Why did we go to Myanmar (Burma)?
Originally we had no plans of visiting Myanmar because we thought it could be dangerous and did not want to support the local government. We were aware of the fact that it was abusive and was taking away, not only natural resources, but people's liberties as well. However, after hearing of other travelers' amazing experiences in Myanmar and having been assured that it was very safe, we decided to give it a try. It was our understanding that visits from tourists are generally good for the locals as it mitigates isolation. Where reasonably possible, we avoided paying for government run services and gave our money to small, local businesses. A piece of advice though, if you are looking just for beautiful landscapes, art work, and comfort this is not the country for you; but if you want to be surrounded by locals who haven't been changed by mass tourism and behave a bit more authentically, Myanmar is one of your best candidates.
Myanmar people are very traditional, funny, and friendly. They get very excited to see foreigners and greet you with a smile showing their red teeth corroded by betel juice. The local women and children like to wear a yellow make up on the face -thanaka a simple paste made out of a tree trunk and water.- It sort of functions as a sunscreen. Men and women alike hide their legs by wearing a sort of long skirt or longyis and call each other by making a kiss sound rather than shouting. On a normal day it is common to see a variety of people, from different religions and ethnicity, walking on the streets carrying umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun. You can also see women selling food and other products carried on their heads, and hear traders making rhythmic noises to get the customer's attention. In this isolated corner of Asia horse -or ox- carts are still utilized for public transport, automobile's license plates are written in the local alphabet, and having electricity 24/7 is a luxury that only the new and exclusive capital -the government headquarters- can enjoy. Sadly, the rest of the country has to suffer from black outs everyday so the government can sell cheap electricity -along with many other natural resources- to neighboring sovereigns, primarily China.
Alms giving, Yangon
Myanmar reminded us a little of India, without the sweltering crowds, shight-ridden streets, or hectic touts. Our first reaction as we arrived in Myanmar was: IT IS SO FREAKING HOT!!! the heat knocked us out on our first day in Yangon or Rangoon (the ex-capital). We couldn't do anything, but to sleep the whole day and night, except for a couple of hours that we ventured purchasing bus tickets. As we walked in the downtown area I felt people kept starring at me, maybe because they could not figure out whether I was a local, Indian or from God knows where?. I guess they don't get to see travelers that look like me that often. It was bizarre to the point that one man on the street touched my lips and then put his hand on his mouth as if he was stealing a kiss from me... weird!
Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset time, Yangon
The only touristy place we visited in Yangon was Shwedagon Pagoda. This is the holiest pagoda in Myanmar. There you can see hundreds of pilgrims and devotees visiting it from sunrise to sunset (which are the best times to see it, otherwise the sun kills you!). As we sat on the floor looking at the golden pagoda we saw Buddhist monks taking pictures of themselves and their families, lines of volunteers cleaning the floor with brooms and locals bathing the Buddha images and using the poured "holy water"as a good omen. "That is a purification ritual that cleanses us from our bad deeds" explained a lovely girl that gave us a lift from the Pagoda to our hotel.
Us in Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Since it was the beginning of the Water Festival -Myanmar New Year celebration... yes New Years again! it seems as though New Years has been following us ever since China- prices had skyrocketed and the buses were all full. We still managed to find an overpriced ticket which, unfortunately, put us on a bus that broke down two times, arriving in Mandalay with an 8-hour delay! Yet, this gave us the opportunity to meet Victoire, a french girl who traveled with us for two weeks. Bus break downs are very common in this country making it extremely tedious to move from one place to the other. Therefore we decided not to move around much and visit only a few highlight destinations of the country.
Water festival in Mandalay
In Mandalay - also known as the second capital of Myanmar- we spent the first days celebrating the Water Festival. The celebration lasts four days when the entire population -literally- gets involved in serious water fights, drinking, and partying on the streets. It was great to see how the local people ring in the new year. To our surprise there was not a single moment when we could stay dry which was not so bad at the beginning, because the heat was infernal. Yet some pick ups loaded with people carried barrels of freezing cold water that felt like rocks hitting your body... then the fun begins to wane.
Girl carrying water bowl, Mandalay
The center for the celebrations where located near the Old Royal City which was surrounded by a moat. There were tens of colorful stages advertising products with local singers and also people with high pressure hoses spraying with no mercy at the passersby. Many young people, dressed in black with Gothic make up and punk hairs, rode motorbikes under the stages dancing, getting wet and wasted. Everybody wanted to greet and throw water at us, it felt like we were the main attraction wherever we went. We were a group of 5 people since Manu (a French Jewish guy who patiently helped me improve my -basic- Hebrew) and Ni (a Chinese guy who lives in Vancouver) joined the three of us, with water guns to fight back while exploring the city.
Ayeyarwady River bank
We visited only a few places in and around Mandalay because we wanted to avoid paying the government entrance fees. We went to Mingun a rural village located an hour away from Mandalay by boat. There we saw an awkward pagoda (Mingun Paya) which looked more like a huge pile of bricks but it offered nice views of the surroundings; freakin' hot on the feet though when they make you take off your shoes to go up the stairs. Also we can now say that we have seen the second biggest bell in the world, the biggest one is in the Kremlin. Yet the latter is broken so that makes Mingun's bell the biggest "working" bell that exists. Pretty cool, huh?
