Hey guys, check out this amazing write-up of our Solo Travellers trip to memorable Myanmar, by the lovely Kate Charlton.
It’s our first day in Yangon and it’s been a long old journey to get here. The days seem to meld into one as I’ve flown through time zones (we flew into the sunset which was stunning and like watching it on a time lapse) and I vaguely remember this day starting at 5am at a dark coach stop on my way to Heathrow. I’m always flustered by such early starts and it’s not helped by washing down my malaria tablets with what I thought was water but was actually a leftover half glass of wine.
I meet most of my party on the connecting flight – I think we all spent various transfers and journeys trying to work out who our co-travellers might be. Luggage located and guide met, we emerge from Yangon’s rather new and shiny looking airport into the heat of the Burmese afternoon and a traffic jam (whilst Burma has generally changed its name to Myanmar there doesn’t seem to be an equivalent of “Burmese”). I never mind traffic jams in new places as it gives me chance to drink everything in – huge buildings, some colonial and some more modern, tower over streets crowded with sellers of bottled water, fruit, and posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, plus every sort of method of transport from rickety bicycles to huge gleaming off-roaders. Car ownership is something that’s only recently become widespread here but the congestion would suggest the idea has been enthusiastically adopted. I’m struck by the extraordinary combination of a time-warp and the modern world: advertising hoardings and WiFi hotspots abound, but so do hand carts and power cuts.
We’re off to explore Yangon with our lovely guide, Myo Myo. Yangon, renamed from the colonial Rangoon, is Myanmar’s largest city. Our first stop is Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, an enormous hanger-like building which houses one of the most hallowed reclining Buddha statues in Myanmar. There is a reverential hush as devotees go about their prayers on huge carpets in front of the gigantic statue, which is 217ft from one end to the other – the eyelashes alone are more than a foot long. Calm seems to fill the air and all around is decoration: the Buddha’s upturned soles are delicately carved with dozens and dozens of sacred symbols. Here, a huge mirrored mosaic-stand with a bell sparkling in the sunlight, there, statues bowing towards the Buddha with gongs and more shrines lining the walls. Buddha statues are everywhere, from huge to teeny tiny ones in alcoves, and everything brightly painted and glittering. Many are decorated with rather startling flashing fairy lights – in fact anything flashing or electronic seems to be de rigueur – and offerings are everywhere, whether it’s money or flowers, incense or delicate paper umbrellas. Not everything is translated from Burmese so I just wander and look. An open-air walkway runs across the back of the temple, the wall decorated with statues of more Buddhas every few feet, and I look out across the skyline – even the houses are built in the angular-eved style of pagodas and the roofs of many poke out from among the palm trees along with the dumpy gold towers of stupas; the domes which form Buddhist shrines. I learn quickly that pagodas, Buddhas and stupas form a BIG part of this trip. I’m also struck by how much Buddhism forms part of everyday life here – back home it’s a minority belief system and seen as rather hippy-ish, but here’s it’s part of everything.
Before sundown we arrive at the 2,000-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s holiest temple site which dominates the skyline over the city and is reputed to hold relics from four ancient Buddhas. We shuffle through the crowds at security where any of our party not deemed covered-up enough are lent ‘longyi’; the long sarongs traditionally worn by both men and women in Myanmar and differently knotted or folded according to gender (although the ones for tourists have handy wrap ties as there’s an art to getting them to stay on). Then we’re whisked up in a lift and along a walkway into the temple site. The sheer scale of it is hard to comprehend; a vast complex dominated by a gold stupa dome towering high into the sky, surrounded by yet more stupas glinting in the fading sun, brightly coloured statues, pavilions and shrines as far as the eye can see. The scent of frangipane flower offerings hangs in the air and endless little paths lead off through the shrines, away from the main marble terrace. It’s disorientating and easy to lose your bearings, not least because it’s absolutely packed with tourists, worshippers and monks.
Astrology features heavily in Burmese Buddhism and eight days of the week are recognised, with Wednesday being divided in two. Offerings are made at the planetary post for the day of the week on which you were born, either by lighting incense, leaving flowers (some in ornate tiered displays like wedding cakes) or pouring cups of water over the Buddha figure in a ritual designed to wash away bad luck. There are also four main shrines at north, south, east and west; vast ornate green and gold pagoda-roofed pavilions, and I stop in one of them to sit quietly for a while. Any calm is immediately undone by receiving a call from Vodafone about roaming.
The main stupa itself is said to house eight hairs of Buddha. The statistics are mind-boggling: it’s covered in 60-tonnes of gold, nearly 100-metres high, hung with bells, studded with thousands of diamonds, rubies and sapphires, and topped with a further 76-carat diamond to catch the first and last sunlight of the day. To stand at its base and look up past the terraces and bell-shaped body to the delicate point stretching into the sky is to feel utterly tiny.
