If you live in Asia and have three plus days you can use on vacation head to Myanmar before it is westernised and commercialised beyond recognition. We had the good fortune to recently visit Myanmar for nine days. We developed our itinerary from a friend who lived and worked in the capitol city of Yangon, so we were in the best of hands so to speak. Anyway as it happened the travel agent that he recommended couldn’t accommodate our group of four anywhere we planned to go with guides so we were on our own. None of us were too bothered by this however because we all prefer it that way and are scared of anything that even whispers “tour group”.
Our adventure began with a flight on Air Asia out of Don Mueang Airport to Yangon. Then a taxi ride to the Novotel Yangon Max ,which was about 30 minutes away. This is a nice new hotel, quite upscale but not overpriced. It is not in the downtown but just outside of it. We arrived early and they accommodated us and let us into our rooms. We then went walking for lunch and to see the Golden Pagoda and the castle walls. We ate at a typical Burmese restaurant close to Shwedagon Pagoda. Burmese food is similar to Thai food but less spicy. We looked out on a classic scene: three kids playing in front of their house. It wasn’t a house you or I would live in. They were hacking with huge knives at the rind of some fruit, likely watermelon, laughing, talking and poking fun at each other.
How they didn’t cut off their fingers only they knew. All their fun ended up in a water fight of sorts where the girls pitched small plastic bags of water and water soaked garbage at their brother. It was a delight to watch. The Pagoda entrance is very spectacular with lots of shops along the grand stairs leading to main entrance. You must be wearing something past your knees so both my husband and my sister in law had to purchase longis to wear around the temple. There is an entrance fee for foreigners. It is a magnificent structure made up of many different sized temples with Buddha figures. My particular favourite is the lying Buddha. Many people worship in different ways around the temple complex and groups of monks visit as well.
That night in Yangon we took a river cruise which was very interesting as this is one of the main routes of transportation within the country. The river taxis zooming back and forth from bank to bank tells you a little about the life of the people of Yangon. On several occasions we watched the taxis being swarmed by seagulls and wondered why? Then we noticed one where it seemed that they were actually throwing food in the air to cause them to do this. We watched a man reach high in the air from the boat and grab a seagull breaking its neck on the way down. We wondered if he would eat it and shuddered at the thought. The next day we were off to Bagan. A short flight and then an hour’s drive by taxi to the Bagan Lodge Hotel, an oasis. Bagan is an area of religious temples. These structures can be found everywhere. We hired our taxi driver and we toured around the major temples that we wanted to see in the area. You can only see so many – there are literally thousands – 2,200 apparently. We visited Sein Nyet Sister temples, Ananda temple, Thatbyinnyu temple finishing up at Pyathadar temple to watch the sunset as this was considered the least busy with tourists. It wasn’t a very spectacular sunset and I did still think it was crowded. If you can imagine Myanmar expects to increase the number of Japanese tourists from one million to four million next year. I imagine things are going to get much more crowded. The next morning we went on a magical flight with Balloons Over Bagan at sunrise. I had never been in a hot air balloon but I am hooked.
It is very difficult to make reservations for the flights and you must plan and book months in advance although expensive so worth it; an experience of a lifetime. I was told by our pilot that they do balloon flights over Kenya and when we go there it will be one of our must dos. The next day we flew to Inle Lake. Again a one hour plus taxi ride to the View Point Lodge located right in the town. After a great lunch at a small restaurant called Paw Paw, which helps train local displaced youth in serving and cooking we walked a good distance to Red Mountain Winery to taste some wine at sunset on Valentine’s Day. Who knew that you could find some very tasty local wine. The next day we hired a boat to take us around the lake and its communities to see what it was all about.
We saw many men out fishing – in their very unique way; they hold the oar with their foot so their hands are free to deal with the net. They have amazing balance. This traditional way of fishing is still used by most fishermen but we saw tourism leaking in and turning a mockery into it for some. Two “fishermen” we came upon eagerly posed for us balancing on their boats and then asking us for money. They held up a fish while they posed I am sure it was days old. They now probably buy their fish with the money they make posing instead of fishing for it, much easier. Thankfully there were lots of others out on the water making their lives from the lake as they have always done. We saw the classic silk and lotus weaving and the many products that they produce from silk, cotton and lotus (a thread that I did not know could be produced spun and woven) in beautiful colours.
Inle Lake sustains a lot of people and the populace is growing all the time. They have not always been careful with the lake as a resource and now realise that they must refine many of their practices so that the lake can continue to provide for them and be a valuable resource. We visited a small village where they are trying different ideas to develop practices that are more sustainable and less harmful to the lake. Also at this village they had a number of Burmese cats. On our way back to our launch point we stopped at a silversmith shop and a shop of goods developed by the Karen (long necked) people.
It is the tradition of the women of this group to wear rings around their necks that stretch their necks. The older they are the more rings they wear.From Inle Lake we flew to Mandalay which used to be the capitol of Burma again it was approximately a one hour taxi ride to our hotel. Mandalay seemed less progressive and had less infrastructure than Yangon. Yangon had very little motorcycle traffic and Mandalay has many motorcycles. Things were cleaner and less gritty in Yangon, the buildings definitely newer and Mandalay was dirty with broken sidewalks and older buildings especially around the Royal Palace.
We saw male and female monks everywhere in Mandalay, young and old processing through the streets going from store to home to storefront giving blessings and receiving rice at all times of the day, not just the morning as I have seen in other Asian countries. It is common for the Burmese to decorate their faces with Thanaka – a kind of natural face mud that is yellow in colour that serves some say as a sunscreen. We saw this practice on all kinds of people in Mandalay more than anywhere else in Myanmar.
On the first night in Mandalay we walked from our hotel to a well recommended restaurant called “A Little Bit of Mandalay”. What was amazing about this walk was it felt like we were walking in the middle of nowhere in the pitch black, very little street light, to get to a rather large well known place. The food was Burmese and very good as was the atmosphere. The next night we decided we wanted European food and took a taxi to Bistro 82 and it was remarkably modern, upscale with very good quality continental food. We viewed sunrise in Mandalay at U Bein teakwood footbridge. People fish in this bay. We were told to go at sunrise as it is to packed with tourists at sunset. We were greeted with other tourists, mostly Japanese I would say, the funny part is it looked like these photographers had hired one of the fisherman to throw his net so they could take “natural” pictures of him doing his work with the sunrise in the background. It did make for some great shots.
We finished off our trip by flying back to Yangon spending the remainder of the day in Yangon. We went to the large indoor market called Scott’s Market (also Bogyoke Market) and it literally had everything. It is clean and seems relatively well organised. It is a nice break from the outside heat. I am sure there are bargains to be had but we were only there for a short time and really there just to look not shop.
Our final evening we went for dinner to a beautiful colonial mansion called Le Planteur overlooking Inya Lake. The food was very good and the setting out on the lawn by the lake was amazing, truly a wonderful way to end our trip.
If you haven’t been to Myanmar at all or if you have been but not recently go because it is sure to change drastically in the coming years as it westernises, and becomes more commercial, less reliant on its cultures and traditions: like the crafts/skills of lacquerware, weaving, silversmithing, boat building and fishing.