Female Buddhist nuns at the entrance gate of Mingun Paya
Another interesting sight only 11km away from Mandalay is U Bein's Bridge in Amarapura, We arrived there for the sunset. While we were not so impressed with the so-called "longest teak bridge of the world," the surrounding environment was charming. It was a LONG walk on the bridge, but I should not complain because the scenery was beautiful, and we found ourselves among hundreds of locals passing by or eating and drinking in stalls half-sunk in the river.
Sunset at U Bein's Bridge II, Amarapura
Back in Mandalay we met a Roman Catholic old lady named Cherry who spoke perfect English. She took us around one of the most important pagodas in town and told us her story. She is a widow who has also lost her children and now teaches English and talks to tourists for a living. I asked her about the "Nat rituals" -a sort of spirit worship that is part of the animist religion that survived the spread of Buddhism in the area.- The ritual consists of offering flowers and food to an idol or tree wherein dwells a Nat (spirit). "If you feel a little crazy in your head, you have to do this and it will go away, otherwise you could stay permanently crazy" She explained.
Girl and horse cart, Pyin OO Lwin
Tired of the intense heat, we left Mandalay on an over-crowded pick up towards the hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin. This was a lovely colonial town where the horse cart taxis and the colonial architecture made us feel as though we were back in the olden days. As soon as we arrived in town a group of locals received us with a plate of coconut sweets and water to get us wet (of course! water festival!). It was almost almost impossible to find accommodation there since it is a very popular vacation spot for the military and government people.
Boy on the train to Hsipaw, Shan State
The next morning we took the train to Hsipaw to go trekking. A station before we reached our destination a local middle age guy with a shirt full of holes wearing dark longyis approached us. He offered us a very good deal to go trekking in Kyaukme promising that it was better than Hsipaw. His references -written in three notebooks by other travelers- were so good that we decided to give him a chance. What a great decision!!! I must confess this was one of the greatest parts of our trip in Myanmar. Even though we were a group of 8, everyone was so nice that we became friends after the excursion. Naing Naing -or 99- has been one of the best guides I have ever met. He was full of surprises, very knowledgeable, funny, and experienced.
Old Palaung Lady doing laundry, Shan State
The hike was mainly uphill but our guide made us take several breaks and fed us delicious and healthy snacks to keep us going. We had many interesting conversations with him. He and his wife seemed to be a kind of resistance leaders who speak openly against the current regime and are informed enough to educated the locals about their rights. His wife is currently in prison; something to do with trying to capture him?.- He said that she would stay there until the next so-called "democratic" elections take place. Unfortunately, many intellectuals and political leaders of Myanmar are in captivity since the government is afraid of a rebellion that could jeopardize the status quo.
Shan boys checking us out through the window
99 did a great job at handling the number of people that he took trekking -the villages we visited received no more than three groups of tourists per month- therefore they were very friendly and did not ask for anything from us. On the contrary they were curious and amused by our presence. We stopped in many villages to drink tea, eat, and rest. The villages were populated by different ethnic groups: the Shan, Palaungs, Burman, etc. They all spoke their own language and wore traditional clothes. They live off of tea plantations and trading products.
Young Buddhist monk from a remote Village, Shan State
After the two-day trek in the Shan State we went to Bagan . This is the most famous tourist spot in Myanmar. It is a plain area next to the Ayeyarwady River with more than 4,000 Buddhist monuments: pagodas, stupas, temples and Buddha images. In this time of the year it is extremely hot. I heard the temperature reached 47 Celcius (113 Fareheit) degrees when we were there. It was almost impossible to bear. Everybody had to take naps after midday and/or cool off in the shade. The wind blew strongly -sometimes carrying sand- but it felt like a breath of an oven as it touched us. To make it even worse we couldn't even use air condition or fans because of the power cuts...Thank God the nights were cooler and we could enjoy looking at the stars in the very laid back little town.
One of the many temples of Bagan
We rented bicycles and went exploring the temples at our own pace. Of course there were no foreign visitors around due to the temperature, they came out at sunset time. As we rode around the many temples we happened to bump into one that was pretty isolated and hosted a bat colony around the Buddha image. A local artist who sold paintings there showed us the way to get to the top of the building where we could see the river and a great panoramic view of the religious complex. We went back there twice to see the sunset. It became our favorite spot in Bagan.
Ayeyarwady River, Bagan
Also in Bagan we met a weird local character who, at the beginning, was fun to hang around with but at the end became pretty strange. He claimed he knew many languages and his interest was to show us around and tell us about the history of the place (he also said he was also a history student and a painter). In exchange we had to teach him a few new words in a foreign language. He took us to a couple of temples and then to one where he offered to massage Victoire, which became a very uncomfortable situation for everyone. But thank God, he left us alone with a story to laugh about and tell our friends When we were in Bagan we also took a side trip to go to Mount Popa. This is another pilgrimage place that lodges a significant population of monkeys.
