Month 11: Hitch-hiking Myanmar

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Hitchhiking in Myanmar was an amazing adventure that included getting rides from Buddhist monks, pops stars, military guys, television news anchors, drunken farmers and even managed to have an altercation with a drunk highway police officer….that said, lets first hear about how I entered the country and how I spent my first few days in Yangon, before embarking on that adventure…

After 7 months of traveling without using an airplane, I got on one to get to Myanmar as it has a few borders closed including the one I wanted to enter from northern Laos since I was in the north of Vietnam. Myanmar was formerly known as Burma and used to be a British colony, and after reclaiming their independence they  fell into the hands of a military junta that has deprived the country of a lot of freedom. It has also kept the country closed to foreigners and only recently has opened to tourism and is famous for still being untouched and a less touristy beautiful country.

I began my Myanmar experience in the capital, Yangon (it used to be called Rangoon, but the military junta changed the name) and I was pleased to find a pleasant city that can be chaotic, but incredibly colorful with smells, sights, and tastes. I liked that no matter how loud and crazy it sometimes got, I could still hear birds chirping as I wandered around downtown. Here are some images of my first few days in Yangon, and Myanmar.

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This is a Betel nut stand. Betel nut is very popular in Myanmar and most people chew on some tobacco and betel nut wrapped in a leaf and the  nut produces a red liquid that people are constantly spitting. I tried this and not too bad, but not so pleasant either.
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The betel nut spit stains you see everywhere. Perhaps its an art form…leaving the perfect splash…
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lovely tongue after chewing betel nut
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With my good friends and couple from Belgium Skarlotte and Tom we treated some street kids to some french fries and dignity and affection. I loved seeing how happy the kids were as they got some unexpected love from us.
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The spectacular and impressive Shwegadon Pagoda in Yangon. It is surrounded by beautiful structures and is absolutely stunning. I had the pleasure of spending two afternoons there exploring and appreciating such beauty and even found time to meditate for a while in a corner as I have been dedicating more and more time to meditating and loving it.

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I have found my favorite alphabet. Look how amazing the writing looks in Myanmar, it looks like futuristic crop circles or from another planet how beautiful it looks to me.
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I took a circular train around the city with Tom and Skarlotte  and we met a nice man sitting next to me who invited us to go with him to the Pagoda he prays at. We did just that and on the way I saw this amazing kid and smile. He is wearing Thanaka, the local sun block that you see almost all locals wearing, made from the bark of a certain tree.

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Strap-hanger monk.
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Since most of the buildings don’t have intercoms, the solution is to have a string attached to a bell in people’s apartments or terraces, that hangs below on the street for people to pull on to “ring.” They also have clips on them to be able to lower or bring up things.
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One night after some drinks on our way back some locals were strumming their guitar on the sidewalk and invited us to sit and join them. We did and hung out for a while and they invited us to see them practice something they called Lion Dance the next day. We had no idea what awaited us, but went and WOW what a treat. It was an amazing display of acrobatics, coordination, strength and precision.

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After having had such an amazing experiences the last four months trying new ways of traveling that intimidated me where Cambodia I did on a bicycle and Vietnam on a motorcycle, I was tempted to try traveling Myanmar by hitchhiking  (explanation of what this is: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hitchhiking) but must admit I was pretty nervous about it. But of course I faced that fear and went for it! In the north of Vietnam I had met Franck, a nice french guy who I traveled with in the north of Vietnam and I asked him if he’d be up for it, and in typical Franck behavior, he said “why not, I’m in.”

After a few days exploring Yangon and not sure I should wait for Franck to I arrive, I decided I would head out the next morning to Hpa An, and I wanted to hitchhike there, and was lucky enough to overhear a guy at the hostel mention he wanted to try to hitchhike in Myanmar as well. He had just arrived that day, but I managed to convince Vincent that we should leave the next morning, and off we went!

