We arrived in Myanmar full of expectation given all that we’d heard and read about it. The idea of a country just opening up after years of an oppressive regime was as exciting as it gets.
We landed in Yangon and embarked on a mini-van to the city center, not entirely sure of where the hotel we had booked was located. Turns out it was a fair walk from the drop off point, and in a city yet again very hot and humid. Along the way, people kept smiling and saying hello, which helped. We stopped in a hotel to check we were headed the right way, and the staff invited us to sit down, brought us the WiFi code and some refreshments without hesitation, despite the fact we we not staying there. And once at our destination, we were again greeted by a very warm and helpful welcome. It was starting well.
Early in the evening, we decided to head out to the Shwedagon pagoda, one of the highlights of Yangon and the most impressive gold stupas in the world. The walk would have been a nice one if we had been allowed to go along the path that lines the Kandawgyi lake, but just as we were reaching the gate, someone shut it and locked in our face, without much explanation. Slightly frustrating, especially when we noticed there were other people using it, though none was foreign. Ok.
As we turned a corner along the road, we noticed a nice looking hotel and, wandered in for a drink. Discovering how luxurious the place was, we felt a little out of place but went ahead, and took advantage of the happy hour on cocktails to celebrate our arrival in Myanmar. It turns out this was one of the most luxurious hotels in Yangon, at 250EUR/night 🙂
We ended up at the pagoda 2 hours before closing time, and after paying the “foreigner” entrance fee (recently stamped at 8$ instead of 5…), we were in for the astounding sight of the place illuminated at night.
The place is both amazing for the sheer amount of small temples, statues, etc dedicated to Buddha, although we found it hard to be in awe of the Buddhas with their multi-coloured animated neon lights that seem to be systematically placed behind their porcelain white heads. Felt as if we were in a funfair, but a very solemn one.
The next day, on our way to a travel agency by Inya lake, we discovered a few things: people are very friendly, traffic is a nightmare and cautions the fact that taxis charge a lot for small journeys, foreigners can’t take public buses, foreigners have to pay to access every single park or monument, even when it’s not in the least bit interesting, there is not a single motorbike or scooter in Yangon (quite a shock in Asia, but apparently, it’s because the junta is afraid of random attacks perpetrated on such vehicles, even though they tell you it’s for environmental reasons…) but the cars in the city are often modern and quite luxurious; and finally, the technique for painting huge structures appears to be somewhat challenging and retarded, as the picture shows (still, the bucket of paint is strategically placed at a distance where the man can dip the tip!), but at least it guarantees long-term work!
Then it was time to do another overnight bus journey (boy do we like those!) but with the VIP option, it turned out to be ultra comfortable and the main roads in Myanmar are not as bumpy as those we had experienced so far. The famous Inle lake was our destination, and we were in for a treat. We took a day trip through the lake and onto the one located South (Sagar), navigating by long boat among the floating gardens, villages and temples on stilts, narrow waterways meandering through high grasses, fishermen with their unique paddling technique while balanced on the edge of their boats, all this surrounded by a hilly backdrop dotted with temples. The area is simply stunning.
However, as usual with such places, we can only but wonder about the consequences of the unstoppable development of hotels and the increasing number of long boats that will undoubtedly pollute the area, causing long lasting problems for the lake’s environment and for the local population that relies on the water from the lake. We kept hearing that Myanmar is one of the most corrupted countries in the world, so developers will surely find ways to avoid considerate measures of environmental protection. Usual story…
On the first day, we took bicycles in an attempt to reach the lake via the small paths that interconnect the small communities, but soon found ourselves stopped in our track either by cul-de-sacs or streams that we could not cross. Still, we had the usual welcoming smiles of children and adults alike, while they watched us on the edge of falling over at every wobbly bridge we crossed.
