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Myanmar (Burma), Pure Gold

sunny


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!
Train, Yangon

Train, Yangon

Young people on the train, Yangon

Young people on the train, Yangon

Train in Yangon

Train in Yangon

We are the only foreigners waiting on the tracks. A man picks herbs nearby just shy of piles of garbage.
Man picking herbs, Yangon

Man picking herbs, Yangon

It reminds me of India 20+ years ago. Yet, in the midst of this filth, women are wrapped in skirts of colorful, elegant fabric with fitted tops and men wear the traditional Longyi, also a wrap of thick cotton, and starched shirts. Most people have designs of Thanaka, a cosmetic paste made from tree bark known for its curative properties and protection from the sun, on their cheeks.
Girl with Thanaka designs on her cheeks

Girl with Thanaka designs on her cheeks

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...
Yangon

Yangon

Guys on the street in Yangon

Guys on the street in Yangon

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.
Market in Yangon

Market in Yangon

Yangon

Yangon

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.Dinner at the nght market, Yangon

Dinner at the nght market, Yangon

Night market, Yangon

Night market, Yangon


Myanmar beer

Myanmar beer

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!
Paya Shwedagon, Yangon

Paya Shwedagon, Yangon

Paya Shwedagon, Yangon

Paya Shwedagon, Yangon

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.
Reclining Buddha, Bago

Reclining Buddha, Bago

Paya Mahazedi, Bago

Paya Mahazedi, Bago

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.
Mount Kyaikhtiyo, the Golden Rock Temple

Mount Kyaikhtiyo, the Golden Rock Temple


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.
Waiting for the trucks at the Golden Rock Temple

Waiting for the trucks at the Golden Rock Temple

Trucks at Mount Kyaikhtiyo, the Golden Rock Temple

Trucks at Mount Kyaikhtiyo, the Golden Rock Temple


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.
Devotees at the Golden Rock Temple, Mount Kayaikhtiyo

Devotees at the Golden Rock Temple, Mount Kayaikhtiyo

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.
Teakwood Hotel ($45 room only), Nyaungshwe

Teakwood Hotel ($45 room only), Nyaungshwe


The first order of business in Nyaungshwe is to find another hotel and mosquito-free Rich Land meets our requirements.
Rich Land Hotel, Nyaungshwe ($20/night with breakfast)

Rich Land Hotel, Nyaungshwe ($20/night with breakfast)


Pagoda, Nyaungshwe

Pagoda, Nyaungshwe


Buffalo cart, near Nyaungshwe

Buffalo cart, near Nyaungshwe

Red Mountain Winery, near Nyaungshwe

Red Mountain Winery, near Nyaungshwe

Red Mountain Winery near Nyaungshwe

Red Mountain Winery near Nyaungshwe

Man and boy with bicycle rickshaw, Nyaungshwe

Man and boy with bicycle rickshaw, Nyaungshwe


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.
5AM on Lake Inle

5AM on Lake Inle


Fishermen on Lake Inle

Fishermen on Lake Inle

Fishermen and early morning mist, Lake Inle

Fishermen and early morning mist, Lake Inle


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.
Fisherman, Lake Inle

Fisherman, Lake Inle


Fishermen, Lake Inle

Fishermen, Lake Inle

Fishermen, Lake Inle

Fishermen, Lake Inle

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.
Boatman on Lake Inle

Boatman on Lake Inle


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.
Floating Village, Lake Inle

Floating Village, Lake Inle


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.
Men working on the floating vegetable gardens, Lake Inle

Men working on the floating vegetable gardens, Lake Inle

Man tending a floating flower garden, Lake Inle

Man tending a floating flower garden, Lake Inle


Road to Thantaung vllage, Lake Inle

Road to Thantaung vllage, Lake Inle

Thantaung village market, Lake Inle

Thantaung village market, Lake Inle

Woman smoking a freshly-rolled cigar, Thantaung village market, Lake Inle

Woman smoking a freshly-rolled cigar, Thantaung village market, Lake Inle

Workers on break, Lake Inle

Workers on break, Lake Inle


Our boat steers down a long, narrow offshoot of the lake and drops us on a dock in front of an empty market place.
Lake Inle

Lake Inle

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.
View of Thaung Tho, Lake Inle

View of Thaung Tho, Lake Inle

Thaung Tho, Lake Inle

Thaung Tho, Lake Inle


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.
Nyaung Nga Hpe, (teak)wood monastery, Lake Inle

Nyaung Nga Hpe, (teak)wood monastery, Lake Inle


Potter's village, Lake Inle

Potter's village, Lake Inle


Maing Thauk Forest Monastery, Lake Inle

Maing Thauk Forest Monastery, Lake Inle


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.
Paung Daw Oo Pagoda, Lake Inle

Paung Daw Oo Pagoda, Lake Inle

Ceremonial boat, Paung Daw Oo Pagoda, Lake Inle

Ceremonial boat, Paung Daw Oo Pagoda, Lake Inle


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.
Shwe Lava Temple, Loikaw

Shwe Lava Temple, Loikaw

Two monks on a bicycle near a hill Temple, Loikaw

Two monks on a bicycle near a hill Temple, Loikaw

Receiving alms, early morning, Loikaw

Receiving alms, early morning, Loikaw

Monks lining up for alms, Loikaw

Monks lining up for alms, Loikaw

Market, Loikaw

Market, 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.
Nawaday Hotel ($37 double room), Loikaw

