Myanmar – February 2015

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Lake Inle, Shan State, Myanmar

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…and so to Myanmar – a country on the top of our list for a while. Never been anywhere quite like Yangon! Reached dust and pagoda, and in particular, “dusty pagoda” saturation point in Bagan in the central desert state of Mandalay (famous for it’s 2200 ancient temples). The peace, tranquility and beauty of Lake Inle in Shan State saved the day and we left Myanmar enchanted by its charms :-).

Our arrival at Yangon airport was less than auspicious – chaos, heat and thick globs of betel spit all over the sidewalk …. oh boy… this wasn’t Tokyo, my newfound spiritual home of order, tidiness and obsessive compulsive cleanliness ;-).

Clogged, stationary traffic and crawling cars. When the traffic moved at all, we were propelled forward at the speed of light, then the brakes were slammed on, the driver opened his door, hawked up some betel spit and spat it onto the road…. mach 2, brakes, hawk and spit… and repeat for an hour or so… Lovely!

Aside from the betel spit, the city looked relatively clean, tidy and westernized for the first few miles as we crawled past the embassies, parks and luxury car dealerships.

The “real” Yangon was quite a different experience – complete and utter disorder, overcrowding, dirt and, in parts, bordering on squalid.

Yikes! Welcome to Yangon – formerly known as Rangoon, the former capital of Myanmar – the country formerly known as Burma ;-).

Too late for sunset over Schwedagon Pagoda we grabbed a cab to visit the world famous pagoda at night. A temple of impressive beauty and grandeur dated loosely from the 12th century (if you count its inception from the 8 – now enshrined – human hairs given to 2 brothers from Yangon by a newly ordained Indian Buddha). It has been re-gilded and rebuilt since the 14th century until it reached its present height of 325 feet. Sounded fabulous – only almost all of its 325 feet is currently neatly clad in bamboo scaffolding whilst it undergoes one of its many re-gildings – typical!

Knees are a no-no in the temples of Myanmar so I went equipped with a sarong (a great look wrapped over shorts 😉 ). Shoes and socks (as well as kneecaps) are prohibited in Myanmar pagodas. I prefer to forget the full grimness and horror of padding about in the dust, grit and grime of the white marble and stone floors ;-). Ignoring the centerpiece pagoda covered in scaffolding, the huge number of surrounding stupors and shrines were still in perfect gleaming order – which is more than could be said for the soles of our feet ;-).

In the darkness we were vaguely aware as to the likely condition of the streets around our hotel. We remained naively optimistic that it couldn’t be quite as bad as it looked in the dark but under the glow of the early morning sunlight on our first morning, Yangon was revealed in all of its glorious splendor ;-).

We had booked a “Deluxe City View” room (a considerable upgrade from the Deluxe without the window). Perhaps we had misread the online description and it had actually said “Deluxe Shitty View”? ;-). Still, we decided to embrace our 36 hours in the steamy city of Yangon with all of its various as yet unknown charms and settled in to watch the monks collect alms from the locals as we sipped tea and slurped noodles for breakfast from the luxury of the hotel’s rooftop – steeling ourselves for descending into the city to explore.

Stepping into the streets of Yangon is like taking a step back in time … quite a large step for a couple of relatively spoilt westerners…

The city streets are the like of which I have never quite seen before. As we hurdled over the trash and debris of city life, crossed planks over open-sewers (where public works did, at least, seem to be in progress), sidled past chaotically busy street food vendors, tip-toed over market stall vendors sitting in the road, dodged cars and mopeds flying around with little regard for human life, initial impressions were hard to gauge about the city. Part intensely depressing and part bright and vibrant and full of life – either way – it was sensory overload!

Despite the shitty view, the hotel was ideally placed to explore the ethnic parts of the city as opposed to the more sanitized areas around the embassies and new luxury developments towards the airport. Surrounded by Chinatown and Little India and the residential area of downtown we were at least in the thrumming heart of real life Yangon.

The city is famous for the decaying beauty of it’s moss covered British Colonial buildings – previously grand and glorious but now mostly held precariously together by lichen and the roots of ferns growing out of the cracks of the walls. They are undoubtedly an amazing sight.

