down. There are 4 stages of the waterfall along the river in the park. Stage 4 is the highlight where the water drops from a high cliff.

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Kuangsi Waterfall, mother nature’s wonder.
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The trek was steep.

Cross the popular bridge where many photos were snapped, I found a hiking trail leading up to the hilltop for a view of the surrounding. Again, this path was demanding as the slopes were steep. Trees and small streams greeted me at the top, offering me one view of a nearby valley.

Tourists found their laughter in Stage 1. They swam and they dove. They hardly knew one another but they shared their joys that afternoon.

 

3. Tak Bat, Luang Prabang (and other areas in Laos)

Tak Bat is the morning alms tradition, uphold by the Buddhist monks. Early in the morning, after their chanting and meditation, these monks would head out of their monastery to seek for alms, from grateful and supportive villagers. To the villagers, monks uphold the practice as advised by the Buddha. They are also seek in times of emotional difficulties and for help. In gratitude, villagers offer support to the monks who have chosen to leave behind the life of unnecessary possession.

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Unlike in Vang Vieng, here a senior monk still leads tak bat.

To be a monk is not to escape from responsibilities. It is a commitment in seeking for self-actualisation.

Rows of monks can be seen in towns in Laos. To see them in the act of Tak Bat, I had to wake up as early as 5.30am and try my luck at different streets in hope to catch glimpses of the orange robes. There was something sincere and downright humble in seeing villagers still upholding this tradition, keeping it alive after years of modernisation.

These village ladies and men were believers. They knelt to show their respects. They offered to show their support. They rejoiced because they knew it was a well-done act.

And these monks were a field of merit to Buddhists all around. Homage to the blessed ones.

 

4. Tubing on Nam Song river, Vang Vieng

Tubing was the main activity in Vang Vieng. It was the haven for party-ers who wanted nothing but crazy blasting music, beer and weed as they went tubing down the river. It had stopped now. 4 bars were still standing as I tubed my way down the quiet, wide river.

Tubing activity in Vang Vieng starts at 9am and ends at 6pm. The shop stops taking new customers at 4pm. It costs 55000 kip, plus 60000 kip for deposit. The deposit will be returned if the tube is given back before 6pm. Free life jacket is provided. A free tuk tuk ride is offered to the start point for the tubing experience. The whole journey of tubing is 1.5 hours during rainy season and 4 hours during non-rainy season.

My advice? Bring along your sandals. You need them to paddle. Hehehehe.

The whole journey was relaxing although the current was strong. There were a few bumpy areas as the water was bouncy. One or two areas where the water swirled. Mountain views were seen although I was not really adjusted to the idea of floating yet on the strong current. So, I did not really get to enjoy the view much.

Kayaks would pass by and happy Koreans would greet me. There were more kayaks than tubes on the river. As I did not stop at any bar, I was floating alone. Nam Song was brownish and wide. The current was crazily strong and I had no control how I was rotated around, on my tube.

Another advice – try to stay close to the left hand side of the river. No one told me. I ‘over-floated’ my destination and no one was there to help my tube to stop.

 

5. Cycling

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Bicycle cost me around 10,000 kip. I was constantly reminded to lock up my bicycle. Apparently theft was an issue in Luang Prabang. There were enough stories about stolen motorcycles in Luang Prabang that made me hesitated on renting one. Moreover, motorcycle rental was expensive. One could easily cost me 140,000 kip, and that was without petrol.

So, I packed my lunch, cycled under the cloudy sky of Luang Prabang, snaked my way around the river and was charmed by the old-looking houses facing the river. Stopped by the river to eat my meal and just let the day rolled by.

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This was my bicycle in Luang Prabang.

In Vang Vieng, instead of signing up for a tour package to Blue Lagoon, I decided to cycle from the town to the Blue Lagoon. Guaranteed, going uphill at times was not really easy, plus the mud was not that appealing, the ride was worth it as it allowed me to stop several times to snap photos of the paddy fields and mountains.

 

6. Enjoy the sunset at Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang

On the day I arrived in Luang Prabang, I was determined to catch a good sunset. There had to be one, in my whole Laos trip. It was impossible to catch a good sunset due to the evening rain.

It cost 20,000 kip to enter Mount Phousi. There were 355 steps all the way to the top. Some stopped in the middle, to catch a breather. It was doable, although it did take a little determination and patience.

At the top, I joined the crowd, waiting for the sunset that was not so promising, during this rain season.

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Sunset in Luang Prabang, in the rainy season.

 

7. Slow-paced Life

Coming to Laos, one is expected to leave the concrete city world behind and just lay back. Enjoy the greens. Enjoy the water. Listen to children’s laughter. Look at how the villagers juggle between their culture and the world the tourists are introducing to them. Like it or not, these people have a lifestyle that we no longer have the luxury to enjoy easily in our city homes. They envy us for our gadgets. We envy them for their simplicity.

 

Laos, to me, was an intriguing country. This trip did satisfy my curiosity on what the country was about. I came and saw heaven, from the top of Sunset Hill, in Vang Vieng. I came and saw wonders in the cold, strong current Kuangsi Waterfall in Luang Prabang. The people had been introduced to the business world for tourists and they are learning how to milk from curious visitors. I would safely say that I am done with Laos, from the soul-less Vientiane to the expensive and village-like Vang Vieng to old, but progressing Luang Prabang.

Charming, but for how long still?

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View from Buddha’s Footprint Temple.

Cheow Lan Lake

View of the lake from Smiley Lake House, in the  morning.
View of the lake from Smiley Lake House, in the morning.

Cheow Lan Lake was built in 1982, covering an area as large as 165 sq km. Located in Khao Sok, it took an hour ride from Surat Thani to reach its Rajjaprabha Pier. As it was a national protected territory, nothing was allowed to be built on the land surrounding the lake. However, floating houses were allowed. There are several tour packages. Tourists should definitely stay at least one night on these houses, although there are alternative day trip. Advice: Stay one night.

My friend and I stayed in Smiley Lake House on May 27, 2015. We were so lucky that we were the only two guests for the Lake House. There were 6 the night before and 44 guests the night after. Usually, Smiley Lake House would want to have more than just 2 guests to be in operation for the day, but I guess my friend and I were just lucky. It was a quiet evening and serene morning. The 2D1N package cost us 2500baht per pax, which included the van pick-up from Smiley Bungalow, the boat ride, 2 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 1 dinner, free water, coffee/tea, evening and morning safaris on the boat, free canoes and caving or viewpoint trekking. We took the rare viewpoint trekking. Be prepared to be pampered by good food. It was sooooooo good!

As we did not have any vehicle and wanted only budget trip, we did research and came up with an easy access to the lake. Arriving at Surat Thani airport, we took the shared van to Surat Thani Railway train. At the train station, ask around for the stop for the local bus to Khao Sok. The helpful Thais would point out the way. We bought our cheap 120baht per pax ticket and waited for the bus, which arrived shortly. It was an old bus but what was impressive was that it had a workable and fast wifi connection. Tell the bus conductor that you wish to get down at Khao Sok. Around 2 hours later, we reached our destination – a dead, boring town of Khao Sok. But it was only for a night at Smiley Bungalow. So, it was ok. Forget mosquito repellent. It did not work on the mosquitoes in that town. (The lake had no mosquito at all).

