Monday, 16 February 2015

Myanmar, Burma: Go before it's gone.

After three hours of sitting in the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok waiting for my visa, I am beginning to wonder if this trip is such a good idea after all... wracked with indecision, we decided upon Myanmar last minute, leaving a lot to organise in just two days.

There is still a sense of urgency around Myanmar, a sense that one should go before the heavy footsteps of mass tourism tear through it. This has meant that the number of visitors has quadrupled over the last few years, and with it, so has the price of accommodation.

The current lack of infrastructure and the fact that much of the country is still restricted or politically unstable mean that carving your own, unique adventure is difficult. Had we more time, we would have applied for permission to visit the islands around Myeik and crossed the border overland at Ranong, or explored the area around KengTung. As it is, we settled on the two most visited locations of Bagan and Inle lake in the hope that we can both enjoy their beauty and experience the local culture by venturing off from there...


... Its is three days in and Stuart and I are taking a hellish eight hour bus between Bagan and Kalaw (a base from which to reach Inle). Despite the incredible vistas of Bagan, I am still doubting our decision, my recollections tainted by the nauseating drive and fever that I am suffering from.

Bagan is undeniably beautiful, but the mix of old with new or repaired temples renders it difficult to always know what you are looking at. It sometimes has the feeling of a Hollywood film set, but with tolerant, disillusioned splendours sitting within it.

The best time to appreciate the views is at sunrise and sunset when hoards of tourists rush to the best vantage points. This can detract from the magic but there are a few private hideouts that can be found. We shared the top of a little shrine called Oak Kyaung Gyi with just a handful of others, and saw a lone man pacing the shrine just behind it with the roof all to himself.

Beyond the views and impressive structures, there are several ancient murals to be explored inside, and often by torchlight. These are mysterious and eery, but difficult to interpret. The best preserved we saw were at Kyansitttha – where we were able to make out monks at court, huntsmen aiming their arrows at birds in trees, and deer chased down by tigers.

Other that the temples, the highlights for me were the glimpses I got of local life. The first of these was a touring truck of traditional dancers with a retinue of Burmese families watching at each station. At each crescendo the dancer would flick the train of her dress with a highly stylised pose while another would sing.

The second was a magnificent, technicolour procession of jangling oxen and carts, gaudily attired villagers, elephants and little boys with parasols astride horses. We chanced upon this procession as we turned back to pick up our sun cream and later found out that it was a celebration of the young boys entering the monastery.

Last of all are the farming villages we stumbled upon. Here, as the sun began to set and the shadows grew long, we saw the goats being herded home, the oxen returning after a long day tilling the field, some giggling adolescent girls preparing vegetables, and the boys unloading carts of that day’s harvest.

Right now, these memories are lost in the haze of fatigue, fever and the desperate longing for the privacy of a hotel room...

Trekking from Kalaw

... after a day recovering at the charming Nature Land II hotel, we set off on a three day hike from Kalaw to Inle lake. We arranged for a guide at Sam's Family restaurant where a huge portrait of Sam himself adorns the walls. Uncle Sam, as he is known, learnt English from the days when Myanmar was colonized, and understands the desire for some tourists to experience the local lifestyle rather than a show put on to satisfy tourists' curiosity. Each of the guides are tri-lingual as a minimum, well-versed in both of the village dialects, and with a fantastic command of English having been tutored by uncle Sam himself.

The trekking was easygoing - just five hours each day, and full of intrigue. We chose the less well-traveled route, prioritising local culture over scenery. The walks were wonderful, winding through paddy fields, wheat meadows where women were separating the grain from the chaff, red plains of dried chilies and women sorting them into piles of potency (the dark red ones are the spiciest and therefore the most expensive), and fields of forked up earth where bounteous ginger was being uprooted.

In the villages baskets and roofs were being thatched, tumeric pounded and dried, and vegetables prepared for dinner. 

Each night we slept in a bamboo house of one of the local families, eating the ingredients from the surrounding land, cooked in earthen pots in the embers of a fire inside. While sleeping on the floor is cold and uncomfortable, the day’s adventure and the lack of electricity (we were in complete darkness from around 8pm) meant that we slept just about enough, and had a lot of time to think and talk.

Inle Lake

When we arrived at Lake Inle, uncle Sam had arranged for a boat driver to meet us and show us around. This turned out to be a huge blessing because a lot of the boat drivers are extortionate and insist on taking you to lots of shops and 'workshops'. Our driver, on the other hand, followed the thoughtful itinerary uncle Sam had chosen for us and charged just 5,000 kyats.

We began with one of the floating gardens, going in amongst the crops so we could pick vegetables for our lunch.


We took these with us to a little village on the lake where a family cooked our vegetables in their bamboo house on stilts. While we ate, their children hilariously mimicked each other and played a sort of grandmother's footsteps with us. Later on, the father of the household took us around the village on his narrow teak boat.

On the way to our hotel, we stopped to see men collecting natural fertiliser from the seabed, and engaging in various types of fishing. 


We finished the day with the sense that we had slowed down to the pace of this peaceful way of life and were in no way ready to return to our frenetic London existence. 

On reflection, I am glad to have seen Myanmar when I did. The pace of change is extraordinary and throughout our journey I encountered countless construction sites and new roads.