To be fair to Yangon, everything we saw was an amazing sight in its own peculiar way. It is a travel photographers dream if you are willing to straddle the open sewers, wade through billowing trash and leap out of the way of trucks and mopeds careering about in impossibly narrow and overcrowded side streets – all trying to end your life sooner than you might choose.

There are traders with their various wares sitting on the roadsides. On every street corner there is a vendor rolling betel leaves together with a white paste, betel nut and spices doing a roaring trade…It is well-known to cause gum damage, tooth decay and oral cancer but that doesn’t seem to put off the locals.

Street food is a way of life here – if the outside of the buildings is anything to go by I suspect few would actually want to cook in their kitchens inside them. I wasn’t brave enough to sample any of it… although Geoff did succumb to a very happy Indian selling various flavored vegetable pakoras (6 for the princely sum of $0.20). I am reliably informed that they were some of the best he had ever eaten :-).

Common across most of South East Asia it is often preferred for tourists to pay in $US than in the local currency. Having said that, we discovered almost immediately that we were the proud owners of 100’s of dollars of cash which was completely worthless ;-). It’s not that they don’t like the greenback here – they most certainly do – but only if it is fresh off the press, free of minuscule tears, folds or bends… if not it is chucked back at you and spurned like a rabid dog. Consequently, every transaction took twice as long as necessary – whether paying for a bottle of water, a cab ride or buying food – as the irritating recipient of our hard earned $US poured over each note with a fine tooth comb, throwing back the unacceptable “defective” notes and rifling through wad loads of our money until they found the perfect one. Ironic really, as the ratty state of their own currency had me wonder if most of it wasn’t actually held together with sweat, grease and germs – which is why, of course, Geoff handles all the local currency cash and I don’t go near it ;-).

Before the heat of the day settled in we headed towards the shiny golden stupa at the end of “our” main road, Sule Pagoda. It is far more peaceful and altogether less touristy than Schwedagon but just as grimy underfoot ;-). Shoes off again and an inflated entrance fee for “Foreigners” – still – at least it bought us a sani-wipe each for our soon to be repulsive blackened feet ;-). Myanmar pagodas are undoubtedly some of the most ornate we have seen in South East Asia – intricate and invariably gold clad in one form or another – they are absolutely stunning! 🙂

There was a lady selling the “freedom” of a cage full of sparrows for a $1 each – apparently it brings good luck to release the birds outside the temple so we liberated a couple. Geoff’s wasn’t too thrilled at being manhandled and dug its ungrateful beak into his finger before heading off into the trees to be caught, caged and resold again the following day, no doubt ;-).

Freshly sani-wiped and back on the even dirtier streets we wandered aimlessly through roads and neighborhoods specializing entirely in one type of product – paper, or house paint (strangely, nobody was doing much of a trade in those stores 😉 ), plumbing supplies, hardware, fabric and ribbon, fishing nets or electrical supplies.

People were friendly and curious and smiled at us constantly. We were surprised how few westerners there were in the city. Some people stopped us in our tracks just wanting to practice their English. Others surprised us by their ability to speak English at all. I cannot quite imagine why a trader frying pakoras on the side walk would have an in-depth knowledge of the English language, but he did. He also had a better understanding of the geography of the world than a considerably wealthier trader in the rice and spice warehouse who asked “Where you from?” – ”England “ Geoff answered… “Ahh… Crocodile Dundee!!” he exclaimed with a wide dark red grin. His smile another victim of the revolting national obsession with chewing betel nut; he had barely a single blackened tooth left in his dark red stained mouth – its previous companions lost to the side-effects of the betel nut.

Another turbaned street trader stopped us to ask where we were from and was very excited when we said we were English. He had relatives in London — all of his family had moved there, in fact, and they had been trying to convince him to leave Yangon to join them there. With no sign of irony whatsoever he grinned from ear to ear as he threw his arms wide open expansively as if to say – “Here is my magnificent kingdom” – and uttered the inexplicable words … “But why should I leave all this behind me?! I have been blessed. How could I possibly leave this place?“. I resisted the urge to say “I’d recommend your best bet would be on the first plane out of here, love”.