Be totally empty, embrace the tranquility of peace. Watch the workings of all creation, observe how endings become beginnings. - Lao Tzu -
Be totally empty, embrace the tranquility of peace. Watch the workings of all creation, observe how endings become beginnings. – Lao Tzu –
Calm mind brings inner strength and self-confidence, so that’s very important for good health. – Dalai Lama –
Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset. - Saint Francis de Sales
Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset. – Saint Francis de Sales
Remain calm, serene, always in command of yourself. You will then find out how easy it is to get along. – Paramahansa Yogananda
The pursuit, even of the best things, ought to be calm and tranquil. – Marcus Tullius Cicero
There is no greater misfortune than not knowing what is enough. There is no greater flaw than wanting more and more. Whoever knows contentment is blissful at all times. – Lao Tzu
Mastery of the world is achieved by letting things take their natural course. If you interfere with the way of Nature, you can never master the world. - Lao Tzu
Mastery of the world is achieved by letting things take their natural course. If you interfere with the way of Nature, you can never master the world. – Lao Tzu
Breathing is central to every aspect of meditation training. It's a wonderful place to focus in training the mind to be calm and concentrated. - Jon Kabat-Zinn
Breathing is central to every aspect of meditation training. It’s a wonderful place to focus in training the mind to be calm and concentrated. – Jon Kabat-Zinn
The truth, is really very simple. All things that arise and pass, the whole world of changing phenomena, is really only "that much!" When we truly discover what this means, then here in our world we can come to peace. - A Still Forest Pool
The truth, is really very simple. All things that arise and pass, the whole world of changing phenomena, is really only “that much!” When we truly discover what this means, then here in our world we can come to peace. – A Still Forest Pool

Smiley Lake House in Cheow Lan Lake

I took a deep breath and listened to the old bray of my heart. I am. I am. I am. – Sylvia Plath
The tree has its own pace. Your job is to dig a hole, water and fertilize it, and protect it from insects. That much is your affair, a matter of faith. But the way the tree grows is up to the tree. If you practice like this, you can be sure all will be well, and your plant will grow. - A Still Forest Pool
The tree has its own pace. Your job is to dig a hole, water and fertilize it, and protect it from insects. That much is your affair, a matter of faith. But the way the tree grows is up to the tree. If you practice like this, you can be sure all will be well, and your plant will grow. – A Still Forest Pool
This photo and the ones above were taken from the hiking up the hill for the viewpoint. It was not so tough at the beginning but eventually, we had to climb over pinnacles.

Our practice here is not to grasp anything. – Ajahn Chah

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The Guilin of Thailand

After lunch, we bid goodbye to the quiet getaway. As the boat took us away, other guests arrived. Together with them, came the shouts, yells and more. As said, we two were lucky. It was like we had the whole lake to ourselves the evening before. Nothing but nature and us. It was good. It was really good. It was a good time to do a lot of slowing down, relaxing and contemplating.

You cannot find peace by avoiding life. – Virginia Woolf

Backpacking in Bali

Ceking Terrace Paddy Field
Ceking Terrace Paddy Field

May 21: Lombok to Bali RM80 – Lion Wings

I bid goodbye to Lombok and came back to the familiar Bali. I had visited Bali in 2013 and decided that I did not have enough of Bali then. I wanted more – namely Ubud and Tanah Lot.

Pura Luhur Uluwatu (Uluwatu Temple)

Uluwatu temple lies 30 minutes drive away from Kuta. However, with the narrow roads and traffic, it took me around an hour to reach the place. Again, I have to thank Maps.Me Android app for helping me not to get lost in Bali. Entrance fee: 20,000 rupiah. Parking fee for my scooter: 1,000 rupiah.

I did not take me a long time to walk the whole stretch of the 70m high cliff of Uluwatu. I preferred the walk to the left side of the cliff as it stretched out to open field and up close to the cliff for viewing.

Near the temple, I was so cautious when it came to anywhere near the monkeys. Read so much about thieving monkeys and held on tightly to my possession.

I was a witness to a Taiwan girl who was so into posing for photo that she did not realise a monkey was behind her and snatched her sunglasses. Her boyfriend watched helplessly as the monkey bit the sunglasses and jumped away with it. So, now we know who has not been reading TripAdvisor before going to Uluwatu.

Kidding. But seriously, one should read a bit more before going on holiday.

Uluwatu was crowded but there was more space at the end of the trek. It was nice to spend some time away from the temple structure, enjoying the sound of the waves crashing onto the cliff and the breeze.

Uluwatu temple is best to be visited in the late afternoon. I stayed for the 6pm Kecak Fire Dance. There were several places in Bali that showed this kecak dance. However, in Uluwatu, at the right seating, one could view the dance as the sun set. The price was 100,000 rupiah.

To really appreciate the event, explanation of the show was distributed free to tourists. There were 5 acts shown. However, I suspected they skipped Act 3, to give a bigger role to the popular Hanoman (white monkey). The dance was not that really captivating, other than the regular kecak-cak-cak repetition. Things got more interesting when Hanoman showed up.  There were a few stories to how kecak fire dance became popular. The stories were either about the dance popularised somewhere in 1930’s or even earlier.

The fourth photo would show you Ramayana and Sita, who were supposed to be the leads in the show. Entertaining Hanoman stole the scenes too often.
The fourth photo would show you Ramayana and Sita, who were supposed to be the leads in the show. Entertaining Hanoman stole the scenes too often.

The show ran for almost an hour, leaving the exit time somewhere after the sun set. I was afraid the lane would be too dark for me to ride my scooter. However, since other vehicles were leaving too, and there were many, the ride was not so bad.

May 22: Ubud

I let my imagination of Ubud got the better of me. It was still a nice place, but not what I had expected. Perhaps too touristy now. It felt crowded. Still, it was a nice getaway from Kuta, Bali. Perhaps it was nice too because of the right accommodation.

Duana's Homestay. RM50 a night.
Duana’s Homestay. RM50 a night.

Duana’s Homestay was really near to Art Market and offered really quiet, cool accommodation. I loved the breakfast. Free coffee and friendly staff members. If this looks familiar, it is the same design as the Bali house Julia Roberts’ character visited in Bali, when she went to talk to the fortune teller.

Campuhan Ridge Walk

Stated in TripAdvisor as the no.1 thing to do in Ubud, I set out for Campuhan Ridge Walk after Duana’s Homestay. Although there was an advice to take a stroll there in the morning (aka cooler), I wanted to see if I could view sunset from the end of the 2km walk.

There was no entrance fee, and I bumped into local lovers hanging out at the beginning of the walk. At the end of the walk, there was a cafe, overseeing the paddy field. And in between, growling dogs that would make Campuhan a less popular place in the future.

Without those dogs and the warm afternoon, the walk would have been nicer.

The whole walk took me around 2 hours.

Ceking Terrace Paddy Field

In 2013, foolishly not knowing what Tegalalang was famous for, I turned down the suggestion by my tour guide to take a walk in the paddy field. I did not know the big deal about it. Yes, it was beautiful and the morning was quiet. But I just thought it was a casual stop. Since then, I had been eager to return to walk around the UNESCO World Heritage Site paddy field.

