Saturday, February 02, 2013

How to travel to Machu Picchu like the Incas did back in the 1500s

The Greatest Hike in the World
No one exactly knew what purpose Machu Picchu served the Incas. Some claimed it was a vacation home for the ruling elites while others say it was a mountain fort built to hide all the Inca virgins away from the Spanish. We may never know the true purpose of this magnificent Inca city that was left intact and undiscovered by the Spanish. But what we do know is that the Incas, as one of the greatest civilizations of ancient times, were very adapt at building roads, just like the Romans. However, unlike the Romans, the Incas didn't have horses, which eventually led to their ultimate demise when they met the Spanish. But in the meantime, they built a great road system connecting the Inca capital, Cuzco, to Machu Picchu, which remains until today and is now called the Inca Trail. 
Machu Picchu
Seeing Macchu Picchu is probably the number one thing to do when visiting South America. Although after having done this, I feel that the best part about visiting Machu Picchu is to actually hike the Inca Trail, what is now deemed as one of the greatest hikes in the world. After several days of hard hike, seeing Machu Picchu was the icing on the cake. The feeling of accomplishment when you climb over the last mountaintop, dirty, exhausted, and then lay your first gaze upon Machu Picchu can not be replicated by gingerly stepping off a train plateform while texting on your smartphone. 
First glimpse
Quiet proud of making it this far
I was told that the Incas used to travel from Cuzco to Macchu Pichu in under a day, probably on barefoot no less. Luckily, for us weakened homo sapiens today, the Inca trail is scheduled as a intense 4 day hike. 
The journey starts from Cuzco

My Experience
The trail itself is only 43km long. The distance is not difficult. The altitude was the hard part. The trail peaks at 4200km above sea level (ominously named "Dead Women's Pass") and bottoms out at 2400km. There were parts where it felt like my head would just split open from the pounding migraine if i just took another step. But granted, we completely ignored the advice to arrive in Cusco at least 2 - 3 days in advance to acclimate to the altitude , which was a huge mistake. 
At 4200 meter above sea level. Head was pounding at this point from altitude sickness
The hike is definitely not for those who can't live without 5 star accommodations. We barely had any creature comforts. For four days, we went without showering and slept in the wilderness, under our tents, in our sleeping bags, with most of our clothe on. Of course at that point, everyone reeked equally bad so no one really complained and it was also way too cold sometimes to even wash your hands, never-mind getting undressed. Nevertheless, we brought lots of wetwipes so I thought the lack of shower was manageable.  

Waking up above the clouds. Not bad
The lack of personal hygiene aside, we were actually fed like kings on the trail. The tour company that we went with had a cook who hiked the trail with us and made the best food I had in Peru, and there were lots of it. So despite hiking over rough terrain for 6-10 hours a day, I actually gained a bit of weight at the end of the hike. 

The food was incredible
Fashion wise, it was comical since all the guys all wore the same tan colored transformable pant-shorts. And since the weather varied greatly intra-day depending on our elevation, all the guys spent a large part of the day furiously ripping off the pants to convert to shorts only to zipping it back on later as we accent higher in elevation.

I was in a group with my buddy Nick and two MBAs and the oldest members of the tour group was a couple in their mid 60s which goes to show that anyone with a mediocre level of fitness can do the hike. 
Our crew at the start of the hike
Besides the amazing scenery that we saw enroute, we also met several friendly llamas along the way. There was a portion of the hike where the llamas were just grazing at the foot of the mountain, shrouded in thin wisps of clouds, from the distance they looked gigantic and quiet mystical, or maybe it was just the thinning oxygen playing tricks on my brain. Anyways, later on, I was able to greet them a little bit more intimately. 
Llama from far away
Llama up close
Trying to pick a fight
The hardest hike was on the second day when we did 11 hours of hard hiking. But it was no easy feat on the last day either when we had to wake up at 330am to line up for the opening of the gates of Machu Picchu. It was the second most amazing sight I have ever seen, next to Bagan in Myanmar.  Seeing Macchu Picchu bright and early in the morning without the big tour groups coming in from buses and trains is worth while in itself. 