Beauty is undoubtedly in the eye of the beholder ;-).

Heartened by the friendliness of the locals in general (if not their standards of hygiene) Geoff was offered a mahogany seed to try. The lady vendor demonstrated throwing the seed back into her throat and swallowing it. Geoff followed suit but she looked on with some amused horror as he bit into the hard brown shell, spluttered something unintelligible which might have been “Water…water…I’m going to be sick”, grabbed a tissue and spat it all out again. A shade of green only outdone by the verdigris on the collapsing buildings around us, he was rescued by a passing nun who explained that he was supposed to remove the outer shell first and only eat the kernel. The 2 women found it quite hilarious as they watched the strange green foreigner spluttering into his tissue. And this, of course, is why I never, ever sample street food… and why Geoff invariably ends up spitting the spoils of his frequently ill-advised culinary explorations into the drains along with the equally revolting betel spit of the locals ;-).

Continuing our wanderings through the back streets as he slowly recovered from his mahogany shell snack, we ventured through wholesale fabric markets so crowded and narrow that the darkened passageways were barely 1’ wide with dozens of people all trying to simultaneously squeeze through carrying wide bolts of fabric. Decidedly not for the claustrophobic or faint-hearted.. then again neither was the rice and spice warehouse … nor the outdoor fruit and vegetable markets… nor the streets and markets in Chinatown – clogged to overflowing with decorations for the imminent Chinese New Year celebrations.

Whilst some of the streets are bordering on squalid… dirt roads, overcrowding, grime and trash in abundance there is, in the midst of it all (albeit under billions of flies) the freshest looking fruit and vegetables, lobsters, sea bass and other sea dwellers.

On the surface people don’t seem to be short of good quality food supplies but life for some people is obviously very tough which is the hardest part of being a relatively wealthy traveler in developing countries.

In the end, the noise of the relentless car horns, noisy chatter, business activity and squeezing past a constant stream of humanity without being covered in chicken blood or splattered with cooking grease took its toll. We took refuge in a massage “spa” where we enjoyed listening to the belching of the man in the curtained area next to ours – perhaps a sign of appreciation for a good massage in this part of the world? ;-).

I think we liked Yangon …maybe we just survived it..some places are just too much of a culture shock ;-). Anyway, I, for one, couldn’t wait to get on the first plane out to Bagan … the mystical land of 2200 pagodas in Mandalay.

How could I possibly have guessed we would be bordering on bored to death in Bagan and rather missing the chaotic excitement of Yangon 😉 !

In a hot, dry, dusty desert in the middle of nowhere, Bagan (Old and New) and the neighboring town of Nyuang U weren’t going to keep us entertained for long. Bagan must have once been a huge ancient city. Between the 11th and 13th centuries over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were built in the plains. Thank goodness only 2200 survive today 😉 ;-). Our excited designated cab driver for the day insisted on taking us on his ultimate $20 guided tour. We padded around the desert pagodas bare-footed, trying to avoid impaling ourselves on thorns or treading on bat poo. We really could have called it a day and taken refuge in the hotel pool after the first white pagoda, the first gold one and the first brick one. However, the driver insisted he earn his $20 so we kept going until they were all a blur of dust, heat and Buddha statues. According to my copious but useless notes we visited all of the following and probably more (in the end we gave up the will to record any more unpronounceable names): Gubyaukgyi, Bu-Lething, Sulamani, Dhammayangyi, Thatbyinnyu, Ananda, Schwezigon and Schwesandor – this final temple was the only one I knew for certain because the driver was under instructions to get us there for sunset… At least by then we couldn’t see what we were stepping in ;-). They were all quite stunning.

Some temples were busy with tourists and vendors trying to make a quick kyat (or an immaculate dollar 😉 ). In others we were surrounded by gaggles of kids trying to sell trinkets – one of them asked “Where from?” …“England” we answered (wondering if it would be easier to say Kazakhstan in future 😉 )…”Luvvly jubbly!!” screeched the kid in thick Burmese English…. (sorry – American friends – it’s an English joke!)… Where on earth do kids pick these things up?? ;-).

