How would you cope if I were to tell you that you will never walk again?
What if you wake up from a sleep to discover that you have been in a coma for a month?
Read on and tell me, do you think that YOU could deal with this?
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This is the true story of a man that I met in the Isaan region of Thailand. Two years ago Colin was knocked off his motorbike by a car which was going the wrong way down a dual carriageway and which proceeded to turn his life upside down.
I was in the North East of Thailand and doing a work exchange with Colin and his wife Wichien on their small-holding. I had learnt about them via the Workaway website (which I have used many times over the last few years). I was very quickly made to feel a part of their family.
Colin who is originally from the north of England married Wichien five years ago. They set up home together and after working in the remote mountains (that in itself is a fascinating story) they returned to her home village and they built a house.
Wichien is a school director and Colin quickly established an organic farm, selling fruit and vegetables and fish and eggs from his bantams. And then on the 4th October in 2013 their lives were turned upside down.
The accident left Colin with the 4th and 5th vertebrae in his back shattered, a broken hip, pelvis and femur. He had four broken ribs, a torn diaphragm and his lungs collapsed several times during his time in hospital.
You will never walk again
While he was in his month long coma, Wichien fought relentlessly to get him the best surgery; spending all of her time either at the hospital sleeping on the floor underneath his bed or travelling to and from her work at the school.
The doctors pinned Colin’s spine back together with four titanium rods and forty screws, but when he finally woke from the coma they had to give him the news that he was a paraplegic and he would never walk again.
Coping with bad news
I asked Colin what were his initial thoughts on being given this news.
He told me, ‘I wanted to do away with myself. I can’t live like this. I would have to get someone to do it for me though because I was unable to lift a hand off the bed. I was now a paraplegic with no feeling from the chest down. I begged Wichien to kill me. Without Wichien I would certainly wish that I was dead.’
Colin and Wichien
Prior to moving to Thailand Colin had a good job in construction in the UK. He is a master stonewaller and he is the sort of man that can turn his hand to most things.
He told me that his dreams and aspirations prior to the accident were to get their organic farm up and running. It was just beginning to take off and he was establishing a steady clientele. Often Thais spray formaldehyde on their fruit and vegetables in the markets to keep them looking fresh but Colin refused to even use weed killer on his land.
And what of Colin’s aspirations now?
Colin said, ‘It’s a hell of of a thing to be told that you will never walk again. My hopes for the future? Not that I will walk again because I know that can never happen. I hope that we both continue to have the good relationship that we have now. I have no hopes or plans to go anywhere. I’m happy at home. I’m in a wheel chair but I never get bored.’
dealing with the traffic
In the four weeks that I was living with Colin and Wichien I witnessed his determination to continue with as normal a life as possible. He has designed a couple of hydraulic hoists to enable him to get in and out of bed and into the car and he is adept at catching escaped chickens and planting, weeding and harvesting his crops.
harvesting the crickets
Much of Colin’s vegetables are in a series of raised concrete rings and beds. My first task was to construct a cement ramp for his wheelchair so that he could access yet more of the garden himself.
It must have been incredibly frustrating for Colin to watch me slowly mixing the cement and trying to smooth the path with a trowel, but give him his due, he was incredibly patient as he explained everything to me.
He did confess that he sometimes takes his frustration out on his wife and he wondered how she ever puts up with him! He knows that he has become more bad tempered, but consider for a minute how frustrating it must be to find yourself suddenly in his position.
Colin and Wichien go to their local hospital every three weeks for physiotherapy and a check up. That in itself is a drama as I saw for myself the time that I tagged along.
Firstly, the porters who used to ignore Colin and leave him in the car for ages now virtually run to help to transfer him onto a trolley. He have had to resort to bribery/tipping them, despite this being a ke part of their job.
The day that I was there Colin had to hang around in the car park on a trolley for ages because several members of staff had parked their motorbikes at the bottom of the wheelchair ramp leading into the physio department.
Even after the porters went and explained the situation, half of them came out and stood around waiting before they could eventually be persuaded to move their bikes!
Colin told me that in the early days after his accident he actually requested that the surgeons amputate his legs. They are after all no use to him and he would be able to move himself around a lot easier if he didn’t have them – but they refused to do this.
I asked Colin if he is a glass half full or half empty sort of person. He didn’t hesitate. ‘Half full’ he replied.
And then I asked him what his biggest fear is.
He said, ‘Previously – none. Now – losing Wichien. If that happened I would kill himself. I wouldn’t or couldn’t continue’.
And what is Colin’s message to anybody who is reading this?