Waiting for the gate to open
How I did it 
The tour company that I went with is called Llamapath. They were professional and efficient. Highly recommended -

It is important to book the Inca Trail a couple month ahead of time. Peru only allows certain amount of tourists per day to travel the trail. So check the government website for the availability on your date -

Things you absolutely need to pack:
  • Big roll of toilet paper
  • Head torch
  • Hiking shoes (absolutely no vibrams)
  • Walking sticks (def get these if you value your knees) *can be rented
  • poncho 
  • layers and layers of clothing (temp changes wildly)
  • gloves (I didn't use mine but good to have)
  • Hand sanitizer 
  • microfiber tower
  • Sleeping bag lining (although our sleeping bags were extremely clean)
  • Spare battery for camera! (there are no charging stations along the way...)
  • Or spare camera (I brought two)
The Llamapath Porters
A lot of respect for the porters. Those packs were not light.

Friday, February 01, 2013

How I Backpacked Through Myanmar

Before I made my way to North Korea, I paid a visit to another country with an equally tremulous political past. It was Myanmar, the land of a thousand temples. Fortunately, Myanmar has recently made impressive strides away from tyranny and towards democracy, which would allow tourists like us the opportunity to see this amazing land. 

I carried a physical Lonely Planet book this time since it was hard to find internet on the ground. Myanmar  Beer was very good. 
Similar to North Korea, Myanmar used to be a country where tourism was actively discouraged. Now that the government has become more democratic, Myanmar is one of the hottest spots for tourism. So much so that supply has not been able to keep up with demand and access for tourists into the country has been impeded by the lack of flights and hotels. I decided to take a backpack and do it myself during the low season. Compared to North Korea, it was easy to do Myanmar independently despite that there are still no ATMs and barely any internet access. Below are some of my favorite experiences in Myanmar . 

My top experiences 

  • Seeing the thousand temples in Bagan

    • This is simply the most breath taking view I have ever witnessed in my life. Climbing up onto an thousand year old pagoda and look out into the distance and see nothing but a thousand more pagodas in the horizon is unreal. With no other tourists around, you feel as if you were transported back in time. The king of Bagan built over 10,000 Buddhist temples during 11th century to 13th century and made his city a Mecca for buddists. It is also partly because of this that the kingdom eventually collapsed, given the debts incurred by the building extravagance. It was a classical story of a nation being over-levered on debt that eventually collapsed on itself. Sounds familiar? 
    You can get this view by climbing on top of pretty much any pagoda
    There were no fences, railings or other tourist infrasctures. Everything was untouched and raw
      Very windy...
  • Getting ripped off in Bagan
    • On my first day to Bagan, I was lost in thought while admiring a pagoda by myself on top of a half ruined wall. I was surprised when I looked down and saw a lone Burmese man looking up at me. I was even more surprised by his surprisingly good command of English. He told me that he was a artist who came into the pagoda to copy the murals from inside the pagodas to replicate as paintings 
    • I thought it must have been fate that brought me face to face with this esteemed artist in the middle of nowhere in Bagan, so I asked him to show me his paintings if it pleased him. He gladly agreed and was extremely kind to show me all of his sand paintings whiling telling the stories behind them. Eventually, he even allowed me to purchase one of the paintings. I was quiet honored. So then I went happily on my way to explore the next Pagoda, where I saw a whole row of such artists sitting there selling the exact same painting for 1/20 of the price that I paid for... 
    • Sand paintings...
    • I thought I learned my lesson but then I ended up buying a bunch of post cards from very cute little kids later which was extremely overpriced as well... 
  • Being fanned in Mandalay and seeing all the monks 
    • Mandalay was the last royal capital of the independent Burma. It has been the center of Burmese culture throughout the colonial days until today.  There is still a heavy colonial influence in the city; so I was sitting there in this restaurant by myself, and this Burmese waiter came behind me, stood there, and started fanning me with these large banana leaf fans, just like a scene out of Burmese Days by George Orwell. It was a pretty surreal experience but I wasn't complaining.... 
    • I saw the most numbers of monks in Mandalay in my life. They were everywhere, especially in the mornings walking on the streets going from door to door to collect alms. This was a way for Burmese people to earn merit by offering food or money to the monks. 
    • This this what they look like when collecting alms but they're actually lining up for lunch in this picture
  • Horse wiping poo all over my face
    • I was sitting next to the driver in the back of a horse driven cart touring some ruins in Mandalay. 
    • The horse was nonchalantly pooping while trotting along. It didn't really bother me since there was a basket tied behind his butt that caught all his poop, which I thought was pretty clever. 
    • Pretty clever that is, until the drive whipped the horse causing the horse to tense up and flick his tail. All the sudden, I felt all these "stuff" splashing onto my face. Turns out that the horse tail has been brushing back and forth along this poop basket and now with this flick, my face was covered with horse poop as well. It didn't seem to bother the horse drive tho....
    • My horse cart driver
      Nice view while getting a face full of horse poo 
  • Fisherman in Inle lake 
    • The fisherman in the Inle lake were unlike any other that I have seen. They have a special rowing technique. Instead of rowing with their arms, they row with one leg wrapped around the ore, with the other leg balanced in the boat. That way their arms are free to engage the nets and other things. It was quiet a spectacular sight. 
    • One of the many fisherman in the lake
      This will be a rare sight soon as the boats become motorized 
  • Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon 

