24 February 2013

Burma (Myanmar)

I travelled with Exodus on their Discover Burma tour.


Burma's triumph is its people. Having weathered a shockingly unstable and at times ruthless history, the people of Burma have emerged with an all-pervading cheerfulness and enduring pragmatism. Tourists are a relative novelty in this vast country, yet a smile will greet you everywhere you go, together with a genuine interest in you rather than your wallet.
In the early part of the year Burma is hot and dusty, and you certainly wouldn't want to travel there in the furnace-like climate of late spring or the mosquito ridden wet season of high summer, but it's a beautiful land, with simple rural existence on the hills and plains beyond the cities, punctuated by some of the most iconic sights on the planet.
As usual, Burma is another country on the cusp of a tourist boom, not just from well-heeled Westerners but for the bulging middle class of nearby China and India. And here's the key issue. The tourist infrastructure is not yet ready. Hotel capacity is tight. There is no systematic management of tourist numbers in the honeypots of Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake. Domestic air terminals are generally small. So, if you fancy Burma as a future destination use a good tour operator with clout and certainly not one with links to the existing military junta.
Of course, a cloud remains over Burma's future, with democratic elections scheduled for 2015, which will, hopefully, see transition from the military regime which has prevailed here since the 1950's. As I write this in 2013, Aung San Suu Kyi is now free and doing a sterling job of reinvigorating international commitment to the freedom of the Burmese people, but history has clearly shown that unless a solid institutional infrastructure can be put in place, there has always been a tendency for vested interest and factionalism to stop democracy in its tracks. The Burmese people are holding their breath. But police and military forces were hardly visible during the two weeks spent in the country, although there are still no-go zones given the continuing civil war with some of the ethnic minorities in many of the peripheral regions.
In the meantime Burma deserves its place as one of the hottest travel destinations of the moment, a largely Theravada Buddhist nation with a rich and complex heritage. It's also a good introduction to Asia for perhaps a first timer, its gentle nature and lack of rampant commercialism a real asset.

Tour Notes

First impressions? Good enough, after about 15 hours on two flights, the overnight into  Kuala Lumpur and a two hour hop back north to Yangon, the jaded body and mind needed a warm welcome. And that's what we got.
A modern airport, quickly off the aircraft and efficiently processed by friendly immigration staff, we were soon in the hands of our irrepressible guide Nay linn Tun.
The hotel was relatively basic but with air con that worked, who cares? Nothing planned on today's itinerary, so this called for a quick independent tour of Yangon in the afternoon.
A spot of lunch, with the locally brewed Myanmar beer (5% abv, dry finish) appreciated. Then into a cab, having negotiated the quoted fare down by about a third, to visit a place which has featured a lot in recent history, the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, 54 University Avenue Road, just south of Inya Lake. 

Really not much to see there, as it's now a security fenced compound, and HQ of the NLD party, the house in which she spent many years under house arrest hardly visible. But, hey ho, this is a historic spot, and hopefully we're now seeing the proper start of the long haul to full parliamentary democracy. 
Then on to see a huge reclining Buddha at Chaukhtatgi Paya, a great spectacle housed in a large building akin to an aircraft hangar. This figure is styled in the tradition of the Theravada Buddhism that dominates this part of the world. 

Chaukhtatgi Paya, Yangon

There's a large meditation centre adjoining this site, but, alas, no time to 'sit' on this occasion. One more temple to see, the nearby Ngahtatgyi Paya, this time featuring a large sitting Buddha, set in a marvellous carved wooden backdrop. No westerners seen here, but plenty of monks and nuns paying homage.
The cab brought me back along the east side of the Kandawgyi Lake, very commercialised  and busy with people, some of whom seemed to be engaged in festivities for the Chinese New Year, with drums banging away and the odd dancing dragon spotted. Across the water to the north is a rather garish reconstruction of a Royal Barge, bedecked in gold, and now serving as a restaurant.
It was a weary body that re-entered the hotel late afternoon, the hot sultry weather, about 30C, having taken its toll. A short rest, disturbed by what I took to be an earth tremor which had my bed 'rolling' a little (or my anti-malarials were making me hallucinate!), then the group briefing before a pleasant dinner at an outdoor restaurant nearby.