Dusk is settling now and the flashing coloured fairy lights are blinking around the shrines, which lends something of a seaside pier feeling to things. We head back to the hotel where we all have a chance to chat properly for the first time before gratefully crashing out ahead of tomorrow’s early start to Bagan. I feel like I’ve been awake for several years.
We’ve now had the first of several 5am starts, this time for a flight to Bagan towards the west of the country. The hotel buffet had a wide variety of international cuisines so my breakfast consisted of sushi, tempura, fruit, pastries and cheese washed down with honeydew melon juice and a LOT of coffee. The airport is incredibly crowded and to this day I’m not entirely sure how the check-in system works; we’re given handwritten boarding cards and stickers to wear showing which destination we’re heading for. Planes operate like buses, often making several stops as part of the same flight, so it’s good to make sure you are where you think you are before getting off!
Bagan is absolutely beautiful and tropically rural, a pleasant change from the city. First stop of the day is at Nyaung U market. It’s been raining and mud is everywhere, churned up further by the carts, motorbikes and pickups splashing in and out. We squeeze into the shade of the market where stalls are crammed under the corrugated iron and bamboo screen roofs. We are immediately the target of roaming sellers of everything from postcards to ‘thanaka’; a yellowish paste made from ground bark worn almost universally by women on their faces as a sunscreen and cosmetic – some women wear it almost as a mask, others have stripes and delicate leaf designs. One woman daubs some on my face before I can stop her and offers me a small block as a gift, which of course means she follows me round the market in determination to sell me something else. I eventually try to return the gift to shake her off (hoping that this isn’t going to offend), she insists on giving it back to me and then I realise I’ve become separated from my group in the distraction. I dash back the way I’ve come and finally find a familiar face so I scuttle into the middle of the group and the thanaka seller eventually gives up. I finally get the chance to look around at the stalls where fruit, herbs, dried fish and vegetables are piled high, stacked in boxes or trays, hung in bunches and presented in ornately arranged mounds by the female traders. The thanaka paste is drying uncomfortably tightly so I scrub it off.
We’re now at Shwezigon Pagoda, the most important pilgrimage site in Bagan and said to contain a tooth of the Buddha. I’m getting used to kicking off my sandals and going barefoot now; all religious sites are a shoe-and-sock-free-zone. It’s very quiet and we are almost the only people here so we can wander around at our leisure amongst the decorated golden shrines. The central stupa is surrounded by little buildings with beautiful tiled floors bearing vividly coloured depictions of roses and lotus flowers, and the courtyard terrace is shaded with trees. Under a chayar tree outside is a table with lidded ceramic pots of water, and our guide explains that the type of pot keeps the water cool and it’s provided for anyone who is thirsty. However, as we haven’t acclimatised to Burmese tap water we stick with the chilled bottles our driver offers us.
We spend the rest of the day temple-hopping. At the cave-like temple of Kyansittha Umin, where we’re given torches to find our way through the tiny tunnels and side rooms with faded ancient frescos; Gubyaukgyi Paya where many of the frescos were ‘helpfully’ removed by a westerner in 1899; and, driving past gardens and the city gate as the minibus weaves around piles of stones, on to Htilominlo. This last stop is a temple whose many layers of elaborate mouldings are topped with a spire shaped like an umbrella, after the way the king who founded the temple was chosen – he and his brothers stood in a circle with a white umbrella placed in the middle and the brother to whom the umbrella tilted as it fell was pronounced king.
Our last stop before lunch is a lacquerware workshop where we’re shown how it’s made (a lot of painting and polishing as far as I can see) and, of course, offered the chance to buy it. It’s rather expensive, although I’m taken by some beautiful lacquer bangles. Sadly, they are too big for my hands so I console myself by snarfing many of the delicious biscuits we’re offered while we shop.
For lunch, we’re in a beautiful spot by a reed-banked river, under a canopy made of brightly striped blankets. We’re brought bowls and bowls of soup, vegetables and rice as well as our main dishes, all accompanied by glasses of watermelon juice, before we head off to our hotel where I’m thrilled to find a waterfall shower after the dusty heat of the day. On the way, we pass more marionette sellers who’ve hung their wares from a tree which, at first sight, looks startlingly like a mass dwarf lynching.
More temples. First, the Manuha temple, where a vast Buddha statue is housed in only just enough space and is designed to symbolise the claustrophobia of the imprisoned Baganese King who commissioned it. We also visit the Ananda temple with its cool white passageways and vast bells in the courtyard (it’s the done thing to ring a bell after an offering or prayer, in order to share the merit you have incurred with others). Finally, we make our way to the Schwesandaw Pagoda for sunset.