One cannot but wonder how mass tourism will affect such an area, both in terms of the natural environment and the local people, who will undoubtedly face the effects of excess used water discharge from oversized hotels and pollution from too many long boats. But such a reflection on the consequences of mass tourism could be made in countless places that we see. In a book I recently read, I found a sentence that perfectly sums up the feeling we tend to experience:
“It is of course hypocritical to rail against tourists when you are one yourself, but nonetheless mass tourism is ruining the very things it comes to celebrate. And it can only get worse as the Japanese and other rich Asians become bolder travellers. When you add in the tens of millions of Eastern Europeans who are free at last to go where they want, we could be looking back on the last thirty years as the golden age of travel. God help us all.” (Bill Bryson in Neither here nor there)
In any case, we had an amazing time taking in the landscapes of the area. Even the unavoidable commercial tourist spots (various workshops for silver jewellery, silk weaving, cigar making, etc) that we tend to avoid were undeniably interesting for the astounding skills on display, on top of their unique location.
We navigated on another area of the lake the next day as we set off for a 3-day trek to Kalaw, our next stop. A blissful early morning ride with still water creating stunning mirror effects: good start ahead of 6 hours of walking in the heat, uphill first… just to get in the groove. Our guide was a young guy who proved to be very kind and watchful, though a little on the shy side. Since there were only the 3 of us, we were expecting some exchange and information about the country, what people felt and thought after years of a military junta in power, or the local culture and way of life in the places we saw, but we were sadly disappointed that he seemed uneasy to talk about it or unknowing. We assumed this was the remnants of a freedom of speech repressed for too long, or the fear of speaking openly to strangers, but this could not be an excuse for every subject. So we just walked, exchanging the occasional words relating to how fine or tired we felt, and a few basic questions along the way. Our eyes however feasted on the various landscapes on offer, varying from luxurious exotic forests to barren expanses of red soil with desert-like vegetation, interspersed with cultivated fields. An image struck me at some stage, when we were overtaken by a mother with her 2 young children riding on a archaic cattle-drawn cart, with a brand new modern 4WD in the distance. An illustration of the stark contrast of means available to the people…
We stopped in a village that turned out to be a stopping stage for many other tourists on that trek, even though we were not following the same path. We were hosted by a family who arranged our bed in the main room of the house, just under their wall-mounted shrine (usual mistake: we lay down in the wrong direction, with our feet facing the shrine, and were kindly asked to turn the other way…). It was back to basics for the shower, with a scoop, tank of rainwater and bar of soap, but it felt great after the long hot day. Though being made welcome and shown to everything we might need, with endless smiles and courtesy, we were again disappointed to find ourselves eating on our own while our guide and the family gathered and talked in the kitchen. With not much else to do, we went to bed while the daughter watched Mr Bean on the television…
The next day started well, with yet more beautiful images of the rich countryside, water buffalos being ridden, terraced rice fields… There was just that slight churning of my stomach that started. It quickly turned into a nightmare for the next 30 hours. No need to add any more details than needed, but I guess most of my weight loss came from this bout of intestine trouble. And when you think you have to hike 5-6 hours in the blazing heat with no energy in the system and a feeling of complete dehydration, you just no longer care about how gorgeous the landscape is. You look at your feet, walk on and hope to reach the next resting point asap! So Amber made sure she took many photos so I would not miss out on everything. She had her own demon to face as well: large hairy spiders in every toilet cubicle, all located at the back of the garden: great feeling, especially at night when all come out to play and their eyes shine with your torch light!
Finally reaching our second stopover, I just collapsed of exhaustion in the main room, sipping on litchi juice diluted in bottled water. This time, no shower since the water tank was in full view of a group of people working on a generator plugged into the engine of a truck. There seemed to be a power cut and they were keen to have electricity running. We initially thought this might be because of us being there. But later in the evening, we wished they had not succeeded since it powered the television plugged into loud-speakers located just next to our sleeping area (once again arranged in a corner of the main room). And the choice of DVD that evening was the complete collection of the most diabolical singing contest for youngsters. I don’t recall one singing in tune. And I don’t know if it’s because of the country’s recent openness to expressing feelings, but their music seems to solely revolve around cheesy love songs pushed to the extreme (with accompanying painful-to-watch video clips). I soon understood why a few of the people present were getting drunk in the adjoining room, and would have joined them if it hadn’t been for my already troubled stomach…
The last day thankfully involved a shorter hike to reach Kalaw, with a final stretch through hilly pine forests. Our rucksacks had been brought over to our hotel, where we were quick to enjoy a decent shower. The town itself is of no interest except for a couple of decent restaurants that cater for the tourists who trek in the area.
