Asia, Extreme Sports, Myanmar, Travel

Leech Bites in Kalaw

Coming from Inle Lake; Kalaw is a haven, a safe space to rest the soul and clear the mind. Founded as a hill station by the British (we get around), the air is cool and refreshes those that visit, reminding travellers of the diverse climates within Myanmar.

There is little to do in the town itself, merely a crossing point for those going on wards to trek and hike around the region. There are a few caves dotted around Kalaw, hidden down streets and winding corners, however after being memorised by the magnificent caves in Hpa-an, I didn’t feel the need to visit any more. There’s also an elephant camp, 45 minutes outside of Kalaw called Green Hill Valley Elephant Camp, which rehabilitates elephants that are retired or orphan elephants. It would have been wonderful and rewarding to see, but entrance is 100 dollars into the camp and the taxi journey on top of that meant my budget could not afford that luxury.

I made the mistake of trying to organise a 1 night 2 day trek from Inle Lake to Kalaw, but as I was travelling in low season in September, alas I couldn’t find a hiking partner, as all travellers I met were hiking from Kalaw to Inle Lake instead. Shunning an 80 thousand kyat proposed individual trip by Ostello Bello in Inle Lake to Kalaw, and not wanting to backtrack my journey, I decided to head to Kalaw and organise a day trek.

Hiding my pangs of jealousy and regret, I warmly waved goodbye to the fellow travellers I met- about to hike for a number of days, already forming close bonds of companionship and unique memories, and followed the path of my female guide, Mandy. I was incredibly thankful to have a female guide, it is not a common occurrence in Asia that there are female guides. I have unfortunately had some shaky experiences with local men in Asia before, so walking for an entire day, miles away from anyone and totally alone with a man who was unused to western women, didn’t really appeal to me.

Mandy and I quickly explored how different our lifestyles, our countries cultures, and our traditions were, which was both fascinating and insightful- like did you know that women in Myanmar don’t get tattoos as they believe it makes them less feminine? Ouch. The day hike was a well trodden path, the first day of many whom trek to Inle Lake from Kalaw; so I was grateful to experience part of the journey I would be missing out on. Meandering past fragrant plantations and abundant orange fields, we carved alongside mountainous regions and struggled up steep hills (well, more like I struggled). Passing through local villages; I caught smiles from local women sitting and sharing gossip in open doorways, waved at awe struck children playing with simple toys in delight and grunting family pigs. The scenery was similar at times to Munnar in India, but the passing of monasteries filled with bald monks at the tender age of 5 quickly blew away my swirling thoughts of nostalgia and brought me back to reality with a bump. We hiked up to the viewpoint where we stopped for lunch (literally up in the clouds) and where a mass of crops merged with a patchwork of fields and local villages dotted along the landscape, as if interrupting the scenes of nature.

After snacking on warm chapati and fresh avocado salad (sourced from some nearby fields), I noticed my entire sock was a mauve colour and stinging in pain ever so slightly. As I pulled away my soggy sock that clung to my skin in terror, I noticed two small bites on the side of my ankle, as if a vampire had sucked my blood, or a hungry spider. Seeing blood continuously flow from my leg I asked Mandy what it could be? With one look she told me quickly “a leech”. The bastard had bitten me. But how? There were very little rivers nearby? “Grass leeches”. Yes! Grass leeches are a common insect you will find trekking in Myanmar and can be found anywhere you sit, stop, perch, or wander through long grass, so do be wary of these blighters! After attempting to stop the gushing blood, we descended into the jungle, slipping and sliding over tree boughs and mossy rocks, reaching a clearing at the outskirts of Kalaw.

The day trip was expensive in comparison to any other trek, at the price of 22 thousand kyats, as being a solo traveller and hiking on my own, the price rises dramatically. If you have the time, definitely book yourself into a two day one night trek at 33 thousand kyats, which includes food, accommodation and an informative guide. The only (and best place) you should book through is Ever Smile.

Staying in Kalaw, I chose Railroad Hotel after reading about the place on The Broke Backpacker website, and it lived up to its expectations. I was immediately given a room upgrade from dorm to private room at no extra cost due to another traveller arriving late at night and the manager thinking of my precious sleep. The rooms were clean and although basic, were comfortable and at a reasonable price of 11 thousand kyat a night. This included a large breakfast of pancakes; egg, toast, fresh fruit, tea and coffee- such a feast! What I really liked about this place was the personal touch they brought to it, with staff being informative and helpful, even lighting a campfire every night to encourage guests to socialise, a wonderful place.

