Thursday, February 26, 2015

Meltdown at the Tourist Hot Spots

I should have known it was coming...After spending several days on my own, lost in the middle of nowhere with few tourists around, I took the turn off for Inle Lake and found and was inundated with tourists. Yes, I'm a tourist myself, but sometimes I forget that as I have my own independent means for transportation, complete freedom to choose where I go and how I get there (except for a few police interventions from time to time here in Myanmar), and I'm on an adventure that is much more about enjoying getting from point A to B, than actually being at those points. For me there is a fine balance between traveling to the tourist hot spots and staying off the beaten track when I'm in a foreign country. If I've traveled all this way and might not ever come to the country in which I'm currently exploring, I don't want to bypass the culturally significant places, but at the same time, I end up seeing and taking in the country in a unique way cycling saturating myself with sights that aren't in any guide book and I feel completely fulfilled!

The night before I stayed in Inle Lake, I found myself camped perched atop a pagoda with this sunset

I had climbed through these mountains, looking very similar to mountains in California or Southern Spain

There were lots of hairpin turns to climb gently, although it was never -ending!

Myanmar is unique when it comes to tourism. The government has things so tightly controlled tourists feel as though they are cattle being herded from one place to the next. It's happened twice where I've stumbled upon tourists that I saw at another attraction a few days back. With so many places that are “off limit” and everyone on the same route, it is bound to happen.  I don't think it can last long if the country wants to prosper from tourism, but for now, this is how things are being done here.

So far, I've hit my fair share of tourist "hot spots". I had pedaled to Kyaityo, the famous Golden Rock and experienced a Buddhist pilgrimage. The most rewarding part of that visit was the peaceful 4 hour hike up and down through tiny little villages. I visited a handful of more important pagodas in Bago, Pyay, and Magwe, but after awhile, they all start looking the same. I spent two nights in Mandalay, only one was really needed to see sights, but it was a logistical layover for me to route plan. I was impressed with my sunrise visit to the Ubein bridge with little to no tourists (probably due to the time of day and the distance from the city), and walking through the streets of sculpture workshops to see how those large Buddha statues are carved. I walked up to Mandalay Palace, but it was so covered in trees it was hard to take in it's vast size, and the view from the top was unimpressive with the amount of haze in the air. The most delightful part of my visit to Mandalay was my hotel. An art and music school that had just opened it's doors recently as Dreamland Guesthouse. Run by a family, mom and dad and their six grown daughter's whom they homeschooled and spoke perfect English.  The entire family was incredibly charming and delighted to talk with and very helpful with my itinerary. Mandalay was large enough that you blend in to city life, but locals here weren't shy in trying to make a quick buck on tourists, something you don't find normally in Myanmar. 

Mandalay's famous teak bridge at sunrise

Only the locals were out and about

And of course the monks!

In Hsipaw, in the northern Shan region, it is a bit too isolated for the tourist on packaged vacations.  Therefore, other tourists were present, but many were heading out on treks, and the tourists sights in the area, again were so spread out, I was alone for most of my day there, walking the dirt paths to visit various Shan villages, exploring their “mini-Bagan” and local artisan workshops.

More ancient pagoda's in Hsipaw's "Mini-Bagan"

What came first the pagoda or the tree?

 Of all the tourist "hot spots", the highlight for me was Bagan, a plain of temples.  Although it is the number one tourist attraction in Myanmar, it never fees inundated with westerners as the temples themselves are so spread out it is easy to sight-see all day without running into more than a handful of tourists. In my hotel, I met an adventurous young soul like myself and we decided to watch the sunrise from a temple to ourselves. The young Aussie had asked a few local boys who had helped her with a flat tire the day before, where she could see a nice sunrise. They had told her about this temple, which was really off limits with gates guarding the stairs, but they said that many of locals go here, squeezing through the gates. Thankfully it was dark so we couldn't truly see just how decrepit and abandoned this temple was. With my bike light, all we could make out were the layer of mice droppings that completely covered the entire grounds, a testament to just how few people transit this temple. Like honest and respectful tourists we took off our shoes inside and ignored the fact that we were walking and sitting on mice poo. We found the stairway with the bent gate and squeezed through, making our way to the top to witness sunrise and the two dozen hot air balloons that filled the sky just afterwards. It was a magical sight and well worth seeing, I also enjoyed cycling to the many pagoda's getting lost on the small dirt tracks.