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Our adventure began when we hopped in a cab that a girl from the hostel was taking to the airport, and from there we began asking for rides as cars and passengers were coming out of their flights, but that proved unfruitful. So we started walking away from the airport trying to get a ride.
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This was the first real hitch of the trip…I was in the back of this truck with this nice man, and Vincent went up in the cabin. You can´t start a fire, without a spark!

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We spent around 4 hours in the back of this truck with these three lovely souls. At the end it was FREEZING.

 

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We had amazing luck that a nice car stopped for us and behind the wheel was Chan, a really nice guy who worked at the airport and was on his way to visit his girlfriend, Htike, who happens to be a pop star in Myanmar. They treated us to lunch at a nice restaurant and were really kind.

Here is a music video of the pop star, Htike!

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I absolutely loved the food in Myanmar. Especially the salads they make out of things like mint leaf, tomato, avocado, and perhaps my favorite of all Tea Leaf salad as displayed in the picture. It has fermented tea leaves and dried beans that are like peanuts and crunchy that combine perfectly with the moist salad.

After having a successful first day of hitchhiking where we met amazing people and made it to Hpa An around 8pm. We had made it.

The next few days were exploring with Franck who caught up to us in Hpa An, which perhaps was my favorite place in Myanmar. It has some beautiful landscapes and caves  and it also has an amazing monastery on top of Mount Zwegabin, that takes two hours to  to get to the top, but when we got there it was well worth the views. We spent the night at the top, and I got up while it was still dark to meditate when the monastery blasted Buddhist prayer music, and then watched the most amazing sunrise that looked like you were in heaven watching the world awake.

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Some details of adornments of walls of cave in Hpa An
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I loved watching this monk feeding the monkeys
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These monkeys were actually menaces as they are bold and try to steal people’s food. One day I was juggling my tennis balls and one of them came down and stole one! I tried to trick him into getting it back, but it didn’t work as it only attracted more monkeys interested in the other tennis balls.
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At the top of the monastery these kids had some distinctive Thanaka patterns.
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Our monastery crew, that included John a Colombian and Diego a Bolivian I had met at the Why Not Bar in Hoi An, Vietnam. Behind us on the left side is the Mount Zwegabin peak where the monastery was.
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Some viking braids on a Dutchie
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Surreal

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This sunrise was one of the prettiest things these eyes have seen.

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Beautiful view from the bridge on the way back from the Bat Cave, where MILLIONS of bats come out of the cave. For 15 minutes hordes and hordes of bats don’t stop coming out.

 

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Me after a wild night out
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Farmers out in the fields…lost in green

We then hitchhiked out of town to Kyaiyto to see the Buddhist site of pilgrimage where there is a Stupa on top a huge boulder that sits on the  edge of a mountain, and they call it the Golden Rock. It was very interesting to see so many local people flocking to this holy site and seeing some of the rituals.

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Perhaps the most entertaining thing about Golden Rock, was the you have to arrive in these trucks where they arrange some seats in the back and the drivers drive like maniacs to try to get as many trips back and forth up to the holy site. You can call it a Burmese Roller coaster.

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The Golden Rock from a distance.

Then we set our sites on the new capital of Myanmar, Nay Pyi Taw. The story goes that the Military junta secretly built this capital and then announced to the country…here we built this new city that will be our capital! And all of you government employees have 2 weeks to move there if you still want your job! Crazy, right!? And what’s maybe crazier is that they made an insane investment to build a big modern city with huge avenues and streets, but it has no people! For example the embassies didn’t really like this move, so they decided to stay in Yangon, as did a lot of people, businesses and organizations. It’s like a ghost city!

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An amazing couple that picked us up and took us to the new capital. He owns a jewelery shop in Yangon and he and his wife drove out of their way to take us to this hotel. Which was the fanciest I have stayed at on the whole trip and cost us 14usd each, but was only about 4 dollars more than the cheapest one we found in the city. It had a swimming pool and was quite luxurious. Franck and I joked that we were the fanciest hitch hikers that ever lived. The man, at one point pulled a jade stone from his pocket and explained this stone was worth 10.000 usd.