Most temples, however, were empty save for us, Buddha and the scuttling geckos… By the end of the day we were totally pagoda saturated… it was amazing to see so many in such a landscape but the number of them is just too overwhelming to absorb.

Refusing the taxi driver’s offer to take us to even more pagodas the following day we agreed instead to a whistle stop tour of the local market at Nyuang U (a typical indigenous experience only with toilets from the middle ages and a village water well). Notable events were – Geoff being kicked in the butt by a giggling monk as he got in the way of the baby monk getting his free rice alms; me being grabbed, wrapped up, tied into a longhi (the long skirt which men and women all wear here to cover up their offensive knees 😉 ) and the proud new owner of it before I could utter any fruitless objections; and a small grubby child grabbing Geoff by the hand and asking him to play “ball” with a pink heart balloon.

We also took a quick detour out to a farming village (Minnanthu) to explore the dusty streets – the locals didn’t seem to mind that we were wandering through their back yards taking photos. We practiced our “Mingalabar” (hello) in the hope that we wouldn’t get chased off their land and it seemed to work without us getting into any trouble 😉 – which is convenient as it is the only Burmese word we could get our tongues around without embarrassing ourselves.

With hindsight we should have by-passed the trip to the Irrawaddy River and left it to the romance of our imaginations. It was just as filthy as the side streets of Nyuang U and Yangon … only the trash here floated in the river. In essence, the Irrawaddy River around Nyuang U, at least, is just a large toilet and bathing facility – which is fine – needs must etc… and this is how it would have been centuries ago. However, centuries ago the locals didn’t dispose of plastic bottles and bags into their lifeline. So, unless someone advises them not to chuck their used shampoo bottles into the grimy frothy brown waters the many cruise boats on the Irrawaddy will soon be navigating through and bobbing about in unappealing levels of litter and human debris.

Thankfully, the spa offered a welcome 3 hour retreat so we could wash off the dust and kill some time before our flight out the next morning. Never has being knelt and walked upon by a tiny Burmese massage therapist, kicked, twisted and generally manhandled (all for the bargain price of $50) been so appealing :-).

Call us heathens, but 2 days was plenty long enough in the desert despite its obvious beauties so we left the endless pagodas of Bagan behind us with some enthusiasm and headed for the hills of Shan.

Yes – the state of Shan where they declared a state of emergency the day after we arrived due to government and rebel warring factions. Luckily we were heading, conversely, to the extremely peaceful and idyllic Lake Inle in the south of the state.

The airport in Heho could have done with some updating – we have seen cleaner, more appealing and more advanced facilities in Africa….perhaps some toilet paper and a vending machine with basics like water would be nice additions, for instance…..

Even though the Villa Inle Hotel and Spa was an additional bouncy hour and a half drive over a mountain pass into the wilderness and then a 30 minute longboat ride, when we finally arrived at the dock of the hotel we knew we had, at last, finally arrived … so to speak :-).

Thank goodness we had found the Myanmar we were looking for :-). Lake Inle is the second largest lake in Myanmar, covering an area of 45 square miles at an elevation of almost 3000 feet. The elevation explained why the lovely people at the lovely hotel thought ahead and provided sweatshirts for each of its chilly guests to keep as a memento of their fabulous time there ;-). Being more cynical, I suspect they were provided mainly to ensure that the guests didn’t freeze to death at night before they had spent as much money as possible dining in their equally fabulous restaurant, enjoying their overpriced but similarly fabulous private boat trips around the lake and, in Geoff’s case, clearing them out of their supplies of Gin and Tonic.

On that note, we arrived early enough to grab a gin and tonic and leap into a canoe for 2 to watch the sunset over the tranquil waters of the lake. We were guided about silently by one of the local fishermen famous for their paddling and steering skills using one leg and a paddle. It was all quite spectacular and magical :-). Swallows swooping overhead catching mosquitoes, water buffalo grazing in the marshland and the orange and pink of the sun setting on the water.