We make this last leg by horse cart and I cling on tightly as we jolt along the tracks through lush vegetation and a landscape endlessly dotted with temples – they are quite literally everywhere.
Once we’ve made it to the Schwesandaw Pagoda, I climb up as far as I can and then wriggle my way through the crowds to face the sunset. The view is staggering; limitless green countryside studded with brick temples, many with bamboo scaffolding after a recent earthquake, and smoke drifting lazily though the soft light of dusk. I take a few pictures but just want to gaze – I’m struck by just how many people push through the crowd to photograph the view then disappear again. Why travel all this way to take a picture to remind yourself of being somewhere you never stopped to actually look at while you were there?
With the last of the views absorbed into memory, we head back to the hotel and congregate in the pool where we all swim and bob about in the cool water by lantern light (due to yet another powercut) before dinner, beers and cocktails. I’ve been fortunate to find myself with a lovely group of fellow travellers and even though we’ve barely been together for 24 hours it feels like we’ve known each other for much longer as we chat into the night by candlelight.
Day three and we’re off to Mount Popa but our first stop is at a roadside toddy shop, where we’re shown around the workshop, following the process of tree sap being distilled into palm liqueur in vast metal pots over brick fires, whilst women roll the left-over pulp into sweets.
We’re now at Mount Popa and the climb has begun. The lower staircases are lined with shops and stalls with clothes hanging everywhere. You then get onto the middle staircases and there are monkeys EVERYWHERE (as is their poo which is terrific when you’re barefoot). There are people constantly cleaning the stairs, inevitably in return for money, but it escapes me why they don’t just put up netting to keep the little blighters out. I suspect those who are doing the step-cleaning may be tempting monkeys in with food to protect their income. The monkeys are surprisingly unpleasant in other ways too – we’re warned not to interact with them but I accidentally catch the eye of one and it hisses viciously at me. We climb on. And on. And ON, up all 777 steps in a tin-roofed covered walkway that winds round the rock.
We made it! The views across the surrounding landscape are stunning and there are more gold shrines and glittering mosaics than you can shake a flower offering at. (I am wearing my lovely new longhi). We jolt our way back to the hotel along the un-made up roads, and then all have a blissful afternoon by the pool.
Early start number 2…or is it 3 now? I’m losing track. Anyway, we are, in the words of the Kipling poem, on the road to Mandalay (although Kipling never actually went there). While we’re waiting for our luggage I have a rummage in one of the kiosks and am intrigued by green bean ice cream. It’s far nicer than it sounds and is a top-up breakfast after a rather rushed earlier one (the need to eat having collided with the need to sleep) which was also somewhat limited as the pre-dawn start meant we arrived at breakfast before the breakfast did.
So, Mandalay. We’re back in a city and it’s rather anonymous at first glance, traffic jostling through crowded streets and an American-style grid system where the roads are lined with strip-lit shops and rather gaudily decorated with strings of neon lights. It has a rather more interesting origin though as Buddha supposedly climbed Mandalay Hill and prophesied that a city would be founded 2,400 years hence. It duly was, and on time, by King Mindon, who was said to be the reincarnation of an ogress whose efforts to impress the Buddha involved lopping off her breasts and giving them to him. That must have been a rather startling present to open.
Our first port of call is Mahamuni Pagoda; home to one of Myanmar’s biggest festivals and to another huge Buddha statue. The building is vast and ornate; white on the outside but gold, red and jade on the inside with sun-drenched courtyards and shaded arcades leading to and from the shrine itself. Outside, women sell scented exotic flowers for use as offerings. Once in the building complex, vaulted corridors lined with stalls and shops lead up to the inner sanctum.
Many people are applying small sheets of beaten gold to the statue as an offering, purchased expressly for the purpose, although women are not allowed into the statue chamber and must ask a male attendant to apply it for them. As I watch I’m approached by two novice monks, probably only in their mid to late teens, who ask if I would mind if they practiced their English with me. Of course I don’t mind, so they shyly ask me where I’m from and what I think of Myanmar, where I’ve been and where I’m going. Their English is extremely good, far better than my Burmese! Too busy chatting on my way out, I get lost in the endless corridors of merchandise.
We stop for ice-cream in a roadside shop and are offered little bowls of baked custard while we choose from the menu. I opt for durian fruit ice cream because I’ve never tasted it before, and it transpires that there’s a very good reason why it’s not widely available elsewhere. I eat all the jelly sweets that curiously accompany it, and quite a bit of others’ leftovers, but nothing gets rid of the very odd taste. We pile back onto the bus, having made it across the road (Burmese roads are very busy and the traffic can be a bit hair-raising), and our driver insists on making himself a kind of one-man human shield as we go.