‘Make sure that you always wear a helmet on a motorbike – or don’t go on motorbikes on Thai roads. (Colin was wearing a helmet at the time of his accident)
And finally – Is there anything that you (Colin) regret not doing in your life now that many doors are closed to you? ‘No, nothing’.
NEVER, NEVER, NEVER go abroad without buying travel insurance first. You never know what is around the next corner and the last thing that you want to be doing is relying on family and friends to have the heartache of dealing with an accident from afar.
I use Alpha Travel Insurance who are based in the UK – you can check out their site here and get a quote – Alpha Travel Insurance
Life in the Thai countryside
During my time with Colin and Wichien I worked on the land during the longest drought in that part of Thailand for years. The temperatures topped 44 degrees every day for a week and there was little respite during the night when I would forgo my mosquito net and drag a mattress out onto the terrace where I could catch whatever breeze was there.
what an idyllic place to sleep
I learnt all about the life cycle of the cricket and how to rear the insects, harvest them and cook them and I learnt how to eat sticky rice with my fingers.
Under Colin’s guidance I learnt how to use an angle grinder and a chisel to remove a bit of old wall and I rebuilt it. I made friends with the people in the village and I saw scorpions, a snake and a zillion insects.
I learnt so much about the Thai (Isaan) culture and family life from Wichien who cooked every meal from fresh ingredients and not one tree or plant in her garden couldn’t either be eaten , had medicinal properties or couldn’t be made into something.
While this is Colin’s story, it is what it is because of the quiet strength of Wichien. Educated, intelligent and with a wicked giggle and a beautiful smile, Wichien works tirelessly and with a calm serenity.
She reminded me very much of my maternal grandmother who had more sense in her little finger that many people acquire in a lifetime. Brought up in the countryside she capably caught the scorpions which invaded us after the rain, cooked amazing dishes with spices and herbs and would give alms to the monks when they passed the gate early in the morning.
Live life today. Tomorrow may not be what you expect.
I bring you this story to remind you not to waste your days doing things that you will regret. Embrace your life and try to pack it with the things that you want to do. It can all change in a heartbeat, no matter how careful you are.
If you want to know more about how you can make the most of your day to day life and embrace new challenges, click here and learn more about The Smash the Pumpkin Project.
I knew next to nothing about naturism in Catalunya until I began setting myself personal challenges. I had never taken off my clothes off in public but I felt that I needed to give it a go. I am a mentor to people with low self-confidence and low self-esteem helping them achieve self belief through a series of personal challenges – and as it’s only right to practice what I preach I am always looking for ways to stretch myself.
Luckily I have the perfect challenge partner in Debs who is often even more up and ready for things than me and so the other summer we decided to push our boundaries.
Make sure that you continue reading to the end of this article for the tale of a very funny incident that happened on the nudist beach at Playa del Torn in Catalunya last summer!
Getting naked at Playa del Torn
The first challenge that we set ourselves that summer was to visit a naturist beach.
Playa del Torn
Close to the town of Hospitalet de L’Infant on the Costa Dorada in Catalunya there is a large naturist resort – i.e: naked people as opposed to a naturalist site where you go bird-watching and such-like. It is important that you do not get the two words confused!
This resort, complete with pools, restaurants, and campsite attracts naturists from all over Europe and it’s on a wonderful position up on the cliffs behind a long stretch of soft golden sand. Playa del Torn (or Platja del Torn in Catalan) is a large public beach with a lively xiringuito (beach bar) down on the sand where people from the local area mix with the campers. During the summer months a little gazebo is set up on the beach where you can get a fabulous full body massage from Albert who normally works in Barcelona and the occasional beach vendors wander along selling artisan jewellery or sunglasses. The beach has a lovely friendly family atmosphere in the locality of the campsite and the beach bar whilst further along the beach is gay friendly.
Debs and I parked the car near the beach of Playa del Torn and we set off along the cliff path which runs next to the campsite. We had not taken more than 10 steps when a woman came out of a gap in the low hedge from among the camper vans and walked along in front of us wearing absolutely no clothes and carrying a loaf of bread under her arm. Walking past the caravans and the tents I could see that everybody was carrying on their daily business – playing cards, standing and chatting around the barbeque, reading or cooking BUT the majority of them were stark staring naked. Toddlers chased each other around yelling enthusiastically and groups of teenagers hung around looking cool (most of the teenagers were wearing bikini bottoms or swimming trunks for modesty.)
I suppressed my giggles as we walked down the steps to the beach where a volleyball game was in progress, feeling like I was in a Carry On film. Reaching our chosen spot with as much space around us as possible Debs and I stripped off our clothes – and I promptly lay down flat and stayed flat for as long as I possible.
As the day went on I progressed to swimming in the warm sea – what a fantastically liberating feeling that is with no bikini – and I had a massage from the wonderful Albert. The massage was a piece of cake after the trauma of booking my session with him.
