Beguiling Bagan

Unfortunately, the historical city of Bagan, Myanmar was wrecked by an earthquake in August 2016 that annihilated over 400 of the buildings. Whilst the community is obviously trying to repair the damage, there is still visible signs of devastation on many of the temples. However, this didn’t temper the resplendent aura of the town during my visit in October 2016. Since the catastrophe there has been a tremendous effort to restore many of the buildings, and there is even hope that Bagan will regain its title as a UNESCO heritage site. 

More than 4,000 religious buildings abide in Bagan, and despite the destruction of the recent earthquake, there are still plenty that remain untouched by the natural disaster. The older architecture suffered far less than those built more recently, so the ancient structures are still relatively intact. Personally, I even enjoyed the appearance of the temples that were defaced by the earthquake; the red bricks that have crumbled away from the once grandiose edifice portray a somewhat macabre picture. 

As there are so many buildings to visit, the best way to navigate the town is by e-bike (10,000 kyat for one day). Zipping down the narrow dirt tracks, and stumbling upon deserted sanctuaries is thrilling, and by far my favourite part of Bagan. Also, there are a few temples that offer perfect viewing points for sunrise and sunset. Obviously, the more popular ones tend to be very busy, so if you prefer a bit of peace whilst you watch the sun, go off the beaten track in search of a quieter area. Many locals will direct you to good viewpoints, but these often entail climbing up crumbling, ancient structures that were recently hit by an earthquake, so be careful. 

Entrance into Bagan is 25,000 kyat, and this ticket lasts for five days. The town is well connected to the rest of the country, so you can get a bus from most towns.


Trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake 

A common activity for travellers in Myanmar is to walk from Kalaw to Inle Lake. You can either choose a 2 or 3 day venture. I booked my two day hike through a company called Ever Smile in Kalaw (32,000 kyat which includes transport, accommodation and food), and there are plenty of other companies who offer this service in the town. The company will transfer your luggage to the hostel you will be staying at in Nyaungshwe, and if you are not staying there you will be able to pick it up after the trek. 

Day one begins with an 8am pickup and then the trucks drive about 30 minutes away to drop the travellers to the start of the trail, (apparently 3 day trekkers just follow the driven section on day one). Our group consisted of nine people and one guide. Personally, I was anticipating a more strenuous, jungle trek, but I was pleasantly surprised by the meandering pace we adopted as we strolled through rolling hills that reminded me of the English countryside. 

Most groups seemed to stop at a little village where we were offered tea and watched the local women hand weaving scarves that they wrap around their heads. These things can often feel quite touristy, but it had a more relaxed vibe. They didn’t encourage anyone to buy their products, and even allowed some people to try them on. After a spectacular Burmese lunch we continued the trek. At this point parts of the trail started getting quite slippery, and it was difficult to enjoy the scenery as you were constantly watching your footing. I found a sturdy stick to support myself during this section. 

After 18km we arrived at the village where we were staying. You can request to stay in the local monastery which is a very basic affair, but our guide told us that it was quite unhygienic in there. We stayed in a simple homestay that was comfortable for the one night, but it didn’t have any running water or western toilets, so I was glad that it was only a fleeting visit. Dinner here was the best Burmese food that I have ever tasted, and after the strenuous day it was well needed. 

Breakfast is served at 6am, and by 7 you will stroll out of the village. Life begins early in Myanmar, so many locals will already be well into their working day. Day two consists of a 14km walk, and by lunch time you will have reached the end of your trek. From here there is a short boat trip included which will ferry you over to Nyaungshwe where most foreigners stay. Alternatively, some guides will offer you a tour of the surrounding sites for an additional 3,000 kyat. 

I did this trip just at the end of the wet season in October. Luckily, all of the terrain was lush and green from the rains which made it even more picturesque. Also, we only had one little downpour during lunch. However, I am certain that conditions would be very different depending on the season. 

Things to bring:

  • Waterproof jacket
  • Warm clothes for the evening
  • Insect repellent
  • Suncream
  • Good shoes for walking
  • Toilet roll
  • Towel
  • Soap
  • 1l water
  • Money for drinks along the route and the 12,500 kyat entrance fee to Inle

The Gibbon Experience 

There are plenty of companies worldwide that offer a similar adventure, but the general consensus is that The Gibbon Experience does it best. The office is located in Huayxai on the Laos-Thai border; a town that has very little to offer. Just outside of town there is a vast expanse of lush green jungle where the company has designed a course of zip lines. 

The Gibbon Experience offers three options; 3 day waterfall (only available during the dry season), 3 day classic and 2 day express. I opted for the express which cost £160 per person.  The longer your trip the higher your chances are of seeing some gibbons. However, I didn’t meet anyone who was lucky enough, and I would presume that the sound of travellers whizzing through the trees and shrieking is enough to put them into hiding. Don’t let the lack of wildlife sightings deter you though as the whole experience was amazing. 

The express begins at 9.30am with an hour drive out to the start of the trail. From here it’s a quick zip line across the river, and an hour and a half hike up to the start of the lines. During the trek you will stop a couple of times, including once for lunch. Then the fun begins with a succession of zip lines over the rich jungle. The longest line is nearly 600m, and it’s possible to reach 60km/h. Many of the lines require a bit of walking to get from one to the other, but it’s not too strenuous. 

At around 4pm you will reach the treehouse – the tallest of which are 40m high. It’s open air and offers spectacular views, and sunset is particularly breathtaking. The bathroom is not for the faint hearted as the slatted floor exhibits a vertigo-inducing glimpse into the forest below. A delicious dinner is provided, and mattresses are set up to sleep on with thick mosquito nets. Do bring lots of mosquito repellent and clothes that cover you as much as possible because there’s an abundance of them. Also, the accommodation was very basic; even though I enjoyed the experience, I was grateful of a hot shower and some AC afterwards. 

After a night of listening to the sounds of the jungle, everyone is up at sunrise to do five zip lines and visit the biggest tree in Laos before breakfast. Day two follows a similar schedule, and after lunch a van will bring everybody back to town for about 3pm (weather depending). 

Huayxai has two bus stations about 5km outside of town, and from here you can take a 24 hour bus to Vientiane or 12 hours to Luang Prabang. Alternatively, tour operators in town can arrange tickets to most places in Laos and Thailand. 

Things to bring:

  • Waterproof jacket
  • Clothes that cover you for the evening 
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Torch
  • Toilet roll
  • 1l water
  • Long socks
  • Good shoes for walking