29.12.2015 - 24.01.2016
I'm hoping it's not a long ride as we sink into the hollow back seat of the so-called taxi, but I'm quickly distracted by the fact that the driver is on the right AND we're also driving on the right. As the bald tires skate across big curves, I catch a glimpse of the Paya Shwedagon, the most sacred temple in the land, covered in gold. But we'll get back to that.
Having read about the lack of service and infrastructure in the country, I've been lowering my hotel expectations in preparation, so what a surprise when the driver finally finds the brand new YNO Hotel. Granted, it's a bit outside the center, but there is a train that goes around the city and the station is nearby. What I did not factor in, was the infrequent passage of the train and the underwhelming speed at which it travels!
We are the only foreigners waiting on the tracks. A man picks herbs nearby just shy of piles of garbage.
Everyone smiles, nods and waves and one businessman, strikes up a conversation in English. Aung San Suu Kyi's social democratic party has won the recent election by a landslide and the government is in the throes of transition. The country is on the cusp of major change and the potential ramifications are tangible. People are hopeful even though the incumbent military will retain significant power in the new government. As with every exchange we'll have over the next 28 days, the conversation ends with "welcome to our country"; poignant words so many people elsewhere would rejoice in hearing these days...
When the train finally arrives, it's moving so slowly, it doesn't even stop for passengers to board.
Downtown Yangon (Rangoon) is hot and crowded. There are no sidewalks, well, there are, but they are occupied by street vendors and parked cars. You have to keep your head down to negotiate the uneven pavement, gaping holes and trash. And then there are the men chewing and spitting the red juice of betel leaves...
A walk around the historical center illustrates the extent of this melting pot of cultures taking us past the colonial architecture of the British empire that shares real estate with the stupas of the ancient Paya Sule (temple), where locals stop throughout the day to pray and from which all distances in Burma are measured. Indian and Chinese architecture, a Jewish synagogue, open and covered markets, the whole buzzing with movement and purpose.
Most fun, is a feast on the Chinese night market where small restaurants tightly pack the streets with tables and waiters compete for your business.
The crown jewel of Burma is the Paya Shwedagon a gleaming golden temple with an elusive history. Its origin is unclear, but since the single digit centuries it has been rebuilt and enlarged countless times after various military skirmishes and many earthquakes. It was a 15th century queen who launched the gold covering which subsequent rulers embellished upon. Most exquisite are the defining Burmese architectural details including the multi-tiered roof and umbrella-shaped finial encrusted with over 5000 diamonds and other precious stones, topped by a whopping 76 carat diamond!
We've been spoiled in Thailand, so the bus to Bago feels a bit grimy by comparison, but it's only 2 hours. The small town is packed with sites that can be covered in an afternoon with a tuk tuk, including 2 very large reclining buddhas, an unusual stupa that only men are allowed to climb, a monastery where people worship a giant Burmese python that roams freely, and a hilltop temple that has grown to be the tallest in the country after centuries of reconstruction.
The day trip from Bago to Mount Kyaikhtiyo, aka the Golden Rock (temple), will occupy a secure place on our list of most memorable experiences for years to come. Few foreigners visit, but locals come literally by truckload to see this gravity-defying golden boulder, supporting a small stupa believed to house a single strand of Buddha's hair, that has withstood nature's best attempts to topple it since the 11th century.
Without the religious meaning, and given the effort it takes to get there, for us the rock itself is rather disappointing, but observing the fervor of local visitors, on this day in particular, makes it an adventure. It's a smooth 2 hour drive in a private car until about 5km from the parking lot, when we are halted by traffic. It takes only a minute to recall that today is Myanmar's Independence Day, a national holiday. Getting nowhere, we leave our driver by a big tree, and negotiate 2 motorcycles to get us to the main gate. It's a harrowing ride in between vehicles moving in both directions. A few times, my hands push against the sides of buses as if the gesture might protect my knees. Kudos to the superb drivers who whisk us through this mess with confidence, though my elation is short-lived when I see what's next. We are still 17km from the temple and the only way up is in a dump truck fitted with rows of thin wood planks! Trucks are parked next to platforms where people jostle for position on flimsy staircases in anticipation of the signal to board. It's a steep winding road, but we're packed so tightly it almost feels safe.
