It’s December, and time for this Canadian sexagenarian to stop shaking like a hypothermic Chihuahua. While many countries can offer a climatic cure to put an end to the ‘cold war’, it is the less trodden roads of mysterious Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, that we hope will satiate this years wanderlust.
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, or Yangon, as it’s now called. Exchanging money here is a bit like disarming a land mine; you have to be extremely cautious, with every move precise; as Burma ranks 172nd out of 176 world countries in corruption! Swapping a few hundred bucks, we transform into serious mathletes trying to get our heads around all the zeroes on our replacement ‘kyat’ currency. The profuse pile looks like Monopoly money, and is so large we almost require a wheelbarrow to haul it away.
Outside the muddled airport we jump into a primitive taxi expect that looks better suited to Fred Flintstone, with the only air-con courtesy of the numerous floorboard cavities revealing the road’s center line blurring by beneath us. As our motorized contraption thumps along over pothole plagued roads we pass by road signs displaying a language that looks like the aftermath of ink-dipped maggots in a dance competition!
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 faces smeared in a white tree bark mixture to protect them from the searing sun. There’s also an assortment of tooth-challenged elders; with lips, gums, and any remaining ivory all nastily stained from their habitual betel-chawing. Completing the cocktail of characters are head-shaved monks in red robes, monkettes in pink, and the typical profusion of scruffy little barefoot vagabonds curiously milling about.
Town streets are stained brick-red from splotches of spat-out betel nut saliva; while crumbling colonial buildings in various states of decay often birth trees waving out of glassless windows. Sadly, these former grand buildings, now the color of a smoked cigarette filter from years of neglect, are not just showing the wrinkles of time, but are more reminiscent of a beautiful woman turned whore.
Taking a photo of these disolving buildings, Christine gets reprimanded by a couple of policemen watching us. One of the sullen-looking coppers is 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 town highlight is one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites is the 326 foot high, 2500 year old Shewdagon Pagoda. Adorned with 27 tons of gold leaf, the stunning tip of the stupa is set with 5448 diamonds and 2317 rubies. At the very top the crowning jewel a single 76 carat diamond sits winking.
Always trolling for compelling activities, we opt to ride the rails on a dilapidated 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, and sitting on kidney-crunching wooden seats we enjoy an unimpeded view as the windows long ago lost their glass. Any signs of tourism quickly vanish, as the city gives way to clusters of ramshackle habitation and the heartbreaking poverty of those in the countryside.
Women struggle aboard the old iron horse with massive loads of veggies, and quickly sandwich us amid the towering stacks of greenery. With no apparent room left in the car, a plump old woman somehow manages to squeeze in, carrying a little portable kitchen around her neck to try and sell her captive audience a hot cooked meal. 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 shared by monks.
During the walk we come to the stunning Karaweik Hall; a concrete barge-like structure, built in the form of a mythical bird and completely gilded in gold. It’s positively dazzling in the rays of the sun, with its golden upside-down twin reflecting back in the shimmering lake! After all our roving today and now craving calories, we head back to the Alamanda Inn B&B to sample our French host’s gourmet cooking.
Crossing the Yangon River to the township of Dalah requires the use of a congested ferry, and sitting down means renting a tiny 12” plastic stool and finding a spot to squeeze it in! After a brief 20 minute trip across the river we find ourselves jostling with the aggressive throng of bodies stampeding off the rusted relic.
Besieged by the money piranhas, all chomping at the bit to take a bite out of our cash, we hire a couple of rickshaw drivers to pedal us through the outlying villages with Burmese, Indian, Muslim and Christian sub-communities. Passing out a few small gifts to the 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 couple of women 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 while 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 pumped 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. While 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 laying 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 while rummaging around in a food store I happen to discover 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 shit out of a hairbrush and excited about taking the bottle for a test drive tonight!
After a rooftop breakfast overlooking the spectacular pagodas we cycle out to the village of Nyuang U on many broken roads that morph into dirt or sandy paths which create a bit of a challenge to remain upright on the bikes. However, at least it’s mainly four-footed rather than four wheeled traffic to worry about; ox carts own the trails and roads are the domain of horse drawn carriages. Random cycling is a great way to get under the skin of a country and the area’s spell-binding surroundings offer a continuum of 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, which suits me perfectly as adventure is truly the rum in my eggnog. In the pitch black of morning we’re off to the countryside to watch the sun crawl over the horizon from one of the ancient temples. We remove our shoes when entering as required by the law, and climb the dusty stone stairs inside the blackness of the temple, spooked by a rat scurrying past in our flashlight beam.