Day 2

A walking tour of downtown Yangon this morning. The folks on the street are amazingly friendly, some stopping you to ask where you've come from, where you're heading, etc. without them then trying to sell ou something! Very little hassle on the streets, a few (very polite) kids hawking postcards, but a warm welcome everywhere.
The first real experience was walking through the open air market on 26th St., a truly amazing cacophony of sounds, smells and sights: live catfish, chickens slaughtered fresh for the table, caged sparrows to buy (then release, in order to gain 'merit'...apparently they then choose to fly back and re-enter captivity once more), fruit and vegetables that you've never seen before...and a real melting pot of locals, from fully clad Muslim women, darker skinned folk with ancestry probably of southern Indian stock, to the fairer skinned Burmans, many sporting the dried creamy yellow paste, thanakha, on their faces which is ubiquitous in these parts, mainly for the ladies but also adopted by younger males too. Most men continue to wear the traditional longyi, a sarong - very sensible in this tropical climate.
And red stains on the paving throughout, the residue of chewed betel nut and tobacco which renders many a mouth and teeth an unattractive red colour. Local fresh water vendors, who pour the water over a shard of ice and then through a muslin filter, and sellers hawking betel nuts and cigarettes sold singly, were on every corner.

We passed the Hindu Sri Kali temple, the large golden bell shaped zedi called Sule Paya opposite the colonial architecture of City Hall, and the imposing Immanuel Baptist Church. A tea stop, sat on little kiddie plastic chairs opposite the obelisk marking independence from British colonial rule (which ended in 1948), then down past the imposing offices of the  Inland Water Transport and the Myanmar Water Authority.
A quick look at the Yangon River then back up through the busy streets, crossing the wide east-west boulevards (taking your life into your own hands crossing these!), then an eventual escape from the midday heat with a cold beer and steamed pork on vermicelli.
After a good rest from the oppressive heat of the early afternoon, we visited the Karaweik (the golden boat mentioned above) on the east side of Kandawgyi Lake, enjoying the views across the Shwedagon Paya, apparently the most sacred of Buddhist sites for the Myanmar people.

Shwedagon Paya
This was to be our next stop, and a real highlight of any visit to Burma. Entering up the hundred or so steps of the East Gate, we were swiftly up to the base of the huge golden dome of this immense zedi (stupa). Warmly lit by the dying sun, then spotlighted as darkness fell, we circumnabulated this historic monument, said to house hairs from Śākyamuni Buddha. And it really is gold, apparently 90 tonnes of gold plate the structure and the uppermost vane is bedecked in jewels, the orb tipped with a 76 carat diamond some 100m above the base.
Around the base of the dome are many other smaller zedi, planetary posts, statues, temples and shrines. It has been rebuilt on numerous occasions, usually following earthquakes that afflict this region.
Of course, we didn't have it to ourselves, many locals circulating with us, monks, nuns and a smattering of tourists. Many locals were prostrating themselves to various Buddhas in the many raised pavilions, and others were deeply engaged in prayer. A friendly, peaceful atmosphere pervaded, the quiet hum of awe and reverence. Impressive all round.
Dinner was enjoyable, many in the group opting for the buttered fish curry, and of course, a few Myanmar beers.

Day 3

A very early start to get a domestic flight to Bagan, south west of Mandalay. A one hour flight on Air KBZ tracked the mighty Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River 430 miles northward, with the flatlands of the valley bounded by the higher ground of Rakhaing and Chin States to the west.
Everything seemed very easy going on this journey, busy domestic terminals at either end but none of the usual chaos and cacophony that you'd usually find in places like India and Nepal.
We found our comfortable hotel, Yar Kinn Tha in Nyaung U (just north of Old Bagan), and proceeded to explore the local Mani-Sithu market, admiring locally produced lacquerware. I resisted the temptation to buy a longyi, despite the goading of my fellow travellers, before repairing to a nice spot over the sand banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River for a cooling beer.
One big contrast here with Yangon. Lots of bicycles and motorbikes all of a sudden. Apparently one of the Burmese generals had an altercation with a two-wheeled vehicle sometime in recent history, and all two wheel modes of transport including pedal cycles are banned from the streets of Yangon. Now there's power...
As usual in Burma, from noon to about 1600 it's the norm to take time out to escape the oppressive heat that builds at this time.

Shwezigon Paya, near Bagan

Late afternoon, we started the first of the visits to the famous temple fields of Bagan, the first of note being the Shwezigon Paya. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, Burma's kings constructed some 4,000 Buddhist temples in this area, marking the transition from Hindu and Mahāyāna Buddhism to the now predominant Theravada Buddhism, initiated under King Anawrahta. Shwezigon is considered a prototype for all later stupas in Myanmar and is linked to the worship of 37 nat, spirit beings worshipped by Burmans since before the arrival of Buddhism, a tradition that continues in a complimentary way to Buddhism today. It was another iconic spot, thankfully empty of other tourists and with a spectacular 'mackerel sky' which gave a wonderful backdrop to yet more images of golden zedi. Shwezigon is another huge construction, gold plated at the top and surrounded by shrines housing large bronze standing Buddhas.