No entrance fee was imposed. However, to cross the small bridge, a small donation was asked. I gave 5,000 rupiah and was accepted with a kind smile.

Incidentally, a funny thing happened on my way up and out of the terrace. Check youtube and anyone could see black and white videos of old Bali, where it was acceptable for Bali women to be topless. On my way out, I came across an old Balinese woman, topless, holding postcards to sell to passing-by tourists. She was waiting for them along the steps. When someone pointed camera at her, she danced, jiggling her old breasts before asking the photographer and friends to buy postcards from her at the price of 30,000 rupiah.

I was at the bottom of the steps, awaiting to go up. I made way for the other tourists to come down. As I was walking up, I realised I had made a mistake. By waiting, I became the last person to pass by her. I did, and tried not to make any eye contact or even looking at her. She called out to me, wiggling her postcards and said 25,000 rupiah. I declined, politely. Still, no eye contact. As I walked away from her, I could hear her shouting for me to wait. I quickened my pace. It was like I was trying to run away from a naked old woman. I could hear her laughing as I got away.

Phew.

Pura Gunung Kawi

May 24: Mount Kawi Temple

Mount Kawi Temple was wrongly mapped by Google (and it was not 1.5 hours away but merely 30 minutes).

There were two Gunung Kawi in Bali. One was above Tanah Lot. The other one was near Tirta Empul, Tampak Siring. The second one was the right one.

I rode out in the morning to see this Mount Kawi Temple, which was relatively less crowded. There were more popular temples in Bali that somehow, this 1000 year old Mount Kawi Temple complex was outshone.

Pura Gunung Kawi (Mount Kawi Temple)
Pura Gunung Kawi (Mount Kawi Temple)

There was 330 steps down to the complex. Entrance fee was 15,000 rupiah.

I liked this site more because there were less people. There were many young locals on the morning I was there. It was a nice walk to the complex. with a pleasant view of paddy field. Before entering the complex, with your sarong, of course, I was required to sprinkle holy water on myself. The water was provided near the entrance, at the end of the 330th step.

Pura Gunung Kawi is the only temple complex in Bali where candis are carved out from the rock cliff in the valley. There are 9 candis in this complex. 4 are near the entrance, to the left. The other 5 are located across the bridge. The 5 candis remind one of the similar sculptures of Prambanan candis. There is a stream and a small waterfall in the complex.

I enjoyed my morning walk there. It was cooling and less touristy. This complex offered nothing much, but it was a good getaway from the crowd in other tourist areas.

It was a day where many young locals came for offering. I did not manage to ask them what the event was.

On my way out of Ubud, I stopped by and snapped some photos of Ubud Art Market.

Kuta Beach

May 25: Kuta Beach

Kuta Beach, Bali
Kuta Beach, Bali

Kuta Beach did not leave any great impression on me the last time I was in Bali. Perhaps, it was so scorching hot during my last trip. This time, I forced myself to go there in the morning, when the weather/temperature was kinder.

It was a good stroll at the beach. Even in the early morning, beach activities were already picking up. Many stopped me along the way, asking me if I had wanted to learn surfing.

I cut myself, trying to climb up some slippery rocks. So, it was a wounded walk along the beach, where blood was oozing out of my injured foot. Still, nothing stopped me from snapping more photos of the busy, long stretched beach. The waves were strong and I was told that the water was not that deep. Hence, more were willing to learn to surf.

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Busy morning at Kuta Beach, Bali.

Tanah Lot

Pura Batu Bolong, Tanah Lot
Pura Batu Bolong, Tanah Lot

The ride to Tanah Lot took more than an hour. I journeyed out early, in order to be there before the sun set. Just like the day before, the sky was cloudy. And yet, just like that day before, it did not rain.

Entrance fee was 30,000 rupiah and 2,000 for parking fee.

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Same place for posing, as in 2013, for Tanah Lot.

The best journey was to the left, seeing all those other temple lots before the main one.

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To have the famous Tanah Lot temple with the sunset as the backdrop, I have to walk to the further end of the beach. There, in hoping for a good sunset view, I sat and waited. It was not meant to be, with the dark clouds and more. Still, it was nice to see there, enjoying the quiet space and the breeze.

And as the sun set down, it was time to bid farewell to Bali and its famous landmark Tanah Lot. It was a worthwhile trip and an adventure, definitely, to go around Bali on scooter.

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Sunset arrived, signalling the end of my journey in Indonesia for this year.
Goodbye, Bali.
Goodbye, Bali.

Backpacking in Lombok: Coconut trees, emerald-green water beaches and waterfalls

May 17: KL to Lombok: RM136 Airasia.

Sendang Gile Waterfall

May 18: The scooter ride from Senggigi La Casa Homestay took longer than 3 hours, as the road from Senggigi to Pemenang and then to Senaru offered some many beautiful sceneries. It was impossible not to stop. Senaru is known for the point where hikers will climb Mount Rinjani. Not me. I was there for two known beauties – Sendang Gile and Tiu Kelep waterfalls.

Entrance fee was 10,000 rupiah for a foreigner. I got myself a guide. That cost me another 60,000 rupiah. It was worth it, coz Anong really watched over me – offering to carry my items for me, warning me of slippery path, being my cameraman and more. The walk to Sendang Gile was only 10 minutes from the entrance.

After spending a few minutes struggling to snap good photos of Sendang Gile, I was ready for the real beauty – the most famous beautiful waterfall in Lombok, other than Benang Kelambu waterfall. So, Anong walked with me for another 30 minutes, on the path, bridge, passing by the tunnel and across the stream. And there, I felt my joy. I saw it from afar. Tiu Kelep Waterfall This is Tiu Kelep waterfall – the ageless waterfall. It is known as such as the water never runs dry, even during non-raining season. A bath in the pond beneath the waterfall is said to cure anyone of any skin disease. There were less people there than at Sendang Gile waterfall. Spent several minutes trying to get the best photos and then, dipped myself in the water. It was really cold.

On my down the hilly road, the terrace paddy field on my right caught my site. I had heard of Teres Genit Village and its paddy field. It was beautiful.

Teres Genit Village, view from somewhere near Rinjani Lodge.
Teres Genit Village, view from somewhere near Rinjani Lodge.

Down the hill and turned right, feeling adventurous, I rode out to seek for Teres Genit Village to have an up-close view of the place. It was another 6km before I found a split road. Instead of turning left, I rode my scooter into the straight path

Before the day became dark, in an unfamiliar land, I decided to ride back to Senggigi. Also in hope to see sunset at Senggigi beach. It was not easy. Too many wonderful scenery along the way that made me stop too often.

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On my way to Bangsal to catch public ferry to Gili Trawangan.

May 19: Parking my scooter at the motorcycle park for only 10,000 rupiah (for one night), I walked past all the touts and headed for the office where I bought my public ferry ticket, for 15,000 rupiah. Plus entrance fee into the island and other stuff – another 3,000 rupiah. The ferry ride was a 45 minutes journey. Sitting on the left hand side was a blessing as shade helped to protect one from the burning sunlight. As the ferry (which was a normal boat) reached Gili Trawangan, I understood the fuss over the island and its sisters – Gili Meno and Gili Air. I did not go to the other two. Gili Trawangan is known as the party island. I moved away from the crowd, and found my own space in this lovely island.