From Nay Pi Taw, we hitchhiked our way to the town of Kalaw,
a town that is a popular starting point for a trek to Inle Lake. Here
we met up with my friend Max from Belgium who I had met in the south of Cambodia, and were finally reunited for this 3 day trek through some beautiful landscapes with a great group and guide.

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These lovely people were watching us trying to get rides for a while, and approached us and said they could take us and invited us for tea and snacks. However, after a few minutes they wanted us to pay for gas, so out of the car we went to get our next ride…

 

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One afternoon that I took a bicycle to go explore I came across some people playing football, and I asked if I could join and they were so nice and here is one of the players with a smile full of betel nut.
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One day we were sitting having tea outside a tea shop when this massive golden retriever came and sat underneath us and came with us when we got up and left and actually followed us all the way to our guesthouse where I took this picture of him. When our friend went to the bus station apparently he went with her and waited for her until she got on the bus!
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In Nyaung Shwe we discovered a  market with amazing food at low prices, so for around 4 days we ate almost all our meals here.

 

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I was cycling on a road by the water when I saw this, and slammed on the brakes. It was some farmers playing cards while their water buffalos cooled down in the water. When they were done playing cards they actually stood on the backs of the buffalos and went down the river “surfing these buffalos”

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My brother Franck from France. After meeting him in Hanoi and traveling the north of Vietnam on motorbike, we met up in Myanmar for this hitchhiking adventure. He is a great guy and will be missed as a travel partner and friend. Hasta la proxima!
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A fisherman at Inle Lake
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Stunning colors and landscapes on the trek to Inle Lake

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Woman collecting chili peppers.
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My thanaka war paint put on by a guide from the treks. Intimidating huh!?
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Spicy

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On the way to Kalaw, we had perhaps our toughest day of hitchhiking with several hours of waiting for rides, and when we did get rides they only took us short distances or some even wanted money in exchange so those didn’t work out. After it was already dark and we were in the cabin of a big truck with two guys that spoke no english, we realized that their plans had changed and they had to drop us off in an intersection that was very much in the middle of nowhere. After having had such a hard time getting rides in the day time on busy roads, things looked very bleak for us. But luckily after just a few minutes I pretty much got myself in the way of this car for it to slow down and when they did we found they were monks that were nice enough to drop us off at the main road! Monks to the rescue!

 

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After arriving in a village from our trek, we played some Chinlon with some local villagers

 

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My good friend Max showing off some of  his fancy footwork and skills. It was a pleasure reuniting with this great guy.

After leaving the town of Nyaung Shwe, at the base of Inle Lake, where we spent a few days hanging out after our trek, we hitchhiked our way to Myanmar’s second biggest city, Mandalay. It is a city that also has a wealth of cultural and historic sites such as the Imperial palace, and many amazing temples, and monasteries.

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This is U Bein bridge in the outskirts of Mandalay where we cycled to just in time for sunset. Wikipedia says: The 1.2-kilometre (0.75 mi) bridge was built around 1850 and is believed to be the oldest and longest teak wood bridge in the world. (now some parts are reinforced by concrete), and it was a beautiful place to see the sunset from.

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This is a part of the Golden Monastery, or Shwenandaw, that is built entirely of teak wood and has the most amazing details and engravings in the wood. One of my favorite things in Mandalay and Myanmar.

 

 

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We were really lucky to meet Min and his friend that gave us a ride to Mandalay and even stopped at this beautiful blue pond.

 

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The outer walls and moat of the Imperial palace in the center of Mandalay

 

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Franck working his charm to get us a ride
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Two beautiful doggies I became friends with on the side of the road. The one on the left had an amazing tiger stripe coat. Both were really sweet.
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On our way back from cycling to see the sunset at the bridge, we stopped at a local tea house to get some food. The food was so amazing, that the next day we cycled out there again like 15km away from our guesthouse just to eat there again. We ate tomato salad, with fried rice and roti with chickpeas. Yummmmm

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This was an amazing woman trying to sell souvenirs at one of the temples. Here she is wearing the Thanaka in the design of two leaves on her cheeks.

