It’s December, and time for this Canadian sexagenarian to stop shaking like a hypothermic Chihuahua! While many countries may provide a climatic cure to end the ‘cold war’, it’s the less trodden roads of mysterious Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, that have aroused our curiosity.
Clearly suffering from five decades of catastrophic mismanagement and iron-handed rule by military dictatorship, Myanmar is now starting to emerge from years on the blacklists of travelers. The redeeming factor is it’s said to be a country lost in a time warp where the adventure travel of old lives on.
Our plane touches down on terra firma Burma outside the ancient city of Rangoon, now renamed Yangon. Exchanging a few C-notes for local ‘kyat’ currency transforms us into serious mathletes as we try to get our head around all the zeroes; and with Burma ranking 172nd out of 176 world countries in corruption, we triple check the funny money creating a stack so large we almost requires a wheelbarrow to haul it away.
From the muddled airport we walk out of one century and into another. Jumping into a primitive taxi looking better suited to Fred Flintstone, our only air-con is courtesy of the numerous floorboard cavities revealing the road’s center line blurring by beneath us. With our motorized contraption bumping along over pothole plagued roads, we pass a plethora of perplexing road signage using an alphabet resembling the aftermath of dance competition by ink-dipped earthworms!
Here in this land that time forgot, a culture exists where holy men are more revered than rock stars, and golden Buddha’s are bathed every day at first light. Men dress in longyi skirts and women look tribal, with their faces smeared in a white tree bark mixture as protection from the searing sun. There are also tooth-challenged elders; with lips, gums, and any remaining ivory all stained reddish-brown from the habitual chewing of betel nut. Completing the cocktail of characters are hairless red-robed monks and pink-robed monkettes, and the typical profusion of scruffy little tykes curiously milling about.
Streets in town are blanketed in brick-red stains from splotches of spat-out betel nut saliva, while decades of neglect and decay have left the former grand colonial buildings the color of a nicotine saturated cigarette filter. Some of these buildings are in a state of crumble, and even birthing trees through glassless windows.
Taking a photo of these dilapidated buildings, Christine gets reprimanded by a few policemen watching us, with one of the sullen-looking coppers carrying a slingshot in his back pocket as his ludicrous weapon of choice. Now I’m thinking that while this may provide a slight degree of angst for a naughty acorn-stealing squirrel, any weapon without a trigger would induce little more than a snigger from any serious bad-ass!
A Yangon highlight, and one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites, is the 326 foot tall, 2500 year old Shewdagon Pagoda. Adorned with 27 tons of gold leaf, the stunning tip of the stupa is set with 5448 diamonds, 2317 rubies, and at the very top the crowning jewel is a single 76 carat diamond winking in the sun.
Always trolling for compelling activities, we opt to ride the rails aboard a battered train that looks as if it’s been around since man climbed down out of the trees. We’re the only foreigners aboard as it hobbles along the tracks at little more than a jogging speed. Sitting on the kidney-crunching wooden seats, we appreciate the unimpeded views from windows that long ago lost their glass. Any signs of tourism quickly vanish, as the city gives way to the clusters of ramshackle habitation and heartbreaking poverty in the countryside.
Women struggle aboard the old iron horse with massive loads of veggies, and quickly sandwich us amid their towering piles of greenery. With no apparent room left in the car, a plump old woman somehow squeezes in carrying a little portable kitchen around her neck, to try and sell her captive audience a hot cooked meal. The result is ridiculously entertaining chaos as the train clatters down the tracks!
Three hours later the train returns towards noon; and none too soon, to find a greasy spoon in old Rangoon. I quickly snag an ice cold beer, sucking it as dry as a crouton; then anxious to stretch our legs, we head for Kandawgyi Lake for a stroll across the lake on a wobbly wooden boardwalk being shared by monks.
On our walk back to the During the Alamanda Inn B&B we stop at the stunning Karaweik Hall, a concrete barge-like structure built in the form of a mythical bird. Completely gilded in gold, it is positively dazzling in the rays of the sun, with its golden upside-down twin painted on the calm of the lake!
Crossing the Yangon River to the township of Dalah requires the use of a congested ferry, and to sit down requires renting a tiny 12” plastic stool and finding a spot to squeeze it in! After a brief 20 minute trip we find ourselves jostling with the aggressive throng of bodies stampeding off the rusted relic.
Besieged by local money piranhas all chomping at the bit to take a bite out of our cash, we select two rickshaw drivers to pedal us through outlying villages with Burmese, Indian, Muslim and Christian sub-communities. Passing out a few small gifts to appreciative folks is a lovely way to spend a few hours on the isolated back roads, and Christine gets a big hug when offering a few women some prized tubes of lipstick.
I must admit, we didn’t fully understand the term ‘terminal illness’ until we saw the stupidities and disarray of the soul-numbing Yangon airport. Nobody speaks any English and there are no flight boards; only a little brown man just slightly taller than the seats, scurrying about like an agitated mongoose and waving a numbered wood stick. We keep an eye on mini-man and his varying little sticks so as not to miss our plane!