From the entrance it's yet a long walk up wide steps lined with shacks peddling, religious offerings, souvenirs, food and drink. Pilgrims have set up lean-tos and families are camped out along the way.
Given the ordeal it was to get here, we don't have time to spare as we have a night bus to catch from Bago. So we visit, have lunch, take photos and then make our way back down to the trucks. Total chaos hardly describes the scene. There are hundreds of people waiting to get on trucks with no one coordinating. As trucks maneuver, they are besieged before reaching the overcrowded platforms. We watch in disbelief realizing that if we don't get on a truck in the next few minutes we'll miss our bus. As a truck slowly backs up in front of me, without another thought, I grab a handle on the side then another and another and haul myself up and over. I claim enough space for two and resolutely ignore anyone yelling at me. We're in!
One problem with a night bus (aside from possibly freezing to death, so always make sure you have an extra layer), is the time of arrival. It's about 4:30AM when the bus drops us in a town 10km from our destination, Nyaungshwe the comfortable tourist center at the northern tip of Lake Inle. A taxi man offers to take us with 3 German guys who are already warming up in a station wagon. The hiccup is there's only room for 4. Without hesitation he loads our luggage and me... into the boot!
We follow the Germans to the Teakwood Hotel where luckily, they have a double for us. It's a bit over budget, but at 5AM who's complaining, until we realize that the windows have been left open and the air is thick with mosquitoes! It's a good 30 minutes of ninja action before we can safely fall into bed.
The first order of business in Nyaungshwe is to find another hotel and mosquito-free Rich Land meets our requirements.
With little finesse, we climb aboard a narrow long boat and carefully take place in two Director's chairs; a comfort designed only for tourists. Covered with blankets, It's freezing cold as we head out on Lake Inle before sunrise. Layers are essential as by noon it will be boiling hot. The cold air against the warm lake water creates a dense mist that hangs above the water's surface.
It turns out there are two kinds of fishermen on the lake: Those who strike poses and perform impressive balancing acts with old fashioned cone-shaped nets, and those who actually fish in groups, strategically spreading large nets in the water. Both are fun to watch.
Gone are the days when everyone glided silently along the lake steering with one leg wrapped around an oar. Today, boats fitted with loud, polluting outboard motors charge around approximately 240 square kms of lake in haste. Note: Until quiet eco-friendly motors are introduced, pack earplugs for lakeside hotel rooms.
Large floating villages are laid out in grid patterns on the lake. Homes, shops, schools, and administrative buildings stand high on teak stilts above the water. Imagine your neighborhood with water instead of pavement. Your boat parked out in front or under the house, a dock and steps leading up to the front door.
Vegetables and flowers are cultivated in expansive floating gardens. Rows and rows of fertile beds, secured tightly with bamboo poles are tended to by farmers in boats. Villagers sell their goods on the 5 markets which rotate weekdays around the lake.
Our boat steers down a long, narrow offshoot of the lake and drops us on a dock in front of an empty market place.
A long path leads to the vestiges of Thaung Tho whose zedis (pagodas) are spread across the hill in backdrop. As it's an off market day, we have the place to ourselves.
Other highlights on the lake include the beautiful (teak)wood monastery, Nyaung Nga Hpe, once famous for monk-trained jumping cats but infinitely more interesting for its collection of Buddhas, mosaics and wood carvings.
For devout Buddhists, it is customary to place thin leaves of gold on Buddha images. Handmade uniform squares of gold leaf are sold in temples. Depending on the temple, women may or not participate in the ritual. The Paya Phaung Daw Oo, houses a most unusual collection of 5 Buddha images that are so thickly covered in gold, they have lost their shape. Once a year, during week-long festivities, these Buddhas are paraded in special boats on the lake. We'll be back in October to photograph the events.
Until the recent, well-respected cease-fire, special permits were required to enter the eastern Kayah State of Burma due to the ongoing conflict between the military junta and ethnic minorities. A guide is required to visit the local tribes in the surrounding region, including the Padaung whose women are notoriously referred to as "long necks" for their stacked gold rings, but we opt out of the tribes on display and focus on the varied sites in the sleepy capital of Loikaw.
