Asia Pacific

Inle Lake is the most beautiful place I see in Myanmar; a unique blend of human coexistence with its natural environment. It has a reputation for being touristy - a sentiment for which I disagree. Perhaps, it’s my timing. I happen to be here two days before Thingyan; a week-long festival where locals celebrate and work seems to stop. Whatever the reasons, there are not many tourists around the Lake - all for the better.

In the early morning, I begin my boat tour for a day around the Lake.

Villagers working at Inle Lake

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Kalaw is a small town nestled among the hills, with the loveliest people I meet in Myanmar. Even a simple stroll can see children greeting me with flowers without expectation of return. The main tourist draw is trekking and this will require a guide. Together with a German traveler, we share the cost of a one day trek.

Trekking out of Kalaw

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"Everyone hopes the Lady will win." A reference to the upcoming by-elections in Myanmar. ‘The Lady’ is Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi: pro-democracy leader; 1991 Nobel Peace Laureate; and head of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). At stake is the election of 45 seats including 37 (out of 440) seats in the House of Representatives.

"If her party wins, she will become president in three years. The country can open up." Such are the hopes of the people and a prelude to the 2015 general elections.

On 1st April, 2012 - election day - the anticipation is not visible. I walk around North East Yangon to one polling booth where an electoral officer stands outside. However, there is little activity to be seen.

Electoral officer at 2012 by-elections in Yangon

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Before arriving in Yangon (my first port in Myanmar), it is necessary to stock up on US cash. US Dollar notes must be like new; no markings, creases or anything less. Once in Myanmar, only new and clean Dollar notes are accepted. There are almost no credit card facilities or international ATMs.

Outside Bogyoke Aung San Market, Yangon

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Danang is a spacious city that presents a break from the usual dense cities in Vietnam. Its best feature is the long wide esplanade that is quiet by day, but lively at night when people come out for the city lights.

The city has a relaxed atmosphere. It is easy to be less alert. While sitting at the esplanade, a man joins me and during our conversation, reaches behind to remove the compact camera from my bag (sitting open on my other side). I reclaim my camera only when he leaves it on the bench after a policeman orders him to move his motorbike. Following this incident, I take more precautions with my bag.

Esplanade at Danang

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I arrived in Hanoi about 4am on an overnight sleeper bus from Sapa. We were dropped off at a street corner where many taxis awaited. Instinctively, I thought it was a bad idea to take a taxi here but it was 4am at some unknown place. After a short time in the taxi, I realised the meter was wrong; got out, refused to pay. The driver threatened to slap me twice. I held my ground.

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After hearing the positive reviews from travelers, I arrive in Sapa looking for a homestay experience. While official tours are available, it is easy to organise directly with the Hmong. They have a large presence in town; often approaching tourists selling handicraft, jewellery or tours to their villages. I meet a Hmong woman named Mama Ti. We agree on an overnight stay at her village two days later.

In the meanwhile, I enjoy a sunny stroll around Sapa. A pleasant town with manicured gardens around a lake.

Pleasant gardens around a lake in Sapa

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