Our days were spent zipping about in a longboat for 2 from one stilted “floating” village to the next, passing residents bathing in the lake, families cooking on the steps of their stilted houses, tending their patches of floating vegetable gardens, and washing their water buffalo … as you do… 😉 ! Refusing our boat driver’s offer to take us to see the “long necked lady” 😉 we puttered around in the canals checking out where people lived instead. Still, he couldn’t resist insisting on a brief stop at an indigenous market in Indein which was fun – we saw women in their local costume and headdresses and got to tiptoe through the betel spit on dry land again. Not quite as much fun for one of the other tourists who arrived just ahead of us – disembarking her longboat onto the steps of the dock, she missed the dock completely and disappeared head first with her camera clutched in her hand into the canal. I hope her TB shots were up to date ;-).

Back out on the lake, the water was so calm in the backwater canals that the houses cast nearly perfect reflections. It was almost too idyllic to be true… We loved it :-).

The local people are famous not only for their unusual one-legged paddling style but – luckily for me – silversmithing and jewelry and silk weaving :-). By the time we made it to the lotus and silk weavers we had been cleaned out of cash. Not remotely phased by the fact we only had a few kyats left, they let us have our scarves anyway if we promised to pay our boat driver when we got back to the hotel. He would be passing the store the next day anyway and could drop the cash off then. You wouldn’t get that kind of service in the western world ;-).

Lunch was spent in a “cat cafe” on the water – also known as the Burmese Cat, Inthar Heritage House – a home, breeding facility and reintroduction program for burmese cats into the country as they had previously died out here. What could be better for 2 sad kitty deprived travelers – fried green onions with tamarind sauce and a lap full of spoilt, fat, lazy Burmese cats? :-).

Crossing back across the lake we passed through the floating gardens growing flowers, tomatoes, gourds, water hyacinths and vast quantities of lotus plants. Harvesting lotus plants is big business considering it takes 1000’s of strands of lotus “silk” extracted from the stems of the plant to make 1 small scarf!

The day ended (as did all of the following days 😉 ) sipping cocktails and ginger and lime juice whilst watching the sun set behind the village of stilted fishermen’s houses in the canal next to the hotel. Butterflies fluttered through the bougainvillea in the hotel garden and buffalo grazed at our feet ….peace, tranquility and serenity other than the clink of ice in Geoff’s G and T :-).

After 36 hours of being at Lake Inle, Geoff declared that this was the best couple of vacation days he could remember and apparently we were not going to return to the western world in April after all ;-). I wasn’t thinking quite that far ahead. After 36 hours of 5 star hotel, royalty service, a view to die for and top quality food I was considerably more distracted by the knowledge that we would have to leave our lakeside paradise and return to the utter chaos of Yangon in 3 days ;-).

Still, not everything in paradise is perfect. There is a little bit of a wild doggie issue along the lake which we noticed the first night when we awoke to the howling of a pack of “wolves” in the distant villages. The second night they seemed a little closer so we just dug our ear plugs in deeper and ignored it. By the third night things had deteriorated and I awoke to what sounded like the Hounds of Hell shaking the foundations of our stilted villa. I stuck my head out of the window and discovered we were literally sitting on top of a pack of howling dogs who sounded like they were hunting a screaming wild pig. We didn’t find this terribly relaxing (or terribly 5 star 😉 ) for 3 hours from 3am, so bleary eyed the following morning I decided to share with the manager my dissatisfaction that a luxury resort couldn’t keep out a pack of wild hounds.

Apparently it is “dog season” and it transpired that there was actually an unfortunate girl doggie (not a wild pig at all) literally 4 feet under our bed who was, in fact, enjoying the attentions (or not) of the village boy doggies. Hugely apologetic, the manager offered a complimentary Thai spa massage each to mollify us and promised he would station the hotel security guards by our villa that night to make sure we didn’t have another sleepless night disturbed by amorous stray dogs 😉 …

It must have worked as we slept like babies and the following morning we overheard an American guest complaining about the “wild tigers” running loose around his villa all night ;-). We recommended he ask for the armed guard to spend the night under his villa .. and to check out the relaxing spa services which were exemplary :-).