Almost everywhere, the beach looks like this in Gili Trawangan. Multi-fold colours of water.
Almost everywhere, the beach looks like this in Gili Trawangan. Multi-fold colours of water.

Stayed in Intan Inn Hostel, in a room of 3 beds. I booked one bed but ended up having the whole room to myself as it was a low season. With in-room bathroom and aircon. Cool, right? No blanket, unfortunately. Sigh. Still, it was a good place to stay in. Cheap and at the right location. Not far from the main road, and quiet enough. Good wifi connection. One can handle Gili Trawangan by walking around. If not, one could hire bicycle for 40,000 rupiah. Or take a ride on cidomo.

I walked. It was easier to snap photos that way.

Walk to the end, near the viewpoint, one could see the surfing activities. I sat in water but spent more time snapping photos of the surfers.

IMG_6477Before the evening came, I made my way to search for the viewpoint. It was not easy to find the spot. I swore I was lost before turning up at a spot so flat, among the bushes and trees that I knew it was there I would stand to greet the setting sun. More tourists showed up, sharing the small space. It was never that crowded. Just a nice size of people who wanted to get away from the partying crowd. The sun set at 6pm and I made my way back to the main road. There, I passed by the night market, where I bought 10 sticks of sate for the price of 20,000 rupiah.

Sunrise at the main road of Gili T. Across the water, stood Mount Rinjani.
Sunrise at the main road of Gili T. Across the water, stood Mount Rinjani.

I headed back to Lombok. The initial plan to catch a fastboat or cheap public ferry to Bali was cancelled after reading the net stories/experience of those who dared. The advice would be to take morning ferry to or from Bali. Afternoon sea was rougher. Still, after finding out that Lion Wings offered lower price for flight, I changed my itinerary, to include flight to Bali, from Lombok. So, it was time to set out again – back to Senggigi.

May 20: The journey back to Senggigi took longer than I had expected. I stopped by Pantai Vulkanik Nipah, a curve along the highway, where it stood out as a cliff. It was also known as Malimbu Hill. The cove after the cliff displayed wonderful mixture blue and green sea., where the beach would rise up to meet the green valley.

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Pantai Vulkanik Nipah (Nipah Volcanic Beach)

By the time I reached La Casa Homestay and headed out for Benang Stokel and Benang Kelambu waterfalls, it was already close to lunch time. The journey took me through the city Mataram.

Benang Stokel Waterfall
Benang Stokel Waterfall

The journey took me 2 hours, across the city and then to quiet town roads, leading into village. As the turning approached, there would be many stalls selling tourists’ souvenirs. Turned left and headed for a long journey into Aik Berik Village. Here, I faced another situation where there was an attempt to coax me to pay a tour package for Benang Stokel and Benang Kelambu waterfalls. I refused to pay for the package, which was more than 150,000 rupiah. At the end, I settled for 50,000 rupiah, where I thought I would be getting a tour guide. I was not given any. Entrance fee was supposed to be only 10,000 rupiah. Felt bitter. And was already tired.

The walk to Benang Stokel started almost immediately after going through the main gate. There would be a path on the left. A walk around 10 minutes on that path led me to the area where Benang Stokel waterfall stood.

Turning back, and back to the main road, I walked up the hill. This was more tiring than walking towards Tiu Kelep Waterfall. I was told that I could ride my scooter in. However, I had no idea that the walk would take more than 30 minutes. Although there were others who offered to fetch me for a fee, I continued walking. The path split twice. Somehow, my tired mind told me to continue with the left turning. So, I did. Eventually, I found someone who would fetch me for free. It was a short ride, as I was almost there.

Benang Kelambu waterfall
Benang Kelambu waterfall

Some tourists walked here. Some drove here. Some paid for tour package to come here.

Although I had wanted to check out Tanjung Aan, Pink Beach and the other beaches in Lombok, somehow, my watch told me that I was running out of time. The afternoon was about to roll into evening. Moreover, I was getting a bit tired of seeing beaches for awhile. So, I headed back and reached the beach behind Jayakarta Hotel in Senggigi, around 5.30pm.

May 21: The next morning, La Casa Homestay helped me to call for Damri bus to pick me up at the main road. I was heading for Praya Airport, to catch my flight to Bali. Lion Wings flight to Bali took only 30 minutes and cost me RM80.

Tips:

  1. Despite what they claim, no tourists need to pay for tour guides/tour package, just to get into the areas to see the waterfalls. The entrance fee are only 10,000 rupiah each. I paid for a tour guide at Senaru and was happy with my decision.
  2. Try to fill your gas/petrol at Mataram. The price would be half of what one pays for petrol, sold by villagers, along the way at Pemenang.
  3. The best time to ride out and see the beaches in Senggigi, in my limited experience, is around 9am. Any earlier, too misty. Any later, less calming sea.
  4. Use Maps.Me app from Android. Download Indonesia map. It really helped when I did not have any data plan. Maps.Me works without internet. It is not perfect but it helps.
  5. If you are willing to, pay more to ride on safer boat from Bangsal, Lombok to Gili. I paid 18,000 rupiah. A fast boat ticket should be around 73,000 rupiah. At least it would not be overloaded. However, if you should go into public ferry, try to sit near the very few life jackets/life buoys.
  6. Heading to Gili T, try to sit on the left hand side of the boat as you enter the boat. Heading to Lombok, sit on the other side. This should help you to avoid sunburn.
  7. Try Intan Inn Hostel cafe for meals. The food was good and the price was lower than those on the main road of Gili Trawangan.
  8. If you really want to take the fast boat from Gili T to Bali, then, it is best to buy the ticket when you are on the island. Do not buy online as the price is higher. But if you want to buy online, then, I have heard of good remarks on Blue Water Express.
  9. The best time to travel between Gili and Bali is in the morning, when the sea is calmer. Avoid using these boats during rainy season.
  10. I was told that there would be hostel room for the price of 50,000 rupiah a night, with air con and hot shower. I could not verify this. This would definitely be better than the 120,000 rupiah I had paid for La Casa Homestay. La Casa Homestay is around 4km away from Art Market. Generally, the whole Senggigi town is a quiet town. So, it does not really matter where one stays in Senggigi as it would be quiet nights there.

Generally, although my stay was short, I had fond memories of Lombok and Gili T. Definitely would recommend friends to these islands.

Mount Kinabalu Quest: 24 – 25 April 2015

Majestic, standing above the other mountains; assuring its lion's position among the many mountains and hills of Sabah.
Mount Kinabalu 24 April 2015

There was this fear despite several reassurance – what if I fail?
Will the mountain; the majestic of awe, be gentle and welcome me?
Will I be charmed, be inspired, along the trail?
I should hope for nothing. Only then, will I be free.

Timpohon and Mesilau Trails.
Timpohon and Mesilau Trails.

Mount Kinabalu, stood at the height of 4095m, with the aim of Low’s Peak – the highest peak on Mount Kinabalu as the destination of many hikers who want to conquer.  There were several routes to face the challenge. The common ones were from Timpohon Gate and the other Mesilau Gate. There are many blogs on these trails. I shall just let the other blogs guide any reader here. Just that I took the Mesilau trail, hoping to see some scenic views (that were never meant to be on a rainy, misty day).  Mesilau trail was longer by 2km, but promised less staircases.