Tickets needed to be bought at the bar in the xiringuito – and my personal challenge was to buy mine without covering up and wrapping a sarong around my body. All well and good and I was feeling quite pleased with myself as I crossed the hot sand – until I wove through the tables to the bar (it was lunchtime and busy) and it dawned on me that my bare bottom was head height to the diners faces. Of course there was a queue at the bar and I had to wait there, standing with my naked bum just inches from a poor man’s dinner and feeling the insides of my stomach curling up with embarrassment!!!!
I managed to relax later on as Albert kneaded all of the knots out of my tense muscles whilst I lay in the shade of his gazebo. He told me that he worked as a masseuse in Barcelona but that he decamped to the beach for his work during the summer. When I confessed to Albert that it was my very first visit to a naturist beach he replied how brave I was to actually have a massage (naked) right out there in the public eye and I realised that I was beginning to enjoy myself.
Personal challenge achieved I felt great as Debs and I returned to the car – in fact we returned to Playa del Torn many times throughout the rest of the summer and we progressed to drinking in the bar and then making friends with groups of both campers and locals. It was idyllic standing and sitting around chatting as the sun went down and the moon came up over the horizon and looking back, it was always gratifying to realise how relaxed I had become with my own body image.
A naturist beach is a great leveller. Without clothes on people usually soon realise that not even the elegant couple who turns heads as they walk across the beach lives up to the media driven image of perfection once they remove their clothing. Cellulite, flabby bits, scrawny bits and dangly bits are everywhere. Bodies are decorated with both tattoos and scars, boobs may be missing and piercings glint in the sunlight. It all seems less important somehow. Smiles, facial expressions and laughs become what define beauty and we can all wince together at sunburn in delicate places.
Scarlet Jones naked at Playa del Torn
Snorkelling in the dark
My second personal challenge that summer was to attempt a night time snorkel.
I am not at all confident out of my depth in water and I am terrified of waves in the sea. Debs and I had already spent the day snorkelling around the rocks in the little bay of Sant Jordi d’Amalfa on the coast of Catalunya and the sea was lovely and calm as we made our way up to the beach hut at dusk where Plancton have their base.
We were given our equipment – a wet suit, snorkel and mask, an arm band with a flashing light and a waterproof torch while the instructors told us how we should conduct ourselves and pointed out some of the things that we could expect to see. And we set off BUT we turned left instead of right and walked down to the next bay where the sea was anything but calm.
I had already told one of our instructors how nervous I was and she (Eli) stayed by my side as I got into the water. I was only waist deep but the waves were crashing over my head, and whilst terrified I pushed through beyond the breakers until I was out of my depth. The rest of the group struck out for the sea while I attempted to sort out my mask which kept on leaking. Eli took my hand and we swam slowly out – and then I panicked. I had a vision/premonition/past experience – I don’t know – but I KNEW that if I continued I would surely drown. I can swim but all of a sudden I lost the ability to keep my head above water and I just had a dreadful recurring feeling that I was going down under the waves. I panicked even more as I noticed Eli backing away – I could hear a little voice from my swimming lessons as a child saying that you keep your distance from a drowning person – but Eli pushed the dive float to me and waited patiently while I got my act together talking calmly to me, but I knew that the overwhelming fear that I was feeling wasn’t going to go away. I had to get back onto dry land immediately or I would be feeding the fishes.
Clutching the float as if my life depended on it we made our way back through the crashing breakers. I was so relieved to be back on the damp sand and promising Eli that I would now be fine she went back to join the others while I sat and watched the shooting stars above me in the dark sky and thought about my experience.
Had I failed at my personal challenge? No. Of course not. I had pushed myself to get into the rough water in the dark in the first place and whilst I had failed to snorkel in the dark I had given it a go. Would I do it again? Probably not! I had tried my best and I can see no real reason to attempt it again.
Driving on the wrong side of the road
I was initially nervous about driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road in Spain, but it didn’t take long before I was zooming around everywhere. I got lost plenty of times (no surprise there) but I enjoy driving and it’s a dream in Catalunya because apart from in the town centres there is very little traffic.
I used to be very afraid of heights until my year in South America. In Peru I eventually got used to careering around the Andes in chicken buses with the drivers high on the coca leaves that they chewed, both to stay awake and also to counter the altitude sickness, but I was still very nervous the first time that I had to negotiate a truck down a narrow track from the mountain in Spain where I was staying. In fact, I put the trip off for ten days until I ran out of food. A friend offered to deliver me supplies but I stubbornly declined – this was just another challenge which would prove to me that I was capable of coping by myself.