We are psyched to arrive in Bagan, where it feels as if somehow we’ve wandered into the wrong century! Villagers go about their daily lives seemingly oblivious to the fact they live in one of the most bewildering religious sites on the planet. Though no one structure can compare to the magnificence of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, the appeal of Bagan is the quantity; with over 2700 temples and pagodas scattered across the plains within a 42 sq km area! The mind-boggling old temples amazingly still hold together courtesy of an ancient concoction made from clay, honey, lime, cotton, molasses, and glue made from buffalo skins.
In Old Bagan town the sun has reached optimum scorch, and introducing my sandals to the dusty streets, I joyously discover a shop selling one of Burma’s greatest natural resources, a twelve year old Special Edition Myanmar Rum. With a redonculous price tag of $3.50, I’m grinning like a fox eating feces from a hairbrush, and fired up about taking the mystery bottle for a test drive tonight!
After breakfast on a rooftop overlooking the sacred pagodas, we cycle out to the village of Nyuang U over broken roads often morphing into dirt or sandy paths. This creates a bit of a challenge to remain upright on the bikes, but at least it’s mainly four-footed rather than four wheeled, traffic to worry about. Ox carts own the trails and the roads are the domain of horse drawn buggies. Random cycling is a great way to get under the skin of a country, and Bagan’s spell-binding surrounds provide a continuum of splendid eye-gasms.
Bagan is a traveler’s gem with vacationists still a bit of a novelty and ideal for those who may have a little Indiana Jones in them. This suits us perfectly, as adventure has always been the rum in our eggnog. In the pitch black of morning, we’re off to the countryside to watch the sun crawl over the horizon. Entering one of the ancient temples we remove our shoes as required by the law, and climb dusty stone stairs inside the blackness of the temple; suddenly spooked by a rat scurrying past in our flashlight beam.
Sitting outside on top of the temple, the plains are bathed in quiet while we patiently wait for the sun to introduce itself. Dawn’s gradual awakening brushes the sky with a shrimp-colored hue as the sun’s red orb gently ascends behind an endless array of fairytale temples speckled across the thirsty plains. It’s like a kingdom where the past has never become the past. The light is soft, the heat gentle, and the scenery exquisite; a wow-worthy start to this magical Myanmar morning.
While out cycling we’re constantly surprised at just how few people are about. We are far more likely to run into a goat, as Bagan’s ‘rush hour’ is not an hour of rush, but rather a youngsters riding fat-tired bicycles home from school, that befittingly refer to English speaking travelers as the ‘Hello People’.
As we stop for lunch we spot a lengthy Oriental Whip Snake on the dusty path in front of our bikes. The slender serpent, with scaly skin shimmering in the sunlight, silently slithers past before vanishings into a thicket of bamboo near the café. We select a table far away, as the only bite we’re keen on, is into a burger.
For today’s countryside jaunt we’re using an interesting type of transport; a pimped-out horse cart numbered 54. I have a little giggle, thinking back to an early sixties sitcom called ‘Car 54, Where Are You?’, with two goofy NY cops named Toody and Muldoon. Clip-clopping along, our main man Min and his gentle mannered horse named Susu are in perfect tune together in the cart, just like an old married couple.
Along the way, Min thrusts a bamboo stick between the wooden spokes of the cart wheels; “Burma horn” he says with a grin! We come to a halt at a crude tea shack, and while having tea and a sweet bean roll, notice village elders smoking preposterously proportioned stogies made with tobacco and herbs wrapped in corn husks. To prevent the village going up in smoke, an ashtray of half a coconut or a bucket is kept beneath the colossal combustibles large enough to provide shade for a small child!
Being locked away in the time warp of Bagan has been a blast, but with temple-fatigue setting in, it’s time to migrate further north to escape the torrid heat. A flight takes us to Heho in the Kalaw Township, where we begin a long drive to the scruffy town of Nyuangshwe on Inle Lake, our home for the next 5 days.
The lake covers roughly 45 square miles in a beautiful and remote area of the Shan State, with rugged mountains tumbling down towards the lakeshore. Perching on stilts over the lake are boat dependent villages and monasteries rising up amid bountiful floating gardens.
Christine and I hire a long-tailed boat driver for a day to explore the surrounding areas; and just to be clear here, it’s the boat that has a long tail, not the driver! Leaving before morning has broken; we are introduced to a coldness that is shocking after the smothering heat in Bagan. There’s no heat in the basic hotels here and the nights are colder than a polar bears toenails.
The temperature needs a big breakfast to push above zero, and locals huddle around small fires built on the street in front of their huts. Walking to the river we climb into a boat, and with a lawnmower-like roar of its engine, head off into the shrouding mist. Bundled up in three sets of clothes and a thick blanket, it still feels like we’re in Siberia! We reach Inle Lake just as the thinnish morning mist is dissipating into the air, but the sun is inching skyward, and we’re hoping its welcomed warmth will help soothe our body tremors.