The nat site is in a locked compound, but we gained entry to this, the main figure being the stone image of Thagyamin, king of the nats and modelled on the Indian god Indra. An atmospheric spot.
Dinner at the 'Aroma 2' Indian restaurant, good atmosphere and excellent thali.

Day 4

Up early again, this time to join a hot air balloon flight across the Bagan temples at sunrise. This is said to be one of the most iconic balloon flights that you can do on Earth, and it certainly lived up to expectations. But be warned. Every day in the dry season, six balloons are available, each carrying a maximum of sixteen people plus pilot. That is a fraction of the demand that exists for this service, and I suspect that a lot of 'bumping' goes on as various operators pull favours with the balloon company. You prepay for the flight, £200 for 45 minutes (2013), and there's a full refund if you don't get past the waiting list or if there's unsuitable weather. So book really early, hassle your tour company and their local operator to make sure you get a chance of a flight. It's disappointment for many I'm sorry to say, and that simply boils down to supply and demand.

They're a professionally run bunch, with English pilots. They transfer you to the launch site, very close to Shwezigon Paya, in 70 year old buses (a great touch), caffeinate you during a short briefing, and then you stand and enjoy the spectacle of the balloons being inflated before jumping in and gently rising into the air. Sixteen in a basket sounds a lot, but there's four roomy compartments of four, so get in last for a corner position which gives the best access for photography and it's the furthest point away from the heat and roar of the gas burners.
Immediately you are in another world. Instant goosebumps. And within a minute or so you're hanging above the golden dome of Shwezigon Paya, adjacent to the meandering Ayerarwady River and the fisherman and their bamboo huts below.

Ballooning over Bagan
The sun is just coming up, a red ball just above the horizon. Early morning mists sliver in the shallow creeks feeding the main river. And then the wonder that is Bagan unfolds beneath you. Temple upon temple far into the distance, bounded by the river to the north and west, and the stark silhouette of Mount Popa, an extinct volcano, just to the south. The light subtley changes, a red hue forming on the brickwork of the hundreds of zedi (stupas) below you.
Of course, the wind determines where you end up and land with a gentle bump, and our pilot Graham ensured we saw the key zedi from a variety of elevations, probably peaking at around 600 feet. The other balloons drifted around us, but the space was ours, and it was right to park the cameras for a while and commit this splendid scene to our memory banks. Just awesome.
All the balloons landed in seperate locations and the ancient bus duly arrived to collect us, delivering pink champagne to celebrate the flight and a light breakfast. If you can, it's a 'must do'. One of those great experiences in life.
I rejoined the group (late, humble apologies proferred, etc.) and headed off to explore the temples and stupas on foot.
On the ground, Bagan has a very different feel but the quantum of structures appears in a different way. Driving along some tarmac and then sandy tracks, you can see them in all directions, some 'refurbished' with the original white lime coating, but mostly eroded back to the core brick and stone structure, and the more significant ones sporting golden domes as well.

Most of them housed one or more Buddhas, and the larger ones multiple Buddhas, usually in the 'earth touching' mudra, calling Mother Earth to witness the Buddha's Enlightenment.
Ancient frescoes depicting the Jakata tales and Śākyamuni Buddha's life were evident in some of the chambers and corridors, and the external architecture reflecting the evolution of design in the 230 years up to 1287 when the site was developed by the Bagan kings.
Sites visited: Ananda Pahto - an early Bagan design and notable for the four standing images of the Buddha, Thatbyinnyu Phato - a huge temple of the middle period of the Bagan era - and an attractive small temple just beyond it, and Shwegugyi - another elegant temple of the middle period.
Before the usual afternoon break, there was a (thankfully) brief visit to a local lacquerware producer, revealing a surprisingly intricate process involving bamboo, horse hair, teak, and the sap from a particular tree in southern Burma.
As I type this is I acquire my first two mozzie bites, sitting over lunch near the hotel. Not many of them about at this time of the year, but I forgot to spray the usual noxious insecticide, and the little buggers got me. Our guide insists that Dengue Fever and Malaria are not an issue here, but that's not what the usual UK advisories say, and I'm sticking with them...Malarone for breakfast as usual.
Late afternoon, guess what?
More temple visits...this time to see Sulamani Pahto - built in 1181 and with many well preserved frescoes, Dhammayangyi Pahto, a massive walled temple with a cruel history and still awaiting further restoration (unusual in that it's the only Bagan temple with two side by side Buddhas, Śākyamuni and Maitreya), and a sunset viewing point on Shwesandaw Paya. This was completely overwhelmed with visitors climbing the steep outer steps to view the sunset, so I went exploring nearby temples, and aided by a local with a torch climbed the steep internal steps of La Ka Ou Shang about 400m south of the big car park at Shwesandaw and got extensive views without the hubbub. Well worth a little effort.