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I later learned that what you see in the middle are “pages” to the biggest book in the world! I didn’t even realize this at the time, I just thought it looked beautiful. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World%27s_largest_book

 

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A game the local men played where instead of using dice, they used sea shells. I suppose it is heads or tails with the amount being a factor.
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Since many of you think my life is very glamorous. I agree that traveling and seeing the things that I do make me one of the luckiest beings that ever lived, BUT…I travel and live on a small budget and encounter beautiful bathrooms like these.

From Mandalay we hitchhiked to a town called Hsipaw, where we spent 2 days taking it easy and exploring and then did a 3 day trek and stayed with families in local villages which was beautiful.

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This was getting out of Mandalay to get to the highway to Hsipaw. In some water in the MIDDLE of the street this woman was doing her laundry and when I said hello to her she responded a really special and enthusiastic hello 🙂
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Our group from trekking in Hsipaw..with our friend Leo and some Basque girls, the family who hosted us, our guide “Taylor” and Jo!
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Some of the beautiful views of this trek
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This was the first time I saw monks and novice playing football and it was amazing for me! These pictures I took after playing for 2 hours with them.
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Really nice guy

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Amazing woman with great smile enjoying her tobacco.

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The grandmother of our homestay on the trek.

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These are actually noodles air drying!
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This was a sad image and common sight in Myanmar and south east asia where you see garbage and rubbish everywhere and sadly people burn it to get rid of it. While it is one solution of “getting rid of” garbage, the toxic fumes are nauseating. Here some novice monks walking by the burning garbage. And to think this was a view we passed on the way to a beautiful waterfall.

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I was sitting having a juice when I saw a kid across the street wearing the Colombian national team jersey so I jumped up and went after him to take this picture. I was also very lucky that he was on his way to play at a field I hadn’t seen and so for two afternoons I went to play football with the locals and loved it.
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An amazing family that not only gave us a lift, but didn’t let us pay for lunch. So kind and generous.
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This is Jo. He followed our trekking group from the 1st day of the 3 day trek and became part of our group and we fed him and took care of him. It broke our heart to say goodbye to him…Here he is running after our Tuk Tuk when we had to part ways with him.

Hsipaw was a great place, and when we finally did leave we  wanted to hitchhike all the way to Bagan, which was a bit ambitious and we were only near Mandalay when it got dark, so we had to settle for near Mandalay for the night.

On the way to Bagan the next day we had a hilarious, yet tense experience with a Myanmar Highway Police officer. As we were walking from one road to the highway a guy in a really beat up car stopped and ask us where we were going and he got out and he was slurring his speech and stumbling so we just thanked him and walked by. A few minutes later he appeared again, this time wearing a Myanmar Police uniform, and not very happy with us for ignoring him the first time. This time he was aggressive and told us that we should go with his friend, but they wanted gas money so we declined and walked away like 500 meters up the road and thought we were in the clear. When he came back more aggressive than ever and yelled and made gestures and that’s when I decided to only speak to him in Spanish and walked away and he followed for a few meters harassing Franck threatening to throw us in jail and asking for our passports before turning around defeated.

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I actually set up the GoPro to get some footage of us trying to get a ride, and even practiced some handstands while we waited for cars to pass.
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Then our drunken ‘friend ‘reappears and tried to make us get on a bus, unsuccessfully.
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When I  had enough of his drunk and aggressive behavior I decided to walk away again.
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And here as I walk away I get some images of him harassing Franck, and was threatening to throw us in jail and was asking for our passports, but we just kept walking until he got tired and probably decided to go back for another drink.. Further ahead we  hopped on a truck and continued our journey.

We were also lucky that we didn’t have to pay the $20 dollar entrance fee to the city as we were lying down on the back of a pick up truck when the driver stopped at the checkpoint they probably just told him, pass as they didn’t see us. Bagan is a very pleasant place and has so many amazing temples to explore that I spent five days exploring them on a bicycle stopping to see as many of them as I could and spend time appreciating them and the landscapes where you see the top of temples for miles into the horizon.