The lake immediately gifts us with a stunning visual feast. Intha fishermen, having already started their day, appear to be doing awkward calisthenics while precariously standing on the ends of low riding dugout canoes. To move about they stand on one leg, and with the sinewy limb of the other leg tightly around the paddle, push forward, bringing their torsos nearly horizontal before kicking their leg backwards. This skillful balancing act leaves their weathered hands free to work their conical bamboo fish nets.
The spectacular visuals have our camera running amok and amassing beautiful captures. One of the fishing boats has a little boy in it, so I fumble around to see what small gifts I have left, and come up with a pair of mauve sunglasses. His eyes are agleam as he puts them on, and with splayed little fingers, he flashes the John Lennon peace sign while blowing us kisses; obviously thrilled with his flashy new purple present.
At a lotus weaving factory on the lake we learn that Burmese people regard the lotus as the most sacred of all flowers. They use its stem to make curry, and have discovered a knack for weaving the sturdy root fibers into a cloth used in the creation of scarves; and at one time, the flowing robes of the monks.
People’s average income here is only about a dollar per day, with many eking out an existence by farming floating gardens. Made from fertile muck scooped from the lake bottom and floated on beds of matted grass; the gardens are then anchored by bamboo poles hammered through down them into the bottom of the lake to keep them from floating away.
The constant source of moisture is very productive for growing a wide variety of flowers and vegetables, and as an extra bonus, if owners want to relocate, they simply pull up the securing poles and move their gardens elsewhere. Quite ingenious when you think about it!
Seriously off the ‘eaten track’ in the pandemonium of a weekly market, we’re feeling a little peckish. However, our entrails begin somersaulting when we’re offered skewers of barbequed, lopped off chicken heads! Robbed of our appetite, we try not to hurl while vehemently passing on the crunchy KFC cast-offs.
The temperature range in a day is incredible, going from goose-pimple mornings to griddle-hot afternoons. From the lake we wind down 8 km of twisting canal before our boat snouts up on the shore at the village of Indein. A trail bordered by bamboo leads to a mega-stair walkway for a view of over a thousand jungle stupas. Often bejeweled with tinkling umbrella shaped bells, most suffer from architectural leprosy with pits and pieces falling off in various stages of decay from the constantly creeping greenery. As our boat sputters backs down the lake to Nyuangshwe, we both agree today is truly a gem in the tiara of our travels!
Cycling more of the rural areas today, we spot Red Mountain Winery and ride up the long driveway to check it out. After several tastings we decide our favorite is a tranquil Shiraz Tempranillo, with a sommelier-confusing label reading: ”First nose on the oaky range like vanilla and black chocolate. Candied Morello cherry. Spicy and animal notes.” Now, don’t y’all just love a good wine with ‘animal notes’?
Burma’s countryside introduces an assortment of odd transport, with the majority seeming to be leftover Chinese transport as old as dinosaur dung. With open diesel engines over the front wheels, and storage at the back, their loud putt-putting can be heard coming a mile away. These bowling shoe ugly contraptions tow cargo ranging from furniture to families, and have the appearance of a maladroitly mutated rototiller.
Erroneous thinking leads us to believe a Burmese massage would be a great idea. In truth, the session is gawdawful; as inept perpetrators rub us the wrong way by employing only their callused feet! They walk all over us for an hour and the ‘tromp and stomp’ has us praying for leniency. Regrettably, the excessive masseuse abuse during this macabre massage leaves Christine bruised up like a week old pear, and my ill-treated arms so unsteady I’m concerned that Happy Hour may result in an Unhappy Hour due to spillage!
Our final stop is Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery for a unique portrait-like photo opportunity. The open oval-shape windows serve as eye-catching frames for burgundy-robed young monks who frequently appear and gaze outside. Just as in Laos, there is no shortage of monks in Burma. It is estimated that about half a million people, representing about one percent of the population, have taken the vows; roughly the same number as soldiers.
Burma seems to be a country trapped in the past, but reaching for the future; reminding us once again just how lucky we are to live in the free world. After 50 years of nightmares, the country is collectively holding its breath as it struggles to emerge from isolation. Fingers crossed, their next election will be a fair one, enabling the country to finally rid itself of its electile dysfunction. This is a country deserving of so much better.
Few are the travelers who add Burma to their Southeast Asia itineraries, but for those that do, the rewards are awesome; with so much more than just monks, monasteries, and militia. It’s hard not to fall under its spell, with the genuinely warm and friendly people, and spectacular sights wherever you turn your head. Although one of Asia’s poorest countries, in many ways it can be argued it is also one of the richest; and though I’m not quite ready to don the saffron robes just yet, if you have an appetite for adventure, the secreted nation of Burma is one enchanting country that can truly tick your boxes!
Mark Colegrave January 2013