Mandalay, the second largest city of Myanmar, was our next stop. And again, we would reach it with an overnight bus. Except that with no VIP seats available, we took the second best option available. When our bus stopped to pick us up, we hopped in to find all other passengers either asleep, or glued to the television set that played yet another cheesy soap opera, with acting so bad you can’t help but watch and laugh silently. We tried to get some sleep but between that and people playing the usual music on their phone during the night, it proved difficult. At some point, we may have succeeded from suffocation when our coach parked for at least 2 hours in the middle of nowhere, with engine and ventilation stopped, all windows closed and 50 or so people inside. We never quite figured out why it did, but I envied the driver who went outside and just took a nap on a mat laid behind the coach. I decided I preferred to live so chose to open our window. From the long line of vehicles who had done the same, we believe there may have been a regional check point – common feature in the country – where we had to wait for the staff to wake up.
We did not find much interest in Mandalay for the time we spent there, except for U’bein, an ancient bridge entirely made of teak and used by many monks, tourists and locals, for the scenery or to reach the village and temple on the opposite bank of the river. It does provide a superb setting for the sunset when you find the right location, with marked silhouettes walking on the bridge with the large orange glow of the sun.
From Mandalay, we took a 5-hour boat cruise along the river to Bagan, one of the most visited sites in Myanmar. Not the most entertaining scenery save for a few stupas and settlements along the way, and with a level of comfort that was not quite as we had expected (no long chairs to relax, crowded with tourists who typically kept the habit of marking their chair with their belonging despite the obvious lack of seats available…). Anyway, we got there and stayed in the village located north of Old Bagan. For the story, there is New Bagan and Old Bagan, the former being a city constructed as a relocation for the people who used to live in the latter to make place for the demands of the tourism industry. Another great example of the effects of mass tourism… Still, the site is astounding. One can just hire a bicycle for the day and roam around the huge area of interest, going from the ruins of isolated temples and feeling a little like Indiana Jones to the largest and most visited ones with the usual crowds of photo-crazed coaches of visitors. The main goal seems to involve finding the perfect spot to catch the sunset and sunrise. When you arrive, it seems these are the only two moments that make the place worthwhile, but I gather it has more to do with the day’s heat that discourages people from wandering about. The location in itself is an invitation to go and discover by yourself, and each place where you find yourself on your own makes you feel like you have uncovered a little hidden treasure, be it an old temple, frescoes, meditation caves, a good viewpoint or simply a sandy path running through the countryside. Of course, you are a foreign tourist so you pay an entrance fee for the entire site, but at least you are for once free to visit as you wish.
After this and some debate, we decided we would go to the Golden Rock, a highly sacred place for Buddhists in Myanmar, despite the 17-hour bus journey it involved. We found VIP tickets for the section to Yangon, and then hopped onto the more local bus to Kyaikhtiyo. As we were pressed for time, we did not consider the option of hiking either up to or down from the famous rock, and opted for the local pick-up truck, which offers good views of the surrounding lush-green hills as well as some sensations on the bendy and fairly steep road. The place reminded us of other open religious sites where families and groups gather for prayer, give offerings… The way the rock is set is impressive from a distance, as it looks in delicate balance. According to legend, the rock is placed upon some of the hair of Buddha, and if it should fall, it will mark the end of Buddhism.
The next day was yet another bus journey to Yangon airport, and our last in a country that left us with a slight sense of disappointment. Tourism is definitely well known and well organised, and contrary to many other Asian countries, it is expensive (at least at this stage). The fact that several areas are not yet accessible allows for little variation in terms of destinations, and the journeys to go from one to the other are quite long (flights are available but at a cost and with airlines that do not hold a great reputation in terms of safety). Food hygiene is also a concern, and we found ourselves frequently seeking restaurants held by foreigners (usually married to a local) to be on the safe side and simply for food we enjoyed. Other than that, we have once again gathered some memorable images and experiences, though not to the level of India and Nepal.