After finding another Vicky (bizarrely who also worked in the same line of work as me and was the same age- what are the chances?!) we ate at the Nepalese restaurant I had eaten in at Inle lake- but the original in Kalaw, called Everest. After joining two other solo female travellers, we feasted on hefty portions of Dhal Bhat, with which the enriching flavours and textures brought me back to the numerous Dhal Bhats I had delightfully destroyed in the calming Himalayas of Nepal.

If you are planning to trek in Myanmar, Kalaw is the most popular destination to head to, then ending in Inle Lake. The route is moderate and takes you through local village life. It is possible to trek from Inle Lake to Kalaw, but only really in high season where there are others planning to do the same route. Hispaw is also a sought out destination for trekking and offers more of a challenging trek through sparsely populated hill tribes that are brimming with ancient traditions and authentic lifestyles. If heading to Hispaw, do take the train from Mandalay- the journey is supposed to be magical and offers unparalleled views of the Goitek Viaduct.

 

Extreme Sports

Extreme Sports

I have done some pretty adventurous things.

I have hitchhiked in the Middle East (not intentionally but we did end up doing so); I’ve stripped in front of a tour group and jumped into the icy depths of the Milford Sound. I’ve driven a golf cart, a tuk tuk and a scooter. I’ve hiked a glacier. I’ve swam with sharks. I’ve bungee jumped one of the highest jumps in the world. I’ve scuba dived in the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve abseiled off Twickenham stadium. I’ve been canyoning through waterfalls, I’ve trained and ran a half marathon.

I’ve gone snake hunting. I’ve tubed in the dark and out in the open. I’ve been steps away from a Hyena out in the bush. I’ve hiked up mountains and volcanoes. I’ve white water rafted and kayaked. I’ve surfed in shark prone waters. I’ve swam in the sea in a hurricane. I’ve trekked through the Himalayas on my own suffering from a stomach bug. I’ve quad biked through jungle and desert. I’ve skied, snowboarded and sand boarded. I’ve zip lined.  I’ve trekked on a camel and on an elephant. I’ve slept in airports, train stations, in the desert, I’ve couchsurfed at complete strangers houses. I’ve eaten street food in the wrong places and survived. I’ve sky dived. I’ve stayed in a Buddhist Monastery. I’ve swam with dolphins, manta rays and turtles, and I’ve even parahawked in Nepal.

I love living life to the full, seeing life and the opportunities it brings as one big adventure. I’m enthusiastic and passionate about exploring the world and all of the beauty it contains, however big or small. I enjoy all kinds of extreme sports not only because of the incredible unique experiences and memories you create, but the adrenaline you have whilst doing so.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
-Mahatma Gandhi

 

Asia, Extreme Sports, Myanmar, Travel

Kayaking on Inle Lake

For many, Inle Lake is the light at the end of an exhausting exhilarating tunnel. After a two or three day hike from Kalaw reaching a haven of luxury in comparison, where beer and massages are a plenty. For others, Inle Lake is a picturesque town in which they can observe local life from afar and in lavish and plush hotels settled on the lake.

For me; it was a tourist hotspot, where backpackers, flash packers and holiday makers all merge to celebrate the beauty of Inle lake, whilst being jostled for attention from boatmen, restaurant owners and taxi drivers.

Being dropped off by the night bus at the neighbouring town of Shwen Yaung (confusingly called as the town near to Inle Lake is called Nyaung Shwe) I stepped off the 15 hour night bus dazed and confused, whilst the bus driver began to already plot with awaiting taxi drivers for a commission filled ride for me, as if a vulture tantalising other predators with a piece of fresh meat. Dismissing the becks and cries for a taxi and exclamations of it being “very far!” I asked local passers-by where exactly I was on the helpful offline app, mapsme.

Unfortunately for me, the map wasn’t as helpful as I thought as my GPS location wasn’t installed in my settings and after being told by a polite local I was “on the right road”, I calmly walked on, unaware of the far-flung distance I was, and the treacherous trek to arrive there. Sweat began to form at the top of my sticky forehead, my back and backpack merged together in a sweet marriage of sweat, and as the midday sun continued to beat down on my tired aching body and my 15 kg luggage, I soon quickly realised just how far I had to travel. I laughed at my stubbornness at refusing a taxi driver and began to wearily plod along the path ahead debating whether to hitchhike once again in Myanmar or not.