Sunset greeted me on my way to Kota Kinabalu. It was like an omen of good things to come, as I have always enjoyed the mood set by the colours around the ray of the sun, hiding away for the night.

Sunset on the way to Kota Kinabalu.
Sunset on the way to Kota Kinabalu.

On April 23, Amazing Borneo took us Kinabalu Park, the base of Mount Kinabalu. Kinabalu Park was situated 1585m above the sea level. We reached late, allowing us only for a stomach-filling buffet dinner and a good, luxurious stay in Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, where it was beautiful but yet, too short of our stay to enjoy it fully. The package was RM969.70 for Mesilau trail, inclusive of GST.

Sunrise at Kinabalu Park. Surprised us that the sun rose at an hour less than 6am.
Sunrise at Kinabalu Park. Surprised us that the sun rose before 6am.

Yes, my group mates had been training. I had been going up and down Penang Hill, Cherok To Kun and other hills weekly before this trip. This began only in February. And so, after morning breakfast, a rush here and there, nervous heartbeats, we knew we had to move out of our comfort zone.

A mountain was waiting for us, no matter what.

At the early sunrise hours, Mount Kinabalu stood tall, before the cloud would hide away the peaks from the public admiration. Still, cloud or no-cloud, we knew the mountain was testing us, inviting us to challenge ourselves – the dare to see if we were better than what we believed we could and would be. The mountain awaited. The time (months, weeks, days and hours before the event) that separated us from our quest had diminished. It was time to put our fear and faith to test. Which would win?

Would the mountain be laughing at us?

The journey from Kinabalu Park was a 30 minutes ride. We laughed at silly jokes, to ease the moment. Mesilau Trail was just 30 minutes away and the beautiful villages and views kept our mind occupied. At some points, we forgot our nervousness.

At 9.20am, the hiking started. It did not take long before the group members began to be separated. The path I took was interrupted by the expected unexpected rain. It rained on me at 11am. Still, many hours to go and yet it was not a time to sulk. The rain was one with the green, cold forest. And so should I.

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At 2.09pm, I stood where the Timpohon and Mesilau trails met.  I had been hiking for 4 hours and 50 min. 2 more km to go. I had hiked alone, at times, bumping onto friendly strangers; friendly hikers.

One porter walked by me, wearing only sandals for the whole slippery trail. A few porters/guides walked by me, carrying more than 20 kg of bags. Several foreign tourists/hikers greeted me and continued to take photos along the trail. A gentle young lady struggled on her own, while her group mates were nowhere in sight. Still, that did not dampen her determination to move forward. Some elder men and women hiked and laughed, together. Human spirit was pure here. There was no greed for material things. There were only smiles and nodes of approval.

I shared my share of encouragement to those I passed by. In return, I received kind thank-yous in their smiles. The eyes were looks of nothing but sheer joy, despite exhaustion, to know that they were on this for an experience of a lifetime. They were happy. So was I.

I walked alone but I was never lonely. The forest posed no danger. The trail was friendly and guided my feet, taking me where I was supposed to be going. There was never any worry about turning left or right. There was only one trail.

There was only one path.

2km might sound like nothing. It should be, since that I had walked more than 5km. But it was the trick of ego. It was like the mountain knew, as many hikers before me, fell for this same delusion.  Laban Rata was never in sight, no matter how many steps my aching left knee carried me forward. For every step, I silently prayed for the sight. It was never meant to be. There was a lesson here. What would come, would come.  There should never be any expectation or hurry, especially for what could never be changed.

I was getting closer. I swore I was.

IMG_5885C360_2015-04-24-15-59-16-321This photo was taken at 3.59pm. I was tired. My left knee was hurting like crazy. And then, I found out that we would be staying at Lagadan Hut, another 300m away – up, up the staircase… Oh boy. After meal, we marched like wounded soldiers up to Lagadan, unsure if we would want to return for late supper.

The unfrienIMG_5885C360_2015-04-25-02-17-49-457dly night was approaching. There was a desperation in me to feel tired so that I could sleep, ignoring the cold 9 degree Celsius in Lagadan Hut. The blanket provided in the 4-bedroom dorm was thin. The chill was nerve-wrecking. It was impossible to rest the body. And we had to get up at 1am, for the 2am late supper, before continuing the hike up to Low’s Peak. Thing was not looking pretty for me. Although I went to bed as early as 8pm, I dozed off only at 12am, to be woken up at 1am. Thank goodness my knee was not hurting as much.

The hike continued at 3am, where a row of hikers queued up along the summit trail. This time, without the hiking stick, as we would need our hands to be free to hold onto the ropes for climbing along the edge of the mountain cliff. In the dark, led by our headgear, our steps were greeted by the beautiful night stars. I did not just want to reach the summit, but I wanted to be at the summit to watch the rising sun. It was not easy. The oxygen level was getting lower. I was getting tired easier.

For almost every 20 steps after the Sayat-Sayat checkpoint, I had to stop. Looking up, I could see familiar peaks in the dark. And yet, the lights from the hikers upfront told me that I was not there yet. I understood now what another blog writer wrote about her Mount Kinabalu hiking – so near and yet so far. After a few attempts. I decided to avoid sitting down when I stopped to catch my breath. I read that somewhere too. I stood. Surprisingly the energy came back faster than when I sat down to rest.

Sunrise at Mount Kinabalu at 5.42am.
Sunrise at Mount Kinabalu at 5.42am.

Sunrise was sneaking out. I needed to get to the peak. It was a matter of a few hundred meters away. I quickened my pace. I reached the foot of the peak, to be greeted by overcrowding hikers. The peak was a small spot for standing and yet many wanted their claim. I rested. Somehow, it was enough.

Sunrise at Mount Kinabalu at 6.03am
Sunrise at Mount Kinabalu at 6.03am

After a few minutes rest admiring the sunrise, South Peak, St John’s Peak and the clouds above Sabah, it was time to go for the peak.

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Low’s Peak, Kota Kinabalu.

Spent a few minutes near the peak to admire the views. Some said mist could come and cover the mountain top easily. Weather was unpredictable. Somehow, today, the weather was showing mercy on us. No rain. No mist. We were left to the cold breeze and at times, strong wind.

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In Contrast:

Gallery:

The walk down the mountain was another challenge as the left knee was giving more problem at going down the staircase. Still, it was something that many hikers had encountered and they had faced the pain before. I knew I had to. We started moving down from Laban Rata around 10.45am. It was a tough struggle. Somehow, the group mates were separated by their own speed. I found myself alone again, bypassed by some porters rushing down and at times, a team mate or two. It was nice eventually to accompany two jovial teammates down the trail together. I picked up my speed to match their speed and we made it back to the Kinabalu restaurant around 4.00pm. Almost a 5 hours journey.

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Gonna miss these two jovial hiker-mates; Cynthia S and CheeYen who walked down the last few km together. The hike was more bearable with them around. Oh ya, both Cyn and I fell down at the same spot. Just a few seconds apart.

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Mount Kinabalu could never be conquered. It was our doubt and fear that we had wanted to conquer. And we did, with faith and determination. Although some of us limped to the end, we came to do what we had wanted to – to let a gentle giant make us believe in ourselves.