A convivial dinner at the excellent Black Bamboo restaurant, although this is now rated in the Lonely Planet guide, so take care to book tables for dinner.
Our hotel, the Yar Kinn Tha, in Nyaung U, was excellent, with great staff and large rooms with quiet air con. But like the rest of Bagan, power cuts were very frequent, day and night. Pack a headtorch!

Day 5

As it transpired, a colourful morning was had. Having the visited the charming 13th century temple of Wetkyi-In-Gubyaukgyi (just outside Nyaung U) and studied its many frescoes from the Jatakas, we happened upon the procession of children who, the following day, would be entering monasteries as monks or nuns (often only for seven days at their tender age). Mums and elder sisters in all their finery, each sporting a colourful parasol led the way into the village of Myinkaba, followed by the little ones wearing crowns and heavy face make up, on horseback, in carts drawn by oxen and finally in the back of jeeps. Following them all was a gigantic 'boom box' of speakers, playing the music of two guitarists and a variety of drummers who were travelling on the same barrow, hauled by the young men of the village. Plus a diesel generator connected to the amplification on another trolley behind. An amazing sight!

Processional music (note the generator being dragged behind the trailer!)
We went on to the pagoda called Manuha Paya, a large building containing three large sitting Buddhas, and a big reclining Buddha at the back of the building, this one in the act of entering parinibbana, the final release from suffering in cyclic existence. The temple is dated to 1059.

Manuha Paya

Nearby, another smaller temple, Nan Paya, featured interesting interior stone work, with images of the Indian god Brahma facing a central dias, empty now, but said to have been a sitting Buddha.
An early lunch, then onwards to Mount Popa, a 4980' extinct volcano bounded by lush forest. On its flank is a 2418' volcanic plug, hosting a gilded Buddhist temple accessed by 777 steps up a covered walkway, a climb of about 20 minutes. Mount Popa is also a major venue for nat worship, and many nat images can be seen in the Mother Spirit of Popa Nat Shrine at the base of the steps.

Views from the temple on Popa Taung Kalat
777 steps sounds a lot, but we were easily up to the temple, avoiding the many monkeys that inhabit this stairway, and who sometimes grab food (or cameras) from unsuspecting visitors. The view from the top is fine, except the afternoon haze somewhat compromised the photography, but it was great to get away to a quieter spot, most tourists not making the effort to do the one and half hour drive south of Bagan to access this site.
The countryside en route gave us our first proper glimpse of the rural Burma. The parched sandy soils of the flat central region, awaiting the rains to produce crops of peanuts, sesame and corn. The woven bamboo walls of the farmer's shacks, roofed with palm leaves, the small-holdings with a collection of pigs, chickens and cattle, and carefully tended gardens growing vegetables and more exotic crops like dragon fruit.
The road to Popa was tarmac, but only just two lanes, and very quiet, the odd moped or bicycle on their way, but deliciously empty most of the time. We stopped at a small business who make their living demonstrating how they derive products from the many toddy palm trees that grow in this area, tapping the trunk for palm syrup, then showing how this is converted to palm sugar (delicious when eaten in small moist lumps with locally grown sesame seeds), and a palm spirit, the fermented and distilled output from a mixture of palm sugar and rice...and it wasn't bad either.

On our return journey we stopped at a local village, and enjoyed a few minutes with inquisitive villagers and their animals, although personally I'm not keen on this rather voyeuristic approach to tourism.

Back to Nyaung U in time for a nice sunset over the Ayerawaddy River, viewed from the balcony at the Beach Bagan Restaurant with a nice cool beer in hand.

Day 6

Another early start, heading for a flight from Bagan to Mandalay.
A half hour flight across hazy landscapes brought us to the large city of Mandalay, said to have a population of 6 million people, with many Chinese immigrants fuelling what appears to be an economic boom. Motorbikes and mopeds everywhere, and once off the new dual carriageway from the airport (flanked by a new gas/oil pipeline project which is being built in association with the Chinese), the streets are manic, with people and vehicles everywhere. Real hustle and bustle, much busier than Yangon.