Lunch! I’m loving traditional Myanmar food – generally you choose your main course from a counter (I’m not sure what the names mean so being able to see it helps – I choose prawns, largely on the grounds that they are recognisable) then a bowl of it arrives along with many side plates: bowls of sweet corn, straw mushrooms, dried fish with chillies, tofu and fish paste and a plate of salad with fish dressing for the table to share, along with all the rice you could ever eat. Then tea and jars of jaggery sweets to help ourselves from. Which we do, quite a lot.
Back out into the relentless heat, through more Mandalayan traffic, and over a moat lined with shaded gardens to Mandalay Palace. Today it’s mostly a military camp and off-limits to everyone but them (one of the few reminders I see of military rule is a sign outside the palace urging the people to “co-operate and crush all those harming the union”) but tourists can be whisked to the palace compound in the centre as long as they’re in an official tourist vehicle. If you’re a tourist on a bicycle you have to leave it outside, for reasons that escape me.
The original buildings were built in the 1850s but mostly flattened by Allied bombs in WWII, which is just typical of colonial Brits – if it wasn’t ruined by plundering and heavy-handed rule then it was bombed to bits by being caught up in a war between us and someone else. Replica buildings were constructed in the 1990s and very nice to wander around in on a hot day they are too. Huge pagoda-style wooden buildings fill the site, some grand reception halls and throne rooms or living quarters for the royal family, others are smaller buildings filling identical avenues for courtiers. It’s all so grand that it seems to be quite the done thing to have your pre-wedding photos taken here; girls in full make-up and heavy silk dresses smile for their photographers. I don’t know how they haven’t melted in the heat.
The further I walk from the main buildings the fewer people there are and more the place takes on an air of quiet dereliction. The walkways begin to grass over so I can walk barefoot and I stroll alone with dragonflies on the air around me, losing track of time.
There’s a little museum tucked at the back, although many of the displays are replicas (much was looted by – surprisingly enough – the British and the originals are in the V&A), and a corner of European architecture going quietly to seed. One of the few original buildings left is a watch tower – apparently the views are stunning but I haven’t recovered from climbing Mount Popa yet.
The Shwenandaw Kyaung, or the Golden Palace monastery; an enormous teak building with tier upon tier of intricately carved terraces now faded in Myanmar’s sun. The building is being restored but you can freely wander around the inside. The structure creaks slightly as we move around (you always need to watch your step, in case any of the boards aren’t as nailed down or solid as they should be). The scent of the old warmed teak fills the air and absolutely everything is decoratively carved. The late afternoon sunlight slanting though the many open windows gives the interior a gentle golden glow. I wander round the back to have a look at the restoration work and lose my group. Again.
An unwrapped betel. I’d wondered what the red splashes I’d seen on the ground were, not least because they looked rather like blood. It turns out they are spat-out betel juice, the chewing of betel nuts being a popular habit. They consist of an areca nut with tobacco and other flavourings (the one we were offered smelt strongly of pine) wrapped in a leaf. Not only do they give you a bit of a rush but also a mouthful of bright red juice which needs to be spat out as the leaf wrapping has been dipped in slaked lime. All this AND they rot your teeth!
The sun is already setting and we swap from our minibus to one of the many covered pick-up trucks that form a bus-like part of the public transport system in Myanmar; it’s quite normal to see so many bodies crammed into them that there are people sitting on the floor wedged in around others’ feet, or literally hanging off the back or side running plates. We hire our own for the ride up the steep winding tracks to the summit of Mandalay Hill, and what a ride! We hang on tight to the frame as we roar over bumpy tracks and fly around corners with sheer rock faces on one side and a sharp drop on the other, stopping every now and then as vehicles in front of us negotiate tight bends or squeezing aside to let others past. My arms are aching with the effort of staying in my seat by the time we reach the top.
The ride was most certainly worth it as we step out on to the terrace of Sutaungpyi Paya (the Wish Granting Temple) at the summit – smiling novices and more multi-coloured mirrored hallways around the central shrines but…the view. You can see for miles and miles across the city’s skyline and surrounding countryside. The colours as the sun sinks are just stunning.
We look around the shrines and halls as the darkness closes in. I’m being bitten to pieces by mosquitos and midges, despite dousing myself in deet from head to foot (trying not to think what it’s doing to me as it seems to have melted my nail varnish). A further horror awaits when a visit to the loo means either staying barefoot (no shoes in temple sites remember!) or kicking on a pair of communal flip flops. I try hard not to think too much about it, or why the loo cubicle contains a plastic basket with an abandoned pair of men’s pants in it.
