When originally planning our trip, we knew we were starting in Yangon and we knew that we wanted to spend NYE in Bagan (mainly to eliminate the chances of us being on our 2 night jungle trek for NYE). So, we had about 3 days between Yangon and Kalaw to play around with. We had two options: 1) head west to some of the beaches (Chaung Tha and Ngwe Saung), or 2) head east to the Golden Rock. While the beaches sounded a little more interesting, they’re about 7 hours from Yangon… The real problem though is that there’s no way to go north from the beaches and get to Kalaw. If we wanted to go here, we’d have to go right back to Yangon, another 7 hours, and then take an overnight bus. We didn’t like the idea of backtracking (or the idea of going from a 7 hour bus ride to an overnight bus ride, which is likely what we would have had to do), so we decided on option 2.
The Golden Rock is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Myanmar. After seeing the Shwedagon Pagoda (the biggest in Myanmar) in Yangon, we weren’t sure we also needed to see the Golden Rock, but this option made more sense (or so we thought). Kyaikto is 5 hours from Yangon, but there’s another town called Bago about halfway between the rock and Yangon and from there, a road leading north. The transportation information in our book had some holes, but what we knew was that we could take an overnight bus from Yangon to Kalaw in 12 hours. We also knew that Bago was about 3 hours north or Yangon. We figured that instead of coming all the way back to Yangon (which is what we would have had to do for the beaches), we could just make our way north via Bago, which was “on the way.” We figured that from Bago, we would be about 9 hours from Kalaw and then we could stop in another town that our book describes as a “good overnight stop on your way north,” 6 hours from Bago, therefore making this town (Toungoo) presumably 3 hours from Kalaw. We figured wrong.
Here’s what our book didn’t tell us. There are two roads heading north from Yangon. The first one is the Yangon/Mandalay Expressway, which takes 12 hours from Yangon to Kalaw. The other one (the road from Bago north) is a local road. Taking this road the same route takes about 20 hours. When purchasing bus tickets and making plans, you can only buy one leg at a time. You have to wait until you get to each destination to book your next leg, so the people in Yangon, for example, can’t give you any information about a trip from somewhere else. So, you’re pretty much on your own to figure it out as you go. Since we didn’t have all the information, instead of spending our three extra days making our way slowly from Yangon to Kalaw, we pretty much spent them on buses. Worst of all, we ended up paying at least twice as much (because we had to purchase each leg of the trip separately) than if we’d just gone directly from Yangon to Kalaw. And this is how the 3 lost days came to be.
The Golden Rock actually ended up being pretty cool. The best part was the ride from Kinpun (the town) up to the rock, which is on top of a mountain. There are huge trucks that hold about 45 people to take you up (45 minutes, 2500 kyat one way pp). I’ve never seen a truck this big and packed with so many people, all but a few sitting outside. The trucks fly up the mountain, stopping once along the way to collect everyone’s money. The ride is bumpy and crowded but it feels like you’re on a roller coaster and the scenery driving up is very pretty. Once you get to the top you have about a 10 minute walk past tons of vendors (where you’re stopped again to pay the 6000 kyat entrance fee for foreigners) to the actual rock.
The Golden Rock is exactly what it sounds like. A huge rock covered in gold leaf. The rock looks as though it is balancing on the edge of a mountain and all around people are praying. Only men are able to walk over a short bridge to actually touch the rock (and press on more gold leaf), but women can get pretty close as well for photos. Make sure to cover your knees and shoulders, otherwise you will be denied entry.
While we enjoyed seeing the rock, the town itself was actually pretty crappy. The hotel we stayed at was not very nice, the food options were few, and overall, the stop was probably not worth going so out of our way for (recall, we thought this would be on our way, not out of it). If you have a little extra time and you enjoy seeing pagodas and important religious sites, it may be a decent overnight trip from Yangon, but make sure you go back to Yangon to get on that expressway out of the city.
The next day, after many, many terrible hours on a bus that stopped every 5 minutes (or more) to make pick ups/drop offs, we finally made it to our next stop “on our way” to Kalaw, Toungoo, at around 6pm. Here’s how our book describes this town: “A busy highway town, Toungoo is a popular overnight stop for both tourists and truckers. Sporting several interesting temples, a lively central market and a pretty lake, it has more places of interest than any other town on the Yangon-Mandalay Expressway.” Well, first of all, this town is NOT on the expressway at all. Second, I would call this town something definitely less than interesting and pretty.
We stayed at the Myanmar Beauty Guesthouse, also per our book’s recommendation, and this place was actually really nice (albeit 2km outside of town). We were not in the best of moods upon arrival, but we checked in, rented bicycles (this is THE activity to do in Toungoo – rent bicycles and drive around to the temples, the lake, and through the countryside, unless you’re doing an elephant camp visit which is the town is also known for, but we’ve had our share of elephant experiences) and rode the 2km into town for dinner. We ended up having a really good meal but were exhausted from our long day of travel, so we called it an early night.
We were able to go for a run the next morning and then enjoy the famous free breakfast that our hotel provided. Everywhere in Myanmar offers free breakfast, but the breakfast at this place was insane. It was literally a meal for 4 for just the two of us, with lots of local dishes to try (rather than the more typical fried eggs and toast that most other places serve). They gave us about 20 separate dishes total. We tried every dish but overall ended up eating less than half of everything, though we took some of it with us for snacks and breakfast the next day. This breakfast was definitely the highlight of our time in Toungoo.
We spent the next several hours biking around the city. We checked out some of the temples, the lake, the countryside and then killed some time trying (unsuccessfully) to find their local coffee, which was supposed to be very good (I guess we’ll never know). It was a nice day, but again, not anything worth all the time and effort it took us to get there. Finally, we were ready for our overnight bus (we couldn’t believe after all of this we were still taking an overnight bus) to Kalaw and for the three lost days to be over with.
It was not an easy few days and in hindsight, knowing what we know now, if we could have gone back and changed everything, we would have either gone to the beaches, spent extra time in some of the other cities that we liked (i.e. Inle Lake), or most likely just made our trip 3 days shorter. But, you live, you learn. Hopefully now we can pass on this knowledge and prevent other travelers from making the same mistake that we did.