No constraints on two-wheelers in Mandalay (until one hits a general!)
Betel nut purveyor
Street market, Mandalay
Our hotel was just south of the city centre, and we visited another interesting market pedalling many sorts of (often unidentifiable) food stuffs and some good local confectionary.
We travelled into the north west of the city, driving along the two mile length of the huge Mandalay Palace and Fort. This is bounded by a wide moat on all four sides. Originally the place of King Thibaw, it was seized by the British in 1885, and the wooden buildings of the palace complex were subsequently destroyed by fire during WW2.
A lunch of Shan food, quite spicy, at the Golden Shan, then visits to the gold leaf workshops (the gold used for decorating ornamental pieces and for rubbing on to Buddha images), the bustling Mahamuni temple where many locals were seated in front of the famous sitting Buddha image. Apparently, this is coated in 6" of gold leaf painstakingly applied by devotees over the years, although, somewhat strangely, only males are permitted to do this. The temple is surrounded by a museum and other galleries, and the approach runs alongside a lake ... a busy but attractive place to visit, although we had too little time to do it justice.

Always dress modestly for temple visits and remove both shoes and socks...no exception!
Mahamuni temple

Just away from the main temple complex, there's a sector of the city devoted to stone carving, an amazing array of Buddhas in various stages of construction, although somewhat alarming to look at as they seem to carve the face last!
Our next stop was the Shwe In Bin Kyaung temple, constructed in teak and mounted on wide stilts. Commissioned in 1895 by two wealthy Chinese jade merchants, this was a really chilled place to visit, with marvellous wood carvings and an adjacent building filled with monks and elderly laity deep in meditation.

Shwe In Bin Kyaung temple
The final highlight of the day was a sunset viewing session from the top of Mandalay Hill. I was joined by a 28 year old chap, who had been a monk for 18 years and who was now learning English so that he could travel more widely in his practice. This passed the time as we climbed up steps for a solid half hour, but interesting nonetheless as he practiced his English with me.
The top of the hill, festooned with small temples and numerous Buddha images, was very busy with tourists, but there were extensive views over the north of the city, looking south to the Mandalay Palace and Fort, east to the Shan Mountains and west to the Ayerawaddy River.

Day 7

A very early start to travel to Amarapura, the penultimate royal capital established in 1783 but lasting only 70 years or so, before moving to Mandalay. We were heading to U Bein's bridge, a 1.2km teak bridge spanning Taungthaman Lake, used by pedestrian traffic going about their daily business and great for atmospheric sunrises.

I was expecting hordes of tourists, but at that time of the morning, crossing the bridge with head torches, we had the place to ourselves, except for locals exercising and monks on their way to collect alms. A serene setting, with dawn breaking ahead of us, flocks of shags and large white egrets above us, and the chant of monks engaged in early morning prayer calmly completing the scene. It was a reluctant dawn, but patience was rewarded with a huge red sun silouetted across the water, the surface broken only by a few fisherman wading up to their waists in order to attend to their nets. A great start to the day.

U Bein's Bridge
Next on a busy agenda for the day was to get a boat from the Mayan Chan jetty up to Mingun, an hour or so of gentle cruising north on the Ayerawaddy River. The river is very busy with large barges, stacked with rice, oil drums, teak, and dredged silt used for construction. And plenty of small boats either fishing or carrying locally produced water melon and the like.

Boating on the Ayerawaddy River

Alighting from the boat, you are immediately impressed with Mingun Paya, the world's largest stupa had it ever been finished. Commissioned by King Bodawpaya in 1790, using forced labour from the conquered peoples of western Burma, work was abandoned upon his death in 1819. All that's left now is a monumentally large base, about 100m high and about one third of the originally intended height. There are some huge cracks in the structure now as a result of earthquakes, and just the haunches of the two vast guardian deities (chinthe, half dragon, half lion) remain near the riverside entrance. Steps to the top of the base have now been closed off due to structural instability following the most recent earthquake.

Base of the Mingun Paya. Had it been completed it would have been 3X higher
'Get this Mingun bell off my head!'
Hsinbyume Paya
Nearby is the Mingun Bell, the largest uncracked bell in the world weighing 90 tonnes and standing over 13' high. Further down the track, past numerous vendors and taxi ranks of bullock carts, there's the marvellous Hsinbyume Paya, modelled according to Buddhist cosmology, with white wave-like terraces representing the seven seas surrounding the mythical Mount Meru, the 'centre of the universe.' Good views from here having climbed the steep steps up to view the two Buddhas atop the stupa, but by now the temperature was starting to get oppressive. Time to get back on the boat.
A longish transit south, taking care to avoid grounding on the shifting sand banks of the Ayerawaddy, we eventually arrived in Sagaing for a late lunch. The boat crew place a guy on the foredeck with a long measuring pole, and he checks the depth of the river as the boat nears the sandbanks, signalling depth and which way to turn to avoid grounding. We passed a large freighter which had grounded and it was still struggling to free itself when we passed back this way five hours later. Someone got home late for tea methinks.