Sunset over Bagan

Sunrise over the temples

Temples galore

I should have know upon arriving to Inle Lake, that I was a little saturated with tourists. The traffic to get to these places is much denser and the people are a bit more intense, which can get tiresome to deal with on a bike. There were more tourists than locals walking the streets, who seemed dazed and memorized. Restaurant signs were all in English advertising “Happy Hour” something I have not been reminded about for a long time! No sooner did I make it across the bridge into Inle Lake in the late after, that I was hassled for a boat tour for the next thing.

The boats at the jetty coming back from a day's outing at Inle Lake

According to Lonely Planet, seeing the sunrise on Inle Lake is one of the top five sunrises. I'd love to know the parameters for this list of places...... I had camped out the night before, perched on the side of a hilltop pagoda in a mountain pass, unable to cycle any farther. I went to bed with the sound of the wind blowing the chime on the lonely pagoda and had the most peaceful night's rest. Finding a campsite in Inle Lake to rival my solidarity of the previous night, was out of question, but luckily I had met a German cyclist back in Bagan on my way out who invited me to share the double hotel room where he was staying. Eric had been at Inle Lake for two nights and showed me pictures of the boat tour he took and gave me the run down on what he did. Being a solo traveler, I needed to find other people who'd be willing to share the boat with me. I wasn't up for being on the boat all day, so I decided to go down to the jetty a bit later, hoping their would be a boat driver eager to fill his boat that had not yet departed and cut me a half day deal. Bad idea! Just like in Mandalay, these locals were entrepreneurs and hagglers and not pleasant to deal with. Perhaps it was my sensory overload with the tourism, or my disgust to see the locals sell themselves to the industry, but I wasn't impressed and decided to skip the boat tour. I just didn't have the mind set or energy to surrender to Inle Lake's tourism. I would rather set off to climb up into the mountains and begin my return to Yangon, where I depart Myanmar in a week. I would much rather be lost on the backroads in the mountains, immersed by nature and small villages, than swarmed with tourists and hagglers.

Merchant boats ready to pack up the market in Pan Om  

I set out rather late with the idea to pull over an camp wherever I pedaled before sunset. I knew I had a lot of climbing to do and there were very few villages in between. I would have a good two or three day ride ahead of me, with almost 4,000 meters to ascend. The road ran parrellel to the lake and I could see it almost the entire time. It is Myanmar's second largest lake and unique because it is at 800 meters of elevation. During the dry season, in which we are, the lake is only 7 feet deep at the deepest part, rising to 12 feet during the wet season. Besides the stilt houses in villages afloat the lake and the artisan workshops, there are also markets to visit both floating and on the shore in different villages. To my surprise, the road I was on turned off to one of these villages, and to my luck, the market was just finishing up. I was a privileged witness to see the come to an end and observe the cleaning and logistics that go into closing up shop after all the people clear out. Just with the merchant boats the jetty was overcrowded, I could only imagine the scenario with hundreds of tourist boats as well!
What does it take to set-up and take down one of these markets? That is what I witnessed

A few vendors still had their goods for sell to give me the idea of what the market must be like in full swing

I love the reaction of kids as they see me ride by  They never seem to be "in" school, always out on the playground!

Once I left the market, I should have known what I was in for just from observing the looks on the faces of the locals when I told them my destination. I could see the mountains to the west of the lake, that went straight up from the water, but surely the road would be more gradual. After all, two days prior I was in the mountains, back-to-back days of climbing with pleasant hairpin turns and gradients that were manageable despite the lack of shade. Traffic was minimal, so were villages, and I was completely isolated in an environment that looking surprisingly similar to central California's cascades or Spain's dry Sierra Nevada. It was impressive to say the least, torture for the legs!

Welcome to the mountains!