    • One of the biggest pagoda in the world is located in Yangon. It has also existed for 2600 years which makes it the oldest pagoda in the world as well. It is a impressive sight. For this reason alone, a stay in Yangon is absolutely required. 
    • It is still very much in use today
      There's apparently diamonds at the top
  • Car rides and life in Myanmar

    • I had the pleasure of being inside some truly interesting cars while in Myanmar. Here are some pictures. 
    • Door handles are an unnecessary luxury 
      Actual pad lock on the glove compartment...
        The shuttle bus I took to the airport

    • It was very interesting to walk around Yangon and imagine what it might become. 
    • One of the main streets in Yangon
      This was the nicer neighborhood too
    • It was really interesting that most people in Myanmar still don't wear pants. I bought a set of longyis to fit in. 
    • The locals were really happy when I wore it

Recomended books - Burmese Days by George Orwell. This was an earlier work by George Orwell before he wrote the likes of 1984 and Animal Farm. He was definitely not as an mature writer, but it was still a fascinating read nonetheless. What's more interesting is that, scenes from the book, even tho it was written in the 1920s, still can be witnessed in Myanmar today since the country hasn't progressed much under the military regime for the past 80 or so years. 

How to plan Myanmar
For a introductory tour of Myanmar, it is necessary to visit 4 cities. Yangon in the South, and Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake in the North. International flights typically land in Yangon, with a few flying into Mandalay from Kunming, China. AirAsia runs cheap flights from Bangkok to Yangon.  To travel domestically, you could travel by bus or train if you are on a budget. Or, you could take domestic flights around the 4 cities. When I was there, it was not possible to buy tickets from outside of Myanmar, so you would have to contact a domestic Myanmar travel agency and ask them to book your flights for you. Once you land at the Yangon international airport, a rep would meet you and hand over your vouchers. 

It is extremely important to bring almost new US dollars with no folds or creases that was issued after 2006. They won't take anything with any slight fold.  Money change used to be a significant problem because of a official rate and a black market rate. It is no longer a problem, the money exchange at the airports are fair and efficient. There is, however, still no international ATMs.

I relied on my Lonely Planet for hostel/hotel recommendations but despite being published in 2012, the prices were completely already out of date. So my best suggestion is for anyone who's targeting to visit to do some more research on the internet for the most up to date information. 

Feel free to send me a message if you need help planning your Myanmar trip. Better go soon before it turns into another Thailand as tourism is expected to double every year..

Other interesting photos 
Hide and seek under the tractor

Public transportation going to work

Long neck people

Village in the middle of a lake

Building roads

Monks go to school just like regular kids


All students wear green as part of the uniform

Spring water shower


Selling potatoes like a boss

I remember this from China where you go to a place to get cooking oil

Pretty comfortable

Pagoda in Mandalay
Local sunblock
Floating farm
Monastery of jumping cats
Some sort of checker game
What people did for interaction before Facebook
I used to do the exact same thing in China about 20 years ago