Exodus group in Umin Thounzeh, Sagaing
View from Pon Nya Shin Pagoda
Sagaing presents a magical view from the river, a vast array of white and gold stupas proudly standing atop numerous small hills all around, and we gained marvellous views from a number of vantage points on Sagaing Hill, most notably from Pon Nya Shin Pagoda. There's also an impressive sight at the Umin Thounzeh, literally '30 caves', with a crescent shaped colonnade containing some 45 Buddha images.
This afternoon was the hottest of the trip, and it was good to get back on the boat and laze for the cruise northwards to Mandalay, the boat fighting the current all the way.
A great day out, although tiring in the heat.

Day 8

Another early start! Although I would have been up before dawn anyway, as the local temple behind the hotel insists on playing loud traditional music at 0430 for some reason. It even woke the local cockerels up!
Today we head south west to Kalaw in Shan State, flying from Mandalay to Heho, a flight of about 30 minutes. It's much hillier in these parts, with a corresponding reduction in temperature, a pleasant 25 C with a cool breeze. The southern part of the Shan State is relatively peaceful, but to the north and east there has been a long-running civil war, and Heho is used as a military airport as a result.
The people in a very small rural market are drawn from many different tribes, including the Pa-O, Palaung and Danu, and the foodstuffs on sale differed from that seen in Mandalay and Yangon, a lot of dried fish seen here for example.

Market in Kalaw
The landscape is a mixture of distinct hillocks, wooded with pine and numerous red and orange flame trees, and rolling open countryside. Small farmsteads had banana trees growing in their gardens.
We had a good lunch at a Shan restaurant in Kalaw, our stop for the next two nights. This is an old hill station used by British colonials to escape the heat of the plains, situated at 1300m and notably cooler here, with a refreshing breeze. There's a backpacker feel to the place, quite chilled, although there are more military about, our lunch spot also being used by five smartly uniformed army officers.
Instead of charging around the various temples and viewpoints around the town, I opted for an afternoon of idleness, a good nap followed by tea on the balcony overlooking the attractive gardens of our well situated hotel, the Pine Hill Resort, on a hill south of the bustling town. Views to the hills, a fresh breeze and flowers in abundance, a good place to chill for a while.

Gardens at Pine Hill Resort
Dinner in the town with good Shan food again at the Seven Sisters restaurant. The pork steamed in banana leaves was particularly good.

Day 9

The day started with another market visit, this time a more significant one as it's a visiting market that comes about every five days. It was somewhat irritating to see so many army vehicles with lowly ranked drivers bringing officers and their ladies to do some shopping. A really good use of the country's limited resources...
The rest of the day was spent trekking along a circular route using old trading routes used by Pa-O, Palaung and Danu ethnic groups, led by local guides employed by the Rural Development Society. This is the creation of a number of chiefs from the local ethnic tribes, taking more adventurous groups into the remoter villages not usually visited by tour groups, the revenue then uses to fund wells and schools. Well, that's the theory. The track looked well used by tourists as far as I was concerned, the first village, populated by the Pa-O, looking like it was very familiar with receiving foreign visitors. We had a tea stop here, drinking locally grown green tea, whilst some of our ladies shopped for various items of traditional apparel.

Pa-O tribeswoman
Trekking in the Shan Hills near Kalaw

Limestone landscapes in Shan State

The walking before lunch was a series of long steady ascents and level contouring paths, wide and easy to use, rising through small orchards of orange, damson, avocado and banana trees, bushes of coffee beans, and fields of cauliflower and mustard at the higher elevations. We walked at an altitude between 1300 and 1500m, sometimes hot but generally cooled by a gusty breeze, very pleasant easy strolling.
We had lunch in a village mainly populated by Taung Yo peoples, sitting on the floor at very low tables, after which some of us took a slightly more adventurous path back to Kalaw, some steeper ascents and descents, and narrower paths through denser forest and long grass. More sporting and very enjoyable.

The terrain here reflects the limestone bedrock of the area, ridges and occasional bluffs, dissected by deep valleys. Almost every hilltop sports an impressive stupa.
As we entered Kalaw we watched a very skilful game of chinlon, somewhat like volleyball but the rattan ball can only be touched with the head, legs and feet. It turned out to be the rear of the local fire station, so the local firemen were keeping fit in their own way. A nice day of activity, a precursor to the rest of the week.

Dinner at a local Nepali restaurant, the Everest Restaurant, basic interior but great curry.