So early one morning I set off down the mountain. Nope, not in the truck but on foot! I wanted to see for myself where the ‘dangerous bits’ were as well as the passing places. Because I could take my time and look where the dodgy bits were I began to relax although it did take me nearly two hours to hike back up to the house.
To celebrate my epic hike in the heat I opened a bottle of wine – which of course also had the effect of postponing the inevitable until the following day – but I am pleased to say that I eventually made it down the hairpin bends and now I hammer up and down the mountain like a rally driver!
Since that summer I have also ridden my motorbike over to Spain crossing the English Channel on a twenty four hour channel ferry and riding solo down through Spain during an epic storm. On that journey I was so glad that I had been perfecting my Spanish because I got horribly disorientated in Bilbao and I needed to ask directions. My phone had stopped working, the name and address of my hostel had disintegrated and my map was in soggy pieces. I squelched into a bar where half a dozen men leapt to my attention and helped me before sending me out into the rain again, this time in the correct direction.
Facing my fear of heights in Catalunya
Immersion in a foreign language
Catalan is the first language of the majority of the people in this region of Spain which is great for me and others who are learning to speak Spanish. Because Spanish (Castilian) tends to be the second or even the third language here, people often speak slower and can use simpler vocabulary.
I loved speaking with Andres who farmed close to the place that I was living that summer. He was extremely patient with me, rephrasing words or acting out verbs so that the conversation flowed as best as it could although I did have one hilariously epic language-fail one evening.
I was a bit flustered as I answered the door and invited Andres to sit and wait while I finished up my conversation with a technician in the States. My laptop was open on the bench as I was in a ‘live chat’ with the other guy. In my best Spanish, or so I thought, I explained to Andres that my website was broken but there was a man in the States who was going to look at it and mend it remotely from his end.
I didn’t really understand why Andres abruptly stood up and shot out of the door mumbling something about going to check on his plum trees in his field however I returned to my conversation with the expert on the other end of the chat window. Twenty minutes later there was a tentative knock at the door and Andres hesitantly poked his head into the room. After assuring him that I was finished and my computer was now functioning perfectly I got on with the business of cooking dinner, wondering why Andres kept giving me strange looks.
Halfway through our meal Andres began to chuckle as something obviously dawned on him. It turned out I had mispronounced the word for webpage. I had put the stress in the wrong place which totally changed the word and therefore the meaning.
I had apparently informed Andres that my VAGINA was broken but there was a technician in the US who was looking at it down the camera on my computer – and I just needed Andres to wait for fifteen minutes whilst it was mended!!!!!
It’s always a bit daunting when you don’t speak the same language and you need to communicate. It is the easy option to only mix with people who are the same as you and avoid difficulties; but we also communicate via body language, facial expressions and sign language and the results when you make the effort can be so rewarding. Learning another language is another way to stretch your comfort zone.
the Catalan countryside
If you would like to know more about how you can receive a personal challenge that is emailed to you every fortnight, drop me a message and we will arrange a free call and I can explain more and while you are about it, sign up for my email list and get regular updates and more of my stories sent to you.
And now for that funny story that I promised you.
Our friend Toni and his partner make lovely artisan jewellery from natural products that they sell at Playa del Torn and we have got to know them over the last couple of years. In keeping with the naturist element of the beach they wander up and down selling their products whilst wearing no clothes.
One day after spending some time chatting to Debs and I, Toni and his partner continued walking along the beach – Toni was holding a tray with some little shell anklets on it.
A sudden gust of wind blew the jewellery into the sand – with one piece ending up between the butt cheeks of a guy who was lying face down and asleep.
Toni was in a quandary. Everybody watching held their collective breath as Toni made several attempts to pick the anklet up from the guy’s crack. He decided to go for it but just as his grip tightened around it, the guy woke up and rolled over onto his side.
A dozen or more of us who were watching collapsed with laughter at the frozen tableau. As the guy rolled over his bum cheeks had gripped the anklet tight – he froze as he looked up and saw a naked guy bending over him and holding whatever was trapped between his buttocks.
The guy’s wife was also laughing too hard to explain to her husband straight away as Toni backed away and his own partner was creased with laughter as she collected up the rest of their jewellery.
If you would like to know more about my time in Catalunya you can read some of my other posts here:
Exploring the Ebro Delta in Catalunya
Cat Fishing in Catalunya
The Catalan referendum: an opinion piece by Scarlet Jones
This article has been updated since it was first published in September 2015
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Playa del Torn, Catalunya. Getting naked and other challenges
getting naked & other challenges
Here is your ultimate Myanmar travel guide with some of the best places to visit in Myanmar – and with a route that you can follow in just sixteen days – or you can take your time and do it over twenty-six days as I did.
