How come the people that have the least are the most generous and hospitable? This phenomenon has been accompanying me during my entire trip and once again in Vietnam. We had set off for a three day motorbike excursion into the far Northeast of Vietnam. A remote and mystical region named Ha Giang, a region characterized by sheer limestone walls, granite outcrops, hanging valleys and often referred to as Vietnam’s final frontier. It was on the way from Ha Giang town to Dong Van when we took a hidden side road which led us across a rusty bridge into a traditional village. After exploring for a bit and playing with the village kids we noticed a house at the end of the little main road. Smoke was rising out of the chimney and loud laughter filled the inside of the house. Driven by my usual curiosity I wanted to see what was going inside and had a peek through the door. As soon as the family inside spotted me all hell broke lose. Everyone was talking to me and dragging me inside instantly. It was a big family with kids, their parents, grandparents and what seemed like aunts and uncles, all gathered in one big room. To officially welcome us, we were offered some homemade rice wine. Strong stuff, especially at midday. We didn’t want to be impolite and had one, then two and then a few more. The grandmother was pretty assertive about it so refusing was no option here. Already a bit tipsy, we tried to have a basic conversation which wasn’t even too bad thanks to my phrasebook and a loose tongue due to the rice wine. Meanwhile the mother of the kids was cooking food for the whole family on an open fireplace. The house was filled with smoke but it smelt nice. After a bit we thought it would be best to leave since we didn’t want to impose ourselves on the family as they were about to eat. But no way, everybody was shouting, pointing at the floor and insisting that we would stay, sit down and join them for lunch. It was incredible. These people were living in a simple wooden house, cooking their food on open fire and did not even have running water. But they still invited two foreigners inside their house to share their meal with them. It was a really humbling experience and I couldn’t help myself but asking if something like this would ever happen in our developed societies back home….
After my Myanmar adventure, I flew into Hanoi for about a month of traveling Vietnam. My plan was to cross the country all the way from the North down to the South and into the Mekong Delta. I have to admit that I had mixed feelings about Vietnam. On the one hand I was excited to explore a new country, sample the famous Vietnamese cuisine and embark on a promising motorbike adventure along the Chinese border. On the other hand I was a little skeptical after hearing stories about crime, people constantly being overcharged and certain places already spoilt by mass tourism. But I wanted to see for myself and tried to keep a positive attitude. After a day in Hanoi, I met up with Angel from Canada who I had met in Bagan, Myanmar. We arranged to team up and travel together for a bit with Hanoi being our starting point. Hanoi may not have the tropical charm of Saigon but makes up for it with some of the best street food in Asia, a lot of culture and history and a likable type of gruffness and authenticity. Here are my personal highlights which you should definitely check out: Continue reading
After my amazing trip through Myanmar, my next destination was Vietnam. My plan was to travel from the far North all the way down to the South into the Mekong Delta. Big parts of this journey would be done by motorbike, supposedly the best way to explore this beautiful country. This picture was taken during one of these bike trips. It was a three day tour along the Chinese border through Vietnam’s far North. Still very rugged and untouristy, the region around Ha Giang and Dong Van offers a scenery which is hard to match in South East Asia. The loop took me along narrow and windy roads, carved into the gigantic mountains, past vast rice paddies and through villages which are seldomly visited by tourists. We were running late on the first leg of the tour but couldn’t help but stop to enjoy the sunset dipping the surrounding mountains in warm pastel colors. One of the few local buses plowing the route Ha Giang – Dong Van was just crawling up the windy road which, for a moment, almost looked like a snake making its way up from the valley below.
