Before I begin, I’ll just share this major highlight of the week which we enjoyed at Bangkok airport. I also had a sausage and egg McMuffin but that didn’t last long enough for a photograph!
We were really looking forward to getting here after spending two and a half months in four fairly similar countries, but landing in Myanmar was more of a culture shock than we’d anticipated. Despite bordering both Thailand and Laos it seems to have barely anything in common with them. Instead we feel like we’re back in India: men wear longyis, everyone chews and spits betel nut, you can eat thali for lunch (we have twice already), people carry improbably cumbersome or large objects on their heads, colourful fabrics abound, horse carts clatter along the streets, there are more turbans, beards and halal restaurants, and then there’s the dust, dirt and open sewers too! There are, of course many things that set it apart from India which I’ll try to point out as I write about what we’ve been up to.
First, to avoid any confusion, I should explain my choice of etymology: upon Dean’s suggestion, I’m calling the country its officially recognised name, Myanmar but I’ll refer to the people and language as Burmese, as per the main indigenous population. After years of British colonisation then many of military dictatorship, the nation is now turning a corner in terms of democracy, human rights and accessibility for tourists. There are still restrictions on where you can travel and stay and possibly what you can write on the Internet. I’ve read lots about the country which is very interesting but I can’t pretend to understand all its complicated history so I won’t attempt to explain it: Wikipedia it if you’re interested!
Because of how unique and colourful Myanmar and its inhabitants are, I seem to have managed to take a ridiculous number of photographs since we arrived. So I thought I’d try to do something slightly different to usual and tell the story of our first five days (8th-12th – haven’t had enough Internet to post until now!) just using images of people, well, mostly people as I may have to sneak in the odd one or two others.
Our flight landed in Mandalay on Sunday and we caught the unexpectedly free Air Asia bus to the ‘downtown’ area which is basically a very undeveloped (for tourism), dusty, poor but industrious location. There were only a handful of hotels so we were pleased we’d booked (unusually for us) and found it difficult to find somewhere for the second night. In general the accommodation in Myanmar has been costly and really bad value for money compared to everywhere else we’ve been so far on this trip. The first thing we did when we’d checked in was head out for some mid-afternoon thali – a typical Indian lunch consisting of all-you-can-eat rice, chapatti, dahl and a few curries for about £1.30 each. It was a delicious and refreshing change from Thai food though I’m sure we’ll start to miss that soon. We enjoyed it so much that we returned on Tuesday, but at actual lunch time, and witnessed the place packed out with groups of speed-eating business men and women.
As we always do when we have time, we spent our first afternoon just wandering the streets, getting our bearings and soaking up the new atmosphere. Every few metres we were offered a taxi (car or motorbike) or trishaw (push bike with a side seat) so we eventually engaged a man to take us to three historical towns outside of the city on Monday.
Travelling in the relative dust- and fume-free environment of a car was a good move as it enabled us to see loads in one day. The first stop was a monastery where, at about 10:15, hundreds of red-robed monks, holding their alms bowls, form fast-moving queues to receive their lunch. This seemed to be rice served from enormous vats by other monks, and other dishes which were laid out on tables inside various buildings in the large complex.
We wandered around the area for a while which was fairly quiet but for building work and puppies.
The next stop was a weaving workshop where you’re meant to want to buy longyis and scarves after you’ve seen all the people at work. It was noisy, colourful and fascinating watching them work but we didn’t make any purchases.
In a place called Sagaing, we climbed a ridiculously steep-stepped hill to reach a large, ornate (in a mirror mosaic, gold and colourful tiles kind of way) temple and a great view of the surrounding pagoda-spotted area and Irrawaddy River.
The next stop was Inwa. To get there, we swapped the taxi for a short boat ride and then got ourselves a horse cart (5000 kyats ~ £3.00)! The latter took us around for a couple of hours visiting temple ruins and an impressive teak monastery. We passed several little villages where, not for the last time this week, we felt a bit like we were in a wild west town with wooden houses, saloon-type cafes and horses!
Our final major stop was Amarapura where there is the world’s longest teak bridge about 1.2km long, over Taungthamam Lake. Once we’d got over the bridge’s age (about 165 years), lack of railings and the bitterly cold rain making it slippery and hard to see, we quite enjoyed our walk across it and back as the sun went down. It was busy with tourists, monks and locals so was good for people-watching.