Day 10

A road journey to the Inle Lake district of Shan State, taking about four hours to cover under 40 miles on mainly single track and sometimes roughly surfaced tarmac. Slow going, passing farmer's bullock carts, passing road making gangs (usually groups of women, and always ready with a smile and a wave), and crude trucks powered by two-stroke engines.
Most of the journey we were passing through rolling countryside at an elevation of about 1100-1200m, the soil increasingly iron rich red as we neared our destination.
As it's the dry season, crops were not much in evidence, but I was left with the impression that this is rich farming country.
Our journey was punctuated with a couple of interesting stops, most notably the fabulous spectacle of the Shwe Oo Min pagoda, situated on a limestone cliff above Pone Taloke Lake in Pindaya. Below the cave complex is a multitude of white stupas, the Nget Pyaw Taw Pagoda, and the entranceway to the main steps leading to the caves features a large black spider adjacent to a princely archer, reflecting the legend of his rescue of seven princesses who had taken refuge in the caves during a storm, only to be imprisoned by the local nat in the form of a giant spider.

Shwe Oo Min pagoda
Looking down to Nget Pyaw Taw Pagoda
Giant spider 'nat' and conquering archer at the entrance to Shwe Oo Min pagoda

Meditation cave

Some of the 8,700 Buddhas in the caves of Shwe Oo Min
The cave system here is full of many golden Buddhas, mostly donated by visiting pilgrims from all over the world, and there are some 8,700 of them festooning the cave interiors according to Lonely Planet's 2011 Guide to Myanmar.
It's an extensive complex, with small meditation caves still used by monks, and there are stalactites with water dripping away which add to the atmosphere. A splendid 40' sitting Buddha was found in another cave pavilion reached by a covered walkway. A real highlight of any visit to Burma.
A good lunch at the lakeside.
Onwards. The itinerary included a visit to a small family business making parasols. I almost stayed on the bus, but glad I didn't . This was an impressive display of local craftsmanship using nothing more than pulp from nearby mulberry trees to make paper, sometimes decorated with local flowers, clever use of bamboo, and natural glues and resins to waterproof. I bought one!
We passed another procession, the locals on their way to consecrate a new Buddha image, and the somewhat serious-looking Shan people wearing their turban like headgear.
Our stop for the next three nights is Nyaungshwe, a somewhat scruffy town a few miles north of Inle Lake, with quite a number of backpackers milling around. The Shan Hills rose steeply to the east of us, the highest mountains seen so far, although very hazy on our arrival. Our hotel, the Hu Pin, was very Chinese in style but functional, and located adjacent to a rather grubby canal running to the lake.
A few of us treated ourselves to an expensive dinner at the Viewpoint Restaurant, nouvelle cuisine versions of Shan food - small portions nicely presented - washed down with a competently produced Cabernet Sauvignon from the nearby Red Mountain Estate. Some great flavours, especially the aubergine, and tofu made from yellow split peas. Almost at London prices too!

Day 11

Wandering around the town just after breakfast, I was lucky enough to catch the procession of local monks collecting alms for the day. A long line of slightly sullen boys and men, in strict age order, with their bowls, collecting rice, curry and other foods from locals who donate regularly in order to acquire merit.

Monks collecting alms, early morning in Nyaungshwe

We were to spend the day touring on Inle Lake, in small four/ five person long tail boats. Of course, we were not alone! This is one of the tourist honeypots of Burma and we were soon in a flotilla of relatively fast long-tails heading south down the main canal, Nan Chaung, to the lake which is about 13.5 miles long and 7 miles wide. Bounded on both sides by the Shan Hills, more mountainous on the east side, the lake was flat calm as we entered on to it, the early morning haze still shrouding the higher elevations of our surroundings.

With the sun came our first glimpse of the Intha fisherman, unique in their use of flat bottomed skiffs powered by a single wooden paddle - the uniqueness being the method of leg rowing, where one leg is wrapped around the paddle to propel the blade through the water in a snake like manner. 

Intha fishermen

We were to see many of these during the day, as the lake shores host quite a large population of people, many eeking a living out of fishing and farming either artificially created land or growing crops in floating beds of weed that have been dredged from the lake. Bamboo and thatch houses are constructed on the reclaimed land or some of the older ones are simply on stilts.

Village scenes adjacent to Inle Lake
It was a rather odd day, as our group visited craftsmen who had set up business on the south west side of the lake at In Phaw Khone and Ywama, and at times it felt like a shopping expedition. Silk weavers, including silk derived from the stem of the lotus plant, produced some nice work, setting off a buying frenzy! Quick visits to local blacksmiths, a cheroot maker, and a silversmiths completed the retail part of the day. We made a visit to the huge Phaung Daw Oo Paya, a vast pagoda situated on a channel heading west from Ywama. This was quite commercial, and had less appeal than some of the other pagodas visited on the trip, local pilgrims layering the central Buddha figure with tons of gold leaf (so much so that it has a security guard) and a nearby shed housing a large golden barge, a hintha, which is used in the annual Phaung Daw Oo festival. A nice lunch of well prepared lake fish followed.
The highlight of the day was the visit to Inthein, reached via a river which flows over weirs constructed of mud and weed, into the south west of the lake. Passing locals with water buffalo on a lead, the beast relishing the wallow in this relatively fast flowing water, villagers tending their crops, and clusters of young men and women (separately) bathing in the waters, we were suddenly into rural life proper, a relief to get away from the overt commercialism of the lake.