Day two in Mandalay and our first visit of the day is U Bein bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world which spans the Taungthaman Lake. When I heard ‘teak bridge’ I had imagined something solid and polished and this, while impressive, is, well…neither. I walk out a hundred yards or so and gaze at the view across the lake as the sun is just beginning to break through the morning mist. But it’s unnerving to see the water through gaps in the slats and I find myself walking like something out of Monty Python for fear of catching the toe of my sandals and falling in (of course, there aren’t any rails). By now the bridge is becoming more crowded and, having been jostled by a crowd of tourists and startled by a slat moving under my feet, I scuttle back to the safety of the shore.
We’ve travelled on to Inwa, the ancient capital of the Shan and Burmese kingdoms. We take a boat across the (apparently rather polluted) Irrawaddy river, which involves picking your way carefully down a rocky slope at the river bank then climbing carefully into one of the river boats; a long shallow affair almost like a rudimentary catamaran and powered by an extremely loud and smoky engine. As I look down I can see the water through the slats. We whisk along at quite a pace and I watch the passing river traffic; locals using the river as a highway in narrow canoe-like boats, other tourist ferries, the occasional wooden double decker houseboat. Then we transfer to horse carts and as we settle ourselves in there are plenty of people using this as an opportunity to try and sell us more jewellery, postcards and small metal bells. They even follow along on their bicycles as we set off. Any efforts to put them off by saying we already have one, of whatever it is, are met with cries of “One more! One more!”
Our path along the muddy tracks takes us through farmland being tended and these, lakes of waterlilies. The verges are populated with horses and cows taking advantage of the shade and on a river bank a group of boys are playing caneball, a game similar to hacky-sack but played with a hollow woven ball.
Back into the horse carts and this time we jog through a banana plantation with huge fields of green plants stretching away either side of us, on our way to Maha Aungmye Bonzan, a stone monastery heavy with stucco and utterly beautiful despite being rather weather-beaten. I pass the chinthes, Burmese mythological lion statues that guard monasteries, and walk through the echoing stone corridors out to the back, along a terrace filled with arches and down into the vaults below, where low ridged ceilinged corridors run the length and breadth of the building, lit by occasional shafts of sunlight.
Back outside a monk asks if he can take a picture of us and our guide explains that he’s come from a rural area and wants to show that he’d met foreign tourists. I ask how Burmese people feel about tourists, are we welcomed or seen as (comparatively) rich foreigners pushing up prices? Apparently, we’re seen as a good thing and tourists are needed. Which is nice to know.
Our pickup truck makes its way back down the hill as the local children are leaving the monastery school; boys in maroon robes edged in saffron and girls in pink edged with maroon and all with the customary shaved heads. It’s the norm for children to spend at least some time as a novice nun or monk and the monastic schools also take poor or orphaned children who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford an education. Several of them wave as we go past, as did a minibus full of much older Burmese people outside the pagoda. One old lady in particular shyly caught my eye, then gave me the most beatific smile, before pointing me out to her travel companions. They all wave and I smile and wave back as we drive away. We seem to be something of a novelty. Novelty to me was the incongruity of monks and modern life; on our way back down into Central Mandalay we are often overtaken by robed monks on motorbikes, usually with an iPhone pressed to their ear as they go.
Our absolute last stop of the day was Diamond Plaza, a modern shopping centre. Not exactly a tourist hot spot but we fancied a look around. It’s a multi-storey labyrinth inside, populated by tiny and immaculately turned out girls (which makes me feel like an oversized scruff) and a mix of clothing shops selling lurid synthetic horrors, Japanese or Korean make-up and skincare stores with very keen assistants, and lots of kiosks selling perfume or very glittery jewellery.
One of my favourite things in a new country is to have a rummage around a supermarket. There’s one underneath the shopping centre where we find LOTS of noodles, counters full of endless varieties of dried and frozen fish and pick-and-mix counters of every kind of dried fruit you could imagine as well as aisles and aisles of sweet things. We stock up on sweets and biscuits, and I also buy sugar crackers, seaweed crisps and a large bag of dried mango. We all share and sample our purchases on our way back to the hotel, including the jack fruit one of our group has bought from a street seller. A rather odd texture, it tastes like a cross between mango and banana.
That evening we head out of the hotel to find a restaurant for dinner. We’re aiming for a Thai place that’s been recommended to us but, slightly bewildered as to where we are, we see a Chinese restaurant and plump for that. The journey is made somewhat treacherous by Mandalayan pavements; the slatted paving slabs have a nasty habit of just disappearing, leaving you teetering on the edge of a crevasse of murky water if you aren’t looking where you’re going. Street lighting is somewhat sparse to start with so heaven only knows what happens when the inevitable power cuts happen. The restaurant is not a success as everything tastes heavily of plastic. Thank heavens for those sugar crackers.