Myanmar, or Burma as it is also known, has been high up there on my list of countries to visit ever since I was a child and since I learnt that my grandfather was fighting in the jungle during the war. I’m very pleased to say that Burma lived up to all of my expectations and I’m already making plans to return.
I like to travel quite slowly, absorbing the atmosphere of a place and connecting with local people so I didn’t cover quite as much ground as I had originally hoped to do so on this trip to Burma, but that’s not a problem because it gives me the perfect excuse to return and to explore the less touristic south of the country.
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Before I bring you what could possibly be the most perfect Myanmar travel guide ever, and especially one for backpackers or travellers on a budget, let’s get a few facts straight.
Burma or Myanmar?
Everybody from Myanmar that I spoke to in the country told me that it didn’t really matter whether I called it Burma or Myanmar ……but they all preferred to refer to their own country as Myanmar.
And one reason for this is because the name of Myanmar reflects the diversity of the ethnic groups. Burma is made up of far more than just the Burmese. There are 136 different ethnic groups and while there are different reasons why many countries around the world do not recognise the renaming, for me, if every person that I spoke to preferred Myanmar who am I to question them?
The political situation.
Myanmar is emerging from years of military rule and is transitioning to a democracy but this process is being hindered by violence. Some of these conflicts date back many years and sadly for the people it seems to be difficult for them to break out of this cycle.
There is no doubt that there is a major crisis, some say genocide, which is ongoing in the western state of Rohingya and there are other areas that are totally out of bounds to foreigners or which are tightly controlled (I will cover the background to the different conflicts and history in another post), but there can be no doubt about the absolute delight from the Myanmar people themselves that foreigners are finally allowed to visit their country and I lost count of the number of selfies that I featured in and just about everybody is curious about visitors.
Another selfie request
Is it safe?
Hell yes! Of course I might be proved wrong at any time in the future, but when I was in Burma I never felt unsafe or unsupported. The population of Myanmar are genuinely curious, friendly and honest and they have a refreshing naivety about them.
Many of the people speak English and I am pretty sure that if I were to leave my wallet on a table or my phone in the back of a taxi, that the majority of people would do their best to return it to me.
Your perfect Myanmar travel guide.
I took twenty six days to travel the route that I describe below but it’s perfectly possible to cover it in sixteen days, and if you have the time do take advantage of the twenty eight day visa which will leave you time to head on down to the south. After I have explored the south myself I’ll add a link to this article so that all of the hard work is done for you and you can continue in my footsteps; or you can click here and find out how you can join me and we can travel together if you don’t want to travel solo. – Click here for more information
Begin your trip in Yangon.
I recommend a minimum of 2 nights in Yangon.
I started my trip by flying into Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon but if flight times and prices are better and/or cheaper you can start this tour in Mandalay. If you do begin in Mandalay, pick up my route and head north west to Hsipaw and then after taking the train to Pwin Oo Lwin complete the remainder of the route in reverse (Bagan, Inle Lake and Yangon).
Yangon can’t fail to stimulate every one of your senses and it’s a great introduction to the variety and diversity of Myanmar. This is probably the most chaotic place that you’ll encounter within Myanmar so if you can cope with Yangon you can cope with anything!
Yangon reminded me in parts of India and also of many cities in South America. In places it was down at heel with street markets, rubbish on the streets and filthy water running in the open drains, but it also has a vibrant energy with new businesses springing up and entrepreneurs driving the way forward.
Depending on your arrival time from the airport I would suggest that you begin by exploring the local area on foot; maybe try some of the street food and do check out the decaying colonial buildings.
Yangon street scene
Yangon is also your opportunity to pick up anything that you may have forgotten to bring with you with its state of the art shopping malls as well as traditional night markets.
Whatever you do, do not pass on the opportunity to explore the Shwedagon Pagoda, and for a bonus, time your visit to end at sunset when its golden domes dazzles in the lights.
If you have extra days in the city I would suggest that you take the circle line train which takes three hours to complete its slow circuit of Yangon and will cost you less than a dollar. From the train you will get a glimpse into the backyards of the local people and you will see the vendors selling noodles and snacks on board whilst having to shuffle up on the seats as the passengers stream on at the various stops.
Another great way to spend half a day in Yangon is to take a walk around the large Kan Daw Gyi Lake with its replica palace that houses a restaurant. If you travel as slowly as me you could also take a walking tour of the city and see some more of its hidden gems or you may prefer to relax with a Burmese foot massage which will set you up for the rest of your Myanmar trip.
I really enjoyed the tasty Myanmar cuisine, especially the tea leaf salad and I was very happy to dine at a not-for-profit restaurant that helps disadvantaged people get a leg up into the hospitality trade in Yangon – the LinkAge Training Restaurant.