Backpacking in Myanmar: Yangon – Inle Lake – Mandalay – Bagan – Yangon

Temples in Bagan When I had signed up for Myanmar, only one thing was on my mind – Bagan. Seriously, nothing else in Myanmar would interest me like Bagan. And so I thought. And oh boy, was I wrong. I reserved my AirAsia return tickets to Yangon from Kuala Lumpur 6 months earlier. I had to. I was just playing with some clicks on the mouse at AirAsia website and found the secret low-price deal – both ways in January 2015 for MYR155. That was equivalent to USD48.50 then. A real steal.

Yangon (Formerly known as Rangoon)

I arrived in Yangon International Airport on 17 January 2015, as early as 8am. My immediate destination that day would be to Inle Lake, instead of spending a night in Yangon. That meant that I had to find a transport to downtown, hang around there until evening and then, find another transport to the Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station to catch my bus to Inle Lake.

Avoiding to take taxi, I walked out of the airport and turned right on the main road. Walked for abut 20 minutes, crossed the road and then head right to the street market. Waited there. Several buses passed by, with the ticket conductors shouted the buses’ destination. I was looking out for ‘Sule’. The bus number was 51 but all the best in reading Myanmar number. I just listened out for the shouts as new buses stopped. Eventually one came around 10 minutes later. I got up and paid only 200kyat for a ride that was more than an hour, in a crowded bus. The seats were narrow. Still, with a medium backpack, I was able to squeeze myself to the back of the bus, and got a seat 20 minutes later. 200kyat was definitely better than paying 8000kyat for a taxi ride to downtown.

Sule Pagoda, happily seated in the ring of the roundabout of the city center.

I spent some time in Yangon, walking along Sule Road. Look into the streets along the main road and one could see a different characteristic of the rows of houses with the street cables hanging across one another. Went into Sule Pagoda, which was unique as it was a pagoda in a roundabout. Cars and buses just went around it. Entrance fee was 3000kyat. No footwear was allowed.

Drivers in Yangon loved their horns. They horned for basically almost anything. They would horn if cars in front were too slow. Or slowing down. Or when they were about to overtake. Or if they think the cars in front was moving slightly to the left. They would horn. And horned. And horned again. Man, these people loved their horns. The bus ride to Aung Mingalar Highway Bus Station was taken near the pagoda. The bumpy bus ride was more than an hour. I sat on a wooden bench. Again, the ride cost me 200kyat, which was definitely better than paying 9000kyat for a taxi ride.

Inle Lake (18 – 19 Jan 2015)

I took JJ Express VIP bus, which departed from Yangon at 6pm, arriving at 5am. I took JJ Express for most of my trips. There was no website. One would have to reserve their tickets through the Facebook page – JJ-Express Highway Bus. This was a vip bus. From what I had heard, the bus transportation in Myanmar had changed significantly, as compared to 5 or 8 years ago. No more loud music blasting in midnight bus. No more additional stools in the gap between seats to take in more passengers. And no more frequent stops in the middle of nowhere. JJ Express Bus was really comfortable (except that someone should really beg them to do something about the air-conditioner. It was unbearably cold for the Yangon to Taunggyi journey). The price was 18500kyat, which was definitely better than the air flight which was charging a minimum of USD50.

We arrived early, to be greeted by pickup riders, who wanted to fetch us to our hotels for a price. I had read from the net that from Taunggyi, one would pay around 500kyat for the ride to Inle Lake. The rider told us it was 2000kyat. I was not happy about it. And secondly, we were not in Taunggyi. In the dark morning, we did not know that we were already in Naungshwe, where Inle Lake was. We (other bus passengers and I) were taken for a ride. Just two streets later, a journey of no more than 5 minutes, I found myself in front of my motel – Inle Star Motel. Again, as said, I was not happy.

Bottom line – walk to your hotel.

I did not mind paying, but not for such a short distance. I stepped into the motel, to be greeted by a friendly staff member of the motel. Generally, I have to say that my stay in Inle Star Motel was really good. My review of the motel was published here in TripAdvisor. The single bed room cost me USD25. This was the only item which was not under tight budget. I had tried sleeping in dorms in the past. It did not work well for me as I would wake up easily.

Cost me USD25 a night and it was worth it. The staff members were friendly and helpful.
Cost me USD25 a night and it was worth it. The staff members were friendly and helpful.

Entrance fee into Inle Lake was USD10.

As the sun rose and the streets became clearer, I was able to see the buzzing activities around the river. Stalls were opening to greet locals for early munch, boatmen were by the jetty persuading tourists to take the boat ride out to the lake and motorcycles and bicycles were roaming the streets.

Boats, awaiting tourists, at river of Inle Lake

Inle Lake was great but even as a paying tourist, it was not easy to get to the lake as the boatmen would try to hike up the price they would charge. It was really difficult. I was offered by the same boatman a price from USD18 to USD15. When I still refused to take the boat alone, he was strong in his objection to my idea of sharing the boat with another tourist. Eventually, I saw Patrick (from USA). Patrick wanted to share with me but said that he believed the price could go lower. In fact, he wanted to get more to go into the boat with us. I had no objection. I did not object. The boatmen, however, objected. When Valentine and his girlfriend from Europe wanted to share the boat with us, the boatmen hiked the price up to USD22 and then suddenly, all that talk about special trip or normal trip. USD22 – special trip (longer). USD20 – normal trip. Eventually, even my boatman was desperate and wanted to usher us away from other boatmen. After much disagreement, we agreed to pay USD20 for four, but it had to be ‘special trip’. The journey started at 9.30am.

Although the scene before the boat trip sounded crazy, it was not that bad. Bottom line – go for USD15, if you could. In January, the air was chilly and the boatman provided us blankets. It was nice to sit back and just enjoy the trip up the river that would meet the lake.

A fisherman on his way back to his village, along one of the several rivers of Inle Lake.

The trip would cover places where handicrafts were made (called as factories) and one big Phaung Daw Oo temple. To eat a cheaper lunch, one should try the stalls behind the temple, instead of the more expensive restaurants the boatman brought us to. The highlight of the whole trip was the Temple of Many Pagodas and Floating Village (which included Floating Garden).

Temple of Many Pagodas

There was a temple stop before this one. I did not care much for that temple, nor the Temple of Jumping Cats. The cats were lazy. I did not get the whole idea of a temple of cats??!! Anyway, this temple was located somewhere near the factories where one could meet the hill tribe with the ladies with ‘long gold rings’ neck. Other boats did not stop at this temple as the water was too low for the tourists to get out of the boat. However, our boatman was kind enough to go into the river, walked on the mud and dragged our boat close to shore. We spent around 15 minutes at this place. It was 2.30pm. The sun was up and at the right angle, one could catch the blue sky and white clouds. The photos turned out amazing. I was told the name was so, however, I really doubted that it was called Temple of Many Pagodas.

Seagulls, flying over the boat as biscuit crumbs were thrown up for them.
Seagulls, flying over the boat as biscuit crumbs were thrown up for them.