Luckily, good fortune was bestowed upon me and an angel appeared from the heavens, (a local donned in army uniform balancing a bouncing baby on a passing scooter). He took pity on me and pulled over, asking if I would like a lift. A bit wary, I looked at my overflowing luggage and his curious child on the front of his motorbike, but he reassured me that it was fine. Taking me to the tourist checkpoint, (all tourists have to pay 12,500 kyat when entering Inle Lake), I soon found out that he worked for the ministry, his baby was two years old, and that heading into Inle Lake was an 11km journey from where I had started. After dropping me off to pay at the checkpoint, I began to walk reluctantly again, rapidly finding myself on the back of another motorbike heading into town by another local. Turning him down to be my personal bodyguard “in case of troubles”, I told him I was strong enough and headed to my hostel. Thanking my blessings, I arrived relieved that I’d managed to hitchhike from helpful locals and slightly windswept.

The town is larger to Hpa An, luxurious hotels and numerous restaurants embedded into a sprawl of local life and businesses, where tourism is beginning to make its mark, infecting the simplicity of local life that lives here. The similar looking tour companies and neighbouring massage parlours line the streets, turning the town as if into a hall of mirrors with commercialism as its terror. Of course, a boat trip around Inle lake is why tourists flock to this town, wanting to be whisked away on water, embracing the natural scenes of fisherman casting their nets in hope for a enormous haul to feed their family.

Wait and head down to the river before bartering with a boat man, to ensure you get a fair price- as the main business are boat trips, so there are a number of boatmen who will approach you whilst walking down the street. When arranging a boat trip confirm where you want to go on the boat trip; popular places are the floating market, lotus making and the long necked tribal women, as well as stating that if you do or don’t want to visit any shops.

I had previously booked an all-day cycle, kayak and boat trip with Grasshopper Adventures. The cycle was a 25 kilometre route around Inle lake, whizzing through local villages on dusty tracks alongside beaming school children playing absent mildly outside, watching wondrous women at work, plucking tea leaves in the solicitude and silence of still rice fields, passing towering crop plantations and lonely dogs, only stopping for a snack of freshly made local salads or an explanation of a certain crop. As cycling really isn’t my forte, I struggled at times, balancing along a narrow edge alongside paddy fields or up dry paths cracked and withered in the sun.

After lunching at a guesthouse in a local village on the river, where my guide bombarded me with information about Inle Lake and the cook fattened me up with course after course, we came to the highlight of the tour- the kayaking on Inle Lake. Paddling through a local village, we raced pristine schoolchildren in their boats, paddling courageously on their own and floated past houses on stilts where children happily splashed in the river for an afternoon swim, and mothers washed their laundry in the murky waters.

I felt that I had gained a glimpse into the private life of locals, far away from the tourist eye. But I also felt like I was intruding, invading this calm sphere of life, with my garish life jacket and bright kayak. I felt awkward. The active day was an exhausting one but the rigorous routine of the bicycle was broken up by a local boatman taking me and my guide to various other areas of the lake to continue cycling in different villages and environments around the lake. My highlight of the day was speeding over the smooth serene waters, where mountains towered in the distance and local fisherman fished in such a way it seemed as if they were a dancing an intimate river dance, embracing the waters and hoping to be rewarded with by a fruitful bounty.

Although incredibly expensive for a backpacker (80 dollars for the full day), if you are not on a budget and are travelling in a group or pair and want to catch a glimpse of what local life is like around Inle Lake whilst getting fit, this is the tour for you.

Another popular thing to do in Inle Lake is to hire a slightly rusty (and ever so creaky) bicycle from many of the tour operators in town and head around the lake, cycling one half and getting a boat across and cycling the rest of the way around the lake, a total of 6 hours. After quite a sore bum from a 7 hour cycling trip already, my friend and I decided to cycle half of the lake and then head back, heading as far as we could before having to cross the lake.

Passing corn swaying in the wind and noisy motorbikes that gracefully overtook us, we whizzed past noodle stops and local convenience stores (open spaces with hanging goods for sale). Whilst en route to some Pagoda Ruins, the Red Mountain Wine Estate is a wonderful place to admire the view over Inle lake (after a steep cycle up a hill). If you can afford to, give yourself a treat and rest your weary feet with a glass of wine, and even a plate of cheese.