Nawaday Hotel ($37 double room), Loikaw


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.
Mo Thee Hotel, Mandalay ($27 double wth breakfast)

Mo Thee Hotel, Mandalay ($27 double wth breakfast)

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.
On the streets of Mandalay

On the streets of Mandalay

Street vendor, Mandalay

Street vendor, Mandalay

Pagoda, Mandalay

Pagoda, Mandalay


Puppet show, Mandalay

Puppet show, Mandalay

Girl with Thanaka designs on her face, Mandalay

Girl with Thanaka designs on her face, Mandalay

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.
U Bein Bridge near Mandalay

U Bein Bridge near Mandalay

Monk on the U Bein Bridge

Monk on the U Bein Bridge


Taungthaman Lake near U Bein Bridge, Mandalay

Taungthaman Lake near U Bein Bridge, Mandalay

Vendor near the U Bein Bridge, near Mandalay

Vendor near the U Bein Bridge, near Mandalay

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.
Men placing gold leaf on a Buddha at the Mahamuni Temple, Mandalay

Men placing gold leaf on a Buddha at the Mahamuni Temple, Mandalay


Ladies singing, Mahamuni Temple, Mandalay

Ladies singing, Mahamuni Temple, Mandalay


Young monk, Mandalay

Young monk, Mandalay

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.
Pagoda in the stonecutter's neighborhood, Mandalay

Pagoda in the stonecutter's neighborhood, Mandalay

Stonecutter, Mandalay

Stonecutter, Mandalay

Girl with Thanaka designs on her face, Mandalay

Girl with Thanaka designs on her face, Mandalay

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...
Mingun Patho Daw Gyi Pagoda

Mingun Patho Daw Gyi Pagoda

People working in fields, Mingun

People working in fields, Mingun

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.
Paya Le Htat Gyi, Inwa

Paya Le Htat Gyi, Inwa

Mahar Aung Mye Bon San Monastery, Inwa

Mahar Aung Mye Bon San Monastery, Inwa

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.
Temples of Bagan

Temples of Bagan

Hot air balloons over Bagan

Hot air balloons over Bagan


Shepherds steering a herd of cows near the temples in Bagan

Shepherds steering a herd of cows near the temples in Bagan


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!
Bagan

Bagan

A shepherd with cows, Bagan

A shepherd with cows, Bagan


Monks lining up for alms, Bagan

Monks lining up for alms, Bagan

5B7D0D92CEF74CA68B03AA05614A19A2.jpg
Monks in front of Ananda Temple, Bagan

Monks in front of Ananda Temple, Bagan


5B7BE5C1F2884B5243035FF0CACAD44C.jpg
Ananda Okkyaung Reclining Buddha, Bagan

Ananda Okkyaung Reclining Buddha, Bagan


Boy with Thanaka designs

Boy with Thanaka designs


Although 28 days is a lot more than most people have to visit Myanmar (Burma) we'll be heading back shortly to see more...

Posted by SpiceChronicles 08:19 Archived in Myanmar

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Comments

Wow it's like reading National Geographic! Unbelievable...What an adventure. This time next year in Miami? LOL

by Tracy

Wow, these photos are spectacular! Thanks for the great stories that go with them. I'd love to see the pile of cockroaches, etc. as well as the pagodas...I only wish I could see the images much larger on my screen. I'm sending love to you both from CA. xoxo

by Ana

Wow. All the photos are amazing but the ones of the fishermen, of Bagan, and of the gorgeous Thanaka designs are other worldly. Thanks so much for sharing.

by Ellen

Amazing country! Thank you for sharing your wonderful trip with both photos and description. I would like to visit Myanmar one day and I'll make treasure of this chronicle.

by Piero

love this spread, such beautiful photos and the writing is so lovely.
on my bucket list.
love you
Miriam

by miriam cohen

Hello :)
We are going to Myanmar tomorrow and would like to stay 3 nigths at Loikaw but it's very expensive over there.
Have you booked early or have you find a guide and where to sleep in Inle Lake?
Thanks.

Have a good travel :)

by ChriNi

I can highly recommend Philips our guide in Loikow. I spoke to a few and they were all charging the same rate. It's a bit expensive because you need to also hire the car and driver but worth it... You can email him
Guide Philips
Kaephoo@gmail.com
09782849818
Yes, the hotels are overpriced in Loikaw... We stayed at Nawaday hotel in Loikaw which was good for about $45/night. In Nyaung Shwe (Lake Inle) we stayed at Richland Hotel. Very basic but excellent value and comfortable. Bathrooms are not great but good enough! Have a great trip!

by SpiceChronicles

Great story.
I love going to Myanmar .. places are lovely .. people are hard working & very generous .. beer is cheap .. rum even cheaper. Although the food does not have much eye appeal for me, it tastes very good.

I have a TP blog of my river trip .. an excellent if expensive way to travel Myanmar.

by hasbeen

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