Up, up, and away! That is a false summit in the distance

I was in store for a completely different type of climb. From the moment I crossed to the west side of the lake, which was now just a narrow river, I started going up, straight up that is without any hairpin turns. It was brutal! In fact, I had to get off my bike several times on the steepest of gradients which topped off at 22%, making those that were between 13 and 18% seem flat. Thankfully the heat of the day was over as the sun was on it's way down. I climbed and climbed and climbed, but my legs just couldn't go any further. I was going to be lucky to make it to the town I had in mind for dinner at this rate. Somehow I did, right before the sun went down which made things tricky. I needed to eat dinner and hit the road to find a campsite, but everyone in town wanted to direct me to where I had just come from to the one and only hotel for foreigners, which I knew was out of my price range. I could have run into problems with the police or any of the locals really if they would have asked me why I was pedaling in the opposite direction as the hotel and the sun had set, but I continued on, with a story in mind about taking a picture of the sunset if they asked. I followed the road out of town until there was no traffic except for an occasional motorbike every 2 minutes, and started looking for a place to camp.

Notice it is a car, not a truck like in Thailand.  The trucks barely make it!

I chose a small dirt road that looked as if it were a farming trail that went up a small hill. There were crops on the left and right, and I found a field that looked relatively flat and hidden from the dirt road and set-up camp for the night. I could see the town nestled down below and felt proud and accomplished, I had managed to bypass sleeping there. The best part of wild camping, especially when you find a campsite when dark has already come, is the surprise element when you wake up in the morning. My internal clock didn't let me down and I awoke and packed up my tent as the sun was rising. Three men came walking along the path as I was taking down my tent and they stopped and stared in amazement. Perhaps it had never occurred to them these fields were such a picturesque campsite, or maybe it was just the fact that a white young woman on a loaded bicycle had found this place to sleep. We were both in shock, as I looked out on the valley below with a layer of fog and watched the sun rise with a pagoda perched on a mountain top in the backdrop. How scenery changes so quickly, this sunrise, although it wasn't advertised in the lonely planet, and my campsite on the side of the mountain were priceless. I couldn't have chosen a better place to stay after escaping Inle Lake.

Once again I found a peaceful campsite for the night

To my surprise, sunrise was breath taking!
Yes, I also enjoyed all the scenery in the day to come. When I awoke, the temperature was a mere 4C (40F). I froze as I descended to a gathering of houses. I would call it a village, except for the fact that it had no tea shop. I picked up some biscuits and a juice and the man who ran the shop told me I had 20 miles downhill to the next village. He was right, I found a proper tea shop 20 miles further on down the road, but it wasn't all downhill. The road undulated for the next 35 miles and after a proper refueling it climbed gruesomely straight back up again for the next 10 to 15 miles. I was going nowhere fast, and able to take in the scenery all around me. I didn't stop for many pictures as it would have been impossible to start up again on the steep slopes. The climbing was relentless and the temperature was well into the mid-30's (95F) now. I was struggling and cursing, even though I would have taken this type of route over a crowded road on a main drag. I'd always seen the trucks, cars, and even motor scooters stop to hose off their car to cool the engine and now it was me who pulled over to use some family's random water tank to pour water over my head. I was overheated, but determined to make it down to the valley. Just when I thought I had to be the only crazy cyclist to ride this road, I encountered an older couple coming down towards me. They were chipper and friendly and told me I had 3 more kilometers to the summit, but in return, I had nothing positive to say about the road except of course the scenery. Despite all the climbing I had done, I had descended double the amount, which meant they had their work cut out for them between that afternoon and tomorrow. My heroes. I would have never attempted the road in opposite direction.
I had skirted out of the town of Pinlaung below. My garmin showed frigid temperatures

An empty road cycling to Naypyitaw

No comment......

The looks on the faces of the locals at the roadside stall was similar to that of their faces when I had started my ascent. “Did you really just come over that road?” Their faces implied! Yes, I did and it was well worth all the pain. But now, you better believe it! As a reward, I'm off to treat myself to a vacation from my vacation.....Rather than pedal back down Myanmar's central plains on densely trafficked roads, I'm hopping on a bus to the capital and headed out to explore the delta and sparse beaches. I'm making the most of my last week without any responsibilities and my nomadic life! Who knows when I will take 2 years from the “real world” again.

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