With very few tourists, the hotel infrastructure is poor and our first guesthouse goes down as the most disgusting room we've had in 3 years of travel. Most appalling is the attitude of the owner, who is not the slightest bit disturbed when we point to the pile of giant cockroaches the braver one of us annihilated throughout the night. The bathroom is so dirty, we cannot wash. Luckily, there are better options.
Dining is limited to local, outdoor restaurants where no one speaks English, but we manage by pointing and people are very friendly and hospitable.
The center of Mandalay hardly resembles the images evoked in Kipling's poem. On the contrary, rows of low lying, non-descript concrete buildings line the streets with here and there a taller building like our hotel with it's bright lights. It's 5am when we walk in with no reservation. The guys sleeping in the lobby, jump up and one quotes a very high price. We argue about it for a minute, then I ask to use the wifi, log on and book the room thru a website for 30% less. Strange though as often hotels prefer direct bookings in order to save on the service provider's fee. Whatever, everyone is happy and we're quite comfortable.
Most people just pass through Mandalay on the way to/from Bagan, but the city has enough to keep you busy and well fed for a few days.
There is only one entrance to the enormous grounds of the ancient royal city and we are completely on the wrong side. Seemingly on cue, 2 motorcycles pull up to offer their services. From the entrance, we have to rent bicycles the ride straight ahead only (there are signs all over forbidding any turns) to reach the Royal Palace which was completely destroyed during WWII, and rebuilt in the 1990s. The rest of the vast property is occupied by the military, some just waiting to reprimand distracted tourists that veer off course. Somewhat surprised to find our guys have waited for us, they become our drivers for the next few days, shuttling us from before dawn until after sunset.
The longest teakwood bridge in the world, U Bein bridge is one of Mandalay's biggest attractions. At sunset, busloads of tourists wielding selfie sticks pose on the high bridge or in boats below. It's the dry season, and hard to imagine that during the monsoon the water almost reaches the wood planks... Sunrise is a bit quieter with monks and locals making the long crossing.
Mandalay is the center of gold leaf production. Talk about manual labor. From the muscle-clad guys wielding heavy hammers for hours on end laboriously pummeling leather pouches, filled with layers of gold nuggets, diminishing in size as they pass from one man to another, to the men and women who separate, cut and package each individual leaf.
Thick layers of fine white powder cover the trees and just about everything else in the stone-cutters' neighborhood. Clouds of white mist hang in the air as men and yes, children, cut and file blocks of stone with an assortment of power tools. Red, irritated eyes peer at us from behind the thick white accumulation on their faces. Women and girls work in groups, washing and polishing pieces.
We end one particularly long day in front of Bistro 82, a sleek, modern restaurant and without looking at the menu settle in for dinner. The prices are shocking for Mandalay, but after hundreds of rice and noodle dishes, a fine european meal accompanied by a smooth red wine is simply too tempting.
Hugely popular with tourists and rightfully so, is Mingun a small village famous for three pagodas, namely, the late 18th century Paya Mingun destined to be the largest pagoda in the world but never completed. The climb to the top of the crumbled, pile of bricks is pretty treacherous not aided by the fact that you have to do it barefoot in the blazing sun. The only part left of the mythical figures standing guard in front are the ginormous paws...
A small boat ferries us across the river to Inwa, several times the Burmese capital from the 14th - 19th centuries. Today, just the vestiges, several monasteries and stupas scattered throughout the countryside remain. Horse-drawn carriages rattle along unpaved roads through an agricultural landscape stopping at all the sites. It's a fun day excursion far from the city.
No matter the number of photos or written descriptions of Bagan and despite fairly large crowds during the high season, sitting on top of any of the Buddhist temples that dot this majestic landscape is a (literally) breathtaking experience.
The scope of this historic site can only be appreciated in person. While the kingdom dates back to the 2nd century, the 9th - 13th centuries represent the golden age of Bagan. Of the thousands (numbers vary from 4500 to over 13,000) Buddhist temples built by successive kings, only, imagine only, about 2200 stand today with many more under excavation. To visit the vast area, we rent a couple of electric mopeds which are fun once you conquer your fear of sandy trails!
Although 28 days is a lot more than most people have to visit Myanmar (Burma) we'll be heading back shortly to see more...