In the journey, at times, one could see seagulls flying over the boats of the tourists. I was curious. Why the seagulls avoided mine? Did they feel I was unfriendly? I had bad vibes/aura? I was puzzled. Eventually it was told that it was because those boatmen threw biscuits crumbs. Oh…

Balancing one foot on the boat and another to lift the net, the fisherman of Inle Lake was ready for his act.
Balancing one foot on the boat and another to lift the net, the fisherman of Inle Lake was ready for his act.

And of course, the trip would not be complete without the sight of the fishermen of Inle Lake catching fish in their traditional manner. As our boat were ending its journey, the sight of the fishermen came on. It was thrilling for me to see them. Immediately, as if they knew what we had wanted, they demonstrated their techniques of lifting the nets. I was impressed… until, they approached our boats after one or two minutes of demo and asked for money. Money?? It was just for money and not for fishing. No wonder the earlier fishermen that I had seen were catching fish with another type of net. I felt bad as I did not want to spend too much on such trick. I was about to cough out some kyat until I heard the fishermen (there were two), asking for 1000kyat. I did not know if it was 1000kyat each or shared. I was not ok with that, at all. Patrick took out 50kyat and gave to one of them. They went off, unhappy.

Tips: Go as early as possible to Inle Lake. Our journey started at 9.30am and we came back only at 5pm. And I believed we had not really covered the whole lake yet. However, it was enough.

On the land of Nyaung Shwe, there were several things one could do. Early in the morning, wake up and get views of young novice monks going around for alms. Get a bicycle and go around to see the town, where one could see the farm on the other side of the bridge, see old ruin of a pagoda or catch glimpses of schools in session.

By the way, somewhere here, I should mention that Shan food should be tried, since that this was the Shan state of Myanmar. The noodle was good.

Mandalay (20 Jan 2015)

I took the midnight bus from Inle Lake to Mandalay. It was really convenient as the bus would pick us up from Oriental Tour Agency, which was just 10 minutes away from my hotel. Among the 3 routes, Taunggyi-Mandalay’s journey faired the lowest. The fare was 11000kyat. There was no personal tv nor food served on bus.

The bus arrived early, at 4am, in Mandalay. I had planned to stay for two days, leaving on the night of 21 January 2015 to Bagan. Different from Yangon and Nyaung Shwe, Mandalay has motorcycle taxis. Each trip could be around 1000 to 2000kyat. However, since that no one could understand English, I had to resign to taking the taxi to my hotel.

Moe Thee Hotel deserved to be praised. I got in around 4,30am. I asked if I could check in early, instead of waiting in the lobby until 2pm and the hotel allowed me to. It was so nice of them. I was shown to my single room on the 8th floor. Took my nap and woke up to see the sunrise from my window around 6am. I made the mistake of not asking the front desk manager to arrange for me tour of Mandalay by motorcycle earlier. Instead, I went out and looked for breakfast on my own, walking around on the dusty roads of Mandalay. There was nothing much to see in the city center.

This single bed room cost MYR93.12. Superb breakfast quantity. Helpful front desk manager.
This single bed room cost MYR93.12. Superb breakfast quantity. Helpful front desk manager.

The front desk manager was really helpful. He recommended someone to bring me around for 15000kyat. I told him that I was only interested to see Mandalay Hill from afar and then I wanted to spend my time at U-Bein Bridge. He insisted that I would visit the pagodas around Mandalay Hill. So, I relented and listened to his advice. Mandalay Hill was alright for me. I was shown to the pickup truck, where I was charged 1000kyat for the trip up the hill. I was not okay with that, since that I was told to pay another 1000kyat for the trip down later. Entering the pagoda compound at the top, I had to pay another 1000kyat for camera fee. The view of Mandalay from the top of the hill was nothing to shout about. However, on my way down, which I had decided to walk, instead of paying for another pickup truck, I saw from afar, The Temple of World’s Biggest Books; Kuthodaw Pagoda.

Kuthodaw Temple, view from Mandalay Hill.
Kuthodaw Temple, view from Mandalay Hill.

My highlight of the day was U-Bein Bridge. The ride to Amarapura was long and had to go through dusty roads. And to think that initially, I had thought of renting bicylbicycle to ride there. It took me more than half an hour to reach the destination by motorcycle.

Old bridge, spanning over 1.2km in Amarapura.
Old bridge, spanning over 1.2km in Amarapura.

Arriving around 4.30pm, the bridge was not short of tourists – locals or foreigners. I just hung around, looking for inspiration for memorable photos. I had overheard one photographer saying to another. A few shots that would be worth taking – monks on the bridge, anyone pushing bicycles or anyone with umbrella.

The sun began to disappear along the line.
The sun began to disappear along the line.

For me, it was enough. I decided that I had had enough of Mandalay. Instead of leaving in the evening the next day, I decided to leave in the morning and spent more time in Bagan. Again, the front desk manager was helpful. Instead of paying for a ride to the Highway Bus Station to get my bus to Bagan, he told me that there was OK Express that would pick me up at the hotel at 8am and this van would go all the way to Bagan. The fare was 9000kyat, instead of the 8500kyat of the normal VIP bus. OK Express van was comfortable enough for tourists. It was a van of 2-1 seats. The journey was pleasant, initially. The scenery was nice. Many pagodas and paddy fields along the way. However, eventually, the ride became bumpy and the back was starting to itch. Still, it was a good van express. It delivered us straight to Nyaung Oo, instead of the new highway bus station, which was several kilometer away. Upon arrival, we were given the treat of free horse cart ride.

Bagan (21 – 23 Jan 2015)

Bagan, the city of 2250 pagodas. This was the place that triggered my interest to come to Myanmar and here I was, eager to explore. However, Golden Myanmar Guest House was not ready to admit me in yet, leaving me to venture out to the old Bagan on bicycle.

Dhammayangyi stood proud in Bagan, despite its curse.
Dhammayangyi stood proud in Bagan, despite its curse.

There were two main roads to head to Old Bagan. Lanmadaw 3 Road was the dustier one. Without a map (as I refused to pay USD1 for one), I stopped at any pagoda that would interest me. It was not easy. There were too many pagodas and temples.

My first sunset view in Bagan, on my first day. Not really that spectacular.
My first sunset view in Bagan, on my first day. Not really that spectacular.

However, my opinion of Bagan changed the next morning, when I woke up for the 6am sunrise view from Shwe Leik Too Pagoda. I did not take the hot air balloon ride, It was around USD350 pax. Too rich for my blood.

Spectacular view, as the hot air balloon drifted away from the sunrise.
Spectacular view, as the hot air balloon drifted away from the sunrise.

I spent 2 1/2 days in Bagan. Frankly, some of the temples/pagodas were really enchanting. I was more fond of those that I was able to climb up to the first or second floors. The view from the higher ground provided the view of pagodas covered halfway by the trees and more.

I spent the 2nd day in Bagan on horsecart. The charge was 30000kyat. I believed it could have been lower but I forgot to bargain. It was too late. Somehow, two reasons I regretted I took the horsecart. One, it was really slow. I could have covered even more pagodas on a bicycle, which cost only 1500kyat. Even the ebike was a cheap 3000 to 6000kyat, if you know how to find the right shop. The thing with the pagodas and temples in Bagan was that once I had been in a few, they tended to look the same, unless one would know what to look out for – the murals, the Buddha images etc. I did not. All I wanted to do was to climb whichever pagodas/temples I could find and view from the top. Several pagodas/temples closed their first floors, with the reason of preservation. I did not buy that. They were just trying to tie in the tourists to several temples so that they could check on one paying for the entrance ticket into Bagan – USD20. It had increased from USD15 to USD20 on 1 Jan 2015.

