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 end the ‘cold war’, it’s the less trodden roads of mysterious Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, that we hope will appease this year’s 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, now renamed Yangon. Exchanging a few hundred bucks for local ‘kyat’ currency transforms us into serious mathletes as we try to get our heads around all the zeroes. Burma ranks 172nd out of 176 world countries in corruption, so we triple check an exchange pile that looks like Monopoly money and almost requires a wheelbarrow to haul it away.
Outside the muddled airport we jump into a primitive taxi expect that looks better suited to Fred Flintstone. The only air-con is courtesy of the numerous floorboard cavities revealing the road’s center line blurring by beneath us. As our motorized contraption thumps over pothole plagued roads we pass perplexing road signage using an alphabet resembling the aftermath of an ink-dipped earthworm’s 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 have a tribal look with faces smeared in a white tree bark mixture to protect them from the searing sun. There are also tooth-challenged elders; with lips, gums, and any remaining ivory all stained reddish-brown from their habitual chewing of betel nut. Completing the cocktail of characters are head-shaved red-robed monks, monkettes attired in pink, and the typical profusion of scruffy little barefoot vagabonds curiously milling about.
The 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 former grand colonial buildings the color of a smoked cigarette filter. Some of the buildings are in a state of crumble, and birthing trees through the now glassless windows.
Taking a photo of these dissolving 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 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 is the crowning jewel; a single 76 carat diamond winking in the sun.
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. Sitting on kidney-crunching wooden seats, we enjoy unimpeded views as the windows have 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 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. 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 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. Completely gilded in gold, it is 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 we’re now craving calories and 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 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 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. 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 most enthused about taking the mystery bottle for a test drive tonight!
After a rooftop breakfast overlooking sacred pagodas, we cycle out to the village of Nyuang U, over broken roads that often morph 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 roads are the domain of horse drawn buggies. Random cycling is a great way to get under the skin of a country and the area’s spell-binding surrounds 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. This suits me perfectly, as adventure has always been 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 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 influences us from this wow-worthy start to a magical Myanmar morning.
Out cycling, we are surprised at just how few people are about, 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’.
As we stop for lunch we spot a lengthy Oriental Whip Snake crossing the dusty path in front of our bikes. The slender serpent, with scaly skin shimmering in the sunlight, silently slithers past before vanishings into clumps 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 for a cuppa and a sweet bean roll, noticing village elders nearby 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 that are large enough to provide enough shade for a small child!
Being locked away in the time warp of Bagan has been a blast, but with temple-fatigue now setting in, it’s time to migrate further north to escape the torrid heat. Our flight takes us to 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. 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! 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 hovers around zero, and locals huddle around small fires built on the street in front of their huts. Reaching the river we climb into a boat, and with the 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 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 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 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 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. These are made from fertile muck scooped from the lake bottom and floated on beds of matted grass; which are then 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. 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’ here in the pandemonium of a weekly market, we are 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 bamboo framed trail leads to a mega-stair walkway, eventually offering 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 sputter backs down the lake to Nyuangshwe, we both agree today is truly a gem in the tiara of our travels!
Cycling more of the countryside 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 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 introduces an assortment of odd transport, but the majority seems to be leftover Chinese transport that’s 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 look much like a mutated rototiller.
Erroneous thinking leads us to believe a Burmese massage is a great idea. In truth, the session is miserable, as inept perpetrators rub us the wrong way, by employing only their callused feet! They walk all over us for an hour and their ‘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 with the open, oval-shape windows serving as eye-catching frames for burgundy-robed novice monks that frequently appear at them to 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, 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 the 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 it is 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