Of course, when we reached Inthein, there was the usual welcoming committee of vendors, but passing through a colonnaded walkway we were confronted by the most amazing of sights, the hundreds of ruined stupas (actually 1,054!), known as Shwe Inn Thein Paya, many featuring ornate carvings of various Buddhist and other symbols. Said to date from the 15th century, the site is under substantial development, with many new stupas, some in brick, others in concrete and many now gilded, rising alongside the earthquake shattered remnants of the first generation. Some of the older ones lean precariously, whilst others have been vegetated, with some featuring trees which have grown through the top. An odd sight and hugely atmospheric.

Old and new at Shwe Inn Thein Paya
Our late afternoon return to Nyaungshwe was through the floating gardens north of the stilted villages, passing through a weed choked channel alongside crops of tomato, squash, flowers and many other fruits and vegetables.

Floating gardens at Inle Lake
 And then fast across the lake back to our start point, delayed a little when the engine on our boat unceremoniously died, requiring us to transfer into the other boats. The warmth of a red and orange sunset soon turned to the chill of early evening as we made the last few miles back up the canal.
A great simple dinner at Lin Htett Myanmar restaurant, recommended in the Lonely Planet guide and justifiably so.

Day 12

A cycling tour to the west of Lake Inle today, quickly leaving the polluted air of Nyaungshwe, and up into the hills to visit some villages. An interesting morning, visiting another farm with a  small distilling business, producing spirit from a mixture of rice and sugar cane. Further on, a larger village whose economy was based on locally grown soya beans and sugar cane. We saw soya beans being made into roasted snacks and crackers, and in another location yellow split peas being made into tofu. Sugar cane was converted into brown sugar lumps and chewy toffee.
Alas, I suffered from severe dehydration today, a culmination of not drinking enough whilst out on the lake yesterday, and cut my cycling tour short. A good rest and 4L of water sorted me out though. Should have known better!

Day 13

Shan style Buddhist monastery
A drive of some 40km back to Heho to catch an early flight to Yangon. R and R today, much of it spent in the best hotel in town, The Strand, which hankers back to the colonial days and is now the venue of choice for the expat community in Yangon, today an assortment of Canadian diplomats who had just met with Aung San Suu Kyi and some predictably boisterous Australian NGO staffers. A good number of G and Ts were consumed after a good lunch, before returning for the group dinner in the evening. Necessary rehydration demanded a return to The Strand later in the evening for a final tipple.

Day 14

Chaotic traffic in Yangon had to be negotiated by the coach taking us to the airport, but we were efficiently processed once again, ready for the return flight to London via KL.

A few general tips for travelling in Burma

  • Tourist infrastructure at its limits
  • Food quality and variety good throughout - 'Delhi belly' is not an issue for most people
  • People seem to be very law abiding, e.g. use of horns before dawn doesn't happen, driving is chaotic but they generally stick to the rules (drive on right)
  • Domestic airlines generally good quality, although schedules do change at the last minute
  • Take great care when crossing roads, everything has priority except for poor pedestrians trying to cross the road
  • Internet and wifi available in Yangon, Bagan, Ngaungshwe, and Mandalay. Best upload speeds in Mandalay. Kalaw no good for power or Internet.
  • Power cuts very frequent in Bagan, also Yangon a bit intermittent, Mandalay better. Most hotels have generators that kick in after a short delay.
  • Apparently tailormade guests get priority on hotel reservations as they probably pay more.
  • Lake Inle the most commercial of the sights visited but still a 'must-do'

Recommended reading: 

The River of Lost Footsteps, a personal history of Burma by Thant Myint-U
From the Land of Green Ghosts, by Pascal Khoo Thwe



David said...

A most informative and interesting acount, Colin. But it is probably as close as I will ever get to the real thing!


David A, Melbourne

Anonymous said...

Another nice blog Colin....the adventure continues...where next? Thanks

Anonymous said...

HI Colin, what a wonderful blog - it brought back so many memories of our trip there last year - isn't it just a beautiful place to visit.

Michele Cook said...

A really interesting & informative blog Colin with fantastic photos. Many thanks for sharing.

imageofmyanmar said...

Interesting and most valuable post.
Thanks for sharing a great post, keep it up writing.

Burma local travel agent