Despite usually keeping my photos as they come out of the camera, I couldn’t resist editing this one a bit!
Tuesday brought sunshine so we took another walk, this time around a more rural part of Mandalay where there were people doing their washing (clothes and selves) at public wells; monks everywhere; stacked metal tiffin tins swinging empty by workers’ sides; trees whitened by plaster dust from the carving of hundreds of new Buddha statues; brightly-coloured tiny pairs of trousers hanging on lines over sewers; overflowing local buses; women carrying their wares on their heads; excitable school children waving at us from the school gates then running after us once the final bell had gone!
That evening we got a pretty luxury overnight bus to Nyaung Shwe for about £6 each. Amazingly the guest house we’d booked was able to give us our room at 4:30am despite saying we’d have to wait until noon so we crawled under our four blankets and slept a few hours before getting up to explore for the day.
It was a much more appealing town than Mandalay with a sleepier pace and far more tourist-friendly restaurants and tour companies offering ways to see Inle Lake and the surrounding area. Our first day’s wanderings took us to an amazingly vibrant market where all small things were sold using the universal measure of a rusty condensed milk tin and everything else was weighed in old-school scales! Local women in patterned sarongs, with their heads swathed in towels and their faces covered in thanaka bark paste, sat amidst their produce, chatting, smoking and bargaining.
Further on, we watched a woman selling betel nut: little leaf-wrapped parcels smeared with a white paste then filled with the buyer’s choice of bits and bobs (spices, liquids, powders) and their preferred form of betel nut – grated, small chunks, spiralled shavings or larger slices. The recipient then chews it for quite a while, colouring their teeth and gums red and staining the floor with blood-like spatters every minute or so! I took a video but can’t share that on here.
Later in the afternoon we booked a boat driver for the next day (£12) and some bus tickets for the one after (£7 each) then hired a couple of bikes (60p each). We cycled to a winery about 4km away, which was mostly flat until an incredibly steep bit at the end. We came more for the sunset view (breathtakingly awesome) than the wine (very mediocre according to Dean) and decided to stay there for some dinner.
The ride home was a bit scary with one poor headtorch between us, no street lights, uneven roads and the odd truck thundering past!
Thursday was my favourite day in a long time as we spent it on the enormous and tranquil Inle Lake. We started at 7:30 and our longboat driver, Dandang, first drove us for a couple of hours through the very atmospheric mist, past the traditional fishermen who row with their feet (though this particular one just cavorted around and held up his token fish for tourist kyats).
Eventually we arrived at a market, different to most others because it was completely outside and, looking up, had a view of mountains and shining stupas. Goods were transported on ox carts and boats and it was very ‘local’ with people from various nearby tribes visiting; some carried their oars with them, others put their purchases in baskets which they suspended from their heads. It was an amazing spot for people-watching and, of course, photographing.
Back on the boat, the sun had burned away the mist to reveal the houses of the lake’s inhabitants. Many of them were so dilapidated that we couldn’t understand how they remained standing; others were such sturdy-looking complicated structures that we couldn’t understand how they’d been built! Aside from the watery avenues, village life seemed very similar to that on land with neighbours chatting and households chores being undertaken.
After lunch we visited a very grand pagoda with its typically Burmese LED -blinged Buddha!
For the rest of the day we were ferried around from place to place to look at (and ideally buy) goods from different shops.
The first was another weaving workshop but this time the fabric was made from lotus stem fibres. It’s an expensive material as one scarf takes a couple of thousand stems and a lot of woman-hours. I loved all the colours and mechanisms.
We also saw a cigar-making workshop and another place which was allegedly part of a long-neck tribe village but we only saw one genuinely long-necked woman. Interesting all the same.
I know they’re not people but I found the kittens snoozing away at the ‘jumping cat’ monastery, so called because years ago the monks trained their cats to jump through hoops. There are still a lot of cats and monks but no jumping.
We saw some more real leg-rowing fishermen hard at work and enjoyed soaking up the amazing scenery as we headed back to town.
The next day we caught the 8 hour bus to Bagan but more about that next time!
Number of flags Myanmar has had in the last 128 years: 10!
Compulsory education age: 9
How much I’m missing festive fun: lots and lots!