Another early start for the journey to the hill town of Kalaw in Shan state. Repacking is getting harder as my bag is getting fuller and fuller! It’s a much rockier and sparsely populated landscape than we’ve seen before, but also much brighter as the climate is cooler, and red, yellow and coral flowered trees line the route along the bumpy roads. We break the journey at a tea shop surrounded by market stalls selling exotic plants, packets of dried foods and bags of spices, and the shop itself sells local wines of strawberry, damson or honey, all in rather startling colours. With our green tea we have a shared bowl of chilli dumplings followed by pickled damsons.
Arriving in Kalaw, we stop at the market which opens every day but expands every fifth day when the local travelling market also arrives. The curved-roofed stalls sell everything from plastic bowls and kettles, dried things, fruit, bundles of longyi, flowers, baskets and watering cans; it’s all there and yours for a handful of kyat.
Above are the betel nuts being wrapped!
Our hotel is on the edge of Kalaw, which is much less touristy and seems to suffer from being a base where people only stay temporarily on their way to somewhere else or as a starting point for trekking. Which is a shame, as it’s really rather nice. The cooler air is a relief and I can wander down the hill and into the dusty lanes by myself, poking around in shops selling pastries, parasols and the local Shan jewellery made of rolled silver discs.
We have lunch – I seem to have developed a prawn habit – then we buy beer and ice-cream and spend our afternoon chatting and admiring the stunning views across the hills. I retire to my room for a bit (those early starts are catching up with us) and read by the window as the mists begin to roll over the tops of the trees. Apart from the occasional motorbike or passer-by there is almost nothing but the sounds of birds. Smells of cooking smoke intermingle and children chatter as they run down the hill to play.
Dinner at the Seven Sisters restaurant (recommended, if you’re passing), a converted house where almost all the tables are in a little decorated room of their own. I have fish then death by chocolate pancake, where I almost struggle to find the pancake under all the chocolate. I’m also becoming quite partial to Myanmar beer.
While we’re eating a storm rolls in and it begins to rain in truly biblical style. Thankfully our driver saves us the walk home (although I could have done with working off all that chocolate) and we splash out to our minibus across the rivers pouring down the roads. Back at the hotel we try our luck with reception’s WiFi amongst the other travellers poring over guidebooks or making trekking arrangements, and the staff regularly bring large flasks of green tea.
I’ve been here a week already and it’s rushed by! Today, we’re making the drive to Inle Lake. The journey to Inle is beautiful. We wind through the hills pocked with rocky outcrops on roads cut into the vivid red earth and again modernity is juxtaposed with rural antiquity; at one point, we pass an ancient faded tractor on one side and on the other a mass of solar panels. The landscape stretches away, subdivided into a multi-coloured patchwork of agriculture.
We have plenty of stops on the way and our first is Shwe Oo Min cave in Pindaya, a huge limestone cave complex where pilgrims pay to have their own Buddha statue displayed. Startlingly, hanging over the entrance is a huge (model) spider, complete with goggling eyes and fanged mouth – the story goes that the caves were originally inhabited by a spider which imprisoned local princesses here and the model has ‘helpfully’ been installed as a reminder.
Inside, we go into the hall-like caves and…my goodness. There are quite literally Buddhas everywhere. Thousands and thousands of them: enormous statues towering above me, tiny statues wedged into crevices, and every possible size in between on stone ledges, in natural mini caves, stacked up to the ceiling or forming walkways. Some of the paths are wide, but others are so narrow you have to squeeze carefully through before realising it tapers to a dead-end and you have to squeeze back again, and the overall effect is a beautiful shimmering maze. Most statues are gold, which suggests having stumbled upon Smaug’s lair, but occasional ones are black, for luck. Some wear brightly coloured and jewelled capes or wraps and one particularly flamboyant effort, donated by an airline, is painted in glitter.
We drive on to our hotel at Inle Lake and the whole place is absolutely amazing. A vaulted hall filled with wicker chairs forms the main lobby and an even larger hall decorated with woven bamboo panels makes the dining room, all surrounded by manicured gardens and little wooden bridges over ornamental streams. And the staff couldn’t be more helpful if they tried, especially their determination that we should be transported everywhere by golf buggy. We have a huge veranda to ourselves where we drink beer and watch the sun set across the harbour and hill-edged lake. We have dinner, then more drinks, then there is a display of traditional Shan dancing which shows the dances of the local ethnic minority groups, then there was whisky. And cards. And more whisky.