When it’s time for you to move on you can catch the night bus to Inle Lake.
Where to stay in Yangon
I stayed at The Little Monkey Hostel which is in the busy China Town area. This new hostel is kept spotlessly clean and the staff can also arrange day trips out of the city for you (for example to Bago). You can also sample traditional Myanmar food each day at breakfast – the cost of which is included in your stay. For the latest prices and to book your stay, click this link.
Nyaungshwe and Inle Lake
Hopefully you will have got some sleep on the night bus to Inle Lake. The roads can be extremely bouncy and the going mostly slow, however all of the night buses that I took were driven competently and were quite comfortable with reclining seats, water, toilet stops and a blanket to counteract the fierce air con.
You can take the time to rest if you need to do so today after your night bus ride or, if you are feeling bright and breezy you can ride a bicycle around the small town of Nyaungshwe. My recommended hostel (see below) lends out free bicycles so you can explore to your heart’s content.
Cycle out to the teak pagoda with its little alcoves that contain hundreds of small dolls or you can cycle or take a tuk tuk to the Red Mountain Estate Winery up on the nearby hill for a wine tasting session. Cycle a bit further and you can walk out along the teak bridge and hire a local canoe to paddle you around one of the floating villages.
It sounds a bit cheesy but this was actually one of the highlights of Inle Lake. Unlike the orchestrated fishermen on the lake at dawn, here we floated silently past real families getting on with their lives. Washing clothes, bodies, hair and dishes in the lake and tending their vegetables on their man-made floating veggie patches, it was fascinating to see this community go about its work.
Inside an unusual teak monastery at Inle Lake
You should certainly do your best to catch the traditional puppet show one evening which is performed by a true enthusiast. Mr Aung makes all of his own puppets and actually dances behind the screen whilst he manipulates the puppets. This traditional craft was outlawed for many years under the military regime and it is a testament to Mr Aung that he has managed to continue.
Set your alarm for an early start and rise before dawn to take a boat ride out onto Inle Lake. Breakfast will usually be organised for you either in a restaurant or onboard, although you can go out later in the day if you are not bothered about catching the sunrise over the lake. You’ll see the iconic fishermen who paddle using one leg and you will no doubt have the opportunity to visit a lotus weaving centre, a silversmith, wood carvers and a local market as well as many other small tourist hubs. There may even be some Padaung women who wear metal coils around their necks weaving. When your time here in Inle Lake is done I suggest that you get another night bus – this time to Bagan.
Where to stay at Inle Lake
I stayed at the Song of Travel hostel where all the staff were very friendly and helpful, and like The Little Monkey Hostel in Yangon, beds are comfortable self-contained pods – Click here for up to date prices and to book your stay at the Song of Travel.
Stay at the Song of Travel in Inle Lake
Arriving in Bagan at dawn you could negotiate with your taxi driver to take you straight to a pagoda to see the sunrise or you might prefer to go to straight to your accommodation in the town and dump your bags or rest. Hire e-bikes and get out and explore the historical area, losing yourself down the little sandy paths among the 2000 plus structures. For a good explanation of the history behind the pagodas and the culture I recommend that you take a tour (contact me for the name of an excellent guide) and then end the day with a sunset boat trip on the river or you can watch the sun go down from the roof of a pagoda. (Rumours are that it will soon be forbidden to climb on the pagodas)
An early start to see the dawn is a must while you are in Bagan: set out in the dark to find a good spot to watch the sun rise and the hot air balloons float over the plain; or you can take your own hot air balloon flight for a bird’s eye view.
Sunrise over Bagan
If you want to get out of Bagan take a trip to Mount Popa. Here is a pagoda built high up on a plug of rock with spectacular views out across the plains. There are some interesting statues and tableaus to see as you climb the several hundred steps – the downside is that you have to run the gauntlet of some not so friendly monkeys. Myself and my friends were almost in tears when we descended at sunset, especially because there are men strategically placed with slingshots to chase the monkeys away if they get too close or too aggressive – which in my book tells me that they are not nice monkeys, although the trip was worth the small price that I paid.
Where to stay in Bagan.
I enjoyed the atmosphere in Bagan so much that I stayed for six nights. Whilst not the cheapest hostel I stayed at the Ostello Bello. Like all of the other hostels in Myanmar a great breakfast was included as well as tea, coffee and water throughout the day. – Click here for up to date information on accommodation in Bagan
And please don’t ever think that you should travel anywhere without taking out travel insurance, especially in a country like Myanmar. I was so glad that I had a policy in place when I was bitten by a street dog on the way to Bagan. I use Alpha Travel Insurance – you can get a quote and purchase a policy very easily via this link – Alpha Travel Insurance
When it’s time for you to move on from Bagan take a day bus so that you’ll get the chance to see some of the surrounding countryside on your journey north to Mandalay.