Not all of my choices of activity at the lake were as well received as zipping about the glassy waters in a longboat watching the world go by. We rented bicycles to meander through the countryside, paddy fields around Maing Thauck, and the farmland and villages along the lake as far as the Red Mountain Vineyard. This sounded far more idyllic in theory than it was in practice (much like riding an elephant in Thailand 😉 !).

The upside was the scenery… like passing through a living 18th century Constable landscape painting…wooden farmhouses, oxen-powered ploughs… and kids riding water buffalo to the marshlands (not many buffalo in 18th century rural England, I will concede 😉 ).

In reality, the actual experience of cycling the lake was bordering on torturous. The road varied from pot-holed rubble track to pot-holed tarmac… not only did we have to navigate those but it was also covered in thick billowy dust which was churned up in choking, swirling clouds by the occasional truck rumbling by and the mopeds bouncing about all around us. The mountain bikes we rented turned out to be the crappiest, most uncomfortable old jalopies this side of the Nepali Himalaya. They were so badly maintained that they wouldn’t change gear without the chain falling off so we were stuck in 1 gear (which 90% of the time was entirely inappropriate for the road conditions – particularly the uphill parts 😉 ). By the end of our seemingly endless 3 hour bike ride we required surgery to straighten our backs, re-adjust our necks and straighten out our arms. Neither of us were hopeful we’d ever be able to remove the layer of Myanmar dust welded to our skin by the heat of the midday sun. Fortuitously it turned out to be nothing an intensive afternoon in the spa being vigorously salt scrubbed and pummeled couldn’t sort out, though our lungs will never recover….

The dusty tracks didn’t appeal again so we took to the water on the final full day to be glided about the pottery village where we were immediately pounced upon by a local potter as we clambered out of the boat. With no idea of where we were heading, we followed her like innocent children lured by the Pied Piper of Hamelin through the dusty tracks to her house. We were plied with tea and sugar sweets and were subjected (in a mixture of Burmese language and incomprehensible English) to the ins and outs of the pottery business sitting on the floor of the workshop in her house. She tried to sell us some wonky brown glazed bowls which we couldn’t imagine any use for whatsoever. Despite our refusal to buy her wares, she kindly let us use her toilet facilities (the least said the better about the sanitary facilities in the villages of Myanmar) in order to deposit all of the tea she had given us … and for once escaped with little damage done to our wallets :-).

Trade here is still relatively uncommercialised – everything is hand-made by crafts people sitting cross-legged on a dust floor and it seems that, in some cottage industries at least, they haven’t fully grasped the needs of western tourists…which is, I suppose, what makes it all the more appealing :-).

And so our 4 day trip to Lake Inle ended and heavy of heart we attempted to leave :-(. Luckily we discovered the 3 hour flight delay before we left the beautiful hotel and bounced our way back to the airport in order to enjoy it’s non-existent comforts for the afternoon ;-). Instead, I started to write the blog from the shade of the pool bar whilst we watched the longboats come and go and marveled at the kindness of a farmer leading his water buffalo to bathe in the canal and throw water over it’s head with a bucket. A happy buffalo :-).

The people of Myanmar are amazing – it is a shame the politics are such a mess. They are very friendly and always trying to chat. “Which country?”, “Where you go?” and every night at the hotel we were wished “Happy good sleep!” … which was inevitable so long as the Hounds of Hell were procreating underneath somebody else’s villa ;-).

One more night back in Yangon to catch the flight back to Singapore – the city hadn’t improved much in a week – just as chaotic and no cleaner ;-). We arrived in the middle of the Chinese New Year celebrations and got to see the Lion Dancers leaping about their tight-ropes and platforms high up in the air performing to a crowded, seething mass of hot and sweaty people. The lion danced and shook it’s butt, fluttered it’s eyelashes and winked at the appreciative audience as it performed to loud drum rolls and Chinese music. A bit like a giant puppet. Geoff was very excited to see it – unbelievably sacrificing a Saturday night Martini to rush out into the thronging masses ;-).

I’ll admit it really was quite fabulous to see a dancing lion, but by that stage we had pretty much overdosed on grime and crowds and I was far more excited to know that we would be heading out from the chaos to somewhere altogether more “me” than Yangon City in 24 hours – Melbourne :-).


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