Despite the rain, Inle is stunning. A huge expanse of quiet, flat water surrounded by lush green hills, it’s home to an entire community built on the lake itself. There’s villages, workshops, markets, farms and temples, mostly built out of wood and all on stilts to allow for the fluctuating water level. Everything is linked together by a vast network of waterways complete with ‘road’ signs and junctions. We slow to pass several villages where houses made of woven bamboo panels cluster together, each with its own water garden and parking spaces alongside or underneath for the owners’ boats. Some buildings have been abandoned and are being quietly reclaimed by the floating greenery that’s built up around them, others are much newer affairs built as restaurants or bars for the burgeoning tourist trade. A mid-river fueling point forms the equivalent of a petrol station and occasional islands of plants and flowers bob past.
We stop at several of the workshops, the first being a lotus weavers. On the clattering looms, the spun lotus is woven into incredibly delicate shawls and the like, while skeins of dyed thread are hung up to dry in brightly dyed loops.
We also visit a silversmith, where they make beautiful silver fish with hidden joints so they move almost like a real fish, then onto a weavers’ shop run by Padaung women. The Padaung are another of Shan state’s ethnic groups, made distinctive by their tradition of women elongating their necks as a mark of beauty by wearing brass rings. The weight starts at 8kg and is then built up, and is often accessorised with more rings on the arms and legs. I feel a bit uncomfortable, like the women are exhibits in a zoo.
Getting back into our boat. I’m getting much more confident at hopping in and out now, and no longer cling onto our boatman when the boat shifts and tilts as I climb in. We still get in one at a time though; the boats are very shallow and there’s absolutely nothing to hold on to if it sways too much and you lose your balance!
Ngaphe Kyaung, also known as the jumping cat monastery as resident monks once trained the cats that lived there to do tricks. The few cats I saw were resolutely asleep, however.
We’re on our way home – it’s a long ride back to the hotel but much nicer without the rain. The surrounding hills are now visible although shrouded in mist which gives them a mysterious air and makes the little huts poking out of the watery landscape look magically prehistoric. We pass more houses, including one being built where many men are weaving, hammering and tying together the frame. The waterway becomes narrower and narrower as we putter between the buildings and it feels almost like we’re going through people’s gardens. I can almost touch the banks of floating water hyacinths either side of the boat and, apart from the boat’s engine, all I can hear is the swell of the water and the occasional cockerel’s crow.
We also pass sprawling floating tomato farms where farmers tend crops from their boats. A forest of canes stretches as far as the eye can see to give the tomatoes a frame on which to grow, and the produce is used to make the traditional local salad we eat at lunchtime. Sadly, the farming methods used involve large amounts of fertiliser which is gradually polluting the lake.
One of the last sights we see is an Intha fisherman on the water, rowing his boat using his legs – these fishermen stand on one leg, wrapping the other around the oar to use as a paddle, thus freeing their arms to fish with conical nets and baskets. Some really are fishing, others are just posing for tourists’ photographs and expect money in return.
Out on the water again after breakfast (avocado juice for breakfast this morning, along with a lot of toast, mounds of fruit and pastries and plenty of coffee – this is more like it!). The sun is shining, there’s hardly a breeze and the lake looks completely different. There are still clouds along the top of the hills but they’re white and light like freshly whipped meringues, and the woodland is vivid green in the sunshine. The water is a lot busier today and many more boats are heading out of the harbours and across the lake – clearly we were some of the few hardy souls who braved yesterday’s weather.
We explore a different part of the lake today and travel down wide creeks lined with trees and flowered bushes, past riverside houses with tumbling baskets of hanging flowers and families doing washing or bathing at the water’s edge. Boats similar to ours whizz past in the opposite direction and the swells make our boat bounce and sway in a way that’s quite alarming until you get used to it. And yes, that is an attempt to do YMCA, except ‘C’ got a bit confused.
We’ve travelled to Inthein, and Nyaung Ohak, a jungle of gently crumbling stupa ruins. They are many hundreds of years old and a few have been repaired, but mostly they seem to have been abandoned to nature which gives the place a beautifully eerie and forgotten feel.
We carry on up the hill, up many many steps which almost certainly get steeper the higher you climb, to Shwe Inn Thain and yet more stupas. The climb is under a stall-lined pillared walkway where yet more decorative things can be purchased. As we make our way up, the rain comes down again. Finally at the top, we find the shrine of the Inn Thein Buddha – outside is row upon row of golden stupas like chess pieces and inside are polished marble floors and carpets to sit on as Myo Myo tells us more about Burmese history.