Sitting outside on top of the temple, the plains are bathed in quiet as we patiently wait for sunrise. The dawn’s gradual awakening brushes the sky with a seductive shrimp-colored hue as the suns red orb gently ascends behind an endless array of fairytale temples speckled across the thirsty plains. It is like a kingdom where the past has never become the past. The light is soft; the heat gentle; and the scenery exquisite. Gleeful wonderment spreads from this wow-worthy start to our day!
Cycling about town, we’re surprised at just how few people are here, as we’re far more likely to run into a goat. Bagan’s ‘rush hour’ is not an hour of rush, but rather a few kids riding home from school on fat-tired bicycles who befittingly refer to English speaking travelers as the ‘Hello People’. Stopping for lunch, a lengthy Oriental Whip Snake slithers across the dusty path in front of our bikes and disappears into a large clump of bamboo, so we select a table as far away as possible as the only bite we’re keen on is into a burger.
For today’s countryside jaunt we are 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 cart wheels wooden spokes; “Burma horn” he says with a grin! We halt at a crude tea shack for a cuppa and a sweet bean roll, noticing that in the village elders are smoking preposterously huge stogies made from tobacco and herbs, wrapped in corn husks. To prevent the village going up in smoke, half a coconut or a bucket is kept underneath as an ashtray for the colossal combustibles large enough to provide enough shade for a small child!
It’s been enjoyable being locked away in the time warp of Bagan, but now feeling a bit temple-fatigued we travel further north to escape the torrid heat. Our flight touches down in the tiny town of Heho in the Kalaw Township, where we begin a long drive to 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. Out of the lake, boat dependent villages perch on stilts and monasteries rise 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! With much to see we leave before morning has broken, shocked by the coldness after the fifty shades of yellow heat in Bagan. There’s no heat in the basic hotels here and the nights are colder than a polar bears toenails. Outside the hotel the temperature is hovering around zero, and for warmth locals huddle around small fires built on the street in front of their huts.
Reaching the river we climb into our boat, and with the lawnmower-like roar of the engine, head off into the shrouding mist. Bundled up in three sets of clothes and a thick blanket, it still feels as if we’re in Siberia! We reach Inle Lake just as the thinnish morning mist is dissipating into the air, but thankfully the sun is inching skyward and the welcomed warmth should soon 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 ridiculously 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 to a nearly horizontal position before kicking 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 sitting 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 the 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 cloth used in the creation of scarves; and at one time, robes for the monks.
People’s average income here is only about a dollar per day, and many eke out an existence by farming floating gardens. These are made from fertile muck scooped from the lake bottom and floated on beds of matted grass, anchored by bamboo poles hammered through the garden down 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 the owners want to relocate; they simply pull up the securing poles and move their gardens elsewhere. Quite ingenious!
Seriously off the ‘eaten track’ in the pandemonium of a weekly market, we are feeling a little peckish. However our stomachs start 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. Travelling up river to the village of Indein and the ‘jungle stupas’, we pass through a forest of bamboo before docking the boat to climb up a mega-stair walkway for the stellar views overlooking a constellation of hundreds of ancient stupas. Many are adorned by bushes or trees growing through them, and others are bejeweled with tinkling umbrella shaped bells. As our eel shaped boat finally sputters back to Nyuangshwe, we both agree that today is truly a gem in the tiara of our travels!
Cycling more of the countryside today we spot the Red Mountain Winery, and ride up the long driveway to check it out. After several tastings we decied our favorite is a Shiraz Tempranillo, with a unique 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 offers an assortment of odd transport, but the majority seems to be the ancient leftover Chinese transport with open diesel engines over the front wheels and storage at the back. These bowling shoe ugly contraptions tow cargo ranging from furniture to families; looking like a like a mutated rototiller, with a loud putt-putting that can be heard coming a mile away.
Erroneous thinking leads us to believe a Burmese massage sounds like a great idea. During this miserable experience the inept perpetrators rub us the wrong way by employing only their callused feet. They walk all over us for an hour and relief only arrives once the ‘tromp and stomp’ mercifully concludes. They charge us five dollars for the festival of grunts, and due to the excessive masseuse abuse, Christine ends up bruised like a week old pear in what regrettably has been a most macabre massage!
Our final stop is Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery for a unique portrait-like photo opportunity, with the open oval-shape windows serving as eye-catching frames for the burgundy-robed novice monks who frequently gaze out. Just as in Laos, there is no shortage of monks in Burma. It is estimated that about half a million have taken the vows, representing about one percent of the population; 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, the country’s next vote will be a fair one, enabling the country to finally rid itself of its electile dysfunction. This is a country deserving 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 a genuinely warm and friendly people and spectacular sights to devour wherever you turn your head. Although one of Asia’s poorest countries, in many ways it can be argued that it’s also one of the richest; and though I’m not quite ready to don the saffron robes just yet, if you have a lust for adventure, the secreted nation of Burma is one enchanting country that can truly tick your boxes!
Mark Colegrave January 2013