Saving our kyat for local beer, we left the winery behind us and headed to the Forest Monastery, another tough and steep hill to ascend. Visiting the pagoda at the top was not as astonishing as other temples you will visit, but the monastery hiding under the loft boughs of the nearby forest, really is a gem. Trying not to disturb the chanting monks, we observed what their days were filled with: meditation and concentration.

Heading to the Natural Hot Springs was next on our agenda but with no obvious signposting and clambering through forgotten trials in the forest, we had no such luck of finding it.

Delicious restaurants are in abundance in Inle lake, but of course the price differs quite drastically from Hpa An. Nepalese food with warm masala chai satisfied my two yearlong craving at Everest 2 (second one to Kalaw).

Everlight is a tantalising Indian restaurant (where they take your picture and add it to the wall- so cute!) and Sin Yaw restaurant has an incredible selection of Shan food- get the Shan special and you’ll receive a mixture of Shan dishes in return, mostly vegetable dishes all cooked in varying styles and flavour, a real delight.

Watering hole’s glammed up for tourists can be found here too, but I mainly drank at my hostel (happy hour cocktails were two thousand kyat) or beer from local eateries for 800 kyat (quite the difference than the 1,500 kyat beers in the hostel).

My hostel was Ostello Bello– the hostel chain that is also present in Bagan and Mandalay. A dorm bed in an 8 bed mixed dorm with AC and a bathroom is 10 dollars, which is a little steep in comparison to other dorm beds in South East Asia. There are cheaper guest houses that have private rooms with fans and shared bathrooms for as little as 5 dollars like Joy Inn or Gypsy Inn but Ostello Bello is a very sociable hostel. Although a flash packer price; it’s free breakfast, tea and coffee, pasta tasting 3 times a day, happy hour, WIFI and fun activities attracts a vast majority of backpackers. Ostello Bello has everything you need in a hostel-it’s just definitely not an authentic guesthouse, that’s for sure.

Extreme Sports, Inspiration

Flying A Helicopter and Holding a Tarantula (not at the same time)

Well you may be aware that I oddly like to live my life by my bucket list- which does sound strange, living life by a list of things I want to do before I die, but it enables me to live adventurously continuously with an excuse (instead of people thinking I am just that mad with no legitimate reason). If you are interested in reading my full up to date completed list just click here.

In the last few months I have ticked off two things off my bucket list which are both unique and conquer three kinds of fears that many people commonly share: of heights, of flying and of spiders.

Most recently I flew a helicopter for the first time, courtesy of a Christmas present that allowed me to fly with Phoenix Helicopter’s based in Camberley, in Surrey. Having never flown a helicopter before, or even seen one, I was excited about the prospect of doing so. As we stepped closer and closer to the little machine, (Robinson 22 if you are wondering) I realised just how minute this aircraft was- barely any room for any belongings let alone any extra sophisticated gadgets I have seen in many an action film! I was told by Will my instructor, that this machine was known to be “the mosquito of the sky”, famous for its light weight and quaint size. As we began to take off and I gazed at the numerous buttons ahead of me, the propellers began to surge, becoming louder and louder, gaining momentum.

Taking off so rapidly and with such ease was an incredible sensation, one minute we there on the ground and the next we were off, whizzing through the clouds, speeding over tree tops- it was enthralling and an experience like no other. I then got the chance to turn and dip and dive, controlling the speed, direction and height, even trying to hover at one point (which is extremely difficult). For anyone who is thinking of trying, I really can’t recommend it enough- even if you would like to see the world in a new light, travelling by helicopter is fascinating.

Before that I took a day trip down to Drusilla’s Park in East Sussex where I had been given a gift voucher to hold a tarantula (you can see where my family gets their birthday and Christmas ideas for me from). The zoo itself is small and mainly catered towards under ten year olds, filled with interesting facts and fun games (which we enjoyed nonetheless!) The voucher also enables you to bring a guest which means my friend and I were able to check out lots of small mammals like meerkets and ant eaters with very little interruption and queues, which was an enjoyable experience.

We both then met the “spider expert”, a woman who showed us a number of different spiders and creepy crawlies, from the basic garden spider to a tarantula. She was enthusiastic and positive about their enlightening individual defence mechanisms and continued to highlight how little harm they did to us- “they are more scared of you, than you are of them!” So it was lovely to be shown a tarantula by a true enthusiast. Holding the furry lady (the spider!) highlighted just how fragile this little creature is and not one to be afraid of, as many are.  A wonderful experience learning more about such a misunderstood animal!