You can condense everything worth seeing in Mandalay into a couple of long days if you are pushed for time. If the weather is good on the afternoon that you arrive, take a taxi up to Mandalay Hill or to the U Bein teak bridge. From the hill you will get a good view of the city and hopefully a decent sunset and if the weather is on your side, some iconic photos of the bridge.
If you have the stamina and you want to hit the best of Mandalay in one day start off by exploring the Palace. Although not the original complex, the palace has been rebuilt and as most of the buildings are empty it has an eerie atmosphere; and also because of the long walk up the driveway through the military enclave. To avoid trouble keep your camera firmly in your pocket until you get inside the palace and don’t forget to take along some identification or you will be refused entry.
The palace at Mandalay
Before leaving the palace, climb the tower for views across the grounds and then visit the Shwe Nan Daw Monastery and the Kuthodaw Pagoda which contains the world’s biggest book; both are near the palace. Get off the main road and walk to both of these and you will see normal Mandalay life continuing in the leafy streets – with noodles drying in the sun and street sellers cooking up lunch in their woks.
After lunch take another taxi and head off to the jade market. There is a small entrance fee here for foreigners but you might be able to avoid that if you’re lucky and dodge the collectors on the gate. The jade market feels like stepping back in time with traders buying and selling gems and haggling over coffee whilst craftsmen cut and polish using ancient tools. Follow the jade centre up with a visit to the gold leaf making centre where you can learn how this ancient craft continues and see how the gold leaf is beaten out by hand. The craftsmen here earn less than £5 a day for some very physical work which really puts things into perspective.
If you want some context behind the history of the palace and how the Royal Family were forced into exile, read The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh Click on this link to order your copy of the book.
There are many things to see and do around Mandalay if you have more time. You will be able to find a day tour of some of the historic sites and the old cities which surround Mandalay such as Sagain and Inwa through your hostel: or you could negotiate with a taxi driver and do it yourself. If you haven’t already visited the U Bein teak bridge this is well worth a visit – although as soon as I arrived the heavens opened!
Where to stay in Mandalay
I opted to stay with the Ostello Bello chain again when I was in Mandalay. Run along similar lines to its sister hotel in Bagan this large hostel meant that I could get to know other travellers and I could go along on some of their organised and value for money trips. When you are visiting Myanmar you are not permitted to stay just anywhere so using one of the booking sites shows you the available options to you – Click here for accommodation options in Mandalay.
Take a shared car for the quickest and most interesting route up to Hsipaw and also for the opportunity to experience Myanmar travel . The car will whisk you up the mountains and over to the charming mountain town of Hsipaw along a jaw-dropping road far quicker than the bus because it will overtake and undertake EVERYTHING wherever possible! Do this journey in the day time for the views and be amazed by the queues of lorries struggling around the hair-pin bends. There are numerous lay-bys where lorries and buses pull in and hose their brakes down with water and everywhere the air is thick with the smell of burning brakes and clutches as the hill takes its toll on these immense beasts.
As you drive you will also get a glimpse of the impossibly delicate looking Goteik viaduct which spans the gorge at over one hundred feet in the air. Our driver over to Hsipaw fancied himself as a rally driver but apart from the fact that he was driving a right hand drive car on the right hand side of the road and every time he nudged out to overtake I would gasp, he was actually a truly competent driver and I thoroughly enjoyed the four hour adrenaline rush.
In 1970 Burma switched from driving on the left to the right hand side of the road but many of the cars (and the road signs) have yet to catch up. Often, right hand drive cars are cheaper in Burma so there are still plenty of them about – the downside is that drivers have gigantic blind spots which makes the whole thing a bit of a guessing game.
Up in Hsipaw the weather is normally a little cooler and more comfortable than anything that you will have come across so far and this small town is fast becoming a firm favourite as a trekking hub. There are many buildings which do more than ust nod at the colonial past – in some parts of town you could be in leafy Surry in England.
Provided you arrive in time I suggest that you head straight out and visit the Shan Palace where you will get the chance to meet and chat to a real life Shan Princess and learn a little about the history of Myanmar from her.
You will learn how the occupants of this grand home were kept under house arrest for many years and you will learn some of the facts surrounding the mystery of the Shan prince and his Austrian bride. If you want to read the background to this story you can order the book at this link: click here to order ‘Twilight over Burma: my life as a Shan Princess’.