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After some people dropped us off at a bus station far from the road, we walked back for 45 minutes in the sun and finally got this ride that took us out of town…it was a group of 2 vans, where our backpacks were actually in the van ahead of us! You have to trust people for them to trust you.
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Sometimes the dirt roads or non dirt roads were dusty, so the bandit bandana came in  handy.
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So, as I mentioned I LOVED the different salads in Myanmar, and here you see a woman making noodle salad where she hand tosses the salads. It tastes delicious, but of course makes me squeamish to think of the hygiene and makes me hope they wash their hands often! Especially in a country where there is neither toilet paper or soap near the bathrooms…just sayin…but I never got sick and ate at every street stall I could find.
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Bagan is world-famous for having over 2000 temples, and one of the nicest things to do besides exploring as many of them as you can, the way I did on bicycle, is to see the sunsets and sunrises at the top of one of these temples. Here is a gorgeous sunrise with hot air balloons in the background.
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No pressure when you grow up kid. It’s OK if you don’t want to be a monk…really

 

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A beautiful spot we discovered called, Riverside which was perfect for relaxing in the shade. I spent most of my time there teaching and playing with some kids trying to sell things outside some valuable things to say in English to tourists.
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Here they are trying my suggestions…for example when I arrived they just yelled “Buy this, buy from me!” I explained to them how this made me want to ignore them. Instead I taught them to greet people with a smile and enthusiastic hello, to introduce themselves, to call the people their brother/sister/friend, and to be polite, instead of pushy. I think this will help them in the future more than a few cents!
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Betel nut smile of an art vendor.
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Nice pic by Franck of yours truly
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The truck that got us away from the drunk highway cop
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Yan in this picture with his family was incredibly nice and drove us around for a while looking for a guesthouse and when we stopped to eat and we wanted to invite him and his beautiful family to eat, they didn’t let us, and instead invited us.
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Simba! Nope, Yan’s beautiful baby on display when they were driving us around looking for a place to stay
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One of the stylish rides we got with screen in the back!

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And my hitchhiking adventure through Myanmar had come to an end. I had to return to Bagan to get my India visa when I realized the e-visa I wanted wasn’t valid for the airport I was flying into. They said it would take 3 working days and I arrived 3 working days before with my paperwork, and they didn’t accept my papers that day, but the next, so this actually led me to get my India visa at 3pm and get in a cab to get to the airport!

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My last few days in Yangon while I waited for my India visa, I stayed at a cheap, but VERY basic guesthouse next to the Sule Pagoda in the background. One night around midnight as I was getting back I saw them playing and asked if I could join and had the pleasure of playing some barefoot street football until 1am with this emblematic pagoda as a backdrop.
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They didn’t allow cameras inside, so I can’t share images from the National Museum, but it had some beautiful and interesting collections. I walked there in strong sun and then explored a few parks nearby.

So, What was hitchhiking Myanmar like?
At times it had long waits, at times it was cold, most of the time it was very hot and sunny, and sometimes dusty…. At times it was so easy I couldn’t believe it, but at other times I was reminded why its free.

Overall, the amazing generosity and smiles and kindness of people wanting  to help in one way or another made it an amazing experience. Most people did not understand what we were doing and picked us up hoping to be able to drop us off at the right bus or train station…this happened so often that we decided to say when needed that we were traveling without money….and this actually led 3 different rides to try to hand us cash (which was an amazing gesture, that we turned down every time).

In total it was roughly 1,300 miles or 2,000 km traveled in 45 vehicles…and all of this transportation cost me: $0
For one of the greatest experiences of my life, in a beautiful country.

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Some links to some interesting and sad things going on in Myanmar:

Country Profile
http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-12990563

The transition to Democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi
http://edition.cnn.com/2016/01/31/asia/myanmar-aung-san-suu-kyi-nld/

The Horrific treatment of the Rohingya people in Myanmar
http://endgenocide.org/conflict-areas/burma/

 

 

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  1. This was also my first experience with hitchhiking. I hope in the future we can travel a country together as we seem to be on the same page. Keep it up and save some countries for us to explore together.

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