Us in Bagan
It was an odyssey to get to our next destination: Inle Lake, nevertheless we enjoyed our time there very much. I believe this is one of the most scenic parts of Myanmar. We stayed in Kyaungshwe village at a lovely guesthouse whose owners were extremely friendly and had the best breakfast in the whole country. It was the perfect place to chill out, relax, and enjoy. There were these Finnish neighbors who got really drunk one night and acted like maniacs; yes worse than U.S. and English spring breakers. They screamed/sang, knocked on everybody's door in the middle of the night, and even urinated on our door. To make up for this the guesthouse owners moved us to the best room of the house which had a huge balcony and even a bath tub! At least SOMETHING positive came from that experience.
Floating Village, Inle Lake
During the five days we stayed in Kyaungshwe we rented bicycles to explore the area. However, it was not easy to reach the lake since the water level had dropped down tremendously. We rode for many kilometers until we got to a floating village where we took a boat trip in little channels between the houses and floating gardens. It was very nice, though the sun was a killer! Many curious villagers watched us and greeted us, specially children. It was quite amusing to see their reactions and to see them fixing fishing nets, repairing roofs, bathing, working in the tomato gardens, doing laundry, etc.
Girl going for a swim in a floating village, Inle Lake
Normally visitors to the Inle Lake area take a boat tour. However this tour is so popular that the locals have transformed it into a "come my shop" tour. We gave it a miss. The boat takes the visitors from one souvenir shop to another which is not so bad if you are interested in seeing how silk is weaved and other crafts are made, but we figured we had seen enough of that already in many places in Asia. We opted to see the lake by crossing it with our bikes on a boat... that was enough.
Food and flower offering parade, Inle Lake
We had heard that there was Myanmar wine being made in the area and we wanted to try it. We rode uphill to the winery which happened to be a great place to take in the sunset. The wine wasn't the best we have tried but we liked it and even bought a couple of bottles. As we returned from the winery there was a parade blocking most of the streets. Myanmar people really like to dance and celebrate in the streets! There were hundreds of people watching and others taking part in a parade carrying flowers and fruit offerings followed by colorful cars with trees full of money rather than leaves. I tried to ask about the meaning of the parade but the guesthouse owner only told me that it was a religious celebration. Probably something related to what Cherry had told me before in Mandalay.
Jay in Pathein
As we tried to reach a coastal area, looking for the refreshing sea breeze, we made a stop in Pathein. I think it was a good decision even though the infrastructure for visitors was very limited. In this town Jay got the cheapest hair cut ever ( 0.5 USD) by a very friendly hair dresser. By the river we observed the daily hectic pace of an important port town of the Ayeyarwady Delta. It was interesting to watch the variety of products being transported by rickshaw drivers, motorbikes and some cars. We went to see the night market where sellers shouted and made a loud noise to sell their products and where different kinds of local meals could be tasted.
Sunrise at Chaung Tha Beach
The ride to Chaung Tha Beach was long and hot. Yet upon our arrival our moods changed by the views and the laid back atmosphere of this lovely beach that decided to stay for next 5 days. The combination of people and things that happened in Chang Tha made the experience unforgettable... Differing from Indians, Myanmar people do like to get in the water but have to do so using tubes and/ floaters. Early in the morning and late in the afternoon the beach was filled by hundreds of locals bathing fully clothed, people selling seafood, fruits and other products, and even offering horse-back rides on horses painted like African zebras, etc.
A local merchant in Chaung Tha Beach
As Jay read his book passionally I wandered around the sea shore looking at the little -and even bizarre- creatures that inhabited it. Many hours could be spent observing the little crabs making and arranging sand balls creating beautiful patterns. Why would these crabs take the time and energy to do this when the sea would destroy it anyways? what purpose are those designs serving? As I wonder about these things, hermit crabs were be moving slowly around and little creatures with big eyes that seemed to be half snake and half lizards jumped away scared by dogs. On the shallow warm waters there where also small white and blue circles with amazingly detailed designs. One afternoon as we swam in the Sea of Bengal a little black and white fish joined us for quite a while. I could almost pick it up with my hands... it was the cutest thing. Maybe my black and white shirt -I was also bathing with clothes on since I didn't want to scandalize the fully dressed locals by wearing a bikini.- got its attention? who knows...
Crab and its works
Chaung Tha beach was awesome, not only because of the locals and nature but also due to the good company of a lovely German/Afghan couple. Sigurd and Sofia -whom had been travelling for about two years in Asia- were wonderful people to be around. Thanks to them we explore beyong more than originally planed and even visited Chaung Tha Village. A relatively small neigborhood built on top of wooden poles over the mangroves. As we wandered around on the little side walks the surprised locals smiled and greeted us: Mingalaba!
Mother and a baby with Thanaka make up, Chaung Tha Village
With this last picture of motherly love I want to wish you girls who have children, or who are expecting, Happy Mother's Day!!!!
We should be flying to Malaysia on May the 10th. We want to go diving in Perhentian Islands and climb Mount Kinabalu before arriving in the Philippines, the last country we will see in Asia before returning to the U.S.