If you want to take a trek you must hike with a guide as it is currently not permitted to go too far into the surrounding countryside. You can walk for one or two days, staying overnight in a home-stay in a rural village in the mountains. Meals will all be traditionally made – in my case over an open fire in the middle of the room – and you will get the chance to interact with local people. My trek ended with visit to the non-touristy hot springs where I bathed with the inquisitive locals who delighted in splashing me with the hot water, but many treks end with a swim to a waterfall. If hiking is not your thing you can arrange a motorbike tour instead – contact me for the name of a brilliant guide in Hsipaw.
If you do the trek you will encounter checkpoints outside the villages but these are there more for the villagers’ safety as to keep you out. I will bring you more facts and information about the political background and the situation in a future article
It is permitted to take a bicycle and ride around the town and the immediate countryside of Hsipaw where you can visit waterfalls or you can explore Little Bagan and poke around inside the dusty old teak pagoda.
preparing dinner at our homestay in Hsipaw
Where to stay in Hsipaw
Most backpackers stay at Mr Charles Guest House which is a hotel and a hostel next door to each other. You can arrange your trekking from here (contact me for the name of a fantastic guide) and breakfast is included. Rooms are simple and the place is very busy with trekkers arriving and departing but the hostel is in a great central location – Click here to book your accommodation in Hsipaw
This travel day is worthy of its own entry. Take the iconic railway ride from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin and cross the jaw-dropping Goteik Viaduct. Take a picnic to eat on the train or even better, buy noodles from the ladies who jump onboard with their baskets on their heads at one of the stations that you pass. It is of course possible to go all the way to Mandalay on the train but better to break your journey in Pyin Oo Lwin and stay a night or two or even jump in a shared car for the dash back down the mountain.
The spectacular scenery around Hsipaw
Your train will crawl across the viaduct which creaks alarmingly but the views are well worth a bit of stomach churning and if possible, do buy a tourist ticket so that you can ride on the soft seats. If you do the ride the opposite way up from Mandalay you will have a very early start so far better to do the trip in my direction i.e. from Hsipaw to Pyin Oo Lwin.
Pyin Oo Lwin
I stayed at a lovely old hotel at Pyin Oo Lwin which felt like stepping back in history. We expected a taxi from the train station to our hotel so imagine our surprise when the driver that we had negotiated our taxi ride outside the railway station led us over to a century old horse and carriage. (the carriage was over a hundred years old, not the horse).
After settling in to your hotel/hostel, borrow bicycles (If you stay at the Orchid Nan Myaning bikes are included) and head off to the traditional food night market where you can buy dinner on the go. Just wander around the stalls and graze on anything that takes your fancy. Hover and watch what the locals pay – but to be honest, very rarely did I come across any price-hiking for foreigners in Myanmar which is also a refreshing change.
Depending on how much time you have left on your trip to Burma you can cycle (or take a cab) to the huge Botanical Gardens and/or you may prefer to take a motor taxi to one of the two waterfalls that are in this area. One waterfall is a hike away from where the bus or the taxi will drop you off, the other is easier to get to and has a market next to it where local strawberry jam, damson wine and hand knitted clothes are sold.
The Botanical Gardens at Pyin Oo Lwin
Where to stay in Pyin Oo Lwin
I stayed at the shabby chic Orchid Nan Myaning hotel on the outskirts of Pyin Oo Lwin. With ultra-friendly staff and amazing grounds this hotel/hostel is the perfect way to wind down after your Myanmar trip, or it’s a great place to catch your breath before heading south. Click here for details and to book your stay in Pyin Oo Lwin
Wrapping up your trip to Myanmar
To end your trip, its a long night bus back to Yangon or take a shared car (or continue on the train) to Mandalay.
night market in Pyin Oo Lwin
Note that the above route around Burma may be subject to change depending on the weather, the political situation or other elements outside of your control.
When I travel I like to eat local food and I use local tour guides where possible. I prefer to stay in hostels so that I can meet people and while I was in Myanmar there wasn’t one day when I was lonely or alone. I am going to revisit Burma in the first half of 2018 so if you would like to come along with me, drop me a message. We will travel together staying mainly in hostels – the aim of the trip is to introduce you to Myanmar and also to the concept of backpacking and travelling on a budget. Following many requests and emails I occasionally offer my readers the opportunity to travel with me depending on where I am in the world and my clients that I mentor in my life-coaching business sometimes join me too.
(If you would like to increase your self confidence or if you have issues with anxiety then travelling with me will also give you an insight into how I changed my mindset and how I learnt how to believe in myself again – Read more here – The Smash the Pumpkin Project).
And finally, if you have enjoyed reading this guide, or you have friends who are planning a trip to Myanmar, please share this article with them and/or pin this image
Peeping through the temple window
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