Lunch was more green salad (yum) and a sort of fish meatloaf (less yum). Our guide gets a message that our flight for this evening has been brought forward so we quickly settle up and get back in the boats. The boatmen clearly know we’re in a hurry because we’re really flying across the water, which I have to say is bloody good fun. As we head back out onto the much clearer open water we pass women in coolie hats selling trinkets from their boats and banks of brightly coloured floating flowers, and the water spraying up alongside us glitters in the bright light. However, as we chug into the port town of Nyaung Shwe and pass children flying coloured paper kites on the river bank huge storm clouds are beginning to loom again…
Five go to a monastery! In this case it’s Shwe Yan Bye cloister which, like every other monastery or shrine we’ve visited, is both astoundingly beautiful and incredibly peaceful – even after visiting monasteries almost every day I never got tired of them. Monks and novices go about their day and devotions, and small cats doze in the sunshine coming though the big oval windows.
After a hairy ride to Heho Airport, we hurry inside, only to find out our flight hasn’t been brought forward, but is actually delayed. There’s very little to do – we find a place to sit and I read for an hour or so, then wander round the handful of little shops, read some more, wander back to the shops to find that everyone has packed up and gone home (including – horror! – the people running the bar). There’s no indication as to when our plane might be arriving, let alone departing again with us on it. Eventually it arrives as the airport staff are turning out the lights and locking the doors for the night and we file out onto the tarmac.
There is very nearly a diplomatic incident once we arrive at Yangon – a group of passengers on our flight, who I think were Dutch, seemed to have taken umbrage against our group for talking during the journey (I know, how unreasonable!) and have complained almost all the way from Heho. As I’m sitting across the aisle from the others, the miserable buggers clearly don’t realise that I am part of the same group but can see and hear what they’re saying. On our way to collect our luggage at Yangon one of the men sees us and starts shouting insults after us.
Then we pass them again on the way out and one of the women deliberately kicks her bag into the path of one of our group to try and trip her up – you’d think these were kids but these were people in their 60s! The red mist descends and collides with my headache and hunger – my temper frays and I turn back, spitting tacks and mentally rolling up my sleeves, but am ushered away by another of my group before I can do something that would probably end up involving the British consulate (“Punched a Dutchman, you say? Yes, we’ll send round our chap in a panama hat…”).
Our last day. We fly out this evening but we’re cramming some last-minute sight-seeing in before we go, this time around Yangon and its colonial past. We visit the Kandawgyi lake with its huge gold replica of the Burmese royal barge on the shoreline. Built by the British, the lake was a means of providing clean water to the populace and is now surrounded by a rather nice park with fountains and a walkway around the lake. Then we’re on our way to Scott’s Market, a huge building with a central emporium where there is row after row of brightly lit stalls with equally bright neon signs, and their wares of jade, precious stones and pearls. My eye is caught by a beautiful jade pendant carved into the shape of a leaf but move on when its price tag is $100USD.
I also see the people from last night’s airport altercation. I briefly consider pointing them out to a nearby policeman and intimating that they are drugs mules, but decide to be the better person.
Amongst the fading elegance of other colonial era buildings is Yangon’s stunning High Court and, next to it, Maha Bandula park with its obelisk to celebrate independence from the British and where we find shade from the utterly punishing heat. It feels so much hotter than last week; the air pollution and density of the city really add to the stifling effect.
On our way to the airport we visit the white elephants. I didn’t realise these were real elephants (they are a kind of albino) and they’re chained up during the day for tourists to see. One of them was just standing rocking from side to side and it was horrible. If you go to Yangon give this place a swerve.
Then, we’re back to the airport through the rush of Yangon’s honking and queueing traffic, retracing the journey we made what feels like five minutes, and also a lifetime, ago. It’s been a truly amazing trip but what has absolutely made it is the people I shared it with. I’ve never laughed so much in my life, or ever would have thought I could have had such a rip roaring time with people I’d never clapped eyes on before – we’ve giggled, we’ve eaten, we’ve drunk, we’ve joked and played silly games, we’ve held each other up and made it through various trials and tribulations relatively unscathed (aside from a head injury when one of our number had an unfortunate head/bus doorway collision – our offers to patch her up with a stapler and dress the wound with sanitary towel held in place with a shower hat were inexplicably rejected). And of course, there was our brilliant guide, Myo Myo, without whom it just wouldn’t have been the same. Cheers guys.
Before I stretch out and sleep, I watch the lights of Yangon out of the window before the plane turns and they pass out of sight as we rise into the clouds.
Hope you enjoyed reading this amazing account of our trip discovering memorable Myanmar and many thanks to Kate Charlton for the write-up and photos! If you would like to join one of our upcoming trips to Myanmar, we would love to have you!