I had actually planned to travel Myanmar right at the beginning of my trip. Uncertainties about the needed budget and the accomodation situation (it was high season back then) eventually kept me from going. But I could never really get it out of my mind. The things I had read and the stories I heard from fellow travelers who had been there just made me more and more curious. At one point I thought that I had to go and from then on it all went pretty quickly. I booked my tickets, arranged my visa in Kuala Lumpur and got a big stash of clean and crisp dollar bills. I was excited and was expecting a country very different from all the other places I have visited and with hopefully less tourism. At that point I didn’t know that my expectation would be more than exceeded. Continue reading
Inle Lake was my last stop in Myanmar before returning to Yangon and then heading back to Bangkok. It’s on Myanmar’s main tourist trail and probably every Myanmar tourist stops here at one point. Hence my expectations were a little ambivalent – for no reason as I would find out later. I arrived via yet another night bus from Mandalay. And for some reason the night buses in Myanmar always arrive at the most ridiculous times. In this case it wasn’t much different and I was dropped off at a junction a few kilometers away from Inle Lake at about 4.30 in the morning. Transport into the town of Nyaungshwe, where most of the accommodation is located, wasn’t a problem however and I arrived safely at my guesthouse. Since I had only two full days, My plan was to get a few hours of sleep and then go explore the lake and its surroundings. Continue reading
After almost a week in and around Hsipaw in the North East of Myanmar, I was headed for Inle Lake in the heart of the Shan State. Myanmar’s second largest lake is home to a great variety of ethnicities who mostly live in simple houses on stilts made of wood and bamboo. The majority of them are self sufficient farmers. In order to trade and exchange goods, Inle Lake features a traditional market which is held daily but the locations rotates through five different sites. I took a boat to one of the bigger markets, a little bit further South than most of the other ones. It was incredible. The locals, dressed in their traditional garments, gathered from all around to offer their goods and produce or to shop for what they needed. It was a pleasant hustle and bustle without too many tourists present. At one point I was just silently standing in the middle, observing what was going around me when I spotted this beautiful lady. She was sitting on the ground, having her produce, I think it was peanuts and herbs, spread out on a blanket in front of her. With my few words of Burmese I asked if I could take a picture of her and luckily she didn’t refuse. She seemed to be far away for a moment – far away from the market and its hectic bustle. I wonder where she was …
After our two day trek through the Shan Highlands, Aris and I wanted to explore some more of this scenic and relatively untouched region of Myanmar. On our way back to Hsipaw, we had passed a small village which seemed very nice and interesting. Our plan was to make it back there, till having to figure out how to, and spend the night. Not sure how to exactly get there and not knowing if we could actually stay, we packed our bags, charged our camera batteries and set off for what would be one of the best experiences of my entire trip.
I thought this one would be nice for Christmas although it has been taken quiet some time before. Aris and I did that two day trek up in Hsipaw when we discovered a small, picturesque village on our way back. Since we were with a group, we couldn’t stop there for too long. Hence decided to go back to the village the day after and spend the night there. We had nothing arranged, just packed our bags, rented a motorbike to get up the first stretch and then hoped to find our way back to the village and of course to find a place to sleep. The latter was easier than expected and turned to be one of the most unique experiences of my whole journey. We were greeted by a group of monks who invited us into their monastery and offered us a place to sleep in their main hall. During that night, we joked with the novices, showed the pictures we took in the village during the day and had some midnight snacks and tea. There was no electricity and just some blankets to sleep on. But with all the candles illuminating the big hall, it was very special and, once again, a truly magical and unforgettable moment. More on that whole side-trip in the upcoming post.
Until then, I wish all of you, wherever in the world you are right now, a merry Christmas and a relaxed time with your friends and families.
The days in Mandalay passed quickly and it was time to move on, to get out of the city and explore some more remote regions. I wanted to head Northwest to a small village named Hsipaw in the Shan Highlands. A few people I met on the way mentioned that the area offered some great trekking along scenic trails to touristically still unspoiled minority villages. It sounded better than trekking down at Kalaw, close to Inle Lake, which was already supposed to be well frequented by tourists. The only challenge was getting to Hsipaw. I decided to take the old train which was built by the English empire in order to secure their colonial control. Rated one of the world’s top train rides, I was up for a rocky adventure. Continue reading
After Mandalay I took the 11 hour “Dancing Train” to the little mountain town of Hsipaw. The place was said to be great for trekking and less crowded than other trekking destination more south of Mandalay. It was a bit out of the way but I guess that’s what it takes to venture a little bit off the beaten track.
In Hsipaw I joined a group for a two day trek through the mountains of the Shan State including an overnight stay in one of the traditional villages up there. There are two things that can make or break an organized trek like that: The people in the group and the guide. We couldn’t have been more lucky in terms of the latter. Our guide was Sandi, an older man from nearby Namshan. He was a happy and funny guy who spoke good English and enjoyed to practice English pop songs and teach his group Burmese. He was super friendly and made the trek a great experience. In the picture you can see him during our first break on day one. It was early but so hot already, hence the shirt off. I don’t even remember if the coke was cold at all but could surely go as a Coca Cola commercial…