Most of us who live in Yangon love the city for its energy, its idiosyncrasies, and its heady mix of chaos and lethargy.Nonetheless, sometimes it is necessary to escape.
The challenge can be knowing where to escape to.
At Sampan Travel we often hear from expatriate in Yangon unsure where to travel with young families in Myanmar. Too often the beckoning beaches of Thailand and polished hill towns of Vietnam prove more attractive than roughing it locally.
And yet … with a bit of pluck and planning, micro-adventures and family excursions can be made in Myanmar: stretching limbs, broadening young minds, and celebrating the great outdoors!
Kalaw is an old favourite that can easily be spiced up.
We recommend arriving in Kalaw by taking the train at Shwe Nyaung. The railtrack which winds its way up to the old hill station is a marvel of engineering and the journey simultaneously offers a candid glimpse into local life.
From Kalaw, it is worth making a day trip to the Green Hill Elephant Camp – a shining beacon for how elephant camps should be. No football, no circus trickery – it is a place where elephants are allowed to be elephants. As for the visitor, the main activity on offer is feeding the resident pachyderms copious amounts of pumpkin. And really, when you are this close to these magnificent animals, what more could you really want to do?
Treks can be made back from the camp towards Kalaw. Alternatively, you can take one of the many routes over the hills and down to Inle Lake, staying in a local village or monastery overnight. (We recommend finding an astute and experienced guide who can lead you along one of the less-frequented tracks.)
Though not as famous as its smaller sister Inle to the south, Indawgyi is Myanmar’s largest lake – roughly the size of Manhattan! Due to the light tourism footfall and the lack of large floating gardens, when on the water Indawgyi is a much more peaceful lake than Inle. Kayaks can easily be hired allowing families to paddle from village to village at leisure, popping into the teashops on the banks for a reviving cuppa when arms grow weary.
Hikes can be made around Shwe Taung to the north, and if you are lucky – and quiet – it may be possible to hear the distant hooting of the resident gibbons. The accommodation options in the village of Lonton are fairly basic but each have their own charm.
An added bonus: the handful of restaurants serving local coffee as well as (on occasion) pancakes drizzled in Kachin honey.
For a long time, the principal activities of the visitor to Pindaya were visiting the Shwe Umin “Golden Cave” and settling down to lunch at Green Tea Restaurant.
Both remain nice things to do. But today, Pindaya offers the discerning traveller so much more …
We recommend embarking on a three day trek up into the hills. (The more ambitious can make the longer hikes to Kalaw and Inle Lake, or even travel to Pindaya by bicycle from Heho.)
Pindaya is tea farming land. In addition to walking through the tea it is worth stopping off at a tea factory (prior-notification is advised, your guide can help with this) to learn about how the leaves are prepared for both drinking tea and to be fermented for lahpet thoke – tea leaf salad – Myanmar’s favourite snack.
Over the hills into Ywangan township the tea fields are replaced by coffee– today a thriving industry as Myanmar beans begin to be used for “specialty” brews worldwide.
Back in town, alongside the higher-end Inle Inn Pindaya hotel, Cottage House is a delightful addition to the accommodation options. And the newly-opened Wa Tae restaurant looking over the central lake is an idyllic spot to recline after the hike and enjoy an assortment of Danu and Shan dishes and there are swings and a climbing frame for those with energy to spare.
Bertie Alexander Lawson is the Managing Director of Sampan Travel, a tour operator based in Yangon designing tailor-made journeys through Myanmar.