Better places to have your meals would be in front of Ananda Temple, where one could join the locals for cheaper and delicious meals. Not in the restaurants but the stalls/shops on the same side of the road as Ananda Temple.

I stayed in Golden Myanmar Guest House in Old Bagan for two nights. It was not really bad, but if I had the choice, I would have tried out the newer looking hotels in Old Bagan.

Old, and the most expensive place that I had stayed in my Myanmar trip. Each night cost me MYR114.38.
Old, and the most expensive place that I had stayed in my Myanmar trip. Each night cost me MYR114.38.

I bid goodbye to Bagan, taking again JJ Express Bus from the ancient city to Yangon. The fare was 18500kyat. Unlike the one that went from Yangon to Taunggyi (Inle Lake), this one was not cold. The funny bit was that the free cake and cookies were served after the stop the bus had made, for toilet break and meals.

I did not know the names of these pagodas but they were lovely, so alike one another. One of my favourites to look at.
I did not know the names of these pagodas but they were lovely, so alike one another. One of my favourites to look at.

Yangon (24 – 25 Jan 2015)

Back in Yangon in the early morning, I walked for 45 minutes from the city stadium to my hotel – Agga Youth Hotel. A funny thing was that when I was in Bagan, I was told that JJ Express Bus could stop at a ‘ferry’ to bring us to the city center. I had to pay 500kyat. So, I did. When the bus stopped in the early morning, around 5am, I was told to transfer to ‘ferry’. So, I got down, seeing a small bus, parking in front of a closed gate of a building, which I assumed was the jetty. There were other buses too. I asked what time would the ‘ferry’ move. The faces, of the few whom I had directed the question to, were puzzling. I did not understand them. Eventually, I understood. There was no river ferry. The small bus was the ‘ferry’.

It was safe to walk alone, in the dark morning in Yangon. Unfortunately, despite believing that Agga Youth Hotel had empty rooms, it did not entertain my request for an early check-in. Not at 6am. Nor at 10am. Nor at 11.30am. And eventually, although there were only two guests hanging around the lobby for check-in, I had to ask again if I could check in, at 1.30pm. It was then the receptionist flipped his paper and checked and told me – yes. I was there all the time and he could not even make the effort to check me in, until I had asked again. He walked me to my room, which of course, I refused to give any tips. The room was alright but I was still unhappy about the hotel’s refusal to check guests in slightly earlier. One night in the hotel was The map, printed and given by the hotel, was funny/misleading. It would claim several tourist sites as nearby, within 20 minutes of walking. It was more like 30 to 40 minutes. The room cost me MYR94 per night.

Shwedagon Pagoda, the huge pagoda attraction of Yangon was under restoration. That did not stop them from collecting from me 8000kyat for entrance fee. If Bagan was the land of pagodas, Shwedagon Pagoda was the temple of thousand Buddhas. There were so many Buddha statues in this complex that I was actually horrified by it. There were many halls on the top floor and some halls were basically occupied fully by the 10 to 20 huge Buddha statues.

I sat and waited for the main pagoda to be lit up like gold. Although under restoration, the lights beaming on the golden pagoda did light up the night. So, I guess the 8000kyat was somehow worth it.

IMG_5488a
Buzzing with activities, it was downright impossible to snap a clean cut photo.

I took taxi the next morning to the airport. It cost me 8000kyat.

I loved Myanmar and the few days I had spent there. Will I go back again? Unlikely, as I am not thrilled to pay another USD50 for its visa. Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand are the only 3 ASEAN countries where their citizens need to pay for visa to enter Myanmar. Citizens from the other countries need not to pay for a 14 days stay.

There are several areas I did not see in Myanmar; Bago, Golden Rock, Popa, Pindaya Caves, Goteik Viaduct and more. Myanmar was magically, indeed. However, there should be some restraints on the locals’ part not to bleed every single cent from the tourists. I got so tired of not knowing the right price to bargain for.

Generally, these were my main expenses. The one that I could have avoided was the horsecart ride.

  • Myanmar e-visa – USD50
  • Airasia flight from KL to Yangon to KL – MYR155
  • Midnight bus from Yangon to Taunggyi (Inle Lake) – 18500kyat
  • Inle Star Motel (Nyaung Shwe) – USD25
  • Inle Lake Entrance Fee – USD10
  • Boat ride to Inle Lake (shared with 3 other tourists) – USD5 each
  • Bicycle rental – 1500kyat for a day
  • Midnight bus from Taunggyi to Mandalay – 11000kyat
  • Mandalay Moe Thee Hotel – MYR93.12
  • Mandalay motorcycle tour – 15000kyat
  • Mandalay to Bagan – 9000kyat
  • Bagan Entrance Fee – USD20
  • Horse cart ride – 30000kyat
  • Bagan Golden Myanmar Guest House (2 nights) – MYR230
  • Bicycle rental for half day – 800kyat
  • Bagan to Yangon midnight bus – 18500kyat
  • Shwedagon Entrance Fee – 8000kyat
  • Sule Pagoda Entrance Fee – 3000kyat
  • Taxi from Yangon downtown to airport – 8000kyat

Overall – around USD363 for 8 days, excluding meals.

The best food to be consumed in Myanmar had to be the food by the roadside. Clean, proper cafes and shops may serve clean food but tasty ones are found by the roadside. I had squatted down and joined the locals several times. Usually I went for noodle soup. The price range was between 300 to 1000 kyat. More often I paid 300kyat for the food.

No chopsticks offered.
No chopsticks offered.

My favourite dishes were on the above 3. The one on the biggest photo was the first dish I have had in Yangon/Myanmar. It was mixed by using hands. Yup, you heard me. Hands. It cost 1000kyat. The second photo on the left shows Shan noodle at Nyaung Shwe. It was delicious. 1500kyat. The top photo on the left was a food almost alike Sui Kow of Malaysia’s dishes. 1500kyat too. It was worth it, as it was delicious. This was in Mandalay. The last meal I have had in Myanmar was Mohinga, which I had failed to snap any photo, as I ate it at night. Bad lighting. It cost me only 300kyat. My friend said it was the national food. It was nice.

Myanmar proved to me that it was still a place to hold mystic. There was good blend between modernisation and the old feelings. One could still hear the talks about Myanmar 10, 20 years ago. Sure, Myanmar has wifi now. The people could own smart phones with cameras. There are VIP express buses. Back then, handphones had to be left at the airport, to be claimed only when one was leaving. No wifi then. Only old, local buses which looked like it had survived the many years and many old dusty roads of Burma.

Away from touristy sites, one could find the charm of old Myanmar, still untainted much by modernisation. The people were friendly and happy to see visitors of their country and culture. There was some sense of warmness felt from the way they greeted you and the smiles they shared with you. There were so many nature sites one could escape to, to be away from the city crowd and traffic. Somehow, it was like a step back into the country life, still pure and simple.

Among all my backpacking trips, I have to say that Myanmar vacation remains one of the best experiences I had enjoyed.

Goodbye, Myanmar